The crowd at the Gare du Nord was great, and the station was badly lit. Lady Sellingworth did not see her reason for coming to Paris. A carriage was waiting for her. She got into it with her jewel-case, and drove away to her apartment, leaving her maid to follow with the luggage.
In the evening she dined alone, and she went to bed early.
She had made no engagements in Paris; had not told any of her friends there that she was going to be there for some days. She had no wish to go into society. Her wish was to be perfectly free. But as she lay in bed in her pretty, familiar room, she began to wonder what she was going to do. She had come to Paris suddenly, driven by an intense caprice, without making any plans, without even deciding how long she was going to stay. She had imagined that in loneliness she would keep a hold on liberty. But now she began to wonder about things.
Even her secret wildness did not tell her that she could "knock about" in Paris like a man. For one thing she was far too well known for that. Many people might recognize her. When she had been much younger she had certainly been to all sorts of odd places, and had had a wonderful time. But somehow, with the passing of the years, she had learnt to pay some attention to the imp within her, though there were moments when she defied him. And he told her that she simply could not now do many of the daring things which she had done when she was a brilliant and lovely young woman. Besides, what would be the use? Almost suddenly she realized the difficulty of her situation.
She could not very well go about Paris alone. And yet to go about in company must inevitably frustrate the only purpose which had brought her to Paris. She had come there with an almost overwhelming desire, but with no plan for its realization.
But surely he had a plan. He must certainly have one if, as she still believed, in spite of the trio, he had meant her to come to Paris when he did. She wondered intensely what his plan was. He looked very determined, audacious even, in spite of the curious and almost pleading softness of his eyes, a softness which had haunted her imagination ever since she had first seen him. She felt convinced that, once thoroughly roused, he would be a man who would stick at very little, perhaps at nothing, in carrying out a design he had formed. His design was surely to make her acquaintance, and to make it in Paris. Yet he had come over with two people, while she had come alone. What was he going to do? She longed to know his plan. She wished to conform to it. Yet how could she do that in total ignorance of what his plan was? Perhaps he knew her address and would communicate with her. But that morning he had not even known her name! She felt excited but puzzled. As the night grew late she told herself that she must cease from thinking and try to sleep. She must leave the near future in the lap of the gods. But she could not make her mind a blank. Over and over again she revolved the matter which obsessed her in her mind. Almost for the first time in her life she ardently wished she were a man, able to take the initiative in any matter of love.
The clocks of Paris were striking three before at last she fell asleep.
When she woke in the morning late and had had her coffee she did not know how she was going to spend the day. She felt full of anticipation, excited, yet vague, and usually lonely. The post brought her nothing. About noon she was dressed and ready for the day. She must go out, of course. It would be folly to remain shut up indoors after all the bother of the journey. She must lunch somewhere, do something afterwards. There was a telephone in her bedroom. She knew lots of people in Paris. She might telephone to someone to join her at lunch at the Ritz or somewhere. Afterwards they might go to a matinee or to a concert. But she was afraid of getting immersed in engagements, of losing her freedom. She thought over her friends and acquaintances in Paris. Which of them would be the safest to communicate with? Which would be most useful to her, and would trouble her least? Finally she decided on telephoning to a rich American spinster whom she had known for years, a woman who was what is called "large minded," who was very tolerant, very understanding, and not more curious than a woman has to be. Caroline Briggs could comprehend a hint without demanding facts to explain it.
She telephoned to Caroline Briggs. Miss Briggs was at home and replied, expressing pleasure and readiness to lunch with Lady Sellingworth anywhere. After a moment's hesitation Lady Sellingworth suggested the Ritz. Miss Briggs agreed that the Ritz would be the best place.
They met at the Ritz at one o'clock.
Miss Briggs, a small, dark, elderly and animated person, immensely rich and full of worldly wisdom, wondered why Lady Sellingworth had come over to Paris, was told "clothes," and smilingly accepted the explanation. She knew Lady Sellingworth very well, and, being extremely sharp and intuitive, realized at once that clothes had nothing to do with this sudden visit. A voice within her said: "It's a man!"
And presently the man came into the restaurant, accompanied by the eternal old woman in the black wig.
Now Caroline Briggs had an enormous and cosmopolitan acquaintance. She was the sort of woman who knows wealthy Greeks, Egyptian pashas, Turkish princesses, and wonderful exotic personages from Brazil, Persia, Central America and the Indies. She gave parties which were really romantic, which had a flavour, as someone had said, of the novels of Ouida brought thoroughly up to date. Lady Sellingworth had been to some of them, and had not forgotten them. And it had occurred to her that if anyone she knew was acquainted with the brown man, that person might be Caroline Briggs. She had, therefore, come to the Ritz with a faint hope in her mind.
Miss Brigs happened to be seated with her smart back to the man and old woman when they entered the restaurant, and they sat down at a table behind her, but in full view of Lady Sellingworth, who wished to draw her companion's attention to them, but who also was reluctant to show any interest in them. She knew that Miss Briggs knew a great deal about her, and she did not mind that. But nevertheless, she felt at this moment a certain pudeur which was almost like the pudeur of a girl. Had it come to her with her entrance into the fifties? Or was it a cruel gift from her imp? She was not sure; but she could not persuade herself to draw Miss Briggs's attention to the people who interested her until the bill was presented and it was almost time to leave the restaurant.
Then at last she could keep silence no longer, and she said:
"The people one sees in Paris seem to become more and more extraordinary! Many of them one can't place at all."
Miss Briggs, who had lived in Paris for quite thirty years, remarked:
"Do you think they are more extraordinary than the people one sees about London?"
"Yes, really I do. That old woman in the black wig over there, for instance, intrigues me. Where can she come from? Who can she be?"
Miss Briggs looked carelessly round, and at once understood the reason of Lady Sellingworth's remarks. "The man" was before her, and she knew it. How? She could not have said. Had she been asked she would probably have replied: "My bones told me."
"Oh," she said, after the look. "She's the type of old woman who is born and brought up in Brazil, and who, when she is faded, comes to European spas for her health. I have met many of her type at Aix and Baden Baden."
"Ah!" replied Lady Sellingworth carelessly. "You don't know her then?"
"No. But I have seen her two or three times within the last few months—three times to be exact. Twice she has travelled in the same train as I was in, though not in the same compartment, and once I saw her dining here. Each time she was with that marvelously handsome young man. I really noticed her—don't blame me—because of him."
"Perhaps he's her son."
"He may be her husband."
"Oh—but the difference in their ages! She must be seventy at least, if not more."
"She may be very rich, too," said Miss Briggs dryly.
Lady Sellingworth remembered that it was always said that Miss Briggs's enormous fortune had kept her a spinster. She was generally supposed to be one of those unfortunately cynical millionairesses who are unable to believe in man's disinterested affection.
"Shall we go?" said Lady Sellingworth.
Miss Briggs assented, and they left the restaurant.
They spent the afternoon together at a matinee at the Opera Comique, and afterwards Miss Briggs came to tea at Lady Sellingworth's apartment. Not another word had been said about the two strangers, but Lady Sellingworth fully realized that Caroline Briggs had found her out. When her friend finally got up to go she asked Lady Sellingworth how long she intended to stay in Paris.
"Oh, only a day or two," Lady Sellingworth said. "I've got to see two or three dressmakers. Then I shall be off. I haven't told anyone that I am here. It didn't seem worth while."
"And you won't be dull all alone?"
"Oh, no, I am never dull. I love two or three days of complete rest now and then. One isn't made of cast iron, although some people seem to think one is, or at ay rate ought to be."
There was a tired sound in her voice as she said this, and Miss Briggs's small and sharp, but kind, eyes examined her face rather critically. But Miss Briggs only said:
"Come and dine with me to-morrow night in my house. I shall be quite alone."
"Thank you, Caroline."
She spoke rather doubtfully and paused. But finally she said:
"I will with pleasure. What time?"
When Miss Briggs had gone Lady Sellingworth gave way to an almost desperate fit of despondency. She felt ashamed of herself, like a sensitive person found out in some ugly fault. She sat down, and almost for the first time in her life mentally she wrestled with herself.
Something, she did not quite know what, in Caroline Briggs's look, or manner, or surmised mental attitude that day, had gone home to her. And that remark, "He may be her husband," followed by, "she may be very rich, too," had dropped upon her like a stone.
It had never occurred to her that the old woman in the wig might be the young man's wife. But she now realized that it was quite possible.
She had always known, since she had known Caroline, that her friend was one of those few women who are wholly free from illusions. Miss Briggs had not only never fallen into follies; she had avoided natural joys. She had perhaps even been the slave of her self-respect. Never at all good-looking though certainly not ugly, she had been afraid of the effect of her wealth upon men. And because she was so rich she had never chosen to marry. She was possibly too much of a cynic, but she had always preserved her personal dignity. No one had ever legitimately laughed at her, and no one had ever had the chance of contemptuously pitying her. She must have missed a great deal, but now in middle-age she was surround by friends who respected her.
That was something.
And—Lady Sellingworth was sure of it—Caroline was not ravaged by the Furies who attack "foolish" middle-aged women.
What did Caroline Briggs think of her? What must she think?
Caroline knew well nearly all the members of the "old guard," and most of them were fond of her. She had never got in any woman's way with a man, and she was never condemnatory. So among women she was a very popular woman. Many people confided in her. Lady Sellingworth had never done this. But now she wished that she could bring herself to do it. Caroline must certainly know her horribly well. Perhaps she could be helped by Caroline.
She needed help, for she was abominably devoid of moral courage.
She did not quite know why at this particular moment she was overwhelmed by a feeling of degradation; she only knew that she was overwhelmed. She felt ashamed of being in Paris. She even compared herself with the horrible old woman in the wig, who, perhaps, had bought the brown man as she might have bought a big Newfoundland dog.
Fifty! Fifty! Fifty! It knelled in her ears. Caroline saw her as a woman of fifty. Perhaps everyone really saw her so. And yet—why had the man given her that strange look in Bond Street? Why had he wished her to come to Paris? She tried, with a really unusual sincerity, to find some other reason than the reason which had delighted her vanity. But she failed. Sincerely she failed.
And yet—was it possible?
She thought of giving up, of becoming like Caroline. It would be a great rest. But how empty her life would be. Caroline's life was a habit. But such a life for her would be an absolute novelty. No doubt Caroline's reward had come to her in middle-age. Middle-age was bringing something to her, Adela Sellingworth, which was certainly not a reward. One got what one earned. That was certain. And she had earned wages which she dreaded having paid to her.
She had a good brain, and she realized that if she had the moral courage she might—it was possible—be rewarded by a peace of mind such as she had never yet known. She was able as it were to catch a glimpse of a future in which she might be at ease with herself. It even enticed her. But something whispered to her, "It would be stagnation—death in life." And then she was afraid of it.
She spent the evening in miserable depression, not knowing what she could do. She distrusted and almost hated herself. And she could not decide whether or not on the morrow to give Caroline some insight into her state of mind.
On the following day she was still miserable, even tormented, and quite undecided as to what she was going to do.
She spent the morning at her dressmaker's, and walked, with her maid, in the Rue de la Paix. There she met a Frenchwoman whom she knew well, Madame de Gretigny, who begged her to come to lunch at her house in the Faubourg St. Honore. She accepted. What else could she do? After lunch she drove with her friend in the Bois. Then they dropped in to tea with some French mutual friends.
The usual Paris was gently beginning to take possession of her. What was the good of it all? What had she really expected of this visit? She had started from London with a crazy sense of adventure. And here she was plunged in the life of convention! Oh, for the freedom of a man! Or the stable content of a Caroline Briggs!
At moments she felt enraged.
She saw the crowds passing in the streets, women tripping along consciously, men—flaneurs—strolling with their well-known look of watchful idleness, and she felt herself to be one of life's prisoners. And she knew she would never again take hands with the Paris she had once known so well. Why was that? Because of something in herself, something irrevocable which had fixed itself in her with the years. She was changing, had changed, not merely in body, but in something else. She felt that her audacity was sinking under the influence of her diffidence. Suddenly it occurred to her that perhaps this sudden visit to Paris on the track of an adventure was the last strong effort of her audacity. How would it end? In a meek and ridiculous return to London after a lunch with Caroline Briggs, a dinner with Caroline, a visit to the Opera Comique with Caroline! That really seemed the probable conclusion of the whole business. And yet—and yet she still had a sort of queer under feeling that she was drawing near to a climax in her life, and that, when she did return to London, she would return a definitely changed woman.
At half-past eight that night she walked into Caroline's wonderful house in the Champs-Elysees.
During dinner the two women talked as any two women of their types might have talked, quite noncommittally, although, in a surface way, quite intimately. Miss Briggs was a creature full of tact, and was the last person in the world to try to force a confidence from anyone. She was also not given at any time to pouring out confidences of her own.
After dinner they sat in a little room which Miss Briggs had had conveyed from Persia to Paris. Everything in it was Persian. When the door by which it was entered had been shut there was absolutely nothing to suggest Europe to those within. A faint Eastern perfume pervaded this strange little room, which suggested a deep retirement, an almost cloistered seclusion. A grille in one of the walls drew the imagination towards the harem. It seemed that there must be hidden women over there beyond it. Instinctively one listened for the tinkle of childish laughter, for the distant plash of a fountain, for the shuffle of slippers on marble.
Lady Sellingworth admired this room, and envied her friend for possessing it. But that night it brought to her a thought which she could not help expressing.
"Aren't you terribly lonely in this house, Caroline?" she said. "It is so large and so wonderful that I should think it must make solitude almost a bodily shape to you. And this room seems to be in the very heart of the house. Do you ever sit here without a friend or guest?"
"Now and then, but not often at night," said Miss Briggs, with serene self-possession.
"You are an extraordinary woman!" said Lady Sellingworth.
"Because you always seem so satisfied to live quite alone. I hate solitude. I'm afraid of it."
Suddenly she felt that she must be partially frank with her hostess.
"Is self-respect a real companion for a woman?" she said. "Can one sit with it and be contented? Does it repay a woman for all the sacrifices she has offered up to it? Is it worth the sacrifices? That's what I want to know."
"I dare say that depends on the woman's mental make up," replied Miss Briggs. "One woman, perhaps, might find that it was, another that it was not."
"Yes, we are all so different, so dreadfully different, one from another."
"It would be very much duller if we weren't."
"Even as it is life can be very dull."
"I should certainly not call your life dull," said Miss Briggs.
"Anyhow, it's dreadful!" said Lady Sellingworth, with sudden abandonment.
"Why is it dreadful?"
"Caroline, I was fifty a few days ago."
As Lady Sellingworth said this she observed her friend closely to see if she looked surprised. Miss Briggs did not look surprised. And she only said:
"Were you? Well, I shall be fifty-eight in a couple of months."
"You don't look it."
"Perhaps that's because I haven't looked young for the last thirty years."
"I hate being fifty. The difficulty with me is that my—my nature and my temperament don't match with my age. And that worries me. What is one to do?"
"Do you want me to advise you about something?"
"I think I do. But it's so difficult to explain. Perhaps there is a time to give up. Perhaps I have reached it. But if I do give up, what am I to do? How am I to live? I might marry again."
"It would have to be an elderly man, wouldn't it?"
"I hope so."
"I—I shouldn't care to marry an elderly man. I don't want to."
"Then don't do it."
"You think if I were to marry a comparatively young man—"
She paused, looking almost pleadingly at the uncompromising Miss Briggs.
"I'm convinced of this, that no really normal young man could ever be contented long if he married a middle-aged woman. And what intelligent woman is happy with an abnormal man?"
"Caroline, you are so dreadfully frank!"
"I say just what I think."
"But you think so drastically. And you are so free from sentiment."
"What is called sentiment is very often nothing but what is described in the Bible as the lust of the eye."
This shaft, perhaps not intended to be a shaft, went home. Lady Sellingworth reddened and looked down.
"I dare say it is," she murmured. "But—no doubt some of us are more subject to temptation than others."
"I'm sure that is so."
"It's very difficult to give up deliberately nearly all that has made life interesting and attractive to you ever since you can remember. Caroline, would you advise me to—to abdicate? You know what I mean."
Miss Briggs's rather plain, but very intelligent, face softened.
"Adela, my dear," she said, "I understand a great deal more than you have cared to hint at to me."
"I know you do."
"I think that unless you change your way of life in time you are heading straight for tragedy. We both know a lot of women who try to defy the natural law. Many of them are rather beautiful women. But do you think they are happy women? I don't. I know they aren't. Youth laughs at them. I don't know what you feel about it, but I think I would rather be pelted with stones than be jeered at by youth in my middle age. Respect may sound a very dull word, but I think there's something very warm in it when it surrounds you as you get old. In youth we want love, of course, all of us. But in middle age we want respect too. And nothing else takes its place. There's a dignity of the soul, and women like us—I'm older than you, but still we are neither of us very young any longer—only throw it away at a terrible price. When I want to see tragedy I look at the women who try to hang on to what refuses to stay with them. And I soon have to shut my eyes. It's too painful. It's like looking at bones decked out with jewels."
Lady Sellingworth sat very still. There was a long silence between the two friends. When they spoke again they spoke of other things.
That night Lady Sellingworth told her maid to pack up, as she was returning to London by the morning express on the following day.
At the Gare du Nord there was the usual bustle. But there was not a great crowd of travellers for England, and Lady Sellingworth without difficulty secured a carriage to herself. Her maid stood waiting with the jewel-case while she went to the bookstall to buy something to read on the journey. She felt dull, almost miserable, but absolutely determined. She knew that Caroline was right. She thought she meant to take her advice. At any rate, she would not try to pursue the adventure which had lured her to Paris. How she would be able to live when she got home she did not know. But she would go home. It had been absurd, undignified of her to come to Paris. She would try to forget all about it.
She bought a book and some papers; then she walked to the train.
"Are you going to get in, my lady?" said the maid.
"Yes. You can put in the jewel-case."
The maid did so, and Lady Sellingworth got into the carriage and sat next to the window on the platform side, facing the engine, with the jewel-case beside her on the next seat. The corridor was between her and the platform. On the right, beyond the carriage door, the line was blocked by another train at rest in the station.
She sat still, not reading, but thinking. The maid went away to her second-class carriage.
Lady Sellingworth continued to feel very dull. Now that she was abandoning this adventure, or promise of adventure, she knew how much it had meant to her. It had lifted her out of the anger and depression in which she had been plunged by the Rupert Louth episode. It had appealed to her wildness, had given her new hope, something to look forward to, something that was food for her imagination. She had lived in an imagined future that was romantic, delicious and turbulent. Now she knew exactly how much she had counted on this visit to Paris as the door through which she would pass into a new and extraordinary romance. She had felt certain that something wonderful, something unconventional, bizarre, perhaps almost maddening, was going to happen to her in Paris.
And now—At this moment she became aware of some influence which drew her attention to the platform on her left. She had not seen anyone; she had simply felt someone. She turned her head and looked through the window of the corridor.
The brown man was on the platform alone, standing still and looking intently towards her carriage. Two or three people passed him. He did not move. She felt sure that he was waiting for her to get out, that this time he meant to speak to her.
In a moment all her good resolutions, all the worldly wise advice of Miss Briggs, all her dullness and despair were forgotten. The wildness that would not die surged up in her. Her vanity glowed. She had been wrong, utterly wrong. Miss Briggs had been wrong. Despite the difference between their ages, this man, young, strong, amazingly handsome, must have fallen in love with her at first sight. He must have—somehow—been watching her in Paris. He must have ascertained that she was leaving Paris that morning, have followed her to the station determined at all costs to have a word with her.
Should she let him have that word?
Just for an instant she hesitated. Then, almost passionately, she gave way to a turbulent impulse. She felt reckless. At that moment she was almost ready to let the train go without her. But there were still a few, a very few, minutes before the time for its departure. She got up, left the carriage, and stood in the corridor looking out of the window. Immediately the man slightly raised his hat, sent her a long and imploring look, and then moved slowly away down the platform in the direction of the entrance to it. She gazed after him. He paused, again raised his hat, and made a very slight, scarcely noticeable gesture with his hand. Then he remained where he was.
Saying to herself that she would certainly not obey his obvious wish and follow him, but would simply get out of the train and take a few breaths of air on the platform—as any woman might to while away the time—Lady Sellingworth made her way to the end of the corridor and descended to the platform. The brown man was still there, a little way off. Several people were hurrying to take their places in the train. Porters were carrying hand luggage, or wheeling trucks of heavy luggage to the railway vans. No one seemed to have any time to take notice of her or of the man. She did not look at him, but began slowly to stroll up and down, keeping near to her carriage. She had given him his chance. Now it was for him to take firm hold on it. She fully expected that he would come up and speak to her. She thrilled with excitement at the prospect. What would he say? How would he act? Would he explain why he had done nothing in Paris? Would he beg her to stay on in Paris? Would he ask to be allowed to visit her in London? Would he—But he did not come up to her.
After taking several short turns, keeping her eyes resolutely away from the place where he was standing, Lady Sellingworth could not resist the impulse to look towards him to see what he was doing. She lifted her eyes.
He was gone.
"En voiture!" cried a hoarse voice.
She stood still.
"En voiture! En voiture!"
Mechanically she moved. She went to her carriage, put her hand on the rail, mounted the steps, passing into the corridor, and reached her compartment just as the train began to move.
What had happened to him? What was the meaning of it all? Was he travelling to England too? Had he got into the train?
She sat down wondering, almost confused.
Mechanically she let her right hand drop on to the seat beside her. She was so accustomed when travelling to have her jewel-case beside her that her hand must have missed it though her thoughts were far from it. For immediately after dropping her hand she looked down.
The jewel-case was gone.
Instantly her feeling of confusion was swept away; instantly she understood.
She had been caught in a trap by a clever member of the swell mob operating with a confederate. While she had been on the platform, to which she had been deliberately enticed, the confederate had entered the compartment from the line, through the doorway on the right-hand side of her carriage, and had carried off the jewel-case.
The revelation of the truth almost stunned something in her. Yet she was able to think quite clearly. She did nothing. She just sat still and understood, and went on understanding, while the train quickened its pace on its way towards the sea.
By the time it slowed down, and the dull houses of Calais appeared, she had made up her mind about the future. Her vanity had received at last a mortal blow. The climax had come. It was not what she had expected, but her imp—less satirical now than desperately tragic and powerfully persuasive, told her that it was what she deserved. And she bowed her head to his verdict, not with tears, but with a cold and stormy sense of finality.
When the train stopped at the harbour station her maid appeared in the corridor.
"Shall I take the jewel-case, my lady?"
Lady Sellingworth stood up. She had not decided what to say to her maid. She was taken by surprise. As she stood, her tall figure concealed the seat on which the jewel-case had been lying. For an instant she looked at the maid in silence. Perhaps the expression of her face as strange, for after a pause the maid said anxiously:
"Whatever is it, my lady?"
"Never mind about the jewel-case!" said Lady Sellingworth.
"Gone, my lady!" said the maid, looking aghast. "Gone where?"
"It was taken at the station in Paris."
"Taken, my lady! But it was in the carriage by the side of your ladyship! I never left it. I had it in my own hands till your ladyship—"
"I know—I know! Don't say anything more about it. It's gone, and we shall never see it again."
The maid stared, horrified, and scenting a mystery.
"Get that porter! Make haste!"
They got down from the train. Lady Sellingworth turned to make her way to the ship.
"But, my lady, surely we ought to speak to the police? All your beautiful jewels—"
"The police could do nothing. It is too late! I should only have endless trouble, and no good would come of it."
"But your ladyship was in the carriage with them!"
"Yes, I know! Now don't say any more about the matter!"
There was something in her tone which struck the maid to silence. She said not another word till they were on the ship.
Then Lady Sellingworth went to the cabin which she had telegraphed for.
"I am going to lie down," she said. "You can leave me."
"Yes, my lady."
After arranging things in the cabin the maid was about to go when Lady Sellingworth said:
"You have been with me a long time, Henderson. You have been very useful to me. And I think I have been a good mistress to you."
"Oh, yes, my lady, indeed you have. I would do anything for your ladyship."
"Would you? Then try to hold your tongue about this unfortunate occurrence. Talking can do no good. I shall not inform the police. The jewels are gone, and I shan't get them back. I have a great dislike of fuss and gossip, and only wish to be left in peace. If you talk, all this is sure to get into the papers. I should hate that."
"Yes, my lady. But surely the police—"
"It is my business, and no one else's, to decide what is best in this matter. So hold your tongue, if you can. You will not repent it if you do."
"Yes, my lady. Certainly, my lady."
The maid was obviously horrified and puzzled. But she left her mistress without another word.
They arrived in Berkeley Square in the evening.
That evening which Lady Sellingworth spent in solitude was the turning point in her life. During it and the succeeding night she went down to the bedrock of realization. She allowed her brains full liberty. Or they took full liberty as their right. The woman of the grey matter had it out with the woman of the blood. She stared her wildness in the face and saw it just as it was, and resolved once for all to dominate it for the rest of her days. She was not such a fool as to think that she could ever destroy it. No doubt it would always be there to trouble her, perhaps often to torture her. But rule her, as it had ruled her in the past, it never should again. Her resolve about that was hard, of a rock-like quality.
She had done with a whole side of life, and it was the side for which she had lived ever since she was a girl of sixteen. The renunciation was tremendous, devastating almost. She thought of a landslide carrying away villages, whole populations. How true had been the instinct which had told her that she was drawing near to a climax in her life! Had ever a woman before her been brought in a flash to such a cruel insight? It was as if a tideless sea, by some horrible miracle, retreated, leaving naked rocks which till that moment had never been seen by mortal eyes, hideous and grotesque rocks covered with slime and ooze.
And she stood alone, staring at them.
She remembered the dinner in her house at which there had been the discussion about happiness, and the desire of the old Anglo-Indian for complete peace of mind. Could a woman gain that mysterious benefit by giving up? Could such a thing ever be hers? She did not believe it. But she knew all the torture of striving. In her renunciation she would at least be able to rest, to rest in being frankly and openly what she was. And she knew she was tired. She was very tired. Perhaps some of the "old guard" were made of cast iron. But she was not.
The "old guard"! With the thought of that body of wonderful women came a flood of memories. She remembered "The Hags' Hop." She saw Rocheouart standing before her; Rupert Louth; other young men, all lively, handsome, ardent, bursting with life and the wish to enjoy.
Was there ever a time when the human being could utterly forego the wish to enjoy? To her there seemed to be hidden in desire seeds of eternity. The struggle for her, then, was not yet over. Perhaps it would only cease in the grave. And after? Sellingworth had often told her that there was no hereafter. And at the time she had believed him. But she was not sure now. For even the persistence of desire seemed to point to something beyond. But she would not bother about that. She was held fast enough in the present.
What would the "old guard" say of her, think of her, in a very short time? What a defection hers would be! For she had resolved to take a plunge into middle age. No gliding into it for her! She would let everything go which was ready to go naturally. Her Greek had already lost his job, although as yet he did not know it.
Caroline Briggs would believe that the change which was at hand, the change which would be discussed, perhaps laughed at, praised by some, condemned by others, had been brought about by the conversation in the Persian Room. She would never know the truth. No one of Lady Sellingworth's set would ever know it. For no one, except a thief and his underlings, knew of the last folly of poor old Adela Sellingworth!
Poor old Adela Sellingworth!
As Lady Sellingworth called herself bitterly by that name tears at last came into her luminous eyes. Secretly she wept over herself, although the tears did not fall down upon her cheeks. She had done many foolish things, many wild things, many almost crazy things in her life. But that day she had surely been punished for them all. When she thought of the thieves' plot against her, of the working out of it, she saw herself lying, like a naked thing, in the dust. Such men! How had they known her character? Somehow they must have got to know it, and devised their plan to appeal to it. They had woven just the right net to catch her in its folds. She seemed to hear their hideous discussions about her. The long look in Bond Street had been the first move in the horrible game. And she in her folly had connected the game with romance, with something like love even.
Love! A life such as hers had been was the prostitution of love, and now she deserved to be loveless for the rest of her life. Vanity and sensuality had been her substitutes for love. She had dealt in travesty and had pretended, even to herself, that she was following reality. It was amazing how she had managed to deceive herself.
She would never do that again.
Very late that night, alone in her bedroom, she sat before a mirror and looked into it, saying good-bye to the self which she had cherished and fostered so long, had lived for recklessly sometimes, ruthlessly almost always. She saw a worn, but still very handsome woman. But she told herself that the woman was hideous. For really she was looking at the woman underneath, the woman who was going to emerge very soon into the daylight with a frankly lined face crowned with grey or perhaps even white hair, at the woman who was the truth, at herself. This woman before her was only a counterfeit, a marvellously clever artificiality.
There were two electric lights at the sides of the mirror. She turned them both on. She wanted crude light just then. Cruelty she was taking to her bosom. She was grasping her nettle with both hands.
Yes, the artificiality was marvellously clever! The Greek had been worth his money. He had created a sort of human orchid whose petals showed few, wonderfully few, signs of withering.
But she had wanted to be not the orchid but really the rose. And so she was down in the dust.
Poor old Adela Sellingworth, who in a very short time—how long exactly would the Greek's work take to crumble—would look even older than fifty!
She turned out the lights presently and got into bed. When she had made the big bedroom dark, and had stretched her long body out between the sheets of Irish linen, she felt terrifically tired, tired in body and spirit, but somehow not in mind. Her mind was almost horribly alive and full of agility. It brought visions before her; it brought voices into her ears.
She saw men of the underworld sitting together in shadows and whispering about her, using coarse words, undressing her character, commenting upon it without mercy, planning how they would make use of it to their advantage. She heard them laughing about her and about all the women like her.
And presently she saw an old woman with a white face, a withered throat and vague eyes, an old woman in a black wig, smiling as she decked herself out in the Sellingworth jewels.
Miss Van Tuyn, enthroned among distinguished and definite Georgians in a nimbus of smoke, presently began to wonder what had become of a certain young man. Despite the clamour of voices about her, and the necessity for showing incessantly that, although she had never bothered to paint cubist pictures or to write minor poetry, or even to criticize and appreciate meticulously those who did, she was cleverer than any Georgian of them all, her mind would slip away to Berkeley Square. She had, of course, noted young Craven's tacit resistance to the pressure of her desire, and her girlish vanity had resented it. But she had remembered that even in these active days of the ruthless development of the ego a sense of politeness, of what is "due" from one human being to another, still lingers in some perhaps old-fashioned bosoms. Lady Sellingworth was elderly. Craven might have thought it was his absolute duty to protect her from the possible dangers lurking between Regent Street and Berkeley Square. But as time went on, despite the sallies of Dick Garstin, the bloodless cynicisms of Enid Blunt, who counted insolence as the chief of the virtues, the amorous sentimentalities of the Turkish refugee from Smyrna, whose moral ruin had been brought about by a few lines of praise from Pierre Loti, the touching appreciations of prison life by Penitence Murray, and the voluble intellectuality of Thapoulos, Jennings and Smith the sculptor, Miss Van Tuyn began to feel absent-minded. Her power of attraction was quite evidently being seriously challenged. She was now certain—how could she not be—that Craven had not merely gone to Number 18A, but had also "gone in."
That was unnecessary. It was even very strange. For she, Beryl Van Tuyn, was at least thirty-six years younger than Lady Sellingworth.
Miss Van Tuyn had an almost inordinate belief in the attraction youth holds for men. She had none of the hidden diffidence which had been such a troubling element in Lady Sellingworth's nature. Nor was there any imp which sat out of reach and mocked her. The violet eyes were satirical; but her satire was reserved for others, and was seldom or never directed against herself. She possessed a supply of self-assurance such as Lady Sellingworth had never had, though for many years she had had the appearance of it. Having this inordinate belief and this strong self-assurance, having also youth and beauty, and remembering certain little things which seemed to her proof positive that Craven was quite as susceptible to physical emotions as are most healthy and normal young men, she wondered why he had not returned to the Cafe Royal after leaving Lady Sellingworth decorously at her door. He had known perfectly well that she wished him to return. She had not even been subtle in conveying the wish to him. And yet he had defied it.
Or perhaps Lady Sellingworth had defied it for him.
Miss Van Tuyn was really as fond of Lady Sellingworth as she could be of a woman. She felt strongly the charm which so many others had felt. Lady Sellingworth also interested her brain and aroused strongly the curiosity which was a marked feature of her "make-up." She had called Lady Sellingworth a book of wisdom. She was also much influenced by distinction and personal prestige. About the distinction of her friend there could be no doubt; and the prestige of a once-famous woman of the world, and of a formerly great beauty whose name would have its place in the annals of King Edward the Seventh, still lingered about the now-faded recluse of Berkeley Square. But till this moment Miss Van Tuyn had never thought of Lady Sellingworth as a possible rival to herself.
Even now when the idea presented itself to her she was inclined to dismiss it as too absurd for consideration. And yet Craven had not come back, although he must know she was expecting him.
Perhaps Lady Sellingworth had made him go in against his will.
Miss Van Tuyn remembered the photograph she had seen at Mrs. Ackroyd's. That woman had the face of one who was on the watch for new lovers. And does a woman ever change? Only that very night she herself had said to Craven, as they walked from Soho to Regent Street, that she had a theory of the changelessness of character. Or perhaps she had really meant of temperament. She had even said that she believed that the Lady Sellingworth of to-day was to all intents and purposes the Lady Sellingworth of yesterday and of the other days of her past. If that were so—and she had meant what she had said—then in the white-haired woman, who seemed now indifferent to admiration and leagues removed from vanity, there still dwelt a woman on the pounce.
Young Craven was very good-looking, and there was something interesting about his personality. His casual manner, which was nevertheless very polite, was attractive. His blue eyes and black hair gave him an almost romantic appearance. He was very quiet, but was certainly far from being cold. And he undoubtedly understood a great deal, and must have had many experiences of which he never talked. Miss Van Tuyn was subtle enough to know that he was subtle too. She had made up her mind to explore his subtlety. And now someone else was exploring it in Berkeley Square. The line reappeared in her low white forehead, and her cult for Lady Sellingworth, like flannel steeped in water, underwent a shrinking process. She felt strongly the indecency of grasping old age. And through her there floated strange echoes of voices which had haunted Lady Sellingworth's youth, voices which had died away long ago in Berkeley Square, but which are captured by succeeding generations of women, and which persist through the ages, finding ever new dwellings.
The night was growing late, but the Georgians bitterly complained of the absurdity of London having a closing time. The heat and the noise seemed to swell with the passing of the hours, and a curious and anemic brutality dawned with the midnight upon many of the faces around the narrow tables. They looked at the same time bloodless and hard. Eyes full of languor, or feverish with apparent expectation of some impending adventure, stared fixedly through the smoke wreaths at other eyes in the distance. Loud voices hammered through the murk. Foreheads beaded with perspiration began to look painfully expressive. It was as if all faces were undressed.
Dick Garstin, the famous painter, a small, slight, clean-shaven man, who looked like an intellectual jockey with his powerful curved nose, thin, close-set lips, blue cheeks and prominent, bony chin, and who fostered the illusion deliberately by dressing in large-checked suits of a sporting cut, with big buttons and mighty pockets, kept on steadily drinking green chartreuse and smoking small, almost black, cigars. He was said to be made of iron, and certainly managed to combine perpetual dissipation with an astonishing amount of hard and admirable work. His models he usually found—or so he said—at the Cafe Royal, and he made a speciality of painting the portraits of women of the demi-monde, of women who drank, or took drugs, who were morphia maniacs, or were victims of other unhealthy and objectionable crazes. Nothing wholly sane, nothing entirely normal, nothing that suggested cold water, fresh air or sunshine, made any appeal to him. A daisy in the grass bored him; a gardenia emitting its strangely unreal perfume on a dung heap brought all his powers into play. He was an eccentric of genius, and in his strangeness was really true to himself, although normal people were apt to assert that his unlikeness to them was a pose. Simplicity, healthy goodness, the radiance of unsmirched youth seemed to his eyes wholly inexpressive. He loved the rotten as a dog loves garbage, and he raised it by his art to fascination. Even admirable people, walking through his occasional one-man exhibitions, felt a lure in his presentations of sin, of warped womanhood, and, gazing at the blurred faces, the dilated eyes, the haggard mouths, the vicious hands of his portraits, were shiveringly conscious of missed experiences, and for the moment felt ill at ease with what seemed just there, and just then, the dullness of virtue. The evil admired him because he made evil wonderful. To the perverse he was almost as a god.
Miss Van Tuyn was an admirer of Dick Garstin. She thought him a great painter, but apart from his gift his mind interested her intensely. He had a sort of melancholy understanding of human nature and of life, a strangely sure instinct in probing to the bottom of psychological mysteries, a cruelly sure hand in tearing away the veils which the victims hoped would shroud their weaknesses and sins. These gifts made her brain respect him, and tickled her youthful curiosity. It was really for Dick that she had specially wished Lady Sellingworth to join the Georgians that night. And now, in her secret vexation, she was moved to speak of the once famous Edwardian.
"Have you ever heard of Lady Sellingworth?" she said, leaning her elbow on the marble table in front of her, and bending towards Dick Garstin so that he might hear her through the uproar.
He finished one more chartreuse and turned his small black eyes upon her. Pin-points of piercing light gleamed in them. He lifted his large, coarse and capable painter's hand to his lips, put his cigar stump between them, inhaled a quantity of smoke, blew it out through his hairy nostrils, and then said in a big bass voice:
"Never. Why should I have? I hate society women."
Miss Van Tuyn suppressed a smile at the absurd and hackneyed phrase, which reminded her of picture papers. For a moment she thought of Dick Garstin as a sort of inverted snob. But she wanted something from him, so she pursued her conversational way, and inflicted upon him a rapid description of Lady Sellingworth, as she had been and as she was, recording the plunge from artificial youth into perfectly natural elderliness which had now, to her thinking, become definite old age.
The painter gave her a sort of deep and melancholy attention, keeping the two pin-points of light directed steadily upon her.
"Did you ever know a woman doing such a thing as that, Dick?" she asked. "Did you ever know of a woman clinging to her youth, and then suddenly, in a moment, flinging all pretence of it away from her?"
He did not trouble, or perhaps did not choose, to answer her question, but instead made the statement:
"She had been thrown off by some lover. In a moment of furious despair, thinking all was over for her for ever, she let everything go. And then she hadn't the cheek to try to take any of it back. She hadn't the toupet. But"—he flung a large hand stained with pigments out in an ugly, insolent gesture—"any one of these fleurs du mal would have jumped back from the white to the bronze age when the fit was passed, without caring a damn what anyone thought of them. All the moral bravery is in the underworld. That is why I paint it."
"That is absolute truth," said Jennings, who was sitting next to Dick Garstin and smoking an enormous pipe. "The lower you go the more truth you find."
"Then I suppose the gutter is full of it," said Miss Van Tuyn.
"The Cafe Royal is," said Garstin. "There are free women here. Your women of society are for ever waiting on the opinion of what they call their set—God help them! Your Lady Sellingworth, for instance—would she dare, after showing herself as an old woman, to become a young woman again? Not she! Her precious set would laugh at her for it. But Cora, for instance—" He pointed to a table a little way off, at which a woman was sitting alone. "Do you suppose Cora cares one single damn what you, or I, or anyone else thinks of her? She knows we all know exactly what she is, and it makes not a particle of difference to her. She'll tell you, or anyone else, what her nature is. If you don't happen to like it, you can go to Hell—for her. That's a free woman. Look at her face. Why, it's great, because her life and what she is is written all over it. I've painted her, and I'll paint her again. She's a human document, not a sentimental Valentine. Waiter! Waiter!"
His sonorous bass rolled out, dominating the uproar around him. Miss Van Tuyn looked at the woman he had been speaking of. She was tall, emaciated, high shouldered. Her face was dead white, with brightly painted lips. She had dark and widely dilated eyes which looked hungry, observant and desperate. The steadiness of their miserable gaze was like that of an animal. She was dressed in a perfectly cut coat and skirt with a neat collar and a black tie. Both her elbows were on the table, and her sharp white chin was supported by her hands, on which she wore white gloves sewn with black. Her features were good, and the shape of her small head was beautiful. Her expression was intense, but abstracted. In front of her was a small tumbler half full of a liquid the colour of water.
A waiter brought Garstin a gin-and-soda. He mixed drinks in an almost stupefying way, as few men can without apparent ill-effects unless they are Russians.
"Cora—a free woman, by God!" he observed, lighting another of his small but deadly cigars.
Enid Blunt, who was sitting with Smith the sculptor and others at the adjoining table, began slowly, and with an insolent drawl, reciting a sonnet. She was black as the night. Even her hands looked swarthy. There were yellow lights in her eyes. Her voice was guttural, and she pronounced English with a strong German accent, although she had no German blood in her veins and had never been in Germany. The little Bolshevik, who had the face of a Russian peasant, candid eyes and a squat figure, listened with an air of profound and somehow innocent attention. She possessed neither morals nor manners, denied the existence of God, and wished to pull the whole fabric of European civilization to pieces. Her small brain was obsessed by a desire for anarchy. She hated all laws and was really a calmly ferocious little animal. But she looked like a creature of the fields, and had something of the shepherdess in her round grey eyes. Thapoulos, a Levantine, who had once been a courier in Athens, but who was now a rich banker with a taste for Bohemia, kept one thin yellow hand on her shoulder as he appeared to listen, with her, to the sonnet. Smith, with whom the little Bolshevik was allied for the time, and who did in clay very much what Garstin did on canvas, but more roughly and with less subtlety, looked at the Levantine's hand with indifference. A large heavy man, with square shoulders and short bowed legs, he scarcely knew why he had anything to do with Anna, or remembered how they had come together. He did not understand her at all, but she cooked certain Russian dishes which he liked, and minded dirt as little as he did. Perhaps that lack of minding had thrown them together. He did no know; nobody knew or cared.
"Well, I'm a free woman," said Miss Van Tuyn, in answer to Garstin's exclamation about Cora. "But you've never bothered to paint me."
She spoke with a touch of irritation. Somehow things seemed to be going vaguely wrong for her to-night.
"I suppose I am not near enough to the gutter yet," she added.
"You're too much of the out-of-door type for me," said Garstin, looking at her with almost fierce attention. "There isn't a line about you except now and then in your forehead just above the nose. And even that only comes from bad temper."
"Really, Dick," said Miss Van Tuyn, "you are absurd. It's putting your art into a strait waistcoat only to paint Cafe Royal types. But if you want lines Lady Sellingworth ought to sit for you."
Her mind that night could not detach itself from Lady Sellingworth. In the midst of the noise, and crush, and strong light of the cafe she continually imagined a spacious, quiet, and dimly lit room, very calm, very elegant, faintly scented with flowers; she continually visualized two figures near together, talking quietly, earnestly, confidentially. Why had she allowed Jennings to lead her astray? She might have been in that spacious room, too, if she had not been stupid.
"I want to ask you something about Lady Sellingworth," she continued. "Come a little nearer."
Garstin shifted his chair.
"But I don't know her," he said, rumpling his hair with an air of boredom. "An old society woman! What's the good of that to me? What have I to do with dowagers? Bow wow dowagers! Even Rembrandt—"
"Now, Dick, don't be a bore! If you would only listen occasionally, instead of continually—"
"Go ahead, young woman! And bend down a little more. Why don't you take off your hat?"
She did so quickly, and bent her lovely head nearer to him.
"That's better. You've got a damned fine head. Ceres might have owned it. But classical stuff is no good to me. You ought to have been painted by Leighton and hung on the line in the precious old Royal Academy."
Again the tell-tale mark appeared above the bridge of Miss Van Tuyn's charming nose.
"I painted by a Royal Academician!" she exclaimed. "Thank you, Dick!"
Garstin, who was as mischievous as a monkey, and who loved to play cat and mouse with a woman, continued to gaze at her with his assumption of fierce attention.
"But Leighton being unfortunately dead, we can't go to him for your portrait," he continued gravely. "I think we shall have to hand you over to McEvoy. Smith!" he suddenly roared.
"Well, what is it, Dick, what is it?" said the sculptor in a thin voice, with high notes which came surprisingly though the thicket of tangled hair about the cavern of his mouth.
"Who shall paint Beryl as Ceres?"
"I refuse to be pained by anyone as Ceres!" said Miss Van Tuyn, almost viciously.
"It ought to have been Leighton. But he's been translated. I suggested McEvoy."
"Oh, Lord! He'd take the substance out of her, make her transparent!"
"I have it then! Orpen! It shall be Orpen! Then she will be hung on the line."
"You talk as if I were the week's washing," said Miss Van Tuyn, recovering herself. "But I would rather be on the clothes-line than on the line at the Royal Academy. No, Dick, I shall wait."
"What for, my girl?"
"For you to get over your acute attack of Cafe Royal. You don't know how they laugh at you in Paris for always painting morphinomanes and chloral drinkers. That sort of thing was done to death in France in the youth of Degas. It may be new over here. But England always lags behind in art, always follows at the heels of the French. You are too big a man—"
"I've got it, Smith," said Garstin, interrupting in the quiet even voice of one who had been indulging an undisturbed process of steady thought, and who now announced the definite conclusion reached. "I have it. Frank Dicksee is the man!"
At this moment Jennings, who for some time had been uneasily groping through his beard, and turning the rings round and round on his thin damp fingers, broke in with a flood of speech about modern French art, in which names of all the latest painters of Paris spun by like twigs on a spate of turbulent water. The Georgians were soon up and after him in full cry. It was now nearly closing time, and several friends of Garstin's, models and others, who had been scattered about in the cafe, and who were on their way out, stopped to hear what was going on. Some adherents of Jennings also came up. The discussion became animated. Voices waxed roaringly loud or piercingly shrill. The little Bolshevik, suddenly losing her round faced calm and the shepherdess look in her eyes, burst forth in a voluble outcry in praise of the beauty of anarchy, expressing herself in broken English, spoken with a cockney accent, in broken French and liquid Russian. Enid Blunt, increasingly guttural, and mingling German words with her Bedford Park English, refuted, or strove to refute, Jennings's ecstatic praise of French verse, citing rapidly poems composed by members of the Sitwell group, songs of Siegfried Sassoon, and even lyrics by Lady Margaret Sackville and Miss Victoria Sackville West. Jennings, who thought he was still speaking about pictures and statues, though he had now abandoned the painters and sculptors to their horrid fates in the hands of Garstin and Smith, replied with a vivacity rather Gallic than British, and finally, emerging almost with passion from his native language, burst into the only tongue which expresses anything properly, and assailed his enemy in fluent French. Thapoulos muttered comments in modern Greek. And the Turkish refugee from Smyrna quoted again and again the words of praise from Pierre Loti, which had made of him a moral wreck, a nuisance to all who came into contact with him, a mere prancing megalomaniac.
Miss Van Tuyn did not join in the carnival of praises and condemnations. She had suddenly recovered her mental balance. Her native irony was roused from its sleep. She was once more the cool, self-possessed and beautiful girl from whose violet eyes satire looked out on all those about her.
"Let them all make fools of themselves for my benefit," was her comfortable thought as she listened to the chatter of tongues.
Even Garstin was being thoroughly absurd, although his adherents stood round catching his vociferations as if they were so many precious jewels.
"The most ridiculous human beings in the world at certain moments are those who work in the arts," was Miss Van Tuyn's mental comment. "Painters, poets, composers, novelists! All these people are living in blinkers. They can't see the wide world. They can only see studies and studios."
She wished she had Craven with her to share in her silent irony. At that moment she felt some of the very common conceit of the rich dilettante, who tastes but who never creates, for whom indeed most of the creation is arduously accomplished.
"They sweat for me, exhaust themselves for me, tear each other to pieces for me! If I were not here, if the world contained no such products as Beryl Van Tuyn and her like, female and male, what would all the Garstins, and Jenningses and Smiths and Enid Blunts do?"
And she felt superior in her incapacity to create because of her capacity to judge. Wrongly she might, and probably did, judge, but she and her like judged, spent much of their lives in eagerly judging. And the poor creators, whatever they might say, whatever airs they might give themselves, toiled to gain the favourable judgment of the innumerable Beryl Van Tuyns.
Closing time put an end at last to the fracas of tongues. Even geniuses must be driven forth from the electric light to the stars, however unwilling to go into a healthy atmosphere.
There was a general movement. Miss Van Tuyn put on her hat and fur coat, the latter with the assistance of Jennings. Garstin slipped into a yellow and brown ulster, and jammed a soft hat on to his head with its thick tangle of hair. He lit another cigar and waved his hand to Cora, who was on her way out with a friend.
"A free woman—by God!" he said once more, swinging round to where Miss Van Tuyn was standing between Jennings and Thapoulos. "I'll paint her again. I'll make a masterpiece of her."
"I'm sure you will. But now walk with me to the Hyde Park Hotel. It's on your way to Chelsea."
"She doesn't care whether I paint her or not. Cora doesn't care. Art means nothing to her. She's out for life, hunks of life. She's after life like a hungry dog after the refuse on a scrap heap. That's why I'll paint her. She's hungry. Look at her face."
Miss Van Tuyn, perhaps moved by the sudden, almost ferocious urgency of his loud bass voice, turned to have a last look at the woman who was "out for life"; but Cora was already lost in the crowd, and instead of gazing into the dead-white face which suggested to her some strange putrefaction, she gazed full into the face of a man. He was not far off—by the doorway through which people were streaming out into Regent Street—and he happened to be looking at her. She had been expecting to see a whiteness which was corpse-like. Instead she was almost startled by the sight of a skin which suggested to her one of her own precious bronzes in Paris. It was certainly less deep in colour, but its smooth and equal, unvarying tint of brown somehow recalled to her those treasures which she genuinely loved and assiduously collected. And he was marvellously handsome as some of her bronzes were handsome, with strong, manly, finely cut features—audacious features, she thought. His mouth specially struck her by its full-lipped audacity. He was tall and had an athletic figure. She could not help swiftly thinking what a curse the modern wrappings of such a figure were; the tubes of cloth or serge—he wore blue serge—the unmeaning waistcoat with tie and pale-blue collar above it, the double-breasted jacket. And then she saw his eyes. Magnificent eyes, she thought them, soft, intelligent, appealing, brown like his skin and hair. And they were gazing at her with a sort of sympathetic intention.
Suddenly she felt oddly restored. Really she had had a bad evening. Things had not gone quite right for her. She had saved the situation in a measure just at the end by taking refuge in irony. But in her irony she had been quite alone. And to be quite alone in anything is apt to be dull. Craven had let her down. Lady Sellingworth had not played the game—or had played it too well, which was worse. Garstin had been unusually tiresome with his allusions to the Royal Academy and his preposterous concentration on the Cora woman.
This brown stranger's gaze was really like manna falling from heaven in a hungry land. She boldly returned the gaze, stared, trusting to her own beauty. And as she stared she tried to sum up the stranger, and failed. She guessed him a little over thirty, but not much. And there somehow, after the quick, instinctive guess at his age, she stuck.
"Come on, Beryl!"
Garstin's deep strong voice startled her. At that moment she felt angry with him for calling her by her Christian name, though he had done it ever since they had first made friends—if they were friends—in Paris two years ago, when he had come to have a look at her bronzes with a French painter whom she knew well.
"You are going to walk back with me?"
"To be sure I am. He is devilish good looking, but he ought to be out of those clothes."
He smiled at her sardonically. She knew that he seldom missed anything, but his sharp observation in the midst of the squash of people going out of the cafe took her genuinely aback. And then he had got at her thought, at one of her most definite thoughts at least, about the brown stranger!
"You are disgustingly clever," she said, as they made their way out, followed by the Georgians and their attendant cosmopolitans. "I believe I dislike you for it to-night."
"Then take a cab home and I'll walk."
"No, thank you. I'd rather endure your abominable intelligence."
He smiled, curling up the left corner of his sensual mouth.
"Come on then. Don't bother about good-byes to all these fools. They'll never stop talking if they once begin good-bying. Like sheep they don't know how to get away from each other since they've been herded together. Come on! Come on!"
He thrust an arm through hers and almost roughly, but forcibly, got her away through the throng. As he did so she was pushed by, or accidentally pushed against, several people. For a brief instant she was in contact with a man. She felt his side, the bone of one of his hips. It was the man who had looked at her in the cafe. She saw in the night the gleam of his big brown eyes looking down into hers. Then she and Garstin were tramping—Garstin always seemed to be tramping when he walked—over the pavement of Regent Street.
"Catch on tight! Let's get across and down to Piccadilly."
Presently they were passing the Ritz. They got away from the houses on that side. Now on their left were the tall railings that divided them from the stretching spaces of the Park shrouded in the darkness and mystery of night.
"Well, my girl, what are you after?" said Garstin, who never troubled about the conventionalities, and seemed never to care what anyone thought of him and his ways. "Go ahead. Let me have it. I'm not coming in to your beastly hotel, you know. So get on with your bow wow Dowager."
"So you remember that I had begun—"
"Of course I do."
"Do you ever miss anything—let anything escape you?"
"I don't know. Well, what is it?"
"I wanted to tell you something about Lady Sellingworth which has puzzled me and a friend of mine. It is a sort of social mystery."
"Social! Oh, Lord!"
"Now, Dick, don't be a snob. You are a snob in your pretended hatred of all decent people."
"D'you call your society dames decent?"
"Be quiet if you can! You're worse than a woman."
He did not say anything. His horsey profile looked hard and expressionless in the night. As she glanced at it she could not help thinking of Newmarket. He ought surely to have been a jockey with that face and figure.
"You are listening?"
He said nothing. But he turned his face and she saw the two pin-points of light. That was enough. She told him about the theft of Lady Sellingworth's jewels, her neglect of all endeavour to recover them, her immediate plunge into middle-age after the theft, and her avoidance of general society ever since.
"What do you make of it?" she asked, when she had finished.
"Make of it?"
"Does your little mind find it mysterious?"
"Well, isn't it rather odd for a woman who loses fifty thousand pounds' worth of jewels never to try to get them back?"
"Not if they were stolen by a lover."
"It's as obvious as that Martin, R.A., can't paint and I can."
"But I believe they were stolen at the Gare du Nord. Now does that look like a lover?"
"I didn't say the Gare du Nord looked like a lover."
"Don't be utterly ridiculous."
"I don't care where they were stolen—your old dowager's Gew-gaws. Depend upon it they were stolen by some man she'd been mixed up with, and she knew it, and didn't dare to prosecute. I can't see any mystery in the matter."
"Perhaps you are right."
"Of course I am right."
Miss Van Tuyn said nothing for two or three minutes. Her mind had gone from Lady Sellingworth to Craven, and then flitted on—she did not know why—to the man who had gazed at her so strangely in the Cafe Royal. She had been feeling rather neglected, badly treated almost, and his look had restored her to her normal supreme self-confidence. That fact would always be to the stranger's credit. She wondered very much who he was. His good looks had almost startled her. She began also to wonder what Garstin had thought of him. Garstin seldom painted men. But he did so now and then. Two of his finest portraits were of men: one a Breton fisherman who looked like an apache of the sea, the other a Spanish bullfighter dressed in his Sunday clothes with the book of the Mass in his hand. Miss Van Tuyn had seen them both. She now found herself wishing that Garstin would paint a portrait of the man who had looked at her. But was he a Cafe Royal type? At present Garstin painted nothing which did not come out of the Cafe Royal.
"That man—" she said abruptly.
"I was just wondering when we should get to him!" interjected Garstin. "I thought your old dowager wouldn't keep us away from him for long."
"I suppose you know by this time, Dick, that I don't care in the least what you think of me."
"The only reason I bother about you is because you are a thoroughly independent cuss and have a damned fine head."
"Why don't you paint me?"
"I may come to it. But if I do I'm mortally afraid they'll make an academician of me. Go on about your man."
"Didn't you think him a wonderful type?"
"Tell me! If you want to paint someone, what do you do?"
"Do? Go up and tell him or her to come along to the studio."
"Whether you know them or not?"
"You ought to paint that man."
"Just because you want me to pick hum up and then introduce him to you. I don't paint for reasons of that kind."
"Have you ever seen him before to-night?"
"Yes. I saw him last night."
"For the first time?"
"At the Cafe Royal?"
"What do you think he is?"
"Probably a successful blackmailer."
For some obscure reason Miss Van Tuyn felt outraged by this opinion of Garstin.
"The fact is," she said, but in quite an impersonal voice, "that your mind is getting warped by living always among the scum of London, and by studying and painting only the scum. It really is a great pity. A painter ought to be a man of the world, not a man of the underworld."
"And the a propos of all this?" asked Garstin
"You are beginning to see the morphia maniac, the drunkard, the cocaine fiend, the prostitute, the—"
"Yes, the blackmailer, if you like, in everyone you meet. You live in a sort of bad dream, Dick. You paint in a bad dream. If you go on like this you will lose all sense of the true values."
"But I honestly do believe the man you want me to pick up and then introduce to you to be a successful blackmailer."
"Why? Do you know anything about him?"
"Then your supposition about him is absurd and rather disgusting."
"It isn't a supposition."
"What is it then?"
"Perhaps you don't realize, my girl, that I'm highly sensitive."
"You seldom seem so. But, of course, I realize that you couldn't paint as you do unless you were."
"Instead of using the word supposition in connexion with a fellow like myself your discrimination should have led you to choose the word instinct."
"Let's cross over. Catch on!"
They crossed to the side of the road next to Hyde Park.
"My instinct tells me that the magnificently handsome man who stared at you to-night is of the tribe that lives by making those who are indiscreetly susceptible to beauty pay heavy tribute, in hard cash or its equivalent. He is probably a king in the underworld. Perhaps I really will paint him. No, I'm not coming in."
He left her on the doorstep of the hotel and tramped off towards Chelsea.
Craven went away from Berkeley Square that night still under the spell and with a mind unusually vivid and alive. As he had told Lady Sellingworth, he was now twenty-nine and no longer considered himself young. At the F.O. there are usually a good many old young men, just as in London society there are always a great many young old women. Craven was one of the former. He was clever, discreet and careful in his work. He was also ambitious and intended to rise in the career he had chosen. To succeed he knew that energy was necessary, and consequently he was secretly energetic. But his energy did not usually show above the surface. Tradition rather forbade that. He had a quiet, even a lazy manner as a rule, and he thought he often felt old, especially in London. There was something in the London atmosphere which he considered antagonistic to youth. He had felt decades younger in Naples in summer-time. But that was all over now. It might be a long time before he was again attached to an embassy.
When he reached his rooms, or, rather, his flat, which was just off Curzon Street, he went to look at his bookshelves, and ran his finger along them until he came to the poems of William Watson, which were next to Rupert Brooke's poems. After looking at the index he found the lyric he wanted, sat down, lit his pipe, and read it four times, thinking of Lady Sellingworth. Then he put away the book and meditated. Finally—it was after one o'clock—he went almost reluctantly to bed.
In the morning he, of course, felt different—one always feels different in the morning—but nevertheless he was aware that something definite had come into his life which had made a change in it. This something was his acquaintance with Lady Sellingworth. Already he found it difficult to believe that he had lived for twenty-eight years without knowing her.
He was one of those rather unusual young men who feel strongly the vulgarity of their own time, and who have in them something which seems at moments to throw back into the past. Not infrequently he felt that this mysterious something was lifting up the voice of the laudator temporis acti. But what did he, the human being who contained this voice and many other voices, know of those times now gone? They seemed to draw him in ignorance, and had for him something of the fascination which attaches to the unknown. And this fascination, or something akin to it, hung about Lady Sellingworth, and even about the house in which she dwelt, and drew him to both. He knew that he had never been in any house in London which he liked so much as he liked hers, that in no other London house had he ever felt so much at home, so almost curiously in place. The mere thought of the hall with its blazing fire, its beehive-chair, its staircase with the balustrade of wrought ironwork and gold, filled him with a longing to return to it, to hang up his hat—and remain. And the lady of the house was ideally right in it. He wondered whether in the future he would often be there, whether Lady Sellingworth would allow him to be one of the few real intimates to whom her door was open. He hoped so; he believed so; but he was not quite certain about it. For there was something elusive about her, not insincere but just that—elusive. She might not care to see very much of him although he knew that she liked him. They had touched the fringe of intimacy on the preceding night.
After his work at the Foreign Office was over he walked to the club, and the first man he saw on entering it was Francis Braybrooke just back from Paris. Braybrooke was buying some stamps in the hall, and greeted Craven with his usual discreet cordiality.
"I'll come in a moment," he said. "If you're not busy we might have a talk. I shall like to hear how you fared with Adela Sellingworth."
Craven begged him to come, and in a few minutes they were settled in two deep arm-chairs in a quiet corner, and Craven was telling of his first visit to Berkeley Square.
"Wasn't I right?" said Braybrooke. "Could Adela Sellingworth ever be a back number? I think that was your expression."
Craven slightly reddened.
"I think so," said Braybrooke, gently but firmly.
"I was a—a young fool to use it."
"I fancy it's a newspaper phrase that has pushed its way somehow into the language."
"Vulgarity pushes its way in everywhere now. Braybrooke, I want to thank you very much for your introduction to Lady Sellingworth. You were right. She has a wonderful charm. It's a privilege for a young man, as I am I suppose, to know her. To be with her makes life seem more what it ought to be, what one wants it to be."
Braybrooke looked extremely pleased, almost touched.
"I am glad you appreciate her," he said. "It shows that real distinction has still a certain appeal. And so you met Beryl Van Tuyn there."
"Do you know her?"
Braybrooke raised his eyebrows.
"Know her? How should I not know her when I am constantly running over to Paris?"
"Then I suppose she's very much 'in it' there?"
"Yes. She is criticized, of course. She lives very unconventionally, although Fanny Cronin is always officially with her."
"Her dame de compagnie."
"Oh, the lady who reads Paul Bourget!"
"I believe she does. Anyhow, one seldom sees her about. Beryl Van Tuyn is very audacious. She does things that no other lovely girl in her position would ever dare to do, or could do without peril to her reputation. But somehow she brings them off. Mind, I haven't a word to say against her. She is exceedingly clever and has mastered the difficult art of making people accept from her what they wouldn't accept for a moment from any other unmarried girl in society. She may be said to have a position of her own. Do you like her?"
"Yes, I think I do. She is lovely and very good company."
"Frenchmen rave about her."
"Oh, they all know her. She carries things through. That really is the art of life, to be able to carry things through. Her bronzes are quite remarkable. By the way, she has an excellent brain. She cares for the arts. She is by no means a fribble. I have been surprised by her knowledge more than once."
"She seems very fond of Lady Sellingworth. She wants to get her over to Paris."
"Adela Sellingworth won't go."
"She seems to hate Paris now. It is years since she had stayed there."
After a pause Craven said:
"Lady Sellingworth is something of a mystery, I think. I wonder—I wonder if she feels lonely in that big house of hers."
"Far more people feel lonely than seem lonely," said Braybrooke.
"I expect they do. But I think that somehow Lady Sellingworth seems lonely. And yet she is full of mockery."
"Yes. I feel it."
"But didn't you find her very kind?"
"Oh, yes. I meant of self-mockery."
Braybrooke looked rather dubious.
"I think," continued Craven, perhaps a little obstinately, "that she looks upon herself with irony, while Miss Van Tuyn looks upon others with irony. Perhaps, though, that is rather a question of the different outlooks of youth and age."
Braybrooke pulled at his grey-and-brown beard.
"I scarcely see—I scarcely see, I confess, why age should be more disposed to self-mockery than youth. Age, if properly met and suitably faced—that is, with dignity and self-respect, such as Adela Sellingworth undoubtedly shows—has no reason for self-mockery; whereas youth, although charming and delightful might well laugh occasionally at its own foolishness."
"Ah, but it never does!"
"I think for once I shall have a cocktail," said Braybrooke, signing to an attendant in livery, who at that moment came from some hidden region and looked around warily.
"You will join me, Craven? Let it be dry Martinis. Eh? Yes! Two dry Martinis."
As the attendant went away Braybrooke added:
"My dear boy, if you will excuse me for saying so, are you not getting the Foreign Office habit of being older than your years? I hope you will not begin wearing horn spectacles while your sight is still unimpaired."
Craven laughed and felt suddenly younger.
The two dry Martinis were brought, and the talk grew a little more lively. Braybrooke, who seldom took a cocktail, was good enough to allow it to go to his head, and became, for him, almost unbuttoned. Craven, entertained by his elderly friend's unwonted exuberance, talked more freely and a little more intimately to him than usual, and presently alluded to the events of the previous night, and described his expedition to Soho.
"D'you know the Ristorante Bella Napoli?" he asked Braybrooke. "Vesuvius all over the walls, and hair-dressers playing Neapolitan tunes?"
Braybrooke did not, but seemed interested, for he cocked his head to one side, and looked almost volcanic for a moment over the tiny glass in his hand. Craven described the restaurant, the company, the general atmosphere, the Chianti and Toscanas, and, proceeding with artful ingenuity, at last came to his climax—Lady Sellingworth and Miss Van Tuyn in their corner with their feet on the sanded floor and a smoking dish of Risotto alla Milanese before them.
"Adela Sellingworth in Soho! Adela Sellingworth in the midst of such a society!" exclaimed the world's governess with unfeigned astonishment. "What could have induced her—but to be sure, Beryl Van Tuyn is famous for her escapades, and for bringing the most unlikely people into them. I remember once in Paris she actually induced Madame Marretti to go to—ha—ah!"
He pulled himself up short.
"These Martinis are surely very strong!" he murmured into his beard reproachfully.
"I don't think so."
"My doctor tells me that all cocktails are rank poison. They set up fermentation."
"In the mind?" asked Craven.
"No—no—in the—they cause indigestion, in fact. How poor Adela Sellingworth must have hated it!"
"I don't think she did. She seemed quite at home. Besides, she has been to many of the Paris cafes. She told me so."
"It must have been a long time ago. And in Paris it is all so different. And you sat with them?"
Craven recounted the tale of the previous evening. When he came to the Cafe Royal suggestion the world's governess looked really outraged.
"Adela Sellingworth at the Cafe Royal!" he said. "How could Beryl Van Tuyn? And with a Bolshevik, a Turkish refugee—from Smyrna too!"
"There were the Georgians for chaperons."
"Georgians!" said Braybrooke, with almost sharp vivacity. "I really hate that word. We are all subjects of King George. No one has a right to claim a monopoly of the present reign. I—waiter, bring me two more dry Martinis, please."
"What was I saying? Oh, yes—about that preposterous claim of certain groups and coteries! If anybody is a Georgian we are all Georgians together. I am a Georgian, if it comes to that."
"Why not? But Lady Sellingworth is definitely not one."
"How so? I must deny that, really. I know these young poets and painters like to imagine that everyone who has had the great honour of living under Queen Victoria—"
"Forgive me! It isn't that at all."
"Well, then—oh, our dry Martinis! How much is it, waiter?"
"Two shillings, sir."
"Two—thank you. Well, then, Craven, I affirm that Lady Sellingworth is as much a Georgian as any young person who writes bad poetry in Cheyne Walk or paints impossible pictures in Glebe Place."
"She would deny that. She said, in my presence and in that of Sir Seymour Portman and Miss Van Tuyn, that she did not belong to this age."
"What an—what an extraordinary statement!" said Braybrooke, drinking down his second cocktail at a gulp.
"She said she was—or rather, had been—an Edwardian. She would not have it that she belonged to the present day at all."
"A whim! It must have been a whim! The best of women are subject to caprice. It is the greatest mistake to class yourself as belonging to the past. It dates you. It—it—it practically inters you!"
"I think she meant that her glory was Edwardian, that her real life was then. I don't think she chooses to realize how immensely attractive she is now in the Georgian days."
"Well, I really can't understand such a view. I shall—when I meet her—I shall really venture to remonstrate with her about it. And besides, apart from the personal question, one owes something to one's contemporaries. Upon my word, I begin to understand at last why certain very charming women haven't a good word to say for Adela Sellingworth."
"You mean the 'old guard,' I suppose?"
"I don't wish to mention any names. It is always a mistake to mention names. One cannot guard against it too carefully. But having done what she did ten years ago dear Adela Sellingworth should really—but it is not for me to criticise her. Only there is nothing people—women—are more sensitive about than the question of age. No one likes to be laid on the shelf. Adela Sellingworth has chosen to—well—one might feel such a very drastic step to be quite uncalled for—quite uncalled for. And so—but you haven't told me! Did Adela Sellingworth allow herself to be persuaded to go to the Cafe Royal?"
"No, she didn't."
"Thank God for that!" said the world's governess, looking immensely relieved.
"I escorted her to Berkeley Square."
"But we walked to the door of the Cafe Royal."
"What—down Shaftesbury Avenue?"
"Past the Cafe Monico and—Piccadilly Circus?"
"What time was it?"
"Well after ten."
"Very unsuitable! I must say that—very unsuitable! That corner by the Monico at night is simply chock-a-block—I—I should say, teems, that's the word—teems with people whom nobody knows or could ever wish to know. Beryl Van Tuyn should really be more careful. She grows quite reckless. And Adela Sellingworth is so tall and unmistakable. I do hope nobody saw her."
"I'm afraid scores of people did!"
"No, no! I mean people she knows—women especially."
"I don't think she would care."
"Her friends would care for her!" retorted Braybrooke, almost severely. "To retire from life is all very well. I confess I think it a mistake. But that is merely one man's opinion. But to retire from life, a great life such as hers was, and then after ten years to burst forth into—into the type of existence represented by Shaftesbury Avenue and the Cafe Royal, that would be unheard of, and really almost unforgivable."
"It would, in fact, be old wildness," said Craven, with a faint touch of sarcasm.
"Old wildness! What a very strange expression!"
"But I think it covers the suggested situation. And we know what old wildness is—or if we don't some of the 'old guard' can teach us. But Lady Sellingworth will never be the one to give us such a horrible lesson. If there is a woman in London with true dignity, dignity of the soul, she has it. She has almost too much of it even. I could almost wish she had less."
Braybrooke looked suddenly surprised and then alertly observant.
"Less dignity?" he queried, after a slight but significant pause.
"But can a grande dame, as she is, ever have too much dignity of the soul?"
"I think even such a virtue as that can be carried to morbidity. It may become a weapon against the happiness of the one who has it. Those who have no dignity are disgusting. As Lady Sellingworth said to me, they create nausea—"
"Nausea!" interrupted Braybrooke, in an almost startled voice.
"Yes—in others. But those who have too much dignity wrap themselves up in a secret reserve, and reserve shuts out natural happiness, I think, and creates loneliness. I'm sure Lady Sellingworth feels terribly alone in that beautiful house. I know she does."
"Has she told you so?"
"Good heavens—no. But she never would."
"She need not be alone," observed Braybrooke. "She could have a companion to-morrow."
"I can't imagine her with a Fanny Cronin."
"I don't mean a dame de compagnie. I mean a husband."
Craven's ardent blue eyes looked a question.
"Seymour Portman is always there waiting and hoping."
"Sir Seymour?" cried Craven.
"Well, why not?" said Braybrooke, almost with severity. "Why not?"
"But his age!"
The world's governess, who was older than Sir Seymour, though not a soul knew it, looked more severe.
"His age would be in every way suitable to Adele Sellingworth's," he said firmly.
"I can't see an old man like Sir Seymour as her husband. Oh, no! It wouldn't do. She would never marry such an old man. I am certain of that."
Braybrooke pinched his lips together and felt for his beard.
"I hope," he said, lifting and lowering his bushy eyebrows, "I hope, at any rate, she will never be so foolish as to marry a man who is what is called young. That would be a terrible mistake, both for her and for him. Now I really must be going. I am dining to-night rather early with—oh, by the way, it is with one of your chiefs—Eric Learington. A good fellow—a good fellow! We are going to some music afterwards at Queen's Hall. Good-bye. I'm very glad you realize Adela Sellingworth's great distinction and charm. But—" He paused, as if considering something carefully; then he added:
"But don't forget that she and Seymour Portman would be perfectly suitable to one another. She is a delightful creature, but she is no longer a young woman. But I need not tell you that."
And having thus done the needless thing he went away, walking with a certain unwonted self-consciousness which had its source solely in dry Martinis.
Craven realized that he had "given himself away" directly Braybrooke was gone. The two empty glasses stood on a low table in front of his chair. He looked at them and for an instant was filled with anger against himself. To be immortal—he was old-fashioned enough to believe surreptitiously in his own immortality—and yet to be deflected from the straight path of good sense by a couple of dry Martinis! It was humiliating, and he raged against himself.
Braybrooke had certainly gone away thinking that he, Craven, had fallen in love with Lady Sellingworth. That thought, too, might possibly have come out of one of those little glasses, the one on the left. But nevertheless it would stick in Braybrooke's mind long after the Martinis were forgotten.
And what if it did?
Craven said that to himself, but he felt far less defiant than sensitively uncomfortable. He was surprised by himself. Evidently he had not known his own feelings. When Braybrooke mentioned Seymour Portman as a suitable husband for Lady Sellingworth something strong, almost violent, had risen up in Craven to protest. What was that? And why was he suddenly so angry? He was surely not going to make a fool of himself. He felt almost youthfully alarmed and also rather excited. An odd sense of romance suddenly floated about him. Did that too come from those cursed dry Martinis? Impossible to be sure for the moment. He found himself wondering whether teetotallers knew more about their souls than moderate drinkers, or less.
But the odd sense of romance persisted when the effect of the dry Martinis must certainly have worn off. It was something such as Craven had never known, or even imagined before. He had had his little adventures, and about them had thrown the woven robes that gleam with prismatic colours; he had even had deeper, passionate episodes—as he thought them—in his life. As he had acknowledged in the Ristorante Bella Napoli he had seldom or never started on a journey abroad without a secret hope of romance meeting him on the way. And sometimes it had met him. Or so he had believed at the time. But in all these episodes of the past there had been something definitely physical, something almost horribly natural, a prompting of the body, the kind of thing which belongs to youth, any youth, and which any doctor could explain in a few crude words. Even then, in those now dead moments, Craven had sometimes felt sensitive youth's impotent anger at being under the yoke which is laid upon the necks of innumerable others, clever, dull, aristocratic, common, the elect and the hopelessly vulgar.
In this new episode he was emancipated from that. He was able to feel that he was peculiar, if not unique. In the strong attraction which drew him towards Lady Sellingworth there was certainly nothing of the—well, to himself he called it "the medically physical." Something of the body there might possibly be. Indeed, perhaps it was impossible that there should not be. But the predominant factor had nothing whatever to do with the body. He felt certain of that.
When he got home from the Club he found on his table a note from Beryl Van Tuyn:
HYDE PARK HOTEL, Thursday.
My dear Mr. Craven,—What a pity you couldn't get away last night. But you were quite right to play Squire of Dames to our dear Lady Sellingworth. We had a rather wonderful evening after you had gone. Dick Garstin was in his best vein. Green chartreuse brings out his genius in a wonderful way. I wish it would do for me what it does for him. But I have tried it—in small doses—quite in vain. He and I walked home together and talked of everything under the stars. I believe he is going to paint me. Next time you make your way to the Bella Napoli we might go together. Two lovers of Italy must always feel at home there, and the sight of Vesuvius is encouraging, I think. So don't forget that my "beat," as you call it, often lies in Soho.
Isn't dear Adela Sellingworth delightful? She looked like a wonderful antique in that Italian frame. I love every line in her face and would give my best bronze to have white hair like hers. But somehow I am almost glad she didn't fall to the Cafe Royal. She is right. It is too Georgian for her. She is, as she says, definitely Edwardian and would scarcely understand the new jargon which comes as easily as how d'you do to our lips.
By the way, coming out of the Cafe Royal last night I saw a living bronze.—Yours,
BERYL VAN TUYN.
This note half amused and half irritated Craven on a first reading. On a second reading irritation predominated in him. Miss Van Tuyn's determined relegation of Lady Sellingworth to the past seemed somehow to strike at him, to make him—or to intend to make him—ridiculous; and her deliberate classing of him with herself in the underlined "our" seemed rather like an attempt to assert authority, the authority of youth over him. But no doubt this was very natural. Craven was quite sure that Miss Van Tuyn cared nothing about him. But he was a not disagreeable and quite presentable young man; he had looked into her violet eyes, had pressed her hand, had held it longer than was at all necessary, had in fact shown that he was just a young man and easily susceptible; and so she did not choose to let an elderly woman take possession of him even for an hour without sharpening a weapon or two and bringing them into use.
No wonder that men are conceited when women so swiftly take up arms on their account!
For a moment Craven almost disliked Miss Van Tuyn, and made up his mind that there would be no "next time" for him in Soho while she was in London. He knew that whenever they met he would feel her attraction; but he now classed it with those attractions of the past which were disgustingly explicable, and which just recently he had learnt to understand in a way that was almost old.
Was he putting on horn spectacles while his eyesight was still unimpaired? He felt doubtful, almost confused for a moment. Was his new feeling for Lady Sellingworth subtly pulling him away from his youth? Where was he going? Perhaps this new sensation of movement was only deceptive; perhaps he was not on the way to an unknown region. For a moment he wished that he could talk freely, openly, with some understanding friend, a man of course. But though he had plenty of men friends he could not think of one he would be able to confide his present feelings to.
Already he began to realize the human ridicule which always attends upon any departure from what, according to the decision of all absolutely ordinary people, is strictly normal.
Everybody would understand and approve if he were to fall desperately in love with Beryl Van Tuyn; but if he were to prefer a great friendship with Lady Sellingworth to a love affair with her youthful and beautiful friend no one would understand, and everybody would be ready to laugh and condemn.