He would have been not a little surprised had he been able to see his Adela at this moment.
She had changed the plain black gown in which she had received him, and was dressed in dark red velvet. She wore a black hat. Two big rubies gleamed in her ears, and there was another, surrounded with diamonds, at her throat. Her gown was trimmed with an edging of some dark fur. As usual her hands were covered by loose white gloves. She was shod for walking out. Her eyebrows had been carefully darkened. There was some artificial red on her lips. Her white hair was fluffed out under the hat brim, and looked very thick and vital. Her white skin was smooth and even. Her eyes shone, as Cecile had just told her, "comme deux lampes." She was a striking figure as she sat on her sofa very upright near a lamp, holding a book in her hand. She even looked very handsome and, of course, very distinguished. But her face was anxious, her bright eyes were uneasy, and there was a perceptible stamp of artificiality upon her. A woman would have noticed it instantly. Even an observant man would probably not have missed it.
She seemed to be reading at first, and presently there was a faint rustle. She had turned a page. But soon she put the book down in her lap, still keeping her hand on it, and sat looking about the room. The clock chimed seven. She moved and sighed. Then again she sat very still like one listening. After a while she lifted the book, glanced at it again, and then put it down, got up and went to the fireplace. She turned on the lights there, leaned forward and looked into the glass. Her face became stern with intentness when she did that. She put up a hand to her hair, turned her head a little to one side, smiled faintly, then a little more, and looked grave, then earnest. Finally she put both her hands on the mantelpiece, grasped it and stared into the glass.
In that moment she was feeling afraid.
She had arranged to dine with Alick Craven once more at the Bella Napoli. He would come for her in a few minutes. She was wondering very much how exactly she would appear to him, how old, how good-looking—or plain. She had tried, with Cecile's help, to look her very best. Cecile had declared the result was a success. "Miladi est merveilleusement belle ce soir, mais vraiment belle!" But a maid, of course, would not scruple to lie about such a matter. One could not depend on a maid's word. She was in love with Alick Craven, desperately in love as only an elderly women can be with a man much younger than herself. And that love made her afraid.
There was a tiny mole on her face, near the mouth. She wished she had had it removed in Geneva. Why had not she had that done? No doubt because she was so accustomed to it that for years she had never thought of it, had never even seen it. Now suddenly she saw it, and it seemed to her noticeable, an ugly blemish. Anyone who looked at her must surely look at it, think of it. For a moment she felt desperate about it, and her whole body was suddenly hot as if a flame went over it. Then the mocking look came into her eyes. She was trying to laugh at herself.
"He doesn't think of me in that way! No man will ever think of me in that way again!"
But the mocking expression died out and the fear did not go. She was afraid of Craven's young eyes. It was terrible to feel so humble, so full of trembling diffidence. Oh, for a moment of the conquering sensation she had sometimes known in the years long ago when men had made her aware of her power!
Since their meeting in Dindie Ackroyde's drawing-room her friendship with Craven, renewed, had grown into something like intimacy. But there was an uneasiness in it which she felt acutely. There were humbug and fear in this friendship. Because she was desperately in love she was forced to be insincere with Craven. Haunted perpetually by the fear of losing what she had, the liking of a man who was not, and could never be, in love with her, she had to give Craven the impression that she was beyond the age of love, that the sensations of love were dead in her beyond hope of resurrection. She had to play at detachment when her one desire was to absorb and to be absorbed, had to sustain an appearance of physical coldness while she was burning with physical fever. She had to create a false atmosphere about her, and to do it so cleverly that it seemed absolutely genuine, the emanation of her personality in unstudied naturalness.
Her lack of all affection helped her to deceive. Though in moments she might seem constrained, oddly remote, frigidly detached, she was never affected. Now and then Craven had wondered about her, but he had never guessed that she was acting a part. The charm of her was still active about him, and it was the charm of apparent sincerity. To him so far the false atmosphere seemed real, and he was not aware of the fear.
Lady Sellingworth feared being found out by Craven, and feared what might happen if he found out that she was in love with him. She feared her age and the addition each passing day made to it. She feared her natural appearance, and now strove to conceal it as much as possible without being unskilful or blatant. And she feared the future terribly.
For Time galloped now. She often felt herself rushing towards the abyss of the seventies.
The worst of it all was that in humbug she was never at ease. Instead of, like many women, living comfortably in insincerity, she longed to be sincere. To love as she did and be insincere was abominable to her. To her insincerity now seemed to be the direct contradiction of love. Often when she was deceiving Alick Craven she felt almost criminal. Perhaps if she had been much younger she might not have been so troubled in the soul by the necessity for constant pretence. But to those who are of any real worth the years bring a growing need of sincerity, a growing hunger which only true things can satisfy. And she knew that need and suffered that hunger.
She was feeling it now as she waited for Craven. She longed to be able to let him see her as she was and to be accepted by him as she was. But he would not accept her. She knew that. He did not want her as she wanted him. He was satisfied with things as they were. She was at a terrible disadvantage with him, for she was in his power, while he was not in hers. He could ruin such happiness as she now had. But she could not ruin his happiness. If he gave her up she would be broken, though probably no one would know it. But if she gave him up he would not mind very much, though no doubt his pride would be hurt. Perhaps, even now, she was only a palliative in his life. Beryl Van Tuyn had evidently treated him badly. He turned to others for some casual consolation.
Lady Sellingworth often wondered painfully what Craven felt about the American girl. Was she only comforting Craven, playing a sort of dear old mother's part to him? Did he come to her because he considered her a skilful binder up of wounds? Could Beryl whenever she chose take him away?
Lady Sellingworth's instinct told her that while she had been abroad Craven and Beryl had travelled in their friendship. But she did not yet know exactly how far Craven had gone. It seemed evident now that Beryl had been suddenly diverted, no doubt by some strong influence, on to another track; Lady Sellingworth knew that she and Craven were no longer meeting. Something had happened which had interfered with their intimacy. Rumour said that Beryl Van Tuyn was in love with another man, with this Nicolas Arabian, whom nobody knew. Everyone in the Coombe set was talking about it. How keenly did Craven feel this sudden defection? That it had hurt his young pride Lady Sellingworth was certain. But she was not certain whether it had seriously wounded his heart.
"Am I a palliative?" she thought as she gazed into the glass.
And then came the terrible question:
"How can I be anything else?"
She heard the door opening behind her, took her hands from the mantelpiece, and turned round quickly.
"Mr. Craven, my lady."
"You're all ready? Capital! I say, am I late?"
"No. It's only a little past seven."
He had taken her hand. She longed to press his, but she did not press it. He looked at her, she thought, rather curiously.
"I've got a taxi at the door. It's rather a horrid night. You're not dressed for walking?"
Again his look seemed to question her.
She put up a hand to her face, near the mouth, nervously.
"We had better drive. In these winter evenings walking isn't very pleasant. We must be a little less Bohemian in taste, mustn't we?"
He seemed now slightly constrained. His eyes did not rest upon her quite naturally, she thought.
"Shall we go down?" she said.
"Yes, do let us."
As she moved to go she looked into the glass. She could not help doing that. He noticed it, and thought:
"I wonder why she has begun making her face up like this?"
He did not like it. He preferred her as she had been when he had first come to her house on an autumn evening. To him there was something almost distressing in this change which he noticed specially to-night. And her look into the glass had shown him that she was preoccupied about her appearance. Such a preoccupation on her part seemed foreign to her character as he had conceived of it. Her greatest charm had been her extraordinary lack, or apparent lack, of all self-consciousness. She had never seemed to bother about herself, to be thinking of the impression she was making on others.
But she was certainly looking very handsome.
She put on a fur. They got into the cab and drove to Soho.
Craven had ordered the table in the window to be reserved for them. The restaurant was fairly, but not quite, full. The musicians were in their accustomed places looking very Italian. The lustrous padrona smiled a greeting to them from her counter. Their bright-eyed waitress hurried up and welcomed them in Italian. Vesuvius erupted at them from the walls. There was a cozy warmth in the unpretentious room, an atmosphere of careless intimacy and good fellowship.
"Let me take off your fur!"
She slipped out of it, and he hung it up on a hook among hats and coats which looked as if they could never have anything to do with it.
"I'll sit with my back to the window," she said. She sat down, and he sat on her left facing the entrance.
Then the menu was brought, and they began to consult about what they would eat. She did not care what it was, but she pretended to care very much. To do that was part of the game. If only she could think of all this as a game, could take it lightly, merrily! She resolved to make a strong effort to conquer the underlying melancholy which had accompanied her into this new friendship, and which she could not shake off. It came from a lost battle, from a silent and great defeat. She was afraid of it, for it was black and profound beyond all plumbing. Often in her ten years of retirement she had felt melancholy. But this was a new sort of sadness. There was an acrid edge to it. It had the peculiar and subtle terror of a grief that was not caused only by events, but also, and specially, by something within herself.
"Gnocchi—we must have gnocchi!"
"But wait, though! There are ravioli! It would hardly do to have both, I suppose, would it?"
"No; they are too much alike."
"Then which shall we have?"
She was going to say, "I don't mind!" but remembered her role and said:
"Please, ravioli for me."
And she believed that she said it with gusto, as if she really did care.
"For me too!" said Craven.
And he went on considering and asking, with his dark head bent over the menu and his blue eyes fixed upon it.
"There! That ought to be a nice dinner!" he said, at last. "And for wine Chianti, I suppose?"
"Yes, Chianti Rosso," she answered, with the definiteness, she hoped, of the epicure.
This small fuss about what they were going to eat marked for her the severing difference between Craven's mental attitude at this moment and hers. For him this little dinner was merely a pleasant way of spending a casual evening in the company of one who was kind to him, whom he found sympathetic, whom he admired probably as a striking representative of an era that was past, the Edwardian era. For her it was an event full of torment and joy. The joy came from being alone with him. But she was tortured by yearnings which he knew nothing of. He was able to give himself out to her naturally. She was obliged to hold herself in, to conceal the horrible fact that she was obsessed by him, that she was longing to commit sacrifices for him, to take him as her exclusive possession, to surround him with love and worship. He wanted from her what she was apparently giving him and nothing more. She wanted from him all that he was not giving her and would never give her. The dinner would be a tranquil pleasure for him, and a quivering torture for her, mingled with some moments of forgetfulness in which she would have a brief illusion of happiness. She made the comparison and thought with despair of the unevenness of Fate. Meanwhile she was smiling and praising the vegetable soup sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
One of the musicians came up to their table, and inquired whether the signora would like any special thing played. Lady Sellingworth shook her head. She was afraid of their songs of the South, and dared not choose one.
"Anything you like!" she said.
"They are all much the same," she added to Craven.
"But I thought you were so fond of the songs of Naples and the Bay. Don't you remember that first evening when—"
"Yes, I remember," she interrupted him, almost sharply. "But still these songs are really all very much alike. They all express the same sort of thing—Neapolitan desires."
"And not only Neapolitan desires, I should say," said Craven.
At that moment a hard look came into his eyes, a grimness altered his mouth. His face completely changed, evidently under the influence of some sudden and keen gust of feeling. He slightly bent his head, and the colour rose in his cheeks.
Lady Sellingworth who, for the moment, had been wholly intent on Craven, now looked to see what had caused this sudden and evidently uncontrollable exhibition of feeling. She saw two people, a tall girl and a man, walking down the restaurant towards the further end. The girl she immediately recognized.
"Oh—there's Beryl!" she said.
Her heart sank as she looked at Craven.
"Yes," he said.
"Did she see me?"
"I don't know. Probably she did. But she seemed in a hurry."
"Oh! Whom is she with?"
"That fellow they are all talking about, Arabian. At least, I suppose so. Anyhow, it's the fellow I saw in Glebe Place. Ah, there they go with Sole mio!"
The musicians were beginning the melody of which Italians never seem to weary. Lady Sellingworth listened to it as she looked down the long and narrow room now crowded with people. Beryl Van Tuyn was standing by a table near the wall. Lady Sellingworth saw her in profile. Her companion stood beside her with his back to the room. Lady Sellingworth noticed that he was tall with an athletic figure, that he was broad-shouldered, that his head was covered with thickly growing brown hair. He gave her the impression of a strong and good-looking man. She gazed at him with an interest she scarcely understood at that moment, an interest surely more intense than even the gossip she had heard about him warranted.
He helped Miss Van Tuyn out of her coat, then took off his, and went to hang them on a stand against the wall. In doing this he turned, and for a moment showed his profile to Lady Sellingworth. She saw the line of his brown face, his arm raised, his head slightly thrown back.
So that was Nicolas Arabian, the man all the women in the Coombe set were gossiping about! She could not see him very well. He was rather a long way off, and two moving people, a waitress carrying food, an Italian man going to speak to a gesticulating friend, intervened and shut him out from her sight while he was still arranging the coats. But there was something in his profile, something in his movement and in the carriage of his head which seemed familiar to her. And she drew her brows together, wondering. Craven spoke to her through the music. She looked at him, answered him. Then once more she glanced down the room. Beryl and Arabian had sat down. Beryl was facing her. Arabian was at the side. Lady Sellingworth still saw him in profile. He was talking to the waitress.
"I am sure I know that man's face!" Lady Sellingworth thought.
And she expressed her thought to Craven.
"If that is Nicolas Arabian I think I must have seen him about London," she said. "His side face seems familiar to me somehow."
Why would not Beryl look at her?
"I wonder whether Beryl saw me when she came in," continued Lady Sellingworth. "She saw you, of course."
"Yes, she saw me."
From the sound of Craven's voice, from the constraint of his manner, Lady Sellingworth gathered the knowledge that her evening was spoilt. A few minutes before she had been quivering with anxiety, had been struggling to conquer the melancholy which, she knew, put her at a disadvantage with Craven, had been seized with despair as she compared her fate with his. Now she looked back at that beginning of the evening and thought of it as happy. For Craven had seemed contented then. Now he was obviously restless, ill at ease. He never looked down the room. He devoted himself to her. He talked even more than usual. But she was aware of effort in it all, and knew that his thoughts were with Beryl Van Tuyn and the stranger who seemed vaguely familiar to her.
Formerly—with what intensity she remembered, visualized, the occasions—Craven had been restless with Beryl Van Tuyn because he wished to be with her; now he was restless with her. And she did not need to ask herself why.
This remembrance made her feel angry in her despair. Her hatred of Beryl revived. She recalled the girl's cruelty to her. Now Beryl had been cruel to Craven. And yet Craven was longing after her. What was the good of kindness, of the warm heart full of burning desires to be of use, to comfort, to bring joy into a life? The cruel fascinated, perhaps were even loved. Men were bored by any love that was wholly unselfish.
But was her love unselfish? She put that question from her. She felt injured, wounded. It was difficult for her any longer to conceal her misery. But she tried to talk cheerfully, naturally. She forced her lips to smile. She praised the excellence of the cooking, the efforts of the musicians.
Nevertheless the conversation presently languished. There was no spontaneity in it. All around them loud voices were talking volubly in Italian. She glanced from table to table. It seemed to her that everyone was feeling happy and at ease except herself and Craven. They were ill matched. She became horribly self-conscious. She felt as if people were looking at them with surprise, as if an undercurrent of ridicule was creeping through the room. Surely many were wondering who the painted old woman and the young man were, why they sat together in the corner by the window! She saw one of the musicians smile and whisper to the companion beside him, and felt certain he was speaking about her, was smiling, at some ugly thought which he had just put into words.
To an Italian she must certainly seem an old wreck of a woman, "una vecchia," an object of contempt, or of smiling pity. She looked down at her red dress, remembered the jewels in her ears and at her throat. How useless and absurd were her efforts to look her best! A terrible phrase of Caroline Briggs came into her mind: "I feel as if I were looking at bones decked out in jewels." And again she was back in Paris ten years ago; again she saw a contrast bizarre as the contrast she and Craven now presented to the crowd in the restaurant. Before the eyes of her mind there rose an old woman in a black wig and a marvellously handsome young man.
Suddenly a thrill shot through her. It was like a sharp physical pain, a sword-thrust of agony.
That profile which had seemed vaguely familiar to her just now, was it not like his profile? She tried to reason with herself, to tell herself that she was yielding to a crazy fancy, brought about by her nervous excitement and by the mental pain she was suffering. Many men slightly, sometimes markedly, resemble other men. One face seen in profile is often very much like another. But the even dark brown of the complexion! That was not very common, not the type of complexion one sees every day.
She glanced at the men near to her. Most of them were Italians and swarthy. But not one had that peculiar, almost bronze-like darkness.
Beryl had spoken of "a living bronze."
Craven was speaking to her again. She forced herself to reply to him, though she scarcely knew what she was saying. She saw a look of surprise in the eyes which he fixed on her.
"Isn't it getting very hot?" she said quickly.
"It is rather hot. Shall I ask them to open the window a little? But it is just behind you."
"It doesn't matter. I have brought my fan."
She picked the fan up and began to use it unsteadily.
"The room is so very crowded to-night," she murmured.
"Yes. No wonder with such cooking. Here is the Zabaione."
The waitress put two large glasses before them filled with the thick yellow custard, then brought them a plate of biscuits.
Lady Sellingworth laid down the fan and picked up her spoon. She must eat. But she did not know how she was going to force herself to do it. Although she kept on saying to herself: "It's impossible!" she could not get rid of the horrible suspicion which had assailed her. On the contrary, it seemed to grow in her till it was almost a conviction. She tried to eat tranquilly. She praised the Zabaione. She sipped her Chianti Rosso. But she tasted nothing, and when the musicians struck up another melody she did not know what they were playing.
"Are you tired of it?"
Craven had spoken to her.
"Of what?" she asked, as if almost startled.
He looked astonished.
"Oh—yes, I must say I am rather sick of it!" she said quickly.
She laid down her spoon.
"Don't you like the Zabaione?"
"Yes, it's delicious. But I have had enough. You ordered such a very good dinner!"
She began to use her fan again. The noise of voices in the room was becoming like the noise of voices in a nightmare. She was longing to confirm or banish her suspicion by a long look at Beryl's companion. She felt sure now that if she looked again at Arabian she would be absolutely certain, even from a distance, whether he was or was not the man who had brought about the robbery of her jewels at the Gard du Nord ten years ago. Her mind was fully awake now, and she would be able to see. But, knowing that, she did not dare to look towards Arabian. She was miserable in her uncertainty, but she was afraid of having her horrible suspicion confirmed. She was a coward at that moment, and she knew it.
Craven finished his Zabaione and put down his spoon. They had not ordered another course. The dinner was over. But they had not had their coffee yet, and he asked for it.
"Are you going to smoke a Toscana?" she said, forcing herself to smile.
"Yes, I think I will. Do let me give you a cigarette."
He drew out his case and offered it to her. She took a cigarette, lit it, and began to smoke. Their coffee was brought.
"Oh, it's too hot to drink!" she said, almost irritably.
"But we aren't in a hurry, are we?" he said, looking at her with surprise.
"No, of course not."
Now she was gazing resolutely down at the tablecloth. She was afraid to raise her eyes, was afraid of what they might see. Her whole mind now was bent upon getting away from the restaurant as soon as possible. She had decided to go without making sure whether Arabian was the man who had robbed her or not. Even uncertainty would surely be better than a certainty that might bring in its train necessities too terrible to contemplate mentally.
As she was looking down she did not see something which just then happened in the room. It was this:
Miss Van Tuyn, who had not said a word to Arabian of her friends who were dining by the window, although she guessed that he had probably noticed Alick Craven when they came in, resolved to take a bold step. It was useless any longer to play for concealment. Since she came out to dine in public with Arabian, since he had asked her to marry him and she had not refused—though she had not accepted—since she knew very well that she had not the will power to send him out of her life, she resolved to do what she had not done in Glebe Place and introduce him to Craven. She even decided that if it seemed possible that the two men could get on amicably for a few minutes she would go a step farther; she would introduce Arabian to Adela Sellingworth.
Adela should see that she, Beryl, was absolutely indifferent to what Craven did, or did not do. And Craven should be made to understand that she went on her way happily without him, and not with an old man, though he had chosen as his companion an old woman. And, incidentally, she would put Arabian to the test which had been missed in Glebe Place. With this determination in her mind she said to Arabian:
"There are two friends of mine at the table in the corner by the window."
"Yes?" he said.
And he turned his head to look.
As he did so, perhaps influenced by his eyes, or by the fact that the attention of two minds was at that moment concentrated on him, Craven looked towards them.
"I want to introduce you to them if possible," said Miss Van Tuyn.
And she made a gesture to Craven, beckoned to him to come to her. He looked surprised, reluctant. She saw that he flushed slightly. But she persisted in her invitation. She had lost her head in Glebe Place, but now she would retrieve the situation. Vanity, fear, an obscure jealousy, and something else pushed her on. And she beckoned again. She saw Craven lean over and say something to Lady Sellingworth. Then he got up and came down the room towards her, threading his way among the many tables.
Miss Van Tuyn was looking at him just then and not at Arabian.
Craven came up, looking stiff, almost awkward, and markedly more English than usual. At least she thought so.
"How d'you do, Miss Van Tuyn? How are you?"
She gave him her hand with a smile.
"Very well! You see, I've not forgotten my old haunts. And I see you haven't, either. Let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Arabian. Mr. Craven—Mr. Arabian."
Arabian got up and bowed.
"Pleased to meet you!" he said in a formal voice.
"Good evening!" said Craven, staring hard at him.
"I mustn't ask you to sit down," said Miss Van Tuyn. "As you are tied up with Adela. But"—she hesitated for an instant, then continued with hardihood—"can't you persuade Adela to join us for coffee?"
At this moment Arabian made a movement and opened his lips as if about to say something.
"Yes?" she said, looking at him.
"I was only going to say that these tables are so very small. Is it not so? How should we manage?"
"Oh, we can tuck in somehow."
She turned again to Craven.
"Do ask her. Or we might come over to you."
"Very well!" said Craven, still stiffly.
He glanced round towards the window and started.
"What's the matter?"
Miss Van Tuyn leaned forward and looked.
There was no longer anyone sitting at the table by the window.
Lady Sellingworth had disappeared.
"What has become of Adela?" exclaimed Miss Van Tuyn.
"I haven't the least idea," said Craven, looking uncomfortable. "Perhaps—She complained of the heat just now. She may have gone to the door to get some air. Please forgive me!"
He glanced from Miss Van Tuyn to Arabian, who was still standing up stiffly, with a rigidly polite expression on his face.
"I must just see!"
He turned away and walked down the restaurant.
When he got to the counter where the padrona sat enthroned he found their waitress standing near it.
"Where is the signora?" he asked.
"The signora took her fur and went out, signorino," said the woman.
"The bill, please!"
The woman presented the bill. Craven paid it, tipped her, got his coat and hat, and went hurriedly out.
He expected to find Lady Sellingworth on the doorstep, but no one was there, and he looked down the street, first to the right, then to the left. In the distance on the left he saw the tall figure of a woman walking slowly near a lamp-post, and he hurried down the street.
As his footsteps rang on the pavement the woman turned round, and showed the white face and luminous eyes of Lady Sellingworth.
"You have given me quite a turn, as the servants say!" he exclaimed, coming up to her. "What is the matter? Are you ill?"
He looked anxiously at her.
"What made you go away so suddenly? You didn't mind my—"
"No, no!" she interrupted. "But I do feel unwell. I feel very unwell."
"I'm most awfully sorry! Why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me leave you?"
"Beryl wanted you."
"It was only—she only wanted to suggest our all having coffee together."
Her mouth went awry.
"Oh, do take my arm!" he exclaimed. "What is it? Are you suffering?"
After a pause she said:
There seemed to him something ominous in the sound of the word as she spoke it.
"I'm horribly sorry. I must find you a cab."
"Yes, please do."
"But in Soho, it's so difficult! Can you manage—can you walk a little way?"
"Directly we get into Shaftesbury Avenue we are sure to see one. It's only a step."
She had taken his arm, but she did not lean heavily on it, only just touched it. He hardly felt the weight of her hand. Evidently she was not feeling faint, or very weak. He wondered intensely what was the matter. But she did not give any explanation. She had made that ominous answer to his question, and there she left it. He did not dare to make any further inquiry, and as she said nothing they walked on in silence. As they were turning into Shaftesbury Avenue an empty taxicab passed them with the flag up.
"There's a taxi!" said Craven. "One minute!"
He let her arm go and ran after it, while she stood waiting at the corner. In a moment he came back followed by the cab, which drew up by the kerb. He opened the door and she got in. He was preparing to follow her when she leaned forward and put her hand on the door.
"Mayn't I? Don't you wish me to come with you?"
She shook her head.
"But do let me see you home. If you are ill you really oughtn't to be alone."
"But I'm spoiling your evening. Why not go back?"
"Yes—go back to Beryl?"
He stiffened, and the hard look came into his face. She saw his jaw quiver slightly.
"To Miss Van Tuyn? But she is with someone."
"But she asked you!"
"She asked both of us. I shall certainly not go back alone."
"Really, I wish you would! Go back and—and see Beryl home."
He looked at her in astonishment.
"Oh, I couldn't possibly do that! There was no suggestion—I couldn't do that, really. I wonder you ask me to. Well—"
She took her hand away from the door and he shut it. But he remained beside it—did not give the chauffeur her address.
"Why won't you let me take you back?" he said. "I don't understand."
She smiled, and he thought it was the saddest smile he had ever seen.
"One is only a bore to others when one is ill," she said. "Good-bye. Tell the man, please."
He obeyed her, then took off his hat. His face was grim and perplexed. As she was driven away in the night she gave him a strange look; tragic and pleading, he thought, a look that almost frightened him, that sent a shiver through him.
"Is she horribly ill?" he asked himself. "What can it be? Perhaps she did go to Switzerland to see a doctor. Perhaps . . . can he have condemned her to death?"
He shivered again. The expression of her eyes haunted him.
He stood for a moment at the street corner, pondering over her words. What could have induced her to ask him to go back to Beryl Van Tuyn, to see Beryl Van Tuyn home? She wanted him to interfere between Miss Van Tuyn and that man, Nicolas Arabian! She tried metaphorically to push him towards Miss Van Tuyn. It was inexplicable. Lady Sellingworth was a woman of the world, past mistress of all the convenances, one in whom any breach of good manners was impossible, unthinkable! And yet she had asked him to go back to the restaurant, and to thrust himself into the company of a girl and a man who were dining by themselves. She had even asked him, a young fellow, certainly younger than Beryl Van Tuyn's escort, to play the part of chaperon to the girl!
Did she—could she know something about Arabian?
Certainly she did not know him. In the restaurant she had inquired who he was. But, later, she had said that his profile seemed familiar to her, that perhaps she had seen him about London. Her departure from the restaurant had been strangely abrupt. Perhaps—could she have recognized Arabian after he, Craven, had left her alone and had gone to speak to Miss Van Tuyn? The man looked a wrong 'un. Craven felt certain he was a wrong 'un. But if so, surely Lady Sellingworth could not know him, or even know anything about him. There was something so remote and distinguished about her life, her solitary, retired life. She did not come in contact with such people.
"Get you a kib, gentleman?" said a soft cockney voice in Craven's ear.
He started, and walked on quickly. In Lady Sellingworth's conduct that night, in the last look she had given him, there was mystery. He was quite unable to fathom it, and he went home to his flat in the greatest perplexity, and feeling very uneasy.
When Murgatroyd opened the door to his mistress it was not much after nine, and he was surprised to see her back so early and alone.
"Tea, please, Murgatroyd!" she said.
"Yes, my lady."
She passed by him and ascended the big staircase. He heard her go into the drawing-room and shut the door.
When, a few minutes later, he brought in the tea, she was standing by the fire. She had taken off her big hat and laid it on a table.
"I shall want nothing more. Good night."
"Good night, my lady."
He went towards the door. When he was just going out he heard her say, "Murgatroyd!" and turned.
"Please let Cecile know I shan't want her to-night. She is not to sit up for me. I'll manage for myself."
"Yes, my lady."
"Make it quite understood, please."
"Certainly, my lady."
He went out and shut the door.
When she was quite alone Lady Sellingworth stood for several minutes by the fire quite still, with her head bent down and her hands folded together. Then she went to the tea table, poured out a cup of tea, sat down and sipped it slowly, looking into vacancy with the eyes of one whose real gaze was turned inwards upon herself. She finished the tea, sat still for a little while, then got up, went to the writing-table, sat before it, took a pen and a sheet of note-paper, and began slowly to write.
She wrote first at the top of the sheet in the left-hand corner, "Strictly private," and underlined the words. Then she wrote:
"DEAR BERYL,—Please consider this letter absolutely private and personal. I rely on your never speaking of it to anyone, and I ask you to burn it directly you have read it. Although I hate more than anything else interfering in the private affairs of another, I feel that it is my absolute duty to send this to you. I am a very much older woman than you—indeed, almost an old woman. I know the world very well—too well—and I feel I can ask you to trust me when I give you a piece of advice, however unpleasant it may seem at the moment. You were dining to-night alone with a man who is totally unfit to be your companion, or the companion of any decent woman. I cannot explain to you how I know this, nor can I tell you why he is unfit to be in any reputable company. But I solemnly assure you—I give you my word—that I am telling you the truth. That man is a blackguard in the full acceptation of the word. I believe you met him by chance in a studio. I am quite positive that you know nothing whatever about him. I do. I know—"
She hesitated, leaning over the paper with the pen lifted, frowning painfully and with a look of fear in her eyes. Then her face hardened in an expression of white resolution, and she wrote:
"I know that he ought to be in prison. He is beyond the pale. You must never be seen with him again. I have said nothing of this to anyone. Mr. Craven has not a suspicion of it. Nor has anyone else whom we know. Drop that man at once. I don't think he will ask you for your reason. His not doing so will help to prove to you that I am telling you the truth.—Yours sincerely,
When she had finished this letter Lady Sellingworth read it over carefully twice, then put it into an envelope and wrote on the envelope Beryl's address, and in the corner "strictly private." But having done this she did not fasten the envelope, though she lit a red candle that was on the table and took up a stick of sealing-wax. Again hesitation seized her.
The written word remains. Might it not be very dangerous to send this letter? Suppose Beryl did show it to that man who called himself Nicolas Arabian? He might—it was improbable, but he might—bring an action for libel against the writer. Lady Sellingworth sickened as she thought of that, and rapidly she imagined a hideous scandal, all London talking of her, the Law Courts, herself in the witness-box, cross-examination. What evidence could she give to prove that the accusation she had written was true?
But surely Beryl would not show the letter. It would be dishonourable to show it, and though she could be very cruel Lady Sellingworth did not believe that Beryl was a dishonourable girl. But if she was in love with that man? If she was under his influence? Women in love, women under a spell, are capable of doing extraordinary things. Lady Sellingworth knew that only too well. She remembered her own madnesses, the madnesses of women she had known, women of the "old guard." And Arabian had fascination. She had felt it long ago. And Beryl was young and had wildness in her.
It might be very dangerous to send that letter.
But if she did not send it, what was she going to do? She could not leave things as they were, could not just hold her peace. To do that would be infamous. And she could not be infamous. She felt the obligation of age. Beryl had been cruel to her, but she could not leave the girl in ignorance of the character of Arabian. If she did something horrible might happen, would almost certainly happen. Beryl was very rich now, and no doubt that man knew it. The death of her father had been put in all the papers. There had been public chatter about the fortune he had left. Men like Arabian knew what they were about. They worked with deliberation, worked according to plan. And Beryl was beautiful as well as rich.
Things could not be left as they were.
If she did not send that letter Lady Sellingworth told herself that she would have to see Beryl and speak to her. She would have to say what she had written. But that would be intolerable. The girl would ask questions, would insist on explanations, would demand to be enlightened. And then—As she sat by the writing-table, plunged in thought, Lady Sellingworth lost all count of time. But at last she took the sealing-wax, put it to the candle flame, and sealed up the letter. She had resolved that she would take the risk of sending it. Anything was better than seeing Beryl, than speaking about this horror. And Beryl would surely not be dishonourable.
Having sealed the letter Lady Sellingworth took it with her upstairs. She had decided to leave it herself at Claridge's Hotel on the morrow.
But after a wretched night she was again seized by hesitation. A devil came and tempted her, asking her what business this was of hers, why she should interfere in this matter. Beryl was audacious, self-possessed, accustomed to take her own way, to live as she chose, to know all sorts and conditions of men. She was not an ignorant girl, inexperienced in the ways of the world. She knew how to take care of herself. Why not destroy the letter and just keep silence? She had really no responsibility in this matter. Beryl was only an acquaintance who had tried to harm her happiness. And then the tempter suggested to her that by taking any action she must inevitably injure her own life. He brought to her mind thoughts of Craven. If she let Beryl alone the fascination of Arabian might work upon the girl so effectually that Craven would mean nothing to her any more; but if she sent the letter, or spoke, and Beryl heeded the warning, eventually, perhaps very soon, Beryl would turn again to Craven.
By warning Beryl Lady Sellingworth would very probably turn a weapon upon herself. And she realized that fully. For she had no expectation of real gratitude from the girl expressing itself in instinctive unselfishness.
"I should merely make an enemy by doing it," she thought. "Or rather two enemies."
And she locked the letter up. She thought she would do nothing. But as the day wore on she was haunted by a feeling of self-hatred. She had done many wrong things in her life, but certain types of wrong things she had never yet done. Her sins had been the sins of what is called passion. There had been strong feeling behind them, prompting desire, a flame, though not always the purest sort of flame. She had not been a cold sinner. Nor had she been a contemptible coward. Now she was beset by an ugly sensation of cowardice which made her ill at ease with herself. She thought of Seymour Portman. He was able to love her, to go on loving her. Therefore, in spite of all her caprices, in spite of all she had done, he believed in that part of her which men have agreed to call character. She could not love him as he wished, but she had an immeasurable respect for him. And she knew that above all the other virtues he placed courage, moral and physical. Noblesse oblige. He would never fail. He considered it an obligation on those who were born in what he still thought of as the ruling class to hold their heads high in fearlessness. And in her blood, too, ran something of the same feeling of obligation.
If she put her case before Seymour what would he tell her to do? To ask that question was to answer it. He would not even tell. He would not think it necessary to do that. She could almost hear his voice saying: "There's only one thing to be done."
She was loved by Seymour; she simply could not be a coward.
And she unlocked the box in which the letter was lying, and ordered her car to come round.
"Please drive to Claridge's!" she said as she got into it.
On the way to the hotel she kept saying to herself: "Seymour! Seymour! It's the only thing to do. It's the only thing to do."
When the car stopped in front of the hotel she got out and went herself to the bureau.
"Please give this to Miss Van Tuyn at once. It is very important."
"Yes, my lady."
"Is she in?"
"I'm not sure, my lady, but I can soon—"
"No, no, it doesn't matter. But it is really important."
"It shall go up at once my lady."
As Lady Sellingworth got into her car she felt a sense of relief.
"I've done the right thing. Nothing else matters."
Miss Van Tuyn was not in the hotel when Lady Sellingworth called. She did not come back till late, and when she entered the hall she was unusually pale, and looked both tired and excited. She had been to Dick Garstin on an unpleasant errand, and she had failed in achieving what she had attempted to bring about. Garstin had flatly refused not to exhibit Arabian's portrait. And she had been obliged to tell Arabian of his refusal.
The man at the bureau gave her Lady Sellingworth's note, and she took it up with her to her sitting-room. As she sat down to read it she noticed the words on the envelope, "Strictly private," and wondered what it contained. She did not recognize the handwriting as Adela's. She took the letter out of the envelope and saw again the warning words.
"What can it be about?"
Before she read further she felt some unpleasant information was in store for her, and for a moment she hesitated. Then she looked at the address on the paper: "18A Berkeley Square."
It was from Adela! She frowned. She felt hostile, already on the defensive, though she had, of course, no idea what the letter was about. But when she had read it her cheeks were scarlet, and she crushed the paper up in her hand.
"How dare she write to me like that! I don't believe it. I don't believe a word of it! She only wants to take him away from me as she is trying to take Alick Craven."
Instantly she had come to a conclusion about Adela's reason for writing that letter. She remembered the strange episode in the Bella Napoli on the previous evening—Adela's extraordinary departure when Craven had come to speak to her and Arabian. She had not seen Craven again. There had been no explanation of that flight. In this letter, between the lines, she read the explanation. Adela must know Arabian, must have had something to do with him in the past. They had, perhaps, even been lovers. She did not know the age of Arabian, but she guessed that he was about thirty-five, perhaps even thirty-eight. Adela was sixty now. They might have been lovers when Arabian was quite young, perhaps almost a boy. At that time Adela had been a brilliant and conquering beauty, middle-aged certainly, over forty, but still beautiful, still full of charm, still bent on conquest. Miss Van Tuyn remembered the photograph of Adela which she had seen at Mrs. Ackroyde's. Yes, that was it. Adela knew Arabian. They had been lovers. And now, out of jealousy, she had written this abominable letter.
But the girl read it again, and began to wonder. It was strangely explicit, even for a letter of a jealous and spiteful woman. It told her that Arabian was beyond the pale, that he ought to be in prison. In prison! That was going very far in attack. To write that, unless it were true, was to write an atrocious libel. But a jealous woman would do anything, risk anything to "get her own back."
Nevertheless Miss Van Tuyn felt afraid. This strange and terrible letter dovetailed with Dick Garstin's warning, and both fitted in as it were with the underthings in her own mind, with those things which Garstin had summed up in one word "intuition."
Arabian had taken her news about Garstin quite coolly.
"I will see about that myself," he had said. "But now—"
And then he had made passionate love to her. There had been—she had noticed it all through her visit—a new pressure in his manner, a new and, as she now began to think, almost desperate authority in his whole demeanour. His long reticence, the reserve which had puzzled and alarmed her, had given place to a frankness, a heat, which had almost swept her away. She still tingled at the memory of what she had been through. But now she began to think of it with a certain anxiety. In spite of her anger against Adela her brain was beginning to work with some of its normal calmness.
Arabian had been very slow in advances. But now was not he like a man in great haste, like a man who wished to bring something to a conclusion rapidly, if possible immediately? Passion for her, perhaps, drove him on now that at last he had spoken, had held her in his arms. But suppose he had another reason for haste? He had seen Lady Sellingworth. He knew that she was a friend of the girl he wanted to marry. Miss Van Tuyn remembered that he had not welcomed her suggestion that the two couples, he and she, Lady Sellingworth and Craven, should have coffee together. He had spoken of the smallness of the tables in the Bella Napoli. But that might have been because he was jealous of Craven.
She read the letter a third time, very slowly and carefully. Then she put it back into its envelope and rang the bell.
A waiter came.
"It's about seven, isn't it?" she said.
"Half past seven, madam."
"Please bring me up some dinner at once—anything. Bring me a sole and an omelette. That will do. But I want it as soon as possible."
The waiter went out. Then Miss Van Tuyn went to see old Fanny, and explained that she must dine alone that evening as she was in a hurry.
"I have to go to Berkeley Square directly after dinner to visit a friend, Lady Sellingworth."
"Then I am to dine by myself, dear?" said Miss Cronin plaintively.
"Yes, you must dine alone. Good night, Fanny."
"Shan't I see you when you come in?"
"I may be late. Don't bother about me."
She went out and shut the door, leaving old Fanny distressed. Something very serious was certainly happening. Beryl looked quite unusual, so strung up, so excited. What could be the matter? If only they could get back to Paris! There everything went so differently! There Beryl was always in good spirits. The London atmosphere seemed to hold poison. Even Bourget's spell was lessened in this city of darkness and strange inexplicable perturbations.
That night, about a quarter to nine when Lady Sellingworth had just finished her solitary dinner and gone up to the drawing-room, a footman came in and said:
"Will you see Miss Van Tuyn, my lady? She has called and is in the hall. She begs you to see her for a moment."
Two spots of red appeared in Lady Sellingworth's white cheeks. For a moment she hesitated. A feeling almost of horror had come to her, a longing for instant flight. She had not expected this. She did not know what exactly she had expected, but it had certainly not been this.
"Did you say I was in?" she said, at last.
The footman—a new man in the house—looked uncomfortable.
"I said your Ladyship was not out, but that I did not know whether your Ladyship was at home to anyone."
After another pause Lady Sellingworth said:
"Please ask Miss Van Tuyn to come up."
As she spoke she got up from her sofa. She felt that she could not receive Beryl sitting, that she must stand to confront what was coming to her with the girl.
The footman went out and almost immediately returned.
"Miss Van Tuyn, my lady."
"Do forgive me, Adela!" said Miss Van Tuyn, coming in with her usual graceful self-possession and looking, Lady Sellingworth thought in that first moment, quite untroubled. "This is a most unorthodox hour. But I knew you were often alone in the evening, and I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind seeing me for a few minutes."
She took Lady Sellingworth's hand and started. For the hand was cold. Then she looked round and saw that the footman had left the room. The big door was shut. They were alone together.
"Of course you know why I've come, Adela," she said. "I've had your letter."
As she spoke she drew it out of the muff she was carrying.
"I was obliged to write it," said Lady Sellingworth. "It was my duty to write it."
"But I don't want to discuss it."
They were both still standing. Now Miss Van Tuyn said;
"Do you mind if I sit down?"
"No; do sit."
"And may I take off my coat?"
Lady Sellingworth was obliged to say:
Very composedly and rather slowly Miss Van Tuyn took off her fur coat, laid aside her muff, and sat down near the fire.
"I'm very sorry, Adela, but really, we must discuss this letter," she said. "I don't understand it."
"Surely it is explicit enough."
"Yes. It is too explicit not to be discussed between us."
"Beryl, I don't want to discuss it. I can't discuss it."
"Because it is too painful—a horrible subject. You must take my word for it that I have written you the plain truth."
"Please don't think I doubt your word, Adela."
"No, of course not. And that being so let the matter end there. It must end there."
"But—where? I don't quite understand really."
"I felt obliged to send you a warning, a very serious warning. I greatly disliked, I hated doing it. But I couldn't do otherwise. You are young—a girl. I am an—I am almost an old woman. We have been friends. I saw you in danger. What could I do but tell you of it? I knew of course you were quite innocent in the matter. I am putting no blame whatever on you. You will do me that justice."
"So there is nothing more to discuss. I have done what I was bound to do, and I know you will heed my warning."
She looked at the letter in Beryl's hand, and remembered her feeling of danger when she wrote it.
"And now please burn that letter, Beryl. Throw it into the fire."
As she spoke she pointed to the fire on the hearth. But Miss Van Tuyn kept the letter in her hand.
"Please wait a minute, Adela!" she said.
And a mutinous look came into her face.
"You don't quite understand how things are. It's all very well to think you can make me give up my friend—any friend of mine—at a moment's notice and at a word from you. But I don't see things quite in the same light."
"That—that man isn't your friend. Don't say that."
"But I do say it," said the girl, with a now intense obstinacy.
"You met him in Mr. Garstin's studio, didn't you?"
"Perhaps I did. There is nothing against him in that."
"I do not say there is. But I do say you know nothing about him."
"But how do you know that? You assume a great deal, Adela."
"Do you know anything about him?"
"Suppose I were to ask you questions in my turn?"
"Questions? But I have told you—"
"Yes, you have told me certain things, but you have explained nothing. You seem to expect everything from me. Am I not to expect anything from you?"
"Anything! But what?"
"An explanation, surely."
Lady Sellingworth was silent. She was still standing. The two spots of red still glowed in her white face. Her eyes looked like the eyes of one who was in dread. They had lost their usual expression of self-command, and resembled the eyes of a creature being hunted. Miss Van Tuyn saw that and wondered. A fierce animosity woke in her and made her more obstinate, more determined to get at the truth of this mystery. She would not leave this house until light was given to her. She had a strong will. It was now fully roused, and she was ready to pit it against Adela's will. And she had another weapon in her armoury. She was now very angry, with an anger which she did not fully understand, and which was made up of several elements. One of these elements was certainly passion. This anger rendered her merciless.
"Well, Adela?" she said at length, as Lady Sellingworth did not speak.
"What is it you want, Beryl?" said Lady Sellingworth, looking into her eyes and then quickly away.
"But I have told you—an explanation."
She unfolded the letter slowly.
"I can't give you one. I have told you the truth, and I ask you to accept it, and I beg, I implore you to act upon it."
"Suppose I were to make a violent attack on one of your friends, on Mr. Craven for instance?"
"Please don't bracket Mr. Craven and that man together!" said Lady Sellingworth sharply.
Beryl Van Tuyn flushed with anger.
"But I do!" she said. "I choose to do that for the sake of argument."
"Two such men have nothing in common, nothing! One is a gentleman, the other is a blackguard!"
Miss Van Tuyn thought of the previous evening, when Lady Sellingworth had dined with Craven while she had dined with Arabian, and she was stung to the quick.
"I cannot allow you to speak like this of a friend of mine without an explanation," she said bitterly. "And now"—she spoke more hurriedly, as if fearing to be interrupted—"I will finish what I was going to say, if you will allow me. Suppose I were to make an attack on, say, Mr. Craven, to tell you that I happened to know he was thoroughly bad, immoral, a liar, anything you like. Do you mean to say you would give him up at once without insisting on knowing from me my exact reasons for branding him as unfit for your company? Of course you wouldn't. And not only you! No one would do such a thing who had any courage or any will in them."
She lifted the letter.
"In this letter you say that Mr. Arabian is unfit to be the companion of any decent woman, that he is a blackguard in the full acceptance of the word, that he is beyond the pale, and finally, that he ought to be in prison. Very well! I don't say for a moment that I doubt your word, but I do ask you to justify it. Of course I know that you easily can. Otherwise I am sure that you would never have written such awful accusations against anyone. It would be too wicked, and I know you are not wicked. Please tell me your exact reason for writing this letter, Adela."
"You really mean that?"
"I won't. It's impossible."
Miss Van Tuyn's face became very hard.
"Well, then, Adela—"
She paused. Suddenly there had come into her mind the thought of a possible way of forcing the confidence which Lady Sellingworth refused to give her. Should she take it? She hesitated. Arabian's will was upon her even here in this quiet drawing-room. His large eyes seemed fixed upon her. She still felt the long and soft touch of his lips clinging to hers like the lips of a thirsty man. Would he wish her to take this way? For a moment she felt afraid of him. But then her strong independence of an American girl rose up to combat this imaginative, almost occult, domination. Arabian himself, his fate perhaps, was concerned in this matter. She could not, she would not allow even Arabian, whose will imposed itself on hers, who had gathered her strangely, mysteriously, into a grip which she felt almost like a thing palpable upon her, to prevent her from finding out the truth which Lady Sellingworth seemed resolved to keep from her. She still believed, indeed she felt practically certain, that Lady Sellingworth and Arabian in the past had been lovers. Her jealousy was furiously awake. She felt reckless of consequences and ready to take any course which would bring to her what she needed, full knowledge of what had led Adela Sellingworth to send her that letter.
Lady Sellingworth was looking at her now steadily, with, she thought, a sort of almost fierce pleading. But she cared very little for Adela's feelings just then.
"You really refuse to tell me?"
"I must, Beryl."
"I don't think that's fair. It isn't fair to me or to him."
"I can't help that. Please don't ask me anything more. And please destroy that letter. Or let me destroy it."
She held out her hand, but Miss Van Tuyn sat quite still.
"I must tell you something," she said. "If you will not explain to me I think I ought to go for an explanation to someone else."
"Someone else!" said Lady Sellingworth in a startled voice. "But—do you know—to whom would you go?"
"I think I ought to go to him, to the man you accuse of nameless things."
"But you can't do that!"
"Why not? It would only be fair."
"But what reason could you give?"
"Naturally I should have to say that you had warned me against him."
"No—no, you mustn't do that."
"Really? I am to be bound hand and foot while you—"
"You saw what I wrote in that letter."
"Yes, of course. Naturally I will not show it. But I shall have to say that you warned me to drop him."
"I can't have my name mentioned to that man," said Lady Sellingworth desperately.
"And I can't drop him without telling him why."
"Beryl, you haven't read to the end of my letter."
"But I have!"
"Then have you forgotten it? Look! I wrote in it that I don't think he will ask for your reason if you refuse to see him again."
"That only proves how little you know about him. I shall not do it, Adela. You are not very frank with me, but I am sincere with you. Either you must give me an explanation of your reason for writing this letter, or you must give me permission to tell Mr. Arabian of your warning, or—if you won't do either the one or the other—I shall take no action because of this letter. I shall behave as if I had never received it and read it."
"Beryl! What reason could I have for writing as I have written if I had nothing against this man?"
"I don't know. It is very difficult to understand the reasons women have for doing what they do. But I have come here to ask you what your reason is. That's why I am here now."
"Could I have a bad reason, a selfish reason?"
"How can I tell?"
"Then have you a bad opinion of me, of my character?"
"I have always admired you very much. You know that."
"Once—once you called me a book of wisdom."
"Don't you remember?"
"I dare say I did."
"And I think you meant of worldly wisdom. Then can't you, won't you, trust my opinion of this man?"
"Oh if it's only your opinion!"
"But it is not. It is knowledge."
"Then you know Mr. Arabian?"
"I didn't say that."
"Do you know him?"
Lady Sellingworth turned away for a moment. She stood with her back to Miss Van Tuyn and her face towards the fire, holding the mantelpiece with her right hand. Miss Van Tuyn, motionless, stared at her tall figure. She felt this was a real battle between herself and her friend, or enemy. She was determined to win it somehow. She still had a weapon in reserve, the weapon she had thought of just now when she had resolutely put away her fear of Arabian. But perhaps she would not be forced to use it, perhaps she could overcome Adela's extraordinary resistance without it. As she looked at the woman turned from her she began to think that might be possible. Adela was surely weakening. This pause, this sudden moving away, this long hesitation suggested weakness. At last Lady Sellingworth turned round.
"You ask me whether I know that man."
"I asked you whether you knew Mr. Arabian!" said Miss Van Tuyn, on a note of acute exasperation.
"I don't know him."
"That is a lie!" said Miss Van Tuyn to herself.
To Lady Sellingworth she said:
"Then if you don't know Mr. Arabian you are only repeating hearsay."
"But you must be!"
"I am not."
"Adela, you are incomprehensible, or else I must be densely stupid. One or the other!"
"One may know things about a man's character and life without being personally acquainted with him."
"Then it's hearsay. I am not going to drop Mr. Arabian because of hearsay, more especially when I don't even know what the hearsay is."
"It is not hearsay."
"It doesn't come from other people?"
"Then"—a sudden thought struck her—"is it from the newspapers? Has he ever been in some case, some scandal, that's been in the newspapers?"
"Not that I know of. It isn't that."
"Really this is like the 'Mysteries of Udolpho,'" said Miss van Tuyn, concealing her anger and her burning curiosity under a pretence of petulance. "And I really can't take it seriously."
"But you must, Beryl. You must!"
Lady Sellingworth came to her quickly and sat down beside her.
"I know my conduct must seem very strange."
"It does, indeed!"
"And I dare say all sorts of suspicions, ugly suspicions perhaps, have come into your mind. But try to put them away. Try to believe that I am honestly doing my best to be a friend to you, a true friend."
"Forgive me, Adela, for being brutally frank with you. But I don't think you care very much for me."
"I wrote that letter against my own desire simply because I thought I ought to. I wrote it simply for your sake. I would have given a great deal not to write it. I knew that there was even danger in writing it."
"It was possible that you might disregard my request and show my letter. I felt practically certain you wouldn't, but you might have done so."
"And if I had?"
"If you had—then—but I only tell you this to prove that in this instance I was trying to be a friend to you."
"If I had shown this letter, or if I were to show it to Mr. Arabian he might bring an action for libel on it, I should think."
"I dare say he could do that."
"Well—but if you could justify!"
"But I couldn't!"
"You couldn't! You write me a libel about a friend of mine which you yourself say you couldn't justify!"
"I can't bear to hear you speak of that man as your friend."
"He is my friend. I like him very much indeed. And I know him, have known him for weeks, while you tell me you don't know him. I shall venture to set my knowledge, my personal knowledge, against your ignorance, Adela, and to go on with my friendship. But you need not be afraid." She smiled contemptuously. "I will not show Mr. Arabian this cruel letter which you yourself say you couldn't justify."
As she spoke she returned the letter to her muff, which was lying on a table beside her.
"Well," she added, "I don't know that there is anything more I need say. I came here to have it out with you. That is my way, perhaps an American way, of doing things. We don't care for underhand dealings. We like things fair and square."
She got up.
"You have your way of doing things and we have ours! I'll tell you what mine would have been, Adela, if the situation had been reversed. I should not have written at all. I should have come to see you, and if I had had some grave, hideous charge to make I should have made it, and fully explained my reasons for making it to you. I should have put you in the same state of complete knowledge as I was in. That is my idea of friendship and fair dealing. But you think otherwise. So what is the good of our arguing any more about the matter?"
Lady Sellingworth was still sitting. For a moment she did not move, but remained where she was looking up at the girl. Just then she was assailed by a fierce temptation. After all, had not she done her part? Had not she done all that anyone could expect from her, from any woman under the existing circumstances? Had not she done even much more than many women could have brought themselves to do? Beryl had not been very kind to her. Beryl was really the enemy of her happiness, of her poor little attempt after happiness. And yet she had taken a risk in order to try and save Beryl from danger. And the girl would not be saved. Headstrong, wilful, embittered, she refused to be saved. Then why not let her go? She had been warned. She chose to defy the warning. That was not Lady Sellingworth's fault.
"I've done enough! I've done all I can do."
She said this to herself as she sat and looked at the girl.
"I can't do any more!"
Miss Van Tuyn reached out for her coat and began very deliberately to put it on. Then she picked up the muff in which the letter lay hidden.
"Well, good night, Adela!"
Lady Sellingworth got up slowly.
"I promise that I will not show your letter. So don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid."
Miss Van Tuyn held out her hand.
"No doubt you have your reasons for doing what you have done. I don't pretend to understand them. And I don't understand you. But women are often incomprehensible to me. Perhaps that is why I usually prefer men. They don't plunge you in subtleties. They let you understand things."
"Ah!" exclaimed Lady Sellingworth.
And there was a passion of acute irony in the exclamation.
"What's the matter?" said Miss Van Tuyn, looking surprised, almost startled.
But Lady Sellingworth did not tell her.
"If you will go like this, Beryl—go!" she said. "I cannot force you to do, or not to do, anything. But"—she laid a hand on the girl's arm and pressed it till her hand almost hurt Beryl—"but I tell you that you are in danger, in great danger. I dread to think of what may be in store for you."
Something in the grasp of her hand, in her manner, in her eyes, impressed Miss Van Tuyn in spite of herself. Again fear, a fear mysterious and cold, crept in her. Garstin had warned her in his way. Now Adela was warning her. And she remembered that other warning whispered by something within herself. She stood still looking into Lady Sellingworth's eyes. Then she looked down. She seemed to be considering something. At last she looked up again and said:
"You said to me to-night that you did not know Mr. Arabian—now."
"I don't know him."
"But have you known him? Did you know him long ago?"
"I have never known him."
"Then I don't understand. And—and I will not act in ignorance. It isn't fair to expect me to do that."
"I have done all that I can do," said Lady Sellingworth, with a sort of despair, taking her hand from the girl's arm.
Beryl moved and went slowly towards the door. Lady Sellingworth stood looking after her. She thought the hideous interview was over. But she did not know Beryl even yet, did not realize even yet the passionate force of curiosity which possessed Beryl at this moment. When the girl was not far from the door, and when Lady Sellingworth was reaching out her hand to touch the bell in order that the footman might know that her visitor was leaving her, Beryl turned round.
"Adela!" she said.
"Yes. What is it?"
"Perhaps you think that I have been very persistent to-night, that I have almost cross-examined you."
"I don't blame you. It is natural that you wished to know more."
"Yes, it is natural, because Mr. Arabian wants me to marry him."
"To marry him!"
Lady Sellingworth started forward impulsively.
"Marry? He wants—you—you—"
"He loves me. He has asked me to marry him."
She turned away, and went to the door and opened it.
"Beryl, come here!"
"But what is the good? You refuse to tell me anything, I tell you everything. Now you understand why I feel angry at these horrible accusations."
"You don't mean to tell me you have ever dreamed of marrying such a man!"
"Don't abuse him! I don't wish to hear him abused. I hate it. I won't have it."
"But—Beryl! But only a few days ago you as good as told me you cared for Alick Craven. You—you gave me to understand that you liked him very much, that you—"
"Oh, this is intolerable!" said Miss Van Tuyn. "Really! Why do you interfere in my life like this? What have I done to set you against me? You talk of being my friend, but you do everything you can to upset my happiness. It is enough that I like anyone for you to try to come between us. First it was Alick Craven! Now it is Mr. Arabian! It is unbearable. You have had your life. You have had a splendid life, everything any woman could wish to have. I am a girl. I am only beginning. Why can't you leave me alone? Why can't you let me have some happiness without thrusting yourself in and trying to spoil everything for me? Won't you ever have had enough? Ever since I have known Mr. Craven you have tried to get him away from me. And now you are doing your best to make me give up a man who loves me and wants to marry me."
"No, I will not bear it. I will not! I admired you. I had a cult for you. Everyone knew it. I went about praising you, telling everyone you were the most wonderful woman I had ever known. You can ask anybody. People used to laugh at me about my infatuation for you. I stood up for you always. They told me—but I wouldn't believe!"
"What did they tell you?"
"Never mind. But now I begin to believe it is true. You can't bear to see other women happy. That's what it is."
"Beryl, it isn't that! No, it isn't that!"
"You have had it all. But that doesn't satisfy you. You want to prevent other women from having any of the happiness that you can't have now. It is cruel. I never thought you were like that. I took you as a pattern of what a woman of your age should be. I looked up to you. I would have come to you for counsel, for advice. You were my book of wisdom. I thought you were far above all the pettinesses that disfigure other women, the women who hate us girls, who want to snatch everything from us. And now you are trying to do me more harm than any other woman has ever tried to do me!"
"I—I will prove to you that it isn't so!" said Lady Sellingworth. "Please shut the door."
Miss Van Tuyn obeyed.
"But—but—first tell me something."
"Tell me the absolute truth."
"I am not a liar, Adela."
"But sometimes—truth is difficult sometimes."
"What is it you want to know?"
"Do you care for this—do you care for Mr. Arabian?"
"Perhaps I do."
"Do you mean that you are really thinking of doing what he wishes you to do?"
"I haven't told him yet."
"But you are thinking of marrying him?"
"I know nothing against him. He cares for me very much."
Lady Sellingworth was silent.
"Perhaps you don't believe that? Perhaps you think that's impossible?"
"Oh, no! But—"
"I know exactly what you are thinking. You are thinking that I am rich now that my father is dead. But he is rich too. He does not need my money. He has never done any work. He has been an idler all his life. He has often told me that he has had too much money and that it has done him harm, made him an idler."
"And you believe all that?"
"I believe that he cares for me very much. I know he does."
"Once I thought that man—"
"Promise me one thing," she said at last in a different voice. "Promise me that you will not marry Mr. Arabian. I won't ask anything else of you; only that."
"But I won't promise. I can't."
"Because—because I don't know what I am going to do, what I might do." She looked down, then added in a low voice; "He fascinates me."
For the first time since she had come into the room there was a helpless sound in Miss Van Tuyn's voice, a sound that was wholly girlish, absolutely, transparently sincere. Lady Sellingworth did not miss it.
"I haven't made up my mind," she said. "But he fascinates me."
And at that moment Lady Sellingworth knew she was speaking the truth. She remembered her own madnesses, sunk away in the past, but still present to her, gripped between the tentacles of memory. Beryl, too, was then capable of the great follies which often exist side by side with great vanity. The wild heart confronted Lady Sellingworth in another. And she felt suddenly a deep sense of pity, a sense that seemed flooded with tears, the pity that age sometimes feels for youth coming on into life, on into the devious ways, with their ambushes, their traps, their pitfalls full of darkness and fear. She was even conscious of a tenderness of age which till now had been a rare visitor in her difficult nature. Seymour Portman seemed near her, almost with her in the room. She could almost hear his voice speaking of spring with all its daffodils.
Noblesse oblige. In her torn heart could she find a nobleness sufficient for this occasion? Seymour's eyes, the terrible eyes of affection, which require so much and which sometimes, because of that, seem to be endowed with creative power, forcing into life that which they long to see, were surely upon her, watching for her nobility, asking for it, demanding it of her.
She took Beryl Van Tuyn by the wrist and led her away from the shut door back to the fire.
"Sit down, Beryl," she said.
The girl looked at her wondering, feeling a great change in her and not understanding it.
"Why?" she said.
"I have something I must say to you."
Beryl dropped her muff and sat down. Lady Sellingworth stood near her.
"Beryl," she said, "you think I have been and am your enemy. I must show you I am not. And there's only one way. You say I can't bear to see you happy. I don't think that's true. I hope it isn't. I don't think I wish unhappiness to others, but, even at my age, I still wish to have a little happiness myself. There's never a time in one's life, I suppose, when one doesn't long to be happy. But I don't want to interfere with your happiness, I only want to interfere between you and a very great danger, something which would certainly bring disaster into your life."
She stopped speaking. She was looking grave, indeed almost tragically sad, but calm and resolute. The spots of red had faded out of her cheeks. There was no fever in her manner. Miss Van Tuyn's wonder grew as she looked at her former friend, who now dominated her, and began to extort from her a strange and unwilling admiration, which recalled to her the admiration of that past time when she had first met Alick Craven in this drawing-room.
After a long pause Lady Sellingworth continued, with a sort of strong simplicity in which there was moral power:
"Don't be angry with me, Beryl, when I tell you that you have one of my dominant characteristics."
"What is it?" Miss Van Tuyn asked, in a low voice.
"Vanity. You and I—we were both born with great vanity in us. Mine has troubled me, tortured me, been a curse to me, all my life. It led me at last into a very horrible situation, in which the—that man who calls himself Nicolas Arabian was mixed up."
"But you said you didn't know him, that you had never known him!"
"That's quite true. I have never spoken to him in my life. But it was he who led me to change my life. You must have heard of it. You must have heard how, ten years ago, I suddenly gave up everything and began to lead a life of retirement."
"But for that man I should probably never have done that. But for him I might have been going about London now with dyed hair, pretending to be ten or fifteen years younger than I really am."
"But—if you never knew him? I can't understand!"
"Did you ever hear that about ten years ago I lost a great quantity of jewels, that they were stolen out of a train at the Gare du Nord in Paris?"
A look of fear, almost of horror, came into Beryl Van Tuyn's eyes. She got up from the sofa on which she was sitting.
Already she knew what was coming, what Lady Sellingworth was going to tell her. She even knew the very words Lady Sellingworth was about to say, and when she heard them it was as if she herself had spoken them.
"That man stole them."
"You said that he had money, that he was not obliged to work. Now you know why he has money and what his work is."
"Adela! But—but why didn't you—"
Her voice faded away.
"I couldn't. My hands were tied."
"He caught me in a trap. He laid a bait for my vanity, Beryl, and I took the bait.
"But what was it?"
"He made me believe that he had fallen in love with me. I was a woman of fifty and he made me believe that! That is how vanity leads us!"
And then she told the girl all the truth about Arabian and herself, all the truth of ten years ago. Having made up her mind, having begun to do what Seymour would have called "the right thing," she did not hesitate, did not spare herself. She went on to the bitter end. But the strange, the wonderful thing was that it was less bitter than she had thought it must be. While she was speaking, while she was exposing her own folly, her own shame even, she began to feel a sense of relief. She gave the secret which she had kept for ten years to this girl who had treated her cruelly, and in the giving, instead of abject humiliation, she was conscious of liberation. Her mind seemed to be released from a long bondage. Her soul seemed to breathe more freely, like a live thing let out from a close prison into the air. A strange feeling of being at peace with herself came to her and comforted her.
"And that is all, Beryl!" she said at last. "Now, do you forgive me?"
Beryl had been standing quite still, with her eyes fixed on Lady Sellingworth. She had listened without moving. Even her hands had been still, folded together in front of her. But the colour had come and gone in her face as she had listened, as it can only come and go in a face that is young. She was very pale now. Even her lips looked much paler than usual. She stood there and did not say anything. But her eyes were no longer fastened on Lady Sellingworth's face. She was looking down now. Lady Sellingworth could not see her eyes, but only her white eyelids fringed with long lashes which curled up at the ends.
"I had to tell you, Beryl."
Still the girl said nothing and did not move. But Lady Sellingworth saw two tears come from under her eyelids and fall down her face. Other tears followed. She did not take out her handkerchief to wipe them away. She did not seem to be aware of them, or of any necessity for trying to stop them from coming. And then she began to shake. She shook from head to foot, still keeping her hands folded. And that—the folded hands—made her look like a tall doll shaking. There was something so peculiar and horrible in the contrast between her attitude and the evident agony which was convulsing her that for a moment Lady Sellingworth felt helpless, did not dare to speak to her or to touch her. It was impossible to tell whether she was shaken by anger, by self-pity, or by the despair of youth deceived and outraged. But as she continued to weep, and as her body went on trembling, Lady Sellingworth at last could not bear it any longer. She felt that she must do something, must try to help her, and she put a hand on the girl's shoulder gently.
"Beryl!" she said. "Beryl! I didn't want to hurt you, but I had to tell you."
The girl suddenly turned and caught her by the arms.
"Oh, Adela!" she said, in a faltering voice. "No other woman would have—how could you? Oh, how could you?"
Her face was distorted. She looked at Lady Sellingworth with eyes that were bloodshot behind their tears.
"Both of us! Both of us!" she exclaimed. "It's too horrible!"
She still held Lady Sellingworth's arms.
"I couldn't have done it! I should have let you go on. I shouldn't have written—I shouldn't have spoken! And I have been alone with him. I have let him—I have let him—"
"No, no! It isn't too late! Don't be afraid!"
"Thank God!" said Lady Sellingworth.
She had no feeling of self-pity now. All her compassion for herself was obscured for the moment in compassion for the girl. The years at last were helping her, those years which so often had brought her misery.
"But what am I to do? I'm afraid of him. Oh, do help me."
"Hush, Beryl! What can he do? There's nothing to be afraid of."
"But I've nobody. I'm all alone. Fanny is no use. And he means—he won't give it up. I know he won't give it up. I was always afraid in a way. I always had suspicions, but I trampled them down. Dick Garstin told me, but I would not listen. Dick Garstin showed me what he was."
"How could he?"
"He did. It's there in the studio—that horrible picture, the real man, the man I couldn't see. But I must always have known what he was. Something in me must always have known!"
She seemed to make a violent effort to recover her self-control. She dropped her hands, took out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from her eyes. Then she went to the sofa where her muff was lying, drew out the letter that was in it, went over to the fireplace and threw the letter into the flames.
"Adela," she said, "I've been a beast to you. You know—my last visit to you. You're brave. I suppose I always felt there was something fine in you, but I didn't know how fine you could be. All I can do in return is this—never to tell. It isn't much, is it?"
"It's quite enough, Beryl."
"There isn't anything else I can do, is there?"
Her eyes were asking a question. Lady Sellingworth met them calmly, earnestly. She knew what the girl was thinking at that moment. She was thinking of Alick Craven.
"No, there isn't anything else."
"Are you quite sure, Adela? I owe you a great deal. I may forget it. One never knows. And I suppose I'm horribly selfish. But if I make you a promise now I'll keep it. If you want me to promise anything, tell me now."
"But I don't want anything from you," said Lady Sellingworth.
She said it very quietly, without emotion. There was even a coldness in her voice.
The great effort she had just made seemed to have changed her. By making it she felt as if, unwittingly, she had built up an insurmountable barrier between herself and youth. She had not know, perhaps, what she was doing, but now, suddenly, she knew.
I grow too old a comrade, let us part. Pass thou away!
The words ran in her mind. How often she had though of them! How often she had struggled with that wild heart which God had given her, which in a way she clung to desperately, and yet which, as she had long known, she ought to give up. She was too old a comrade for that wild heart, and now surely she was saying farewell to it—this time a final farewell. But she had felt, had really felt as if in her very entrails, for a moment the appeal of youth. And she could never forget that, and, having responded, she knew that she could never struggle against youth again.
Beryl had conquered her without knowing it.
The winter night was dark when Miss Van Tuyn stood in the hall of Lady Sellingworth's house waiting for the footman to find a taxicab for her. A big fire was burning on the hearth; the old-fashioned hooded chair stood beside it; and presently, as no taxicab came, she went to the chair and sat down in it. She felt very tired. Her whole body seemed to have been weakened by what she had just been through. But her mind was charged with intense vitality. The thoughts galloped through it, and they were dark as the night. The cold air of winter stole in through the doorway of the hall. She felt it and shivered as she lay back in the great chair which, with its walls and roof, was like a hiding-place; and for the first time in her life she longed to hide herself. She had never before known acute fear—fear that was based on ascertained facts. But she knew it now.
The young footman stood on the doorstep bareheaded, looking this way and that into the blackness, and she sat waiting. In her independence she had never before known what it was to feel abandoned to loneliness. She had always enjoyed her freedom. Now she felt a great longing to cling to someone, to be protected, to lean on somebody who was much stronger than herself, and who would defend her against any attack. At that moment she envied Lady Sellingworth safe above stairs in this silent and beautiful house, which was like a stronghold. She even envied, or thought she did, Lady Sellingworth for her years. In old age there was surely a security that youth could never have. For the riot of life was over and the greatest dangers were past.
She longed to stay with Adela that night. She thought of her as security. But she dared not expect anything more from Adela. She had already received a gift which she had surely not deserved, a gift which few women, if indeed any other woman, would have given her.
She looked towards the open door and saw the footman's flat back, and narrow head covered with carefully plastered hair. He was calling now with both hands to his mouth: "Taxi! Taxi!"
But there came no sound of wheels in the night, and she put her hands on the sides of the chair and got up.
"Can't you find a cab?"
"No, ma'am. I've very sorry, but there doesn't seem to be one about. Shall I go to the nearest cab rank?"
Miss Van Tuyn hesitated. Then she determined to fight her fear.
"It isn't raining, is it?"
"Then I'll walk. It's not far. I shall pick up a cab on the way probably."
The young man looked relieved and stood aside to let her go out. He watched her as she walked down the square towards the block of flats which towered up where the pavement turned at right angles. The light from the hall shone out and made a patch of yellow about his feet. He noticed presently that the girl he was watching turned her head and looked back, almost as if she were hesitating. Then she walked on resolutely, and he stepped in and shut the door.
"Wonder if she's afraid of going like that all by herself!" he thought. "I only wish she was my class. I wouldn't mind seeing her home."
Just before she was out of sight of Lady Sellingworth's house Miss Van Tuyn looked back again. The light was gone. She knew that the door was shut and she shivered. She felt shut out. What was she going to do? She was going back to Claridge's of course. But—after that? She longed to take counsel with someone, with someone who was strong and clear brained, and who really cared for her. But who did care for her? Perhaps for the first time in her life she was the victim of sentimentality, of what she would have thought of certainly as sentimentality in another. A sort of yearning for affection came to her. A wave of self-pity swept over her. Her independence of spirit was in abeyance or dead. Arabian, it seemed, had struck her down to the ground. She felt humiliated, terrified, and strangely, horribly young, like a child almost who had been cruelly treated. She thought of her dead father. If he had been alive and near could she have gone to him? No; for years he had not cared very much about her. He had been kind, had given her plenty of money, but he had been immersed in pleasures and had always been in the hands of some woman or other. He had not really loved her. No one, she thought with desperation, had ever really loved her. She did not ask herself whether that was her fault, whether she had ever given to anyone what she wanted so terribly now, whether she had any right to expect generosity of feeling when she herself was niggardly. She was stricken in her vanity and, because of that, she had come down to the dust.