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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 17524

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

It was seven o'clock in the evening, ten days after Jack's second encounter with Madge Foster, and a blaze of light shone from the big studio that overlooked Ravenscourt Park. The lord and master of it was writing business letters, a task in which he was assisted by frequent cigarettes. A tray containing whisky, brandy and siphons stood on a Moorish inlaid smoking stand, and suggested correctly that a visitor was expected. At noon Jack had received a letter from Victor Nevill, of whom he had seen nothing since their meeting at Strand-on-the-Green, to say that he was coming out at eight o'clock that night to have a chat over old times. Alphonse, being no longer required, had gone to his lodgings near by.

"It will be a bit awkward if Nevill wants his dinner," Jack said to himself, in an interval of his letter writing. "I'll keep him here a couple of hours, and then take him to dine in town. He's a good fellow, and will understand. He'll find things rather different from the Paris days."

There was a touch of pardonable pride in that last thought, for few artists in London could boast of such luxuriously decorated quarters, or of such a collection of treasures as Jack's purse and good taste had enabled him to gather around him. The hard oak floor, oiled and polished by the hands of Alphonse, was sparsely strewn with Oriental rugs and a couple of tiger skins. A screen of stamped leather hid three sides of the French stove. The eye met a picturesque confusion of inlaid cabinets with innumerable drawers, oak chests and benches, easy chairs of every sort, Chippendale trays and escritoires, Spanish lanterns dangling from overhead, old tables worn hollow on top with age, countless weapons and pieces of armor, and shelves stacked with blue delf china and rows of pewter plates. A long costume case flashed its glass doors at a cosy corner draped with art muslin. On the walls, many of them presented by friends, were scores of water-colors and oil paintings, etchings and engravings, no two of them framed alike. Minor articles were scattered about in profusion, and a couple of bulging sketch-books bore witness to their owner's summer wanderings about England.

The letters finished and stamped, Jack closed his desk with a sigh of relief. The evening was chilly, and he had started a small fire of coals in the grate-he used his stove only in wintry weather. He pulled a big chair to the blaze, stretched his legs against the fender, and fell straightway into a reverie; an expression that none of his English companions had ever seen there softened his handsome face.

"I wonder what she is doing now," he thought. "I fancy I can see her sitting opposite to her father, at the dinner table, with the soft lamplight on her lovely cheeks, and that bewitching look in her eyes. I am a conceited fool to believe that she cares for me, and yet-and yet-By Jove, I would marry her in a minute. She is the most winsome girl I ever saw. It is not like the passion I had for Diane-I was a foolish, hot-headed boy then. Madge would be my good angel. In spite of myself, she has come into my life and taken a deep hold on my heart-I can't put her out again. Jack, my boy, you had better have gone on that sketching tour-better have fled to Devonian wilds before it was too late."

But was it too late now? If so, the fact did not seem to trouble Jack much, for he laughed softly as he stirred the fire. He, the impregnable and boastful one, the woman-hater, had fallen a victim when he believed himself most secure. It was unutterably sweet to him-this second passion-and he knew that it was not to be shaken off.

During the past ten days he had seen Madge frequently. Nearly every afternoon, when the fading sun glimmered through a golden haze, he had wandered down to Strand-on-the-Green, confident that the girl would not be far away, that she would welcome him shyly and blushingly, with that radiant light in her eyes which he hoped he could read aright. They had enjoyed a couple of tramps together, when time permitted-once up the towing-path toward Richmond, and again down the river to Barnes.

They were happy hours for both. Madge was unconventional, and would have resented a hint that she was doing anything in the least improper. She had left boarding school two years before, and since then she had rejoiced in her freedom, not finding life dull in the sleepy Thames-side suburb of London. As for Jack, his conscience gave him few twinges in regard to these surreptitious meetings. It would be different, he told himself, had Stephen Foster chosen to receive him as a visitor. But he had gathered, from what Madge told him, that her father was eccentric, and detested visitors-that he would permit nothing to break the monotonous and regular habits of the secluded old house. Madge admitted that one friend of his, a young man, came sometimes; but she intimated unmistakably that she did not like him. Jack was curious to know what business took Stephen Foster to town every day, but on that subject the girl never spoke.

As the young artist sat watching the fire in the grate, his fancy painted pleasing pictures. "Why should I not marry?" he mused. "Bachelor life is well enough in its way, but it can't compare with a snug house, and one's own dining-table, and a charming wife to drive away the occasional blue-devils. I have money put aside, and it won't be long till I'm making an easy twelve hundred a year. By Jove, I will-"

A noisy rap at the door interrupted Jack's train of thought, and brought him to his feet.

"Come in!" he cried, expecting to see Nevill.

But the visitor was a telegraph boy, bearing the familiar brown envelope. Jack signed for it, and tore open the message.

"Awfully seedy," Victor Nevill wired. "Sorry I can't get out to-night. Am going to bed."

"No answer," said Jack, dismissing the boy. With his hands in his pockets he strolled undecidedly about the studio for a couple of minutes. "I hope nothing serious is the matter with Nevill," he reflected. "He's not the sort of a chap to go to bed unless he feels pretty bad. What shall I do now? I must be quick about it if I want to get any dinner in town. It's past eight, and-"

There was the sound of slow footsteps out in the passage, followed by the nervous jingling of the electric bell.

"Who can that be?" Jack muttered.

He pulled a cord that turned the gas higher in the big circlet of jets overhead, and opened the door curiously. The man who entered the studio was a complete stranger, and it was certain that he was not an Englishman, if dress and appearance could decide that fact. He was very tall and well-built, with a handsome face, so deeply tanned as to suggest a recent residence in a tropical country. His mustaches were twisted into waxed points, and there was a good deal of gray in his beard, which was parted German fashion in the middle, and carefully brushed to each side. His top hat was unmistakably French, with a flat rim, and his boots were of patent leather. As he opened his long caped cloak, the collar of which he kept turned up, it was seen that he was in evening dress.

"Do I address Monsieur Vernon, the artist?" he asked in good English, with a French accent.

"Yes, that's right."

"Formerly Monsieur John Clare?"

"I once bore that name," said Jack, with a start of surprise; he was ill-pleased to hear it after so many years.

The visitor produced a card bearing the name of M. Felix Marchand, Parc Monceaux, Paris.

"I do not recall you," said Jack. "Will you take a seat."

"We have not met until now," said M. Marchand, "but I have the honor to be familiar with your work, and to possess some of it. Pictures are to me a delight-I confess myself a humble patron of art-and a few years ago I purchased several water-color sketches signed by your name. They appealed to me especially because they were bits of Paris-one looking down the river from the bridge of the Carrousel, and the other a night impression of Montmartre."

"I remember them vaguely," said Jack. "They, with others, were sold for me by a dealer named Cambon-"

"Monsieur is right. It was from Jacques Cambon, of the Quai Voltaire, I obtained the sketches. They pleased me much, and I went again to seek more-that was eighteen months later, when I returned to Paris after a long absence. Imagine my disappointment to learn that Jacques Cambon had no further knowledge of Monsieur Clare, and no more of his sketches to sell."

"No; I had come to London by that time-or was in Italy," said Jack. "But perhaps-pardon me-you would prefer to carry on our conversation in French."

"Monsieur is thoughtful," replied M. Marchand. "He will understand that I desire, while in England, to

improve as much as possible my knowledge of the language."

"Quite so," assented Jack. "You speak it already like a native born," he added to himself.

"The years passed on," resumed the Frenchman, "but I did not forget the author of my little sketches. A few weeks ago I resolved to cross the Channel and pay a visit to London, which I last saw in 1891. I had but lately returned from a long trip to Algeria and Morocco, and I was told that the English spring was mild; in Paris I found the weather too cold for my chest complaint. So I said to myself, 'I will make endeavor to find the artist, John Clare.' But how? I had an idea. I went to the school of the great Julian, and there my inquiries met with success. 'Monsieur Clare,' one of the instructors told me, 'is now a prosperous painter of London, by the name of Vernon.' They gave me the address of a magazine in your Rue Paternoster, and at that place I was this morning informed where to find you. I trust that my visit is not an intrusion."

"Oh, not at all," said Jack. "Who at Julian's can have known so much about me?" he thought.

"I have spoken with freedom-perhaps too much," M. Marchand went on. "But I desired to explain clearly. I have come on business, monsieur, hoping that I may be privileged to purchase one or two pictures to take back with me to Paris."

"I am very sorry," said Jack, "but I fear I have nothing whatever to sell at present. I am indeed flattered by your kind interest in my work."

"Monsieur has nothing?"

Jack shook his head.

"You see I do a great deal in the way of magazine drawing," he explained. "The half-finished water-colors on the easels are orders. I expect to have a large painting in the Royal Academy shortly."

"Alas, I will not be able to see it," M. Marchand murmured. "I leave London to-morrow." All the time he was speaking he had been looking with interest about the studio, and his eyes still wandered from wall to wall. "Ah, monsieur, I have a thought," he added suddenly. "It is of the finished pictures, of your later work, that you speak. But surely you possess many sketches, and among them would be some of Paris, such as you placed with Jacques Cambon. Is it not so?"

Jack, in common with all artists, was reluctant to part with his sketches. But he was growing uncomfortably hungry, and felt disposed to make a sacrifice for the sake of getting rid of his importunate visitor.

"I will show you my collection," he answered briefly.

Lifting the drapery of a couch, he pulled out one of half a dozen fat portfolios, of huge dimensions. He untied the strings and opened it, exhibiting a number of large water-color drawings on bristol-board, most of them belonging to his student days in Paris, some made in Holland and Normandy. The sight of them, recalling his married life with Diane, awoke unpleasant memories. He moved away and lighted a cigarette.

The Frenchman began to turn the sketches over eagerly, and presently Jack saw him staring hard at an unstiffened canvas which he had found. It was the duplicate Rembrandt painted for Martin Von Whele. Jack had not been reading the papers much of late, and was ignorant of the Hollander's death.

"That is nothing of any account," he said. "It is the copy of an old master."

"Ah, I have a little taste for the antique," replied M. Marchand. "This is repulsive-it is a frightful face. Were it in my collection, monsieur, it would quite spoil my pretty bits of scenery."

He tossed the canvas carelessly aside, and finally chose a couple of water-colors, both showing picturesque nooks of Paris.

"I should like to have these," he said, "if monsieur is willing to name a price."

"Fifteen pounds for the two," Jack announced reluctantly. "Can I send them for you?" he added.

"No; I will take them with me."

Jack tied up the portfolio and replaced it under the couch, an operation that was closely watched by his visitor. Then he wrapped up the two sketches, and received three five-pound notes.

"May I offer you some refreshment?" he said, politely. "You will find brandy there-"

"I love the golden whisky of England," protested M. Marchand.

He mixed some for himself, and after drinking it he wiped his lips with a handkerchief. As he returned it to his pocket Jack saw on the white linen a brown stain that he was sure had not been there before.

M. Felix Marchand looked at his watch, shook hands with Jack, and hoped that he would have the pleasure of seeing him again. Then he bowed ceremoniously, and was gone, carrying the parcel under his arm. Jack closed the door, and retired to an inner room to change his clothing for the evening.

"I'll have a grill at the Trocadero," he told himself, "and drop in at the Alhambra for the last few numbers. A queer chap, that Frenchman! Where did he pick up such good English? He was all right, of course, but I can't help feeling a bit puzzled. Fancy his taking a craze for my studies of Paris! I remember that they gathered dust for months in old Cambon's window, until one day I missed them. It's a funny thing about that brown mark which came off on his handkerchief after he wiped his mustache. Still, I've known men to use such stuff to give them a healthy color, though this chap didn't look as if he needed it. And he said he suffered from a chest complaint."

* * *

At eight o'clock Jack was up and splashing in his bath, a custom that he hugely enjoyed, winter and summer. He had come home the night before by the last train, after dining with some friends he had picked up, and spending an hour with them at the Alhambra.

He dressed himself with unusual care and discrimination, selecting a suit of dark brown tweeds that matched his complexion, and a scarf with a good bit of red in it. Prepared for him in the studio, and presided over by Alphonse in a white apron, were rolls and coffee, eggs and bacon. The sun was shining brightly outside. The postman came while he was at breakfast, and he read his batch of letters; from some of which dropped checks. One he purposely saved for the last, and the contents-only a few lines-brought a smile to his lips. He tore the dainty sheet of note-paper into small pieces and threw them into the fire. Then he filled his cigar case with choice Regalias, pulled on his driving gloves, and perched a jaunty Alpine hat on his head.

"Alphonse, you must be here all day," he said. "Mordaunt, of the Frivolity, will send for that poster; and a messenger may come from the Piccadilly Magazine-the drawings are in a parcel on my desk. Say to any person who calls that I will not be back until evening."

"I will remember," assured Alphonse.

"By the by, Alphonse, you were living in a big house in the Parc Monceaux half a dozen years ago?"

"Monsieur is right."

"Do you remember a gentleman by the name of Marchand-M. Felix Marchand?"

"My memory may be at fault," Alphonse answered, "but I do not recall a person of that name."

"Well, no matter. He may not have resided there then, and the Parc Monceaux means a large neighborhood."

Jack banished M. Marchand from his mind with ease, as he went out into the sunshine and freshness of the spring morning; the singing of the birds, and the beauty of the trees and flowers, told him that it was a glorious thing to be alive. He waited a few moments at a nearby livery stable, while the attendants brought out a very swell-looking and newly varnished trap, and put into the shafts a horse that would have held his own in Hyde Park.

Chiswick high-road, with its constantly widening and narrowing perspectives, its jumble of old and modern houses, had never looked more cheerful as Jack drove rapidly westward. He crossed Kew Bridge, rattled on briskly, and finally entered Richmond, where he pulled up by the curb opposite to the station where centre a number of suburban railway lines.

He had not long to wait-a glance at his watch told him that. Five minutes later the rumble of an incoming train was heard, and presently a double procession of passengers came up the steps to the street. Jack had eyes for one only, a radiant vision of loveliness, as sweet and fresh and blushing as a June rose. The vision was Madge Foster, her graceful figure set off by a new spring gown from Regent street, and a sailor hat perched on her golden curls. She stepped lightly into the trap, and nestled down on the cushions.

"Oh, Jack, what will you think of me after this," she cried, half seriously.

"I think that the famed beauties of Hampton Court would turn green in their frames with envy if they could see you now," Jack answered evasively, as he flicked the horses with his whip. "Here we go for a jolly day. It will come to an end all too soon."

* * *

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