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.
Here is our current selection:
Anna the Adventuress (1904) by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter 27. John Ferringham, Gentleman
"Confess, my dear husband," Annabel said lightly, "that you are bewildered."
Sir John smiled.
"My dear Anna," he answered. "To tell you the truth, it has seemed just lately as though we were becoming in some measure estranged. You certainly have not shown much desire for my society, have you?"
"You have been wrapped up in your politics," she murmured.
He shook his head.
"There have been other times," he said a little sadly.
Her little white hand stole across the table. There was a look in her eyes which puzzled him.
"I have been very selfish," she declared. "But you must forgive me, John."
"I would forgive you a great deal more," he answered readily, "for the sake of an evening like this. You have actually given up a dinner-party to dine alone with me."
"And made you give up a political meeting," she reminded him.
"Quite an unimportant one," he assured her. "I would have given up anything to see you--your old self again--as you are this evening."
"I am afraid I have not been very nice," she said sadly. "Never mind. You must think of this evening, John, sometimes--as a sort of atonement."
"I hope," he answered, looking at her in some surprise, "that we shall have many more such to think about."
They were lingering over their dessert. The servants had left the room. Annabel half filled her glass with wine, and taking a little folded packet from her plate, shook the contents into it.
"I am developing ailments," she said, meeting his questioning eyes. "It is nothing of any importance. John, I have something to say to you."
"If you want to ask a favour," he remarked smiling, "you have made it almost impossible for me to refuse you anything."
"I am going to ask more than a favour," she said slowly. "I am going to ask for your forgiveness."
He was a little uneasy.
"I do not know what you mean," he said, "but if you are referring to any little coolness since our marriage let us never speak of it again. I am something of an old fogey, Anna, I'm afraid, but if you treat me like this you will teach me to forget it."
Annabel looked intently into her glass.
"John," she said, "I am afraid that I am going to make you unhappy. I am very, very sorry, but you must listen to me."
He relapsed into a stony silence. A few feet away, across the low vases of pink and white roses, sat Annabel, more beautiful tonight perhaps than ever before in her life. She wore a wonderful dress of turquoise blue, made by a great dressmaker for a function which she knew very well now that she would never attend. Her hair once more was arranged with its old simplicity. There was a new softness in her eyes, a hesitation, a timidity about her manner which was almost pathetic.
"You remember our first meeting?"
"Yes," he answered hoarsely. "I remember it very well indeed. You have the look in your eyes tonight which you had that day, the look of a frightened child."
She looked into her glass.
"I was frightened then," she declared. "I am frightened now. But it is all very different. There was hope for me then. Now there is none. No, none at all."
"You talk strangely, Anna," he said. "Go on!"
"People talked to you in Paris about us," she continued, "about Anna the virtuous and Annabel the rake. You were accused of having been seen with the latter. You denied it, remembering that I had called myself Anna. You went even to our rooms and saw my sister. Anna lied to you, I lied to you. I was Annabel the rake, 'Alcide' of the music halls. My name is Annabel, not Anna. Do you understand?"
"I do not," he answered. "How could I, when your sister sings now at the 'Unusual' every night and the name 'Alcide' flaunts from every placard in London?"
"The likeness between us," she said, "before I began to disfigure myself with rouge and ill-dressed hair, was remarkable. Anna failed in her painting, our money was gone, and she was forced to earn her own living. She came to London, and tried several things without any success."
Sir John stopped short. With a moment of inward shame he remembered his deportment towards Anna. It was scarcely likely that she would have accepted his aid. Some one had once, in his hearing, called him a prig. He remembered it suddenly. He thought of his severe attitude towards the girl who was rightly and with contempt refusing his measured help. He looked across at Annabel, and he groaned. This was his humiliation as well as hers.
"Anna of course would not accept any money from us," she continued. "She tried everything, and last of all she tried the stage. She went to a dramatic agent, and he turned out to be the one who had heard me sing in Paris. He refused to believe that Anna was not 'Alcide.' He thought she wished to conceal her identity because of the connexion with you, and he offered her an engagement at once. She was never announced as 'Alcide,' but directly she walked on she simply became 'Alcide' to every one. She had a better voice than I, and the rest I suppose is only a trick. The real 'Alcide'," she wound up with a faint smile across the table at him, "is here."
He sat like a man turned to stone. Some part of the stiff vigour of the man seemed to have subsided. He seemed to have shrunken in his seat. His eyes were fixed upon her face, but he opened his lips twice before he spoke.
"When you married me----"
Her little hand flashed out across the table.
"John," she said, "I can spare you that question. I had been about as foolish and selfish as a girl could be. I had done the most compromising things, and behaved in the most ridiculous way. But from the rest--you saved me."
Sir John breathed a long deep sigh. He sat up in his chair again, the colour came back to his cheeks.
"John, don't!" she cried. "You think that this is all. You are going to be generous and forgive. It isn't all. There is worse to come. There is a tragedy to come."
"Out with it, then," he cried, almost roughly. "Don't you know, child, that this is torture for me? What in God's name more can you have to tell me?"
Her face had become almost like a marble image. She spoke with a certain odd deliberation carefully chosen words which fell like drops of ice upon the man who sat listening.
"Before I met you I was deluded into receiving upon friendly terms a man named Hill, who passed himself off as Meysey Hill the railway man, but who was in reality an Englishman in poor circumstances. He was going to settle I forget how many millions upon me, and I think that I was dazzled. I went with him to what I supposed to be the British Embassy, and went through a ceremony which I understood to be the usual form of the marriage one used there. Afterwards we started for a motor ride to a place outside Paris for déjeuner, and I suppose the man's nerve failed him. I questioned him too closely about his possessions, and remarked upon the fact that he was a most inexpert driver, although Meysey Hill had a great reputation as a motorist. Anyhow he confessed that he was a fraud. I struck him across the face, jumped out and went back by train to Paris. He lost control of the machine, was upset and nearly killed."
"Did you say," Sir John asked, "that the man's name was Hill?"
"Yes," she answered.
"The man who was found dead in your sister's room was named Hill?"
"It is the man," she answered. "I killed him."
Sir John clutched at the table with both hands. A slow horror was dawning in his fixed eyes. This was not the sort of confession which he had been expecting. Annabel had spoken calmly enough and steadily, but his brain refused at first to accept the full meaning of her words. It seemed to him that a sort of mist had risen up between them. Everything was blurred. Only her face was clear, frail and delicate, almost flower-like, with the sad haunting eyes ever watching his. Annabel a murderess! It was not possible.
"Child!" he cried. "You do not know what you say. This is part of a dream--some evil fancy. Think! You could not have done it."
She shook her head deliberately, hopelessly.
"I think that I know very well what I am saying," she answered. "I went to Anna's rooms because I felt that I must see her. He was there concealed, waiting her return. He recognized me at once, and he behaved like a madman. He swore that I was his wife, that chance had given me to him at last. John, he was between me and the door. A strong coarse man, and there were things in his eyes which made my blood run cold with terror. He came over to me. I was helpless. Beside me on Anna's table was a pistol. I was not even sure whether it was loaded. I snatched it up, pointed it blindly at him, and fired."
"Ah!" Sir John exclaimed.
"He fell over at my feet," she continued. "I saw him stagger and sink down, and the pistol was smoking still in my hand. I bent over him. Anna had told me that he carried always with him this bogus marriage certificate. I undid his coat, and I took it from his pocket. I burned it."
"But the marriage itself?" Sir John asked. "I do not understand."
"There was no marriage," she answered. "I was very foolish to have been deceived even for a moment. There was no marriage, and I hated, oh, how I hated the man."
"Did any one see you leave the flat?" he asked.
"I do not know. But David Courtlaw has been here. Tonight they say he will be conscious. He will say who it was. So there is no escape. And listen, John."
"I went from Anna's flat to Nigel Ennison's rooms. I told him the truth. I asked him to take me away, and hide me. He refused. He sent me home."
Sir John's head bent lower and lower. There was nothing left now of the self-assured, prosperous man of affairs. His shoulders were bent, his face was furrowed with wrinkles. He looked no longer at his wife. His eyes were fixed upon the tablecloth.
There was a gentle rustling of skirts. Softly she rose to her feet. He felt her warm breath upon his cheek, the perfume of her hair as she leaned over him. He did not look up, so he did not know that in her other hand she held a glass of wine.
"Dear husband," she murmured. "I am so very, very sorry. I have brought disgrace upon you, and I haven't been the right sort of wife at all. But it is all over now, and presently there will be some one else. I should like to have had you forgive me."
He did not move. He seemed to be thinking hard. She paused for a moment. Then she raised the glass nearer to her lips.
"Good-bye, John," she said simply.
Something in her tone made him look up. In a second the glass lay shattered upon the carpet. There was a stain of wine upon her dress.
"God in Heaven, Annabel!" he cried. "What were you doing?"
Her voice was a little hysterical. Her unnatural calm was giving way.
"It was poison--why not?" she answered. "Who is there to care and--John."
His arms were around her. He kissed her once on the lips with a passion of which, during all their days of married life, he had given no sign.
"You poor little girl!" he cried. "Forgive you, indeed. There isn't a husband breathing, Annabel, who wouldn't have blessed that pistol in your hands, and prayed God that the bullet might go straight. It is no crime, none at all. It is one of God's laws that a woman may defend her honour, even with the shedding of blood. While you talked I was only making our plans. It was necessary to think, and think quickly."
She was altogether hysterical now.
"But I--I went to Nigel Ennison for help. I asked him--to take me away."
She saw him flinch, but he gave no sign of it in his tone.
"Perhaps," he said, "I have been to blame. It must be my fault that you have not learnt that your husband is the man to come to--at such a time as this. Oh, I think I understand, Annabel. You were afraid of me, afraid that I should have been shocked, afraid of the scandal. Bah. Little woman, you have been brave enough before. Pull yourself together now. Drink this!"
He poured out a glass of wine with a firm hand, and held it to her lips. She drank it obediently.
"Good," he said, as he watched the colour come back to her cheeks. "Now listen. You go to your room and ring for your maid. I received a telegram, as you know, during dinner. It contains news of the serious illness of a near relation at Paris. Your maid has twenty minutes to pack your dressing case for one night, and you have the same time to change into a travelling dress. In twenty minutes we meet in the hall, remember. I will tell you our plans on the way to the station."
"But you," she exclaimed, "you are not coming. There is the election----"
He laughed derisively.
"Election be hanged!" he exclaimed. "Don't be childish, Annabel. We are off for a second honeymoon. Just one thing more. We may be stopped. Don't look so frightened. You called yourself a murderess. You are nothing of the sort. What you did is called manslaughter, and at the worst there is only a very slight penalty, nothing to be frightened about in the least. Remember that."
She kissed him passionately, and ran lightly upstairs. In the hall below she could hear his firm voice giving quick commands to the servants.