The Island of Intrigue/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II.

On Board the Tortoise.


INVOLUNTARILY I stepped back, but two big hands reached down and helped me to the deck, and I found myself confronting a short, thick-set young man, with dark eyes and a very square jaw.

"Welcome on board the Tortoise, Maida!" he said, seizing my hand and shaking it violently. It was his voice which had uttered that sudden exclamation. I was in no doubt of his identity.

"How do you do, Alaric?" I said.

The girl with the golden hair pushed hastily past him, and throwing her arms around my neck, kissed me gushingly.

"Oh, Maida darling, I'm so glad you've come!" she cried. "We've been waiting so anxiously to see you again!—Alaric, do help mother. Maida, let me present Monsieur Pelissier."

The other young man came forward and bowed very low over my hand. He was dark, too, and tall, and his voice was caressingly musical.

"I am charmed!" he said with the faintest trace of an accent "I have heard much of Miss Waring."

"I hope no tales out of school!" I laughed. "I'm afraid I was a rather naughty little girl, sometimes."

"Where is Lorna?" asked Aunt Julie, with increasing perturbation. "Isn't she here?"

It was Monsieur Pelissier who replied:

"She took the train into town soon after you left this morning. Ah, you ladies when you go to shop, you think the clock stands still for you!"

"It is so provoking of her!" Aunt Julie was gazing shoreward, and her face was turned from me. "I can't think what is keeping her!"

"Perhaps she missed her train, and will be in on the next. There's nothing to worry about, mother," drawled Bijou with a shrug. "Come, Maida, I'll show you to your cabin."

The sailors were carrying my dressing-bag and suitcases over the side, and I followed Bijou below.

The yacht was a little beauty, bright with brasswork, and glistening with new paint The little pink-upholstered salon through which we passed, was as dainty as a boudoir, all in white and gold, with rose silk curtains and cushions everywhere.

My cabin was perfectly appointed, but tiny, and I was glad the port was open for I was almost overpowered by the perfume with which Bijou seemed impregnated. She actually reeked of it, that heavy, cloying assertive sort of perfume which you usually associate in your mind with theaters and a certain type of cosmopolitan restaurant where Daddy has taken me once or twice, because it's only in such places, as a rule, that you come in contact with people who use it. You know the sort of perfume I mean.

"Aunt Julie is worried about Lorna, isn't she?" I remarked, as I took off my hat "I hope nothing has happened."

"It's silly of Mother. Lorna's old enough to take care of herself, I guess," Bijou ran her fingers over my hair lightly. "How lovely and thick your hair has grown!"

I shrank a little way. Bijou's hands were beautiful, slim and soft, and pearly white, but her nails were hideously long and pointed, and polished like glass. People's hands always impress one, the first thing, and Bijou's seemed somehow typical of her whole personality, ornate and overdone, in execrable taste. I was ashamed of the thought the next minute for she said, with such evident pleasure:

"We've all been looking forward so to seeing you again, we haven't been able to talk of anything else, ever since your father's first letter came. I hope Lorna does come soon, so that we can get off. We'll have a glorious run up the Sound."

"When shall we reach Sunset Island?" I asked, as I turned to my dressing-bag. "I've never been around Cape Cod, but it isn't very far, is it?"

"Oh, no, only Mother insists that we just creep along at night. She's a dreadful coward on the water, you know. We'll reach there tomorrow afternoon, if we start soon."

"It must be beautiful," I remarked. "Is it a sort of summer colony? Are there other people near?"

"Yes, quite near, but they're not—we don't associate very much with them.—Oh, Mother's calling me! I'll send the maid to you."

"You needn't trouble, Bijou—" I began, but she had gone. Her ears must have been sharper than mine, for I hadn't heard Aunt Julie.

I laid out my little white serge suit, and deck shoes, but when the trim French maid appeared, I sent her away again. I wanted a minute to myself, to think. Now that I had seen and talked with Bijou again, I felt I remembered her more clearly than any of the rest of the family. Her face was so familiar to me that I wondered if perhaps I had seen her somewhere lately, not knowing, of course, who she was. It would have been funny if I had, wouldn't it?

She was quite tall and willowy, with a superb figure, and far prettier than the little Bijou had given promise of being, but the shape of her face hadn't changed any, it was just as doll-like and expressionless as ever, and with her artificiality she reminded me of a mannequin in a smart couturier's. I didn't want to be catty, even in my thoughts, but I was sure her hair was yellower than it used to be when she was a little girl, and no one could help noticing how obviously she was painted and made-up, and, oh, those nails!

Aunt Julie came down while I was changing, and after a while I went up on deck with her. Alaric was reading, and Bijou and Monsieur Pelissier were standing very close together at the port rail talking earnestly.

They started apart in some confusion when we appeared. Bijou wore a sulky injured expression, and Monsieur Pelissier's eyes were fairly snapping. I wondered if they had been quarrelling.

"We won't wait luncheon for Lorna," Aunt Julie announced. "I told Parke to serve it as soon as it was ready. You must be starved, Maida child."

I hadn't noticed it before, but the swift ride in the motor through the fresh air, and the sharp, salty breeze on the river, had given me an appetite like a country girl's.

Alaric dropped his book and came forward.

"Do you like the Tortoise, Maida?" he asked.

"Oh, yes!" I cried. "She's like an exquisite floating doll's house, a miniature palace. It must be lovely to live on board for weeks, and go wherever you like."

"You wouldn't go far in a lifetime," Alaric laughed, dropping into a low chair beside me, and displaying as he did so an astonishing length of lavendar silk sock "You wouldn't live long enough to get anywhere! The way she crawls——"

"That's why Alaric insisted on naming her the Tortoise," Aunt Julie interrupted. "She is slow, of course, but I think she's sure. We've been to Bermuda on her twice——"

"She's safe as a scow," affirmed Alaric. "Well, Maida, what do you think of us? Have we changed very much?"

"Oh, no, I should have recognized Aunt Julie and Bijou at once," I replied, but Alaric did look so lazily self-satisfied that I could not help adding, "although, do you know, Alaric, I scarcely remember you at all."

Alaric look reproachful, and then Aunt Julie exclaimed:

"Oh, children, what do you think? Maida remembered my brooch, the very first thing! Think of it, this old pin your dear father gave me so many years ago!"

She said it with quite an air of triumph, and Monsieur Pelissier remarked:

"Memory is a strange thing, is it not? It is—how do you say?—tricky. One can recall without trouble the most trivial, insignificant things, when sometimes important facts have gone from one's mind for always."

At luncheon I found myself seated between Aunt Julie and Alaric, and I was glad of it. I'd taken a decided aversion to Monsieur Pelissier, even in those first few moments. He was superior to the Smith family, of course, one could easily see that, but he seemed a little bit too suave, too ingratiatingly smooth.

I put him down at once in my mind as one of the innumerable army of fortune hunters, and wondered which of the two girls he was trying to interest. I fancied it was Bijou, but then I had not yet had an opportunity to observe his manner with Lorna.

Alaric drank two cocktails and ate enormously, leaving me quite to my own devices, with the air of one who had done his share of the welcome, and was glad it was over. The luncheon was irreproachably cooked and served, but the others ate scarcely anything, and sat as if they were waiting for something to happen. There would be a pause, and then everyone would begin to talk at once, with a spasmodic gaiety, only to fall silent again, as if some suspense were dragging at them. I began to wonder about Lorna. We were turning to the deck, when there was a hail from the wharf.

"There she is, the naughty girl!" cried Aunt Julie, in obvious relief. "She deserves a cold lunch!"

A slender figure in a very chic dark blue tailored gown had descended from a taxi, and was stepping into the dinghy which had already reached the wharf. I watched it curiously as it turned and approached, thinking of the hot-tempered, harum-scarum little gypsy of a creature I had known, and wondering what she would be like now.

"Whatever kept you so long, Lorna!" Aunt Julie scolded, as the slim figure mounted to the deck. "We've waited hours for you—Good Heavens!"

I think we all saw it at the same moment that she did. There was a great jagged tear in the girl's skirt and one sleeve was hanging almost torn from her coat.

"I am very sorry, but it could not be helped," the girl replied rather stiffly, adding: "I have been in an accident, a taxi smash-up!"

"You are hurt!" Monsieur Pelissier started solicitously forward.

"No, I—escaped," she paused curiously before the last word, her eyes holding his. "I have not seen him."

She uttered the last sentence in a low, significant tone, and her mother cried anxiously.

"An accident! Oh, Lorna——"

But the girl had turned, coming straight to me with out-stretched hands.

"And this is our little friend of long ago!" she exclaimed, kissing me on both cheeks, in a pretty, foreign fashion which somehow in her did not seem at all affected. "I am sorry, Maida, that I was not here to greet you when you came, but I am as truly glad to see you as the rest. More glad, if that is possible."

Lorna was as tall as Bijou, but the resemblance ended there. Her hair was soft and dark, like a misty cloud, her eyes large and heavy-lidded, and her clear olive skin was as smooth as ivory, with no trace of color in her face except the crimson line of her lips.

I kissed her in return, with impulsive warmth. I felt drawn to her, somehow, from the beginning. She interested me, even then, and I was sure we should be good friends.

"I hope you were not hurt!" I said. "You must have been horribly frightened."

"Oh, no!" she returned with a little laugh. "I suffered no ill effects except my ruined gown, as you see."

She drew off her gloves as she spoke, and I observed that her hands were slender and shapely, and the nails perfectly cared for. Indeed, save for the ravages of the accident, she was a consistent picture,—from the trim smart lines of her small hat to her strictly correct walking boots—of a flawlessly groomed, well bred young woman.

Monsieur Pellissier came and took her hand ceremoniously.

"It was cruel of you, Lorna!" he murmured, in that caressing voice of his. "You gave to us all a mauvaise quarte d'heure."

"We certainly did have a good long wait for you!" remarked Alaric. "Mother thought you had been kidnapped!"

He turned to the rail, laughing boisterously at his own stupid joke, but nobody appeared to notice it except Bijou, who giggled inanely.

"No, I don't want any lunch," Lorna said, in reply to a suggestion of her mother's. "I'm too tired and shaken up to eat. I'll have a cup of tea here on deck as soon as I've changed, and Maida shall talk to me. You have had her all to yourselves, and now it's my turn. I will be with you again in a few minutes."

She ran lightly down the companionway, and reappeared presently in a soft immaculate white linen gown.

"It is too bad you couldn't go to Europe with your father, as you had planned," she said, as she sipped her tea. "But his loss is our gain. I'm sure you will love Sunset Island. It must be dismally bleak and windswept in winter, but now it is delightful, and Hard-a-lee is such a quaint old place. Mother had it remodeled you know, from an ancient house which has stood there for ages, and one part of the original, which is still untouched, was built from a wreck which went ashore there almost before we were born, I think! Then, too, there is an old ruined lighthouse on the point, which the government abandoned years ago."

"It sounds delightful," I replied. "Daddy will enjoy it all just like a great big boy, when he comes next week."

"Ah, yes——" began Lorna, but Alaric interrupted with an exclamation of satisfaction.

"There! We're off at last!"

The afternoon was lovely and sunshiny, with little flecks of white clouds floating over head, and just enough breeze to be pleasant.

Aunt Julie had made me put on a pair of smoked glasses like hers and I was glad of it, although I knew how disfiguring they must be, for the sun-glare on the water was rather trying.

Lorna went below, after she had finished her tea, and Aunt Julie followed her down immediately, while Bijou dropped into the vacant chair beside me.

"The line of skyscrapers is wonderful, isn't it?" I remarked. "Just fancy how it must impress a foreigner when he catches his first glimpse of it, coming up the bay!"

Yes, it is," agreed Bijou, without enthusiasm. "I suppose we don't think very much about it, because we're so used to it."

Monsieur Pelissier passed us with a courtly little bow, and descended to the salon, and a moment later, the delicate, whimsical strains of Chaminade's "Flatterer" rippled up to us from the piano.

I turned to Bijou with a little exclamation of pleasure.

"Raoul plays nicely, doesn't he?" she said. "He won't play any popular things, though, only that classical stuff. I don't care for it, do you?"

"Yes, I do," I said, slowly. "You play, don't you?"

She shrugged.

"They tried to teach me at the convent, but I hated it so, I wouldn't practise. I think it's a waste of time when you can just stick a roll in a player-piano, and grind out something you like."

I was silent from sheer annoyance. I love music. Monsieur Pelissier played with a sure touch and faultless technique, but there was a metallic brilliancy about his execution utterly without feeling, a sort of purely mental expression, lacking in any soul quality. The "Flatterer" tinkled to an end, and then, after a slight pause, the lilting melody of "Anitra's Dance" stole out on the air.

Suddenly it was drowned in a blare of syncopation. We were passing a crowded Coney Island boat, with dingy flags fluttering, brass band braying, and a teeming mass of humanity packed against the rail, shouting and waving at us as we passed.

I fairly shuddered as I glanced at it, and then a sudden whimsical thought came to me.

"Just think, Bijou," I said. "If our fathers hadn't struck oil, we might be on that boat now, instead of here, and thinking that we were having a wonderful time!"

Bijou looked curiously at me.

"You're a funny girl, Maida," she observed, at last. "You're not a bit stuck-up, are you?"

"Stuck-up?" I repeated, in surprise. "No, I hope I'm not snobbish. Why should I be?"

"Oh, I don't know." She looked away as she spoke. "I was a little afraid you'd be. Lots of girls would in our position, you know, and then it's so long since I've seen you."

"Do you think I've changed very much?" I demanded, in my turn.

She shook her head.

"No, you don't seem to have," she replied, rather doubtfully. "Not in looks, anyway. Oh, you're older, of course, but you are just like you were when we were little.—I wonder why mother and Lorna and Raoul don't come up on deck? It's stuffy in the salon."

The piano had been silent since the Coney Island band had drowned it out, and now a low steady murmur of voices came up from below.

Bijou was tapping petulantly on the arm of her chair, with her glittering, pen-pointed nails, and it got on my nerves. There was something monotonous and maddening about that insistent tapping, like a telegraph instrument, or a type-writer. It ceased abruptly, as if she were suddenly aware of my annoyed, involuntary attention.

One of the sailors passed us with his swift cat-like tread, and I glanced idly up to find his eyes fixed unmistakably on me, with a curious intensity of expression. It was one of the men who had rowed us out in the dinghy, a bronzed young giant with a mop of hair faded almost tow-color by the sun, and very round, bold eyes.

It was late, and quite dark when we went below to dress for dinner. Lorna and Bijou shared the cabin next mine, and Alaric and Monsieur Pelissier were across the companionway. Aunt Julie occupied the large stateroom amidships, forward of ours, which stretched from port to starboard.

Monsieur Pelissier talked brilliantly during dinner. He was really fascinating to listen to, in spite of my odd, instinctive feeling of aversion. It seemed to me that there was a vindictive, cruel expression about his thin lips, and his high, aquiline nose was thin, too, while his ears were crumpled and fiat against his sleek head, and almost lobeless.

He was apparently much older than Alaric, about thirty, I fancied, and although Aunt Julie had spoken of him as her son's friend, they seemed to have little in common, and weren't at all companionable. I didn't see how two such dissimilar types could be very congenial.

After dinner we sat on deck for a while in the moonlight, but the cold wind, which had sprung up with the coming of night, soon drove us below. All but Alaric, who stayed above, smoking. Bijou ground out some ragtime with the player attachment on the piano, to her own evident satisfaction, and Monsieur proposed bridge.

We played until eleven, then Aunt Julie suggested that Monsieur Pelissier mix some famous punch of his own invention. So they brought out the great cut-glass bowl and thin-stemmed glasses. Monsieur Pelissier turned up his cuffs, and said, with the mock air of a professional magician:

"To show you, ladies and gentlemen, that there is no deception——"

"Do be sensible, Raoul!" exclaimed Lorna, impatiently. "My head aches frightfully. I'm going up on deck for a breath of air."

He blocked the way, playfully, with outspread arms.

"Not before my wonderful punch!" he coaxed. It will make your headache disappear—poof! like that!—There is magic in it, I assure you, Miss Waring," he went on as he turned again to the bowl. "It banishes all unpleasant thoughts and induces sweet dreams. You shall see!"

Lorna shrugged, and dropped into a chair by the piano.

"Who could have unpleasant thoughts on such a perfect night as this?" she murmured, but rather listlessly.

"I have an unpleasant suspicion that I shall be seasick tomorrow," observed Aunt Julie.

"You're always afraid of seasickness, mother, but you know you are never sick," Bijou consoled her lazily. "Besides, tomorrow afternoon we shall reach Hard-a-lee."

Monsieur Pelissier presented us with our glasses, then raised his on high.

"A toast, ladies!" he cried, with sparkling eyes and a little flush mounting in his sallow cheeks. "To Sunset Island, and golden hours at Hard-a-lee!"

"To the ties of old friendship!" amended Lorna, softly. "May they be drawn closer and bound fast!"

We talked for a little while longer, but soon said goodnight and went to our cabin. I was terribly sleepy. The exciting events of the long day, and the hours in the open air with the fresh breezes blowing, had combined to weigh my eyelids down like lead. My last conscious thought was an idly and wholly impertinent speculation as to why they had all been so terribly anxious about Lorna's delayed return, and whom she had meant when she reached the yacht, and said to Monsieur Pellissier in that curiously even tone: "I have not seen him."