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HOME > Classical Novels > White Motley > CHAPTER XIX THE THIEF
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Lily closed her day upon a resolution to set off to Maggiore early on the following morning. She arrived at a decision reluctantly, and each hour made the self-appointed task more difficult. It had seemed heroic when first contemplated—a tribute to duty, and a very real sacrifice; but as the hours sped, she shrank from it and sought the old excuses. What claim had Luton upon her generosity? She knew that he had none.

As a further obstacle there was the chalet, and the restful days she would abandon so reluctantly.

How pleasant the life might have been in the sunshine of the beautiful valley! Everyone had been so kind to her here. These simple folk, seeking simple pleasures, had shown her a new world and taught her elementary truths of which her own philosophy made no account. She thought that she knew them all as friends already; the admirable doctor; little Bess, who was the good fairy of the Palace; the boys, with their tales of woe; the girls, who devoted the interludes to the measurement of imaginary carpets. And then, to be remembered before them all, was there not Benny, the incomparable Benny, a creature so unlike any she had ever known that he came to her as a very apostle of a new revelation?

Here was a prophet, who had been without honour yesterday, but who stood to-night upon the brink of that kingdom of success which few may enter. A woman of the world, she understood what all this might mean to the honest fellow who had befriended her so staunchly. She saw him fêted and honoured, grown rich in an hour, a leader among men. Her perception discovered the soul of the man, that soul which a woman—perhaps but one woman in all the world—might fathom.

What ironical destiny had brought these two together? She reflected upon it, contrasting him with others she had known, the ornaments of her world and the drones. Many of these would hardly enter a room which harboured Benny to-night, but she knew that they would fawn upon him to-morrow, for such are the concessions of sycophants to success. He in turn would come to despise the humbler circles in which he had moved and to lose some of those rare qualities which were his strength. Of one thing, however, she had no doubt, and it was this—that a woman's love would be necessary to such a career as his, and that without it mere material success might carry him but a little way.

She had not answered Luton's letter, and it was still unanswered when she went to bed at half-past eleven. The plateau of Andana, usually so still after ten o'clock, then echoed the music of the sleigh bells with a persistence almost intolerable. She heard the cries of workmen, the lumbering of heavy vehicles, the muffled sounds of hammering. And all this contrasted so strangely with the great mountains across the valley, where the moon shone clear upon the giant Weisshorn, and the lesser peaks paid to the greater the homage of a glorious iridescence. A white and silent world it was, mocking the ambitions of men—yet not of all men, for would not one conquer them to-morrow? Such ambition appealed to her womanly instincts unerringly. She trembled when she made the silent confession that this man loved her, but that his love would remain unspoken to the end.

It would have been about one o'clock when the last of the sleighs arrived at the Palace Hotel, and a little later when the workmen had finished their labours. She sank to a dreamless sleep about this time, but awoke almost immediately with the conviction that someone had entered the chalet. A vague intuition of unwonted sounds set her heart beating and held her almost breathless. Someone had entered the little sitting-room, and was not twenty paces from the bed in which she lay. She could hear the man's footsteps as he crossed the room, and believing that he was at her own door she began to tremble violently. A realisation of her lonely situation afflicted her with a sense of inevitability which robbed her of every shred of her courage. She lay quite still, afraid to move a hand. The silence of the night without surpassed belief.

The man had crossed the room and was now at her writing-table. She could hear the rustle of papers and the click as of a lock. In a sense this was a relief, and gave her the necessary respite. She began to remember how unlikely it was that any thief would visit so poor a house as this chalet, or, if he did visit it, would trouble himself about letters. The excellent reputation well earned by the people of Andana occurred to her, and would have reassured her but for the alternative. For if this man were not a common thief, what then? Instantly she recalled the affair at Vermala, and a new fear came upon her. Yes, she understood it all in an instant and, creeping from her bed, she dressed herself with tremulous fingers.

Surely the man must hear her and take alarm. This was her idea as her clothes rustled in her hand, and her tiny feet shuffled upon the polished boards. The man would hear her and burst through the folding doors presently. When, however, he made no sign, she became a little emboldened, and being now quite dressed, she went to the interstice of the doors and looked through. Then she perceived her husband's valet, Paul Lacroix, who was searching her writing-table by the aid of an electric torch, whose aureole fell weirdly upon the scattered papers.

Paul Lacroix! That it should be he! She remembered that she had last seen him at Holmswell on the eve of the debacle. He had always been a silent, civil fellow whom it was a pleasure to have in the house. Luton, she knew, trusted him entirely, and the others gave a very good account of him. When the crash came, he had followed his master without complaint, to Africa and then to the East. She believed him staunch, and would have named him as one of the few in her own house who had done his duty loyally both to master and to mistress. And here he was at Andana, prying among her papers! The very fact robbed her of all fear and, opening the door immediately, she asked him what he was doing.

He was a man of the middle height, clean-shaven, and with crisp black hair, which contrasted sharply with a very pale face. It may be that he was not unprepared for interruption; for he merely looked up as Lily entered, and then, shutting down the desk with a click, he held his hand upon it while he answered her.

"Madame," he said, "I am seeking Sir Luton's address."

The effrontery of it astonished her. She switched on the electric light and came a little further into the room.

"You are seeking my husband's address, but why did you not come to me?"

He smiled a little contemptuously.

"I did not come, Madame, because you would not have given me what I wanted."

There was a threat here, and she could not mistake it. The peril of her situation occurred to her immediately. He had offered no opposition when she switched on the light; he knew, then, that she dare not summon assistance, and was content with the knowledge for his security.

"I do not understand you," she said with wonder. "Why are you not with Sir Luton?"

He laughed openly.

"You know that, Madame—you and the other. Why do you ask me the question?"

She thought upon it, trying to recall the account of the flight as it had been given to her.

"You were to go to Paris," she said presently, "you were to await Sir Luton there?"

He did not deny it. His shoulders were lifted in a characteristic gesture, his hands outspread when he rejoined:

"But, Madame, my master will never go to Paris—not while the police of Switzerland are looking for him."

She began to breathe as one distressed. Little had been said, but that was sufficient. She knew the character of this man now; there was no need to ask another question.

"Be plain," she said, after an interval of hesitation, "what is your object, what do you mean by this intrusion?"

He bowed his head.

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