Chapter 24 - The Confessional
The concierge sat at her window under the arch of the porte-cochère at 57 Boulevard Montparnasse. She sat gazing across its black shade to the sunny street. She was thinking. The last twenty-four hours had given food for thought.
The trams passed and repassed, people in carriages, people on foot - the usual crowd - not interesting.
But the open carriage suddenly drawn up at the other side of the broad pavement was interesting, very. For it contained the lady who had given the 100 francs, and had promised another fifty on the first of the month. She had never come with that fifty, and the concierge having given up all hope of seeing her again, had acted accordingly.
Lady St. Craye, pale as the laces of her sea-green cambric gown, came slowly up the cobble-paved way and halted at the window.
"Good morning, Madame," she said. "I bring you the little present."
The concierge was genuinely annoyed. Why had she not waited a little longer? Still, all was not yet lost.
"Come in, Madame," she said. "Madame has the air very fatigued."
"I have been very ill," said Lady St. Craye.
"If Madame will give herself the trouble to go round by the other door - " The concierge went round and met her visitor in the hall, and brought her into the closely furnished little room with the high wooden bed, the round table, the rack for letters, and the big lamp.
"Will Madame give herself the trouble to sit down? Would it be permitted to offer Madame something - a little glass of sugared water? No? I regret infinitely not having known that Madame was suffering. I should have acted otherwise."
"What have you done?" she asked quickly. "You haven't told anyone that I was here that night?"
"Do not believe it for an instant," said the woman reassuringly. "'No - after Madame's goodness I held myself wholly at the disposition of Madame. But when the day appointed passed itself without your visit, I said to myself: 'The little affaire has ceased to interest this lady; she is weary of it!' My grateful heart found itself free to acknowledge the kindness of others."
"Tell me exactly," said Lady St. Craye, "what you have done."
"It was but last week," the concierge went on, rearranging a stiff bouquet in exactly the manner of an embarrassed ingénue on the stage, "but only last week that I received a letter from Mademoiselle Desmond. She sent me her address."
She paused. Lady St. Craye laid the bank note on the table.
"Madame wants the address?"
"I have the address. I want to know whether you have given it to anyone else."
"No, Madame," said the concierge with simple pride, "when you have given a thing you have it not any longer."
"Well - pardon me - have you sold it?"
"For the same good reason, no, Madame."
"Take the note," said Lady St. Craye, "and tell me what you have done with the address."
"This gentleman, whom Madame did not wish to know that she had been here that night - "
"I didn't wish anyone to know!"
"Perfectly: this gentleman comes without ceasing to ask of me news of Mademoiselle Desmond. And always I have no news. But when Mademoiselle writes me: 'I am at the hotel such and such - send to me, I pray you, letters if there are any of them,' - then when Monsieur makes his eternal demand I reply: 'I have now the address of Mademoiselle, - not to give, but to send her letters. If Monsieur had the idea to cause to be expedited a little billet? I am all at the service of Monsieur.'"
"So he wrote to her. Have you sent on the letter?"
"Alas, yes!" replied the concierge with heartfelt regret. "I kept it during a week, hoping always to see Madame - but yesterday, even, I put it at the post. Otherwise.... I beg Madame to have the goodness to understand that I attach myself entirely to her interests. You may rely on me."
"It is useless," said Lady St. Craye; "the affair is ceasing to interest me."
"Do not say that. Wait only a little till you have heard. It is not only Monsieur that occupies himself with Mademoiselle. Last night arrives an aunt; also a father. They ask for Mademoiselle, are consternated when they learn of her departing. They run all Paris at the research of her. The father lodges at the Haute Loire. He is a priest it appears. Madame the aunt occupies the ancient apartment of Mademoiselle Desmond."
"An instant," said Lady St. Craye; "let me reflect."
The concierge ostentatiously went back to her flowers.
"You have not given them Miss Desmond's address?"
"Madame forgets," said the concierge, wounded virtue bristling in her voice, "that I was, for the moment, devoted to the interest of Monsieur. No. I am a loyal soul. I have told nothing. Only to despatch the letter. Behold all!"
"I will give myself the pleasure of offering you a little present next week," said Lady St. Craye; "it is only that you should say nothing - nothing - and send no more letters. And - the address?"
"Madame knows it - by what she says."
"Yes, but I want to know if the address you have is the same that I have. Hotel Chevillon, Grez sur Loing. Is it so?"
"It is exact. I thank you, Madame. Madame would do well to return chez elle and to repose herself a little. Madame is all pale."
"Is the aunt in Miss Desmond's rooms now?"
"Yes; she writes letters without end, and telegrams; and the priest-father he runs with them like a sad old black dog that has not the habit of towns."
"I shall go up and see her," said Lady St. Craye, "and I shall most likely give her the address. But do not give yourself anxiety. You will gain more by me than by any of the others. They are not rich. Me, I am, Heaven be praised."
She went out and along the courtyard. At the foot of the wide shallow stairs she paused and leaned on the dusty banisters.
"I feel as weak as any rat," she said, "but I must go through with it - I must."
She climbed the stairs, and stood outside the brown door. The nails that had held the little card "Miss E. Desmond" still stuck there, but only four corners of the card remained.
The door was not shut - it always shut unwillingly. She tapped.
"Come in," said a clear, pleasant voice. And she went in.
The room was not as she had seen it on the two occasions when it had been the battle ground where she and Betty fought for a man. Plaid travelling-rugs covered the divans. A gold-faced watch in a leather bracelet ticked on the table among scattered stationery. A lady in a short sensible dress rose from the table, and the room was scented with the smell of Hungarian cigarettes.
"I beg your pardon. I thought it was my brother-in-law. Did you call to see Miss Desmond? She is away for a short time."
"Yes," said Lady St. Craye. "I know. I wanted to see you. The concierge told me - "
"Oh, these concierges! They tell everything! It's what they were invented for, I believe. And you wanted - " She stopped, looked hard at the young woman and went on: "What you want is a good stiff brandy and soda. Here, where's the head of the pin? - I always think it such a pity bonnets went out. One could undo strings. That's it. Now, put your feet up. That's right, I'll be back in half a minute."
Lady St. Craye found herself lying at full length on Betty's divan, her feet covered with a Tussore driving-rug, her violet-wreathed hat on a table at some distance.
She closed her eyes. It was just as well. She could get back a little strength - she could try to arrange coherently what she meant to say. No: it was not unfair to the girl. She ought to be taken care of. And, besides, there was no such thing as "unfair." All was fair in - Well, she was righting for her life. All was fair when one was fighting for one's life - that was what she meant. Meantime, to lie quite still and draw long, even breaths - telling oneself at each breath: "I am quite well, I am quite strong - " seemed best.
There was a sound, a dull plop, the hiss and fizzle of a spurting syphon, then:
"Drink this: that's right. I've got you."
A strong arm round her shoulders - something buzzing and spitting in a glass under her nose.
"Drink it up, there's a good child."
She drank. A long breath.
"Now the rest." She was obedient.
"Now shut your eyes and don't bother. When you're better we'll talk."
Silence - save for the fierce scratching of a pen.
"I'm better," announced Lady St. Craye as the pen paused for the folding of the third letter.
The short skirted woman came and sat on the edge of the divan, very upright.
"Well then. You oughtn't to be out, you poor little thing."
The words brought the tears to the eyes of one weak with the self-pitying weakness of convalescence.
"I wanted - "
"Are you a friend of Betty's?"
"Yes - no - I don't know."
"A hated rival perhaps," said the elder woman cheerfully. "You didn't come to do her a good turn, anyhow, did you?"
"I - I don't know." Again this was all that would come.
"I do, though. Well, which of us is to begin? You see, child, the difficulty is that we neither of us know how much the other knows and we don't want to give ourselves away. It's so awkward to talk when it's like that."
"I think I know more than you do. I - you needn't think I want to hurt her. I should have liked her awfully, if it hadn't been - "
"If it hadn't been for the man. Yes, I see. Who was he?"
Lady St. Craye felt absolutely defenceless. Besides, what did it matter?"
"Mr. Vernon," she said.
"Ah, now we're getting to the horses! My dear child, don't look so guilty. You're not the first; you won't be the last - especially with eyes the colour his are. And so you hate Betty?"
"No, I don't. I should like to tell you all about it - all the truth."
"You can't," said Miss Desmond, "no woman can. But I'll give you credit for trying to, if you'll go straight ahead. But first of all - how long is it since you saw her?"
"Nearly a month."
"Well; she's disappeared. Her father and I got here last night. She's gone away and left no address. She was living with a Madame Gautier and - "
"Madame Gautier died last October," said Lady St. Craye - "the twenty-fifth."
"I had a letter from her brother - it got me in Bombay. But I couldn't believe it. And who has Betty been living with?"
"Look here," said Lady St. Craye. "I came to give the whole thing away, and hand her over to you. I know where she is. But now I don't want to. Her father's a brute, I know."
"Not he," said Miss Desmond; "he's only a man and a very, very silly one. I'll pledge you my word he'll never approach her, whatever she's done. It's not anything too awful for words, I'm certain. Come, tell me."
Lady St. Craye told Betty's secret at some length.
"Did she tell you this?"
"He did then?"
"Oh, men are darlings! The soul of honour - unsullied blades! My word! Do you mind if I smoke?"
She lighted a cigarette.
"I suppose I'm very dishonourable too," said Lady St. Craye.
"You? Oh no, you're only a woman! - And then?"
"Well, at last I asked her to go away, and she went."
"Well, that was decent of her, wasn't it?"
"And now you're going to tell me where she is and I'm to take her home and keep her out of his way. Is that it?"
"I don't know," said Lady St. Craye very truly, "why I came to you at all. Because it's all no good. He's written and proposed for her to her father - and if she cares - "
"Well, if she cares - and he cares - Do you really mean that you'd care to marry a man who's in love with another woman?"
"I'd marry him if he was in love with fifty other women."
"In that case," said Miss Desmond, "I should say you were the very wife for him."
"She isn't," said Lady St. Craye sitting up. "I feel like a silly school-girl talking to you like this. I think I'll go now. I'm not really so silly as I seem. I've been ill - influenza, you know - and I got so frightfully tired. And I don't think I'm so strong as I used to be. I've always thought I was strong enough to play any part I wanted to play. But - you've been very kind. I'll go - " She lay back.
"Don't be silly," said Miss Desmond briskly. "You are a school-girl compared with me, you know. I suppose you've been trying to play the rôle of the designing heroine - to part true lovers and so on, and then you found you couldn't."
"They're not true lovers," said Lady St. Craye eagerly; "that's just it. She'd never make him happy. She's too young and too innocent. And when she found out what a man like him is like, she'd break her heart. And he told me he'd be happier with me than he ever had been with her."
"Was that true, or - ?"
"Oh, yes, it was true enough, though he said it. You've met him - he told me. But you don't know him."
"I know his kind though," said Miss Desmond. "And so you love him very much indeed, and you don't care for anything else, - and you think you understand him, - and you could forgive him everything? Then you may get him yet, if you care so very much - that is, if Betty doesn't."
"She doesn't. She thinks she does, but she doesn't. If only he hadn't written to her - "
"My dear," said Miss Desmond, "I was a fool myself once, about a man with eyes his colour. You can't tell me anything that I don't know. Does he know how much you care?"
"Ah, that's a pity - still - Well, is there anything else you want to tell me?"
"I don't want to tell anyone anything. Only - when she said she'd go away, I advised her where to go - and I told her of a quiet place - and Mr. Temple's there. He's the other man who admires her."
"I see. How Machiavelian of you!" - Miss Desmond touched the younger woman's hand with brusque gentleness - "And - ?"
"And I didn't quite tell her the truth about Mr. Vernon and me," said Lady St. Craye, wallowing in the abject joys of the confessional. "And I am a beast and not fit to live. But," she added with the true penitent's instinct of self-defence, "I know it's only - oh, I don't know what - not love, with her. And it's my life."
"Yes. And what about him?"
"It's not love with him. At least it is - but she'd bore him. It's really his waking-up time. He's been playing the game just for counters all the while. Now he's learning to play with gold."
"And it'll stay learnt. I see," said Miss Desmond. "Look here, I like you. I know we shouldn't have said all we have if you weren't ill, and I weren't anxious. But I'm with you in one thing. I don't want him to marry Betty. She wouldn't understand an artist in emotion. Is this Temple straight?"
"As a yardstick."
"And as wooden? Well, that's better. I'm on your side. But - we've been talking without the veils on - tell me one thing. Are you sure you could get him if Betty were out of the way?"
"He kissed me once - since he's loved her," said Lady St. Craye, "and then I knew I could. He liked me better than he liked her - in all the other ways - before. I'm a shameless idiot; it's really only because I'm so feeble."
She rose and stood before the glass, putting on her hat.
"I do respect a woman who has the courage to speak the truth to another woman," said Miss Desmond. "I hope you'll get him - though it's not a very kind wish."
Lady St. Craye let herself go completely in a phrase whose memory stung and rankled for many a long day.
"Ah," she said, "even if he gets tired of me, I shall have got his children. You don't know what it is to want a child. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Miss Desmond. "No - of course I don't."