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Though she had counted the strokes of every hour since midnight, Mrs. Eveleth had no thought of going to bed. When she was not sitting bolt upright, indifferent to comfort, in one of the stiff-backed, gilded chairs, she was limping, with the aid of her cane, up and down the long suite of salons, listening for the sound of wheels. She knew that George and Diane would be surprised to find her waiting up for them, and that they might even be annoyed; but in her state of dread it was impossible to yield to small considerations.
She could hardly tell how this presentiment of disaster had taken hold upon her, for the beginning of it must have come as imperceptibly as the first flicker of dusk across the radiance of an afternoon. Looking back, she could almost make herself believe that she had seen its shadow over her early satisfaction in her son's marriage to Diane. Certainly she had felt it there before their honeymoon was over. The four years that had passed since then had been spent--or, at least, she would have said so now--in waiting for the peril to present itself.
And yet, had she been called on to explain why she saw it stalking through the darkness of this particular June night, she would have found it difficult to give coherent statement to her fear. Everything about her was pursuing its normally restless round, with scarcely a hint of the exceptional. If life in Paris was working up again to that feverish climax in which the season dies, it was only what she had witnessed every year since the last days of the Second Empire. If Diane's gayety was that of excitement rather than of youth, if George's depression was that of jaded effort rather than of satiated pleasure, it was no more than she had seen in them at other times. She acknowledged that she had few facts to go upon--that she had indeed little more than the terrified prescience which warns the animal of a storm.
There were moments of her vigil when she tried to reassure herself with the very tenuity of her reasons for alarm. It was a comfort to think how little there was that she could state with the definiteness of knowledge. In all that met the eye George's relation to Diane was not less happy than in the first days of their life together. If, on Diane's part, the spontaneity of wedded love had gradually become the adroitness of domestic tact, there was nothing to affirm it but Mrs. Eveleth's own power of divination. If George submitted with a blinder obedience than ever to each new extravagance of Diane's Parisian caprice, there was nothing to show that he lived beyond his means but Mrs. Eveleth's maternal apprehension. His income was undoubtedly large, and, for all she knew, it justified the sumptuous style Diane and he kept up. Where the purchasing power of money began and ended was something she had never known. Disorder was so frequent in her own affairs that when George grew up she had been glad to resign them to his keeping, taking what he told her was her income. As for Diane, her fortune was so small as to be a negligible quantity in such housekeeping as they maintained--a poverty of dot which had been the chief reason why her noble kinsfolk had consented to her marriage with an American. Looking round the splendid house, Mrs. Eveleth was aware that her husband could never have lived in it, still less have built it; while she wondered more than ever how George, who led the life of a Parisian man of fashion, could have found the means of doing both.
Not that her anxiety centred on material things; they were too remote from the general activities of her thought for that. She distilled her fear out of the living atmosphere around her. She was no novice in this brilliant, dissolute society, or in the meanings hidden behind its apparently trivial concerns. Hints that would have had slight significance for one less expert she found luminous with suggestion; and she read by signs as faint as those in which the redskin detects the passage of his foe across the grass. The odd smile with which Diane went out! The dull silence in which George came home! The manufactured conversation! The forced gayety! The startling pause! The effort to begin again, and keep the tone to one of common intercourse! The long defile of guests! The strangers who came, grew intimate, and disappeared! The glances that followed Diane when she crossed a room! The shrug, the whisper, the suggestive grimace, at the mention of her name! All these were as an alphabet in which Mrs. Eveleth, grown skilful by long years of observation, read what had become not less familiar than her mother-tongue.
The fact that her misgivings were not new made it the more difficult to understand why they had focussed themselves to-night into this great fear. There had been nothing unusual about the day, except that she had seen little of Diane, while George had remained shut up in his room, writing letters and arranging or destroying papers. There had been nothing out of the common in either of them--not even the frown of care on George's forehead, or the excited light in Diane's eyes--as they drove away in the evening, to dine at the Spanish Embassy. They had kissed her tenderly, but it was not till after they had gone that it seemed to her as if they had been taking a farewell. Then, too, other little tokens suddenly became ominous; while something within herself seemed to say, "The hour is at hand!"
The hour is at hand! Standing in the middle of one of the gorgeous rooms, she repeated the words softly, marking as she did so their incongruity to herself and her surroundings. The note of fatality jarred on the harmony of this well-ordered life. It was preposterous, that she, who had always been hedged round and sheltered by pomp and circumstance, should now in her middle age be menaced with calamity. She dragged herself over to one of the long mirrors and gazed at her reflection pityingly.
The twitter of birds startled her with the knowledge that it was dawn. From the Embassy George and Diane were to go on to two or three great houses, but surely they should be home by this time! The reflection meant the renewal of her fear. Where was her son? Was he really with his wife, or had the moment come when he must take the law into his own hands, after their French manner, to avenge himself or her? She knew nothing about duelling, but she had the Anglo-Saxon mother's dread of it. She had always hoped that, notwithstanding the social code under which he lived, George would keep clear of any such brutal senselessness; but lately she had begun to fear that the conventions of the world would prove the stronger, and that the time when they would do so was not far away.
Pulling back the curtains from one of the windows, she opened it and stepped out on a balcony, where the long strip of the Quai d'Orsay stretched below her, in gray and silent emptiness. On the swift, leaden-colored current of the Seine, spanned here and there by ghostly bridges, mysterious barges plied weirdly through the twilight. Up on the left the Arc de Triomphe began to emerge dimly out of night, while down on the right the line of the Louvre lay, black and sinister, beneath the towers and spires that faintly detached themselves against the growing saffron of the morning. High above all else, the domes of the Sacred Heart were white with the rays of the unrisen sun, like those of the City which came down from God.
It was so different from the cheerful Paris of broad daylight that she was drawing back with a shudder, when over the Pont de la Concorde she discerned the approach of a motor-brougham.
Closing the window, she hurried to the stairway. It was still night within the house, and the one electric light left burning drew forth dull gleams from the wrought-metal arabesques of the splendidly sweeping balustrades. When, on the ringing of the bell, the door opened and she went down, she had the strange sensation of entering on a new era in her life.
Though she recalled that impression in after years, for the moment she saw nothing but Diane, all in vivid red, in the act of letting the voluminous black cloak fall from her shoulders into the sleepy footman's hands.
"Bonjour, petite mere!" Diane called, with a nervous laugh, as Mrs. Eveleth paused on the lower steps of the stairs.
"Where is George?"
She could not keep the tone of anxiety out of her voice, but Diane answered, with ready briskness:
"George? I don't know. Hasn't he come home?"
"You must know he hasn't come home. Weren't you together?"
"We were together till--let me see!--whose house was it?--till after the cotillon at Madame de Vaudreuil's. He left me there and went to the Jockey Club with Monsieur de Melcourt, while I drove on to the Rochefoucaulds'."
She turned away toward the dining-room, but it was impossible not to catch the tremor in her voice over the last words. In her ready English there was a slight foreign intonation, as well as that trace of an Irish accent which quickly yields to emotion. Standing at the table in the dining-room where refreshments had been laid, she poured out a glass of wine, and Mrs. Eveleth could see from the threshold that she drank it thirstily, as one who before everything else needs a stimulant to keep her up. At the entrance of her mother-in-law she was on her guard again, and sank languidly into the nearest chair. "Oh, I'm so hungry!" she yawned, pulling off her gloves, and pretending to nibble at a sandwich. "Do sit down," she went on, as Mrs. Eveleth remained standing. "I should think you'd be hungry, too."
"Aren't you surprised to see me sitting up, Diane?"
"I wasn't, but I can be, if that's my cue," Diane laughed.
At the nonchalance of the reply Mrs. Eveleth was, for a second, half deceived. Was it possible that she had only conjured up a waking nightmare, and that there was nothing to be afraid of, after all? Possessing the French quality of frankness to an unusual degree, it was difficult for Diane to act a part at any time. With all her Parisian finesse her nature was as direct as lightning, while her glance had that fulness of candor which can never be assumed. Looking at her now, with her elbows on the table, and the sandwich daintily poised between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, it was hard to connect her with tragic possibilities. There were pearls around her neck and diamonds in her hair; but to the wholesomeness of her personality jewels were no more than dew on the freshness of a summer morning.
"I thought you'd be surprised to find me sitting up," Mrs. Eveleth began again; "but the truth is, I couldn't go to bed while--"
"I'm glad you didn't," Diane broke in, with an evident intention to keep the conversation in her own hands. "I'm not in the least sleepy. I could sit here and talk till morning--though I suppose it's morning now. Really the time to live is between midnight and six o'clock. One has a whole set of emotions then that never come into play during the other eighteen hours of the day. They say it's the minute when the soul comes nearest to parting with the body, so I suppose that's the reason we can see things, during the wee sma' hours, by the light of the invisible spheres."
"I should be quite content with the light of this world--"
"Oh, I shouldn't," Diane broke in, with renewed eagerness to talk against time. "It's like being content with words, and having no need of music. It's like being satisfied with photographs, and never wanting real pictures."
"Diane," Mrs. Eveleth interrupted, "I insist that you let me speak."
"Speak, petite mere? What are you doing but speaking now? I'm scarcely saying a word. I'm too tired to talk. If you'd spent the last eight or ten hours trying to get yourself down to the conversational level of your partners, you'd know what I've been through. We women must be made of steel to stand it. If you had only seen me this evening--"
"Listen to me, Diane; don't joke. This is no time for that."
"Joke! I never felt less like joking in my life, and--"
She broke off with a little hysterical gasp, so that Mrs. Eveleth got another chance.
"I know you don't feel like joking, and still less do I. There's something wrong."
"Is there? What?" Diane made an effort to recover herself. "I hope it isn't indiscreet to ask, because I need the bracing effect of a little scandal."
"Isn't it for you to tell me? You're concealing something of which--"
"Oh, petite mere, is that quite honest? First, you say there's something wrong; and then, when I'm all agog to hear it, you saddle me with the secret. That's what you call in English a sell, isn't it? A sell! What a funny little word! I often wonder who invents the slang. Parrots pass it along, of course, but it must take some cleverness to start it. And isn't it curious," she went on, breathlessly, "how a new bit of slang always fills a vacant place in the language? The minute you hear it you know it's what you've always wanted. I suppose the reason we're obliged to use the current phrase is because it expresses the current need. When the hour passes, the need passes with it, and something new must be coined to meet the new situation. I should think a most interesting book might be written on the Psychology of Slang, and if I wasn't so busy with other things--"
"Diane, I entreat you to answer me. Where is George?"
"Why, I must have forgotten to tell you that he went to the Jockey Club with Monsieur de Melcourt--"
"You did tell me so; but that isn't all. Has he gone anywhere else?"
"How should I know, petite mere? Where should he go but come home?"
"Has he gone to fight a duel?"
The question surprised Diane into partially dropping her mask. For an instant she was puzzled for an answer.
"Men who fight duels," she said, at last, "don't generally tell their wives beforehand."
"But did George tell you?"
Again Diane hesitated before speaking.
"What a queer question!" was all she could find to say.
"It's a question I have a right to ask."
"But have I a right to answer?"
"If you don't answer, you leave me to infer that he has."
"Of course I can't keep you from inferring, but isn't that what they call meeting trouble half-way?"
"I must meet trouble as it comes to me."
"But not before it comes. That's my point."
"It has come. It's here. I'm sure of it. He's gone to fight. You know it. You've sent him. Oh, Diane, if he comes to harm his blood will be on your head."
Diane shrugged her shoulders, and took another sandwich.
"I don't see that. In the first place, it's quite unlikely there'll be any blood at all--or more than a very little. One of the things I admire in men--our men, especially--is the maximum of courage with which they avenge their honor, coupled with the minimum of damage they work in doing it. It must require a great deal of skill. I know I should never have the nerve for it. I should kill my man every time he didn't kill me. But they hardly ever do."
"How can you say that? Wasn't Monsieur de Cretteville killed? And Monsieur Lalanne?"
"That makes two cases. I implied that it happens sometimes--generally by inadvertence. But it isn't likely to do so in this instance--at least not to George. He's an excellent shot--and I believe it was to be pistols."
"Then it's true! Oh, my God, I know I shall lose him!"
Mrs. Eveleth flung her cane to the floor and dropped into a seat, leaning on the table and covering her face with her hands. For a minute she moaned harshly, but when she looked up her eyes were tearless.
"And this is my reward," she cried, "for the kindness I've shown you! After all, you are nothing but a wanton."
Diane kept her self-control, but she grew pale.
"That's odd," was all she permitted herself to say, delicately flicking the crumbs from her fingertips; "because it was to prove the contrary that George called Monsieur de Bienville out."
"Bienville! You've stooped to him?"
"Did I say so?" Diane asked, with a sudden significant lifting of the head.
"There's no need to say so. There must have been something--"
"There was something--something Monsieur de Bienville invented."
"Wasn't it a pity for him to go to the trouble of invention--?"
"When he could have found so much that was true," Diane finished, with dangerous quietness. "That's what you were going to say, isn't it?"
"You have no right to ascribe words to me that I haven't uttered. I never said so."
"No; that's true; I prefer to say it for you. It's safer, in that it leaves me nothing to resent."
"Oh, what shall I do! What shall I do!" Mrs. Eveleth moaned, wringing her hands. "My boy is gone from me. He will never come back. I've always been sure that if he ever did this, it would be the end. It's my fault for having brought him up among your foolish, hot-headed people. He will have thrown his life away--and for nothing!"
"No; not that," Diane corrected; "not even if the worst comes to the worst."
"What do you mean? If the worst comes to the worst, he will have sacrificed himself--"
"For my honor; and George himself would be the first to tell you that it's worth dying for."
Diane rose as she spoke, Mrs. Eveleth following her example. For a brief instant they stood as if measuring each other's strength, till they started with a simultaneous shock at the sharp call of the telephone from an adjoining room. With a smothered cry Diane sprang to answer it, while Mrs. Eveleth, helpless with dread, remained standing, as though frozen to the spot.
"Oui--oui--oui," came Diane's voice, speaking eagerly. "Oui, c'est bien Madame George Eveleth. Oui, oui. Non. Je comprends. C'est Monsieur de Melcourt. Oui--oui--Dites-le-moi tout de suite--j'insiste--Oui--oui. Ah-h-h!"
The last, prolonged, choking exclamation came as the cry of one who sinks, smitten to the heart. Mrs. Eveleth was able to move at last. When she reached the other room, Diane was crouched in a little heap on the floor.
"He's dead? He's dead?" the mother cried, in frenzied questioning.
But Diane, with glazed eyes and parted lips, could only nod her head in affirmation.
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