- CHAPTER II. SHALL IT BE 'YES' OR 'NO'?
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SHALL IT BE 'YES' OR 'NO'?
'THIS looks as if he were serious, doesn't it?' asked La Chicot.
The question was addressed to Mr. Desrolles. The two were standing side by side in the wintry dusk, in front of one of the windows that looked into Cibber Street, contemplating the contents of jewel-case, which La, Chicot held open.
Embedded in the white velvet lining there lay a collet necklace of diamonds, each stone as big as a prize pea; such a necklace as Desrolles could not remember to have seen, even in the jewellers' windows, before which he had sometimes paused out of sheer idleness, to contemplate such finery.
'Serious!' he echoed. 'I told you from the first that Joseph Lemuel was a, prince.'
'You don't suppose I am going to keep it?' Said La Chicot.| | 24
'I don't suppose you, or any other woman, would send it back, if it were a free gift,' answered Desrolles.
'It is not a free gift. It is to be mine if I consent to run away from my husband and live in Paris as Mr. Lemuel's mistress. I am to have a villa at Passy, and fifteen hundred a year'
'Princely!' exclaimed Desrolles.
'And I am to leave Jack free to live his own life. Don't you think he would be glad?'
There was something almost tigerish in the look which emphasised this question.
I think that it would not matter one jot to you whether he were glad or sorry. He would make a row, I suppose, but you would be safe on the other side of the Channel.'
'He would get a divorce,' said La Chicot'. Your English law breaks a, marriage as easily as it makes one. And then he would marry that other woman.'
'What other woman?'
'I don't know—but there is another. He owned, as much the last time we quarreled.'| | 25
'A divorce would make, you a great lady. Joseph Lemuel would marry you. The man is your slave; you could twist him round your little finger. And then, instead of your little box at Passy, you might have a mansion in the Champs Elysées, among the ambassadors. You could go to the races in a four-in-hand. You might be the most fashionable woman in Paris.'
And I began life washing dirty linen, in the river at Auray, among a lot of termagants who hated me because I was young and handsome. I had not much pleasure in those days, my friend.'
'Your Parisian life would be a change. You must be very tired of London.'
'Tired! But I detest it prettily, your city of narrow streets and dismal Sundays.'
'And you must have had enough dancing.'
'I begin to be tired of it. Since my accident I have not the old spirit.'
She had the jewel-case in her hand still, and was turning it about, admiring the brightness of the stones, which sparkled in the dim light. Presently she went back to her low chain by the | | 26 fire, and let the case lie open in her lap, with the fire glow shining on the gems, until the pure white stones took all the colours of the rainbow.
'I can fancy myself in a box at the opera, in a tight-fitting ruby velvet dress, with no ornaments but this necklace and single diamonds for eardrops,' mused La Chicot. 'I do not think there are many women in Paris who would surpass me.
'And I should look on while other women danced for my amusement,' she pursued. 'After all, the life of a stage dancer is poor thing at best. There are only so many rungs of the ladder between me and a dancing girl at a fair. I am getting tired of it.'
'You will be a good deal more tired when you are a few years older,' said Desrolles.
'At six and twenty one need not think of age.'
'No; but at six and thirty age will think of you.'
'I have asked for a week to consider his offer,' said La Chicot. 'This day week I am to give him an answer, yes or no. If I keep the dia- | | 27 monds, it will mean yes. If I send them back to him, it will mean no.'
I can't imagine any woman saying no to such a necklace as that,' said Desrolles.
What is it Worth, after all? Fifteen years ago a string of glass beads bought in the market at Auray would have made me happier than those diamonds can make me now.'
'If you are going to moralise, I can't follow you. I should say, at a rough guess, those diamonds must be worth three thousand pounds.'
They are to be taken or left,' said La Chicot, in French, with her careless shrug.
Where do you mean to keep them?' inquired Desrolles. 'If your husband were to see them, there would be a row. You must not leave them in his way.'
'Pas si bête,' replied La Chicot. 'See here.'
She flung back the loose collar of her cashmere morning gown, and clasped the necklace round her throat. Then she drew the collar together again, and the diamonds were hidden.
I shall wear the necklace night and clay till I | | 28 make up my mind whether to keep it or not,' she said. 'Where I go the diamonds will go—nobody will see them—nobody will rob me of them while I am alive. What is the matter?' she asked suddenly, startled by a passing distortion of Desrolles' face.
'Nothing. Only a spasm.'
'I thought you were going to have a fit.'
'I did feel queer for the moment. My old complaint.'
Ah, I thought as much. Have some brandy'
Though La, Chicot made light of Mr. Lemuel's offering in her talk with Desrolles, she was not the less impressed by it. After she had come from the theatre that night she sat on the floor in her dingy bedroom with a looking-glass in her hand, gloating over her reflection with that string of jewels round her neck, turning her swan-like throat every way to catch the rays of the candle, thinking how glorious she would look with those shining stars upon her ivory neck, thinking what a new and delightful life Joseph Lemuel's wealth could give her; a life of riot and dissipation fine | | 29 clothes, epicurean dinners, late hours, and perfect idleness. She even thought of all the famous restaurants in Paris where she would like to dine; fairy places on the Boulevard, all lights, and gilding, and crimson velvet, which she knew only from the outside; houses where vice was more at home than virtue, and where a single cutlet in its paper frill cost more than a poor man's family dinner. She looped round the shabby room, with its blackened ceiling and discoloured paper, on which the damp had made ugly blotches; the tawdry curtains, the rickety dead dressing-table disguised in dirty muslin and ranged Nottingham lace—and the threadbare carpet. How miserable it all was! She and her husband had once gone with the crowd to see the house of a Parisian courtesan, who had died in the zenith of her days. She remembered with what almost reverential feeling the mob had gazed at the delicate satin draperies of boudoir and salon, the porcelain, the tapestries, the antique lace, the tiny cabinet pictures which shone like jewels on the satin walls. Vice so exalted was almost virtue.| | 30
In the during-room, paramount over all other objects, was enshrined the portrait of the departed goddess, a medallion in a frame of velvet and gold. La Chicot well remembered wondering, to see so little beauty in that celebrated face—a small oval face, grey eyes, a nondescript nose, a wide mouth. Intelligence and a winning smile were the only charms of that renowned beauty. Cosmetiques and Wörth had done all the rest. But then the dead and gone courtesan bad been one of the cleverest women in France. La Chicot made no allowance for that.
I am ten times handsomer,' she told herself', and yet I shall never keep my own carriage.'
She had often brooded over the difference between her fate and that of the woman whose house, and horses, and carriages, and lap dogs and jewels she had seen, the sale of which had made a nine days' wonder in Paris. She thought of that dead woman to-night as she sat with the mirror in her hand admiring the diamonds and her beauty, while Jack Chicot was doing his best to forget her in his Bohemian club hear the | | 31 Strand. She remembered all the stories she had heard of that extinguished luminary—her arrogance, her extravagance, the abject slavery of her adorers, her triumphal progress through life, scornful and admired.
It was not the virtuous who despised her, but she who despised the virtuous. Honest women wore the chosen mark for her ridicule. People in Paris knew all the details of her brazen, in famous life. Very few knew the history of her deathbed. But the priest who shrived her and the nursing sister who watched her last hours could have told a story to make even Frivolity's, hair stand on end.
'It was a short life, but a merry one,' thought La Chicot. 'How well I remember her the winter the lake in the Bois was frozen, and there was skating by torchlight! She used to drive a sledge covered all over with silver bells, and she used to skate dressed in dark red velvet and sable. The crowd stood on one side to let her pass, as if she had been an empress.'
Then her thoughts took another turn.| | 32
'If I left him, he would divorce me and marry that other woman,' she said to herself. 'Who is she, I wonder? Where did he see her? Not at the theatre. He cares for no one there. I have watched him too closely to be deceived in that.'
Then she half filled a tumbler with brandy, and flavoured it with water, in order to delude herself with the idea that she was drinking brandy and water; and then, lapsing into a state of semi-intoxication—a dreamy, half-consciousness, in which life, seen hazily, took a brighter hue—she flung aside her mirror, and threw herself half-dressed upon the bed.
Jack Chicot, who had taken to coming home, long after midnight, slept on a sofa in the little third room, where lie worked. There was not much chance of his seeing the jewels. He and his wife were as nearly parted as two people could be, living in the same house.
La Chicot contemplated the diamonds, and abandoned herself to much the same train of thought, for several nights; and now came the last night of the week which Mr. Lemuel had | | 33 allowed for reflection. To-morrow she was to give him his answer.
He was waiting for her at the stage-door when she came out. Desrolles, her usual escort, was not in attendance.
'Zaïre, I have been thinking, of you every hour since last we spoke together,' Joseph Lemuel began, delighted at finding her alone. 'You are as difficult to approach as a princess of the blood royal.'
'Why should I hold myself cheaper than a princess?' she asked, insolently. 'I am an honest woman.'
You are handsomer than any princess in Europe,' he said. 'But you ought to compassionate an adorer who has waited so long and so patiently. When am I to have your answer? Is it to be yes? You cannot be so cruel as to say no. My lawyer has drawn up the deed of settlement. I only wait your word to execute it.'
'You are very generous,' said La Chicot, scornfully, 'or very obstinate. If I run away with you and my husband gets a divorce, will you marry me?'| | 34
Be faithful to me, and I will refuse you nothing,' He went With her to the door of her lodgings for the first time, pleading his cause all the way, with such eloquence as he could command, which was not much. He was a man who had found money all powerful to obtain everything he wanted, and had seldom felt the need of words.
'Send me a messenger you can trust at twelve O'clock to-morrow, and if I do not send you back your diamonds——"
'I shall know that your answer is yes. In that case you will find my brougham waiting at a quarter-past seven o'clock to-morrow evening at the corner of this street, and I shall be in the brougham. We will drive straight to Charing Cross, and start for Paris by the mail. It will be too dark for any one to notice the carriage. What time do you generally go to the theatre?'
'At half-past seven.',
'Then you will not be missed till you are well out of the way. There will be no fuss, no scandal.'
There will be a tremendous fuss at the theatre,' | | 35 said La Chicot. 'Who is to take my place in the burlesque?'
'Any one. What need you care? You will have done with burlesque and the stage for ever.'
'True,' said La, Chicot.
And then she remembered the Student's Theatre in Paris, and how her popularity had waned there. The same thing might happen here in London, perhaps, after a year or two. Her audience would grow tired of her. Already people in the theatre had begun to make disagreeable remarks about the empty champagne bottles which came out of her dressing-room. By-and-bye, perhaps, they would be impudent enough to call her a drunkard. She would be glad to have clone with them.
Yet, degraded as she was, there were depths of vice from which her better instincts plucked her back; as if it were her good angel clutching her garments to drag her from the edge of an abyss. She had once loved her husband; nay, after her own manner, she loved him still, and could not calmly contemplate leaving him. Her | | 36 brain, muddled by champagne and brandy, shaped all thoughts confusedly; yet at her worst the idea of selling herself to this Jewish profligate shocked and disgusted her. Her soul was swayed to and fro, to this side and to that. She had no inclination to vice, but she would have liked the wades of sin; for in this lower world the wages of sin; meant a villa at Passy, and a couple of carriages.
'Good night,' she said abruptly to her lover. I must not be seen talking to you. My husband may come home at any minute.'
'I hear that he generally comes home in the middle of the night,' said Mr. Lemuel.
'What business is it of yours if lie does?' asked La Chicot, angrily.
'Everything that concerns you is my business. When I, who love the ground you walk upon, hear how you are neglected by your husband, do you suppose the knowledge does not make me so much the more determined to win you?'
'Send your messenger for my answer to-morrow,' said La Chicot, and then she shut the door in his face.| | 37
'I hate him,' she muttered when she was alone in the passage, stamping her foot as if she had trodden upon a venomous insect.
She, went upstairs, and again sat down half-undressed upon the floor, to look at the diamond necklace. She had a childish love of the gems—a delight in looking at them which differed very little from her feelings when she was fifteen years younger, and longed for a blue bead necklace exposed for sale in the quaint old market place at Auray.
'I shall send them back to him to-morrow,' she said to herself. 'The diamonds are beautiful—and I am getting tired of my life here, and I know that Jack hates me—but that man is too horrible—and—I am an honest woman.'
She flung herself on her knees beside the bed, in the attitude of prayer, but not to pray. She had lost the habit of prayer soon after she left her native province. She was sobbing passionately for the loss of her husband's love, with a dim consciousness that it was by her own degradation she had forfeited his regard.| | 38
'I've been a good wife to him," she murmured in broken syllables, 'better than ever I was——'
And then speech lost itself in convulsive sobs, and she cried herself to sleep.
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