Chapter I

On the Seamy Side

“Madame’s coffee is ready.”

A smothered response from the picture-bed, with its silken hangings and lace pillows, an impatient movement of the round shoulders. Silence, broken by the whisking of Fifine’s skirts as she turned to open the window, and the persiennes outside.

Five minutes of silence and blazing sunlight, and Fifine spoke again.

“Madame’s coffee is getting cold.”

Madame probably found the sunlight somewhat trying. The long, dark lashes slowly parted and disclosed a pair of large blue Irish eyes​—​beautiful eyes undoubtedly, innocent-looking or wicked just as the owner pleased. At this moment they were languid and slightly weary. The corners of the handsome audacious mouth were curved a little downwards. Mdme. Violetta Vaughan, generally known as Mdme. Violetta, and not infrequently as “Violetta” alone, had had a restless night.

“Chartreuse, Fifine, and the eau de Cologne spray,” said she in a tired voice.

The first was dropped into the coffee, the second was showered on the lady’s forehead.

Under these stimulating and refreshing influences Mdme. Violetta revived somewhat and asked for the English papers.

The season at Monte Carlo was almost over; all the gamblers, or nearly all, had departed, the hotels were rapidly discharging their waiters, the sun was gaining power, the air was becoming stifling, and the heat unbearable.

Mdme. Violetta had stayed on simply because she had no plans; but she would have to do something, and so she had sent for the English papers to gain inspiration.

Her eyes went listlessly over the columns. She saw nothing that interested her or that suggested a welcome change from the aridity and dullness of the Riviera in the summer months. Besides, the paper was nearly a year old!

She was about to throw it aside with an impatient little moue when her attitude, her expression of lassitude, suddenly changed. She had caught sight of a paragraph which had taken her memory back a few years.

The paragraph which had brought about such a magical transformation was in a column of “Society pars,” and ran thus:​—​“Sir John Norman, whose health after his recent bereavement has caused great anxiety to his numerous friends, has left town with his sister Miss Ella Norman, for Normanhurst, his picturesque mansion in Sussex. We understand he intends presenting a stained-glass window to Normanhurst Church in memory of the late Lady Norman.”

The deep blue eyes sparkled, the red lips curved mockingly.

“Bereavement​—​ill health​—​stained glass window! How funny,” laughed the lady. “Why, the woman had for ten years been what the world is pleased to term mentally afflicted.”

Then amusement departed from the beautiful face and thought took its place.

Five years before Violetta Vaughan was a pupil teacher at a fashionable boarding-school in Eastbourne. She had been admitted on what is called “mutual terms.” In return for her intimate acquaintance with French and German, to be available, for the school in general, she had received instruction in music, drawing, and other “extras” which go to make up a “finishing education.”

But it was not solely for these accomplishments that Violetta had been sent to Montpellier House. Captain Vaughan, her father, who if he never seemed to be blest with this world’s coin, had plenty of the world’s wisdom and experience, told his daughter to make advantageous acquaintances among the aristocratic pupils, and she had not failed to take the parental advice.

Ella Norman, one of these aristocratic young ladies, at the end of her last term invited Violetta to spend the summer vacation at Normanhurst. Violetta accepted the invitation gratefully, and as part of her vocation was to make herself agreeable and as she had in addition a great capacity for getting all the enjoyment out of life that came in her way, she thoroughly ingratiated herself with the whole household, and especially with Sir John Norman.

She had not been twenty-four hours in the old mansion before her quick brain had summed up the character of the baronet.

“Easy-going​—​good-natured​—​susceptible​—​could be fooled by any pretty woman who likes to take the trouble to flatter him,” was her summary, and she was not far out.

But what was the use of her wasting her blandishments when they were likely to lead to nothing? To begin with, Sir John was married. He was also a grass widower, but in his case a loosening of the marriage tie made no difference, and Violetta had not been long at Normanhurst before she discovered this. Not that it mattered very much to her. She was by no means anxious for married life.

Lady Norman was then a patient in a doctor’s house and likely to remain one. Her brain was affected. She had delusions and among them was an intense jealousy of her husband. She had been pronounced incurable.

The baronet, poor man, had never given his wife the slightest cause for uneasiness. He had been brought up strictly and he had naturally a profound respect for the proprieties, and a hatred of scandal. He was not blessed (or cursed) with strong passions, and no one was less likely than he to figure in the divorce court.

At this time Violetta was a young woman of twenty-two and of fascinating manners. Though she had not long since arrived at years of discretion she had acquired an intimate acquaintance with the underworld of civilised life, which few to look at her would have suspected. During her teens and until her father elected to prepare her for another sphere in which to exercise her talents, she had had few acquaintances outside the “horsey” circle of which Capt. Vaughan was the moving spirit. Some of the members were very shady individuals and it was doubtful whether the gallant captain himself could be said to reach a high standard of respectability.

The extraordinary thing was that Violetta never betrayed that she had once rubbed shoulders with a stratum of society represented by men and women whose only occupation appeared to be to haunt race courses and restaurants.

Violetta Vaughan and Ella Norman got on fairly well together. There was only three years difference between their ages, and Violetta never made the mistake of presuming upon her seniority. Besides, she had infinite tact and was really clever and amusing. She had had some years’ experience of Paris, and could sing little French songs with all the verve and gesture of a café chantant star. But she was always very discreet in her selection and performance when Sir John was present.

Violetta enjoyed herself immensely at Normanhurst. She was passionately fond of horses and rode as one to the manner born. Sir John Norman had a stable of fine hunters, and when he showed her his stud he was amazed at her knowledge of horseflesh, and her shrewdness in pointing out the good qualities and the defects of the various animals.

He was still more amazed at her boldness and dexterity in the hunting field. But her father had been a cavalry officer, and after he left the army had, among other speculations, started a riding school, and from her earliest years Violetta had been used to the saddle.

Violetta left Normanhurst with the promise made both to Ella and Sir John (who showed great warmth in his invitation) to repeat her visit at no distant date.

She intended to keep her word, but the unexpected happened. A crisis came in her life, and she turned her back on respectability​—​at least, what is so termed in England. Abroad, manners and ideas are more elastic.

It was all through that ne’er-do-well father of hers. He had been thriftless, and unscrupulous, and when in the army he had gone through the Boer War with credit so far as mere fighting was concerned, but on his return to England, it had been found necessary for him to throw up his commission to prevent awkward consequences. It was suspected that at cards his luck was more than phenomenal.

After many vicissitudes he ran a sort of gambling and betting club. This was soon after Violetta’s visit to Normanhurst. She had had enough of pupil teaching, she had acquired the smart society air, and Capt. Vaughan saw how useful she could be to him.

He gauged her determination and business capacity correctly, and he had no hesitation in placing her in charge of the buffet at the club. He knew she could take care of herself without losing any of her fascination. She had the power of keeping the rather rowdy members in their place. Sometimes a new man attracted by her striking appearance endeavoured to pay her obtrusive attention. He soon found out his mistake.

Apart from her management of the buffet she took a great interest in the race course. She was as well up in betting mysteries as the most expert turfite, and if she cared she would have been a most successful bookmaker. The same with cards. There was not a game which she did not know from A to Z. Few could beat her at “poker” or “bridge,” if she held the cards, but she was nearly always unlucky.

She was a puzzle to men. When she was in the mood, she could flirt as few women could, but with her it was much the same as playing a game of cards. She would lead a man on, only to treat him with indifference.

Was she capable of love? No one could tell. She was an enigma. Yet there were moments when a light flashed in the mystic eyes which served to say that deep in her nature were the elements of a fire which if kindled might blaze up with irresistible force.

One morning before the members began to drop in and when Violetta was making preparations for the day’s business, Captain Vaughan sauntered in smoking a cigar. Said he in a casual way:

“This show’s cracked up, Vi.”

“I’m not surprised,” she rejoined, quite as cool as her father. “What are you going to do?”

“Scoot. Paris. How does that suit you?”

“It’s what you should have done long ago. I told you the club was not swell enough to bring you in any money. It’s too low down and always will be.”

“You’ve hit the right nail on the head, my girl, as you generally do. No chance of airing your graces and accomplishments. They’re wasted here. A pity, too, after laying in a stock of ‘high tone’ at that Eastbourne place.”

Violetta shrugged her shapely shoulders, and a gleam shot into her eyes as much as to say that there was still plenty of time to show what talent she possessed.

She was glad the club had come to an end. She hated the men with whom she had to mix. They were most of them “bookies” and hangers-on of the turf in various capacities. Many of them were somewhat mysterious in their ways, and what they did for a living in the off season when racing was over was only known to themselves.

Occasionally men of a different character found their way into the club, or, to speak correctly, were introduced. They were chiefly young fools who, with more money than brains, were “seeing life,” often at bitter cost to their pockets and health. Some of them were of the vulgar rich variety, and these Violetta effectually kept at a distance, and left them to fool themselves to the top of their bent. Others were of good birth and sowed their wild oats out of a superabundance of high spirits. They had no vice; they were simply reckless, and when Violetta took sufficient interest in any of them she whispered warnings against certain members of the club​—​warnings which somehow got known to the riffraff, whose deadly hatred she incurred accordingly.

Violetta held her own and was indifferent to what these disreputable personages thought of her, but the life was not pleasant, and she was heartily tired of it. So she gladly went off with her father to Paris that Paris she knew so well and loved as a child and where she felt more at home than in London.

The journey was a secret and a hurried one. Captain Vaughan scraped together all the money he could lay hold of and established himself in Paris as a “prophet.” He was possessed of a list of the names and addresses of English patrons of the turf, and he got together a number of subscribers to his weekly racing sheet. He might have done well, but he chose to buy a steeplechaser and pose as a gentleman rider. He broke his neck at Auteuil.

Violetta backed horses and systematically disregarded her father’s tips. Perhaps that was why she frequently won. After Captain Vaughan’s death, she took a dislike to the betting fraternity, but the gambling spirit was strong within her and she went off to Monte Carlo to try her luck at the Casino.

But the good fortune that attended her on the turf deserted her at the gaming table. She struggled half way through the season and came to the end of her resources.

Then in some curious way it got whispered about that though she had, to use her own words, “infernally bad luck,” yet she brought luck to others.

With her usual shrewdness she utilised this reputation of hers​—​she became a “Mascotte” and she found it pay. Of course, she could not always win, but certain it was that when she staked for other people her luck was amazing, and at times she was loaded with presents. “La Mascotte, Violetta,” became the rage.

The paper dropped from her hand as the serious look came into her eyes, and she rang the bell impatiently.

“Fifine,” she cried, “pack up at once. I leave to-day for Paris.”

“Madame!” exclaimed the startled maid.

“I spoke plainly, didn’t I? I’m tired of posing as a ‘mascotte’ for other people. I am going to play the part for myself. Make haste. To-day I bid farewell for ever to Monte Carlo. No more rouge-et-noir​—​no more Russian Princes with Tartar faces and French Counts with tigerish eyes. England, Fifine, England!”

“Madame will kill herself with ennui and the fog,” said Fifine, with a shrug of her pretty round shoulders.

But she packed Madame’s trunks nevertheless.

Violetta went through her hotel account and her exchequer. The first was larger and the second was smaller than she expected. She had enough to leave Monaco with a clear conscience and to pay her fare to England, but this by itself did not suffice. She must have funds when she arrived in London.

All that day she was in a dozen different moods. She was angry with Fifine about nothing at all one moment and was almost apologetic the next. The girl understood perfectly well what was the matter. Madame (Violetta by the way, always termed herself “Madame,” and though she never said precisely that she had been married she allowed people to think so​—​the assumption she found gave her more freedom) was suffering from “nerves.”

The emotional Fifine was considerate and sympathetic. Who would not be in a bad temper at the thought of exchanging the sunny skies and the gaiety of the Riviera for the smoke and drabness of London? The girl was not a bit surprised when her mistress suddenly announced that she intended to defer her departure until the next day.

“I shall go to the Casino to-night” she declared.

The step was a desperate one, but what other way was there?