The Yellow Claw by Sax Rohmer
X. The Great Understanding
It was in the afternoon of this same day--a day so momentous in the lives of more than one of London's millions--that two travelers might have been seen to descend from a first-class compartment of the Dover boat-train at Charing Cross.
They had been the sole occupants of the compartment, and, despite the wide dissimilarity of character to be read upon their countenances, seemed to have struck up an acquaintance based upon mutual amiability and worldly common sense. The traveler first to descend and gallantly to offer his hand to his companion in order to assist her to the platform, was the one whom a casual observer would first have noted.
He was a man built largely, but on good lines; a man past his youth, and somewhat too fleshy; but for all his bulk, there was nothing unwieldy, and nothing ungraceful in his bearing or carriage. He wore a French traveling-coat, conceived in a style violently Parisian, and composed of a wonderful check calculated to have blinded any cutter in Savile Row. From beneath its gorgeous folds protruded the extremities of severely creased cashmere trousers, turned up over white spats which nestled coyly about a pair of glossy black boots. The traveler's hat was of velour, silver gray and boasting a partridge feather thrust in its silken band. One glimpse of the outfit must have brought the entire staff of the Tailor and Cutter to an untimely grave.
But if ever man was born who could carry such a make-up, this traveler was he. The face was cut on massive lines, on fleshy lines, clean-shaven, and inclined to pallor. The hirsute blue tinge about the jaw and lips helped to accentuate the virile strength of the long, flexible mouth, which could be humorous, which could be sorrowful, which could be grim. In the dark eyes of the man lay a wealth of experience, acquired in a lifelong pilgrimage among many peoples, and to many lands. His dark brows were heavily marked, and his close-cut hair was splashed with gray.
Let us glance at the lady who accepted his white-gloved hand, and who sprang alertly onto the platform beside him.
She was a woman bordering on the forties, with a face of masculine vigor, redeemed and effeminized, by splendid hazel eyes, the kindliest imaginable. Obviously, the lady was one who had never married, who despised, or affected to despise, members of the other sex, but who had never learned to hate them; who had never grown soured, but who found the world a garden of heedless children--of children who called for mothering. Her athletic figure was clothed in a "sensible" tweed traveling dress, and she wore a tweed hat pressed well on to her head, and brown boots with the flattest heels conceivable. Add to this a Scotch woolen muffler, and a pair of woolen gloves, and you have a mental picture of the second traveler--a truly incongruous companion for the first.
Joining the crowd pouring in the direction of the exit gates, the two chatted together animatedly, both speaking English, and the man employing that language with a perfect ease and command of words which nevertheless failed to disguise his French nationality. He spoke with an American accent; a phenomenon sometimes observable in one who has learned his English in Paris.
The irritating formalities which beset the returning traveler--and the lady distinctly was of the readily irritated type--were smoothed away by the magic personality of her companion. Porters came at the beck of his gloved hand; guards, catching his eye, saluted and were completely his servants; ticket inspectors yielded to him the deference ordinarily reserved for directors of the line.
Outside the station, then, her luggage having been stacked upon a cab, the lady parted from her companion with assurances, which were returned, that she should hope to improve the acquaintance.
The address to which the French gentleman politely requested the cabman to drive, was that of a sound and old-established hotel in the neighborhood of the Strand, and at no great distance from the station.
Then, having stood bareheaded until the cab turned out into the traffic stream of that busy thoroughfare, the first traveler, whose baggage consisted of a large suitcase, hailed a second cab and drove to the Hotel Astoria--the usual objective of Americans.
Taking leave of him for the moment, let us follow the lady.
Her arrangements were very soon made at the hotel, and having removed some of the travel-stains from her person and partaken of one cup of China tea, respecting the quality whereof she delivered herself of some caustic comments, she walked down into the Strand and mounted to the top of a Victoria bound 'bus.
That she was not intimately acquainted with London, was a fact readily observable by her fellow passengers; for as the 'bus went rolling westward, from the large pocket of her Norfolk jacket she took out a guide-book provided with numerous maps, and began composedly to consult its complexities.
When the conductor came to collect her fare, she had made up her mind, and was replacing the guidebook in her pocket.
"Put me down by the Storis, Victoria Street, conductor," she directed, and handed him a penny--the correct fare.
It chanced that at about the time, within a minute or so, of the American lady's leaving the hotel, and just as red rays, the harbingers of dusk, came creeping in at the latticed widow of her cozy work-room, Helen Cumberly laid down her pen with a sigh. She stood up, mechanically rearranging her hair as she did so, and crossed the corridor to her bedroom, the window whereof overlooked the Square.
She peered down into the central garden. A common-looking man sat upon a bench, apparently watching the labors of the gardener, which consisted at the moment of the spiking of scraps of paper which disfigured the green carpet of the lawn.
Helen returned to her writing-table and reseated herself. Kindly twilight veiled her, and a chatty sparrow who perched upon the window-ledge pretended that he had not noticed two tears which trembled, quivering, upon the girl's lashes. Almost unconsciously, for it was an established custom, she sprinkled crumbs from the tea-tray beside her upon the ledge, whilst the tears dropped upon a written page and two more appeared in turn upon her lashes.
The sparrow supped enthusiastically, being joined in his repast by two talkative companions. As the last fragments dropped from the girl's white fingers, she withdrew her hand, and slowly--very slowly--her head sank down, pillowed upon her arms.
For some five minutes she cried silently; the sparrows, unheeded, bade her good night, and flew to their nests in the trees of the Square. Then, very resolutely, as if inspired by a settled purpose, she stood up and recrossed the corridor to her bedroom.
She turned on the lamp above the dressing-table and rapidly removed the traces of her tears, contemplating in dismay a redness of her pretty nose which did not prove entirely amenable to treatment with the powder-puff. Finally, however, she switched off the light, and, going out on to the landing, descended to the door of Henry Leroux's flat.
In reply to her ring, the maid, Ferris, opened the door. She wore her hat and coat, and beside her on the floor stood a tin trunk.
"Why, Ferris!" cried Helen--"are you leaving?"
"I am indeed, miss!" said the girl, independently.
"But why? whatever will Mr. Leroux do?"
"He'll have to do the best he can. Cook's goin' too!"
"What! cook is going?"
"I am!" announced a deep, female voice.
And the cook appeared beside the maid.
"But whatever--" began Helen; then, realizing that she could achieve no good end by such an attitude: "Tell Mr. Leroux," she instructed the maid, quietly, "that I wish to see him."
Ferris glanced rapidly at her companion, as a man appeared on the landing, to inquire in an abysmal tone, if "them boxes was ready to be took?" Helen Cumberly forestalled an insolent refusal which the cook, by furtive wink, counseled to the housemaid.
"Don't trouble," she said, with an easy dignity reminiscent of her father. "I will announce myself."
She passed the servants, crossed the lobby, and rapped upon the study door.
"Come in," said the voice of Henry Leroux.
Helen opened the door. The place was in semidarkness, objects being but dimly discernible. Leroux sat in his usual seat at the writing-table. The room was in the utmost disorder, evidently having received no attention since its overhauling by the police. Helen pressed the switch, lighting the two lamps.
Leroux, at last, seemed in his proper element: he exhibited an unhealthy pallor, and it was obvious that no razor had touched his chin for at least three days. His dark blue eyes the eyes of a dreamer--were heavy and dull, with shadows pooled below them. A biscuit-jar, a decanter and a syphon stood half buried in papers on the table.
"Why, Mr. Leroux!" said Helen, with a deep note of sympathy in her voice--"you don't mean to say" . . .
Leroux rose, forcing a smile to his haggard face.
"You see--much too good," he said. "Altogether--too good." . . .
"I thought I should find you here," continued the girl, firmly; "but I did not anticipate--"she indicated the chaos about--"this! The insolence, the disgraceful, ungrateful insolence, of those women!"
"Dear, dear, dear!" murmured Leroux, waving his hand vaguely; "never mind--never mind! They--er--they . . . I don't want them to stop . . . and, believe me, I am--er--perfectly comfortable!"
"You should not be in--this room, at all. In fact, you should go right away." . . .
"I cannot . . . my wife may--return--at any moment." His voice shook. "I--am expecting her return--hourly." . . .
His gaze sought the table-clock; and he drew his lips very tightly together when the pitiless hands forced upon his mind the fact that the day was marching to its end.
Helen turned her head aside, inhaling deeply, and striving for composure.
"Garnham shall come down and tidy up for you," she said, quietly; "and you must dine with us."
The outer door was noisily closed by the departing servants.
"You are much too good," whispered Leroux, again; and the weary eyes glistened with a sudden moisture. "Thank you! Thank you! But--er--I could not dream of disturbing" . . .
"Mr. Leroux," said Helen, with all her old firmness--"Garnham is coming down immediately to put the place in order! And, whilst he is doing so, you are going to prepare yourself for a decent, Christian dinner!"
Henry Leroux rested one hand upon the table, looking down at the carpet. He had known for a long time, in a vague fashion, that he lacked something; that his success--a wholly inartistic one--had yielded him little gratification; that the comfort of his home was a purely monetary product and not in any sense atmospheric. He had schooled himself to believe that he liked loneliness--loneliness physical and mental, and that in marrying a pretty, but pleasure- loving girl, he had insured an ideal menage. Furthermore, he honestly believed that he worshiped his wife; and with his present grief at her unaccountable silence was mingled no atom of reproach.
But latterly he had begun to wonder--in his peculiarly indefinite way he had begun to doubt his own philosophy. Was the void in his soul a product of thwarted ambition?--for, whilst he slaved, scrupulously, upon "Martin Zeda," he loathed every deed and every word of that Old Man of the Sea. Or could it be that his own being--his nature of Adam--lacked something which wealth, social position, and Mira, his wife, could not yield to him?
Now, a new tone in the voice of Helen Cumberly--a tone different from that compound of good-fellowship and raillery, which he knew-- a tone which had entered into it when she had exclaimed upon the state of the room--set his poor, anxious heart thrumming like a lute. He felt a hot flush creeping upon him; his forehead grew damp. He feared to raise his eyes.
"Is that a bargain?" asked Helen, sweetly.
Henry Leroux found a lump in his throat; but he lifted his untidy head and took the hand which the girl had extended to him. She smiled a bit unnaturally; then every tinge of color faded from her cheeks, and Henry Leroux, unconsciously holding the white hand in a vice-like grip, looked hungrily into the eyes grown suddenly tragic whilst into his own came the light of a great and sorrowful understanding.
"God bless you," he said. "I will do anything you wish."
Helen released her hand, turned, and ran from the study. Not until she was on the landing did she dare to speak. Then:--
"Garnham shall come down immediately. Don't be late for dinner!" she called--and there was a hint of laughter and of tears in her voice, of the restraint of culture struggling with rebellious womanhood.