Chapter XIV

“Violetta may be no better than Christine”

What was Norman to think of Christine’s words? Dan Westoby had sworn to ruin him, and he had succeeded, but surely it was improbable that he should know Violetta, and equally improbable that she would back horses. He could not recollect a single expression of hers to justify such an assertion. It was all the creation of Christine’s malevolence and jealousy. No one knew better than he that his wife had not the least respect for truth when it suited her purpose to tell a falsehood. He tried to brush the calumny aside, but he found it difficult.

He crossed Piccadilly Circus and went down Waterloo Place into St. James’ Park. He walked about some time in the quietude, hoping to calm his agitated nerves and dispel his forebodings. In the first he succeeded; in the second he failed.

Norman had never been able to decide whether he had acted wisely or foolishly in telling Violetta that “Mrs. Willoughby Smythe” was his wife. Somehow, the words slipped out before he could stop them, but the confession had enabled him to say that he had acted straightly towards Violetta. Henceforward she would be under no illusions as to his position. On the other hand, the revelation had completed the history of his folly and he was afraid that so shrewd a young woman must set him down as an utter fool.

This did not trouble him so much as the conviction that he had burnt his boats so far as she was concerned, and that he had nipped their dawning friendship in the bud. As a man with a wife living, he must stand in a totally different light from that which represented him as a widower.

He had thought much over this embarrassment. He would have dearly liked to know Violetta’s opinion of him, but he had felt that to call upon her might suggest an erroneous construction. Possibly he need not have been so scrupulous. A man less emotional, less given to introspection, and of a stronger mental fibre, might not have thought twice about it.

But such a man would not have been in love, and this made all the difference. It was really the key to his present inaction. He had in his idle way often dreamed of Violetta during the four years’ separation and the unlikelihood of realization had acted rather as a provocative than a check. Gradually, however, these dreams of idealistic happiness had become fewer, and when his freedom came Violetta was but a memory. He never thought to see her again. If ever they did meet, in all probability she would be somebody else’s wife.

The unexpected had happened as it has a habit of doing. When that meeting came about it was he who had married. By contrast with Christine, Violetta was perfection, and he was more than ever drawn towards her. But what was the use of dwelling upon the unattainable? That way madness lay, so he tried to discover a middle road in a sort of platonic love​—​generally another term for self-deception.

Norman was about the last man in the world who could be trusted to try so hazardous an experiment. He was not impersonal enough. He could not separate himself and his emotions from anything that affected him deeply. Love in the “aibstract,” as Sidney Smith’s Scotch young lady termed it, was to him an impossibility, and maybe it was to impose an insurmountable barrier to his own feelings that he had confided to Violetta he had a wife.

He went over all this again and again while pacing the Mall. Christine and Violetta​—​Violetta and Christine​—​they danced like puppets through his confused brain, and it was some time before his thoughts settled down into something like order. Violetta, he decided, must for the moment be placed in the background. While he was menaced by Christine he would never have any peace of mind. She must be dealt with at once, and, leaving the Mall at the St. James’s Palace end, he jumped into a taxi in St. James’s Street, and was set down at Gray’s Inn.

Marlowe & Peach, of Gray’s Inn Square, had been the Normans’ solicitors for three generations. There were few family skeletons they could not take from the japanned boxes in their sedate dimly-lighted office with its panelled walls and long narrow windows.

Among these skeletons was Sir John Norman’s foolish marriage. He would have said nothing but for complications with West End tradesmen arising out of debts contracted by Christine in her husband’s name. So when he told Mr. Barlowe, a white-headed, spectacled, solemn-looking old gentleman​—​in private life a genial soul with a partiality for old port​—​that a divorce was in his mind the lawyer was not surprised.

“I should imagine from what I know of the lady that there won’t be much difficulty in getting up a case against her. But it may be an expensive business. Private detectives are like sharks​—​they’ll swallow all they can get. The worst of that profession is that there’s no check on their charges​—​no standard of fees. I regard the employment of private detectives as part of the punishment following a breach of morals.”

“That can’t be helped,” rejoined Norman. “I’m desperately hard up​—​you know that, Mr. Barlowe, as well as, or better than I do​—​but I must raise the money somehow.”

“Well, there’s no immediate hurry. We can carry on the preliminaries for a time and see how things turn out. Supposing we find a co-respondent who’s a man of means, we might go in for damages. Unfortunately, you can hardly say you’ve suffered material injury in her choosing to go her own way. The court might even consider that you married her with your eyes open, and that a good deal of what followed you might have expected. You had more than arrived at the years of discretion at the time of your marriage. No, I’m afraid there’s little hope of substantial damages. If the worst comes to the worst, you’ll have to sell the last bit of unencumbered land you’ve got​—​the Owl’s Nest.”

“That would mean turning out Miss Vaughan,” Norman hastily put in.

“Not necessarily. It’s true she’s a quarterly tenant, and a purchaser might think fit to put up her rent at the end of her three years’ agreement. You know she’s got the place dirt cheap, and but for your explicit instructions we shouldn’t have let her have it at £50 a year. It’s worth £100 at least, and this is what a new owner would probably want.”

“Well, I shouldn’t think of selling the place. It would be a breach of faith.”

“Would it? Miss Vaughan, I take it, is a friend of yours, Sir John?”

“I hope so.”

“She’s a very charming young lady. I was struck by her independent and original turn of mind. She’s one that a man who wanted a clever wife might easily fall in love with. At the same time, I fancy she wouldn’t accept anyone who chanced to offer. She’d pick and choose. Perhaps that’s why she’s still single. I gather from what she said she’s lived in France for some time.”

“I believe so.”

“Father’s dead, she mentioned. I suppose he left her some money.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Anyhow, she must have some. She’s indulging in rather expensive alterations, or additions, I believe they are. Not usual for a quarterly tenant to spend money for the benefit of the landlord.”

“Miss Vaughan can do as she likes, I suppose,” rejoined Norman, a little tartly. “I gave her full permission. I told her she could pull the house down if she cared to do so.”

“Oh, did you? That was showing unusual confidence in the lady.”

Mr. Barlowe gazed penetratingly through his gleaming spectacles at his client a second or two and then remarked irrelevantly as it seemed to Norman:

“I had a visit from your sister the other day about some of her investments.”

“Yes.”

“She enquired whether the Owl’s Nest was still vacant.”

Norman looked suddenly uncomfortable beneath the microscopic eye of the lawyer.

“Why did she want to know? It’s no affair of hers,” broke out Norman angrily.

“So I thought. I gave her a general answer. Several people were after it I led her to believe.”

“Thanks for your discretion, Mr. Barlowe. The fact is Ella knows nothing about my having let the place to Miss Vaughan.”

“That was my impression. Now, Sir John, I want to give you a word of caution. These divorce proceedings sometimes turn out quite differently from what one expects. To be successful you must go into court with absolutely clean hands. The King’s Proctor——”

“Dash it all, Mr. Barlowe, what are you driving at. Surely you’re not insinuating.——”

“I’m not. It isn’t my fashion to insinuate. I find it better to speak plainly. What I wish you to understand is that if there is anything between you and this extremely attractive young lady——”

“Well, there isn’t. You may take my solemn word of honour.”

“I do. But this is where the point comes in​—​you mustn’t act as if there was. Circumstances, harmless situations, words, can be so twisted as to make white appear black. It is to the interest of the King’s Proctor and his agents to bring about this twist. You evidently take a great interest in Miss Vaughan. While these proceedings are pending, I should advise you to give the Owl’s Nest a wide berth.”

“I’ve not been near the place since Miss Vaughan took up her quarters there.”

“So much the better. You’ve begun rather unfortunately by not saying anything about Miss Vaughan to your sister.”

“There were reasons why I shouldn’t, since we had already had a quarrel about her.”

“Indeed? Perhaps you’d better tell me all about it. I mustn’t be kept in the dark you know, and have a surprise sprung upon me.”

Norman had no alternative but to go over the story of the alleged “joy ride” and of the unlucky encounter the same evening with his wife, not forgetting the assertion of the latter a few hours previous that she had recognised Violetta as having been at the Alexandra Park races.

“I told her she lied,” concluded Norman, “but you see she has grounds for making herself unpleasant.”

“Deucedly unpleasant,” said the lawyer gravely. “If, as you say, Miss Vaughan is nothing to you, why not tell your sister she is your tenant? It would save disagreeable innuendoes being drawn.”

“I daresay it would, but I know Ella and you don’t. If I opened my mouth to her, the first thing she’d do would be to go to the Owl’s Nest and there’d be a precious shindy between the two women. Besides, I promised Miss Vaughan I shouldn’t let Ella know.”

Mr. Barlowe shrugged his shoulders and took a pinch of snuff.

“Well, we must hope for the best. While we’re making enquiries about Lady Norman you must lie low. No visits to Miss Vaughan​—​that would be absolutely fatal. Not even a letter.”

Norman went away with the lawyer’s warning in his ears, by no means comfortable, it seemed to him he was in a cleft stick, for the very steps he was taking to get rid of his matrimonial burden were increasing the obstacles in the way of his cementing his friendship with Violetta Vaughan.

But one thing was paramount. He must free himself from his matrimonial shackles.

He had not much faith in Mr. Barlowe when it came to a descent into the sordid and tortuous ways of life’s underworld. Spying out the antecedents of a lady meant wholesale bribery, listening at keyholes, so to speak, interviewing servants, always the source of gossip and scandal. Mr. Barlowe was far too respectable for this sort of thing. He always fought shy of criminal business and police courts generally.

“I hate doing it, but there’s no other way,” thought Norman. “I’ll have to employ some of the gentry who dignify themselves by the name of private enquiry agents.”

Of course, he knew none, and it was doubtful if Mr. Barlowe knew any either, but he wasn’t going to test the old solicitor’s knowledge of the seamy side of London life. He was quite sure that Barlowe would discountenance his contemplated action.

Meanwhile, he had strolled back to Piccadilly Circus. He was so absorbed that he hardly knew where he was going, and when he discovered where his wandering steps had borne him he paused.

It was far too near the Café Nice. For all he knew he might run against his wife, and this was about the last thing he desired. He turned into that somewhat grimy and uninteresting thoroughfare Sherwood Street, but this led to no place in which he was interested. Then it suddenly occurred to him that the Bodega in Glasshouse Street would help him.

In his racketty period of married life with Christine the Bodega was one of his houses of call. He had got to a nodding acquaintance with some of the miscellaneous crowd who foregather in the various resorts of the establishment.

“I’ll swear I’ll get the information I want out of one of the seedy bounders who were always so ready to drink at my expense,” he thought.

Hanging about the door of the Bodega was a shabby, unshorn nondescript whose red nose and pallid cheeks betrayed his besetting passion. He was selling matches and he held out a box to Norman as the latter was brushing past.

“If it’s not taking a liberty, Sir John,” said the man apologetically, and with a finger to his greasy bowler, “may I ask you to buy a box? I’ve come down a bit since you used to tip me for fetching you taxis.”

“Oh? I don’t recollect you.”

“Course you don’t, sir. I’m Alf Richards. I did a bit o’ touting for you and Mr. Godfree. I was useful then picking up news from the stable about the cracks.”

“I think I’ve a glimmering of a remembrance of your face. Things haven’t gone well with you.”

“Bally bad, sir.”

Norman pulled out a shilling. Mr. Richards accepted it gratefully, and his watery eyes became still more watery.

“By the way, Richards,” said Norman, “I wonder whether you can help me in a little matter.”

“Only too pleased. Don’t often get a job nowadays.”

“Well, it isn’t what you may call a job. I want to get on the track of a certain person, and I thought of employing a private detective. Do you know of anybody who does that kind of thing?”

“You’ve come to the very shop, Sir John. I’ve done a good deal in that line myself.”

Norman looked very doubtful. Alf Richards was such a disreputable person in his appearance. His speech and manner, however, were the reverse. At some time of his life he must have mixed in fairly decent society.

But Norman hesitated. Christine was certain to go her own way, restitution of conjugal rights notwithstanding. She passed her time chiefly at swell restaurants. Alf Richards was hardly the man who could shadow her at fashionable haunts. He hinted at something of the kind.

“Well, that’s true, sir, but there was a time when I knew them all; ah, and the waiters looked after me, too. I always gave them good tips. Put me in a decent suit and I don’t think I’d disgrace you. It would cost you less than if you went to a professional firm. They’d run you up a big bill before you could say knife.”

“Can I trust you?”

“Give me a chance. Do you suppose I like this kind of life? Maybe I do go in too much for the cheerful glass, but what would you expect? It’s the only pleasure I get. If I was sure of a regular sum per week​—​I shouldn’t want much​—​I’d keep myself straight and not disgrace you.”

Norman’s good nature and his capacity for believing the best of everyone came to the rescue of Alf Richards.

“We’ll go downstairs and talk over the matter,” said he.

“I’m not fit company for you, sir, as I am,” hesitated Richards.

“Oh, hang that. Come along.”

They descended into the Bodega’s lower regions and Norman ordered drinks. Then he explained what he wanted.

“I don’t see much difficulty, sir,” said Richards. “Mrs. Davenport isn’t quite unknown to me. I’ve seen her lots o’ times on the race course.”

“No doubt. Well, the first thing you’ll have to do is to make yourself fairly decent. Suppose you get yourself a rig out. Here’s a £10 note. I daresay you know how to lay it out to the best advantage.”

“I guess I do, sir.”

Alf Richards handled the flimsy piece of paper Norman gave him as though it were a priceless treasure. His eyes glistened and he folded it up with the greatest care.

“Now you won’t let me down, I hope,” said Norman. “It’s a vital matter to me.”

“I understand, sir. I’ll do my best and if there’s anything to be found out I’ll have it. I’ve had to worm myself into the secrets of many a racing stable before now, and if I chose to open my mouth​—​well​—​that kind of thing wants a bit of doing. T’other’s child’s play.”

Mr. Richards drew a long breath and winked. The drink had oiled his tongue, to say nothing of the sight of the tenner and he plunged into a series of reminiscences to which Norman listened languidly.

Suddenly he heard Richards mention the name of “Captain Vaughan,” and he pricked up his ears. He had Violetta in his mind at that moment. Her father, as he knew very well, was Captain Vaughan. It might be only a coincidence that Richards should also know a Captain Vaughan, but it interested him, all the same.

“What Captain Vaughan are you talking about?”

“Why, Captain Vaughan who ran the Beak Street Sporting Club. One of the best. I was awfully sorry to hear of him coming to grief over the sticks. He ought not to have tried that fun at his age. But if he’d made up his mind to do a thing he’d do it, and the devil take the consequence. His handsome daughter takes after him.”

Norman stared at the man, and hardly dared to ask him any more questions. But the impulse was too strong.

“Do you know his daughter?” said he in a voice of suppressed excitement.

“Miss Violetta Vaughan? I should think I do. A clever girl and, like her dad, one of the best. The way she managed the canteen and kept the boys in order was a marvel.”

Norman felt a sinking at the heart. There could be no doubt that Alf Richards was speaking the truth. But Violetta, the manageress of a drinking bar at a sporting club! The idea was horrible.

“What’s become of her?” he ventured to say, putting on an air of indifference.

“Oh, I fancy she’s tumbled on her feet. The club went smash and she went off with the Captain to France. What they did there I don’t quite know, but it was something to do with the turf.”

“Have you seen her since her return from France?”

“Once. It was quite by chance. At the A. P. Easter meeting. She was all there, I can tell you.”

“All there? What the devil do you mean by ‘all there’?”

“Why, making a book, of course. She pulled off a real good thing. Backed ‘Daughter of the Mist’ at thirty-five to one and scooped. I made fifteen quid​—​thanks to her tip. She must have known something, though she swore​—​well, she didn’t swear, she’s too much of a lady​—​she didn’t.”

“Are you sure you’re right? You’re not telling me a fairy tale just to make out how clever you are?” gasped Norman.

“Not likely. Why should I? It’s all gospel truth, and if I didn’t know how lucky she was in the old days in spotting winners, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. You see, ‘Daughter of the Mist’ is one of Dan Westoby’s horses, and Dan and his gang were up to some tricks over her. It was their game to work long odds and, by thunder, they brought if off though the filly was nearly beaten at the post. I don’t understand how Miss Vaughan got to know, unless she was in with Westoby’s boys. But that’s impossible.”

The more revelations Richards unfolded the worse the thing became. Norman could listen to nothing further. He sat still as a statue staring into space.

“When I find out anything about Mrs. Davenport how shall I let you know?” said Richards, breaking the silence.

Mrs. Davenport,” repeated Norman, blankly.

“Yes. That was her name, you said.”

“Oh, of course,” rejoined the baronet, rousing himself. “Write to the Corinthian Club, Coventry Street.”

“All right, sir. I won’t lose a minute. Any other instructions?”

“No. You know what to do.”

Norman rose abruptly. He was overwhelmed by what he had heard. He nodded to Richards and strode out, feeling like a man who had awakened out of a pleasant dream. He was at that moment incapable of coherent thought, and it was not until he had to face the busy traffic of Regent Street that he got back to stern reality.

“So Christine was right,” he muttered. “It’s appalling what women can do in the way of deception. For anything that I know, Violetta may be no better than Christine!”