Chapter XXIV

Violetta’s Trying Day

Of her three offers of marriage, Violetta thought most about Dan Westoby’s. It oppressed her. It filled her with apprehension. But it also stimulated her to be on the alert. She felt that Westoby was not a man to take a defeat lying down.

She was right. She had not left him five minutes before he sent a wire to Godfree, and then, locking the door, gathered up the torn Treasury notes with the intention of piecing the fragments together at some time or another. If Violetta was fool enough to throw away £250 he was not, and especially at that time.

Godfree arrived post haste. He had some news about Violetta which he had kept in reserve until a fitting moment came for making money out of it. That moment had now arrived. He and Westoby lunched together and Godfree, after hearing what the bookmaker had to say, told him the important piece of news​—​for a consideration. The news was that the owner of Belphegor was Violetta Vaughan.

A sickly grin spread itself over Westoby’s face. He rarely laughed audibly. He chuckled sometimes, but more often a noiseless grin sufficed, as it did now. After a long consultation Godfree received his instructions and returned to town with money in his pocket. All that evening the Honourable George prowled about Leicester Square, Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus, and the Piccadilly end of Regent Street, occasionally making brief excursions into Shaftesbury Avenue. He specially favoured the outside of restaurants and taverns.

At last he found the man he was seeking​—​a miserable looking creature, seedily dressed, blotchy faced, dull eyed​—​Alf Richards.

“Hullo, Alf,” said Godfree, thickly (while hovering about the exteriors of the various hostelries he had not forgotten the interiors), “what are you up to?”

“Same old game, Mr. Godfree​—​stony broke. It’s a toss up between the workhouse and Father Thames.”

“While you’re making up your mind come and have a ‘livener.’ There’s just time.”

It was ten minutes to ten. A public house was handy, and George ran his man into the saloon bar and elbowed his way through a jostling, noisy crowd clamouring for their last drink. Godfree was well-known to the girls behind the counter, and was soon served​—​two double brandies. Alf swallowed his at two gulps. His eyes glistened. He looked at Godfree expectantly. He knew the Honourable George was not one to fling his money over so wretched an object as himself without wanting something in return.

“Look here, Alf,” whispered Godfree. “I can put you on to a good job, but we can’t jaw about it here. Come along to the Café Astrachan.”

Amid the raucous yells of “Time, gents, please,” the two men edged themselves out. The Café Astrachan was not five minutes walk away, and the clock was on the stroke of ten when they reached the grimy uninviting establishment which might have been a third class estaminet of Montremart in its suggestiveness of dirt and sottish dissipation.

The inside favoured the resemblance. It was a long, narrow shop with bare walls and no attempt at decoration beyond a couple of faded woollen rugs hanging from two of the panels, with what object only the proprietor knew. To the ordinary person they were of neither use nor ornament. The air was hot, fœtid, stuffy with the fumes of rank tobacco. Obvious second-hand marble-topped tables and uncomfortable cheap non-upholstered chairs were ranged in two rows with a centre gangway. There were no such luxuries as velvet benches; if the floor was covered with oilcloth, the pattern was indistinguishable through wear and dirt.

The place was about three parts full with a nondescript crowd, mostly dark visaged, unkempt haired and shabbily dressed. Clean collars and cuffs were apparently unknown. Foreign nationalities prevailed, but by a quarter past ten the scourings of the neighbouring restaurants would swarm in and tax the energies of the active, business like waitresses to the uttermost.

The Astrachan was of the type of café which made you feel depressed and degraded directly you entered it. Some of the giggling noisy girls in tawdry dresses and hats, at which a wardrobe dealer would have turned up her nose, might have looked decent in other surroundings, but here they suggested the Parisian apache though for the most part they were English. Their male companions, who paid in lamb-like fashion for anything the girls wanted, and had probably been doing so elsewhere all the evening, had no characteristics beyond extreme foolishness. They were probably under the impression they were seeing “life.”

Somehow the unhealthy pallor of some of these young fools, their leaden eyes, their subdued voices, the painted cheeks, the blackened eyebrows, the excessively red lips, and the hysterical laughter of the women​—​most of them hardly out of their teens​—​brought to mind the sinister suggestion of cocaine, veronal and goodness knows what other modern nerve poisons.

Godfree and Richards took two vacant seats against the wall and were soon discussing the “job.” It had to do with the profession into which Alf Richards proposed entering years and years before​—​doctoring and drugs. The din was so deafening and incessant when the late comers packed the place that the two men could talk freely without the necessity of whispering save at times when the kernel of the matter was approached.

Alf was clearly averse from undertaking Godfree’s commission. Godfree got quite angry at the man’s obstinacy, and when Godfree was angry and half drunk he was not very choice in his language.

“Don’t be a damned ass,” he growled. “You can’t afford it. You’ll have to do what I want. You’d be in an infernal fix if I were to drop a line to the police about​—​well, you can finish the rest for yourself.”

The haggard face of Alf Richards was convulsed with terror. He knew well to what Godfree alluded. Deep down in the secret life of all great cities exists a mode of income open to any man or woman with (or without) a little surgical skill. From time to time the newspapers reveal the secret. Richards when in desperate straits had made use of his hospital studies in this way, and though he had hitherto escaped the law, Nemesis was always hanging over him.

“All that’s past and forgotten,” he mumbled. “What holds me back is that I hate going against Miss Vaughan. She’s been a good friend to me and——”

“Bah, shut up. Don’t be maudlin. Violetta Vaughan’s not worth thinking twice about. She’s no better and no worse than others of her class who sell themselves and live to fleece men. She’s an unscrupulous Circe and worse. I know.”

“What do you know?” suddenly came the words from across the table.

Godfree raised his eyes. He recognised Lord Verschoyle sitting opposite.

“This is a private conversation,” returned Godfree, with an insolent stare. “You’ve no right to interfere.”

“I’ve every right when you speak insultingly of a lady with whom I am acquainted, in a voice loud enough for me and others to hear.”

“If you hadn’t been listening you wouldn’t have heard.”

“You’re a liar and a blackguard. I don’t want to make a disturbance in this place. I ask you to come outside.”

“And I ask you to mind your own business.”

Verschoyle’s reply was short and sharp. His fist shot out and landed full on Godfree’s nose.

“That’s my business,” he exclaimed. “If you’re a man, now come out.”

Instantly the place was in a tumult. Men sprang to their feet, those far from the scene mounted the chairs, the waitresses fled, women screamed, the agitated proprietor crying out something in a foreign tongue vainly tried to force a path through the crowded gangway.

In his younger days Godfree had been a bit of a bruiser, but he had long since lost his alertness and activity. He retaliated but his blow missed. Before the conflict could be renewed, some of the men restrained the combatants, and the agonised proprietor having by this time edged his way to the table, begged them to go out. He did not want to send for the police.

Godfree was blinded by passion. When he thought of Violetta and of his continual rebuffs at her hands, the recollection always enraged him, and this galling recollection was in his mind as he uttered his foul aspersions. Physically, however, he was no coward. He sullenly rose and went towards the door. Verschoyle had already moved thither and was awaiting him.

Soon they were outside. Verschoyle had his old chum, Sir Frederick Dartnell with him. The two had strolled into the Café Astrachan purely out of curiosity. This curiosity had been soon satisfied, and they were about to leave when Godfree’s words reached their ears.

A fairly wide court was but two or three yards away. Godfree knew it well. Said he in a grating, sneering voice when they were at the corner of the court:

“You took a mean advantage of me inside the café. You knew we couldn’t fight there. It won’t be the same thing here.”

He jerked his head towards the opening of the court and turned into it. Verschoyle followed, despite the whispered remonstrances of Dartnell, to whom a fracas of a low type did not appeal. Verschoyle took not the slightest notice of his friend’s words. He simply handed him his hat.

There was no preliminary squaring or feinting. The two went at it tooth and nail. They were about the same age and build, but whereas Verschoyle was in the very pink of condition, Godfree was quite off colour. Almost the first blow settled him. He fell heavily and remained on the ground like a log.

Verschoyle turned to Richards, who was looking on dismayed.

“See to your friend. I’ve done with him.”

Richards sided up, but instead of taking notice of Godfree he whispered hoarsely to Lord Verschoyle:

“Thank you, sir, for what you did. George Godfree deserved all he got and more. It was all lies, every word​—​about Miss Vaughan. She’s as straight a woman as ever breathed. By God, there’s few who would have come unscathed out of the beastly crowd she was in some four or five years ago as she did.”

“What do you know about her? Who the deuce are you?”

“I’m no good to anybody, so what does it matter who I am? I’ll only say this, that if Violetta Vaughan’s your friend you’ve got a real good pal.”

“I believe you. But tell me. What did you mean by that ‘beastly crowd?’”

“The Beak Street Club crew. It was this way.”

In a few words Alf Richards gave a summary of his recollections of Captain Vaughan’s venture, to which Verschoyle listened with intense interest. Alf did not forget to enlarge on Violetta’s many good points.

“Thanks. Now about Westoby. What has he to do with Miss Vaughan?”

“I don’t know. Westoby doesn’t often open his mouth. But you’d better get. Godfree’s moving. I don’t want him to see me talking to you. He’s dangerous.”

“Is he? Well, you’ve done me a good turn and we’ll dry up. You don’t look over flourishing. This may be of use to you.”

He thrust a treasury note into Alf’s hand and strode away with Dartnell.

“What the devil’s the answer to this riddle?” asked the latter. “You’re about the last one to get into a street brawl. I’m not curious, but, hang it, I’d like to know. Who’s Violetta Vaughan?”

“The woman I mean to marry​—​if she’ll have me.”