III: An Inn of Strange Meetings

IT was drawing to the end of September, and the consequent close of the season at Beauplage. Still a fair sprinkling of subscribers were patronising the afternoon concert at the Casino, and a small group of English visitors sitting on the red velvet raised benches at the end of the room (a coign of 'vantage from whence to discern the entrances and exits of one's friends and acquaintances) had been loud in their applause of a pot pourri of national airs played by the local band of the Casino.

“Do clap them for once, Mrs. Belmont,” said the girl of the party, which consisted, besides herself, of her brother and mother and the very pretty woman whom she was addressing. “That nice conductor is looking this way, and it's his own arrangement, you know.”

“But I so abominate such hotch-potch productions,

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my dear child; there's only one thing worse than these jumbles of airs, and that's the single air with variations.”

“Well, I don't like that myself, when it comes to practising time,” returned the bright-looking young English girl; “each variation always goes on getting more difficult than the other, and one never seems to have half enough fingers. At least, I don't”; and she laughed out like the merry school-girl that she had only just ceased to be.

“Joyce is so delighted with everything,” chimed in the gentle, middle-aged mother. “This is her first visit to France, and I am afraid, when we go home, she will find Dulwich very dull indeed.”

“Very dull, which it is,” echoed the brother, with intention.

“Oh! please stop him, Mrs. Belmont; he means that for a pun, and when once he begins——”

But Alma Belmont was at that moment giving a little intimate nod of recognition to a big splendid figure of a blue-eyed Englishman who was standing in the doorway, stroking a pointed brown beard with an unconscious, habitual gesture.

“That's the fellow who arrived yesterday, and a fine chap too! I saw him for a few moments last night in the smoke-room. Davenant, I think they called him. But he's an old acquaintance of yours, I believe,” he went on, turning to Alma and following her glance as the new-comer bowed to the group with a slight comprehensive salutation.

“A very old acquaintance, Mrs. Marshall, and it may interest you to know that he ‘stroked’ the Brasenose eight over a dozen years ago, and could

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almost have stocked a silversmith's shop with his cups and racing prizes, for he was a runner as well as an oarsman.”

“Didn't weigh fourteen stone then, I should think! But you don't mean to say he's the Davenant? Why, he left traditions behind him, and I know a lot of Brasenose fellows who would give their ears to have a yarn with him. Being a Brasenose man myself, naturally——”

“Hush, Guy! for goodness' sake don't get so excited!” interrupted Joyce Marshall. “That was the last piece, and he's coming our way.”

“We may as well go down to meet him,” suggested her mother, and presently they had all joined him and issued out together on the wide glass-covered stone entrance, and then through the gardens down the marble-paved port, Mrs. Marshall leading the way with her daughter, and Alma following with her double escort. When they had reached that windiest of all corners, known to the English colony as “Merriman's,” Mr. Davenant paused and wished his companions good afternoon. He wanted to go in for a look at the English papers before dinner, he explained.

“See you in the smoke-room after dinner, I suppose,” eagerly interpolated the young man, but Mr. Davenant was afraid not; he had promised to join a small whist party after dinner, at the Consul's.

“In fact,” turning to Alma, “when the dear old man heard I was returning to London to-morrow, he wanted me to stay on to dinner, and I could not get off without promising at any rate to look in to-night. He had kept me at the Consulate the whole afternoon

  ― 39 ―
until I strolled down just in time to find you all leaving.”

“Perhaps you don't know there's a dance on at the casino to-night,” said Joyce—“the last one too. Couldn't you get away by eleven, Mr. Davenant?”

“I shouldn't be any acquisition from a dancing point of view, Miss Marshall, having long given up such frivolities, and I hope to be getting some beauty sleep by that time,” he concluded, raising his hat as he stood on the doorstep of the library with a look in his blue eyes that was half grave and half quizzical.

Later in the evening, when the guests at the big Hotel-Pension were mostly gathered in the drawing-room after dinner, taking their coffee before sallying out again, Alma Belmont was standing by a long French window half-opened to the balcony, listening attentively to a man who was leaning against it outside.

“Strange!” Hugh Davenant was saying, “that after all these years we should both come back to the home of our childhood, the wretched little French town that we alternately abused and loved, and meet by chance in this caravanserai, then only to find you going about with a pack of uninteresting and commonplace people, and I hardly able to speak half a dozen consecutive words with you! The same old game! Well, History does repeat itself with a vengeance!”

“There are stranger things than that, Hugh!”

“One of them being——?”

“That you should still care——”

“Still?—always! Not that I was sure of it myself until I saw you again yesterday. And then it seemed

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only the day before that I had gone back to Oxford and heard of your marriage and departure for Australia, and all the old pain and grief came back again with a rush!”

“It seems a hundred years ago to me. Don't let us talk about it. Why in all these long years have you never married, Hugh?”

Et tu brute!” You can ask me now, now when at last I am in a position to speak, and you are once more free, Alma!”

“If that is what you want to say, old friend, don't say it. My freedom is sweet to me, and I could never marry again; I was too unhappy.”

“But I would so surround you with loving care and devotion; if you had only a spark of womanly pity or common gratitude.—Pah! what drivel am I talking?” He checked himself suddenly, and she interposed with a kind of strain in her sweet, clear voice.

“Had I any pity or gratitude in those old days, Hugh, when your devotion must have won recognition from any girl less ungrateful and selfish and heartless than myself? I am no better now, rather a good deal worse, but I have thought sometimes that my unhappiness was a kind of retribution. You were so patient with me always, so kind and true, far more than I ever deserved.”

“If you think so truly, Alma—and indeed I have always given you the whole love of my heart—you can more than repay me now. Only give me leave to take back my old place at your side as more than friend, more than brother, your unacknowledged lover still if you will it so, but not altogether as then, hoping against hope some day to obtain a dearer title!”

  ― 41 ―

He spoke in low, concentrated accents, which could have reached no other ears than those for which they were intended; and while the tardy reply was lingering on Alma's lips, a voice near them broke in upon the momentary silence.

“Are you not going to put on your things, dear Mrs. Belmont? Shall we wait, or go on and keep a seat for you?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Marshall, I am coming; I won't keep you ten minutes.”

“Then you wil find us below in the courtyard.” Alma turned back to the man on the balcony.

“Hugh, dear old Hugh, don't be vexed! I promise you shall have an answer in the morning. Give me a little time to think. Have patience with me!”

“I am not quite as long-suffering as I used to be, Alma,” he replied with a touch of bitterness. “One gets tired of playing for ever the part of l'un qui embrasse, while l'autre tend la joue—and not even that, by Jove! Don't dare to play with me, Alma.”

There was in his tone as much of menace as entreaty. Never in his life had Hugh Davenant so spoken to her; had he done so in “the old days” their lives might have been very different.

Now, like the woman that she was, her reply seemed almost inconsequent.

“Hugh! If you only knew how I have longed for a sight of your dear old face, for a grip of that great brown paw!” True affection looked out of her eyes into his own, and his hand held hers for a moment in a firm clasp.

Then she said in the clear, level tones that

  ― 42 ―
characterised her utterance, “We both have our engagements to keep. Good-night.”

“It will be for me a long night till the morning,” he replied with gentleness; and not till he had watched her pass out with her friends through the big gates into the street did he leave the balcony that looked down into the courtyard.

Alma had told Hugh Davenant that the old days of which he spoke seemed to her as a hundred years ago, and as she sat in the brilliantly-lighted, mirror-panelled salle watching the dancers, all her youth passed in array before her mental vision. She saw herself once more a young, radiant, irresponsible creature, the centre of a throng of flatterers and admirers, grudgingly bestowing half a dance on one, unconcernedly sitting out half a dozen dances with another, either surrounded by Frenchmen, or discreetly left to a tête-à-tête with the favourite or the hour, and they were of all nationalities. Girls had envied, married women had been jealous of her, men had loved her to distraction; she had gone on her way smiling, intoxicated with her own fascinations and triumphs, heedless of what might be said or thought; and what had been the outcome of it all? Satiety, discontent, a reckless, unhappy marriage, exile, misery!

Absorbed in the past, her companion was unheeded until the return of Joyce Marshall with her partner recalled her to the present.

“Such a glorious waltz, dear Mrs. Belmont. How can you sit out? Guy would be so awfully flattered if you would take a turn with him, and Mr. Hume was asking me if I thought you could possibly be induced.”

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Both young men eagerly protested in unison that they would be “so delighted,” “honoured,” but Mrs. Belmont was not to be persuaded, and they went off to make up their set for the Lancers then forming.

Joyce was not going to take part in it, and Alma announced her intention of going up to the terrace while mother and daughter were together; her head ached, the lights and dancers worried her, the sea air would do her good; they were not to take any notice if she even did not return to the ball-room, as she might possibly after a time stroll back quietly by herself while it was still early.

In the general move of young people seeking or claiming partners, she slipped out of the salle quietly but not altogether unnoticed.

A man who had been watching her during the evening without attracting her attention, had followed her out of the ball-room and up the shallow polished staircase, then stepped into the empty reading-room for a moment when she had reached an angle at which she would otherwise have seen him. He had styled her in his mind a harmony in ivory and grey. She had kept on the white serge skirt she had worn in the afternoon, with the substitution of a creamy befrilled silk blouse for the jacket, and she carried a long grey cloak over her arm. Her skin was the same dead white as her dress, and her grey dark-lashed eyes were ringed underneath with amethystine shadows.

When she reached the covered terrace looking out to the sea, she drew a chair close up to the railing, and was sitting down, when her cloak caught on some projection as she attempted to draw it around her; almost before she realised the obstacle it was deftly disengaged

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and placed round her shoulders, and a voice at her elbow caused her to turn round and face the intruder on her solitude.

Pardon,” he said with the languid drawl of a petit maître, “but this is not the first time by many that I have been fortunate enough to render you this trifling service, though not to Madame Belmont.”

“Nor is it the first time either that I could have dispensed with the service, monsieur—in the past as now.”

“Unkind as ever, the same provoking Alma! Eh bien, tant mieux!

“Impertinent as ever, the same futile Fouligny! Tant pis!

The little Vicomte threw his head back and contemplated Alma critically, as if he were appraising a picture.

Parole d'honneur!” he broke out at last, “you have lost nothing, except—and I am not sure you are not the more charming—your roses!”

“And you—have gained nothing, except perhaps —” and she looked at him through narrowed eyelids —“a stomach!”

Méchante! My contemporaries are almost all married men, and keep good cooks. Que voulez vous?

“And why have you not ‘ranged’ yourself during these fourteen years and married also?”

A quoi bon? My friends have mostly married pretty or charming wives (which was very kind of them), and I endeavour to show my appreciation, hein?

Alma gave a little contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.

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“You are an incorrigible, Monsieur de Fouligny!”

“Ah, madame, why not have married that poor de Bassompierre who adored you, and remained to us?”

“As one of the charming wives? I do not share your regrets, M. de Fouligny. But jesting apart and in sober truth, I should be glad if you would consider this little entr'acte over. I am tired. I came here to be quiet.”

“I am mute, deaf, blind, whatever you would like me to be. I take this chair beside you and look in another direction till it suits you to recall me to life, then you permit me to escort you to your domicile. Is it not so?”

Alma made a movement of impatience.

Vous m'agacez enfin! I need no escort; my friends are waiting for me below. I wish you goodnight.”

“Now indeed, madame, one realises that you have been amongst the savages. This is barbarity, but I obey.”

Standing up, he drew his heels together in a low, ceremonious bow, and was turning away when Alma held out her hand with her charming smile and gesture.

“Not half the mauvais sujet that you try to make one believe, mon cher. Are you not tired of the old pose? Take my advice and study a new character.”

“If you were here to coach me in the part, qui sait? Enfin bonsoir, madame.” And Gontran de Fouligny departed with a very creditable sigh, feeling for his cigarette-case as he turned in the direction of the smoking-room.

  ― 46 ―

His inopportune appearance had disconcerted Mrs. Belmont, who had sought the solitude of the deserted terrace, not to bandy words in an encounter of wits with any frivolous Frenchman, but to dive down into her own heart and make up her mind as to what answer she should give Hugh Davenant in the morning. But the fact of once more conversing in the old familiar language had thrown her thoughts still further back into the past. She saw again the dark, grave face of the man who had been her girlish ideal, when, at eighteen—in love with Love itself, she had first met the man of thirty, who realised her every dream of what a hero of romance should be. The gallant soldier with an historic name, courted and beset by women of the world, to whose advances he opposed the shield of a calm indifference, had laid it down at the shrine of this innocent, girlish worship, but even he was powerless against the claims of la famille, that Juggernaut which can control the destinies and crush out the hearts of the sons as well as the daughters of France.

Alma loyally struggled against the flood of remembrance; she had risen from her seat and was leaning over the iron balustrade looking out to the moonlit expanse of water; the tide was high, and the swish of the waves against the seawall was distinctly audible. Suddenly, like the change of a slide in a magic-lantern, a fresh picture impressed itself upon her mental retina. In fancy, she was taken back to the shore of the great Australian tidal river where she had encountered Hilarion Bingham; they were together on the deck of the steamer, they were walking in the tropical moonlight of that enchanted Garden of Eden. His last words

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rang in her ears—“Alma, soul of my soul, farewell!” She cast a furtive glance around; so vivid was the impression that she almost expected to see the speaker. Then a feeling of anger with herself took possession of her, and she began to pace restlessly up and down until the recurrent sound of her own footsteps begat a fresh irritation. With an idea that any change might dispel the obsession of her reminiscent thoughts, she began to descend the polished steps of the staircase, and almost unconsciously found herself out on the marble pavements of the port before she realised that she had left the casino. The quays were deserted, even the cafés and restaurants seemed silent. She began to think that the hour must be much later than she had imagined, and instinctively drew the folds of her long cloak closer around her as if to efface her personality. She quickened her pace as a stray passerby cast a glance in her direction, then she fancied she heard following footsteps, but went on her way resolutely looking straight before her. At Merriman's Corner a slight gust blew back the grey hood that covered her dainty coiffure and slightly bared throat, and as she was drawing it further over her head, the flash of the diamonds on her ungloved hand suggested a fresh cause for trepidation.

By the time she had reached the pension, her heart was thumping in her breast, and her one thought was to get in safe and unmolested. She had to pass the closed gates of the courtyard and turn down the side street in which her own quarters were located. When she had first arrived at the pension earlier in the season, it had been crowded, and a room had been assigned to her in a house through which a communication had

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been opened with the main building. Single people who did not care for large rooms, and those who merely required the night's lodging without board were generally housed in the smaller building; but Alma had found her room comfortable, and had not cared to change it later. Now, as she fumbled nervously with her latch-key, she almost wished she had rung the porter's bell at the big gates, but while debating as to going back round the corner and doing so, the key suddenly turned in the lock, and closing the door quickly, she fled down the long passage, up the dimly-lighted staircase into her own room as she imagined. She did not know that in her fright and nervous agitation she had gone a flight beyond her own landing until, on rushing in and hastily closing the door behind her, she confronted a man who was rising from a writing-table, and recognised Hilarion Bingham.

Her trembling knees gave way beneath her, she sank helplessly into the nearest chair, and could only gaze at him without a word of explanation. His own surprise also at first arrested speech or movement on his part, but presently coming towards her, he laid a hand on her arm with a gentle touch that reassured instead of alarming her.

Speaking as if he had seen her but yesterday, “You have been frightened, Alma,” he said kindly, as he quietly stood before her, “sit still and compose yourself, and then tell me if I can help you in any way.”

His composure partly restored her own.

“I thought I was being followed out of doors,” she answered. “I came in and rushed upstairs in such

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haste that I must have passed my own landing—my room is underneath. I must go down again.”

Her breath still came in short gasps as she spoke, and she looked round with a scared expression.

“You had better wait,” he said, “till I make sure there is no one about. I think every one is in except an Englishman I met to-night at the British Consul's, my father's old friend, with whom I have been dining. He said he would smoke a cigar on the leads before turning in.”

Even as he spoke, footsteps resounded and stopped at the end of a corridor running at right angles from Hilarion's; then they heard the closing of a door.

“Better wait a little longer. I will look out presently,” he went on. “I am only passing through myself on my way to Paris, where I have left my wife,” he continued, looking steadily at Alma as he spoke, “and shall be off early in the morning. Tell me something of yourself. How comes it you are travelling apparently alone and unprotected?”

“I know every inch of the old place,” replied Alma, with a slight note of protest in her voice, “and—I have been a widow for some years. You are happy, I trust, Hilarion. Do you still live at——?”

He answered almost before she had completed the question.

“Yes. I succeeded to my father's position when he died. Coralie is a niece of my mother's who came out to us from the Mauritius, and who is a dear daughter to her.”

“I am glad,” returned Alma simply. “Good-night, Hilarion.” He looked out, and shut to the door for a moment as he took her hand in both his own. “Our

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little daughter is named Alma. You see I did not altogether forget. Goodbye; Dieu vous garde!

Once again in her own room and the light turned up, Alma sat down at a table without removing her cloak, and began to write rapidly. At last she stopped to read what she had written:—

“DEAREST HUGH,—I married a man I did not love; I have loved two men whom I did not marry. The one love you know of—a sentiment, a romance bred in a young girl's imagination, heightened by obstacles, opposition. The other an infatuation that sprung up in a night out of circumstance, surroundings, the revolt of an unhappy woman!

“These books of my life are closed. If you care to inscribe your name on the third volume, I can still offer you a fair white page, and perhaps even a fresh heart. Quien sabe?


She changed her walking shoes for slippers, still keeping on her grey cloak, with the hood drawn around her head and face; once more mounted to the second landing, passed the doors guarded by pairs of boots on each side of the corridor till she reached the one at the end and thrust the note underneath it.

When she opened her eyes the next morning, the smiling femme de chambre handed her a note with her early roll and coffee. “The big Monsieur Anglais of No.20,” she said, “had given her the billet for madame. Bel homme, ma foi! et pas fainéant! He was then going out for a walk before the déjeûner.”

Alma hardly waited for her to leave the room before

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opening it. The envelope contained a man's visiting card on which a few words had been scribbled in pencil, and there was an interpolation that read thus:—


University Club, Pall Mall.

“Come down ready to go out immediately after breakfast.”

“At last I have found my master!” she said to herself, and sprang out of bed with a smile of exceeding contentment.