The Quest by Justus Miles Forman

The Quest by Justus Miles Forman

CHAPTER I

STE. MARIE HEARS OF A MYSTERY AND MEETS A DARK LADY

From Ste. Marie’s little flat which overlooked the gardens they drove down the quiet Rue du Luxembourg, and, at the Place St. Sulpice, turned to the left. They crossed the Place St. Germain des Prés, where lines of homebound working people stood waiting for places in the electric trams, and groups of students from the Beaux Arts or from Julien’s sat under the awnings of the Deux Magots, and so, beyond that busy square, they came into the long and peaceful stretch of the Boulevard St. Germain. The warm sweet dusk gathered round them as they went, and the evening air was fresh and aromatic in their faces. There had been a little gentle shower in the late afternoon, and roadway and pavement were still damp with it. It had wet the new-grown leaves of the chestnuts and acacias that bordered the street. The scent of that living green blended with the scent of laid dust and the fragrance of the last late-clinging chestnut blossoms: it caught up a fuller richer burden from the overflowing front of a florist’s shop: it stole from open windows a savoury whiff of cooking, a salt tang of wood smoke, and the soft little breeze—the breeze of coming summer—mixed all together and tossed them and bore them down the long quiet street; and it was the breath of Paris, and it shall be in your nostrils and mine, a keen agony of sweetness, so long as we may live and so wide as we may wander—because we have known it and loved it: and in the end we shall go back to breathe it when we die.

The strong white horse jogged evenly along over the wooden pavement, its head down, the little bell at its neck jingling pleasantly as it went. The cocher, a torpid purplish lump of gross flesh, pyramidal, pear-like, sat immobile in his place. The protuberant back gave him an extraordinary effect of being buttoned into his fawn-coloured coat wrong-side-before. At intervals he jerked the reins like a large strange toy and his strident voice said—

Hè!” to the stout white horse, which paid no attention whatever. Once the beast stumbled and the pear-like lump of flesh insulted it, saying—

Hè! veux, tu, cochon!

Before the War Office a little black slip of a milliner’s girl dodged under the horse’s head, saving herself and the huge box slung to her arm by a miracle of agility, and the cocher called her the most frightful names, without turning his head, and in a perfunctory tone quite free from passion.

Young Hartley laughed and turned to look at his companion, but Ste. Marie sat still in his place, his hat pulled a little down over his brows, and his handsome chin buried in the folds of the white silk muffler with which, for some obscure reason, he had swathed his neck.

“This is the first time in many years,” said the Englishman, “that I have known you to be silent for ten whole minutes. Are you ill or are you making up little epigrams to say at the dinner party?”

Ste. Marie waved a despondent glove.

“I ‘ave,” said he, “w’at you call ze blue. Papillons noirs—clouds in my soul.” It was a species of jest with Ste. Marie—and he seemed never to tire of it—to pretend that he spoke English very brokenly. As a matter of fact he spoke it quite as well as any Englishman and without the slightest trace of accent. He had discovered a long time before this—it may have been while the two were at Eton together—that it annoyed Hartley very much, particularly when it was done in company and before strangers. In consequence he became at such occasions a sort of comic-paper caricature of his race, and by dint of much practice, added to a naturally alert mind, he became astonishingly ingenious in the torture of that honest but unimaginative gentleman whom he considered his best friend. He achieved the most surprising expressions by the mere literal translation of French idiom, and he could at any time bring Hartley to a crimson agony by calling him “my dear” before other men, whereas at the equivalent “mon cher” the Englishman would doubtless never, as the phrase goes, have batted an eye.

“Ye—es,” he continued sadly, “I ‘ave ze blue. I weep. Weez ze tears full ze eyes. Yes.” He descended into English. “I think something’s going to happen to me. There’s calamity—or something—in the air. Perhaps I’m going to die.”

“Oh, I know what you are going to do, right enough,” said the other man, “you’re going to meet the most beautiful woman—girl—in the world at dinner, and of course you are going to fall in love with her.”

“Ah, the Miss Benham!” said Ste. Marie with a faint show of interest. “I remember now, you said that she was to be there. I had forgotten. Yes, I shall be glad to meet her. One hears so much. But why am I of course going to fall in love with her?”

“Well, in the first place,” said Hartley, “you always fall in love with all pretty women as a matter of habit, and, in the second place, everybody—well, I suppose you—no one could help falling in love with her, I should think.”

“That’s high praise to come from you,” said the other, and Hartley said with a short, not very mirthful laugh—

“Oh, I don’t pretend to be immune. We all—everybody who knows her—— You’ll understand presently.”

Ste. Marie turned his head a little and looked curiously at his friend, for he considered that he knew the not very expressive intonations of that young gentleman’s voice rather well, and this was something unusual. He wondered what had been happening during his six months’ absence from Paris.

“I dare say that’s what I feel in the air, then,” he said after a little pause. “It’s not calamity. It’s love.

“Or maybe,” he said quaintly, “it’s both. L’un n’empéche pas l’autre.” And he gave an odd little shiver, as if that something in the air had suddenly blown chill upon him.

They were passing the corner of the Chamber of Deputies which faces the Pont de la Concorde. Ste. Marie pulled out his watch and looked at it.

“Eight-fifteen,” said he. “What time are we asked for? Eight-thirty? That means nine. It’s an English house and nobody will be in time. It’s out of fashion to be prompt nowadays.”

“I should hardly call the Marquis de Saulnes English, you know!” objected Hartley.

“Well, his wife is,” said the other, “and they’re altogether English in manner. Dinner won’t be before nine. Shall we get out and walk across the bridge and up the Champs Elysées? I should like to, I think. I like to walk at this time of the evening—between the daylight and the dark.”

Hartley nodded a rather reluctant assent, and Ste. Marie prodded the pear-shaped cocher in the back with his stick. So they got down at the approach to the bridge. Ste. Marie gave the cocher a piece of two francs and they turned away on foot. The pear-shaped one looked at the coin in his fat hand as if it was something unclean and contemptible, something to be despised. He glanced at the dial of his taximeter, which had registered one franc twenty-five, and pulled the flag up. He spat gloomily out into the street and his purple lips moved in words. He seemed to say something like: “Sale diable de métier!” which, considering the fact that he had just been overpaid, appears unwarrantably pessimistic in tone. Thereafter he spat again, picked up his reins and jerked them, saying—

“Hè, Jean Baptiste! Uip, uip!” The unemotional white horse turned up the boulevard, trotting evenly at its steady pace, head down, the little bell at its neck jingling pleasantly as it went. It occurs to me that the white horse was probably unique. I doubt that there was another horse in Paris rejoicing in that extraordinary name.

But the two young men walked slowly on across the Pont de la Concorde. They went in silence, for Hartley was thinking still of Miss Helen Benham and Ste. Marie was thinking of Heaven knows what. His gloom was unaccountable unless he had really meant what he said about feeling calamity in the air. It was very unlike him to have nothing to say. Midway of the bridge he stopped and turned to look out over the river, and the other man halted beside him. The dusk was thickening almost perceptibly, but it was yet far from dark. The swift river ran leaden beneath them, and the river boats, mouches and hirondelles, darted silently under the arches of the bridge, making their last trips for the day. Away to the west, where their faces were turned, the sky was still faintly washed with colour, lemon and dusky orange and pale thin green. A single long strip of cirrus cloud was touched with pink, a lifeless old rose, such as is popular among decorators for the silk hangings of a woman’s boudoir. And black against this pallid wash of colours the Tour Eiffel stood high and slender and rather ghostly. By day it is an ugly thing, a preposterous iron finger upthrust by man’s vanity against God’s serene sky, but the haze of evening drapes it in a merciful semi-obscurity, and it is beautiful.

Ste. Marie leant upon the parapet of the bridge, arms folded before him and eyes afar. He began to sing, à demi voix, a little phrase out of Louise,—an invocation to Paris—and the Englishman stirred uneasily beside him. It seemed to Hartley that to stand on a bridge, in a top hat and evening clothes, and sing operatic airs while people passed back and forth behind you, was one of the things that are not done. He tried to imagine himself singing in the middle of Westminster Bridge at half-past eight of an evening, and he felt quite hot all over at the thought. It was not done at all he said to himself. He looked a little nervously at the people who were passing, and it seemed to him that they stared at him and at the unconscious Ste. Marie, though in truth they did nothing of the sort. He turned back and touched his friend on the arm, saying—

“I think we’d best be getting along, you know,” but Ste. Marie was very far away and did not hear. So then he fell to watching the man’s dark and handsome face, and to thinking how little the years at Eton and the year or two at Oxford had set any real stamp upon him. He would never be anything but Latin in spite of his Irish mother and his public school. Hartley thought what a pity that was. As Englishmen go he was not illiberal, but, no more than he could have altered the colour of his eyes, could he have believed that anything foreign would not be improved by becoming English. That was born in him, as it is born in most Englishmen, and it was a perfectly simple and honest belief. He felt a deeper affection for this handsome and volatile young man, whom all women loved and who bade fair to spend his life at their successive feet—for he certainly had never shown the slightest desire to take up any sterner employment—he felt a deeper affection for Ste. Marie than for any other man he knew, but he had always wished that Ste. Marie were an Englishman, and he had always felt a slight sense of shame over his friend’s un-English ways.

After a moment he touched him again on the arm, saying—

“Come along! We shall be late, you know. You can finish your little concert another time.”

“Eh!” cried Ste. Marie. “Quoi, donc?” He turned with a start.

“Oh yes!” said he. “Yes, come along! I was mooning. AllonsAllons, my old!” He took Hartley’s arm and began to shove him along at a rapid walk.

“I will moon no more,” he said. “Instead, you shall tell me about the wonderful Miss Benham whom everybody is talking of. Isn’t there something odd connected with the family? I vaguely recall something unusual, some mystery or misfortune or something.

“But first a moment! One small moment, my old. Regard me that!” They had come to the end of the bridge and the great Place de la Concorde lay before them.

“In all the world,” said Ste. Marie—and he spoke the truth—”there is not another such square. Regard it, mon brave! Bow yourself before it! It is a miracle.”

The great bronze lamps were alight, and they cast reflections upon the still damp pavement about them. To either side the trees of the Tuileries gardens and of the Cours la Reine and the Champs Elysées lay in a solid black mass. In the middle the obelisk rose slender and straight, its pointed top black against the sky, and beneath the water of the Nereid fountains splashed and gurgled. Far beyond, the gay lights of the Rue Royale shone in a yellow cluster and, beyond these still, the tall columns of the Madeleine ended the long vista. Pedestrians and cabs crept across that vast space, and seemed curiously little, like black insects, and round about it all the eight cities of France sat atop their stone pedestals and looked on. Ste. Marie gave a little sigh of pleasure, and the two moved forward, bearing to the left, towards the Champs Elysées.

“And now,” said he, “about these Benhams. What is the thing I cannot quite recall? What has happened to them?”

“I suppose,” said the other man, “you mean the disappearance of Miss Benham’s young brother, a month ago, before you returned to Paris. Yes, that was certainly very odd. That is, it was either very odd or very commonplace. And in either case the family is terribly cut up about it. The boy’s name was Arthur Benham, and he was rather a young fool but not downright vicious, I should think. I never knew him at all well, but I know he spent his time chiefly at the Café de Paris and at the Olympia and at Longchamps and at Henry’s Bar. Well, he just disappeared, that is all. He dropped completely out of sight between two days, and though the family has had a small army of detectives on his trail, they’ve not discovered the smallest clue. It’s deuced odd altogether. You might think it easy to disappear like that but it’s not.”

“No—no,” said Ste. Marie thoughtfully. “No, I should fancy not.

“This boy,” he said after a pause, “I think I had seen him—had him pointed out to me—before I went away. I think it was at Henry’s Bar where all the young Americans go to drink strange beverages. I am quite sure I remember his face. A weak face but not quite bad.”

And after another little pause he asked—

“Was there any reason why he should have gone away? Any quarrel or that sort of thing?”

“Well,” said the other man, “I rather think there was something of the sort. The boy’s uncle—Captain Stewart, middle-aged, rather prim old party—you’ll have met him, I dare say—he intimated to me one day, that there had been some trivial row. You see the lad isn’t of age yet, though he is to be in a few months, and so he has had to live on an allowance doled out by his grandfather, who’s the head of the house—the boy’s father is dead. There’s a quaint old beggar, if you like!—the grandfather. He was rather a swell in the diplomatic, in his day it seems—rather an important swell. Now he’s bedridden. He sits all day in bed and plays cards with his granddaughter or with a very superior valet, and talks politics with the men who come to see him. Oh yes, he’s a quaint old beggar. He has a great quantity of white hair and an enormous square white beard, and the fiercest eyes I ever saw, I should think. Everybody’s frightened out of their wits of him. Well, he sits up there and rules his family in good old patriarchal style, and it seems he came down a bit hard on the poor boy one day over some folly or other, and there was a row and the boy went out of the house swearing he’d be even.”

“Ah well, then,” said Ste. Marie, “the matter seems simple enough. A foolish boy’s foolish pique. He is staying in hiding somewhere to frighten his grandfather. When he thinks the time favourable he will come back and be wept over and forgiven.”

The other man walked a little way in silence.

“Ye—es,” he said at last. “Yes, possibly. Possibly you are right. That’s what the grandfather thinks. It’s the obvious solution. Unfortunately there is more or less against it. The boy went away with—so far as can be learned—almost no money, almost none at all. And he has already been gone a month. Miss Benham—his sister—is sure that something has happened to him, and I’m a bit inclined to think so too. It’s all very odd. I should think he might have been kidnapped but that no demand has been made for money.”

“He was not,” suggested Ste. Marie—”not the sort of young man to do anything desperate—make away with himself?”

Hartley laughed.

“O Lord, no!” said he. “Not that sort of young man at all. He was a very normal type of rich and spoilt and somewhat foolish American boy.”

“Rich?” inquired the other quickly.

“Oh yes! they’re beastly rich. Young Arthur is to come into something very good at his majority, I believe, from his father’s estate, and the old grandfather is said to be indecently rich—rolling in it! There’s another reason why the young idiot wouldn’t be likely to stop away of his own accord. He wouldn’t risk anything like a serious break with the old gentleman. It would mean a loss of millions to him, I dare say; for the old beggar is quite capable of cutting him off, if he takes the notion. Oh, it’s a bad business, all through.” And after they had gone on a bit he said it again, shaking his head—

“It’s a bad business! That poor girl you know—it’s hard on her. She was fond of the young ass for some reason or other. She’s very much broken up over it.”

“Yes,” said Ste. Marie, “it is hard for her—for all the family, of course. A bad business, as you say.” He spoke absently, for he was looking ahead at something which seemed to be a motor accident. They had, by this time, got well up the Champs Elysées and were crossing the Rond Point. A motor-car was drawn up alongside the kerb just beyond, and a little knot of people stood about it and seemed to look at something on the ground.

“I think some one has been run down,” said Ste. Marie. “Shall we have a look?” They quickened their pace and came to where the group of people stood in a circle looking upon the ground, and two gendarmes asked many questions and wrote voluminously in their little books. It appeared that a delivery boy mounted upon a tricycle cart had turned into the wrong side of the avenue, and had got himself run into and overturned by a motor-car going at a moderate rate of speed. For once the sentiment of those mysterious birds of prey which flock instantaneously from nowhere round an accident, was against the victim and in favour of the frightened and gesticulating chauffeur.

Ste. Marie turned an amused face from this voluble being to the other occupants of the patently hired car, who stood apart adding very little to the discussion. He saw a tall and bony man with very bright blue eyes and what is sometimes called a guardsman’s moustache—the drooping walruslike ornament which dates back a good many years now. Beyond this gentleman he saw a young woman in a long grey silk coat and a motoring veil. He was aware that the tall man was staring at him rather fixedly and with a half-puzzled frown, as though he thought that they had met before and was trying to remember when, but Ste. Marie gave the man but a swift glance. His eyes were upon the dark face of the young woman beyond, and it seemed to him that she called aloud to him in an actual voice that rang in his ears. The young woman’s very obvious beauty he thought had nothing to do with the matter. It seemed to him that her eyes called him. Just that. Something strange and very potent seemed to take sudden and almost tangible hold upon him—a charm, a spell, a magic—something unprecedented, new to his experience. He could not take his eyes from hers and he stood staring.

As before, on the Pont de la Concorde, Hartley touched him on the arm, and abruptly the chains that had bound him were loosened.

“We must be going on, you know,” the Englishman said, and Ste. Marie said rather hurriedly—

“Yes! yes, to be sure. Come along!” But at a little distance he turned once more to look back. The chauffeur had mounted to his place, the delivery boy was upon his feet again, little the worse for his tumble, and the knot of bystanders had begun to disperse, but it seemed to Ste. Marie that the young woman in the long silk coat stood quite still where she had been, and that her face was turned towards him watching.

“Did you notice that girl?” said Hartley as they walked on at a brisker pace. “Did you see her face? She was rather a tremendous beauty, you know, in her gipsyish fashion. Yes, by Jove, she was!”

“Did I see her?” repeated Ste. Marie. “Yes. Oh yes. She had very strange eyes. At least I think it was the eyes. I don’t know. I’ve never seen any eyes quite like them. Very odd!”

He said something more in French which Hartley did not hear, and the Englishman saw that he was frowning.

“Oh well, I shouldn’t have said there was anything strange about them,” Hartley said, “but they certainly were beautiful. There’s no denying that. The man with her looked rather Irish I thought.”

They came to the Etoile and cut across it towards the Avenue Hoche. Ste. Marie glanced back once more, but the motor-car and the delivery boy and the gendarmes were gone.

“What did you say?” he asked idly.

“I said the man looked Irish,” repeated his friend. All at once Ste. Marie gave a loud exclamation—

“Sacred thousand devils! Fool that I am! Dolt! Why didn’t I think of it before?” Hartley stared at him and Ste. Marie stared down the Champs Elysées like one in a trance.

“I say,” said the Englishman, “we really must be getting on, you know, we’re late.” And as they went along down the Avenue Hoche, he demanded—

“Why are you a dolt and whatever else it was? What struck you so suddenly?”

“I remembered all at once,” said Ste. Marie, “where I had seen that man before, and with whom I last saw him. I’ll tell you about it later. Probably it’s of no importance, though.”

“You’re talking rather like a mild lunatic,” said the other. “Here we are at the house!”

 

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Categories: English Literature

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