The Transgression of Andrew Vane/Chapter IX
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Chapter IX. The Woman in the Case
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- Chapter IX. The Woman in the Case.
In the sun-spangled stretch of shade under the acacias of the Villa Rossignol four drank coffee and talked of Andrew Vane. Mrs. Carnby had remained in Paris three weeks beyond her usual time; first, because the weather had been no more than bearably warm; and second, because the decorator who was renovating the salon of the villa had been somewhat more than bearably slow. The first of June, however, found her at Poissy, and the Villa Rossignol once more prepared to receive and discharge a continually varying stream of guests with the regularity of a self-feeding press.
There was something very admirable about the hospitality of the Villa Rossignol. In the first place, there were fourteen bedrooms; and in the second, a hostess who never made plans for her guests; and in the third, no fixed hour for first breakfast. People came by unexpected trains, and, finding every one out, ordered, as the sex might be, whiskey and cigarettes, or tea and a powder-box, and were served, and, in general, made themselves at home, till Mrs. Carnby returned from driving or canoeing. And seemingly there was always a saddle-horse at liberty in the stable, no matter how many might be riding; and a vacant corner to be found, inside or out, without regard to the number of tête-à-têtes already in progress. In a word, Mrs. Carnby knew to perfection how laisser aller and whom laisser venir — the which, all said and done, appear to be the qualities most admirable in an out-of-town hostess, by very reason, perhaps, of their being the least common.
So, at all events, thought Mrs. Carnby’s three guests as they took their coffee-cups from her and, sipping the first over-hot spoonfuls cautiously, shuffled a few topics of conversation, in an attempt to find one which invited elaboration. They were consumedly comfortable: for breakfast had been served on the stroke of one, with five members of the house-party absent. The remaining three were grateful for a punctuality which was not concerned with the greatest good of the greatest number.
“It was so wise of you not to wait breakfast, Louisa,” observed Mrs. Ratchett, and her voice resembled as much as anything the purr of a particularly well-bred kitten. “I was as hollow as a shell an hour ago. By this time I’d infallibly have caved in.”
“It’s nothing short of imbecile to wait for people who’re out in an automobile,” replied Mrs. Carnby. “Whenever any one brings a machine down here, and takes some of my guests to ride, I have all the clocks in the house regulated, and order Armand to announce breakfast and dinner on the stroke of the hour. It’s only just to the sane people who may happen to be visiting me.”
“In the present instance,” put in Radwalader, “it’s to be supposed that the others will have sense enough to get breakfast at the spot nearest available to that of the breakdown.”
“The breakdown? You take a deal for granted, Radwalader,” said Gerald Kennedy, gazing up into the shifting foliage of the acacias.
“I, too, have been en auto,” answered Radwalader, “and am familiar with the inevitable feature of a run. At this moment Andrew Vane is in his shirt-sleeves and a pitiful perspiration, violently turning a crank and talking under his breath. Or else he’s flat on his back, under the car, with only his feet sticking out. Can you believe otherwise, after the evidence of those five vacant chairs?”
“How sensible we are, we four!” smiled Mrs. Ratchett.
“Ours is the conservatism of the lilies of the field,” supplemented Radwalader. “We spin not, therefore neither do we toil.”
“I fancy Vane is regretting having left his chauffeur to breakfast in the servant’s hall,” said Kennedy.
“And I, that, if anything. Vane is the better mechanician of the two,” said Radwalader. “The boy’s aptitude is really quite astounding. He learned that machine in an hour, Pivert tells me, and now knows it better than Pivert himself. He’s only renting it by the week, you know, but old Mr. Sterling will be called upon for the purchase-price, if I’m not mistaken, before he’s a month older.”
“One might be justified in remarking,” said Mrs. Ratchett, “that Andrew Vane is — er — going it — don’t you think? — in a fashion little short of precipitous.”
“Wein—Weib — Gesang,” murmured Kennedy, with his eyes in the trees.
“I know he sings,” commented Mrs. Carnby, “but I hadn’t heard of his drinking.”
“Or of his— oh yes I had, too!” Mrs. Ratchett caught herself up abruptly, with a suspicion of a blush. “Some one told me he was fast going to the — er—”
“Cats?” suggested Kennedy amiably.
“Gerald, you’re indecent!” exclaimed Mrs. Carnby. “And remember, I won’t listen to gossip about my guests — except Madame Palffy. For the moment, Mr. Vane’s reputation is under the protection of mine.”
Radwalader leaned back in his chair, and yawned without shame.
“Vane is developing, that’s all,” he said. “It’s a thing rather to be desired than otherwise. Paris does such a deal for the raw American, in the way of opening his eyes. Vane is just beginning to ‘learn how.’ I’ve no doubt that in Boston he ate his lettuce with sugar and vinegar, and thought it effeminate to have his nails manicured. Now that he’s acquiring the art of living, pray make some allowance for the crude colouring of his exquisses. The finished picture will be a creation of marked merit, I warrant you. I’ve seen a good bit of Vane, and he can be trusted to take care of himself.”
“The question is whether he can be trusted to have other people take care of him,” said Mrs. Ratchett viciously, looking at Radwalader over the edge of her coffee-cup.
“I don’t think you dangerous, dear lady.”
“Radwalader is always so unselfish,” said Mrs. Carnby. “He escapes embarrassing situations by walking out on other people’s heads.”
“I deserved it,” laughed Mrs. Ratchett. “But I really wasn’t thinking of you, Radwalader. I heard there was a lady in the case of Mr. Vane.”
“I credit him with more originality,” said Radwalader. “No, believe me, the facts are no more than must be expected in a young man who has been tied to apron-strings for an appreciable number of years.”
“Not that old Mr. Sterling wears aprons,” observed Mrs. Carnby.
“And not that I was referring to old Mr. Sterling. I had in mind the very estimable United States of America, which wash so much dirty linen in public that it would be something more than surprising if there were not a supply of particularly starchy apron-strings continually on hand — in Boston in particular. Vane has been taught her creed, which is to make a necessity of virtue. His daily fare has been a rechauffé of worn-out fallacies. I haven’t a doubt but what he’s been instructed that an honest man is the noblest work of God, and I’ve no idea that he’s ever understood till now that vice is its own reward, or how immaterial it is whether a thing is gold or not, so long as it really glitters.”
He turned a tiny glass of fine into his coffee, and continued, stirring it thoughtfully:
“What happens when you turn your stable-bred colt out to pasture for the first time? Doesn’t he kick up his heels and snort? Assuredly. And we don’t take that as an evidence, do we, that, all in good time, he won’t run neck and neck with the best of them, and perhaps carry off the Grand Prix? I always believe in cultivating charity, if only for one comfortable quality attributed to it. Let’s be charitable in the case of Vane. He’s only kicking up his heels and snorting.”
“If you’re going to assume the mantle of charity with the view of covering the multitude of your sins —!” suggested Mrs. Carnby.
“We’ll have to send it to the tailor’s to have the tucks let out,” said Radwalader, with infinite good humour. “Exactly, dear friend. Forgive me my little sermon. You see, the physician doesn’t preach, as a rule, and I’m afraid the priest is equally unapt to practise. You must pardon me my shortcomings. I can’t very well be all things to all men — much less to one woman. And, while we are on this subject, it may interest you to know that Vane has chosen his profession: he’s going to be a novelist.”
“Do you mean that he’s going to write novels?” asked Mrs. Carnby.
Radwalader appeared to reflect.
“No,” he said presently. “I think I mean that he’s going to be a novelist. I stand open to correction,” he added, with an affected air of humility.
“By no means,” answered Mrs. Carnby. “Probably I don’t understand. It sounds to me a good deal like saying he’s going to be a German Emperor or a Pope — that’s all.”
“Nevertheless, I’m quite sure that’s what I mean. He has read me several chapters of a novel upon which he’s at work, and I must say that they display a knowledge of women which, in a man of his years, is nothing less than remarkable.”
“That’s not impossible,” put in Mrs. Carnby. “I had a letter, only yesterday, from a woman who knows him, and it appears that he’s as good as engaged to a very charming young American.”
“However,” said Radwalader mildly, “I think the knowledge of women displayed by Vane in the chapters he was so good as to read to me is hardly such as one would expect to deduce from the fact that he is as good as engaged to a very charming young American.”
“His choice of a profession must be a very recent resolution,” said Mrs. Carnby. “To be sure, until to-day, I haven’t seen him in a week.”
“An eternity in Paris,” said Kennedy. “Extraordinary people, the Americans! Not content with securing monopolies of tramways and industrial trusts over here, they appear to control a monopoly of feminine consideration as well. I confess — though only to the acacias — that I’m in the least degree weary of the subject of Mr. Andrew Vane. Radwalader, I’ll give you twenty at cannons.”
“Done!” said Radwalader, rising.
“The cigars are on the corner-table in the billiard-room,” observed Mrs. Carnby, “and the Scotch is on the dining-room buffet, with ice and soda. Don’t call the servants for a half-hour, at least: it irritates them immeasurably to have their eating confused with other people’s drinking.”
“I really don’t mean it as gossip,” said Mrs. Ratchett, as the men vanished into the house. “I’m interested in Mr. Vane. He seems more rational and cleaner-cut than the American cubs one sees over here as a rule; and if he’s only going to go the way of the rest of them — if there’s a woman in the case—”
Mrs. Carnby shrugged her shoulders. “Andrew Vane has been in Paris for ten weeks,” she said. “I think it not improbable that Paris will be in Andrew Vane for the rest of his natural life.”
“Then there is a woman in the case!” exclaimed Mrs. Ratchett.
“So you say, my dear.”
Mrs. Ratchett’s pointed slipper began to beat an impatient tattoo on the grass.
“Could anything be more ludicrous than for us two to beat about the bush in this fashion?” she broke out, after a moment. “You know perfectly what I mean, Louisa — what one always means, in short, by ‘a woman in the case’!”
“Yes, of course I know,” agreed Mrs. Carnby frankly. “The women one speaks of as being in cases are always more or less disreputable. Well, there is a woman in the case of our young friend — and a very engaging woman at that.”
“Engaging appears to be a habit with Mr. Vane’s flames,” said Mrs. Ratchett. “It’s a little hard on the one in America. And pray where did you see her? — the other, I mean.”
“Oh, here, there, and everywhere. Vane made the mistake, at first, of trying to carry on his little affair sub rosa. People are always seen when they try not to be, you know. Lately, I believe, they’ve been going about quite openly, so it has been almost impossible to keep track of them.”
“But how do you arrive at the conclusion that the lady—”
“Isn’t respectable? I’ve walked up the Opéra Comique stairway behind her, my dear, and there was no mistaking the social grade of her petticoats. They were entirely beyond a reputable woman’s means. And you’re quite right. It’s downright hard on the other one. She’s like my own daughter — Margery Palffy is.”
“Margery Palffy! Why, how very surprising! I thought you said the girl was in America.”
“No — I said ‘a charming young American.’ And it’s really not surprising at all. My letter was from Mrs. Johnny Barrister — Madame Palffy’s sister-in-law, you know. She always took charge of Margery during the summer vacations. They’ve a big house at Beverly, which I’ve never seen, and heaps of money. That’s how Mr. Vane met Margery, I suppose: he seems to have had the run of the house. Molly Barrister mentioned him casually, but quite as if the engagement were a matter of course — quite as if he had come over here on purpose to see Margery.”
“The lady with — er — the petticoats,” suggested Mrs. Ratchett, “strikes me in the light of evidence to the contrary.”
“One can never tell,” said Mrs. Carnby. “He wouldn’t be the first man to drive tandem. There’s apt to be a leader, you see — a high-stepping, showy thoroughbred, that attracts all the attention, and does none of the work: and then, an earnest, faithful little cob, as wheeler. After a time, a man gets tired of the frills and furbelows, sells the leader to break some other fellow’s neck, and settles down. Then you’ll see the earnest little wheeler as much appreciated as may be, and dragging the domestic tilbury along at a rational, bourgeois rate of speed. One can never tell, my dear.”
“All that,” observed Mrs. Ratchett dryly, “doesn’t ring true, Louisa, and — what’s worse — it isn’t even clever. You’re fond of Margery Palffy.”
“It’s froth!” exclaimed Mrs. Carnby, “the kind of froth one sticks on the top of a horrid little pudding to conceal its disgusting lack of merit. Don’t ask me what I think of men, Ethel. I couldn’t tell you, without employing certain violent expletives, and nowadays no really original woman swears!”
A distant, whirring snore, very faint at first, had grown louder as they were speaking, and now swelled into a muffled roar, as Andrew’s automobile lunged up the driveway, and stopped, sobbing, before the villa. Mrs. Carnby raised her voice, to carry across the lawn:
“Have you had breakfast?”
Andrew, turning from the automobile, waved his hand in reply.
“We broke down near the Pavillon Henri Quatre,” he called. “The others had breakfast while I was making repairs. I coffeed so late that I wasn’t hungry. I knew that I could hold over till tea-time.”
The party, five in number, came chattering toward them across the lawn. Old Mrs. Lister led the way, followed by her son and Madame Palffy, whom Mrs. Carnby always invited to Poissy for the first Sunday of the season — “to get it over with,” as she had been heard to say. Behind were Andrew and Margery. Jeremy was to bring Palffy, De Boussac, and Ratchett down by the late train, and these, with Kennedy, Radwalader, and Mrs. Ratchett, completed the house-party.
Mrs. Lister, whom Radwalader had described to Andrew as “the jail-breaker, because she never finishes a sentence,” plunged abruptly into one of her disconnected prolations, addressing herself to Mrs. Carnby:
“Of course, we are most reprehensibly late — but you see — I don’t understand about these things — Mr. Vane said — it’s so difficult to comprehend — but it was something that the gravel — or was it the dust? — at all events— and I always say that meals above all things — but then accidents are simply bound to occur — I do hope you didn’t wait — and it was delightful — my first experience — but of course we had to — there was no telling how long — though fortunately — and I’m quite fagged out, dear Mrs. Carnby — as I say to Jack — when one is young, you know — but when one gets to fifty-four — though I don’t complain — I think one should never regret — and I enjoyed the drive — or does one say ride? — it’s so difficult—”
She paused for breath, and Madame Palffy took up the tale.
“It was fas — cinating, fas — cinating,” she said, “and most exciting. I reached St. Germain quite en déshabille. Mr. Vane kindly took Margery on the front seat. Mrs. Lister and I sat behind, and Mr. Lister on the floor, with his feet on the step. It was flying.”
And she waved her fat hands, and sank ponderously into a chair.
“My most humble apologies, Mrs. Carnby,” said Andrew. “It couldn’t really be helped, and I provided my crew with sufficient nourishment to keep them alive till dinner.”
“You’re forgiven,” replied his hostess, “only don’t do it again. After all,” she added, looking Andrew wickedly in the eye, “your crime, like dear old Sir Peter Teazle’s, carried its punishment along with it.”
“Now I come to think of it,” observed young Lister vacuously, “she’s his second wife, Madame Palffy — or is she? Do you know the Flament-Gontouts, Mrs. Carnby? No? They live up in the Monceau quarter. She was an American, a Bostonian. Her maiden name was Fayne — sister of Clarence Fayne, the painter, who married Mary Clemin, the daughter of Anthony Clemin, who used to own the Parker House—”
He did not appear to be addressing any one in particular, which was fortunate, as no one had ever been known to vouchsafe him the compliment of attention. He spoke with as much variety of expression as an accountant making comparisons, and invariably, as now, upon the subject of birth, marriage, and death — a hopelessly dull young man.
“He write plays?” said Mrs. Carnby, when the purpose of his presence in Paris had been explained to her. “Never! But he may have written the thirty-sixth chapter of Genesis.”
“I’m afraid that’s quite cold,” said Mrs. Carnby, as, in compliance with a request, she handed Andrew a cup of coffee, “but it’s your own fault.”
“Never mind,” he laughed. “Coffee is one of the few things which are more or less good all the way up and down the thermometer from thirty-two to two hundred and twelve.”
Mrs. Carnby looked at him critically, as he stirred, and told herself that he came up strikingly well to many standards. His hair was neither too short nor too long, he was perfectly shaved, his stock was tied to a nicety, his clothes were on friendly terms with him, his hands were excellently well-kept — and an hour before he had been tinkering with a motor! — and his teeth were even and studiously cared for. He was an aristocrat, a patrician, from his head to his heels — and it would be a pity, thought Mrs. Carnby, to have him go the way of what Mrs. Ratchett had called “the rest of them” — the way of Tommy Clavercil, for example, whose late affaire had been so crudely mismanaged that he was no longer invited to the best tables in the Colony, or the way of Radwalader’s young acquaintance, Ernest Baxter, who ended up in the Morgue. And then there was Margery —
Mrs. Carnby’s eyes came round to her, instantly narrowed, and dropped. There are moments when the souls of us come to their twin windows, and look out, and shout our secrets to the veriest passer-by. Margery was looking at Andrew Vane — and Mrs. Carnby saw!
“Good Lord!” she thought. “Then at least half of the story’s true — and I’m afraid that’s about fifty per cent too much!”
“The list of my offences isn’t complete, as yet, Mrs. Carnby,” said Andrew. “I very stupidly left my camera at the Pavillon. I’m afraid I shall have to go back for it.”
Once more Mrs. Carnby looked at him.
“I’ll go with you,” she said suddenly. “I haven’t had a chance to see how your machine runs, as yet, and, besides, every one of these lazy people will be wanting to take a nap presently. I know them of old. I never nap myself. It’s a fattening habit.”
“Delighted to have you, I’m sure, Mrs. Carnby.”
There was the slightest trace of hesitation in Andrew’s voice, but Mrs. Carnby rose to her feet.
“I may be back to tea, and I may be back to-morrow,” she said to the others. “One never knows, en automobile.”
She was still frowning perplexedly, as Andrew steered the automobile deftly out of the gate.
“It’s turned a bit windy,” he said. “We didn’t use the dust-cloths coming over, but there’s one under the seat. What do you say — shall we have it?”
He bent forward, as she nodded, and dragged the cloth from its place beneath them. Something heavy rapped smartly on Mrs. Carnby’s foot, and she looked down with a little exclamation.
“That?” answered Andrew. “Why — er, that’s my camera.”
Mrs. Carnby leaned back in her seat, drawing the dust-cloth smoothly over her knees.
“Don’t you think,” she said deliberately, “that you had better tell me your real reason for wanting to go back to St. Germain — and wanting to go back alone?”