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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAnna The Adventuress - Chapter 1. The Carpet-Knight And The Lady
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Anna The Adventuress - Chapter 1. The Carpet-Knight And The Lady Post by :Howlerckc Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :3025

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Anna The Adventuress - Chapter 1. The Carpet-Knight And The Lady

Chapter I. THE CARPET-KNIGHT AND THE LADY

The girl paused and steadied herself for a moment against a field gate. Her breath came fast in little sobbing pants. Her dainty shoes were soiled with dust and there was a great tear in her skirt. Very slowly, very fearfully, she turned her head. Her cheeks were the colour of chalk, her eyes were filled with terror. If a cart were coming, or those labourers in the field had heard, escape was impossible.

The terror faded from her eyes. A faint gleam of returning colour gave her at once a more natural appearance. So far as the eye could reach, the white level road, with its fringe of elm-trees, was empty. Away off in the fields the blue-smocked peasants bent still at their toil. They had heard nothing, seen nothing. A few more minutes, and she was safe.

Yet before she turned once more to resume her flight she schooled herself with an effort to look where it had happened. A dark mass of wreckage, over which hung a slight mist of vapour, lay half in the ditch, half across the hedge, close under a tree from the trunk of which the bark had been torn and stripped. A few yards further off something grey, inert, was lying, a huddled-up heap of humanity twisted into a strange unnatural shape. Again the chalky pallor spread even to her lips, her eyes became lit with the old terror. She withdrew her head with a little moan, and resumed her flight. Away up on the hillside was the little country railway station. She fixed her eyes upon it and ran, keeping always as far as possible in the shadow of the hedge, gazing fearfully every now and then down along the valley for the white smoke of the train.

She reached the station, and mingling with a crowd of excursionists who had come from the river on the other side, took her place in the train unnoticed. She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. Until the last moment she was afraid.

Arrived in Paris she remembered that she had not the money for a _fiacre_. She was in ill trim for walking, but somehow or other she made her way as far as the Champs Elysees, and sank down upon an empty seat.

She had not at first the power for concealment. Her nerves were shattered, her senses dazed by this unexpected shock. She sat there, a mark for boulevarders, the unconscious object of numberless wondering glances. Paris was full, and it was by no means a retired spot which she had found. Yet she never once thought of changing it. A person of somewhat artificial graces and mannerisms, she was for once in her life perfectly natural. Terror had laid a paralyzing hand upon her, fear kept her almost unconscious of the curious glances which she was continually attracting.

Then there came briskly along the path towards her, an Englishman. He was perhaps forty-five years of age. He was dressed with the utmost care, and he set his feet upon the broad walk as though the action were in some way a condescension. He was alert, well-groomed, and yet--perhaps in contrast with the more volatile French type--there was a suggestion of weight about him, not to say heaviness. He too looked at the girl, slackened his pace and looked at her again through his eye-glasses, looked over his shoulder after he had passed, and finally came to a dead stop. He scratched his upper lip reflectively.

It was a habit of his to talk to himself. In the present case it did not matter, as there was no one else within earshot.

"Dear me!" he said. "Dear me! I wonder what I ought to do. She is English! I am sure of that. She is English, and apparently in some distress. I wonder----"

He turned slowly round. He was inclined to be a good-natured person, and he had no nervous fears of receiving a snub. The girl was pretty, and apparently a lady.

"She cannot be aware," he continued, "that she is making herself conspicuous. It would surely be only common politeness to drop her a hint--a fellow countrywoman too. I trust that she will not misunderstand me. I believe--I believe that I must risk it."

He stood before her, his hat in his hand, his head bent, his voice lowered to a convenient pitch.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "but you appear to be a fellow countrywoman of mine, and in some distress. Can I be of any assistance? I can assure you that it would give me very much pleasure."

Her first upward glance was one of terrified apprehension. When she saw however that this man was a stranger, and obviously harmless, her expression changed as though by magic. A delicate flush of colour streamed into her cheeks. Her eyes fell, and then sought his again with timid interest. Her natural instincts reasserted themselves. She began to act.

"You are very kind," she said hesitatingly, "but I don't remember--I don't think that I know you, do I?"

"I am afraid that you do not," he admitted, with a smile which he meant to be encouraging. "You remind me of the story which they tell against us over here, you know--of the Englishman who refused to be saved from drowning because he was unacquainted with his rescuer. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Ferringhall--Sir John Ferringhall."

There was genuine interest in her eyes now. Sir John saw it, and was flattered.

"You are Sir John Ferringhall," she repeated. "Yes, I remember you now. You were pointed out to me at--a few nights ago."

He was not in the least surprised. A millionaire and a knight, even though his money has been made in carpets, is used to being a person of interest.

"Very likely," he answered. "I am fairly well known here. I must apologize, I suppose, for speaking to you, but your appearance certainly indicated that you were in some sort of trouble, and you were becoming--pardon me--an object of comment to the passers-by."

The girl sat up and looked at him with a curious twist at the corners of her mouth--humorous or pathetic, he could not tell which. As though accidentally she swept her skirts from a chair close drawn to her own. Sir John hesitated. She was marvellously pretty, but he was not quite sure--yet--that it was advisable for him to sit with her in so public a place. His inclinations prompted him most decidedly to take the vacant chair. Prudence reminded him that he was a county magistrate, and parliamentary candidate for a somewhat difficult borough, where his principal supporters were dissenters of strict principles who took a zealous interest in his moral character. He temporized, and the girl raised her eyes once more to his.

"You are the Sir John Ferringhall who has bought the Lyndmore estate, are you not?" she remarked. "My father's sisters used once to live in the old manor house. I believe you have had it pulled down, have you not?"

"The Misses Pellissier!" he exclaimed. "Then your name----"

"My name is Pellissier. My father was Colonel Pellissier. He had an appointment in Jersey, you know, after he left the army."

Sir John did not hesitate any longer. He sat down.

"Upon my word," he exclaimed, "this is most extraordinary. I----"

Then he stopped short, for he began to remember things. He was not quite sure whether, after all, he had been wise. He would have risen again, but for the significance of the action.

"Dear me!" he said. "Then some of your family history is known to me. One of your aunts died, I believe, and the other removed to London."

The girl nodded.

"She is living there now," she remarked.

"Your father is dead too, I believe," he continued, "and your mother."

"Two years ago," she answered. "They died within a few months of one another."

"Very sad--very sad indeed," he remarked uneasily. "I remember hearing something about it. I believe that the common report was that you and your sister had come to Paris to study painting."

She assented gently.

"We have a small studio," she murmured, "in the Rue de St. Pierre."

Sir John looked at her sideways. Her eyes were fixed upon the ground, the pink colour coming and going in her cheeks was very delicate and girlish. After all, this could never be the black sheep. He had been quite right to sit down. It was astonishing how seldom it was that his instincts betrayed him. He breathed a little sigh of satisfaction.

"Come," he continued, "the world after all is a very small place. We are not altogether strangers, are we? I feel that under the circumstances I have the right to offer you my advice, and if necessary my help. I beg that you will consider me your friend."

She looked at him with fluttering eyelids--sweetly grateful. It was such an unexpected stroke of fortune. Sir John was not used to such glances, and he liked them.

"It is so difficult," she murmured, "so impossible to explain. Even to my own brother--if I had one--I could not tell everything, and you, although you are so kind, you are almost a stranger, aren't you?"

"No, no!" he protested. "You must not think of me as one. Try and consider me your elder brother, or an old family friend, whichever you like best."

She thanked him with one of her shy little glances. More than ever Sir John was glad that he had sat down.

"It is very, very difficult," she continued, looking steadfastly at the ground. "Only--I have come face to face--with something terrible, and wholly unexpected trouble. I want to leave Paris to-day--this very day. I want to leave it for ever."

He looked at her very gravely.

"But your sister?" he asked. "What of her? Have you quarrelled with her?"

The girl shook her head.

"No," she answered. "I have not quarrelled with her. It is simply our point of view which is altogether different. I want to get away--to go to London. I cannot explain beyond that."

"Then I am sure," Sir John declared, "that I shall not ask you. I know nothing about the matter, but I feel convinced that you are right. You ought to have had better advice two years ago. Paris is not the place for two young girls. I presume that you have been living alone?"

She sighed gently.

"My sister," she murmured, "is so independent. She is Bohemian to the finger-tips. She makes me feel terribly old-fashioned."

Sir John smiled and congratulated himself upon his insight. He was so seldom wrong.

"The next question, Miss Anna," he said, "is how am I to help you? I am wholly at your disposal."

She looked up at him quickly. Her expression was a little changed, less innocent, more discerning.

"Anna!" she repeated. "How do you know--why do you think that my name is Anna?" He smiled in a quietly superior way.

"I think," he said, "that I am right. I am very good at guessing names."

"I am really curious," she persisted. "You must have heard--have you--oh, tell me, won't you?" she begged. "Have you heard things?"

The tears stood in her eyes. She leaned a little towards him. Nothing but the publicity of the place and the recollection of that terrible constituency kept him from attempting some perfectly respectful but unmistakable evidence of his sympathy.

"I am afraid," he said gravely, "that your sister has been a little indiscreet. It is nothing at all for you to worry about."

She looked away from him.

"I knew," she said, in a low despairing tone, "that people would talk."

He coughed gently.

"It was inevitable," he declared. "It is not, of course, a pleasant subject of conversation for you or for me, yet I think I may venture to suggest to you that your sister's--er--indiscretions--have reached a point which makes a separation between you almost a necessity."

She covered her face with her hands.

"It--it--must come," she faltered.

"I do not lay claim," he continued, "to any remarkable amount of insight, but it is possible, is it not, that I have stumbled upon your present cause of distress."

"You are wonderful!" she murmured.

He smiled complacently.

"Not at all. This is simply a chapter of coincidences. Now what I want you to feel is this. I want you to feel that you have found a friend who has a strong desire to be of service to you. Treat me as an elder brother, if you like. He is here by your side. How can he help you?"

She threw such a look upon him that even he, Sir John Ferringhall, carpet-merchant, hide-bound Englishman, slow-witted, pompous, deliberate, felt his heart beat to music. Perhaps the Parisian atmosphere had affected him. He leaned towards her, laid his hand tenderly upon hers.

"I hope you realize," he went on, in a lower and less assured tone, "that I am in earnest--very much in earnest. You must let me do whatever I can for you. I shall count it a privilege."

"I believe you," she murmured. "I trust you altogether. I am going to take you entirely at your word. I want to leave Paris to-day. Will you lend me the money for my ticket to London?"

"With all the pleasure in the world," he answered heartily. "Let me add too that I am thankful for your decision. You have somewhere to go to in London, I hope."

She nodded.

"There is my aunt," she said. "The one who used to live at Lyndmore. She will take me in until I can make some plans. It will be horribly dull, and she is a very trying person. But anything is better than this."

He took out his watch.

"Let me see," he said. "Your best route will be via Boulogne and Folkestone at nine o'clock from the Gare du Nord. What about your luggage?"

"I could get a few of my things, at any rate," she said. "My sister is sure to be out."

"Very well," he said. "It is just six o'clock now. Supposing you fetch what you can, and if you will allow me, I will see you off. It would give me great pleasure if you would dine with me somewhere first."

She looked at him wistfully, but with some unwilling doubt in her wrinkled forehead. It was excellently done, especially as she loved good dinners.

"You are very kind to think of it," she said, "but--don't you think perhaps--that I had better not?"

He smiled indulgently.

"My dear child," he said, "with me you need have no apprehension. I am almost old enough to be your father."

She looked at him with uplifted eyebrows--a look of whimsical incredulity. Sir John felt that after all forty-five was not so very old.

"That sounds quite absurd," she answered. "Yet it is my last evening, and I think--if you are sure that you would like to have me--that I will risk it."

"We will go to a very quiet place," he assured her, "a place where I have often taken my own sisters. You will be wearing your travelling dress, and no doubt you would prefer it. Shall we say at half-past seven?"

She rose from her chair.

"I will take a carriage," she said, "and fetch my things."

"Let us say that Cafe Maston, in the Boulevard des Italiennes, at half-past seven then," he decided. "I shall be waiting for you there, and in the meantime, if you will help yourself--pray don't look like that. It is a very small affair, after all, and you can pay me back if you will."

She took the pocket-book and looked up at him with a little impulsive movement. Her voice shook, her eyes were very soft and melting.

"I cannot thank you, Sir John," she said. "I shall never be able to thank you."

"Won't you postpone the attempt, then?" he said gallantly, "until I have done something to deserve your gratitude? You will not forget--seven-thirty, Cafe Maston, Boulevard des Italiennes."

She drove off in a little _fiacre_, nodding and smiling at Sir John, who remained upon the Avenue. He too, when she had disappeared, called a carriage.

"Hotel Ritz," he said mechanically to the coachman. "If only her sister is half as pretty, no wonder that she has set the Parisians talking."

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