The Duchess And Lady Torrent by A. E. W. Mason
A SOUNDING phrase which merely states a case will often be
accepted as an explanation in other fields besides politics. Thus, if one
person said, "Extraordinary affair, that of Lady Torrent: it's just a case of
social suicide," the reply was certain to be, "Yes, my dear, that's just what
Social suicide indeed! Toby Manister, whenever he heard the
words—and he heard them pretty often during one season—shrugged
his shoulders and smiled contemptuously. They were the mere husk and shell of
the affair, and he wanted the kernel.
But he said nothing. For he was a dangerous little busybody with a sharp
edge of malice to his mind as well as to his words; and here was, he felt
sure, the very puzzle to amuse him, so long as he moved with sufficient
discretion. Discretion was necessary, for he had a glimpse of big names, and
he at all events had no intention to commit social suicide.
In the end, by putting this and that fragment of conversation together, by
analysing little incidents, which he had witnessed without realizing their
significance—he was present, for instance, at Lady Torrent's
party—by a deft question here and there, and finally, when he was
fairly sure of his facts, by a bold visit to Lady Torrent herself in her
retreat near Dieppe, he got the story complete.
And years afterwards, when the principal actors had safely disappeared
from the scene, he told it.
It was at a dinner-party where topic chased topic across the table and out
of sight like so many feathers of cloud across a sky; a party of young people
for the most part, amongst whom Toby Manister was beginning to feel
uncomfortably out of date. Then someone dropped a reminiscence of Lady
Torrent, and Toby Manister sat up in his chair.
The old phrase leapt out, reminted:
"The most inexplicable affair! After twenty solid years of untiring effort
to achieve social success, twenty seasons when the gilt rout-chairs went out
of the house every morning to return to the house every evening, when every
new reputation was chased and caught and sooner or later exhibited in the
drawing-room at Emperor's Gate, and was there thenceforward to be known as
Eddie or Archie or Mona or Dollie, as the case might be—after all the
boredom, and patience, and humiliation which such a life must mean, suddenly
Lady Torrent goes off at the deep end and commits social suicide. Why?"
Toby Manister replied:
"She saw red suddenly and nothing else mattered. She became a woman
instead of a machine like a hostess. She acquired a violent life of her own,
or she had always possessed it and now let it rip. She was out for blood, and
prudence, ambitions, Society could go to blazes. Poor dear, it was she who
went to blazes."
Toby was so pathetically eager to re-establish himself, that no one of the
kind, gay party could gainsay him. They were rewarded with a curiously
sinister little story of a duel to the death between a great lady and a
little lady in which the little lady very nearly won.
"I sat through the trial, of course," said Toby Manister, "and I noticed,
as all the newspapers noticed, Lady Torrent's quick, bird-like glances
towards the doors at the back of the court whenever they swung open, as they
so continually did, to admit one more spectator to the already congested
benches. The newspapers put those glances down to fear—fear of what in
the end did happen. But I felt certain that not for the first time the papers
had observed and misread.
"Fear, after all, is unmistakable; and I couldn't discover any sign of
fear in Lady Torrent; not even, indeed, any anxiety. What I saw was a sly,
confident expectation of triumph. The appearance of the little jeweller from
Brighton with the necklace in his hand was, I believe, the greatest shock she
had ever received in her life. She thought herself safe; she was already
gloating, when in an instant—"
Toby Manister lifted his hand and brought the palm of it flat upon the
table with a bang as though he crushed an insect.
"We may look forward, it appears, to a charming story," said the hostess
with a note of mockery.
Toby Manister needed no further encouragement.
"The Duchess of Saxemundham was sitting with her secretary," and he smiled
complacently at the little start of astonishment which was universal in his
audience. "Yes, the Duchess of Saxemundham was the great lady in the
The Duchess of Saxemundham was of an unsullied reputation. She possessed
enormous wealth, a great political influence, and a reprobate husband who in
Paris, and Monte Carlo, and Venice, and Aix, in fact anywhere except in
London, might be seen to shake his head muzzily and say, "Cynthia's miles too
good for the likes of me. She's a classic filly, I am the most contemptible
of the Platers."
Of all these advantages the Duchess was well aware. She carried her
charmingly tip-tilted nose high in the air, narrowed her intimate friends
into a very small circle, and stood graciously aloof—a figure to which
State and Church both clung as a proof that, after all, the world was not
In this particular June when she sat with her secretary in her study
overlooking the Green Park, she had reached the age of thirty-one and the
very perfection of her delicate, rosebud, rather appealing and pathetic
beauty. The Duchess was greatly helped to keep her balance upon her pedestal
by a natural look of spirituality which hung like an aura about her small
head with its heavy coils of dark hair. This look and her little wistful
smile were indeed among her most important assets; for apart from their
effect upon the people who didn't know her, they made her very human and racy
comments upon people and things seem attractively bizarre to those who
"There's another letter from Lady Torrent," said Muriel Chalmers, the
secretary, as she tore open the envelope with the laugh which in so many
houses greeted Lady Torrent's invitations. "She expects you to dine with her
on Thursday week."
"Expects me?" exclaimed the Duchess—she was altogether Duchess at
that moment. "Why, I have refused to go."
"I know. I wrote the letter," said Muriel.
She spoke slowly with a note of perplexity in her voice as she read this
second invitation from Lady Torrent.
"I asked you to mention that I hadn't so far the honour of her
"And I did mention it. But—it's quite impossible, of
course—but this letter reads to me like a threat."
She turned to Cynthia Saxemundham with the letter in her hand.
Cynthia took it with a trill of amusement. Yes, there it was, a
threatening letter—oh, very cleverly worded, not a phrase but could be
made to look innocence itself—yet, taken altogether, a pistol held
quite definitely to the Duchess of Saxemundham's head.
Muriel Chalmers awaited another delicate outburst of amusement, but it
never came. She turned about again with a gleam of anxiety in her eyes. But
it was nothing to the anxiety which was now visible in every feature of
Cynthia Saxemundham's face. She sat very still and spoke rather to herself
than to her young secretary.
"She would never have dared to write like this unless—" The Duchess
did not finish the sentence but rose abruptly and ran out of the room. The
windows were all open and Muriel heard her humming a gay little tune as she
moved about her bedroom just above. Muriel drew a breath of relief.
But though the Duchess returned to the study still humming, she was doing
it absently and her face had quite lost its colour.
"Muriel," she said abruptly, "you remember that maid of mine, Nellie
Webster, whom I dismissed for drinking?"
"Do you know what became of her?"
Muriel Chalmers shook her head.
"No. She never wrote for a character."
"She didn't need one," the Duchess returned dryly. "She went straight off
to Lady Torrent. I have asked my housekeeper. She took with her something
much more valuable than a character."
She sat down and smoked a cigarette and faced the position of affairs.
"Lady Torrent wishes to push that very ponderous husband of hers into the
Cabinet, of which she hasn't a chance. Partly for that reason, partly because
I have always refused to know the woman, she wishes to exhibit me in her
A sudden vision of Lady Torrent's good-looking little face, hard as iron
under its pretence of bonhomie and vivacity, made the Duchess shiver. "She's
a poisonous little devil too," she concluded lamely.
Muriel Chalmers, no less her friend than her secretary, turned to her
"Oh, Duchess, you are not going to go!" she exclaimed.
Cynthia Saxemundham smiled.
"No, my dear, I won't. I can see the butler announcing me, the guests
smirking, Lady Torrent hurrying forward, her smile of welcome struggling with
a little snarl of triumph, and the captive Duchess trying to conceal her
handcuffs and to be spoken of from that evening on as 'Cynthia Saxemundham.'
No! No!—whatever happens!"
"But must anything happen?" Muriel Chalmers asked timidly. "Can't I do
Cynthia Saxemundham's face lost its look of defiance, and softened.
"Yes, my dear, you can ring up the Guards' Club and ask if Colonel
Marchmont is there. If so, I should like to speak to him."
In a few moments Muriel handed the instrument to the Duchess.
"He is on the line."
The Duchess spoke three sentences:
"Henry, will you please come to luncheon with me to-day at half-past one?
I shall be alone. I want your help."
It was like her to hang up the receiver without waiting for an answer.
"He will help me out of my scrape," she said, and she added, with a
grimace which altogether failed to hide a very genuine regret, "but at the
same time I shall lose for good something which I have treasured for a long
while. On the whole—yes—damn Lady Torrent!"
Lieut.-Col. Henry Marchmont, with a long tail of decorations to his name,
had just returned from an expedition in the deserts of Asia, and should
consequently have furnished the Duchess with an hour's amusement and
interest. But nothing in the world at the moment could have done that.
Cynthia Saxemundham ate a deplorable luncheon.
For she had to confess that she, the one woman on a pedestal, had once
taken a lover. And she had to make the confession to a man whom she had very
nearly married, who on her account had remained a bachelor and become a
wanderer over the face of the earth, and who, besides, worshipped her as a
snow-white martyr bearing up courageously in a very speckled world.
The task was not very pleasant for the Duchess of Saxemundham, but she
managed to stumble through it over the coffee. She saw her friend's face
harden and a flush of anger deepen the tan of his cheeks.
"Who's the man?" he asked bluntly as soon as she had finished.
"Yes, of course, he would ask that," thought the Duchess, wringing her
hands beneath the table. There was no escape for her, however. She mentioned
a name beneath her breath. The Colonel grew redder than ever.
"That fellow!" he exploded. "Ronald Chepstowe! Cynthia! He's
"Oh, Henry, I never looked at his heels," cried Cynthia in despair. "He
was artistic, and sympathetic—and he played polo divinely—and it
only lasted the tiniest bit of time—and I was most unhappy—it was
just a year after I was married and things were most
hateful—and"—she stole a glance at Henry Marchmont—"and you
were miles away on the other side of the world—and, anyway, you put me
up on a pedestal and wouldn't have—and so it didn't seem to matter whom
so long as—"
"So long as it was someone," interrupted Marchmont.
"Henry, you are hating me," she cried.
"I am disappointed," replied the Colonel gruffly, and he rose and looked
for a long time out of the window.
The Duchess looked pathetically at his broad shoulders; they were rather
attractive, without an ounce of spare flesh, she was suddenly diverted to
recognize, but her own woes seized upon her again the next moment. She saw
herself a white alabaster statue lying on the grass beside a pedestal, all in
pieces. Would he put the pieces together again, or would he look out of the
window for ever and ever?
He turned back at last.
"You wanted some help, Cynthia," he said in a gentler voice.
"Yes. Your return to London was announced in The Times yesterday. So you
are certain to be asked to a party by Lady Torrent."
"That has already happened," said Marchmont.
"Oh, you haven't refused?" cried Cynthia, a new anxiety seizing her.
"Of course not," said Marchmont. "I have accepted. I am dining with her
Cynthia Saxemundham was relieved, of course; yes, undoubtedly she was
relieved. But the answer caused her a little shock, nevertheless. It had
almost the air of a desertion.
"Why?" she asked, in a rather chilly voice.
"Because I amuse myself there," he answered. "People do. It's an amusing
house. I never could understand why you must go shouting all over London that
you wouldn't go inside her door."
"She calls people whom she doesn't know by their Christian names," said
the Duchess stubbornly.
"Well, you needn't keep slapping her face all the time just for that."
"Oh, Henry, I don't slap her face," cried Cynthia, and suddenly her
fingers tingled. "But I should like to," she added with a heartfelt
Colonel Marchmont looked at her curiously.
"What in the world has Lady Torrent done to you?" he asked.
Cynthia Saxemundham told him of the invitation which was a threat.
"She has got a hold over you, then?"
"What sort of a hold?"
Cynthia Saxemundham trod very delicately, like a person on the edge of a
"Do you remember that old lawyer, Sir Hugo Cope, who was such a good
friend of mine when I was a child?"
"A wicked old devil," said he.
"But such a darling," replied Cynthia. "The day I was married, at the
reception after the ceremony, he said to me, 'My dear, I have given you a
handsome present, but I am now going to give you three pieces of advice which
are much more valuable. First, if you have to go and stay at an hotel, take
care you always stay under your own name. Second, never keep any letters.
Third, if in spite of one and two you still get into trouble, come and see me
For the first time since the confession had begun Henry Marchmont
"The third piece of advice, of course, I can't follow, because Sir Hugo's
dead—and also," she added quickly, "because you are here. The first I
certainly did—I mean I should have if—well, once I did—that
time—in the Isle of Wight."
The statement, confusing though it sounds, was clear as crystal to the
Colonel. He nodded grimly.
"The second piece of advice is where I went wrong," the Duchess
"You didn't follow it?"
"No," said the Duchess.
"You wrote some letters?"
"I kept some letters," the Duchess corrected.
Cynthia Saxemundham in her predicament did not think it worth while to
challenge the name. She passed on.
"And a maid whom I dismissed took them. The maid's now in Lady Torrent's
Colonel Marchmont whistled.
"I see. Awkward, eh? Lady Torrent's going to turn the screw a bit, eh?
It's not to be expected that she would do anything else. But what can I do
about it, Cynthia?"
Cynthia Saxemundham looked at him with displeasure. She remembered that he
never would wrap things up decently, and just do what he was wanted to do
without asking what it was.
"You are going to amuse yourself at Emperor's Gate to-morrow, aren't
Marchmont whistled again. Then he grinned with a cynical enjoyment, as he
contemplated the wistful, slender angel in front of him.
"You want me to steal 'em, eh?"
Cynthia looked hurt.
"'Steal' isn't the right word to use. Lady Torrent stole them. I want you
to recover them."
Colonel Marchmont's grin broadened. He was, after all, being offered a
form of sport which would certainly have its difficulties and might have some
"I'll try. How many days have we got?"
"I am expected to dinner on Thursday week. Lady Torrent won't move before
"We have ten days, then. I'll examine the ground to-morrow night," said
Colonel Marchmont. He shook hands with his hostess and amusement suddenly
twinkled in his eyes. "Cynthia, what a fool you have made of me!" he
He went out of the house, and Cynthia Saxemundham heard him laughing aloud
to himself as he went down the steps. She in her turn began to giggle. After
all, she was not so sure that she had lost so much by her confession as she
had predicted to her secretary. On the whole she was inclined to like him
better as her cynical partner in the chase after her vanishing reputation
than as the blindfold adorer in front of the snow-white statue.
She found her secretary in the study.
"I think he'll do it, Muriel," she said gaily.
Muriel clasped her hands together in relief.
"What a thing it is to have a man like that on his knees to you," she
"He has got up off his knees," said the Duchess dryly.
Colonel Marchmont found his quest so easy of accomplishment that he could
not suppress an uneasy feeling that somewhere there must be a catch in it. He
went to the big house in Emperor's Gate early, and excusing himself to the
butler on the ground that he had misread the time on his card of invitation,
was shown into a quite empty drawing-room. His hostess had not yet come down
from her dressing. On the other hand, she had left some evidence of how she
had been engaged before she had gone up.
For lying open upon a couch was a large and luxurious illustrated volume
bound in vellum and gold.
Marchmont glanced at the open page and laughed. Lady Torrent was
altogether too easy an antagonist. For the book was The Tales of Edgar Allan
Poe, and the particular tale which lay open was that famous story of
diplomacy and the police, "The Purloined Letter." Colonel Marchmont knew it
almost by heart: how the Minister D got the whip hand of a Royal Personage by
stealing a letter, and how he concealed it successfully against the minutest
investigations of the police by placing it in an obvious position under their
very noses. These details flashed at once into his mind. The conclusion from
these premises was as obvious to Marchmont as the hiding-place of the
Purloined Letter had been to Poe's anlytical investigator. Monsieur C.
"Lady Torrent has taken a leaf out of this book," he said to himself, "and
the love-letters of Hairy-heels are not hidden in some locked cabinet or
secret drawer where a clever burglar might find them, but in some commonplace
receptacle in a public place where no one would for an instant think of
looking for them—the dining-room, for instance, or here."
He began to move about the room, not touching anything, but taking note of
everything. Hunting expeditions in thick jungles had not merely sharpened his
vision, but given to it accuracy. His survey, therefore, was as complete as
it was rapid.
There were between twenty and thirty of the incriminating letters. Clearly
the ordinary little toys and porcelain boxes of a drawing-room would not
contain them. There remained two other objects—a handsome onyx
cigarette-box on a side-table by the fireplace, and another, a cheap affair
of painted wood, fashioned in the shape of a tiny travelling-trunk and
fastened with a trumpery lock. It needed just the inscription "A Present from
Switzerland" to complete it.
"Now, what in the world is a thing like that doing here?" he asked.
It stood in the centre of a round rosewood table which was pushed into a
corner of the room, and about it were arranged a miniature, a tortoiseshell
paper-knife set in gold, some silver ashtrays, a second cigarette-box, this
time of silver, and one or two small pieces of Battersea enamel. Marchmont
took a seat on the opposite side of the room.
"She has followed the example of Monsieur D—too faithfully," he
reasoned. "That wooden box is too commonplace, too inconsiderable. She has
given her self away by it. If the letters are in this room at all, they are
He was confirmed in his belief a moment afterwards when Lady Torrent on
entering the room saw the book, and made a perceptible movement of annoyance.
She closed it and put it away whilst Marchmont once more made his excuses,
and her eyes glanced guiltily towards the Swiss wooden box and back again to
"The great thing is that you are here," she said, "and I hope that you are
not going to run away after dinner; for a good many amusing people are coming
in, and the garden will be lit up."
Marchmont once more felt that the gods were smiling upon his adventure;
for this room at odd moments in the evening would certainly be empty, and a
throng of guests would make it difficult for his hostess afterwards to select
He had no further conversation with her until after dinner, when she sat
down beside him and, with the dreadful habit which ruled her out of the
company of great ladies, asked him eagerly what he had been doing, and,
whilst he answered, gave her attention to the movements of her other
"It must have been charming," she said as he told of an encounter with a
"It was indeed," said he, and she rose abruptly and crossed the room; for
two young people were standing by the rosewood table and bending over the
miniature by the side of the Swiss box.
In a few minutes the lanterns began to glow in the garden, and the
increasing throng began to seek the coolness of the summer night.
It was just a London garden—a square of lawn, a stone-paved path, a
few lilac bushes and shrubs, and a border of flowers; but the lanterns were
so arranged that a pleasant sense of great space was given, and the dingy
walls which surrounded it were lost in shadows. Marchmont followed with the
rest of the company, and noticed with satisfaction that from the house-door
to the stone pavement four steps led down. The windows of the drawing-room
were then well above the level of the garden, and Marchmont made sure that
only from the far side of the lawn could the interior of the room be seen. He
was safe, then, for Lady Torrent was busily engaged at the very bottom of the
steps in receiving the fresh groups of people who had come on from theatres
Marchmont slipped back into the house at a moment when Lady Torrent was
The drawing-room was empty. In a second the wooden box was under his coat
and he in the passage. His heart was beating now quickly enough to satisfy
his thirst for adventure. He felt a mad desire to thrust his way out of the
house just as he stood. But he must control himself to nonchalance; he must
fetch his overcoat and his hat without haste. He must stand in front of the
little counter, hiding the box beneath his arm, and wait his turn whilst
other guests who were coming had their coats folded and packed away. It
seemed a century before his were found and handed to him.
He sauntered upstairs again with his coat over his arm and was approached
by the butler. But the butler only said:
"Shall I get you a taxi, sir?"
"I'll pick one up," Marchmont replied, and hoped that the man had not
noticed his gasp of relief.
Twenty yards from the front door, he stopped a passing cab and gave the
"That's that," said he as he tucked the box away in the folds of his
topcoat; and ten minutes later he produced it in the Duchess's study.
"I think they're in that box," he said.
Cynthia Saxemundham seized upon it.
"It's locked," she said, and she shook the box. "There's something inside.
We must break it open."
"No," said Marchmont. "Any little key will open it; and if it's not
broken, we can return it through the post."
A bunch of little keys was found in a drawer of the bureau. With eager
fingers Cynthia Saxemundham tried them.
"Oh, I'll never be such a fool again," she said, and as she tried the
third key the lock yielded, the lid flew open.
Cynthia uttered a little cry of delight. A sheaf of letters tied up in a
carefully sealed ribbon met her gaze.
"Yes, they are here, untampered with," she cried, and she turned the box
upside down and shook them out on to the table.
But she shook something else out too, something which rattled, and both of
them stared at it, shocked out of all their glee. Under the letters at the
bottom of the box had lain a string of pearls. It was now on the top of them
on the table, milkily gleaming—dangerous to both of them as some white
Cynthia for the moment understood only the embarrassment of finding the
"They are valuable—they must be returned, of course," she said; but
she looked up and saw Marchmont staring at her with a look of consternation
in his eyes.
"It's a trap, you see, Cynthia," he said, "and I have walked straight into
"Yes. I found it so ridiculously easy to locate your letters. I was meant
to find it easy. Lady Torrent knows I am your friend. She expected me to come
early. The open volume of Poe, her annoyance when she found it open, her
quick glances towards the box, her anxiety lest anyone should touch
it—they were all meant for me, all meant to persuade me to do just what
I did, slip the box under my coat and bolt with it. I am a real thief now,
you see. I have stolen her necklace. I can be arrested, tried,
"No!" cried Cynthia, "I have only to come forward and explain—"
"Exactly—that's what she's after; that you should explain in the
witness-box before a crowded court that you had sent me to recover the
letters which had passed between you and your lover. She's out for blood,
Cynthia. She doesn't want you in her house on Thursday week. She wants you
smashed for good and all."
Cynthia Saxemundham threw up her hands in the air.
"The impudence of the woman!" she cried scornfully.
"Yes, that won't help us," returned Marchmont.
Cynthia's thoughts took another direction.
"She daren't risk it! She would have to admit that she was blackmailing me
to come and dine with her."
Colonel Marchmont shook his head gloomily.
"Would that stop her?" he asked. "There are lots of women who, once they
see red, wouldn't mind coming an almighty crash if they could bring their
enemy down with them."
"Enemy!" Cynthia exclaimed. It was doing altogether too much honour to
Lady Torrent to allow that she could consider the Duchess of Saxemundham as
her enemy. She fingered the gleaming necklace. "Couldn't you go back now and
quietly return it?"
"She has laid her plans so thoroughly, that she must have foreseen that I
might try to do that," Marchmont answered. "I am willing to bet that there's
a policeman already waiting outside the house. I should never be allowed to
enter the house. I should be arrested in the street with the damned thing in
"Anyway, Henry," said the Duchess stubbornly, "I am not going to let you
go to prison on my account."
"And I'm not going to let you go into the witness-box," he returned. "So
there we are!"
There they were indeed. They sat in a miserable silence, each one casting
about vainly for an escape from their predicament, when they heard a car stop
at the door, and a latchkey turn in the lock.
"Muriel!" said Cynthia Saxemundham. "There's no reason why she should see
She threw the letters into the grate and set fire to them.
"Muriel," said Marchmont in quite a different note. He went to the door of
the room and opened it.
Muriel Chalmers, in an evening gown, was already half-way up the stairs.
She turned and asked:
"Do you want me?"
"Badly," said the Colonel.
Muriel Chalmers ran down again eagerly. She was to be allowed to help
"What can I do?" she asked.
The letters were blazing and curling up and turning black, while the
Duchess on her knees beat them into tattered fragments with the poker. The
necklace and the wooden box still stood upon the table.
"Let's consider," said Marchmont.
The three of them sat about the table.
"Do you know Lady Torrent?" he asked of Muriel.
"But you have written to her?"
"I have answered invitations."
"In your own name?"
Here the Duchess interrupted. She saw the way out too, and her face was
"Muriel can take a false name."
"No," Marchmont expostulated. "This time we'll remember Sir Hugo's advice.
Let her go in her own!" He turned again to Muriel Chalmers. "Do you know
really well any of these people?" and he recited the names of the guests at
Lady Torrent's party.
In a moment or two Muriel stopped him.
"Yes, Mrs. Daventry. She's a friend of mine."
Marchmont looked at the clock. The hands pointed to midnight. The party at
Emperor's Gate would be in full swing. Muriel was to take the box and the
necklace and drive to the house. She would be shown upstairs to leave her
cloak. She was to tuck the box and the necklace away
somewhere—anywhere—in the room into which she was shown. She was
to come down again. She was to give her real name to the butler, who would
lead her into the garden. If Lady Torrent was still at her post she was to
say boldly that Mrs. Daventry had asked her to join her there. If Lady
Torrent wasn't still on duty, then Muriel must find Mrs. Daventry for
herself, and persuade her to say that she had asked Muriel to join her.
"Will she do that, without asking you questions?" Marchmont asked.
"Otherwise I'll give you a note to her. For I know her very well myself,"
said the Duchess, beginning to rise from her chair.
But once more Henry Marchmont interposed.
"No, for heaven's sake! No letters! Let's stick to Sir Hugo. The only real
danger is that Muriel may be presented to Lady Torrent when she is actually
talking to Mrs. Daventry. But we must leave it to her to make the best of
That catastrophe, however, did not occur. Muriel drove off to Emperor's
Gate in a taxi. She was shown upstairs to an empty room heaped with cloaks.
She found a knee-hole writing-table in a bay-window, and into the bottom
drawer on the left-hand side she thrust the box with the necklace. Coming
downstairs, she gave her name to the butler and followed him into the garden.
The butler looked round the dim garden, with its groups of people mingling
and changing like a kaleidoscope.
"Her ladyship is, I think, in the supper-room," he said.
"I'll find her, then, sooner or later," said Muriel lightly, and she sped
across the lawn. For she had seen Mrs. Daventry shaking hands with a man as
though she was bidding him farewell.
"You asked me to join you here," said Muriel, with determination.
"I did, no doubt," answered Mrs. Daventry, who was not easily surprised;
"but I am going away now."
"That is all to the good," said Muriel; and five minutes later she had
left the house in Mrs. Daventry's motor-car.
Thus the restitution was made, and not a soul in Lady Torrent's
establishment was ever aware that the Duchess of Saxemundham's secretary had
been present that night as an uninvited guest.
But Lieut.-Colonel Henry Marchmont, with a tail of decorations at the end
of his name, was arrested the next morning for the theft of a valuable pearl
He was brought before the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street. Lady Torrent had
the most convincing story to tell.
"I wore my pearls in the afternoon," she said, "and whilst I was having
tea the clasp got loose and the pearls dropped from my neck on to the floor,
I picked them up and placed them in a little wooden box on the table, which I
locked. I meant to take the box upstairs when I went up to dress, but some
friends came in and made me late. I ran upstairs in a hurry, forgetting about
the box. When I descended, Colonel Marchmont was in the room. I told him of
my misadventure whilst we were waiting for the other guests. Later on, when
we were all in the garden, he was seen by two of my servants to enter the
drawing-room. One of them watched him through the crack of the door and saw
him with the box under his coat. He left the house immediately
Lady Torrent had her witnesses at hand, the friends who had kept her late
in the afternoon and the two servants. Colonel Marchmont, on the other hand,
disappointed his friends. He contented himself with reserving his defence. He
was accordingly committed for trial at the next Old Bailey Sessions, which
were to take place in a week, and admitted to bail.
During that week, of course, the scandal was immense and pleasurable. A
season otherwise unremarkable received a tremendous fillip. The applications
for seats at the trial made to Judges, High Sheriffs, Under-Sheriffs,
Barristers and Cabinet Ministers, exceeded the applications made to the
management at Covent Garden when Madame Jeritza was to sing.
Meanwhile Lady Torrent sat in her house in Emperor's Gate, dramatising the
wonderful moments when the Duchess of Saxemundham would take her stand in the
witness-box and admit in low and broken tones that she had sent Colonel
Marchmont to recover the compromising letters of her lover. For the hundredth
time she reviewed her own position. She would be recalled to the
"Letters? Certainly the Duchess's love-letters were in the box too. I
didn't mention them, for the Duchess's sake. How did I come to have them? I
took them from a maid who had left the Duchess's service and clearly meant to
use them for blackmail. I expected the Duchess to dine with me on Thursday
week, and I kept them locked in the box in order to return them to her with
my own hand. Of course, if the love-letters were what Colonel Marchmont was
after, let him return my necklace and I shall be happy to withdraw the charge
Her attitude would be incontestably magnanimous; and she would be
repaid—how she would be repaid!—for twenty years of trying to
become the real thing and not quite becoming it, for all her rebuffs, those
witticisms at her expense, the little slaps in the face which she was going
to return with one resounding smack which would bowl the beautiful idol of
the day altogether off her pedestal and dismiss her to the obscurity of her
island in the Hebrides.
Thus rejoicing, on the third day before the trial, Lady Torrent opened by
chance the lowest drawer in the left-hand side of her knee-hole writing
table; and sat like one turned into stone, and felt as cold as stone.
"Of course, I have been thinking of it too much," she whispered to
herself. "I see that box everywhere."
But she could not convince herself by that argument. She dived for the
box. It was real. It was locked. She shook it. Something rattled inside of
it. She fetched the key and unlocked it. Her pearl necklace gleamed at her,
but the letters were gone. She had been outwitted after all.
There was really only one course for Lady Torrent to take, to call for her
motor-car, drive to her solicitor, and withdraw the charge of theft in terms
as little humiliating as possible. But she could not do it. The triumph so
earnestly prayed for—yes, she had dared to pray for it on her
knees—must not be lost.
She consulted no one. She looked at her clock. It was three o'clock. She
burnt the box, wrapped up the necklace, slipped on a cloche hat which came
well down over her eyes, flung some furs about her shoulders, took a cab from
the corner of the street to Victoria Station, travelled by the first
available train to Brighton, pawned the necklace at a small jeweller's in the
King's Road, and was back again at Emperor's Gate in time to sit down to
dinner with her husband.
"Three more days, my dear," he said, looking at her tired face, "and this
trial will be over, and we can get away to Switzerland for a holiday and a
"Yes, that will be pleasant," she said. She added, with a timid glance:
"Do you know, I think I can guess what Colonel Marchmont's defence will be.
He will say that the necklace is mislaid somewhere in the house."
Sir William Torrent leaned back in his chair and blew out his lips, a sign
with him of serious reflection.
"I hadn't thought of that. We ought to have the house searched in the
presence of witnesses; for that would be a suggestion, of course, that you
had stolen it yourself to pay some secret debt," he said, and he saw her face
turn as white as the table-cloth.
A gasp of relief broke from her. She was thinking, "What a stroke of luck
that I found the necklace to-day."
While the knowledge of the shipwreck she had escaped was still
overwhelmingly new to her, there came a knocking upon the door. A most polite
inspector of police had come to make sure that the necklace had been nowhere
"The positions in the world of yourself and Colonel Marchmont make this,
of course, a most serious case, my lady," he explained. "It is the intention
of the Crown to take over the prosecution."
The inspector's statement troubled and even frightened Lady Torrent. This
was a private feud between herself and the Duchess of Saxemundham. She had
not calculated that since she had chosen to fight it out in the public
courts, with a charge of theft against a third person as her weapon, the
Crown would inevitably interfere.
Even when the inspector had departed satisfied that the necklace was not
in the house, she was not altogether at her ease. She almost confided the
truth to her husband. She began, and hesitated, and refrained; and this
probably was the most fatal of all her mistakes in the affair.
For he was proud of the necklace. He had bought the pearls one by one, he
had selected the design of the clasp, and when he went into the witness-box
he was able to give so complete a description of it that any attempt to
dispose of it undetected was quite out of possibility.
The little jeweller in the King's Road read the description in his evening
paper at Brighton. Now, he amongst jewellers was as Lady Torrent among
Duchesses of Saxemundham. He too wanted prestige and recognition and the very
best customers at his establishment; and here was his opportunity.
The next morning he tucked the necklace into his pocket, travelled up to
London, and sent his name and the nature of his evidence in to the counsel
for the defence.
Toby Manister gave a glowing account of the sensation in court when,
standing in the witness-box, he identified Lady Torrent as the woman who had
pawned the necklace; of the modest demeanour of Colonel Marchmont; and of the
collapse of Lady Torrent.
"But from what I could gather," he added, "the Torrents are really much
happier in their villa near Dieppe than they ever were while they were
climbing. And as for the Duchess of Saxemundham, though she had lost the
adoration of her Colonel, she received her compensations too; for the pair of
them remained on the most affectionate terms for many years, and were often
to be seen dining together at Claridge's. Thus, as you will see, everything
is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."