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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 50/65 -
To Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, it was stated by Coombe that Fraulein Hirsch had been called back to Germany by family complications. That august orders should recall Count Von Hillern, was easily understood. Such magnificent persons never shone upon society for any length of time.
That Feather had been making a country home visit when her daughter had faced tragedy was considered by Lord Coombe as a fortunate thing.
"We will not alarm Mrs. Gareth-Lawless by telling her what has occurred," he said to Mademoiselle Valle. "What we most desire is that no one shall suspect that the hideous thing took place. A person who was forgetful or careless might, unintentionally, let some word escape which--"
What he meant, and what Mademoiselle Valle knew he meant--also what he knew she knew he meant--was that a woman, who was a heartless fool, without sympathy or perception, would not have the delicacy to feel that the girl must be shielded, and might actually see a sort of ghastly joke in a story of Mademoiselle Valle's sacrosanct charge simply walking out of her enshrining arms into such a "galere" as the most rackety and adventurous of pupils could scarcely have been led into. Such a point of view would have been quite possible for Feather--even probable, in the slightly spiteful attitude of her light mind.
"She was away from home. Only you and I and Dowie know," answered Mademoiselle.
"Let us remain the only persons who know," said Coombe. "Robin will say nothing."
They both knew that. She had been feverish and ill for several days and Dowie had kept her in bed saying that she had caught cold. Neither of the two women had felt it possible to talk to her. She had lain staring with a deadly quiet fixedness straight before her, saying next to nothing. Now and then she shuddered, and once she broke into a mad, heart-broken fit of crying which she seemed unable to control.
"Everything is changed," she said to Dowie and Mademoiselle who sat on either side of her bed, sometimes pressing her head down onto a kind shoulder, sometimes holding her hand and patting it. "I shall be afraid of everybody forever. People who have sweet faces and kind voices will make me shake all over. Oh! She seemed so kind--so kind!"
It was Dowie whose warm shoulder her face hidden on this time, and Dowie was choked with sobs she dared not let loose. She could only squeeze hard and kiss the "silk curls all in a heap"--poor, tumbled curls, no longer a child's!
"Aye, my lamb!" she managed to say. "Dowie's poor pet lamb!"
"It's the knowing that kind eyes--kind ones--!" she broke off, panting. "It's the KNOWING! I didn't know before! I knew nothing. Now, it's all over. I'm afraid of all the world!"
"Not all, cherie," breathed Mademoiselle.
She sat upright against her pillows. The mirror on a dressing table reflected her image--her blooming tear-wet youth, framed in the wonderful hair falling a shadow about her. She stared at the reflection hard and questioningly.
"I suppose," her voice was pathos itself in its helplessness, "it is because what you once told me about being pretty, is true. A girl who looks like THAT," pointing her finger at the glass, "need not think she can earn her own living. I loathe it," in fierce resentment at some bitter injustice. "It is like being a person under a curse!"
At this Dowie broke down openly and let her tears run fast. "No, no! You mustn't say it or think it, my dearie!" she wept. "It might call down a blight on it. You a young thing like a garden flower! And someone--somewhere--God bless him--that some day'll glory in it--and you'll glory too. Somewhere he is--somewhere!"
"Let none of them look at me!" cried Robin. "I loather them, too. I hate everything--and everybody--but you two--just you two."
Mademoiselle took her in her arms this time when she sobbed again. Mademoiselle knew how at this hour it seemed to her that all her world was laid bare forever more. When the worst of the weeping was over and she lay quiet, but for the deep catching breaths which lifted her breast in slow, childish shudders at intervals, she held Mademoiselle Valle's hand and looked at her with a faint, wry smile.
"You were too kind to tell me what a stupid little fool I was when I talked to you about taking a place in an office!" she said. "I know now that you would not have allowed me to do the things I was so sure I could do. It was only my ignorance and conceit. I can't answer advertisements. Any bad person can say what they choose in an advertisement. If that woman had advertised, she would have described Helene. And there was no Helene." One of the shuddering catches of her breath broke in here. After it, she said, with a pitiful girlishness of regret: "I--I could SEE Helene. I have known so few people well enough to love them. No girls at all. I though--perhaps--we should begin to LOVE each other. I can't bear to think of that--that she never was alive at all. It leaves a sort of empty place."
When she had sufficiently recovered herself to be up again, Mademoiselle Valle said to her that she wished her to express her gratitude to Lord Coombe.
"I will if you wish it," she answered.
"Don't you feel that it is proper that you should do it? Do you not wish it yourself?" inquired Mademoiselle. Robin looked down at the carpet for some seconds.
"I know," she at last admitted, "that it is proper. But I don't wish to do it."
"No?" said Mademoiselle Valle.
Robin raised her eyes from the carpet and fixed them on her.
"It is because of--reasons," she said. "It is part of the horror I want to forget. Even you mayn't know what it has done to me. Perhaps I am turning into a girl with a bad mind. Bad thoughts keep swooping down on me--like great black ravens. Lord Coombe saved me, but I think hideous things about him. I heard Andrews say he was bad when I was too little to know what it meant. Now, I KNOW, I remember that HE knew because he chose to know--of his own free will. He knew that woman and she knew him. HOW did he know her?" She took a forward step which brought her nearer to Mademoiselle. "I never told you but I will tell you now," she confessed, "When the door opened and I saw him standing against the light I--I did not think he had come to save me."
"MON DIEU!" breathed Mademoiselle in soft horror.
"He knows I am pretty. He is an old man but he knows. Fraulein Hirsch once made me feel actually sick by telling me, in her meek, sly, careful way, that he liked beautiful girls and the people said he wanted a young wife and had his eye on me. I was rude to her because it made me so furious. HOW did he know that woman so well? You see how bad I have been made!"
"He knows nearly all Europe. He has seen the dark corners as well as the bright places. Perhaps he has saved other girls from her. He brought her to punishment, and was able to do it because he has been on her track for some time. You are not bad--but unjust. You have had too great a shock to be able to reason sanely just yet."
"I think he will always make me creep a little," said Robin, "but I will say anything you think I ought to say."
On an occasion when Feather had gone again to make a visit in the country, Mademoiselle came into the sitting room with the round window in which plants grew, and Coombe followed her. Robin looked up from her book with a little start and then stood up.
"I have told Lord Coombe that you wish--that I wish you to thank him," Mademoiselle Valle said.
"I came on my own part to tell you that any expression of gratitude is entirely unnecessary," said Coombe.
"I MUST be grateful. I AM grateful." Robin's colour slowly faded as she said it. This was the first time she had seen him since he had supported her down the staircase which mounted to a place of hell.
"There is nothing to which I should object so much as being regarded as a benefactor," he answered definitely, but with entire lack of warmth. "The role does not suit me. Being an extremely bad man," he said it as one who speaks wholly without prejudice, "my experience is wide. I chance to know things. The woman who called herself Lady Etynge is of a class which--which does not count me among its clients. I had put certain authorities on her track--which was how I discovered your whereabouts when Mademoiselle Valle told me that you had gone to take tea with her. Mere chance you see. Don't be grateful to me, I beg of you, but to Mademoiselle Valle."
"Why," faltered Robin, vaguely repelled as much as ever, "did it matter to you?"
"Because," he answered--Oh, the cold inhumanness of his gray eye!--"you happened to live in--this house."
"I thought that was perhaps the reason," she said--and she felt that he made her "creep" even a shade more.
"I beg your pardon," she added, suddenly remembering, "Please sit down."
"Thank you," as he sat. "I will because I have something more to say to you."
Robin and Mademoiselle seated themselves also and listened.
"There are many hideous aspects of existence which are not considered necessary portions of a girl's education," he began.
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