"At the very start, I knew little more than you did. Nothing save that he was bred in a circus, where I met him thirty years ago. I knew nothing more of his history till this April, when he told me he was Petit Patpu of the music-halls. His confidence has been given me bit by bit. The last time I saw you I had never heard of Madame Patou. It was you that guessed the woman in his life. I had no idea whether you were right or wrong."
"Yet you could have given me a hint—the merest hint—without betraying confidences—as you call it," she mouthed my phrase ironically. "It was not playing the game."
"I gathered," said I, "that playing the game was what both of you had decided to do, in view of the obviously implied lady in the background."
"Well?" she challenged.
"If it's a question of playing the game"—I had carried the war into the enemy's quarters—"may I repeat my original rude question this morning? What the devil are you doing here?"
She turned on me in a fury. "How dare you insinuate such a thing?"
"You've not come to Royat for the sake of my beautiful eyes."
"I'm under no obligation to tell you why I've come to Royat. Let us say my liver's out of order."
"Then my dear," said I, "you have come to the wrong place to cure it."
She glanced at me wrathfully, took out a cigarette, waved away with an unfriendly gesture the briquette I had drawn from my pocket, and struck one of her own matches. There fell a silence, during which I sat back in my chair, my arms on the elbow and my fingers' tips joined together, and assumed an air of philosophic meditation.
Presently she said: "There are times, Tony, when I should like to kill you."
"I am glad," said I, "to note the resumption of human relations."
"You are always so pragmatically and priggishly correct," she said.
"My dear," said I, "if you want me to sympathize with you in this impossible situation, I'll do it with all my heart. But don't round on me for either bringing it about or not preventing it."
"I was anxious to know something about Andrew Lackaday—I don't care whether you think me a fool or not"—she was still angry and defiant—"I wrote you pointedly. You did not answer my letter. I wrote again reminding you of your lack of courtesy. You replied like a pretty fellow in a morning coat at the Foreign Office and urbanely ignored my point."
She puffed indignantly. The terrace began to be deserted. There was a gap of half a dozen tables between us and the next group. The flamboyant Algerian removed the coffee cups. When we were alone again, I reiterated my explanation. At every stage of my knowledge I was held in the bond of secrecy. Lackaday's sensitive soul dreaded, more than all the concentrated high-explosive bombardment of the whole of the late German Army, the possibility of Lady Auriol knowing him as the second-rate music-hall artist.
"You are the woman of his dreams," said I. "You're an unapproachable star in mid ether, or whatever fanciful lover's image you like to credit him with. The only thing for his salvation was to make a clean cut. Don't you see?"
"That's all very pretty," said Auriol. "But what about me? A clean cut you call it? A man cuts a woman in half and goes off to his own life and thinks he has committed an act of heroic self-sacrifice!"
I put my hand on hers. "My dear child," said I, "if Andrew Lackaday thought you were eating out your heart for him he would be the most flabbergasted creature in the world."
She bent her capable eyes on me. "That's a bit dogmatic, isn't it? May I ask if you have any warrant for what you're saying?"
"In his own handwriting."
I gave a brief account of the manuscript.
"Where is it?" she asked eagerly.
"In my safe in London—I'm sorry——"
In indignation she flashed: "I wouldn't read a word of it."
"Of course not," said I. "Nor would I put it into your hands without Lackaday's consent. Anyhow, that's my authority and warrant."
She threw the stub of her cigarette across the terrace and went back to the original cry:
"Oh Tony, if you had only given me some kind of notion!"
"I've tried to prove to you that I couldn't."
"I suppose not," she admitted wearily.
"Men have their standards. Forgive me if I've been unreasonable."
When a woman employs her last weapon, her confession of unreason, and demands forgiveness, what can a man do but proclaim himself the worm that he is? We went through a pretty scene of reconciliation.
"And now," said I, "what did Lackaday, in terms of plain fact, tell you down there?"
She told me. Apparently he had given her a precis of his life's history amazingly on the lines of a concentrated military despatch.
"Lady Auriol," said he, as soon as they were out of earshot, "you are here by some extraordinary coincidence. In a few hours you will be bound to hear all about me which I desired you never to know. It is best that I should tell you myself, at once."
It was extraordinary what she had learned from him in those few minutes. He had gone on remorselessly, in his staccato manner, as if addressing a parade, which I knew so well, putting before her the dry yet vital facts of his existence.
"I knew there was a woman—wife and children—what does it matter? I told you," she said. "But—oh God!" She smote her hands together hopelessly, fist into palm. "I never dreamed of anything like this."
"I am in a position to give you chapter and verse for it all," said I.
"Oh I know," she said, dejectedly, and the vivid flower that was Auriol, in a mood of dejection, suggested nothing more in the world than a drought-withered hybiscus—her colour had faded, the sweeping fulness of her drooped, her twenties caught the threatening facial lines of her forties—what can I say more? The wilting of a tropical bloom—that was her attitude—the sap and the life all gone.
"Oh I know. There's nothing vulgar about it. It goes back into the years. But still ..."
"Yes, yes, my dear," said I, quickly. "I understand."
We were alone now on the terrace. Far away, a waiter hung over the balustrade, listening to the band playing in the Park below. But for the noise of the music, all was still on the breathless August air. Presently she drew her palms over her face.
"That abominable night journey," said I, sympathetically.
"I sat on a strapontin in the corridor, all night," she said.
"But, my dear, what madness!" I cried horrified, although in the war she had performed journeys compared with which this would be the luxury of travel. "Why didn't you book a coupe-lit, even a seat, beforehand?"
She smiled dismally. "I only made up my mind yesterday morning. I got it into my head that you knew everything there was to be known about Andrew Lackaday."
"But how did you get it?"
My question was one of amazement. No man had more out-rivalled an oyster in incommunicativeness.
It appeared that I suffered from the defects of my qualities. I had been over-diplomatic. My innocence had been too bland for my worldly years. My evasions had proclaimed me suspect. My criticism of Royat made my fear of a chance visit from her so obvious. My polite hope that I should see her in Paris on my way back, rubbed in it. If there had been no bogies about, and Royat had been the Golgotha of my picture, would not my well-known selfishness, when I heard she was at a loose end in August Paris, have summoned her with a "Do for Heaven's sake come and save me from these selected candidates for burial?" I had done it before, in analogous circumstances, I at Nauheim, she at Nuremberg. No. It was, on the contrary: "For Heaven's sake don't come near me. I'll see you in Paris if by misfortune you happen to be there."
"My dear," said I, "didn't it occur to you that your astuteness might be overreaching itself and that you might find me here—well—in the not infrequent position of a bachelor man who desires to withdraw himself from the scrutiny of his acquaintance?"
She broke into disconcerting laughter.
"Hang it all!" I cried angrily, "I'm not eighty yet!"
However virtuous a man may be, he resents the contemptuous denial to his claim to be a potential libertine.
She laughed again; then sobered down and spoke soothingly to me. Perhaps she did me injustice, but such a thing had never entered her mind engaged as it was with puzzlement over Lackaday. When people are afflicted with fixed ideas, they grow perhaps telepathic. Otherwise she could not account for her certainty that I could give her some information. She knew that I would not write. What was a flying visit—a night's journey to Royat? In her wander years, she had travelled twelve hours to a place and twelve back in order to buy a cabbage. Her raid on me was nothing so wonderful.
"So certain was I," she said, "that you were hiding things from me, that when I saw him this morning at your table, I was scarcely surprised."
"My dear Auriol," said I, when she had finished the psychological sketch of her flight from Paris, "I think the man who unlearned most about women as the years went on, was Methuselah."
"A woman only puts two and two together and makes it five. It's as simple as that."
"No," said I, "the damnable complex mystery of it, to a man's mind, is that five should be the right answer."
She dismissed the general proposition with a shrug.
"Well, there it is. I was miserable—I've been miserable for months—I was hung up in Paris. I had this impulse, intuition—call it what you like. I came—I saw—and I wish to goodness I hadn't!"
"I wasn't so wrong after all, then," I suggested mildly.
She laughed, this time mirthlessly. "I should have taken it for a warning. Blue Beard's chamber...."
We were silent for a while. The waiters came scurrying down with trays and cloths and cups to set the little tables for tea. The western sun had burst below the awning and flooded half the length of the terrace with light leaving us by the wall just a strip of shade.
I said as gently as I could: "When you two parted in April, I thought you recognized it as final."
"It would have been, if only I had known," she said.
She answered me with weary impatience.
"Anything definite. If he had gone to his death I could have borne it. If he had gone to any existence to which I had a clue, I could have borne it. But don't you see?" she cried, with a swift return of vitality. "Here was a man whom any woman would be proud to love—a strong thing of flesh and blood—disappearing into the mist. I said something heroical to him about the creatures of the old legends. One talks high-falutin' nonsense at times. But I didn't realize the truth of it till afterwards. A woman, even though it hurts her like the devil, prefers to keep a mental grip of a man. He's there—in Paris, Bombay, Omaha, with his wife and family, doing this, that and the other. He's still alive. He's still in some kind of human relation with you. You grind your teeth and say that it's all in the day's work. You know where you are. But when a man fades out of your life like a wraith—well—you don't know where you are. It has been maddening—the ghastly seriousness of it. I've done my best to keep sane. I'm a woman with a lot of physical energy—I've run it for all it's worth. But this uncanny business got on my nerves. If the man had not cared for me, I would have kicked myself into sense. But—oh, it's no use talking about that—it goes without saying. Besides you know as well as I do. You've already told me. Well then, you have it. The man I loved, the man who loved me, goes and disappears, like the shooting star he talked about, into space. I've done all sorts of fool things to get on his track, just to know. At last I came to you. But I had no notion of running him down in the flesh. You're sure of that, Tony, aren't you?"
The Diana in her flashed from candid eyes.
"Naturally," I answered. How could she know that Lackaday was here? I asked, in order to get to the bottom of this complicated emotional condition:
"But didn't you ever think of writing—oh, as a friend of course—to Lackaday, care of War Office, Cox's...?"
She retorted: "I'm not a sloppy school-girl, my friend."
"Quite so," said I. I paused, while the waiter brought tea. "And now that there's no longer any mystery?"
Her bosom rose with a sigh.
"I mourn my mystery, Tony."
She poured out tea. I passed the uninspiring food that accompanied it. We conversed in a lower key of tension. At last she said:
"If I don't walk, I'll break something."
A few moments afterwards we were in the street. She drew the breath of one suffering from exhausted air.
"Let us go up a hill."
Why the ordinary human being should ever desire to walk up hill I have never been able to discover. For me, the comfortable places. But with Lady Auriol the craving was symbolical of character. I agreed.
"Choose the least inaccessible," I pleaded.
We mounted the paths through the vines. At the top, we sat down. I wiped a perspiring brow. She filled her lungs with the air stirred by a faint breeze.
"Whereabouts is this circus?" she asked suddenly.
I told her, waving a hand in the direction of Clermont-Ferrand.
"About two or three miles."
"I'll go there this evening," she announced calmly.
I nearly jumped off the wooden bench.
"My dear Auriol," said I, "my heart's dicky. You oughtn't to spring things like that on me."
"I don't see where the shock comes in. Why shouldn't I go to a circus if I want to?"
"It's your wanting to go that astonishes me."
"You're very easily surprised," she remarked. "You ought to take something for it."
"Possibly," said I. "But why on earth do you want to see the wretched Lackaday make a fool of himself?"
"If you take it that way," she said icily, "I'm sorry I mentioned it. I could have gone without your being a whit the wiser."
I lifted my shoulders. "After all, it's entirely your affair. You talked a while ago about mourning your mystery—which suggested a not altogether unpoetical frame of mind."
"There s no poetry at all about it," she declared. "That's all gone. We've come to facts. I'm going to get all the facts. Crucify myself with facts, if you like. That's the only way to get at Truth."
When a woman of Auriol's worth talks like this, one feels ashamed to counter her with platitudes of worldly wisdom. She was going to the Cirque Vendramin. Nothing short of an Act of God could prevent her. I sat helpless for a few moments. At last, taking advantage of a gleam of common sense, I said:
"It's all very well for you to try to get to the bedrock of things. But what about Lackaday?"
"He's not to know."
"He'll have to know," I insisted warmly. "The circus tent is but a small affair. You'll be there under his nose." I followed the swift change on her face. "Of course—if you don't care if he sees you..."
She flashed: "You don't suppose I'm capable of such cruelty!"
"Of course not," said I.
She looked over at the twin spires of the cathedral beneath which the town slumbered in the blue mist of the late afternoon.
"Thanks, Tony," she said presently. "I didn't think of it. I should naturally have gone to the best seats, which would have been fatal. But I've been in many circuses. There's always the top row at the back, next the canvas...."
"My dear good child," I cried, "you couldn't go up there among the lowest rabble of Clermont-Ferrand!"
She glanced at me in pity and sighed indulgently.
"You talk as if you had been born a hundred years ago, and had never heard of—still less gone through—the late war. What the——" she paused, then thrust her face into mine, so that when she spoke I felt her breath on my cheek, "What the Hell do you think I care about the rabble of Clermont-Ferrand?"
That she would walk undismayed into a den of hyenas or Bolsheviks or Temperance Reformers or any other benighted savages I was perfectly aware. That she would be perfectly able to fend for herself I have no doubt. But still, among the uneducated dregs of the sugar-less, match-less, tobacco-less populace of a French provincial town who attributed most of their misfortunes to the grasping astuteness of England, we were not peculiarly beloved.
This I explained to her, while she continued to smile pityingly. It was all the more incentive to adventure. If I had assured her that she would be torn limb from limb, like an inconvincible aristocrat flaunting abroad during the early days of the French Revolution, she would have grown enthusiastic. Finally, in desperation because, in my own way, I was fond of Auriol, I put down a masculine and protecting foot.
"You're not going there without me, anyhow," said I.
"I've been waiting for that polite offer for the last half hour," she replied.
What I said, I said to myself—to the midmost self of my inmost being. I am not going to tell you what it was. This isn't the secret history of my life.
A cloud came up over the shoulder of the hills. We descended to the miniature valley of Royat.
"It's going to rain," I said.
"Let it," said Auriol unconcerned.
Then began as dreary an evening as I ever have spent.
We dined, long before anybody else, in a tempest of rain which sent down the thermometer Heaven knows how many degrees. Half-way through dinner we were washed from the terrace into the empty dining-room. There was thunder and lightning ad libitum.
"A night like this—it's absurd," said I.
"The absurder the better," she replied. "You stay at home, Tony dear. You're a valetudinarian. I'll look after myself."
But this could not be done. I have my obstinacies as mulish as other people's.
"If you go, I go."
"As you have, according to your pampered habit, bought a car from now till midnight, I don't see how we can fail to keep dry and warm."
I had no argument left. Of course, I hate to swallow an early and rapid dinner. One did such things in the war, gladly dislocating an elderly digestion in the service of one's country. In peace time one demands a compensating leisure. But this would be comprehensible only to a well-trained married woman. My misery would have been outside Auriol's ken. I meekly said nothing. The world of young women knows nothing of its greatest martyrs.
When it starts thundering and lightening in Royat, it goes on for hours. The surrounding mountains play an interminable game of which the thunderbolt is the football. They make an infernal noise about it, and the denser the deluge the more they exult.
Amid the futile flashes and silly thunderings—no man who has been under an intensive bombardment can have any respect left for the pitiful foolery of a thunderstorm—and a drenching downpour of rain (which is solid business on the part of Nature) we scuttled from the hired car to the pay-desk of the circus. We were disguised in caps and burberrys, and Lady Auriol had procured a black veil from some shop in Royat. We paid our fifty centimes and entered the vast emptiness of the tent. We were far too early, finding only half a dozen predecessors. We climbed to the remotest Alpine height of benches. The wet, cold canvas radiated rheumatism into our backs. A steady drip from the super-saturated tent above us descended on our heads and down our necks. Auriol buttoned the collar of her burberry and smiled through her veil.
"It's like old times."
"Old times be anythinged," said I, vainly trying to find comfort on six inches of rough boarding.
"It's awfully good of you to come, Tony," she said after a while. "You can't think what a help it is to have you with me."
"If you think to mollify me with honeyed words," said I, "you have struck the wrong animal."
It is well to show a woman, now and then, that you are not entirely her dupe.
She laid her hand on mine. "I mean it, dear. Really. Do you suppose I'm having an evening out?"
We continued the intimate sparring bout for a while longer. Then we lapsed into silence and watched the place gradually fill with the populace of Clermont-Ferrand. The three top tiers soon became crowded. The rest were but thinly peopled. But there was a sufficient multitude of garlic-eating, unwashed humanity, to say nothing of the natural circus smell, to fill unaccustomed nostrils with violent sensations. A private soldier is a gallant fellow, and ordinarily you feel a comfortable sense of security in his neighbourhood; but when he is wet through and steaming, the fastidious would prefer the chance of perils. And there were many steaming warriors around us.
There we sat, at any rate, wedged in a mass as vague and cohesive as chocolate creams running into one another. I had beside me a fat, damp lady whose wet umbrella dripped into my shoes. Lady Auriol was flanked by a lean, collarless man in a cloth-cap who made sarcastic remarks to soldier friends on the tier below on the capitalist occupiers of the three-franc seats. The dreadful circus band began to blare. The sudden and otherwise unheralded entrance of a lady on a white horse followed by the ring master made us realize that the performance had begun. The show ran its course. The clowns went through their antiquated antics to the delight of the simple folk by whom we were surrounded. A child did a slack wire act, waving a Japanese umbrella over her head. Some acrobats played about on horizontal bars. We both sat forward on our narrow bench, elbows on knees and face in hands, saying nothing, practically seeing nothing, aware only of a far off, deep down, infernal pit in which was being played the Orcagnesque prelude to a bizarre tragedy. I, who had gone through the programme before, yet suffered the spell of Auriol's suspense. Long before she had thrown aside the useless veil. In these dim altitudes no one could be recognized from the ring. Her knuckles were bent into her cheeks and her eyes were staring down into that pit of despair. We had no programme; I had not retained in my head the sequence of turns. Now it was all confused. The pervasive clowns alone seemed to give what was happening below a grotesque coherence.
Suddenly the ring was empty for a second. Then with exaggerated strides marched in a lean high-heeled monster in green silk tights reaching to his armpits, topped with a scarlet wig ending in a foot high point. He wore white cotton gloves dropping an inch from the finger tips, and he carried a fiddle apparently made out of a cigar box and a broom handle. His face painted red and white was made up into an idiot grin. He opened his mouth at the audience, who applauded mildly.
Lady Auriol still sat in her bemused attitude of suspense. I watched her perplexedly for a second or two, and then I saw she had not recognized him. I said:
She gasped. Sat bolt upright, and uttered an "Oh-h!" a horrible little moan, not quite human, almost that of a wounded animal, and her face was stricken into tense ugliness. Her hand, stretched out instinctively, found mine and held it in an iron grip. She said in a quavering voice:
"I wish I hadn't come."
"I wish I could get you out," said I.
She shook her head.
"No, no. It would be giving myself away. I must see it through."
She drew a deep breath, relinquished my hand, turned to me with an attempt at a smile.
"I'm all right now. Don't worry."
She sat like a statue during the performance. It was quite a different performance from the one I had seen a few days before. It seemed to fail not only in the magnetic contact between artist and audience, but in technical perfection. And Elodie, whom I had admired as a vital element in this combination, so alive, so smiling, so reponsive, appeared a merely mechanical figure, an exactly regulated automaton.
My heart sank into my shoes, already chilled with the drippings of my fat neighbour's umbrella. If Lackaday had burst out on Lady Auriol as the triumphant, exquisite artist, there might, in spite of the unheroic travesty of a man in which he was invested, have been some cause for pride in extraordinary, crowd-compelling achievement. The touch of genius is a miraculous solvent. But here was something second-rate, third-rate, half-hearted—though I, who knew, saw that the man was sweating blood to exceed his limitations. Here was merely an undistinguished turn in a travelling circus which folk like Lady Auriol Dayne only visited in idle moods of good-humoured derision.
He went through it not quite to the bitter end, for I noted that he cut out the finale of the elongated violin. There was perfunctory applause, a perfunctory call. After he had made his bow, hand in hand with Elodie, he retired in careless silence and was nearly knocked down by the reappearing lady on the broad white horse.
"Let us go," said Auriol.
We threaded our way down the break-neck tiers of seats and eventually emerged into the open air. Our hired car was waiting. The full moon shone down in a clear sky in the amiable way that the moon has—as though she said with an intimate smile—"My dear fellow—clouds? Rain? I never heard of such a thing. You must be suffering from some delusion. I've been shining on you like this for centuries." I made a casual reference to the beauty of the night.
"It ought to be still raining," said Lady Auriol.
We drove back to Royat in silence. I racked my brains for something to say, but everything that occurred to me seemed the flattest of uncomforting commonplaces.
Well, it was her affair entirely. If she had given me some opening I might have responded sympathetically. But there she sat by my side in the car, rigid and dank. For all that I could gather from her attitude, some iron had entered into her soul. She was a dead woman.
The car stopped at the hotel door. We entered. A few yards down the hall the lift waited. We went up together. I shall never forget the look on her face. I shall always associate it with the picture of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse. The lift stopped at my floor. Her room was higher.
I bade her good night.
She wrung my hand. "Good night, Tony, and my very grateful thanks."
I slipped out and watched her whisked, an inscrutable mystery, upwards.
The first sign of commotion in the morning was a note from Bakkus, whose turn it was to act as luncheon host. Our friends at Clermont-Ferrand, said he, had cried off. They had also asked him to go over and see them. Would I be so kind as to regard this as a dies non in the rota of our pleasant gatherings?
I dressed and bought some flowers, which I sent up to Lady Auriol with a polite message. The chasseur returned saying that Miladi had gone out about half an hour before.
"You don't mean that she has left the hotel with her luggage?"
The boy smiled reassurance. She had only gone for a walk. I breathed freely. It would have been just like her to go off by the first train.
I suffered my treatment, drank my glasses of horrible water and again enquired at the hotel for Lady Auriol. She had not yet returned. Having nothing to do, I took my Moniteur du Puy de Dome, which I had not read, to the cafe which commands a view of the park gates and the general going and coming of Royat. Presently, from the tram terminus I saw advancing the familiar gaunt figure of Lackaday. I was glad, I scarcely knew why, to note that he wore a grey soft felt instead of the awful straw hat. I rose to greet him, and invited him to my table.
"I would join you with pleasure," said he, "but I am thinking of paying my respects to Lady Auriol."
When I told him that he would not find her, he sat down. We could keep an eye on the hotel entrance, I remarked.
"Our lunch with Bakkus is off," said I.
"Yes. I'm sorry. I rang him up early this morning. Elodie isn't quite herself to-day."
"The thunder last night, perhaps."
He nodded. "Women have nerves."
That something had happened was obvious. I remembered last night's half-hearted performance.
"By the way," said I, "Bakkus mentioned in his note that he was going over to Clermont-Ferrand to see you."
"Yes," said Lackaday, "I left him there. He has marvellous tact and influence when he chooses to exert them. A man thrown away on the trivialities of life. He was born to be a Cardinal. I'm so glad you have taken to him."
I murmured mild eulogy of Bakkus. We spoke idly of his beautiful voice. Conversation languished, Lackaday's eyes being turned to the entrance of the hotel some fifty yards away up the sloping street.
"I'm anxious not to miss Lady Auriol," he said at last. "It will be my only chance of seeing her. We're off to-morrow."
"Our engagement ends to-night. We're due at Vichy next week."
I had not realized the flight of the pleasant days. But yet—I was puzzled. Yesterday there had been no talk of departure. I mentioned my surprise.
"I have ended the engagement of my own accord," said he. "The management had engaged another star turn for to-day—overlapping mine. A breach of contract which gave me the excuse for terminating it. I don't often stand on the vain dignity of the so-called artist, but this time I've been glad to do so."
"The atmosphere of the circus is scarcely congenial," said I.
"That's it. I'm too big for my boots, or my head's too big for my hat. And the management are not sorry to save a few days' salary."
"But during these few days——?"
"We wait at Vichy."
He spoke woodenly, his lined face set hard.
"I shall miss you tremendously, my dear fellow," said I.
"I shall miss your company even more," said he.
"We won't, at any rate, say good-bye to-day," I ventured. "There are cars to be hired, and Vichy from the car point of view is close by."
"You, my dear Hylton, I shall be delighted to see."
The emphasis on the pronoun would have rendered his meaning clear to even a more obtuse man than myself. No Lady Auriols flaunting over to Vichy.
"May I ask when you came to this decision?" I enquired. "Bakkus's note suggested only a postponement of our meeting."
"Last night," said he. "That's one reason why I sent for Bakkus."
"I see," said I. But I did not tell him what I saw. It looked as though the gallant fellow were simply running away.
Soon afterwards, to my great relief, there came Lady Auriol swinging along on the other side of the pavement. The cafe, you must know, forms a corner. To the left, the park and the tram terminus; to the right, the street leading to the post office and then dwindling away vaguely up the hill. It was along this street that Lady Auriol came, short-skirted, flushed with exercise, rather dusty and dishevelled. I stood and waved an arresting hand. She hesitated for a second and then crossed the road and met us outside the cafe. I offered a seat at our table within. She declined with a gesture. We all stood for a while and then went diagonally over to the park entrance.
"I've been such a walk," she declared. "Miles and miles—through beautiful country and picturesque villages. You ought to explore. It's worth it."
"I know the district of old," said Lackaday.
"I'm tremendously struck with the beauty of the women of Auvergne."
"They're the pure type of old Gaul," said Lackaday.
She put up a hand to straying hair. "I'm falling to pieces. I have but two desires in the world—a cold bath and food. Perhaps I shall see you later."
He stood unflinching, like a soldier condemned for crime. I wondered at her indifference. He said:
"Unfortunately I can't have that pleasure. My engagements take up the rest of the day, and tomorrow I leave Clermont-Ferrand. I shan't have another opportunity of seeing you."
Their eyes met and his, calm yet full of pain, dominated. She thrust her hand through my arm.
"Very well then, let us get into the shade."
We entered the park, found an empty bench beneath the trees and sat down, Auriol between us. She said:
"Do you mean at Royat or in the world in general?"
"Perhaps the latter."
She laughed queerly. "As chance has thrown us together here, it will possibly do the same somewhere else."
"My sphere isn't yours," said he. "If it hadn't been for the accident of Hylton being here, we should not have met now."
"Captain Hylton had nothing to do with it," she said warmly. "I had no notion that you were at Clermont-Ferrand."
"I'm quite aware of that, Lady Auriol."
She flushed, vexed at having said a foolish thing.
"And Captain Hylton had no notion that I was coming."
"Perfectly," said Lackaday.
"Well?" she said after a pause.
"I came over to Royat, this morning," said Lackaday, "to call on you and bid you good-bye."
"Why?" she asked in a low voice.
"It appeared to be ordinary courtesy."
"Was there anything particular you wanted to say to me?"
"Perhaps to supplement just the little I could tell you yesterday afternoon."
"Captain Hylton supplemented it after you left. Oh, he was very discreet. But there were a few odds and ends that needed straightening out. If you had been frank with me from the beginning, there would have been no need of it. As it was, I had to clear everything up. If I had known exactly. I should not have gone to the circus last night."
His eyelids fluttered like those of a man who has received a bullet through him, and his mouth set grimly.
"You might have spared me that," said he. He bent forward. "Hylton, why did you let her do it?"
"I might just as well have tried to stop the thunder," said I, seeing no reason why this young woman should not bear the blame for her folly.
"A circus is a comfortless place of entertainment," he said, in the familiar, even voice. "I wish it had been a proper theatre. What did you think of the performance?"
She straightened herself upright, turned and looked at him; then looked away in front of her: a sharp breath or two caused a little convulsive heave of her bosom; to my astonishment I saw great tears run down her cheeks on to her hands tightly clasped on her lap. As soon as she realized it, she dashed her hands roughly over her eyes. Lackaday ventured the tip of his finger on her sleeve.
"It's a sorry show, isn't it? I'm not very proud of myself. But perhaps you understand now why I left you in ignorance."
"Yet you told Anthony. Why not me?"
I was about to rise, this being surely a matter for them to battle out between themselves, but I at once felt her powerful grip on my arm. Whether she was afraid of herself or of Lackaday, I did not know. Anyway, I seemed to represent to her some kind of human dummy which could be used, at need, as a sentimental buffer.
"I presume," she continued, "I was quite as intimate a friend as Anthony?"
"Quite," said he. "But Hylton's a man and you're a woman. There can be no comparison. You are on different planes of sentiment. For instance, Hylton, loyal friend as he is, has not to my knowledge done me the honour of shedding tears over Petit Patou."
I felt horribly out of place on the bench in this public leafy park, beside these two warring lovers. But it was most humanly interesting. Lackaday seemed to be reinvested with the dignity of the man as I had first met him, a year ago.
"Anthony—" I could not help feeling that her repeated change of her term of reference to me, from the formal Captain Hylton to my Christian name, sprang from an instinctive desire to put herself on more intimate terms with Lackaday—"Anthony," she said in her defiant way, "would have cried, if he could."
Lackaday's features relaxed into his childlike smile.
"Ah," said he, "'The little more and how much it is. The little less and how far away.'"
She was silent. Although the situation was painful, I could not help feeling the ironical satisfaction that she was getting the worst of the encounter. I was glad, because I thought she had treated him cruelly. The unprecedented tears, however, were signs of grace. Yet the devil in her suggested a riposte.
"I hope Madame Patou is quite well."
Lackaday's smile faded into the mask.
"Last night's thunderstorm upset her a little—but otherwise—yes—she is quite well."
He rose. Lady Auriol cried:
"You're not going already?"
His ear caught a new tone, for he smiled again.
"I must get back to Clermont-Ferrand. Goodbye, Hylton."
We shook hands.
"Good-bye, old chap," said I. "We'll meet soon."
Auriol rose and turned on me an ignoring back. As I did not seem to exist any longer, I faded shadow-like away to the park gate, where I hung about until Auriol should join me.
As to what happened between them then, I must rely on her own report, which, as you shall learn, she gave me later.
They stood for a while after I had gone. Then he held out his hand.
"Good-bye, Lady Auriol," said he.
"No," she said. "There are things which we really ought to say to each other. You do believe I wish I had never come?"
"I can quite understand," said he, stiffly.
"It hurts," she said.
"Why should it matter so much?" he asked.
"I don't know—but it does."
He drew himself up and his face grew stern.
"I don't cease to be an honourable man because of my profession; or to be worthy of respect because I am loyal to sacred obligations."
"You put me in the wrong," she said. "And I deserve it. But it all hurts. It hurts dreadfully. Can't you see? The awful pity of it? You of all men to be condemned to a fife like this. And you suffer too. It all hurts."
"Remember," said he, "it was the life to which I was bred."
She felt hopeless. "It's my own fault for coming," she said. "I should have left things as they were when we parted in April. There was beauty—you made it quite clear that our parting was final. You couldn't have acted otherwise. Forgive me for all I've said. I pride myself on being a practical woman; but—for that reason perhaps—I'm unused to grappling with emotional situations. If I've been unkind, it's because I've been stabbing myself and forgetting I'm stabbing you at the same time."
He walked a pace or two further with her. For the first time he seemed to recognize what he, Andrew Lackaday, had meant to her.
"I'm sorry," he said gravely. "I never dreamed that it was a matter of such concern to you. If I had, I shouldn't have left you in any doubt. To me you were the everything that man can conceive in woman. I wanted to remain in your memory as the man the war had made me. Vanity or pride, I don't know. We all have our failings. I worshipped you as the Princesse Loinlaine. I never told you that I am a man who has learned to keep himself under control. Perhaps under too much control. I shouldn't tell you now, if——"
"You don't suppose I'm a fool," she interrupted. "I knew. And the Verity-Stewarts knew. And even my little cousin Evadne knew."
They still strolled along the path under the trees. He said after a while:
"I'm afraid I have made things very difficult for you."
She was pierced with remorse. "Oh, how like you! Any other man would have put it the other way round and accused me of making things difficult for him. And he would have been right. For I did come here to get news of you from Anthony Hylton. He was so discreet that I felt that he could tell me something. And I came and found you and have made things difficult for you."
He said in his sober way: "Perhaps it is for the best that we have met and had this talk. We ought to have had it months ago, but—" he turned his face wistfully on her—"we couldn't, because I didn't know. Anyhow, it's all over."
"Yes," she sighed. "It's all over. We're up against the stone wall of practical life."
"Quite so," said he. "I am Petit Patou, the mountebank; my partner is Madame Patou, whom I have known since I was a boy of twenty, to whom I am bound by indissoluble ties of mutual fidelity, loyalty and gratitude; and you are the Lady Auriol Dayne. We live, as I said before, in different spheres."
"That's quite true," she said. "We have had our queer romance. It won't hurt us. It will sweeten our lives. But, as you say, it's over. It has to be over."
"There's no way out," said he. "It's doubly locked. Good-bye."
He bent and kissed her hand. To the casual French valetudinarians sitting and strolling in the park, it was nothing but a social formality. But to Auriol the touch of his lips meant the final parting of their lives, the consecrated burial of their love.
She lingered for a few moments watching his long, straight back disappear round the corner of the path, and then turned and joined me by the park gate. On our way to the hotel the only thing she said was:
"I don't seem to have much chance, do I, Tony?"
It was after lunch, while we sat, as the day before, at the end of the terrace, that she told me of what had taken place between Lackaday and herself, while I had been hanging about the gate. I must confess to pressing her confidence. Since I was lugged, even as a sort of raisonneur, into their little drama, I may be pardoned for some curiosity as to development. I did not seem, however, to get much further. They had parted for ever, last April, in a not unpoetic atmosphere. They had parted for ever now in circumstances devoid of poetry. The only bit of dramatic progress was the mutual avowal, apparently dragged out of them. It was almost an anticlimax. And then dead stop. I put these points before her. She agreed dismally. Bitterly reproached herself for giving way in Paris to womanish folly; also for deliberately bringing about the morning's explanation.
"You were cruel—which is utterly unlike you," I said, judicially.
"That horrible green, white and red thing haunted me all night—and that fat woman bursting out of her clothes. I felt shrivelled up. If only I had left things as they were!" She harped always on that note. "I thought I could walk myself out of my morbid frame of mind. Oh yes—you're quite right—morbid—unlike me. I walked miles and miles. I made up my mind to return to Paris by the night train. I should never see him again. The whole thing was dead. Killed. Washed out. I had got back some sense when I ran into the two of you. It seemed so ghastly to go on talking in that cold, dry way. I longed to goad him into some sort of expression of himself—to find the man again. That's why I told him about going to the circus last night."
She went on in this strain. Presently she said: "I could shed tears of blood over him. Don't think I'm filled merely with selfish disgust. As I told him—the pity of it—all that he must have suffered—for he has suffered, hasn't he?"
"He has gone through Hell," said I.
She was silent for a few moments. Then she said: "What's the good of going round and round in a circle? You either understand or you don't."
By way of consolation I mendaciously assured her that I understood. I don't think I understand now. I doubt whether she understood herself. Her emotions were literally going round and round in a circle, a hideous merry-go-round with fixed staring features, to be passed and repassed in the eternal gyration. Horror of Petit Patou. Her love for Lackaday. Madame Patou. Hatred of Lacka-day. Scorching self-contempt for seeking him out. Petit Patou and Madame Patou. Lackaday crucified. Infinite pity for Lackaday. General Lackaday. Old dreams. The lost illusion. The tomb of love. Horror of Petit Patou—and so da capo, endlessly round and round.
At least, this figure gave me the only clue to her frame of mind. If she went on gyrating in this way indefinitely, she must go mad. No human consciousness could stand it. For sanity she must stop at some point. The only rational halting-place was at the Tomb. If I knew my Auriol, she would drop a flower and a tear on it, and then would start on a bee-line for Central Tartary, or whatever expanse of the world's surface offered a satisfactory field for her energies.
She swallowed the stone-cold, half-remaining coffee in her cup and rose and stretched herself, arms and back and bust, like a magnificent animal, the dark green, silken knitted jumper that she wore revealing all her great and careless curves, and drew a long breath and smiled at me.
"I've not slept for two nights and I've walked twelve miles this morning. I'll turn in till dinner." She yawned. "Poor old Tony," she laughed. "You can have it at a Christian hour this evening."
"The one bright gleam in a hopeless day," said I.
She laughed again, blew me a kiss and went her way to necessary repose.
I remained on the terrace a while longer, in order to finish a long corona-corona, forbidden by my doctors. But I reflected that as the showman makes up on the swings what he loses on the roundabouts, so I made up on the filthy water what I lost on the cigars. How I provided myself with excellent corona-coronas in Royat, under the Paris price, I presume, of ten francs apiece, wild reporters will never drag out of me. I mused, therefore, over the last smokable half-inch, and at last, discarding it reluctantly, I sought well-earned slumber in my room. But I could not sleep. All this imbroglio kept me awake. Also the infernal band began to play. I had not thought—indeed, I had had no time to think of the note from Bakkus which I had received the first thing in the morning, and of Lackaday's confirmation of the summons to the ailing Elodie. Women, said he, had nerves. The thunder, of course. But, thought I, with elderly sagacity, was it all thunder?
As far as I could gather, from Lackaday's confessions he had never given Elodie cause for jealousy from the time they had become Les Petit Patou. Her rout of the suggestive Ernestine proved her belief in his insensibility to woman's attractions during the war. She had never heard of Lady Auriol. Lady Auriol, therefore, must have bounded like a tiger into the placid compound of her life. Reason enough for a crise des nerfs. Even I, who had nothing to do with it, found my equilibrium disturbed.
Lady Auriol and I dined together. She declared herself rested and in her right and prosaic mind.
"I have no desire to lose your company," said I, "so I hope there's no more talk of an unbooked strapontin on the midnight train."
"No need," she replied. "He's leaving Clermont-Ferrand tomorrow. I'll keep to my original programme and enjoy fresh air until a wire summons me back to Paris. That's to say if you can do with me."
"If you keep on looking as alluring as you are this evening," said I, "perhaps I mayn't be able to do without you."
"I wonder why I've never been able to fall in love with a man of your type, Tony," she remarked in her frank, detached way. "You—by which I mean hundreds of men like you, much younger, of course—you are of my world, you understand the half-said thing, your conduct during the war has been irreproachable, you've got a heart beneath a cynical exterior, you've got brains, you're as clean as a new pin, you're an agreeable companion, you can turn a compliment in a way that even a savage like me can appreciate, and yet——"
"And yet," I interrupted, "when you're presented with a whole paper, row on row, of new pins, you're left cold because choice is impossible." I smiled sadly and sipped my wine. "Now I know what I am, one of a row of nice, clean, English-made pins."
"It's you that are being rude to yourself, not I," she laughed. "But you are of a type typical, and in your heart you're very proud of it. You wouldn't be different from what you are for anything in the world."
"I would give a good deal," said I, "to be different from what I am—but—from the ideal of myself—no."
She was quite right. Although I may not have sound convictions, thank Heaven I've sacred prejudices. They have kept me more or less straight in my unimaginative British fashion during a respectable lifetime. So far am I from being a Pharisee, that I exclaim: "Thank God I am as other decent fellows are."
We circled pleasantly round the point until she returned to her original proposition—her wonder that she had never been able to fall in love with a man of my type.
"It's very simple," said I. "You distrust us. You know that if you suddenly said to one of us, 'Let us go to Greenland and wear bearskins and eat blubber'; or, 'Let us fit up the drawing-room with incubators for East-end babies doomed otherwise to die,' he would vehemently object. And there would be rows and the married life of cat and dog."
She said: "Am I really as bad as that, Tony?"
"You are," said I.
She shook her head. "No," she replied, after a pause. "In the depths of myself I'm as conventional as you are. That's why I said I was puzzled to know why I had never fallen in love with any one of you. I had my deep reasons, my dear Tony, for saying it. I'm bound to my type and my order. God knows I've seen enough and know enough to be free. But I'm not. Last night showed me that I'm not."
"And that's final, my dear?" said I.
She helped herself to salad with an air of bravura. She helped herself, to my surprise, to a prodigious amount of salad.
"As final as death," she replied.
* * * * *
There had been billed about the place a Grand Concert du Soir in the Casino de Royat. The celebrated tenor, M. Horatio Bakkus. The Casino having been burned down in 1918, the concerts took place under the bandstand in the park.
After dinner we found places, among the multitude, on the Casino Cafe Terrace overlooking the bandstand, and listened to Bakkus sing. I explained Bakkus, more or less, to Auriol. Although she could not accept Lackaday as Petit Patou, she seemed to accept Bakkus, without question, as a professional singer. The concert over, he joined us at our little japanned iron table, and acknowledged her well-merited compliments—I tell you, he sang like a minor Canon in an angelic choir—with, well, with the well-bred air of a minor Canon in an angelic choir. With easy grace he dismissed himself and talked knowledgeably and informatively of the antiquities and the beauties of Auvergne. To most English folk it was an undiscovered country. We must steal a car and visit Orcival. Hadn't I heard of it? France's gem of Romanesque churches? And the Chateau—ages old—-with its charmille—the towering maze-like walks of trees kept clipped in scrupulous formality by an old gardener during the war—the charmille designed by no less a genius than Le Notre, who planned the wonders of Versailles and the exquisite miniature of the garden of Nimes? To-morrow must we go.
This white-haired, luminous-eyed ascetic—he drank but an orangeade through post-war straws—had kept us spellbound with his talk. I glanced at Auriol and read compliance in her eye.
"Will you accompany us ignorant people and act as cicerone?"
"With all the pleasure in life," said Bakkus.
"What time shall we start?"
"Would ten be too early?"
"Lady Auriol and I are old campaigners."
"I call for you at ten. It is agreed?"
We made the compact. I lifted my glass. He sputtered response through the post-war straws resting in the remains of his orangeade. He rose to go, pleading much correspondence before going to bed. We rose too. He accompanied us to the entrance to our hotel. At the lift, he said:
"Can you give me a minute?"
"As many as you like," said I, for it was still early.
We sped Lady Auriol upwards to her repose, and walked out through the hall into the soft August moonlight.
"May I tread," said he, "on the most delicate of grounds?"
"It all depends," said I, "on how delicately you do it."
He made a courteous movement of his hand and smiled. "I'll do my best. I take it that you're very fully admitted into Andrew Lackaday's confidence."
"To a great extent," I admitted.
"And—forgive me if I am impertinent—you have also that of the lady whom we have just left?"
"Really, my dear Bakkus——" I began.
"It is indeed a matter of some importance," he interposed quickly. "It concerns Madame Patou—Elodie. Rightly or wrongly, she received a certain impression from your charming luncheon party of yesterday. Andrew, as you are aware, is not the man with whom a woman can easily make a scene. There was no scene. A hint. With that rat-trap air of finality with which I am, for my many failings, much more familiar than yourself, he said: 'We will cancel our engagement and go to Vichy.' This morning, as I wrote, I was called to Clermont-Ferrand. Madame Patou, you understand, has the temperament of the South. Its generosity is apt to step across the boundaries of exaggeration. In my capacity of friend of the family, I had a long interview with her. You have doubtless seen many such on the stage. I must say that Andrew, to whom the whole affair appeared exceedingly distasteful, had announced his intention of obeying the rules of common good manners and leaving his farewell card on Lady Auriol. Towards the end of our talk it entered the head of Madame Patou that she would do the same. I pointed out the anomaly of the interval between the two visits. But the head of a Marseillaise is an obstinate one. She dressed, put on her best hat—there is much that is symbolical in a woman's best hat, as doubtless a man of the world like yourself has observed—and took the tram with me to Royat. We alighted at the further entrance to the park, and came plump upon a leave-taking between Lackaday and Lady Auriol. You know there is a turn—some masking shrubs—we couldn't help seeing through them. She was for rushing forward. I restrained her. A second afterwards, Andrew ran into us. For me, at any rate, it was a most unhappy situation. If he had fallen into a rage, like ninety-nine men out of a hundred, and accused us of spying, I should have known how to reply. But that's where you can never get hold of Andrew Lackaday. He scorns such things. He said in his ramrod fashion: 'It's good of you to come to meet me, Elodie. I was kept longer than I anticipated.' He stopped the Clermont-Ferrand tram, nodded to me, and, with his hand under Elodie's elbow, helped her in."
"May I ask why you tell me all this?" I asked.
"Certainly," said he, and his dark eyes glittered in the moonlight. "I give the information for what it may be worth to you as a friend, perhaps as adviser, of both parties."
"You are assuming, Mr. Bakkus," I answered rather stiffly, "that Madame Patou's unfortunate impressions are in some way justified."
It was a most unpleasant conversation. I very much resented discussing Lady Auriol with Horatio Bakkus.
"Not at all," said he. "But Fate has thrown you and me into analogous positions—we are both elderly men—me as between Lackaday and Madame Patou, you as between Lady Auriol and Lackaday."
"But, damn it all, man," I cried angrily, "what have I just been saying? How dare you assume there's anything between them save the ordinary friendship of a distinguished soldier and an English lady?"
"If you can only assure me that there is nothing but that ordinary friendship, you will take a weight off my mind and relieve me of a great responsibility."
"I can absolutely assure you," I cried hotly, "that by no remote possibility can there be anything else between Lady Auriol Dayne and Petit Patou."
He thrust out both his hands and fervently grasped the one I instinctively put forward.
"Thank you, thank you, my dear Hylton. That's exactly what I wanted to know. Au revoir. I think we said ten o'clock."
He marched away briskly. With his white hair gleaming between his little black felt hat cocked at an angle and the collar of his flapping old-fashioned opera-cloak, he looked like some weird bird of the night.
I entered the hotel feeling the hot and cold of the man who has said a damnable thing. Through the action of what kinky cell of the brain I had called the dear gallant fellow "Petit Patou," instead of "Lackaday," I was unable to conjecture.
I hated myself. I could have kicked myself. I wallowed in the unreason of a man vainly seeking to justify himself. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to see Horatio Bakkus again. I went to bed loathing the idea of our appointment.
Lady Auriol, myself and the car met punctually at the hotel door at ten o'clock. There was also a chasseur with Lady Auriol's dust-coat and binoculars, and a concierge with advice. We waited for Bakkus. Auriol, suddenly bethinking herself of plain chocolate, to the consumption of which she was addicted on the grounds of its hunger-satisfying qualities, although I guaranteed her a hearty midday meal on the occasion of the present adventure, we went down the street to the Marquise de Sevigne shop and bought some. This took time, because she lingered over several varieties devastating to the appetite. I paid gladly. If we all had the same ideas as to the employment of a happy day, it would be a dull world. We went back to the car. Still no Bakkus. We waited again. I railed at the artistic temperament. Pure, sheer bone idleness, said I.
"But what can he be doing?" asked Auriol.
I, who had received through Lackaday many lights on Bakkus's character, was at no loss to reply.
"Doing? Why, snoring. He'll awake at midday, stroll round here and expect to find us smiling on the pavement. We give him five more minutes."
At the end of the five minutes I sent the concierge off for a guide-book; much more accurate, I declared, than Bakkus was likely to be, and at half-past ten by my watch we started. Although I railed at the sloth of Bakkus, I rejoiced in his absence. My over-night impression had not been dissipated by slumber.
"I'm not sorry," said I, as we drove along. "Our friend is rather too much of a professed conversationalist."
"You also have a comfortable seat which possibly you would have had to give up to your guest," said Auriol.
"How you know me, my dear," said I, and we rolled along very happily.
I think it was one of the pleasantest days I have ever passed in the course of a carefully spent life. Auriol was at her best. She had thrown off the harried woman of affairs. She had put a nice little tombstone over the grave of her romance, thus apparently reducing to beautiful simplicity her previous complicated frame of mind. For aught I could have guessed, not a cloud had ever dimmed the Diana serenity of her soul. If I said that she laid herself out to be the most charming of companions, I should be accusing her of self-consciousness. Rather, let me declare her to have been so instinctively. Vanity apart, I stood for something tangible in her life. She could not remember the time when I had not been her firm friend. Between my first offering of chocolates and my last over a quarter of a century had lapsed. As far as a young woman can know a middle-aged man, she knew me outside in. If she came to me for my sympathy, she knew that she had the right. If she twitted me on my foibles, she knew that I granted her the privilege, with affectionate indulgence.
Now, perhaps you may wonder why I, not yet decrepit, did not glide ever so imperceptibly in love with Lady Auriol, who was no longer a dew-besprinkled bud of a girl and therefore beyond the pale of my sentimental inclinations. Well, just as she had avowed that she could not fall in love with a man of my type, so was it impossible for me to fall in love with a woman of hers. Perhaps some dark-eyed devil may yet lure me to destruction, or some mild, fair-haired, comfortable widow may entice me to domesticity. But the joy and delight of my attitude towards Auriol was its placid and benignant avuncularity. We were the best and frankest friends in the world.
And the day was an August hazy dream of a day. We wound along the mountain roads, first under overhanging greenery and then, almost suddenly, remote, in blue ether. We hung on precipices overlooking the rock-filled valleys of old volcanic desolation. Basaltic cliffs rose up from their bed of yellow cornfields, bare and stark, yet, in the noontide shimmer, hesitating in their eternal defiance of God and man. We ascended to vast tablelands of infinite scrub and yellow broom, and the stern peaks of the Puy de Dome mountains, a while ago seen like giants, appeared like rolling hillocks; but here and there a little white streak showed that the snow still lingered and would linger on until the frosts of autumn bound it in chains to await the universal winding-sheet of winter. Climate varied with the varying altitude of the route. Here, on a last patch of mountain ground, were a man or two and a woman or two and odd children, reaping and binding; there, after a few minutes' ascent, on another sloping patch, a solitary peasant ploughed with his team of oxen. Everywhere on the declivitous waysides, tow-haired, blue-eyed children guarded herds of goats, as their forbears had done in the days of Vercingetorix, the Gaul. Nowhere, save in the dimly seen remotenesses of the valleys, where vestiges of red-roofed villages emerged through the fertile summer green, was there sign of habitation. Whence came they, these patient humans, wresting their life from these lonely spots of volcanic wildernesses?
Now and then, on a lower hump of mountain, appeared the ruined tower of a stronghold fierce and dominating long ago. There the lord had all the rights of the seigneur, as far as his eye could reach. He had men-at-arms in plenty, and could ride down to the valley and could provision himself with what corn and meat he chose, and could return and hold high revel. But when the winter came, how cold must he have been, for all the wood with its stifling smoke that he burned in his crude stone hall. And Madame the Countess, his wife, and her train of highborn young women—imagine the cracking chilblains on the hands of the whole fair community.
"Does the guide-book say that?" asked Auriol, on my development of this pleasant thesis.
"Is a guide-book human?"
"It doesn't unweave rainbows. As a cicerone you're impossible. I regret Horatio Bakkus."
Still, in spite of my prosaic vision, we progressed on an enjoyable pilgrimage. I am not giving you an itinerary. I merely mention features of a day's whirl which memory has recaptured. We lunched in that little oasis of expensive civilization, Mont Dore. Incidentally we visited Orcival, with its Romanesque church and chateau, the objective of our expedition, and found it much as Bakkus's glowing eloquence had described. From elderly ladies at stalls under the lee of the church we bought picture post cards. We wandered through the deeply shaded walks of the charmille, as trimly kept as the maze of Hampton Court and three times the height. We did all sorts of other things. We stopped at wild mountain gorges alive with the rustle of water and aglow with wild-flowers. We went on foot through one-streeted, tumble-down villages and passed the time of day with the kindly inhabitants. And the August sun shone all the time.
We reached Royat at about six o'clock and went straight up to our rooms. On my table some letters awaited me; but instead of finding among them the apology from Bakkus which I had expected, I came across a telephone memorandum asking me to ring up Monsieur Patou at the Hotel Moderne, Vichy, as soon as I returned.
After glancing through my correspondence, I descended to the bureau and there found Auriol in talk with the concierge. She broke off and waved a telegram at me.
"The end of my lotus-eating. The arrangements are put through and I'm no longer hung up. So"—she made a little grimace—"it's the midnight train to Paris."
"Surely to-morrow will do," I protested.
"To-morrow never does," she retorted.
"As you will," said I, knowing argument was hopeless.
Meanwhile the concierge was 'allo'-ing lustily into the telephone.
"I ought to have stuck to head-quarters," she said, moving away into the lounge. "It's the first time I've ever mixed up business and—other things. Anyhow," she smiled, "I've had an adorable day. I'll remember it in Arras."
"Roundabout." She waved vaguely. "I'll know my exact address to-morrow."
"Please let me have it."
"What's the good unless you promise to write to me?"
"I swear," said I.
"Pardon, Miladi," called the concierge, receiver in hand. "The gare de Clermont-Ferrand says there is no place salon-lit or coupe-lit free in the train to-night. But there is one place de milieu, premiere, not yet taken."
"Reserve it then and tell them you're sending a chasseur at once with the money." She turned to me. "My luck's in."
"Luck!" I cried. "To get a middle seat in a crowded carriage, for an all-night journey, with the windows shut?"
She laughed. "Why is it, my dear Tony, you always seem to pretend there has never been anything like a war?"
She went upstairs to cleanse herself and pack. I remained master of the telephone. In the course of time I got on to the Hotel Moderne, Vichy. Eventually I recognized Lackaday's voice. The preliminaries of fence over, he said:
"I wonder whether it would be trespassing too far on your friendship to ask you to pay your promised visit to Vichy to-morrow?"
The formality of his English, which one forgot when talking to him face to face, was oddly accentuated by the impersonal tones of the telephone.
"I'll motor over with pleasure," said I. The prospect pleased me. It was only sixty kilometres. I was wondering what the deuce I should do with myself all alone.
"You're sure it wouldn't be inconvenient? You have no other engagement?"
I informed him that, my early morning treatment over, I was free as air.
"Besides," said I, "I shall be at a loose end. Lady Auriol's taking the midnight train to Paris."
"Oh!" said he.
There was a pause.
"'Allo!" said I.
His voice responded: "In that case, I'll come to Clermont-Ferrand by the first train and see you."
"Nonsense," said I.
But he would have it his own way. Evidently the absence of Lady Auriol made all the difference. I yielded.
"What's the trouble?" I asked.
"I'll tell you when I see you," said he. "I don't know the trains, but I'll come by the first. Your concierge will look it up for you. Thanks very much. Good-bye."'
"But, my dear fellow——" I began.
But I spoke into nothingness. He had rung off.
Auriol and I spent a comfortable evening together. There was no question of Lackaday. For her part, she raised none. For mine—why should I disturb her superbly regained balance with idle chatter about our morrow's meeting? We talked of the past glories of the day; of an almost forgotten day of disastrous picnic in the mountains of North Wales, when her twelve-year-old sense of humour detected the artificial politeness with which I sought to cloak my sodden misery; of all sorts of pleasant far-off things; of the war; of what may be called the war-continuation-work in the devastated districts in which she was at present engaged. I reminded her of our fortuitous meetings, when she trudged by my side through the welter of rain and liquid mud, smoking the fag-end of my last pipe of tobacco.
"One lived in those days," she said with a full-bosomed sigh.
"By the dispensation of a merciful Providence," I said, "one hung on to a strand of existence."
"It was fine!" she declared.
"It was—for the appropriate adjective," said I, "consult any humble member of the British Army."
We had a whole, long evening's talk, which did not end until I left her in the train at Clermont-Ferrand.
On our midnight way thither, she said:
"Now I know you love me, Tony."
"Why now?" I asked.
"How many people are there in the world whom you would see off by a midnight train, three or four miles from your comfortable bed?"
"Not many," I admitted.
"That's why I want you to feel I'm grateful." She sought my hand and patted it. "I've been a dreadful worry to you. I've been through a hard time." This was her first and only reference during the day to the romance. "I had to cut something out of my living self, and I couldn't help groaning a bit. But the operation's over—and I'll never worry you again."
At the station I packed her into the dark and already suffocating compartment. She announced her intention to sleep all night like a dog. She went off, in the best of spirits, to the work in front of her, which after all was a more reasonable cure than tossing about the Outer Hebrides in a five-ton yacht.
I drove home to bed and slept the sleep of the perfect altruist.
I was reading the Moniteur du Puy de Dome on the hotel terrace next morning, when Lackaday was announced. He looked grimmer and more careworn than ever, and did not even smile as he greeted me. He only said gravely that it was good of me to let him come over. I offered him refreshment, which he declined.
"You may be wondering," said he, "why I have asked for this interview. But after all I have told you about myself, it did not seem right to leave you in ignorance of certain things. Besides, you've so often given me your kind sympathy, that, as a lonely man, I've ventured to trespass on it once more."
"My dear Lackaday, you know that I value your friendship," said I, not wishing to be outdone in courteous phrase, "and that my services are entirely at your disposal."
"I had better tell you in a few words what has happened," said he.
He told me.
Elodie had gone, disappeared, vanished into space, like the pearl necklaces which Petit Patou used to throw at her across the stage.
"But how? When?" I asked, in bewilderment; for Lackaday and Elodie, as Les Petit Patou, seemed as indissoluble as William and Mary or Pommery and Greno.
He had gone to her room at ten o'clock the previous morning, her breakfast hour, and found it wide open and empty save for the femme de chambre making great clatter of sweeping. He stood open-mouthed on the threshold. To be abroad at such an hour was not in Elodie's habits. Their train did not start till the afternoon. His eye quickly caught the uninhabited bareness of the apartment. Not a garment straggled about the room. The toilet table, usually strewn with a myriad promiscuously ill-assorted articles, stared nakedly. There were no boxes. The cage of love-birds, Elodie's inseparable companions, had gone.
He questioned the femme de chambre.
"But Madame has departed. Did not Monsieur know?"
Monsieur obviously did not know. The girl gave him the information of which she was possessed. Madame had gone in an automobile at six o'clock. She had rung the bell. The femme de chambre had answered it. The staff were up early on account of the seven o'clock train for Paris.
"Then Madame has gone to Paris," cried Lackaday.
But the girl demurred at the proposition. One does not hire an automobile from a garage, a voiture de luxe, quoi? to go to the railway station, when the hotel omnibus would take one there for a franc or two. As she was saying, Madame rang her bell and gave orders for her luggage to be taken down. It was not much, said Lackaday; they travelled light, their professional paraphernalia having to be considered. Well, the luggage was taken down to the automobile that was waiting at the door, and Madame had driven off. That is all she knew.
Lackaday strode over to the bureau and assailed the manager. Why had he not been informed of the departure of Madame? It apparently never entered the manager's polite head that Monsieur Patou was ignorant of Madame Patou's movements. Monsieur had given notice that they were leaving. Artists like Monsieur and Madame Patou were bound to make special arrangements for their tours, particularly nowadays when railway travelling was difficult. So Madame's departure had occasioned no surprise.
"Who took her luggage down?" he demanded.
The dingy waistcoated, alpaca-sleeved porter, wearing the ribbon of the Medaille Militaire on his breast, came forward. At six o'clock, while he was sweeping the hall, an automobile drew up outside. He said: "Whom are you come to fetch? The Queen of Spain?" And the chauffeur told him to mind his own business. At that moment the bell rang. He went up to the etage indicated. The femme de chambre beckoned him to the room and he took the luggage and Madame took the bird-cage, and he put Madame and the luggage and the birdcage into the auto, and Madame gave him two francs, and the car drove off, whither the porter knew not.
Although he put it to me very delicately, as he had always conveyed his criticism of Elodie, the fact that struck a clear and astounding note through his general bewilderment, was the unprecedented reckless extravagance of the economical Elodie. There was the omnibus. There was the train. Why the car at the fantastic rate of one franc fifty per kilometre, to say nothing of the one franc fifty per kilometre for the empty car's return journey?
"And Madame was all alone in the automobile," said the porter, by way of reassurance. "Pardon, Monsieur," he added, fading away under Lackaday's glare.
"I cut the indignity of it all as short as I could," said Lackaday, "and went up to my room to size things up. It was a knock-down blow to me in many ways, as you no doubt can understand. And then came the femme de chambre with a letter addressed to me. It had fallen between the looking-glass and the wall."
He drew a letter from his pocket and handed it to me.
"You had better read it."
I fitted my glasses on my nose and read. In the sprawling, strong, illiterate hand I saw and felt Elodie.
Mon petit Andre——
But I must translate inadequately, for the grammar and phrasing were Elodesque.
As you no longer love me, if ever you have loved me, which I doubt, for we have made un drole de menage ever since we joined ourselves together, and as our life in common is giving you unhappiness, which it does me also, for since you have returned from England as a General you have not been the same, and indeed I have never understood how a General [and then followed a couple of lines vehemently erased]. And as I do not wish to be a burden to you, but desire that you should feel yourself free to lead whatever life you like, I have taken the decision to leave you for ever—pour tout jamais. It is the best means to regain happiness.
For the things that are still at the Cirque Vendramin, do with them what you will. I shall write to Ernestine to send me my clothes and all the little birds I love so much. Your noble heart will not grudge them to me, mon petit Andre.
Praying God for your happiness, I am always
I handed him back the letter without a word. What could one say?
"The first thing I did," he said, putting the letter back in his pocket, "was to ring up Bakkus, to see whether he could throw any light on the matter."
"Bakkus—why, he cut his engagement with us yesterday."
"The damned scoundrel," said Lackaday, "was running away with Elodie."
He banged his hand on the little iron table in front of us and started to his feet, exploding at last with his suppressed fury.
"The infernal villain!"
I gasped for a few seconds. Then I accomplished my life's effort in self-control. My whole being clamoured for an explosion equally violent of compressed mirth. I ached to lie back in my chair and shriek with laughter. The denouement of the little drama was so amazingly unexpected, so unexpectedly ludicrous. A glimmer of responsive humour in his eyes would have sent me off. But there he stood, with his grimmest battle-field face, denouncing his betrayer. Even a smile on my part would have been insulting.
Worked up, he told me the whole of the astonishing business, as far as he knew it. They had eloped at dawn, like any pair of young lovers. Of that there was no doubt. The car had picked up Bakkus at his hotel in Royat—Lackaday had the landlord's word for it—and had carried the pair away, Heaven knew whither. The proprietor of the Royat garage deposed that Mr. Bakkus had hired the car for the day, mentioning no objective. The runaways had the whole of France before them. Pursuit was hopeless. As Lackaday had planned to go to Vichy, he went to Vichy. There seemed nothing else to do.
"But why elope at dawn?" I cried. "Why all the fellow's unnecessary duplicity? Why, in the name of Macchiavelli, did he seize upon my ten o'clock invitation with such enthusiasm? Why his private conversation with me? Why throw dust into my sleepy eyes? What did he gain by it?"
Lackaday shrugged his shoulders. That part of the matter scarcely interested him. He was concerned mainly with the sting of the viper Bakkus, whom he had nourished in his bosom.
"But, my dear fellow," said I at last, after a tiring march up and down the hot terrace, "you don't seem to realize that Bakkus has solved all your difficulties, ambulando, by walking off, or motoring off, with your great responsibility."
"You mean," said he, coming to a halt, "that this has removed the reason for my remaining on the stage?"
"It seems so," said I.
He frowned. "I wish it could have happened differently. No man can bear to be tricked and fooled and made a mock of."
"But it does give you your freedom," said I.
He thrust his hands into his trousers pockets. "I suppose it does," he admitted savagely. "But there's a price for everything. Even freedom can be purchased too highly."
He strode on. I had to accompany him, perspiringly. It was a very hot day. We talked and talked; came back to the startling event. We had to believe it, because it was incredible, as Tertullian cheerily remarked of ecclesiastical dogma. But short of the Archbishop of Canterbury eloping with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour nothing could seem less possible. If Bakkus had nurtured nefarious designs, Good Heavens! he could have executed them years before. Well, perhaps not. When one hasn't a penny in one's pocket even the most cynical pauses ere he proposes romantic flight with a lady equally penniless. But since April, Bakkus had been battening on the good Archdeacon, his brother's substantial allowance. Why had he tarried?
"His diabolical cunning lay in wait for a weak moment," growled Lackaday.
All through this discussion, I came up against a paradox of human nature. Although it was obvious that the unprincipled Bakkus had rendered my good friend the service of ridding him of the responsibility of a woman whom he had ceased to love, if ever he had loved her at all, a woman, who, for all her loyal devotion through loveless years, had stood implacably between him and the realization of his dreams, yet he rampaged against his benefactor, as though he had struck a fatal blow at the roots of his honour and his happiness.
"But after all, man, can't you see," he cried in protest at my worldly and sophistical arguments, "that I've lost one of the most precious things in the world? My implicit faith in a fellow-man. I gave Bakkus a brother's trust. He has betrayed it. Where am I? His thousand faults have been familiar to me for years. I discounted them for the good in him. I thought I had grasped it." He clenched his delicate hand in a passionate gesture. "But now"—he opened it—"nothing. I'm at sea. How can I know that you, whom I have trusted more than any other man with my heart's secrets———?"
The concierge with a dusty chauffeur in tow providentially cut short this embarrassing apostrophe.
"Monsieur le Capitaine Hylton?" asked the chauffeur.
He handed me a letter. I glanced at the writing on the envelope.
"From Bakkus!" I said. "Tell me"—to the chauffeur—"how did you come by it?"
"Monsieur charged me to deliver it into the hands of Monsieur le Capitaine. I have this moment returned to Royat."
"Ah," said I. "You drove the automobile? Where is Monsieur Bakkus?"
"That," said he, "I have pledged my honour not to divulge."
I fished in my pocket for some greasy rags of paper money which I pressed into his honourable hand. He bowed and departed. I tore open the envelope.
"You will excuse me?"
"Oh, of course," said Lackaday curtly. He lit a cigarette and stalked to the end of the terrace.
The letter bore neither date nor address. I read:
MY DEAR HYLTON,
You have heard of Touchstone. You have heard of Audrey. Shakespeare has doubtless convinced you of the inevitability of their mating. I have always prided myself of a certain Touchstone element in my nature. There is much that is Audrey-esque in the lady whose disappearance from Clermont-Ferrand may be causing perturbation. As my Shakespearian preincarnation scorned dishonourable designs, so do even I. The marriage of Veuve Elodie Marescaux and Horatio Bakkus will take place at the earliest opportunity allowed by French law. If that delays too long, we shall fly to England where an Archbishop's special licence will induce a family Archdeacon to marry us straight away.
My flippancy, my dear Hylton, is but a motley coat.
If there is one being in this world whom I love and honour, it is Andrew Lackaday. From the first day I met him, I, a cynical disillusioned wastrel, he a raw yet uncompromising lad, I felt that here, somehow, was a sheet anchor in my life. He has fed me when I have been hungry, he has lashed me when I have been craven-hearted, he has raised me when I have fallen. There can be only three beings in the Cosmos who know how I have been saved times out of number from the nethermost abyss—I and Andrew Lackaday and God.
I passed my hand over my eyes when I read this remarkable outburst of devoted affection on the part of the seducer and betrayer for the man he had wronged. I thought of the old couplet about the dissembling of love and the kicking downstairs. I read on, however, and found the mystery explained.
The time has come for me to pay him, in part, my infinite debt of gratitude.
You may have been surprised when I wrung your hand warmly before parting. Your words removed every hesitating scruple. Had you said, "there is nothing between a certain lady and Andrew Lackaday," I should have been to some extent nonplussed. I should have doubted my judgment. I should have pressed you further. If you had convinced me that the whole basis of my projected action was illusory, I should have found means to cancel the arrangements. But remember what you said. "There can't by any possibility be anything between Lady Auriol Dayne and Petit Patou."
"Damn the fellow," I muttered. "Now he's calmly shifting the responsibility on to me."
And I swore a deep oath that nevermore would I interfere in anybody else's affairs, not even if Bolshevist butchers were playing with him before my very eyes.
There, my dear Hylton (the letter went on), you gave away the key of the situation. My judgment had been unerring. As Petit Patou, our friend stood beyond the pale. As General Lackaday, he stepped into all the privileges of the Enclosure. Bound by such ties to Madame Patou as an honourable and upright gentleman like our friend could not d of severing, he was likewise bound to his vain and heart-breaking existence as Petit Patou. A free man, he could cast off his mountebank trappings and go forth into the world, once more as General Lackaday, the social equal of the gracious lady whom he loved and whose feelings towards him, as eyes far less careless than ours could see at a glance, were not those of placid indifference.
The solution of the problem dawned on me like an inspiration. Why not sacrifice my not over-valued celibacy on the altar of friendship? For years Elodie and I have been, en lout bien et tout honneur, the most intimate of comrades. I don't say that, for all the gold in the Indies, I would not marry a woman out of my brother's Archdeaco If she asked me, I probably should. But I should most certainly, such being my unregenerate nature, run away with the gold and leave the lady. For respectability to have attraction you must be bred in You must regard the dog collar and chain as the great and God-given blessing of your life. The old fable of the dog and the wolf. But I've lived my life, till past fifty, as the disreputable wolf—and so, please God, will I remain till I die. But, after all, being human, I'm quite a kind sort of wolf. Thanks to my brother—no longer will hunger drive the wolf abroad. You remember Villon's lines:
"Necessite fait gens mesprendre Et faim sortir le loup des boys."
I shall live in plethoric ease my elderly vulpine life. But the elderly wolf needs a mate for his old age, who is at one with him in his (entirely unsinful) habits of disrepute. Where in this universe, then, could I find a fitter mate than Elodie?
Which brings me back, although I'm aware of glaring psychological flaws, to my Touchstone and Audrey prelude.
Writing, as I am doing, in a devil of a hurry, I don't pretend to Meredithean analysis.
Elodie's refusal to marry Andrew Lackaday had something to do a woman's illusions. She is going to marry me because there's no possibility of any kind of illusion whatsoever. My good brother whom, I grieve to say, is in the very worst of health, informs me that he has made a will in my favour. Heaven knows, I am contented enough as I am. But, the fact remains, which no doubt will ease our dear frie mind, that Elodie's future is assured. In the meanwhile we will devote ourselves to the cultivation of that peculiarly disreputable sloth which is conducive to longevity, releve (according to the gastronomic idiom) on my part, with the study of French Heraldry which in the present world upheaval, is the most futile pursuit conceivable by a Diogenic philosopher.
I can't write this to Lackaday, who no doubt is saying all the dreadful things that he learned with our armies in Flanders. He would not understand. He would not understand the magic of romance, the secrecy, the thrill of the dawn elopement, the romance of the coup de theatre by which alone I was able to induce Elodie to co-operate in the part payment of my infinite debt of gratitude.
I therefore write to you, confident that, as an urbane citizen of the world you will be able to convey to the man I love most on earth, the real essence of this, the apologia of Elodie and myself. What more can a man do than lay down his bachelor life for a friend?
P.S.—If you had convinced me that I was staring hypnotically at a mare's nest, I should have had much pleasure in joining you on your excursion. I hope you went and enjoyed it and found Orcival exceeding my poor dithyrambic.
I had to read over this preposterous epistle again before I fully grasped its significance. On the first reading it seemed incredible that the man could be sincere in his professions; on the second, his perfect good faith manifested itself in every line. Had I read it a third time, I, no doubt, should have regarded him as an heroic figure, with a halo already beginning to shimmer about his head.
I walked up to Lackaday at the end of the terrace and handed him the letter. It was the simplest thing to do. He also read it twice, the first time with scowling brow, the second with a milder expression of incredulity. He looked down on me—I don't stand when a handy chair invites me to sit.
"This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard of."
I nodded. He walked a few yards away and attacked the letter for the third time. Then he gave it back to me with a smile.
"I don't believe he's such an infernal scoundrel after all."
"Ah!" said I.
He leaned over the balustrade and plunged into deep reflection.
"If it's genuine, it's an unheard of piece of Quixotism."
"I'm sure it's genuine."
"By Gum!" said he. He gazed at the vine-clad hill in the silence of wondering admiration.
At last I tapped him on the shoulder.
"Let us lunch," said I.
We strolled to the upper terrace.
"It is wonderful," he remarked on the way thither, "how much sheer goodness there is in humanity."
"Pure selfishness on my part. I hate lunching alone," said I.
He turned on me a pained look.
"I wasn't referring to you."
Then meeting something quizzical in my eye, he grinned his broad ear-to-ear grin of a child of six.
We lunched. We smoked and talked. At every moment a line seemed to fade from his care-worn face. At any rate, everything was not for the worst in the worst possible of worlds. I think he felt his sense of freedom steal over him in his gradual glow. At last I had him laughing and mimicking, in his inimitable way—a thing which he had not done for my benefit since the first night of our acquaintance—the elderly and outraged Moignon whom he proposed to visit in Paris, for the purpose of cancelling his contracts. As for Vichy—Vichy could go hang. There were ravening multitudes of demobilized variety artists besieging every stage-door in France. He was letting down nobody; neither the managements nor the public. Moignon would find means of consolation.
"My dear Hylton," said he, "now that my faith in Bakkus is not only restored but infinitely strengthened, and my mind is at rest concerning Elodie, I feel as though ten years were lifted from my life. I'm no longer Petit Patou. The blessed relief of it! Perhaps," he added, after a pause, "the discipline has been good for my soul."
"In what way?"
"Well, you see," he replied thoughtfully, "in my profession I always was a second-rater. I was aware of it; but I was content, because I did my best. In the Army my vanity leads me to believe I was a first-rater. Then I had to go back, not only to second-rate, but to third-rate, having lost a lot in five years. It was humiliating. But all the same I've no doubt it has been the best thing in the world for me. The old hats will still fit."
"If I had a quarter of your vicious modesty," said I, "I would see that I turned it into a dazzling virtue. What are your plans?"
"You remember my telling you of a man I met in Marseilles called Arbuthnot?"
"Yes," said I, "the fellow who shies at coco-nuts in the Solomon Islands."
He grinned, and with singular aptness he replied:
"I'll cable him this afternoon and see whether I can still have three shies for a penny."
We discussed the proposal. Presently he rose. He must go to Vichy, where he had to wind up certain affairs of Les Petit Patou. To-morrow he would start for Paris and await Arbuthnot's reply.
"And possibly you'll see Lady Auriol," I hazarded, this being the first time her name was mentioned.
His brow clouded and he shook his head sadly.
"I think not," said he. And, as I was about to protest, he checked me with a gesture. "That's all done with."
"My dear, distinguished idiot," said I.
"It can never be," he declared with an air of finality.
"You'll break Bakkus's heart."
"Sorry," said he.
"You'll break mine."
"Sorrier still. No, no, my dear friend," he said gently, "don't let us talk about that any more."
After he had gone I experienced a severe attack of anticlimax, and feeling lonely I wrote to Lady Auriol. In the coarse phraseology of the day, I spread myself out over that letter. It was a piece of high-class descriptive writing. I gave her a beautiful account of the elopement and, as an interesting human document, I enclosed a copy of Bakkus's letter. As I had to wait a day or two for her promised address—her letter conveying it gave me no particular news of herself—I did not receive her answer until I reached London.
It was characteristic:
My Dear Tony,
Thanks for your interesting letter. I've adopted a mongrel Irish Terrier—the most fascinating skinful of sin the world has ever produced. I'll show him to you some day.
I wrote back in a fury: something about never wanting to see her or her infernal dog as long as I lived. I was angry and depressed. I don't know why. It was none of my business. But I felt that I had been scandalously treated by this young woman. I felt that I had subscribed to their futile romance an enormous fund of interest and sympathy. This chilly end of it left me with a sense of bleak disappointment. I was not rendered merrier a short while afterwards by an airy letter from Horatio Bakkus enclosing a flourishing announcement in French of his marriage with the Veuve Elodie Marescaux, nee Figasso. "Behold me," said the fellow, "cooing with content in the plenitude of perfect connubiality." I did not desire to behold him at all. His cooing left me cold. I bore on my shoulders the burden of the tragio-comedy of Auriol and Lackaday.