A QUESTION OF ILLUSIONS
An air of suppressed excitement prevailed over Montricheux. It was the day when the pretty lakeside town celebrated the Fête des Narcisses, and from the smallest street urchin, grabbing a bunch of narcissi in his grubby little hand and trying to induce the good-natured foreigner to purchase his wares, to the usually stolid hôteliers, vying with each other as to which of their caravanserais should blaze out into the most arresting scheme of decoration on the great occasion, the whole population was aquiver with an almost child-like sense of anticipation and delight. There was to be a procession of decorated cars and carriages, a battle of flowers, and attractions innumerable during the course of the day, followed in the evening by a Venetian fête on the waters of the bay.
Tony looked in at Villa Mon Rêve shortly after breakfast.
"Taking any part in the proceedings?" he inquired conversationally.
Ann shook her head.
"We've had the car decorated in honour of the occasion," she replied. "But we're not competing for any prize. I expect we shall just drive about the town."
"Same here. Tour round, chucking flowers at unsuspecting people. It's a bore that you and I can't play about together," moodily. "But we've got a female relative of Uncle Philip's on our hands--a wealthy old cousin, name of 'Great Expectations,'" with a cheerful grin. "So I've got to trot her round and do the devoted nephew stunt all day."
"I hope you'll do it nicely"--smiling.
"I shall hear of it from Uncle Philip if I don't!"--grimly. "But you needn't worry. I got all my best manners down from the top shelf this morning and gave 'em a brush up."
"Good boy." Ann nodded approval.
"And by way of reward," insinuated Tony, "you'll come to the dance at the Gloria this evening, won't you? I could come over and fetch you about ten o'clock, after this precious Venetian fête is over. I'd have liked to go on the lake, but Uncle Philip has ordained that we are to watch the proceedings from our balcony at the Gloria. After that, I should think 'cousin' will be sufficiently exhausted to contemplate the idea of retiring to bed like a Christian woman. She's seventy-nine."
"People fox-trot at seventy-nine nowadays," suggested Ann mischievously. "Perhaps your duties won't end at ten." Then, seeing his face fall: "But I'll come to the dance, if Lady Susan doesn't happen to want me this evening."
At that moment Lady Susan herself came into the room. She still limped a little, leaning on an ebony stick with a gold knob.
"Who's taking my name in vain?" she asked, as she shook hands with Tony. "I'm sure to want you," addressing Ann, "but I suppose I shall have to go without you if Tony wants you too."
Ann explained about the dance, adding: "But of course I shan't think of it if you'd rather I stayed at home."
"Of course you will think of it," contradicted Lady Susan with vigour. "I'd go myself if it wasn't for this wretched ankle of mine, and then"--bubbling over--"Philip and I could tread a stately measure together. I can just see him doing it!" she added wickedly.
"That's fixed, then," said Tony. "So long. I'll call for you about ten o'clock, Ann."
After lunch Lady Susan and Ann drove off in the two-seater, Ann at the wheel and a great basket of flowers for ammunition purposes on the floor of the car. The streets were thronged with people, and from almost every window depended flags and coloured streamers, flapping gaily in the breeze. Cars hastened hither and thither; some, elaborately decorated, were evidently intended to compete for the prizes offered, whilst others, like that of Lady Susan, were only sufficiently embellished to permit of their taking part in the Battle of Flowers, in accordance with the official regulations issued for the occasion.
The judging of the cars took place in the wide Place du Marché, and immediately afterwards the firing-off of a small self-important cannon signalised the commencement of the battle. Carriages and cars passed and repassed, flowers were tossed from one to the other, whilst showers of confetti and coloured paper serpentins flew through the air.
Lady Susan apparently enjoyed the fun as much as any one, and was perfectly charmed when, as the two-seater glided past Sir Philip's Rolls-Royce, he flung an exquisite spray of crimson roses into her lap, with a sprig of rosemary nestling amongst them.
"Romantic old dear!" she commented, laughing, as she retaliated with a tiny nosegay which Sir Philip caught neatly as it went sailing over his head. But her eyes were very soft as she turned to Ann. "The beauty of not being married is that you never lose your illusions. Always remember that, Ann, when you feel like commiserating the old maids of your acquaintance."
"And are you bound to lose them if you marry?" queried Ann, steering her way deftly through the traffic and bringing the two-seater to a standstill as the stream of cars temporarily checked.
"No. But you run an excellent chance of it. Do you suppose if I'd married Sir Philip thirty years ago he'd be pelting me with roses now?"--enjoyably. "Of course not. It'd be the tradesmen's books, most likely!"
"You wicked cynic!"
Lady Susan laid her hand impulsively on the girl's arm.
"Not really, Ann," she said hastily. "I know that if only a man remembers the roses, marriage may mean heaven on earth. But they so often forget"--a little wistfully. "And a woman does so hate to be taken for granted--regarded as a kind of standing dish!"
Came a regular barrage of flowers from a car to their right, and Ann, recognising a party of friends, returned them measure for measure. Meanwhile, unnoticed by her, the third-prize car had drawn alongside, intervening between herself and the car-load of friends. She had already raised her arm to speed a final rosebud on its way, and then, with a sudden shock of surprise, she recognised in one of the occupants of the prize car the Englishman with the grey eyes. He was sitting beside an extremely pretty woman and looking somewhat haughty and ill-tempered, as though the whole business of the fête bored him excessively.
She tried to check her action, but it was too late. The rosebud flew from her fingers, and the Englishman's head being directly in her line of fire, the bud, sped with hearty goodwill, hit him straight on the nose. Ann smiled--she couldn't help it. But there came no response, his expression remaining unaltered. He regarded her unsmilingly, without a hint of recognition in his eyes.
A hot flush stained her cheeks.
"Boor!" was her mental comment, and she let in the clutch viciously as the car in front of her moved forward.
Lady Susan laughed outright.
"I wonder who that handsome, sulky-looking individual is?" she said gaily. "He fairly froze you, Ann. I imagine he thinks you did it on purpose."
Ann's face burned more hotly. That was precisely the conclusion she had arrived at herself, and the idea filled her with helpless rage.
"He struck me as quite an unusual combination of good looks and bad temper," pursued Lady Susan. "Evidently he doesn't appreciate being pelted with roses."
A sudden gurgle of laughter broke from Ann.
"It was rather a hard little bud," she said vindictively. "I hope it hurt him."
Lady Susan threw a swift glance at her.
"Do you know him? Have you met him before?" she asked.
"He was down at the Kursaal the other night--the night Tony and I had such good luck. I dropped my bag and he picked it up for me. That's all."
Ann spoke rather shortly, and for some time afterwards appeared to be completely absorbed in manoeuvring the two-seater through the streets. They did not encounter the Englishman's car again, and eventually, after making a final circuit of the town, they returned to Mon Rêve.
In the evening Lady Susan complained of fatigue.
"I've not quite got over that fall of mine yet," she acknowledged ruefully, when Ann suggested that perhaps she had been out driving too long in the hot sun. "Elderly ladies should refrain from tumbling about; it shakes them up too much. I should immensely like to go to bed, if you don't mind watching the Venetian fête in solitary splendour. Do you?"
She emitted a sigh of satisfaction when Ann assured her that she did not.
"Then I shall just disappear to bed with a novel. It will entertain me far more than gazing at a lot of illuminated boats paddling about the lake."
"I think I shall take our boat out, then," said Ann. "I'd rather like to see it all at close quarters. It's all new to me, you know."
Lady Susan nodded. At different times they had spent a good many enjoyable hours together, pulling about on the lake, and she had complete confidence in Ann's ability to manage a rowing-boat.
"Very well. Only don't forget Tony is coming to take you to the dance at ten and tire yourself out."
Ann laughed and shook her head, and when Lady Susan had departed to bed she threw a knitted coat over her evening frock and made her way out into the garden. It was a long, rambling garden, sheltered from the road by a high wall and, at its farthest end, skirting the lake itself. Here a small wooden landing-stage had been erected, and moored against it lay a light rowing-boat--the Rêve. With practised hands Ann untied the painter, affixed a light to the bows of the boat, dropped the sculls into the rowlocks, and rowed quietly out across the placid water.
One by one illuminated boats came creeping round the arm of the bay, each adding a fresh cluster of twinkling lights to the bobbing multitude already gathered there. Like a cloud of fireflies they seemed to dart and circle and hover above the dusky surface of the lake. Motor-launches flashed here and there, in and out amongst the slower craft, while from one of the lake steamers, decks and rigging outlined in quivering points of light, came the inspiriting strains of a band. Snatches of song drifted across the water, and now and again the melancholy long-drawn hoot of a syren pierced the air.
Gradually Ann drew abreast of the assembled craft, and leisurely pulled her way in and out amongst them. The decorated boats delighted her, some agleam with Chinese lanterns--giant glow-worms floating on the water, others with phantom sails of frail asparagus fern lit by swaying lights like dancing will-o'-the-wisps--dream-boats gliding slowly over a dreaming lake.
Presently she rested on her oars, watching the scene with the eager, vivid interest which was characteristic of her. So absorbed was she that she failed to notice that her own small skiff was getting rather dangerously hemmed in. To her right lay a biggish sailing vessel, blocking the view on that side, behind her a small fry of miscellaneous craft, packed together like a flotilla of Thames boats on a summer's day awaiting the opening of the lock gates. Half unconsciously she heard the approaching chug-chug of an engine mingling with the sound of voices singing lustily--the hilarious chorus of a crew of roysterers who had been celebrating not wisely but too well.
... It all happened with appalling suddenness. One moment she was watching the fairy fleet that glittered on the lake, the next a hubbub of hoarse, warning shouts filled the air, the throb of an engine pulsed violently in her ears, and a motor-boat, overloaded by half-tipsy revellers and travelling too fast for safety, drove past the bows of the sailing vessel and veered drunkenly towards her. Instinctively she clutched at her oars. But they were useless, pinned to the sides of her boat by the press of others round it. Then, from almost immediately above her, it seemed, a terse voice--curiously familiar--rapped out a command.
Hardly knowing what she did, she obeyed, yielding blindly to the peremptory order. She felt her frail barque rock beneath her feet, then strong arms grasped her--strong as tempered steel--and lifted her clean up out of the lurching boat and over its side into another.
Almost before she had time to realise that she was safe, the motor-boat crashed, head on, into the empty Rêve, staving in her side so that in an instant she had filled with water, her gunwale level with the lake. Then, as though some ghoulish hand had clutched at her from the depths below, she sank suddenly out of sight.
Staring with horrified eyes at the swift and utter destruction of the Rêve, Ann shuddered uncontrollably. But for the unknown deliverer who had snatched her bodily from the doomed boat she herself would be struggling in that almost fathomless depth of water or, stunned by the savage drive of the motor-boat's prow, sinking helplessly down to the bottom like a stone.
"Don't be afraid. You're all right." Again that strangely familiar note in the reassuring voice.
Ann twisted round within the circle of the arms which held her and peered up at the face of their owner. A flickering gleam of light revealed a small white scar high up on the left cheek-bone.
"You!" she exclaimed under her breath. "Is it you?"
"Yes." She could detect a note of amusement in the voice that came to her through the dusk. "Your creed has proved false, you see. I expected nothing--and here I am with an altogether charming adventure."
"I shouldn't describe it quite like that," she answered ruefully.
"No? But then you've lost a boat, whereas I've gained a passenger. Our points of view are different."
The arms which held her had not relaxed their hold, and she stirred restlessly, suddenly acutely conscious of their embrace. Instantly she felt herself released.
"Will you be all right?" came in a cool voice.
"Oh, yes--yes." Ann stammered a little. "This is a very steady boat, isn't it?"--wonderingly.
"It's a motor-boat, that's why."
Now that the uproar occasioned by the accident had died away, she could hear the soft purring of an engine forward.
"Still, you'd better sit down," resumed the Englishman. "The Bacchanalian gentlemen in the boat which ran you down are still blundering about, and may quite probably cannon into us. And you don't want to take a second chance of being shot out into the lake."
"Indeed I don't." She sat down hastily. "I--I don't really know how to thank you," she began haltingly, after a moment. Somehow she felt curiously shy and tongue-tied with this man.
"Then don't try," he replied ungraciously.
This was hardly encouraging, but Ann returned to the charge with determination.
"I must," she said. "If it hadn't been for you I should certainly have been drowned."
"Rather improbable," he answered--as indifferently as though it really mattered very little whether she were or not. "With so many people close at hand, some one would have been sure to fish you out. You'd have got a wetting--and so would your unfortunate rescuer. That's all. Still, I'm just as glad I saw what was going to happen. I prefer to keep a dry skin myself."
"Oh! Then you would have jumped in after me?" asked Ann, with interest.
He sat down in the stern of the boat, his arm on the tiller, and regarded her contemplatively.
"I suppose so. A man has no choice when a woman chooses to go monkeying about in a boat and gets herself into difficulties."
"'Monkeying about in a boat!'" repeated Ann indignantly. "I suppose you'll say next that I rammed my own boat and sank it!"
"You certainly put yourself in the way of danger," he retorted. "Who in the name of Heaven allowed you to go out on the lake alone on a fête night like this? Isn't there any one to look after you?"
"I look after myself," she replied shortly. "I'm not a child."
"Not much more, surely. How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen?"
"Add four," said Ann, "and you'll be nearer it."
"So much?" He fell silent. There had been genuine surprise in his voice. Perhaps he was recalling her as he had seen her at the Kursaal--boyishly slender, her eager, pointed face alight with gay enthusiasm and amusement.
One, two, three--nine strokes. The sound of a clock striking came wafted faintly across from the shore. Ann started up.
"I must get back!" she exclaimed. "I'd forgotten all about the time."
A brief smile crossed the man's dark face.
"So had I," he said. And there was something in the quality of his voice which sent the colour flying up into her face.
"Why must you go back in such a hurry?" he resumed composedly. "One can watch the fête very well here."
"I'm going to a dance--at the Gloria," said Ann. "Some one--they are coming to fetch me, and if I'm not there--"
"'They' will be disappointed," he finished for her, a veiled irony in his voice. "What time do your friends expect you?"
"And it is now only nine. If you care to watch the fête a little longer, I can land you wherever you wish and you would still be in good time. I will guarantee your safety," he added with a smile.
Ann hesitated. On the one hand she was thoroughly enjoying the water-fête as viewed from the security of the Englishman's motor-boat, and the unconventionality of the circumstances added a spice of adventure to the situation. On the other, like every properly brought up young woman, she was quite aware of what would be Mrs. Grundy's pronouncement on such a matter.
"You'll stay?" said the Englishman.
It savoured more of a command than a question. Metaphorically Ann threw Mrs. Grundy overboard into the lake.
"Yes, I'll stay," she answered.
He accepted her decision without any outward sign of satisfaction, and she experienced a slight chill of disappointment. Perhaps, after all, he had only asked her to remain a little longer, not because he really desired the pleasure of her company, but merely in order that he might not be inconvenienced by the necessity of taking her back to Montricheux before he himself was ready to go. She had all the sensitiveness of youth and, once this idea had presented itself to her, she felt self-conscious and ill at ease, only anxious for the moment to arrive when she need no longer trespass on his hospitality.
And then, just as though some secret wireless had acquainted him of her discomfort, he held out his hand with a sudden smile that softened the harsh lines of his face extraordinarily.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "When you go to bed to-night you'll be able to feel you've done your 'kind deed' for to-day."
Half reluctantly, yet unable to do otherwise, Ann laid her hand in the one he held out to her. His strong fingers closed round it possessively and she was aware of a queer, breathless feeling of captivity. She drew her hand sharply away.
"Is it a 'kind deed'?" she asked lightly, for the sake of saying something--anything--which should break the tension of the silence which had followed.
"Is it not? To bestow a charming half-hour of your companionship on the loneliest person in Montricheux? Oh, I think so."
"You didn't look at all lonely this afternoon," flashed back Ann, remembering the pretty woman with whom she had seen him driving.
"At the Battle of Flowers, you mean? No." He turned the conversation adroitly. "But I only won third prize, so I'm still in need of sympathy. Taking the third prize is rather my métier in life."
"Perhaps it's all you deserve," she suggested unkindly. "Anyway, you've nothing to grumble at. We didn't win anything. We weren't elaborately enough decorated to compete."
"Yet you looked as if you were enjoying it all," he hazarded. "Did you?"
"Yes, of course I did. Didn't you?"
"Not particularly--till some one threw me a rose."
Ann decided to ignore the latter part of this speech.
"You're such a confirmed cynic that I wonder you condescended to take part in anything go frivolous as the fête," she observed.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"When in Rome--Besides, it reminded me of my young days."
"You talk as if you were a close relation of Methuselah. You're not so very old."
"Am I not?" He paused a moment. "Old enough, at any rate, to have lost all my illusions."
There was an undercurrent so bitter in the curtly uttered speech that Ann's warm young sympathies responded involuntarily.
"I wish I could bring them back for you," she said impulsively.
Through the flickering luminance of the lights rimming the boat's gunwale he looked at her with an odd intensity.
"That's just what I'm afraid of," he said. "That you might bring them back. Fortunately, I'm leaving Montricheux to-morrow."
Ann was silent. She was vibrantly conscious of the man's strange, forceful personality. His brusque, hard speeches fell on her like so many blows, and yet behind them she felt as though there were something that appealed--something hurt and seeking to hide its hurt behind an armour of savage irony.
His voice, coolly indifferent once more, broke across her thoughts.
"Would you like to go back now?"
He spoke as though he were suddenly anxious to be rid of her as quickly as possible, and she assented hastily. His abrupt changes of mood disconcerted her. There seemed no accounting for what he might say next. He tossed a curt order to a man whom she could discern crouching forward near the engine.
"Bien, m'sieu," came the answer, and presently the motor-boat was dexterously edging her way through the throng till she emerged into a clear space and purred briskly towards the shore.
Once more the Englishman's hand closed firmly round Ann's as he helped her out on to the little landing-stage.
"Good-bye," she said, a trifle nervously. "And thank you so much for coming to my rescue."
Still retaining her hand in his, he stared down at her with those queerly compelling eyes of his. She felt her breath coming and going unevenly. For a moment he hesitated, as though deliberating some point within himself. Then:
"Good-bye," he said. And his voice was utterly expressionless. It held not even cordiality.
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