Chapter XXV
 

Mr. Stepney had become more bearable. A week ago she would have shrunk from taking luncheon with him, but now such a prospect had no terrors. His views of things and people were more generous than she had expected. She had anticipated his attitude would be a little cynical, but to her surprise he oozed loving-kindness. Had she known Mr. Marcus Stepney as well as Jean knew him, she would have realised that he adapted his mental attitude to his audience. He was a man whose stock-in-trade was a knowledge of human nature, and the ability to please. He would no more have attempted to shock or frighten her, than a first-class salesman would shock or annoy a possible customer.

He had goods to sell, and it was his business to see that they satisfied the buyer. In this case the goods were represented by sixty-nine inches of good-looking, well-dressed man, and it was rather important that he should present the best face of the article to the purchaser. It was almost as important that the sale should be a quick one. Mr. Stepney lived from week to week. What might happen next year seldom interested him, therefore his courting must be rapid.

He told the story of his life at lunch, a story liable to move a tender-hearted woman to at least a sympathetic interest. The story of his life varied also with the audience. In this case, it was designed for one whom he knew had had a hard struggle, whose father had been heavily in debt, and who had tasted some of the bitterness of defeat. Jean had given him a very precise story of the girl's career, and Mr. Marcus Stepney adapted it for his own purpose.

"Why, your life has almost run parallel with mine," said Lydia.

"I hope it may continue," said Mr. Stepney not without a touch of sadness in his voice. "I am a very lonely man--I have no friends except the acquaintances one can pick up at night clubs, and the places where the smart people go in the season, and there is an artificiality about society friends which rather depresses me."

"I feel that, too," said the sympathetic Lydia.

"If I could only settle down!" he said, shaking his head. "A little house in the country, a few horses, a few cows, a woman who understood me...."

A false move this.

"And a few pet chickens to follow you about?" she laughed. "No, it doesn't sound quite like you, Mr. Stepney."

He lowered his eyes.

"I am sorry you think that," he said. "All the world thinks that I'm a gadabout, an idler, with no interest in existence, except the pleasure I can extract."

"And a jolly good existence, too," said Lydia briskly. She had detected a note of sentiment creeping into the conversation, and had slain it with the most effective weapon in woman's armoury.

"And now tell me all about the great Moorish Pretender who is staying at your hotel--I caught a glimpse of him on the promenade--and there was a lot about him in the paper."

Mr. Stepney sighed and related all that he knew of the redoubtable Muley Hafiz on the way to the rooms. Muley Hafiz was being lionised in France just then, to the annoyance of the Spanish authorities, who had put a price on his head.

Lydia showed much more interest in the Moorish Pretender than she did in the pretender who walked by her side.

He was not in the best of tempers when he brought her back to the Villa Casa, and Jean, who entertained him whilst Lydia was changing, saw that his first advances had not met with a very encouraging result.

"There will be no wedding bells, Jean," he said.

"You take a rebuff very easily," said the girl, but he shook his head.

"My dear Jean, I know women as well as I know the back of my hand, and I tell you that there's nothing doing with this girl. I'm not a fool."

She looked at him earnestly.

"No, you're not a fool," she said at last. "You're hardly likely to make a mistake about that sort of thing. I'm afraid you'll have to do something more romantic."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You'll have to run away with her; and like the knights of old carry off the lady of your choice."

"The knights of old didn't have to go before a judge and jury and serve seven years at Dartmoor for their sins," he said unpleasantly.

She was sitting on a low chair overlooking the sea, whittling a twig with a silver-handled knife she had taken from her bag--a favourite occupation of hers in moments of cogitation.

"All the ladies of old didn't go to the police," she said. "Some of them were quite happy with their powerful lords, especially delicate-minded ladies who shrank from advertising their misfortune to the readers of the Sunday press. I think most women like to be wooed in the cave-man fashion, Marcus."

"Is that the kind of treatment you'd like, Jean?"

There was a new note in his voice. Had she looked at him she would have seen a strange light in his eyes.

"I'm merely advancing a theory," she said, "a theory which has been supported throughout the ages."

"I'd let her go and her money, too," he said. He was speaking quickly, almost incoherently. "There's only one woman in the world for me, Jean, and I've told you that before. I'd give my life and soul for her."

He bent over, and caught her arm in his big hand.

"You believe in the cave-man method, do you?" he breathed. "It is the kind of treatment you'd like, eh, Jean?"

She did not attempt to release her arm.

"Keep your hand to yourself, Marcus, please," she said quietly.

"You'd like it, wouldn't you, Jean? My God, I'd sacrifice my soul for you, you little devil!"

"Be sensible," she said. It was not her words or her firm tone that made him draw back. Twice and deliberately she drew the edge of her little knife across the back of his hand, and he leapt away with a howl of pain.

"You--you beast," he stammered, and she looked at him with her sly smile.

"There must have been cave women, too, Marcus," she said coolly, as she rose. "They had their methods--give me your handkerchief, I want to wipe this knife."

His face was grey now. He was looking at her like a man bereft of his senses.

He did not move when she took his handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the knife, closed and slipped it into her bag, before she replaced the handkerchief tidily. And all the time he stood there with his hand streaming with blood, incapable of movement. It was not until she had disappeared round the corner of the house that he pulled out the handkerchief and wrapped it about his hand.

"A devil," he whimpered, almost in tears, "a devil!"