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Alone for the first moment of the evening, it seemed to Macheson that a sudden wave of confounding thoughts surged into his brain, at war from the first with all that was sensuous and brilliant in this new and swiftly developed phase of his personality. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when again he opened them it seemed indeed as though a miracle had taken place. The whole atmosphere of the room was changed. He looked around, incredulous, amazed. The men especially were different. Such good fellows as they had seemed a few moments ago—from his altered point of view Macheson regarded them now in scornful curiosity. Their ties were awry, their hair was ruffled, their faces were paled or flushed. The laughter of women rang still through the place, but the music had gone from their mirth. It seemed to him that he saw suddenly through the smiles that wreathed their lips, saw underneath the barren mockery of it all. This hideous travesty of life in its gentler moods had but one end—the cold, relentless path to oblivion. Louder and louder the laughter rang, until Macheson felt that he must close his ears. The Devil was using his whip indeed.
Mademoiselle la Danseuse, seeing him alone, paused at his table on her way through the room.
“Monsieur is triste,” she remarked, “because his friends have departed.”
Macheson shook his head.
“I am off, too, in a few minutes,” he answered.
A waiter with immovable face slipped a note into his hand, under cover of presenting the bill. Macheson read it and glanced across the room. Mademoiselle Flossie was watching him with uplifted eyebrows and expectant smile. Macheson shook his head, slightly but unmistakably. The young lady in blue shrugged her shoulders and pouted.
Mademoiselle la Danseuse was watching him curiously.
“I wonder,” she said softly, “why monsieur comes here.”
“In search of pleasure,” Macheson answered grimly.
She looked at him fixedly, and Macheson, momentarily interested, returned her gaze. Then he saw that underneath the false smile, for a moment laid aside, there was something human in her face.
“Monsieur makes a brave show, but he does not succeed,” she remarked.
“And you?” he asked. “Why do you come here?”
“It pays—very well,” she answered quietly, and left him.
Macheson settled his bill and called for the vestiaire. In the further corner of the room two women were quarrelling. The languid senses of those who still lingered in the place were stirred. The place was electrified instantly with a new excitement. A fight, perhaps—every one crowded around. Unnoticed, Macheson walked out.
Down the narrow stairs he groped his way, with the music of the orchestra, the fierce hysterical cries of the women, the mock cheering of those who crowded round, in his ears. He passed out into the blue-grey dawn. The stars were faint in the sky, and away eastwards little fleecy red clouds were strewn over the house-tops. He stood on the pavement and drew in a long breath. The morning breeze was like a draught of cold water; it was as though he had come back to life again after an interlude spent in some other world. Overhead he could still hear the music of the “Valse Amoureuse,” the swell of voices. He shivered, with the cold perhaps—or the memory of the nightmare!
The commissionaire, hat in hand, summoned a coupé, and Macheson took his place in the small open carriage. Down the cobbled street they went, the crazy vehicle swaying upon its worn rubber tyres, past other night resorts with their blaze of lights and string of waiting cabs; past women in light boots, in strange costumes, artificial in colour and shape, painted, bold-eyed, uncanny pilgrims in the City of Pleasure; past the great churches, silent and stern in the cold morning light; past weary-eyed scavengers into the heart of the city, where a thin stream of early morning toilers went on their relentless way. Once more he entered the obscurity of his dimly lit hotel, where sleepy-eyed servants were sweeping, and retired to his room, into which he let himself at last with a sigh of relief. He threw up the blinds and opened the windows. To be alone within those four walls was a blessed thing.
He threw off his coat and glanced at his watch. It was half-past five. His eyes were hot, but he had no desire for sleep. He walked restlessly up and down for a few minutes, and then threw himself into an easy-chair. Suddenly he looked up.
Some one was knocking softly at his door. He walked slowly towards it and paused. All his senses were still pulsating with a curious sense of excitement; when he stood still he could almost hear his heart beat. From outside came the soft rustling of a woman’s gown—he knew very well who it was that waited there. He stood still and waited. Again there came the knocking, to him almost like a symbolical thing in its stealthy, muffled insistence. He felt himself battling with a sudden wave of emotions, struggling with a passionate, unexpected desire to answer the summons. He took a quick step forwards. Then sanity came, and the moment seemed far away—a part of the nightmare left behind. He waited until he heard the quiet, reluctant footsteps pass away down the corridor. Then he muttered something to himself, which sounded like a prayer. He sank into a chair and passed his hand across his forehead. The recollection of that moment was horrible to him. He stared at the door with fascinated eyes. What if he had opened it!
He still had no desire for sleep, but he began slowly to undress. His clothes, his tie, everything he had been wearing, seemed to him to reek of accumulated perfumes of the night, and he flung them from him with feverish disgust. There was a small bath-room opening from his sleeping chamber, and with a desire for complete cleanliness which was not wholly physical, he filled the bath and plunged in. The touch of the cold water was inspiring and he stepped out again into a new world. Much of the horror of so short a time ago had gone, but with his new self had come an ever-increasing distaste for any resumption, in any shape or form, of his associations of the last few days. He must get away. He rummaged through his things and found a timetable. In less than an hour he was dressed, his clothes were packed, and the bill was paid. He wrote a short note to Davenant and a shorter one to Ella. Ignoring the events of the last night, he spoke of a summons home. He enclosed the receipted hotel bill, and something with which he begged her to purchase a souvenir of her visit. Then he drank some coffee, and with a somewhat stealthy air made his way to the lift, and thence to the courtyard of the hotel. Already a small victoria was laden with his luggage; the concierge, the baggage-master, the porters, were all tipped with a prodigality almost reckless. Shaven, and with a sting of the cold water still upon his skin, in homely flannel shirt and grey tweed travelling clothes, he felt like a man restored to sanity and health as his cab lumbered over the long cobbled street, on its way to the Gare du Nord. It was only a matter of a few hours, and yet how sweet and fresh the streets seemed in the early morning sunshine. The shops were all open, and the busy housewives were hard at work with their bargaining, the toilers of the city thronged the pavements, everywhere there was evidence of a real and rational life. The city of those few hours ago was surely a city of nightmares. The impassable river flowed between. Macheson leaned back in his carriage and his eyes were fixed upon the blue sunlit sky. His lips moved; a song of gratitude was in his heart. He felt like the prisoner before whom the iron gates have been rolled back, disclosing the smiling world!
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