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8. The Call Of M'kombo
Of tea upon the veranda of Cray's Folly that afternoon I retain several notable
memories. I got into closer touch with my host and hostess, without achieving
anything like a proper understanding of either of them, and I procured a new
viewpoint of Miss Val Beverley. Her repose was misleading. She deliberately
subjugated her own vital personality to that of Madame de Staemer, why, I knew
not, unless she felt herself under an obligation to do so. That her blue-gray eyes
could be wistful was true enough, they could also be gay; and once I detected in
them a look of sadness which dispelled the butterfly illusion belonging to her
dainty slenderness, to her mobile lips, to the vagabond curling hair of russet
Paul Harley's manner remained absent, but I who knew his moods so well
recognized that this abstraction was no longer real. It was a pose which he often
adopted when in reality he was keenly interested in his surroundings. It baffled
me, however, as effectively as it baffled others, and whilst at one moment I
decided that he was studying Colonel Menendez, in the next I became convinced
that Madame de Staemer was the subject upon his mental dissecting table.
That he should find in Madame a fascinating problem did not surprise me. She
must have afforded tempting study for any psychologist. I could not fathom the
nature of the kinship existing between herself and the Spanish colonel, for
Madame de Staemer was French to her fingertips. Her expressions, her
gestures, her whole outlook on life proclaimed the fashionable Parisienne.
She possessed a vigorous masculine intelligence and was the most entertaining
companion imaginable. She was daringly outspoken, and it was hard to believe
that her gaiety was forced. Yet, as the afternoon wore on, I became more and
more convinced that such was the case.
I thought that before affliction visited her Madame de Staemer must have been a
vivacious and a beautiful woman. Her vivacity remained and much of her beauty,
so that it was difficult to believe her snow-white hair to be a product of nature.
Again and again I found myself regarding it as a powdered coiffure of the
Pompadour period and wondering why Madame wore no patches.
That a deep and sympathetic understanding existed between herself and Colonel
Menendez was unmistakable. More than once I intercepted glances from the
dark eyes of Madame which were lover-like, yet laden with a profound sorrow.
She was playing a role, and I was convinced that Harley knew this. It was not
merely a courageous fight against affliction on the part of a woman of the world,
versed in masking her real self from the prying eyes of society, it was a studied
performance prompted by some deeper motive.
She dressed with exquisite taste, and to see her seated there amid her cushions,
gesticulating vivaciously, one would never have supposed that she was crippled.
My admiration for her momentarily increased, the more so since I could see that
she was sincerely fond of Val Beverley, whose every movement she followed
with looks of almost motherly affection. This was all the more strange as