He knew this and yet he felt obstinate, mulish almost, as he sat down to reply non-committally to Miss Van Tuyn's letter. It was only when he did this that he thought seriously about its last words.
Why had she troubled to write them down? Comparatively young though he was he knew that a woman's "by the way" usually means anything rather than what it seems to mean—namely, a sentence thrown out by chance because it has just happened to turn up in the mind. "A living bronze." Miss Van Tuyn was exceptionally fond of bronzes and collected them with enthusiasm. She knew of course the Museum at Naples. Craven had often visited it when he had been staying at the Villa Rosebery. He could remember clearly almost every important bronze in that wonderful collection. He realized what "a living bronze" must mean when written of by a woman. Miss Van Tuyn had evidently seen an amazingly handsome man coming out of the Cafe Royal. But why should she tell him about it? Perhaps her motive was the very ordinary one, an attempt to rouse the swift jealousy of the male animal. She was certainly "up" to all the usual feminine tricks. He thoroughly realized her vanity and, contrasting it with Lady Sellingworth's apparently almost careless lack of self-consciousness, he wondered whether Lady Sellingworth could ever have been what she was said to have been. If so, as a snake sheds its skin she must surely have sloughed her original nature. He was thankful for that, thankful for her absolute lack of pose and vanity. He even delighted in her self-mockery, divined by him. So few woman mocked at themselves and so many mocked at others.
If Miss Van Tuyn had intended to give a flick to his jealousy at the end of her letter she had failed. If she met fifty living bronzes and added them to her collection it was nothing to him. He compared his feeling when Braybrooke had suggested Seymour Portman as a husband for Lady Sellingworth with his lack of feeling about Miss Van Tuyn and her bronze, and he was almost startled. And yet Miss Van Tuyn was lovely and certainly did not want him to go quite away out of her ken. And, when she chose, she had made him very foolish about her.
What did it all mean?
He wrote a little letter in answer to hers, charmingly polite, but rather vague about Soho. At the end of it, before signing himself "Yours"—he could do no less with her letter before him—he put, "I feel rather intrigued about the living bronze. Was it in petticoats or trousers?"
Craven had been right in his supposition about the world's governess. Braybrooke had gone away from the Club that evening firmly persuaded that his young friend had done the almost unbelievable thing, had fallen in love with Adela Sellingworth. He was really perturbed about it. A tremulous sense of the fitness of things governed his whole life, presided as it were over all his actions and even over most of his thoughts. He instinctively shrank from everything that was bizarre, from everything that was, as he called it, "out of keeping." He was responsible for the introduction of young Craven into Adela Sellingworth's life. It would be very unfortunate indeed, it would be almost disastrous, if the result of that well-meant introduction were to be a preposterous passion!
When the effect of the two cocktails had subsided he tried to convince himself that he was giving way to undue anxiety, that there was really nothing in his supposition except alcohol taken in the afternoon. But this effort failed. He had lived a very long time, much longer than almost anyone knew; he was intimately familiar with the world, and, although unyieldingly discreet himself, was well acquainted with its follies and sins. Life had taught him that practically nothing is impossible. He had known old men to run—or rather to walk—off with young girls; he had known old women to be infatuated with mere boys; he had known well-born women to marry grooms and chauffeurs; a Peer of his acquaintance had linked himself to a cabman's daughter and stuck to her; chorus girls of course perpetually married into the Peerage; human passions—although he could not understand it—ran as wild as the roots of eucalyptus trees planted high within reach of water. So he could not rule out as impossible a sudden affection for Adela Sellingworth in the heart of young Craven. It was really very unfortunate. Feeling responsible, he thought perhaps he ought to do something discreetly. The question was—what?
Braybrooke was inclined to be a matchmaker, though he had neglected to make one match, his own. Thinking things over now, he said to himself that it was quite time young Craven settled down. He was a very promising fellow. Eric Learington, of whom he had made some casual inquiries during the interval between the two parts of the concert at Queen's Hall, had spoken quite warmly about Craven's abilities, industry and ambition. No doubt the young man would go far. But he ought to have a clever wife with some money to help him. A budding diplomatist needs a wife more than most men. He is destined to do much entertaining. Social matters are a part of his duty, of his career. A suitable wife was clearly indicated for young Craven. And it occurred to the world's governess that as he had apparently done harm unwittingly, or approached the doing of harm, by introducing Craven to dear Adela Sellingworth, it was incumbent on him to try to do good, if possible, by now knocking the harm on the head, of course gently, as a well-bred man does things.
Beryl Van Tuyn came into his mind.
As he had told Craven, he knew her quite well and knew all about her. She came of an excellent American family in Philadelphia. She was the only child of parents who could not get on together, and who were divorced. Both her father and mother had married again. The former lived in New York in Fifth Avenue; the latter, who was a beauty, was usually somewhere in Europe—now on the Riviera, now in Rome, at Aix, in Madrid, in London. She sometimes visited Paris, but seldom stayed long anywhere. She professed to be fond of Beryl, but the truth was that Beryl was far too good looking to be desirable as her companion. She loved her child intensely—at a distance. Beryl was quite satisfied to be at a distance, for she had a passion for independence. Her father gave her an ample allowance. Her mother had long ago unearthed Fanny Cronin from some lair in Philadelphia to be her official companion.
Braybrooke knew all this, knew about how much money Miss Van Tuyn had, and about how much she would eventually have. Without being vulgarly curious, he somehow usually got to know almost everything.
Beryl Van Tuyn would be just the wife for young Craven when she had settled down. She was too independent, too original, too daring, and far too conventional for Braybrooke's way of thinking. But he believed her to be really quite all right. Modern Americans held views about personal liberty which were not at all his, but that did not mean that they were not entirely respectable. Beryl Van Tuyn was clever, beautiful, had plenty of money. As a diplomatist's wife, when she had settled down, she would be quite in her element. After some anxious thought he decided that it was his duty to try to pull strings.
The ascertained fact that Craven had met Adela Sellingworth and Beryl Van Tuyn on the same day and together, and that the woman of sixty had evidently attracted him far more than the radiant girl of twenty-four, did not deter Braybrooke from his enterprise. His long experience of the world had led him to know that human beings can, and perpetually do, interfere successfully in each other's affairs, help in making of what are called destinies, head each other off from the prosecution of designs, in fact play Providence and the Devil to each other.
His laudable intention was to play Providence.
On the following day he considered it his social duty to pay a call at Number 18A, Berkeley Square. Dear Adela Sellingworth would certainly wish to know how things were going in Paris. Although she now never went there, and in fact never went anywhere, she still, thank God, had an interest in what was going on in the world. It would be his pleasure to gratify it.
He found her at home and alone. But before he was taken upstairs the butler said he was not sure whether her ladyship was seeing anyone and must find out. He went away to do so, and returned with an affirmative answer.
When Braybrooke came into the big drawing-room on the first floor he fancied that his friend was looking older, and even paler, than usual. As he took her hand he thought, "Can I be right? Is it possible that Craven can imagine himself in love with her?"
It was an uncomplimentary thought, and he tried to put it from him as singularly unsuitable, and indeed almost outrageous at this moment, but it would not go. It defied him and stuck firmly in his mind. In his opinion Adela Sellingworth was the most truly distinguished woman in London. But that she should attract a young man, almost indeed a boy, in that way! It did really seem utterly impossible.
In answer to his inquiry, Lady Sellingworth acknowledged that she had not been feeling very well during the last two days.
"Perhaps you have been doing too much?" he suggested.
The mocking look came into her eyes.
"But what do I ever do now?" she said. "I lie quietly on my shelf. That surely can't be very exhausting."
"No one would ever connect you with being laid on the shelf," said Braybrooke; "your personality forbids that. Besides, I hear that you have been having quite a lively time."
He paused—it was his conception of the pause dramatic—then added:
"At the foot of a volcano!"
"Ah! you have heard about Vesuvius!"
"What a marvellous gatherer of news you are! Beryl Van Tuyn?"
"No. I happened to meet young Craven at the St. James's Club, and he told me of your excursion into Bohemia."
"Bohemia!" she said. "I haven't set foot in that entertaining country since I gave up my apartment in Paris. Soho is beyond its borders. But I confess to Soho. Beryl persuaded me, and I really quite enjoyed it. The coffee was delicious, and the hairdressers put their souls into their guitars. But I doubt if I shall go there again."
"It tired you? The atmosphere in those places is so mephitic."
"Oh, I didn't mind that. Besides, we blew it away by walking home, at least part of the way home."
"Down Shaftesbury Avenue? That was surely rather dangerous."
"The sudden change from stuffiness to cold and damp. Craven spoke of Toscanas. And those cheap restaurants are so very small and badly ventilated."
"Oh, we enjoyed our walk."
"That's good. Craven was quite enthusiastic about the evening."
Again the pause dramatic!
"He's a nice boy. I hope you liked him. I feel a little responsible—"
"Do you? But why?"
"Because I ventured to introduce him to you."
"Oh, don't worry. I assure you I like him very much."
Her tone was very casual, but quite cordial.
"Well, he was enthusiastic about the evening, said it was like a bit of Italy. You know he was once at the embassy in Rome."
"Yes. He told me so."
"I hear very good accounts of him from the Foreign Office. Eric Learington speaks very well of him. He ought to rise high in the career."
"I hope he will. I like to see clever young men get on. And he certainly has something in him."
"Yes, I think so too. By the way, he seems tremendously taken with Miss Van Tuyn."
As the world's governess said this he let his small hazel eyes fix themselves rather intently on Lady Sellingworth's face. He saw no change of expression there. She still looked tired, but casual, neither specially interested nor in the least bored. Her brilliant eyes still held their slightly mocking expression.
"Beryl must be almost irresistible to young men," she said. "She combines beauty with brains, and she has the audacity which nearly always appeals to youth. Besides, unconventionality is really the salt of our over-civilized life, and she has it in abundance. She doesn't merely pretend to it. It is part of her."
"She may grow out of it in time."
"I hope she won't," said Lady Sellingworth, rather decisively. "If she did she would lose a great deal of her charm."
"Well, but when she marries?"
"Is she thinking of marrying?"
"Girls of her age usually are, I fancy."
"If she marries the right man he won't mind her unconventionality. He may even enjoy it."
It occurred to Braybrooke that Adela Sellingworth was supposed to have done a great many unconventional things at one time. Nevertheless he could not help saying:
"I think most husbands prefer their wives to keep within bounds."
"Beryl may never marry," said Lady Sellingworth, rather thoughtfully. "She is an odd girl. I could imagine—"
She paused, but not dramatically.
"Yes?" he said, with gentle insinuation.
"I could imagine her choosing to live a life of her own."
"What, like Caroline Briggs?" he said.
Lady Sellingworth moved, and her face changed, suddenly looked more expressive.
"Ah, Caroline!" she said. "I am very fond of her. She is one in a thousand. But she and Beryl are quite different in character. Caroline lives for self-respect, I think. And Beryl lives for life. Caroline refuses, but Beryl accepts with both hands."
"Then she will probably accept a husband some day."
Suddenly Lady Sellingworth changed her manner. She leaned forward towards the world's governess, smiled at him, and said, half satirically, half confidentially:
"Now what is it you have in the back of your mind?"
Braybrooke was slightly taken aback. He coughed and half closed his eyes, then gently pulled up his perfectly creased trousers, taking hold of them just above the knees.
"I really don't think—" he began.
"You and I are old friends. Do tell me."
He certainly had not come intending to be quite frank, and this sudden attack rather startled him.
"You have formed some project," she continued. "I know it. Now let me guess what it is."
"But I assure you—"
"You have found someone whom you think would suit Beryl as a husband. Isn't that it?"
"Well, I don't know. I confess it had just occurred to me that with her beauty, her cleverness, and her money—for one has to think of money, unfortunately in these difficult days—she would be a very desirable wife for a rising ambitious man."
"No doubt. And who is he?"
It was against all Braybrooke's instincts to burst out abruptly into the open. He scarcely knew what to do. But he was sufficiently sharp to realize that Lady Sellingworth already knew the answer to her question. So he made a virtue of necessity and replied:
"It had merely occurred to me, after noting young Craven's enthusiasm about her beauty and cleverness, that he might suit her very well. He must marry and marry well if he wishes to rise high in the diplomatic career."
"Oh, but some very famous diplomatists have been bachelors," she said, still smiling.
She mentioned two or three.
"Yes, yes, I know, I know," he rejoined. "But it is really a great handicap. If anyone needs a brilliant wife it is an ambassador."
"You think Mr. Craven is destined to become an ambassador?"
"I don't see why not—in the fullness of time, of course. Perhaps you don't know how ambitious and hard-working he is."
"I know really very little about him."
"His abilities are excellent. Learington has a great opinion of him."
"And so you think Beryl would suit him!"
"It just occurred to me. I wouldn't say more than that. I have a horror of matchmaking."
"Of course. Like all of us! Well, you may be right. She seemed to like him. You don't want me to do anything, I suppose?"
"Oh, no—no!" he exclaimed, with almost unnecessary earnestness, and looking even slightly embarrassed. "I only wished to know your opinion. I value your opinion so very highly."
She got up to stir the fire. He sprang, or rather got, up too, rather quickly, to forestall her. But she persisted.
"I know my poker so well," she said. "It will do things for me that it won't do for anyone else. There! That is better."
She remained standing by the hearth, looking tremendously tall.
"I don't think I have an opinion," she said. "Beryl would be a brilliant wife for any man. Mr. Craven seems a very pleasant boy. They might do admirably together. Or they might both be perfectly miserable. I can't tell. Now do tell me about Paris. Did you see Caroline Briggs?"
When Braybrooke left Berkeley Square that day he remembered having once said to Craven that Lady Sellingworth was interested in everything that was interesting except in love affairs, that she did not seem to care about love affairs. And he had a vague feeling of having, perhaps, for once done the wrong thing. Had he bored her? He hoped not. But he was not quite sure.
When he had gone, and she was once more alone. Lady Sellingworth rang the bell. A tall footman came in answer to it, and she told him that if anyone else called he was to say, "not at home." As he was about to leave the room after receiving this order she stopped him.
"Wait a moment."
"Yes, my lady."
She seemed to hesitate; then she said:
"If Mr. Craven happens to call I will see him. He was here two nights ago. Do you know him by sight?"
"I can't say I do, my lady."
"Ah! You were not in the hall when he called the other day?"
"No, my lady."
"He is tall with dark hair, about thirty years old. Murgatroyd is not in to-day, is he?"
"No, my lady."
"Then if anyone calls like the gentleman I have described just ask him his name. And if it is Mr. Craven you can let him in."
"Yes, my lady."
The footman went out. A clock chimed in the distance, where the piano stood behind the big azalea. It was half past five. Lady Sellingworth made up the fire again, though it did not really need mending; then she stood beside it with one narrow foot resting on the low fender, holding her black dress up a little with her left hand.
Was Fate going to leave her alone? That was how she put it to herself. Or was she once more to be the victim of a temperament which she had sometimes hoped was dying out of her? In these last few years she had suffered less and less from it.
She had made a grand effort of will. That was now ten years ago. It had cost her more than anyone would ever know; it had cost her those terrible tears of blood which only the soul weeps. But she had persisted in her effort. A horrible incident, humiliating her to the dust, had summoned all the pride that was left in her. In a sort of cold frenzy of will she had flung life away from her, the life of the woman who was vain, who would have worship, who would have the desire of men, the life of the beauty who would have admiration. All that she had clung to she had abandoned in that dreadful moment, had abandoned as by night a terrified being leaves a dwelling that is in flames. Feeling naked, she had gone out from it into the blackness. And for ten years she had stuck to her resolution, had been supported by the strength of her will fortified by a hideous memory. She had grasped her nettle, had pressed it to her bosom. She had taken to her all the semblance of old age, loneliness, dullness, had thrust away from her almost everything which she had formerly lived by. For, like almost all those who yield themselves to a terrific spasm of will, she had done more than it was necessary for her to do. From one extreme she had gone to another. As once she had tried to emphasize youth, she had emphasized the loss of youth. She had cruelly exposed her disabilities to an astonished world, had flung her loss of beauty, as it were, in the faces of the "old guard." She had called all men to look upon the ravages Time had brought about in her. Few women had ever done what she had done.
And eventually she had had a sort of reward. Gradually she had been enclosed by the curious tranquillity that habit, if not foolish or dangerous, brings to the human being. Her temperament, which had long been her enemy, seemed at last to lie down and sleep. There were times when she had wondered whether perhaps it would die. And she had come upon certain compensations which were definite, and which she had learnt how to value.
By slow degrees she had lost the exasperation of desire. The lust of the eye, spoken of to her by Caroline Briggs in Paris on the evening which preceded her enlightenment, had ceased to persecute her because she had taught herself deliberately the custody of the eye. She had eventually attained to self-respect, even to a quiet sense of personal dignity, not the worldly dignity of the grande dame aware of her aristocratic birth and position in the eyes of the world, but the unworldly dignity of the woman who is keeping her womanhood from all degradation, or possibility of degradation. Very often in those days she had recalled her conversation with Caroline Briggs in the Persian room of the big house in the Champs-Elysees. Caroline had spoken of the women who try to defy the natural law, and had said that they were unhappy women, laughed at by youth, even secretly jeered at. For years she, Adela Sellingworth, had been one of those women. And often she had been very unhappy. That misery at least was gone from her. Her nerves had quieted down. She who had been horribly restless had learnt to be still. Sometimes she was almost at peace. Often and often she had said to herself that Caroline was right, that the price paid by those who flung away their dignity of soul, as she had done in the past, was terrible, too terrible almost for endurance. At last she could respect herself as she was now; at last she could tacitly claim and hope to receive the respect of others. She no longer decked out her bones in jewels. Caroline did not know the reason of the great and startling change in her and in her way of life, and probably supposed both to be due to that momentous conversation. Anyhow, since then, whenever she and Lady Sellingworth had met, she had been extraordinarily kind, indeed, almost tender; and Lady Sellingworth knew that Caroline had taken her part against certain of the "old guard" who had shown almost acute animosity. Caroline Briggs now was perhaps Lady Sellingworth's best friend. For at last they were on equal terms; and that fact had strengthened their friendship. But Caroline was quite safe, and Lady Sellingworth from time to time had realized that for her life might possibly still hold peculiar dangers. There had been moments in those ten years of temptation, of struggle, of a rending of the heart and flesh, which nobody knew of but herself. But as the time went on, and habit more and more asserted its sway, they had been less and less frequent. Calm, resignation had grown within her. There was none of the peace that passeth understanding, but sometimes there was peace. But even when there was, she was never quite certain that she had absolutely conquered herself.
Men and women may not know themselves thoroughly, but they usually know very well whether they have finally got the better of a once dominating tendency or vice, or whether there is still a possibility of their becoming again its victim. In complete victory there is a knowledge which nothing can shake from its throne. That knowledge Lady Sellingworth had never possessed. She hoped, but she did not know. For sometimes, though very seldom, the old wildness seemed to stir within her like a serpent uncoiling itself after its winter's sleep. Then she was frightened and made a great effort, an effort of fear. She set her heel on the serpent, and after a time it lay still. Sometimes, too, the loneliness of her life in her spacious and beautiful house became almost intolerable to her. This was especially the case at night. She did not care to show a haggard and lined face and white hair to her world when it was at play. And though she had defied the "old guard," she did not love meeting all those women whom she knew so well, and who looked so much younger and gayer than she did. So she had many lonely evenings at home, when her servants were together below stairs, and she had for company only the fire and a book.
The dinner in Soho had been quite an experience for her, and though she had taken it so simply and casually, had seemed so thoroughly at home and in place with her feet on the sanded floor, eating to the sound of guitars, she had really been inwardly excited. And when she had looked up and seen Craven gazing towards her she had felt an odd thrill at the heart. For she had known Italy, too, as well as she had know Paris, and had memories connected with Italy. And the guitars had spoken to her of days and nights which her will told her not to think of any more.
And now? Was Fate going to leave her alone? Or was she once more going to be attacked? Something within her, no doubt woman's instinct, scented danger.
Braybrooke's visit had disturbed her. She had known him for years, and knew the type of man he was—careful, discreet, but often very busy. He had a kind heart, but a brain which sometimes wove little plots. On the whole he was a sincere man, except, of course, sometimes socially, but now and then he found it necessary to tell little lies. Had he told her a little lie that day about young Craven and Beryl Van Tuyn? Had he been weaving the first strands of a little plot—a plot like a net—and was it his intention to catch her in it? She knew he had had a definite motive in coming to see her, and that the motive was not connected with his visit to Paris.
His remarks about Craven had interested her because she was interested in Craven, but it was not quite clear to her why Braybrooke should suddenly concentrate on the young man's future, nor why he should, with so much precaution, try to get at her opinion on the question of Craven's marriage. When Braybrooke had first spoken to her of Craven he had not implied that he and Craven were specially intimate, or that he was deeply interested in Craven's concerns or prospects. He had merely told her that Craven was a clever and promising "boy," with an interesting mind and a nice nature, who had a great desire to meet her. And she had good-naturedly said that Craven might call. It had all been very casual. But Braybrooke's manner had now completely changed. He seemed to think he was almost responsible for the young man. There had even been something furtive in his demeanour when speaking about Craven to her, and when she had forced him to explain and to say what was in his mind, for a moment he had been almost confused.
What had it to do with her whether Craven married Beryl Van Tuyn or did not marry her?
Although she had been interested when Braybrooke had spoken of Craven's cleverness and energy, of his good prospects in his career, and of the appreciation of Eric Learington—a man not given to undue praises—she had been secretly irritated when he had come to the question of Beryl Van Tuyn and the importance of Craven's marrying well. Why should he marry at all? And if he must, why Beryl Van Tuyn?
Lady Sellingworth hated the thought of that marriage and the idea that Braybrooke was probably intent on trying to bring it about, or at any rate was considering whether he should make the endeavour, roused in her resentment against him.
"Tiresome old man!" she said to herself, as she stood by the fire. "Why won't he let things alone? What business is it of his?"
And then she felt as if Braybrooke were meditating a stroke against her, and had practically asked her to help him in delivering the blow.
She felt that definitely. And immediately she had felt it she was startled, and the strong sensation of being near to danger took hold of her.
In all the ten years which had passed since the theft of her jewels she had never once deliberately stretched out her hands to happiness. Palliatives she had made the most of; compensations she had been thankful for. She had been very patient, and considering what she had been, very humble. But she had definitely given up the thought of ever knowing again any intimate personal happiness. That book was closed. In ten years she had never once tried to open it.
And now, suddenly, without even being definitely conscious of what she was doing, she had laid her hands on it as if—The change in her, the abrupt and dangerous change, had surely come about two nights ago. And she felt now that something peculiar in Craven, rather than something unusual in herself, had caused it.
Beryl Van Tuyn and she were friends because the girl had professed a cult for her, had been very charming to her, and, when in London, had persistently sought her out. Beryl had amused her. She had even been interested in Beryl because she had noted in her certain traits which had once been predominant in herself. And how she had understood Beryl's vanity, Beryl's passion for independence and love of the unconventional! Although they were so different, of different nations and different breeds, there was something which made them akin. And she had recognized it. And, recognizing it, she had sometimes felt a secret pity and even fear for the girl, thinking of the inevitable fading of that beauty, of the inevitable exasperation of that vanity with the passing of the years. The vanity would grow and the beauty would diminish as time went on. And then, some day, what would Beryl be? For in her vanity there was already exaggeration. In it she had already reached a stage which had only been gained by Lady Sellingworth at a much later period in life. Already she looked in the highways and byways for admiration. She sought for it even among Italian hairdressers! Some day it would make her suffer.
Lady Sellingworth had seen young Craven go away from his visit to her in Beryl's company with perhaps just a touch of half-ironical amusement, mingled with just a touch of half-wistful longing for the days that were over and done with. She knew so well that taking possession of a handsome young man on a first meeting. There was nothing in it but vanity. She had known and had done that sort of thing when she was a reigning beauty. Craven had interested and pleased her at once; she hardly knew why. There was something about him, about his look, bearing and manner which was sympathetic to her. She had felt a quiet inclination to know more of him. That was all. Seymour Portman had liked him, too, and had said so when the door had closed behind the young couple, leaving the old couple to themselves. He would come again some day, no doubt. And while she and Sir Seymour had remained by the fire talking quietly together, in imagination she had seen those two, linked by their youth—that wonderful bond—walking through the London twilight, chattering gaily, laughing at trifling jokes, realizing their freemasonry. And she had asked herself why it was that she could not feel that other freemasonry—of age. Seymour Portman had loved her for many years, loved her now, had never married because of her, would give up anything in London just to be quietly with her, would marry her now, ravaged though she was, worn, twice a widow, with a past behind her which he must know about, and which was not edifying. And yet she could not love him, partly, perhaps chiefly, because there was still rooted in her that ineradicable passion—it must be that, even now, a passion—for youth and the fascination of youth. When at last he had gone she had felt unusually bitter for a few minutes, had asked herself, as human beings ask themselves every day, the eternal why. "Why, why, why am I as I am? Why can't I care for the suitable? Why can't I like the gift held out to me? Why doesn't my soul age with my body? Why must I continue to be lonely just because of the taint in my nature which forbids me to find companionship in one who finds perfect companionship in me? Why—to sum up—am I condemned eternally to be myself?"
There was no answer. The voice was not in the whirlwind. And presently she had dismissed those useless, those damnable questions, which only torture because they are never answered.
And then had come the night in Soho. And there for the first time since they had known each other she had felt herself to be subtly involved in a woman's obscure conflict with Beryl Van Tuyn. She was not conscious of having taken up weapons. Nevertheless she had no doubt about the conflict. And on her side any force brought into play against her beautiful friend must have issued simply from her personality, from some influence, perhaps from some charm, which she had not deliberately used. (At least she thought she was being sincere with herself in telling herself that.) Craven had been the cause of the conflict, and certainly he had been fully aware of Beryl Van Tuyn's part in it. And he had shown quiet determination, willfulness even. That willfulness of his had pleased Lady Sellingworth more than anything had pleased her for a very long time. It had even touched her. At first she had thought that perhaps it had been prompted by chivalry, by something charmingly old-fashioned, and delicately gentlemanly in Craven. Later on she had been glad—intimately, warmly glad—to be quite sure that something more personal had guided him in his conduct that night.
He had simply preferred her company to the company of Beryl Van Tuyn. She was woman enough to rejoice in that fact. It was even rather wonderful to her. And it had given Craven a place in her estimation which no one had had for ten years.
Beryl's pressure upon him had been very definite. She had practically told him, and asked him, to do a certain thing—to finish the evening with her. And he had practically denied her right to command, and refused her request. He had preferred to the Georgians and their lively American contemporary, sincerely preferred, an Edwardian.
The compliment was the greater because the Edwardian had not encouraged him. Indeed in a way he had really defied her as well as Beryl Van Tuyn.
She had loved his defiance. When he had flatly told her he did not intend to go back to the Cafe Royal she had felt thankful to him—just that. And just before his almost boyish remark, made with genuine vexation in his voice, about the driving of London chauffeurs had given her a little happy thrill such as she had not known for years.
She had not had the heart to leave him on her doorstep.
But now, standing by the fire, she knew that it would have been safer to have left him there. And it would be safer now to ring the bell, summon the footman, and say that she was not at home to anyone that afternoon. While she was thinking this the footman entered the room. Hearing him she turned sharply.
"What is it?"
"Sir Seymour Portman has called, my lady. I told him you were not at home. But he asked me to make quite sure."
Lady Sellingworth hesitated. After a moment's pause she said, in a dry voice:
"Not at home."
The footman went out.
There are moments in life which are full of revelation. That was such a moment for Lady Sellingworth. When she had heard the door open her instinct had played her false. She had turned sharply feeling certain that Craven had called. The reaction she felt when she heard the name of Sir Seymour told her definitely that she was in danger. She felt angry with herself, even disgusted, as well as half frightened.
"What a brute I am!"
She formed those words with her lips. An acute sense of disappointment pervaded her because Craven had not come, though she had no reason whatever to expect him. But she was angry because of her feeling about Seymour Portman. It was horrible to have such a tepid heart as hers was when such a long and deep devotion was given to it. The accustomed thing then made scarcely any impression upon her, while the thing that was new, untried, perhaps worth very little, excited in her an expectation which amounted almost to longing!
"How can Seymour go on loving such a woman as I am?" she thought.
Stretching herself a little she was able to look into an oval Venetian mirror above the high marble frame of the fireplace. She looked to scourge herself as punishment for what she was feeling.
"You miserable, ridiculous old woman!" she said to herself, as she saw her lined face which the mirror, an antique one, slightly distorted.
"You ought to be thankful to have such a friendship as Seymour's!"
She said that, and she knew that if, disobeying her order to the footman, he had come upstairs, her one desire would have been to get rid of him, at all costs, to get him and his devotion out of the house, lest Craven should come and she should not have Craven alone. If Seymour knew that surely even his love would turn into hatred!
And if Craven knew!
She felt that day as if all the rampart of will, which ten years' labour had built up between her and the dangers and miseries attendant upon such a temperament as hers, were beginning before her eyes to crumble into dust, touched by the wand of a maleficent enchanter.
And it was Craven's fault. He should have been like other young men, obedient to the call of beauty and youth; he should have been wax in Beryl Van Tuyn's pretty hands. Then this would never have happened, this crumbling of will. He had done a cruel thing without being aware of his cruelty. He had been carried away by something that was not primarily physical. And in yielding to that uncommon impulse, which proved that he was not typical, he had set in activity, in this hidden and violent activity, that which had been sleeping so deeply as to seem like something dead.
As Lady Sellingworth looked into the Venetian mirror, which made her ugliness of age look uglier than it was, she regretted sharply that she had allowed herself to grow old in this fearfully definite way. It was too horrible to look like this and to be waiting eagerly, with an almost deceiving eagerness, for the opening of a door, a footfall, the sound of a voice that was young. Mrs. Ackroyd, Lady Archie Brook—they looked surely twenty years younger than she did. She had been a fool! She had been a passionate, impulsive fool!
No; she was being a fool now.
If only Caroline Briggs were in London! At that moment Lady Sellingworth longed to be defended against herself. She felt that she was near to the edge of a precipice, but that perhaps a strong hand could pull her away from it into the safety she had known for ten years.
"I am sixty. That settles it. There is nothing to be excited about, nothing to look for, nothing to draw back from or refuse. The fact that I am sixty and look as I do settles the whole matter."
They were brave words, but unfortunately they altered nothing. Feeling was untouched by them. Even conviction was not attained. Lady Sellingworth knew she was sixty, but she felt like a woman of thirty at that moment. And yet she was not deceived, was not deceiving herself. She did know—or felt that she absolutely knew—that the curious spell she had evidently been able, how she scarcely knew, to exert upon Craven during his visit to her that night could not possibly be lasting. He must be a quite unusual young man, perhaps even in some degree abnormal. But even so the fascination he had felt, and had shown that he felt, could not possibly be a lasting fascination. In such matters she knew.
Therefore surely the way was plain before her. Ten years ago she had made up her mind, as a woman seldom makes up her mind. She had seen facts, basic facts, naked in a glare of light. Those facts had not changed. But she had changed. She was ten years older. The horror of passing into the fifties had died out in the cold resignation of passing into the sixties. Any folly now would be ten times more foolish than a folly of ten years ago. She told herself that, reiterated it.
The clock struck six. She heard it and turned from the fire. Certainly Craven would not call now. It was too late. Only a very intimate friend would be likely to call after six o'clock, and Craven was not a very intimate friend, but only a new acquaintance whom she had been with twice. When he had said good-bye to her after their long talk by the fire on the night of the dinner in Soho she had said nothing about his coming again. And he had not mentioned it. But she had felt then that to speak of such a thing was quite unnecessary, that it was tacitly understood between them that of course he would come again, and soon. And she believed that he had felt as she did. For despite her self-mockery, and even now when looking back, she had known, and still knew, that they had gone quite a long way together in a very short time.
That happens sometimes; but perhaps very seldom when one of the travellers is sixty and the other some thirty years younger. Surely something peculiar in Craven rather than something unusual in herself had been at the root of the whole thing.
That night he had seemed so oddly at home in her house, and really he had seemed so happy and at ease. They had talked about Italy, and he had told her what Italy meant to him, quite simply and without any pose, forgetting to be self-conscious in the English way. He had passed a whole summer on the bay of Naples, and he had told her all about it. And in the telling he had revealed a good deal of himself. The prelude in Soho had no doubt prepared the way for such talk by carrying them to Naples on wings of music. They would not have talked just like that after a banal dinner at Claridge's or the Carlton. Craven had shown the enthusiasm that was in him for the sun, the sea, life let loose from convention, nature and beautiful things. The Foreign Office young man—quiet, reserved, and rather older than his years—had been pushed aside by a youth who had some Pagan blood in him, who had some agreeable wildness under the smooth surface which often covers only other layers of smoothness. He had told her of his envy of the sea people and she had understood it; and, in return, she had told him of an American boy whom she had known long ago, and who, fired by a book about life on the bay of Naples which he had read in San Francisco, had got hold of a little money, taken ship to Naples, gone straight to the point at Posilpipo, and stayed there among the fishermen for nearly two years, living their life, eating their food, learning to speak their argot, becoming at length as one of them. So thoroughly indeed had he identified himself with them that often he had acted as boatman to English and American tourists, and never had his nationality been discovered. In the end, of course, he had gone back to San Francisco, and she believed, was now a lawyer in California. But at least he had been wise enough to give up two years to a whim, and had bared his skin to the sun for two glorious summers. And not everyone has the will to adventure even so far as that.
Then they had talked about the passion for adventure, and Craven had spoken of his love, not yet lost, for Browning's poem, "Waring"; how he had read it when quite a boy and been fascinated by it as by few other poems. He had even quoted some lines from it, and said them well, taking pains and not fearing any criticism or ridicule from her. And they had wondered whether underneath the smooth surface of Browning, the persistent diner out, there had not been far down somewhere a brown and half-savage being who, in some other existence, had known life under lateen sails on seas that lie beyond the horizon line of civilization. And they had spoken of the colours of sails, of the red, the brown, the tawny orange-hued canvases, that, catching the winds under sunset skies, bring romance, like some rare fruit from hidden magical islands, upon emerald, bright-blue or indigo seas.
The talk had run on without any effort. They had been happily sunk in talk. She had kept the fire from her face with the big fan. But the fire had lit his face up sometimes and the flames had seemed to leap in his eyes. And watching him without seeming to watch him the self-mockery had died out of her eyes. She had forgotten to mock at herself and had let herself go down the stream: floating from subject to subject, never touching bottom, never striking the bank, never brought up short by an obstacle. It had been a perfect conversation. Even her imp must have been quite absorbed in it. For he had not tormented her during it.
But at last the clock had struck one, just one clear chiming blow. And suddenly Craven had started up. His blue eyes were shining and a dusky red had come into his cheeks. And he had apologized, had said something about being "carried away" beyond all recollection of the hour. She had stayed where she was and had bidden him good night quietly from the sofa, shutting up her fan and laying it on a table. And she had said: "I wonder what it was like with the Georgians!" And then he had again forgotten the hour, and had stood there talking about the ultra-modern young people of London as if he were very far away from them, were much older, much simpler, even much more akin to her, than they were. He had prefaced his remarks with the words, "I had forgotten all about them!" and she had felt it was true. Beryl Van Tuyn's name had not been mentioned between them. But she was not a Georgian. Perhaps that fact accounted for the omission, or perhaps there were other reasons for their not speaking of her just then. She had done her best to prevent the evening intimacy which had been theirs. And they both knew it. Perhaps that was why they did not speak of her. Poor Beryl! Just then Lady Sellingworth had known a woman's triumph which was the sweeter because of her disadvantages. Thirty-six years older than the young and vivid beauty! And yet he had preferred to end his evening with her! He must be an unusual, even perhaps a rather strange man. Or else—no, the tremendous humiliation she had endured ten years ago, acting on a nature which had always been impaired by a secret diffidence, had made her too humble to believe any longer that she had within herself the conqueror's power. He was not like other young men. That was it. She had come upon an exceptional nature. Exceptional natures love, hate, are drawn and repelled in exceptional ways. The rules which govern others do not apply to them. Craven was dangerous because he was, he must be, peculiar.
When at last he had left her that night it had been nearly half-past one. But he had not apologized again. In going he had said: "Thank God you refused to go to the Cafe Royal!"
Nearly half-past one! Lady Sellingworth now looked at the clock. It was nearly half-past six.
She had a lonely dinner, a lonely evening before her.
Suddenly all her resignation seemed to leave her, to abandon her, as if it had had enough of her and could not bear to be with her for another minute. She saw her life as a desert, without one flower, one growing green thing in it. How had she been able to endure it for so long? It was a monstrous injustice that she should be condemned to this horrible, unnerving loneliness. What was the use of living if one was entirely alone? What was the use of money, of a great and beautiful house, of comfort and leisure, if nobody shares them with you? People came to see her, of course. But what is the use of visitors, of people who drop in, and drop out just when you most need someone to help you in facing life, in the evenings and when deep night closes in? At that moment she felt, in her anger and rebellion, that she had never had anything in her life, that all the women she knew—except perhaps Caroline Briggs—had had more than herself, had had a far better time than she had had. During the last ten years her brilliant past had faded until now she could scarcely believe in it. It had become like a pale aquarelle. Her memory retained events, of course, but they seemed to have happened in the life of someone she had known intimately rather than of herself. They were to her like things told rather than like things lived. There were times when she even felt innocent. So much had she changed during the last ten years. And now she revolted, like a woman who had never lived and wanted to live for the first time, like a woman who had never had anything and who demanded possession. She even got up and stood out in the big room, saying to herself:
"What shall I do to-night? I can't stay here all alone. I must go out. I must do something unusual to take me out of myself. Mere stagnation here will drive me mad. I've got to do something to get away from myself."
But what could she do? An elderly well-known woman cannot break out of her house in the night, like an unknown young man, and run wild in the streets of London, or wander in the parks, seeking distractions and adventures.
Ten years ago in Paris she had felt something of the same angry desire for the freedom of a man, something of the same impotence. Her curbed wildness then had tortured her. It tortured her now. Life was in violent activity all about her. Even the shop girls had something to look forward to. Soon they would be going out with their lovers. She knew something of the freedom of the modern girl. Women were beginning to take what men had always had. But all that freedom was too late for her! (She forgot that she had taken it long ago in Paris and felt that she had never had it. And that feeling made part of her anger.)
The clock struck the half-hour.
Just then the door was opened and the footman appeared before she had had time to move. He looked faintly surprised at seeing her standing facing him in the middle of the room.
"Mr. Craven has called my lady."
"Mr. Craven! But I told you to let him in. Have you sent him away?"
"No, my lady. But Mr. Craven wouldn't come up till I had seen your ladyship. He said it was so late. He asked me first to tell your ladyship he had called, and whether he might see you just for a minute, as he had a message to give your ladyship."
"A message! Please ask him to come up."
The footman went out, and Lady Sellingworth went to sit down near the fire. She now looked exactly as usual, casual, indifferent, but kind, not at all like a woman who would ever pity herself. In a moment the footman announced "Mr. Craven," and Craven walked in with an eager but slightly anxious expression on his face.
"I know it is much too late for a visit," he said. "But I thought I might perhaps just speak to you."
"Of course. I hear you have a message for me. Is it from Beryl?"
He looked surprised.
"Miss Van Tuyn? I haven't seen her."
"I only wanted—I wondered whether, if you are not doing anything to-night, I could persuade you to give me a great pleasure. . . . Could I?"
"But what is it?"
"Would you dine with me at the Bella Napoli?"
Lady Sellingworth thought of the shop girls again, but now how differently!
"I would come and call for you just before eight. It's a fine night. It's dry, and it will be clear and starry."
"You want me to walk?"
He slightly reddened.
"Or shall we dress and go in a taxi?" he said.
"No, no. But I haven't said I can come."
His face fell.
"I will come," she said. "And we will walk. But what would Mr. Braybrooke say?"
"Have you seen him? Has he told you?"
"About our conversation in the club?"
"I have seen him, and I don't think he is quite pleased about Shaftesbury Avenue. But never mind. I cannot live to please Mr. Braybrooke. Au revoir. Just before eight."
When he had gone Lady Sellingworth again looked in the glass.
"But it's impossible!" she said to herself. "It's impossible!"
She hated her face at that moment, and could not help bitterly regretting the fierce impulse of ten years ago. If she had not yielded to that impulse she might now have been looking, not at a young woman certainly, but a woman well preserved. Now she was frankly a wreck. She would surely look almost grotesque dining alone with young Craven. People would think she was his grandmother. Perhaps it would be better not to go. She was filled with a sense of painful hesitation. She came away from the glass. No doubt Craven was "on the telephone." She might communicate with him, tell him not to come, that she had changed her mind, did not feel very well. He would not believe her excuse whatever it was, but that could not be helped. Anything was better than to make a spectacle of herself in a restaurant. She had not put Craven's address and telephone number in her address book, but she might perhaps have kept the note he had written to her before their first meeting. She did not remember having torn it up. She went to her writing-table, but could not find the note. She found his card, but it had only his club address on it. Then she went downstairs to a morning room she had on the ground floor. There was another big writing-table there. The telephone was there too. After searching for several minutes she discovered Craven's note, the only note he had ever written to her. Stamped in the left-hand corner of the notepaper was a telephone number.
She was about to take down the receiver when she remembered that Craven had not yet had time to walk back to his flat from her house, even if he were going straight home. She must wait a few minutes. She came away from the writing-table, sat down in an armchair, and waited.
Night had closed in. Heavy curtains were drawn across the tall windows. One electric lamp, which she had just turned on, threw a strong light on the writing-table, on pens, stationery, an address book, a telephone book, a big blue-and-gold inkstand, some photographs which stood on a ledge protected by a tiny gilded rail. The rest of the room was in shadow. A low fire burned in the grate.
Lady Sellingworth did not take up a book or occupy herself in any way. She just sat still in the armchair and waited. Now and then she heard a faint footfall, the hoot of a motor horn, the slight noise of a passing car. And loneliness crept upon her like something gathering her into a cold and terrible embrace.
It occurred to her that she might ask Craven presently through the telephone to come and dine in Berkeley Square. No one would see her with him if she did that, except her own servants.
But that would be a compromise. She was not fond of compromises. Better one thing or the other. Either she would go with him to the restaurant or she would not see him at all that night.
If Caroline Briggs were only here! And yet if she were it would be difficult to speak about the matter to her. If she were told of it, what would she say? That would depend upon how she was told. If she were told all the truth, not mere incidents, but also the feelings attending them, she would tell her friend to give the whole thing up. Caroline was always drastic. She always went straight to the point.
But Caroline was in Paris.
Lady Sellingworth looked at her watch. Craven lived not far off. He might be at home by now. But perhaps she had better give him, and herself, a little more time. For she was still undecided, did not yet know what she was going to do. Impulse drove her on, but something else, reason perhaps, or fear, or secret, deep down, painfully acquired knowledge, was trying to hold her back. She remembered her last stay in Paris, her hesitation then, her dinner with Caroline Briggs, the definite decision she had come to, her effort to carry it out, the terrible breakdown of her decision at the railway station and its horrible result.
Disaster had come upon her because she had yielded to an impulse ten years ago. Surely that should teach her not to yield to an impulse now. But the one was so different from the other, as different as that horrible man in Paris had been from young Craven. That horrible man in Paris! He had disappeared out of her life. She had never seen him again, had never mentioned him to anybody. He had gone, as mysteriously as he had come, carrying his booty with him, all those lovely things which had been hers, which she had worn on her neck and arms and bosom, in her hair and on her hands. Sometimes she had wondered about him, about the mentality and the life of such a man as he was, a creature of the underworld, preying on women, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, with thoughts of crime in his mind, using his gift of beauty loathsomely. She had wondered, too, how it was that such loathsomeness as his was able to hide itself, how it was that he could look so manly, so athletic, even so wistful and eager for sympathy.
But Seymour Portman had seen through him at a first glance. Evidently that type of man had a power to trick women's instincts, but was less successful with men. Perhaps Caroline was right, and the whole question was simply one of the lust of the eye.
Young Craven was good-looking too. But surely she had not been attracted to him, brought into sympathy with him merely because of that. She hoped not. She tried hard to think not. A woman of her age must surely be beyond the lure of mere looks in a man unconnected with the deeper things which make up personality.
And yet ten years ago she had been lured towards a loathsome and utterly abominable personality by mere looks. Certainly her nature inclined her to be a prey to just that—the lust of the eye.
(Caroline Briggs was horribly apposite in some of her remarks.)
She tried to reconstitute her evenings with Craven in her imagination, keeping the conversation exactly as it had been, but giving him a thoroughly plain face, a bad complexion, mouse-coloured feeble hair, undistinguished features, ordinary eyes, and a short broad figure. Certainly it would have made a difference. But how much difference? Perhaps a good deal. But he had enjoyed the conversation as much as she had, and there was nothing in her appearance now to arouse the lust of the eye. Suddenly it occurred to her that she possessed now at least one advantage. If a young man were attracted by her it must be her personality, herself in fact, which attracted him. It could not be her looks. And surely it is better to attract by your personality than by your looks.
A woman's voice whispered within her just then, "It is better to attract by both. Then you are safe."
She moved uneasily. Then she got up and went to the telephone. The chances were in favour of Craven's being in his flat by now.
As she put her hand on the receiver, but before she took it down, Lady Sellingworth thought of the Paris railway station, of what had happened there, of the stern resolution she had come to that day, of the tears of blood that had sealed it, of the will that had enabled her to stick to it during ten years. And she thought, too, of that phrase of Caroline Briggs's concerning the lust of the eye.
"I won't go!" she said to herself.
And she took the receiver down.
Almost immediately she was put through, and heard Craven's voice at the other end, the voice which had recited those lines from Browning's "Waring" by the fire, saying:
"Yes? Who is it?"
"Lady Sellingworth," she replied.
The sound of the voice changed at once, became eager as it said:
"Oh—Lady Sellingworth! I have only just come in. I know what it is."
"But how can you?"
"I do. You want me to dress for dinner. And we are to go in a cab and be very respectable instead of Bohemian. Isn't that it?"
She hesitated. Then she said:
"No; it isn't that."
"Do tell me then!"
"I think—I'm afraid I can't come."
"Oh, no—it can't be that! But I have reserved the table in the corner for us. And we are going to have gnocchi done in a special way with cheese. Gnocchi with cheese! Please—please don't disappoint me."
"But I haven't been very well the last two days, and I'm rather afraid of the cold."
"I am so sorry. But it's absolutely dry under foot. I swear it is!"
A pause. Then his voice added:
"Since I came in I have refused an invitation to dine out to-night. I absolutely relied on you."
"Yes. It was from Miss Van Tuyn, to dine with her at the Bella Napoli."
"I'll come!" said Lady Sellingworth. "Good-bye."
And she put up the receiver.
Miss Van Tuyn had not intended to stay long in London when she came over from Paris. But now she changed her mind. She was pulled at by three interests—Lady Sellingworth, Craven and the living bronze. A cold hand had touched her vanity on the night of the dinner in Soho. She had felt angry with Craven for not coming back to the Cafe Royal, and angrier still with Lady Sellingworth for keeping him with her. Although she did not positively know that Craven had spent the last part of the evening in the drawing-room at Berkeley Square, she felt certain that he had done so. Probably Lady Sellingworth had pressed him to go in. But perhaps he had been glad to go, perhaps he had submitted to an influence which had carried him for the time out of his younger, more beautiful friend's reach.
Miss Van Tuyn resolved definitely that Craven must at once be added to the numerous men who were mad about her. So much was due to her vanity. Besides, she liked Craven, and might grow to like him very much if she knew him better. She decided to know him better, much better, and wrote her letter to him. Craven had puzzled a little over the final sentence of that letter. There were two reasons for its apparently casual insertion. Miss Van Tuyn wished to whip Craven into alertness by giving his male vanity a flick. Her other reason was more subtle. Some instinct seemed to tell her that in the future she might want to use the stranger as a weapon in connexion with Craven. She did not know how exactly. But in that sentence of her letter she felt that she was somehow preparing the ground for incidents which would be brought about by destiny, or which chance would allow to happen.
That she would some day know "the living bronze" she felt certain. For she meant to know him. Garstin's brutal comment on him had frightened her. She did not believe it to be just. Garstin was always brutal in his comments. And he lived so perpetually among shady, or more than shady, people that it was difficult for him to believe in the decency of anybody who was worth knowing. For him the world seemed to be divided into the hopelessly dull and conventional, who did not count, and the definitely outrageous, who were often interesting and worthy of being studied and sometimes painted. It must be obvious to anyone that the living bronze could not be numbered among the merely dull and conventional. Naturally enough, then, Garstin supposed him to be a successful blackmailer. Miss Van Tuyn was not going to allow herself to be influenced by the putrescence of Garstin's mind. She had her own views on everything and usually held to them. She had quite decided that she would get to know the living bronze through Garstin, who always managed to know anyone he was interested in. Being totally unconventional and not, as he said, caring a damn about the proprieties, if he wished to speak to someone he spoke to him, if he wished to paint him he told him to come along to the studio. There was a simplicity about Garstin's methods which was excused in some degree by his fame. But if he had not been famous he would have acted in just the same way. No shyness hindered him; no doubts about himself ever assailed him. He just did what he wanted to do without arriere pensee. There was certainly strength in Garstin, although it was not moral strength.
The morning after the dinner in Soho Miss Van Tuyn telegraphed to Fanny Cronin to come over at once, with Bourget's latest works, and engaged an apartment at Claridge's. Although she sometime dined in the shadow of Vesuvius, she preferred to issue forth from some lair which was unmistakably smart and comfortable. Claridge's was both, and everybody came there. Miss Cronin wired obedience and would be on the way immediately. Meanwhile Miss Van Tuyn received Craven's note in answer to hers.
She grasped all its meaning, surface and subterranean, immediately. It meant a very polite, very carefully masked, withdrawal from the sphere of her influence. The passage about Soho was perfectly clear to her mind, although to many it might have seemed to convey an agreeably worded acceptance of her suggestion, only laying its translation into action in a rather problematical future, the sort of future which would become present when "neither of us has an engagement."
Craven had evidently been "got at" by Adela Sellingworth.
On the morning after Miss Van Tuyn's telegram to Paris Fanny Cronin arrived, with Bourget's latest book in her hand, and later they settled in at Claridge's. Miss Cronin went to bed, and Miss Van Tuyn, who had no engagement for that evening, went presently to the telephone. Although in her note to Craven by implication she had left it to him to suggest a tete-a-tete dinner in Soho, she was now resolved to ask him. She was a girl of the determined modern type, not much troubled by the delicacies or inclined to wait humbly on the pleasure of men. If a man did not show her the way, she was quite ready to show the way to him. Without being precisely of the huntress type, she knew how to take bow and arrow in her hand.
She rang up Craven, and the following dialogue took place at the telephone.
"Is Mr. Craven there?"
"Yes, I am Alick Craven. Who is it, please?"
"Don't you know?"
"One minute! Is it—I'm afraid I don't."
"Beryl Van Tuyn."
"Of course! I knew the voice at once, but somehow I couldn't place it. How are you, Miss Van Tuyn?"
"I'm what dull people call very fit and cheery."
"How dreadful! Now, tell me—are you engaged to-night? I'm sure you aren't, because I want you to take me to dine at the Bella Napoli. We agreed to tell each other when we were free. So I take you at your word."
"Oh, I'm awfully sorry!"
"I'm ever so sorry."
"I have a dinner engagement to-night."
"What a bore! But surely you can get out of it?"
"I'm afraid not. No, really I can't."
"Send an excuse! Say you are ill."
"I can't honestly. It's—it's rather important. Besides, the fact is, I'm the host."
The timbre of Miss Van Tuyn's voice changed slightly at this crisis in the conversation.
"Oh—if you're the host, of course. . . . You really are the host?"
"Yes, I really am. So you see!"
"No, but I hear and understand. Never mind. Ask me another night."
"Yes—that's it. Another night. Thank you so much. By the way, does the living bronze—"
"What? The living what?"
"Bronze! . . . The living bronze—"
"Oh, yes. Well, what about it?"
"Does it wear petticoats or trousers?"
"Then I think I rather hate it."
But at this point the exchange intervened. Then something happened; and then Craven heard a voice saying:
"No, darling! It's the teeth—the teeth on the left-hand side. You know when we were at the Carlton I was in agony. Tell Annie not to—"
It was useless to persist. Besides, he did not want to. So he put up the receiver. Almost immediately afterwards he was rung up by Lady Sellingworth, hung on the edge of disappointment for an instant, and then was caught back into happiness.
When he finally left the telephone and went to his bedroom to change his clothes, but not to "dress," he thanked God for having clinched matters so swiftly. Lady Sellingworth had certainly meant to let him down. Some instinct had told him what to say to her to make her change her mind. At least, he supposed so. For she had abruptly changed her mind after hearing of Miss Van Tuyn's invitation. But why had she meant to give up the dinner? What had happened between his exit from her house and her ringing him up? For he could not believe in the excuse of ill-health put forward by her. He was puzzled. Women certainly were difficult to understand. But it was all right now. His audacity—for he thought it rather audacious of him to have asked Lady Sellingworth to dine alone with him at the Bella Napoli—was going to be rewarded. As he changed his clothes he hummed to himself:
"O Napoli! Bella Napoli!"
At Claridge's meanwhile Miss Van Tuyn was not humming. As she came away from the telephone she felt in a very bad temper. Things were not going well for her just now in London, and she was accustomed to things going well. As in Craven's letter, so just now at the telephone, she had been aware of resistance, of a distinct holding back from her influence. This was a rare experience for her, and she resented it. She believed Craven's excuse for not dining with her. It was incredible that a young man who had nothing to do would refuse to pass an evening in her company. No; he was engaged. But she had felt at the telephone that he was not sorry he was engaged; she still felt it. He was going to do something which he preferred doing to dining with her. The tell-tale line showed itself in her low white forehead.
Fanny Cronin had gone to bed; otherwise they might have dined downstairs in the restaurant, where they would have been sure of meeting people whom Miss Van Tuyn knew. She did not choose to go down and dine alone. A lonely dinner followed by a lonely evening upstairs did not appeal to her; for a moment, like Lady Sellingworth in Berkeley Square, she felt the oppression of solitude. She went to the window of her sitting-room, drew the curtain back, pulled aside the blind, and looked out. The night was going to be fine; the sky was clear and starry; the London outside drew her. For a moment she thought of telephoning to Garstin to come out somewhere and dine with her. He was rude to her, seldom paid her a compliment, and never made love to her. But he was famous and interesting. They could always get on in a tete-a-tete conversation. And then there was now that link between them of the living bronze and her plan with which Garstin was connected. She meant to know that man; she meant it more strongly now that Craven was behaving so strangely. She dropped the blind, drew the curtains forward, went to the fire, and lit a cigarette.
She wondered where Craven was dining. At some delightful restaurant with someone he liked very much. She was quite sure of that; or—perhaps he had told her a lie! Perhaps he was dining at Number 18A, Berkeley Square! Suddenly she felt certain that she had hit on the truth. That was it! He was dining in Berkeley Square with Adela Sellingworth. They were going to have another evening together. Possessed by this conviction, and acting on an almost fierce impulse—for her vanity was now suffering severely—she went again to the telephone and rang up Lady Sellingworth. When she was put through, and heard the characteristic husky voice of her so-called friend at the other end of the line, she begged Lady Sellingworth to come and dine at Claridge's that night and have a quiet talk over things. As she had expected, she got a refusal. Lady Sellingworth was engaged. Miss Van Tuyn, with a discreet half-question, half-expression of disappointment, elicited the fact that Lady Sellingworth was dining out, not having people at home. The conversation concluded at both ends with charming expressions of regret, and promises to be together as soon as was humanly possible.
Again Miss Van Tuyn believed an excuse; again her instinct told her that she had invited someone to dine who was glad to be engaged. There was only one explanation of the two happy refusals. She was now absolutely positive that Lady Sellingworth and Craven were going to dine together, and not in Berkeley Square, and Craven was going to be the host, as he had said. He had invited Lady Sellingworth to go out and dine somewhere alone with him, and she had consented to do so. Where would they go? She thought of the Bella Napoli. It was very unlikely that they would meet anyone there whom they both knew, and they had met at the Bella Napoli. Perhaps they—or perhaps she—had romantic recollections connected with it! Perhaps they had arranged the other evening to dine there again—and without Beryl Van Tuyn this time! If so, the intervention at the telephone must have seemed an ironic stroke to them both.
For a moment Miss Van Tuyn's injured vanity made her feel as if they were involved in a plot directed against her and her happiness, as if they had both behaved abominably to her. She had always been so charming to Lady Sellingworth, had always praised her, had taken her part, had even had quite a cult for her! It was very disgusting. It showed Miss Van Tuyn how right she had been in generally cultivating men instead of women. For, of course, Craven could not get out of things with an experienced rusee woman of the world like Adela Sellingworth. Women of that type always knew how to "corner" a man, especially if he were young and had decent instincts. Poor Craven!
But at the telephone Miss Van Tuyn had felt that Craven was glad to be engaged that evening, that he was looking forward to something.
After sitting still for a few minutes, always with the tell-tale line in her forehead, Miss Van Tuyn got up with an air of purpose. She went to a door at the end of the sitting-room, opened it, crossed a lobby, opened double doors, and entered a bedroom in which a large, mild-looking woman, with square cheeks, chestnut-coloured smooth hair, large, chestnut-coloured eyes under badly painted eyebrows, and a mouth with teeth that suggested a very kind and well-meaning rabbit, was lying in bed with a cup and a pot of camomile tea beside her, and Bourget's "Mensonges" in her hand. This was Fanny Cronin, originally from Philadelphia, but now largely French in a simple and unpretending way. The painted eyebrows must not be taken as evidence against her. They were the only artificiality of which Miss Cronin was guilty; and as an unkind fate had absolutely denied her any eyebrows of her own, she had conceived it only decent to supply their place.
"I've got back to 'Mensonges,' Beryl," she said, as she saw Miss Van Tuyn. "After all, there's nothing like it. It bites right into one, even on a third reading."
"Dear old Fanny! I'm so glad you're being bitten into. I know how you love it, and I'm not going to disturb you. I only came to tell you that I'm going out this evening, and may possibly come back late."
"I hope you will enjoy yourself, dear, and meet pleasant people."
Miss Cronin was thoroughly well trained, and seldom asked any questions. She had long ago been carefully taught that the duty of a dame de compagnie consisted solely in being alive in a certain place—the place selected for her by the person she was dame de compagnie to. It was, after all, an easy enough profession so long as a beneficent Providence permitted your heart to beat and your lungs to function. The place at present was Claridge's Hotel. She had nothing to do except to lie comfortably in bed there. And this small feat, well within her competence, she was now accomplishing with complete satisfaction to herself. She took a happy sip of her camomile tea and added:
"But I know you always do that. You have such a wide choice and are so clever in selection."
Miss Van Tuyn slightly frowned.
"There isn't such a wide choice in London as there is in Paris," she said rather morosely.
"I dare say not. Paris is much smaller than London, but much cleverer, I think. Where would you find an author like Bourget among the English? Which of them could have written 'Mensonges'? Which of them could—"
"I know, dear, I know! They haven't the bite. That is what you mean. They have only the bark."
"Exactly! And when one sits down to a book—"
"Just so, dear. The dog that can only bark is a very dull dog. I saw a wonderful dog the other day that looked as if it could bite."
"Indeed! In London?"
"Yes. But I'm sure it wasn't English."
"Was it a poodle?"
"No, quite the contrary."
Fanny Cronin looked rather vague. She was really trying to think what dog was quite the contrary of a poodle, but, after the Channel, her mind was unequal to the effort. So she took another sip of the camomile tea and said:
"What colour was it?"
"It was all brown like a brown bronze. Well, good night, Fanny."
"Good night, dear. I really wish you would read 'Mensonges' again when I have finished with it. One cannot read over these masterpieces too often."
"You shall lend it me."
She went out of the room, and Fanny Cronin settled comfortably down once more to the competent exercise of her profession.
It was now nearly eight o'clock. Miss Van Tuyn went to her bedroom. She had a maid with her, but she did not ring for the woman. Instead she shut her door, and began to "do" things for herself. She began by taking off her gown and putting on a loose wrapper. Then she sat down before the dressing-table and changed the way in which her corn-coloured hair was done, making it sit much closer to the head than before, and look much less striking and conspicuous. The new way of doing her hair changed her appearance considerably, made her less like a Ceres and more like a Puritan. When she was quite satisfied with her hair she got out of her wrapper, and presently put on an absolutely plain black coat and skirt, a black hat which came down very low on her forehead, a black veil and black suede gloves. Then she took a tightly furled umbrella with an ebony handle out of her wardrobe, picked up her purse, unlocked her door and stepped out into the lobby.
Her French maid appeared from somewhere. She was a rather elderly woman with a clever, but not unpleasantly subtle, face. Miss Van Tuyn said a few words to her in a low voice, opened the lobby door and went out.
She took the lift, glided down, walked slowly and carelessly across the hall and passed out by the swing door.
"A taxi, madam?" said the commissionaire in livery.
She shook her head and walked away down Brook Street in the direction of Grosvenor Square.
As Craven had predicted it was a fine clear night, dry underfoot, starry overhead. If Miss Van Tuyn had had with her a chosen companion she would have enjoyed her walk. She was absolutely self-possessed, and thoroughly capable of taking care of herself. No terrors of London affected her spirit. But she was angry and bored at being alone. She felt almost for the first time in her life neglected and even injured. And she was determined to try to find out whether her strong suspicions about Lady Sellingworth and Craven were well founded. If really Craven was giving a dinner somewhere, and Lady Sellingworth was dining with friends somewhere else, she had no special reason for irritation. She might possibly be mistaken in her unpleasant conviction that both of them had something to do which they preferred to dining with her. But if they were dining together and alone she would know exactly how things were between them. For neither of them had done what would surely have been the natural thing to do if there were no desire for concealment; neither of them had frankly stated the truth about the dinner.
"If they are dining together they don't wish me to know it," Miss Van Tuyn said to herself, as she walked along Grosvenor Square and turned down Carlos Place. "For if I had known it they might have felt obliged to invite me to join them, as I was inviting them, and as I was the one who introduced Adela Sellingworth to the Bella Napoli."
And as she remembered this she felt more definitely injured. For she had taken a good deal of trouble to persuade Lady Sellingworth to dine out in Soho, had taken trouble about the food and about the music, had, in fact, done everything that was possible to make the evening entertaining and delightful to her friend. It was even she, by the way, who had beckoned Craven to their table and had asked him to join them after dinner.
And in return for all this Adela Sellingworth had carried him off, and perhaps to-night was dining with him alone at the Bella Napoli!
"These old beauties are always the most unscrupulous women in the world," thought Miss Van Tuyn, as she came into Berkeley Square. "They never know when to stop. They are never satisfied. It's bad enough to be with a greedy child, but it's really horrible to have much to do with a greedy old person. I should never have thought that Adela Sellingworth was like this."
It did not occur to her that perhaps some day she would be an old beauty herself, and even then would perhaps still want a few pleasures and joys to make life endurable to her.
In passing through Berkeley Square she deliberately walked on the left side of it, and presently came to the house where Lady Sellingworth lived. The big mansion was dark. As Miss Van Tuyn went by it she felt an access of ill-humour, and for an instant she knew something of the feeling which had often come to its owner—the feeling of being abandoned to loneliness in the midst of a city which held multitudes who were having a good time.
She walked on towards Berkeley, thought of Piccadilly, retraced her steps, turned up Hay Hill, crossed Bond Street, and eventually came into Regent Street. There were a good many people here, and several loitering men looked hard at her. But she walked composedly on, keeping at an even steady pace. At the main door of the Cafe Royal three or four men were lounging. She did not look at them as she went by. But presently she felt that she was being followed. This did not disturb her. She often went out alone in Paris on foot, though not at night, and was accustomed to being followed. She knew perfectly well how to deal with impertinent men. In Shaftesbury Avenue the man who was dogging her footsteps came nearer, and presently, though she did not turn her head, she knew that he was walking almost level with her, and that his eyes were fixed steadily on her. Without altering her pace she took a shilling out of the purse she was carrying and held it in her hand. The man drew up till he was walking by her side. She felt that he was going to speak to her. She stopped, held out the hand with the shilling in it, and said:
"Here's a shilling! Take it. I'm sorry I can't afford more than that."
As she finished speaking for the first time she looked at her pursuer, and met the brown eyes of the living bronze. He stood for an instant gazing at her veil, and then turned round and walked away in the direction of Regent Street. The shilling dropped from her hand to the pavement. She did not try to find it, but at once went on.
It was very seldom that her self-possession was shaken. It was not exactly shaken now. But the recognition of the stranger whom she had been thinking about in the man who had followed her in the street had certainly startled her. For a moment a strong feeling of disgust overcame her, and she thought of Garstin's brutal comment upon this man. Was he then really one of the horrible night loungers who abound in all great cities, one of the night birds who come out when the darkness falls with vague hopes of doing evil to their own advantage? It was possible. He must have been hanging about near the door of the Cafe Royal when she passed and watching the passers-by. He must have seen her then. Could he have recognized her? In that case perhaps he was merely an adventurous fellow who had been pushed to the doing of an impertinent thing by his strong admiration of her. As she thought this she happened to be passing a lit-up shop, a tobacconist's, which had mirrors fixed on each side of the window. She stopped and looked into one of the mirrors. No, he could not have recognized her through the veil she was wearing. She felt certain of that. But he might have been struck by her figure. He might have noticed it that night at the Cafe Royal, have fancied he recognized it to-night, and have followed her because he was curious to know whether, or not, she was the girl he had already seen and admired. And of course, as she was walking in Regent Street alone at night, he must have thought her a girl who would not mind being spoken to. It was her own fault for being so audacious, so determined always to do what she wanted to do, however unconventional, even outrageous—according to commonplace ideas—it was.
She forgave the man his impertinence and smiled as she thought of his abrupt departure. If he were really a night bird he would surely have stood his ground. He would not have been got rid of so easily. No; he would probably have coolly pocketed the shilling, and then have entered into conversation with her, have chaffed her vulgarly about her methods with admirers, and have asked her to go to a cafe or somewhere with him, and to spend the shilling and other shillings in his company.
No doubt he had been waiting for a friend at the door of the Cafe Royal, had seen her go by, and had yielded to an impulse prompting him to an adventure. He was not an Englishman or an American. She felt certain of that. And she knew very well the views many foreigners, especially Latins, even of good birth hold about the propriety of showing their admiration for women in the street.
She was glad she had had a thick veil on. If later she made acquaintance with this man, she did not wish him to know that she and the girl who had offered him a shilling were one and the same. If he knew she might be at a certain disadvantage with him.
She turned into Soho and was immediately conscious of a slightly different atmosphere. There were fewer people about and the street was not so brightly lit up, or at any rate seemed to her darker. She heard voices speaking Italian in the shadows. The lights of small restaurants glimmered faintly on the bone-dry pavement. She was nearing the Bella Napoli. Soon she heard the distant sound of guitars.
Where she was walking at this moment there was no one. She stood still for an instant considering. If Lady Sellingworth and Craven were really dining together, as she suspected, and at the Bella Napoli, she could see them from the street if they had a table near the window. If they were not seated near the window she might not be able to see them. In that case, what was she going to do?
After a moment's thought she resolved that if she did not see them from the street she would go into the restaurant and dine there alone. They would see her of course, if they were there, and would no doubt be surprised and decidedly uncomfortable. But that could not be helped. Having come so far she was determined not to go back to the hotel without making sure whether her suspicion was correct. If, on the other hand, they were dining at a table near the window she resolved not to enter the restaurant.
Having come to this decision she walked on.
The musicians were playing "O Sole mio!" And as the music grew more distinct in her ears she felt more solitary, more injured and more ill-humoured. Music of that type makes youth feel that the world ought of right to belong to it, that the old are out of place in the regions of adventure, romance and passion. That they should not hang about where they are no longer wanted, like beggars about the door of a house in which happy people are feasting.
"Such music is for me not for Adela Sellingworth," thought Miss Van Tuyn. "Let her listen to Bach and Beethoven, or to Brahms if she likes. She can have the classics and the intellectuals. But the songs of Naples are for me, not for her."