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If the morning had brought surprises to Miss Lucilla van Tromp, it had not denied them to the Marquis de Bienville. They were all the more astonishing in that they came out of a sky that was relatively clear. As he stood in his dressing-gown, with a cigarette between his fingers, at one of the upper windows of his tall, towerlike hotel, he would have said that his life at the moment resembled the blue dome above him, from which, after a cloudy dawn and dull early morning, the last fleecy drifts were being blown away.
There were many circumstances that combined just now to make him glad of being Raoul de Laval, Marquis de Bienville. The mere material comfort of modern hotel luxury had a certain joyous novelty after nearly two years spent amid the unprofitable splendors of the tropical forest. True, New York was not Paris; but it was an excellent distributing centre for Parisian commodities and news, and would do very well for the work he had immediately in hand. So far, all promised hopefully. His valet had joined him from France, with whatever he could wish in the way of wardrobe; and Mrs. Bayford's reply to his note contained much information beyond what was actually written down in words. Moreover, the statement he had found awaiting him from the Credit Lyonnais revealed the fact that, owing to the two years in which he had little or no need to spend money, he could now live with handsome extravagance until after he married Miss Grimston. He might even pay the more pressing of his debts, though that possibility presented itself in the light of a work of supererogation, seeing that in so short a time he should be able to pay them all.
Then would begin a new era in his life. On that point he was quite determined. At thirty-two years of age it was high time to think of being something better in the world than a mere man-beauty. His experience with Persigny had shown that he was capable of something worthier than dalliance, as his fathers had been before him.
He did not precisely blame himself for shortcomings in the past, since, according to French ideas, he had not enough money on which to be useful, while his social position precluded work. He could not serve his country for fear of serving the republic, nor live on his estates, because Bienville was too expensive to keep up. However well-meaning his nature, there had been almost nothing open to him but the career of the idle, handsome, high-born youth, with money enough to pay for the luxuries of life, while his name secured credit for its necessities.
With his looks and his address it would have been easy to find a wife who, by meeting his financial need, would have facilitated his path in virtue; but on this point he was fastidious. Rather, perhaps, he was typical of that modern, transitional phase of the French social mind which, while still acknowledging the supremacy of the family in matrimonial affairs, insists on some freedom of personal selection. That his future wife should have enough money to make her a worthy chatelaine of Bienville, as well as to meet the subsidiary expenses the position implied, was a foregone conclusion; but it was equally a matter beyond dispute that she should be some one whom he could love. He had not found this combination of essentials until he met Marion Grimston, and the hand he was thereupon prepared to offer her was not wholly empty of his heart.
In her he saw for the first time in his life the intrepid maiden who seems to dare a man to come and master her. That she should be the daughter of Robert Grimston, with his commercial primness, and Mrs. Grimston, with her pretentious snobbery, was a mystery he made no attempt to solve. It was enough for him that this proud creature was in the world, especially as her bearing toward him inspired the hope that he might win her. It was a pity that he should have turned aside from such high endeavor in a foolish dash to make himself the Hippomenes of Diane Eveleth's Atalanta. Putting little heart into the latter contest, he would have suffered little mortification from defeat, had it not been that the high spirits of the pursued lady invited the world to come and laugh with her at his expense.
Then it was that the Marquis de Bienville, in an uncontrollable access of wounded vanity, had thrown his traditions of honor to the winds, and lied. It was not such a lie as could be told--and forgotten; for there were too many people eager to believe and repeat it. Within twenty-four hours he found himself famous, all the way from the Parc Monceau to the rue de Varennes. After his conscience had given him a sleepless night he got up to see that any modification of his statement meant retraction. Retraction was out of the question, in that it involved the loss of his reputation among men. He was caught in a trap. He must lie and maintain his place, or he must confess and go out of society. It must not be supposed that he took his predicament lightly, or that he made his choice without pangs of self-pity at the cruel necessity. It was his honor, or hers! and if only the one or the other could be saved, it must be his. So he saved it--according to his lights. He saved it by being very bold in his statements by day, and heaping ignominy on himself during the black hours of sleeplessness. He found, however, that the process paid; for boldness engendered a sort of fictitious belief which paralyzed the tendency to self-upbraiding until it ceased.
The special quality of his courage was shown on that gray dawn when he stood up before George Eveleth in a corner of the Pre Catalan. He had not the moral force to confess himself a perjurer in the sight of Paris, but he could stand ready to take the bullets in his breast. In going to the encounter he had no intention of doing otherwise. He would not atone to an injured woman by setting her right in the eyes of men, but he would make her the offering of his life.
It was a satisfaction now to know, as he was assured by letters, that the incident was practically forgotten, and that Diane Eveleth had disappeared. He himself found it easier than it used to be to dismiss the subject from his mind; and if he recalled it at times, it was generally--as it had been on shipboard--when at the end of his store of confidential anecdotes. He was thinking, however, of dropping the story from his repertoire, for he had more than remarked that its effect was slightly sinister upon himself. He noticed, too, that, during the first twenty-four hours on the steamer, Derek Pruyn avoided him, while he on his part had felt a curious impulse to slink out of sight, which could only be explained by the supposition that, as often happens on long voyages, they had seen too much of each other.
Finding that he had let his cigarette go out, he threw it away, and turned from the window to complete his toilet. As he did so his valet entered with a card, stating that the gentleman who had sent it in was waiting in the hail outside.
"Ask him to come in," he said, briefly, when he had read the name. He was scarcely surprised, for Pruyn had spoken more than once of showing him some civilities when they reached New York, and putting him up at one or two convenient dubs.
"My dear sir," he cried, going forward with outstretched hand; but the words died on his lips as Derek pushed his way in brusquely, without greeting.
Again the young man attempted the ceremonious by apologizing for the informality of his surroundings and the state of his dress; but again he faltered before the haggard glare in Derek's eyes.
"I want to talk to you," Pruyn said, abruptly. Bienville made a gesture of mingled politeness and astonishment.
"Certainly; but shall we not sit down while we do it? Will you smoke? Here are cigarettes, but you probably prefer a cigar."
Educated in England, like many young Frenchmen of the upper classes, Bienville spoke English fluently and with little accent.
"I want to talk to you," Derek said again. He took no notice of the proffered seat, and they remained standing, as they were, with the round table, bestrewn with letters, between them. "You remember," Derek continued, speaking with difficulty--"you remember the story you told me on the voyage--about a woman?"
Bienville nodded. He had a sudden presentiment of what was coming.
"I must tell you that on the night before I sailed for South America, three months ago, I asked that woman to be my wife."
"In that case," Bienville said, promptly, and with a tranquillity he did not feel, "I withdraw my statements."
"Withdrawal isn't enough. You must tell me they were not true."
Bienville remained silent for a minute. He was beginning to realize the firmness of the ground he stood on. His instinct for self-preservation was strong, and he had confidence in his dexterous use of the necessary weapons.
"You must give me time to reflect on that," he said, after a pause.
"Why do you need time? If the thing isn't true, you've only got to say so."
"It's not quite so easy as that. You can't cut every difficulty with a sword, as they did the Gordian knot. One may go far in defence of a woman's honor, but there are boundaries which even a gallant man cannot pass; and, before I speak, I must see where they lie."
"I want the truth. I want no defence of a woman's honor--"
"Ah, but I do. That's the difference."
"Damn your difference! You didn't think much of a woman's honor when you began your infernal tales."
"Did you, when you let me go on?"
"No. That's where I share your crime. That's all that keeps me from striking you now."
"I let that pass. I know how you feel. I know just how hard it is for you. I've been in something like your situation myself. No man can have much to do with a woman without being put there in one way if not another. It's because I do understand you that I share your pain--and support your insults."
The tremor in his voice, coupled with the dignity of his bearing, carried a certain degree of conviction, so that when Derek spoke again it was less fiercely.
"Then I understand you to confirm what you told me on board ship?"
"On the contrary; you understand me to take it back. Why shouldn't that be enough for you--without asking further questions?"
"Because I'm not here to go through formalities, but to seek for facts."
"Precisely; and yet, wouldn't it be wise, under the circumstances, not to be too exacting? If I do my best for you--"
"It isn't a question of doing your best, but of telling me the truth."
"I can quite see that it might strike you in that way; but you'll pardon me, I know, if I see it from another point of view. No man in my situation would consider it a matter of telling you the truth, so much as of coming to the aid of a lady whose good name he had unwittingly imperilled. My supreme duty is there; and I'm willing to do it to the utmost of my power. I am willing to withdraw everything I have ever uttered that could tell against her. Can you ask me to do more?"
"Yes; I can ask you to deny it."
"Isn't that already a form of denial?"
"No; it's a form of affirmation."
"That's because you choose to take it so. It's because you prefer to go behind my words, and ascribe to me motives which, for all you know, I do not possess."
"I've nothing to do with your motives; my aim is to get at the truth."
"Since you have nothing to do with my motives," Bienville said, with a slight lifting of the brows, "you'll permit me, I am sure, to be equally indifferent to your aims. I tell you what I am prepared to do; but what is it to me whether you are satisfied or not? I am sorry to--to--inconvenience the lady; but as for you--!"
With a snap of the fingers he turned and strolled to the window, where he stood, looking out, with his back toward his guest. It was significant of their tension of feeling and concentration of mind that both gesture and attitude went unnoted by both. Derek remained silent and motionless, his slower mind trying to catch up with the Frenchman's nimble adroitness. He had not yet done so when Bienville turned and spoke again.
"Why should we quarrel? What should we gain by doing that? You and I are two men of the world, to whom human nature is as an open book. What do you expect me to do? What do you expect me to say? What more did you think to call forth from me when you came here this morning? Do me justice. Am I not going as far as a man can go when I say that I blot out of my memory the cursed evenings you and I spent together in cursed talk? That doesn't cover the ground, you think; but would any other form of words cover it any better? Would you believe me the more, whatever set of speeches I might adopt? Would you not always have in the back of your mind your expressive English phrase, that I was lying like a gentleman? You know best what you can do, as I know best what I can do; but is it not true that we have arrived at a point where the less that is spoken in words on either side, the better it will be for us all?"
When he had finished, Bienville turned again toward the window, leaning his head wearily against the frame. Derek stood a minute longer watching him. Then, as if accepting the assertion that there was nothing more that could be said, he went quietly, with bent head, from the room.
* * * * *
He was down in the street before he became fully conscious that, among the confused, strangled cries of pain within him, that which was loudest and most imploring was a wailing self-reproach. It was a self-reproach with a strain of pleading in it, akin to that with which a mother blames herself for the failings of her son, seizing on any one else's wrong to palliate the guilt of the accused. He had injured Diane himself! He had pried into her past, and laid bare her sins, and stripped her life of that covering of secrecy which no human existence could do without, least of all his own.
He walked on with bowed head, his eyes blind to the May sunshine, his ears deaf to the city's joyous, energetic uproar, his mind closed to the fact that important business affairs were awaiting his attention. His feet strayed toward Gramercy Park, directed not so much by volition as by the primary man-instinct to be near some sweet, sympathetic woman in the hour of pain. Lucilla and he had, grown up in one family as boy and girl together, and there were moments when he found near her the peace he could get nowhere else in the world.
He pushed by the footman who admitted him and walked straight to the room where Lucilla was generally to be found. Though he could scarcely be surprised to see Diane sitting by her, he stopped on the threshold, with signs of embarrassment, and made as though he would withdraw. Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of such a moment, Miss Lucilla looked appealingly at Diane, who rose.
"Don't go, Mr. Pruyn," she said, forcing herself to show firmness. "You arrive very opportunely. I have just asked my mother-in-law to come to my aid in some of the things we discussed last night. Won't you do me the justice to hear her?"
She crossed the room to where Mrs. Eveleth appeared on the threshold, and, taking her by the hand, led her to the chair which Pruyn placed for her.
"I'd better go, Diane dear," Miss Lucilla whispered, tremblingly.
"Please don't," Diane insisted. "I'd much rather have you stay. I've no secrets from Miss Lucilla," she added, speaking to Derek. "I need a woman friend; and I've found one."
"You couldn't find a better," Pruyn murmured, while Miss Lucilla slipped her arm around Diane's waist, rather to steady herself than to support her friend.
"Miss Lucilla knows everything that you know, petite mere," Diane continued, turning to where her mother-in-law sat, slightly bowed, her extended hand resting on her cane, like some graceful Sibyl. "She knows everything that you know, and she knows one thing more. She knows what some cruel people say was the way in which--George died."
Diane uttered the last two words in a kind of sob, and Mrs. Eveleth looked up, startled.
"George--died?" she questioned, slowly, with a look of wonder.
Diane nodded, unable, for the minute, to speak.
"But we know how--he died."
"Mr. Pruyn tells me that we don't."
"I beg you not to put it in that way," Derek said, hurriedly. "I repeated only what was told me, and what was afterward verified. Do you not think we can spare Mrs. Eveleth what must be so painful?"
"There's no need to spare me, Mr. Pruyn. I think I've reached the point to which old people often come--where they can't feel any more."
"Oh, mother, don't say that," Diane wailed, with a curiously childlike cry. She had never before called Mrs. Eveleth mother, and the word sounded strangely in this room which had not heard it since Miss Lucilla was a little girl. "My mother would rather know," she declared, almost proudly, speaking again to Pruyn, "than be kept in ignorance of something in which she could help me so much."
"What is it?" Mrs. Eveleth asked, eagerly.
Then Diane told her. It had been stated, so she said, that George had not fallen in her defence, but by his own hand--to escape her; and there was no one in the world but his own mother to give this monstrous calumny the lie. During the recital Mrs. Eveleth sat with clasped hands, but with head sinking lower at each word. Once she murmured something which only Miss Lucilla was near enough to hear:
"Then that's why they wouldn't let me look at him in his coffin."
"He did love me, didn't he?" Diane cried. "He was happy with me, wasn't he, mother dear? He understood me, and upheld me, and defended me, whatever I did. He didn't want to leave me. He knew I should never have cared for the loss of the money--that we could have faced that together. Tell them so, mother; tell them."
For the first time since he had known her Derek saw Diane forget her reserve in eager pleading. She stepped forward from Miss Lucilla's embrace, standing before Mrs. Eveleth with palms opened outward, in an attitude of petition. The older woman did not raise her head nor speak.
"He was happy with me," Diane insisted. "I made him happy. I wasn't the best wife he could have had, but he was satisfied with me as I was, in spite of my imperfections. He was worried sometimes, especially toward--toward the last; but he wasn't worried about me, was he, mother dear?"
Still the mother did not speak nor raise her head. Diane took a step nearer and began again.
"I didn't know we were living beyond our means. I didn't know what was going on around me. I reproach myself for that. A wiser woman would have known; but I was young, and foolish, and very, very happy. I didn't know I was ruining George, though I'm ready to take all the responsibility for it now. But he never blamed me, did he, mother? never, by a word, never by a look. Oh, speak, and tell them!"
Her voice came out with a sharp note of anxiety, in which there was an inflection almost of fear; but when she ceased there was silence.
"Petite mere," she cried, "aren't you going to say anything?"
The bowed head remained bowed; the only sign came from the trembling of the extended hand, resting on the top of the stick.
"If you don't speak," Diane cried again, "they'll think it's because you don't want to."
If there was a response to this, it was when the head bent lower.
"Mother," Diane cried, in alarm, "I've no one in the world to speak a word for me but you. If you don't do it, they'll believe I drove George to his death--they'll say I was such a woman that he killed himself rather than live with me any longer."
Suddenly Mrs. Eveleth raised her head and looked round upon them all. Then she staggered to her feet.
"Take me away!" she said, in a dead voice, to Lucilla van Tromp. "Help me! Take me away! I can't bear any more!" Leaning on Miss Lucilla's arm, she advanced a step and paused before Diane, who stood wide-eyed, and awe-struck rather than amazed, at the magnitude of this desertion. "May God forgive you, Diane," she said, quietly, passing on again. "I try to do so; but it's hard."
While Derek's eyes were riveted on Diane, she stood staring vacantly at the empty doorway through which Mrs. Eveleth and Miss Lucilla had passed on their way up-stairs. This abandonment was so far outside the range of what she had considered possible that there seemed to be no avenues to her intelligence through which the conviction of it could be brought home. She gazed as though her own vision were at fault, as though her powers of comprehension had failed her.
Derek, on his part, watched her, with the fascination with which we watch a man performing some strange feat of skill--from whom first one support, and then another, and then another, falls away, until he is left with nothing to uphold him, perilously, frightfully alone.
When at length the knowledge of what had occurred came over her, Diane looked round the familiar room, as though to bring her senses back out of the realm of the incredible. When her eyes rested on him it was simply to include him among the common facts of earth after this excursion into the impossible. She said nothing, and her face was blank; but the little gesture of the hands--the little limp French gesture: the sudden lift, the sudden drop, the soft, tired sound, as the arms fell against the sides--implied fatality, finality, inexplicability, and an infinite weariness of created things.
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