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   Chapter 16 THE LAST CARD.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 9574

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


It was nine o'clock in the evening, and darkness had fallen rather earlier than usual, owing to a black, cloudy sky that threatened rain. Jimmie Drexell had gone during the afternoon, and Jack was alone in the big studio-alone with his misery and his anguish. He had scarcely tasted food since morning, much to the distress of Alphonse. He looked a mere wreck of his former self-haggard and unshaven, with hard lines around his weary eyes. He had not changed his clothes, and they were wrinkled and untidy. Across the polished floor was a perceptible track, worn by hours of restless striding to and fro. Now, after waiting impatiently for Victor Nevill, and wondering why he did not come, Jack had tried to nerve himself to the task that he dreaded, that preyed incessantly on his mind. He knew that the sooner it was over the better. He must write to Madge and tell her the truth-deal her the terrible blow that might break her innocent, loving heart.

"It's no use-I can't do it," he said hoarsely, when he had been sitting at his desk for five minutes. "The words won't come. My brain is dry. Would it be better to try to see her, and tell her all face to face? No-anything but that!"

Thrusting pen and paper from him, he rose and went to the liquor-stand. The cut-glass bottle containing brandy dropped from his shaking hand and was shattered to fragments. The crash drowned the opening of the studio door, and as he surveyed the wreck he heard footsteps, and turned sharply around, expecting to see Nevill. Diane stood before him, in a costume that would have better suited a court presentation; the shaded gas-lamps softened the rouge and pearl-powder on her cheeks, and lent her a beauty that could never have survived the test of daylight. Her expression was one of half defiance, half mute entreaty.

The audacity of the woman staggered Jack, and for an instant he was speechless with indignation. His dull, bloodshot eyes woke to a fiery wrath.

"You!" he cried. "How dare you come here? Go at once!"

"Not until I am ready," she replied, looking at him unflinchingly. "One would think that my presence was pollution."

"It is-you know that. Did Nevill permit you to come? Have you seen him?"

"No; I kept out of his way. He is searching for me in town now, I suppose. It was you I wanted to see."

"You are dead to all shame, or you would never have come to London. I don't know what you want, and I don't care. I won't listen to you, and unless you leave, by heavens, I will call the police and have you dragged out!"

"I hardly think you will do that," said Diane. "I am going presently, if you will be a little patient. I am your wife, Jack-"

He laughed bitterly.

"You were once-you are not now. If I thought it would be any punishment to you, that disgrace could soil you, I would take advantage of the law and procure a divorce."

"I am your wife," she repeated, "but I do not intend to claim my rights. We were both to blame in the past-"

"That is false!" he cried. "You only were to blame-I have nothing to reproach myself with, except that I was a mad fool when I married you for your pretty face. You tried to pull me down to your own level-the level of the Parisian kennels. You squandered my money, tempted me to reckless extravagances, and when the shower of gold drew near its end, you ran off with some scoundrel who no doubt proved as simple a victim as myself. I trusted you, and my honor was betrayed. But you did me a greater wrong when you allowed me to believe that you were dead. By heavens, when I think of it all-"

"You forget that we drifted apart toward the last," Diane interrupted. "Was that entirely my fault? I believed that you no longer cared for me, and it made me reckless." There was a sudden ring of sincerity in her voice, and the insolent look in her eyes was replaced by a softer expression. "I did wrong," she added. "I am all that you say I am. I have sinned and suffered. But is there no pity or mercy in your heart? Remember the past-that first year when we loved each other and were happy. Wait; I have nearly finished. I am going out of your life forever-it is the only atonement I can make. But will you let me go without a sign of forgiveness?-without a soft word?"

For a moment there was silence. Diane waited with rigid face. She had forgotten the purpose that brought her to the studio-a womanly impulse, started to life by the memories of the past, had softened her heart. But Jack, blinded by passion and his great wrongs, little dreamed of the chance that he was throwing away.

"You talk of forgiveness!" he cried. "Why, I only wonder that I can keep my hands off your throat. I hate the sight of you-I curse the day I first saw your face! Do you know what you have done, by letting m

e believe that you were dead? You have probably broken the heart of one who is as good and pure as you are vile and treacherous-the woman whom I love and would have married."

Diane's features hardened, and a sudden rage flashed in her half-veiled eyes; her repentant impulse died as quickly.

"So that is your answer!" she exclaimed, harshly. "And there is another woman! You shall never marry her-never!"

"You fiend!"

The threat goaded Jack to fury, and he might have lost his self-control. But just then quick footsteps fell timely on his ear.

"Get behind that screen, or go into the next room," he muttered. "No; it won't matter-it must be Nevill."

Diane held her ground.

"I don't care who it is," she said, shrilly. "I will tell the world that I am your wife."

The next instant the door was thrown open, and a woman entered the studio and came hesitatingly forward under the glare of the gas-jets. With a rapid movement she partly tore off her long, hooded cloak, which was dripping with rain. Jack quivered as though he had been struck a blow.

"Madge!" he gasped, recognizing the lovely, agitated face.

The girl caught her breath, and looked from one to the other-from the painted and powdered woman to the man who had won her love. Her bosom heaved, and her flushed cheeks turned to the whiteness of marble.

"Jack, tell me-is it true?" she pleaded, struggling with each word. "I should not have come, but-but I received this an hour ago." She flung a crumpled letter at his feet, and he picked it up mechanically. "It said that I would find you here with your-your-" She could not utter the word. "I had to come," she added. "I could not rest. And now-who is that woman? Speak!"

No answer. Jack's lips and throat were dry, and a red mist was before his eyes.

"Is she your wife?"

"God help me, yes!" Jack cried, hoarsely. "I can explain. Believe me, Madge, I was not false-I told you only the truth. If you will listen to me for a moment-"

She shrank from him with horror, and the color surged back to her cheeks.

"Don't touch me!" she cried. "Let me go-this is no place for me! I pray heaven to forgive you, Jack!"

The look that she gave him, so full of unspeakable agony and reproach, cut him like a knife. She pressed one hand to her heart, and with the other tried to draw her cloak around her. She swayed weakly, but recovered herself in time. Jack, watching her as a man might watch the gates of paradise close upon him, had failed to hear a cab stop in the street. He suddenly saw Stephen Foster in the room.

"Is my daughter here?" he excitedly demanded.

Madge turned at the sound of her father's voice, and sank, half-fainting, into his arms. Tears came to her relief, and she shook with the violence of her sobs.

Stephen Foster looked from Diane to Jack. Madge had shown him the anonymous letter, and he needed not to ask if the charge was true.

"You blackguard!" he cried, furiously. "You dastardly scoundrel!"

"I do not deserve those words!" Jack said, hoarsely, "but I cannot resent them. From any other man, under other circumstances-"

"Coward and liar!"

With that Stephen Foster turned to the door, with Madge leaning heavily on him. They passed down the stairs, and the rattle of wheels told that they had gone. Jack was left alone with Diane.

"Are you satisfied with your devil's work?" he demanded, glaring at her with burning, bloodshot eyes.

"It was not my fault."

"Not your fault? By heavens-"

He looked at the crumpled letter he held, and saw that it was apparently written by a woman. A suspicion that as quickly became a certainty flashed into his mind.

"You sent this, and the other one as well," he exclaimed. "Don't deny it! You planned the meeting here-"

"It is false, Jack! I swear to you that I know nothing of it-"

"Perjurer!" he snarled.

His face was like a madman's as he caught her arm in a cruel grip. She cowered before him, dropping to her knees. She was pale with fear.

"Go, or I will kill you!" he cried, disregarding her protestations of innocence. "I can't trust myself! Out of my sight-let me never see you or hear of you again. I will give you money to leave London-to return to Paris. Nevill will arrange it. Do you understand?"

He lifted her to her feet and pushed her from him. She staggered against an easel on which was a completed picture in oils, and it fell with a crash. Jack trampled over it ruthlessly, driving his feet through the canvas.

"Go!" he cried.

And Diane, trembling with terror, went swiftly out into the black and rainy night.

An hour later, when Victor Nevill came to say that his search had been fruitless, he found Jack stretched full length on the couch, with his face buried in a soft cushion.

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