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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 2/5 -


II

Sitting that night in the rooms of Alencon Barre, this question was put to Blake Shorland by his host: "What did Gabrielle say to you as we left, monsieur? And why did she act so, when she saw the portrait? I do not understand English well, and it was not quite clear."

Shorland had a clear conviction that he ought to take Alencon Barre into his confidence. If Gabrielle Rouget should have any special connection with Luke Freeman, there might be need of the active counsel of a friend like this young officer, whose face bespoke chivalry and gentle birth. Better that Alencon Barre should know all, than that he should know in part and some day unwittingly make trouble. So he raised frank eyes to those of the other, and told the story of the man whose portrait had so affected Gabrielle Rouget.

"Monsieur," said he, "I will tell you of this man first, and then it will be easier to answer your questions."

He took the portrait from his pocket, passed it over, and continued. "I received this portrait in a letter from England the day that I left Sydney, as I was getting aboard the boat. I placed it among those papers which you read. It fell out on the floor of the cafe, and you saw the rest. The man whose face is before you there, and who sent that to me, was my best friend in the days when I was at school and college. Afterwards, when a law-student, and, still later, when I began to practise my profession, we lived together in a rare old house at Fulham, with high garden walls and--but I forget, you do not know London perhaps. Yes? Well, the house is neither here nor there; but I like to think of those days and of that home. Luke Freeman--that was my friend's name-- was an artist and a clever one. He had made a reputation by his paintings of Egyptian and Algerian life. He was brilliant and original, an indefatigable worker. Suddenly, one winter, he became less industrious, fitful in his work, gloomy one day and elated the next, generally uncomfortable. What was the matter? Strange to say, although we were such friends, we chose different sets of society, and therefore seldom appeared at the same houses or knew the same people. He liked most things continental; he found his social pleasures in that polite Bohemia which indulges in midnight suppers and permits ladies to smoke cigarettes after dinner, which dines at rich men's tables and is hob-a- nob with Russian Counts, Persian Ministers, and German Barons. That was not to my taste, save as a kind of dramatic entertainment to be indulged in at intervals like a Drury Lane pantomime. But though I had no proof that such was the case, I knew Luke Freeman's malady to be a woman. I taxed him with it. He did not deny it. He was painting at the time, I remember, and he testily and unprofitably drew his brush across the face of a Copt woman he was working at, and bit off the end of a cigar. I asked him if it was another man's wife; he promptly said no. I asked him if there were any awkward complications any inconsiderate pressure from the girl's parents of brothers; and he promptly told me to be damned. I told him I thought he ought to know that an ambitious man might as well drown himself at once as get a fast woman in his path. Then he showed a faculty for temper and profanity that stunned me. But the up shot was that I found the case straight enough to all appearances. The woman was a foreigner and not easy to win; was beautiful, had a fine voice, loved admiration, and possessed a scamp of a brother who, wanted her to marry a foreigner, so that, according to her father's will, a large portion of her fortune would come to him.... Were you going to speak? No? Very well. Things got worse and worse. Freeman neglected business and everything else, became a nuisance. He never offered to take me to see the lady, and I did not suggest it, did not even know where she lived. What galled me most in the matter was that Freeman had been for years attentive to a cousin of mine, Clare Hazard, almost my sister, indeed, since she had been brought up in my father's house; and I knew that from a child she had adored him. However, these things seldom work out according to the law of Nature, and so I chewed the cud of dissatisfaction and kept the thing from my cousin as long as I could. About the time matters seemed at a crisis I was taken ill, and was ordered south. My mother and Freeman accompanied me as far as Paris. Here Freeman left me to return to England, and in the Cafe Voisin, at Paris--yes, mark that--we had our farewell. I have never seen him since. While in Italy I was brought to death's door by my illness; and when I got up, Clare told me that Freeman was married and had gone to Egypt. She, poor girl, bore it well. I was savage, but it was too late. I was ordered to go to the South Seas, at least to take a long sea-voyage; and though I could not well afford it I started for Australia. On my way out I stopped off at Port Said to try and find Freeman in Egypt, but failed. I heard of him at Cairo, and learned also that his wife's brother had joined them. Two years passed, and then I got a letter from an old friend, saying that Freeman's wife had eloped with a Frenchman. Another year, and then came a letter from Freeman himself, saying that his wife was dead; that he had identified her body in the Morgue at Paris--found drowned, and all that. He believed that remorse had driven her to suicide. But he had no trace of the brother, no trace of the villain whom he had scoured Europe and America over to find. Again, another three years, and now he writes me that he is going to be married to Clare Hazard on the twenty sixth of this month. With that information came this portrait. I tell you all, M. Barre, because I feel that this woman Gabrielle has some connection with the past life of my friend Luke Freeman. She recognised the face, and you saw the effect. Now will you tell me what you know about her?"

Shorland had been much more communicative than was his custom. But he knew men. This man had done him a service, and that made towards friendship on both sides. He was an officer and a gentleman, and so he showed his hand. Then he wanted information and perhaps much more, though what that would be he could not yet tell.

M. Barre had smoked cigarettes freely during Shorland's narrative. At the end he said with peculiar emphasis: "Your friend's wife was surely a Frenchwoman?"

"Yes."

"Was her name Laroche?"

"Yes, that was it. Do you think that Lucile Laroche and Gabrielle--!"

"That Lucile Laroche and Gabrielle Rouget are one? Yes. But that Lucile Laroche was the wife of your friend? Well, that is another matter. But we shall see soon. Listen. A scoundrel, Henri Durien, was sent out here for killing an American at cards. The jury called it murder, but recommended him to mercy, and he escaped the guillotine. He had the sympathy of the women, the Press did not deal hardly with him, and the Public Prosecutor did not seem to push the case as he might have done. But that was no matter to us. The woman, Gabrielle Rouget, followed him here, where he is a prisoner for life. He is engaged in road-making with other prisoners. She keeps the Cafe Voisin. Now here is the point which concerns your story. Once, when Gabrielle was permitted to see Henri, they quarrelled. I was acting as governor of the prison at the time, saw the meeting and heard the quarrel. No one else was near. Henri accused her of being intimate with a young officer of the post. I am sure there was no truth in it, for Gabrielle does not have followers of that kind. But Henri had got the idea from some source; perhaps by the convicts' 'Underground Railway,' which has connection even with the Hotel du Gouverneur. Through it the prisoners know all that is going on, and more. In response to Henri's accusation Gabrielle replied: 'As I live, Henri, it is a lie.' He sardonically rejoined: 'But you do not live. You are dead, dead I tell you. You were found drowned and carried to the Morgue and properly identified--not by me, curse you, Lucile Laroche. And then you were properly buried, and not by me either, nor at my cost, curse you again. You are dead, I tell you!' She looked at him as she looked at you the other day, dazed and spectre-like, and said: 'Henri, I gave up my life once to a husband to please my brother.

"He was a villain, my brother. I gave it up a second time to please you, and because I loved you. I left behind me name, fortune, Paris, France, everything, to follow you here. I was willing to live here, while you lived, or till you should be free. And you curse me--you dare to curse me! Now I will give you some cause to curse. You are a devil--I am a sinner. Henceforth I shall be devil and sinner too.' With that she left him. Since then she has been both devil and sinner, but not in the way he meant; simply a danger to the safety of this dangerous community; a Louise Michel--we had her here too!--without Louise Michel's high motives. Gabrielle Rouget may cause a revolt of the convicts some day, to secure the escape of Henri Durien, or to give them all a chance. The Governor does not believe it, but I do. You noticed what I said about the Morgue, and that?"

Shorland paced up and down the room for a time, and then said: "Great heaven, suppose that by some hideous chance this woman, Gabrielle Rouget, or Lucile Laroche, should prove to be Freeman's wife! The evidence is so overwhelming. There evidently was some trick, some strange mistake, about the Morgue and the burial. This is the fourteenth of January; Freeman is to be married on the twenty-sixth! Monsieur, if this woman should be his wife, there never was brewed an uglier scrape. There is Freeman--that's pitiful; there is Clare Hazard--that's pitiful and horrible. For nothing can be done; no cables from here, the Belle Sauvage gone, no vessels or sails for two weeks. Ah well, there's only one thing to do--find out the truth from Gabrielle if I can, and trust in Providence."

"Well spoken," said M. Barre. "Have some more champagne. I make the most of the pleasure of your company, and so I break another bottle. Besides, it may be the last I shall get for a time. There is trouble brewing at Bompari--a native insurrection--and we may have to move at any moment. However this Gabrielle affair turns out, you have your business to do. You want to see the country, to study our life-well, come with us. We will house you, feed you as we feed, and you shall have your tobacco at army prices."

Much as Blake Shorland was moved by the events of the last few hours he was enough the soldier and the man of the world to face possible troubles without the loss of appetite, sleep, or nerve. He had cultivated a habit of deliberation which saved his digestion and preserved his mental poise; and he had a faculty for doing the right thing at the right time. From his stand-point, his late adventure in the Cafe Voisin was the right thing, serious as the results might have been or might yet be. He now promptly met the French officer's exuberance of spirits with a hearty gaiety, and drank his wine with genial compliment and happy anecdote. It was late when they parted; the Frenchman excited, beaming, joyous, the Englishman responsive, but cool in mind still.

III

After breakfast next morning Shorland expressed to M. Barre his intention of going to see Gabrielle Rouget. He was told that he must not go alone; a guard would be too conspicuous and might invite trouble; he himself would bear him company.

The hot January day was reflected from the red streets, white houses, and waxen leaves of the tropical foliage with enervating force. An occasional ex-convict sullenly lounged by, touching his cap as he was


Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 2/5

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