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   Chapter 19 A CORNER OF THE CURTAIN

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 10502

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A note was brought in to me at luncheon time, addressed in a bold yet delicate feminine hand which was already becoming familiar. It was from Adelaide Fortress, and it consisted of a single line only-

"Will you come to me this afternoon?-A.F."

I went to see her without any hesitation. She was sitting alone in her room, and something in her greeting seemed to denote that she was not altogether at her ease. Yet she was glad to see me.

"Sit down, child," she said. "I have been thinking about you all day. I am glad that you came."

"Not very cheerful thoughts, then, I am afraid," I remarked, with a certain half-unconscious sympathy in my tone. For her face was white and drawn, as though she had spent a sleepless night and an anxious morning.

"Not very," she admitted. "I have been thinking about you ever since you left me yesterday. I am sorry for you. I am sorry for all of us. It was an evil chance that brought that South American girl here."

"Was she born in South America?" I asked, with pointless curiosity.

"I do not know," she answered. "I should think so. She told me that she had spent most of her life there. A girl who dresses as she does here, and wears diamonds in the morning, must have come from some outlandish place. Her toilette is not for our benefit, however."

I looked up inquiringly. She continued, with a slight frown upon her face-

"She follows Bruce Deville about everywhere. I never saw anything so atrociously barefaced. If he were her husband she could not claim more from him. They have just gone by together now."

"What! this afternoon?" I asked.

"Not a quarter of an hour ago," she declared. "She was holding his arm, and looking up at him with her great black eyes every moment. Bah! such a woman gives one a bad taste in one's mouth."

"I wonder that Mr. Deville is not rude to her," I remarked. "He does not seem to be a man likely to be particularly amiable under the circumstances. I should not think he would be very easily annexed."

She smiled faintly.

"From his general behavior one would not put him down as a willing squire of dames," she said; "but that girl is like a dog fawning for a bone. She will not let him alone. She waits about for him. She hates to have him out of her sight."

"Perhaps-perhaps it is a good thing. It might take her mind off other things," I suggested, softly.

"That is what I too am hoping," she admitted. "That is why I believe Bruce endures her. There is one thing only of which I am afraid."

"That is--" I asked.

"That she may send for a detective on her own account. Anything rather than that! The girl alone I think we might deal with."

"Mr. Deville must use all his influence. He must persuade her not to," I declared.

She assented.

"He will try. Yet for all her folly, so far as Bruce is concerned, she is not a perfect idiot. She knows that he is my friend-and yours-and she is desperately jealous. She will suspect his advice. She will not accept his bidding blindly. She is cunning. She will agree with him, and yet she will have her own way."

"He must be very firm," I said. "There must be no detective come here. It would be the last straw. As it is, the anxiety is terrible enough."

We were silent, and we exchanged quick and furtive glances. Something in her sad face moved me almost to tears-it was strangely soft, so full of subtle and deep sympathy. Involuntarily I leaned across and held out my hands to her. She caught them in hers with a little passionate gesture. That moment brought us into a new connection. Henceforth we were on a different footing.

"My child!" she moaned. "My poor child! You have a terrible burden upon your young shoulders."

"The burden I could bear," I answered, "if only I had some knowledge of its meaning. You know, you could tell me if you would."

I crossed to her side and fell upon my knees, taking her hand in mine. She looked away into the fire and her face was as white as death.

"I cannot," she faltered, with trembling lips. "I cannot! Don't ask me!"

"Oh! but I must!" I cried, passionately. "It cannot hurt me so much to know as it does not to know. There is a secret between you and my father. You knew him as Philip Maltabar. Tell me what manner of man he was. Tell me why he has changed his name. Tell me what there was between him and--"

She had risen to her feet at my first words. She sat down again, now trembling in every limb.

"I cannot tell you any of these things," she moaned. "I am sorry I asked you to come. Go away! Please go away!"

But my mind was made up now, and the sight of her weakness only nerved me on. I stood up before her white and determined-brutally reckless as to her sufferings. I would know now, though I forced the words from between her white lips. She was a strong woman, but she had broken down-she was at my mercy.

"I will not go away," I said, doggedly. "You sent for me, and I am here. I will not go away until you have told me everything. I have a right to know, and I will know! You shall tell me!"

She threw her arms out towards me with a gesture half pathetic, half imploring. But I made no movement-my face was hard, and I had set my teeth together. Her hands fell into her lap

. I did not touch them. She looked moodily into the fire. She sat there with fixed eyes, like a woman who sees a little drama in the red coals. My heart beat fast with excitement. I knew that in the war of our wills I had conquered. She was at my mercy. I was going to hear.

"Child," she said, slowly, and her voice seemed to belong to another woman, and to come from a great distance, "I will tell you a story. Listen!"

I leaned over towards her holding my breath. Now at last, then, I was to know. Yet even in those moments of intense excitement the outline of her face, with its curious white torpor, oppressed me. A chill fear crept into my blood.

She began.

"There was a girl, well educated, well bred, and clever. She was an orphan, and early in life it became necessary for her to earn her own living. There were several things which she could do a little, but only one well. She could write. So she became a journalist.

"It was an odd life for her, but for a time she was happy. She herself was possessed of original ideas. She was brought into touch and sympathy with the modern schools of thought and manners. She was admitted into a brilliant little coterie of artists and literary men and women whose views were daringly advanced, and who prided themselves in living up to all they professed. She herself developed opinions. I will not dwell upon them; I will only tell you in what they ended. She set herself against the marriage laws. At first she was very strong and very bitter. The majority of men she hated for their cruelty to her sex. The thought of marriage disgusted her. Any ceremony in connection with it she looked upon as a farce. She had no religion in the ordinary sense of the word. She was brave and daring and confident. This was all before she knew what love was."

There was a silence, but I did not move my eyes from her face. Was she waiting for a word of encouragement from me, I wondered? If so, the silence must last forever, for I was tongue-tied. She had created an atmosphere around her, and I could scarcely breathe. Presently she went on.

"The man came in time, of course. He was young, ardent, an enthusiast, fresh from college, with his feet on the threshold of life and eager for the struggle. He had a little money, and he was hesitating as to a profession. The girl was utterly free-she was her own mistress in every sense of the word. There was no constraint upon her movements, no conventionalities to observe, no one who could exercise over her even the slightest authority. The young man proposed marriage. The girl hesitated for a long while. Old ideas do not easily die, and she saw clearly, although not clearly enough, that if she sacrificed them to these new opinions of hers she must suffer, as the pioneer of all great social changes must always suffer. Imperial dynasties and whole empires have been overthrown in a single day, but generations go to the changing of a single social law. Yet she told herself that if she were false to these tenets, which she had openly embraced and so often avowed, she must lose forever her own self-esteem. The eyes of that little band of fellow-thinkers were upon her. It was a glorious opportunity. It was only for her to lead and many others would follow. She felt herself in a sense the apostle of those new doctrines in whose truth and purity she was a professed believer. That was how it all seemed to her.

"She told the man what her decision was. To do him justice, he combated her resolve fiercely. They parted, but it was only for a while. In such a struggle victory must rest with the woman. This was no exception to the general rule. The woman triumphed.

"Their after history is not pleasant telling. The woman and the man were utterly unsuited for each other. The man was an enthusiast, almost a fanatic; the woman was cold, calculating, and matter of fact. The man suddenly determined to enter the Church. The woman was something between a pantheist and an agnostic with a fixed contempt of all creeds. The inevitable came to pass. She followed out the logical sequence of her new principles, and left the man for another."

I suppose my face expressed a certain horror. How could I help it? I shrank a little back, and my eyes sought her, doubtfully. She turned upon me with a shade of fierceness on her white face.

"Oh, you are a swift judge!" she cried. "It is the young always who are cruel! It is the young always who have no mercy!"

I was shocked at the agony which seemed to have laid hold of her. That slight instinct of repulsion of which she had been so quick to notice the external signs in my face, seemed to have cut her like a knife. I moved swiftly to her side and dropped on my knees by her. I was ashamed of myself.

"Forgive me!" I pleaded, softly. "I am very ignorant. I believe that the woman did what seemed right to her. I was wrong to judge."

She bent her head. I took her fingers softly into mine. "You were that woman," I whispered.

She looked at me and half rose from her chair, pushing me away from her.

"I was that woman," she moaned. "Your father was the man! You--"

I cried out, but she would not be interrupted.

"You," she added, wildly, "are my child-and his!"

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