My luck holds

“Oh, it’s lovely, lovely, lovely!” sang Joan Tallentire, clapping her
hands, and whirling dervish-fashion around the room.

A radiant day or so in Paris had acted on her as sunshine acts on a
flower, when the petals expand, the colour deepens, and the perfume
exhales. What observer, casual or close, would have recognised in this
eager-eyed and sparkling girl the timid companion of Lady Canvey? For
weeks she had associated with the octogenarian; many months had she
superintended the well-being of pauper hags in Lambeth slums; and in
the nursing of an ailing mother many precious years had been expended.
No wonder the fire of being burnt low; no marvel that for long the
eyes had lacked lustre and the cheeks colour. It was truly a case of
the old eating the young–stealing by contact, as it were, the
vitality of youth to reanimate waning life.

Now Lady Jim, playing fairy-godmother, had transformed this
Cinderella, and the grub of Lambeth soared a splendid dragon-fly. The
spring, long delayed in its coming, sang in her veins. With
stimulating company, amidst novel surroundings, and with tempting food
for satisfying physical and moral appetites, came the renascent
period. Joan felt the burden of artificial years slip from her
shoulders; her quick blood, responding to its environments, rose to
fever heat. One cloud alone necked the sunshine of pleasure’s dawn.

“I wish Lionel was here,” she sighed.

“A Pagan in the temple, a Jew in the church,” said Lady Jim,
shrugging. “My dear, Paris was invented for clergymen to rail at, not
to enjoy.”

“Lionel is not narrow-minded, Lady James. He approves of innocent
amusements.”

“Magic-lanterns and penny readings. I fear Paris cannot supply those
dissipations. You can enjoy them under the honeymoon. Meanwhile Mr.
Askew is less exacting and more amusing.”

“There is no one like Lionel–no one.”

“I grant that, else would the world be innocent and dull.”

Joan pursed up her pretty lips and wrinkled a smooth brow. “I don’t
understand that,” said she, meditatively.

“No,” assented Leah, with a slow and somewhat envious look; “you never
will.”

“Why not?”

“I could give you fifty reasons, but three will do. You are good and
kind and healthy-minded to excess–an angel, whose white wings flutter
above the mire in which we bipeds grovel. Quite the wife for our
unsophisticated padre. St. Sebastian and St. Cecilia–surely a
marriage arranged in heaven.”

Miss Tallentire could not quite follow Leah’s flights–not an
infrequent occurrence. Nevertheless, her intuition espied a
compliment.

“Do you really mean that?”

“As I rarely mean anything. Let me be candid for once, since we
converse in the nursery, and say that I respect Lionel and I respect
you.”

“I would rather have love,” suggested the girl, timidly.

Leah touched her breast with eight finger-tips. “From—-” Then in
response to an answering blush: “My dear, I love no one but myself.”

“I can’t believe that, or you would not have bothered to bring me to
Paris.”

“Merely the desire for a new sensation. I assure you, as Lionel
assured me, that all my virtues spring from the Ego.”

“What is the Ego?”

“Leah Kaimes in this instance.”

“I don’t think you are selfish,” persisted Joan; “if you really and
truly were, you would not say so.”

“Oh, but I should; that is my refined form of self-love. When I cry
aloud my imperfections, I receive some such compliment as you have
paid. Then little god Ego, sitting within my breast, sniffs up the
incense.”

“In that case I am selfish, too. I like to be told nice things.”

“And to be given nice things, such as—- Well, I expect Lionel, in
spite of clerical propriety, can explain better than I, and,” added
Lady Jim, mischievously, “in dumb show. My dear, your Ego is shaped
like a good young padre; you are merged in Lionel–swallowed up, as
some one’s rod swallowed up some one else’s. I suppose now”–Leah
nursed her knees with clasped hands–“I suppose when you marry St.
Sebastian, you will be wildly happy in a dull country rectory, wearing
twice-turned gowns and last year’s hats, and fussing after old women
and grubby village urchins, with your husband’s sermons for relaxation
when penny readings pall.”

“Quite happy,” assented Joan, laughing at the over-coloured
picture–“with Lionel, of course.”

“As I say: your Ego is his Ego. Dear!” and Lady Jim dropped two
impulsive kisses on her companion’s cheeks. Joan wondered at this
uninvited display of affection, and wondered still more when Leah
turned away with a somewhat bitter laugh. Perhaps, had she guessed the
truth, her sympathy would have extended to this woman, whom self-love
isolated from humanity.

It pleased Leah to pose as this simple maid’s providence, and on the
whole she sustained her deity excellently. Many a time did she check
her free-spoken and sharp tongue, lest Joan should feel hurt, or
become precociously enlightened about those sins which are dubbed
idiosyncrasies in society. The amusements provided were primitive and
commonplace, as befitted the retirement of a newly made widow and
uncultured débutante tastes. Drives in the Bois; visits to the
Louvre, to Versailles, to Notre Dame–on the tail of Hugo’s
romance–to Père Lachaise; many inspections of many delightful shops,
one concert at least, and the exploration of places which had to do
with the picturesque history of France filtered through Baedeker and
Murray. Leah, unused to bread and milk, thought the majority of these
outings insipid; but Joan enjoyed them immensely, and wondered at
Continental dissipation. Her ignorance credited Leah with loving, and
invariably leading, this Cook’s-tourist life when abroad; and that
lady laughed frequently, in the seclusion of her bedroom, at the idea
of being limited to nursery geography. Nevertheless, she did not
undeceive her ingénue; the bloom, if she could prevent it, should
not be brushed too early from this peach. Which reticence and
determination showed that Lady Jim had in her some soul of that
goodness which lives in things evil.

Askew duly arrived forty-eight hours later, so that his meeting with
Leah might appear unexpected. He called daily at the Hotel Henri
Trois, and on a hint from Lady Jim devoted attention to Joan the maid.
Leah herself philandered in a business-like way with M. Aksakoff, who,
strange to say, followed Askew’s trail on important business. Lady Jim
enjoyed many interesting conversations with him, dealing with a quiet
obliteration of Demetrius, if he should by any chance walk into the
trap. Joan and her cavalier, good surface readers, did not guess at
the elements working below, and so danced unsuspectingly on a volcano.
The fickle sailor was now lukewarm in his affections, and, as Leah
purposed dropping him gradually as soon as Demetrius was on his way to
Siberia, she was not ill pleased to watch red-hot passion cool to
ashen-grey friendship. Certainly it still remained to withhold him
from seeking a foreign wife over-seas, but she postponed schemes of
prevention pending the disposal of immediate troubles. Sometimes it
occurred to her that Askew, a man of tow like all sailors, might catch
fire from contact with Joan; but, player as she was with the hearts
and brains of men, she cherished sufficient friendship for Lionel to
forgo a possible spoiling of his sober romance. There was little
danger that Miss Tallentire would exchange Church for Navy, but that
the juxtaposition of an artless maid and an inflammable bachelor might
not breed fickleness, Lady Jim wrote a letter. “Why not come over and
escort us back to town?” ran this epistle. “Also, in Paris you will
assuredly find material for a sermon on the wickedness of that great
city Nineveh,–I believe you parsons give Western towns Eastern names,
when you wish to abuse them–to avoid libel actions, maybe.” Then
followed the mention of the rope to drag this clerical lover across
Channel. “Do come, if only to see how Joan enjoys the society of Mr.
Askew.”

The expected happened on the fifth day of Lady Jim’s sojourn in Paris,
when, shortly after noon, Demetrius, obviously disordered in dress and
mind, presented himself in the character of a bolt from the blue.
Luckily, Askew was translating to Joan the Luxor hieroglyphics in the
vicinity of the Place de la Concorde Obelisk, so that she had an hour
to explain away the rumours which had undoubtedly brought him over.
When the sitting-room door clicked behind him–he facing her with
black looks–she drew a deep breath to brace for the fight, and heard,
what he did not, the snick of prison bolts shot home. So far, lured by
the will-o’-the-wisp, jealousy, he had followed recklessly the
dangerous path; now it remained for her to conduct him to the
precipice, over which she and Aksakoff intended he should be thrown. A
trifle of acting was necessary to reassure the venturesome and perhaps
suspicious traveller.

“M. Demetrius! Are you mad?”

“Not Constantine, then.” He panted like a spent runner, and his face
twisted in a wry smile.

“What do you mean?”

Demetrius dropped heavily into the nearest chair, and sent angry,
inquiring glances into every corner. “Where is he?”

“Where is who?”

“Oh, madame”–he became sarcastic here–“you know very well, I think.”

“I know nothing, save that you are foolish to venture into Paris,
where there is a price on your head. M. Aksakoff is here, too; if he
knew–if he guessed.”

“Well, what matter? I have run greater risks for lesser reasons.”

“Yet they must be strong ones in the present instance, to make you
enter the bear’s den.”

“I have one reason for my venture, madame–you; and another–Mr.
Askew; not to speak of a third–this marriage at your Embassy.”

“I can understand the first; the second may be explained by wholly
unnecessary jealousy; but the final one–this marriage you speak of?”

“Between yourself and Mr. Askew.”

Lady Jim stared, then laughed good-humouredly. “My dear Constantine,
the idea is too ridiculous.”

“I have the news on good authority.”

“Which is the last authority you should believe. Mr. Askew is
certainly here; but not, I believe, in the character of a bridegroom.”

“Mrs. Penworthy—-”

“Oh!” Leah’s scorn was worthy of the great Sarah. “Mrs.–Penworthy?”

“She told me that you came here; that Mr. Askew followed—-”

“Forty-eight hours later. Quite correct.”

“And that you intended to marry him at the British Embassy.”

“Really! I never knew that Mrs. Penworthy was imaginative.”

“It is not true!” His eye probed her.

She did not flinch. “You must be mad to think so.”

“It is not true?” he persisted.

“You yourself have denied the truth of it twice. Mr. Askew at this
moment dances round Miss Tallentire’s skirts. Would I permit that,
if—-? Oh, ridiculous! You men swallow camels.”

Her dupe rose to pace the room, and to pour out the anger of many
brooding hours. “It is not true–ah, if I could only be sure of that.
This woman–this Mrs. Penworthy–she swore–swore–that you–that
you—-” He choked, flung himself headlong to where she smiled
contemptuous, and seized her hands vehemently. “Swear that it is
false!” He dropped on his knees, almost tearful.

“I do swear,” rejoined Leah, disengaging her wrists. “You can take Mr.
Askew back to London if you like. He is engaged to marry a lady in
South America. There is nothing between us–nothing. A flirtation,
yes; banter and pretty smiles, idle nothings and surface
conversations.” She smoothed back his hair and smiled playfully. “Am I
marrying Othello?”

“You are so beautiful,” he muttered, wavering.

“In your eyes, no doubt. Mr. Askew prefers brunettes south of the
Equator. But!”–she rose suddenly, as though she spurned him–but “I
prefer trust. I am angry–yes, very angry. Oh, that you should doubt
me–doubt me!” Her tragic assertion was admirable.

“I do not–I do not”; and he still grovelled, catching at her dress.

“Your presence here proves otherwise. Mr. Askew, indeed–a general
lover, a volatile sailor with a wife in every port for all I know. Can
you not credit me with more exclusive tastes?”

“He is handsome,” muttered the still suspicious doctor, and rose,
brushing his knees mechanically.

“Is he? So you think I am to be won by looks, like a schoolmiss in her
teens”; she looked at his sharp white face, and laughed cruelly. “That
I am engaged to you should prove differently.”

He scarcely heeded her. “Swear! Swear!” and his eyes flamed.

Leah, calculating the effect, lost her temper. “I shall in a moment,”
she cried angrily. “The most patient of women–of whom I am not
one–have their limits. Why do you allow jealousy to overrule common
sense, when the position is so plain? You fixed your price and
fulfilled your part of the bargain. Am I, I ask you, free to play you
this trick of a hasty marriage, when you can expose me as privy to a
fraud? You see that I do not mince matters; I speak plainly, do I not?
You have all the winning cards, and can compel me to become your wife,
even if I dissented. Why, then, do you come here on a fool’s errand?”

“But I love you so,” he protested piteously.

“And love, being blind, makes you stumble into danger. I think you had
better return to England by the night train.”

“Am I to leave you with Mr. Askew?”

“Oh, take him with you; I gave you permission before. And pray don’t
make scenes–I dislike them.”

“Then I am wrong?”

“Faugh! If you doubt my word, perhaps you will take Mr. Askew’s. He
will be here soon with Miss Tallentire. I decline to defend a position
which requires no defence.”

A shrug ended this speech, and this, in conjunction with the anger
brightening her hard blue eyes, reduced him to profuse apologies.

“But indeed, my soul, you should not be enraged; that I should risk
what I do risk surely proves my love for you.”

“You have proved it before by getting me the insurance money,” she
replied impatiently; “pray return at once. I can see you in Curzon
Street when I return on Tuesday.”

“Then you promise to marry me.”

“Yes!” Leah heaved a sigh of exhaustion. “How often do you wish me to
say so? Even if you remain Dr. Demetrius I am bound to become your
wife, seeing that you hold my reputation in your hands. Though of
course,” she added sweetly, “I expect to be Princess Constantine
Demetrius.”

“I am willing–believe me, I am willing,” he stuttered, now quite
positive that Mrs. Penworthy was a liar of the worst. “Aksakoff—-”

“What of him?”

“Did you not say that he would aid me to regain my position, if I gave
up Katinka?”

“He said something like that,” she rejoined carelessly, and wondering
why at this moment he recalled the proposition. “But I rather fancy
his offer was merely to leave you alone.”

Demetrius looked silently at the carpet. Leah watched him with a
doubtful look, on her guard against complications. He looked up
suddenly, and with rather a shamed face. “Certainly I could secure the
services of Mademoiselle Aksakoff,” he murmured; “but it seems cruel
to use her influence and then to leave her. She loves me. Ah, yes, she
loves me very truly, and I–I treat her most badly.”

“If you think so, why not make amends and marry her?”

“Because I love you, and at great risk I have bought you.” He glared
at her savagely. “I refuse to let you go; you are mine–mine.”

“I never denied that,” said Lady Jim, dryly; “but I really cannot
accompany you to Siberia, and if you remain here—-”

“Wait!” He flung up an imperative hand. “I shall see Aksakoff.”

This sounded almost too good to be true, and Leah doubted. “No!”

“Yes. Ah, my adored, I know how you feel for my safety”; his voice
took on a caressing tone. “But–it is nothing”; he brushed away
imaginary danger with a rapid gesture. “I shall see him. I shall
plainly surrender Katinka, and then–then, when he knows that we–you
and I–are to marry, he will interest himself with the Czar, on
our–you mark me, my angel–on our behalf.”

“It’s a mad idea, impracticable. You dare not trust Aksakoff.”

“Ah, bah! He will not arrest me publicly–he cannot. The scandal–the
diplomatic storm–the newspapers. No, no!–it is too absurd.
Besides”–he shrugged–“this tender father will repay me if I give his
daughter to understand that we can never marry. He desires her to be
the Countess Paul Petrovitch.”

“Hum!” said Lady Jim, rejoicing that the prisoner should thus lock
himself in and pitch the key out of the window. “M. Aksakoff hinted
something of this to me at Monte Carlo.”

“Then you can see–then you must understand,” Demetrius gesticulated
excitedly. “Should I surrender Mademoiselle–if I write a letter stating
that I do not love, that there can by no means be marriage–Aksakoff will
help me, help you, help us both.”

“As Prince and Princess Demetrius. Yes, I see. And yet–the risk.”

“There is no risk, publicly. And to snare me in secret–no. I am
wary–oh, most wary; no one can trap me. I swear to you, no one.”

“Demetrius,” said Leah, as gravely as her delight would let her, “you have
done me a service, which I repay with my hand in marriage. I do not love
you as I ought to, but love may come with the honeymoon. Still, even
now, I have sufficient affection for you to wish for your safety.
Supposing”–she laid an anxious hand on his arm–“supposing M. Aksakoff
played you false, and you were trapped into taking this Siberian
journey–what would I do? Ah, no, my friend; believe me, it is best to
treat with this diplomatist in London. There you are safe; here—-“She
shook her head warningly.

She could not have made a speech, as she very well knew, more likely
to provoke Demetrius into remaining in his enemy’s camp. He had accepted
her disavowal of Mrs. Penworthy’s gossip, and yet, now that she asked
him to go, urged him to depart, even in Askew’s company, his incurable
suspicion made him hesitate. “I shall stay here, and see Aksakoff,” he
announced doggedly.

“Very good,” assented Lady Jim, accepting the fiat. “He is coming to
luncheon; you can speak to him then.”

“Why to luncheon?” asked the doctor, sharply.
“Why not?” demanded Leah, up in arms on the instant. “When we are
married, your enemies shall be my enemies; until then, my friends–of
whom M. Aksakoff is one–shall be my own.” She became less imperative
in her speech and looks, dropping to a conversational tone. “If you
must know, Katinka asked her father to call while he was in Paris. I
could not do less than ask him to luncheon, could I?”

A less clever woman would have made a less frivolous excuse, and,
despite his cleverness, Demetrius was gulled into accepting the false
as genuinely true.

“You will permit that I go to brush my clothes–to remove the dust of
travel,” he asked politely. “I return soon to meet M. Aksakoff.”

“Half-past two is the time,” said Leah, with a careless glance at the
gimcrack clock on the mantelpiece; “and perhaps it will be safer for you
to meet him in my presence at my table. He can scarcely arrest you there.
One moment,” as Demetrius turned to go with a hasty bow. “Mention our
engagement to him privately. I do not wish Miss Tallentire to know, as
she would probably tell Lionel Kaimes, and then the family–very rightly
too–would be shocked.”

“You can always depend upon my discretion, madame,” murmured the doctor,
bowing over her hand, and brusquely departed with the air of a
conqueror.

Lady Jim rubbed the kiss from her hand with vehemence, and flew to the
window, where she watched as eagerly as Sister Anne on Bluebeard’s
castle-top. The dapper little figure emerged from the grand portal, and
strutted victoriously down the street. Leah nodded complacently. He was
now in the toils, and, moreover, was voluntarily binding himself in
bonds. All the better; there could be no compunction on her part in
betraying such a heedless fool. If he would insist upon letting his
jealous heart govern his usually wise head, it was impolitic to prevent
him. With sudden thankfulness Lady Jim fished out of her pocket a ruffled
peacock’s feather.

“My luck holds–it holds,” said she, kissing the fetish; “you always
bring me luck–dear–dear,” and she kissed again.

This religious ceremony ended, the fortunate lady looked again at the
clock. It was five minutes past one. Sitting down at a side-table she
wrote a note, sealed it, and delivered it to an obsequious waiter, with
directions for its delivery at the Russian Embassy. “And lay two extra
places at luncheon,” she ordered; “two gentlemen are coming.”

In this way M. Aksakoff had the unexpected pleasure of partaking of
Lady Jim’s hospitality.