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   Chapter 5 A SOUTH AMERICAN LETTER

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 17426

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Naturally I expected that some time that night my father would have spoken to me concerning the strange meeting at the house of the woman whom he had called Marcia. In a sense I feared what he might have to say. Already I was beginning to reckon those few hours as an epoch in my life. Never had I met any one whom in so short a time had attracted me so much. I found myself thinking of her continually, and the more I thought the more I scoffed at the idea of connecting in any way with her those things at which Lady Naselton had hinted. There seemed something almost grossly incongruous in any such idea. The more I thought of her the more resolute I became in putting all such thoughts behind me. And, apart from my judgment, which was altogether on her side, I was conscious of a vague personal attraction, almost a fascination, which had a wonderful effect on me. The manner of her life, her surroundings, that air of quiet, forcible elegance, which seemed to assert itself alike in her house, her dress, and her conversation, were a revelation to me. She was original too, obviously intellectual, a woman who held her life well within control, and lived it fearlessly and self-reliantly. I had never met any one like it before, and I longed to see more of her. My one fear was lest my father should lay some stern embargo upon my association with her. In that case I had made up my mind not to yield without a struggle. I would be quite sure that it was not a matter of merely prejudice before I consented to give up what promised to be the most delightful friendship I had ever known.

But, rather to my surprise, and a little to my relief, my father ignored our afternoon's adventure when I saw him again. He came in to dinner as usual, carefully dressed, and ate and drank with his customary fine care that everything of which he partook should be of the best of its kind. After he had left the table we saw no more of him. He went straight to his study, and I heard the door shut and the key turned-a sign that he was on no account to be disturbed; and though I sat in the drawing room until long after my usual time for retiring, and afterwards remained in my room till the small hours commenced to chime, his door remained locked. Yet in the morning he was down before us. He was standing at the window when I came into the breakfast room, and the clear morning light fell mercilessly on his white face, pallid and lined with the marks of his long vigil. It seemed to me that he greeted us both more quietly than usual.

During breakfast time I made a few remarks to him, but they passed unnoticed, or elicited only a monosyllabic reply. Alice spoke of the schools, but he seemed scarcely to hear. We all became silent. As we were on the point of rising, the unusual sound of wheels outside attracted our attention. A fly was passing slowly along the road beyond our hedge. I caught a glimpse of a woman's face inside, and half rose up.

"She is going away!" I exclaimed.

My father, too, had half risen. He made a movement as though to hurry from the room, but with an effort he restrained himself. The effect of her appearance upon him was very evident to me. His under lip was twitching, and his long, white fingers were nervously interlaced. Alice, bland and unseeing, glanced carelessly out of the window.

"It is our mysterious neighbor from the Yellow House," she remarked. "If a tithe of what people say about her is true we ought to rejoice that she is going away. It is a pity she is not leaving for good."

My father opened his lips as though about to speak. He changed his mind, however, and left the room. The burden of her defence remained with me.

"If I were you I would not take any notice of what people say about her," I remarked. "In all probability you will only hear a pack of lies. I had tea with her yesterday afternoon, and she seemed to me to be a very well-bred and distinguished woman."

Alice looked at me with wide-open eyes, and an expression almost of horror in her face.

"Do you mean to say that you have been to see her, that you have been inside her house, Kate?" she cried.

I nodded.

"I was caught in the rain and she asked me in," I explained, coolly. "Afterwards I liked her so much that I was glad to stay to tea when she asked me. She is a very charming woman."

Alice looked at me blankly.

"But, Kate, didn't Lady Naselton tell you about her? Surely you have heard what people say?"

I shrugged my shoulders slightly.

"Lady Naselton told me a good many things," I answered; "but I do not make a point of believing everything disagreeable which I hear about people. Do you think that charitable yourself?"

My sister's face hardened. She had all the prejudices of her type, in her case developed before their time. She was the vicar's daughter, in whose eyes the very breath of scandal was like a devastating wind. Her point of view, and consequently her judgment, seemed to me alike narrow and cruel.

"You forget your position," she said, with cold indignation. "There are other reports of that woman besides Lady Naselton's. Depend upon it there is no smoke without fire. It is most indiscreet of you to have had any communication with her."

"That," I declared, "is a matter of opinion."

"I believe that she is not a nice woman," Alice said, firmly.

"And I shall believe her to be a very nice one until I know the contrary," I answered. "I know her and you do not, and I can assure you that she is much more interesting than any of the women who have called upon us round here."

Alice was getting angry with me.

"You prefer an interesting woman to a good one," she said, warmly.

"Without going quite so far as that, I certainly think that it is unfortunate that most of the good women whom one meets are so uninteresting," I answered. "Goodness seems so satisfying-in the case of repletion. I mean-it doesn't seem to leave room for anything else."

Whereupon Alice left me in despair, and I found myself face to face with my father. He looked at me in stern disapproval. There was a distinctly marked frown on his forehead.

"You are too fond of those flighty sayings, Kate," he remarked, sternly. "Let me hear less of them."

I made no reply. There were times when I was almost afraid of my father, when a suppressed irritation of manner seemed like the thin veneer beneath which a volcano was trembling. To-day the signs were there. I made haste to change the subject.

"The letters have just come," I said, holding out a little packet to him. "There is one for you from a place I never heard of-somewhere in South America, I think."

He took them from me and glanced at the handwriting of the topmost one. Then for a short space of time I saw another man before me. The calm strength of his refined, thoughtful face was transformed. Like a flash the gleam of a dark passion lit up his brilliant eyes. His lips quivered, his fingers were clenched together. For a moment I thought he would have torn the letter into shreds unopened. With an evident effort, however, he restrained himself, and went out of the room bearing the letter in his hand.

I heard him walking about in his study all the morning. At luncheon time he had quite recovered his composure, but towards its close he made, for us, a somewhat startling announcement.

"I am going to London this afternoon," he said, quietly.

"To London?" we both echoed.

"Yes. There is a little business there which requires my personal attention."

Under the circumstances Alice was even more surprised than I was.

"But how about Mr. Hewitt?" she reminded him blandly. "We were to meet him at the schools at five o'clock this afternoon about the new ventilators."

"Mr. Hewitt must be put off until my return," my father answered. "The schools have done without them for ten years so they can go on for another week. Can I trouble you for the Worcestershire sauce, Kate?"

This was my father's method of closing the subject. Alice looked at me with perplexed face, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I was wondering whether my father would undertake a commission for me at Debenham and Freebody's.

"Shall you be going West?" I asked him.

He looked up at me and hesitated for a moment.

"My business is in the city," he said, coldly. "What do you call West?"

"Regent Street," I answered.

He considered a few moments.

"I may be near there," he said. "If so I will try to do what you require. Do not be disappointed if I should happen to forget about it, though. If it is important you had better send direct."

"I would rather you called if it wouldn't be bothering you," I told him. "There is some money to

pay, and it would save my getting postal orders."

I left the room to write a note. When I came back my father had gone into his study. I followed him there, and, entering the room without knocking, found him bending over his desk.

He looked up at me and frowned.

"What do you want?" he said, sharply.

I explained, and he took the note from me, listening to the details of my commission, and making a note in his pocket-book.

"I will see to this for you if I can," he said. "I will not promise, because I shall have other and more important matters to take up my attention. In the meantime, I should be glad to be left undisturbed for an hour. I have some letters to write."

I left him at once, and I heard the key turn in the door after me. At half-past three a fly arrived from the Junction, and he appeared upon the step carrying a small black bag in his hand.

"I shall be back," he said, "on Friday. Goodbye, Alice; goodbye, Kate."

We kissed him, and he got up in the carriage and drove off. Alice and I remained upon the doorstep looking at one another. We both felt that there was something mysterious about his sudden departure.

"Have you any idea what it means?" she asked me.

I shook my head.

"He has not told me anything," I said. "Didn't you say that he used to go to London often when you were at Belchester?"

Alice looked very grave.

"Yes," she said; "and that is one reason why we left the place. The people did not like it. He went away very often; and, indeed, old Colonel Dacre wrote to the Bishop about it."

"He was a meddlesome old duffer," I remarked, leaning against the door-post with my face turned towards the Yellow House.

"He was rather a busybody," Alice admitted; "but I am not surprised that he wrote to the Bishop. A good many other people used to complain about it. You were not in Belchester very long, so of course you knew nothing about it."

"And do you mean to say that you have no idea at all why he went so often? You don't know what he did there, or anything, not even where he stayed?"

"Not the shred of an idea," Alice declared. "It used to worry me a great deal, and when I came here I hoped it was all over. Now it seems as though it were all beginning again!"

"I believe," I said, "that I know what took him up to London to-day."

"Really!" Alice cried, eagerly.

I nodded.

"It was a letter."

"One that he had this morning?"

"Yes."

"How do you know?"

"Morris gave me the letters through the window," I answered. "There were only two for father. One was from Mr. Hewitt-that was about the schools you know, and the other was from somewhere in South America. It was that letter which took him to London."

She looked at me with knitted brows, and a general expression of perplexity.

"From South America! I never heard father speak of any one there."

"From South America," I repeated. "It was a large square envelope, and the writing was very fine and delicate."

"I wonder," Alice suggested, thoughtfully, "whether we have any relatives out there of whom we do not know. It may be that. Perhaps they are poor, and-"

I interrupted her.

"This letter was not from a poor person," I declared, confidently. "The notepaper, or rather the envelope, was expensive, and in very good style. I believe there was a crest on the envelope."

"Still," Alice remarked, "we cannot be certain-especially if the letter was from South America-that it was the cause of his going to London."

"I think we can," I answered. "In one corner there were three words, written very small-"London about fifteenth."

We exchanged glances.

"To-day is the fifteenth," Alice remarked.

I nodded. It was true. My sister's eyes were full of trouble.

"I wonder," she said, softly, "what will be the end of it all? Sometimes I am almost afraid."

And I, who knew more than she did, was also troubled. Already I was growing to fear my father. Always he seemed to move amongst us with an air of stern repression, as though he were indeed playing a part, wearing always a mask, and as though his real life lay somewhere else, somewhere in the past, or-worst still-somewhere in the present, far away from our quiet little village. I thought of all the stories I had read of men who had lived double lives-men with a double personality one side of whose life and actions must necessarily be a wholesale lie. The fear of something of this sort in connection with my father was gradually laying chill hold upon me. He fulfilled his small parish obligations, and carried himself through the little routine of our domestic life with a stern air of thoughtful abstraction, as though he were performing in a mechanical manner duties contemptible, trivial, and uninteresting, for some secret and hidden reason. Was there another life? My own eyes had shown me that there was another man. Twice had I seen this mask raised; first when he had come face to face with Bruce Deville, and again when he had found me talking with our curious neighbor beneath the roof of the Yellow House. Another man had leaped out then. Who was he? What was he? Did he exist solely in the past, or was there a present-worse still, a future-to be developed?

We were standing side by side at the window. Suddenly there was a diversion. Our gate was flung open. A tall figure came up the drive towards the house. Alice watched it with curiosity.

"Here is a visitor," she remarked. "We had better go away."

I recognized him, and I remained where I was. After that little scene upon the lawn only last Sunday I certainly had not expected to see Mr. Bruce Deville again within the confines of our little demesne. Yet there he was, walking swiftly up the gravel walk-tall, untidy, and with that habitual contraction of the thick eyebrows which was almost a scowl. I stepped out to meet him, leaving Alice at the window. He regarded us coldly, and raised his cap with the stiffest and most ungracious of salutes.

"Is Mr. Ffolliot in?" he asked me. "I should like to have a word with him."

I ignored his question for a moment.

"Good morning, Mr. Deville," I said, quietly.

His color rose a little. He was not so insensible as he tried to appear, but his bow was flagrantly ironical.

"Good morning, Miss Ffolliot," he answered, frigidly. "I should like a word with your father-if I could trouble you so far as to tell him that I am here."

"My father will be exceedingly sorry to have missed you," I answered, smiling upon him; "he is out just now."

His frown deepened, and he was obviously annoyed. He made ready to depart.

"Can you tell me when he will be in?" he asked. "I will call again."

"I am afraid that I cannot positively," I answered. "We expect him home on Friday, but I don't know at what time."

He turned round upon me with a sudden change on his face. His curiously colored eyes seemed to have caught fire.

"Do you mean that he has gone away?" he asked, brusquely.

"He has gone to London this afternoon," I answered. "Can I give him any message from you?"

He stood quite still, and seemed to be looking me through and through. Then he drew a small time-table from his pocket.

"Annesly Junction, 3.30; St. Pancras, 7.50," he muttered to himself. "Thank you; good morning."

He turned upon his heel, but I called him back.

"Mr. Deville."

He stopped short and looked round. "I beg your pardon," he said; "I am in a hurry."

"Oh, very well," I answered. "I should be sorry to detain you. You dropped something when you took out your time-table, and it occurred to me that you might want it again. That is all."

He came back with three great strides. A square envelope, to which I was pointing, lay on the ground almost at my feet. As he stooped to pick it up I too glanced at it for the second time. A little exclamation escaped from my lips. He looked at me inquiringly.

"Is anything the matter?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"Good morning Mr. Deville."

He hesitated for a moment. He was evidently desirous of knowing why I had uttered that exclamation. I did not choose to satisfy him.

"I thought you made some remark," he said. "What was it?"

"It was nothing," I told him. "You are in a hurry, I think you said. Don't let me keep you."

He pocketed the envelope and strode away. Alice came out of the low window to me, looking after him with wide-open eyes.

"What an extraordinary man!" she exclaimed.

But I did not answer her immediately, I had found something else to think about. There was no possibility of any mistake. The handwriting upon the envelope which Mr. Deville had dropped was the same as that which had summoned my father to London.

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