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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 it was."

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across a sky; a party of young people for the most part, amongst whom Toby Manister was beginning to feel uncomfortably out of date.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 case."

II

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 wholly lost.

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 did.

"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 acquaintance."

"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?"

"Yes."

"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 house."

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 aghast.

"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 something?"

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!"

III

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 hairy-heeled."

"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 to-morrow."

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 fervour.

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?"

"Yes, Henry."

"What sort of a hold?"

Cynthia Saxemundham trod very delicately, like a person on the edge of a quicksand.

"Do you remember that old lawyer, Sir Hugo Cope, who was such a good friend of mine when I was a child?"

Marchmont nodded.

"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 at once!'"

For the first time since the confession had begun Henry Marchmont laughed.

"Well?"

"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 resumed.

"You didn't follow it?"

"No," said the Duchess.

"You wrote some letters?"

"I kept some letters," the Duchess corrected.

"From Hairy-heels?"

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 service."

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 you?...Well, then!"

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 thrills.

"I'll try. How many days have we got?"

"I am expected to dinner on Thursday week. Lady Torrent won't move before then."

"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 cried.

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 exclaimed.

"He has got up off his knees," said the Duchess dryly.

IV

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. Auguste Dupin.

"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 there."

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 his face.

"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 the criminal.

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 guests.

"It must have been charming," she said as he told of an encounter with a crocodile.

"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 and dinners.

Marchmont slipped back into the house at a moment when Lady Torrent was surrounded.

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 Duchess's address.

"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 adder.

Cynthia for the moment understood only the embarrassment of finding the pearls there.

"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 it."

"A trap?"

"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, imprisoned."

"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 my pocket."

"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 these things."

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 after all.

"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.

"No."

"But you have written to her?"

"I have answered invitations."

"In your own name?"

"No."

Here the Duchess interrupted. She saw the way out too, and her face was alight.

"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."

"Good!"

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.

"Certainly."

"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 it."

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 necklace.

V

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 afterwards."

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 witness-box.

"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 against him."

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 rest!"

"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 mislaid.

"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.

VI

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."

 
 
 

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