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 14. "This is My Wife"
Anna, notwithstanding her momentary fright in the middle of the day, was in high spirits. She felt that for a time at any rate her depressing struggle against continual failure was at an end. She had paid her bill, and she had enough left in her purse to pay many such. Beyond that everything was nebulous. She knew that in her new role she was as likely as not to be a rank failure. But the relief from the strain of her immediate necessities was immense. She had been in the drawing-room for a few minutes before the gong had sounded, and had chattered gaily to every one. Now, in her old place, she was doing her best thoroughly to enjoy a most indifferent dinner.
"Your brother has gone?" she asked Sydney, between the courses.
"Yes. David left this afternoon. I do not think that he has quite got over his surprise at finding you established here."
"After all, why should he be surprised?" she remarked. "Of course, one lives differently in Paris, but then--Paris is Paris. I think that a boarding-house is the very best place for a woman who wants to develop her sense of humour. Only I wish that it did not remind one so much of a second-hand clothes shop."
Sydney looked at her doubtfully.
"Now I suppose Brendon understands exactly what you mean," he remarked. "He looks as though he did, at any rate. I don't! Please enlighten me."
She laughed gaily--and she had a way when she laughed of throwing back her head and showing her beautiful white teeth, so that mirth from her was a thing very much to be desired.
"Look round the table," she said. "Aren't we all just odds and ends of humanity--the left-overs, you know. There is something inconglomerate about us. We are amiable to one another, but we don't mix. We can't."
"You and I and Brendon get on all right, don't we?" Sydney objected.
"But that's quite different," replied Anna. "You are neither of you in the least like the ordinary boarding-house young man. You don't wear a dinner coat with a flower in your button-hole, or last night's shirt, or very glossy boots, nor do you haunt the drawing-room in the evening, or play at being musical. Besides----"
She stopped short. She herself, and one other there, recognized the interposition of something akin to tragedy. A thickly-set, sandy young man, with an unwholesome complexion and grease-smooth hair, had entered the room. He wore a black tail coat buttoned tightly over his chest, and a large diamond pin sparkled in a white satin tie which had seen better days. He bowed awkwardly to Mrs. White, who held out her hand and beamed a welcome upon him.
"Now isn't this nice!" that lady exclaimed. "I'm sure we're all delighted to see you again, Mr. Hill. I do like to see old friends back here. If there's any one here whom you have not met I will make you acquainted with them after dinner. Will you take your old place by Miss Ellicot."
Miss Ellicot swept aside her skirts from the vacant chair and welcomed the newcomer with one of her most engaging smiles.
"We were afraid that you had deserted us for good, Mr. Hill," she said graciously. "I suppose Paris is very, very distracting. You must come and tell me all about it, although I am not sure whether we shall forgive you for not having written to any of us."
Mr. Hill was exchanging greetings with his hostess, and salutations around the table.
"Thank you, ma'am. Glad to get back, I'm sure," he said briskly. "Looks like old times here, I see. Sorry I'm a bit late the first evening. Got detained in the City, and----"
Then he met >i?the fixed, breathless gaze of those wonderful eyes from the other side of the table, and he, too, broke off in the middle of his sentence. He breathed heavily, as though he had been running. His large, coarse lips drew wider apart. Slowly a mirthless and very unpleasant smile dawned upon his face.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed huskily. "Why--it's--it's you!"
Amazement seemed to dry up the torrents of his speech. The girl regarded him with the face of a Sphinx. Only in her eyes there seemed to be some apprehension of the fact that the young man's clothes and manners were alike undesirable things.
"Are you speaking to me?" she asked calmly. "I am afraid that you are making a mistake. I am quite sure that I do not know you."
A dull flush burned upon his cheeks. He took his seat at the table, but leaned forward to address her. A note of belligerency had crept into his tone.
"Don't know me, eh? I like that. You are--or rather you were----" he corrected himself with an unpleasant little laugh, "Miss Pellissier, eh?"
A little sensation followed upon his words. Miss Ellicot pursed her lips and sat a little more upright. The lady whose husband had been Mayor of Hartlepool looked at Anna and sniffed. Mrs. White became conscious of a distinct sense of uneasiness, and showed it in her face. She was obliged, as she explained continually to every one who cared to listen, to be so very particular. On the other hand the two young men who sat on either side of Anna were already throwing murderous glances at the newcomer.
"My name," Anna replied calmly, "is certainly Pellissier, but I repeat that I do not know you. I never have known you."
He unfolded his serviette with fingers which shook all the time. His eyes never left her face. An ugly flush stained his cheeks.
"I've plenty of pals," he said, "who, when they've been doing Paris on the Q.T., like to forget all about it--even their names. But you----"
Something seemed to catch his breath. He never finished his sentence. There was a moment's breathless and disappointed silence. If only he had known it, sympathy was almost entirely with him. Anna was no favourite at No. 13 Montague Street.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You appear," she said, without any sign of anger in her tone, and with unruffled composure, "to be a very impertinent person. Do you mind talking to some one else."
Mrs. White leaned forward in her chair with an anxious smile designed to throw oil upon the troubled waters.
"Come," she said. "We mustn't have any unpleasantness, and Mr. Hill's first night back amongst us, too. No doubt there's some little mistake. We all get deceived sometimes. Mr. Hill, I hope you won't find everything cold. You're a little late, you must remember, and we are punctual people here."
"I shall do very well, thank you, ma'am," he answered shortly.
Sydney and Brendon vied with one another in their efforts to engage Anna in conversation, and Miss Ellicot, during the momentary lull, deemed it a favourable opportunity to recommence siege operations. The young man was mollified by her sympathy, and flattered by the obvious attempts of several of the other guests to draw him into conversation. Yet every now and then, during the progress of the meal, his attention apparently wandered, and leaning forward he glanced covertly at Anna with a curious mixture of expressions on his face.
Anna rose a few minutes before the general company. At the same time Sydney and Brendon also vacated their places. To reach the door they had to pass the end of the table, and behind the chair where Mr. Hill was seated. He rose deliberately to his feet and confronted them.
"I should like to speak to you for a few minutes," he said to Anna, dropping his voice a little. "It is no good playing a game. We had better have it over."
She eyed him scornfully. In any place her beauty would have been an uncommon thing. Here, where every element of her surroundings was tawdry and commonplace, and before this young man of vulgar origin and appearance, it was striking.
"I do not know you," she said coldly. "I have nothing to say to you."
He stood before the door. Brendon made a quick movement forward. She laid her hand upon his arm.
"Please don't," she said. "It really is not necessary. Be so good as to let me pass, sir," she added, looking her obstructor steadily in the face.
"This is all rot!" he declared angrily. "You can't think that I'm fool enough to be put off like this."
She glanced at Brendon, who stood by her side, tall and threatening. Her eyebrows were lifted in expostulation. A faint, delightfully humorous smile parted her lips.
"After all," she said, "if this person will not be reasonable, I am afraid----"
It was enough. A hand of iron fell upon the scowling young man's shoulder.
"Be so good as to stand away from that door at once, sir," Brendon ordered.
Hill lost a little of his truculency. He knew very well that his muscles were flabby, and his nerve by no means what it should be. He was no match for Brendon. He yielded his place and struck instead with his tongue. He turned to Mrs. White.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, to seem the cause of any disturbance, but this," he pointed to Anna, "is my wife."
The sensation produced was gratifying enough. The man's statement was explicit, and spoken with confidence. Every one looked at Anna. For a moment she too had started and faltered in her exit from the room. Her fingers clutched the side of the door as though to steady herself. She caught her breath, and her eyes were lit with a sudden terror. She recovered herself, however, with amazing facility. Scarcely any one noticed the full measure of her consternation. From the threshold she looked her accuser steadily and coldly in the face.
"What you have said is a ridiculous falsehood," she declared scornfully. "I do not even know who you are."
She swept out of the room. Hill would have followed her, but Mrs. White and Miss Ellicot laid each a hand upon his arm, one on either side. The echoes of his hard, unpleasant laugh reached Anna on her way upstairs.
It was a queer little bed-sitting-room almost in the roof, with a partition right across it. As usual Brendon lit the candles, and Sydney dragged out the spirit lamp and set it going. Anna opened a cupboard and produced cups and saucers and a tin of coffee.
"Only four spoonsful left," she declared briskly, "and your turn to buy the next pound, Sydney."
"Right!" he answered. "I'll bring it tomorrow. Fresh ground, no chicory, and all the rest of it. But--Miss Pellissier!"
"Are you quite sure that you want us this evening? Wouldn't you rather be alone? Just say the word, and we'll clear out like a shot."
She laughed softly.
"You are afraid," she said, "that the young man who thinks that he is my husband has upset me."
The girl looked into the two indignant faces and held out both her hands.
"You're very nice, both of you," she said gently. "But I'm afraid you are going to be in a hopeless minority here as regards me."
They eyed her incredulously.
"You can't imagine," Sydney exclaimed, "that the people downstairs will be such drivelling asses as to believe piffle like that."
Anna measured out the coffee. Her eyes were lit with a gleam of humour. After all, it was really rather funny.
"Well, I don't know," she said thoughtfully. "I always notice that people find it very easy to believe what they want to believe, and you see I'm not in the least popular. Miss Ellicot, for instance, considers me a most improper person."
"Miss Ellicot! That old cat!" Sydney exclaimed indignantly.
"Miss Ellicot!" Brendon echoed. "As if it could possibly matter what such a person thinks of you."
Anna laughed outright.
"You are positively eloquent tonight--both of you," she declared. "But, you see, appearances are very much against me. He knew my name, and also that I had been living in Paris, and a man doesn't risk claiming a girl for his wife, as a rule, for nothing. He was painfully in earnest, too. I think you will find that his story will be believed, whatever I say; and in any case, if he is going to stay on here, I shall have to go away."
"Don't say that," Sydney begged. "We will see that he never annoys you."
Anna shook her head.
"He is evidently a friend of Mrs. White's," she said, "and if he is going to persist in this delusion, we cannot both remain here. I'd rather not go," she added. "This is much the cheapest place I know of where things are moderately clean, and I should hate rooms all by myself. Dear me, what a nuisance it is to have a pseudo husband shot down upon one from the skies."
"And such a beast of a one," Sydney remarked vigorously.
Brendon looked across the room at her thoughtfully.
"I wonder," he said, "is there anything we could do to help you to get rid of him?"
"Can you think of anything?" Anna answered. "I can't! He appears to be a most immovable person."
Brendon hesitated for a moment. He was a little embarrassed.
"There ought to be some means of getting at him," he said. "The fellow seems to know your name, Miss Pellissier, and that you have lived in Paris. Might we ask you if you have ever seen him, if you knew him at all before this evening?"
She stood up suddenly, and turning her back to them, looked steadily out of the window. Below was an uninspiring street, a thoroughfare of boarding-houses and apartments. The steps, even the pavements, were invaded by little knots of loungers driven outside by the unusual heat of the evening, most of them in evening dress, or what passed for evening dress in Montague Street. The sound of their strident voices floated upwards, the high nasal note of the predominant Americans, the shrill laughter of girls quick to appreciate the wit of such of their male companions as thought it worth while to be amusing. A young man was playing the banjo. In the distance a barrel-organ was grinding out a pot pourri of popular airs. Anna raised her eyes. Above the housetops it was different. She drew a long breath. After all, why need one look down. Always the other things remained.
"I think," she said, "that I would rather not have anything to say about that man."
"It isn't necessary," they both declared breathlessly.
Brendon dismissed the subject with a wave of the hand. He glanced at his watch.
"Let us walk round to Covent Garden," he suggested. "I daresay the gallery will be full, but there is always the chance, and I know you two are keen on Melba."
The girl shook her head.
"Not tonight," she said. "I have to go out."
They hesitated. As a rule their comings and goings were discussed with perfect confidence, but on this occasion they both felt that there was intent in her silence as to her destination. Nevertheless Sydney, clumsily, but earnestly, had something to say about it.
"I am afraid--I really think that one of us ought to go with you," he said. "That beast of a fellow is certain to be hanging about."
She shook her head.
"It is a secret mission," she declared. "There are policemen--and buses."
"You shall not need either," Brendon said grimly. "We will see that he doesn't follow you."
She thanked him with a look and rose to her feet.
"Go down and rescue the rags of my reputation," she said, smiling. "I expect it is pretty well in shreds by now. Tomorrow morning I shall have made up my mind what to do."