Chapter III

“Vi. Vaughan or Her Ghost, and Handsomer than ever”

Violetta knew her Paris. She did not bother about the expensive hotels, but made straight for the Hotel Provence, an old-world establishment south of the Seine and not far from the Boulevard St. Michel and its cafés, dear to the hearts of Bohemian students.

She had stayed at the hotel more than once and was practically an old friend of M. Octave Lange, the fat good-humoured bald-headed proprietor. He welcomed her with effusion. She had on several occasions proved highly useful to him in acting as an interpreter when English or American tourists found their way to the Hotel Provence. Whether through disinclination or incapacity Octave Lange had not been able to acquire more than one or two English phrases, and these were so tinged with a Gallic pronunciation as to be almost unintelligible. So he had found the services of “Mees Vown” exceedingly valuable, and he showed his gratitude by the smallness of his charges.

By good luck her old room on the ground floor was free. It opened into a quaint stone-paved courtyard flanked by high ivy covered walls on two sides, and with a solitary plane tree which did its best to flourish under adverse circumstances in the centre. In the days of Louis Quatorze the Hotel Provence had been a stately mansion, and some remains of its former grandeur yet remained in the size of the rooms, the queer way in which they opened one into the other, and in the carvings and decorations of the walls and ceilings.

“Would Mademoiselle be having her piano?” was M. Lange’s enquiry the day after she had taken up her quarters. “Mees Vown’s” playing, he had discovered, added to the attractions of his establishment. He liked to hear some of his pensionats ask who was the brilliant pianist whose music was looked forward to with so much pleasure.

Mademoiselle considered. So much depended upon how long she intended to stay. For the moment she had formulated no plans. But she would want some kind of occupation on those evenings when she was not in the mood for theatre going, and she decided to hire an instrument week by week. M. Lange beamed with satisfaction.

The life at the Hotel Provence was placid and uneventful, but not monotonous. The homely table d’hote was grateful to her after the feverish excitement of the Monte Carlo banquets. The visitors amused her​—​some of them​—​those from the provinces especially, with their quaint patois, the mixture of caution and simplicity of their ideas, and the women’s antiquated dresses. Everything was such a contrast to what she had been accustomed to during the winter at the Riviera.

The weeks flew by and she had not made up her mind what should be her next step. One thing was certain. She could not live for ever on what she had brought from Monte Carlo. Still her expenses were now so small, it would last a considerable time.

Sir John Norman was constantly in her thoughts, but was it worth while troubling about him? She liked the easy-going baronet and she knew perfectly well that if he were free she had but to give him the slightest encouragement and he would ask her to be his wife. His sister would probably not like it, but would that matter very much? Violetta could not see that it would. The point was, could she tie herself up to a man she only liked?

There was, she owned, one strong inducement for a marriage with Sir John Norman​—​the splendid stabling equipment at Normanhurst, its paddocks and training grounds. Sir John had bred hunters; why shouldn’t he turn his attention to breeding racers? Horses were quite a passion with her, and she cared for no sport as she cared for horse racing. It was her ambition to be a successful owner, and above all to be the proud possessor of the Blue Riband of the turf!

Sir John might be cajoled into the idea. Violetta believed she could cajole him into anything. Ella would most likely be the obstacle. She was dreamy, sentimental, fond of poring over poetry of the extreme modern school, of sketching, and went mad over artists. Ella always belonged to a “cult” of some kind​—​of what kind Violetta never cared to enquire, and it might have been theosophy, spiritualism, the abolition of marriage as the only way of reforming the iniquitous laws of divorce, or the worship of Omar Khayam for anything she knew. At all events, Ella took not the slightest interest in horses and hated races.

But supposing Sir John was not to be talked into racing? If this should prove to be the case the card house of her ambition would be shattered. She certainly did not care for the baronet sufficiently to marry him for his own sake. Their temperaments were wholly antagonistic. Violetta was restless and fiery, Sir John was placid and rather inclined to laze. His brain was sluggish compared with hers. Besides​—​and perhaps this secretly weighed with her more than anything​—​she was not drawn towards matrimony. She revelled in her independence.

After a time she tired of Paris and she tired of her irresolution. Whatever might come of it, she would renew her acquaintance with Sir John Norman. At the worst he might serve as a stepping stone into the world of well-to-do and maybe aristocratic turf enthusiasts. Never would she drift back into the ranks of her father’s shady associates. Before her determination vanished, she sat down and wrote:

“Dearest Ella,​—​I wonder if you’ve forgotten your old friend? So much happens in this little world in a short time that it wouldn’t surprise me if much more important things than our old friendship had driven me from your mind. Have you found the man who loves you? Are you married? I’ve often wondered. As for me, I’m much the same​—​a rolling stone that’s gathered very little moss. Since my poor father died​—​he was thrown when riding in a steeple chase​—​I’ve had all kinds of posts and the only result is a little more experience of the world, which I don’t know that I particularly wanted. Anyhow, I feel strongly tempted to try my luck in London, and I should love dearly to see you again. Do drop me a line here to say that I may hope to do so. I shall be in Paris for quite a fortnight and indeed would wait there for your reply. Otherwise your letter might go wandering about and never be forwarded to me in London, where at present I’ve no address. How is Sir John? I often think of the pleasant time I had at Normanhurst. With love, I am, yours sincerely, your old chum, Violetta Vaughan.”

She read the letter over twice and was satisfied. She meant it simply as a diplomatic feeler. She purposely omitted mentioning the paragraph which told her of Lady Norman’s death. Not on any account would she have Ella suspect her plans, and less still let her know what she had been doing during the last five years. She posted the letter, addressing it to Normanhurst, and for the next few days was in a fever of impatience for an answer.

The fortnight she had given herself went over, but no letter came from Ella.

“What does it mean?” Violetta asked herself angrily. “I suppose she intends to drop me. If she does she’d have a good excuse. I ought to have written at once on the death of poor old dad. But I thought she might have looked upon it as an attempt to sponge upon her. She knew perfectly well I was always more or less hard up.”

She wondered if the letter would reach her friend. Ella might be travelling abroad with her brother. Naturally, the death of Lady Norman would make a difference, if not so much to her, certainly to Sir John.

“Perhaps she’ll consider it her duty to watch over him and protect him from designing women. He’ll need it. He’s one of the men who are lost without a wife, and drawing a blank in his first plunge in the marriage sweepstakes wouldn’t prevent him trying again. I won’t bother any more about him. There’ll be Kempton Park at Easter, and I ought to be in London. With £200 one might do something. I see nothing else in view.”

But the next day changed her opinion. She received Ella Norman’s answer. Her face grew grave as she read:

“Dearest Violetta,​—​It was a delightful surprise to see your handwriting again. As you say, much has happened since we last met, and so much that was, and still is, miserable, that I can hardly bear to write about it. The death of poor Alice in the doctor’s house where she has dragged out her miserable existence for so long can scarcely be considered a misfortune. Indeed, it was a happy release, but it came too late to be of any relief to poor John. Of course, while she was alive she was a source of constant anxiety to him, but for some time previous to her death he could not have thought much about her. He had too many other worries on his mind. And yet in a way Alice was at the bottom of the trouble. Soon after you went I noticed a change in him. He moped horribly. He seemed to crave for excitement, and this was so strange, for he always appeared to be happy with his horses and dogs and pottering about with his farming stock. Then he suddenly changed again. He had alternate fits of melancholy and buoyancy, and I don’t know which troubled me most. The explanation came eventually. He had taken to betting, and lost over and over again, and was heavily in debt. I can’t go into particulars now, but I shall be only too thankful to pour my troubles into your sympathetic ears. When are you coming to England? Yours very sincerely, Ella.”

P.S.​—​Your letter was forwarded here from Normanhurst, or of course I should have replied long ago. About the man​—​I don’t know.”

“That means she is engaged or about to be,” thought Violetta.

She tossed the letter on the table impatiently. Ella’s engagement was of no importance, but Sir John Norman with his recklessness, his ill luck, was a different matter. She was sorry for him, and angry with herself for not accepting five years before his pressing invitation to stay.

“I daresay things would have turned out differently,” she told herself. “But it wouldn’t have done while his wife was alive. I believe I hate scandal as much as he does​—​at any rate, I’ve come to hate it.”

And this was true. Her experience at Monte Carlo in this direction was a bitter one. She knew very well she was hated by all the neurotic lady gamesters, old, young, and middle-aged, and that she was a perennial subject of venomous gossip. Her luck for others had raised up hosts of enemies. It would not have mattered so much had the luck been for the benefit of her own pocket.

“It’s no consolation, I suppose, that I’ve nothing to reproach myself with. I went into the ‘mascotte’ business with my eyes open, so I can’t be surprised at the lies told about me.”

Violetta shrugged her shoulders and her straight brows wrinkled slightly as was their wont when her mind was disturbed.

She took the letter up again. Ella had written from the Willows, Thameside, up the river, not far from Bray.

“Shall I go? Not much good now that the poor man has anticipated my plans. I wonder if he ran his own horses?”

She could not decide offhand what to do, and she went out to collect her thoughts. She wandered along the southern bank of the Seine gazing absently at the bookstalls, at the gaily painted little steamers, at the patient anglers increasing in numbers as she drew near Charenton, waiting for fish that never came.

When she returned to the Hotel Provence she looked in at the proprietor’s little room.

“My stay here, Monsieur Lange, has come to an end. I want to leave to-morrow. I’m going to London.”

Monsieur was desolated and almost pitying. He was a born Parisian and rooted to his native city. He could not conceive existence out of Paris, and in England, of all places in the world.

But he raised no difficulty and the next morning Violetta received a neatly written bill of her expenses. The amount was moderate. Violetta paid it with many thanks, tipped the garcon, the femme de chambre and the chef liberally, and departed from the hotel the best of friends with everybody.

Arrived at Charing Cross, she had her luggage deposited at the cloak room while she engaged a room at one of the private hotels abounding in the streets on the south side of the Strand. She wandered into Trafalgar Square. Despite its reputation as being the finest site in Europe, it was just as bare and ugly as she remembered it and the National Gallery as squat and contemptible as ever. London here had not changed a bit. She turned eastwards. The Strand seemed strangely narrow after the Paris Boulevards, the people were apparently wholly intent on business and without the air of abandon and interest in the surroundings which marks a continental crowd. A feeling of solitude and friendlessness crept over her. She was beginning to wish she had not left Paris.

Then she roused herself and in a business-like manner went through the tiresome task of selecting rooms, impressing managers and manageresses with the conviction that she was a young lady who knew her way about and was not to be imposed upon. Finally, she settled upon her hotel and had her luggage conveyed thither. Then after a rest and sleep (she had crossed from Dieppe by the night boat and was dead tired), she made a careful toilette, wrote to Ella to say she would run down to The Willows very shortly, and sallied forth to lunch.

She went as if by instinct to a restaurant hardly a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. It was her father’s favourite haunt when he was in funds. She glanced round. She might have lunched there yesterday. Nothing had altered. The same crimson velvet couches and marble-topped tables. The same little bar at the end, presided over by the same impassive, quietly-dressed lady, the same waiters. She recognised at least half a dozen. The men and women lunching might have been the same. The type of patrons was monotonous in its characteristics. The only innovation was the number of women with cigarettes in their lips. Five years ago such luxuries were not visible until late in the evening.

She sat down on a velvet couch and took up the menu. The same dishes. She was almost disappointed, but why should she have been? It was all good of its kind. She made her selection talking to the waiter in French, at which his face lightened and he at once interested himself in her choice. She leisurely went through the meal and fell in at once with the new fashion of a cigarette after it. She had not taken very many whiffs before a man a couple of tables away who had, unseen by her, been occasionally glancing at her, rose, strode towards her table and sat down opposite.

He was a tall, loosely-built fellow, with an aggressive swagger of the shoulders, yet with an air which seemed to suggest that he was not unused to good society. In his youth he had probably been good-looking, but all that had survived at middle age was a certain devil-may-care expression in his deepset dark eyes. His square, resolute jaw indicated pugnacity and stubbornness; his lips were puffy and the lower one moist and of a disagreeable redness.

He learned his elbows upon the table and pushed forward his head, his pugnacious chin more prominent than ever. His bold, insolent eyes were fixed on her face a few seconds before he spoke.

“Vi Vaughan or her ghost, and, by Jove, handsomer than ever.” His strident voice was as unpleasant as his face. Violetta sat perfectly unmoved though inwardly she felt as though she could have struck him.

“I’m sorry I can’t say the same of you, Gentleman George​—​I presume you still answer to that name.”

“It’s good enough I guess,” he retorted, with an ugly glint in his eyes. “Anyhow, I feel honoured to think you haven’t forgotten it or myself either.”

“One doesn’t easily bury disagreeable experiences.”

“The evil that men do, etcetera, etcetera. What? Now my experience of you was of the most agreeable kind, though I’m bound to say we were always at loggerheads and we never once had the pleasure of kissing away our differences.”

Her answer was to call the waiter.

“My bill, please,” said she, and coldly ignored the man opposite.

“You’re not ratty, are you, Violetta? I didn’t mean anything.”

“It’s a matter of indifference to me what you meant. You’d better understand straight away, Mr. Godfree, that you and I are strangers. I shall take any attempt to talk to me or to claim me as an acquaintance of yours as an insult.”

He laughed, but the laugh was not one of merriment. It was obviously forced.

“You can regard my talk in any way you choose, but you can’t get out of the plain fact that you are an acquaintance and that you know it. I’m not likely to forget the Beak Street Club’s charming cantineer.”

Violetta still ignored him. She was holding the little slip of paper handed to her by the waiter and was studying the contents. Then she opened her wrist bag, drew out her purse and paid the bill, not forgetting a liberal douceur. The waiter smilingly thanked her in the politest French and she rose.

“You’re a fool to fall out with me,” snarled the man in a grating voice. “I could have put you on to ever so many good things. Dead certs at thundering long odds.”

“I daresay. I’ll do without your tips and yourself as well.”

Mr. George Godfrey’s eyes followed her to the door. He was biting his nails and his distended lips were uglier than ever.

“She’s changed. If ever there was a woman of breeding Violetta looks like one now.”

George Godfree was no mean judge. Though he was now low down in the world and had been submerged some years there was a time when he mixed with the best. He had aristocratic connections but he had long since tired their patience and exhausted their doles, and he was looked upon as an irreclaimable “bad lot.”

He had always been “bitten” to use his own word, by Violetta. To him she was as a dash of tarragon vinegar is to a salad. She gave a new spice to life​—​certainly to his life. He had missed her, and to see her again so unexpectedly and so transformed had revived his old feelings. Violetta’s studied contempt had angered him intensely, but its chief effect was to fan the fire of his passion.

“Where the deuce has she got her style from?” he muttered. “She hadn’t it in the old days when she acted as the Hebe of that queer show of her father’s. Rum devil, old Vaughan. Not a bad sort. Always right for a meal on the nod provided you hadn’t rubbed him the wrong way, and then he was as hard as nails. Guess Violetta takes after him there. I wonder what her game here is and what she’s been doing? Anyhow, she must have tumbled on her feet. There wasn’t a better dressed woman in the room, much less one who knows how to wear her toggery so well.”

This judgment was well founded. Violetta had brought with her a good stock of Paris fashions and she had acquired the air of distinction and individuality which makes the French woman noticeable, no matter where she may be. Among English, Violetta was always taken to be French, but the French themselves rarely were deceived. Still, if not the rose, she was extremely near it.

Godfree swaggered back to his friends and accepted their chaff with equanimity. His evasive replies conveyed the impression that he knew Violetta well, but he would not give her away. Among the group of raffish horsey men were two or three who had been members of Captain Vaughan’s Club, but they had not recognised her, and he did not intend that they should.

“Your swell chicken didn’t seem to make good with you,” remarked one man in a Yankee twang that one could cut with a knife.

“That was because she saw I came from your table, old bean.”

A laugh at the American’s expense followed Godfree’s retort, and the talk drifted into the prospects of the flat racing season.

Before he left the café Godfree took the opportunity to question the waiter who had served Violetta as to what he knew about the lady but he could get no information. Nevertheless, he made up his mind he would “ferret” her out.