Soames returned to England the following day, and on the third morning received a visit from Mr. Polteed, who wore a flower and carried a brown billycock hat. Soames motioned him to a seat.
"The news from the war is not so bad, is it?" said Mr. Polteed. "I hope I see you well, sir."
Mr. Polteed leaned forward, smiled, opened his hand, looked into it, and said softly:
"I think we've done your business for you at last."
"What?" ejaculated Soames.
"Nineteen reports quite suddenly what I think we shall be justified in calling conclusive evidence," and Mr. Polteed paused.
"On the 10th instant, after witnessing an interview between 17 and a party, earlier in the day, 19 can swear to having seen him coming out of her bedroom in the hotel about ten o'clock in the evening. With a little care in the giving of the evidence that will be enough, especially as 17 has left Paris--no doubt with the party in question. In fact, they both slipped off, and we haven't got on to them again, yet; but we shall--we shall. She's worked hard under very difficult circumstances, and I'm glad she's brought it off at last." Mr. Polteed took out a cigarette, tapped its end against the table, looked at Soames, and put it back. The expression on his client's face was not encouraging.
"Who is this new person?" said Soames abruptly.
"That we don't know. She'll swear to the fact, and she's got his appearance pat."
Mr. Polteed took out a letter, and began reading:
"'Middle-aged, medium height, blue dittoes in afternoon, evening dress at night, pale, dark hair, small dark moustache, flat cheeks, good chin, grey eyes, small feet, guilty look....'"
Soames rose and went to the window. He stood there in sardonic fury. Congenital idiot--spidery congenital idiot! Seven months at fifteen pounds a week--to be tracked down as his own wife's lover! Guilty look! He threw the window open.
"It's hot," he said, and came back to his seat.
Crossing his knees, he bent a supercilious glance on Mr. Polteed.
"I doubt if that's quite good enough," he said, drawling the words, "with no name or address. I think you may let that lady have a rest, and take up our friend 47 at this end." Whether Polteed had spotted him he could not tell; but he had a mental vision of him in the midst of his cronies dissolved in inextinguishable laughter. 'Guilty look!' Damnation!
Mr. Polteed said in a tone of urgency, almost of pathos: "I assure you we have put it through sometimes on less than that. It's Paris, you know. Attractive woman living alone. Why not risk it, sir? We might screw it up a peg."
Soames had sudden insight. The fellow's professional zeal was stirred: 'Greatest triumph of my career; got a man his divorce through a visit to his own wife's bedroom! Something to talk of there, when I retire!' And for one wild moment he thought: 'Why not?' After all, hundreds of men of medium height had small feet and a guilty look!
"I'm not authorised to take any risk!" he said shortly.
Mr. Polteed looked up.
"Pity," he said, "quite a pity! That other affair seemed very costive."
"Never mind that. Please watch 47, and take care not to find a mare's nest. Good-morning!"
Mr. Polteed's eye glinted at the words 'mare's nest!'
"Very good. You shall be kept informed."
And Soames was alone again. The spidery, dirty, ridiculous business! Laying his arms on the table, he leaned his forehead on them. Full ten minutes he rested thus, till a managing clerk roused him with the draft prospectus of a new issue of shares, very desirable, in Manifold and Topping's. That afternoon he left work early and made his way to the Restaurant Bretagne. Only Madame Lamotte was in. Would Monsieur have tea with her?
When they were seated at right angles to each other in the little room, he said abruptly
"I want a talk with you, Madame."
The quick lift of her clear brown eyes told him that she had long expected such words.
"I have to ask you something first: That young doctor--what's his name? Is there anything between him and Annette?"
Her whole personality had become, as it were, like jet--clear-cut, black, hard, shining.
"Annette is young," she said; "so is monsieur le docteur. Between young people things move quickly; but Annette is a good daughter. Ah! what a jewel of a nature!"
The least little smile twisted Soames' lips.
"Nothing definite, then?"
"But definite--no, indeed! The young man is veree nice, but--what would you? There is no money at present."
She raised her willow-patterned tea-cup; Soames did the same. Their eyes met.
"I am a married man," he said, "living apart from my wife for many years. I am seeking to divorce her."
Madame Lamotte put down her cup. Indeed! What tragic things there were! The entire absence of sentiment in her inspired a queer species of contempt in Soames.
"I am a rich man," he added, fully conscious that the remark was not in good taste. "It is useless to say more at present, but I think you understand."
Madame's eyes, so open that the whites showed above them, looked at him very straight.
"Ah! ca--mais nous avons le temps!" was all she said. "Another little cup?" Soames refused, and, taking his leave, walked westward.
He had got that off his mind; she would not let Annette commit herself with that cheerful young ass until....! But what chance of his ever being able to say: 'I'm free.' What chance? The future had lost all semblance of reality. He felt like a fly, entangled in cobweb filaments, watching the desirable freedom of the air with pitiful eyes.
He was short of exercise, and wandered on to Kensington Gardens, and down Queen's Gate towards Chelsea. Perhaps she had gone back to her flat. That at all events he could find out. For since that last and most ignominious repulse his wounded self-respect had taken refuge again in the feeling that she must have a lover. He arrived before the little Mansions at the dinner-hour. No need to enquire! A grey-haired lady was watering the flower-boxes in her window. It was evidently let. And he walked slowly past again, along the river--an evening of clear, quiet beauty, all harmony and comfort, except within his heart.
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