Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 9
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XVII. REGINE.
“Don’t let that noise disturb you,” said Martin; “nobody can come in. The castle will stand a siege, if need be.”
Wilford continued his narrative.
The boy Alexis must have been eight or nine years old when he first came to Harley Street, though he was very small for his age. He had an ugly, wicked, impish face even then. He had little cunning green eyes, was lividly pale, and very thin. I know that if you ever attempted to stop him or take hold of him, he had a wily way of eluding your grasp, wriggling from under your hand with a serpentine sort of movement, for he was very lithe and supple, and seemed more as though his frame were made of sinew than of bone. There are some persons in regard to whom it seems right to follow the instincts which prompt us on the instant to mistrust and hate. It was not possible to resist this feeling on seeing this boy Alexis, young as he was. Liar, and cheat, and spy, were written on every line of his face. He was the worthy child of Dominique and Madame Pichot. I make no doubt that the story of his origin was authentic. He possessed the characteristics of both parents in a marked degree.
“The Pichots were so far true to the agreement they had made with their employer, that they sedulously kept out of his sight the boy Alexis. It was a large rambling house, and there was little difficulty about such a proceeding, especially as my uncle never entered more than three or four rooms. That he was aware of the boy’s presence in the house I fully believe. Occasionally the boy was sent out with letters or messages, and my uncle could not but have known who had been the bearer of these, though he never permitted his knowledge to be betrayed by his looks or manner. Once, too, he had been looking out of an open window at the back of the house, and had amused himself with watching certain antics performed by the boy Alexis, who was, however, entirely unconscious that his sports had a spectator. The boy had quite a clown’s cleverness in the way of walking on his hands and turning summersaults, and other tumbler tricks. He was far beyond the ordinary accomplishments of boys of his age in these respects. Some leads at the back, the roofs of certain outbuildings, formed the platform of his performance. My uncle was said to have been greatly amused; he laughed noisily after his manner, and flung out money to the lad. The Pichots, who had been in dread of a different result, congratulated themselves on the turn events had taken.
“Soon after the boy Alexis, came, as I have said, the girl called Regine Stephanie, reputed to be the child of Dominique Pichot and his wife the housekeeper. I may now state my firmbelief of what at the time I had no kind of suspicion, that Regine was not the daughter of the Pichots. My conviction is that a condition of their remaining in my uncle’s service was, their acknowledgment of this girl as born of their union, as their lawful offspring. and on this account it became necessary for them to antedate their marriage several years. In return for their doing this my uncle consented to forgive their marriage, and permitted their son Alexis to reside with them. A suspicion that has always haunted me in regard to this girl I have never been able to confirm or to confute—but I have long been of opinion that if her paternity was not to be directly attributed to my uncle, still the secret of her parentage was well known to him, and that he had some object in view in misdirecting all conjecture on the subject. She was born, it was admitted, in India; as a child had been sent to France, to be educated at a preparatory school at Dunkerque, afterwards at a finishing academy at Brussels. She was probably about eighteen on the occasion of my seeing her for the first time at the house in Harley Street. During the absence of my uncle from London, Madame Pichot had been dispatched to Brussels. She had remained there some weeks. She returned, bringing with her the girl Regine—Madlle. Pichot, as she was then called.
“It was hardly possible not to feel a certain curiosity in regard to Regine. Although I was then prepared to believe the current story that she was the child of the Pichots, I could not help remarking that there was something peculiar about the position she occupied in that strange household. VVhereas the existence of the boy Alexis was almost altogether ignored by my uncle, he seemed to take a pleasure in recognising the presence of Regine. He frequently sent for her. She was allowed to enter what rooms she pleased. She was constantly in the drawing-room. My uncle’s conduct to her was always courtly and kind. He made her many presents, especially of jewels and lace. He bought for her a superb piano: on this she would play to him when he was at home in the evening. She was an accomplished musician, though as a singer her voice was limited in compass, and without much flexibility. She had a pretty pony-carriage, in which she often drove out, though he forbade her to enter the parks; and yet with all this she had tacitly at least to recognise Dominique and his Wife as her parents. Before I had entertained any doubt as to the truth of the story of her origin, I could not but observe that she always shrank from such poor maternal endearments as Madame Pichot permitted to herself; while any advances that Dominique Pichot made to her, any attempts on his part to assume influence or authority over her, were met with a scorn that was almost savage in its intensity; notwithstanding little ever occurred in anyway to reveal what I now believe to have been the real state of the case. Indeed, I remember that when, on one of the few occasions during the latter part of his life, of my father's visiting London, and calling at the house in Harley Street during my residence there, he saw the girl Regine, and struck with her appearance, asked who she was, he seemed to be quite satisfied with the reply he received, that she was the daughter of Monsieur and Madame Pichot, the valet and housekeeper of his brother the Colonel.
“ Her manner was very silent and sullen when I first became acquaintcdwith her. She seemed predetermined to regard all around her as her enemies. VVheu addressed she sometimes made no answer— always spoke coldly and bluntly, and with averted eyes. She seemed to ask for nothing so much as to be left alone—unnoticed. She showed no desire to eonciliate—was indifferent, apparently, as to the opinion others might entertain concerning her. If any one persisted in attention to her, there was something almost dangerous in the angry look of defiance that lit up her large black eyes. Yet, in the presence of my uncle, she became quite a different creature. She was so quiet and gentle, and there was such a winning grace in her every gesture—the tones of her voice softened—her eyes lost their usual hard brilliance—quite a limpid tenderness beamed in them beneath the deep shadow of her sweeping lashes. There was awonderful charm about the limber ease of her every attitude. She was so natural and unconfined in all her movements, her frame so lithe, her hands and feet so small and beautifully formed. Who can wonder that the old man yielded to the spell of her presence ?—who could have resisted it ? Yet who could have recognised this winning Regine in the frowning Mademoiselle Pichot—reserved, repellent, silent, before her supposed parents ? In this unattractive character my uncle had never seen her.
“ She was-rather below the middle stature. Her complexion was very dark,—-almost swarthy ; she had very little colour, though now and then a sort of underflush would glow in her cheeks. Her features were small but strongly defined, her mouth rather stern, its lines were so marked and rigid, but her teeth were beautifully white and regular. Her eyebrows were almost masculine in their density and blackness; her head was small and well formed; her hair very rich and glossy, growing rather low down on her forehead, from which she wore it turned off, but in a pretty waving line, coming to a sort of peak in the centre. She was vain—fond of rich dress of rather pronounced colour, wore always heavy ear-rings and necklaces. There was a foreign look about her-almost a barbaric 1ook—when, as she was fond of doing, she had attired herself in her gayest apparel to appear in the drawing-room and play and sing for my uncle's amusement. She had a gold-coloured dress covered with Indian embroidery which my uncle had given her, and to which she had added fantastic trimming of the scarlet feathers of some tropical birds. There was a daring about this violent contrast of colour which struck me very much. Certainly she supported the magnificence superbly. I remember her well in that dress. I can see her in thought as vividly as though she were now so attired, present before me. She spoke English perfectly, but with a foreign accent, the result probably of her education and long residence abroad.
"Her demeanour, in regard to myself, was, on the one hand, without the anger and sullenness which she invariably exhibited in her intercourse with the Pichots, while, on the other, it was entirely divested of the winning charm which distinguished her manner towards the Colonel. She regarded me, as it seemed, with no stronger feeling than indifference; she was supremely careless as to what I said or did. Whether she saw me or not—whether we met or parted—she never spoke to me unless I first addressed her; was entirely heedless apparently whether she won my like or dislike--ncver courted my good opinion in any kind of way. I was no more to her than one of the articles of furniture in the house. I was less than some of them; the piano, for instance, or the couch covered with tiger skins on which she was fond of reclining. I confess I was piqued with this want of recognition of me. Each time that I came to London this feeling seemed renewed with greater force. The more indifference she displayed, the more I felt inclined to change this indifference into some stronger feeling. I felt that I could claim to establish in her breast some superior emotion. I was a mere boy at the time, remember, accustomed to have my own way in everythingpampered and spoilt—and I could not but greatly admire this beautiful Regine. I had seen her both before the Pichots and in the presence of my uncle. I knew how wonderfully witching she could be if she listed. I assured myself that she was but playing a part, when she appeared as the sullen unattractive daughter of my uncle's servants. I tortured myself with thinking hoW I could work a change in her. My admiration for her mounted into a sort of mania. Now I tried to move her by my devotion; now by repaying her coldness with an equal neglect of her. Either way, she was little affected t—her conduct did not change.
"The Pichots were not slow to perceive the state of my mind on this subject. Possibly I had not cared to make a secret of the matter. I found myself soon concerting with them means to soften Regine. Eagerly they listened to me, promising all the aid in their power on my behalf. They undertook that the views of Regine should undergo a change, and that before very long."
The noise at the door, which had once before interrupted Wildford, here occurred again. This time Martin started up.
"Hush!" he said softly, "I think there was something more than a knock that time. I think I heard the sound of a letter falling through the slit in the door."
He went out quietly into the passage.
"Yes," he said, returning, "I was right letter, and addressed to you."
He handed to Wilford a letter, of small size, and written on thin foreign paper. The writing was cramped and faint. Wilford started as he regarded it, reading the address.
"Who left this?" he asked, eagerly.
"We'll soon see," said Martin.
He hurried to the outer door of the chambers, but no one was there. He listened—there was the sound of footsteps descending the stairs. He closed the door again, and passing into a different room to that in which they had been sitting, he threw up the window. From that point of view he had command of the entrance to the block of buildings in which the chambers were situated, and could see who passed from the staircase into the roadway. Very shortly he returned to Wilford.
"It was left by a boy, I think; a boy in a French cap."
But Wilford took little heed of the information. He was occupied, apparently, with his letter. And yet this contained but a very few lines, which he had read over twice in Martin's absence. They were as follows:
"You need not pay the money, and you shall not. I say so. Only I must see you, as soon as possible. Come to me after this note has reached you, as quickly as you can. Do not fear—as to the money, or on any other account. You are safe."
The letter was without date or signature.
For some time he sat contemplating it, frowning. Then there came to him an air of relief, and he seemed to breathe more freely. Yet he had an evident difficulty in continuing his recital to Martin. Did it occur to him, from what he read in that letter, that his revelation had now become in a measure superfluous—unnecessary? He had with an evident reluctance entered upon the task of laying bare to his friend certain hidden things in the past—0f revealing the mysteries of his early life. He had commenced his narrative with a constrained, unwilling manner. He had probably purposed at the outset to give merely the heads of the history; but as he advanced, and the difficulty of his task seemed to diminish, and the interest of his friend to increase—probably, also, because it seemed in some measure necessary to his own justification, he had entered more and more into detail. Now an altered intention influenced him—a change came over him-his voice and manner were wholly different.
"I hardly know, Martin, why I weary you with all the minutiæ of this story—I suppose I grow garrulous as I grow older," and he laughed faintly. "You can conceive my position, and the—the difficulties and complications likely to arise from it. You understand that lwas with rather dangerous people—that I was young enough and weak enough to fall an easy victim, if one had been needed."
Martin looked at him curiously. He detected at once that Wilford's opinions upon the expediency of his confession had undergone a change.
"Does he mistrust me?" he asked himself, sighing. Then he added aloud, "Tell no more than you think right, Wil."
It was kindly said, and yet it fell upon Wilford's ears rather reproachfully. He rose up uneasily, and walked to the window; there was an agitated, perplexed look in his face. When he spoke again, it was with his face turned from his friend.
"I can tell the rest in a very few words; perhaps the fewer the better. You can understand that these Pichots had an eye to my uncle's wealth. They feared at first that I should become his heir; but gradually they became reconciled to that idea, planning to grow rich by means of the influence they had obtained over me, or through the power they saw their daughter possessed to rule me. I need not dwell upon these matters," he spoke rapidly. "You must see that there would be an evident inconvenience in these people appearing upon the scene in the present state of things; especially if they should begin to talk; they may possess letters, and threaten to produce them, and it seems these Pichots are now in London, with the exception of the husband, who is ill in Paris. You can judge for yourself, Martin, how hateful it would be to me to have them forcing themselves upon my wife, telling talesto herof the past, of their acquaintance with me in my youth, and so on. You may be sure I would not, if I could help it, have Violet's ear poisoned with all the tattling of these hateful people, and that, if need be, I would pay any sum to keep them silent. You surely appreciate all this, Martin?"
"And is this all?" asked Martin, quietly, after a pause.
"Yes—all," Wilford answered, petulantly; "what more should there be?"
"And your only anxiety is, lest your wife should see these Pichots and hear what they may choose to tell her?"
"Yes. What other anxiety should I have?"
"I would have no dealings with these people, I think," said Martin; "certainly I would not buy their silence. Can you trust thcm even after you have paid them their price? It seems to me, Wilford, it would be better to trust your wife. I may say, however, that the whole history is not quite clear to me; but so far as I can judge, if there are-well, let us say unpleasant circumstances in the past which may come to your wife's knowledge, I maintain that it would be better that she should learn of them from you rather than from others."
"Thank you, Martin, for your patience-for your good advice. I will deliberate upon the matter."
"Do nothing rashly, however. You are not going '."'
"Yes, I must go now, indeed," and he moved to the door. There he stopped.
"Martin," he said, with a return to his old manner and with deep feeling in his voice, "bear with me. Give me still your confidence and friendship, for indeed I have great need of both. Perhaps I have not spoken to you so fully as I might. Perhaps there are other things to be told to enable you to judge rightly of my history. Forgive me if I have hesitated to enter upon thcse. Think that the opportunity is not a fitting one, or that I have not time or courage suflicient. I will renew the subject, if I can, on some other occasion; but I may not now."
Martin had only time to answer these hurried words by a kind pressure of Wilford's hand as he moved away.
"No," said Martin, as he found himself once more alone in his chambers. "Certainly, he has not told me all. I think," he added with a sigh: "it is always hard for a man to tell all."
If some thought of Violet then surged up in his mind, he thrust it down again; and he sought relief and found it, as it may always be found, in hard work for many hours.
CHAPTER XVIII. MADEMOISELLE BOISFLEURY.
Alexis. Was he man or boy? Let us leave the question open and call him Monsieur Alexis; he was more French than English—and there is no such thing as boyhood in France. The infants of that country almost as soon as they can speak, are capable of affaires de cœur and tendresses, and bonnes fortunes; they mature so rapidly. While one of our young compatriots is playing heartily at leapfrog, one of theirs is swearing (Grand Dieu, je jure sur la tombe de ma mère, &c.) devotion to la belle Celestine, or mingling tears with the adorable Madame Darville, and with her adorning the grave of her late husband (dead of a small-sword thrust in the right lung), with the most beautiful immortelles which the money of the deceased and deceived mari (how despicable the word seems to sound to French ears!) could possibly purchase. Monsieur Alexis sat at one of the windows on the second-floor of the house in Stowe Street; the reader has already been introduced to the apartment. Monsieur Alexis was amusing himself with opening and shutting the window at short intervals, looking out up and down the street expectantly, with breathing on the panes of glass and drawing on the clouded surface so obtained caricatures of a primitive design, or scribbling initial letters with a very dirty finger—he had others to match it—much notched and gnawed at the top, and the nail reduced by his teeth to the very smallest dimensions and the most unattractive form that was anyhow practicable. As an additional pastime, Monsieur Alexis occasionally permitted himself the interesting délassement of putting a fly to death by a process of torture as prolonged and painful as his ingenuity—not contemptible in that respect—could devise.
"ls he coming?" asked someone sitting at the other end of the room, whose restless foot kept up an impatient tapping on the floor.
"I don't see him," Alexis answered, after locking out, apparently rather pleased at having it in his power to give a disappointing answer.
"If he doesn't come—" some one began, and then stopped.
The speaker was a woman, of small stature, her figure well-proportioned, but inclined to be rather stout than slight. She was of very dark complexion, her hair jet black—it seemed to be almost blue where the light fell upon it—the black was so intense and the absence of any warm colour in it so complete. She had small, handsomely formed features, though the lower part of her face was somewhat too massive and hard in its lines. There was the shadow of a dark down upon her upper lip, which she was now compressing and biting in some anger and impatience. Her eyes were very brilliant; enhanced in that quality by her strongly defined, thick. black eyebrows, which, unconsciously perhaps, she brought down now and then in a very fierce and threatening frown. She wore a dark silk dress; some black lace, much after the manner of a Spanish mantilla fell from the back of her head on to her ample shoulders; a twisted gold chain circled her grandly formed throat; heavy ornaments of red coral and dead gold hung from her delicate ears; her small, supple hands were decorated with several superb rings;—her appearance altogether was very striking, but it was not wholly attractive. There was something startling about the fire of those dark eyes, and the bistrous circles of which they were the gleaming centres. It seemed as though she despised all charm of girlishness, or softness of manner, or restraint of emotion. She was angry and impatient. She did not care to conceal this fact. She beat upon the carpet with her foot, or drummed with her clenched hand upon the table. As to age, she had passed her premiere jeunesse. She looked thirty. She was probably younger; for women of her brunette complexion are generally not so old as they appear; with the blonde, the converse of the proposition holds good.
"If he should not come—" she repeated.
"Well, if he should not come, Mademoiselle Regine?" Monsieur Alexis asked mockingly. They both spoke with a strong foreign accent. "What will happen then? "
"I shall think you have cheated me, little boy, and I shall punish you," she said in a meaning way, with a very angry frown.
Alexis glanced at her as though to be sure that he had rightly heard. Perhaps from the expression of her face he judged it best to make no further reply. He looked again from the window and with his head turned from the woman, Mademoiselle Regine as he called her, he indulged himself with the relaxation of twisting his features into a sufficiently hideous grimace. By this means he discovered that a new source of gratification was available to him. A servant in one of the opposite houses cleaning the windows, paused in her dangerous employment, attracted evidently by the facial contortions of Monsieur Alexis. Was it not possible by persistence in a course of elaborate grimace, so to fascinate and bewilder the poor woman until in the end, her attention attracted from her work, she should fall headlong out of the window into the street? Monsieur Alexis chuckled aloud exultingly at the brilliance and cheerfulness of this idea! Suddenly he turned to Mademoiselle Regine.
"He's coming," he cried.
"Go, then," she answered, "and—take care—if you listen—" she pointed her forefinger at him warningly, and again she frowned. Alexis evidently understood the incomplete sentence.
"I don't want to listen," he muttered, sulkily. "Give me the money you promised me."
She took some gold from a porte-monnaie, and tossed it to him. She placed her hand upon her heart, as though to stay its turbulent beatings. Alexis hurried from the room. He had scarcely gone when a tall pale man entered.
"Monsieur Wilford!" the woman said, in a low voice, bowing her head.
She placed a chair for him, and then withdrew to some distance. She remained standing in an almost humble attitude. By her gestures she begged him to be seated. He moved to a chair, but he contented himself with leaning upon it—perhaps because his hands trembled less, grasping tightly the back of the chair. She glanced at him stealthily, her breathing very quick, her fingers very restless. There was silence for some minutes.
"How you have changed!" she said, at length, in a subdued tone.
"Likely enough!" he answered. "Think how many years have passed since we have met!"
"Had I seen you in the street, I think I should have passed on and not known you. They told. me you were happy, gay, successful, fortunate. I see nothing of these in your face. You are very pale and triste-looking."
Her foreign manner and accent were more evident now that she was excited, agitated.
"I did not think anyone could have been so wretched as I have been, yet I look at you, Wilford—Monsieur Wilford, I mean—and it seems to me I may have been mistaken. Are you unhappy, Monsieur Wilford? But I see that you are."
He had paid but little attention to these words; he was pondering other things. At last he said, harshly:
"Regine, I never thought that we should meet again on this side the grave."
"It was inevitable," she said.
"I thought you were dead."
She glanced at him reproachfully.
"You hoped so, perhaps?" But he made no answer. She went on passionately in her foreign manner. "Well! and why not? Why should you not hope me to be dead? wish for me to be dead? You cannot have hoped it—prayed for it more than I have. I should have killed myself a thousand times, but that I am a woman! a fool! a coward! and I shrunk and shivered and fainted, and I did not dare! What have I ever done that you, that anyone, should wish me living? Nothing! nothing! Oh, how I am miserable!"
"Hush!" he said in kinder tones; "don't talk like that."
"Why did you think that I was dead?"
"They told me so at——"
"At St. Lazare!" he whispered.
She crouched down, hiding her face, then she started up fiercely."They lied—they are dogs. They said I was dead, because I had triumphed over them—tricked them—beaten them. At St. Lazare the prisoner who escapes is written down as dead in their books. They are liars!—fools! They watch the men carefully enough. They did not think that I could climb—like a man—like a monkey. That it was nothing to me to climb a water-pipe on to the roof of the female dormitories, and then drop from the wall, fourteen feet. 1. was light enough then. What matter that I cut my hands—that I sprained my foot? I could yet run for three miles. I was free! A new name—a new country. Who will recognise me? Who will care what I am—what I have done?"
"Enough of this," he interrupted angrily; "it was not to learn these prison exploits I came here."
"Who would think, to hear you speak, now, that you ever cared for me—ever loved me?" she said, after a few moments.
"You are wrong. There was passion, folly, madness; but there was not love."
"Not love, as you know it, now?"
"Not love, as I know it, now." Their eyes met, gleaming rather fiercely. Regine softened.
"It is you who are wrong. It was whole, true, honest love. I will think so. You shall not rob me of that thought—that consolation. You do not know how precious it is to believe that I was once loved so wholly and truly as you loved me."
"And that love—how did you meet it?—how did you requite it?"
She turned away.
"There are some things you will never know," she said. "There are some secrets you must not seek to share. Perhaps it was because I knew myself better than you did. Perhaps it was because I knew the wretchedness to which your love for me must lead. Do me at least this justice. Whatever others did, I did not seek to win your love. I held out no allurement to you. I laid no trap. Nay, I did all I could to make myself repellent to you; to warn you of the danger _there would be to you in loving me. Is not that true?"
"It is true, Regine. Would that we had never met!"
"I may say Amen. But what does it avail—the past is past. We have met. For the future—"
"Yes, for the future—let us consider that. The past is gone—dead—buried. Its secrets are known only to us. Let them not be revealed. You know that I have seen Madam Pichot—."
"Hush! say Boisfleury. Pichot is an unlucky name. I tremble when I hear it; I hardly know why. Pray, have you set spies upon me? Have you had me followed? My steps dogged? Who does this? It is not you? Well, we shall see. Never mind. Do not say Pichot,—say Boisfleury."
"Madame Boisfleury, then. You know the sum of money she has demanded of me?"
"I do know—it is shameful; but, no matter; as I have said, this money shall not be paid."
"Why is money wanted—are you poor?"
"No. We are not rich; but we are not poor. We can live—easily—the more so if we could help—but we can't—getting into debt, being foolish and extravagant. It is not for us the money is Wanted."
"For whom, then?"
"He is ill, at Paris."
She laughed scornfully.
"He is enduring his sentence: the galleys for twenty years—let us say for life—he will not survive the term."
"Upon what charge?"
"A score of charges. He was tried for robbery and attempt to murder. He was sentenced as I have said."
"Of what avail will the money be to him?"
"It will purchase his escape. So madame dreams. She is a devoted wife: let us say that for her."
"And the money left by my uncle?"
"All gone—gambled away—flung from the window."
"And the money received from me?"
"Spent in the same way."
"I know not what to do. Sometimes I think that if it would purchase me immunity for the future, I would raise this sum, though, to do so, I should have to pay very dearly. I should have to sacrifice all hope of provision after my death for her who has such just claims upon me, for my child—"
"You have a child?—a son? Is he like you? Ah! Yes; it seems you love her very dearly—more than you ever loved me. It is strange, how little of value your love was to me when it was solely mine; yet now, when it has gone from me for ever, how I yearn for it again. It has not wholly gone from me, Monsieur Wilford. Say that you have yet some feeling for me."
"Why do you talk in this way, Regine," he answered, sternly. "Do you forget everything! Be undeceived. Learn that my love, if love there ever was between us, is now dead, stone dead. It can never be brought to life again. Heaven forbid it ever should. You know what act killed it. You know when struck by your hand it fell down and died."
"I know," she moaned, covering her face with her hands. "There is no need to remind me of these things; yet there may be excuses for me, only they may not be told to you, least of all by me. So then, now, you love this child, this wife?" She laid a stress upon the word.
"I do," he answered, firmly, "with all my soul."
"She is good, this Madame Violet—is not that her name? I heard Madame Boisfleuy tell it. She is beautiful—is she not? She is worthy of your love. Oh, how I wish that I could see her! May I see her, Monsieur Wilford?"
"You see her!" he cried. "Dare not attempt it; dare not think of such a thing! What wrong has she ever done to you?"
"You are very cruel, Monsieur Wilford," said Regine; "but you are right. I ought not to think of seeing her, yet your words seem very bitter. Well, I have deserved them all, and more, much more. You shall he obeyed. I will not seek to see 'her. 1 will go. I will quit this London, this country, for ever. An engagement has been offered to me at the theatre of Barcelona. I will accept it. I will go. I will die far away in a foreign land. You shall never more see my face. Will not this be the best? Will there not be in this some reparation, the best, the only atonement I can make, for the wrong done to you in the past, Monsieur Wilford?"
"This will be the best, Regine."
"How your voice sounds cold to me now! How different was it all once. How it was soft and gentle; how your eyes glowed; how your cheeks burned; how your frame trembled, when of old you told me first of your love for me, and took my hand into yours to press with your lips. How all this is changed!"
"How it is strange! While you were so good, so tender to me, I cared nothing. I shrank from you. Shall I say it? I despised you; there was something girlish in your love—a gentleness that was hateful to me. How lost I was to all that was honest and pure, and true in it. Now, when you are brusque with me, savage almost, Monsieur Wilford, when it seems that a little, and you would strike me, woman though I am; now, when you do strike me, cruelly, most cruelly, with your words and your looks; now, my heart beats for you, as it never throbbed before, and I love you now—"
"I will not hear you, Regine."
"Why were you not so of old! Why did you not change my nature as the keeper tames the tigress at the Jardin des Plantes, by cruelty, by oaths and blows, till she crouches at his feet, frightened, docile, faithful, ay, and loving in her wild-beast way? Would tenderness tame her, do you think!—Bah: did it avail with me! could it avail with me? Why did you not lash me then into right thinking, into right doing!—not now—not now, when it is too late, too late, when I can be no more to you; when I am nothing—nothing—nothing—when you love me no more; when you despise, scorn, hate me—" her passion could no longer find expression in words. She flung herself on her knees, weeping piteously.
Wilford looked with sad eyes at the woman crouching on the floor. He moved about impatiently.
"This is folly," he said hoarsely. "Can this alter the past? Can you forget how we parted years ago?"
"No," she answered in a calmer tone, "I do not forget—I shall never forget. Yet, as I have said, there may be pleas to be urged on my behalf, though you will never-shall never—hear them. Forgive me if my emotion makes me forget myself. I can never forbear. I give way, like an insane person, when I am troubled. Forgive me—my regrets are not so wholly unreasonable as they may seem to be; they are less weak and foolish than you think. (Jan 1 but be sorry—passionately sorry—when I think it was in your power to change me—to work great good in me. Wrong had already been done, heaven knows, and enough of it; but there was some future for me then. I was very young. My thoughts had not taken their present ugly forms to keep for ever; they might then have been moulded otherwise; there was at least hope of such a thing, and you let the hour go by—you flung away the chance. If, instead of kneeling to me, suing and imploring—humouring my every foolish whim—you had beaten me down to your feet, as I am now,—humbled me and made me weep, then, as I am humbled and weeping now—"
"This is not penitence, Regine, it is simply passion. Half that you say is unintelligible to me; for the rest, it is without reason. It is not for me to treat the woman I loved—or believed I loved cruelly, as though I hated her. Change, reform must come from within, not from without. I did not come here to hear complaints of this kind—no, nor to make them, though perhaps I have cause to complain."
"You have cause," she said, interrupting him.
"As you have said, the past is past; let us not disinter it. It has been sad enough, and shameful, and wicked; let us heap earth upon it, and not lay it bare to taint the present. Do you think it is you only who have suffered? Have I no regrets? Have I no misdeeds—no cruel errors—to lament, to make such atonement for as is now possible?"
"I had forgiven you, believing you to be dead."
"And now that I am 1iving—"
"I will pray to be able to forgive you, Regine, as I will pray for aid to act rightly in my present great perplexity. For this money—"
"It shall not be paid—I say it shall not. You may trust me in that, Monsieur Wilford. Show me that you trust me in that. You are free—safe on that subject."
"But Madame Boisfleury—"
"I will deal with her. Without my aid she is powerless."
"And for the future Regine?"
"For the future?" the tears came into her eyes. "I see you now for the last time. It shall be as you thought it before. We shall not meet again on this side of the grave. You shall treat me as dead; and I shall be really dead to you. I will never set foot in this country again. For France, I may not go there, but in some other land—does it matter where? I shall some day drop down and die, and they shall bury me, unknown, nameless;—nothing to them or to you, or to anyone more. Will this do? Will this please yon? Will this make amends? Will this be the best? "
She tried to take his hand, but he shrunk back from her. The action wounded her terribly, yet she bore up against it.
"And if I do all this—and I will, you may trust me—will you then forgive me?—will you then think kindly of me again, pityingly? Oh, if you could do this!—if you could try to think over again one of your old good thoughts in regard to me! You are going? I may not detain you. Adieu, Monsieur Wilford."
She would not now be denied. She seized his hand and pressed it passionately to her fevered lips. Another moment and he was gone. The door closed—she shivered as she heard it shut.
"I shall never see him more—never, never! " She abandoned herself to a paroxysm of grief; the tears streamed from her eyes; she sobbed violently. "I shall never see him more—never, never! and—and I love him!"
She hid her face in her hands.
For some time she remained so, bowed down by her sorrow. Suddenly a slight noise startled her. She looked up: Monsieur Alexis was leaning in the doorway watching her, a malicious grin upon his face.
"You are très malade, this time, are you not, Mademoiselle Regine? You must be near your end, I should think. I never saw you cry before. I've seen you pretend, often; but never real tears like these."
She started up.
"I will see her," she cried passionately; "I must see her-this woman whom he loves. Alexis, you have the address: tell it to me. What is the name of the street near Soho Square? "
"Why should I tell you? Of what advantage will it be to me?"
"Must I pay for this also?"
"Well. No. Perhaps not. This time we will exchange services. I will give you this address if—
"If what? "
"If you will convey for me a letter to Mademoiselle Blondette at the theatre."
"What!" cried Regine, laughing, though the tears were still wet upon her cheeks. "You love Mademoiselle Blondette?"
"It is true," Alexis answered, pressing his dirty hand upon his heart, and turning up his green eyes with an air of spurious enthusiasm and romance, not possible to an Englishman.
"My poor Alexis! There is a chance then that at last you will receive your deserts. Truly, I must cease to punish you. You will hardly need more punishment than you will receive from Mademoiselle Blondette."
"She is beautiful as an angel!"
"She is charming,—with the gas-light strong upon her. Her smile is delightful,—when her lips are fresh painted. My poor Alexis! You are épris with a ghoul. Blondette will eat you up, bones and all, and laugh the while, showing her sharp white teeth. She has no more heart, nor feeling, than a guillotine. Yes, she is pretty: bright red and white laid on thick. But to love her, imbecile! She is like a cheap bon-bon—there is as much poison as sugar about her—the coating is mere plaster of Paris; the almond inside is very bitter. You love her! little fool! love a snake!"
"You hate her because you are jealous of her, Regine," said Alexis, sulkily. "Will you give her the letter?"
"Certainly. Give me the address."
Alexis wrote two lines slowly on a scrap of paper and flung it to Regine.
"Behold the address," he said. Regine read it carefully.
"If you have deceived me! You are capable of it. I do not know the name of the street you have written here."
"Bah! I have not deceived you."
"We shall see. I go there at once. A fiacre will soon take me. I shall meet this Madame Violet." She continued half aloud, "I shall see this woman whom he loves so much, for whom he despises me. I hate her already."
She quitted the room. Alexis went through a course of derisive and defiant gestures. Certainly he was more French than English.
"Take care, Mademoiselle Regine, take care," he said, shaking threateningly a small, black, gristly fist. "You abuse Blondette, the woman whom I adore E You dare to trample on my heart! And, more: this five thousand pounds which Madame Boisfleury claims you presume to forgive! Is it so? It is you who are imbecile. There will be war between you then, about this poor Monsieur Wilford! Take care. What if I reveal to Madame that you have seen this person, what you have said to him? Aha! For me, I am on the side of five thousand pounds. But to succour the poor Père Dominique? Pas si bête! If he escape he will only beat me again. No, to spend in this city! to buy presents for Blondette! Five thousand pounds! How these dogs of English are rich!"
Soon Regine left Stowe Street in a cab, to search for the house of one Mr. Phillimore in the neighbourhood of Soho.
Wilford had repaired to his Covent Garden Hotel. He sat down in the empty coffee-room, resting his throbbing head upon his hands, looking very sad, and worn, and dejected.
"What to do!" he murmured. "What to do! The time runs on. Violet must be written to. Already she must be expecting news of me. She will be growing uneasy, will think I am neglecting her. Heaven knows, I would sooner die than cause her unhappiness! But what to do!"
He strode up and down the room with an abstracted air. He paused suddenly before the glass over the fire-place, struck with his own wild haggard looks. He tried to read the "Times;" but the print seemed to dance before him, it made him quite giddy, he could not keep his eyes fixed on it, and his thoughts were always away, busy with the question, asked again and again, "What was he to do?" He sought amusement looking from the coffee-room window at the thousands passing to and fro, occupied in the market. He conned for the hundredth time the addresses of the faded letters in a sort of iron cage on the mantel-piece, sent to visitors who had long since qnitted the hotel, and who would never return for their correspondence. He turned over the leaves of the Post Office Directory, not knowing what he was doing. Certainly looking for nothing. He stood for five minutes before the dark-coloured mahogany sideboard, staring vacantly at a cruet-stand, still asking himself, "What he should do?"
"Why did they ever come back,—these dreadful Pichots? Silent, gone from the country, never to return—as good as dead—am I then secure? Who will ever know? Will not all then be well? May I not then return to her—to Violet—and forget, and be happy? Why not? What should hinder me?" He waited a long time. There was an expression of deep anguish in his face, as he said at last, "But my honour, my duty, are these to be forgotten wholly? God help me!" he cried fervently. "I have never been so tried before!" and he hid his face.