The Truants

Chapter XXXI

At the Réserve

A.E.W. Mason

TONY STRETTON walked quickly down from the Villa Pontignard to the station. There he learned that an hour must elapse before a train to Eze was due. Inaction was at this moment intolerable to him. Even though he should get to Eze not a minute the sooner, he must hurry upon his way. He could not wait upon this platform for an hour, suspense so tortured him. He went out upon the road and began to run. He ran very quickly. The road turned sharply round the shoulder of a hill, and Stretton saw in front of him the lights of Monte Carlo. They were bunched in great white clusters, they were strung in festoons in the square and the streets. They made a golden crescent about the dark, quiet waters of the bay. Looking down from this shoulder of the hill upon the town at such an hour one seems to be looking upon a town of fairyland; one expects a sweet and delicate music to float upwards from its houses and charm the ears. Tony’s one thought was that beyond that place of lights lay Eze. He came to an electric tram which was on point of starting. He entered it and it rattled him quickly down the hill.

At Monte Carlo he sprang into the first carriage which he saw waiting for a fare, and bade the coachman drive him quickly out to Eze. The night had come; above his head the stars shone very brightly from a dark sky of velvet. The carriage passed out of the town; the villas grew more scarce; the open road glimmered ahead of him a riband of white; the sea murmured languorously upon the shore.

At this moment, in the lonely restaurant towards which Tony was driving in such haste, Lionel Callon and Millie Stretton were sitting down to dinner. The table was laid in the small, daintily furnished room which opened on to the terrace. The windows stood wide, and the lazy murmur of the waves entered in. The white cloth shone with silver, a great bowl of roses stood in the centre and delicately perfumed the air. Thither Millie had come in fulfilment of that promise made on a midnight of early spring in Regent’s Park. The colour burned prettily on her cheeks, she had dressed herself in a pink gown of lace, jewels shone on her arms and at her neck. She was, perhaps, a little feverish in her gaiety, her laughter was perhaps a little over loud. Indeed, every now and then her heart sank in fear within her, and she wished herself far away. But here Lionel Callon was at his ease. He knew the methods by which victory was to be won. There was no suggestion of triumph in his manner. He was considerate and most deferential, and with no more than a hint of passion in the deference.

“You have come,” he said. His eyes rested upon hers, and he left them to express his gratitude. He raised her hand to his lips and gently took the cloak from her shoulders. “You have had a long journey. But you are not tired.” He placed her chair for her at the table and sat opposite. He saw that she was uneasy. He spoke no word which might alarm her.

Meanwhile Tony was drawing nearer. He reached the hotel at Eze, and drove through its garden to the door.

“Is Lady Stretton in the hotel?” he asked.

“No, sir. Her ladyship went out to dinner nearly an hour ago.”

“Thank you,” said Tony. “She arrived this afternoon, I think?”

“Yes, sir. What name shall I give when she returns?”

“No name,” said Tony. And he ordered his coachman to drive back to the road.

When he had reached it he directed the man again.

“Towards Beaulieu,” he said; and in a little while, on his left hand, below the level of the road, he saw the lights of the Réserve. He stopped at the gate, dismissed his carriage, and walked down the winding drive to the door. He walked into the restaurant. It was empty. A waiter came forward to him.

“I wish you to take me at once to Mr. Callon,” he said. He spoke in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. But the waiter nevertheless hesitated. Tony wore the clothes in which he had travelled to Roquebrune. He was covered with dust, his face was haggard and stern. He had nothing in common with the dainty little room of lights and flowers and shining silver, and the smartly dressed couple who were dining there. The waiter guessed that his irruption would be altogether inconvenient.

“Mr. Callon!” he stammered. “He has gone out.”

Tony heard the rattle of a metal cover upon a dish. He looked in the direction whence the sound came—he looked to the right-hand side of the restaurant. A door stood open there, and in the passage beyond the door he saw a waiter pass carrying the dish. Moreover, the man who had spoken to him made yet another mistake. He noticed the direction of Tony’s glance, and he made a quick movement as though to bar that passage.

“He is here,” said Tony; and he thrust the waiter aside. He crossed the restaurant quickly and entered the passage. The passage ran parallel to the restaurant; and, at the end towards the terrace, there was another door upon the opposite side. The waiter with the dish had his hand upon the door-handle, but he turned at the sound of Stretton’s step. He, too, noticed the disorder of Tony’s dress. At the same moment the man in the restaurant shouted in a warning voice—


Jules stood in front of the door.

“Monsieur, this room is private,” said he.

“Yet I will take the liberty to intrude,” said Tony, quietly.

From behind the door there came the sound of a man’s voice which Tony did not know. He had, indeed, never heard it before. Then a woman’s laugh rang out; and the sound of it angered Tony beyond endurance. He recognised it beyond the possibility of mistake. It was his wife who was laughing so gaily there behind the closed door. He thought of the years he had spent in the determination to regain his wife’s esteem, to free himself from her contempt. For the moment he could have laughed bitterly at his persistence as at some egregious folly. It seemed all waste—waste of time, waste of endeavour, waste of suffering. She was laughing! And with Lionel Callon for her companion! The cold, black nights of the North Sea and its gales; the arid sands of the Sahara; all his long service for her ending in that crowning act of desertion—the story was clear in his mind from beginning to end, detailed and complete. And she was laughing in there with Lionel Callon! Her laughter was to him as some biting epigram which epitomised the way in which she had spent the years of his absence. His anger got the better of his self-control.

“Stand away,” he cried, in a low, savage voice, to the waiter. And since the man did not instantly move, he seized him by the shoulders and dragged him from the door.

“Monsieur!” the man cried aloud, in a frightened voice, and the dish which he was carrying fell with a clatter on to the floor. Inside the room the laughter suddenly ceased. Tony listened for a second. He could not hear even a whisper. There was complete silence. He smiled rather grimly to himself; he was thinking that this was not, at all events, the silence of contempt.

Could he have seen through the door into the room he would have been yet more convinced. All the gaiety vanished in an instant from Millie’s face. She was sitting opposite the door; she sat and stared at it in terror. The blood ebbed from the cheeks, leaving them as white as paper.

“Monsieur!” she repeated, in so low a whisper that even Callon, on the other side of the small table, hardly heard the word. Her lips were dry, and she moistened them. “Monsieur!” she whispered again, and the whisper was a question. She had no definite suspicion who “Monsieur” was; she did not define him as her husband. She only understood that somehow she was trapped. The sudden clatter of the dish upon the floor, the loudness of the waiter’s cry, which was not a mere protest, but also a cry of fear, terrified her; they implied violence. She was trapped. She sat paralysed upon her chair, staring across the table over Callon’s shoulder at the door. Callon meanwhile said not a word. He had been sitting with his back to the door, and he twisted round in his chair. To both of them it seemed ages before the handle was turned. Yet so short was the interval of time that they could hardly have reached the terrace through the open window had they sprung up at the first sound of disturbance.

Thus they were sitting, silent and motionless, when the door was pushed open, and Tony stood in the doorway. At the sight of him Millie uttered one loud scream, and clapped her hands over her face. Callon, on the other hand, started up on to his feet. As he did so he upset his wine-glass over the table-cloth; it fell and splintered on the polished floor. He turned towards the intruder who so roughly forced his way into the room. The eyes of that intruder took no account of him; they were fixed upon Millie Stretton, as she sat cowering at the table with her hands before her face.

“What do you want?” cried Callon. “You have no right here!”

“I have every right here,” said Tony. “That is my wife!”

It was still his wife at whom he looked, not at all towards Callon. Callon was startled out of his wits. Detection he had always feared; he had sought to guard against it by the use of every precaution known to his devious strategy. But it was detection by Pamela Mardale and her friends, who had once already laid him by the heels; the husband had never entered into his calculations. He had accepted without question Millie’s version of the husband—he was the man who did not care. In some part of the world he wandered, but where no one knew; cut off from all his friends—indifferent, neglectful, and a fool. Even now he could not believe. This might be some new trick of Pamela Mardale’s.

“Your wife!” he exclaimed. “That is not true.”

“Not true?” cried Tony, in a terrible voice. He stretched out his arm and pointed towards Millie. “Look!”

Millie flinched as though she feared a blow. She dropped her head yet lower. She held her fingers over her eyelids, closing them tightly. She had looked once at Tony’s face, she dared not look again. She sat in darkness, trembling. One question was in her mind. “Would he kill her?” Callon looked at her as he was bidden. Millie was wont to speak of her husband with indifference, and a suggestion of scorn. Yet it was her manifest terror which now convinced Callon that the husband was indeed before him. Here the man was, sprung suddenly out of the dark upon him, not neglectful, for he had the look of one who has travelled from afar very quickly, and slept but little on the way; not indifferent, for he was white with anger and his eyes were aflame. Callon cursed the luck which had for a second time brought him into such ill straits. He measured himself with Tony, and knew in the instant that he was no match for him. There was a man, tired, no doubt, and worn, but hard as iron, supple of muscle and limb, and finely trained to the last superfluous ounce of flesh; while he himself was soft with luxury and good living. He sought to temporise.

“That is no proof,” said he. “Any woman might be startled——” And Tony broke fiercely in upon his stammered argument—

“Go out,” he cried, “and wait for me!”

The door was still open. Outside it in the passage the waiters were clustered, listening. Inside the room Millie was listening. The order, roughly given, was just one which Callon for very shame could not obey. He would have liked to obey it, for confronting husbands was never to his liking; all his art lay in eluding them.

“Go out!” Tony repeated, and took a step forward. Callon could not cut so poor a figure as to slink from the room like a whipped schoolboy. Yet it would have gone better with him had he eaten his leek and gone.

“It would not be safe to leave you,” he babbled. And suddenly Tony caught him by the throat, struck him upon the face, and then flung him violently away.

Callon reeled back through the open windows, slipped and fell at his full length upon the terrace. His head struck the stone flags with a horrible sound. He lay quite still in the strong light which poured from the room; his eyes were closed, his face quite bloodless. It was his business, as Mudge had said, to light amongst the teacups.

Tony made no further movement towards him. The waiters went out on to the terrace and lifted him up and carried him away. Then Tony turned towards his wife. She had risen up from her chair and overturned it when Tony had flung the interloper from the room. She now crouched shuddering against the wall, with her eyes fixed in terror upon her husband. As he turned towards her she uttered a sob and dropped upon her knees before him. That was the end of all her scorn. She kneeled in deadly fear, admiring him in the very frenzy of her fear. She had no memory for the contemptuous letters which she had written and Tony had carried under his pillow on the North Sea. Her little deceits and plots and trickeries to hoodwink her friends, her little pretence of passion for Lionel Callon—she knew at this moment that it never had been more than a pretence—these were the matters which now she remembered, and for which she dreaded punishment. She was wearing jewels that night—jewels which Tony had given her in the good past days when they lived together in the house in Deanery Street. They shook and glittered upon her hair, about her neck, upon her bosom and her arms. She kneeled in her delicate finery of lace and satin in this room of luxury and bright flowers. There was no need for Tony now to work to re-establish himself in her thoughts. She reached out her hands to him in supplication.

“I am not guilty,” she moaned. “Tony! Tony!”

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XXXII

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