This page will take you into pieces of literature that are carefully selected for their great content at the literary, scientific, or philosophical level. A short selection will be presented in full. A long one will be divided into sections that will be refreshed regularly. Emphasis and highlights are mostly ours, not made by the original author.
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Anna the Adventuress (1904) by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter 5. "Alcide"
Courtlaw took up his hat and coat at once, but Anna motioned him to remain.
"Please stay," she said briefly. "Will you come in, Sir John. I believe that I have heard my sister speak of you. This is my friend, Mr. David Courtlaw--Sir John Ferringhall."
Sir John acknowledged the introduction without cordiality. He entered the room with his usual deliberation, and looked covertly about him. He noticed the two chairs close together. Anna was still holding her cigarette between her fingers. Her likeness to her sister gave him at first almost a shock; a moment afterwards he was conscious of a wonderful sense of relief. For if the likeness between the sisters was remarkable, the likeness between this girl and the poster which he had come from studying was more remarkable still.
"I must repeat," Sir John said, "that I much regret disturbing you at such an unseemly hour. My only excuse is that I missed my way here, and I am leaving Paris early tomorrow morning."
"If your business with me is of any importance," Anna said calmly, "it does not matter in the least about the hour. Have you brought me a message from my sister? I understood, I believe, that she was seeing you last night."
"Your sister," he answered, "did me the honour of dining with me last night."
After all, it was not so easy. The girl's eyes never left his face. She was civil, but she was obviously impatient to know his errand. Afraid, no doubt, he thought grimly, that her other visitor would leave.
"I believe," he said slowly, "that I shall do best to throw myself upon your consideration and tell you the truth. I have recently made your sister's acquaintance, and in the course of conversation I understood from her that her Christian name was Anna. Some friends who saw us dining together persist in alluding to her as Miss Annabel Pellissier. I am guilty practically of the impertinence of coming to ask you whether I misunderstood your sister."
"Is my sister's Christian name, then, of so much importance to you?" she asked with a faint smile.
"The things involved in it are," he answered gravely.
She accepted his rejoinder with a brief nod. Courtlaw opened his lips, but remained silent in the face of her imperative gesture. "Let me hasten," she said, "to reassure you. My sister was scarcely likely to make a mistake. She told you--the truth."
Courtlaw's walking stick, which he had been handling, fell with a crash to the ground. He stooped to recover it, and his face was hidden. Sir John felt and looked several years younger.
"I am much obliged to you," he said. "Really, I do not know why I should have doubted it."
"Nor I," she remarked tersely.
He looked at her with a certain curiosity. She was a very elegant young woman, slightly taller perhaps than her sister, and with an air of reserved strength underneath her quiet face and manner which Annabel may have lacked. It was hard
to associate her with the stories which he and all Paris had heard of "Alcide."
"You, then," he said, "are 'Alcide.' That wonderful poster--is of you."
She lifted her eyebrows.
"I am sorry," she said, "if you find the likeness unsatisfactory. My friends consider it wonderfully faithful. Have you any more questions to ask me?"
Sir John, on his way down, had determined to hint to this young woman that, providing certain contingencies which he had in his mind should come to pass, he would be prepared to make her a handsome offer to change her name. He found, however, that now the time had come he utterly lacked the courage to attempt any such speech.
"None, I thank you," he answered. "I will not intrude upon you further."
"Wait," she said.
He turned back at once.
"I have answered all your questions," she said. "Perhaps you will not object to answering one for me. You have thought it worth while to take some considerable pains to resolve for yourself my sister's identity. May I ask the nature of your interest in her?"
"It is not an easy matter," he said, "for me to offer you an altogether adequate explanation. I have only seen your sister for a very brief time, and I am a little past the age when a man does headstrong things. At the same time, I must say that I am most anxious to improve my acquaintance with her. I am a single man, and--"
"Thank you," she interrupted. "I will not ask you to explain further. Good night."
He left at once, immensely relieved, yet scarcely satisfied with himself as regarded his share of the interview with this young woman. They heard his footsteps descending the stone staircase, growing fainter and fainter. Then Courtlaw looked across at her with a white puzzled face.
"Why did you lie to that man?" he asked fiercely. "How dared you do yourself this injustice?"
"I did it for her sake," she answered. "It may be her salvation. I believe that he will marry her."
"You would let him--knowing--all that you know?"
"Why not? She is my flesh and blood. She is more dear to me than anything else. Perhaps if I had watched over her more closely, things would have been different."
"You! Why, you have been an angel to her," he exclaimed impatiently. "You know very well that she is selfish and pleasure-loving to the backbone. You have made enough sacrifices for her surely without this. Besides, you cannot tell where it will end. You have taken upon your shoulders the burden of her misdeeds. You may have to carry them further and longer than you think. Oh, it is unbearable."
The man's face was dark with passion. It was as though he were personally aggrieved. His tone was rough, almost threatening. The girl only smiled at him serenely, but she laid her hand for a moment quietly upon his.
"Dear friend," she said, "this is a matter which you must leave to me to do as I think best. Annabel is my only sister, you know, almost my only relative. If I do not look after her, she has no one. And she is very young, younger than her years."
It was significant of her influence over him that he answered her calmly, although a storm of angry thoughts were struggling for expression within him.
"Look after her! Why not? But you have done it all your life. You have been her guardian angel. But even you cannot alter her character. Annabel was born soulless, a human butterfly, if ever there was one. The pursuit of pleasure, self-gratification, is an original instinct with her. Blood and bone, body and spirit, she is selfish through and through. Even you have not been able to hold her back. I speak no harm of her. She is your sister, and God knows I wish her none. But--"
A look checked him.
"I know," she said quietly, "that Paris, where she has been so much admired, is not a good place for her. That is why I am glad that she has gone to London."
He rose from his chair, and walked restlessly up and down the room. The passion of pent-up speech compelled action of some sort. There was a black fear in his heart. He stopped before her suddenly.
"You, too," he said abruptly. "You mean to follow her. You will go to London?"
"It is necessary," she answered. "You yourself have decided that--apart from the question of Annabel."
He was suddenly calm.
"It is part of the irony of life," he said. "One is always playing the surgeon, one kills always the thing one loves best. I meant to lie to you. Would to God I had."
She shook her head.
"The surgeon's knife is surely a kindly weapon," she declared. "It was best for me to know. Later on I could scarcely have forgiven you."
"And now--I am to lose you."
"For a little time," she answered. "I meant to say goodbye to you tonight. Or, after all, is it worth while? The Channel is a little broader than the Boulevards--but one crosses it sometimes."
He looked at her with white, set face.
"Yes," he said, "I shall come. That is very certain. But, after all, it will be different. I think that I have become a drug drinker. I need you every day. In the mornings I find labour easy because I am going to see you. In the afternoon my brain and fingers leap to their work because you have been with me. Anna, you shall not go. I cannot let you go."
She threw away the end of her cigarette. Without turning or looking in his direction she leaned forwards, her head supported upon her fingers, her elbows upon her knees. She gazed steadily out of the window at that arc of glittering lights. He made a quick movement towards her, but she did not flinch. His arm fell to his side. The effort of self-repression cost him a sob.
"David," she said, "you are not a coward, are you?"
"I do not know," he muttered. "The bravest of us have joints in our armour."
"You are not a coward," she repeated, "or you would not be my friend. A woman may choose any one for her lover, but for her friend she makes no mistake. You are not a coward David, and you must not talk like one. Put out your hand and bid me God-speed. It is the only way."
"I cannot do it!" he cried hoarsely. "I cannot part with you. You have grown into my life. Anna--"
Again she stopped him, but this time it was not so easy. The man's passion became almost unbearable at the thought of losing her. And yet, as she rose slowly to her feet and stood looking at him with outstretched hands, a strange mixture of expressions shining in her wonderful eyes, he realized in some measure the strength of her determination, felt the utter impotence of anything which he could say to her. He forgot for the moment his own self-pity, the egotism of his own passionate love. He took her hands firmly in his and raised them to his lips.
"You shall go," he declared. "I will make of the days and weeks one long morning, but remember the afternoon must come. Always remember that."
Her hands fell to her side. She remained for a few moments standing as though listening to his retreating footsteps. Then she turned, and entering the inner room, commenced to dress hastily for the street.