diplomatist

Monsieur Aksakoff owned a toy villa, pleasantly placed amongst
orange-groves and lemon-gardens, on the outskirts of Fools’ Paradise.
Hither, somewhere about the hour of five, trooped a gay party, of
which Katinka was not the least merry. So unaccountable were her
spirits, that the majority judged her to be what the Scotch aptly call
“fey.” Lady Jim, in the minority, knew better. A recollection of the
recent interview explained the girl’s dancing on a possible grave.

Leah had subjugated one of her own suspicious sex. This is a rare
miracle; rarer still, it had been achieved by truth-telling.
Certainly, with inevitable female reservation, Lady Jim had not told
the whole truth and nothing but the truth; but then, her knowledge did
not include the shibboleth of oath-taking. She did not love
Demetrius–no avowal could have been more honest. Still, his medical
acquirements had scarcely induced the flirtation which Katinka
resented, and in saying so she swerved from the path of rectitude.
Nevertheless, that ingenuous explanation of the illegal apron-string
deceived Mademoiselle Aksakoff into believing that Truth had really
been dragged, unclothed and impeccable, from her well.

The result may be guessed. From cold hostility, Katinka, ignorant of
the golden mean, melted into warm friendship: the sadness of
unrequited love was replaced by the allurements of hope, and the
hitherto dreary unpeopled world became an Arcadia of magical beauty,
through which there ever moved a possible bridegroom. The colour
returned to her wan cheeks, the light to her dark eyes, and in place
of a listless nun the astonished father beheld a dancing, laughing
nymph. Clever as Aksakoff was, he failed to understand the why and the
wherefore of this transformation. Being a diplomatist, he searched for
the magician who had accomplished its wonders; being mere man, he
naturally espied the obvious. The unexpected presence of Demetrius, as
he concluded, was responsible for the breathing of life into this
statue.

Lady Jim guessed his explanation, and was amused by his inquiring
looks. She promised herself the pleasure of making things clear, in
such a way as would compel confidences on his part. These might be
useful in averting the wrath of Demetrius, when he came to know that
his reward was withheld. And Leah was not unreasonable in anticipating
trouble of the worst, seeing that the doctor had already loaded her
with a portion of a debt which she did not intend to pay. Garth was
dead. That part of the task had been accomplished. Now, Katinka
informed her that Demetrius was bound for Jamaica. There he would
arrange for the obliteration of Jim, and return with a substituted
corpse to console the afflicted widow. The widow herself shivered at
the prospect of being honest and tangibly grateful; and, since the
possible was rapidly becoming the probable, began to consider
means of evasion. But it was no easy matter to nullify the bond of a
semi-oriental Shylock.

With a diplomatist, superadded to a father, for an ally, and with
tricky Muscovite politics to play with, Lady Jim fancied that her end
might be obtained. But, although she knew the goal, she could not see
the most direct and least dangerous way to gain it. Her path was
perplexing and perilous, so it was necessary to find a finger-post.
She thought that Aksakoff might stand for such, since he would do much
to neutralise the chance of his daughter’s marriage with Demetrius.
But to enlist him on her side, and in her schemes, required a private
conference, and plainer speaking than Lady Jim approved of. However,
as there was no opportunity of private speech for at least one hour,
she had time to construct feasible plans.

Meanwhile, her silence over the teacups was remarkable in so lively a
lady. Certainly, Garth might have died in the orthodox manner, as
ample time had been given for his exit. On the other hand, Demetrius,
eager for his reward, might have–but no; she could not bear to think
of such a horror, and employed her will to deny the possibility.
Nevertheless, strive as she would to banish the thought, it returned
again and again, insistent and terrifying. No wonder Askew was moved
to ask if she felt unwell, and no wonder she protested, with
unnecessary emphasis, that she never felt better in her life.

“I am gathering instruction from the conversation of others,” she
assured him, when he urged smelling-salts.

“But you are so extraordinarily pale.”

“I have parted with my colour to Mademoiselle Aksakoff. See, she
blooms like an artificial rose.”

“Why artificial? Her bloom is natural.”

“And her spirits are forced. A hothouse is Nature’s corset.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Askew, bluntly; “you are a puzzle.”

“Which is as much as to say that I am a woman. I wish you would cease
personalities and refill my glass.”

This sounded more bacchanalian than it was, for the glass contained
nothing more destructive to the nerves than straw-coloured tea,
prepared, milkless, in the Russian manner, with plenty of sugar and a
squeeze of lemon. Katinka presided over a samovar, and dispensed
caviare sandwiches, so that the meal was entirely Muscovite. Aksakoff,
stiff and pale and lean, precisely dressed and watchful as a cat, paid
diplomatic compliments to Lady Richardson, while Captain Lake laughed
with Katinka. Miss Mulrady had annexed a flattering vicomte who wanted
money in exchange for a name which dated from the Crusades, and Askew
hovered, like the silly moth he was, round Lady Jim’s superfine wax
candle. This possible tragedy of singed wings doubly and trebly
assured Katinka of Leah’s honesty, for who could love the demi-god
Demetrius and trifle with a nautical butterfly? Thus did she argue,
crediting her once rival and now ally with the infatuation which, in
Fairyland, made Titania clip Bottom in her arms.

“The air of this place suits you,” said Lake, wondering at this
bubbling gaiety; “you were pale and sad when we last met,
Mademoiselle.”

“I may be the same when we meet again,” she replied, refilling Lady
Jim’s glass. “What would you? Moods are agreeable.”

“Hum! I don’t choose April as the most enjoyable month of the year.”

Katinka laughed meaningly, and glanced slyly at Lady Richardson. “I
see; you prefer an autumn month–highly coloured and mature.”

This was too symbolic for Lake, but some intuition of its meaning
caused him to flush to the roots of his fair hair, and verbally deny
comprehension. “I do not understand.”

“No gallant man would,” she retorted, and, further enlightened, the
captain’s pink became a violent crimson, to the concern of its cause.

“How red you are, Reggy!” cried Lady Richardson. “I hope it isn’t
scarlet fever.”

“I guess you suffer from that,” murmured Mamie, posing her lorgnette.

“Plaît-il?” inquired the bewildered vicomte; but received no reply.
Miss Mulrady’s knowledge of French was too limited to permit of
pathological discussions.

“Russian tea,” explained Lake, cooling to his ordinary sun-burn.

“Why not one word–indigestion?”

“Indigestion,” repeated the soldier, with dry obedience.

“You should really try Billy’s new medicine; it has made him very fit.
By the way, where is my darling?”

Lake dodged the quizzical glance of Miss Mulrady, and explained that
Sir Billy had been last seen wrinkling his young brows over the
intricacies of trente et quarante. “Couldn’t haul him off; but I
daresay hunger will fetch him to the tea-table.”

“Such devotion argues good luck,” said Leah, wondering if Billy would
arrive with full pockets.

“Perhaps, Lady James. Most boys are lucky at play.”

“And therefore unlucky in love?” inquired Katinka, smiling.

“Children should know nothing of such things,” said Aksakoff, stiffly.

“I guess not,” cried Mamie; “but Sir Billy is a freak.”

“Really, Miss Mulrady,” frowned the indignant little mother, “my son
is not so eligible for Barnum’s Show as you seem to imagine. He hasn’t
got two heads, or an elastic skin, or any of those things which seem
to be so popular in the United States.”

“Wouldn’t make him more interestin’ if he had. He’s a moral freak.”

“Et moi aussi?” asked the vicomte, whose scant knowledge of
Americanese prevented entire understanding.

“Oh, you haven’t got morals of any sort.”

“M. de Marville is the more interesting on that account,” said Leah,
rousing herself from a two minutes’ silence; “a really good young man
should be sealed, as a bore, in a glass case.”

“Then why is Mr. Askew at large?”

The sailor laughed. “I fear my past can best answer that question.”

“By your tongue? Well?”

“Better leave that well alone,” laughed Katinka, gaily. “Besides, only
women have pasts.”

“And presents, when the men are generous,” said Lady Jim.

“I guess men are always generous, when there’s anythin’ to be got.”

“After meals, there is nothing to be got, save smoking,” said the
hostess; “you gentlemen have leave. Captain Lake, will you give me a
cigarette?”

Like many Russian ladies, Mademoiselle Aksakoff adored those fatal
rolls of tobacco wrapped in coffee-coloured paper, and consumed a
great quantity. Lady Richardson, unlike the average Englishwoman,
smoked likewise–that is, she fiddled qualmishly with half a
cigarette, because it looked smart to do what you shouldn’t. The
gentlemen also offered incense to the very modern goddess Nicotine,
and shortly Lady Jim was the only person present not committed to this
agreeable vice.

“I am behind the times,” she confessed; “but please don’t look upon me
as a prude on the prowl. I willingly permit other women to spoil their
teeth and ruin their digestions.”

“What a nasty speech!” cried Lady Richardson, offended, especially as
Leah knew it was an effort for her to sin in this way.

“My dear, it is; but then, I feel nasty.”

“And look charming,” whispered Askew.

“I wonder how many times a day you repeat yourself,” she replied
impatiently.

“As often as I recall your face. I can think then of only one
adjective, charming, and one noun, angel.”

“What limitations! And the necessary verb?”

“I love you.”

“First person singular, as usual, after the manner of the male
egotist. Isn’t this rather Lindley-Murray whispering?”

If it was, they had no opportunity of continuing it, for Lady
Richardson drew Leah’s attention to the fact that she had lost a
fortune in the Casino. “I depend upon you, dear, for my return fare.”

“Billy will pay,” conjectured Lady Jim, calmly: “I quite expect he has
broken the bank.”

“Not on Mr. Askew’s system,” cried Mamie; “you couldn’t run an
apple-stall on his lines.”

“You would suggest improvements,” complained Askew, reproachfully.

“Then you admit that they were.”

“If fitted properly into the puzzle, and at the proper time. But it’s
a mistake to swap horses when crossing a stream.”

“Huh!” said Miss Mulrady, in her best Californian style. “I guess the
animals belonged to you. I lost no dollars”; and with a comfortable
sense of her own ‘cuteness, she accepted a cigarette from the
attentive vicomte.

This frothy chatter irritated a lady who was inwardly grappling with
problems of the near future. Askew ventured on more spindrift, only to
be snubbed into seeking the complaisant society of Mamie. This
necessitated a game of general post, for Katinka slipped in rapid
French and boulevard gossip with de Marville, while Lady Richardson
drew Lake once more to her elderly feet. Remained the diplomatist, in
splendid isolation, and his gaze wandered to Lady Jim, who stared
straight before her. She was looking into the next world, where a
reproachful ghost, something resembling Jim, was asking why he had
been butchered to make a woman’s holiday. And the living, half
believing the terrible truth implied, gave shuffling answer to the
dead: “Demetrius is to blame—-”

So vivid was the vision, so powerful the thought, so guilty the
conscience, that her tongue actually framed this much aloud, before
she became aware that her secret was slipping out. A hasty glance
around assured her that none of the prattlers had overheard; but an
echo of the name at her elbow testified to Monsieur Aksakoff’s
excellent hearing. Lady Jim grew chill. What had she said? How much
had he gathered? Instinctively facing a possible danger, she did not
even turn her head or raise her voice, but, almost in the same breath,
concluded the sentence differently: “—-if he does not cure Jim.”

“Your husband?” asked the diplomatist, politely.

With admirable skill Leah started, as though her reflections had been
unexpectedly interrupted. “You there, M. Aksakoff? I was thinking of
my husband–yes. He is trying to get well in Jamaica, and M.
Demetrius has gone to pull him round. I shall certainly blame him if
he does not cure Jim.”

“That is severe, madame. After all, no human being holds the keys of
life and death.”

Self-controlled as she was, Lady Jim shuddered. Demetrius certainly
held the key of death, and had used it–for so she began to
believe–in opening for Garth a door into the unknown. However, she
utilised the shudder very dexterously. “Don’t talk like that. It makes
me fear lest Jim should never get well. But after all, M. Demetrius is
extraordinarily clever. I told your daughter, only this afternoon, how
I had been attracted to him for Jim’s sake, and by his knowledge of
consumption.”

“Oh!” Aksakoff looked at her with his pale eyes, and very inquiringly.
It had not occurred to him that the lady was a model wife. “The
medical attainments of M. Demetrius attracted you.”

“Naturally! My husband is ill. I wish him to be cured. M. Demetrius
has a European reputation for cure of consumption. We have held many
conversations on the subject, and I feel certain that there is a
chance for poor dear Jim.”

“If M. Demetrius becomes his medical attendant?”

“He is,” Leah assured him. “The poor creature he was looking after in
Madeira, on behalf of the Duke, is dead, and Katinka informed me that
M. Demetrius had sailed for Jamaica.”

Aksakoff frowned. “How does my daughter know that?”

Lady Jim rose to shrug her shoulders, and to seize the opportunity
thus offered to solve her problem by means of a private conversation.

“A charming place you have here,” she said, glancing round, and giving
him to understand that the shrug was his answer; “the air is so
balmy.”

“You will find it more so without tobacco smoke,” said the Russian,
throwing away his cigarette, and, without knowing it, was thus
skilfully entrapped into a duologue by an ostensibly reluctant woman.

“I am so comfortable here,” urged Leah, with feigned hesitation.

“So pleased, madame; but your sense of the picturesque will make you
sacrifice ease for a particularly charming view of the Estrelles.”

“The proper study of womankind is man,” misquoted Lady Jim, accepting
the invitation; “but nature comes as a relief at times. We see so
little of her in society,” and she glanced at Lady Richardson’s dyed
hair and tinted cheeks.

“You are severe, madame.”

“I shall begin to believe so, if you repeat that a third time,” she
replied, smiling, and glancing sideways at his face. This she did to
discover, if possible, his intentions. It suddenly occurred to her,
that the diplomatist’s insistence meant intrigue on his part. He, like
herself, was playing a game, and Lady Jim, for the sake of the result,
wished to overlook his hand. Had she seen it, which she did not, the
knowledge that people knew more about her domestic affairs than she
would have approved of might have shocked her.

Ivan Aksakoff was not a tricky Russian, nor a diplomatist of repute,
for nothing. Instructions had reached him several times from
headquarters that Demetrius was to be watched while in England, and,
if possible, decoyed into the territory of a less scrupulous nation,
for the purpose of arrest. A drugged official’s feelings had been
outraged, a much-wanted Anarchist had escaped through the connivance
of the exile, and a paternal government thought that an enforced trip
to Siberia might cool misplaced friendships for suspected persons.
Several times Aksakoff had tried to induce the Demetrius opossum to
climb down from his tree of refuge, but the suspicious beast refused
to oblige him. Therefore, all that the diplomatist could do was to
keep himself advised of the doctor’s doings, in the hope of luring him
to destruction when he was off his guard. He had biblical precedent
for this hope. Shimei, the son of Gera, lulled by long security, had
crossed the forbidden brook Kidron, so why should not Demetrius,
likewise forgetful, cross the Channel?

Stealthy inquiry into the doctor’s affairs had led Aksakoff to ask
himself, why the man dangled at Lady Jim’s apron-strings. Reports
poured in, fast and thick, that the Curzon Street household was
insolvent, but these did not help the diplomatist overmuch. If Lady
Jim wanted money, she would scarcely ask a penniless exile for the
cash he did not possess. The man was not sufficiently handsome, nor so
superlatively fascinating, that he should gain the love of the most
beautiful woman in London. And, incidentally, Aksakoff learned that
Lady Jim was a modern Lucrece, although she did not profess an ardent
love for her lord and master. Therefore, as neither Mammon nor Cupid
could explain a friendship which was pretty freely discussed in clubs
and drawing-rooms, Aksakoff could not comprehend this particular wile
of woman.

In his endeavour to fathom the meaning, he even went so far as to
question his daughter, knowing that she was as infatuated with
Demetrius as Demetrius was with Lady Kaimes. But Katinka either could
not or would not explain, and for months the diplomatist had been
exasperated by the sight of a genuinely platonic friendship, for which
there seemed to be no reason. Now he learned from one of the parties
to the bond that a husband’s sickness, and a friend’s skill, were the
elements which composed the intimacy. Such a case, in such a light,
had never before been presented to him, and while sauntering by Lady
Jim’s side to view the Estrelles against the sunset, he was trying to
think if the explanation was genuine. To his acute hearing, it did not
sound even plausible.

Nevertheless–and this was Aksakoff’s reason for seeking the
interview–some use might be made of the woman to entrap the man. Lady
Jim was badly in need of ready money, and the Russian Government had,
at the time, full coffers. Since there was no love in the question,
this singular lady might, for a round sum, dispense with the doctor’s
attendance on her husband. More–if delicately handled, she might
induce Demetrius to show her the sights of Paris. It was difficult to
hint this without shocking the feelings of a great lady and a spotless
woman. Still, if skilfully done, and without too much emphasis, Lady
Jim might gather that her finances could be put in order without much
trouble on her part.

But Aksakoff had another argument which induced him to risk a
scene with outraged virtue. He loved his daughter, and wished her to
marry a highly placed cousin, who would be of political use to his
father-in-law. Unfortunately, Katinka was infatuated–Aksakoff could
find no more appropriate word–with Demetrius. Marriage with a person
wanted by the powerful of St. Petersburg meant a check to the
diplomatist and a handle to his many enemies. The match was not to be
thought of. Yet, if Demetrius would only prove kind, Mademoiselle
Aksakoff would assuredly become his wife, even if she had to achieve
the marriage by elopement. Also, Katinka might be able to procure the
man’s pardon, and of this Aksakoff entirely disapproved. Even if the
doctor was whitewashed, he had such socialistic or anarchistic
feelings–it mattered not which–that he would never consent to resume
his title or the large income attached to such resumption. On the
whole, both from a fatherly and a domestic point of view, Aksakoff
felt that this marplot would be safer in a Siberian mine. How to get
him there was the problem.

The solution might come through Lady Jim. If he could only ascertain
her feelings towards Demetrius, and hint that such a lovely woman
should not be worried by sordid money affairs, it was not improbable
that such a satisfactory result would be arrived at. It was a forlorn
hope, but Aksakoff dared it; it was a straw, but he grasped at it–and
now, fully committed to the speculation, he was casting about in his
mind as to a promising beginning. No easy task, for Aksakoff’s spies
and Aksakoff’s experience assured him that Lady James Kaimes was a
prickly plant, needing care in the handling.

So it will be seen that Leah’s intuition had not deceived her, scanty
as was the ground for suspicion. The closer she examined his face by
swift side-glances, the more certain she became that he was playing a
game, and–from her experience of diplomatists–by no means for love.
To vary the metaphor, she and the Russian were about to engage in a
duel, either with foils or swords. Lady Jim did not care which. She
was perfectly assured that, however dexterous her antagonist might be,
she could fence quite as well, if not better. And thus she marched to
the duelling ground, already a victor.