It was time for us to go. We walked to the square where Larry had left his car, very shabby now, and drove to the mortuary. The undertaker was as good as his word. The businesslike efficiency with which everything was accomplished, under that garish sky, with the violent wind bending the cypresses of the cemetery, added a last note of horror to'the proceedings. When it was all over the undertaker shook hands with us cordially.
'Well, gentlemen, I hope you were satisfied. It went very well.'
'Very well,' I said.
'Monsieur will not forget that I am always at his disposition if he has need of my services. Distance is no object.'
I thanked him. When we came to the gate of the cemetery Larry asked me if there was anything further I wanted him for.
'I'd like to get back to Sanary as soon as possible.'
'Drop me at my hotel, will you?'
We spoke never a word as we drove. When we arrived I got out. We shook hands and he went off. I paid my bill, got my bag, and took a taxi to the station. I too wanted to get away.
A few days later I started for England. My intention had been to go straight through, but after what had happened I particularly wanted to see Isabel, so I decided to stop in Paris for twenty-four hours. I wired to her to ask if I could come in late in the afternoon and stay to dinner; when I reached my hotel I found a note from her to say that she and Gray were dining out, but that she would be very glad to see me if I would come not before half past five as she had a fitting.
It was chilly and raining off and on quite heavily, so that I presumed Gray would not have gone to Mortefontaine to play golf. This did not suit me very well, since I wanted to see Isabel alone, but when I arrived at the apartment the first thing she said was that Gray was at the Travellers playing bridge.
'I told him not to be too late if he wanted to see you, but we're not dining till nine, which means we needn't get there before nine-thirty, so we've got plenty of time for a good talk. I've got all sorts of things to tell you.'
They had sublet the apartment, and the sale of Elliott's collection was to take place in a fortnight. They wanted to attend it and were moving into the Ritz. Then they were sailing. Isabel was selling everything except the modern pictures that Elliott had had in his house at Antibes. Though she didn't care much for them she thought quite rightly that they would be a prestige item in their future home.
'It's a pity poor Uncle Elliott wasn't more advanced. Picasso, Matisse, and Rouault, you know. I suppose his pictures are good in their way, but I'm afraid they'll seem rather old-fashioned.'
'I wouldn't bother about that if I were you. Other painters will come along in a few years and Picasso and Matisse won't seem any more up to date than your Impressionists.'
Gray was in process of concluding his negotiations and with the capital provided by Isabel was to enter a flourishing business as vice-president. It was connected with oil and they were to live at Dallas.
'The first thing we shall have to do is to find a suitable house. I want a nice garden so that Gray can have somewhere to potter about when he comes home from work and I must have a really large living-room so that I can entertain.'
'I wonder you don't take Elliott's furniture over with you.'
'I don't think it would be very suitable. I shall make it all modern, with perhaps just a little touch of Mexican here and there to give it a note. As soon as I get to New York I'll find out who is the decorator everyone's going to now.'
Antoine, the manservant, brought in a tray with an array of bottles, and Isabel, always tactful, knowing that nine men out of ten are convinced they can mix a better cocktail than any woman (and they are right), asked me to shake a couple. I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absinthe that transforms a dry Martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola. I noticed a book on the table as I handed Isabel her glass.
'Hello!' I said. 'Here's Larry's book.'
'Yes, it came this morning, but I've been so busy, I had a thousand things to do before lunch and I was lunching out and I was at Molyneux's this afternoon. I don't know when I shall have a moment to get down to it.'
I thought with melancholy how an author spends months writing a book, and may be puts his heart's blood into it, and then it lies about unread till the reader has nothing else in the world to do. It was a volume of three hundred pages nicely printed and neatly bound.
'I suppose you know Larry has been in Sanary all the winter. Did you see him by any chance?'
'Yes, we were at Toulon together only the other day.'
'Were you? What were you doing there?'
'She's not dead?' cried Isabel.
'If she hadn't been we'd have had no plausible reason to bury her.'
'That's not funny.' She paused for a second. 'I'm not going to pretend I'm sorry. A combination of drink and dope, I suppose.'
'No, she had her throat cut and was thrown into the sea stark naked.'
Like the brigadier at St Jean I found myself impelled a trifle to exaggerate her undress.
'How horrible! Poor thing. Of course leading the life she did she was bound to come to a bad end.'
'That's what the commissaire de police at Toulon said.'
'Do they know who did it?'
'No, but I do. I think you killed her.'
She gave me a stare of amazement.
'What are you talking about?' Then with the ghost of a chuckle: 'Guess again; I have a cast-iron alibi.'
'I ran across her at Toulon last summer. I had a long talk with her.'
'Was she sober?'
'Sufficiently. She told me how it happened that she'd disappeared so unaccountably just a few days before she was going to be married to Larry.'
I noticed Isabel's face stiffen. I proceeded to tell her exactly what Sophie had told me. She listened warily.
'I've thought of her story a good deal since then and the more I've thought about it the more convinced I am that there's something fishy about it. I've lunched here twenty times and you never have liqueurs for luncheon. You'd been lunching alone. Why should there have been a bottle of zubrovka on the tray with the coffee-cup?'
'Uncle Elliott had just sent it to me. I wanted to see if I liked it as much as when I'd had it at the Ritz.'
'Yes, I remember how you raved about it then. I was surprised, as you never drink liqueurs anyway; you're much too careful of your figure for that. I had at the time an impression that you were trying to tantalize Sophie. I thought it was just malice.'
'On the whole you're very good at keeping appointments. Why should you have gone out when you were expecting Sophie for something so important to her and interesting to you as a fitting of her wedding dress?'
'She told you that herself. I wasn't happy about Joan's teeth. Our dentist is very busy and I just had to take the time he could give me.'
'When one goes to a dentist one makes the next appointment before leaving.'
'I know. But he called me up in the morning and said he had to break it, but could give me three o'clock that afternoon instead, so of course I jumped at it.'
'Couldn't the governess have taken Joan.'
'She was scared, poor darling, I felt she'd be happier if I went with her.'
'And when you came back and found the bottle of zubrovka three parts empty and Sophie gone, weren't you rather surprised?'
'I thought she'd got tired of waiting and gone on to Molyneux's by herself. I couldn't make it out when I went there and they told me she hadn't been.'
'And the zubrovka?'
'Well, I did notice that a good deal had been drunk. I thought Antoine had drunk it and I very nearly spoke to him about it, but Uncle Elliott was paying for him and he was a friend of Joseph's, so I thought I'd better ignore it. He's a very good servant and if he takes a little nip now and then who am I to blame him?'
'What a liar you are, Isabel.'
'Don't you believe me?'
'Not for a moment.'
Isabel got up and walked over to the chimney-piece. There was a wood fire and it was pleasant on that dreary day. She stood with one elbow on the mantel-shelf in a graceful attitude which it was one of her most charming gifts to be able to assume without any appearance of intention. Like most French women of distinction she dressed in black in the daytime, which peculiarly suited her rich colouring, and on this occasion she wore a dress the expensive simplicity of which displayed her slender figure to advantage. She puffed at her cigarette for a minute.
'There's no reason why I shouldn't be perfectly frank with you. It was most unfortunate that I had to go out and of course Antoine should never have left the liqueur and the coffee-things in the room. They ought to have been taken away when I went out. When I came back and saw the bottle was nearly empty of course I knew what had happened, and when Sophie disappeared I guessed she'd gone off on a bat. I didn't say anything about it because I thought it would only distress Larry, and he was worried enough as it was.'
'Are you sure the bottle wasn't left there on your explicit instructions?'
'I don't believe you.'
'Don't then.' She flung the cigarette viciously into the fire. Her eyes were dark with anger. 'All right, if you want the truth you can have it and to hell with you. I did it and I'd do it again. I told you I'd stick at nothing to prevent her from marrying Larry. You wouldn't do a thing, either you or Gray. You just shrugged your shoulders and said it was a terrible mistake. You didn't care a damn. I did.'
'If you'd left her alone she'd be alive now.'
'Married to Larry and he'd be utterly miserable. He thought he'd make a new woman of her. What fools men are! I knew that sooner or later she'd break down. It stuck out a mile. You saw yourself when we were all lunching together at the Ritz how jittery she was. I noticed you looking at her when she was drinking her coffee; her hand was shaking so, she was afraid to take the cup with one hand, she had to put both her hands to it to get it up to her mouth. I noticed her watching the wine when the waiter filled our glasses; she followed the bottle with those horrible washed-out eyes of hers like a snake following the fluttering of a new-fledged chick and I knew she'd give her soul for a drink.'
Isabel faced me now, her eyes flashing with passion, and her voice was harsh. She couldn't get the words out quickly enough.
'The idea came to me when Uncle Elliott made all that fuss about that damned Polish liqueur. I thought it beastly, but I pretended it was the most wonderful stuff I'd ever tasted. I was certain that if she got a chance she'd never have the strength to resist. That's why I took her to the dress show. That's why I offered to make her a present of her wedding dress. That day, when she was going to have the last fitting, I told Antoine I'd have the zubrovka after lunch and then I told him I was expecting a lady and to ask her to wait and offer her some coffee and to leave the liqueur in case she fancied a glass. I did take Joan to the dentist's, but of course we hadn't an appointment and he couldn't see us, so I took her to a newsreel. I'd made up my mind that if I found Sophie hadn't touched the stuff I'd make the best of things and try to be friends with her. That's true, I swear it. But when I got home and saw the bottle I knew I'd been right. She'd gone and I'd have bet any money in the world she'd gone for good.'
Isabel was actually panting when she finished.
'That's more or less what I imagined had happened,' I said. 'You see, I was right; you cut her throat as surely as if you'd drawn the knife across it with your own hands.'
'She was bad, bad, bad. I'm glad she's dead.' She threw herself into a chair. 'Give me a cocktail, damn you.'
I went over and mixed another.
'You are a mean devil,' she said as she took it from me. Then she allowed herself to smile. Her smile was like a child's that knows it's been naughty, but thinks it can wheedle you by its ingenuous charm not to be cross. 'You won't tell Larry, will you?'
'I wouldn't dream of it.'
'Cross your heart? Men are so untrustworthy.'
'I promise you I won't. But even if I wanted to, I shouldn't have an opportunity as I don't suppose I shall ever see him again in my life.'
She sat bolt upright.
'What do you mean?'
'At this moment, he's on a freighter, either as a deck hand or a stoker, on his way to New York.'
'You don't mean that? What a strange creature he is! He was up here a few weeks ago for something to do with his book that he had to look up at the public library, but he never said a word about going to America. I'm glad; that means we shall see him.'
'I doubt it. His America will be as remote from your America as the Gobi desert.'
Then I told her what he had done and what he intended to do. She listened to me open-mouthed. Consternation was written on her face. She interrupted me now and then with an interjection 'He's crazy. He's crazy.' When I had finished she hung her head and I saw two tears trickle down her cheeks.
'Now I really have lost him.'
She turned away from me and wept, leaning her face against the back of the chair. Her lovely face was twisted with the grief she did not care to hide. There was nothing I could do. I didn't know what vain, conflicting hopes she had cherished that my tidings had finally shattered. I had a vague notion that to see him occasionally, at least to know that he was part of her world, had been a bond of union, however tenuous, that his action had finally severed so that she knew herself for ever bereft. I wondered what unavailing regret afflicted her. I thought it would do her good to cry. I picked up Larry's book and looked at the table of contents. My copy had not arrived when I left the Riviera and I could not now hope to get it for several days. It was not in the least the sort of thing I expected. It was a collection of essays of about the same length as those in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, upon a number of famous persons. The choice he had made puzzled me. There was one on Sulla, the Roman dictator who, having achieved absolute power, resigned it to return to private life; there was one on Akbar, the Mogul conqueror who won an empire; there was one on Rubens, there was one on Goethe, and there was one on the Lord Chesterfield of the Letters. It was obvious that each of the essays had needed a tremendous amount of reading and I was no longer surprised that it had taken Larry so long to produce this book, but I could not see why he had thought it worth while to give it so much time or why he had chosen those particular men to study. Then it occurred to me that every one of them in his own way had made a supreme success of life and I guessed that this was what had interested Larry. He was curious to see what in the end it amounted to.
I skimmed a page to see how he wrote. His style was scholarly, but lucid and easy. There was nothing in it of the pretentiousness or the pedantry that too often characterizes the writing of the amateur. One could tell that he had frequented the best authors as assiduously as Elliott Templeton frequented the nobility and gentry. I was interrupted by a sigh from Isabel. She sat up and finished with a grimace the cocktail which was now luke-warm.
'If I don't stop crying my eyes'll be terrible and we're going out to dinner tonight.' She took a mirror out of her bag and looked at herself anxiously. 'Yes, half an hour with an ice bag over my eyes, that's what I want.' She powdered her face and reddened her lips. Then she looked at me reflectively. 'Do you think any the worse of me for what I did?'
'Would you care?'
'Strange as it may seem to you, I would. I want you to think well of me.'
'My dear, I'm a very immoral person,' I answered. 'When I'm really fond of anyone, though I deplore his wrongdoing it doesn't make me less fond of him. You're not a bad woman in your way and you have every grace and every charm. I don't enjoy your beauty any the less because I know how much it owes to the happy combination of perfect taste and ruthless determination. You only lack one thing to make you completely enchanting.'
She smiled and waited.
The smile died on her lips and she gave me a glance that was totally lacking in amenity, but before she could collect herself to reply Gray lumbered into the room. In the three years he had been in Paris Gray had put on a good many pounds, his face had grown redder, and his hair was thinning rapidly, but he was in rude health and in high spirits. He was unaffectedly pleased to see me. Gray's conversation was composed of cliches. However shop-worn, he uttered them with an obvious conviction that he was the first person to think of them. He never went to bed, but hit the hay, where he slept the sleep of the just; if it rained, it rained to beat the band and to the very end Paris to him was Gay Paree. But he was so kindly, so unselfish, so upright, so reliable, so unassuming that it was impossible not to like him. I had a real affection for him. He was excited now over their approaching departure.
'Gosh, it'll be great to get into harness again,' he said. 'I'm feeling my oats already.'
'Is it all settled then?'
'I haven't signed on the dotted line yet, but it's on ice. The fella I'm going in with was a room-mate of mine at college, and he's a good scout, and I'm dead sure he wouldn't hand me a lemon. But as soon as we get to New York I'll fly down to Texas to give the outfit the once-over, and you bet I'll keep my eyes peeled for a nigger in the woodpile before I cough up any of Isabel's dough.'
'Gray's a very good businessman, you know,' she said.
'I wasn't raised in a barn,' he smiled.
He went on to tell me at somewhat excessive length about the business he was entering, but I understood little of such matters and the only concrete fact I gathered was that he stood a good chance of making a lot of money. He grew so interested in what he was saying that presently he turned to Isabel and said:
'Look here, why shouldn't we cut this lousy party and us three go and have a slap-up dinner at the Tour d'Argent by ourselves?'
'Oh, darling, we can't to that. They're giving the party for us.'
'Anyhow, I couldn't come now,' I interrupted. 'When I heard you were fixed up this evening I called up Suzanne Rouvier and arranged to take her out.'
'Who's Suzanne Rouvier?' asked Isabel.
'Oh, one of Larry's gals,' I said to tease her.
'I always suspected Larry had a little floozie tucked away somewhere,' said Gray, with a fat chuckle.
'Nonsense,' snapped Isabel. 'I know all about Larry's sex life. There isn't any.'
'Well, let's have one more drink before we part,' said Gray.
We had it and then I said good-bye to them. They came into the hall with me and while I was putting on my coat Isabel slipped her arm through Gray's and, nestling up to him, looked into his eyes with an expression that imitated very well the tenderness I had accused her of lacking.
'Tell me, Gray - frankly - do you think I'm hard-boiled?'
'No, darling, far from it. Why, has anybody been saying you were?'
She turned her head away so that he shouldn't see, and in a manner that Elliott would certainly have thought very unladylike put out her tongue at me.
'It's not the same thing,' I murmured as I stepped out of the door and closed it behind me.
When I passed through Paris again the Maturins had gone and other people lived in Elliott's apartment. I missed Isabel. She was good to look at and easy to talk to. She was quick on the uptake and bore no malice. I have never seen her since. I am a poor and dilatory correspondent and Isabel was no letter writer. If she could not communicate with you by telephone or telegram she did not communicate with you. I had a Christmas card from her that Christmas with a pretty picture on it of a house with a Colonial portico surrounded by live oaks, which I took to be the house of the plantation that they had been unable to sell when they wanted the money and which now they were probably willing to keep. The postmark showed that it had been posted at Dallas, so I concluded that the deal had gone through satisfactorily and they were settled there.
I have never been to Dallas, but I suppose that, like other American cities I know, it has a residential district within easy motoring distance of the business section and the country club where the affluent have fine houses in large gardens with a handsome view of hill or dale from the living-room windows. In such a district and in such a house, furnished from cellar to attic in the latest mode by the most fashionable decorator in New York, Isabel certainly dwells. I can only hope that her Renoir, her flower piece by Manet, her landscape by Monet, and her Gauguin do not look too dated. The dining-room is doubtless of a convenient size for the women's luncheons which she gives at frequent intervals and at which the wine is good and the food superlative. Isabel learnt a great deal in Paris. She would not have settled on the house unless she had seen at a glance that the living-room would do very well for the sub-deb dances which it would be her pleasant duty to give as her daughters grew older. Joan and Priscilla must be now of a marriageable age. I am sure that they have been admirably brought up; they have been sent to the best schools and Isabel has taken care that they should acquire the accomplishments that must make them desirable in the eyes of eligible young men. Though I suppose Gray by now is still a little redder in the face, more jowly, balder, and a good deal heavier, I can't believe that Isabel has changed. She is still more beautiful than her daughters. The Maturins must be a great asset to the community and I have little doubt that they are as popular as they deserve to be. Isabel is entertaining, gracious, complaisant, and tactful; Gray, of course, is the quintessence of the Regular Guy.
I continued to see Suzanne Rouvier from time to time until an unexpected change in her condition caused her to leave Paris and she too went out of my life. One afternoon, roughly two years after the events that I have just related, having spent an hour pleasantly browsing over the books in the galleries of the Odeon and with nothing to do for a while, I thought I would call on Suzanne. I had not seen her for six months. She opened the door, a palette on her thumb and a paintbrush between her teeth, clad in a smock covered with paint.
'Ah, c'est vous, cher ami. Entrez, je vous en prie.'
I was a little surprised at this formal address, for generally we spoke to one another in the second person singular, but I stepped into the small room that served both as living-room and studio. There was a canvas on the easel.
'I'm so busy, I don't know which way to turn, but sit down and I will go on with my work. I haven't a moment to waste. You wouldn't believe it, but I'm giving a one-man show at Meyerheim's, and I have to get thirty canvases ready.'
'At Meyerheim's? That's wonderful. How on earth have you managed that?'
For Meyerheim is not one of those fly-by-night dealers in the Rue de la Seine who have a small shop that is always on the verge of closing for lack of money to pay the rent. Meyerheim has a fine gallery on the moneyed side of the Seine and he has an international reputation. An artist whom he takes up is well on the way to fortune.
'Monsieur Achille brought him to see my work and he thinks I have a lot of talent.'
'A d'autres, ma vieille,' I replied, which I think can best be translated by: 'Tell that to the marines, old girl.'
She threw me a glance and giggled.
'I'm going to be married.'
'Don't be an idiot.' She put down her brushes and her palette. 'I've been working all day and I deserve a rest. Let us have a little glass of porto and I'll tell you all about it.'
One of the less agreeable features of French life is that you are apt to be pressed to drink a glass of vinegary port at an unseasonable hour. You must resign yourself to it. Suzanne fetched a bottle and two glasses, filled them, and sat down with a sigh of relief.
'I've been standing for hours and my varicose veins are aching. Well, it's like this. Monsieur Achille's wife died at the beginning of this year. She was a good woman and a good Catholic, but he did not marry her from inclination, he married her because it was good business, and though he esteemed and respected her it would be an exaggeration to say that her death left him inconsolable. His son is suitably married and is doing well in the firm and now a marriage has been arranged between his daughter and a count. Belgian it is true, but authentic, with a very pretty chateau in the neighbourhood of Namur. Monsieur Achille thought his poor wife would not wish the happiness of two young people to be deferred on her account, so the marriage, notwithstanding that they are in mourning, is to take place as soon as the financial arrangements are completed. Evidently Monsieur Achille will be lonely in that large house at Lille, and needs a woman not only to minister to his comfort, but also to run the important establishment necessary to his position. To cut a long story short, he has asked me to take the place of his poor wife, for as he very reasonably said: "I married for the first time to eliminate competition between two rival firms, and I do not regret it, but there is no reason why I should not marry the second time to please myself."'
'I congratulate you,' said I.
'Evidently I shall miss my liberty. I have enjoyed it. But one has to think of the future. Between ourselves, I don't mind telling you that I shall never see forty again. Monsieur Achille is at a dangerous age; where should I be if he suddenly took it into his head to run after a girl of twenty? And then there is my daughter to think of. She is now sixteen and promises to be as beautiful as her father. I have given her a good education. But it is no good denying facts that stare you in the face; she has neither the talent to be an actress nor the temperament to be a whore like her poor mother: I ask you then, what has she to look forward to? A secretaryship or a job in the post office. Monsieur Achille has very generously agreed that she should live with us and has promised to give her a handsome dot so that she can make a good marriage. Believe me, my dear friend, people can say what they like, but marriage still remains the most satisfactory profession a woman can adopt. Obviously when my daughter's welfare was concerned I could not hesitate to accept a proposition even at the cost of certain satisfactions which in any case, as the years go by, I should find it more difficult to obtain; for I must tell you that when I am married I propose to be of a ferocious virtue (d'une vertu farouche), for my long experience has convinced me that the only basis of a happy marriage is complete fidelity on both sides.'
'A highly moral sentiment, my pretty.' I said. 'And will Monsieur Achille continue to make his fortnightly visits to Paris on business?'
'Oh, la la, for whom do you take me, my little one? The first thing I said to Monsieur Achille when he asked for my hand was: "Now listen, my dear, when you come to Paris for your board meetings it is understood that I come too. I am not going to trust you here by yourself." "You cannot imagine that I am capable of committing follies at my age," he answered. "Monsieur Achille," I said to him, "you are a man in the prime of life and no one knows better than I that you have a passionate temperament. You have a fine presence and a distinguished air. You have everything to please a woman; in short I think it better that you should not be exposed to temptation." In the end he agreed to give up his place on the board to his son, who will come to Paris instead of his father. Monsieur Achille pretended to think me unreasonable, but he was in point of fact enormously flattered.' Suzanne gave a sigh of satisfaction. 'Life would be even harder for us poor women than it is if it were not for the unbelievable vanity of men.'
'All that is very fine, but what has it got to do with your having a one-man show at Meyerheim's?'
'You are a little stupid today, my poor friend. Have I not told you for years that Monsieur Achille is a highly intelligent man? He has his position to think of and the people of Lille are censorious. Monsieur Achille wishes me to take the place in society which as the wife of a man of his importance it will be my right to occupy. You know what these provincials are, they love to poke their long noses in other people's affairs, and the first thing they will ask is: who is Suzanne Rouvier? Well, they will have their answer. She is the distinguished painter whose recent show at the Meyerheim Gallery had a remarkable and well-deserved success. "Madame Suzanne Rouvier, the widow of an officer in the colonial infantry, has with the courage characteristic of our Frenchwomen for some years supported herself and a charming daughter deprived too soon of a father's care by means of her talent, and we are happy to know that the general public will soon have the opportunity to appreciate the delicacy of her touch and the soundness of her technique at the galleries of the ever perspicacious Monsieur Meyerheim."'