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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 395

CHAPTER III

HELEN DE VALLORBES APPREHENDS VEXATIOUS COMPLICATIONS

FOUR gowns lay outspread upon the indigo‐purple, embroidered coverlet of the bed. The after‐glow of an orange and crimson sunset touched the folds of them, ranged upward to the vaultings of the frescoed ceiling, and stained the lofty walls as with the glare of a furnace. Sea‐greens, sea‐blues, died in the heat of it, abashed and vanquished. But so did not Madame de Vallorbes’ white lawn and lace peignoir, or her abundant hair, which Zélie Forestier—trim of figure, and sour of countenance—was in the act of dressing. These caught the fiery light and held it, so that from head to foot Helen appeared as an image of living gold. Sitting before the toilet‐table, her reflection in the great, oval mirror pleased her.

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“Which shall I wear?”

“That depends upon the length of time madame proposes to stay here. The black dress might be worn on several occasions with impunity. The peacock brocade, the eau de Nil, the crocus yellow, but once—twice at the uttermost. They are ravishing costumes, but wanting in repose. They are unsuited for frequent repetition.”

Zélie’s lean fingers twisted, puffed, pinned, the shining hair very skilfully.

“I will put on the black dress.”

“Relieved by madame’s parure of pink topaz?”

“Yes, I will wear the pink topazes.”

“Then it will be necessary to modify the style of madame’s coiffure.”

“There is plenty of time.”

Helen took a hand‐glass from the table and leaned forward in the low, round‐backed chair—faithful copy of a fine classic model. She wanted to see the full glory of the after‐glow upon her profile, upon her neck and bosom. Thus might Cassiopeia, glass in hand, in her golden chair sit in high heaven!—Helen smiled at the pretty conceit. But the glory was already departing. Sea‐blues, sea‐greens, sad by contrast, began to reassert their presence on walls and carpet and hangings.

“The black dress? Madame decides to remain then?”

As she spoke the lady’s‐maid laid out the jewels,—chains, bracelets, brooches,—each stone set in a rim of tiny rose‐knots of delicate workmanship. As she fingered them little, yellow‐pink flames seemed to dance in their many facets. Then the after‐glow died suddenly. The flames ceased to dance. Helen’s white garments turned livid, her neck and bosom grey—and that, somehow, was extremely unpleasing to Madame de Vallorbes.

“Light the candles,” she said, almost sharply. “Yes, I remain. Do hurry, Zélie. It is impossible to see. I detest darkness. Hurry. Do you suppose I want to stay here all night? And look—you must bring that chain farther forward. It is not graceful. Make it droop. Let it follow the line of my hair so that the pendant may fall there, in the centre. You have it too much to the right. The centre—the centre—I tell you. There, let the drop just clear my forehead.”

Thus admonished the Frenchwoman wound the jewels in her mistress’ hair. But Madame de Vallorbes remained dissatisfied. The day had been one of uncertainty, of conflicting emotions; and Helen’s love of unqualified purposes was page: 397 great. Confusion in others was highly diverting. But in herself—no thank you! She hated it. It touched her self‐confidence. It endangered the absoluteness of her self‐belief and self‐worship. And these once shaken, small superstitions assaulted her. In trivial happenings she detected indication of ill‐luck. Now Zélie’s long, narrow face, divided into two unequal portions by a straight bar of black eyebrow, and her lean hands as reflected in the mirror, awoke unreasoning distrust. They appeared to be detached from the woman’s dark‐clothed person, the outlines of which were absorbed in the increasing dimness of the room. The sallow face moved, peered, the hands clutched and hovered, independent and unrelated, about Helen’s graceful head.

“For pity’s sake, more candles, Zélie!” she repeated. “You. look absolutely diabolic in this uncertain light.”

“In an instant, madame. I am compelled first to fix this curl in place.”

She accomplished the operation with most admired deliberation, and moved away more than once, to observe the effect, before finally adjusting the hair‐pin.

“I cannot but regret that madame is unable to wear her hair turned back from the face. Such an arrangement confers height and an air of spirituality, which, in madame’s case, would be not only becoming but advantageous.”

Helen skidded the hand‐glass down upon the dressing‐table, causing confusion amid silver‐topped pots and bottles, endangering a jar of hyacinths, upsetting a tray of hair‐pins.

“Have I not repeatedly given you orders never to allude to that subject?” she cried.

The maid was on her knees calmly collecting the scattered contents of the tray.

“A thousand pardons, madame,” she said, with a certain sour impudence. “Still, it must ever be a matter of regret to anyone truly appreciating madame’s style of beauty, that she should be always constrained to wear her hair shading her forehead.”

Modern civilisation imposes restrictions even upon the most high‐spirited. At that moment Madame de Vallorbes was ripe for the commission of atrocities. Had she been—as she coveted, to be—a lady of the Roman decadence it would have gone hard with her waiting‐woman, who might have found herself ordered for instant execution or summarily deprived of the organs of speech. But, latter‐day sentiment happily forbidding such active expressions of ill‐feeling on the part of the employer towards the employed, Helen was forced to swallow her wrath, page: 398 reminding herself, meanwhile, that a confidential servant is either most invaluable of friends or most dangerous of enemies. There is no viâ media in the relation. And Zélie as an enemy was not to be thought of. She could not—displeasing reflection—afford to quarrel with Zélie. The woman knew too much. Therefore Madame de Vallorbes took refuge in lofty abstraction; while the tiresome uncertainties, the conflicting inclinations of the past day, quick to seize their opportunity,—as is the habit of such discourteous gentry,—returned upon her with redoubled importunity and force.

She had not seen Richard since parting with him at noon, the enigmatic suggestions of his conversation still unresolved, the alternate resentment at his apparent indifference and attraction of his strong and somewhat mysterious personality still vitally present to her. Later, she had driven out to Pozzuoli. But neither stone‐throwing urchins, foul and disease‐stricken beggars, the pale sulphur plains and subterranean rumblings of the Solfaterra, nor stirring of nether fires therein resident by a lanky, wild‐eyed lad—clothed in leathern jerkin and hairy, goatskin leggings—with the help of a birch broom and a few local newspapers, served effectually to rouse her from inward debate and questioning. The comfortable, cee‐spring carriage might swing and sway over the rough, deep‐rutted roads behind the handsome, black, long‐tailed horses, the melodramatic‐looking coachman might lash stone‐throwing urchins and anathematise them, their ancestors and descendants, alike, to the third and fourth generation in the vilest, Neapolitan argot, Charles might resort to physical force in the removal of wailing, alms‐demanding, vermin‐eaten wrecks of humanity, but still Helen asked herself only—should she go? Should she stay? Was the game worth the candle? Was the risk, not only of social scandal, but of possible ennui worth the projected act of revenge? And worth something more than that. For revenge, it must be owned, already took a second place in her calculations. Worth, namely, the enjoyment of possible conquest, the humiliation of possible defeat and rejection, by that strangely coercive, strangely inscrutable being, her cousin, Dickie Calmady?

No man had ever impressed her thus. And she returned on her thought, when first seeing him upon the terrace that morning, that she might lose her head. Helen laughed a little bitterly. She, of all women, to lose her head, to long and languish, to entreat affection, and to be faithful—heaven help us! faithful, could it ever come to that?—like any sentimental schoolgirl, like—and the thought turned her not a little wicked—like Katherine page: 399 Calmady herself! And then, that other woman of whom Richard had told her with a cynical disregard of her own claims to admiration, who on earth could she be? She reviewed those ladies with whom gossip had coupled Richard’s name. Morabita, the famous prima donna, for instance. But surely, it was inconceivable that mountain of fat and good‐nature, with the voice of a seraph, granted, but also with the intellect of a frog, could ever inspire so fantastic and sublimated a passion! And passing from these less legitimate affairs of the heart—in which rumour accredited Richard with being very much of a pluralist—her mind travelled back to the young man’s projected marriage with Lady Constance Decies, sometime Lady Constance Quayle. Remembering the slow, sweet baby‐face and gentle, heifer’s eyes, as she had seen them that day at luncheon at Brockhurst, nearly five years ago, she again laughed.—No, very certainly there was no affinity between the glorious and naughty city of Naples and that mild‐natured, well‐drilled, little, English girl! Who was it then—who? But, whoever the fair unknown rival might be, Helen hated her increasingly as the hours passed, regarding her as an enemy, a creature to be exterminated, and swept off the board. Jealousy pricked her desire of conquest. An intrigue with Richard Calmady offered singular, unique, attractions. But the force of such attractions was immensely enhanced by the excitement of wresting his affections away from another woman.

Suddenly, in the full swing of these meditations, as she reviewed them for the hundredth time, Zélie’s voice claimed her attention.

“I made the inquiries madame commanded.”

“Well?” Helen said. She was standing fastening clusters of topaz in the bosom of her dress.

“The servants in this house are very reserved. They are unwilling to give information regarding their master’s habits. I could only learn that Sir Richard occupies the entresol. Communicating as it does with the garden, no doubt it is convenient to a gentleman so afflicted as himself.”

Helen bowed herself together, while the black lace and China‐crape skirt slipped over her head. Emerging from which temporary eclipse, she said:—

“But do people stay here much? Does my cousin entertain? That is what I told you to find out.”

“As I tell madame, the servants are difficult of approach. They are very discreet. They fear their master, but they also adore him. Charles can obtain little more information than page: 400 myself. But he infers that Sir Richard, when at the villa, lives in retirement—that he is subject to fits of melancholy. There will be little diversion for madame it is to be feared! But what would you have? Even though one should be young and rich ce ne serait que peu amusant d’être estropié d’être monstre enfin!”

Helen drew in her breath with a little sigh of content when taking a final look at herself in the oval glass. The soft, floating draperies, the many jewels, each with its heart of quick, yellow‐pink light, produced a combination at once sombre and vivid. It satisfied her sense of artistic fitness. Decidedly she did well to begin with the black dress, since it had in it a quality rather of romance than of worldliness! Meanwhile Zélie, kneeling, straightened out the folds of the long train.

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “I had forgotten also to inform madame that M. Destournelle has arrived in Naples. Charles, thinking of nothing less than such an encounter, met him this morning on the quay of the Santa Lucia.”

Helen wheeled round violently, much to the discomfiture of those carefully adjusted folds.

“Intolerable man!” she cried. “What on earth is he doing here?”

“That, Charles naturally could not inquire.—Will madame kindly remain tranquil for a moment? She has torn a small piece of lace which must be controlled by a pin. Probably monsieur is still en voyage, is visiting friends as is madame herself.”

A sudden distrust that the black dress was too mature, that it constituted an admission of departing youth, invaded Helen. The reflection in the oval mirror once more caused her discomfort.

“Tell Charles that I am no longer acquainted with M. Destournelle. If he presumes to call he is to be refused.”

Helen set her teeth. But whether in anger towards her discarded lover, or the black dress, she would have found it difficult to declare. Again uncertainty held her, suspicion of circumstance, and, in a degree, of herself. The lady’s‐maid, imperturbable, just conceivably impertinent in manner, had risen to her feet.

“There,” she said, “it will be secure for to‐night, if madame will exercise a moderate degree of caution and avoid abrupt movements. Charles says that monsieur inquired very urgently after madame. He appeared dejected and in weak health. He was agitated on meeting Charles. He trembled. A little more and he would have wept. It would be well, perhaps, that madame should give Charles her orders regarding monsieur herself.”

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“You should not have made me wear this gown,” Helen broke out inconsequently. “It is depressing, it is hideous. I want to change it.”

“Impossible. Madame is already a little late, and there is nothing wrong with the costume. Madame looks magnificent. Also her wardrobe is, at present, limited. The evening dresses will barely suffice for a stay of a week, and it is not possible for me to construct a new one under ten days.”

Thereupon an opening of doors and voice from the anteroom, announcing:—

“Dinner is served, my lady. Sir Richard is in the dining‐room.”

And Helen swept forward, somewhat stormy and Cassandra‐like in her dusky garments. Passing out through the high narrow doorway, she turned her head.

“Charles, under no circumstance—none, understand—am I at home to Monsieur Destournelle.”

“Very good, my lady,” and, as he closed the double‐doors, the man‐servant looked at the lady’s‐maid his tongue in his cheek.

But, on the journey through the noble suite of rooms, Helen’s spirits revived somewhat. Her fair head, her warm glancing jewels, her graceful and measured movements, as given back by many tall mirrors, renewed her self‐confidence. She too must be fond of her own image, by the way, that unknown rival to the dream of whose approval Richard Calmady had consecrated these splendid furnishings—witness the multiplicity of looking‐glasses!—And then the prospect of this tête‐á‐tête dinner, the interest of her host’s powerful and enigmatic personality, provoked her interest to the point not only of obliterating remembrance of the ill‐timed advent of her ex‐lover, but of inducing something as closely akin to self‐forgetfulness as was possible to her self‐centred nature. She grew hotly anxious to obtain, to charm—if it might be to usurp the whole field of Richard’s attention and imagination.

A small round table showed as an island of tender light in the dimness of the vast room. And Richard, sitting at it awaiting her coming, appeared more nearly related to the Richard of Brockhurst and of five years ago than he had done during the interview of the morning. In any case, she took him more for granted. While he, if still inscrutable and unsmiling, proved an eminently agreeable companion, ready of conversation, very much at his ease, very much a cultivated man of the world, studious—a little excessively so, she thought—in his avoidance of the personal note. And this at once piqued page: 402 Helen, and incited her to intellectual effort. If this was what he wanted, well, he should have it! If he elected to talk of travel, of ancient and alien religions, of modern literature and art, she could meet him more than half way. Her intelligence ran nimbly from subject to subject, from point to point. She struck out daring hypotheses, indulged in ingenious paradox, her mind charmed by her own eloquence, her body comforted by costly wines and delicate meats. Nor did she fail to listen also, knowing how very dear to every man is the sound of his own voice, or omit to offer refined flattery of quick agreement and seasonable laughter. It was late when she rose from the table at last.

“I have had a delightful dinner,” she said. “Absolutely delightful. And now I will encroach no longer on your time or good‐nature, Richard. You have your own occupations, no doubt. So, with thanks for shelter and generous entertainment, we part for to‐night.”

She held out her hand smiling, but with an admirable effect of discretion, all ardour, all intimacy, kept in check by self‐respect and well‐bred dignity. Madame de Vallorbes was enchanted with the reserve of her own demeanour. Let it be understood that she was the least importunate, the least exacting, the most adaptable, of guests!

Richard took her outstretched hand for the briefest period compatible with courtesy. And a momentary spasm—so she fancied—contracted his face.

“You are very welcome, Helen,” he said. “If it is warm let us breakfast in the pavilion to‐morrow. Twelve—does that suit you? Good‐night.”

Upon the inlaid writing‐table in the anteroom, Helen found a long and impassioned epistle from Paul Destournelle. Perusal of it did not minister to peaceful sleep. In the small hours she left her bed, threw a silk dressing‐gown about her, drew aside the heavy, blue‐purple window curtain and looked out. The sky was clear and starlit. Naples, and its curving lines of innumerable lights, lay outstretched below. In the south‐east, midway between the two, a blood‐red fire marked the summit of Vesuvius. While in the dimly seen garden immediately beneath—the paved alleys of which showed curiously pale, asserting themselves against the darkness of the flower borders, and otherwise impenetrable shadows of the ilex and cypress grove—a living creature moved, black, slow of pace, strange of shape. At first Helen took it for some strayed animal. It alarmed her, exciting her to wildest conjectures as to its nature and purpose, wandering in the grounds of the villa page: 403 thus. Then, as it passed beyond the dusky shade of the trees, she recognised it. Richard Calmady shuffled forward, haltingly, to the terminal wall of the garden, leaned his arms on it, looking down at the beautiful and vicious city and out into the night.

Helen de Vallorbes shivered—the marble floor striking up chill, for all the thickness of the carpet, to her bare feet. Her eyes were hard with excitement and her breath came very quick. Suddenly, yielding to an impulse of superstitious terror, she dragged the curtains together, shutting out that very pitiful sight, and, turning, fled across the room and buried herself, breathless and trembling, between the sheets of the soft, warm, faintly fragrant bed.

“He is horrible,” she said aloud, “horrible! And it has come to me at last. It has come—I love—I love!”

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