The Chink in the Armour/Chapter 19

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William Chester, solicitor, and respected citizen of Market Dalling, felt rather taken aback and bewildered as he joined the great stream of people who were pouring out of the large suburban station of Lacville.

He had only arrived in Paris two hours before, and after a hasty dinner at the Gare du Nord he had made inquiries as to his best way of reaching Lacville. And then he was told, to his surprise, that from the very station in which he found himself trains started every few minutes to the spot for which he was bound.

"To-night," added the man of whom he had inquired, "there is a fine fête at Lacville, including fireworks on the lake!"

Chester had imagined Sylvia to be staying in a quiet village or little country town. That was the impression her brief letters to him had conveyed, and he was astonished to hear that Lacville maintained so large and constant a train service.

Sylvia had written that she would engage a room for him at the boarding-house where she was staying; and Chester, who was very tired after his long, hot journey, looked forward to a pleasant little chat with her, followed by a good night's rest.

It was nine o'clock when he got into the Lacville train, and again he was vaguely surprised to see what a large number of people were bound for the place. It was clear that something special must be going on there to-night, and that "the fireworks on the lake" must be on a very splendid scale.

When he arrived at Lacville, he joined the great throng of people, who were laughing and talking, each and all in holiday mood, and hailed an open carriage outside the station. "To the Villa du Lac!" he cried.

The cab could only move slowly through the crowd of walkers, and when it finally emerged out of the narrow streets of the town it stopped a moment, as if the driver wished his English fare to gaze at the beautiful panorama spread out before his eyes.

Dotted over the lake, large and mysterious in the starlit night, floated innumerable tiny crafts, each gaily hung with a string of coloured lanterns. Now and again a red and blue rocket streamed up with a hiss, dissolving in a shower of stars reflected in the still water.

Down to the right a huge building, with towers and minarets flung up against the sky, was outlined in twinkling lights.

The cab moved on, only for a few yards however, and then drove quickly through high gates, and stopped with a jerk in front of a stone staircase.

"It cannot be here," said Chester incredulously to himself. "This looks more like a fine private house than a small country hotel."

"Villa du Lac?" he asked interrogatively, and the cabman said, "Oui, M'sieur."

The Englishman got out of the cab, and ascending the stone steps, rang the bell. The door opened, and a neat young woman stood before him.

"I am come to see Mrs. Bailey," he said in his slow, hesitating French.

There came a torrent of words, of smiles and nods—it seemed to Chester of excuses—in which "Madame Bailey" frequently occurred.

He shook his head, helplessly.

"I will call my uncle!"

The maid turned away; and Chester, with an agreeable feeling of relief that at last his journey was ended, took his bag off the cab, and dismissed the man.

What a delightful, spacious house! Sylvia had not been so very foolish after all.

M. Polperro came forward, bowing and smiling.

"M'sieur is the gentleman Madame Bailey has been expecting?" he said, rubbing his hands. "Oh, how sad she will be that she has already gone to the Casino! But Madame did wait for M'sieur till half-past nine; then she concluded that he must mean to spend the night in Paris."

"Do you mean that Mrs. Bailey has gone out?" asked Chester, surprised and disappointed.

"Yes, M'sieur. Madame has gone out, as she always does in the evening, to the Casino. It is, as M'sieur doubtless knows, the great attraction of our delightful and salubrious Lacville."

Chester had not much sense of humour, but he could not help smiling to himself at the other's pompous words.

"Perhaps you will kindly show me to the room which Mrs. Bailey has engaged for me," he said, "and then I will go out and try and find her."

M. Polperro burst into a torrent of agitated apologies. There was alas! no room for Madame Bailey's friend—in fact the Villa du Lac was so extraordinarily prosperous that there never was a room there from May till October, unless one of the guests left unexpectedly!

But Mr. Chester—was not that his name?—must not be cast down, for Mrs. Bailey had secured a beautiful room for him in another pension, a very inferior pension to the Villa du Lac, but still one in which he would be comfortable.

Chester now felt annoyed, and showed it. The thought of turning out again was not a pleasant one.

But what was this funny little Frenchman saying?

"Oh, if M'sieur had only arrived an hour ago! Madame Bailey was so terribly disappointed not to see M'sieur at dinner! A very nice special dinner was prepared, cooked by myself, in honour of Madame Bailey's little party."

And he went on to tell Chester, who was getting bewildered with the quick, eager talk, that this special dinner had been served at eight o'clock, and that Madame Bailey had entertained two friends that evening.

"You say that Mrs. Bailey is at the Casino?"

"Mais oui, M'sieur!"

It had never occurred to Chester that there would be a Casino in the place where Sylvia was spending the summer. But then everything at Lacville, including the Villa du Lac, was utterly unlike what the English lawyer had expected it to be.

M. Polperro spread out his hands with an eloquent gesture. "I beg of M'sieur," he said, "to allow me to conduct him to the Casino! Madame Bailey will not be here for some time, not perhaps for one hour, perhaps for two hours. I will have the luggage sent on to the Pension Malfait."

Strange—very strange! At home in Market Dalling Sylvia had always been fond of going to bed quite early; yet now, according to the hotel-keeper, she was perhaps going to stay out till one o'clock—till one o'clock on Sunday morning!

M. Polperro led Chester into the stately, long drawing-room; but in a very few moments he reappeared, having taken off his white apron and his chef's cap, and put on a light grey alpaca coat and a soft hat.

As they hurried along the path which skirts the lake, Chester began to feel the charm of the place. It was very gay and delightful—"very French," so the English lawyer told himself. The lake, too, looked beautiful—mysteriously beautiful and fairy-like, in the moonlight.

Soon they turned into a narrow dark lane.

"This is not a grand entrance to our beautiful Casino," said M. Polperro, ruefully, "but no matter, it is lovely once you get inside!" and he chuckled happily.

When in front of the great glass doors, he touched Chester on the arm.

"I wonder whether M'sieur would care to become a member of the Club," he said in a low voice. "I do not press M'sieur to do so! But you see, both Madame Bailey and her friends are members of the Club, and it is almost certain that it is there we shall find them. I fear it is no use our going to the Playing Rooms downstairs."

The Playing Rooms? Sylvia a member of a club? And—for Chester's quick, legal mind had leapt on the fact—of a gambling club?

No, that was incredible.

"I think there must be some mistake," he said distantly. "I do not think that Mrs. Bailey is a member of a club."

M. Polperro looked very much surprised.

"Oh, yes, indeed she is," he answered confidently. "It is only the quite common people who content themselves, M'sieur, with risking a franc and playing the little games. But just as M'sieur likes—" he shrugged his shoulders. "I do not press M'sieur to become a member of the Club."

Without answering, Chester paid the couple of francs admission for himself and his companion, and they walked slowly through the lower rooms, threading their way through the crowd.

"You see, M'sieur, I was right! Madame Bailey is in the Club!"

"Very well. Let us go to the Club," said Chester, impatiently.

He was beginning, or so he thought, to understand. The Club was evidently a quiet, select part of the Casino, with a reading room and so on. Sylvia had probably made friends with some French people in her hotel, and they had persuaded her to join the Club.

He was beginning to throw off his tiredness; the unaccustomed atmosphere in which he found himself amused and interested, even if it rather shocked him.

Ten minutes later he also, thanks to the kind offices of M. Polperro, and by the payment of twenty francs, found himself a member of the Club; free of that inner sanctuary where the devotees of the fickle goddess play with gold instead of silver; and where, as even Chester could see, the people who stood round the table, risking with quiet, calculating eyes their twenty-franc pieces and bank-notes, were of a very different social standing from the merry, careless crowd downstairs.

In the Baccarat Room most of the men were in evening clothes, and the women with them, if to Chester's eyes by no means desirable or reputable-looking companions, were young, pretty, and beautifully dressed.

Still, the English lawyer felt a thrill of disgust at the thought that Sylvia Bailey could possibly be part of such a company.

Baccarat was being played at both tables, but the crowd of players centred rather round one than the other, as is almost always the way.

M. Polperro touched his companion on the arm. "And now, M'sieur," he said briefly, "I will with your permission depart home. I think you will find Madame Bailey at that further table."

Chester shook the owner of the Villa du Lac cordially by the hand. The little man had been really kind and helpful. It was a pity there was no vacant room in his hotel.

He made his way to the further table, and gradually reached a point of vantage where he could see those of the players who were seated round the green cloth.

As is generally the case when really high play is going on, the people who were playing, as also those watching them, were curiously quiet.

And then, with a shock of surprise which sent the blood to his cheeks, Chester suddenly saw that Sylvia Bailey was sitting nearly opposite to where he himself was standing.

There are certain scenes, certain human groupings of individuals, which remain fixed for ever against the screen of memory. Bill Chester will never forget the sight which was presented to him in the Lacville Casino by the particular group on which his tired eyes became focussed with growing amazement and attention.

Sylvia was sitting at the baccarat table next to the man who was acting as Banker. She was evidently absorbed in the fortunes of the game, and she followed the slow falling of the fateful cards with rather feverish intentness.

Her small gloved hands rested on the table, one of them loosely holding a tiny ivory rake; and on a bank-note spread open on the green cloth before her were two neat piles of gold, the one composed of twenty-franc, the other of ten-franc pieces.

Chester, with a strange feeling of fear and anger clutching at his heart, told himself that he had never seen Sylvia look as she looked to-night. She was more than pretty—she was lovely, and above all, alive—vividly alive. There was a bright colour on her cheek, and a soft light shining in her eyes.

The row of pearls which had occasioned the only serious difference which had ever arisen between them, rose and fell softly on the bosom of her black lace dress.

Chester also gradually became aware that his beautiful friend and client formed a centre of attraction to those standing round the gambling-table. Both the men and the women stared at her, some enviously, but more with kindly admiration, for beauty is sure of its tribute in any French audience, and Sylvia Bailey to-night looked radiantly lovely—lovely and yet surely unhappy and ill-at-ease.

Well might she look both in such a place and among such a crew! So the English lawyer angrily told himself.

Now and again she turned and spoke in an eager, intimate fashion to a man sitting next her on her left. This man, oddly enough, was not playing.

Sylvia Bailey's companion was obviously a Frenchman, or so Chester felt sure, for now he found himself concentrating his attention on Mrs. Bailey's neighbour rather than on her. This man, to whom she kept turning and speaking in a low, earnest tone, was slim and fair, and what could be seen of his evening clothes fitted scrupulously well. The Englishman, looking at him with alien, jealous eyes, decided within himself that the Frenchman with whom Sylvia seemed to be on such friendly terms, was a foppish-looking fellow, not at all the sort of man she ought to have "picked up" on her travels.

Suddenly Sylvia raised her head, throwing it back with a graceful gesture, and Chester's eyes travelled on to the person who was standing just behind her, and to whom she had now begun speaking with smiling animation.

This was a woman—short, stout, and swarthy—dressed in a bright purple gown, and wearing a pale blue bonnet which was singularly unbecoming to her red, massive face. Chester rather wondered that such an odd, and yes—such a respectable-looking person could be a member of this gambling club. She reminded him of the stout old housekeeper in a big English country house near Market Dalling.

Sylvia seemed also to include in her talk a man who was standing next the fat woman. He was tall and lanky, absurdly and unsuitably dressed, to the English onlooker, in a white alpaca suit and a shabby Panama hat. In his hand he held a little book, in which he noted down every turn of the game, and it was clear to Chester that, though he listened to Mrs. Bailey with civility, he was quite uninterested in what she was saying.

Very different was the attitude of the woman; she seemed absorbed in Sylvia's remarks, and she leant forward familiarly, throwing all her weight on the back of the chair on which Mrs. Bailey was sitting. Sometimes as she spoke she smiled in a way that showed her large, strong teeth.

Chester thought them both odd, common-looking people. He was surprised that Sylvia knew them—nay more, that she seemed on such friendly terms with them; and he noticed that the Frenchman sitting next to her—the dandyish-looking fellow to whom she had been talking just now—took no part at all in her present conversation. Once, indeed, he looked up and frowned, as if the chatter going on between Mrs. Bailey and her fat friend fretted and disturbed him.

Play had again begun in earnest, and Sylvia turned her attention to the table. Her neighbour whispered something which at once caused her to take up two napoleons and a ten-franc piece from the pile of gold in front of her. Very deliberately she placed the coins within the ruled-off space reserved for the stakes.

Bill Chester, staring across at her, felt as if he were in a nightmare—gazing at something which was not real, and which would vanish if looked at long enough.

Could that lovely young woman, who sat there, looking so much at home, with the little rake in her hand be Sylvia Bailey, the quiet young widow whose perfect propriety of conduct had always earned the praise of those matrons of Market Dalling, whom Chester's own giddier sisters called by the irreverent name of "old cats"? It was fortunate that none of these respectable ladies could see Sylvia now!

To those who regard gambling as justifiable, provided the gambler's means allow of it, even to those who habitually see women indulging in games of chance, there will, of course, be something absurd in the point of view of the solicitor. But to such a man as Bill Chester, the sight of the woman for whom he had always felt a very sincere respect, as well as a far more enduring and jealous affection than he quite realised, sitting there at a public gaming table, was a staggering—nay, a disgusting—spectacle.

He reminded himself angrily that Sylvia had a good income—so good an income that she very seldom spent it all in the course of any one year. Why, therefore, should she wish to increase it?

Above all, how could she bear to mingle with this queer, horrid crowd? Why should she allow herself to be contaminated by breathing the same air as some of the women who were there round her? She and the stout, middle-aged person standing behind her were probably the only "respectable" women in the Club.

And then, it was all so deliberate! Chester had once seen a man whom he greatly respected drunk, and the sight had ever remained with him. But, after all, a man may get drunk by accident—nay, it may almost be said that a man always gets drunk by accident. But, in this matter of risking her money at the baccarat table, Sylvia Bailey knew very well what she was about.

With a thrill of genuine distress the lawyer asked himself whether she had not, in very truth, already become a confirmed gambler. It was with an assured, familiar gesture that Sylvia placed her money on the green cloth, and then with what intelligent knowledge she followed the operations of the Banker!

He watched her when her fifty francs were swept away, and noted the calm manner with which she immediately took five louis from her pile, and pushed them, with her little rake, well on to the table.

But before the dealer of the cards had spoken the fateful words: "Le jeu est fait. Rien ne va plus!" Mrs. Bailey uttered an exclamation under her breath, and hurriedly rose from her chair.

She had suddenly seen Chester—seen his eyes fixed on her with a perplexed, angry look in them, and the look had made her wince.

Forgetting that she still had a stake on the green cloth, she turned away from the table and began making her way round the edge of the circle.

For a moment Chester lost sight of her—there were so many people round the table. He went on staring, hardly knowing what he was doing, at the four pounds she had left on the green cloth.

The cards were quickly dealt, and the fateful, to Chester the incomprehensible, words were quickly uttered. Chester saw that Sylvia, unknowing of the fact, had won—that five louis were added to her original stake. The fair-haired Frenchman in evening dress by whom Mrs. Bailey had been sitting looked round; not seeing her, he himself swept up the stake and slipped the ten louis into his pocket.

"Bill! You here? I had quite given you up! I thought you had missed the train—at any rate, I never thought you would come out to Lacville as late as this."

The bright colour, which was one of Sylvia's chief physical attributes, had faded from her cheeks. She looked pale, and her heart was beating uncomfortably. She would have given almost anything in the world for Bill Chester not to have come down to the Club and caught her like this—"caught" was the expression poor Sylvia used to herself.

"I am so sorry," she went on, breathlessly, "so very sorry! What a wretch you must have thought me! But I have got you such a nice room in a pension where a friend of mine was for a time. I couldn't get you anything at the Villa du Lac. But you can have all your meals with me there. It's such good cooking, and there's a lovely garden, Bill——"

Chester said nothing. He was still looking at her, trying to readjust his old ideas and ideals of Sylvia Bailey to her present environment.

Sylvia suddenly grew very red. After all, Bill Chester was not her keeper! He had no right to look as angry, as—as disgusted as he was now doing.

Then there came to both a welcome diversion.

"Ma jolie Sylvie! Will you not introduce me to your friend?"

Madame Wachner had elbowed her way through the crowd to where Chester and Mrs. Bailey were standing. Her husband lagged a little way behind, his eyes still following the play. Indeed, even as his wife spoke L'Ami Fritz made a note in the little book he held in his hand. When in the Baccarat Room he was absolutely absorbed in the play going on. Nothing could really distract him from it.

Sylvia felt and looked relieved.

"Oh, Bill," she exclaimed, "let me introduce you to Madame Wachner? She has been very kind to me since I came to Lacville."

"I am enchanted to meet you, sir. We 'oped to see you at dinner."

Chester bowed. She had a pleasant voice, this friend of Sylvia's, and she spoke English well, even if she did drop her aitches!

"It is getting rather late"—Chester turned to Sylvia, but he spoke quite pleasantly.

"Yes, we must be going; are you staying on?" Sylvia was addressing the woman she had just introduced to Chester, but her eyes were wandering towards the gambling table. Perhaps she had suddenly remembered her five louis.

Chester smiled a little grimly to himself. He wondered if Sylvia would be surprised to hear that her neighbour, the fair Frenchman to whom she had been talking so familiarly, had "collared" her stakes and her winnings.

"No, indeed! We, too, must be going 'ome. Come, Fritz, it is getting late." The devoted wife spoke rather crossly. They all four turned, and slowly walked down the room.

Sylvia instinctively fell behind, keeping step with Monsieur Wachner, while Chester and Madame Wachner walked in front.

The latter had already taken the measure of the quiet, stolid-looking Englishman. She had seen him long before Sylvia had done so, and had watched him with some attention, guessing almost at once that he must be the man for whom Mrs. Bailey had waited dinner.

"I suppose that this is your first visit to Lacville?" she observed smiling. "Very few of your countrymen come 'ere, sir, but it is an interesting and curious place—more really curious than is Monte Carlo."

She lowered her voice a little, but Chester heard her next words very clearly.

"It is not a proper place for our pretty friend, but—ah! she loves play now! The Polish lady, Madame Wolsky, was also a great lover of baccarat; but now she 'as gone away. And so, when Mrs. Bailey come 'ere, like this, at night, my 'usband and I—we are what you English people call old-fashioned folk—we come, too. Not to play—oh, no, but, you understand, just to look after 'er. She is so innocent, so young, so beautiful!"

Chester looked kindly at Madame Wachner. It was very decent of her—really good-natured and motherly—to take such an interest in poor Sylvia and her delinquencies. Yes, that was the way to take this—this matter which so shocked him. Sylvia Bailey—lovely, wilful, spoilt Sylvia—was a very young woman, and ridiculously innocent, as this old lady truly said.

He, Chester, knew that a great many nice people went to Monte Carlo, and spent sometimes a good deal more money than they could afford at the tables. It was absurd to be angry with Sylvia for doing here what very many other people did in another place. He felt sincerely grateful to this fat, vulgar looking woman for having put the case so clearly.

"It's very good of you to do that," he answered awkwardly; "I mean it's very good of you to accompany Mrs. Bailey to this place," he looked round him with distaste.

They were now downstairs, part of a merry, jostling crowd, which contained, as all such crowds naturally contain, a rather rowdy element. "It certainly is no place for Mrs. Bailey to come to by herself——"

He was going to add something, when Sylvia walked forward.

"Where's Count Paul?" she asked, anxiously, of Madame Wachner. "Surely he did not stay on at the table after we left?"

Madame Wachner shook her head slightly.

"I don't know at all," she said, and then cast a meaning glance at Chester. It was an odd look, and somehow it inspired him with a prejudice against the person, this "Count Paul," of whom Sylvia had just spoken.

"Ah, here he is!" There was relief, nay gladness, ringing in Mrs. Bailey's frank voice.

The Comte de Virieu was pushing his way through the slowly moving crowd. Without looking at the Wachners, he placed ten louis in Sylvia's hand.

"Your last stake was doubled," he said, briefly. "Then that means, does it not, Madame, that you have made thirty-two louis this evening? I congratulate you."

Chester's prejudice grew, unreasonably. "Damn the fellow; then he was honest, after all! But why should he congratulate Mrs. Bailey on having won thirty-two louis?"

He acknowledged Sylvia's introduction of the Count very stiffly, and he was relieved when the other turned on his heel—relieved, and yet puzzled to see how surprised Sylvia seemed to be by his departure. She actually tried to keep the Count from going back to the Club.

"Aren't you coming to the Villa du Lac? It's getting very late," she said, in a tone of deep disappointment.

But he, bowing, answered, "No, Madame; it is impossible." He waited a moment, then muttered, "I have promised to take the Bank in a quarter of an hour."

Sylvia turned away. Tears had sprung to her eyes. But Chester saw nothing of her agitation, and a moment later they were all four out in the kindly darkness.