The Prisoner in the Opal


M to O Inclusive

A.E.W. Mason

ON the following evening four people sat down to dinner at the corner table by the window in the restaurant of the Faisan d’Or—Julius Ricardo and Hanaud in chairs upon one side, Joyce Whipple and Bryce Carter upon the cushioned bench against the wall. The days were closing in. Already the lights were beginning to twinkle through the leaves of the lime trees in the Place des Quinconces. Mr. Ricardo could not but remember that other evening of suspense, so recent in fact, so immeasurably distant judged by events, when his motor-car had waited on the other side of the roadway and Hanaud had sat with his back against the wall smoking cigar after cigar and Joyce Whipple’s life had hung upon a thread. Now she sat in that same place, her delicate face still shadowed by the ordeal of terror through which she had passed, her old look of competence replaced by a tender wistfulness. She was as spruce and trim as ever in her suit of chestnut brown marocain, but her great haunting eyes turned continually to the lover at her side, and every now and then her hand would rest upon his arm, as though to assure herself of his neighbourhood. A tall vase of flowers had been idiotically placed upon the table after the fashion of restaurants, so that no one could see his or her opposite number without cricking his neck. But by a unanimous vote the obstacle was removed.

“Now!” said Mr. Ricardo, all in a twitter; and the shadow deepened upon the lovely face over against him.

“Now we dine,” Bryce Carter rejoined quickly. “It is a solemn moment. Without dinner, there is no life. We begin with caviare. That is as it should be. We are now upon the banks of the Volga. We listen to the far-famed song of its boat—We wear blouses and peaked caps and we dance very uncomfortably in top boots. But all that passes. For we proceed to turtle soup. We are dining now with the Aldermen, and the Lord Mayor, and Mr. Recorder at the Guildhall prior to the presentation of the Freedom of the City to Julius Ricardo, Esquire. Strengthened by the fat of the turtle, we proceed to lobster a l’Americaine. In a flash we are on the pier of Naragansett. Someone is singing. It is ‘The Belle of New York.’ Good! Let us catch the matchless words and the exquisite modest voice: ‘All the men follow me, when I go out for a walk.’ What follows? A partridge. Good! I am behind a hedge and over the hedge a field of turnips, in which there is no sign of life. In the far distance a line of men armed with white flags. I hear a whistle. I say to myself: ‘Take them as they come. Shoot well ahead!’ I hear a multitude of wings beating the air. There are partridges on the ground before every butt except mine. I say to myself: ‘Nevertheless I shall be given two partridges to send home to my wife, who, poor creature, in her blind devotion to her husband will say, “Bryce shot these!” and will have them stuffed and mounted in a glass case.’”

Joyce Whipple laughed.

“If I know anything about that young woman,” she said, “she will, on the contrary, observe: ‘Such wonderful birds can only be a present from my friend, Monsieur Hanaud.’”

Hanaud with a beaming face waved a hand under Mr. Ricardo’s nose.

“That is how the persons as one wants them, talk. They do not make the difficulties about the idioms. No! They do not look the offence if I give a tiny order to their chauffeur. They do not search all I say for the bad taste like a customs officer looking for the silk stockings. Gorblimey, no! They say ‘Hanaud,’ so,” and he wagged his head and kissed the tips of his fingers, fatuous as a second-rate tenor of grand opera.

In a word, Bryce Carter and Hanaud between them saw to it that Joyce should eat her dinner with nothing to distress her beyond the puerility of their facetiousness. But when the crumbs were brushed from the table and their coffee smoked in front of them and darkness had quite fallen upon the roadway outside, she began of her own accord.

“I shall tell you what happened to me,” she said, “for even Bryce, who flies back to London on any excuse of business, has not heard the story in detail—from the date of my arrival at the Château Suvlac. But I understand that a phrase I once used has caused Mr. Ricardo”—and she smiled very pleasantly at him across the table—“a good deal of perplexity. ‘Cinderella must be home by midnight.’ That was the sentence, wasn’t it? It surprised him, because two American girls let loose on Europe must according to all traditions be multi-millionaires. But my sister and I have never had millions of money. Three years ago, indeed, we couldn’t have scraped up enough between us to buy a baby Austin. We were both employed in a big library at Washington; and though we had inherited a tiny property at San Diego, in California, it just kept us decently dressed. We were workgirls. There was a head librarian, an assistant, and six girls under them who divided up the alphabet.”

Two points of importance to Joyce Whipple’s narrative were to be borne in mind by her audience. Firstly, the letters of the alphabet for which she was responsible were M to O inclusive. She had to possess, and did possess, a working knowledge of the subjects which fell within those letters. Secondly, Professor Henry Brewer, of the Pharmacological Laboratory at Leeds, came out to Washington whilst she was employed at the library, to serve upon an International Commission for the suppression of the opium traffic. His duties took him frequently to the library, and since opium was his subject, to the particular department in the charge of Joyce Whipple. The pair became friends, and when Brewer returned home he left behind him a warm invitation to the two girls to make every use of him should they ever come to England.

“Soon after Professor Brewer went away,” Joyce continued, “oil was found upon our little estate and a well was sunk. My sister and I became—I don’t say rich as riches are understood today—but very comfortably off. So making up our minds to see something of the world, we gave up our positions and crossed to Europe. But a year ago the well went dry. My sister was on the point of marrying and returning to the United States. I had to make up my mind what I should do. Our original plan had been to spend two years on this side of the Atlantic, and I had still money enough in hand to complete the programme. Of course, if I had been a really good girl,” she said with a bubble of laughter, “I should have gone straight back too, and saved what I had left. But I wasn’t going to. I meant to have my fling whilst I was young enough to get every ounce of fun and enjoyment out of it. Afterwards I would go back to M to O. I was going back this summer. The library was taking me on again. That’s what I meant when I said to Mr. Ricardo: ‘Cinderellas must be home before midnight.’ Midnight for me was on the point of striking. But I was more and more troubled about Diana, and I got leave from Washington to put off my return for another month.”

She shivered as she thought upon the terrible days which that month had included, and then her eyes turned to Bryce Carter and she smiled.

“Yes,” said Mr. Ricardo sententiously. “It is very true. The darkest hour comes before the dawn.”

Bryce Carter stared across the table, sure that somehow his ears had misled him. But not a bit of it. Mr. Ricardo sat benevolent, complacent. He had interpreted in one concise allusion both Joyce Whipple’s shiver and her smile. And time and again during the rest of that evening Bryce Carter’s eyes eagerly sought his fellow-countryman’s face in the hope of another and as satisfying an imbecility.

“I reached the Château Suvlac a fortnight before you,” Joyce resumed. “I had invited myself by telegram, and when Jules Amadee led me out on to the terrace in the afternoon I found, besides Diana, Evelyn Devenish, Monsieur de Mirandol and Robin Webster assembled about the tea-tray. It was obvious after a very few minutes that they were there to give me the once-over—I mean,” she explained to Hanaud, “to inspect me.”

“The once-over is better,” returned Hanaud. “It is a phrase of the fashionables in New York. Yes. From the Bowery? Yes. Good, I use him.”

Both Bryce Carter and Joyce Whipple had moved a good deal in Hanaud’s society during the last week or two, and just accepted in grateful silence his promise to use their idiom, without discussing the residential quarter of the fashionables of New York.

“It will be perhaps better to allow Joyce to tell her story without interruption,” Mr. Ricardo suggested coldly, and Hanaud bowed his head.

“For the future,” he said, and he had clearly enjoyed some further conversation with Mr. Ricardo’s chauffeur, “I hold my blinking tongue.”

“That is sufficient,” said Mr. Ricardo. “Joyce, proceed!”

And Joyce proceeded.

“I was a disturbance, you see. Diana was nervous, with lapses into dreams. I was all at once a stranger to her. With Evelyn and Monsieur de Mirandol I was at once unpopular. On the other hand, Robin Webster showed me a good deal of attention. I had the misfortune to come over at him from the first,” and under Mr. Ricardo’s cold eye Hanaud repressed himself with extreme difficulty. “That relationship continued through the evening. Two young men from the neighbourhood dined at the château, and we danced afterwards upon the terrace to the gramophone until eleven o’clock. Robin Webster was troublesome, for I really didn’t want to dance with him, though he danced very well. And as often as I did, I could see Evelyn Devenish glowering at me. Once, indeed, when she was quite close to Robin Webster and myself, she refused brusquely an invitation to dance and, raising her voice, so that Robin Webster could hear, said: ‘It is hot. I shall stroll down to the river.’

“She went down the steps, waited without turning her head, and then wandered alone across the lawn. Robin Webster took no notice whatever. His face was smooth as a mask. Diana, in the library, put on a new record and set it spinning.

“‘You must leave me,’ I said to Robin Webster. ‘I am not here to make trouble. Please go!’ and I nodded to where Evelyn’s white dress shimmered against the dark grass. Webster’s eyes followed mine. I have never seen a face so harden into contempt as his did at that moment.

“‘She doesn’t know the difference between being a man’s master and a man’s mistress, and she has got to learn,’ he said. I recoiled from him, and at once his whole expression changed. He became piteous, appealing. ‘You think that hateful! I am overtried. The last thing in the world I want to do is to make you hate me,’ and his eyes slid over me from my head to my shoes—oh, odiously! He was making an inventory of me and my clothes. He said with a sudden passion which took me aback: ‘You have only to say the word, and I’ll give up this dance and go down there to Evelyn.’

“But I wasn’t going to tumble into that trap. If I did say the word, I—how shall I put it?—I established a relationship, I almost put myself under an obligation. He could come to me and plead: ‘The moment you told me to sacrifice myself, I did it. Now, when I ask the tiniest little thing, you turn me down.’ No, nothing of that for Joyce Whipple. I answered quickly: ‘I haven’t the slightest intention to interfere, and you have danced too often with me as it is. I hate being conspicuous. Good night!’

“I turned away to Diana and told her that I was tired and was going to bed. Diana looked at me for a moment, as though she was not quite sure who I was and what I was doing there. Then she waked up.

“‘I’ll go up with you and see that you’ve got everything, Joyce,’ she said. ‘I am delighted you could spare the time to pay me a visit here.’

“She slipped her arm through mine, and Robin Webster, who was at my elbow, afraid no doubt lest I should give him away, had the nerve to ask—oh! in the melting voice of a musical-comedy lover: ‘But you’ll come back! I’ll wait for you here. This is a wonderful waltz. Strauss wrote it for you and me!’

“Diana hurried me up to my room, barely glanced round it, and said, ‘Yes, I see you have everything,’ and the next moment I heard her running down the stairs.

“Now, I really was tired, and being a healthy young woman I should naturally have slept from the moment when I got into bed until Marianne trotted in with my coffee. But, you see, I had come out to the Château Suvlac with a particular object, and my uneasiness was not at all relieved by what I had seen that evening. On the contrary. Diana was so unlike the Diana I used to know that I was alarmed. I thought Monsieur de Mirandol quite impossible and Robin Webster quite intolerable. I had a feeling, too, though, of course, I might have brought that with me, that something was being planned against Diana and that my presence interfered with the plan.

“I must have fallen asleep whilst I was worrying over these problems, but so restlessly that a mere murmur of voices underneath my window was sufficient to wake me up. The moon had now risen and my room was so bright that I could read my watch without turning on the lamp. The time was a few minutes past midnight. The gramophone had stopped. I heard no sound indeed at all but these voices whispering and murmuring upon the terrace, and an occasional quick ‘H’sh! H’sh!’ when one of them rose upon a higher note. Then my name was uttered. ‘She is staying for a fortnight. She goes straight from here to America.’

“I could not mistake the thin, high voice of Monsieur de Mirandol any more than the precise articulation of Robin Webster, who replied to the remark.

“‘She will be out of the way. Diana arranged that she should have the upper room on purpose,’ and quickly upon that came the ‘Hush! Hush!’ of the third voice.

“I sat up in my bed then. I should be out of the way. Out of the way of what? I listened with both my ears, I can tell you. But the voices sank again, and only the intermittent ‘Hush! Hush!’ reached me intelligibly.

“Good manners or bad manners, I could stand no more of it. I slipped out of bed and crawled on my hands and knees to the window. I raised my head very, very carefully and looked down on to the terrace. Three people were standing at the edge of the terrace in the moonlight, not exactly under my window, but a little to the right, opposite to the window of the drawing-room. They were Monsieur de Mirandol, Robin Webster and Evelyn Devenish. Although the gramophone had ceased, the drawing-room was still alight, and Evelyn Devenish was keeping a watchful eye upon its open door. She stood sentinel, as it were, with her back to the garden, and it was she who continually broke in with her hissed warning. She was not concerned with my window at all. Someone in the drawing-room was now approaching, now retiring, from the glass door. I, no doubt, was comfortably supposed to be fast asleep.

“I heard a day named and then another. ‘Wednesday or Friday, of course,’ said Robin Webster. ‘The sooner the better.’

“‘Wednesday week, then,’ Monsieur de Mirandol answered. ‘It will take a little time to let the right people know. I can have all ready by then.’

“But there was a note of hesitation in his voice. It became evident to me that Monsieur de Mirandol was alarmed. The affair, whatever it was, was becoming trop repandu altogether. There was danger. People who knew of it, really knew of it, so that it was impossible to maintain any denial, could insist upon coming, and for their own ends. He reproached Evelyn Devenish. She had spoken carelessly over there in Bordeaux, and some woman who was ‘affreuse’ had simply bullied her way in. Evelyn defended herself. I heard the name Corisot, and Monsieur de Mirandol shrugged his shoulders like a man who knows the world, and said quite clearly—it was strange how that high, piping voice carried—‘Oh, Jeanne Corisot! I don’t say no! A different matter. But the old woman!’ And a phrase struck my ears and tingled.

“‘But since everyone is masked’, argued Evelyn. ‘Except me,’ said Robin Webster. ‘And, since it is my house which is used, me,’ continued Monsieur de Mirandol; and immediately the ‘Hush! Hush!’ came more insistently than ever.

“‘She is coming.’ Evelyn Devenish said. ‘Then I’m off quick,’ said Robin Webster. What gave me the idea that he jumped at this excuse for getting away? ‘Good night,’ he said hurriedly, and as he turned away along the terrace towards the grove of trees and his house, an illuminating sentence was uttered. I might have listened to hints and allusions for a hundred years and never got near the truth. Now it flamed—blinding, horrible, so that I cowered down upon the floor in the cover of the wall.

“‘Good night, my friend Guibourg,’ Monsieur de Mirandol said with a piping laugh. Robin Webster laughed quietly, turning round in the moonlight a face grown suddenly sly, and more urgent than ever followed Evelyn Devenish’s protest. This time it ran—‘Oh, please, silence!’ she whispered; and for the first time during that whispered conversation she turned an eye upwards to my window. It was then that I dipped for safety, praying that she had not seen me. I comforted myself with the thought that even if she had she would be confident that I could make nothing of de Mirandol’s allusion.

“She did not know that I had served in a great library, and that my letters were M to O inclusive. ‘O’ contains ‘Occult,’ and I had to have a working knowledge of that subject—on what shelf and in what particular volumes information was to be sought. ‘L’ami Guibourg!’ Monsieur de Mirandol had said. ‘Good night, l’ami Guibourg!’ His laugh as he spoke the name, Robin Webster’s laugh as he greeted it, linked the name with the mysterious engagement for Wednesday week. There was only one Guibourg—the infamous Abbé of the Black Mass. Wednesday week, too! That was the date. A Wednesday or a Friday. Monsieur de Mirandol had stipulated for one of those two days of the week, and those two days were the days set aside for those unholy ceremonies. I had got to the heart of Diana’s secret now, of her obsession, her indifference—yes, and of my forebodings too. In spite of herself, through the trivial phrases of her letters to me something had broken from another world—the world on the edge of which her soul stood shivering.

“I lifted my head again very carefully. I saw that Diana had joined Monsieur de Mirandol and Evelyn, and that Robin Webster had vanished amongst the trees. The three who remained talked openly now. In a few minutes they returned into the house. I heard the glass door close; I saw the yellow light disappear from the drawing-room and the floor of the terrace. The house and its garden were given over to the moonlight. Only between the dark boughs of the avenue a beam shone from the upper window of Robin Webster’s chalet.”

Joyce Whipple omitted from her story the ordinary expeditions and amusements which occupied the days and evenings of the small party at the Château Suvlac. She kept to the incidents relative to herself. She was sent to Coventry by Evelyn Devenish and Monsieur de Mirandol, who was never out of the house. She found more and more continually Robin Webster at her side; Mrs. Tasborough, the companion, sunned herself in her newly discovered authority. Each night some few people from the neighbourhood dined and danced, and once or twice the Abbé Fauriel played his game of whist at the Château Suvlac. As for Diana, she walked apart with the bandage of her dreams across her eyes. Even the service of her house became indifferent to her, the small attentions to her guests neglected, and thus quite naturally Joyce slid into the habit of preparing the cocktails, and the nightcaps before the party separated of an evening.

On the third night of Joyce’s visit two little incidents occurred which were of importance. She had danced, reluctantly, with Robin Webster, and he had guided her to the end of the terrace away from the others. Suddenly he stopped.

“I can’t go on like this,” he said in a voice of fever. “You must come down into the garden and talk to me. It’s horrible what I am going through”; and he held her off from him, and again his eyes slid over her greedily from her head to her shoes, so that she felt herself dishonoured. She wrenched her hands away and said simply, “I’ll come,” and turning at his side, went down with him into the garden.

“It was hateful,” Joyce said, “but I was afraid he would make some sort of revolting scene publicly, and that I should have to go away from Suvlac in consequence. We walked across the lawn to the hedge which separates the garden from the strip of marshland by the river, and then I turned to him.

“‘You see, I can’t hide any more,’ he began at once, his mouth trembling, and his words overtaking one another. ‘Up till now it has always been easy—amusing, too—to keep different things going—if you understand me—’ I had no difficulty at all in understanding him. The amazing feature of him was his frankness, considering what his object was—I mean myself. It never seemed to occur to him at all that I might perhaps believe in another subject under M to O inclusive—monogamy.

“‘Now I find it very difficult,’ he continued. ‘I can’t trouble about concealments—I don’t want them either—I want you—and you—and you—and all the world to see it. Joyce! I walk up and down my room half the night repeating it. Joyce! Joyce! I have thought that no one could want anyone else so—so overwhelmingly, without that other one being forced to come. I have expected to hear your step upon the gravel—to see the door open and you with your eyes full of wonder and soft light in the doorway. I knew all the time that I was a fool—that the way with women was to keep your head and only seem to lose it. But I can’t help myself. I am like the man in hell. I want my drink of water beyond anything in the world—you, Joyce, you!’ and his hands reached out to me shaking, and drew back and reached out again.

“I was in trouble too. I didn’t dare to giggle because I was in the presence of a predatory animal. My whole object was to prevent a crisis for as long as I could—until after Wednesday week, at all events. I babbled a few remarks inanely. ‘I have never had anything like this happen to me. I have never before been told that I was one of a number, even if for the moment the top one,’ and luckily at that moment Evelyn Devenish ran down the steps of the terrace and across the green towards us. It was Robin Webster’s turn to say ‘Hush! Hush!’ now. I made my escape at once and, a little more shaken than I had believed myself to be, I slipped into the drawing-room, which was empty.

“I sat there for a few moments watching the couples dancing outside, and then Diana joined me. She sat down beside me with an embarrassed smile, and began at once to talk to me rapidly.

“‘I am going to tell you something, Joyce. I haven’t told it to any of my friends yet. So you must keep it a secret for the moment. I don’t mean to have people advising and interfering in what isn’t any concern of theirs. They probably won’t know at all until it is done. I am going to marry Robin Webster.’

“I was really startled by her announcement, and no doubt my face showed it. For she continued quickly: ‘You’re astonished, but you don’t know him. He’s wonderful, really wonderful.’

“‘But—but—’ I protested a little confusedly, ‘are you sure that—I mean that you are rich and he—after all, he seems to have friends already, doesn’t he?’

“I wasn’t very tactful, but I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t stop to phrase things very decently. Diana, however, wasn’t offended at all. She took my protest with the utmost calmness.

“‘I know what you mean,’ she answered. ‘He is a good deal with Evelyn Devenish. But he loves me.’ It is impossible to give you any idea of the simple, serious fatuity with which she spoke. I felt that no evidence would shake her at all. ‘Since you came, Joyce, he has been showing you some attention too. He is just setting up so many screens to prevent anyone guessing until we want them to.’

“‘But when are you going to be married?’ I gasped.

“‘Next month,’ she answered; and then the most curious look, half pride, half fear, shone upon her face. ‘I can’t tell you everything. But we are set apart, he and I and a few other people. It’s the most terrific secret. I was frightened at first—perhaps I still am a little. But one’s carried away—one wouldn’t go back if one could. It’s a belief—no doubt people who didn’t understand would take us out and stone us . . . but there are many, many, many of us, not only here—in Paris, in Italy. And people who are right are always’—she sought for a word—‘punished, aren’t they? It’s the oldest thing in the world, too—it’s revolt and passion instead of renunciation, and a world scarlet and vivid instead of grey and cold.’

“Her face was transfigured. She spoke in a low voice hoarse with emotion, her features quivering, her breast rising and falling as though she had run a race, and her hands picking at her frock. In that quiet room, looking across the garden to the quiet, shining river, with the gramophone in the library winding out its commonplace foxtrot, she sat, a devotee who had whirled herself into a frenzy of exaltation. And then suddenly she clapped her hands to her eyes and burst into a torrent of tears.

“‘Oh, I am afraid . . . I am afraid . . . ’ she cried in a voice suddenly desolate and hopeless; and before I could utter a word she had risen and rushed from the room.

“I sat on, with a gleam of hope in my mind. De Mirandol and Evelyn Devenish—I set them aside as really sincere. That devil-worship still existed here and there in the world of drawing-rooms as vigorously as in the world of jungles and wide forests, I knew very well. And both de Mirandol, the disappointed degenerate, and Evelyn Devenish, the neurotic creature of her sex, were marked out for it. But Robin Webster was different. He was just the cunning manipulator who saw in it a weapon and an opportunity. He could marry Diana Tasborough. Yes, but he wanted a serf, not a wife. Believing in him as the High Priest of Satan, she was malleable as sculptor’s clay. The one hope I had of countering his fine plans lay in Diana’s sudden storm of tears and the words which had followed it. She was afraid. Therefore she could be rescued. But how? I was still considering that question when the door into the corridor was opened and Evelyn Devenish came in. She walked straight across the room to me with a face very white and set.

“‘I met Diana in tears just outside this room. What have you said to her?’ she demanded; and I replied:

“‘Mind your own business!’

“‘I am going to,’ she said, and nodding at me with a strange look in her eyes, she went out on to the terrace.”

At this point Joyce asked for more coffee, and not until she had drunk it and lighted a cigarette, was she willing to resume her narrative.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXVII - The Inspiration from the Mask

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