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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 33. Aguilar's Double Life
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 33. Aguilar's Double Life Post by :vernpet Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2957

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 33. Aguilar's Double Life

CHAPTER XXXIII. AGUILAR'S DOUBLE LIFE

Madame Piriac came down into the saloon the next afternoon.

"Oh! You are still hiding yourself here!" she murmured gaily to Audrey, who was alone among the cushions.

"I was just resting," said Audrey. "Remember what a night we had!"

It was true that the yacht had not been berthed at Lousey Hard until between two and three o'clock in the morning, and that no guest had slept until after the job was done, though more than one had tried to sleep. It was also true that in consequence the saloon breakfast had been abrogated, that even the saloon lunch lacked vicacity, and that at least one passenger was at that moment dozing in his cabin. But not on account of fatigue and somnolence was Audrey remaining in the saloon instead of taking the splendid summer afternoon on deck under the awning. She felt neither tired nor sleepy. The true secret was that she feared the crowd of village idlers, quidnuncs, tattlers and newsmongers who all day gazed from Lousey Hard at the wonder-yacht.

Examining the line of faces as well as she could through portholes, she recognised nearly every one of them, and was quite sure that every one of them would recognise her face. To go ashore or to stay prominently on deck would, therefore, be to give away her identity and to be forced, sooner or later, to admit that she had practised a long and naughty deception. She could conceive some of those villagers greeting her loudly from the Hard if she should appear; for Essex manners were marked by strange freedoms. Her situation would be terrible. It, in fact, was terrible. Risks surrounded her like angry dogs. Musa, for example, ought surely to have noticed that the estuary in which the yacht lay was the same estuary which he had seen not long before from the garden of the house stated by Audrey to be her own, and he ought to have commented eagerly on the marvellous coincidence. Happily, he had not yet done so--no doubt because he had spent most of the time in bed. If and when he did so there would naturally be an excited outcry and a heavy rain of amazed questions which simply could not be answered.

"I am going almost at once to call on my little friend Audrey Moze, at Flank Hall," said Madame Piriac. "The house looks delicious from the deck. If you will come up I will show it to you. It is precisely like the picture post card which the dear little one sent to me last year. Are you ready to come with me?"

"But, darling, hadn't you better go alone?"

"But certainly not, darling! You are not serious. The meeting will be very agitating. With a third person, however, it will be less so. I count on you absolutely, as I have said already. Nay, I insist. I invoke your friendship."

"She may be out. She may be away altogether."

"In that case we shall return," said Madame Piriac briefly, and, not giving Audrey time to reply further, she vanished, with a firm carriage and an obstinate look in her eyes, towards the sleeping-cabins.

The next instant Mr. Gilman himself entered the saloon.

"Mrs. Moncreiff," he started nervously, in a confidential and deprecating tone, "this is the first chance I have had to tell you. We came into Mozewater without my orders. I won't say against my orders, but certainly not with them. On the plea that I had retired, Captain Wyatt changed our destination last night without going through the formality of consulting me. We ought to have made Harwich, but I am now told that we were running short of paraffin, and that if we had continued to Harwich we should have had the worst of the tide against us, whereas in coming up Mozewater the tide helped us; also that Captain Wyatt did not care about trying to get into Harwich harbour at night with the wind in its present quarter, and rising as it was then. Of course, Wyatt is responsible for the safety of the ship, and it is true that I had her designed with a very light draught on purpose for such waters as Mozewater; but he ought to have consulted me. We might get away again on this tide, but Hortense will not hear of it. She has a call to pay, she says. I can only tell you how sorry I am. And I do hope you will forgive me." The sincerity and alarm of his manly apology were touching.

"But, Mr. Gilman," said Audrey, with the simplicity which more and more she employed in talking to her host, "there is nothing to forgive. What can it matter to me whether we come here or go to Harwich?"

"I thought, I was afraid--" Mr. Gilman hesitated.

"In short ... your secret, Mrs. Moncreiff, which you asked me to keep, and which I have kept. It was here, at this very spot, with my old barge-yacht, that I first had the pleasure of meeting you. And I thought ... perhaps you had reasons.... However, your secret is safe."

"How nice you are, Mr. Gilman!" Audrey said, with a gentle smile. "You're kindness itself. But there is nothing to trouble about, really. Keep my little secret by all means, if you don't mind. As for anything else--that's perfectly all right.... Shall we go on deck?"

He thanked her without words.

She was saying to herself, rather desperately:

"After all, what do I care? I haven't committed a crime. It's nobody's business but my own. And I'm worth ten million francs. And if the fat's in the fire, and anything is found out, and people don't like it--well, they must do the other thing."

Thus she went on deck, and her courage was rewarded by the discovery of a chair on the starboard side of the deck-house, from which she could not possibly be seen by any persons on the Hard. She took this chair like a gift from heaven. The deck was busy enough. Mr. Price, the secretary, was making entries in an account book. Dr. Cromarty was pacing to and fro, expectant. Captain Wyatt was arguing with the chauffeur of a vast motor-van from Clacton, and another motor-van from Colchester was also present on the Hard. Rows of paraffin cans were ranged against the engine-room hatchway, and the odour of paraffin was powerfully conflicting with the odour of ozone and possibly ammonia from the marshes. Parcels kept coming down by hand from the village of Moze. Fresh water also came in barrels on a lorry, and lumps of ice in a dog-cart. The arrival of six bottles of aspirin, brought by a heated boy on a bicycle, from Clacton, and seized with gusto by Dr. Cromarty, completed the proof that money will not only buy anything, but will infallibly draw it to any desired spot, however out of the way the spot may be. The probability was that neither paraffin nor ice nor aspirin had ever found itself on Lousey Hard before in the annals of the world. Yet now these things forgathered with ease and naturalness owing to the magic of the word "yacht" in telegrams.

And over the scene floated the wavy, inspiring folds of the yacht's immense blue ensign, with the Union Jack in the top inside corner.

Mr. Price went into the deck-house and began to count money.

"Mr. Price," demanded Mr. Gilman urgently, "did you look up the facts about this village?"

"I was just looking up the place in 'East Coast Tours,' sir, when the paraffin arrived," replied Mr. Price. "It says that Moze is mentioned in 'Green's Short History of the English People.'"

"Ah! Very interesting. That work is a classic. It really treats of the English people, and not solely of their kings and queens. Dr. Cromarty, Mr. Price is busy, will you mind bringing me the catalogue of the library up here?"

Dr. Cromarty obeyed, and Mr. Gilman examined the typewritten, calf-bound volume.

"Yes," said he. "Yes. I thought we had Green on board, and we have. I should like extremely to know what Green says about Moze. It must have been in the Anglo-Saxon or Norman period. Dr. Cromarty, will you mind bringing me up the first three volumes of Green? You will find them on shelf Z8. Also the last volume, for the index."

A few moments later Mr. Gilman, with three volumes of Green on his knees and one in his hand, said reproachfully to Mr. Price:

"Mr. Price, I requested you to see that the leaves of all our books were cut. These volumes are absolutely uncut."

"Well, sir, I'm working through them as fast as I can. But I haven't got to shelf Z8 yet."

"I cannot stop to cut them now," said Mr. Gilman, politely displeased. "What a pity! It would have been highly instructive to know what Green says about Moze. I always like to learn everything I can about the places we stop at. And this place must be full of historic interest. Wyatt, have you had that paraffin counted properly?" He spoke very coldly to the captain.

It thus occurred that what John Richard Green said about Moze was never known on board the yacht _Ariadne_.

Audrey listened to the episode in a reverie. She was thinking about Musa's intractability and inexcusable rudeness, and about what she should do in the matter of Madame Piriac's impending visit to Audrey Moze at Flank Hall, and through the texture of these difficult topics she could see, as it were, shining the sprightly simplicity, the utter ingenuousness, the entirely reliable fidelity of Mr. Gilman. She felt, rather than consciously realised, that he was a dull man. But she liked his dullness; it reassured her; it was tranquillising; it was even adorable. She liked also his attitude towards Moze. She had never suspected, no one had ever hinted to her, that Moze was full of historic interest. But looking at it now from the yacht which had miraculously wafted her past the Flank buoy at dead of night, she perceived Moze in a quite new aspect--a pleasure which she owed to Mr. Gilman's artless interest in things. (Not that he was artless in all affairs! No; in the great masculine affairs he must be far from artless, for had he not made all his money himself?)

Then Madame Piriac appeared on deck, armed and determined. Audrey found, as hundreds of persons had found, that it was impossible to deny Madame Piriac. Beautiful, gracious, elegant, kind, when she would have a thing she would have it. Audrey had to descend and prepare herself. She had to reascend ready for the visit. But at the critical and dreadful moment of going ashore to affront the crowd she had a saving idea. She pointed to Flank Hall and its sloping garden, and to the sea-wall against which the high spring tide was already washing, and she suggested that they should be rowed thither in the dinghy instead of walking around by the sea-wall or through' the village.

"But we cannot climb over that dyke," Madame Piriac protested.

"Oh, yes, we can," said Audrey. "I can see steps in it from here, and I can see a gate at the bottom of the garden."

"What a vision you have, darling!" murmured Madame Piriac. "As you wish, provided we get there."

The dinghy, at Audrey's request, was brought round to the side of the yacht opposite from the Hard, and, screening her face as well as she could with an open parasol, she tripped down by the steps into it. If only Aguilar was away from the premises she might be saved, for the place would be shut up, and there would be nothing to do but return. Should Madame Piriac suggest going into the village to inquire--well, Audrey would positively refuse to go into the village. Yes, she would refuse!

As the boat moved away from the yacht, Musa showed himself on deck. Madame Piriac signalled to him a salutation of the finest good humour. She had forgotten his pettishness. By absolutely ignoring it she had made it as though it had never existed. This was her art. Audrey, observing the gesture, and Musa's smiling reply to it, acquired wisdom. She saw that she must treat Musa as Madame Piriac treated him. She had undertaken the enterprise of launching him on a tremendous artistic career, and she must carry it through. She wanted to make a neat, clean job of the launching, and she would do it dispassionately, like a good workwoman. He had admitted--nay, he had insisted--that she was necessary to him. Her pride in that fact had a somewhat superior air. He might be the most marvellous of violinists, but he was also a child, helpless without her moral support. She would act accordingly. It was absurd to be angry with a child, no matter what his vagaries.... At this juncture of her reflections she noticed that Mr. Gilman and Miss Thompkins had quitted the yacht together and were walking seawards. They seemed very intimate, impregnated with mutual understanding. And Audrey was sorry that Mr. Gilman was quite so simple, quite so straightforward and honest.

When the dinghy arrived at the sea-wall Audrey won the stalled admiration of the sailor in charge of the boat by pointing at once to the best--if not the only--place fit for a landing. The sailor was by no means accustomed to such _flair in a yacht's guests. Indeed, it had often astonished him that people who, as a class, had so little notion of how to get into or out of a dinghy could have succeeded, as they all apparently had, in any department of life.

With continuing skill, Audrey guided Madame Piriac over the dyke and past sundry other obstacles, including a watercourse, to a gate in the wall which formed the frontier of the grounds of Flank Hall. The gate seemed at first to be unopenably fastened, but Audrey showed that she possessed a genius with gates, and opened it with a twist of the hand. They wandered through a plantation and then through an orchard, and at length saw the house. There was not a sign of Aguilar, but the unseen yard-dog began to bark, hearing which, Madame Piriac observed in French: "The property seems a little neglected, but there must be someone at home."

"Aguilar is bound to come now!" thought Audrey. "And I am lost!" Then she added to herself: "And I don't care if I _am lost. What an unheard-of lark!" And to Madame Piriac she said lightly: "Well, we must explore."

The blinds were nearly all up on the garden front. And one window--the French window of the drawing-room--was wide open.

"The crisis will be here in one minute at the latest," thought Audrey.

"Evidently Miss Moze is at home," said Madame Piriac, gazing at the house. "Yes, it is distinguished. It is what I had expected.... But ought we not to go to the front door?"

"I think we ought," Audrey agreed.

They went round the side of the house, into the main drive, and without hesitation Madame Piriac rang the front door bell, which they could plainly hear. "I must have my cards ready," said she, opening her bag. "One always hears how exigent you are in England about such details, even in the provinces. And, indeed, why not?"

There was no answer to the bell. Madame Piriac rang again, and there was still no answer. And the dog had ceased to bark.

"_Mon Dieu!_" she muttered. "Have you observed, darling, that all the blinds are down on this facade?"

She rang a third time. Then, without a word, they returned slowly to the garden front.

"How mysterious! _Mon Dieu! How English it all is!" muttered Madame Piriac. "It gives me fear."

Audrey had almost decided definitely that she was saved when she happened to glance through the open window of the drawing-room. She thought she saw a flicker within. She looked again. She could not be mistaken. Then she noticed that all the dust sheets had been removed from the furniture, that the carpet had been laid, that a table had been set for tea, that there were flowers and china and a teapot and bread-and-butter and a kettle and a spirit-lamp on the table. The flicker was the flicker of the blue flame of the spirit-lamp. The kettle over it was puffing out steam.

Audrey exclaimed, within herself:

"Aguilar!"

She had caught him at last. There were two cups and saucers--the best ancient blue-and-white china, out of the glass-fronted china cupboard in that very room! The celibate Aguilar, never known to consort with anybody at all, was clearly about to entertain someone to tea, and the aspect of things showed that he meant to do it very well. True, there was no cake, but the bread-and-butter was expertly cut and attractively arranged. Audrey felt sure that she was on the track of Aguilar's double life, and that a woman was concerned therein. She was angry, but she was also enormously amused and uplifted. She no longer cared the least bit about the imminent danger threatening her incognito. Her sole desire was to entrap Aguilar, and with deep joy she pictured his face when he should come into the room with his friend and find the mistress of the house already installed.

"I think we had better go in here, darling," she said to Madame Piriac, with her hand on the French window. "There is no other entrance."

Madame Piriac looked at her.

"_Eh bien! It is your country, not mine. You know the habits. I follow you," said Madame Piriac calmly. "After all, my dear little Audrey ought to be delighted to see me. I have several times told her that I should come. All the same, I expected to announce myself.... What a charming room! So this is the English provinces!"

The room was certainly agreeable to the eye. And Audrey seemed to see it afresh, to see it for the first time in her life. And she thought: "Can this be the shabby old drawing-room that I hated so?"

The kettle continued to puff vigorously.

"If they don't come soon," said Audrey, "the water will be all boiled away and the kettle burnt. Suppose we make the tea?"

Madame Piriac raised her eyebrows.

"It is your country," she repeated. "That appears to be singular, but I have not the English habits."

And she sat down, smiling.

Audrey opened the tea caddy, put three spoonfuls of tea into the pot, and made the tea.

The clock struck on the mantelpiece. The clock was actually going. Aguilar was ever thorough in his actions.

"Four minutes to brew, and if they don't come we'll have tea," said Audrey, tranquil in the assurance that the advent of Aguilar could not now be long delayed.

"Do you take milk and sugar, darling?" she asked Madame Piriac at the end of the four minutes, which they had spent mainly in a curious silence. "I believe you do."

Madame Piriac nodded.

"A little bread-and-butter? I'm sorry there's no cake or jam."

It was while Madame Piriac was stirring her first cup that the drawing-room door opened, and at once there was a terrific shriek.

"Audrey!"

The invader was Miss Ingate. Close behind Miss Ingate came Jane Foley.

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