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

THE BLACK CAT

That providential stone or tree-root, or whatever it may have been, proved a genuine blessing in disguise to Ste. Marie. It gave him a splitting headache for a few hours, but it saved him a good deal of discomfort the while his bullet wound was being more or less probed and very skilfully cleansed and dressed by O’Hara. For he did not regain consciousness until this surgical work was almost at its end, and then he wanted to fight the Irishman for tying the bandages too tight.

But when O’Hara had gone away and left him alone he lay still or as still as the smarting, burning pain in his leg and the ache in his head would let him and stared at the wall beyond his bed, and bit by bit the events of the past hour came back to him, and he knew where he was. He cursed himself very bitterly, as he well might do, for a bungling idiot. The whole thing had been in his hands, he said, with perfect truth Arthur Benham’s whereabouts proved Stewart’s responsibility or, at the very least, complicity and the sordid motive therefor. Remained had Ste. Marie been a sane being instead of an impulsive fool remained but to face Stewart down in the presence of witnesses, threaten him with exposure, and so, with perfect ease, bring back the lost boy in triumph to his family.

It should all have been so simple, so easy, so effortless! Yet now it was ruined by a moment’s rash folly, and Heaven alone knew what would come of it. He remembered that he had left behind him no indication whatever of where he meant to spend the afternoon. Hartley would come hurrying across town that evening to the rue d’Assas, and would find no one there to receive him. He would wait and wait, and at last go home. He would come again on the next morning, and then he would begin to be alarmed and would start a second search but with what to reckon by? Nobody knew about the house on the road to Clamart but Mlle. Olga Nilssen, and she was far away.

He thought of Captain Stewart, and he wondered if that gentleman was by any chance here in the house, or if he was still in bed in the rue du Faubourg St. Honore, recovering from his epileptic fit.

After that he fell once more to cursing himself and his incredible stupidity, and he could have wept for sheer bitterness of chagrin.

He was still engaged in this unpleasant occupation when the door of the room opened and the Irishman O’Hara entered, having finished his interview with Captain Stewart below. He came up beside the bed and looked down not unkindly upon the man who lay there, but Ste. Marie scowled back at him, for he was in a good deal of pain and a vile humor.

“How’s the leg and the head?” asked the amateur surgeon. To do him justice, he was very skilful, indeed, through much experience.

“They hurt,” said Ste. Marie, shortly. “My head aches like the devil, and my leg burns.”

O’Hara made a sound which was rather like a gruff laugh, and nodded.

“Yes, and they’ll go on doing it, too,” said he. “At least the leg will. Your head will be all right again in a day or so. Do you want anything to eat? It’s near dinner-time. I suppose we can’t let you starve though you deserve it.”

“Thanks; I want nothing,” said Ste. Marie. “Pray don’t trouble about me.”

The other man nodded again indifferently and turned to go out of the room, but in the doorway he halted and looked back.

“As we’re to have the pleasure of your company for some time to come,” said he, “you might suggest a name to call you by. Of course I don’t expect you to tell your own name though I can learn that easily enough.”

“Easily enough, to be sure,” said the man on the bed. “Ask Stewart. He knows only too well.”

The Irishman scowled. And after a moment he said:

“I don’t know any Stewart.”

But at that Ste. Marie gave a laugh, and a tinge of red came over the Irishman’s cheeks.

“And so, to save Captain Stewart the trouble,” continued the wounded man, “I’ll tell you my name with pleasure. I don’t know why I shouldn’t. It’s Ste. Marie.”

“What?” cried O’Hara, hoarsely. “What? Say that again!”

He came forward a swift step or two into the room, and he stared at the man on the bed as if he were staring at a ghost.

“Ste. Marie?” he cried, in a whisper. “It’s impossible! What are you,” he demanded, “to Gilles, Comte de Ste. Marie de Mont-Perdu? What are you to him?”

“He was my father,” said the younger man; “but he is dead. He has been dead for ten years.”

He raised his head, with a little grimace of pain, to look curiously after the Irishman, who had all at once turned away across the room and stood still beside a window with bent head.

“Why?” he questioned. “What about my father? Why did you ask that?”

O’Hara did not answer at once, and he did not stir from his place by the window, but after a while he said:

“I knew him.... That’s all.”

And after another space he came back beside the bed, and once more looked down upon the young man who lay there. His face was veiled, inscrutable. It betrayed nothing.

“You have a look of your father,” said he. “That was what puzzled me a little. I was just saying to I was just thinking that there was something familiar about you.... Ah, well, we’ve all come down in the world since then. The Ste. Marie blood, though. Who’d have thought it?”

The man shook his head a little sorrowfully, but Ste. Marie stared up at him in frowning incomprehension. The pain had dulled him somewhat. And presently O’Hara again moved toward the door. On the way he said:

“I’ll bring or send you something to eat not too much. And later on I’ll give you a sleeping-powder. With that head of yours you may have trouble in getting to sleep. Understand, I’m doing this for your father’s son, and not because you’ve any right yourself to consideration.”

Ste. Marie raised himself with difficulty on one elbow.

“Wait!” said he. “Wait a moment!” and the other halted just inside the door. “You seem to have known my father,” said Ste. Marie, “and to have respected him. For my father’s sake, will you listen to me for five minutes?”

“No, I won’t,” said the Irishman, sharply. “So you may as well hold your tongue. Nothing you can say to me or to any one in this house will have the slightest effect. We know what you came spying here for. We know all about it.”

“Yes,” said Ste. Marie, with a little sigh, and he fell back upon the pillows. “Yes, I suppose you do. I was rather a fool to speak. You wouldn’t all be doing what you’re doing if words could affect you. I was a fool to speak.”

The Irishman stared at him for another moment, and went out of the room, closing the door behind him.

So he was left once more alone to his pain and his bitter self-reproaches and his wild and futile plans for escape. But O’Hara returned in an hour or thereabout with food for him a cup of broth and a slice of bread; and when Ste. Marie had eaten these the Irishman looked once more to his wounded leg, and gave him a sleeping-powder dissolved in water.

He lay restless and wide-eyed for an hour, and then drifted away through intermediate mists into a sleep full of horrible dreams, but it was at least relief from bodily suffering, and when he awoke in the morning his headache was almost gone.

He awoke to sunshine and fresh, sweet odors and the twittering of birds. By good chance O’Hara had been the last to enter the room on the evening before, and so no one had come to close the shutters or draw the blinds. The windows were open wide, and the morning breeze, very soft and aromatic, blew in and out and filled the place with sweetness. The room was a corner room, with windows that looked south and east, and the early sun slanted in and lay in golden squares across the floor.

Ste. Marie opened his eyes with none of the dazed bewilderment that he might have expected. The events of the preceding day came back to him instantly and without shock. He put up an experimental hand, and found that his head was still very sore where he had struck it in falling, but the ache was almost gone. He tried to stir his leg, and a protesting pain shot through it. It burned dully, even when it was quiet, but the pain was not at all severe. He realized that he was to get off rather well, considering what might have happened, and he was so grateful for this that he almost forgot to be angry with himself over his monumental folly.

A small bird chased by another wheeled in through the southern window and back again into free air. Finally, the two settled down upon the parapet of the little shallow balcony which was there to have their disagreement out, and they talked it over with a great deal of noise and many threatening gestures and a complete loss of temper on both sides. Ste. Marie, from his bed, cheered them on, but there came a commotion in the ivy which draped the wall below, and the two birds fled in ignominious haste, and just in the nick of time, for when the cause of the commotion shot into view it was a large black cat, of great bodily activity and an ardent single-heartedness of aim.

The black cat gazed for a moment resentfully after its vanished prey, and then composed its sleek body upon the iron rail, tail and paws tucked neatly under. Ste. Marie chirruped, and the cat turned yellow eyes upon him in mild astonishment, as one who should say, “Who the deuce are you, and what the deuce are you doing here?” He chirruped again, and the cat, after an ostentatious yawn and stretch, came to him beating up to windward, as it were, and making the bed in three tacks. When O’Hara entered the room some time later he found his patient in a very cheerful frame of mind, and the black cat sitting on his chest purring like a dynamo and kneading like an industrious baker.

“Ho,” said the Irishman, “you seem to have found a friend!”

“Well, I need one friend here,” argued Ste. Marie. “I’m in the enemy’s stronghold. You needn’t be alarmed; the cat can’t tell me anything, and it can’t help me to escape. It can only sit on me and purr. That’s harmless enough.”

O’Hara began one of his gruff laughs, but he seemed to remember himself in the middle of it and assumed an intimidating scowl instead.

“How’s the leg?” he demanded, shortly. “Let me see it.” He took off the bandages and cleansed and sprayed the wound with some antiseptic liquid that he had brought in a bottle. “There’s a little fever,” said he, “but that can’t be avoided. You’re going on very well a good deal better than you’d any right to expect.” He had to inflict not a little pain in his examination and redressing of the wound. He knew that, and once or twice he glanced up at Ste. Marie’s face with a sort of reluctant admiration for the man who could bear so much without any sign whatever. In the end he put together his things and nodded with professional satisfaction. “You’ll do well enough now for the rest of the day,” he said. “I’ll send up old Michel to valet you. He’s the gardener who shot you yesterday, and he may take it into his head to finish the job this morning. If he does I sha’n’t try to stop him.”

“Nor I,” said Ste. Marie. “Thanks very much for your trouble. An excellent surgeon was lost in you.”

O’Hara left the room, and presently the old caretaker, one-eyed, gnomelike, shambling like a bear, sidled in and proceeded to set things to rights. He looked, Ste. Marie said to himself, like something in an old German drawing, or in those imitations of old drawings that one sometimes sees nowadays in Fliegende Blaetter. He tried to make the strange creature talk, but Michel went about his task with an air half-frightened, half-stolid, and refused to speak more than an occasional “oui” or a “bien, Monsieur,” in answer to orders. Ste. Marie asked if he might have some coffee and bread, and the old Michel nodded and slipped from the room as silently as he had entered it.

Thereafter Ste. Marie trifled with the cat and got one hand well scratched for his trouble, but in five minutes there came a knocking at the door. He laughed a little. “Michel grows ceremonious when it’s a question of food,” he said. “Entrez, mon vieux!”

The door opened, and Ste. Marie caught his breath.

“Michel is busy,” said Coira O’Hara, “so I have brought your coffee.”

She came into the sunlit room holding the steaming bowl of cafe au lait before her in her two hands. Over it her eyes went out to the man who lay in his bed, a long and steady and very grave look. “A goddess that lady, a queen among goddesses ” Thus the little Jew of the Boulevard de la Madeleine. Ste. Marie gazed back at her, and his heart was sick within him to think of the contemptible rôle Fate had laid upon this girl to play: the candle to the moth, the bait to the eager, unskilled fish, the lure to charm a foolish boy.

The girl’s splendid beauty seemed to fill all that bright room with, as it were, a richer, subtler light. There could be no doubt of her potency. Older and wiser heads than young Arthur Benham’s might well forget the world for her. Ste. Marie watched, and the heartsickness within him was like a physical pain, keen and bitter. He thought of that first and only previous meeting the single minute in the Champs-Elysees, when her eyes had held him, had seemed to beseech him out of some deep agony. He thought of how they had haunted him afterward both by day and by night calling eyes and he gave a little groan of sheer bitterness, for he realized that all this while she was laying her snares about the feet of an inexperienced boy, decoying him to his ruin. There was a name for such women, an ugly name. They were called adventuresses.

The girl set the bowl which she carried down upon a table not far from the bed. “You will need a tray or something,” said she. “I suppose you can sit up against your pillows? I’ll bring a tray and you can hold it on your knees and eat from it.” She spoke in a tone of very deliberate indifference and detachment. There seemed even to be an edge of scorn in it, but nothing could make that deep and golden voice harsh or unlovely. As the girl’s extraordinary beauty had filled all the room with its light, so the sound of her voice seemed to fill it with a sumptuous and hushed resonance like a temple bell muffled in velvet. “I must bring something to eat, too,” she said. “Would you prefer croissants or brioches or plain bread-and-butter? You might as well have what you like.”

“Thank you!” said Ste. Marie. “It doesn’t matter. Anything. You are most kind. You are Hebe, Mademoiselle, server of feasts.” The girl turned her head for a moment and looked at him with some surprise.

“If I am not mistaken,” she said, “Hebe served to gods.” Then she went out of the room, and Ste. Marie broke into a sudden delighted laugh behind her. She would seem to be a young woman with a tongue in her head. She had seized the rash opening without an instant’s hesitation.

The black cat, which had been cruising, after the inquisitive fashion of its kind, in far corners of the room, strolled back and looked up to the table where the bowl of coffee steamed and waited.

“Get out!” cried Ste. Marie. “Va t’en, sale petit animal! Go and eat birds! That’s my coffee. Va! Sauve toi! He, voleur que tu es!” He sought for something by way of missile, but there was nothing within reach.

The black cat turned its calm and yellow eyes toward him, looked back to the aromatic feast, and leaped expertly to the top of the table. Ste. Marie shouted and made horrible threats. He waved an impotent pillow, not daring to hurl it for fear of smashing the table’s entire contents, but the black cat did not even glance toward him. It smelled the coffee, sneezed over it because it was hot, and finally proceeded to lap very daintily, pausing often to take breath or to shake its head, for cats disapprove of hot dishes, though they will partake of them at a pinch.

There came a step outside the door, and the thief leaped down with some haste, yet not quite in time to escape observation. Mlle. O’Hara came in, breathing terrible threats.

“Has that wretched animal touched your coffee?” she cried. “I hope not.” But Ste. Marie laughed weakly from his bed, and the guilty beast stood in mid-floor, brown drops beading its black chin and hanging upon its whiskers.

“I did what I could, Mademoiselle,” said Ste. Marie, “but there was nothing to throw. I am sorry to be the cause of so much trouble.”

“It is nothing,” said she. “I will bring some more coffee, only it will take ten minutes, because I shall have to make some fresh.” She made as if she would smile a little in answer to him, but her face turned grave once more and she went out of the room with averted eyes.

Thereafter Ste. Marie occupied himself with watching idly the movements of the black cat, and, as he watched, something icy cold began to grow within him, a sensation more terrible than he had ever known before. He found himself shivering as if that summer day had all at once turned to January, and he found that his face was wet with a chill perspiration.

When the girl at length returned she found him lying still, his face to the wall. The black cat was in her path as she crossed the room, so that she had to thrust it out of the way with her foot, and she called it names for moving with such lethargy.

“Here is the coffee at last,” she said. “I made it fresh. And I have brought some brioches. Will you sit up and have the tray on your knees?”

“Thank you,” said Ste. Marie. “I do not wish anything.”

“You do not ” she repeated after him. “But I have made the coffee especially for you,” she protested. “I thought you wanted it. I don’t understand.”

With a sudden movement the man turned toward her a white and drawn face.

“Mademoiselle,” he cried, “it would have been more merciful to let your gardener shoot again yesterday. Much more merciful, Mademoiselle.”

She stared at him under her straight, black brows.

“What do you mean?” she demanded. “More merciful? What do you mean by that?”

Ste. Marie stretched out a pointing finger, and the girl followed it. She gave, after a tense instant, a single, sharp scream. And upon that:

“No, no! It’s not true! It’s not possible!”

Moving stiffly, she set down the bowl she carried, and the hot liquid splashed up round her wrists. For a moment she hung there, drooping, holding herself up by the strength of her hands upon the table. It was as if she had been seized with faintness. Then she sprang to where the cat crouched beside a chair. She dropped upon her knees and tried to raise it in her arms, but the beast bit and scratched at her feebly, and crept away to a little distance, where it lay struggling and very unpleasant to see.

“Poison!” she said, in a choked, gasping whisper. “Poison!” She looked once toward the man upon the bed, and she was white and shivering. “It’s not true!” she cried again. “I won’t believe it! It’s because the cat was not used to coffee. Because it was hot. I won’t believe it! I won’t believe it!” She began to sob, holding her hands over her white face.

Ste. Marie watched her with puzzled eyes. If this was acting, it was very good acting. A little glimmer of hope began to burn in him hope that in this last shameful thing, at least, the girl had had no part.

“It’s impossible,” she insisted, piteously. “I tell you it’s impossible. I brought the coffee myself from the kitchen. I took it from the pot there the same pot we had all had ours from. It was never out of my sight or, that is I mean ”

She halted there, and Ste. Marie saw her eyes turn slowly toward the door, and he saw a crimson flush come up over her cheeks and die away, leaving her white again. He drew a little breath of relief and gladness, for he was sure of her now. She had had no part in it.

“It is nothing, Mademoiselle,” said he, cheerfully. “Think no more of it. It is nothing.”

“Nothing?” she cried, in a loud voice. “Do you call poison nothing?” She began to shiver again very violently. “You would have drunk it!” she said, staring at him in a white agony. “But for a miracle you would have drunk it and died!”

Abruptly she came beside the bed and threw herself upon her knees there. In her excitement and horror she seemed to have forgotten what they two were to each other. She caught him by the shoulders with her two hands, and the girl’s violent trembling shook them both.

“Will you believe,” she cried, “that I had nothing to do with this? Will you believe me? You must believe me!”

There was no acting in that moment. She was wrung with a frank anguish, an utter horror, and between her words there were hard and terrible sobs.

“I believe you, Mademoiselle,” said the man, gently. “I believe you. Pray think no more about it.”

He smiled up into the girl’s beautiful face, though within him he was still cold and a-shiver, as even the bravest man might well be at such an escape, and after a moment she turned away again. With unsteady hands she put the new-made bowl of coffee and the brioches and other things together upon the tray and started to carry it across the room to the bed, but half-way she turned back again and set the tray down. She looked about and found an empty glass, and she poured a little of the coffee into it. Ste. Marie, who was watching her, gave a sudden cry.

“No, no, Mademoiselle, I beg you! You must not!”

But the girl shook her head at him gravely over the glass.

“There is no danger,” she said, “but I must be sure.”

She drank what was in the glass, and afterward went across to one of the windows and stood there with her back to the room for a little time.

In the end she returned and once more brought the breakfast-tray to the bed. Ste. Marie raised himself to a sitting posture and took the thing upon his knees, but his hands were shaking.

“If I were not as helpless as a dead man, Mademoiselle,” said he, “you should not have done that. If I could have stopped you, you should not have done it, Mademoiselle.”

A wave of color spread up under the brown skin of the girl’s face, but she did not speak. She stood by for a moment to see if he was supplied with everything he needed, and when Ste. Marie expressed his gratitude for her pains she only bowed her head. Then presently she turned away and left the room.

Outside the door she met some one who was approaching. Ste. Marie heard her break into rapid and excited speech, and he heard O’Hara’s voice in answer. The voice expressed astonishment and indignation and a sort of gruff horror, but the man who listened could hear only the tones, not the words that were spoken.

The Irishman came quickly into the room. He glanced once toward the bed where Ste. Marie sat eating his breakfast with apparent unconcern there may have been a little bravado in this and then bent over the thing which lay moving feebly beside a chair. When he rose again his face was hard and tense and his blue eyes glittered in a fashion that boded trouble for somebody.

“This looks very bad for us,” he said, gruffly. “I should I should like to have you believe that neither my daughter nor I had any part in it. When I fight I fight openly, I don’t use poison. Not even with spies.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Ste. Marie, taking an ostentatious sip of coffee. “That’s understood. I know well enough who tried to poison me. If you’ll just keep your friend Stewart out of the kitchen I sha’n’t worry about my food.”

The Irishman’s cheeks reddened with a quick flush and he dropped his eyes. But in an instant he raised them again and looked full into the eyes of the man who sat in bed.

“You seem,” said he, “to be laboring under a curious misapprehension. There is no Stewart here, and I don’t know any man of that name.”

Ste. Marie laughed.

“Oh, don’t you?” he said. “That’s my mistake then. Well, if you don’t know him, you ought to. You have interests in common.”

O’Hara favored his patient with a long and frowning stare. But at the end he turned without a word and went out of the room.