Leah sprang to

Leah made no farther attempt to decivilise Jim. He was too engrossed
in Egyptian flesh-pots to set out for the Promised Land of splendid
adventure and Elizabethan enterprise. In his clay there did lurk a
spark of that Promethean fire which, melting meaner aims into one
passionate purpose to explore the world and exploit the world, has
made England great. Unfortunately, it could not be fanned into
anything resembling a flame. The cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, and
the garlic of civilisation appealed to him insistently, and even if he
did betake himself to roaming unfenced wastes, he certainly would not
number a wife amongst his luggage. Moreover–and this she knew by
instinct–his basic qualities were markedly those of the homing kind.
This being so, a few months of tent and road would be used by him as a
relish to increased appreciation of the cedar chambers and painted
halls wherein his cradle had been rocked. It was clearly impossible to
make a silken purse out of this particular sow’s ear, so Jim drowsed
very contentedly beside the fire, while his wife, out of sheer ennui,
chased Piccadilly butterflies, or sat in her ducal niche to be bored
with social adoration.

But one thing rendered life endurable to Leah Pentland at this
juncture, and that was her coming opportunity to exhaust the
enjoyable. Now that the days of compulsory sorrow were ended she had
plenty to do, and ample funds for the doing. At Firmingham the new
king and queen celebrated Christmas, new style, with celebrants who
were but doubtfully informed as to the why and wherefore of the
festival. Certainly, Jim and his Comus-rout invaded church on the
holy-day, and yawned impatiently through liturgy and sermon; but this
was a concession to county prejudices. Leah would tolerate no Santa
Claus tree, no Druidical decorations, and no modernised mumming of the
Middle Ages. These out-of-date enjoyments were replaced by political
and poetical tableaux, by amateur renderings of smart French and
dismal Russian plays, and by the kitchen lancers when riotous
cake-walks palled. Imported musicians, in an incorrect foreign
uniform, played Greig’s melodies, Tschaikowsky’s weird sound-poems,
and that nerve-exhausting music of the present by Herr Wagner which
has now arrived at its future. For the uncouth carol of innocent
Victorian days was substituted Sousa’s clanging marches, comic songs,
clean but inane, and catchy airs from the newest vaudeville, miscalled
musical-comedy. Out-of-door sports included skating on artificial
ice–since it was a green Christmas–motor-car races, attempts at golf
and polo-playing, riding, driving, and sauntering flirtations, while
bridge circulated the guests’ money at odd moments. It was truly
wonderful to see how completely these nominal Christians had
substituted a heathen festival of some sort for the orthodox pleasures
of tradition. The participants in the orgie were all smart and all
_blasés_, perfectly dressed and triumphantly selfish. With that
careful avoidance of spoken appreciation which marks the modern
trifler, they took leave of the Duchess with the remark that her
notion of what Yule-tide should be was not half bad. A week of dull
Sundays, so to speak, had been got through capitally.

“Nothing frumpish about the thing,” pronounced Mrs. Penworthy, who had
been asked to gratify Jim, and who had been found woefully wanting in
snap. “Every one was quite up to scratch. Leah Pentland did simply
ripping off her own.”

The little woman was not talking an unknown language, for the latest
successor to Algy understood her excellently well. She spoke the
gibberish of those in a hurry, which she had taken some pains to
acquire. The very few words in the dictionary used by the fashionable
were dropped into the melting-pot, and came out in ungrammatical lumps
of misused adjectives and verbs with a paucity of pronouns and
prepositions. Mrs. Penworthy, whose sense of humour was strong, had
proposed that Lionel should translate the Bible into this time-saving
vernacular, so that its spiritual meaning could be arrived at by those
who thought the verse of Milton and the prose of Bacon starchy.

“Wouldn’t hear of it,” said she, to Algy’s latest successor, while
munching American sweets in the up-going train. “Told him it would be
spiffing to fetch the psalms up to mark, but he didn’t catch on
somehow. Wonder the Duchess can stand him, with his horrid
correctness. She’s fond of doing herself well.”

“Thought the Duchess had rather a shoppin’ face,” replied the man,
meaning that his hostess had looked worried.

“Don’t knew why she should. Got heaps of cake to chew. Might be she
missed Demetrius.”

“Wheresey hang out?”

“Don’t know. Went prancing off on his own. Got a puff?”

The inheritor of Algy’s shoes provided the lady with a cigarette.
“Fancied she cottoned to th’ Askew chap,” he remarked, striking a
match.

“Sure she did–oh, rather! Aksakoff let on to me ’bout the boy jumping
Paris to get fixed–British Embassy fixings, you know. Leah Pentland
didn’t bring it off somehow. Lucky for her, seeing Jim wasn’t a goner.
We really could not have received her,” ended Mrs. Penworthy; then,
aware that she had lapsed into decent English, corrected her mistake:
“Mean we couldn’t have let her chip into our game.”

“Like th’ Duchess?” inquired her companion, languidly.

“Don’t know, quite. Saucy and swagger and all that. Freezes a
bit–what? Talks like a book, you know. Awfully expensive rattle.”

The man nodded. “Thought she wasn’t up to dick. Daresay she’ll spin
along on her own freely, when the hump’s off.”

“Hump? She hasn’t got the hump, or the needle either.”

“Very saucy hump,” insisted the male linguist–“quite birdish. Sorry
the old Duke an’ Frith hopped, maybe.”

“How very unnatural!” sighed Mrs. Penworthy, reverting to English in
her disgust. “Quite too awf’l to think how luck hooks on to her.
Really makes one wish to be a bad woman, to see how she lands the
salmon,” she finished more creditably.

Algy’s latest successor was right, for once in his life of mistakes.
Leah was not entirely her own brilliant self, notwithstanding that
successful inauguration of the new era. The early excitement
consequent on the conversation with Aksakoff had died away, and again
she felt the old haunting fear of the possible. But this absurd mood,
she hoped, would pass away when the test came. Facing her enemies,
male and female, she would doubtless fight like a cornered rat, and
would conquer from sheer determination not to be beaten. Nevertheless,
this period of suspense was trying to one who had no listener, and who
could not talk herself into heroics by mere monologues. A confidant
was necessary only to the weaker part of her character, since her
deepest feelings advised her that pure strength must needs be
solitary. She was an oak, not an ivy, and unknowingly agreed with
Emerson as to the vitiating effects of comfortable circumstances.
“Cast the bantling on the rocks,” sang the Seer of Concord, and Leah
indubitably squirmed thereon, as Jim had informed her in his simple
way in a conversation now–apparently–some centuries old.

“Every month’s a year now,” sighed Leah, wearily.

However, pending a possible fight for her social throne, the Duchess
made the very best of the passing hour. After the pagan entertainment
of the winter solstice, she endured the gorging Christianity of a few
belated country-houses, whose inhabitants were still eating in honour
of a Birth which had taken place some two thousand years ago, as a
Book they seldom read assured them. She went alone to these Vitellian
feasts, as Jim was off the chain until such time as he would be needed
to play Duke during the season. The aristocratic prodigal’s
reformation was but skin-deep, and the late whitewash soon wore off to
show the unchanged black fleece, since he began with the zeal of a
newly uniformed subaltern to poach on various matrimonial manors. Mrs.
Penworthy he had naturally grown tired of, as she preferred syndicates
to partnerships, so he placed his tried affections on Lady Sandal, who
was horsey and doggy and tremendously expensive on account of her
betting craze. She and Jim talked kennels and stables, discussing
their very unplatonic loves between times, and found each other
kindred guttersnipes of the earthly, sensual kind. Leah, speedily
informed by a feminine sidewind of this new amusement of Jim’s
four-and-twenty leisure hours, did not object, or even hint her
knowledge of his backsliding. It kept him out of her way, and Lord
Sandal, a Nero with limitations, who dwelt in a superlative glass
house, was not likely to submit his wife’s latest sin to the fierce
light which beats upon the divorce court witness-box. Nothing could be
more satisfactory to a woman who wanted complete freedom, and Leah
again thanked the agreeable fetish for making straight her very
crooked paths.

But all this time the sword dangled over Leah’s head, and its menace
became so insupportable that she wished the single hair would give
way, to decide brusquely for hit or miss. Her desire was gratified on
the very night when she made her curtsey to the Sovereigns. Having
created an immense impression, the Duchess, with eyes as radiant as
the family diamonds crowning her imperial head, returned at midnight
to her home in the company of a purring husband. Jim really felt that
Leah had upheld the family name with her insolent beauty, and
moreover, was quite the grandest-looking woman in London, or out of
it. When they arrived in their own drawing-room, and she had emerged a
royal court butterfly from the chrysalis of her cloak, he turned
abruptly and took her in his arms with the hug of a bear.

“Leah,” he murmured hoarsely–“oh, Leah!” and kissed her fair on the
mouth with the kiss of Pan.

But only once did he exercise that connubial privilege, for she
released herself roughly with a sense of intolerable outrage. “Isn’t
it rather late in the day?” she asked, scornful and angry.

“‘Pon my word, Leah, I’d be a good husband to you if you would only
let me.”

“Oh, as an over-married Turk I am sure you would be admirable. I know
you disapprove of monogamy.”

“What the deuce is that?”

“Something that the Church encourages and society shirks. The Sandal
woman can explain the objection.”

Jim winced at her knowledge of his latest love. “You said that I
belonged to you,” he reminded her sulkily.

“Officially. May I ask the reason for this sudden devotion?”

“You look so rippin’.”

“Thanks for the belated compliment. I am aware that your love is
dependent upon the eye.”

“An’ what else should it be dependent upon?”

“The heart may have something to do with it, you know–or rather, you
do not know. Since our conversation when I asked you to buy a yacht I
have given up trying to educate you in the affections.”

“I’ll buy a yacht now–a dozen yachts, to please you.”

“Oh,” said the Duchess, with a cold smile; “so that Epsom-Newmarket
woman has been nasty.”

Jim uttered a bad word under his breath, and flung out of the room in
a pet. “I’ll play at the club till all’s blue,” he called out while
banging the door, and a minute later she heard the butler whistle for
a hansom.

The deserted wife was perfectly aware that Jim’s sudden admiration
arose from pride of proprietorship, and objected to be cajoled into
righteous matrimonial principles on such terms. As it was scarcely one
o’clock she seated herself to consider if it would be worth while to
lift her uxorious pig out of the mire he loved. A footman with a
salver interrupted these creditable meditations.

“A lady called twice to see your Grace this evening,” said the man,
presenting a visiting-card, “and has now called again.”

The Duchess lifted her eyebrows as she lifted the card. “At this
hour?”

“The lady says her business is important, your Grace.”

“What business—-?” here her eyes fell on the card, and a swift
alteration of expression changed her into a different and harder
woman. “Ask Mademoiselle Aksakoff to join me here,” she ordered
abruptly.

The sword had not yet dropped, but the hair could not suspend it much
longer. Katinka was in England, in London, in her house. And
Demetrius? What of him? Why had he not come also? Leah asked herself
these questions with brutal directness, resolved to shirk nothing of
the imminent danger. After the first dash of dismay her nerves braced
themselves for the ordeal, and she advanced to greet Mademoiselle
Aksakoff with a conventional smile, meaning nothing and yet
everything. This gave place to an amazed look when she beheld the
haggard antagonist with whom she had to cross swords.

“My–dear–girl! What have you been doing with yourself?”

She might well ask. Katinka was no longer the demure nun, but a
fierce, goaded creature of the feline tribe. Dressed quietly in
unrelieved black, hatted, cloaked, and gloved, she presented the
appearance of one sorely tried in the fiery furnace of affliction, and
less lucky than Daniel’s brethren. That thin worn face, those hollow
eyes, the wry mouth, the dark hair plentifully bestreaked with
grey–she was demoralised, uncanny, and aggressively cruel. In a flash
the Duchess knew that this untimely visitor knew the truth, and was
prepared to do battle. No quarter would be given by Katinka Aksakoff,
and Leah, with a deep breath, braced herself for an Armageddon duel.
The contrast between the dowdy Russian girl and the magnificently
arrayed woman lay entirely in the garb; otherwise they were cats of
the wildest. Their faces took on a marked resemblance; a stealthy,
cunning, sly, guarded expression effaced their ordinary looks. If
Katinka’s eyes gleamed dangerously, so did those of Leah; if Leah held
herself like a pantheress about to spring, so did Katinka. In that
splendid room two pre-historic creatures were about to fight over the
male. Here indeed was woman, the female of man. Civilisation was
nowhere.

“You know why I have come?” asked Katinka, in a voice as hard as her
eyes, and those might have been fashioned of granite.

Leah, with flattened ears, so to speak, professed ignorance. She did
not intend to criticise until fully aware of facts. A shake of her
head conveyed the denial and brought forth one bitter word.

“Liar!”

The Duchess glanced towards the door, remembering that the servants
had not yet retired and might be within earshot.

“Would you mind speaking in a lower tone?” she suggested between her
teeth, for the insult struck home.

“Sit down,” ordered Katinka, imperiously.

“I prefer to stand,” retorted her antagonist, fighting for the inch.

Mademoiselle Aksakoff advanced one step and her eyes probed those of
the Duchess. Without words the situation was adjusted, and in Leah’s
favour, for the Russian suddenly sat down with a quick, indrawn
breath. By that action the woman who had done the wrong knew that she
was the stronger of the two, and a tyrannical instinct to bully the
weak rose hotly in her breast.

“What do you mean by coming at this late hour and misbehaving?” she
demanded harshly.

“You know well what I mean.”

“Pardon me, I never profess to understand the vagaries of a madwoman.”

At this brutal speech Katinka’s hand shot into her pocket, but Leah
did not move.

“A weapon?” she asked sneeringly; “that would be quite in keeping with
your blatant nationality. Foreigners are so fond of the melodramatic.”

The girl withdrew her hand quietly. “You are too poor a creature to
kill, Lady James.”

Leah smiled at the old title, and passed the remark with a
contemptuous shrug.

“Later on, perhaps–who knows?”

“Who indeed? It is impossible to foresee what an hysterical lunatic
will do. Do you propose to shoot or stab me, or to blow me up? I
understand that bombs are favoured in your happy country.”

The crude hostility of the speech was plainly intended to infuriate
the Slav-woman, but it missed the mark aimed at. Katinka looked at the
mocker gravely.

“How afraid you are!”

Leah shrugged again; the remark was too futile to be commented upon.

“Yes, you are,” went on the other, a trifle roused; “else you would
have me turned out by your servants.”

“Later on, perhaps–who knows?” repeated the Duchess, using the girl’s
own words; then continued soothingly, “No; I shall not call the
servants and make a scandal, since your father is my friend.”

“Your accomplice, Lady James.”

“What an unpleasant word, and how very unsuitable!”

“For what you did in Paris.”

“I did nothing in Paris to deserve such a word. Perhaps you mean
something else. You foreigners know the grammar of English, but rarely
the meaning of words. I remarked the same defect in your father.”

“I have no father.”

“Indeed, I have not yet heard of his death.”

“Your misunderstanding of my meaning is pretence.”

“Ignorance, I assure you. And as it grows late and I am tired, may I
ask you to explain your business?”

“I can do so in one word–Demetrius.” Katinka rose to give full force
of expression to the name, and her voice rose with the utterance.

Leah remained perfectly calm, and indulged in badinage. “Demetrius? Oh
yes, that horrid little man with the waxed moustache: a doctor or a
chemist, wasn’t he?”

“Your lover!”

“Oh no. I have no use for that sort of person; if I had I should
certainly not pick one out of the gutter. Demetrius? Yes,” she went on
musingly, but watchful of her enemy, “I had almost forgotten him. He
went to St. Petersburg, didn’t he? And you loved him, I remember. A
queer choice I thought at the time. Well, have you married him?”

“It grows late and you are tired,” mocked Katinka, successfully
keeping her temper, and thereby disappointing the Duchess; “we had
better not waste time.”

Leah yawned. “It seems to me that we have been doing nothing else
since you came in.”

“Demetrius is in England.”

“Really! How very interesting! As doctor or Prince?”

“As an escaped Siberian felon.”

“No!” Leah’s face assumed a skilful expression of mingled pity and
horror. “Poor little man! He was mad to go to Russia. I thought so
when I read his letter, which I sent you.”

“The forged letter.”

“Don’t be silly; one would think you were on the stage.”

Katinka bit her lip to prevent furious speech, and locked her arms
behind her as though she feared lest temper should engender violence.
Leah noted her expression, however, and retreated towards the bell.

“You are talking nonsense,” she said coldly, “and much as I respect
your father, I shall certainly summon, the servants to put you out
unless you go at once.”

“I shall not go, and you shall not order your servants to put me out,”
cried Katinka, fiercely. “I defy you to press the button of the bell.”

With a feeling that the girl had scored on this occasion Leah withdrew
her hand, making the usual excuse: “For your father’s sake I spare you
the indignity.”

“I repeat that I have no father.”

“And I repeat that I am tired. What do you want?”

“You must arrange with me to see Constantine.”

“Who is Constantine?”

“You know.”

“I do not.”

“You do.”

Their eyes met, and this time Leah won the victory over a woman
obviously worn out.

“Constantine is Demetrius,” explained the Russian, in a fatigued voice
and closing her eyes. “Oh, my God!” She dropped into her seat with a
low wail and covered her face.

Leah heard the clock strike the half-hour through the sobs of her
visitor. She was absolutely sure that Katinka was at her mercy, and
wished to dismiss her, beaten and crushed. But first it was necessary
to learn why Demetrius had not come also. Leah moved swiftly towards
the broken creature, and laid a firm hand on her heaving shoulder.

“My dear—-”

She got no further. With the elusive spring of a wild animal Katinka
flung off the hand, reared, and struck out. The blow fell fairly on
Leah’s mouth, and she found herself mopping up the blood of a
deeply-cut lip before she had any clear idea of what had taken place.

“Oh, you liar, you beast, you devil!” cried the Russian, with the
savagery of a Kalmuck tent-woman. “I could kill you–kill you.”

“Mad,” mumbled Leah, with the lace handkerchief to her lips.

“I am sane,” retorted the other, swiftly. “I know all. You lured
Constantine to Paris; you sold him to my father to hide your
iniquity. I saw Helfmann the spy; do you hear–the spy! I bribed him;
it took months to bribe him, but in the end I bought the truth. My
father–shame to my father–drugged Constantine at your table, and
Helfmann as a sham doctor took him to Havre, to Kronstadt, to Moscow.
The Grand Duke Sergius”–here she spat when mentioning the hated
name–“yes, he, that beast of beasts, sent him to Siberia for life;
ar-r-r–for life! do you hear, Judas, Jezebel, animal that you are! I
followed there; I followed the man I loved—-”

“And who did not love you,” muttered the Duchess, rocking with the
pain of her swollen and bleeding lips. She had seated herself by this
time, and did not seek to stem the torrents of insults.

“And why?” Katinka flung back her head and her nostrils dilated.
“Because you stole his heart that he might do your evil bidding. But
he loves me now–with all his heart and soul he loves me now. I went
to Tomsk to aid his escape; I followed to Sakhalin. I waited and
waited, eating my heart out. Oh, my heart!” she laid her hand on her
breast; “oh, my breaking heart! We escaped–he did–I did; we escaped.
Do you hear, you who sold him? There were months of terror and sorrow
and cruel cold. But God was good; He was kinder than man, more
merciful than you, who damned a soul to that frozen hell. God–the
good God, whom I adore and worship,” she fell on her knees, striking
her hands together–“He aided us to reach the waiting ship of Strange,
and—-”

“Strange!” Leah rose, shaken and sick. “Strange!”

Katinka leaped up to face her. “The man you bribed with six thousand
pounds to take your sin on his soul. I know all about your wickedness;
Strange knows; Constantine knows. We will tell the world what we know;
and you, shamed, disgraced, beaten, hounded out of your world–ah,
down will you fall–fall–unless—-”

“Unless?” Leah, gripping a chair and swaying, looked up. “Unless?”

“You come to Southend to see Constantine.”

“I refuse.”

“Then I tell everything. I go to your husband.” Leah, in spite of her
pain, laughed at the idea. “I go to your police. I tell—-”

“Stop, I shall come, since you insist upon it.”

“I do–Constantine likewise. He is ill–very ill; his eyes are blinded
by the glare of the snows whither you sent him; he is–oh, my poor
angel, my patient saint!–he is—-” Stopping abruptly, she looked
with an evil eye at the woman she had so shamefully marked. “I will
leave you to see the wreck you have made of him. You will come?”

The Duchess nodded. “But I can explain all,” she mumbled.

“Explain it, then, to Constantine,” said her enemy, contemptuously. “I
go now. Meet me to-morrow at Liverpool Street Station–at the barrier.
We can go to Southend by the five o’clock train. Constantine is on
board Strange’s ship, which lies off Southend.”

“Ah! Then you mean to—-”

“Carry you away? No; you are not worth it.”

Leah’s indomitable courage, quelled for the moment, blazed up
fiercely. She forgot her pain, her disfigured mouth, and faced Katinka
in a blind rage. “You–you—-” she clenched her hands, and panted
like a spent runner. “You have said all; I agree to all.”

The Russian looked at the wounded mouth with a cruel, calm smile, then
sauntered deliberately to the door. There she smiled still more
serenely, pointed a mocking finger at her enemy’s wry mouth, and
slipped away without a word, and almost without a sound.

Leah sprang to the mirror. Had this woman marred her beauty? The mouth
was swollen, the lips still bleeding; there were wounds within and
without, and a rather loose tooth. Leah could have howled aloud at the
shame, the humiliation of her defeat. That she should be struck,
beaten, mastered–she of all women; she–she! “Ar-r-r! Augh!” she
cried, but softly, mindful of danger. Then the thought came to her
that she would have to account for her damaged mouth, and with the
thought came enlightenment. Passing quickly out of the room, she
ascended the stairs rapidly to her room. Half-way up she stumbled and
fell. The footman, hearing the fall, ran up and lifted her. He saw
that her mouth was bleeding. Natural enough–oh, perfectly natural!
“It’s them beastly long trains,” explained the footman in the servants’
hall.