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 25. The Steel Edge of the Truth
The manservant, with his plain black clothes and black tie, had entered the room with a deferential little gesture.
"You will pardon me, sir," he said in a subdued tone, "but I think that you have forgotten to look at your engagement book. There is Lady Arlingford's reception tonight, ten till twelve, and the Hatton House ball, marked with a cross, sir, important. I put your clothes out an hour ago."
Nigel Ennison looked up with a little start.
"All right, Dunster," he said. "I may go to Hatton House later, but you needn't wait. I can get into my clothes."
The man hesitated.
"Can I bring you anything, sir--a whisky and soda, or a liqueur? You'll excuse me, sir, but you haven't touched your coffee."
"Bring me a whisky and soda, and a box of cigarettes," Ennison answered, "and then leave me alone, there's a good fellow. I'm a little tired."
The man obeyed his orders noiselessly and then left the room.
Ennison roused himself with an effort, took a long drink from his whisky and soda, and lit a cigarette.
"What a fool I am!" he muttered, standing up on the hearthrug, and leaning his elbows upon the broad mantelpiece. "And yet I wonder whether the world ever held such another enigma in her sex. Paris looms behind--a tragedy of strange recollections--here she emerges Phœnix-like, subtly developed, a flawless woman, beautiful, self-reliant, witty, a woman with the strange gift of making all others beside her seem plain or vulgar. And then--this sudden thrust. God only knows what I have done, or left undone. Something unpardonable is laid to my charge. Only last night she saw me, and there was horror in her eyes.... I have written, called--of what avail is anything--against that look.... What the devil is the matter, Dunster?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," the man answered, "there is a lady here to see you."
Ennison turned round sharply.
"A lady, Dunster. Who is it?"
The man came a little further into the room.
"Lady Ferringhall, sir."
"Lady Ferringhall--alone?" Ennison exclaimed.
"Quite alone, sir."
Ennison was dismayed.
"For Heaven's sake, Dunster, don't let her out of the carriage, or hansom, or whatever she came in. Say I'm out, away, anything!"
"I am sorry, sir," the man answered, "but she had sent away her hansom before I answered the bell. She is in the hall now. I----"
The door was thrown open. Annabel entered.
"Forgive my coming in," she said to Ennison. "I heard your voices, and the hall is draughty. What is the matter with you?"
Dunster had withdrawn discreetly. Ennison's manner was certainly not one of a willing host.
"I cannot pretend that I am glad to see you, Lady Ferringhall," he said quietly. "For your own sake, let me beg of you not to stay for a moment. Dunster shall fetch you a cab. I----"
She threw herself into an easy chair. She was unusually pale, and her eyes were brilliant. Never had she seemed to him so much like Anna.
"You needn't be worried," she said quietly. "The conventions do not matter one little bit. You will agree with me when you have heard what I have to say. For me that is all over and done with."
"Lady Ferringhall! Anna!" he exclaimed.
She fixed her brilliant eyes upon him.
"Suppose you call me by my proper name," she said quietly. "Call me Annabel."
He started back as though he had been shot.
"Annabel?" he exclaimed. "That is your sister's name."
It came upon him like a flash. Innumerable little puzzles were instantly solved. He could only wonder that this amazing thing had remained so long a secret to him. He remembered little whispered speeches of hers, so like the Annabel of Paris, so unlike the woman he loved, a hundred little things should have told him long ago. Nevertheless it was overwhelming.
"But your hair," he gasped.
"And your figure?"
"One's corsetière arranges that. My friend, I am only grieved that you of all others should have been so deceived. I have seen you with Anna, and I have not known whether to be glad or sorry. I have been in torment all the while to know whether it was to Anna or to Annabel that you were making love so charmingly. Nigel, do you know that I have been very jealous?"
He avoided the invitation of her eyes. He was indeed still in the throes of his bewilderment.
"But Sir John?" he exclaimed. "What made you marry him? What made you leave Paris without a word to any one? What made you and your sister exchange identities?"
"There is one answer to all those questions, Nigel," she said, with a nervous little shudder. "It is a hateful story. Come close to me, and let me hold your hand, dear. I am a little afraid."
There was a strange look in her face, the look of a frightened child. Ennison seemed to feel already the shadow of tragedy approaching. He stood by her side, and he suffered her hands to rest in his.
"You remember the man in Paris who used to follow me about--Meysey Hill they called him?"
"Miserable bounder," he murmured. "Turned out to be an impostor, too."
"He imposed on me," Annabel continued. "I believed that he was the great multi-millionaire. He worried me to marry him. I let him take me to the English Embassy, and we went through some sort of a ceremony. I thought it would be magnificent to have a great house in Paris, and more money than any other woman. Afterwards we started for déjeuner in a motor. On the way he confessed. He was not Meysey Hill, but an Englishman of business, and he had only a small income. Every one took him for the millionaire, and he had lost his head about me. I--well, I lost my temper. I struck him across the face, twisted the steering wheel of the motor, sprang out myself, and left him for dead on the road with the motor on top of him. This is the first act."
"Served the beast right," Ennison declared. "I think I can tell you something which may be very good news for you presently. But go on."
"Act two," she continued. "Enter Sir John, very honest, very much in love with me. I thought that Hill was dead, but I was frightened, and I wanted to get away from Paris. Sir John heard gossip about us--about Anna the recluse, a paragon of virtue, and Annabel alias 'Alcide' a dancer at the cafés chantants, and concerning whom there were many stories which were false, and a few--which were true. I--well, I borrowed Anna's name. I made her my unwilling confederate. Sir John followed me to London and married me. To this day he and every one else thinks that he married Anna.
"Act three. Anna comes to London. She is poor, and she will take nothing from my husband, the man she had deceived for my sake, and he, on his part, gravely disapproves of her as 'Alcide.' She tries every way of earning a living and fails. Then she goes to a dramatic agent. Curiously enough nothing will persuade him that she is not 'Alcide.' He believes that she denies it simply because owing to my marriage with Sir John, whom they call the 'Puritan Knight,' she wants to keep her identity secret. He forces an engagement upon her. She never calls herself 'Alcide.' It is the Press who find her out. She is the image
of what I was like, and she has a better voice. Then enter Mr. Hill again--alive. He meets Anna, and claims her as his wife. It is Anna again who stands between me and ruin."
"I cannot let you go on," Ennison interrupted. "I believe that I can give you great news. Tell me where the fellow Hill took you for this marriage ceremony."
"It was behind the Place de Vendome, on the other side from the Ritz."
"I knew it," Ennison exclaimed. "Cheer up, Annabel. You were never married at all. That place was closed by the police last month. It was a bogus affair altogether, kept by some blackguard or other of an Englishman. Everything was done in the most legal and imposing way, but the whole thing was a fraud."
"Then I was never married to him at all?" Annabel said.
"Never--but, by Jove, you had a narrow escape," Ennison exclaimed. "Annabel, I begin to see why you are here. Think! Had you not better hurry back before Sir John discovers? You are his wife right enough. You can tell me the rest another time."
She smiled faintly.
"The rest," she said, holding tightly to his hands, "is the most important of all. You came to me, you wished me to speak to Anna. I went to her rooms tonight. There was no one at home, and I was coming away when I saw that the door was open. I decided to go in and wait. In her sitting-room I found
Montague Hill. He had gained admission somehow, and he too was waiting for Anna. But--he was cleverer than any of you. He knew me, Nigel. 'At last,' he cried, 'I have found you!' He would listen to nothing. He swore that I was his wife, and--I shot him, Nigel, as his arms were closing around me. Shot him, do you hear?"
"Good God!" he exclaimed, looking at her curiously. "Is this true, Annabel? Is he dead?"
"I shot him. I saw the blood come as he rolled over. I tore the marriage certificate from his pocket and burnt it. And then I came here."
"You came--here!" he repeated, vaguely.
"Nigel, Nigel," she cried. "Don't you understand? It is I whom you cared for in Paris, not Anna. She is a stranger to you. You cannot care for her. Think of those days in Paris. Do you remember when we went right away, Nigel, and forgot everything? We went down the river past Veraz, and the larks were singing all over those deep brown fields, and the river further on wound its way like a coil of silver across the rich meadowland, and along the hillside vineyards. Oh, the scent of the flowers that day, the delicious quiet, the swallows that dived before us in the river. Nigel! You have not forgotten. It was the first day you kissed me, under the willows, coming into Veraz. Nigel, you have not forgotten!"
"No," he said, with a little bitter smile. "I have never forgotten."
She suddenly caught hold of his shoulders and drew him down towards her.
"Nigel, don't you understand. I must leave England tonight. I must go somewhere into hiding, a long, long way off. I killed him, Nigel. They will say that it was murder. But if only you will come I do not care."
He shook her hands off almost roughly. He stood away from her. She listened with dumb fear in her eyes.
"Listen, Annabel," he said hoarsely. "We played at love-making in Paris. It was very pretty and very dainty while it lasted, but we played it with our eyes open, and we perfectly understood the game--both of us. Other things came. We went our ways. There was no broken faith--not even any question of anything of the sort. I met you here as Lady Ferringhall. We have played at a little mild love-making again. It has been only the sort of nonsense which passes lightly enough between half the men and women in London. You shall know the truth. I do not love you. I have never loved you. I call myself a man of the world, a man of many experiences, but I never knew what love meant--until I met your sister."
"You love--Anna?" she exclaimed.
"I do," he answered. "I always shall. Now if you are ready to go with me, I too am ready. We will go to Ostend by the early morning boat and choose a hiding place from there. I will marry you when Sir John gets his divorce, and I will do all I can to keep you out of harm. But you had better know the truth to start with. I will do all this not because I love you, but--because you are Anna's sister."
Annabel rose to her feet.
"You are magnificent," she said, "but the steel of your truth is a little oversharpened. It cuts. Will you let your servant call me a hansom," she continued, opening the door before he could reach her side. "I had no idea that it was so abominably late."
He scarcely saw her face again. She pulled her veil down, and he knew that silence was best.
"Where to?" he asked, as the hansom drove up.
"Home, of course," she answered. "Eight, Cavendish Square."