The slave of the lamp, p.10
The Slave of the Lamp,
There was, however, no cricket for Stanley Carew that morning. Whenthey came within sight of the house Mrs. Carew emerged from an openwindow carrying several letters in her hand. She was not hurrying, butwalking leisurely, reading a letter as she walked.
"Just think, Hilda dear," she said, with as much surprise as she everallowed herself. "I have had a letter from the Vicomte d'Audierne. Youremember him?"
"Yes," said the girl; "I remember him, of course. He is not the sort ofman one forgets."
"I always liked the Viscount," said Mrs. Carew, pensively looking at theletter she held in her hand. "He was a good friend to us at one time. Inever understood him, and I like men whom one does not understand."
"Yes," she answered vaguely.
"Your father admired him tremendously," Mrs. Carew went on to say. "Hesaid that he was one of the cleverest men in France, but that he hadfallen in a wrong season, and would not adapt himself. Had France been amonarchy, the Vicomte d'Audierne would have been in a very differentposition."
Vellacott did not open his own letters. He seemed to be interested inthe conversation of these ladies. He was not a reserved man, but asecretive, which is quite a different thing. Reserve is natural--itcomes unbidden, and often unwelcome. Secretiveness is born ofcircumstances. Some men find it imperative to cultivate it, althoughtheir soul revolts within them. In professional or social matters it isoften merely an expediency--in some cases it almost feels like a crime.There are some secrets which cannot be divulged; there are somedeceptions which a certain book-keeper will record upon the credit sideof our account.
Like most young men who have got on in their calling, ChristianVellacott held his career in great respect. He felt that any sacrificemade for it carried its own reward. He thought that it levelled scruplesand justified deceptions.
He knew this Vicomte d'Audierne by reputation; he wished to hear more ofhim; and so he feigned ignorance--listening.
"What has he written about?" inquired Hilda.
"To ask if he may come and see us. I suppose he means to come and stay."
Vellacott looked what the French call "contraried."
"When?" asked the girl.
"On Monday week."
And then Mrs. Carew turned to her other letters. Vellacott took thebudget addressed to him, and walked away to where an iron table and somechairs stood in the shade of a deodar.
In a few minutes he looked still more put out. He had learnt of thedisturbances in Paris, and was reading a rather panic-stricken letterfrom Mr. Bodery. The truth was that there was no one in the office ofthe _Beacon_ who knew anything whatever about French home politicsbut Christian Vellacott.
A continuance of these disturbances would necessarily assume politicalimportance, and might even lead to a crisis. This meant an instantrecall for Vellacott. In a crisis his presence in London or Paris wasabsolutely necessary to the _Beacon_.
His holiday had barely lasted twenty-four hours, and there was already aquestion of recall. It happened also that within that short space aconsiderable change had come over Vellacott. The subtle influence of acountry life, and possibly the low, peaceful song of the distant sea,were already beginning to make themselves felt. He actually detected adesire to sit still and do nothing--a feeling of which he had nothitherto been conscious. He was distinctly averse to leaving St. MaryWestern just yet. But there is one task-master who knows no mercy andmakes no allowances. Some of us who serve him know it to our cost, andyet we would be content to serve no other. That task-master is thePublic.
Vellacott was a public servant, and he knew his position.
Somewhat later in the morning Molly and Hilda found him still seated atthe table, writing with that concentrated rapidity which only comes withpractice.
"I am sorry," he said, looking up, "but I must send off a telegram. Ishall walk in to the station."
"I was just coming," said Hilda, "to ask if you would drive me in. Iwant to get some things."
"And," added Molly, "there are some domestic commissions--butcher,baker, &c."
Vellacott expressed his entire satisfaction with the arrangement, and bythe time he had finished his letter the dog-cart was waiting at thedoor.
Several of the family were standing round the vehicle talking in adesultory manner, and Vellacott learnt then for the first time thatFrederick Farrar had left home that same morning to attend a midlandrace-meeting.
It was one of those brilliant summer days when it is quite impossible tobe pessimistic and exceedingly difficult to compass preoccupation. Thelight breeze bowling over the upland from the sea had just sufficientstrength to blow away all mental cobwebs. Also, Christian Vellacott hadsuddenly given way to one of those feelings which sometimes come to uswithout apparent reason. The present was joyous enough without the aidof the ever-to-be-bright future, and Vellacott felt that, after all,French politics and Frederick Farrar did not quite monopolise the world.
Hilda was on this occasion more talkative than usual. There was in hermanner a new sense of ease, almost of familiarity, which Vellacott couldnot understand. He noticed that she spoke invariably in generalities,avoiding all personal matters. Of herself she said no word, though sheappeared willing enough to answer any question he might ask. She led himon to talk of himself and his work, listening gravely to his account ofthe little household at Chelsea. He made the best of this topic, andeven treated it in a merry vein; but her smile, though sincere enough,was of short duration and not in itself encouraging. She appeared to seethe pathos of it instead of the humour. Suddenly, in the middle of aparticularly funny story about Aunt Judith, she interrupted him andchanged the conversation entirely. She did not again refer to his homelife.
As they were returning in the full glare of the midday sun, theydescried in front of them the figure of an old man; he was walkingpainfully and making poor progress. Carefully dressed in blackbroadcloth, he wore a soft felt hat of a shape seldom seen in England.
"I believe," said Hilda, as they approached him, "that is Signor Bruno.Yes, it is. Please pull up, Christian. We must give him a lift!"
Christian obeyed her. He thought he detected a shade of annoyance inHilda's voice, with which he fully sympathised.
On hearing the sound of the wheels, the old man looked up in surprise,as a deaf person might have been expected to do. This movement showed amost charming old face, surrounded by a halo of white hair and beard.The features were almost perfect, and might in former days have been atrifle cold, by reason of their perfection. Now, however, they weresoftened by the touch of years, and Signor Bruno was the livingsemblance of guilelessness and benevolence.
"How do you do, Signor Bruno?" said Hilda, speaking rather loudly andvery distinctly. "You are back from London sooner than you expected, areyou not?"
"Ah! my dear young lady," he replied, courteously removing his hat andstanding bareheaded.
"Ah! now indeed the sun shines upon me. Yes, I am back from London--amost terrible place--terrible--terrible--terrible! As I walked alongjust now I said to myself: 'The sun is warm, the skies are blue; yonderis the laughing sea, and yet, Bruno, you sigh for Italy.' This is Italy,Miss Hilda--Italy with a northern fairy walking in it!"
Hilda smiled her quick, surprising smile, and hastened to speak beforethe old gentleman recovered his breath.
"Allow me to introduce to you Sidney's friend, Mr. Vellacott, SignorBruno!"
Sidney's friend, Mr. Vellacott, was by this time behind her. He hadalighted, and was employed in arranging the back seat of the dog-cart.When Signor Bruno looked towards him, he found Christian's eyes fixedupon his face with a quiet persistence which might have beenembarrassing to a younger man. He raised his hat and murmured somethingunintelligible in reply to the Italian's extensive salutation.
"Sidney Carew's friends are, I trust, mine also!" said Signor Bruno, ashe replaced his picturesque hat.
Christian smiled spasmodically and continued arrang
"You will, if you please, resume your seat. I will place myself behind!"
"Oh, no! You must allow me to sit behind!" said Christian.
"But why, my dear sir? That would not be correct. You are Mr. Carew'sguest, and I--I am only a poor old Italian runaway, who is accustomed toback seats; all my life I have occupied back seats, I think, Mr.Vell'cott. There is no reason why I should aspire to better things now!"
The old fellow's voice was strangely balanced between pathos and apeculiar self-abnegating humour.
"If we were both to take our hats off again, I think it would be easy tosee why you should sit in front!" said Christian with a laugh, whichalthough quite genial, somehow closed the discussion.
"Ah!" replied the old gentleman with outspread hands. "There you haveworsted me. After that I am silent, and--I obey!"
He climbed into the cart with a little senile joke about the stiffnessof his aged limbs. He chattered on in his innocent, childish way untilthe village was reached. Here he was deposited on the dusty road at thegate of a small yellow cottage where he had two rooms. The seat wasre-arranged, and amidst a volley of thanks and salutations, Hilda andChristian drove away. Presently Hilda looked up and said:
"Is he not a dear old thing? I believe, Christian, in all the variouslocal information I have given you, I have never told you about SignorBruno. I shall reserve him for the next awkward pause that occurs."
"Yes," replied Christian quietly. "He seems very nice."
Something in his tone seemed to catch her attention. She half turned asif to hear more, but he said nothing. Then she raised her eyes to hisface, which was not expressive of anything in particular.
"Christian," she said gravely, "you do not like him?"
Looked upon as a mere divination of thought, this was very quick; but heseemed in no way perturbed. He turned and looked down with a smile ather grave face.
"No," he replied. "Not very much."
"I do not know. There is something wrong about him, I think!"
She laughed and shook her head.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "How can there be anything wrong withhim--anything that would affect us, at all events?"
He shrugged his shoulders, still smiling.
"He says he is an Italian?"
"Yes," she replied.
"I say he is a Frenchman," said Christian, suddenly turning towards her."Italians do not talk English as he talks it."
She looked puzzled.
"Do you know him?" she asked.
"No; not yet. I know his face. I have seen it or a photograph of itsomewhere, and at some time. I cannot tell when or where yet, but itwill come to me."
"When it does come," said Hilda, with a smile, "you will find that it issome one else. I can assure you Signor Bruno is an Italian, and beyondthat he is the nicest old gentleman imaginable."
"Well," replied Christian. "In the meantime I vote that we do nottrouble ourselves about him."
The subject was dropped, and not again referred to until after they hadreached home, when Hilda informed her mother that Signor Bruno hadreturned.
"Oh, indeed," was the reply. "I am very glad. You must askhim to dinner to-morrow evening. Is he not a nice old man, Christian?"
"Very," replied Christian, almost before the words were out of her lips."Yes, very nice." He looked across the table towards Hilda with anabsolutely expressionless composure.
During the following day, which he passed with Sidney and Stanley at seain a little cutter belonging to the Carews, Christian learnt, withoutasking many questions, all that Signor Bruno had vouchsafed in the wayof information respecting himself. It was a short story and an old one,such as many a white-haired Italian could tell to-day. A life, income,and energy devoted to a cause which never had much promise of reward.Failure, exile, and a life closing in a land where the blue skies ofItaly are known only by name, where Maraschino is at a premium, and longblack cigars almost unobtainable.
Hilda was engaged on this day to lunch and spend the afternoon with Mrs.Farrar, at Farrar Court. Molly and Christian were to drive over for herin the evening. This programme was carried out, but the young peoplelingered rather longer at Farrar Court listening to the quaint,old-world recollections of its white-haired hostess than was allowedfor. Consequently they were late, and heard the first dinner-bellringing as they drove up the lane that led in a casual way to theirhome. (This lane was characteristic of the house. It turned offunobtrusively from the high road at right angles with the evidentintention of leading nowhere.) A race upstairs ensued and a hurriedtoilet. Molly and Christian met on the stairs a few minutes later.Christian had won the race, for he was ready, while Molly struggled witha silver necklace that fitted closely round her throat. Of course he hadto help her. While waiting patiently for him to master the intricaciesof the old silver clasp, Molly said:
"Oh, Christian, there is one place you have not seen yet. Quite close athand too."
"Ye--es," he replied absently, as he at length fixed the clasp. "There,it is done!"
As he held open the drawing-room door, he said: "What is the place Ihave to see?"
Signor Bruno, who was seated at the far end of the room with Mrs. Carew,rose as he heard the door opened, and advanced to meet Molly.
"Porton Abbey," she said over her shoulder as she advanced into theroom. "You must see Porton Abbey."
The Italian shook hands with the new-comers and made a clever, laughingreference to Christian's politeness of the previous day. At this momentHilda entered, and as soon as she had returned Signor Bruno's courteoussalutation Molly turned towards her.
"Hilda," she said, "we have never shown Christian Porton Abbey."
"No," was the reply. "I have been reserving it for some afternoon whenwe do not feel very energetic. Unfortunately, we cannot get inside theAbbey now, though."
"Why?" asked Christian, without looking towards Hilda. He had discoveredthat Signor Bruno was attempting to keep up a conversation with hishostess, while he took in that which was passing at the other end of theroom. The old man was seated, and his face was within the radius oflight cast by a shaded lamp. Christian, who stood, was in the shade.
"Because it is a French monastery," replied Molly. "Here," she added,"is a flower for your coat, as you say the button-hole is warped byconstant pinning in of stalks."
"Thanks," he replied, stooping a little in order that she could reachthe button-hole of his coat. She was in front of him, directly betweenhim and Signor Bruno; but he could see over her head. "What sort ofmonastery is it?" he continued conversationally. "I did not know thatthere were any establishments of that sort in England."
Hilda looked up rather sharply from an illustrated newspaper shehappened to be studying. She knew that he was not adhering strictly tothe truth. From her point of vantage behind the newspaper she continuedto watch Christian, and she realised during the minutes that followed,that this was indeed the brilliant young journalist of whose fame Farrarhad spoken as already known in London.
Signor Bruno's conversation with Mrs. Carew became at this momentsomewhat muddled.
"There, you see," said Molly vivaciously, "we endeavour to interest himby retailing the simple annals of our neighbourhood, and his highnesssimply disbelieves us!"
"Not at all," Christian hastened to add, with a laugh. "It simplyhappened that I was surprised. It shall not occur again. But tell me,what sort of monastery is it? Dominican? Franciscan? Carmelite?--"
"Oh, goodness! I do not know."
"Perhaps," said Christian, advancing towards the Italian--"perhapsSignor Bruno can tell us."
"What is that, Mr. Vell'cott?" asked the old gentleman, making amovement as if about to raise his curved hand to his ear, butrestraining himself upon second thoughts.
Hilda noticed that, instead of raising his voice, C
"We want some details of the establishment at Porton Abbey, SignorBruno."
The old gentleman made a little grimace expressive of disgust, at thesame time spreading out his hands as if to ward off something hurtful.
"Ach!" he said, "do not ask me. I know nothing of such people, and wishto learn no more. It is to them that my poor country owes her downfall.No, no; leave them alone. I always take care of myselfagainst--against--what you say--_ces gens-la_!"
Christian awaited the answer in polite silence, and, when Signor Brunohad again turned to Mrs. Carew, he looked across the room towards Hildawith the same expression of vacant composure that she had noticed on aprevious occasion. The accent with which Signor Bruno had spoken the fewwords of French was of the purest Parisian, entirely free from theharshness which an Italian rarely conquers.
After dinner Hilda went out of the open window into the garden alone.Christian, who had seated himself at a small table in the drawing-room,did not move. Sidney and his mother were talking with the Italian.
The young journalist was stooping over a book, a vase of flowers stoodin front of him, but by the movement of his arm it appeared as if hewere drawing instead of reading. Presently a faint, low whistle camefrom the garden. Though soft, the sound was very clear, and each notedistinctly given. It was like the beginning of a refrain which broke offsuddenly and was repeated. Signor Bruno gave a little start and a quickupward glance.
"What is that?" he asked, with a little laugh, as if at the delicacy ofhis own nerves.
"Oh," replied Mrs. Carew, "the whistle, you mean. That is our familysignal. The children were in the habit of calling each other by thatmeans in bygone years. I expect they are in the garden now, and wish usto join them."
Mrs. Carew knew that Molly was not in the garden, but in making thisintentional mistake she showed the wisdom of her kind.
"It seems to me," said Signor Bruno, "that the air--the refrain, onemight call it--is familiar."
Christian Vellacott smiled suddenly behind his screen of flowers, butdid not move or look up.
"I expect," explained Sidney, "that you have heard the air played uponthe bugle. It is the French 'retraite,' played by the patrol in garrisontowns at night."
In the meantime Christian had cut the fly-leaf from the book before him,and, after carefully folding it, he placed the paper in hisbreast-pocket. Then he rose and passed out of the open window into thegarden.
Immediately Signor Bruno asked his hostess a few polite questionsregarding her guest--what was his occupation, how long he was going tostay, and whether she did not agree with him in considering that theiryoung friend had a remarkably interesting face. In the course of hisremarks the old gentleman rose and crossed to the table where Christianhad been sitting. There was a flower there which he had not seen inEngland before. Absently he took up the book which Christian had justbeen studying, and very naturally turned to the title-page. The fly-leafwas gone! When he laid the volume down again he replaced it in theidentical position in which he had found it.
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