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   Chapter 29 No.29

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9787

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When the uninformed chauffeur drove the car with a grand sweep under the marquise of the ostentatious pale yellow block in the Avenue Hoche where Irene Wheeler had had her flat, Mr. Ingram and a police-agent were standing on the steps, but nobody else was near. Little Mr. Ingram came forward anxiously, his eyes humid, and his face drawn with pain and distress.

" We know," said Lois. "I met Mr. Cardow at Longchamps. He knew."

Mr. Ingram's pain and distress seemed to increase.

He said, after a moment:

"Alfred will drive you home, dear, at once. Alfred, vous seriez gentil de reconduire Mademoiselle à la rue d'Athènes." He had the air of supplicating the amiable chauffeur. "Mr. Cannon, I particularly want a few words with you."

"But, father, I must come in!" said Lois. "I must--"

"You will go home immediately. Please, please do not add to my difficulties. I shall come home myself as quickly as possible. You can do nothing here. The seals have been affixed."

Lois raised her chin in silence.

Then Mr. Ingram turned to the police-agent, spoke to him in French, and pointed to the car persuasively; and the police-agent permissively nodded. The chauffeur, with an affectation of detachment worthy of the greatest days of valetry, drove off, leaving George behind. Mr. Ingram descended the steps.

"I think, perhaps, we might go to a café," said he in a tone which dispersed George's fear of a discussion as to the propriety of the unchaperoned visit to the races.

They sat down on the terrasse of a large café near the Place des Ternes, a few hundred yards away from the Avenue Hoche. The café was nearly empty, citizens being either in the Bois or on the main boulevards. Mr. Ingram sadly ordered bocks. The waiter, flapping his long apron, called out in a loud voice as he went within: " Deux blonds, deux. " George supplied cigarettes.

"Mr. Cannon," began Mr. Ingram, "it is advisable for me to tell you a most marvellous and painful story. I have only just heard it. It has overwhelmed me, but I must do my duty." He paused.

"Certainly," said George self-consciously, not knowing what to say. He nearly blushed as, in an attempt to seem at ease, he gazed negligently round at the rows of chairs and marble tables, and at the sparse traffic of the somnolent Place.

Mr. Ingram proceeded.

"When I first knew Irene Wheeler she was an art student here. So was I. But I was already married, of course, and older than she. Exactly what her age was I should not care to say. I can, however, say quite truthfully that her appearance has scarcely altered in those nineteen years. She always affirmed that her relatives, in Indianapolis, were wealthy-or at least had money, but that they were very mean with her. She lived in the simplest way. As for me, I had to give up art for something less capricious, but capricious enough in all conscience. Miss Wheeler went to America and was away for some time-a year or two. When she came back to Paris she told us that she had made peace with her people, and that her uncle, whom for present purposes I will call Mr. X, a very celebrated railway magnate of Indianapolis, had adopted her. Her new manner of life amply confirmed these statements."

" Deux bocks ," cried the waiter, slapping down on the table two saucers and two stout glass mugs filled with frothing golden liquid.

George, unaccustomed to the ritual of cafés, began at once to sip, but Mr. Ingram, aware that the true boulevardier always ignores his bock for several minutes, behaved accordingly.

"She was evidently extremely rich. I have had some experience, and I estimate that she had the handling of at least half a million francs a year. She seemed to be absolutely her own mistress. You have had an opportunity of judging her style of existence. However, her attitude towards ourselves was entirely unchanged. She remained intimate with my wife, who, I may say, is an excellent judge of character, and she was exceedingly kind to our girls, especially Lois-but Laurencine too-and as they grew up she treated them like sisters. Now, Mr. Cannon, I shall be perfectly frank with you. I shall not pretend that I was not rather useful to Miss Wheeler-I mean in the Press. She had social ambitions. And why not? One may condescend towards them, but do they not serve a purpose in the structure of society? Very rich as she was, it was easy for me to be useful to her. And at worst her pleasure in publicity was quite innocent-indeed, it was so innocent as to be charming. Na?ve, shall we call it?"

Here Mr. Ingram smiled sadly, tasted his bock, and threw away the end of a cigarette.

"Well," he resumed, "I am coming to the point. This is the point, which I have learnt scarcely an hour ago-I was called up on the telephone immediately after you and Lois had gone. This is the point. Mr. X was not poor Irene's uncle, and he had

not adopted her. But it was his money that she was spending." Mr. Ingram gazed fixedly at George.

"I see," said George calmly, rising to the r?le of man of the world. "I see." He had strange mixed sensations of pleasure, pride, and confusion. "And you've just found this out?"

"I have just found it out from Mr. X himself, whom I met for the first time to-day-in poor Irene's flat. I never assisted at such a scene. Never! It positively unnerved me. Mr. X is a man of fifty-five, fabulously wealthy, used to command, autocratic, famous in all the Stock Exchanges of the world. When I tell you that he cried like a child ... Oh! I never had such an experience. His infatuation for Irene-indescribable! Indescribable! She had made her own terms with him. He told me himself. Astounding terms, but for him it was those terms or nothing. He accepted them-had to. She was to be quite free. The most absolute discretion was to be observed. He came to Paris or London every year, and sometimes she went to America. She utterly refused to live in America."

"Why didn't she marry him?"

"He has a wife. I have no doubt in my own mind that one of his reasons for accepting her extraordinary terms was to keep in close touch with her at all costs in case his wife should die. Otherwise he might have lost her altogether. He told me many things about poor Irene's family in Indianapolis which I will not repeat. It was true that they had money, as Irene said; but as for anything else ...! The real name was not Wheeler."

"Has he been over, here long?"

"He landed at Cherbourg last night. Just arrived."

"And she killed herself at once."

"Whether the deed was done immediately before or immediately after his arrival is not yet established. And I need hardly tell you that Mr. X has already fixed up arrangements not to appear in the case at all. But one thing is sure-she had made all the preparations for suicide, made them with the greatest care. The girls saw her yesterday, and both Lois and I spoke to her on the telephone this morning. Not a trace of anything in her voice. I assume she had given a message for Lois to the chauffeur."

"Yes," said George. "We never dreamed--"

"Of course not. Of course not."

"But why did she--"

" Another man, my dear sir! Another man! A young man named Defourcambault, in the French Embassy in London."

"Oh, him!" George burst out. "I know him," he added fiercely.

"You do? Yes, I remember Laurencine saying.... Poor Irene, I fear, was very deeply in love with him. She had written to Mr. X about Defourcambault. He showed me the letter-most touching, really most touching. His answer to it was to come to Europe at once. But poor Irene's death had nothing to do with his coming. She did not know he was coming. She shot herself as she lay in bed, and on the pillow was a letter from this man Defourcambault-well, saying good-bye to her. I saw the letter. Not a letter that I should wish to remember. Perhaps she had told him something of her life. I much fear that Defourcambault will be fetched from London, though I hope not. There would be no object.... No, thank you. I will not smoke again. I only wanted to say this to you. All Paris knows that my daughters were intimate with poor Irene. Now, if anything comes out, if anything should come out, if there's any talk-you see my fear. I wish to assure you, Mr. Cannon, that I had not the slightest suspicion, not the slightest. And yet we journalists cannot exactly be called ingenuous! But I had not the slightest suspicion, nor had my wife. You know the situation between Laurencine and your friend Lucas. You and he are very intimate, I believe. May I count on you to explain everything from my point of view to Mr. Lucas? I could not bear that the least cloud should rest upon my little Laurencine."

"You needn't trouble about Lucas," said George positively. "Lucas 'll be all right. Still, I'll talk to him."

"Thank you very much. Thank you very much. I knew I could rely on you. I've kept you a long time, but I'm sure you understand. I'm thinking only of my girls. Not for anything would I have them know the truth about the affair."

"But aren't they bound to know it?" George asked.

Mr. Ingram was wounded. "I hope not. I hope not," he said gravely. "It is not right that young girls should know such things."

"But surely, sooner or later--"

"Ah! After they are married, conceivably. That would be quite different," he admitted, with cheerfulness. "And now," he smiled, "I'm afraid I've got to go and write the case up for London. I can catch the mail, I think. If not, I must cable. But they hate me to cable when the mail is possible. Can I drop you anywhere?"

Simultaneously he signalled to a taxi and knocked on the window for the attendance of the waiter.

"Thanks. If you're going anywhere near the Place de l'Opéra," said George.

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