The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 8 - The Indiscretion Of The Marchioness


"I am perfectly certain," Juliet declared, "that we ought not to be here."

"That," Aynesworth remarked, fanning himself lightly with his pocket handkerchief, "may account for the extraordinary sense of pleasure which I am now experiencing. At the same time, I can't see why not."

"I only met you this afternoon--a few hours ago. And here we are, absolutely wedged together on these seats--and my chaperon is dozing half the time."

"Pardon me," Aynesworth objected, "I knew you when you were a child."

"For one day!"

"Nevertheless," Aynesworth persisted, "the fact remains. If you date our acquaintance from this afternoon, I do not. I have never forgotten the little girl in short frocks and long black hair, who showed me where the seagulls built, and told me Cornish fairy stories."

"It was a very long time ago," she remarked.

"Four years," he answered; "for you, perhaps, a long time, because you have changed from a child--into a woman. But for a man approaching middle age--as I am--nothing!"

"That is all very well, " she answered, "but I am not sure that we ought to be in the gallery at Covent Garden together, with a chaperon who will sleep!"

"She will wake up," he declared, "with the music."

"And I," she murmured, "will dream. Isn't it lovely?"

He smiled.

"I wonder how it really seems to you," he remarked. "We are breathing an atmosphere hot with gas, and fragrant with orange peel. We are squashed in amongst a crowd of people of a class whom I fancy that neither you nor I know much about. And I saw you last in a wilderness! We saw only the yellow sands, and the rocks, and the Atlantic. We heard only the thunder of the sea and the screaming of seagulls. This is very different."

"Wonderfully, wonderfully different," she answered. "I miss it all! Of course I do, and yet one is so much nearer to life here, the real life of men and women. Oh, one cannot compare it. Why should one try? Ah, listen!"

The curtain went up. The music of the orchestra subsided, and the music of the human voice floated through the Opera House--the human voice, vibrant with joy and passion and the knowledge which lies behind the veil. Juliet found no time to talk then, no time to think even of her companion. Her young cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright with excitement. She leaned a little forward in her place, she passed with all the effortless facility of her ingenuous youth, into the dim world of golden fancies which the story of the opera was slowly unfolding. Beside her, Mrs. Tresfarwin dozed and blinked and dozed again--and on her left Aynesworth himself, a little affected by the music, still found time to glance continually at his companion, so radiant with life and so fervently intent upon realizing to the full this, the first of its unknown joys. So with crashing of chords and thunder of melody the act went on. And when it was over, Juliet thought no more of the Cornish sea and the lullaby of the waves. A new music was stirring in her young blood.

They were in the front row of the gallery, and presently she leaned over to gaze down at the panorama below, the women in the boxes and stalls, whose bare shoulders and skillfully coiffured hair flashed with jewels. Suddenly her hand fell upon Aynesworth's arm.

"Look!" she cried in some excitement, "do you see who that is in the box there--the one almost next to the stage?"

Aynesworth, too, uttered a little exclamation. The lights from beneath were falling full upon the still, cold face of the man who had just taken a vacant chair in one of the boxes.

"Wingrave!" he exclaimed, and glanced at once at his watch.

"Sir Wingrave Seton," she murmured. "Isn't it strange that I should see him here tonight?"

"He comes often," Aynesworth answered. "Music is one of his few weaknesses."

There was a movement in the box, and a woman's head and shoulders appeared from behind the curtain. Juliet gave a little gasp.

"Mr. Aynesworth," she exclaimed, "did you ever see such a beautiful woman? Do tell me who she is!"

"A very great lady in London society," Aynesworth answered. "That is Emily, Marchioness of Westchester."

Juliet's eyes never moved from her until the beautiful neck and shoulders were turned away. She leaned over towards her companion, and she did not again, for some few minutes, face the house.

"She is the loveliest woman I ever saw in my life," Juliet said with a little sigh. "Is she a great friend of Sir Wingrave Seton, Mr. Aynesworth?"

"He has no friends," Aynesworth answered. "I believe that they are very well acquainted."

"Poor Sir Wingrave!" Juliet murmured softly.

Aynesworth looked at her in some surprise.

"It is odd that you should have recognized him from up here, " he remarked thoughtfully. "He has changed so much during the last few years."

Juliet smiled, but she did not explain. She felt that she was obeying Wingrave's wishes.

"I should have recognized him anywhere," she answered simply. "I wonder what they are talking about. She seems so interested, and he looks so bored."

Aynesworth looked at his watch. It was barely ten o'clock.

"I am very glad to see him here this evening," he remarked.

"I should like so much," she said, still gazing at them earnestly, "to know that they are talking about."

. . . . . . . . . . .

"So you will not tell me," the Marchioness murmured, ceasing for a moment the graceful movements of her fan, and looking at him steadily. "You refuse me this--almost the first thing I have ever asked you?"

"It is scarcely," Wingrave objected, "a reasonable question."

"Between you and me," she murmured, "such punctiliousness is scarcely necessary--is it?"

He withstood the attack of those wonderful eyes lifted swiftly to his, and answered her gravely.

"You are Lady Ruth's friend," he remarked. "Probably, therefore, she will tell you all about it."

The Marchioness laughed softly, yet with something less than mirth.

"Friends," she exclaimed, "Lady Ruth and I? There was never a woman in this world who was less my friend--especially now!"

He asked for no explanation of her last words, but in a moment or two she vouchsafed it. She leaned a little forward, her eyes flashed softly through the semi-darkness.

"Lady Ruth is afraid," she said quietly, "that I might take you away from her."

"My dear lady," he protested, "the slight friendship between Lady Ruth and myself is not of the nature to engender such a fear."

She shrugged her beautiful shoulders. Her hands were toying with the rope of pearls which hung from her neck. She bent over them, as though examining the color of the stones.

"How long have you known Ruth?" she asked quietly.

He looked at her steadfastly. He could not be sure whether it was his fancy, or whether indeed there was some hidden meaning in her question.

"Since I came to live in England," he answered.

"Ah!"

There was a moment's silence. Then with a little wave of her hands and a brilliant smile, she figuratively dismissed the subject.

"We waste time," she remarked lightly, "and we may have callers at any moment. I will ask you no more questions save those which the conventions may permit you to answer truthfully. We can't depart from our code, can we, even for the sake of an inquisitive woman?"

"I can assure you--" he began.

"But I will have no assurances, she interrupted smilingly. "I am going to talk of other things. I am going to ask you a ridiculous question. Are you fond of music?--seriously!"

"I believe so," he answered. "Why?"

"Because," she answered, "I sometimes wonder what there is in the world that interests you! Certainly, none of the ordinary things seem to. Tonight, almost for the first time, I saw you look a little drawn out of yourself. I was wondering whether it was the music or the people. I suppose, until one gets used to it," she added, looking a little wearily around the house, "an audience like this is worth looking at."

"It certainly is not the people," he said. "Do you make as close a study of all your acquaintances?"

"Naturally not," she answered, "and I do not class you amongst my acquaintances at all. You interest me, my friend--very much indeed!"

"I am flattered," he murmured.

"You are not--I wish that you were," she answered simply. "I can understand why you have succeeded where so many others have failed. You are strong. You have nerves of steel--and very little heart. But now--what are you going to do with your life, now that wealth must even have lost its meaning to you? I should like to know that. Will you tell me?"

"What is there to do?" he asked. "Eat and drink, and juggle a little with the ball of fate."

"You are not ambitious?"

"Not in the least."

"Pleasure, for itself, does not attract you. No! I know that it does not. What are you going to do, then?"

"I have no idea," he answered. "Won't you direct me?"

"Yes, I will," she answered, "if you will pay my price."

He looked at her more intently. He himself had been attaching no particular importance to this conversation, but he was suddenly conscious that it was not so with the woman at his side. Her eyes were shining at him, soft and full and sweet; her beautiful bosom was rising and falling quickly; there had come to her something which even he was forced to recognize, that curious and voluptuous abandonment which a woman rarely permits herself, and can never assume. He was a little bewildered. His speech lost for a moment its cold precision.

"Your price?" he repeated. "I--I am stupid. I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Marry me," she whispered in his ear, "and I will take you a little further into life than you could ever go alone You don't care for me, of course--but you shall. You don't understand this world, Wingrave, or how to make the best of it. I do! Let me be your guide!"

Wingrave looked at her in grave astonishment.

"You are not by any chance--in earnest?" he asked.

"You know very well that I am," she answered swiftly. "And yet you hesitate! What is it that you are afraid of? Don't you like to give up your liberty? We need not marry unless you choose. That is only a matter of form nowadays at any rate. I have a hundred chaperons to choose from. Society expects strange things from me. It is your companionship I want. Your money is fascinating, of course. I should like to see you spend it, to spend it with both hands. Don't be afraid that we should be talked about. I am not Lady Ruth! I am Emily, Marchioness of Westchester, and I live and choose my friends as I please; will you be chief amongst them? Hush!"

For Wingrave it was providential. The loud chorus which had heralded the upraising of the curtain died away. Melba's first few notes were floating through the house. Silence was a necessity. The low passion of the music rippled from the stage, through the senses and into the hearts of many of the listeners. But Wingrave listened silent and unmoved. He was even unconscious that the woman by his side was watching him half anxiously every now and then.

The curtain descended amidst a thunder of applause. Wingrave turned slowly towards his companion. And then there came a respite--a knock at the door.

The Marchioness frowned, but Wingrave was already holding it open. Lady Ruth, followed by an immaculate young guardsman, a relative of her husband, was standing there.

"Mr. Wingrave!" she exclaimed softly, with upraised eyebrows, "why have you contrived to render yourself invisible? We thought you were alone, Emily," she continued, "and took pity on you. And all the time you had a prize."

The Marchioness looked at Lady Ruth, and Lady Ruth looked at the Marchioness. The young guardsman was a little sorry that he had come, but Lady Ruth never turned a hair.

"You must really have your eyes seen to, dear," the Marchioness remarked in a tone of tender concern. "When you can't see such an old friend as Mr. Wingrave from a few yards away, they must be very bad indeed. How are you, Captain Kendrick? Come and tell me about the polo this afternoon. Sorry I can't offer you all chairs. This is an absurd box--it was only meant for two!"

"Come into ours," Lady Ruth said; "we have chairs for six, I think."

The Marchioness shook her head.

"I wish I had a millionaire in the family," she murmured. "All the same, I hate large parties. I am old-fashioned enough to think that two is a delightful number."

Lady Ruth laid her hand upon Wingrave's arm.

"A decided hint, Mr. Wingrave," she declared. "Come and let me introduce you to my sister. Our box is only a few yards off."