A Fellow Traveller
I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence:
“ ‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”
Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a Duchess!
It was a day in early June. I had been transacting some business in Paris and was returning by the morning service to London where I was still sharing rooms with my old friend, the Belgian ex-detective, Hercule Poirot.
The Calais express was singularly empty—in fact, my own compartment held only one other traveller. I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps when the train started. Up till then I had hardly noticed my companion, but I was now violently recalled to the fact of her existence. Jumping up from her seat, she let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation “Hell!”
Now I am old-fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!
I looked up now, frowning slightly, into a pretty, impudent face, surmounted by a rakish little red hat. A thick cluster of black curls hid each ear. I judged that she was little more than seventeen, but her face was covered with powder, and her lips were quite impossibly scarlet.
Nothing abashed, she returned my glance, and executed an expressive grimace.
“Dear me, we’ve shocked the kind gentleman!” she observed to an imaginary audience. “I apologize for my language! Most unladylike, and all that, but Oh, Lord, there’s reason enough for it! Do you know I’ve lost my only sister?”
“Really?” I said politely. “How unfortunate.”
“He disapproves!” remarked the lady. “He disapproves utterly—of me, and my sister—which last is unfair, because he hasn’t seen her!”
I opened my mouth, but she forestalled me.
“Say no more! Nobody loves me! I shall go into the garden and eat worms! Boohoo! I am crushed!”
She buried herself behind a large comic French paper. In a minute or two I saw her eyes stealthily peeping at me over the top. In spite of myself I could not help smiling, and in a minute she had tossed the paper aside, and had burst into a merry peal of laughter.
“I knew you weren’t such a mutt as you looked,” she cried.
Her laughter was so infectious that I could not help joining in, though I hardly cared for the word “mutt.” The girl was certainly all that I most disliked, but that was no reason why I should make myself ridiculous by my attitude. I prepared to unbend. After all, she was decidedly pretty. …
“There! Now we’re friends!” declared the minx. “Say you’re sorry about my sister—”
“I am desolated!”
“That’s a good boy!”
“Let me finish. I was going to add that, although I am desolated, I can manage to put up with her absence very well.” I made a little bow.
But this most unaccountable of damsels frowned and shook her head.
“Cut it out. I prefer the ‘dignified disapproval’ stunt. Oh, your face! ‘Not one of us,’ it said. And you were right there—though, mind you, it’s pretty hard to tell nowadays. It’s not every one who can distinguish between a demi and a duchess. There now, I believe I’ve shocked you again! You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort. I just hate a fellow who gets fresh. It makes me mad.”
She shook her head vigorously.
“What are you like when you’re mad?” I inquired with a smile.
“A regular little devil! Don’t care what I say, or what I do, either! I nearly did a chap in once. Yes, really. He’d have deserved it too. Italian blood I’ve got. I shall get into trouble one of these days.”
“Well,” I begged, “don’t get mad with me.”
“I shan’t. I like you—did the first moment I set eyes on you. But you looked so disapproving that I never thought we should make friends.”
“Well, we have. Tell me something about yourself.”
“I’m an actress. No—not the kind you’re thinking of, lunching at the Savoy covered with jewellery, and with their photograph in every paper saying how much they love Madame So and So’s face cream. I’ve been on the boards since I was a kid of six—tumbling.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said puzzled.
“Haven’t you seen child acrobats?”
“Oh, I understand.”
“I’m American born, but I’ve spent most of my life in England. We got a new show now—”
“My sister and I. Sort of song and dance, and a bit of patter, and a dash of the old business thrown in. It’s quite a new idea, and it hits them every time. There’s to be money in it—”
My new acquaintance leaned forward, and discoursed volubly, a great many of her terms being quite unintelligible to me. Yet I found myself evincing an increasing interest in her. She seemed such a curious mixture of child and woman. Though perfectly worldly-wise, and able, as she expressed it, to take care of herself, there was yet something curiously ingenuous in her single-minded attitude towards life, and her whole-hearted determination to “make good.” This glimpse of a world unknown to me was not without its charm, and I enjoyed seeing her vivid little face light up as she talked.
We passed through Amiens. The name awakened many memories. My companion seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of what was in my mind.
“Thinking of the War?”
“You were through it, I suppose?”
“Pretty well. I was wounded once, and after the Somme they invalided me out altogether. I had a half fledged Army job for a bit. I’m a sort of private secretary now to an M. P.”
“My! That’s brainy!”
“No, it isn’t. There’s really awfully little to do. Usually a couple of hours every day sees me through. It’s dull work too. In fact, I don’t know what I should do if I hadn’t got something to fall back upon.”
“Don’t say you collect bugs!”
“No. I share rooms with a very interesting man. He’s a Belgian—an ex-detective. He’s set up as a private detective in London, and he’s doing extraordinarily well. He’s really a very marvellous little man. Time and again he has proved to be right where the official police have failed.”
My companion listened with widening eyes.
“Isn’t that interesting, now? I just adore crime. I go to all the mysteries on the movies. And when there’s a murder on I just devour the papers.”
“Do you remember the Styles Case?” I asked.
“Let me see, was that the old lady who was poisoned? Somewhere down in Essex?”
“That was Poirot’s first big case. Undoubtedly, but for him, the murderer would have escaped scot-free. It was a most wonderful bit of detective work.”
Warming to my subject, I ran over the heads of the affair, working up to the triumphant and unexpected denouement. The girl listened spellbound. In fact, we were so absorbed that the train drew into Calais station before we realized it.
“My goodness gracious me!” cried my companion. “Where’s my powder-puff?”
She proceeded to bedaub her face liberally, and then applied a stick of lip salve to her lips, observing the effect in a small pocket glass, and betraying not the faintest sign of self-consciousness.
“I say,” I hesitated. “I dare say it’s cheek on my part, but why do all that sort of thing?”
The girl paused in her operations, and stared at me with undisguised surprise.
“It isn’t as though you weren’t so pretty that you can afford to do without it,” I said stammeringly.
“My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump up from the country?” She took one last look in the mirror, smiled approval, and put it and her vanity-box away in her bag. “That’s better. Keeping up appearances is a bit of a fag, I grant, but if a girl respects herself it’s up to her not to let herself get slack.”
To this essentially moral sentiment, I had no reply. A point of view makes a great difference.
I secured a couple of porters, and we alighted on the platform. My companion held out her hand.
“Good-bye, and I’ll mind my language better in future.”
“Oh, but surely you’ll let me look after you on the boat?”
“Mayn’t be on the boat. I’ve got to see whether that sister of mine got aboard after all anywhere. But thanks all the same.”
“Oh, but we’re going to meet again, surely? I—” I hesitated. “I want to meet your sister.”
We both laughed.
“That’s real nice of you. I’ll tell her what you say. But I don’t fancy we’ll meet again. You’ve been very good to me on the journey, especially after I cheeked you as I did. But what your face expressed first thing is quite true. I’m not your kind. And that brings trouble—I know that well enough. …”
Her face changed. For the moment all the light-hearted gaiety died out of it. It looked angry—revengeful. …
“So good-bye,” she finished, in a lighter tone.
“Aren’t you even going to tell me your name?” I cried, as she turned away.
She looked over her shoulder. A dimple appeared in each cheek. She was like a lovely picture by Greuze.
“Cinderella,” she said, and laughed.
But little did I think when and how I should see Cinderella again.