Read CHAPTER X of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

CAPTAIN STEWART ENTERTAINS

Ste. Marie returned, after three days, from Dinard in a depressed and somewhat puzzled frame of mind. He had found no trace whatever of Arthur Benham, either at Dinard or at Deauville, and, what was more, he was unable to discover that any one even remotely resembling that youth had been seen at either place. The matter of identification, it seemed to him, should be a rather simple one. In the first place, the boy’s appearance was not at all French, nor, for that matter, English; it was very American. Also, he spoke French so Ste. Marie had been told very badly, having for the language that scornful contempt peculiar to Anglo-Saxons of a certain type. His speech, it seemed, was, like his appearance, ultra-American full of strange idioms and oddly pronounced. In short, such a youth would be rather sure to be remembered by any hotel management and staff with which he might have come in contact.

At first Ste. Marie pursued his investigations quietly and, as it were, casually; but after his initial failure he went to the managements of the various hotels and lodging-houses, and to the cafes and bathing establishments, and told them, with all frankness, a part of the truth that he was searching for a young man whose disappearance had caused great distress to his family. He was not long in discovering that no such young man could have been either in Dinard or Deauville.

The thing which puzzled him was that, apart from finding no trace of the missing boy, he also found no trace of Captain Stewart’s agent the man who had been first on the ground. No one seemed able to recollect that such a person had been making inquiries, and Ste. Marie began to suspect that his friend was being imposed upon. He determined to warn Stewart that his agents were earning their fees too easily.

So he returned to Paris more than a little dejected, and sore over this waste of time and effort. He arrived by a noon train, and drove across the city in a fiacre to the rue d’Assas. But as he was in the midst of unpacking his portmanteau for he kept no servant; a woman came in once a day to “do” the rooms the door-bell rang. It was Baron de Vries, and Ste. Marie admitted him with an exclamation of surprise and pleasure.

“You passed me in the street just now,” explained the Belgian, “and as I was a few minutes early for a lunch engagement I followed you up.” He pointed with his stick at the open bag. “Ah, you have been on a journey! Detective work?”

Ste. Marie pushed his guest into a chair, gave him cigarettes, and told him about the fruitless expedition to Dinard. He spoke, also, of his belief that Captain Stewart’s agent had never really found a clew at all; and at that Baron de Vries nodded his gray head and said, “Ah!” in a tone of some significance. Afterward he smoked a little while in silence, but presently he said, as if with some hesitation: “May I be permitted to offer a word of advice?”

“But surely!” cried Ste. Marie, kicking away the half-empty portmanteau. “Why not?”

“Do whatever you are going to do in this matter according to your own judgment,” said the elder man, “or according to Mr. Hartley’s and your combined judgments. Make your investigations without reference to our friend Captain Stewart.” He halted there as if that were all he had meant to say, but when he saw Ste. Marie’s raised eyebrows he frowned and went on, slowly, as if picking his words with some care. “I should be sorry,” he said, “to have Captain Stewart at the head of any investigation of this nature in which I was deeply interested just now, at any rate. I am afraid it is difficult to say; I do not wish to say too much I am afraid he is not quite the man for the position.”

Ste. Marie nodded his head with great emphasis. “Ah,” he cried, “that’s just what I have felt, you know, all along! And it’s what Hartley felt, too, I’m sure. No, Stewart is not the sort for a detective. He’s too cocksure. He won’t admit that he might possibly be wrong now and then. He’s too ”

“He is too much occupied with other matters,” said Baron de Vries.

Ste. Marie sat down on the edge of a chair. “Other matters?” he demanded. “That sounds mysterious. What other matters?”

“Oh, there is nothing very mysterious about it,” said the elder man. He frowned down at his cigarette, and brushed some fallen ash neatly from his knees. “Captain Stewart,” said he, “is badly worried, and has been for the past year or so badly worried over money matters and other things. He has lost enormous sums at play, as I happen to know, and he has lost still more enormous sums at Auteuil and at Longchamps. Also, the ladies are not without their demands.”

Ste. Marie gave a shout of laughter. “Comment donc!” he cried. “Ce vieillard?”

“Ah, well,” deprecated the other man. “Vieillard is putting it rather high. He can’t be more than fifty, I should think. To be sure, he looks older; but then, in his day, he lived a great deal in a short time. Do you happen to remember Olga Nilssen?”

“I do,” said Ste. Marie. “I remember her very well, indeed. I was a sort of go-between in settling up that affair with Morrison. Morrison’s people asked me to do what I could. Yes, I remember her well, and with some pleasure. I felt sorry for her, you know. People didn’t quite know the truth of that affair. Morrison behaved very badly to her.”

“Yes,” said Baron de Vries, “and Captain Stewart has behaved very badly to her also. She is furious with rage or jealousy or both. She goes about, I am told, threatening to kill him, and it would be rather like her to do it one day. Well, I have dragged in all this scandal by way of showing you that Stewart has his hands full of his own affairs just now, and so cannot give the attention he ought to give to hunting out his nephew. As you suggest, his agents may be deceiving him. I don’t know. I suppose they could do it easily enough. If I were you I should set to work quite independently of him.”

“Yes,” said Ste. Marie, in an absent tone. “Oh yes, I shall do that, you may be sure.” He gave a sudden smile. “He’s a queer type, this Captain Stewart. He begins to interest me very much. I had never suspected this side of him, though I remember now that I once saw him coming out of a milliner’s shop. He looks rather an ascetic rather donnish, don’t you think? I remember that he talked to me one day quite pathetically about feeling his age and about liking young people round him. He’s an odd character. Fancy him mixed up in an affair with Olga Nilssen! Or, rather, fancy her involved in an affair with him! What can she have seen in him? She’s not mercenary, you know at least, she used not to be.”

“Ah! there,” said Baron de Vries, “you enter upon a terra incognita. No one can say what a woman sees in this man or in that. It’s beyond our ken.”

He rose to take his leave, and Ste. Marie went with him to the door.

“I’ve been asked to a sort of party at Stewart’s rooms this week,” Ste. Marie said. “I don’t know whether I shall go or not. Probably not. I suppose I shouldn’t find Olga Nilssen there?”

“Well, no,” said the Belgian, laughing. “No, I hardly think so. Good-bye! Think over what I’ve told you. Good-bye!”

He went away down the stair, and Ste. Marie returned to his unpacking.

Nothing more of consequence occurred in the next few days. Hartley had unearthed a somewhat shabby adventurer who swore to having seen the Irishman O’Hara in Paris within a month, but it was by no means certain that this being did not merely affirm what he believed to be desired of him, and in any case the information was of no especial value, since it was O’Hara’s present whereabouts that was the point at issue. So it came to Thursday evening. Ste. Marie received a note from Captain Stewart during the day, reminding him that he was to come to the rue du Faubourg St. Honore that evening, and asking him to come early, at ten or thereabouts, so that the two could have a comfortable chat before any one else turned up. Ste. Marie had about decided not to go at all, but the courtesy of this special invitation from Miss Benham’s uncle made it rather impossible for him to stay away. He tried to persuade Hartley to follow him on later in the evening, but that gentleman flatly refused and went away to dine with some English friends at Armenonville.

So Ste. Marie, in a vile temper, dined quite alone at Lavenue’s, beside the Gare Montparnasse, and toward ten o’clock drove across the river to the rue du Faubourg. Captain Stewart’s flat was up five stories, at the top of the building in which it was located, and so, well above the noises of the street. Ste. Marie went up in the automatic lift, and at the door above his host met him in person, saying that the one servant he kept was busy making preparations in the kitchen beyond. They entered a large room, long but comparatively shallow, in shape not unlike the sitting-room in the rue d’Assas, but very much bigger, and Ste. Marie uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure, for he had never before seen an interior anything like this. The room was decorated and furnished entirely in Chinese and Japanese articles of great age and remarkable beauty. Ste. Marie knew little of the hieratic art of these two countries, but he fancied that the place must be an endless delight to the expert.

The general tone of the room was gold, dulled and softened by great age until it had ceased to glitter, and relieved by the dusty Chinese blue and by old red faded to rose and by warm ivory tints. The great expanse of the walls was covered by a brownish-yellow cloth, coarse like burlap, and against it, round the room, hung sixteen large panels representing the sixteen Rakan. They were early copies fifteenth century, Captain Stewart said of those famous originals by the Chinese Sung master Ririomin, which have been for six hundred years or more the treasures of Japan. They were mounted upon Japanese brocade of blue and dull gold, framed in keyaki wood, and out of their brown, time-stained shadows the great Rakan scowled or grinned or placidly gazed, grotesquely graceful masterpieces of a perished art.

At the far end of the room, under a gilded canopy of intricate wood-carving, stood upon his pedestal of many-petalled lotus a great statue of Amida Buddha in the yogi attitude of contemplation, and at intervals against the other walls other smaller images stood or sat: Buddha, in many incarnations; Kwannon, goddess of mercy; Jizo Bosatzu Hotei, pot-bellied, god of contentment; Jingo-Kano, god of war. In the centre of the place was a Buddhist temple table, and priests’ chairs, lacquered and inlaid, stood about the room. The floor was covered with Chinese rugs, dull yellow with blue flowers, and over a doorway which led into another room was fixed a huge rama of Chinese pierced carving, gilded, in which there were trees and rocks and little grouped figures of the hundred immortals.

It, was, indeed an extraordinary room. Ste. Marie looked about its mellow glow with a half-comprehending wonder, and he looked at the man beside him curiously, for here was another side to this many-sided character. Captain Stewart smiled.

“You like my museum?” he asked. “Few people care much for it except, of course, those who go in for the Oriental arts. Most of my friends think it bizarre too grotesque and unusual. I have tried to satisfy them by including those comfortable low divan-couches (they refuse altogether to sit in the priests’ chairs), but still they are unhappy.”

He called his servant, who came to take Ste. Marie’s hat and coat and returned with smoking things.

“It seems entirely wonderful to me,” said the younger man. “I’m not an expert at all I don’t know who the gentlemen in those sixteen panels are, for example but it is very beautiful. I have never seen anything like it at all.” He gave a little laugh. “Will it sound very impertinent in me, I wonder, if I express surprise not surprise at finding this magnificent room, but at discovering that this sort of thing is a taste and, very evidently, a serious study of yours? You I remember your saying once with some feeling that it was youth and beauty and well, freshness that you liked best to be surrounded by. This,” said Ste. Marie, waving an inclusive hand, “was young so many centuries ago! It fairly breathes antiquity and death.”

“Yes,” said Captain Stewart, thoughtfully. “Yes, that is quite true.”

The two had seated themselves upon one of the broad, low benches which had been built into the place to satisfy the Philistine.

“I find it hard to explain,” he said, “because both things are passions of mine. Youth I could not exist without it. Since I have it no longer in my own body, I wish to see it about me. It gives me life. It keeps my heart beating. I must have it near. And then this antiquity and death, beautiful things made by hands dead centuries ago in an alien country! I love this, too. I didn’t speak too strongly; it is a sort of passion with me something quite beyond the collector’s mania quite beyond that. Sometimes, do you know, I stay at home in the evening, and I sit here quite alone, with the lights half on, and for hours together I smoke and watch these things the quiet, sure, patient smile of that Buddha, for example. Think how long he has been smiling like that, and waiting! Waiting for what? There is something mysterious beyond all words in that smile of his, that fixed, crudely carved wooden smile no, I’ll be hanged if it’s crude! It is beyond our modern art. The dead men carved better than we do. We couldn’t manage that with such simple means. We can only reproduce what is before us. We can’t carve questions mysteries everlasting riddles.”

Through the pale-blue, wreathing smoke of his cigarette Captain Stewart gazed down the room to where eternal Buddha stood and smiled eternally. And from there the man’s eyes moved with slow enjoyment along the opposite wall over those who sat or stood there, over the panels of the ancient Rakan, over carved lotus, and gilt contorted dragon forever in pursuit of the holy pearl. He drew a short breath which seemed to bespeak extreme contentment, the keenest height of pleasure, and he stirred a little where he sat and settled himself among the cushions. Ste. Marie watched him, and the expression of the man’s face began to be oddly revolting. It was the face of a voluptuary in the presence of his desire. He was uncomfortable, and wished to say something to break the silence, but, as often occurs at such a time, he could think of nothing to say. So there was a brief silence between them. But presently Captain Stewart roused himself with an obvious effort.

“Here, this won’t do!” said he, in a tone of whimsical apology. “This won’t do, you know. I’m floating off on my hobby (and there’s a mixed metaphor that would do credit to your own Milesian blood!). I’m boring you to extinction, and I don’t want to do that, for I’m anxious that you should come here again and often. I should like to have you form the habit. What was it I had in mind to ask you about? Ah, yes! The journey to Dinard and Deauville. I am afraid it turned out to be fruitless or you would have let me know.”

“Entirely fruitless,” said Ste. Marie.

He went on to tell the elder man of his investigation, and of his certainty that no one resembling Arthur Benham had been at either of the two places.

“It’s no affair of mine, to be sure,” he said, “but I rather suspect that your agent was deceiving you pretending to have accomplished something by way of making you think he was busy.”

Ste. Marie was so sure the other would immediately disclaim this that he waited for the word, and gave a little smothered laugh when Captain Stewart said, promptly:

“Oh no! No! That is impossible. I have every confidence in that man. He is one of my best. No, you are mistaken there. I am more disappointed than you could possibly be over the failure of your efforts, but I am quite sure my man thought he had something worth working upon. By-the-way, I have received another rather curious communication from Ostend this time. I will show you the letter, and you may try your luck there if you would care to.” He felt in his pockets and then rose. “I’ve left the thing in another coat,” said he; “if you will allow me, I’ll fetch it.” But before he had turned away the door-bell rang and he paused. “Ah, well,” he said, “another time. Here are some of my guests. They have come earlier than I had expected.”

The new arrivals were three very perfectly dressed ladies, one of them an operatic light, who chanced not to be singing that evening and whom Ste. Marie had met before. The two others were rather difficult of classification, but probably, he thought, ornaments of that mysterious border-land between the two worlds which seems to give shelter to so many people against whose characters nothing definite is known, but whose antecedents and connections are not made topics of conversation. The three ladies seemed to be on very friendly terms with Captain Stewart, and greeted him with much noisy delight. One of the unclassified two, when her host, with a glance toward Ste. Marie, addressed her formally, seemed inordinately amused, and laughed for a long time.

Within the next hour ten or a dozen other guests had arrived, and they all seemed to know one another very well, and proceeded to make themselves quite at home. Ste. Marie regarded them with a reflective and not over-enthusiastic eye, and he wondered a good deal why he had been asked here to meet them. He was as far from a prig or a snob as any man could very well be, and he often went to very Bohemian parties which were given by his painter or musician friends, but these people seemed to him quite different. The men, with the exception of two eminent opera-singers, who quite obviously had been asked because of their voices, were the sort of men who abound at such places as Ostend and Monte Carlo, and Baden-Baden in the race week. That is not to say that they were ordinary racing touts or the cheaper kind of adventurers (there was a count among them, and a marquis who had recently been divorced by his American wife), but adventurers of a sort they undoubtedly were. There was not one of them, so far as Ste. Marie was aware, who was received anywhere in good society, and he resented very much being compelled to meet them.

Naturally enough, he felt much less concern on the score of the ladies. It is an undoubted and well-nigh universal truth that men who would refuse outright to meet certain classes of their own sex show no reluctance whatever over meeting the women of a corresponding circle that is, if the women are attractive. It is a depressing fact and inclines one to sighs and head-shakes, and some moral indignation, until the reverse truth is brought to light namely, that women have identically the same point of view; that, while they cast looks of loathing and horror upon certain of their sisters, they will meet with pleasure any presentable man whatever his crimes or vices.

Ste. Marie was very much puzzled over all this. It seemed to him so unnecessary that a man who really had some footing in the newer society of Paris should choose to surround himself with people of this type; but as he looked on and wondered he became aware of a curious and, in the light of a past conversation, significant fact: all of the people in the room were young; all of them in their varying fashions and degrees very attractive to look upon; all full to overflowing of life and spirits and the determination to have a good time. He saw Captain Stewart moving among them, playing very gracefully his rôle of host, and the man seemed to have dropped twenty years from his shoulders. A miracle of rejuvenation seemed to have come upon him: his eyes were bright and eager, the color was high in his cheeks, and the dry, pedantic tone had gone from his voice. Ste. Marie watched him, and at last he thought he understood. It was half revolting, half pathetic, he thought, but it certainly was interesting to see.

Duval, the great basso of the Opera, accompanied at the piano by one of the unclassified ladies, was just finishing Méphistophélès’ drinking song out of Faust when the door-bell rang.