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- Jeanne Of The Marshes - 5/52 -
"What a Goliath!" Engleton remarked.
"I should like to sketch him," the Princess drawled. "His shoulders were magnificent."
But neither of them had any idea that they had spoken with the owner of the Red Hall.
About half-way through dinner that night, Cecil de la Borne drew a long sigh of relief. At last his misgivings were set at rest. His party was going to be, was already, in fact, pronounced, a success. A glance at his fair neighbour, however, who was lighting her third or fourth Russian cigarette since the caviare, sent a shiver of thankfulness through his whole being. What a sensible fellow Andrew had been to clear out. This sort of thing would not have appealed to him at all.
"My dear Cecil," the Princess declared, "I call this perfectly delightful. Jeanne and I have wanted so much to see you in your own home. Jeanne, isn't this nicer, ever so much nicer, than anything you had imagined?"
Jeanne, who was sitting opposite, lifted her remarkable eyes and glanced around with interest.
"Yes," she admitted, "I think that it is! But then, any place that looks in the least like a home is a delightful change after all that rushing about in London."
"I agree with you entirely," Major Forrest declared. "If our friend has disappointed us at all, it is in the absence of that primitiveness which he led us to expect. One perceives that one is drinking Veuve Clicquot of a vintage year, and one suspects the nationality of our host's cook."
"You can have all the primitivism you want if you look out of the windows," Cecil remarked drily. "You will see nothing but a line of stunted trees, and behind, miles of marshes and the greyest sea which ever played upon the land. Listen! You don't hear a sound like that in the cities."
Even as he spoke they heard the dull roar of the north wind booming across the wild empty places which lay between the Red Hall and the sea. A storm of raindrops was flung against the window. The Princess shivered.
"It is an idyll, the last word in the refining of sensations," Major Forrest declared. "You give us sybaritic luxury, and in order that we shall realize it, you provide the background of savagery. In the Carlton one might dine like this and accept it as a matter of course. Appreciation is forced upon us by these suggestions of the wilderness without."
"Not all without, either," Cecil de la Borne remarked, raising his eyeglass and pointing to the walls. "See where my ancestors frown down upon us--you can only just distinguish their bare shapes. No De la Borne has had money enough to have them renovated or even preserved. They have eaten their way into the canvases, and the canvases into the very walls. You see the empty spaces, too. A Reynolds and a Gainsboro' have been cut out from there and sold. I can show you long empty galleries, pictureless, and without a scrap of furniture. We have ghosts like rats, rooms where the curtains and tapestries are falling to pieces from sheer decay. Oh! I can assure you that our primitivism is not wholly external."
He turned from the Princess, who was not greatly interested, to find that for once he had succeeded in riveting the attention of the girl, whose general attitude towards him and the whole world seemed to be one of barely tolerant indifference.
"I should like to see over your house, Mr. De la Borne," she said. "It all sounds very interesting."
"I am afraid," he answered, "that your interest would not survive very long. We have no treasures left, nor anything worth looking at. For generations the De la Bornes have stripped their house and sold their lands to hold their own in the world. I am the last of my race, and there is nothing left for me to sell," he declared, with a momentary bitterness.
"Hadn't you--a half brother?" the Princess asked.
Cecil hesitated for a moment. He had drifted so easily into the position of head of the house. It was so natural. He felt that he filled the place so perfectly.
"I have," he admitted, "but he counts, I am sorry to say, for very little. You are never likely to come across him--nor any other civilized person."
There was a subtle indication in his tone of a desire not to pursue the subject. His guests naturally respected it. There was a moment's silence. Then Cecil once more leaned forward. He hesitated for a moment, even after his lips had parted, as though for some reason he were inclined, after all, to remain silent, but the consciousness that every one was looking at him and expecting him to speak induced him to continue with what, after all, he had suddenly, and for no explicit reason, hesitated to say.
"You spoke, Miss Le Mesurier," he began, "of looking over the house, and, as I told you, there is very little in it worth seeing. And yet I can show you something, not in the house itself, but connected with it, which you might find interesting."
The Princess leaned forward in her chair.
"This sounds so interesting," she murmured. "What is it, Cecil? A haunted chamber?"
Their host shook his head.
"Something far more tangible," he answered, "although in its way quite as remarkable. Hundreds of years ago, smuggling on this coast was not only a means of livelihood for the poor, but the diversion of the rich. I had an ancestor who became very notorious. His name seems to have been a by-word, although he was never caught, or if he was caught, never punished. He built a subterranean way underneath the grounds, leading from the house right to the mouth of one of the creeks. The passage still exists, with great cellars for storing smuggled goods, and a room where the smugglers used to meet."
Jeanne looked at him with parted lips.
"You can show me this?" she asked, "the passage and the cellars?"
"I can," he answered. "Quite a weird place it is, too. The walls are damp, and the cellars themselves are like the vaults of a cathedral. All the time at high tide you can hear the sea thundering over your head. To-morrow, if you like, we will get torches and explore them."
"I should love to," Jeanne declared. "Can you get out now at the other end?"
"The passage," he said, "starts from a room which was once the library, and ends half-way up the only little piece of cliff there is. It is about thirty feet from the ground, but they had a sort of apparatus for pulling up the barrels, and a rope ladder for the men. The preventive officers would see the boat come up the creek, and would march down from the village, only to find it empty. Of course, they suspected all the time where the things went, but they could not prove it, and as my ancestor was a magistrate and an important man they did not dare to search the house."
The Princess sighed gently.
"Those were the days," she murmured, "in which it must have been worth while to live. Things happened then. To-day your ancestor would simply have been called a thief."
"As a matter of fact," Cecil remarked, "I do not think that he himself benefited a penny by any of his exploits. It was simply the love of adventure which led him into it."
"Even if he did," Major Forrest remarked, "that same predatory instinct is alive to-day in another guise. The whole world is preying upon one another. We are thieves, all of us, to the tips of our finger-nails, only our roguery is conducted with due regard to the law."
The Princess smiled faintly as she glanced across the table at the speaker.
"I am afraid," she said, with a little sigh, "that you are right. I do not think that we have really improved with the centuries. My own ancestors sacked towns and held the inhabitants to ransom. To-day I sit down to bridge opposite a man with a well-filled purse, and my one idea is to lighten it. Nothing, I am convinced, but the fear of being found out, keeps us reasonably moral."
"If we go on talking like this," Lord Ronald remarked, "we shall make Miss Le Mesurier nervous. She will feel that we, and the whole of the rest of the world, have our eyes upon her moneybags."
"I am absolutely safe," Jeanne answered smiling. "I do not play bridge, and even my signature would be of no use to any one yet."
"But you might imagine us," Lord Ronald continued, "waiting around breathlessly until the happy time arrived when you were of age, and we could pursue our diabolical schemes."
Jeanne shook her head.
"You cannot frighten me, Lord Ronald," she said. "I feel safe from every one. I am only longing for to-morrow, for a chance to explore this wonderful subterranean passage."
"I am afraid," their host remarked, "that you will be disappointed. With the passing of smuggling, the romance of the thing seems to have died. There is nothing now to look at but mouldy walls, a bare room, and any amount of the most hideous fungi. I can promise you
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