"There's nothing like being in form with one's drive for bucking one up!" he acknowledged.
And he broke out into an almost boyish paean in praise of golf.
"But I always thought you preferred lawn tennis!" said Braybrooke.
"Oh, I don't know! Yes, I'm as keen as ever on tennis, but anyone can play golf. Mrs. Sandhurst was out to-day playing a splendid game, and she's well over sixty. That's the best of golf. People can play, and play decently, too, up to almost any age."
"Well, but my dear boy you're not in the sixties yet!"
"No. But I wasn't thinking about myself."
Braybrooke looked at him rather narrowly, and wondered of whom he had been thinking. But he said nothing more, for at this moment Miss Van Tuyn appeared in the doorway at the end of the court. Braybrooke went to meet her, but Craven stayed were he was.
"Is Adela Sellingworth coming?" she asked instantly, as Braybrooke took her hand.
"She promised to come. I'm expecting her."
He made a movement, but she stood still, though they where close to the doorway.
"And what are we going to see?"
"A play called The Great Lover. Here is Alick Craven."
At this moment Craven joined them. Seeing Miss Van Tuyn standing still with a certain obstinacy he came up and took her hand.
"Nice to meet you again," he said.
Braybrooke thought of Miss Van Tuyn's remark about the Foreign Office manner, and hoped Craven was going to be at his best that evening. It seemed to him that there was a certain dryness in the young people's greeting. Miss Van Tuyn was looking lovely, and almost alarmingly youthful and self-possessed, in a white dress. Craven, fresh from his successes at golf, looked full of the open-air spirit and the robustness of the galloping twenties. In appearance the two were splendidly matched. The faint defiance which Braybrooke thought he detected in their eyes suited them both, giving to them just a touch of the arrogance which youth and health render charming, but which in old people is repellent and ugly. They wore it like a feather set at just the right rakish angle in a cap. Nevertheless, this slight dryness must be got rid of if the evening were to be a success, and Braybrooke set himself to the task of banishing it. He talked of golf. Like many American girls, Miss Van Tuyn was at home in most sports and games. She was a good whip, a fine skater and lawn tennis player, had shot and hunted in France, liked racing, and had learnt to play golf on the links at Cannes when she was a girl of fifteen. But to-night she was not enthusiastic about golf, perhaps because Craven was. She said it was an irritating game, that playing it much always gave people a worried look, that a man who had sliced his first drive was a bore for the rest of the day, that a woman whom you beat in a match tried to do you harm as long as you and she lived. Finally she said it was certainly a fine game, but a game for old people. Craven protested, but she held resolutely to her point. In other games—except croquet, which she frankly loathed in spite of its scientific possibilities—you moved quickly, were obliged to be perpetually on the alert. In tennis and lawn tennis, in racquets, in hockey, in cricket, you never knew what was going to happen, when you might have to do something, or make a swift movement, a dash here or there, a dive, a leap, a run. But in golf half your time was spent in solemnly walking—toddling, she chose to call it—from point to point. This was, no doubt, excellent for the health, but she preferred swiftness. But then she was only a light-footed girl, not an elderly statesman.
"When I play golf much I always begin to feel like a gouty Prime Minister who has been ordered to play for the good of the country," she said. "But when I'm an old woman I shall certainly play regularly for the sake of my figure and my complexion. When I am sixty you will probably see me every day on the links."
Braybrooke saw a cloud float over Craven's face as she said this, but it vanished as he looked away towards the hall. There, through the glass of the dividing screen, Lady Sellingworth's tall and thin figure, wrapped in a long cloak of dark fur, was visible, going with her careless, trampish walk to the ladies' cloak-room.
"Ah, there is Adela Sellingworth!" said Braybrooke.
Miss Van Tuyn turned quickly, with a charming, youthful grace, made up of a suppleness and litheness which suggested almost the movement of a fluid. Craven noted it with a little thrill of unexpected pleasure, against which an instant later something in him rebelled.
"Where is she?" said Miss Van Tuyn.
"She's just gone into the ladies' cloak-room," answered Braybrooke.
"But not to powder her face!" said Miss Van Tuyn. "She keeps us waiting, like the great prima donna in a concert, just long enough to give a touch of excitement to her appearance. Dear Lady Sellingworth! She has a wonderful knowledge of just how to do things. That only comes out of a vast experience."
"Or—don't you think that kind of thing may be instinctive?" said Craven.
She sought his eyes with a sort of soft hardihood which was very alluring.
"Women are not half as instinctive as men think them," she said. "I'll tell you a little secret. They calculate more than a senior wrangler does."
"Now you are maligning yourself," he said, smiling.
"No. For I haven't quite got to the age of calculation yet."
"Here she comes!" said Braybrooke.
And he went towards the door, leaving "our young friends" for a moment.
"But what has she done to herself?" said Miss Van Tuyn.
"Done! Lady Sellingworth?"
"Yes. Or is it only her hair?"
Craven wondered, too, as Lady Sellingworth joined them, accompanied by her host. For there was surely some slight, and yet definite, change in her appearance. She looked, he thought, younger, brighter, more vivid than she generally looked. Her white hair certainly was arranged differently from the way he was now accustomed to. It seemed thicker; there seemed to be more of it than usual. It looked more alive, too, and it marked in, he thought, an exquisite way the beautiful shape of her head. A black riband was cleverly entangled in it, and a big diamond shone upon the riband in front above her white forehead, weary with the years, but uncommonly expressive. She wore black as usual, and had another broad black riband round her throat with a fine diamond broach fastened to it. Her gown was slightly open at the front. There were magnificent diamond earrings in her ears. They made Craven think of the jewels stolen long ago at the station in Paris. This evening the whiteness of her hair seemed wonderful, as the whiteness of thickly powdered hair sometimes seems. And her eyes beneath it were amazingly vivid, startlingly alive in their glancing brightness. They looked careless and laughingly self-possessed as she came up to greet the girl and young man, matching delightfully her careless and self-possessed movement.
At that moment Craven realized, as he had certainly never realized before, what a beauty—in his mind he said what a "stunning beauty"—Lady Sellingworth must once have been. Even her face seemed to him in some way altered to-night, though he could not have told how.
Certainly she looked younger than usual. He was positive of that: still positive when he saw her standing by Miss Van Tuyn and taking her hand. Then she turned to him and gave him a friendly and careless, almost haphazard, greeting, still smiling and looking ready for anything. And then at once they went into the restaurant up the broad steps. And Craven noticed that everyone they passed by glanced at Lady Sellingworth.
At that moment he felt very proud of her friendship. He even felt a touch of romance in it, of a strange and unusual romance far removed from the sort of thing usually sung of by poets and written of by novelists.
"She is unusual!" he thought. "And so am I; and our friendship is unusual too. There has never before been anything quite like it."
And he glowed with a warming sense of difference from ordinary life.
But Miss Van Tuyn was claiming his urgent attention, and a waiter was giving him Whitstable oysters, and Chablis was being poured into his glass, and the band was beginning to play a selection from the music of Grieg, full of the poetry and the love of the North, where deep passions come out of the snows and last often longer than the loves of the South. He must give himself up to it all, and to the wonderful white-haired woman, too, with the great diamonds gleaming in her ears.
It really was quite a buoyant dinner, and Braybrooke began to feel more at ease. He had told them all where they were going afterwards, but had said nothing about Walter's description of the play. None of them had seen it, but Craven seemed to know all about it, and said it was an entertaining study of life behind the scenes at the opera, with a great singer as protagonist.
"He was drawn, I believe, from a famous baritone."
During a great part of her life Lady Sellingworth had been an ardent lover of the opera, and she had known many of the leading singers in Paris and London.
"They always seemed to me to be torn by jealousy," she said, "and often to suffer from the mania of persecution! Really, they are like a race apart."
And the conversation turned to jealousy. Braybrooke said he had never suffered from it, did not know what it was. And they smiled at him, and told him that then he could have no temperament. Craven declared that he believed almost the whole human race knew the ugly intimacies of jealousy in some form or other.
"And yourself?" said Miss Van Tuyn.
"I!" he said, and looking up saw Lady Sellingworth's brilliant eyes fixed on him.
"Do you know them?"
"I have felt jealousy certainly, but never yet as I could feel it."
"What! You are conscious of a great capacity for feeling jealous, a capacity which has never yet had its full fling?" said the girl.
"Yes," he said.
And his lips were smiling, but there was a serious look in his eyes.
And they discussed the causes of jealousy.
"We shall see it to-night on the stage in its professional form," said Craven.
"And that is the least forgivable form," said Lady Sellingworth. "Jealousy which is not bound up with the affections is a cold and hideous thing. But I cannot understand a love which is incapable of jealousy. In fact, I don't think I could believe it to be love at all."
This remark, coming from those lips, surprised Braybrooke. For Lady Sellingworth was not wont to turn any talk in which she took part upon questions concerned with the heart. He had frequently noticed her apparent aversion from all topics connected with deep feeling. To-night, it seemed, this aversion had died out of her.
In answer to the last remark Miss Van Tuyn said:
"Then, dear, you rule out perfect trust in a matter of love, do you? All the sentimentalists say that perfect love breeds perfect trust. If that is so, how can great lovers be jealous? For jealousy, I suppose—I have never felt it myself in that way—is born out of doubt, but can never exist side by side with complete confidence."
"Ah! But Beryl, in how many people in the course of a lifetime can one have complete confidence I have scarcely met one. What do you say?"
She turned her head towards Braybrooke. He looked suddenly rather plaintive, like a man who realizes unexpectedly how lonely he is.
"Oh, I hope I know a few such people," he rejoined rather anxiously. "I have been very lucky in my friends. And I like to think the best of people."
"That is kind," said Lady Sellingworth. "But I prefer to know the truth of people. And I must say I think most of us are quicksands. The worst of it is that so often when we do for a moment feel we are on firm ground we find it either too hard for our feet or too flat for our liking."
At that moment she thought of Sir Seymour Portman.
"You think it is doubt which breeds fascination?" said Craven.
"Alas for us if it is so," she answered, smiling.
"The human race is a very unsatisfactory race," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I am only twenty-four and have found that out already. It is very clever of the French to cultivate irony as they do. The ironist always wears clothes and an undershirt of mail. But the sentimentalist goes naked in the east wind which blows through society. Not only is he bound to take cold, but he is liable to be pierced by every arrow that flies."
"Yes, it is wise to cultivate irony," said Lady Sellingworth.
"You have," said Miss Van Tuyn. "One often sees it in your eyes. Isn't it true?"
She turned to Craven; but he did not choose to agree with her.
"I'm a sentimentalist," he said firmly. "And I never look about for irony. Perhaps that's why I have not found it in Lady Sellingworth."
Miss Van Tuyn sent him a glance which said plainly, but prettily, "You humbug!" But he did not mind. Once he had discussed Lady Sellingworth with Miss Van Tuyn. They had wondered about her together. They had even talked about her mystery. But that seemed to Craven a long time ago. Now he would far rather discuss Miss Van Tuyn with Lady Sellingworth than discuss Lady Sellingworth with Miss Van Tuyn. So he would not even acknowledge that he had noticed the mocking look in Lady Sellingworth's eyes. Already he had the feeling of a friend who does not care to dissect the mentality and character of his friend with another. Something in him even had an instinct to protect Lady Sellingworth from Miss Van Tuyn. That was surely absurd; unless, indeed, age always needs protection from the cruelty of youth.
Francis Braybrooke began to speak about Paris, and again Miss Van Tuyn said that she would never rest till she had persuaded Lady Sellingworth to renew her acquaintance with that intense and apparently light-hearted city, which contains so many secret terrors.
"You will come some day," she said, with a sort of almost ruthless obstinacy.
"Why not?" said Lady Sellingworth. "I have been very happy in Paris."
"And yet you have deserted it for years and years! You are an enigma. Isn't she, Mr. Braybrooke?"
Before Braybrooke had time to reply to this direct question an interruption occurred. Two ladies, coming in to dinner accompanied by two young men, paused by Braybrooke's table, and someone said in a clear, hard voice:
"What a dinky little party! And where are you all going afterwards?"
Craven and Braybrooke got up to greet two famous members of the "old guard," Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde. Lady Sellingworth and Miss Van Tuyn turned in their chairs, and for a moment there was a little disjointed conversation, in the course of which it came out that this quartet, too, was bound for the Shaftesbury Theatre.
"You are coming out of your shell, Adela! Better late than never!" said Lady Wrackley to Lady Sellingworth, while Miss Van Tuyn quietly collected the two young men, both of whom she knew, with her violet eyes. "I hear of you all over the place."
She glanced penetratingly at Craven with her carefully made-up eyes, which were the eyes of a handsome and wary bird. Her perfectly arranged hair was glossy brown, with glints in it like the colour of a horse-chestnut. She showed her wonderful teeth in the smile which came like a sudden gleam of electric light, and went as if a hand had turned back the switch.
"I'm becoming dissipated," said Lady Sellingworth. "Three evenings out in one month! If I have one foot in the grave, I shall have the other in the Shaftesbury Theatre to-night."
One of the young men, a fair, horsey-looking boy, with a yellow moustache, a turned-up nose, and an almost abnormally impudent and larky expression, laughed in a very male and soldierly way; the other, who was dark, with a tall figure and severe grey eyes, looked impenetrably grave and absent minded.
"Well, I shall die if I don't have a good dinner at once," said Mrs. Ackroyde. "Is that a Doucet frock, Beryl?"
"No. Count Kalinsky designed it."
"Oh—Igor Kalinksy! Adela, we are in Box B. We must have a powwow between the acts."
She looked from Lady Sellingworth to Craven and back again. Short, very handsome, always in perfect health, with brows and eyes which somehow suggested a wild creature, she had an honest and quite unaffected face. Her manner was bold and direct. There was something lasting—some said everlasting—in her atmosphere.
"I cannot conceive of London without Dindie Ackroyde," said Braybrooke, as Mrs. Ackroyde led the way to the next table and sat down opposite to Craven.
And they began to talk about people. Craven said very little. Since the arrival of the other quartet he had begun to feel sensitively uncomfortable. He realized that already his new friendship for Lady Sellingworth had "got about," though how he could not imagine. He was certain that the "old guard" were already beginning to talk of Addie Sellingworth's "new man." He had seen awareness, that strange feminine interest which is more than half hostile, in the eyes of both Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde. Was it impossible, then, in this horrible whispering gallery of London, to have any privacy of the soul? (He thought that his friendship really had something of the soul in it.) He felt stripped by the eyes of those two women at the neighbouring table, and he glanced at Lady Sellingworth almost furtively, wondering what she was feeling. But she looked exactly as usual, and was talking with animation, and he realized that her long habit of the world enabled her to wear a mask at will. Or was she less sensitive in such matters than he was?
"How preoccupied you are!" said Miss Van Tuyn's voice in his ear. "You see I was right. Golf ruins the social qualities in a man."
Then Craven resolutely set himself to be sociable. He even acted a part, still acutely conscious of the eyes of the "old guard," and almost made love to Miss Van Tuyn, as a man may make love at a dinner table. He was sure Lady Sellingworth would not misunderstand him. Whether Miss Van Tuyn misunderstood him or not did not matter to him at that moment. He saw her beauty clearly; he was able to note all the fluid fascination of her delicious youthfulness; the charm of it went to him; and yet he felt no inclination to waver in his allegiance to Lady Sellingworth. It was as if a personality enveloped him, held his senses as well as his mind in a soft and powerful grasp. Not that his senses were irritated to alertness, or played upon to exasperation. They were merely inhibited from any activity in connexion with another, however beautiful and desirable. Lady Sellingworth roused no physical desire in Craven, although she fascinated him. What she did was just this: she deprived him of physical desire. Miss Van Tuyn's arrows were shot all in vain that night. But Craven now acted well, for women's keen eyes were upon him.
Presently they got up to go to the theatre, leaving the other quartet behind them, quite willing to be late.
"Moscovitch doesn't come on for some time," said Mrs. Ackroyde. "And we are only going to see him. The play is nothing extraordinary. Where are you sitting?"
Braybrooke told her the number of their box.
"We are just opposite to you then," she said.
"Mind you behave prettily, Adela!" said Lady Wrackley.
"I have almost forgotten how to behave in a theatre," she said. "I go to the play so seldom. You shall give me some hints on conduct, Mr. Craven."
And she turned and led the way out of the restaurant, nodding to people here and there whom she knew.
Her big motor was waiting outside, and they all got into it. Braybrooke and Craven sat on the small front seats, sideways, so that they could talk to their companions; and they flashed through the busy streets, coming now and then into the gleam of lamplight and looking vivid, then gliding on into shadows and becoming vague and almost mysterious. As they crossed Piccadilly Circus Miss Van Tuyn said:
"What a contrast to our walk that night!"
"This way of travelling?" said Lady Sellingworth.
"Yes. Which do you prefer, the life of Soho and the streets and raw humanity, or the Rolls-Royce life?"
"Oh, I am far too old, and far too fixed in my habits to make any drastic change in my way of life," said Lady Sellingworth, looking out of the window.
"You didn't like your little experience the other night enough to repeat it?" said Miss Van Tuyn.
As she spoke Craven saw her eyes gazing at him in the shadow. They looked rather hard and searching, he thought.
"Oh, some day I'll go to the Bella Napoli again with you, Beryl, if you like."
"Thank you, dearest," said Miss Van Tuyn, rather drily.
And again Craven saw her eyes fixed upon him with a hard, steady look.
The car sped by the Monico, and Braybrooke, glancing with distaste at the crowd of people one could never wish to know outside it, wondered how the tall woman opposite to him with the diamonds flashing in her ears had ever condescended to push her way among them at night, to rub shoulders with those awful women, those furtive and evil-looking men. "But she must have some kink in her!" he thought, and thanked God because he had no kink, or at any rate knew of none which disturbed him. The car drew up at the theatre, and they went to their box. It was large enough for three to sit in a row in the front, and Craven insisted on Braybrooke taking the place between the two women, while he took the chair in the shadow behind Lady Sellingworth.
The curtain was already up when they came in, and a large and voluble man, almost like a human earthquake, was talking in broken English interspersed with sonorous Italian to a worried-looking man who sat before a table in a large and gaudily furnished office.
The talk was all about singers, contracts, the opera.
Craven glanced across the theatre and saw a big, empty box on the opposite side of the house. The rest of the house was full. He saw many Jews.
Lady Sellingworth leaned well forward with her eyes fixed on the stage, and seemed interested as the play developed.
"They are just like that!" she whispered presently, half turning to Craven.
Miss Van Tuyn looked round. She seemed bored. Paris, perhaps, had spoiled her for the acting in London, or the play so far did not interest her. Braybrooke glanced at her rather anxiously. He did not approve of the way in which he and his guests were seated in the box, and was sure she did not like it. Craven ought to be beside her.
"What do you think of it?" he murmured.
"The operatic types aren't bad."
She leaned with an elbow on the edge of the box and looked vaguely about the house.
"I shall insist on a change of seats after the interval!" thought Braybrooke.
A few minutes passed. Then the door of the box opposite was opened and Lady Wrackley appeared, followed by Dindie Ackroyde and the two young men who had dined with them. Lady Wrackley, looking—Craven thought—like a remarkably fine pouter pigeon, came to the front of the box and stared about the house, while the young man with the turned-up nose gently, yet rather familiarly, withdrew from her a long coat of ermine. Meanwhile Mrs. Ackroyde sat down, keeping on her cloak, which was the colour of an Indian sky at night, and immediately became absorbed in the traffic of the stage. It was obvious that she really cared for art, while Lady Wrackley cared about the effect she was creating on the audience. It seemed a long time before she sat down, and let the two young men sit down too. But suddenly there was applause and no one was looking at her. Moscovitch had walked upon the stage.
"That man can act!"
Miss Van Tuyn had spoken.
"He gets you merely by coming on. That is acting!"
And immediately she was intent on the stage.
When the curtain fell Braybrooke got up resolutely and stood at the back of the box. Craven, too stood up, and they all discussed the play.
"It's a character study, simply that," said Miss Van Tuyn. "The persistent lover who can't leave off—"
"Trying to love!" interposed Lady Sellingworth. "Following the great illusion."
And they debated whether the great singer was an idealist or merely a sensualist, or perhaps both. Miss Van Tuyn thought he was only the latter, and Braybrooke agreed with her. But Lady Sellingworth said no.
"He is in love with love, I think, and everyone who is in love with love is seeking the flame in the darkness. We wrong many people by dubbing them mere sensualists. The mystery has a driving force which many cannot resist."
"What mystery, dearest?" said Miss Van Tuyn, not without irony.
But at this moment there was a tap at the door of the box, and Craven opened it to find Mrs. Ackroyde and the young man with the severe eyes waiting outside.
"May we come in? Is there room?" said Mrs. Ackroyde.
There was plenty of room.
"Lena will be happier without us," Mrs. Ackroyde explained, without a smile, and looking calmly at Lady Sellingworth. "If I sit quite at the back here I can smoke a cigarette without being stopped. Bobbie you might give me a match."
The severe young man, who looked like a sad sensualist, one of those men who try to cloak intensity with grimness, did as he was bid, and they renewed the discussion which had been stopped for a moment, bringing the newcomers into it. Lady Sellingworth explained that the mystery she had spoken of was the inner necessity to try to find love which drives many human beings. She spoke without sentimentality, almost with a sort of scientific coldness as one stating facts not to be gainsaid. Mrs. Ackroyde said she liked the theory. It was such a comfortable one. Whenever she made a sidestep she would now be able to feel that she was driven to it by an inner necessity, planted in her family by the Immanent Will, or whatever it was that governed humanity. As she spoke she looked at the man she had called Bobbie, who was Sir Robert Syng, private secretary to a prominent minister, and when she stopped speaking he said he had never been able to believe in free will, though he always behaved as if he thought he possessed it.
Miss Van Tuyn thereupon remarked that as some people are born with tempers and intellects and some without them, perhaps it was the same with free will. She was quite positive she had a free will, but the very first time she had seen Sir Robert she had had her doubts about his having that precious possession. This sally, designed to break up the general conversation and to fasten Sir Robert's attention on herself, led to an animated discussion between her and Mrs. Ackroyde's "man." But Mrs. Ackroyde, though her large dark eyes showed complete understanding of the manoeuvre, did not seem to mind, and, turning her attention to Craven, she began to speak about acting. Meanwhile Lady Sellingworth went out into the corridor with Braybrooke to "get a little air."
While Mrs. Ackroyde talked Craven felt that she was thinking about him with an enormously experienced mind. She had been married twice, and was now a widow. No woman knew more about life and the world in a general way than she did. Her complete but quiet self-possession, her rather blunt good nature, and her perfect health, had carried her safely, and as a rule successfully, through multifarious experiences and perhaps through many dangers. It was impossible to conceive of her being ever "knocked out" by any happening however untoward it might be. She was one of the stalwarts of the "old guard." Craven certainly did not dislike her. But now he felt almost afraid of her. For he knew her present interest in him arose from suspicions about him and Lady Sellingworth which were floating through her brain. She had heard something; had been informed of something; someone had hinted; someone had told. How do such things become suspected in a city like London? Craven could not imagine how the "old guard" had come already to know of his new friendship with Lady Sellingworth. But he was now quite sure that he had been talked about, and that Mrs. Ackroyde was considering him, his temperament, his character, his possibilities in connexion with the famous Adela, once of the "old guard," but long since traitress to it.
And he felt as if he were made of glass beneath those experienced and calmly investigating eyes, as he talked steadily about acting till the bell went for the second act, and Lady Sellingworth and Braybrooke returned to the box.
"Come and see me," said Mrs. Ackroyde, getting up. "You never come near me. And come down to Coombe to lunch one Sunday."
"Thank you very much. I will."
"And bring Adela with you!"
With a casual nod or two, and a "Come, Bobbie, I am sure you have flirted quite enough with Beryl by this time!" she went out of the box, followed by her grim but good-looking cavalier.
"You must sit in front through this act."
"No, really—I insist! You don't see properly behind."
Craven took the chair between the two women. As he did so he glanced at Miss Van Tuyn. His chair was certainly nearer to hers than to Lady Sellingworth's, much nearer. Syng had sat in it and must have moved it. As she half turned and said something to Craven her bare silky arm touched his sleeve, and their faces were very near together. Her eyes spoke to him definitely, called him to be young again with her. And as the curtain went up she whispered:
"It was I who insisted on a party of four to-night."
Lady Sellingworth and Braybrooke were talking together, and Craven answered:
"To Mr. Braybrooke?"
"Yes; so that we might have a nice little time. And Adela and he are old friends and contemporaries! I knew they would be happy together."
Craven shrank inwardly as he heard Miss Van Tuyn say "Adela," but he only nodded and tried to return adequately the expression in her eyes. Then he looked across the theatre, and saw Mrs. Ackroyde speaking to Lady Wrackley. After a moment they both gazed at him, and, seeing his eyes fixed on her, Lady Wrackley let go her smile at him and made a little gesture with her hand.
"She knows too—damn her!" thought Craven, impolitely.
He set his teeth.
"They know everything, these women! It's useless to try to have the smallest secret from them!"
And then he said to himself what so many have said:
"What does it matter what they know, what they think, what they say? I don't care!"
But he did care. He hated their knowing of his friendship with Lady Sellingworth, and it seemed to him that they were scattering dust all over the dew of his feeling.
The second act of the play was more interesting than the first, but, as Miss Van Tuyn said, the whole thing was rather a clever character study than a solidly constructed and elaborately worked out play. It was the fascination of Moscovitch which held the audience tight and which brought thunders of applause when the curtain fell.
"If that man acted in French he could have enormous success in Paris," said Miss Van Tuyn. "You have chosen well," she added, turning to Braybrooke. "You have introduced us to a great temperament."
Braybrooke was delighted, and still more delighted when Lady Sellingworth and Craven both said that it was the best acting they had seen in London for years.
"But it comes out of Russia, I suppose," said Lady Sellingworth. "Poor, wonderful, horrible, glorious Russia!"
"Forgive me for a moment," said Braybrooke. "Lady Wrackley seems to want me."
Indeed, the electric-light smile was being turned on and off in the box opposite with unmistakable intention, and, glancing across, Craven noticed that the young men had disappeared, no doubt to smoke cigarettes in the foyer. Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde were alone, and, seeing them alone, it was easier to Craven to compare their appearance with Lady Sellingworth's.
Lady Wrackley looked shiningly artificial, seemed to glisten with artificiality, and her certainly remarkable figure suggested to him an advertisement for a corset designed by a genius with a view to the concealment of fat. Mrs. Ackroyde was far less artificial, and though her hair was dyed it did not proclaim the fact blatantly. Certainly it was difficult to believe that both those ladies, whom Braybrooke now joined, were much the same age as Lady Sellingworth. And yet, in Craven's opinion, to-night she made them both look ordinary, undistinguished. There was something magnificent in her appearance which they utterly lacked.
Braybrooke sat down in their box, and Craven was sure they were all talking about Lady Sellingworth and him. He saw Braybrooke's broad-fingered hand go to his beard and was almost positive his old friend was on the defensive. He was surely saying, "No, really, I don't think so! I feel convinced there is nothing in it!" Craven's eyes met Lady Sellingworth's, and it seemed to him at that moment that she and he spoke together without the knowledge of Miss Van Tuyn. But immediately, and as if to get away from their strange and occult privacy, she said:
"What have you been doing lately, Beryl? I hear Miss Cronin has come over. But I thought you were not staying long. Have you changed your mind?"
Miss Van Tuyn said she might stay on for some time, and explained that she was having lessons in painting.
"In London! I didn't know you painted, and surely the best school of painting is in Paris."
"I don't paint, dearest. But one can take lessons in an art without actually practising the art. And that is what I am doing. I like to know even though I cannot, or don't want to, do. Dick Garstin is my master. He has given me the run of his studio in Glebe Place."
"And you watch him at work?" said Craven.
She fixed her eyes on him, and added:
"He is painting a living bronze."
"Somebody very handsome?" said Lady Sellingworth, glancing across the house to the trio in the box opposite.
"Yes, a man called Nicolas Arabian."
"What a curious name!" said Lady Sellingworth, still looking towards the opposite box. "Is it an Englishman?"
"No. I don't know his nationality. But he makes a magnificent model."
"Oh, he's a model!" said Craven, also looking at the box opposite.
"He isn't a professional model. Dick Garstin doesn't pay him to sit. I only mean that he is a marvellous subject for a portrait and sits well. Dick happened to see him and asked him to sit. Dick paints the people he wants to paint, not those who want to be painted by him. But he's a really big man. You ought to know him."
She said the last words to Lady Sellingworth, who replied:
"I very seldom make new acquaintances now."
"You made Mr. Craven's!" said Miss Van Tuyn, smiling.
"But that was by special favour. I owe Mr. Braybrooke that!" said Craven. "And I shall be eternally grateful to him."
His eyes met Lady Sellingworth's, and he immediately added, turning to Miss Van Tuyn:
"I have to thank him for two delightful new friends—if I may use that word."
"Mr. Braybrooke is a great benefactor," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I wonder how this play is going to end."
And then they talked about Moscovitch and the persistence of a ruling passion till Braybrooke came back. He looked rather grave and preoccupied, and Craven felt sure that the talk in the opposite box had been about Lady Sellingworth and her "new man," himself, and, unusually self-conscious, or moved, perhaps, by an instinct of self-preservation, he devoted himself almost with intensity to Miss Van Tuyn till the curtain went up. And after it went up he kept his chair very close to hers, sat almost "in her pocket," and occasionally murmured to her remarks about the play.
The last act was a panorama of shifting moods, and although there was little action they all followed it with an intense interest which afterwards surprised them. But a master hand was playing on the audience, and drew at will from them what emotions he chose. Now and then, during the progress of this act, Braybrooke sent an anxious glance to Lady Sellingworth. All this about loss, though it was the loss of a voice, about the end of a great career, about age and desertion, was dangerous ground. The love-scene between Moscovitch and the young girl seriously perturbed Braybrooke. He hoped, he sincerely hoped, that Adela Sellingworth would not be upset, would not think that he had chosen the Shaftesbury Theatre for their place of entertainment with any arriere pensee. He fancied that her face began to look rather hard and "set" as the act drew near its end. But he was not sure. For the auditorium was rather dark; he could not see her quite clearly. And he looked at Craven and Miss Van Tuyn and thought, rather bitterly, how sane and how right his intentions had been. Youth should mate with youth. It was not natural for mature, or old, age to be closely allied with youth in any passionate bond. In such a bond youth was at a manifest disadvantage. And it seemed to Braybrooke that age was sometimes, too often indeed, a vampire going about to satisfy its appetite on youth, to slake its sad thirst at the well-spring of youth. He looked, too, at the women in the box opposite, and at the young men with them, and he regretted that so many human beings were at grips with the natural. He at any rate, although he carefully concealed his age, never did unsuitable things, or fell into anything undignified. Yet was he rewarded for his intense and unremitting carefulness in life?
A telephone bell sounded on the stage, and the unhappy singer, bereft of romance, his career finished, decadence and old age staring him in the face, went to answer the call. But suddenly his face changed; a brightness, an alertness came into it and even, mysteriously, into all his body. There was a woman at the other end of the wire, and she was young and pretty, and she was asking him to meet her. As he was replying gaily, with smiling lips, and a greedy look in his eyes that was half child-like, half satyr-like, the curtain fell. The play was at an end, leaving the impression upon the audience that there is no end to the life of a ruling passion in a man while he lives, that the ruling passion can only die when he dies.
Miss Van Tuyn and Craven, standing up in the box, applauded vigorously.
"That's a true finish!" the girl said. "He's really a modern Baron Hulot. When he's seventy he'll creep upstairs to a servant girl. We don't change, I've always said it. We don't change!"
And she looked from Craven to Lady Sellingworth.
Moscovitch bowed many times.
"Well, Mr. Braybrooke," said Miss Van Tuyn, "I've seen some acting in London to-night that I should like to show to Paris. Thank you!"
She was more beautiful and more human than Craven had ever seen her before in her genuine enthusiasm. And he thought, "Great art moves her as nothing else moves her."
"What do you say about it, dearest?" she said, as Craven helped her to put on her cloak.
(Braybrooke was attending to Lady Sellingworth.)
"It's a great piece of acting!"
"And horribly true! Don't you think so?"
"I dare say it is," Lady Sellingworth answered.
She turned quickly and led the way out of the box.
In the hall they encountered the other quartet and stood talking to them for a moment, and Craven noticed how Miss Van Tuyn had been stirred up by the play and how silent Lady Sellingworth was. He longed to go back to Berkeley Square alone with the latter, and to have a long talk; but something told him to get away from both the white-haired woman and the eager girl. And when the motor came up he said very definitely that he had an engagement and must find a cab. Then he bade them good-bye and left them in the motor with Braybrooke. As he was turning away to get out of the crowd a clear, firm voice said to him:
"I am so glad you have performed the miracle, Mr. Craven."
He looked round and saw Mrs. Ackroyde's investigating eyes fixed upon him.
"But what miracle?" he asked.
"You have pulled Adela Sellingworth out of the shell in which she has been living curled up for over ten years."
"Yes. You are a prodigy!" said Lady Wrackley, showing her teeth.
"But I'm afraid I can't claim that triumph. I'm afraid it's due to Mr. Braybrooke's diplomacy."
"Oh, no!" Mrs. Ackroyde said calmly. "Adela would never yield to his cotton-glove persuasions. Besides, his diplomacy would shy away from Soho."
"Soho!" said Craven, startled.
"Oh, but Miss Van Tuyn performed that miracle!" said Craven, recovering himself.
"I don't think so. You are too modest. But now, mind, I expect you to come down to Coombe to lunch on the first fine Sunday, and to bring Adela with you. Good night! Bobbie, where are you?"
And she followed Lady Wrackley and the young man with the turned-up nose to a big and shining motor which had just glided noiselessly up.
"Damn the women!" muttered Craven, as he pushed through the crowd into the ugly freedom of Shaftesbury Avenue.
Miss Van Tuyn and the members of the "old guard" went home to bed that night realizing that Lady Sellingworth had had "things" done to herself before she came out to the theatre party.
"She's beginning again after—how many years is it?" said Lady Wrackley to Mrs. Ackroyde in the motor as they drove away from Shaftesbury.
"Ten," said Mrs. Ackroyde, who was blessed with a sometimes painfully retentive memory.
"I suppose it's Zotos," observed Lady Wrackley.
"Who's Zotos?" inquired young Leving of the turned-up nose and the larky expression.
"A Greek who's a genius and who lives in South Moulton Street."
"What's he do?"
"Things that men shouldn't be allowed to know anything about. Talk to Bobbie for a minute, will you?"
She turned again to Mrs. Ackroyde.
"It must be Zotos. But even he will be in a difficulty with her if she wants to have very much done. She made the mistake of her life when she became an old woman. I remember saying at the time that some day she would repent in dust and ashes and want to get back, and that then it would be too late. How foolish she was!"
"She will be much more foolish now if she really begins again," said Mrs. Ackroyde in her cool, common-sense way.
The young men were talking, and after a moment she continued:
"When a thing's once been thoroughly seen by everyone and recognized for what it is, it is worse than useless to hide it or try to hide it. Adela should know that. But I must say she looked remarkably well to-night—for her. He's a good-looking boy."
"He must be at least twenty-eight years younger than she is."
"More, probably. But she prefers them like that. Don't you remember Rochecouart? He was a mere child. When we gave our hop at Prince's she was mad about him. And afterwards she wanted to marry Rupert Louth. It nearly killed her when she found out he had married that awful girl who called herself an actress. And there was someone else after Rupert."
"I know. I often wonder who it was. Someone we don't know."
"Someone quite out of our world. Anyhow, he must have broken her heart for the time. And it's taken ten years to mend. Do you think that she sold her jewels secretly to pay that man's debts, or gave them to him, and that then he threw her over? I have often wondered."
"So have we all. But we shall never know. Adela is very clever."
"And now it's another boy! And only twenty-eight or so. He can't be more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Poor old Adela!"
"Perhaps he likes white hair. There are boys who do."
"But not for long. Beryl was furious."
"It is hardly a compliment to her. I expect her cult for Adela will diminish rapidly."
"Oh, she'll very soon get him away. Even Zotos won't be able to do very much for Adela now. She burnt all her boats ten years ago. Her case is really hopeless, and she'll very soon find that out."
"Do you remember when she tried to live up to Rupert Louth as an Amazon?"
"Yes. She nearly killed herself over it; but I must say she stuck to it splendidly. She has plenty of courage."
"Is Alick Craven athletic? I scarcely know him."
"Well, he's never been a rough rider like Rupert Louth; but I believe he's a sportsman, does all the usual things."
"Then I dare say we shall soon see Adela on the links and at Kings'."
"Probably. I'll get them both down to Coombe and see if she'll play tennis on my hard court. I shouldn't wonder. She has pluck enough for anything."
"Ask me that Sunday. I wonder how long it will last."
"Not long. It can't."
"And then she'll go crash again. It must be awful to have a temperament like hers."
"Her great mistake is that apparently she puts some heart into it every time. I can't think how she manages it, but she does. Do you remember twelve years ago, when she was crazy about Harry Blake? Well—"
But at this moment the motor drew up at the Carlton, and a huge man in uniform opened the door.
Mrs. Ackroyde was right in her comment on Miss Van Tuyn. In spite of Craven's acting that night Miss Van Tuyn had thoroughly understood how things really were. She had persuaded Braybrooke to invite Lady Sellingworth to make a fourth in order that she might find out whether any link had been forged between Craven and Lady Sellingworth, whether there was really any secret understanding between them, or whether that tete-a-tete dinner in Soho had been merely a passing pleasure, managed by Lady Sellingworth, meaning little, and likely to lead to nothing. And she had found out that there certainly was a secret understanding between Lady Sellingworth and Craven from which she was excluded. Craven had preferred Adela Sellingworth to herself, and Adela Sellingworth was fully aware of it.
It was characteristic of Miss Van Tuyn that though her vanity was so great and was now severely wounded she did not debate the matter within herself, did not for a moment attempt to deceive herself about it. And yet really she had very little ground to go upon. Craven had been charming to her, had replied to her glances, had almost made love to her at dinner, had sat very close to her during the last act of the play. Yes; but it had all been acting on his part. Quite coolly she told herself that. And Lady Sellingworth had certainly wished him to act, had even prompted him to it.
Miss Van Tuyn felt very angry with Lady Sellingworth. She was less angry with Craven. Indeed, she was not sure that she was angry with him at all. He was several years older than herself, but she began to think of him as really very young, as much younger in mind and temperament than she was. He was only a clever boy, susceptible to flattery, easily influenced by a determined will, and probably absurdly chivalrous. She knew the sort of chivalry which was a symptom really of babyhood in the masculine mind. It was characteristic of sensitive natures, she believed, and it often led to strange aberrations. Craven was only a baby, although a baby of the world, and Adela Sellingworth with her vast experience had, of course, seen that at a glance and was now busily playing upon baby's young chivalry. Miss Van Tuyn could almost hear the talk about being so lonely in the big house in Berkeley Square, about the freedom of men and the difficulty of having any real freedom when one is a solitary woman with no man to look after you, about the tragedy of being considered old when your heart and your nature are really still young, almost as young as ever they were. Adela Sellingworth would know how to touch every string, would be an adept at calling out the music she wanted. How easily experienced women played upon men! It was really pathetic! And as Craven had thought of protecting Lady Sellingworth against Miss Van Tuyn, so now Miss van Tuyn felt inclined to protect Alick Craven against Lady Sellingworth. She did not want to see a nice and interesting boy make a fool of himself. Yet Craven was on the verge of doing that, if he had not already done it. Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde had seen how things were, had taken in the whole situation in a moment. Miss Van Tuyn knew that, and in her knowledge there was bitterness. These two women had seen Lady Sellingworth preferred before her by a mere boy, had seen her beauty and youth go for nothing beside a woman of sixty's fascination.
There must be something quite extraordinary in Craven. He must be utterly unlike other young men. She began to wonder about him intensely.
On the following morning, as usual, she went to Glebe Place to take what she had called her "lesson" from Dick Garstin. She arrived rather early, a few minutes before eleven, and found Garstin alone, looking tired and irritable.
"You look as if you had been up all night," she said as he let her in.
"So I have!"
She did not ask him what he had been doing. He would probably refuse to tell her. Instead she remarked:
"Will you be able to paint?"
"Probably not. But perhaps the fellow won't come."
"Why not. He always—" She stopped; then said quickly, "So he was up all night too?"
"I didn't know you knew him out of the studio."
"Of course I know him wherever I meet him. What do you mean?"
"I didn't know you did meet him."
Garstin said nothing. She turned and went up the staircase to the big studio. On an easel nearly in the middle of the room, and not very far from the portrait of the judge, there was a sketch of Nicolas Arabian's head, neck and shoulders. No collar or clothes were shown. Garstin had told Arabian flatly that he wasn't going to paint a magnificent torso like his concealed by infernal linen and serge, and Arabian had been quite willing that his neck and shoulders should be painted in the nude.
In the strong light of the studio Garstin's unusual appearance of fatigue was more noticeable, and Miss Van Tuyn could not help saying:
"What on earth have you been doing, Dick? You always seem made of iron. But to-day you look like an ordinary man who has been dissipating."
"I played poker all night," said Garstin.
"And two other fellows—picked them up at the Cafe Royal."
"Well, I hope you won."
"No, I didn't. Both Arabian and I lost a lot. We played here."
"Yes. And I haven't had a wink since they left. I don't suppose he'll turn up. And if he does I shan't be able to do anything at it."
He went to stand in front of the sketch, which was in oils, and stared at it with lack-lustre eyes.
"What d'you think of it?" he said at last.
Miss Van Tuyn was rather surprised by the question. Garstin was not in the habit of asking other people's opinions about his work.
"It's rather difficult to say," she said, with some hesitation.
"That means you think it's rotten."
"No. But it isn't finished and—I don't know."
"Well, I hate it."
He turned away, sat down on a divan, and let his big knuckly hands drop down between his knees.
"Fact is, I haven't got at the fellow's secret," he said meditatively. "I got a first impression—"
"I know!" said Miss Van Tuyn, deeply interested. "You told me what it was."
"The successful blackmailer. Yes. But now I don't know. I can't make him out. He's the hardest nut to crack I ever came across."
He moved his long lips from side to side three or four times, then pursed them up, lifted his small eyes, which had been staring between his feet at a Persian rug on the parquet in front of the divan, looked at Miss Van Tuyn, who was standing before him, and said:
"That's why I sat up all night playing poker with him."
"Ah!" she said, beginning to understand
She sat down beside him, turned towards him, and said eagerly:
"You wanted to get really to know him?"
"Yes; but I didn't. The fellow's an enigma. He's bad. And that's practically all I know about him."
He glanced with distaste at the sketch he had made.
"And it isn't enough. It isn't enough by a damned long way."
"Is he a good loser?" she asked.
"The best I ever saw. Never turned a hair, and went away looking as fresh as a well-watered gardenia, damn him!"
"Who were the others?"
"Two Americans I've seen now and then at the Cafe Royal. I believe they live mostly in Paris."
"Friends of his?"
"I don't think so. He said they came and sat down at his table in the cafe and started talking. I suggested the poker. They didn't. So it wasn't a plant."
"Perhaps he isn't bad," she said; "and perhaps that's why you can't paint him."
"What d'you mean?"
"I mean because you have made up your mind that he is. I think you have a fixed idea about that."
"You have painted so many brutes, that you seek for the brute in everyone who sits to you. If you were to paint me you'd—"
"Now, now! There you are at it again! I'll paint you if I ever feel like it—not a minute before."
"I was only going to say that if you ever painted me you'd try to find something horrible in me that you could drag to the surface."
"Well, d'you mean that you have the toupet to tell me there is nothing horrible in you?"
"Now we are getting away from Arabian," she said, with cool self-possession.
"Owing to your infernal egoism, my girl!"
"Override it, then, with your equally infernal altruism, my boy!"
Garstin smiled, and for a moment looked a little less fatigued, but in a moment his almost morose preoccupation returned. He glanced again towards the sketch.
"I should like to slit it up with a palette knife!" he said. "The devil of it is that I felt I could do a really great thing with that fellow. I struck out a fine phrase that night. D'you remember?"
"Yes. You called him a king in the underworld."
Abruptly he got up and began to walk about the studio, stopping now here, now there, before his portraits. He paused for quite a long time before the portraits of Cora and the judge. Then he came back to the sketch of Arabian.
"You must help me!" he said at last.
"I!" she exclaimed, with almost sharp surprise. "How can I help you?"
He turned, and she saw the pin-points of light.
"What do you think of the fellow?" he said. "After all, you asked me to paint him. What do you think of him?"
"I think he's magnificently handsome."
"Blast his envelope!" Garstin almost roared out. "What do you think of his nature? What do you think of his soul? I'm not a painter of surfaces."
Miss Van Tuyn sat for a moment looking steadily at him. She was unusually natural and unself-conscious, like one thinking too strongly to bother about herself. At last she said:
"Arabian is a very difficult man to understand, and I don't understand him."
"Do you like him?"
"I couldn't exactly say that."
"Do you hate him?"
Garstin suddenly looked almost maliciously sly.
"I can tell you something that you feel about him."
"You are afraid of him."
Miss Van Tuyn's silky fair skin reddened.
"I'm not afraid of anyone," she retorted. "If I have one virtue, I think it's courage."
"You're certainly not a Miss Nancy as a rule. In fact, your cheek is pretty well known in Paris. But you're afraid of Arabian."
"Am I really?" said the girl, recovering from her surprise and facing him hardily. "And how have you found that out?"
"You took a fancy to the fellow the first time you saw him."
"I did not take a fancy. I am not an under-housemaid."
"There's not really a particle of difference between an under-housemaid and a super-lady when it comes to a good-looking man."
"Dick, you're a great painter, but you're also a great vulgarian!"
"Well, my father was a national schoolmaster and my mother was a butcher's daughter. I can't help my vernacular. You took a fancy to this fellow in the Cafe Royal, and you begged me to paint him so that you might get to know him. I obeyed you—"
"The heavens will certainly fall before you become obedient."
"—and asked him here. Then I asked you. You came. He came. I started painting. How many sittings have I had?"
"Then you've met him here four times?"
"And why have you always let him go away alone from the studio?"
"Why should I go with him? I much prefer to stay on here and have a talk with you. You are far more interesting than Arabian is. He says very little. Probably he knows very little. I can learn from you."
"That's all very well. I will say you're damned keen on acquiring knowledge. But Arabian interests you in a way I certainly don't; in a sex way."
"That'll do, Dick!"
"And directly a woman gets to that all the lumber of knowledge can go to the devil for her! When Nature drives the coach brain interests occupy the back seat. That is a rule with women to which I've never yet found an exception. Every day you're longing to go away from here with Arabian; every day he does his level best to get you to go. Yet you don't go. Why's that? You're held back by fear. You're afraid of the fellow, my girl, and it's not a bit of use your denying it. When I see a thing I see it—it's there. I don't deal in hallucinations."
All this time his small eyes were fixed upon her, and the fierce little lights in them seemed to touch her like the points of two pins.
"You talk about fear! Does it never occur to you that Arabian's a man you picked up at the Cafe Royal, that we neither of us know anything about him, that he may be—"
"Anyhow, he's far more presentable that I am."
"Of course he's presentable, as you call it. He's very well dressed and very good-looking, but still—"
At that moment she thought of Craven, and in her mind quickly compared the two men.
"But still you're afraid of him. Where is your frankness? Why don't you acknowledge what I already know?"
Miss Van Tuyn looked down and sat for a moment quite still without speaking. Then she began to take off her gloves. Finally, she lifted her hands to her head, took off her hat, and laid it on the divan beside her.
"It isn't that I am afraid of Arabian," she then said, at last looking up. "But the fact is I am like you. I don't understand him. I can't place him. I don't even know what his nationality is. He knows nobody I do. I feel certain of that. Yet he must belong somewhere, have some set of friends, some circle of acquaintances, I suppose. He isn't at all vulgar. One couldn't call him genteel, which is worse, I think. It's all very odd. I'm not conventional. In Paris I'm considered even terribly unconventional. I've met all sorts of men, but I've never met a man like Arabian. But the other day—don't you remember?—you summed him up. You said he had no education, no knowledge, no love of art or literature, that he was clever, sensual, idle, acquisitive, made of iron, with nerves of steel. Don't you remember?"
"To be sure I do."
"Isn't that enough to go upon?"
"For the painting? No, it isn't. Besides, you said you weren't sure I was right in my diagnosis of the chap's character and physical part."
"I wasn't sure, and I'm not sure now."
"Tell me God's own truth, Beryl. Come on!"
He came up to her, put one hand on her left shoulder, and looked down into her eyes.
"Aren't you a bit afraid of the fellow?"
She met his eyes steadily.
"There's something—" She paused.
"Go ahead, I tell you!"
"I couldn't describe it. It's more like an atmosphere than anything else. It seems to hang about him. I've never felt anything quite like it when I've been with anyone else."
"An atmosphere! Now we're getting at it."
He took his heavy hand away from her shoulder.
"A woman feels that sort of thing more sensitively than a man does. Sex! Go on! What about it?"
"But I scarcely know what I mean—really, Dick. No! But it's—it's an unsafe atmosphere."
"One doesn't know where one is in it. At least, I don't. Once in London I was lost for a little while in Regents Park in a fog. It's—it's something like that. I couldn't see the way, and I heard steps and voices that sounded strange and—I don't know."
"That's all very well. You are terribly selfish, Dick. You don't care what happens so long as you can paint as you wish to paint. You'd sacrifice me, anyone—"
The girl seemed strangely uneasy. Her usual coolness had left her. The hot blood had come back to her cheeks and glowed there in uneven patches of red. Garstin gazed at her with profound and cruel interest.
"Sacrifice!" he said. "Who talked of sacrificing you? Who wishes to sacrifice you? I only want—"
"One doesn't know—with a man like that one doesn't know where it would lead to."
"Then you think he's a thundering blackguard? And yet you defended him just now, said perhaps I couldn't paint him just because I'd made up my mind he was a brute. You're a mass of contradictions."
"I don't say he's bad. He may not be bad."
"Fact is, as I said, you're in a mortal funk of him."
"I am not!" she said, with sudden anger. "No one shall say I'm afraid of any man. You can ask anyone who knows me really well, and you will always hear the same story. I'm afraid of no one and nothing, and I've proved it again and again."
"Well then, what's to prevent you proving it to me, my girl?"
She lifted her chin and looked suddenly impudent.
"What do you wish me to do to prove it?" she asked him defiantly.
"If Arabian does come to-day go away with him when he goes. Get to know him really. You could, I believe. But ever since he's come here to sit he has shut up the box which contains the truth of what he is, locked it, and lost the key. His face is a mask, and I don't paint masks."
"Very well. I will."
"Good!" said Garstin sonorously, and looking suddenly much less tired and morose.
"But why do you think I could get to know him?"
"Because he's—but you know why better than I do."
"Arabian's in love with you, my girl. By Jove! There he is!"
The bell had sounded below.
With a swift movement Garstin got hold of a palette knife, sprang at the sketch of Arabian, and ripped up the canvas from top to bottom. Miss Van Tuyn uttered a cry.
"That's all right!"
He threw the knife down.
"We'll do better than that by a long way."
He got hold of her hand.
"Stick to your word, my girl, and I'll paint you yet—and not an Academy portrait. But you've got to live. Just now, with your cheeks all in patches you looked stunning."
The bell went again.
"Now for him!"
He hurried downstairs.
Lady Sellingworth was afraid. In spite of her many triumphs in the past she had a deep distrust of life. Since the tragedies of her middle age her curious natural diffidence, which the habit of the world had never been able to subdue, had increased. In ten years of retirement, in the hundreds of hours of solitude which those ten years had held for her, it had grown within her. And now it began to torment her.
Life brings gifts to almost everyone, and often the gift-bearer's approach is absolutely unexpected. So it had been in Lady Sellingworth's case. She had had no premonition that a change was preparing for her. Nothing had warned her to be on the alert when young feet turned into Berkeley Square on a certain Sunday in autumn and made towards her door. Abruptly, after years of neglect, it seemed as if life suddenly remembered that there was a middle-aged woman, with lungs which still mechanically did their work, and a heart which still obstinately persisted in beating, living in Berkeley Square, and that scarcely a bare bone had been thrown to her for some thousands of days. And then life brought her Craven, with an unusual nature, with a surely romantic mind, with a chivalrous sense that was out of the fashion, with faculties making for friendship; life offered, or seemed to offer her Craven, to whisper in her ear, "You have been starving alone for a long time. To tell the truth, I had forgotten all about you. I did not remember you were there. I don't quite know why you persist in being there. But, as you do, and as you are wearing thin for want of sustenance, here is something for you!"
And now, because of what life had done, Lady Sellingworth was afraid. When she had parted from her friends after the theatre party, and was once more alone in her big house, she knew thoroughly, absolutely, for the first time what life had done.
All the calm, the long calm of her years of retirement from the world, had gone. She now knew how strangely safe she had felt in her loneliness. She had felt surely something of the safety of a nun of one of the enclosed orders. In her solitude she had learnt to understand how dangerous the great world is, how full of trials for the nerves, the temper, the flesh, the heart. The woman who goes into it needs to be armed. For many weapons thrust at her. She must be perpetually on the alert, ready to hold her own among the attacking eyes and tongues. And she must not be tired, or dull, or sad, must not show, or follow, her varying moods, must not quietly rest in sincerity. When she had lived in the world Lady Sellingworth had scarcely realized all this. But in her long retirement she had come fully to realize it. There had been a strange and embracing sense of safety permeating her solitary life. She had got up in the morning, she had gone to bed at night, feeling safe. For the storms of the passions were stilled, and though desire might stir sometimes, it soon slept again. For she never took her desire into danger. She did not risk the temptations of the world.
But now all the old restlessness, all the old anxiety and furtive uneasiness of the mind, had returned. She was again what she had often been more than ten years ago—a woman tormented. And—for she knew herself now—she knew what was in store for her if she gave herself again to life and her own inclinations.
For it had all come back; the old greedy love of sympathy and admiration, the old worship of strength and youth and hot blood and good looks, the old longing for desire and love, the old almost irritable passion to possess, to dominate, to be first, to submerge another human being in her own personality.
After ten years she was in love again, desperately in love. But she was an elderly woman now, so elderly that many people would no doubt think that it was impossible that she should be in love. How little such people knew about human nature! The evening had been almost as wonderful and as exciting to her as it could have been to a girl. When she had come into the hall of the Carlton and had seen Craven through the glass, had seen his tall figure, smooth, dark hair, and animated face glowing with health after the breezes and sunrays of Beaconsfield, she had known a feeling that a girl might have understood and shared.
And she was sixty!
What was to be done?
Craven was certainly fond of her already. Quietly she had triumphed that night. Three women had seen and had quite understood her little triumph. Probably all of them had wondered about it, had been secretly irritated by it. Certainly Beryl had been very much irritated. But in spite of that triumph, Lady Sellingworth felt almost desperately afraid that night when she was alone. For she knew how great the difference was between her feeling for Craven and his feeling for her. And with greater intimacy that difference, she felt sure, must even increase. For she would want from him what he would never want or even dream of wanting, from her. He would be satisfied in their friendship while she would be almost starving. He would never know that cruel longing to touch which marks the difference between what is love and what is friendship.
If she now let herself go, took no drastic step, just let life carry her on, she could have a strange and unusual, and, in its way, beautiful friendship, a friendship which to a woman with a different nature from hers might seem perfect. She could have that—and what would it be to her?
She longed to lay violent hands on herself; she longed to tear something that was an essential part of her to pieces, to scatter it to a wind, and let the wind whirl it away.
She knelt down that night before getting into bed and prayed. And when she did that she thought of Sellingworth and of his teachings and opinions. How he would have laughed at her if he had ever seen her do that! She had not wanted to do it in the years when she had been with him. But now, if his opinions had been well founded, he was only dust and perhaps a few fragments of bone. He could not laugh at her now. And she felt a really desperate need of prayer.
She did not pray to have something that she wanted. She knew that would be no use. Even if there was a God who attended to individuals, he would certainly not give her what she wanted just then. To do so would be deliberately to interfere with the natural course of things, arbitrarily to change the design. And something in Lady Sellingworth's brain prevented her from being able even for a moment to think that God would ever do that. She prayed, therefore, that she might cease to want what she wanted; she prayed that she might have strength to do a tremendously courageous thing quickly; she prayed that she might be rewarded for doing it by afterwards having physical and mental peace; she prayed that she might be permanently changed, that she might, after this last trial, be allowed to become passionless, that what remained of the fiercely animal in her might die out, that she might henceforth be as old in nature as she already was in body. "For," she said to herself, "only in that oldness lies safety for me! Unless I can be all old—mind and nature, as well as body—I shall suffer horribly again."
She prayed that she might feel old, so old that she might cease from being attracted by youth, from longing after youth in this dreadful tormenting way.
When she got up from her knees it was one o'clock. She took two tablets of aspirin and got into bed. And directly she was in bed an idea seemed to hit her mind, and she trembled slightly, as if she had really received a blow. She had just been praying for something earnestly, almost violently, and she had prayed with clear understanding, with the understanding that a long and fully lived life brings to every really intelligent human being. Did she really want her prayer to be answered, or had she been trying to humbug herself? She had thought of a test which would surely prove whether she was genuine in her desire to escape from the torment that was lying in wait for her or not. Instead of receiving a visit from her Greek to-morrow, instead of being at home to Craven in the late afternoon, instead of giving herself up to the lure which must, she knew, certainly lead her on to emotional destruction, she might do this: she might telephone to Sir Seymour Portman to come to her and tell him that she would reward his long faithfulness.
It would be a way out. If she could bring herself to do it she would make herself safe. For though Seymour Portman had been so faithful, and she had never rewarded him, he was not a man any woman would dare to play with. Lady Sellingworth knew that she would never break a promise to him, would never play fast and loose with him. He was strong and he was true, and he had very high ideals and an almost stern code of honour. In accepting him as her husband she would shut a door of steel between herself and her past, with its sins and its many follies. She would begin again, as an old woman with a devoted husband who would know—none better—how to make himself respected, how to hold by his rights.
People might smile at such a marriage, but it would be absolutely suitable. Seymour was a few years older than she was. But he was still strong and upright, could still sit a horse as well as any man, still had a steady hand with his gun. He was not a ruin. She would be able to rest on him. A more perfect support for a woman than Seymour, if he loved, was surely not created. He was a gentleman to the core, and totally incapable of insincerity. He was fearless. He belonged to her world. He was persona grata at Court and in society. And he loved her in that extraordinary and very rare way—as the one woman. All he needed in a woman quite evidently he found in her. How? Why? She did not know, could not understand. But so it was. She would absolutely satisfy his desires.
The aspirin was stilling her nerves. She lay without moving. Had she been a humbug when she prayed? Had she prayed knowing quite well that her prayer was not going to be answered, not intending, or wishing, really, that it should be answered? Had she prayed without any belief in a Being who had the power and probably the will to give her what she asked for? Would she have prayed at all had she been sure that if she offered up a petition to be made old in nature as well as in body it would certainly be granted?
"I don't know! I don't know!" she whispered to herself.
The darkness of the big room suddenly seemed very strange. And she thought how odd it was that human beings need in every twenty-four hours a long period of blackness, that they make blackness by turning out light, and stretch themselves out in it as if getting ready for burial.
"Burial! If I'm not a humbug, if really I wish for peace, to-morrow I shall send for Seymour," she said to herself. "Through him I can get peace of mind. He will protect me against myself, without even knowing that he is doing it. I have only to speak a sentence to him and all possibility of danger, torment and wildness will be over for ever."
And then she thought of the safety of a prison. But anything was surely better than misery of mind and body, than wanting terribly from someone what he never wants to give you, what he never wants from you.
Torment in freedom, or stagnant peace in captivity behind the prison door—which was the more desirable? Craven's voice through the telephone—their conversation about Waring—Seymour's long faithfulness—if he were here now! How would it be? And if Craven—No! No!
Another tablet of aspirin—and sleep!
Lady Sellingworth did not pray the next morning. But she telephoned to Seymour Portman, and said she would be at home about five in the afternoon if he cared for an hour's talk. She gave no hint that she had any special reason for asking him to come. If he only knew what was in her mind! His firm, quiet, soldier's voice replied through the telephone that of course he would come. Somehow she guessed that he had had an engagement and was going to give it up for her. What would he not give up for her? And yet he was a man accustomed to command, and to whom authority was natural. But he was also accustomed to obey. He was the perfect courtier, devoted to the monarchy, yet absolutely free from the slave instinct. Good kings trust such men. Many women love them.
"Why not I?" Lady Sellingworth thought that day.
And it seemed to her that perhaps even love might be subject to will power, that a determined effort of will might bring it or banish it. She had never really tested her will in that way in connexion with love. But the time had come for the test to be made.
"Perhaps I can love Seymour!" she said to herself. "Perhaps I could have loved him years ago if I had chosen. Perhaps I have only to use my will to be happy with him. I have never controlled my impulses. That has been my curse and the cause of all my miseries."
At that moment she entirely forgot the ten years of self-control which were behind her. The sudden return to her former self had apparently blotted them out from her memory.
After telephoning to Seymour Portman she wrote a little note to Craven and sent it round to the Foreign Office. In the note she explained briefly that she was not able to see him that afternoon as had been arranged between them. The wording of the note was cold. She could not help that. She wrote it under the influence of what she thought of just then as a decision. If she did what she believed she intended to do that afternoon she would have to be cold to Craven in the future. With her temperament it would be impossible to continue her friendship with Craven if she were going to marry Sir Seymour. She knew that. But she did not know how frigid, how almost brusque, her note to Craven was.
When he read it he felt as if he had received a cold douche. It startled him and hurt him, hurt his youthful sensitiveness and pride. And he wondered very much why Lady Sellingworth had written it, and what had happened to make her write to him like that. She did not even ask him to call on her at some other time on some other day. And it had been she who had suggested a cosy talk that afternoon. She had been going to show him a book of poems by a young American poet in whose work she was interested. And they would have talked over the little events of the preceding evening, have discussed Moscovitch, the play, the persistence of love, youth, age, everything under the sun.
Craven was severely disappointed. He even felt rather angry and hurt. Something in him was up in arms, but something else was distressed and anxious. It was extraordinary how already he had come to depend upon Lady Sellingworth. His mother was dead. He certainly did not think of Lady Sellingworth as what is sometimes called "a second mother." There was nothing maternal about her, and he was fully aware of that. Besides, she did not fascinate him in the motherly way. No; but owing to the great difference in their ages he felt that he could talk to her as he could talk to nobody else. For he was in no intimate relation with any other woman so much older than himself. And to young women somehow one can never talk so freely, so companionably. Even in these modern days sex gets in the way. Craven told himself that as he folded up Lady Sellingworth's letter. She was different. He had felt that for him there was quite a beautiful refuge in Berkeley Square. And now! What could have happened? She must surely be vexed about something he had done, or about something which had occurred on the previous evening. And he thought abut the evening carefully and minutely. Had she perhaps been upset by Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde? Was she self-conscious as he was, and had she observed their concentration upon herself and him? Or, on the other hand, could she had misunderstood his manner with Miss Van Tuyn? He knew how very sensitive women are about each other. And Lady Sellingworth, of course, was old, although he never bothered, and seldom thought, about her age. Elderly women were probably in certain ways even more sensitive than young women. He could well understand that. And he certainly had rather made love to Miss Van Tuyn because of the horribly observing eyes of the "old guard." And then, too, Miss Van Tuyn had finally almost required it of him. Had she not told him that she had insisted on Lady Sellingworth's being asked to the theatre to entertain Braybrooke so that Craven and she, the young ones, might have a nice little time? After that what could he do but his duty? But perhaps Lady Sellingworth had not understood. He wondered, and felt now hurt and angry, now almost contrite and inclined to be explanatory.
When he left the Foreign Office that day and was crossing the Mall he was very depressed. A breath of winter was in the air. There was a bank of clouds over Buckingham Palace, with the red sun smouldering just behind their edges. The sky, as it sometimes does, held tenderness, anger and romance, and was full of lures for the imagination and the soul. Craven looked at it as he walked on with a colleague, a man called Marshall, older than himself, who had just come back from Japan, and was momentarily translated. He voyaged among the clouds, and was carried away across that cold primrose and delicate green, and his journey was into the ineffable, and beyond the rim of the horizon towards the satisfaction of the unexpressed, because inexpressible, desires. And Marshall talked about Japanese art and presently about geishas, not stupidly, but with understanding. And Craven though: "If only I were going to Berkeley Square!" He had come down to earth, but in the condition which yearns for an understanding mind. Lady Sellingworth understood him. But now—he did not know. And he went with Marshall drearily to the St. James's Club and went on hearing about geishas and Japanese art.
The bell sounded in Berkeley Square, and a footman let in Sir Seymour Portman, who was entirely unconscious that Fate had been working apparently with a view to the satisfaction of his greatest desire. He had long ago given up hope of being Adela Sellingworth's husband. Twice that hope had died—when she had married Lord Manham, and when she had married Sellingworth. Adela could not care for him in that way. But now for many years she had remained unmarried, had joined him, as it were, in the condition of being lonely. That fact had helped him along the road. He could go to her and feel that he was in a certain degree wanted. That was something, even a good deal, in the old courtier's life. He valued greatly the welcome of the woman whom he still loved with an undeviating fidelity. He was thankful, selfishly, no doubt—he often said so to himself—for her loneliness, because he believed himself able to cheer it and to alleviate it. And at last he had ceased to dread any change in her way of life. His Adela had evidently at last "settled down." Her vivacious temperament, her almost greedy love of life, were abated. He had her more or less to himself.
As he mounted the staircase with his slow, firm step, holding his soldierly figure very upright, he was looking forward to one of the usual quiet, friendly conversations with Adela which were his greatest enjoyments, and as he passed through the doorway of the drawing-room his eyes turned at once towards the sofa near the big fireplace, seeking for the tall figure of the woman who so mysteriously had captured his heart in the long ago and who had never been able to let it out of her keeping.
But there was no one by the fire, and the butler said:
"I will tell her ladyship that you are here, sir."
"Thank you, Murgatroyd," said Sir Seymour.
And he went to the fireplace, turned round, and began to warm his flat back.
He stood there thus till his back was quite warm. Adela was rather slow in coming. But he did not mind that. It was happiness for him to be in her house, among her things, the sofas and chairs she used, the carpet her feet pressed every day, the books she read, the flowers she had chosen. This house was his idea of a home who had never had a home because of her.
Meanwhile upstairs, in a big bedroom just overhead, Lady Sellingworth was having a battle with herself of which her friend was totally unconscious. She did not come down at once because she wanted definitely and finally to finish that battle before she saw again the man by the fire. But something said to her: "Don't decide till you have seen him again. Look at him once more and then decide." She walked softly up and down the room after Murgatroyd had told her who was waiting for her, and she felt gnawed by apprehension. She knew her fate was in the balance. All day she had been trying to decide what she was going to do. All day she had been saying to herself: "Now, this moment, I will decide, and once the decision is made there shall be no going back from it." It was within her power to come to a decision and to stick to it; or, if it were not within her power, then she was not a sane but an insane woman. She knew herself sane. Yet the decision was not arrived at when Sir Seymour rang the bell. Now he was waiting in the room underneath and the matter must be settled. An effort of will, the descent of a flight of stairs, a sentence spoken, and her life would be made fast to an anchor which would hold. And for her there would be no more drifting upon dangerous seas at the mercy of tempests.
"Look at him once more and then decide."
The voice persisted within her monotonously. But what an absurd injunction that was. She knew Seymour by heart, knew every feature of him, every expression of his keen, observant, but affectionate eyes, the way he held himself, the shapes of his strong, rather broad hands—the hands of a fine horseman and first-rate whip—every trick of him, every attitude. Why look at him, her old familiar friend, again before deciding what she was now going to do?
"Look at him as the man who is going to be your husband!"
But that was surely a deceiving insidious voice, suggesting to her weakness, uncertainty, hesitation, further mental torment and further debate. And she was afraid of it.
She stood still near the window. She must go down. Seymour had already been waiting some time, ten minutes or more. He must be wondering why she did not come. He was not the sort of man one cares to keep waiting—although he had waited many years scarcely daring to hope for something he longed for. She thought of his marvellous happiness, his wonderful surprise, if she did what she meant—or did she mean it—to do. Surely it would be a splendid thing to bring such a flash of radiance into a life of twilight. Does happiness come from making others happy? If so, then—She must go down.
"I will do it!" she said to herself. "Merely his happiness will be enough reward."
And she went towards the door. But as she did so her apprehension grew till her body tingled with it. A strange sensation of being physically unwell came upon her. She shrank, as if physically, from the clutching hands of the irrevocable. If in a hurry, driven by her demon, she were to say the words she had in her mind there would be no going back. She would never dare to unsay them. She knew that. But that was just the great advantage she surely was seeking—an irrevocable safety from herself, a safety she would never be able to get away from, break out of.
In a prison there is safety from all the dangers and horrors of the world outside the prison. But what a desperate love of the state she now called freedom burned within her! Freedom for what, though? She knew and felt as if her soul were slowly reddening. It was monstrous that thought of hers. Yet she could not help having it. It was surely not her fault if she had it. Was she a sort of monster unlike all other women of her age? Or did many of them, too, have such thoughts?
She must go down. And she went to the door and opened it. And directly she saw the landing outside and the descending staircase she knew that she had not yet decided, that she could not decide till she had looked at Seymour once more, looked at him with the almost terrible eyes of the deeply experienced woman who can no longer decide a thing swiftly in ignorance.
"I shall do it," she said to herself. "But I must be reasonable, and there is no reason why I should force myself to make up my mind finally up here. I have sent for Seymour and I know why. When I see him, when I am with him, I shall do what I intended to do when I asked him to come."
She shut her bedroom door and began to go downstairs, and as she went she imagined Seymour settled in that house with her. (For, of course, he would come to live in Berkeley Square, would leave the set of rooms he occupied now in St. James's Palace.) She had often longed to have a male companion living with her in that house, to smell cigar smoke, to hear a male voice, a strong footstep in the hall and on the stairs, to see things that implied a man's presence lying about, caps, pipes, walking sticks, golf clubs, riding crops. The whole atmosphere of the house would be changed if a man came to live with her there, if Seymour came.
She had gained the last stair and was on the great landing before the drawing-room door. Down below she heard a faint and discreet murmur of voices from Murgatroyd and the footman in the hall. And as she paused for a moment she wondered how much those two men knew of her and of her real character, whether they had any definite knowledge of her humanity, whether they had perhaps realized in their way what sort of woman she was, sometimes stripped away the Grande Dame, the mistress, and looked with appraising eyes at the stark woman.
She would never know.
She opened the door and instantly assumed her usual carelessly friendly look.
Sir Seymour had left the fire, and was sitting in an armchair with a book in his hand reading when she came in; and as she had opened the door softly, and as it was a long way from the fireplace he did not hear her or instantly realize that she was there. She had an instant in which to contemplate him as he sat there, like a man quietly at home. Only one lamp was lit. It stood on a table behind him and threw light on his rather big head thickly covered with curly and snow-white hair, the hair which he sometimes smilingly called his "cauliflower." The light fell, too, aslant on his strong-featured manly face, the slightly hooked nose, large-lipped, firm mouth, shaded by a moustache in which some dark hairs were mingled with the white ones, and chin with a deep dent in the middle of it. His complexion was of that weather-beaten red hue which is often seen in oldish men who have been much out in all weathers. There were many deep lines in the face, two specially deep ones slanting downwards from the nose on either side of the mouth. Above the nose there was a sort of bump, from which the low forehead slightly retreated to the curves of strong white hair. The ears were large but well shaped. In order to read he had put on pince-nez with tortoise-shell rimmed glasses, from which hung a rather broad black riband. His thin figure looked stiff even in an arm-chair. His big brown-red hands held the book up. His legs were crossed, and his feet were strongly defined by the snowy white spats which partially concealed the varnished black boots. He looked a distinguished old man as he sat there—but he looked old.