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   Chapter 31 No.31

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 8832

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"It was the only way," said the lady as Lewis handed her out of the carriage. "The horses wouldn't wait, once the gates were open. What did you wish to say?"

"I-I wanted to ask you about the Leightons," stammered Lewis. "They used to live here. That is-"

"I know," said the lady. "Come up on the veranda."

That veranda made Consolation Cottage seem farther away than ever to Lewis. Its floor was tiled. Its roof was cleverly arranged to give a pergola effect. It was quite vine-covered. The vines hid the glass that made it rain-proof. In one corner rugs were placed, wicker chairs, a swinging book-rack, and a tea-table. The lady motioned to Lewis to sit down. She sat down herself and started drawing off her long gloves. She looked curiously at Lewis's face.

"You're a Leighton yourself, aren't you? Some relative to Mrs. Leighton and Natalie?"

Lewis nodded.

"A cousin in some Scotch degree to Natalie," he said; "I don't know just what." Then he turned his eyes frankly on her.

"Where are they-Mrs. Leighton and-and Natalie?"

"They are gone," said the lady. "They sold out here almost a year ago and went back to the States. I have the address somewhere. I'll get it for you." She went, but was back in a moment.

"Thanks," said Lewis. He did not look at her any more or around him. His eyes fixed vaguely on distance, as one's eyes do when the mind tells them they are not wanted.

The lady sat perfectly still and silent. The silence grew and grew until by its own weight it suddenly brought Lewis back to the present and confusion. He colored. His lips were opening in apology when the lady spoke.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

Lewis gave her a grateful look.

"I've been playing about the old place," he said, smiling. "Not alone. Natalie, Shenton, and I. We've been racing through the pineapple-patch, lying on our backs under an orange-tree, visiting the stables, and-and Manoel's little house, hiding in the bramble-patch, and peeking over the priest's wall." Lewis waved his hand at the scene that made his words so incongruous. "Sounds to you like rank nonsense, I suppose."

The lady shook her head.

"No," she said-"no, it doesn't sound like nonsense."

Then he asked her about Natalie. She told him many little things. At the end she said:

"I feel that I've told you nothing. Natalie is one of those persons that we generally call a 'queer girl' because we haven't the intelligence or the expression to define them. Our local wit said that she was a girl whom every man considered himself good enough for, but that considered herself too good for any man. That was unjust, but it sounded true because sooner or later all the eligibles lined up before Natalie-and in vain." The lady frowned. "But she wasn't selfish or hard. She used to let them hang on till they just dropped off. She was one of those women that nothing surprises. Her train was made up of the ugly and the handsome-bore, prude, wit, and libertine. She gave them all something; you could feel it. I think she got tired of giving and never taking."

"Is she so beautiful?" asked Lewis.

"Beautiful? Oh, no," said the lady, and then suddenly stopped and straightened. She laughed. "Now I look back on it all, it seems she must be beautiful, but-but I know she isn't. Now I'm talking nonsense."

"No, you 're not," said Lewis. "There are women like that." He reached out for his hat and stick.

"You're not going?" said the lady. "You'll stay to tea?"

Lewis shook his head.

"You've been very kind," he said, "but I must be going."

Without rising, she took the hand that he held out and then sat and watched his erect figure swing down the drive to the gate. Suddenly she remembered him. They had been together in school. She did not call him back. Bores are people that misjudge the values of impressions. The lady was not a bore; she was a wise woman.

By traveling overland to Rio, Lewis caught the newest and finest of the big steam-packets plying between Buenos Aires and Southampton. This old world of his had been moving apace in more ways than one. The years since, with his father, he had made this same trip were comparatively few, but during them progress had more than taken a long stride; it had crossed a line.

He dressed for dinner at eight. As he stepped into the dining-room, he paused and stared. It was like walking into some smart London restaura

nt after the theater. Gone were the long ship-boards at which for generations human beings had been lined up like cattle at a trough. In their place were scattered small tables, round and square, of a capacity varying from two to eight.

Around the tables wealth rioted. There were wealthy coffee-planters, who spent a yearly fortune on their annual trip to Paris, surrounded by their wives and such of their offspring as were old enough to escape the nursery table; planters, sheep- and cattle-men from the Argentine, some of them married, all accompanied; and women. Lewis had never before seen so many beautiful women at one time. It was the boat of the season. Over all hung an atmosphere of vintage wines.

Lewis was shown to a seat at a table for two. His vis-à-vis was a rare, lonely little man. The black studs in his shirt seemed to explain him. He was sour and morose till he found Lewis could speak French, then he bubbled over with information. It transpired that the room was alive with situations.

"This is a crowded boat, but see the lady over there?"

Lewis's eyes followed the speaker's backward nod. He saw a remarkably beautiful blonde in evening dress sitting alone at a table for four. She kept her eyes steadily on her plate.

"We call her the Duchess," continued the little man. "She belongs to De la Valla, the sugar king. He's got his daughters with him, so she had to sit at another table, and he paid four passages for her so she'd be kept alone."

Lewis nodded politely.

"Now slant your eyes over my left shoulder," continued the little man.

To Lewis's surprise, he saw another beautiful woman, a bright-eyed brunette, sitting alone at a table for four. He turned, interested, to his table companion for the explanation.

"Ah-ha!" said the little man, "you begin to wake up. That, my friend, is Mlle. Folly Delaires. She's been playing in Buenos Aires. When she saw people staring at the Duchess, she stepped up to the purser's office and laid down the cash for a table for four. At first we thought it was just vanity and a challenge, but we know her better now. She's just the devil of mischief and several other things in the flesh. We ought all to be grateful for her."

Lewis looked curiously at Mlle. Delaires. He watched to see her get up. She passed close to him. She did not have the height that his training had taught him was essential to beauty, but she had certain attributes that made one suddenly class height with other bloodless statistics. From her crown of brown hair to her tiny slippers she was alive. Vitality did not radiate from her, but it seemed to lurk, like a constant, in her whole body and in her every supple movement. Lewis did not see it, but she was of the type that forever takes and never gives.

As she passed close by him he felt an utterly new sensation, as though he were standing in a garden of narcotics, and lassitude were stealing through his limbs. When she had gone, a single memory clung to him-the memory of the wonderful texture of her skin. He had read in a child's book of physiology that our skin breathes. The affirmation had meant nothing to him beyond mechanics; now, suddenly, it meant much. He had seen, felt, this woman's skin breathe, and its breath had been like the fragrance of a flower.

For the first time in his life Lewis looked on woman with blind eyes. During almost three weeks the years that he had lived in familiar contact with women stood him in good stead. He never spoke to the bright-eyed rival to the Duchess, but he watched her from afar. Men swarmed about her. She stood them as long as they amused her, and then would suddenly shake them all off. There were days when she would let no one come near her. There was no day when any man could say he had been favored above another.

Then came an evening when Lewis had dressed unusually early and slipped up to the boat-deck to cool off before dinner. He sat down on a bench and half closed his eyes. When he opened them again he saw a woman-the woman, Folly Delaires-standing with her back to him at the rail. He had not heard or seen her come. Almost without volition he arose and stepped to the rail. He leaned on it beside her. She did not move away.

"I want to kiss you," said Lewis, and trembled as he heard his own words.

The woman did not start. She turned her face slowly toward his.

"And I want you to," she said.

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