The Favorite Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham


  “Well, good morning. You need not trouble to wait.”

  They touched their hats, gave a word of farewell to the woman, and walked away.

  “ Where are they going? ” she asked.

  “Off. You will not be bothered with them any more-”

  “Am I in your custody then?”

  “You’re in nobody’s custody. I’m going to permit myself to take you to your hotel and then I shall leave you. You must try to get a good rest.”

  Ashenden’s porter took her hand-luggage and she gave him the ticket for her trunk. They walked out of the station. A cab was waiting for them and Ashenden begged her to get in. It was a longish drive to the hotel and now and then Ashenden felt that she gave him a sidelong glance. She was perplexed. He sat without a word. When they reached the hotel the proprietor— it was a small hotel, prettily situated at the corner of a little promenade and it had a charming view—showed them the room that had been prepared for Madame Lazzari. Ashenden turned to him.

  “That’ll do very nicely, I think. I shall come down in a minute.”

  The proprietor bowed and withdrew.

  “I shall do my best to see that you are comfortable, Madame,” said Ashenden. “You are here absolutely your own mistress and you may order pretty well anything you like. To the proprietor you are just a guest of the hotel like any other. You are absolutely free.”

  “Free to go out?” she asked quickly.

  “Of course.”

  “With a policeman on either side of me, I suppose.”

  “Not at all. You are as free in the hotel as though you were in your own house and you are free to go out and come in when you choose. I should like an assurance from you that you will not write any letters without my knowledge or attempt to leave Thonon without my permission.”

  She gave Ashenden a long stare. She could not make it out at all. She looked as though she thought it a dream.

  “I am in a position that forces me to give you any assurance you ask. I give you my word of honour that I will not write a letter without showing it to you or attempt to leave this place.”

  “Thank you. Now I will leave you. I will do myself the pleasure of coming to see you to-morrow morning.”

  Ashenden nodded and went out. He stopped for five minutes at the police-station to see that everything was in order and then took the cab up the hill to a little secluded house on the outskirts of the town at which on his periodical visits to this place he stayed. It was pleasant to have a bath and a shave and get into slippers. He felt lazy and spent the rest of the morning reading a novel.

  Soon after dark, for even at Thonon, though it was in France, it was thought desirable to attract attention to Ashenden as little as possible, an agent from the police-station came to see him. His name was Felix. He was a little dark Frenchman with sharp eyes and an unshaven chin, dressed in a shabby grey suit and rather down at heel, so that he looked like a lawyer’s clerk out of work. Ashenden offered him a glass of wine and they sat down by the fire.

  “Well, your lady lost no time,” he said. “Within a quarter of an hour of her arrival she was out of the hotel with a bundle of clothes and trinkets that she sold in a shop near the market. When the afternoon boat came in she went down to the quay and bought a ticket to Evian.”

  Evian, it should be explained, was the next place along the lake in France and from there, crossing over, the boat went to Switzerland.

  “Of course she hadn’t a passport, so permission to embark was denied her.”

  “How did she explain that she had no passport?”

  “She said she’d forgotten it. She said she had an appointment to see friends in Evian and tried to persuade the official in charge to let her go. She attempted to slip a hundred francs into his hand.”

  “She must be a stupider woman than I thought,” said Ashenden.

  But when next day he went about eleven in the morning to see her he made no reference to her attempt to escape. She had had time to arrange herself, and now, her hair elaborately done, her lips and cheeks painted, she looked less haggard than when he had first seen her.

  “I’ve brought you some books,” said Ashenden. “I’m afraid the time hangs heavy on your hands.”

  “What does that matter to you?”

  “I have no wish that you should suffer anything that can be avoided. Anyhow I will leave them and you can read them or not as you choose.”

  “If you only knew how I hated you.”

  “It would doubtless make me very uncomfortable. But I really don’t know why you should. I am only doing what I have been ordered to do.” “What do you want of me now? I do not suppose you have come only to ask after my health.”

  Ashenden smiled.

  “I want you to write a letter to your lover telling him that owing to some irregularity in your passport the Swiss authorities would not let you cross the frontier, so you have come here where it is very nice and quiet, so quiet that one can hardly realize there is a war, and you propose that Chandra should join you.”

  “Do you think he is a fool? He will refuse.”

  “ Then you must do your best to persuade him.”

  She looked at Ashenden a long time before she answered. He suspected that she was debating within herself whether by writing the letter and so seeming docile she could not gain time. “Well, dictate and I will write what you say.”

  “I should prefer you to put it in your own words.”

  “Give me half an hour and the letter shall be ready.”

  “I will wait here,” said Ashenden.

  “Why?”

  “Becausc I prefer to.”

  Her eyes flashed angrily, but controlling herself she said nothing. On the chest of drawers were writing materials. She sat down at the dressing-table and began to write. When she handed Ashenden the letter he saw that even through her rouge she was very pale. It was the letter of a person not much used to expressing herself by means of pen and ink, but it was well enough, and when towards the end, starting to say how much she loved the man, she had been carried away and wrote with all her heart, it had really a certain passion.

  “Now add: The man who is bringing this is Swiss, you can trust him absolutely. I didn’t want the censor to see it.”

  She hesitated an instant, but then wrote as he directed. “How do you spell, absolutely?”

  “As you like. Now address an envelope and I will relieve you of my unwelcome presence.”

  He gave the letter to the agent who was waiting to take it across the lake. Ashenden brought her the reply the same evening. She snatched it from his hands and for a moment pressed it to her heart. When she read it she uttered a little cry of relief. “He won’t come.”

  The letter, in the Indian’s flowery, stilted English, expressed his bitter disappointment. He told her how intensely he had looked forward to seeing her and implored her to do everything in the world to smooth the difficulties that prevented her from crossing the frontier. He said that it was impossible for him to come, impossible, there was a price on his head, and it would be madness for him to think of risking it. He attempted to be jocular, she did not want her little fat lover to be shot, did she?

  “He won’t come,” she repeated, “he won’t come.”

  “You must write and tell him that there is no risk. You must say that if there were you would not dream of asking him. You must say that if he loves you he will not hesitate.”

  “I won’t. I won’t.”

  “Don’t be a fool. You can’t help yourself.”

  She burst into a sudden flood of tears. She flung herself on the floor and seizing Ashenden’s knees implored him to have mercy on her.

  “I will do anything in the world for you if you will let me g°”

  “Don’t be absurd,” said Ashenden. “Do you think I want to become your lover? Come, come, you must be serious. You know the alternative.”

  She raised herself to her feet and changing on a sudden to fury flung at Ashenden one foul name after
another.

  “I like you much better like that,” he said. “Now will you write or shall I send for the police?”

  “He will not come. It is useless.”

  “It is very much to your interest to make him come.”

  “ What do you mean by that? Do you mean that if I do everything in my power and fail, that . .

  She looked at Ashenden with wild eyes.

  “Yes, it means either you or him.”

  She staggered. She put her hand to her heart. Then without a word she reached for pen and paper. But the letter was not to Ashenden’s liking and he made her write it again. When she had finished she flung herself on the bed and burst once more into passionate weeping. Her grief was real, but there was something theatrical in the expression of it that prevented it from being peculiarly moving to Ashenden. He felt his relation to her as impersonal as a doctor’s in the presence of a pain that he cannot alleviate. He saw now why R. had given him this peculiar task; it needed a cool head and an emotion well under control.

  He did not see her next day. The answer to the letter was not delivered to him till after dinner when it was brought to Ashenden’s little house by Felix.

  “Well, what news have you?”

  “Our friend is getting desperate,” smiled the Frenchman. “This afternoon she walked up to the station just as a train was about to start for Lyons. She was looking up and down uncertainly so I went to her and asked if there was anything I could do. I introduced myself as an agent of the Surety. If looks could kill I should not be standing here now.”

  “Sit down, mon ami,” said Ashenden.

  “Merci. She walked away, she evidently thought it was no use to try to get on the train, but I have something more interesting to tell you. She has offered a boatman on the lake a thousand francs to take her across to Lausanne.”

  “What did he say to her?”

  “He said he couldn’t risk it.”

  “Yes?”

  The little agent gave his shoulders a slight shrug and smiled. “She’s asked him to meet her on the road that leads to Evian at ten o’clock to-night so that they can talk of it again, and she’s given him to understand that she will not repulse too fiercely the advances of a lover. I have told him to do what he likes so long as he comes and tells me everything that is of importance.” “Are you sure you can trust him?” asked Ashenden.

  “Oh, quite. He knows nothing, of course, but that she is under surveillance. You need have no fear about him. He is a good boy, I have known him all his life.”

  Ashenden read Chandra’s letter. It was eager and passionate. It throbbed strangely with the painful yearning of his heart. Love? Yes, if Ashenden knew anything of it there was the real thing. He told her how he spent long long hours walking by the lakeside and looking towards the coast of France. How near they were and yet so desperately parted! He repeated again and again that he could not come, and begged her not to ask him, he would do everything in the world for her, but that he dared not do, and yet if she insisted how could he resist her? He besought her to have mercy on him. And then he broke into a long wail at the thought that he must go away without seeing her, he asked her if there were not some means by which she could slip over, he swore that if he could ever hold her in his arms again he would never let her go. Even the forced and elaborate language in which it was written could not dim the hot fire that burned the pages; it was the letter of a madman.

  “When will you hear the result of her interview with the boatman?” asked Ashenden.

  “I have arranged to meet him at the landing-stage between eleven and twelve.”

  Ashenden looked at his watch.

  “I will come with you.”

  They walked down the hill and reaching the quay for shelter from the cold wind stood in the lea of the custom-house. At last they saw a man approaching and Felix stepped out of the shadow that hid them.

  “Antoine.”

  “Monsieur Félix? I have a letter for you; I promised to take it to Lausanne by the first boat tomorrow.”

  Ashenden gave the man a brief glance, but did not ask what had passed between him and Giulia Lazzari. He took the letter and by the light of Felix’s electric torch read it. It was in faulty German.

  “Oh no account come. Pay no attention to my letters. Danger. I love you. Sweetheart. Don't come.”

  He put it in his pocket, gave the boatman fifty francs, and went home to bed. But the next day when he went to see Giulia Lazzari he found her door locked. He knocked for some time, there was no answer. lie called her.

  “Madame Lazzari, you must open the door. I want to speak to you.”

  “I am in bed. I am ill and can see no one.”

  “I am sorry, but you must open the door. If you are ill I will send for a doctor.”

  “No, go away. I will see no one.”

  “If you do not open the door I shall send for a locksmith and have it broken open.”

  There was a silence and then he heard the key turned in the lock. He went in. She was in a dressing-gown and her hair was dishevelled. She had evidently just got out of bed.

  “I am at the end of my strength. I can do nothing more. You have only to look at me to see that I am ill. I have been sick all night.”

  “I shall not keep you long. Would you like to see a doctor?” “What good can a doctor do me?”

  He took out of his pocket the letter she had given the boatman and handed it to her.

  “What is the meaning of this?” he asked.

  She gave a gasp at the sight of it and her sallow face went green.

  “You gave me your word that you would neither attempt to escape nor write a letter without my knowledge.”

  “Did you think I would keep my word?” she cried, her voice ringing with scorn.

  “No. To tell you the truth it was not entirely for your convenience that you were placed in a comfortable hotel rather than in the local jail, but I think I should tell you that though you have your freedom to go in and out as you like you have no more chance of getting away from Thonon than if you were chained by the leg in a prison cell. It is silly to waste your time writing letters that will never be delivered.”

  “ Cochon”

  She flung the opprobrious word at him with all the violence that was in her.

  “But you must sit down and write a letter that will be delivered.”

  “Never. I will do nothing more. I will not write another word.”

  “You came here on the understanding that you would do certain things.”

  “I will not do them. It is finished.”

  “You had better reflect a little.”

  “Reflect! I have reflected. You can do what you like; I don’t care.”

  “Very well, I will give you five minutes to change your mind.”

  Ashenden took out his watch and looked at it. He sat down on the edge of the unmade bed.

  “Oh, it has got on my nerves, this hotel. Why did you not put me in the prison? Why, why? Everywhere I went I felt that spies were on my heels. It is infamous what you are making me do. Infamous! What is my crime? I ask you, what have I done? Am I not a woman? It is infamous what you are asking me to do. Infamous.”

  She spoke in a high shrill voice. She went on and on. At last the five minutes were up. Ashenden had not said a word. He rose.

  “Yes, go, go,” she shrieked at him.

  She flung foul names at him.

  “I shall come back,” said Ashenden.

  He took the key out of the door as he went out of the room and locked it behind him. Going downstairs he hurriedly scribbled a note, called the boots and dispatched him with it to the police-station. Then he went up again. Giulia Lazzari had thrown herself on her bed and turned her face to the wall. Her body was shaken with hysterical sobs. She gave no sign that she heard him come in. Ashenden sat down on the chair in front of the dressing-table and looked idly at the odds and ends that littered it. The toilet things were cheap and tawdry and none too clean. There were li
ttle shabby pots of rouge and cold-: cream and little bottles of black for the eyebrows and eyelashes. The hairpins were horrid and greasy. The room was untidy and the air was heavy with the smell of cheap scent. Ashenden thought of the hundreds of rooms she must have occupied in third-rate hotels in the course of her wandering life from provincial town to provincial town in one country after another. He wondered what had been her origins. She was a coarse and vulgar woman, but what had she been when young? She was not the type he would have expected to adopt that career, for she seemed to have no advantages that could help her, and he asked himself whether she came of a family of entertainers (there are all over the world families in which for generations the members have become dancers or acrobats or comic singers) or whether she had fallen into the life accidentally through some lover in the business who had for a time made her his partner. And what men must she have known in all these years, the comrades of the shows she was in, the agents and managers who looked upon it as a perquisite of their position that they should enjoy her favours, the merchants or well-to-do tradesmen, the young sparks of the various towns she played in, who were attracted for the moment by the glamour of the dancer or the blatant sensuality of the woman! To her they were the paying customers and she accepted them indifferently as the recognized and admitted supplement to her miserable salary, but to them perhaps she was romance. In her bought arms they caught sight for a moment of the brilliant world of the capitals, and ever so distantly and however shoddily of the adventure and the glamour of a more spacious life.

  There was a sudden knock at the door and Ashenden immediately cried out:

  “Entrez.”

  Giulia Lazzari sprang up in bed to a sitting posture.

  “Who is it?” she called.

  She gave a gasp as she saw the two detectives who had brought her from Boulogne and handed her over to Ashenden at Thonon.

  “You! What do you want?” she shrieked.

  “Allons, levez vous,” said one of them, and his voice had a sharp abruptness that suggested that he would put up with no nonsense.

  “I’m afraid you must get up, Madame Lazzari,” said Ashenden. “I am delivering you once more to the care of these gentlemen.”

 
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