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"Café noir? Bien, m'sieu."
The alert French waiter shot away like a stone from a catapult, leaving Coventry to lapse back into the reverie from which he had roused himself to order his coffee. He had dined rather early with a view to escaping the chattering crowd which thronged the hotel, and now he was sitting alone in a windowed corner of the salle, his eyes resting absently on the curving line of coast and sea.
Set like a round silver shield in the midst of the starry sky hung a full moon, rippling a shining highway across the deep night-blue of the Mediterranean and turning the common-place walks of the hotel garden below into silvern paths of mystery. But Eliot remained unmoved by the exquisite beauty of the scene. It hardly seemed to penetrate his consciousness. He was musing with a grim, sardonic humour on the strange chance which had brought him, after nearly three months' solitary wandering through Europe, to the identical hotel at Mentone where Tony Brabazon and his uncle happened to be staying. It seemed as though fate had deliberately mocked him--perpetrating a bitter jest at his expense. Ever since he had quitted Silverquay he had been roving from place to place, seeking forgetfulness, and had at last turned his steps toward Monte Carlo, hoping that in the keen concentration and excitement of pitting his wits against the god of chance he might temporarily drown the memories that pursued him. And then, who should he encounter on the very first night of his arrival but Tony Brabazon!
The boy had been seated at the next table to the one allotted to Coventry himself, dining in company with a haughty, irascible old gentleman whom he had introduced as his uncle, Sir Philip Brabazon. One of the most ironical touches of the whole queer jumble of events, Eliot reflected, had been the jolly, friendly way in which, the instant Tony caught sight of him, he had jumped up from the table to greet him, joyfully inquiring for all the friends he had made at Silverquay and, in particular, for Ann.
Eliot had been conscious of a curious intermingling of feeling. The very sight of Tony, bringing with it, as it did, a quickened rush of torturing remembrance, filled him with a kind of insensate fury. He wanted to strike the friendly, good-humoured smile off the boy's face. And yet, underneath the burning anger and resentment which he felt, he was fain to acknowledge the rank injustice of it. Tony had done him no deliberate wrong, and, ignorant of the fact that indirectly his was the agency which had brought Eliot's happiness crashing to the ground, his open-hearted attitude of friendliness was the most natural thing in the world. Moreover, Eliot admitted to himself that had things been otherwise he would have felt quite disposed to reciprocate Tony's evident good-fellowship. The boy had a distinct charm of his own, and he had liked what little he had seen of him at Silverquay. But, circumstances being as they were, he opposed a quiet indifference to Tony's friendly overtures, although with characteristic obstinacy he declined to be driven out of Mentone by the fact of the other man's presence there.
Sometimes the Brabazons had visitors--Lady Doreen, Neville and her mother, and on these occasions Eliot derived a certain misanthropic amusement out of watching the incipient love affair which was obviously budding between the two young people--a development which, he could see, was clearly a source of satisfaction to at least one of their respective elderly relatives. Doreen's mother was all smiles. She had other daughters coming on.
That Tony and Doreen Neville were rapidly drifting towards the condition known as being in love was unmistakable, and Eliot envied the pliant facility of youth which can put the past behind and embark so soon upon a new adventure. Surely a man who had once believed himself in love with Ann--Ann, with her warm vitality and pluck and humour--could never be satisfied with the frail beauty and helpless, clinging sweetness which was all that Lady Doreen had to offer! Ann was not an easy person to forget, as Eliot knew to his own most bitter cost. Yet Brabazon seemed able to forget. God! If only the faculty of forgetting were purchasable!...
* * * * * * *
The waiter sped swiftly forward and deposited Eliot's coffee on the table by his side, rousing him out of his bitter reflections with a jolt.
"You've been an unconscionable time!" he flung at the man irritably, and then smiled wryly at his own irritability. His nerve must be going! A French newspaper lay on the table at his elbow. Drawing it towards him he deliberately immersed himself in its pages to the exclusion of the thoughts which were torturing him.
It was thus that Tony found him an hour later when he strolled into the salle, looking somewhat at a loose end and rather sorry for himself.
"Going to the tables to-night?" he asked, pausing irresolutely at Eliot's side.
Eliot glanced up.
"No. Are you? You do most nights, don't you?" He recollected having seen Tony's flushed, eager face opposite him at one or other of the tables on a good many occasions.
"No. Feel off it to-night. Besides"--with a frown--"I've dropped an awful lot of money at it lately. May I sit down?" he added, laying his hand on the back of a chair.
Coventry put down his newspaper. It was obvious the boy wanted to talk, to unburden himself of something. Better let him get it over and have done with it, he reflected. A word of encouragement and the whole story came out. Tony, it appeared, was feeling hipped. The Nevilles were leaving Mentone, a new doctor who had been consulted having advised a more bracing climate for Lady Doreen, and simultaneously Sir Philip had announced his decision to return to London--a combination of events which had succeeded in reducing Tony to unplumbed depths of despondency.
"It's rather a break-up, you see," he explained, "after nearly three months here together. We made a topping foursome"--ingenuously. "And now it's all over, I feel rather like a kid going back to school after the holidays."
Eliot found himself sympathising against his will. It was as difficult to maintain an inimical attitude towards Tony as to resist the spontaneous advances of a confiding puppy.
"Couldn't you persuade your uncle that a more bracing climate might suit him, too?" suggested Eliot, with a faint smile.
Tony flashed him a quick glance from under his long lashes--half laughing, half deprecating.
"That's just it," he admitted frankly. "I can't budge him. Doreen and I are--well, half engaged, you know--"
"Half-engaged?" asked Eliot, lifting his brows.
Tony nodded, suddenly moody.
"Yes. Depending on her health and my good conduct"--rather bitterly. "So they're swishing her off to the Swiss mountains for the one and my uncle is removing me from the temptations of Monte Carlo for the other."
"What part of Switzerland are the Nevilles going to?" inquired Eliot, more for the sake of saying something than because the subject held the remotest interest for him. "Davos?"
"No. Somewhere up above Montricheux."
"Montricheux?" The word left Eliot's lips involuntarily.
"Yes. You know it, don't you?"
"I've been there"--briefly.
"I had the adventure of my life there," volunteered Tony. "I've never forgotten it, by Jove! Up at a place called the Dents de Loup."
Had he been looking he would have seen a sudden smouldering fire wake in the keen grey eyes of the man beside him. But he was occupied in lighting a cigarette at the moment, and, failing to observe the change in Eliot's expression, he pursued reminiscently:
"Yes. I was up there with a girl I'd known ever since I was a kid--we'd almost been brought up together. And the first thing I did was to go and skid down the side of a ravine." He puffed futilely at his cigarette. "Blow! It's gone out."
He paused to relight it, while Eliot sat rigidly still, waiting in tense silence for the rest of the story. It all came out quite naturally and with a blissful unconsciousness on Tony's part that the tale could have any particular significance for the man beside him.
"She was the pluckiest girl I know," he wound up loyally. "Took it like a real sport and never blamed me in the least. Most women would have clamoured for my blood."
"Yes. I think they would." Eliot replied quite mechanically. He was hardly conscious that he had made any answer, and when, soon afterwards, Tony took himself off with a friendly: "Well, so long. See you in the morning, perhaps?" he responded once more like an automaton.
He was aware of only one thing. His whole consciousness concentrated on it. Ann was innocent--utterly and entirely innocent! There was no longer any question in his mind. Tony's transparent simplicity and candour in recounting his adventure at the Dents de Loup and its immediate consequences was too self-evident to doubt, and although he had refrained from mentioning the name of the girl who had been his companion--the "pluckiest girl he knew"--it was equally clear that he had been narrating the mountain episode in which Ann had been concerned and for which she had paid so dearly.
Grimly, with a ruthless resolution, Eliot faced the facts. He had completely and very terribly wronged the woman he loved. His suspicions had been absolutely unjustified. With his own hand he had pulled down his happiness--his own and Ann's, too--in ruins about them.
And there could be no going back--no undoing of what had been done. A man cannot doubt a woman, as he had doubted Ann, and then, when she is proved transcendently innocent, go back and tell her that he believes in her. If he did, she would be quite justified in flinging his tardy assurances of faith back in his face and thanking him for something of very trifling value. Even if out of the limitless tenderness of her woman's heart Ann forgave him--as, God knows, women are forgiving men every day that dawns!--still their love would be robbed of something infinitely precious--tarnished by an ugly and abiding memory. What was it Ann herself had said about love? "It's faith... and trust, Eliot." He remembered her grave, steadfast eyes and groaned in spirit, realising that he himself had despoiled love of its very pith and marrow, its deepest inner significance. There was no way out--no atonement possible.
Motionless, sunk in the inferno of his own thoughts, Eliot remained where Tony had left him until one of the hotel employés, who had several times glanced uneasily in the direction of the silent Englishman occupying the seat by the window, finally plucked up courage to begin switching off the lights for the night.
"Pardon, m'sieu". he murmured deprecatingly as he passed by the still figure in the course of his tour of the room.
Eliot stared at the man with blank, incurious eyes. Then he rose slowly to his feet and walked out of the hotel--moving with a peculiar precision like one who walks in a trance. After that he lost count of time. He went down into the depths and the dark waters of a grief and agony that was nigh to madness submerged him.
When he came to himself it was to find that it was late afternoon and that he was back again in his room at the hotel. He could not have given the faintest account of how he had passed the hours which had intervened since he had walked out of the hotel into the moonlit night--whether he had eaten or drunken or where he had been. He had a vague recollection of wandering aimlessly about the streets, and then of diverging from the town into the country because he had twice encountered the same gendarme and on the second occasion the man had followed him for a few yards suspiciously. Beyond that he remembered nothing. He was only conscious of a physical fatigue so intense, so racking in every nerve and sinew and fibre of his body that for the time being it deadened even the mental torture he had been enduring. He flung himself down on his bed and slept till the noonday sun was high in the heavens, flooding his room with light.
When he resumed the normal usages of life once more and reappeared downstairs, he found that the Brabazons and Lady Doreen Neville and her mother had all gone their several ways. They were the only people with whom he had any acquaintance, and in an odd, indefinable way he missed their presence. He spent almost all his time at the Casino, working out and experimenting with different systems. He had come to no decision as to how he should order his future life, and until he had formulated some scheme he found that he could only stop the hideous treadmill of his thoughts by focussing his whole attention on the crazy gyrations of the spinning ball.
And then one day, about a month later, a letter was put into his hand, bearing the Silverquay postmark. The writing was unfamiliar, and its unfamiliarity woke in him a sudden horrible fear and dread of what the letter might contain. Had some one written to tell him--what Ann could no longer write and tell him herself? He slit the envelope and his eyes raced down the lines of the sheet it had enclosed.
"Dear Mr. Coventry," ran the letter, written in Lady Susan's characteristically big, generous hand. "Probably you'll think me an interfering old woman. I daresay I am. But try and remember that I was young once and that just now I'm looking at life for you and Ann through young eyes--and thinking what a long, weary lot of it there is still to be lived through if you each remain at opposite ends of the pole. The time will go a deal quicker if you are together--it's like dividing by two, you know.
"I hear you ran across Tony Brabazon in Mentone, and I think that by now you probably know as much about what happened up at the Dents de Loup as I or any one, and are probably cursing yourself. Don't. It's a waste of time and happiness. Come to my party instead."
Attached to this characteristic document was a card of invitation to a dance to be given at White Windows by Lady Susan Hallett on February the seventh.... And to-day was the sixth! But it could be done. By travelling all night, catching the morning boat and then the midday train to Silverquay, Eliot realised that he could reach White Windows in time.
A bell stood on a table near by--one of those shiny metal bells with a button on the top which you press down sharply to induce the thing to ring. Eliot thumped it, and continued thumping till a half-demented waiter came flying towards him in response.
"Bring me a time-table," he roared. "And bring it quick."
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