And at that moment she felt very hard, even cruel.
She came up to the restaurant. The window was lighted up brilliantly. No blind was drawn over it. There was opaque glass at the bottom, but not at the top. She was tall and could look through the glass at the top. She did so, and at once saw Lady Sellingworth and Craven.
They were sitting at her table—the table which was always reserved for her when she dined at the Bella Napoli, and at which she had entertained Lady Sellingworth; and they were talking—confidentially, eagerly, she thought. Lady Sellingworth looked unusually happy and animated, even perhaps a little younger than usual. Yes! Very old, but younger than usual! They were not eating at the moment, but were no doubt waiting for a course. Craven was leaning forward to his companion. The guitars still sounded. But these two had apparently so much to say to one another that they had neither time or inclination to listen to the music.
Miss Van Tuyn stood very still on the pavement staring into the restaurant.
But suddenly Craven, as if attracted by something, turned abruptly half round towards the window. Instantly Miss Van Tuyn moved away. He could not have seen her. But perhaps he had felt that she—or rather of course that someone—was there. For he could not possibly have felt that she, Beryl Van Tuyn, was there looking in.
After drawing back Miss Van Tuyn walked slowly away. She was considering something, debating something within herself. Should she go in and dine alone in the restaurant? By doing so she would certainly make those two who had treated her badly uncomfortable; she would probably spoil the rest of their evening. Should she do that? Some indelicate devil prompted her, urged her, to do it. It would "serve them right," she thought. Adela Sellingworth especially deserved a touch of the whip. But it would be an undignified thing to do. They would never know of course why she had come alone to the Bella Napoli! They would think that, being audaciously unconventional, she had just drifted in there because she had nothing else to do, as Craven had drifted in alone the other night. She wanted to do it. Yet she hesitated to do it.
Finally she gave up the idea. She felt malicious, but she could not quite make up her mind to dine alone where they would see her. Probably they would feel obliged to ask her to join them. But she would not join them. Nothing could induce her to do that. And was she to come over to them when coffee was brought, as Craven had come at her invitation? No; that would be a condescension unworthy of her beauty and youth. Her fierce vanity forbade it, even though her feeling of malice told her to do it.
Her vanity won. She walked on and came into Shaftesbury Avenue.
"I know what I'll do," she said to herself. "I'll go and dine upstairs at the Cafe Royal, and go into the cafe downstairs afterwards. Garstin is certain to be there."
This time she obeyed her inclination. Not many minutes later she was seated at a table in a corner of the restaurant at the Cafe Royal, and was carefully choosing a dinner.
The more he thought over his visit to Adela Sellingworth the more certain did Francis Braybrooke become that it had not gone off well. For once he had not played his cards to the best advantage. He felt sure that inadvertently he had irritated his hostess. Her final dismissal of the subject of young Craven's possible happiness with Beryl Van Tuyn, if circumstances should ever bring them together, had been very abrupt. She had really almost kicked it out of the conversation.
But then, she had never been fond of discussing love affairs. Braybrooke had noticed that.
As he considered the matter he began to feel rather uneasy. Was it possible that Adela Sellingworth—his mind hesitated, then took the unpleasant leap—that Adela Sellingworth was beginning to like young Craven in an unsuitable way?
Craven certainly had behaved oddly when Adela Sellingworth had been discussed between them, and when Craven had been the subject of discussion with Adela Sellingworth she had behaved curiously. There was something behind it all. Of that Braybrooke was convinced. But his perplexity and doubt increased to something like agitation a few days later when he met a well-born woman of his acquaintance, who had "gone in for" painting and living her own life, and had become a bit of a Bohemian. She had happened to mention that she had seen his friend, "that wonderful-looking Lady Sellingworth," dining at the Bella Napoli on a recent evening. Naturally Braybrooke supposed that the allusion was to the night of Lady Sellingworth's dinner with Beryl Van Tuyn, and he spoke of the lovely girl as Lady Sellingworth's companion. But his informant, looking rather surprised, told him that Lady Sellingworth had been with a very handsome young man, and, on discreet inquiry being made, gave an admirable description from the painter's point of view, of Craven.
Braybrooke said nothing, but he was secretly almost distressed. He though it such a mistake for his distinguished friend to go wandering about in Soho alone with a mere boy. It was undignified. It was not the thing. He could not understand it unless really she was losing her head. And then he remembered her past. Although he never spoke of it, and now seldom thought about it, Braybrooke knew very well what sort of woman Adela Sellingworth had been. But her dignified life of ten years had really almost wiped her former escapades out of his recollection. There seemed to be a gulf fixed between the professional beauty and the white-haired recluse of Berkeley Square. When he looked at her, sat with her now, if he ever gave a thought to her past it was accompanied, or immediately followed, by a mental question: "Was it she who did that?" or "Can she ever have been like that?"
But now Braybrooke uneasily began to remember Lady Sellingworth's past reputation and to think of the "old guard."
If she were to fall back into folly now, after what she had done ten years ago, the "old guard" would show her no mercy. Her character would be torn to pieces. He regretted very much his introduction of Craven into her life. But how could he have thought that she would fascinate a boy?
After much careful thought—for he took his social responsibilities and duties very seriously—he resolved to take action on the lines which had occurred to him when he first began to be anxious about Craven's feeling towards Adela Sellingworth; he resolved to do his best to bring Beryl Van Tun and Craven together.
The first step he took was to call on Miss Cronin when Beryl Van Tuyn was out. He went to Claridge's in inquire for Miss Van Tuyn. On ascertaining that she was not at home he sent up his name to Miss Cronin, who was practically always in the house. At any rate, Braybrooke, who had met her several times at Miss Van Tuyn's apartment in Paris, had understood so from herself. If Miss Van Tuyn needed her as a chaperon she was, of course, to be counted upon to risk taking air and exercise. Otherwise, as she frankly said, she preferred to stay quietly at home. By nature she was sedentary. Her temperament inclined her to a sitting posture, which, however, she frequently varied by definitely lying down.
On this occasion Miss Cronin was as usual in the house, and begged that Mr. Braybrooke would come up. He found her in an arm-chair—she had just vacated a large sofa—with Bourget's "Le Disciple" in her hand. Her eyebrows were rather dim, for she had caught a slight London cold which had led her to neglect them. But she was looking mildly cheerful, and was very glad to have a visitor. Though quite happy alone with Bourget she was always ready for a comfortable gossip; and she liked Francis Braybrooke.
After a few words about the cold, Bourget and Paris, Braybrooke turned the conversation to Miss Van Tuyn. He had understood that she meant only to make a short stay in London, and rather wondered about the change of plans which had brought Miss Cronin across the Channel. Miss Cronin, he soon discovered, was rather wondering too.
"Beryl seems to have been quite got hold of by London," she observed with mild surprise.
After a pause she added:
"It may be—mind I don't say it is, but it may be—the Wallace Collection."
"The Wallace Collection?" said Braybrooke.
"I believe she goes there every day. It is in Manchester Square, isn't it?"
"Then I think it must be that. Because two or three times lately I have heard her mention Manchester Square as if it were very much on her mind. Once I remember her saying that Manchester Square was worth all the rest of London put together! And another time she said that Manchester square ought to be in Paris. That struck me as very strange, but after making inquiries I found that the Wallace Collection was situated there, or near there."
"Hertford House is in the Square."
"Then it is that. You know how wrapped up Beryl is in that kind of thing. And, of course, she knows all the Paris collections by heart. Is the Wallace Collection large? Does it contain much?"
"It contains innumerable priceless treasures," returned Braybrooke.
"Innumerable! Dear me!" murmured Fanny Cronin, managing to lift the dimly painted eyebrows in a distinctively plaintive manner. "Then I dare say we shall be here for months."
"You don't think," began Braybrooke with exquisite caution, "you don't think that possibly she may have a more human reason for remaining in London?"
Fanny Cronin made a rabbit's mouth and looked slightly bemused.
"Human!" she said. "You think Beryl could have a human reason?"
"Oh, surely, surely!"
"But she prefers bronzes to people. I assure you it is so. I have heard her say that you can never be disappointed by a really good bronze, but that men and women often distress you by their absurdities and follies."
"That sort of thing is only the outcome of a passing mood of youthful cynicism."
"Is it? I sometimes think that a born collector, like Beryl, sees more in bronze and marble than in flesh and blood. She is very sweet, but she has quite a passion for possessing."
"Is not the greatest possession of all the possession of another's human heart?" said Braybrooke impressively, and with sentiment.
"I dare say it is, but really I cannot speak from experience," said Fanny Cronin, with remarkable simplicity.
"Has it never occurred to you," continued Braybrooke, "that your lovely charge is not likely to remain always Beryl Van Tuyn?"
Miss Cronin looked startled, and slightly moved her ears, a curious habit which she sometimes indulged in under the influence of sudden emotion, and which was indicative of mental stress.
"But if Beryl ever marries," she said, "I might have to give up living in Paris! I might have to go back to America!"
She leaned forward, with her small, plump, and conspicuously freckled hands grasping the arms of her chair.
"You don't think, Mr. Braybrooke, that Beryl is not here for the Wallace Collection? You don't think that she is in love with someone in London?"
Francis Braybrooke was decidedly taken aback by this abrupt emotional outburst. He had not meant to provoke it. Indeed, in his preoccupation with Craven's affairs and Adela Sellingworth's possible indiscretions—really he knew of no gentler word to apply to what he had in mind—he had entirely forgotten that Fanny Cronin's charming profession of sitting in deep arm-chairs, reposing on luxurious sofas, and lying in perfect French beds, might, indeed would, be drastically interfered with by Miss Van Tuyn's marriage. It was very careless of him. He was inclined to blame himself almost severely.
"My dear Miss Cronin," he hastily exclaimed. "If you were ever to think of changing your—your"—he could not find the word; "condition" would not do; "state of life" suggested the Catechism; "profession" was preposterous, besides, he did not mean that—"your sofa"—he had got it—"your sofa in the Avenue Henri Martin for a sofa somewhere else, I know of at least a dozen charming houses in Paris which would gladly, I might say thankfully, open their doors to receive you."
This was really a lie. At the moment Braybrooke did not know of one. But he hastily made up his mind to be "responsible" for Fanny Cronin if anything should occur through his amiable machinations.
"Thank you, Mr. Braybrooke. You are kindness itself. So, then, Beryl is going to marry! And she never hinted it to me, although we talked over marriage only yesterday, when I gave her Bourget's views on it as expressed in his 'Physiologie de l'amour moderne.' She never said one word. She never—"
But at this point Braybrooke felt that an interruption, however rude, was obligatory.
"I have no reason whatever to suppose that Miss Van Tuyn is thinking of marriage at this moment," he said, in an almost shrill voice.
"But surely you would not frighten me without a reason," said Fanny Cronin with mild severity, sitting back again in her chair.
"Frighten you, dear Miss Cronin! I would not do that for the world. What have I said to frighten you?"
"You talked of my changing my sofa for a sofa somewhere else! If Beryl is not going to marry why should I think of changing?"
"But nothing lasts for ever. The whole world is in a state of flux."
"Really, Mr. Braybrooke! I am quite sure I am not in a state of flux!" said Miss Cronin with unusual dignity. "We American women, you must understand, have our principles and know how to preserve them."
"On my honour, I only meant that life inevitably brings with it changes. I am sure you will bear me out in that."
"I don't know about bearing you out," said Miss Cronin, looking rather helplessly at Francis Braybrooke's fairly tall and well-nourished figure. "But why should Beryl want to change? She is very happy as she is."
"I know—I know. But surely such a lovely girl is certain to marry some day. And can we wish it otherwise? Some day a man will come who knows how to appreciate her as she deserves, who understands her nature, who is ready to devote his life to fulfilling her deepest needs."
Miss Cronin suddenly looked intelligent and at the same time like a dragon. Never before had Braybrooke seen such an expression upon her face, such a stiffening of dignity to her ample figure. She sat straight up, looked him full in the face, and observed:
"I understand your meaning, Mr. Braybrooke. You wish to marry Beryl. Well, you must forgive me for saying that I think you are much too old for her."
Braybrooke had not blushed for probably at least forty years, but he blushed scarlet now, and seized his beard with a hand that looked thoroughly unstrung.
"My dear Miss Cronin!" he said, in a voice which was almost hoarse with protest. "You absolutely misunderstood me. It is much too la—I mean that I have no intention whatever of changing my condition. No, no! Let us talk of something else. So you are reading 'Le Disciple'" (he picked it up). "A very striking book! I always think it one of Bourget's very best."
He poured forth an energetic cataract of words in praise of Miss Cronin's favourite author, and presently got away without any further quite definite misunderstanding. But when he was out in the corridor on his way to the lift he indulged himself in a very unwonted expression of acrimonious condemnation.
"Damn these red-headed old women!" he muttered in his beard. "There's no doing anything with them! The idea of my going to her to propose for Miss Van Tuyn! What next, I wonder?"
When he was out in Brook Street he hesitated for a moment, then took out his watch and looked at it. Half-past three! He thought of the Wallace Collection. It seemed to draw him strangely just then. He put his watch back and walked towards Manchester Square.
He had gained the Square and was about to enter the enclosure before Hertford House by the gateway on the left, when he saw Miss Van Tuyn come out by the gateway on the right, and walk slowly towards Oxford Street in deep conversation with a small horsey-looking man, whose face he could not see, but whose back and legs, and whose dress and headgear, strongly suggested to him the ring at Newmarket and the Paddock at Ascot.
Braybrooke hesitated. The attraction of the Wallace Collection no longer drew him. Besides, it was getting late. On the other hand, he scarcely liked to interrupt an earnest tete-a-tete. If it had not been that he was exceptionally strung up at that moment he would probably have gone quietly off to one of his clubs. But who knew what that foolish old woman at Claridge's might say to Miss Van Tuyn when she reached her hotel? It really was essential in the sacred interest of truth that he should forestall Fanny Cronin. The jockey—if it was a jockey—Miss Van Tuyn was with must put up with an interruption. But the interruption must be brought about naturally. It would not do to come up behind them. That would seem too intrusive. He must manage to skip round deftly when the occasion offered, and by a piece of masterly strategy to come upon them face to face.
Seized of this intention Braybrooke did a thing he had never done before; he "dogged" two human beings, walking with infinite precaution.
His quarry presently turned into the thronging crowds of Oxford Street and made towards the Marble Arch, keeping to the right-hand pavement. Braybrooke saw his opportunity. He dodged across the road to an island, waited there till a policeman, extending a woollen thumb, stopped the traffic, then gained the opposite pavement, hurried decorously on that side towards the Marble Arch, and after a sprint of perhaps a couple of hundred yards recrossed the street almost at the risk of his life, and walked warily back towards Oxford Circus, keeping his eyes wide open.
Before many minutes had passed he discerned the graceful and athletic figure of Miss Van Tuyn coming towards him; then, immediately afterwards, he caught a glimpse of a blue shaven face with an aquiline nose beside her, and realized that the man he had taken for a jockey was Dick Garstin, the famous painter.
As Braybrooke knew everyone, he, of course, knew Garstin, and he wondered now why he had not recognized his back at Manchester Square. Perhaps his mind had been too engrossed with Fanny Cronin and the outrage at Claridge's. He only knew the painter slightly, just sufficiently to dislike him very much. Indeed, only the acknowledged eminence of the man induced Braybrooke to have anything to do with him. But one has to know publicly acclaimed geniuses or consent to be thoroughly out of it. So Braybrooke included Garstin in the enormous circle of his acquaintances, and went to his private views.
But now the recognition gave him pause, and he almost wished he had not taken so much trouble to meet Miss Van Tuyn and her companion. For he could say nothing he wanted to say while Garstin was there. And the man was so damnably unconventional, in fact, so downright rude, and so totally devoid of all delicacy, all insight in social matters, that even if he saw that Braybrooke wanted a quiet word with Miss Van Tuyn he would probably not let him have it. However, it was too late now to avoid the steadily advancing couple. Miss Van Tuyn had seen Braybrooke, and sent him a smile. In a moment he was face to face with them, and she stopped to greet him.
"I have been spending an hour at the Wallace Collection with Mr. Garstin," she said. "And quarrelling with him all the time. His views on French art are impossible."
"Ah! how are you?" said Braybrooke, addressing the painter with almost exaggerated cordiality.
Garstin nodded in his usual offhand way. He did not dislike Braybrooke. When Braybrooke was there he perceived him, having eyes, and having ears heard his voice. But hitherto Braybrooke had never succeeded in conveying any impression to the mind of Garstin. On one occasion when Braybrooke had been discussed in Garstin's presence, and Garstin had said: "Who is he?" and had received a description of Braybrooke with the additional information: "But he comes to your private views! You have known him for years!" he had expressed his appreciation of Braybrooke's personality and character by the exclamation: "Oh, to be sure! The beard with the gentleman!" Braybrooke did not know this, or he would certainly have disliked Garstin even more than he did already.
As Garstin's nod was not followed by any other indication of humanity Braybrooke addressed Miss Van Tuyn, and told her of his call at Claridge's.
"And as you were not to be found I paid a visit to Miss Cronin."
"She must have bored you very much," was the charming girl's comment. "She has the most confused mind I know."
What an opening for Braybrooke! But he could not take it because of Garstin, who stood by cruelly examining the stream of humanity which flowed past them hypnotized by the shops.
"May I—shall I be in the way if I turn back with you for a few steps?" he ventured, with the sort of side glance at Garstin that a male dog gives to another male dog while walking round and round on a first meeting. "It is such a pleasure to see you."
Here he threw very definite admiration into the eyes which he fixed on Miss Van Tuyn.
She responded automatically and begged him to accompany them.
"Dick is leaving me at the Marble Arch," she said. "The reason he gives is that he is going to take a Turkish Bath in the Harrow Road. But that is a lie that even an American girl brought up in Paris is unable to swallow. What are you really going to do, Dick?"
As she spoke she walked on, having Garstin on one side of her and Francis Braybrooke on the other.
"I'm going to have a good sweat in the Harrow Road."
Braybrooke was disgusted. It was not that he really minded the word used to indicate the process which obtains in a Turkish Bath. No; it was Garstin's blatant way of speaking it that offended his susceptibilities. The man was perpetually defying the decencies and delicacies which were as perfume in Braybrooke's nostrils.
"The doctors say that it is an excellent thing to open the pores," said Braybrooke discreetly.
Garstin cast a glance at him, as if he now saw him for the first time.
"Do you mean to tell us you believe in doctors?" he said.
"I do, in some doctors," said Braybrooke. "There are charlatans in all professions unfortunately."
"And some of them are R.A.'s," said Miss Van Tuyn. "By the way, Dick is going to paint me."
"Really! How very splendid!" said Braybrooke, again with exaggerated cordiality. "With such a subject I'm sure—"
But here he was interrupted by Garstin, who said:
"She tells everyone I'm going to paint her because she hopes by reiteration to force me to do it. But she isn't the type that interests me."
"My dear Dick, I'll gladly take to morphia or drink if it will help," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I can easily get the Cafe Royal expression. One has only to sit with a glass of something the colour of absinthe in front of one and look sea-sick. I'm perfectly certain that with a week or two's practice I could look quite as degraded as Cora."
"Cora?" said Braybrooke, alertly, hearing a name he did not know.
"She's a horror who goes to the Cafe Royal and whom Dick calls a free woman."
"Free from all the virtues, I suppose!" said Braybrooke smartly.
"Good-bye both of you!" said Garstin at this juncture.
"But we haven't got to the Marble Arch!"
"What's that got to do with it? I'm off."
He seemed to be going, then stopped, and directed the two pin-points of light at Miss Van Tuyn.
"I flatly refuse to make an Academy portrait of you, so don't hope for it," he said. "But if you come along to the studio to-morrow afternoon you may possibly find me at work on a blackmailer."
"Dick!" said Miss Van Tuyn, in a voice which startled Braybrooke.
"I don't promise," said the painter. "I don't believe in promises, unless you break 'em. But it's just on the cards."
"You are painting a blackmailer!" said Braybrooke, with an air of earnest interest. "How very original!"
"Original! Why is it original to paint a blackmailer?"
"Oh—well, one doesn't often run across them. They—they seem to keep so much to themselves."
"I don't agree with you. If they did some people would be a good deal better off than they are now."
"Ah, to be sure! That's very true. I had never looked at it in that light."
"What time, Dick?" said Miss Van Tuyn, rather eagerly.
"You might look in about three."
"I will. That's a bargain."
Garstin turned on his heel and tramped away towards Berkeley Street.
"You are going home by Park Lane?" said Braybrooke, feeling greatly relieved, but still rather upset.
"Yes. But why don't you take me somewhere to tea?"
"Nothing I should like better. Where shall we go?"
"Let's go to the Ritz. I had meant to walk, but let us take a taxi."
There was suddenly a change in Miss Van Tuyn. Braybrooke noticed it at once. She seemed suddenly restless, almost excited, and as if she were in a hurry.
"There's one!" she added, lifting her tightly furled umbrella.
The driver stopped, and in a moment they were on their way to the Ritz.
"You like Dick Garstin?" said Braybrooke, pulling up one of the windows and wondering what Miss Cronin would say if she could see him at this moment.
"I don't like him," returned Miss Van Tuyn. "No one could do that. But I admire him, and he interests me. He is almost the only man I know who is really indifferent to opinion. And he has occasional moments of good nature. But I don't wish him to be soft. If he were he would be like everyone else."
"I must confess I find it very difficult to get on with him."
"He's a wonderful painter."
"No doubt—in his way."
"I think it a great mistake for any creative artist to be wonderful in someone else's way," said Miss Van Tuyn.
"I only meant that his way is sometimes rather startling. And then his subjects! Drugged women! Dram drinking men! And now it seems even blackmailers."
"A blackmailer might have a wonderful face."
"Possibly. But it would be likely to have a disgusting expression."
"It might. On the other hand, I could imagine a blackmailer looking like Chaliapine as Mephistopheles."
"I don't like distressing art," said Braybrooke, rather firmly. "And I think there is too much of it nowadays."
"Anything is better than the merely nice. And you have far too much of that in England. Men like Dick Garstin are a violent protest against that, and sometimes they go to extremes. He has caught the secret of evil, and when he had done with it he may quite possibly catch the secret of good."
"And then," said Braybrooke, "I am sure he will paint you."
It was meant to be a very charmingly turned compliment. But Miss Van Tuyn received it rather doubtfully.
"I don't know that I want to wait quite so long as that," she murmured. "Besides—I think I rather come in between. At least, I hope so."
At this point in the conversation the cab stopped before the Ritz.
To Francis Braybrooke's intense astonishment—and it might almost be added confusion—the first person his eyes lit on as they walked towards the tea-tables was Fanny Cronin, comfortably seated in an immense arm-chair, devouring a muffin in the company of an old lady, whose determined face was completely covered with a criss-cross of wrinkles, and whose withered hands were flashing with magnificent rings. He was so taken aback that he was guilty of a definite start, and the exclamation, "Miss Cronin!" in a voice that suggested alarm.
"Oh, old Fanny with Mrs. Clem Hodson!" said Miss Van Tuyn. "She's a school friend of Fanny's from Philadelphia. Let us go to that table in the far corner. I'll just speak to them while you order tea."
"But I thought Miss Cronin never went out."
"She never does, except with Mrs. Clem, unless I want her."
"How singularly unfortunate I am to-day!" thought Braybrooke, as he bowed to Miss Cronin in a rather confused manner and went to do as he was told.
He ordered tea, then sat down anxiously to wait for Miss Van Tuyn. From his corner he watched her colloquy with the two school friends from Philadelphia, and it seemed to him that something very important was being told. For Fanny Cronin looked almost animated, and her manner approached the emphatic as she spoke to the standing girl. Mrs. Hodson seemed to take very little part in the conversation, but sat looking very determined and almost imperious as she listened. And presently Braybrooke saw her extremely observant dark eyes—small, protuberant and round as buttons—turn swiftly, with even, he thought, a darting movement, in his direction.
"I shall be driven, really driven, to make the matter quite clear," he thought, almost with desperation. "Otherwise—"
But at this moment Miss Van Tuyn came away to him, and their tea was brought by a waiter.
He thought she cast a rather satirical look at him as she sat down, but she only said;
"Dear old things! They are very happy together. Mrs. Clem is extraordinarily proud of having 'got Fanny out,' as she calls it. A boy who had successfully drawn a badger couldn't be more triumphant. Now let's forget them!"
This was all very well, and Braybrooke asked for nothing better; but he was totally unable to forget the two cronies, whom he saw in the distance with their white and chestnut heads alarmingly close together, talking eagerly, and, he was quite sure, not about the dear old days in Philadelphia. What had they—or rather what had Miss Cronin said to Miss Van Tuyn? He longed to know. It really was essential that he should know. Yet he scarcely knew how to approach the subject. It was rather difficult to explain elaborately to a beautiful girl that you had not the least wish to marry her. He was certainly not at his best as he took his first cup of tea and sought about for an opening. Miss Van Tuyn talked with her usual assurance, but he fancied that her violet eyes were full of inquiry when they glanced at him; and he began to feel positive that the worst had happened, and that Fanny Cronin had informed her—no, misinformed her—of what had happened at Claridge's. Now and then, as he met Miss Van Tuyn's eyes, he thought they were searching his with an unusual consciousness, as if they expected something very special from him. Presently, too, she let the conversation languish, and at last allowed it to drop. In the silence that succeeded Braybrooke was seized by a terrible fear that perhaps she was waiting for him to propose. If he did propose she would refuse him of course. He had no doubt about that. But though to be accepted by her, or indeed by anyone, would have caused him acute distress, on the other hand no one likes to be refused.
He thought of Craven. Was it possible to make any use of Craven to get him out of his difficulty? Dare he hint at the real reason of his visit to Miss Cronin? He had intended delicately to "sound" the chaperon on the subject of matrimony, to find out if there was anything on the tapis in Paris, if Miss Van Tuyn had any special man friend there, in short to make sure of his ground before deciding to walk on it. But he could hardly explain that to Miss Van Tuyn. To do so would be almost brutal, and quite against all his traditions.
Again he caught her eye in the desperate silence. Her gaze seemed to say to him: "When are you going to begin?" He felt that he must say something, even though it were not what she was probably expecting.
"I was interested," he hurriedly began, clasping his beard and looking away from his companion, "to hear the other day that a young friend of mine had met you, a very charming and promising young fellow, who has a great career before him, unless I am much mistaken."
"Who?" she asked; he thought rather curtly.
"Alick Craven of the Foreign Office. He told me he was introduced to you at Adela Sellingworth's."
"Oh yes, he was," said Miss Van Tuyn.
And she said no more.
"He was very enthusiastic about you," ventured Braybrooke, wondering how to interpret her silence.
"Yes. We belong to the same club, the St. James's. He entertained me for more than an hour with your praises."
Miss Van Tuyn looked at him with rather acute inquiry, as if she could not make up her mind about something with which he was closely concerned.
"He would like to meet you again," said Braybrooke, with soft firmness.
"But I have met him again two or three times. He called on me."
"And I understand you were together in a restaurant in—Soho, I think it was."
"Yes, we were."
"What did you think of him?" asked Braybrooke.
As he put the question he was aware that he was being far from subtle. The vision in the distance—now eating plum cake, but still very observant—upset his nervous system and deprived him almost entirely of his usual savoir faire.
"He seems quite a nice sort of boy," said Miss Van Tuyn, still looking rather coldly inquisitive, as if she were secretly puzzled but intended to emerge into complete understanding before she had done with Braybrooke. "His Foreign Office manner is rather against him. But perhaps some day he'll grow out of that—unless it becomes accentuated."
"If you knew him better I feel sure you would like him. He had no reservations about you—none at all. But, then, how could he have?"
"Well, at any rate I haven't got the Foreign Office manner."
"No, indeed!" said Braybrooke, managing a laugh that just indicated his appreciation of the remark as an excellent little joke. "But it really means nothing."
"That's a pity. One's manner should always have a meaning of some kind. Otherwise it is an absolute drawback to one's personality."
"That is perhaps a fault of the Englishman. But we must remember that still waters run deep."
"Do you think so? But if they don't run at all?"
"How do you mean?"
"There is such a thing as the village pond."
"How very trying she is this afternoon!" thought poor Braybrooke, endeavouring mentally to pull up his socks.
"I half promised Craven the other day," he lied, resolutely ignoring her unkind comparison of his protege to the abomination which is too often veiled with duckweed, "to contrive another meeting between you and him. But I fear he has bored you. And in that case perhaps I ought not to hold to my promise. You meet so many brilliant Frenchmen that I dare say our slower, but really I sometimes think deeper, mentality scarcely appeals to you."
(At this point he saw Fanny Cronin leaning impressively towards Mrs. Clem Hodson, as if about to impart some very secret information to that lady, who bent to receive it.)
"Again those deep waters!" said Miss Van Tuyn, this time with unmistakable satire. "But perhaps you are right. I remember a very brilliant American, who knew practically all the nations of Europe, telling me that in his opinion you English were the subtlest—I'm afraid he was rude enough to say the most artful—of the lot."
As she spoke the word "artful" her fine eyes smiled straight into Braybrooke's, and she pinched her red lips together very expressively.
"But I must confess," she added, "that at the moment we were discussing diplomats."
"Artful was rather unkind," murmured Braybrooke. "I—I hope you don't think my friend Craven is one of that type?"
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of Mr. Craven."
The implication was fairly obvious, and Braybrooke did not miss it, although he was not in possession of his full mental powers.
"Perhaps it is our own fault," he said. "But I think we English are often misunderstood."
As he spoke he shot a rather poignant glance in the direction of Fanny Cronin, who had now finished her tea, and was gathering her fur cloak about her as if in preparation for departure.
"In fact," he added, "I am sure of it. This very day even—"
He paused, wondering how to put it, yet feeling that he really must at all costs make matters fairly clear to his companion.
"Yes?" said Miss Van Tuyn sweetly.
"To-day, this afternoon, I think that your dear Miss Cronin failed once or twice to grasp my full meaning when I was talking with her."
"Oh, Fanny! But she's an old fool! Of course she's a dear, and I'm very fond of her, but she is essentially nebulous. And what was it that you think she misunderstood?"
Braybrooke hesitated. It really was very difficult to put what he wanted to say into words. Scarcely ever before had he felt himself so incapable of dealing adequately with a socially awkward situation. If only he knew what Miss Cronin had said to Miss Van Tuyn while he was ordering tea!
"I could scarcely say I know. I really could not put my finger upon it," he said at last. "There was a general atmosphere of confusion, or so it seemed to me. We—we discussed marriage."
"I hope the old dear didn't think you were proposing to her?"
"Good heavens—oh, no! no! I don't quite know what she thought." (He lowered his eyes.) "But it wasn't that."
"That's a mercy at any rate!"
Braybrooke still kept his eyes on the ground, but a dogged look came into his face, and he said, speaking more resolutely:
"I'm afraid I alarmed dear Miss Cronin."
"How perfectly splendid!" said Miss Van Tuyn.
"She is very fond of you."
"Much fonder of Bourget!"
"I don't think so," he said, with emphasis. "She is so devoted to you that quite inadvertently I alarmed her. After all, we were—we were"—nobly he decided to take the dreadful plunge—"we were two elderly people talking together as elderly people will, I thought quite freely and frankly, and I ventured—do forgive me—to hint that a great many men must wish to marry you; young men suited to you, promising men, men with big futures before them, anxious for a brilliant and beautiful wife."
"That was very charming and solicitous of you," said Miss Van Tuyn with a smile. "But I don't know that they do!"
"Do what?" said Braybrooke, almost losing his head, as he saw the vision in the distance, now cloaked and gloved, rustling in an evident preparation for something, which might be departure or might on the other hand be approach.
She observed him with a definite surprise, which she seemed desirous of showing.
"I was alluding to the promising men," she said.
"Which men?" asked Braybrooke, still hypnotized by the vision.
"The men with big futures before them who you were kind enough to tell Fanny were longing to marry me."
"Oh, yes!" (With a great effort he pulled himself together.) "Those men to be sure!"
The vision was now standing up and apparently disputing the bill, for it was evidently talking at great length to a man in livery, who had a slip of paper in his hand, and who occasionally pointed to it in a resentful manner and said something, whereupon the vision made negative gestures and there was much tossing and shaking of heads. Resolutely Braybrooke looked away. It was nothing to do with him even if the Ritz was trying to make an overcharge for plum cake.
"I just hinted that there must be men who—but you understand?"
Miss Van Tuyn smiled unembarrassed assent.
"And then Miss Cronin"—he lowered his voice—"seemed thoroughly upset. I scarcely knew what she thought I meant, but whatever it was I had not meant it. That is certain. But the fact is she is so devoted to you that the mere fact of your some day doing what all lovely and charming women are asked to do and usually consent to do—but—but Miss Cronin seems to—I think she wants to say something to you."
Miss Van Tuyn looked suddenly rather rebellious. She did not glance towards the Philadelphia school friends, but turned her shoulder towards them and said:
"Naturally my marriage would make a great difference to Fanny, but I have never known her to worry about it."
"She is worrying now!" said poor Braybrooke, with earnest conviction. "But really she—I am sure she wishes to speak to you."
The line showed itself in Miss Van Tuyn's forehead.
"Will you be kind and just go and ask her what she wants? Please tell her that I am not coming back yet as I am going to call on Lady Sellingworth when I leave here."
Braybrooke got up, trying to conceal his reluctance to obey. Miss Cronin, entrenched as it were behind her old school friend, and with dawnings of the dragon visible beneath her feathered hat, and even, strangely, mysteriously, underneath her long cloak of musquash, was endeavouring by signs and wonders to attract her Beryl's attention, while Mrs. Clem Hodson stood looking imperious, and ready for any action that would prove her solidarity with her old schoolmate.
"What she wants—and you are going to call on Lady Sellingworth!" said Braybrooke.
"Yes; and to-night I'm dining out."
"Dining out to-night—just so."
There was no further excuse for delay, and he went towards the two old ladies, a grievous ambassador. It really had been the most unpleasant afternoon he remembered to have spent. He began to feel almost in fault, almost as if he had done—or at the least had contemplated doing—something outrageous, something for which he deserved the punishment which was now being meted out to him. As he slowly approached Miss Cronin he endeavoured resolutely to bear himself like a man who had not proposed that day for Miss Van Tuyn's hand. But preposterously, Miss Cronin's absurd misconception seemed to have power over his conscience, and that again over his appearance and gait. He was fully aware, as he went forward to convey Miss Van Tuyn's message, that he made a very poor show of it. In fact, he was just then living up to Dick's description of him as "the beard with the gentleman."
"Oh, Mr. Braybrooke," said Miss Cronin as he came up, "so you are here with Beryl!"
"Yes; so I am here with Miss Van Tuyn!"
Miss Cronin exchanged a glance with Mrs. Clem Hodson.
"You didn't tell me when you called that you were taking her out to tea!"
"No, I didn't!" said Braybrooke.
"This is my old schoolmate, Mrs. Clem Hodson. Suzanne, this is Mr. Braybrooke, a friend of Beryl's."
Mrs. Clem Hodson bowed from the waist, and looked at Braybrooke with the expression of one who knew a great deal more about him than his own mother knew.
"This hotel overcharges," she said firmly.
"Really! I should have scarcely have thought—"
"There were two pieces of plum cake on the bill, and we only ate one."
"Oh, I've just remembered," said Miss Cronin, as if irradiated with sudden light.
"I did have two slices. One was before the muffin, while we were waiting for it, and the other was after. And I only remembered the second."
"In that case, dear, we've done the waiter an injustice and libelled the hotel."
"I will make it all right if you will allow me," said Braybrooke almost obsequiously. "I'm well known here. I will explain to the manager, a most charming man."
He turned definitely to face Fanny Cronin.
"Miss Van Tuyn asked me to tell you what she wants."
"Indeed! Does she want something?"
"No. I mean she told me to ask you what you want."
Miss Cronin looked at Mrs. Clem Hodson, hesitated, and then made a very definite rabbit's mouth.
"I don't know that I want anything, thank you, Mr. Braybrooke. But if Beryl is going—she is not going?"
"I really don't know exactly."
"She hasn't finished her tea, perhaps?"
"I don't know for certain. But she asked me to tell you she wasn't coming back yet"—the two old ladies exchanged glances which Braybrooke longed to contradict—"as she is going to call on Lady Sellingworth presently."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Clem Hodson, gazing steadily at Fanny Cronin.
"In Berkeley Square!" added Braybrooke emphatically. "And to-night she is dining out."
"Did she say where?" asked Miss Cronin, slightly moving her ears.
"No; she didn't."
"Thank you," said Miss Cronin. "Good-bye, Mr. Braybrooke."
She held out her hand like one making a large and difficult concession to her own Christianity. Mrs. Clem Hodson bowed again from the waist and also made a concession. She muttered, "Very glad to have met you!" and then cleared her throat, while the criss-cross of wrinkles moved all over her face.
"I will make it all right with the manager," said Braybrooke, with over-anxious earnestness, and feeling now quite definitely that he must really have proposed to Miss Cronin for Miss Van Tuyn's hand that afternoon, and that he must have just lied about the disposal of her time until she had to dress for dinner.
"The manager?" said Miss Cronin.
"What manager?" said Mrs. Clem Hodson.
"About the plum cake! Surely you remember?"
"Oh—the plum cake!" said Mrs. Hodson, looking steadily at Fanny Cronin. "Thank you very much indeed! Very good of you!"
"Thank you," said Miss Cronin, with a sudden piteous look. "I did eat two slices. Come, Suzanne! Good-bye again, Mr. Braybrooke."
They turned to go out. As Braybrooke watched the musquash slowly vanishing he knew in his bones that, when he did not become engaged to Miss Van Tuyn, Fanny Cronin, till the day of her death, would feel positive that he had proposed to her that afternoon and had been rejected. And he muttered in his beard:
"Damn these red-headed old women! I will not make it all right with the manager about the plum cake!"
It was a poor revenge, but the only one he could think of at the moment.
"Is anything the matter?" asked Miss Van Tuyn when he rejoined her. "Has old Fanny been tiresome?"
"Oh, no—no! But old Fan—I beg your pardon, I mean Miss Cronin—Miss Cronin has a peculiar—but she is very charming. I gave her your message, and she quite understood. We were talking about plum cake. That is why I was so long."
"I see! A fascinating subject like that must be difficult to get away from."
"Yes—very! What a delightful woman Mrs. Hodson is."
"I think her extremely wearisome. Her nature is as wrinkled as her face. And now I must be on my way to Adela Sellingworth's."
"May I walk with you as far as her door?"
When they were out in Piccadilly he said:
"And now what about my promise to Mr. Craven?"
"I shall be delighted to meet him again," said Miss Van Tuyn in a careless voice. "And I would not have you break a promise on my account. Such a sacred thing!"
"But if he bores you—"
"He doesn't bore me more than many young men do."
"Then I will let you know. We might have a theatre party."
"Anything you like. And why not ask Adela Sellingworth to make a fourth?"
This suggestion was not at all to Braybrooke's liking, but he scarcely knew what to say in answer to it. Really, it seemed as if this afternoon was to end as it had begun—in a contretemps.
"I am so fond of her," continued Miss Van Tuyn. "And I'm sure she would enjoy it."
"But she so seldom goes out."
"All the more reason to try to persuade her out of her shell. I believe she will come if you tell her I and Mr. Craven make up the rest of the party. We all got on so well together in Soho."
"I will certainly ask her," said Braybrooke.
What else could he say?
At the corner of Berkeley Square Miss Van Tuyn stopped and rather resolutely bade him good-bye.
When Braybrooke was alone he felt almost tired out. If he had been an Italian he would probably have believed that someone had looked on him that day with the evil eye. He feared that he had been almost maladroit. His social self-confidence was severely shaken. And yet he had only meant well; he had only been trying to do what he considered his duty. It had all begun with Miss Cronin's preposterous mistake. That had thoroughly upset him, and from that moment he had not been in possession of his normal means. And now he was let in for a party combining Adela Sellingworth with Miss Van Tuyn and Craven. It was singularly unfortunate. But probably Lady Sellingworth would refuse the invitation he now had to send her. She really went out very seldom. He could only hope for a refusal. That, too, was tragic. He could not remember ever before having actively wished that an invitation of his should be declined.
He was so reduced in self-confidence and spirits that he turned into the St. James's Club, sank down alone in a remote corner, and called for a dry Martini, although he knew quite well that it would set up fermentation.
Lady Sellingworth was "not at home" when Miss Van Tuyn called, though no doubt she was in the house, and the latter left her card, on which she wrote in pencil, "So sorry not to find you. Do let us meet again soon. I may not be in London much longer." When she wrote the last sentence she was really thinking of Paris with a certain irritation of desire. In Paris she always had a good, even a splendid, time. London was treating her badly. Perhaps it was hardly worth while to stay on. She had many adorers in Paris, and no elderly women there ever got in her way. Frenchmen never ran after elderly women. She could not conceive of any young Frenchman doing what Craven had done if offered the choice between a girl of twenty-two and a woman of sixty. Englishmen really were incomprehensible. Was it worth while to bother about them? Probably not. But she was by nature combative as well as vain, and Craven's behaviour had certainly given him a greater value in her estimation. If he had done the quite ordinary thing, and fallen in love with her at once, she might have been pleased and yet have thought very little of him. He would then have been in a class with many others. Now he was decidedly in a class by himself. If he loved he would not be an ordinary lover. She was angry with him. She intended some day to punish him. But he puzzled her, and very definitely now he attracted her.
No; really she would not go back to Paris of the open arms and the comprehensible behaviour without coming to conclusions with Craven. To do so would be to retreat practically beaten from the field, and she had never yet acknowledged a defeat.
Besides, she had something in prospect, something that for the moment, at any rate, would hold her in London even without the attraction, half repellent, of Craven. Evidently Dick Garstin, for whatever reason, had done something, or was about to do something, for her. Always he managed to be irritating. It was just like him to spend two hours alone with her without saying one word about the living bronze, and then to rouse her curiosity when it was impossible that it should be gratified owing to the presence of Braybrooke. Garstin could never do anything in a pleasant and comfortable way. He must always, even in kindness, be semi-malicious. There was at times something almost Satanic in his ingenious avoidance of the common humanities. But it seemed that he was about to comply with her expressed whim. He had surely spoken to the Cafe Royal man, and had perhaps already received from him a promise to visit the studio.
She had not seen the stranger again. He had not been at the Cafe Royal on the night when she had dined there alone. But Garstin must have seen him again, unless, indeed, Garstin was being absolutely disgusting, was condescending to a cheap and vulgar hoax.
That was just possible. But somehow she believed in Garstin this time. She felt almost sure that he had done what she wished, and that to-morrow afternoon in Glebe Place she would meet the man to whom she had offered the shilling.
That would be distinctly amusing. She felt on the edge of a rather uncommon adventure.
On the following day, very soon after three, she pushed the bell outside Garstin's studio door in Glebe Place. It was not answered immediately, and, feeling impatient, she rang again without waiting long. Garstin opened the door, and smiled rather maliciously on seeing her.
"What a hurry you're in!" he said. "Come along in, my girl."
As he shut the heavy door behind her she turned in the lobby and said:
"I'm working in the upstairs studio," he returned blandly.
"What are you at work on?"
"Go up and you'll see for yourself."
She hastened through the studio on the ground floor, which was hung with small landscapes, and sketches in charcoal, and audacious caricatures of various well-known people. At the end of it was a short and wide staircase. She mounted it swiftly, and came into another large studio built out at the back of the building. Here Garstin worked on his portraits, and here she expected to come face to face with the living bronze. As she drew near to the entrance of the studio she felt positive that he was waiting for her. But when she reached it and looked quickly and expectantly round she saw at once that the great room was empty. Only the few portraits on easels and on the pale walls looked at her with the vivid eyes which Garstin knew how to endow with an almost abnormal life.
Evidently Garstin had stopped below for a moment in the ground floor studio, but she now heard his heavy tramp on the stairs behind her and turned almost angrily.
"Dick, is this intended for a joke?"
"What do you mean by 'this'?"
"You know! Have you brought me here under false pretences? You know quite well why I came."
"Why don't you take off your hat?"
But for once Miss Van Tuyn's vanity was not on the alert; for once she did not care whether Garstin admired her head or not.
"I shall not take off my hat," she said brusquely. "I don't intend to stay unless there is the reason which I expected and which induced me to come here. Have you seen that remarkable-looking man again or not?"
"I have," said Garstin with a mischievous smile.
Miss Van Tuyn looked slightly mollified, but still uncertain.
"Did you speak to him?" she asked.
"What did he say?"
"I told him to come along to the studio."
"You did! And—?"
"Why don't you take off your hat?"
"Because it suits me particularly well. Now tell me at once, don't be malicious and tiresome—are you expecting him?"
"I couldn't say that."
"You are not expecting him!"
"My good girl, we expect from those we rely on. What do I know about this fellow's character? I told him who I was, and what I wanted with him, and that I wanted it with him at three this afternoon. He's got the address. But whether we have any reason to expect him is more than I can say."
She looked quickly at the watch on her wrist.
"It is past three. I was late."
After an instant of silence she sat down on an old-fashioned sofa covered with dull green and red silk. Just behind it on an easel stood a half-finished portrait of the Cora woman, staring with hungry eyes over an empty tumbler.
"Give me a cigarette, Dick," she said. "Did he say he would come?"
The painter went over to an old Spanish cabinet and rummaged for a box of cigarettes, with his horsey-looking back turned towards her.
"Did he?" she repeated. "Can't you tell me what happened when you spoke to him? Why force me to cross-examine you in this indelicate way?"
"Here you are!" said Garstin, turning round with a box of cigarettes.
"I gave him my name."
"He knew it, of course?"
"He didn't say so. There was no celebrity-start of pleasure. I had to explain that I occasionally painted portraits and that I wished to make a study of his damned remarkable head. Upon that he handed me his card. Here it is."
And Garstin drew out of a side pocket a visiting-card, which he gave to Miss Van Tuyn.
She read: "Nicolas Arabian."
There was no address in the corner.
"What a curious name!"
She sat gazing at the card and smoking her cigarette.
"Do you know where he is staying?"
"Did you speak English to him?"
"And he spoke good English?"
"Yes, with a foreign accent of some kind."
At this moment an electric bell sounded below.
"There he is!" said Miss Van Tuyn, quickly giving back the card to Garstin, who dropped it into his pocket. "Do go down quickly and let him in, or he may think it is all a hoax and go away."
The painter stood looking at her keenly, with his hands in his pockets and his strong, thin legs rather wide apart.
"Well, at any rate you're damned unconventional!" he said. "At this moment you even look unconventional. What are your eyes shining about?"
She laid a hand on his arm. There was a strong grip in her fingers.
"This is a little adventure. And I love an adventure," she said.
"I only hope it ends badly," said Garstin, as he turned towards the staircase. "He's more patient than you. He hasn't rung twice."
"I believe he's gone away," she said, almost angrily as he disappeared down the stairs.
She got up. There was a grand piano in the studio at the far end. She moved as if she were going towards it, then returned and went to the head of the stairs. She heard the front door open and listened. Dick Garstin's big bass voice said in an offhand tone:
"Halloh! Thought you weren't coming! Glad to see you. Come along in!"
"I know I am late," said a warm voice—the voice of a man. "For me this place has been rather difficult to find. I am not well acquainted with the painters' quarter of London."
A door banged heavily. Then Miss Van Tuyn heard steps, and again the warm voice saying:
"I see you do caricatures. Or are these not by you?"
"Every one of them!" said Garstin. "Except that. That's a copy I made of one of Leonardo's horrors. It's fine. It's a thing to live with."
"Leonardo—ah, yes!" said the voice.
"I wonder if that man has ever heard of Leonardo?" was Miss Van Tuyn's thought just then.
"Up those stairs right ahead of you," said Garstin.
Miss Van Tuyn quickly drew back and sat down again on the sofa. An instant after she had done so the living bronze appeared at the top of the stairs, and his big brown eyes rested on her. No expression either of surprise, or of anything else, came into his face as he saw her. And she realized immediately that whatever else this man was he was supremely self-possessed. Yet he had turned away from her shilling. Why was that? In that moment she began to wonder about him. He stood still, waiting for Garstin to join him. As he did this he looked formal but amazingly handsome, though there were some lines about his eyes which she had not noticed in the Cafe Royal. He was dressed in a dark town suit and wore a big double-breasted overcoat. He was holding a black bowler hat, a pair of thick white gloves and a silver-topped stick. As Garstin joined him, Miss Van Tuyn slowly got up from her sofa.
"A friend of mine—Beryl Van Tuyn," said Garstin. "Come to have a look round at what I'm up to." (He glanced at Miss Van Tuyn.) "Mr. Arabian," he added. "Take off your coat, won't you? Throw it anywhere."
Arabian bowed to Miss Van Tuyn, still looking formal and as if she were a total stranger whom he had never set eyes on before. She bowed to him. As she did so she thought that he was a little older than she had supposed. He was certainly over thirty. She wondered about his nationality and suspected that very mixed blood ran in his veins. Somehow, in spite of his quite extraordinary good looks, she felt almost certain that he was not a pure type of any nation. In her mind she dubbed him on the spot "a marvellous mongrel."
He obeyed Garstin's suggestion, took off his coat, and laid it with his hat, gloves and stick on a chair close to the staircase. Then for the first time he spoke to Miss Van Tuyn, who was still standing.
"I always love a studio, mademoiselle," he said, "and when Mr. Dick Garstin"—he pronounced the name with careful clearness—"was good enough to invite me to his I was very thankful. His pictures are famous."
"You've been getting me up," said Garstin bluntly. "Reading 'Who's Who'!"
Arabian raised his eyebrows.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Don't be absurd and put on false modesty, Dick," said Miss Van Tuyn. "As if you weren't known to everyone!"
It was the first time she had spoken in Arabian's hearing since the episode in Shaftesbury Avenue, and, as she uttered her first words, she thought she detected a faint and fleeting look of surprise—it was like a mental start made visible—slip over his face, like a ray of pale light slipping over a surface. Immediately afterwards a keen expression came into his eyes, and he looked rather more self-possessed than before, rather harder even.
"Everyone, of course, knows your name, Mr. Dick Garstin, as mademoiselle says."
"Right you are!" said Garstin gruffly. "Glad to hear it!"
He now directed the two pin-points of light to the new visitor, stared at him with almost cruel severity, and yet with a curiously inward look, frowning and lifting his long pursed lips, till the upper lip was pressed against the bottom of his beaked nose.
"Are you going to allow me to paint you?" he said. "That's what I'm after. I should like to do a head and bust of you. I could make something of it—something—yes!"
He still stared with concentrated attention, and suddenly a faint whistle came from his lips. Without removing his eyes from Arabian he whistled several times a little tune of five notes, like the song of a thrush. Arabian meanwhile returned his gaze rather doubtfully, slightly smiling.
"Ever been painted?" said Garstin at last.
"No, never. Once I have sat to a sculptor for the figure. But that was when I was very young. I was something of an athlete as a boy."
"I should say so," said Garstin. "Well, what do you think, eh?"
Miss Van Tuyn had sat down on the sofa again, and was lighting another cigarette. She looked at the two men with interest. She now knew that what Garstin had done he had really done for himself, not for her. As he had said, he did not paint for the pleasure of others, but only for reasons of his own. Apparently he would never gratify her vanity. But he gratified something else in her, her genuine love of talent and the ruthlessness of talent. There was really something of the great man in Garstin, and she appreciated it. She admired him more than she liked him. Even in her frequent irritation against him she knew what he genuinely was. At this moment something in her was sharply disappointed. But something else in her was curiously satisfied.
In reply to Garstin's question Arabian asked another question.
"You wish to make a portrait of me?"
"I do—in oils."
"Will it take long?"
"I couldn't say. I might be a week over it, or less, or more. I shall want you every day."
"And when it is done?" said Arabian. "What happens to it?"
"If it's up to the mark—my mark—I shall want to exhibit it."
Arabian said nothing for a moment. He seemed to be thinking rather seriously, and presently his large eyes turned towards Miss Van Tuyn for an instant, almost, she thought, as if they wished to consult her, to read in her eyes something which might help him to a decision. She felt that the man was flattered by Garstin's request, but she felt also that something—she did not know what—held him back from granting it. And again she wondered about him.
What was he? She could not divine. She looked at him and felt that she was looking at a book not one of whose pages she could read. And yet she thought he had what is sometimes called an "open" face. There was nothing sly in the expression of his eyes. They met other eyes steadily, sometimes with a sort of frank audacity, sometimes with—apparently—an almost pleading wistfulness.
Finally, as if coming to a conclusion as to what he considered it wise to do for the moment, Arabian said:
"Excuse me, but are these pictures which I see portraits painted by you?"
"Every one of them," said Garstin, rather roughly and impatiently.
"Will you allow me to look at them?"
"They're there to be looked at."
Again Arabian glanced at Miss Van Tuyn. She got up from the sofa quickly.
"I will show Mr. Arabian the pictures," she said.
She had noticed the cloud lowering on Garstin's face and knew that he was irritated by Arabian's hesitation. As Garstin had once said to her he could be "sensitive," although his manners were often rough, and his face was what is usually called a "hard" face. And he was quite unaccustomed to meet with any resistance, even with any hesitation, when he was disposed to paint anyone, man or woman. Besides, the fact of Arabian's arrival at the studio had naturally led Garstin to expect compliance with his wish already expressed at the Cafe Royal. He was now obviously in a surly temper, and Miss Van Tuyn knew from experience that when resisted he was quite capable of an explosion. How, she wondered, would Arabian face an outburst from Garstin? She could not tell. But she thought it wise if possible to avoid anything disagreeable. So she came forward smiling.
"That will be very kind," said Arabian, in his soft and warm voice, and with his marked but charming foreign accent. "I am not expert in these matters."
Garstin pushed up his lips in a sort of sneer. Miss Van Tuyn sent him a look, and for once he heeded a wish of hers.
"I'll be back in a minute," he said. "Have a good stare at my stuff, and if you don't like it—why, damn it, you're free to say so."
Miss Van Tuyn's look had sent him away down the stairs to the ground floor studio. Arabian had not missed her message, but he was apparently quite impassive, and did not show that he had noticed the painter's ill humour.
For the first time Miss Van Tuyn was quite alone with the living bronze.
"Do you know much about pictures?" she asked him.
"Not very much," he answered, with a long, soft look at her. "I have only one way to judge them."
"And what way is that?"
"If they are portraits, I mean."
"I judge them by their humanity. One does not want to be made worse than one is in a picture."
"I'm afraid you won't like Dick Garstin's work," she said decisively.
She was rather disappointed. Had this audaciously handsome man a cult for the pretty-pretty?
"Let us see!" he replied, smiling.
He looked round the big studio. As he did so she noticed that he had an extraordinarily quick and all-seeing glance, and realized that in some way, in some direction, he must be clever, even exceptionally clever. There were some eight to ten portraits in the studio, a few finished, others half finished or only just begun. Arabian went first to stand before the finished portrait of a girl of about eighteen, whose face was already plainly marked—blurred, not sharpened—by vice. Her youth seemed obscured by a faint fog of vice—as if she had projected it, and was slightly withdrawn behind it. Arabian looked at her in silence. Miss Van Tuyn watched him, standing back, not quite level with him. And she saw on his face an expression that suggested to her a man contemplating something he was very much at home with.
"That is a bad girl!" was his only comment, as he moved on to the next picture.
This was also the portrait of a woman, but of a woman well on in life, an elderly and battered siren of the streets, wrecked by men and by drink. Only the head and bust were shown, a withered head crowning a bust which had sunken in. There was an old pink hat set awry on the head. From beneath it escaped coarse wisps of almost orange-coloured hair. The dull, small eyes were deep-set under brows which looked feverish. A livid spot of red glowed almost like a torch-end on each high cheek-bone. The mouth had fallen open.
Arabian examined this tragedy, which was one of Garstin's finest bits of work in Miss Van Tuyn's estimation, with careful and close attention, but without showing the faintest symptom of either pity or disgust.
"In my opinion that is well painted," was his comment. "They do get to be like that. And then they starve. And that is because they have no brains."
"Garstin swears that woman must once have been very beautiful," said Miss Van Tuyn.
"Oh—quite possible," said Arabian.
"Well, I can't conceive it."
He turned and gave her a long, steady look, full of softness and ardour.
"It would be very sad if you could," he said. "Excuse me, but are you American?"
"Well, Americans never get like that. They are too practical."
"And not romantic—do you mean?" she said, not without irony.
"They can be romantic, but they save themselves from disaster with their practical sense. I hope I put it right."
She smiled at him.
"You speak very good English. What do you think of this?"
"But I have seen her!" he said.
They had come to the easel on which was the half-finished portrait of Cora, staring across her empty glass.
"She goes to the Cafe Royal."
He looked again at Miss Van Tuyn.
"Do you ever go there?" he asked gravely.
"No, never," she said with calm simplicity, returning his gaze.
"Well she—that woman—sits there alone just like that. She has a purpose. She is waiting for someone to come in who will come some night. And she knows that, and will wait, like a dog before a hole which contains something he intends to kill. This Mr. Dick Garstin is very clever. He is more than a painter; he is an understander."
"Ah!" she said, intimately pleased by this remark. "You do appreciate him! Garstin is great because he paints not merely for the eye that looks for a sort of painted photograph, but for the eye that demands a summing up of character."
Arabian looked sideways at her.
"What is that—of character, mademoiselle?"
"A summing up! That is a presentation of the sum total of the character."
He looked again at Cora.
"One knows what she is by that," he said.
Then, standing still, he looked rapidly all round the studio, glancing first at one portrait then at another, with eyes which despite their lustrous softness, seemed to make a sort of prey of whatever they lighted on.
"But they are all women and all of a certain world!" he said, almost suspiciously. "Why is that?"
"Garstin is passing through a phase just now. He paints from the Cafe Royal."
He paused, and his brown face took on a look of rather hard meditation.
"Does he never paint what they call decent people?" he inquired. "One may occasionally spend an hour at the Cafe Royal—especially if one is not English—without belonging to the bas-fonds. I do not know whether Mr. Dick Garstin understands that."
"Of course he does," she said, instantly grasping the meaning of his hesitation. "But there is one portrait—of a man—which I don't think you have looked at."
"On that big easel with its back to us. If you want a decent person"—she spoke with a slightly ironical intonation—"go and see what Garstin can do with decency."
And he walked over to the side of the room opposite to the grand piano, and went to stand in front of the easel she had indicated. She stood where she was and watched him. For two or three minutes he looked at the picture in silence, and she thought his expression had become slightly hostile. His audacious and rather thick lips were set together firmly, almost too firmly. His splendid figure supple, athletic and harmonious, looked almost rigid. She wondered what he was feeling, whether he disliked the portrait of the judge of the Criminal Court at which he was looking. Finally he said:
"I think Mr. Dick Garstin is a humorist. Do not you?"
"To put this gentleman in the midst of all the law breakers."
Miss Van Tuyn crossed the room and joined him in front of the picture, which showed the judge seated in his wig and robes.
"And that is not all," added Arabian. "This man's business is to judge others, naughty people who do God knows what, and, it seems, have to be punished sometimes. Is it not?"
"Yes, to be sure."
"But Mr. Dick Garstin when painting him is saying to himself all the time, 'And he is naughty, too! And who is going to put on wig and red clothes and tell him he, too, deserves a few months of prison?' Now is not that true, mademoiselle? Is not that man bad underneath the judge's skin? And has not Mr. Dick Garstin found this out, and does not he use all his cleverness to show it?"
Miss Van Tuyn looked at Arabian with a stronger interest than any she had shown yet. It was quite true. Garstin had a peculiar faculty for getting at the lower parts of a character and for bringing it to the surface in his portraits. Perhaps in the exercise of this faculty he showed his ingrained cynicism, sometimes even his malice. Arabian had, it seemed, immediately discovered the painter's predominant quality as a psychologist of the brush.
"You are quite right," she said. "One feels that someone ought to judge that judge."
"That is more than a portrait of one man," said Arabian. "It is a portrait of the world's hypocrisy."
In saying this his usually soft voice suddenly took on an almost biting tone.
"The question is," he added, "whether one wishes to be painted as bad when perhaps one is not so bad. Many people, I think, might fear to be painted by this very famous Mr. Dick Garstin."
"Would you be afraid to be painted by him?" she said.
He cast a sharp glance at her with eyes which looked suddenly vigilant.
"I did not say that."
"He'll be furious if you refuse."
"I see he is accustomed generally to have what he wishes."
"Yes. And he would make a magnificent thing of you. I am certain of that."
She saw vanity looking out of his eyes, and her vanity felt suddenly almost strangely at home with it.
"It is a compliment, I know, that he should wish to paint me," said Arabian. "But why does he?"
The question sounded to Miss Van Tuyn almost suspicious.
"He admires your appearance," she answered. "He thinks you a very striking type."
"Ah! A type! But what of?"
"He didn't tell me," she answered.
Arabian was silent for a moment; then he said:
"Does Mr. Dick Garstin get high prices for his portraits? Are they worth a great deal?"
"Yes," she said, with a sudden light touch of disdain, which she could not forego. "The smallest sketch of a head painted by him will fetch a lot of money."
"Let him paint you! There he is—coming back."
As Garstin reappeared Arabian turned to him with a smile that looked cordial and yet that seemed somehow wanting in real geniality.
"I have seen them all."
"Have you? Well, let's have a drink."
He went over to the Spanish cabinet and brought out of it a flagon of old English glass ware, soda-water, and three tall tulip-shaped glasses with long stems.
"Come on. Let's sit down," he said, setting them down on a table. "I'll get the cigars. Squat here, Beryl. Here's a chair for you, Arabian. Help yourselves."
He moved off and returned with a box of his deadly cigars. Arabian took one without hesitation, and accepted a stiff whisky and soda. While he had been downstairs Garstin had apparently recovered his good humour, or had deliberately made up his mind to take a certain line with his guest from the Cafe Royal. He said nothing about his pictures, made no further allusion to his wish to paint Arabian's portrait, but flung himself down, lit a cigar, and began to drink and smoke and talk, very much as if he were in the bar of an inn with a lot of good fellows. When he chose Garstin could be human and genial, at times even rowdy. He was genial enough now, but Miss Van Tuyn, who was very sharp about almost everything connected with people, thought of a patient's first visit to a famous specialist, and of the quarter of an hour so often apparently wasted by the great physician as he talks about topics unconnected with symptoms to his anxious visitor. She was certain that Garstin was determined to paint Arabian whether the latter was willing to be painted or not, and she was equally certain that already Garstin had begun to work on his sitter, not with brushes but with the mind. For his own benefit, and incidentally for hers, Garstin was carelessly, but cleverly, trying to find out things about Arabian, not things about his life, but things about his education, and his mind and his temperament. He did not ask him vulgar questions. He just talked, and watched, and occasionally listened in the midst of the cigar smoke, and often with the whisky at his lips.
She had refused to take any whisky, but smoked cigarette after cigarette quickly, nervously almost. She was enjoying herself immensely, but she felt unusually excited, mentally restless, almost mentally agitated. Her usual coolness of mind had been changed into a sort of glow by Garstin and the living bronze. She always liked being alone with men, hearing men talk among themselves or talking with them free from the presence of women. But to-day she was exceptionally stimulated for she was exceptionally curious. There was something in Arabian which vaguely troubled her, and which also enticed her almost against her will. And now she was following along a track, pioneered by a clever and cunning leader.
Garstin talked about London, which Arabian apparently knew fairly well, though he said he had never lived long in London; then about Paris, which Arabian also knew and spoke of like a man who visited it now and then for purposes of pleasure. Then Garstin spoke of the art he followed, of the old Italian painters and of the Galleries of Italy. Arabian became very quiet. His attitude and bearing were those of one almost respectfully listening to an expert holding forth on a subject he had made his own. Now and then he said something non-committal. There was no evidence that he had any knowledge of Italian pictures, that he could distinguish between a Giovanni Bellini and a Raphael, tell a Luini from a Titian.
Miss Van Tuyn wondered again whether he had ever heard of Leonardo.
Garstin mentioned some Paris painters of the past, but of more recent times than those of the grand old Italians, spoke of Courbet, of Manet, of Renoir, Guilaumin, Sisley, the Barbizon school, Cezanne and his followers. Finally he came to the greatest of the French Impressionist painters, to Pissaro, for whom, as Miss Van Tuyn knew, he had an admiration which amounted almost to a cult.
"He's a glorious fellow, isn't he?" he said in his loud bass voice to Arabian. "You know his 'Pont Neuf,' of course?"
He did not wait for an answer, but drove on with immense energy, puffing away at his cigar and turning his small, keen eyes swiftly from Arabian to Miss Van Tuyn and back again. The talk, which was now a monologue, fed by frequent draughts of the excellent whisky, included a dissertation on Pissaro's oil paintings, his water-colours, his etchings and lithographs, his pupils, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, his friendships, his troubles, and finally a paean on his desperate love of work, which was evidently shared by the speaker.
"Work—it's the thing in life!" roared Garstin. "It's the great consolation for all the damnableness of the human existence. Work first and the love of women second!"
"Thank you very much for your chivalry, Dick," said Miss Van Tuyn, sending one of her most charming blue glances to the living bronze, who returned it, almost eagerly, she thought.
"And the love of women betrays," continued Garstin. "But work never lets you down."
He flung out his right arm and quoted sonorously from Pissaro: "I paint portraits because doing it helps me to live!" he almost shouted. "Another cigar!" He turned to Arabian.
"Thank you. They are beauties and not too strong."
"You've got a damned strong constitution if you can say that. You have been like me; you have fortified it by work."
"I fear not," he said with a smile. "I have been a flaneur, an idler. It has been my great misfortune to have enough money for what I want without working."
"Like poor me!" said Miss Van Tuyn, feeling suddenly relieved.
"I pity you both!" said Garstin.
And he branched away to literature, to music, to sculpture. Lowering his big voice suddenly he spoke of the bronzes of the Naples Museum, half shutting his eyes till they were two narrow slits, and looking intently at Arabian.
"You have the throat of one of those bronzes," he said bluntly, "and should never wear that cursed abomination, a starched linen collar."
"What is one to do in London?" murmured Arabian, suddenly stretching his brown throat and lifting his strong chin.
"Show it something worth looking at," said Garstin.
And he returned to the subject of women, and spoke on it so freely and fully that Miss Van Tuyn presently pulled him up. Rather to her surprise he showed unusual meekness under her interruption.
"All right, my girl! I've done! I've done! But I always forget you're not a young man."
"Ma foi!" said Arabian, almost under his breath.
Garstin looked across at him
"She's a Tartar. She'd keep the devil himself in order."
"He deserves restraint far less than you do," said Miss Van Tuyn.
"She won't leave me alone," continued Garstin, flinging one leg over the arm of his easy chair. "She even attacks me about my painting, says I only paint the rats of the sewers."
"I never said that," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I said you were a painter of the underworld, and so you are."
"But Mr. Dick Garstin also paints judges, mademoiselle," said Arabian.
"Oh, lord! Drop the Mister! I'm Dick Garstin tout court or I'm nothing. Now, Arabian, you know the reason, part of the reason, why I want to stick you on canvas."
"You mean because—"
He seemed to hesitate, and touched his little Guardsman's moustache.
"Because you're a jolly fine subject and nothing to do with the darlings that live in the sewers."
"Ah! Thank you!" said Arabian. "But you paint judges."
"I only put that red-faced old ruffian here as a joke. Directly I set eyes on him I knew he ought to have been in quod himself! Come now, what do you say? Look here! I'll make a bargain with you. I'll give you the thing when it's done."
Miss Van Tuyn looked at Garstin in amazement, and missed the sudden gleam of light that came into Arabian's eyes. But Garstin did not miss it and repeated:
"I'll give you the thing! Now what do you say? Is it a bargain?"
"But how can I accept?" said Arabian, quickly adding: "And how can I refuse? Mr.—"
"Drop the Mister, I say."
"Dick Garstin then."
"I wish to tell you that I am not a connoisseur of art. On the other hand, please, I have an eye for what is fine. Mademoiselle, I hope, will say it is so?"
He looked at Miss Van Tuyn.
"Mr. Arabian made some remarkably cute remarks about the portraits, Dick," she said in reply to the glance.
"I care for a fine painting so much that really I do not know how to refuse the temptation you offer me—Dick Garstin."
Garstin poured himself out another whisky.
"I'll start on it to-morrow," he said, staring hard at the man who had now become definitely his subject.
Soon afterwards Arabian got up and said he must go. As he said this he looked pleadingly at Miss Van Tuyn. But she sat still in her chair, a cigarette between her lips. He said "good-bye" to her formally. Garstin went down with Arabian to let him out, and was away for three or four minutes. From her chair Miss Van Tuyn heard a murmur of voices, then presently a loud bass: "To-morrow morning at eleven sharp," then the bang of a door. A minute later Garstin bounded up the stairs heavily, yet with a strong agility.
"I've got him, my girl! He's afraid of it like the devil, but I've got him. I hit on the only way. I found the only bait which my fish would take. Now for another cigar."
He seized the box.
"Did you see his eyes when I said I'd give him the picture?"
"No; I was looking at you."
"Then you missed revelation. I had diagnosed him all right."
"Tell me your diagnosis."
"I told it you long ago. That fellow is a being of the underworld."
Miss Van Tuyn slightly reddened.
"I wonder!" she said. "I'm not at all sure that you're right, Dick."
"What did you gather when I put him through his paces just now?" he asked, sending out clouds of strong-smelling smoke.
"Oh, I don't know! Not very much. He seems to have been about, to have plenty of money."
"And no education. He doesn't know a thing about pictures, painters. Just at first I thought he might have been a model. Not a bit of it! Books mean nothing to him. What that chap has studied is the pornographic book of life, my girl. He has no imagination. His feeling runs straight in the direction of sensuality. He's as ignorant and as clever as they're made. He's never done a stroke of honest work in his life, and despises all those who are fools enough to toil, me among them. He is as acquisitive as a monkey and a magpie rolled into one. His constitution is made of iron, and I dare say his nerves are made of steel. He's a rare one, I tell you, and I'll make a rare picture of him."
"I don't know whether you are right, Dick."
Garstin seemed quite unaffected by her doubt of his power to read character. Perhaps at that moment he was coolly reading hers, and laughing to himself about women. But if so, he did not show it. And she said in a moment:
"You are really going to give him the portrait?"
"Yes, when I've exhibited it. Not before, of course. The gentleman isn't going to have it all his own way."
Miss Van Tuyn looked rather thoughtful, even preoccupied. Almost immediately afterwards she got up to go.
"Coming to-morrow?" he said.
"What—to see you paint?"
"You really mean that I may?"
"I do. You'll help me."
She looked rather startled, and then, immediately, keenly curious.
"I don't see how."
"No reason you should! Now off with you! I've got things to do."
As she was going away she stopped for a moment before the portrait of the judge.
"He found out why you painted that portrait."
"Arabian?" said Garstin.
"Yes. And he said something about it that wasn't stupid."
"What was that?"
"He said it was more than a portrait of one man, that it was a portrait of the world's hypocrisy."
"Damned good!" said Garstin with a sonorous chuckle. "And his portrait will be more than the portrait of one man."
"Yes?" she said, looking eagerly at him.
But he would not say anything more, and she went away full of deep curiosity, but thankful that she had decided to stay on in London.
Two days after the visit of Arabian to Dick Garstin's studio Lady Sellingworth received a note from Francis Braybrooke, who invited her to dine with him at the Carlton on the following evening, and to visit a theatre afterwards. "Our young friends, Beryl Van Tuyn and Alick Craven" would be of the party, he hoped. Lady Sellingworth had no engagement. She seldom left home in the evening. Yet she hesitated to accept this invitation. She had not seen Miss Van Tuyn since the evening in Soho, nor Braybrooke since his visit to Berkeley Square to tell her about his trip to Paris, but she had seen Craven three times, and each time alone. Their intimacy had deepened with a rapidity which now almost startled her as she thought of it, holding Braybrooke's unanswered note. Already it seemed very strange to recall the time when she had not known Craven, when she had never seen him, had never heard of him. Sixty years she had lived without this young man in her life. She could hardly believe that. And now, with this call to meet him in public, before very watchful eyes, and in the company of two people who she was sure were in different ways hostile to her intimacy with him, she felt the cold touch of fear. And she doubted what course to take.
She wondered why Braybrooke had asked her and suspected a purpose. In a moment she believed that she had guessed what that purpose was. Braybrooke was meditating a stroke against her. She had felt that in her drawing-room with him. For some reason—perhaps only that of a social busybody—he wanted to bring about a match between Craven and Miss Van Tuyn. He had said with emphasis that Craven had almost raved about the lovely American. Lady Sellingworth did not believe that assertion. She felt sure that when he had made it Braybrooke had told her a lie. Craven had amply proved to her his indifference towards Miss Van Tuyn. Braybrooke's lie surely indicated a desire to detach his old friend's attention from the young man he had introduced into her life, and must mean that he was a little afraid of her influence. It had been practically a suggestion to her that youth triumphant must win in any battle with old age; yet it had implied a doubt, if not an actual uneasiness. And now came this invitation to meet "our young friends." Lady Sellingworth thought of the contrast between herself and Beryl Van Tuyn. She had not worried about it in the Bella Napoli when she and the young friends were together. But now—things were different now. She had, or believed she had, something to lose. And she did not want to lose it. It would be horrible to lose it!
Perhaps Braybrooke wished Craven to see her with Beryl Van Tuyn in the glare of electric light. Perhaps that was the reason of this unexpected invitation. If so, it was an almost diabolically cruel reason.
She resolved to refuse the invitation. But again a voice through the telephone caused her to change her mind. And again it was Craven's voice. It asked her whether she had received an invitation from Braybrooke, and on her replying that she had, it begged her to accept it if she had not done so already. And she yielded. If Craven wished her to go she would go. Why should she be afraid? In her ugliness surely she triumphed as no beauty could ever triumph. She told herself that and for a moment felt reassured, more than reassured, safe and happy. For the inner thing, the dweller in the temple, felt that it, and it alone, was exercising intimate power. But then a look into the glass terrified her. And she sat down and wrote two notes. One was to Francis Braybrooke accepting the invitation; the other was to a man with a Greek name and was addressed to a house in South Moulton Street.
Francis Braybrooke felt rather uneasy about his party when the day came, but he was a man of the world, and resolved to "put a good face on it." No more social catastrophes for him! Another fiasco would, he was certain, destroy his nerve and render him quite unfit to retain his place in society. He pulled himself together, using his will to the uttermost, and dressed for dinner with a still determination to carry things through with a high hand. The worst of it was that he had an uneasy feeling—quite uncalled for, he was sure of that—of being a false friend. For Lady Sellingworth was his friend. He had known her for many years, whereas Craven and Beryl Van Tuyn were comparatively new-comers in his life. And yet he was engaged in something not quite unlike a conspiracy against this old friend. Craven had said she was lonely. Perhaps that was true. Women who lived by themselves generally felt lonelier than men in a like situation. Craven, perhaps, was bringing a little solace into this lonely life. And now he, Braybrooke, was endeavouring to make an end of that solace. For he quite understood that, women being as they are, a strong friendship between Adela Sellingworth and Craven was quite incompatible with a love affair between Craven and Beryl Van Tuyn. He hoped he was not a traitor as he carefully arranged his rather large tie. But anything was better than a tragedy. And with women of Adela Sellingworth's reputed temperament one never knew quite what might happen. Her emergence, after ten years, into Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho had severely shaken Braybrooke's faith in her sobriety, fostered though it had been, created even, by her ten years of distinguished retirement. Damped-down fires sometimes blaze forth unexpectedly and rage with fury. He hoped he was doing the right thing. Anyhow, it was not his fault that Lady Sellingworth was to be of his party tonight. Miss Van Tuyn was responsible for that.
He rang the bell, which was answered by his valet.
"Please fetch the theatre ticket, Walter. It is in the drawer of my writing-table in the library. A box for the Shaftesbury Theatre."
Walter went out and returned in a moment with the ticket. He was an old servant and occasionally exchanged ideas with his master. As he gave Braybrooke the envelope containing the ticket, he said:
"A very remarkable play, sir. I think you will enjoy it."
"What! Have you seen it?"
"Yes, sir, The Great Lover. My wife would go. She liked the name, sir. About a singer, sir, who kept on loving like a young man when the age for it was really what one might call over, sir. But it seems that for some it never is over, sir."
"Good heavens, have I done the wrong thing again?" thought Braybrooke, who had chosen the play almost at random, without knowing much about it except that an actor unknown to him, one Moscovitch, was said to be very fine in it.
"How old is the singer?" he inquired anxiously.
"I couldn't say for certain, sir. But somewhere in the forties, I should think, and nearing fifty. He loses his voice, sir, but still answers to young women at the telephone."
"But as my wife says, sir, with a man it's not such a great matter. But with a woman—well!"
He pursed his narrow lips and half-shut his small grey eyes.
"Ah!" said Braybrooke, feeling extremely uncomfortable. "Good night, Walter. You needn't sit up."
"Thank you, sir. Good night, sir."
"Really the evil eye must have looked at me!" thought Braybrooke, as he went downstairs. "I'm thoroughly out of luck."
He arrived in good time at the Carlton and waited for his guests in the Palm Court. Craven was the first to arrive. He looked cheerful and eager as he came in, and, Braybrooke thought, very young and handsome. He had got away from the F. O. that afternoon, he said, and had been down at Beaconsfield playing golf. Apparently his game had been unusually good and that fact had put him into spirits.