Part Second. Mrs. Sin
Chapter XXI. The Cigarettes from Buenos Ayres
 

Sir Lucien's intervention proved successful. Kazmah's charges became more modest, and Rita no longer found it necessary to deprive herself of hats and dresses in order to obtain drugs. But, nevertheless, these were not the halcyon days of old. She was now surrounded by spies. It was necessary to resort to all kinds of subterfuge in order to cover her expenditures at the establishment in old Bond Street. Her husband never questioned her outlay, but on the other hand it was expedient to be armed against the possibility of his doing so, and Rita's debts were accumulating formidably.

Then there was Margaret Halley to consider. Rita had never hitherto given her confidence to anyone who was not addicted to the same practices as herself, and she frequently experienced embarrassment beneath the grave scrutiny of Margaret's watchful eyes. In another this attitude of gentle disapproval would have been irritating, but Rita loved and admired Margaret, and suffered accordingly.

As for Sir Lucien, she had ceased to understand him. An impalpable barrier seemed to have arisen between them. The inner man had became inaccessible. Her mind was not subtle enough to grasp the real explanation of this change in her old lover. Being based upon wrong premises, her inferences were necessarily wide of the truth, and she believed that Sir Lucien was jealous of Margaret's cousin, Quentin Gray.

Gray met Rita at Margaret Halley's flat shortly after he had returned home from service in the East, and he immediately conceived a violent infatuation for this pretty friend of his cousin's. In this respect his conduct was in no way peculiar. Few men were proof against the seductive Mrs. Monte Irvin, not because she designedly encouraged admiration, but because she was one of those fortunately rare characters who inspire it without conscious effort. Her appeal to men was sweetly feminine and quite lacking in that self-assertive and masculine "take me or leave me" attitude which characterizes some of the beauties of today. There was nothing abstract about her delicate loveliness, yet her charm was not wholly physical. Many women disliked her.

At dance, theatre, and concert Quentin Gray played the doting cavalier; and Rita, who was used to at least one such adoring attendant, accepted his homage without demur. Monte Irvin returned to civil life, but Rita showed no disposition to dispense with her new admirer. Both Gray and Sir Lucien had become frequent visitors at Prince's Gate, and Irvin, who understood his wife's character up to a point, made them his friends.

Shortly after Monte Irvin's return Sir Lucien taxed Rita again with her increasing subjection to drugs. She was in a particularly gay humor, as the supplies from Kazmah had been regular, and she laughingly fenced with him when he reminded her of her declared intention to reform when her husband should return.

"You are really as bad as Margaret," she declared. "There is nothing the matter with me. You talk of 'curing' me as though I were ill. Physician, heal thyself."

The sardonic smile momentarily showed upon Pyne's face, and:

"I know when and where to pull up, Rita," he said. "A woman never knows this. If I were deprived of opium tomorrow I could get along without it."

"I have given up opium," replied Rita. "It's too much trouble, and the last time Mollie and I went--"

She paused, glancing quickly at Sir Lucien.

"Go on," he said grimly. "I know you have been to Sin Sin Wa's. What happened the last time?"

"Well," continued Rita hurriedly, "Monte seemed to be vaguely suspicious. Besides, Mrs. Sin charged me most preposterously. I really cannot afford it, Lucy."

"I am glad you cannot. But what I was about to say was this: Suppose you were to be deprived, not of 'chard', but of cocaine and veronal, do you know what would happen to you?"

"Oh!" whispered Rita, "why will you persist in trying to frighten me! I am not going to be deprived of them."

"I persist, dear, because I want you to try, gradually, to depend less upon drugs, so that if the worst should happen you would have a chance."

Rita stood up and faced him, biting her lip.

"Lucy," she said, "do you mean that Kazmah--"

"I mean that anything might happen, Rita. After all, we do possess a police service in London, and one day there might be an accident. Kazmah has certain influence, but it may be withdrawn. Rita, won't you try?"

She was watching him closely, and now the pupils of her beautiful eyes became dilated.

"You know something," she said slowly, "which you are keeping from me."

He laughed and turned aside.

"I know that I am compelled to leave England again, Rita, for a time; and I should be a happier man if I knew that you were not so utterly dependent upon Kazmah."

"Oh, Lucy, are you going away again?"

"I must. But I shall not be absent long, I hope."

Rita sank down upon the settee from which she had risen, and was silent for some time; then:

"I will try, Lucy," she promised. "I will go to Margaret Halley, as she is always asking me to do."

"Good girl," said Pyne quietly. "It is just a question of making the effort, Rita. You will succeed, with Margaret's help."

A short time later Sir Lucien left England, but throughout the last week that he remained in London Rita spent a great part of every day in his company. She had latterly begun to experience an odd kind of remorse for her treatment of the inscrutably reserved baronet. His earlier intentions she had not forgotten, but she had long ago forgiven them, and now she often felt sorry for this man whom she had deliberately used as a stepping-stone to fortune.

Gray was quite unable to conceal his jealousy. He seemed to think that he had a proprietary right to Mrs. Monte Irvin's society, and during the week preceding Sir Lucien's departure Gray came perilously near to making himself ridiculous on more than one occasion.

One night, on leaving a theatre, Rita suggested to Pyne that they should proceed to a supper club for an hour. "It will be like old times," she said.

"But your husband is expecting you," protested Sir Lucien.

"Let's ring him up and ask him to join us. He won't, but he cannot very well object then."

As a result they presently found themselves descending a broad carpeted stairway. From the rooms below arose the strains of an American melody. Dancing was in progress, or, rather, one of those orgiastic ceremonies which passed for dancing during this pagan period. Just by the foot of the stairs they paused and surveyed the scene.

"Why," said Rita, "there is Quentin--glaring insanely, silly boy."

"Do you see whom he is with?" asked Sir Lucien.

"Mollie Gretna."

"But I mean the woman sitting down."

Rita stood on tiptoe, trying to obtain a view, and suddenly:

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "Mrs. Sin!"

The dance at that moment concluding, they crossed the floor and joined the party. Mrs. Sin greeted them with one of her rapid, mirthless smiles. She was wearing a gown noticeable, but not for quantity, even in that semi-draped assembly. Mollie Gretna giggled rapturously. But Gray's swiftly changing color betrayed a mood which he tried in vain to conceal by his manner. Having exchanged a few words with the new arrivals, he evidently realized that he could not trust himself to remain longer, and:

"Now I must be off," he said awkwardly. "I have an appointment-- important business. Good night, everybody."

He turned away and hurried from the room. Rita flushed slightly and exchanged a glance with Sir Lucien. Mrs. Sin, who had been watching the three intently, did not fail to perceive this glance. Mollie Gretna characteristically said a silly thing.

"Oh!" she cried. "I wonder whatever is the matter with him! He looks as though he had gone mad!"

"It is perhaps his heart," said Mrs. Sin harshly, and she raised her bold dark eyes to Sir Lucien's face.

"Oh, please don't talk about hearts," cried Rita, willfully misunderstanding. "Monte has a weak heart, and it frightens me."

"So?" murmured Mrs. Sin. "Poor fellow."

"I think a weak heart is most romantic," declared Mollie Gretna.

But Gray's behavior had cast a shadow upon the party which even Mollie's empty light-hearted chatter was powerless to dispel, and when, shortly after midnight, Sir Lucien drove Rita home to Prince's Gate, they were very silent throughout the journey. Just before the car reached the house:

"Where does Mrs. Sin live?" asked Rita, although it was not of Mrs. Sin that she had been thinking.

"In Limehouse, I believe," replied Sir Lucien; "at The House. But I fancy she has rooms somewhere in town also."

He stayed only a few minutes at Prince's Gate, and as the car returned along Piccadilly, Sir Lucien, glancing upward towards the windows of a tall block of chambers facing the Green Park, observed a light in one of them. Acting upon a sudden impulse, he raised the speaking-tube.

"Pull up, Fraser," he directed.

The chauffeur stopped the car and Sir Lucien alighted, glancing at the clock inside as he did so, and smiling at his own quixotic behavior. He entered an imposing doorway and rang one of the bells. There was an interval of two minutes or so, when the door opened and a man looked out.

"Is that you, Willis?" asked Pyne.

"Oh, I beg pardon, Sir Lucien. I didn't know you in the dark."

"Has Mr. Gray retired yet?"

"Not yet. Will you please follow me, Sir Lucien. The stairway lights are off."

A few moments later Sir Lucien was shown into the apartment of Gray's which oddly combined the atmosphere of a gymnasium with that of a study. Gray, wearing a dressing-gown and having a pipe in his mouth, was standing up to receive his visitor, his face rather pale and the expression of his lips at variance with that in his eyes. But:

"Hello, Pyne," he said quietly. "Anything wrong--or have you just looked in for a smoke?"

Sir Lucien smiled a trifle sadly.

"I wanted a chat, Gray," he replied. "I'm leaving town tomorrow, or I should not have intruded at such an unearthly hour."

"No intrusion," muttered Gray; "try the armchair, no, the big one. It's more comfortable." He raised his voice: "Willis, bring some fluid!"

Sir Lucien sat down, and from the pocket of his dinner jacket took out a plain brown packet of cigarettes and selected one.

"Here," said Gray, "have a cigar!"

"No, thanks," replied Pyne. "I rarely smoke anything but these."

"Never seen that kind of packet before," declared Gray. "What brand are they?"

"No particular brand. They are imported from Buenos Ayres, I believe."

Willis having brought in a tray of refreshments and departed again, Sir Lucien came at once to the point.

"I really called, Gray," he said, "to clear up any misunderstanding there may be in regard to Rita Irvin."

Quentin Gray looked up suddenly when he heard Rita's name, and:

"What misunderstanding?" he asked.

"Regarding the nature of my friendship with her," answered Sir Lucien coolly. "Now, I am going to speak quite bluntly, Gray, because I like Rita and I respect her. I also like and respect Monte Irvin; and I don't want you, or anybody else, to think that Rita and I are, or ever have been, anything more than pals. I have known her long enough to have learned that she sails straight, and has always sailed straight. Now--listen, Gray, please. You embarrassed me tonight, old chap, and you embarrassed Rita. It was unnecessary." He paused, and then added slowly: "She is as sacred to me, Gray, as she is to you--and we are both friends of Monte Irvin."

For a moment Quentin Gray's fiery temper flickered up, as his heightened color showed, but the coolness of the older and cleverer man prevailed. Gray laughed, stood up, and held out his hand.

"You're right, Pyne!" he said. "But she's damn pretty!" He uttered a loud sigh. "If only she were not married!"

Sir Lucien gripped the outstretched hand, but his answering smile had much pathos in it.

"If only she were not, Gray," he echoed.

He took his departure shortly afterwards, absently leaving a brown packet of cigarettes upon the table. It was an accident. Yet there were few, when the truth respecting Sir Lucien Pyne became known, who did not believe it to have been a deliberate act, designed to lure Quentin Gray into the path of the poppy.