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 15. A Marriage Certificate
Anna looked about her admiringly. It was just such a bedroom as she would have chosen for herself. The colouring was green and white, with softly shaded electric lights, an alcove bedstead, which was a miracle of daintiness, white furniture, and a long low dressing-table littered all over with a multitude of daintily fashioned toilet appliances. Through an open door was a glimpse of the bathroom--a vision of luxury, out of which Annabel herself, in a wonderful dressing-gown and followed by a maid presently appeared.
"Too bad to keep you waiting," Annabel exclaimed. "I'm really very sorry. Collins, you can go now. I will ring if I want you."
The maid discreetly withdrew, and Anna stood transfixed, gazing with puzzled frown at her sister.
"Annabel! Why, what on earth have you been doing to yourself, child?" she exclaimed.
Annabel laughed a little uneasily.
"The very question, my dear sister," she said, "tells me that I have succeeded. Dear me, what a difference it has made! No one would ever think that we were sisters. Don't you think that the shade of my hair is lovely?"
"There is nothing particular the matter with the shade," Anna answered, "but it is not nearly so becoming as before you touched it. And what on earth do you want to darken your eyebrows and use so much make-up for at your age? You're exactly twenty-three, and you're got up as much as a woman of forty-five."
Annabel shrugged her shoulders.
"I only use the weeniest little dab of rouge," she declared, "and it is really necessary, because I want to get rid of the ‘pallor effect.'"
Anna made no remark. Her disapproval was obvious enough. Annabel saw it, and suddenly changed her tone.
"You are very stupid, Anna," she said. "Can you not understand? It is of no use your taking my identity and all the burden of my iniquities upon your dear shoulders if I am to be recognized the moment I show my face in London. That is why I have dyed my hair, that is why I have abandoned my role of
ingenuée and altered my whole style of dress. Upon my word, Anna," she declared, with a strange little laugh, "you are a thousand times more like me as I was two months ago than I am myself."
A sudden sense of the gravity of this thing came home to Anna. Her sister's words were true. They had changed identities absolutely. It was not for a week or a month. It was for ever. A cold shiver came over her. That last year in Paris, when Annabel and she had lived in different worlds, had often been a nightmare to her. Annabel had taken her life into her hands with gay insouciance, had made her own friends, gone her own way. Anna never knew whither it had led her--sometimes she had fears. It was her past now, not Annabel's.
"It is very good of you to come and see me, my dear sister," Annabel remarked, throwing herself into a low chair, and clasping her hands over her head. "To tell you the truth, I am a little dull."
"Where is your husband?" Anna asked.
"He is addressing a meeting of his constituents somewhere," Annabel answered. "I do not suppose he will be home till late. Tell me how are you amusing yourself?"
"I have been amusing myself up to now by trying to earn my living," she replied.
"I hope," Annabel answered lazily, "that you have succeeded. By-the-bye, do you
want any money? Sir John's ideas of pin money are not exactly princely, but I can manage what you want, I dare say."
"Thank you," Anna answered coldly. "I am not in need of any. I might add that in any case I should not touch Sir John's."
"That's rather a pity," Annabel said. "He wants to settle something on you, I believe. It is really amusing. He lives in constant dread of a reappearance of ‘La Belle Alcide,' and hearing it said that she is his wife's sister. Bit priggish, isn't it? And if he only knew it--so absurd. Tell me how you are earning your living here, Anna--typewriting, or painting, or lady's companion?"
"I think," Anna said, "that the less you know about me the better. Is all your house on the same scale of magnificence as this, Annabel?" she asked, looking round.
Annabel shook her head.
"Most of it is ugly and frowsy," she declared, "but it isn't worth talking about. I have made up my mind to insist upon moving from here into Park Lane, or one of the Squares. It is absolutely a frightful neighbourhood, this. If only you could see the people who have been to call on me! Sir John has the most absurd ideas, too. He won't have menservants inside the house, and his collection of carriages is only fit for a museum--where most of his friends ought to be, by-the-bye. I can assure you, Anna, it will take me years to get decently established. The man's as obstinate as a mule."
Anna looked at her steadily.
"He will find it difficult no doubt to alter his style of living," she said. "I do not blame him. I hope you will always remember----"
Annabel held out her hands with a little cry of protest.
"No lecturing, Anna!" she exclaimed. "I hope you have not come for that."
"I came," Anna answered, looking her sister steadily in the face, "to hear all that you can tell me about a man named Hill."
Annabel had been lying curled up on the lounge, the personification of graceful animal ease. At Anna's words she seemed suddenly to stiffen. Her softly intertwined fingers became rigid. The little spot of rouge was vivid enough now by reason of this new pallor, which seemed to draw the colour even from her lips. But she did not speak. She made no attempt to answer her sister's question. Anna looked at her curiously, and with sinking heart.
"You must answer me, Annabel," she continued. "You must tell me the truth, please. It is necessary."
Annabel rose slowly to her feet, walked to the door as though to see that it was shut, and came back with slow lagging footsteps.
"There was a man called Montague Hill," she said hoarsely, "but he is dead."
"Then there is also," Anna remarked, "a Montague Hill who is very much alive. Not only that, but he is here in London. I have just come from him."
Annabel no longer attempted to conceal her emotion. She battled with a deadly faintness, and she tottered rather than walked back to her seat. Anna, quitting her chair, dropped on her knees by her sister's side and took her hand.
"Do not be frightened, dear," she said. "You must tell me the truth, and I will see that no harm comes to you."
"The only Montague Hill I ever knew," Annabel said slowly, "is dead. I know he is dead. I saw him lying on the footway. I felt his heart. It had ceased to beat. It was a motor accident--a fatal motor accident the evening papers called it. They could not have called it a fatal motor accident if he had not been dead."
"Yes, I remember," she said. "It was the night you left Paris. They thought that he was dead at first, and they took him to the hospital. I believe that his recovery was considered almost miraculous."
"Alive," Annabel moaned, her eyes large with terror. "You say that he is alive."
"He is certainly alive," Anna declared. "More than that, he arrived today at the boarding-house where I am staying, greeted me with a theatrical start, and claimed me--as his wife. That is why I am here. You must tell me what it all means."
"And you?" Annabel exclaimed. "What did you say?"
"Well, I considered myself justified in denying it," Anna answered drily. "He produced what he called a marriage certificate, and I believe that nearly every one in the boarding-house, including Mrs. White, my landlady, believes his story. I am fairly well hardened in iniquity--your iniquity, Annabel--but I decline to have a husband thrust upon me. I really cannot have anything to do with Mr. Montague Hill."
"A--marriage certificate!" Annabel gasped.
Anna glanced into her sister's face, and rose to her feet.
"Let me get you some water, Annabel. Don't be frightened, dear. Remember----"
Annabel clutched her sister's arm. She would not let her move. She seemed smitten with a paroxysm of fear.
"A thick-set, coarse-looking young man, Anna!" she exclaimed in a hoarse excited whisper. "He has a stubbly yellow moustache, weak eyes, and great horrid hands."
"It is the same man, Annabel," she said. "There is no doubt whatever about that. There was the motor accident, too. It is the same man, for he raved in the hospital, and they fetched me. It was you, of course, whom he wanted."
"Alive! In London!" Annabel moaned.
"Yes. Pull yourself together, Annabel! I must have the truth."
The girl on the lounge drew a long sobbing breath.
"You shall," she said. "Listen! There was a Meysey Hill in Paris, an American railway millionaire. This man and he were alike, and about the same age. Montague Hill was taken for the millionaire once or twice, and I suppose it flattered his vanity. At any rate, he began to deliberately personate him. He sent me flowers. Celeste introduced him to me--oh, how Celeste hated me! She must have known. He--wanted to marry me. Just then--I was nervous. I had gone further than I meant to--with some Englishmen. I was afraid of being talked about. You don't know, Anna, but when one is in danger one realizes that the--the other side of the line is Hell. The man was mad to marry me. I heard everywhere
of his enormous riches and his generosity. I consented. We went to the Embassy. There was--a service. Then he took me out to Monteaux, on a motor. We were to have breakfast there and return in the evening. On the way he confessed. He was a London man of business, spending a small legacy in Paris. He had heard me sing--the fool thought himself in love with me. Celeste he knew. She was chaffing him about being taken for Meysey Hill, and suggested that he should be presented to me as the millionaire. He told me with a coarse nervous laugh. I was his wife. We were to live in some wretched London suburb. His salary was a few paltry hundreds a year. Anna, I listened to all that he had to say, and I called to him to let me get out. He laughed. I tried to jump, but he increased the speed. We were going at a mad pace. I struck him across the mouth, and across the eyes. He lost control of the machine. I jumped then--I was not even shaken. I saw the motor dashed to pieces against the wall, and I saw him pitched on his head into the road. I leaned over and looked at him--he was quite still. I could not hear his heart beat. I thought that he was dead. I stole away and walked to the railway station. That night in Paris I saw on the bills ‘Fatal Motor Accidents.' Le Petit Journal said that the man was dead. I was afraid that I might be called upon as a witness. That is why I was so anxious to leave Paris. The man who came to our rooms, you know, that night was his friend."
"The good God!" Anna murmured, herself shaken with fear. "You were married to him!"
"It could not be legal," Annabel moaned. "It couldn't be. I thought that I was marrying Meysey Hill, not that creature. We stepped from the Embassy into the motor--and oh! I thought that he was dead. Why didn't he die?"
Anna sprang to her feet and walked restlessly up and down the room. Annabel watched her with wide-open, terrified eyes.
"You won't give me away, Anna. He would never recognize me now. You are much more like what I was then."
Anna stopped in front of her.
"You don't propose, do you," she said quietly, "that I should take this man for my husband?"
"You can drive him away," Annabel cried. "Tell him that he is mad. Go and live somewhere else."
"In his present mood," Anna remarked, "he would follow me."
"Oh, you are strong and brave," Annabel murmured. "You can keep him at arm's length. Besides, it was under false pretences. He told me that he was a millionaire. It could not be a legal marriage."
"I am very much afraid," Anna answered, "that it was. It might be upset. I am wondering whether it would not be better to tell your husband everything. You will never be happy with this hanging over you."
Annabel moistened her dry lips with a handkerchief steeped in eau de Cologne.
"You don't know him, Anna," she said with a little shudder, "or you would not talk like that. He is steeped in the conventions. Every slight action is influenced by what he imagines would be the opinion of other people. Anything in the least irregular is like poison to him. He has no imagination, no real generosity. You might tell the truth to some men, but never to him."
Anna was thoughtful. A conviction that her sister's words were true had from the first possessed her.
"Annabel," she said slowly, "if I fight this thing out myself, can I trust you that it will not be a vain sacrifice? After what you have said it is useless for us to play with words. You do not love your husband, you have married him for a position--to escape from--things which you feared. Will you be a faithful and honest wife? Will you do your duty by him, and forget all your past follies? Unless, Annabel, you can----"
"Oh, I will pledge you my word," Annabel cried passionately, "my solemn word. Believe me, Anna. Oh, you must believe me. I have been very foolish, but it is over."
"Remember that you are young still, and fond of admiration," Anna said. "You will not give Sir John any cause for jealousy? You will have no secrets from him except--concerning those things which are past?"
"Anna, I swear it!" her sister sobbed.
"Then I will do what I can," Anna promised. "I believe that you are quite safe. He has had brain fever since, and, as you say, I am more like what you were then than you yourself are now. I don't think for a moment that he would recognize you."
Annabel clutched her sister's hands. The tears were streaming down her face, her voice was thick with sobs.
"Anna, you are the dearest, bravest sister in the world," she cried. "Oh, I can't thank you. You dear, dear girl. I--listen."
They heard a man's voice outside.
"Sir John!" Annabel gasped.
Anna sprang to her feet and made for the dressing-room door.
"One moment, if you please!"
She stopped short and looked round. Sir John stood upon the threshold.