- CHAPTER XXVII The Strange Mushroom
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The Strange Mushroom
"Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face?"—SHAKESPEARE.
WHEN Joseph had gone, with his pockets and his heart both full to bursting, I felt much like the captain of a small fishing vessel, wrecked in strange seas, who has seen his comrades depart on rafts, while he stayed on board his sinking ship alone with three biscuits and a gill of water. There was also a certain resemblance between me and a well-meaning plant which has been pulled up by its roots just as it had begun to grow nicely, and then stuck into the earth again, upside down, to do the best it can.
I was not quite sure yet which was up or down, and which way I had better grow, if at all. There was, however, an attraction in a southerly direction: letters were to be forwarded to me at Grenoble, and there would probably be one from Jack or Molly Winston, saying when and where they might be expected to come upon the scene with Mercédès. Finding me stranded, they would doubtless take pity upon my forlornness, and offer me a lift in their car, down to the Riviera. And to the Riviera I still felt strongly impelled to go, though I had no longer the Contessa for an excuse. She had been engaged, in my little drama, for the part of "leading juvenile," with the privilege of understudying the | | 322 heroine. But she had not shown an aptitude either rôle, and having stepped down to that of walking lady, she had minced off my stage altogether. Now the cast was filled up without her, though strangely filled, since after the first act there had been no leading lady at all. Nevertheless, having arranged a scene at Monte Carlo I could not persuade myself to give it up, though it would not be played, in any event, at the Contessa's villa.
The Boy had vanished, and the sole word he had left was that I had better not count upon seeing him again. But the more I thought of it, the less necessity I saw for taking him at that word. He perhaps flattered himself that he had picked up all clues and carried them off with him in the wonderful bag. But he had purposefully hinted that "something might happen at Monte Carlo," and I hoped the something might mean that, after all, the Boy would materialise with his sister at the Hôtel de Paris on the night after our arrival. In any case, if the Princess were going to Monte Carlo, there would the Fairy Prince be also, and I did not see why I should not be there too, whether Molly and Jack tooled me down in their motor or not.
Fifteen minutes after Joseph had gone from my life to mingle his lot with Innocentina's, I had my own plans definitely mapped out. I would stop in Chambéry overnight, to wait for the portmanteau with which I had kept up a speaking acquaintance the larger centres of civilisation, during the tour and next day I would go on to Grenoble by train, there to pick up letters.
The luggage duly arrived in the evening, so that there was no bar to the carrying out of my design; and, accordingly, after my coffee on the following | | 323 morning, I conscientiously went out to see more of the town before taking the eleven-o'clock train.
It was only ten, and as my arrangements were all made, I had time for strolling--too much to suit my mood. The murmur of an automobile preparing to take flight attracted me from a distance, for it seemed that the voice had the cadence of a car I knew. I hastened my steps, turned a corner, and there, in front of the Hôtel de France's rival, stood a fine motor, panting, quivering in eagerness to dart away.
It was a Mercédès, and if it were not Molly Winston's wedding-present Mercédès, it was that Mercédès' twin. But there was a strange mushroom in it.
I would have known Molly's mushroom among a thousand. It was small, round, compact, and of a dark cream colour. This mushroom was flatter, wider, more expansive, with an exceedingly slender stem; and in tint it was of a pale silvery grey. It grew up straight and slim in the tonneau of the car, all alone, unaccompanied by any similar growths, or any guardian goblins; and several servants of the hotel were grouped about, waiting to see it off.
I waited, too, sniffing adventure with the scent of petrol, and interested in the resemblance to that good Dragon with which I had been friends; but I was about to turn away at last when a form which had evidently been squatting behind the car on the other side, rose to its feet. It was that of Gotteland, and had he been a long-lost uncle from Australia with his pockets crammed with wills in my favour, I could not have been more delighted to see him.
As I rushed forward to claim him as my own, Molly and Jack came out of the hotel.| | 324
"Monty!" Jack cried, with a sincerity of joy which warmed my heart. As for his wife, she cried not at all, but merely gasped.
"What luck for me!" I exclaimed, shaking both Molly's hands so hard that it was fortunate (as she remarked afterwards) that she had on "only her rainy-day rings." "I did hope to hear of you at Grenoble, but scarcely dared think of actually meeting you, even there. In two minutes more I should have been on the way to catch my train."
"Here's your train, old man," said Jack, indicating the throbbing automobile.
"My one true love, Mercédès," I remarked, looking fondly at the car.
"Sh!" whispered Molly, with an odd little sound which was like a giggle strangled at birth. "She's there."
"Who?" I started, bewildered.
"I know; the darling! I long to have my hands on her again."
"Oh, Lord Lane, do be careful! You don't understand. I mean the real Mercédès. The girl who gave me the car. She's sitting there. She'll hear you."
"It's all right," said Jack. "The motor's making such a row, she wouldn't catch the words."
"She joined us h--lately," explained Molly hurriedly.
"I remember now. You used to talk rather a lot about her and want us to meet."
"Well, you have your wish now, dearie," Jack chimed in. "You can introduce them with your own fair hand."
"Wait--wait," Molly whispered piteously, as | | 325 Jack would have taken a step forward, and pulled me with him, a peculiarly dare-devil look in his handsome eyes. "For goodness' sake, Jack!"
Her voice restrained him, and again we were in conclave. "You see, Lord Lane, it's rather awkward. We want you to go on with us, immensely, but--"
"You're awfully good," I hastily cut in. "But I quite see, and I couldn't think of--"
"Oh, please, that isn't what I meant. Now, will you and Jack both be quite quiet, like angels, and let me talk for a while, till I make everything clear to everybody, about everybody else. Don't grin. I know I'm not beginning well, but,the beginning's the difficult part. We wrote to you, Lord Lane, to Grenoble, saying we would be arriving about as soon as you got the letter. We didn't know whether we could tear you away from your mule or not; but anyhow, we should have seen each other and got each other's news. Then this friend of mine joined us unexpectedly; at least, we thought we might meet her, but we weren't at all sure she would want to travel with us. However, here she is, and she's a perfect dear; and next to Jack and Dad I love her better than anybody else in the world. Besides, she gave me the car; and you know I told you how ill she had been, and how she was travelling for her health. Altogether we have to consider her before anyone; and I want to know, Lord Lane, if you'll think me a regular little beast if I speak to her first, before we arrange anything?"
I opened my lips to answer with a complimentary protest, but before I could frame a word, she had rushed to the two Mercédès, her mushroom hanging limp in her hand, and had entered | | 326 into a low-voiced conversation with the human namesake.
"Look here, Jack; I wouldn't put you out for the world," I said. "As for tearing myself from the mule, that surgical operation has already been performed, and I was going on to Monte Carlo--"
"That's our goal," cut in Jack. "Molly maligned the place of old days. Now I want her to do it justice. You and I will show her Monte at its best."
"Yes, but I'll go down by rail, and meet you there."
"You'll do nothing of the kind. Molly's friend is one of the most charming girls alive, but she has passed through a great trouble, followed by a severe illness. She came to us in some distress of mind, and we are bound, as Molly says, to consider her, as she may not think herself equal to intercourse with strangers. However, all that's necessary is to explain you to her, as I am now explaining her to you, and the thing settles itself. There can be no question of your not going on with us. You and Mercédès won't interfere with each other in the least, because, you see, now that you've turned up, the thing is to get down quietly, and--and enjoy ourselves at the journey's end. We'll make a rush of it. In any case, Molly would have sat in the tonneau with her friend, and the only difference you will make in our arrangements is that I shall have you as a companion in front instead of Gotteland."
At this moment our fair emissary returned from the enemy's camp.
"Mercédès says that not for anything would she cheat us out of your company," announced Molly.
"Only she hopes you won't think her rude and horrid if she doesn't talk. There's her message; but I | | 327 really think, Lord Lane, that the best thing is to take no notice of the poor child. She is very nervous and upset still, but I hope in a few days she will be herself again. I won't even introduce you to her. She and I will sit in the tonneau, as quiet as two kittens, while you and Jack in front can talk over all your adventures since you met, and forget our existence. We shan't be so very long on the way, shall we, Jack?"
I began another "but," which was scornfully disregarded by both Jack and Molly. I might as well consent now, as later, they said, since they would simply refuse to leave Chambéry without me, and the longer I took to see reason, the more essence would the motor be wasting.
Thus adjured, I allowed myself to be hustled off to my hotel by Jack, who insisted on accompanying me lest I should turn traitor on the way. In ten minutes Gotteland would drive the car to the door of the France, and I was expected to be ready by that time. My packing had been done before I went out, by the united efforts of a valet de chambre and myself; but now all had to be undone again; my motoring coat (unused for weeks and aged in appearance by as many years) dragged up from the lowest stratum with my goblin-goggles, and a few small things dashed into a weird travelling bag which a confused porter rushed out to buy at a neighbouring shop. While I settled the hotel bill, Jack arranged to have my portmanteau expressed to Grenoble, and by a scramble our tasks were finished when the voice of the car called us to the door.
The whole incident had happened so quickly, that I had no time to realise the change in my circumstances, when, "sole, like a falling star," the motor | | 328 "shot through the pillared town" with me on board.
There had been a time when I shrank from the name of the car's giver, believing that Molly thrust it too obviously into notice. When "that dear girl Mercédès" had threatened to enter our conversations I had often kept her out by force; but now it seemed that I, not she, was the intruder, and in a far more material way. This was, perhaps, poetical justice, but I did not grudge it, since it was evident that Molly no longer cherished the intention of dangling her friend the heiress before me like a brilliant fly over the nose of an impecunious trout. On the contrary, she warned me off the premises. We were to hurry down to Monte Carlo as quickly as possible, that the situation might not be over-strained. Mercédès in the tonneau, I in the front seat, were to live and let live during the rapid journey, and this was well.
I dimly remembered that, in the first days of our journey in search of a mule, Molly had vaunted her friend's beauty, but the silver-grey mushroom prevented me from verifying or disproving this statement. The small, triangular talc window was greyly-opaque, or else there was a grey veil underneath; my one glance had not told me which, and I neither dared nor desired to steal another.
Jack supplied the blanks in our somewhat broken correspondence, by skimming over the details of their doings; how they had spent most of their time since our parting in Switzerland; how they had arrived at Aix-les-Bains the very morning we left for Mont Revard; and how they had motored to Chambéry yesterday afternoon.
"Think of my being in the same town with you | | 329 for more than twelve hours, and not knowing it!" I exclaimed. "To borrow an expression of Mrs.Winston's, I was jolly 'low in my mind' last night, and the very thought that you two were close by would have been cheering."
I had not dared address myself to Molly in the other camp, but evidently all communication between the lines was not to be broken off. The wind must have carried my words to her ear, for she bent forward, leaning her arm on the back of our seat.
"Did you say you were miserable last night?" she inquired with flattering eagerness.
"Yes. Awfully miserable."
"Poor Lord Lane! I haven't understood yet exactly why you suddenly gave up your walking tour, and got the idea of going on by rail. I thought from your letters you were having such a good time, that we could hardly bribe you to desert--your party and come with us, even at Grenoble."
"My party deserted me, and that was the end of my 'good time,'" I replied, charmed with Molly's conception of the rôle of a "quiet kitten" whose existence was to be forgotten. As if any man could ever forget hers!
"What, your nice Joseph and his Finois?" she inquired.
"When I speak of 'my party' I refer particularly to the boy I wrote you about," I returned, far from averse to being drawn out on the subject of my troubles, though I had resolved, were I not intimately questioned, to let them prey upon my damask cheek.
"Oh, yes, that wonderful American boy. Did he keep right on being wonderful all the time, or did he turn out disappointing in the end?"
"Disappointing!" I echoed. "No; rather the | | 330 other way round. He was always surprising me with new qualities. I never saw anyone like him."
"Ah, perhaps that's because you never knew other American boys. I dare say if I'd met him I shouldn't have found him so remarkable."
"Yes, you would," I protested. "There could be no two opinions about it."
"Is he good-looking?"
"Extraordinarily. Such eyes as his are wasted on a boy--or would be on any other boy. If he'd been a girl, he would have been one for a man to fall head over ears in love with."
"You're enthusiastic! Hasn't he got any sisters?"
"He has one, who is supposed to be like him. I was promised--or partly promised--to meet her in Monte Carlo, at the end of our journey, where the Boy expected her to join him."
"Oh, has he been called away by her?"
"I don't think so."
"I fancied that might have been why he left you."
"I don't know what his reason was, but I have faith enough in the little chap to be sure it was a good one."
"Sure you didn't bore each other?"
"If you had ever seen that boy, you'd know that the word 'bore' would perish in his presence like a microbe in hot water. As for me--I don't believe I bored him. He did say once that we would part when we came to the 'turnstile,' meaning the point of mutual boredom, but I can't believe the turnstile was in his sight. I think that his resolution to go was sudden and unexpected."
"He must have been an interesting boy, and you ought to be grateful to Fate for sending him your | | 331 way, because apparently he gave you no time for brooding on the past."
"The past? Oh, by Jove, I couldn't think what you meant for a second. You have a right to say 'I told you so,' Mrs. Winston. There was nothing in all that, you know, except a little wounded vanity; and you know, you are really the Fate I have to thank for finding it out so soon."
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Molly, almost as if she were frightened. "I did nothing at all. I--"
"You took me away with you and Jack. The rest followed."
"Oh, that. I didn't understand. Well, as we shall get you down to Monte Carlo soon, you will meet your boy again."
"I wish I could be sure."
"I thought you said it was an engagement."
"Only conditional. Besides, had we walked, we should have been weeks on the way. I wonder you don't laugh in my face, Mrs. Winston, but you'd understand if you could have met the Boy."
"I supposed Jack was your best friend," complained Molly.
"So he is. But this is different. I'm going to look for the Boy at Monte Carlo. What I'm hoping is, that after all he may keep the half-engagement he made to meet me there."
"On the night after my arrival for a dinner at the Hôtel de Paris, to be given in honour of him and his sister."
"You think he will?"
"It's worth going on the chance."
"You are the right kind of friend," said Molly, | | 332 "and you deserve to be rewarded, doesn't he, Jack?"
"Yes," Jack flung over his shoulder as he drove; "and I shall swear a vendetta against everybody concerned, if he isn't."
This did not strike me as a particularly brilliant remark, but Molly seemed to find it witty, for she laughed merrily, with a certain impish ring in her glee, reminiscent of the Little Pal in some moods. Evidently she had exhausted her long list of questions, for, laughing still, she twisted her slim body half round in the tonneau, turning a shoulder upon us. I took this as a signal that Mercédès was now to have her share of attention, and tactfully bestowed mine on Jack.
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