Lady Sellingworth was among the first few women who left the drawing-room, and was sitting at a round table in the big, stone-coloured dining-room when Baron de Melville, an habitue at Coombe, bent over her.
"I'm lucky enough to be beside you!" he said. "This is a rare occasion. One never meets you now."
He sat down on her right. The place on her left was vacant. People were still coming in, talking, laughing, finding their seats. The Duchess of Wellingborough, who was exactly opposite to Lady Sellingworth, leaned forward to speak to her.
"Adela . . . Adela!"
"Yes? How are you, Cora?"
"Very well, as I always am. Isn't Lavallois a marvel?"
"He is certainly very clever."
"You are proud of it, my dear. Have you heard what the Bolshevist envoy said to the Prime Minister when—"
But at this moment someone spoke to the duchess, who was already beginning to laugh at the story she was intending to tell and Lady Sellingworth was aware of a movement on her left. She felt as if she blushed, though no colour came into her face.
"How are you, Lady Sellingworth?"
She had not turned her head, but now she did, and met Craven's hard, uncompromising blue eyes and deliberately smiling lips.
"Oh, it's you! How nice!"
She gave him her hand. He just touched it coldly. What a boy he still was in his polite hostility! She thought of Camber Sands and the darkness falling over the waste, and, in spite of her self-control and her pity for him, there was an unconquerable feeling of injury in her heart. What reason, what right, had he to greet her so frigidly? How had she injured him?
A roar of conversation had begun in the room. Everyone seemed in high spirits. Mrs. Ackroyde, who was at the same table as Lady Sellingworth, with Lord Alfred Craydon on her right and Sir Robert Syng on her left, looked steadily round over the multitude of her guests with a comprehensive glance, the analyzing and summing-up glance of one to whom everything social was as an open book containing no secrets which her eyes did not read. Those eyes travelled calmly, and presently came to Craven and Adela Sellingworth. She smiled faintly and spoke to Robert Syng.
"This is her second debut," she said. "I'm bringing her out again. They are all amazed."
"What about?" said Sir Robert, in his grim and very masculine voice.
"Bobbie, you know as well as I do. I had a bet with Anne that she would accept. I'm five pounds to the good. Adela is a creature of impulses, and that sort of creature does young things to the day of its death."
"Is it doing a young thing to accept a luncheon invitation from you?"
"Yes—for her reason."
"Well, that's beyond me."
"How indifferent you are!"
He looked at her in silence.
Lady Sellingworth talked to the baron till half-way through lunch. He was a financier of rather obscure origin, long naturalized as an Englishman, and ardently patriotic. The noble words "we British people" were often upon his strangely foreign-looking lips. Many years ago the "old guard" had taken him to their generous bosoms. For he was enormously rich, and really not a bad sort. And he had been clever enough to remain unmarried, so hope attended him with undeviating steps.
Miss Van Tuyn was presently the theme of his discourse. Evidently he did not know anything about her and Alick Craven. For he discussed her and her change of fortune without embarrassment or any arriere pensee, and he, too, spoke of the visit to Rose Tree Gardens. Evidently all the Coombe set was full of this mysterious visit, paid to an Adonis whom nobody knew, in the shadow of a father's death.
The baron greatly admired Miss Van Tuyn, not only for her beauty but for her daring. And he was not at all shocked at what she had done.
"She never lived with her father. Why should she pretend to be upset at his death? The only difference it makes to her is an extremely agreeable one. If she celebrates it by a mild revel over the tea cups with an exceptionally good-looking man, who is to blame her? The fact is, we Britishers are all moral humbugs. It seems to be in the blood," etc.
He ran on with wholly un-English vivacity about Beryl and her wonderful man. Everybody wished to know who he was and all about him, but he seemed to be a profound mystery. Even Minnie Birchington, who lived opposite to him, knew little more than the rest of them. Since she had been introduced to him she had never set eyes on him, although she knew from her maid that he was still in the flat opposite, which he had rented furnished for three months with an option for a longer period. He had a Spanish manservant in the flat with him, but whether he, too, was Spanish Mrs. Birchington did not know. Where had Beryl Van Tuyn picked him up, and how had she come to know him so well? All the women were asking these questions. And the men were intrigued because of the report, carried by Lady Archie, and enthusiastically confirmed by Mrs. Birchington, of the fellow's extraordinary good looks.
Lady Sellingworth listened to all this with an air of polite, but rather detached, interest, wondering all the time whether Craven could overhear what was being said. Craven was sometimes talking to his neighbour, Mrs. Farringdon, but occasionally their conversation dropped, and Lady Sellingworth was aware of his sitting in silence. She wished, and yet almost feared, to talk to him, but she knew that she was interested in no one else in the room. Now that she was again with Craven she realized painfully how much she had missed him. Among all these people, many of them talented, clever, even fascinating, she was only concerned about him. To her he seemed almost like a vital human being in the midst of a crowd of dummies endowed by some magic with the power of speech. She only felt him at this moment, though she was conscious of the baron, Mrs. Ackroyde, Bobbie Syng, the duchess, and others who were near her. This silent boy—he was still a boy in comparison with her—crumbling his bread, wiped them all out. Yet he was no cleverer than they were, no more vital than they. And half of her almost hated him still.
"Oh, why do I worry about him?" she thought, while she leaned towards the baron and looked energetically into his shifting dark eyes. "What is there in him that holds me and tortures me? He's only an ordinary man—horribly ordinary, I know that."
And she thought of Camber Sands and the twilight, and saw Craven seeking for Beryl's hand—footman and housemaid. What had she, Adela Sellingworth, with her knowledge and her past, her great burden of passionate experiences—what had she to do with such an ordinary young man?
"Nicolas might possibly be Greek or Russian. But what are we to make of Arabian?"
It was still the voice of the Baron—full, energetic, intensely un-English.
"Have you heard the name before, Lady Sellingworth?"
"Yes," she said.
"Really! What country does it belong to? Surely not to our England?"
Craven was not speaking at this moment, and she felt that he was listening to them. She remembered how Beryl had hurt her and, speaking with deliberate clearness, she added:
"Garstin, the painter, has had this man, Nicolas Arabian, as a sitter for a long time, certainly for a good many weeks. And Beryl is just now intensely interested in portrait painting."
"What—he's a model! But with a flat in Rose Tree Gardens!"
"He is evidently not an ordinary model. I believe Mr. Garstin picked him up somewhere, saw him by chance, probably at the Cafe Royal or some place of that kind, and asked him to sit."
"Do you know him?" asked the Baron, with sharp curiosity.
"Oh, no! I have never set eyes upon him. Beryl told me."
"Miss Van Tuyn! We all thought she was trying to keep the whole matter a secret."
"Well, she told me quite openly. You were there, weren't you?"
She turned rather abruptly to Craven. He started.
"What? I beg your pardon. I didn't catch what you were saying."
"He's lying!" she thought.
The Baron was addressed by his neighbour, Magdalen Dearing, whose husband he was supposed, perhaps quite wrongly, to finance, and Lady Sellingworth was left free for a conversation with Craven.
"We were speaking about Beryl," she began.
Suddenly she felt hard, and she wanted to punish Craven, as we only wish to punish those who can make us suffer because they have made us care for them.
"It seems that—they are all saying—"
She paused. She wanted to repeat the scandalous gossip about Beryl's visit to this mystery man, Arabian, immediately after her father's death. But she could not do it. No, she could not punish him with such a dirty weapon. He was worthy of polished steel, and this would be rusty scrap-iron.
"It's nothing but stupid gossip," she said. "And you and I have never dealt in that together, have we?"
"Oh, I enjoy hearing about my neighbours," he answered, "or I shouldn't come here."
She felt a sharp thrust of disappointment. His voice was cold and full of detachment; the glance of his blue eyes was hard and unrelenting. She had never seen him like this till to-day.
"What are they saying about Miss Van Tuyn?" he added. "Anything amusing?"
"No. And in any case it's not the moment to talk nonsense about her, just when she is in deep mourning."
With an almost bitter smile she continued, after a slight hesitation:
"There is a close time for game during which the guns must be patient. There ought to be a close time for human beings in sorrow. We ought not to fire at them all the year round."
"What does it matter? They fire at us all the year round. The carnage is mutual."
"Have you turned cynic?"
"I don't think I was ever a sentimentalist."
"Perhaps not. But must one be either the one or the other?"
"I am quite sure you are not the latter."
"I should be sorry to be the former," she said, with unusual earnestness.
Something in his voice made her suddenly feel very sad, with a coldness of sorrow that was like frost binding her heart. She looked across the big table. A long window was opposite to her. Through it she saw distant tree-tops rising into the misty grey sky. And she thought of the silence of the bare woods, so near and yet so remote. Why was life so heartless? Why could not he and she understand each other? Why had she nothing to rest on? Winter! She had entered into her winter, irrevocable, cold and leafless. But the longing for warmth would not leave her. Winter was terrible to her, would always be terrible.
How the Duchess of Wellingborough was laughing! Her broad shoulders shook. She threw up her chin and showed her white teeth. To her life was surely a splendid game, even in widowhood and old age. The crowd was enough for her. She fed on good stories. And so no doubt she would never go hungry. For a moment Lady Sellingworth thought that she envied the Duchess. But then something deep down in her knew it was not so. To need much—that is greater and better, even if the need brings that sorrow which perhaps many know nothing of. At that moment she connected desire with aspiration, and felt released from her lowest part.
Craven was speaking to Mrs. Farringdon; Lady Sellingworth heard her saying, in her curiously muffled, contralto voice:
"Old Bean is a wonderful horse. I fancy him for the next Derby. But some people say he is not a stayer. On a hard course he might crack up. Still, he's got a good deal of bone. The Farnham stable is absolutely rotten at present. Don't go near it."
"Oh, why did I come?" Lady Sellingworth thought, as she turned again to the Baron.
She had lost the habit of the world in her long seclusion. In her retreat she had developed into a sentimentalist. Or perhaps she had always been one, and old age had made the tendency more definite, had fixed her in the torturing groove. She began to feel terribly out of place in this company, but she knew that she did not look out of place. She had long ago mastered the art of appearance, and could never forget that cunning. And she gossiped gaily with the Baron until luncheon at last was over.
As she went towards the drawing-room Mrs. Ackroyde joined her.
"You were rather unkind to Alick Craven, Adela," she murmured. "Has he offended you?"
"On the contrary. I think he's a charming boy."
"Don't punish him all the afternoon then."
"But I am not going to be here all the afternoon. I have ordered the car for half-past three."
"It's that now."
"Well, then I must be going almost directly."
"You must stay for tea. A lot of people are coming, and we shall have music. Alick Craven only accepted because I told him you would be here."
"But you told me he had accepted when you asked me."
"That's how I do things when I really want people who may not want to come. I lied to both of you, and here you both are."
"Well at any rate you are honest in confession."
"I will counterorder your car. Henry, please tell Lady Sellingworth's chauffeur that he will be sent for when he is wanted. Oh, Anne, welcome the wandering sheep back to the social fold!"
She threaded her way slowly through the crowd, talking calmly to one and another, seeing everything, understanding everything, tremendously at home in the midst of complications.
Lady Sellingworth talked to Lady Anne, who had just come back from Mexico. It was her way to dart about the world, leaving her husband in his arm-chair at the Marlborough. She brought gossip with her from across the seas, gossip about exotic Presidents and their mistresses, about revolutionary generals and explorers, about opera singers in Havana, and great dancers in the Argentine. In her set she was called "the peripatetic pug," but she had none of the pug's snoring laziness. Presently someone took her away to play bridge, and for a moment Lady Sellingworth was standing alone. She was close to a great window which gave on to the terrace at the back of the house facing the falling gardens and the woods. She looked out, then looked across the room. Craven was standing near the door. He had just come in with a lot of men from the dining-room. He had a cigar in his hand. His cheeks were flushed. He looked hot and drawn, like a man in a noisy prison of heat which excited him, but tormented him too. His eyes shone almost feverishly. As she looked at him, not knowing that he was being watched he drew a long breath, almost like a man who feared suffocation. Immediately afterwards he glanced across the room and saw her.
She beckoned to him. With a reluctant air, and looking severe, he came across to her.
"Are you going to play bridge?" she said.
"I don't think so."
"Dindie has persuaded me to stay on for the music. Shall we take a little walk in the garden? I am so unaccustomed to crowds that I am longing for air."
She paused, then added:
"And a little quiet."
"Certainly," he said stiffly.
"Does he hate me?" she thought, with a sinking of despair. He went to fetch her wrap. They met in the hall.
"Where are you two going?"
Dindie Ackroyde's all-seeing eyes had perceived them.
"Only to get a breath of air in the garden," said Lady Sellingworth.
She gave them a watchful smile and spoke to Eve Colton, who was hunting for the right kind of bridge, stick in hand.
"I'll find Melville for you. Jennie and Sir Arthur are waiting in the card-room."
"I hope you don't mind coming out for a moment?"
Lady Sellingworth's unconquerable diffidence was persecuting her. She spoke almost with timidity to Craven on the doorstep.
"Oh, no. I am delighted."
His young voice was carefully frigid.
"More motors!" she said. "The whole of London will be here by tea time."
"Great fun, isn't it? Such a squash of interesting people."
"And I am taking you away from them!"
"That's all right!"
"Oh, what an Eton's boy's voice!" she thought.
But she loved it. That was the truth. His youngness was so apparent in his coldness that he was more dangerous than ever to her who had an unconquerable passion for youth.
"Let us go through this door in the wall. It must lead to the gardens."
He pushed it open. They passed through and were away from the motors, standing on a broad terrace which turned at right angles and skirted the back of the house.
"Don't let us go round the corner before all the drawing-room windows."
"No?" he said.
"Unless you prefer—"
"I will go wherever you like."
"I thought—what about this path?"
"Shall we do down it?"
"I think it looks rather tempting."
They walked slowly on, descending a slight incline, and came to a second long terrace on a lower level. There was a good deal of brick-work in Mrs. Ackroyde's garden, but there were some fine trees, and in summer the roses were wonderful. Now there were not many flowers, but at least there were calm and silence, and the breath of the winter woods came to Lady Sellingworth and Craven.
Craven said nothing, and walked stiffly beside his companion looking straight ahead. He seemed entirely unlike the man who had talked so enthusiastically in her drawing-room after the dinner in the Bella Napoli, and again on that second evening when they had dined together without the company of Beryl Van Tuyn. But Dindie Ackroyde had said he had come down that day because he had been told he would meet her. And Dindie was scarcely ever wrong abut people. But this time surely she had made a mistake.
"Oh, there's the hard court!" Lady Sellingworth said.
"It looks a beauty."
"Do you play?"
"I used to. But I have given it up."
After a silence she added:
"You know I have given up everything. There comes a time—"
"Perhaps you will not believe it, but I feel very strange here with all these people."
"But you know them all, don't you?"
"Nearly all. But they mean nothing to me now."
They were walking slowly up and down the long terrace.
"One passes away from things," she said, "as one goes on. It is rather a horrible feeling."
Suddenly, moved by an impulse that was almost girlish, she stopped on the path and said:
"What is the matter with you to-day? Why are you angry with me?"
"Angry! But I am not angry!"
"Yes, you are. Tell me why."
"How could I—I'm really not angry. As if I could be angry with you!"
"Then why are you so different?"
"In what way am I different?"
She did not answer, but said:
"Did you hear what the baron and I were talking about at lunch?"
"Just a few words."
"I hope you didn't think I wished to join in gossip about Beryl Van Tuyn?"
"Of course not."
"I hate all such talk. If that offended you—"
She was losing her dignity and knew it, but a great longing to overcome his rigidity drove her on.
"If you think—"
"It wasn't that!" he said. "I have no reason to mind what anyone says about Miss Van Tuyn."
"But she's your friend!"
"Is she? I think a friend is a very rare thing. You have taught me that."
"You went abroad without letting me know."
"Is that it?" she said.
And there was a strange note, like a note of joy, in her voice.
"I think you might have told me. And you put me off. I was to have seen you—"
"Yes, I know."
She was silent. She could not explain. That was impossible. Yet she longed to tell him how much she had wished to see him, how much it had cost her to go without a word. But suddenly she remembered Camber. He was angry with her, but he had very soon consoled himself for her departure.
"I went away quite unexpectedly," she said. "I had to go like that."
"I—I hope you weren't ill?"
He recalled Braybrooke's remarks about doctors. Perhaps she had really been ill. Perhaps something had happened abroad, and he had done her a wrong.
"No, I haven't been ill. It wasn't that," she said.
The thought of Camber persisted, and now persecuted her.
"I am quite sure you didn't miss me," she said, with a colder voice.
"But I did!" he said.
"For how long?"
The mocking look he knew so well had come into her eyes. How much did she know?
"Have you seen Miss Van Tuyn since you came back?" he asked.
"Oh, yes. She paid me a visit soon after I arrived."
Craven looked down. He realized that something had been said, that Miss Van Tuyn had perhaps talked injudiciously. But even if she had, why should Lady Sellingworth mind? His relation with her was so utterly different from his relation with the lovely American. It never occurred to him that this wonderful elderly woman, for whom he had such a peculiar feeling, could care for him at all as a girl might, could think of him as a woman thinks of a man with whom she might have an affair of the heart. She fascinated him. Yes! But she did not fascinate that part of him which instinctively responded to Beryl Van Tuyn. And that he fascinated her in any physical way simply did not enter his mind. Nevertheless, at that moment he felt uncomfortable and, absurdly enough, almost guilty.
"Have you seen Beryl since her father's death?" said Lady Sellingworth.
"No," he said. "At least—yes, I suppose I have."
Her eyes had not lost their mocking expression.
"I happened to see her in Glebe Place with that fellow they are all chattering about, but I didn't speak to her. I believe her father was dead then. But I didn't know it at the time."
"Oh! Is he so very handsome, as they say?"
She could not help saying this, and watching him as she said it.
"I should say he was a good-looking chap," answered Craven frigidly. "But he looks like a wrong 'un."
"It is difficult to tell what people are at a glance."
"Some people—yes. But I think with others one look is enough."
"Yes, that's true," she said, thinking of him. "Shall we go a little farther towards the woods?"
"Yes; let us."
She knew he was suffering obscurely that day, perhaps in his pride, perhaps in something else. She hoped it was in his pride. Anyhow, she felt pity for him in her new-found happiness. For she was happier now in comparison with what she had been. And with that happiness came a great longing to comfort him, to draw him out of his cold reserve, to turn him into the eager and almost confidential boy he had been with her. As they passed the red tennis court and walked towards the end of the garden which skirted the woods she said:
"I want you to understand something. I know it must have seemed unfriendly in me to put you off, and then to leave England without letting you know. But I had a reason which I can't explain."
"I shall never be able to explain it. But if I could you would realize at once that my friendship for you was unaltered."
"Well, but you didn't let me know you were back. You did not ask me to come to see you."
"I did not think you would care to come."
"I—perhaps you—I don't find it easy now to think that anyone can care much to be bothered with me."
"That really is the truth. Believe it or not, as you like. You see, I am out of things now."
"You need never be out of things unless you choose."
"Oh, the world goes on and leaves one behind. Don't you remember my telling you and Beryl once that I was an Edwardian?"
"If that means un-modern I think I prefer it to modernity. I think perhaps I have an old-fashioned soul."
He was smiling now. The hard look had gone from his eyes; the ice in his manner had melted. She felt that she was forgiven. And she tried to put the thought of Camber out of her mind. Beryl was unscrupulous. Perhaps she had exaggerated. And, in any case, surely she had treated, was treating, him badly.
She felt that he and she were friends again, that he was glad to be with her once more. There was really a link of sympathy between them. And he had been angry because she had gone abroad without telling him. She thought of his anger and loved it.
That day, after tea, while the music was still going on in Dindie Ackroyde's drawing-room, they drove back to London together, leaving their reputations quite comfortably behind them in the hand of the "old guard."
Beryl Van Tuyn found that it was not necessary for her to cross the ocean on account of her father's sudden death. He had left all his affairs in excellent order, and the chief part of his fortune was bequeathed to her. She had always had plenty of money. Now she was rich. She went into mourning, answered suitably the many letters of condolence that poured in upon her, and then considered what she had better do.
Miss Cronin pleaded persistently for an immediate return to Paris. What was the good of staying on in London now? The winter was dreary in London. The flat in Paris was far more charming and elegant than any hotel. Beryl had all her lovely things about her there. Her chief friends were in Paris. She could see them quietly at home. And it was quite impossible for her to go about London now that she was plunged in mourning. What would they do there? She, Miss Cronin, could go on as usual, of course. She never did anything special. But Beryl would surely be bored to death living the life of a hermit in Claridge's.
Miss Van Tuyn listened to all that old Fanny had to say, and made no attempt to refute her arguments or reply to her exhortations. She merely remarked that she would think the matter over.
"But what is there to think over, darling?" said Miss Cronin, lifting her painted eyebrows. "There is nothing to keep us here. You never go to the Wallace Collection now."
"Do please allow me to be the judge of what I want to do with my life, Fanny," said Miss Van Tuyn, curtly. "When I wish to pack up I'll tell you."
And old Fanny collapsed like a pricked bladder. She could not understand Beryl any longer. The girl seemed to be quite beyond her reach. She thought of Alick Craven and of the man in the blue overcoat with the strange name. Nicolas Arabian. She had seen neither of them again. Beryl never mentioned them. But Fanny was sure that one, or both, of them held her in London. Something must be in the wind, something dangerous to any companion. She felt on the threshold of an alarming, perhaps disastrous, change. As she went nowhere she knew nothing of Beryl's visit to Rose Tree Gardens and of the gossip it had set going in certain circles in London. But she had never been able to forget the impression she had had when Beryl had introduced her to the man with the melting brown eyes. Beryl was surely in love. Yet she did not look happy. Certainly her father's death might have upset her. But Miss Cronin did not think that was sufficient to account for the change in the girl. She had something on her mind besides that. Miss Cronin was certain of it. Beryl's cool self-assurance was gone. She was restless. She brooded. She seemed quite unable to settle to anything or to come to any decision.
Old Fanny began to be seriously alarmed. Mrs. Clem Hodson had gone back to Philadelphia. She had no one to consult, no one to apply to. She felt quite helpless. Even Bourget could give her no solace. She had a weak imagination, but it now began to trouble her. As she lay upon her sofa, she, always feebly, imagined many things. But oftenest she saw a vague vision of Mr. Craven and Mr. Arabian fighting a duel because of Beryl. They were in a forest clearing near Paris in early morning. It was a duel with revolvers, as Bourget might have described it. She saw their buttoned-up coats, their stretched-out arms. Which did she wish to be the victor? And which would Beryl wish to return unwounded to Paris? Surely Mr. Arabian. He was so kind, so enticingly gentle; he had such beautiful eyes. And yet—and at this point old Fanny's imagination ceased to function, and something else displayed a certain amount of energy, her knowledge of the world. What would Mr. Arabian be like as a husband? He was charming, seductive even, caressingly sympathetic—yes, caressingly! But—as a husband? And old Fanny felt mysteriously that something in her recoiled from the idea of Arabian as the husband of Beryl, whereas she could think of Mr. Craven in that situation quite calmly. It was all very odd, and it made her very uncomfortable. It even agitated her, and she felt her solitude keenly. There had never been a real link between Beryl and her, and she knew it. But now she felt herself strangely alone in the midst of perhaps threatening dangers. If only Beryl would become frank, would speak out, would consult her, ask her advice! But the girl was enclosed in a reserve that was flawless. There was not a single breach in the wall. And the dark winter had descended on London.
One evening Miss Van Tuyn felt almost desperate. Enclosed in her reserve she longed for a confidante; she longed to talk things over, to take counsel with someone. She had even a desire to ask for advice. But she knew no one in London to whom she could unbosom herself. Fanny did not count. Old Fanny was a fool and quite incapable of being useful mentally to anyone with good brains. And to what other woman could she speak, she, Beryl Van Tuyn, the notoriously clever, notoriously independent, young beauty, who had always hitherto held the reins of her own destiny? If only she could speak to a man! But there the sex question intruded itself. No man would be impartial unless he were tremendously old. And she had no tremendously old man friend, having always preferred those who were still in possession of all their faculties.
No young man could be impartial, least of all Alick Craven, and yet she wished intensely that she had not lost her head that day in Glebe Place, that she had carried out her original intention and had introduced Craven to Arabian.
She knew what people were saying of her in London. Although she was in deep mourning and could not go about, several women had been to see her. They had come to condole with her, and had managed to let her understand what people were murmuring. Lady Archie had been with her. Mrs. Birchington had looked in. And two days after Lady Sellingworth's visit to Coombe Dindie Ackroyde had called. From her Miss Van Tuyn had heard of Craven's walk in the garden with Adela Sellingworth and early departure to London in Adela's motor. In addition to this piece of casually imparted news, Mrs. Ackroyde had frankly told Miss Van Tuyn that she was being gossiped about in a disagreeable way and that, in spite of her established reputation for unconventionality, she ought to be more careful. And Miss Van Tuyn—astonishingly—had not resented this plain speaking. Mrs. Ackroyde, of course, had tried to find out something about Nicolas Arabian, but Miss Van Tuyn had evaded the not really asked questions, and had treated the whole matter with an almost airy casualness which had belied all that was in her mind.
But these visits, and especially Dindie Ackroyde's, had deepened the nervous pre-occupation which was beginning seriously to alarm old Fanny.
If she took old Fanny's advice and left London? If she returned to Paris? She believed, indeed she felt certain, that to do that would not be to separate from Arabian. He would follow her there. If she took the wings of the morning and flew to the uttermost parts of the earth there surely she would find him. She began to think of him as a hound on the trail of her. And yet she did not want him to lose the trail. She combined fear with desire in a way that was inexplicable to herself, that sometimes seemed to her like a sort of complex madness. But her reason for remaining in London was not to be found in Arabian's presence there. And she knew that. If she went to Paris she would be separated from Alick Craven. She did not want to be separated from him. And now Dindie Ackroyde's news intensified her reluctance to yield to old Fanny's persuasions and to return to her bronzes. Her clever visit to Adela Sellingworth had evidently not achieved its object. In spite of her so deliberate confession to Adela the latter had once more taken possession of Craven.
Miss Van Tuyn felt angry and disgusted, even indignant, but she also felt saddened and almost alarmed.
Knowing men very well, being indeed an expert in male psychology, she realized that perhaps, probably even, her own action had driven Craven back to his friendship with Adela. But that fact did not make things more pleasant for her. She knew that she had seriously offended Craven. She remembered the look in his face as he passed quickly by her and Arabian in Glebe Place. He had not been to see her since, and had not written to condole with her. She knew that she had outraged his pride, and perhaps something else. Yet she could not make up her mind to leave England and drop out of his life. To do that would be like a confession of defeat. But it was not only her vanity which prompted her to stay on. She had a curious and strong liking for Craven which was very sincere. It was absolutely unlike the painful attraction which pushed her towards Arabian. There was trust in it, a longing for escape from something dangerous, something baleful, into peace and security. There was even a moral impulse in it such as she had never felt till now.
What was she to do? She suffered in uncertainty. Her nerves were all on edge. She felt irritable, angry, like someone being punished and resenting the punishment. And she felt horribly dull. Her mourning prohibited her from seeking distractions. People were gossiping about her unpleasantly already. She remembered Dindie Ackroyde's warning, and knew she had better heed it. She felt heartless because she was unable to be really distressed about the death of her father. Old Fanny bored her when she did not actively worry her. She was terribly sorry for herself.
In the evening, while she was sitting alone in her room listlessly reading a book on modern painting by an author with whose views she did not agree, and looking forward to a probably sleepless night, there was a knock on the door, and a rose cheeked page boy, all alertness and buttons, tripped in with a note on a salver.
"Any answer?" she said.
She took the note, and at once recognized Dick Garstin's enormous handwriting. Quickly she opened it and read.
Dear B.—Does your mourning prevent you from looking at a damned good picture? If not, come round to the studio to-morrow any time after lunch and have a squint at a king in the underworld.
At once her feeling of acute boredom left her, was replaced by a keen sense of excitement. She realized immediately that at last Garstin had finished his picture, that at last he had satisfied himself. She had not seen Garstin since the day when she had heard of her father's death. Nor had she seen Arabian. Characteristically, Garstin had not taken the trouble to send her a letter of condolence. He never bothered to do anything conventional. If he had written he would probably had congratulated her on coming into a fortune. Arabian's sympathy had already been expressed. Naturally, therefore, he had not written to her. But he had made no sign in all these days, had not left a card, had not attempted to see her. Day after day she had wondered whether he would do something, give some evidence of life, of intention. Nothing! He had just let her alone. But in his inaction she had felt him intensely, far more than she felt other men in their actions. He had, as it were, surrounded her with his silence, had weighed upon her by his absence. She feared and was fascinated by his apparent indifference, as formerly, when with him, she had feared and been fascinated by his reticence of speech and of conduct. Only once had he taken the initiative with her, when he had ordered the taxi-cab driver to go to Rose Tree Gardens. And even then, when he had had her there alone in his flat, nothing had happened. And he had let her go without any attempt to detain her.
In his passivity there was something hypnotic which acted upon her. She felt it charged with power, with intention, even almost with brutality. There was a great cry for her in his silence.
She did not answer Garstin's note. That was not necessary. She knew she would see him on the morrow.
Directly after lunch on the following day she walked to Glebe Place, wondering whether Arabian would be there.
As usual, Garstin answered the door and covered her with a comprehensive glance as she stood on the doorstep.
"Black suites you," he said. "You ought never to go out of mourning."
"Thank you for your kind sympathy, Dick," she answered. "One can always depend on you for delicacy of feeling and expression in time of trouble."
He smiled as he shut the door.
"You tartar!" he said. "Be careful you don't develop into a shrew as you get on in life."
She noticed at once that he was looking unusually happy. There was even something almost of softness in his face, something almost of kindness, certainly of cordiality, in his eyes.
"Evidently coming into money hasn't had a softening influence upon you," he added.
To her surprise he took her into the ground floor studio and sat down on the big divan there.
"Aren't we going upstairs?" she said.
"In a minute. Don't be in such a blasted hurry, my girl!"
She followed his example and sat down.
"Is anyone up there?"
"Not a soul. Who should there be?"
"Well, I don't know. I thought perhaps—"
"Old Nick was there? Well, he isn't!"
"How absurd you are!" she said, almost with confusion, and looking away from him. "I only wondered whether you had a model with you."
"I know, I know!"
After a rather long pause she said:
"What are we waiting here for?"
"Oh—must to rest!"
"But I'm not tired."
"I didn't suppose you were."
Again there was a pause, in which Miss Van Tuyn felt a tingling of impatient irritation.
"I suppose you are doing this merely to whet my appetite," she said presently, unable to bear the unnatural silence. "Of course I know you have finished the picture at last. You have asked me to come here to see it. Then why on earth not let me see it? All this waiting can't come from timidity. I know you don't care for opinion so long as your own is satisfied."
He sent her an odd look that was almost boyish in its half mischievous, half wistful roguishness.
"My girl, you speak about a painter with great assurance, and, let me add, with great ignorance. I'll tell you the plain truth for once. I've been keeping you down here out of sheer diffidence. Now then!"
His lean blue cheeks slightly reddened as he looked at her. She knew he had spoken the truth, and was touched. She got up quickly, went to him, and put one hand on his shoulder.
"You are afraid of me! But no—I can't believe it!"
He got up.
"It is finished?"
"Yes, at last it's done."
"Has—have you shown—I suppose he has seen it?"
Garstin shook his head, and a dark lock of hair fell over his forehead.
"He doesn't even know it is finished, the ruffian! He's given me a damned lot of trouble. I'll keep him on the gridiron a bit longer. Grilling will do him good."
"Then I am the first?"
"Yes, you are the first."
"Thank you, Dick," she said soberly. "May I go up now?"
"Yes, come on!"
He went before her and mounted the stairs, taking long strides. She followed him eagerly, yet with a feeling of apprehension. What would it be—this portrait finished at last? Dick Garstin was cruelly fond of revelation. She thought of his judge who ought to be judged, of other pictures of his. Had he caught and revealed the secret of Arabian?
But Garstin still hesitated.
She obeyed, and sat down on a sofa with the window behind her.
"I'll have a smoke."
He went to the Spanish cabinet, and stood with his back to her, apparently searching. He lifted things, put them back. She glowed with almost furious impatience. At last he found the cigars. Probably he had never had to seek for them. He lit up.
"Now then—a drink!"
"Oh, Dick!" she breathed.
But she made no other protest.
"No!" she said sharply.
Then she gazed at him and said:
He poured out whisky for her and himself, added some soda water, and lifted his glass.
"To Arabian!" he said.
"Why should we drink to Mr. Arabian?"
"He has done me a good turn."
There was a look in his eyes now which she did not like, a very intelligent and cruel look. She knew it well. It expressed almost blatantly the man's ruthlessness. She did not inquire what the good turn was, but raised her glass slowly and drank.
"Your hand trembles, my girl!" said Garstin.
"Nonsense! It does not! Now please show me the portrait. I will not wait any longer."
"Here you are then!"
He went over to a distant easel, pulled it forward with its back to them, then, when it was near to the sofa, turned it round.
"There he is!"
Miss Van Tuyn sat very still and gazed. After turning the easel Dick Garstin had gone to stand behind the sofa and her. She heard him making a little "t'p! t'p!" with his lips, getting rid, perhaps, of an adherent scrap of tobacco leaf. After what seemed to both of them a very long time she spoke.
"I don't believe it!" she said. "I don't believe it!"
"Like the man when he saw a giraffe for the first time? But he was wrong, my girl, for nature does turn out giraffes."
"No, Dick! It's too bad!"
Her cheeks were flaming with red.
"Too bad! Don't you think it's well painted?"
"Well painted? Of course it's well—it's magnificently painted!"
He chuckled contentedly behind her.
"Then what's the matter? What's the trouble?"
"You know what's the matter. You know quite well."
She turned sharply round on the sofa and faced him with angry eyes.
"There was a great actor once whose portrait was painted by a great artist, an artist as great as you are. It was exhibited and then handed over to the actor. From that moment it disappeared. No one ever saw it. The actor never mentioned it. And yet it was a masterpiece. When the actor died a search was made for the portrait, and it was found hidden in an attic of his house. It had been slashed almost to pieces with a knife. Till to-day I could not understand such a deed as that—the killing of a masterpiece. But now I can understand it."
"He shall have it and put a knife through it if he likes. But"—he snapped out the word with sudden fierce emphasis—"but I'll exhibit it first."
"He'll never let you!" Miss Van Tuyn almost cried out.
"Won't he? That was the bargain!"
"He didn't promise. I remember quite well all that was said. He didn't promise."
"It was understood. I told him I should exhibit the picture and that afterwards I'd hand it over to him."
"When is he going to see it?"
"Why do you ask? Do you want to be here when he does?"
She did not answer. She was staring at the portrait, and now the hot colour had faded from her face.
"If you do you can be here. I don't mind."
"I don't believe it," she repeated slowly.
All that she had sometimes fancied, almost dimly, and feared about Arabian was expressed in Garstin's portrait of him. The man was magnificent on the canvas, but he was horrible. Evil seemed to be subtly expressed all over him. That was what she felt. It looked out of his large brown eyes. But that was not all. Somehow, in some curious and terrible way, Garstin had saturated his mouth, his cheeks, his forehead, even his bare neck and shoulders with the hideous thing. Danger was everywhere, the warning that the living man surely did not give, or only gave now and then for a fleeting instant.
In Garstin's picture Arabian was unmistakably a being of the underworld, a being of the darkness, of secret places and hidden deeds, a being of unspeakable craft, of hideous knowledge, of ferocious cynicism. And yet he was marvellously handsome and full of force, even of power. It could not be said that great intellect was stamped on his face, but a fiercely vital mentality was there, a mentality that could frighten and subdue, that could command and be sure of obedience. In the eyes of a tiger there is a terrific mentality. Miss Van Tuyn thought of that as she gazed at the portrait.
In her silence now she was trying to get a strong hold on herself. The first shock of astonishment, and almost of horror, had passed. She was more sharply conscious now of Garstin in connexion with herself. At last she spoke again.
"Of course you realize, Dick, that such a portrait as that is an outrage. It's a master work, I believe, but it is an outrage. You cannot exhibit it."
"But I shall. This man, Arabian, isn't known."
"How can we tell that?"
"Do you know a living creature he knows or who knows him?"
"Everyone has acquaintances. Everyone almost has friends. He must certainly have both."
"God knows who or where they are."
"You cannot exhibit it," she repeated obstinately.
"I hate art in kid gloves. But this is too merciless. It is more. It is a libel."
"That's just where you're wrong."
"Beryl, my girl, you are lying. That's no use with me."
"I am not lying!" she said with hot anger.
Suddenly she felt that tears had come into her eyes.
"How hateful you are!" she exclaimed.
She felt frightened under the eyes of the portrait. Garstin's revelation had struck upon her like a blow. She felt dazed by it. Yet she longed to hit back. She wanted to defend Arabian, perhaps because she felt that she needed defence.
Garstin came abruptly round the sofa and sat down by her side.
"What's up?" he said in a kinder voice.
"Why do you paint like that? It's abominable!"
"Tell me the honest truth—God's own truth, as they call it, I don't know why—is that picture fine, is it my best work, or isn't it?"
"I've told you already. It's a technical masterpiece and a moral outrage. You have taken a man for a model and painted a beast."
"Beryl," he said almost solemnly, "believe it or not, as you can, that is Arabian!"
He pointed at the picture as he spoke. His keen eyes, half shut, were fixed upon it.
"That is the real man, and what you see is only the appearance he chooses to give of himself."
"How do you know? How can you know that?"
"Haven't I the power to show men and women as in essence they are?"
His eyes travelled round the big studio slowly, travelled from canvas to canvas, from the battered old siren of the streets to the girl who was dreaming of sins not yet committed; from Cora waiting for her prey to the judge who had condemned his.
"Haven't I? And don't you know it?"
"You are wrong this time," she said with mutinous determination, but still with the tears in her eyes. "You couldn't sum up Arabian. You tried and tried again. And now at last you have forced yourself to paint him. You have got angry. That's it. You have got furious with yourself and with him, because of your own impotence, and you have painted him in a passion."
He shook his head.
"I never felt colder, more completely master of myself and my passions, than when I painted that portrait."
"But you asked me to find out his secret. You pushed me into his company that I might find it out and help you."
"Well!" she said, almost triumphantly, "I have never found it out."
"Oh, yes, you have."
"No. He is the most reserved, uncommunicative man I have ever known."
"Subconsciously you have found it out, and you have conveyed it to me. And that is the result. I suspected what the man was the first time I laid eyes on him. When I got him here I seemed to get off the track of him. For he's very deceptive—somehow. Yes, he's damned deceptive. But then you put me wise. Your growing terror of him put me wise."
He looked hard into her eyes.
"Beryl, my girl, your sex has intuitions. One of them, one of yours, I have painted. And there it is!"
The bell sounded below.
"Ha!" said Garstin, turning his head sharply.
He listened for an instant. Then he said:
"I'll bet you anything you like that's the king himself."
"In the underworld. Did you walk here?"
"He must have seen you. He's followed you. What a lark!"
His eyes shone with a sort of malicious glee.
"There goes the bell again! Beryl, I'll have him up. We'll show him himself."
He put a finger to his lips and went down, leaving her alone with the portrait.
"Come up! Come up, my boy! I've something to show you!"
She heard steps mounting the stairs, and got up from the sofa. She looked once more at the portrait, then turned round to meet the two men, standing so that she was directly in front of it. Just then she had a wish to conceal it from Arabian, to delay, if only for a moment, his knowledge of what had been done.
Arabian came into the studio and saw her in her mourning facing him. At once he came up to her with Dick Garstin behind him. He looked grave, sympathetic, almost reverential. His brown eyes held a tender expression of kindness.
"Miss Van Tuyn! I did not know you were here."
She saw Garstin smiling ironically. Arabian took her hand and pressed it.
"I am glad to see you again."
His look, his pressure, were full of ardent sympathy.
"I have been thinking often of you and your great sorrow."
"Thank you!" she said, almost stammering.
"And what is it I am to see?" said Arabian, turning to Garstin.
"Stand away, Beryl!" said Garstin roughly.
She moved. What else could she do? Arabian saw the portrait and said:
"Oh, my picture at last!"
Then he took a step forward, and there was a silence in the studio.
Miss Van Tuyn looked at the floor at first. Then, as the silence continued, she raised her eyes to Arabian's. She did not know what she expected to see, but she was surprised at what she did see. Standing quite still immediately in front of the picture, with his large eyes fixed upon it, Arabian was looking very calm. There was, indeed, scarcely any expression in his face. He had thrust both hands into the pockets of his overcoat. Miss Van Tuyn wondered whether those hands would betray any feeling if she could see them. In the calmness of his face she thought there was something stony, but she was not quite sure. She was, perhaps, too painfully moved, too violently excited just then to be a completely accurate observer. And she was aware of that. She wished Arabian would speak. When was he going to speak?
"Well?" said Garstin at last, perhaps catching her feeling. "What do you think of the thing? Are you satisfied with it? I've been a long time over it, but there it is at last."
He laughed slightly, uneasily, she thought.
"What's the verdict?"
"One moment—please!" said Arabian in an unusually soft voice.
Miss Van Tuyn was again struck, as she had been struck, when she first met Arabian in the studio, by the man's enormous self-possession. She felt sure that he must be feeling furiously angry, yet he did not show a trace of anger, of surprise, of any emotion. Only the marked softness of his voice was unusual. He seemed to be examining the picture with quiet interest and care.
"Well? Well?" said Garstin at last, with a sort of acute impatience which betrayed to her that he was really uneasy. "Let's hear what you think, though we know you don't set up for being a judge of painting."
"I think it is very like," said Arabian.
"Oh, Lord—like!" exclaimed Garstin, on an angry gust of breath. "I'm not a damned photographer!"
"Should not a portrait be like?" said Arabian, still in the very soft voice. "Am I wrong, then?"
"Of course not!" said Miss Van Tuyn, frowning at Garstin.
At that moment absolutely, and without any reserve, she hated him.
"Then you're satisfied?" jerked out Garstin.
"Indeed—yes, Dick Garstin. This is a valuable possession for me."
"Possession?" said Garstin, as if startled. "Oh, yes, to be sure! You're to have it—presently!"
"Quite so. I am to have it. It is indeed very fine. Do not you think so, Miss Van Tuyn?"
For the first time since he had seen the portrait he looked away from it, and his eyes rested on her. She felt that she trembled under those eyes, and hoped that he did not see it.
"You do not say! Surely this is a very fine picture?"
He seemed to be asking her to tell him whether or not the portrait ought to be admired. There was just then an odd simplicity, or pretence of simplicity, in his manner which was almost boyish. And his eyes seemed to be appealing to her.
"It is a magnificent piece of painting," she forced herself to say.
But she said it coldly, reluctantly.
"Then I am not wrong."
He looked pleased.
"My eye is not very educated. I fear to express my opinion before people such as you"—he looked towards Garstin, and added—"and you, Dick Garstin."
And then he turned away from the picture with the manner of a man who had done with it. She was amazed at his coolness, his perfect ease of manner.
"May I ask for a cigar, Dick Garstin?" he said.
"Pardon!" said Garstin gruffly.
Miss Van Tuyn noticed that he seemed very ill at ease. His rough self-possession had deserted him. He looked almost shy and awkward. Before going to the cabinet he went to the easel and noisily wheeled it away. Then he fetched the cigar and poured out a drink for Arabian.
"Light up, old chap! Have a drink!"
There was surely reluctant admiration in his voice.
Arabian accepted the drink, lit the cigar, sat down, and began to talk about his flat. At that moment he dominated them both. Miss Van Tuyn felt it. He talked much more than she had ever before heard him talk in the studio, and expressed himself better, with more fluency than usual. Garstin said very little. There was a fixed flush on his cheek-bones and an angry light in his eyes. He sat watching Arabian with a hostile, and yet half-admiring, scrutiny, smoking rapidly, nervously, and twisting his large hands about.
Presently Miss Van Tuyn got up to go.
"Going already?" said Garstin.
"Yes, I must."
"I will accompany you," said Arabian.
She looked away from him and said nothing. Garstin went with them downstairs and opened the door.
"Bye-bye!" he said in a loud voice. "See you again soon. Good luck to you!"
Arabian held out his hand.
Miss Van Tuyn nodded without speaking. Garstin shut the door noisily.
They walked down Glebe Place in silence. When they got to the corner Arabian said:
"Are you in a hurry to-day?"
"No, not specially."
"Shall we take a little walk? It is not very late."
"A walk? Where to?"
"Shall we go along by the river?"
She hesitated. She was torn by conflicting feelings. She was very angry with Garstin. She still continued to say, though now to herself, "I don't believe it! I don't believe it!" And yet she knew that Garstin's portrait had greatly increased her strange fear of Arabian.
"This way will take us to the river."
She knew he was looking straight at her though she did not look at him. At that moment a remembrance of Craven and Camber flashed through her mind.
"Yes, I know," she said, "But—"
"I am fond of the river," he said.
"Yes—but in winter!"
"Let us go. Or will you come back to—"
"No, I will go. I like it too. London looks its best from the waterside."
And she walked on again with him. He said nothing more, and she did not speak till they had crossed the broad road and were on the path by the dark river, which flowed at full tide under a heavy blackish grey sky. Then Arabian spoke again, and the peculiar softness she had noticed that afternoon had gone out of his voice.
"I am fortunate, am I not," he said, "to be the possessor of that very fine picture by Dick Garstin? Many people would be glad to buy it, I suppose."
"Do you consider it one of Dick Garstin's best paintings? I know you are a good judge. I wish to hear what you really think."
"He has never painted anything more finely that I have seen."
"Ah! That is indeed lucky for me."
"I shall send and fetch it away."
She stopped speaking. She was startled by his tone and also by what he had said. She glanced at him, then looked away and across the dark river. Dead leaves brushed against her feet with a dry, brittle noise.
"What is that you say, please?"
"I only—I thought it was arranged that the picture was to be exhibited," she said, falteringly.
"Oh, no. I shall not permit Dick Garstin to exhibit that picture."
Now intense curiosity was born in her and seemed for the moment to submerge her uneasiness and fear.
"But wasn't it understood?" she said.
"Please, what do you say was understood?"
"Didn't Mr. Garstin say he meant to exhibit the picture and afterwards give it to you?"
"But I say that I shall not permit Dick Garstin to exhibit my picture."
"Why won't you allow it?" she asked.
In her curiosity she was at last regaining some of her usual self-possession. She scented a struggle between these two men, both of them of tough fibre, both of them, she believed, far from scrupulous, both of them likely to be enormously energetic and determined when roused.
"Do you not know?" he asked.
"No! How can I know such a thing? How can I know what is in your mind unless you tell me?"
"Oh, but I will tell you then! I will not let Dick Garstin exhibit that picture because it is a lie about me."
"A lie? How can that be?"
"A man can speak a lie. Is it not so?"
"Cannot a man write a lie?"
"And a man can paint a lie. Dick Garstin has painted a lie about me."
"But then—if it is so—"
"Certainly it is so."
There was now a hard sound in his voice, and, when she looked at him, she saw that his face had changed. The quiet self-control which had amazed her in the studio was evidently leaving him. Or he no longer cared to exercise it.
"But, then, do you wish to possess the picture? Do you wish to possess a lie?"
"Is it not right that I possess it rather than someone else?"
"Yes, perhaps it is."
"Certainly it is. I shall take that picture away."
"But Dick Garstin intends to exhibit it. I know that. I know he will not let you have it till it has been shown."
"What is the law in England that one man should paint a wicked portrait of another man and that this other should be helpless to prevent it from being shown to all the world? Is that just?"
"No, I don't think it is."
He stopped abruptly and stood by the river wall. It was a cold and dreary afternoon, menacing and dark. Few people were out in that place. She stood still beside him.
"Miss Van Tuyn," he said, looking hard at her with an expression of—apparently—angry sincerity in his eyes. "This happens. I sit quietly in the Cafe Royal, a public place. A strange man comes up. Never have I seen him before. He says himself to be a painter. He asks to paint me—he begs! I go to his studio, as you know. I hesitate when I have seen his pictures—all of horrible persons, bad women and a beastly old man. At last he persuades me to be painted, promising to give me the picture when finished. He paints and paints, destroys and destroys. I am patient. I give up nearly all my time to him. I sit there day after day for hours. At last he has painted me. And when I look I find he has made of me a beast, a monster, worse than all the other horrible persons. And when I come in he is showing this monster to you, a lady, my friend, one I respect and admire above all, and who, perhaps, has thought of me with kindness, who has been to me in trouble, to my flat, who has told me her sorrow and put trust in me as in none other. 'Here he is!' says Dick Garstin. 'This beast, this monster—it is he! Look at him. I introduce you to Nicolas Arabian!' Am I, in return for such things, to say, 'All right! Now take this beast, this monster, and show him to all the world and say, "There is Nicolas Arabian!"' Do you say I should do this?"
"But I have nothing to do with it."
"Have you not?"
Her eyes gave way before his and looked down.
"Anyhow," he said, "I will not do it. I have a will as well as he."
"Yes," she thought. "You have a will, a tremendous will."
"To you," he said, "I show what I would not show to him, that I have feelings and that I am very much hurt to-day."
"I am sorry. I told Dick Garstin—"
"Before you came I told him he ought not to exhibit the picture."
"Ah! Thank you! Thank you!"
He smiled, and the lustrously soft look came into his eyes.
"A woman—she always knows what a man is!" he said, in a low voice.
"It is cold standing here!" she said.
She shivered as she spoke and looked at the water.
"We will go to my flat," he said, with a sudden air of authority. "There is a big fire there."
"Oh, no, I can't!"
"Why not? You have been there."
"Yes, but I ought not to have gone. I am in mourning."
"You go to Dick Garstin. What is the difference?"
"People are so foolish. They talk."
"But you go to Dick Garstin!"
He had turned, and now made her walk back by his side along the river bank among the whirling leaves.
"People have begun to talk about us," she said, almost desperately. "That women, Mrs. Birchington, who lives opposite to you—she's a gossip."
"And do you mind such people?" he asked, with an air of surprised contempt.
"A girl has to be careful what she does."
As Miss Van Tuyn said this she marvelled at her own conventionality. That she should be driven to such banality, she who had defied the opinion of both Paris and London!
"Please come once more. I want you to help me."
"I! How can I help you?"
"With Dick Garstin. I do not want to fight with that man. I am not what he thinks, but I do not wish to quarrel. You can help."
"I don't see how."
"By the fire I will tell you."
"I don't think I ought to come."
"What is life if it is always what ought and what ought not? I do not go by that. I am not able to think always of that. And do you? Oh, no!"
He cast a peculiar glance at her, full of intense shrewdness. It made her remember the Cafe Royal on the evening of her meeting with the Georgians, her pressure put on Dick Garstin to make Arabian's acquaintance, her lonely walk in the dark when Arabian had followed her, her first visit to Garstin's studio, her pretended reason for many subsequent visits there. This man must surely have understood always the motive which had governed her in what she had done. His glance told her that. It pierced through her pretences like a weapon and quivered in the truth of her. He had always understood her. Was he at last going to let her understand him? His eyes seemed to say, "Why pretend any longer with me? You wanted to know me. You chose to know me. It is too late now to play the conventional maiden with me."
It is too late now.
Her will seemed to be dying out of her. She walked on beside him mechanically. She knew that she was going to do what he wished, that she was going to his flat again; and when they reached Rose Tree Gardens without any further protest she got into the lift with him and went up to his floor. But when he was putting the latchkey into the door the almost solemn words of Dick Garstin came back to her: "Beryl, believe it or not, as you can, that is Arabian!" And she hesitated. An intense disinclination to go into the flat struggled with the intense desire to yield herself to Arabian's will. Arabian was before her eyes, standing there by the opening door, and Garstin's portrait was before the eyes of her mind in all its magnificent depravation. Which showed the real man and which the unreal? Garstin said that he had painted her intuition about Arabian, that she knew Arabian's secret and had conveyed it to him. Was that true?
"Please!" said Arabian, holding open the door.
"I cannot come in," she said, in a dull, low voice.
Beyond the gap of the doorway there lay perhaps the unknown territory called by Garstin the underworld. She remembered the piercingly shrewd look Arabian had cast at her by the river, a look which had surely included her with him in the region which lies outside all the barriers. But she did not belong to that region. Despite her keen curiosities, her resolute defiance of the conventions, her intensely modern determination to live as she chose to live, she would never belong to it. A horrible longing which she could not understand fought with the fear which Garstin that day had dragged up from the depths of her to the surface. But she now gave herself to the fear, and she repeated doggedly:
"I cannot come in."
But just at this moment her intention was changed, and her subsequent action was determined in her by a trifling event, one of those events which teach the world to believe in Fate. A door, the door of Mrs. Birchington's flat, clicked behind her. Someone was coming out.
Instantly, driven by the thought "I mustn't be seen!" Miss Van Tuyn stepped into Arabian's flat. She expected to hear the front door of it close immediately behind her. But instead she heard Mrs. Birchington's high soprano voice saying:
"Oh, how d'you do? Glad to meet you again!"
Quickly she opened the second door on the left and stepped into Arabian's drawing-room. Why had he been so slow in shutting the front door? She must have been seen. Certainly she had been seen by that horrible Minnie Birchington. There would be more gossip. It would be all over London that she was perpetually in this man's flat. Why had not he shut the door directly she had stepped into the hall? Her nervous tension found momentary relief in sudden violent anger against him, and when at length she heard the door shut, and his footstep outside, she turned round to meet him with fierce resolution.
"Why did you do that?"
"Beg pardon!" he said, gently, and looking surprised.
"Why didn't you shut the front door? That—Mrs. Birchington must have seen me. I know she has seen me!"
"I had no time. I could not refuse to speak to her, could I? I could not be rude to a lady."
"But I didn't wish her to see me!"
She was losing her self-control and knew it. She was angry with herself as well as with him, but she could not regain her self-possession.
"Why not?" he said, still very gently. "What is the harm? Are we doing wrong? I cannot see it. I say again, I had no time to shut the door."
"Did she see me?"
"Really I do not know."
He shut the sitting-room door.
"I hope," he said, "that you are not ashamed to be acquainted with me."
His voice sounded hurt, and now an expression of acute vexation had come into his face.
"Really after what has happened with Dick Garstin to-day I—"
His face now had an expression almost of pain.
"I am really not canaille," he said. "I am not accustomed to be thought of and treated as if I were canaille."
"It's all right," she said. "But—you see my mourning! I am in deep mourning, and I ought not—"
She stopped. She felt the uselessness of her protest, the ungraciousness of her demeanour. Without another word she went to the sofa by one of the windows and sat down. He came and sat down beside her.
"I want you to help me about Dick Garstin," he said.
"How? What can I do? I have no influence with him."
"Oh, yes, you have. A lady like you has always influence with a man."
"Not with him."
"But I say you have."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to tell him what I have said to you to-day."
"That you won't have the picture exhibited?"
"He'll only laugh."
"Beg him for your sake to yield."
"But what have I to do with it?"
"Very much, I think. It will be better that he yields—really."
She raised her eyes to his.
"We do not want a scandal, do we?"
"If it should come to a fight between Dick Garstin and me there might be a scandal."
"But my name wouldn't—"
Again she was silent.
"I might try. But it wouldn't be any use."
He put out a hand and took one of hers.
"But it all came through you. Didn't it?"
"But—but you said you had never seen Dick Garstin till he came up and asked you to sit to him."
"That was not true. I saw him with you that night at the Cafe Royal. That is why I came to the studio. I knew I should meet you there. And—you knew."
Again the terribly shrewd glance came into his eyes. She saw it and felt no strength for denial. From the first he must have thoroughly understood her.
"You and I, we are not babies," he said gently. "We wanted to know each other, and so it happened. I have done all this for you. Now I ask you to tell Dick Garstin for me."
"I'll do what I can," she said.
He pressed her hand softly.
"You are not one of those who are afraid," he said. "You do what you choose—even at night."
She thought of the episode in Shaftesbury Avenue.
"But I do not need to take a shilling from a lady!"
"You didn't know me that night!" she said defiantly.
"Ah, but when I heard you speak in the studio I knew!"
"And you follow women like that at night!"
She tried to draw away her hand, but he would not let her.
"You drew me after you—not knowing. It was what they call occult."
"Then why did you go away?"
"I felt that I had been wrong, that you didn't wish me to speak to you."
"Do you mean when I—that you suspected what I was?"
"Something said to me, 'This is a lady. She does strange things, she is not like others, but she is a lady. Go away.'"
"And in the studio—"
"When you spoke I knew."
She felt degraded. She could not explain. And she felt confused. She did not understand this man. His curious reticence that night, after his audacity, was inexplicable to her. What could he think of her? What must he think?
"I was going out that night to dine in a restaurant in Soho with some friends," she said, trying to speak very naturally. "I wanted some fresh air, so I walked."
"Why not? I beg you to forgive me for my rudeness. I feel very ashamed of it now. I have learnt in all these days to respect you very much."
His voice sounded so earnest, so sincere, that she felt suddenly a sense of relief. After all, he had always treated her with respect. He had never been impertinent, or even really audacious, and yet he had always known that she had wanted to meet him, that she had meant to meet him! He had never taken advantage of that knowledge. If he were really what Dick Garstin said he was, surely he would have acted differently.
"Do you really respect me?" she said.
"Yes. Have I not shown it in all these days? Have I ever done anything a lady could object to?"
Her hand still lay in his, and his touch had aroused in her that strange and intense desire to belong to him which seemed a desire entirely of the body, something with which the mind had little or nothing to do.
"Are you evil?" her eyes were asking him.
And his eyes, looking straight down into hers, seemed steadily and simply to deny it.
"Do you believe the lie of Dick Garstin?" they said to her.
And she no longer knew whether she believed it or not.
He drew a little nearer to her.
"I respect you—yes," he said. "But that is not all. I have another feeling for you. I have had it ever since I first saw you that night, when I was standing by the door in the Cafe Royal and you looked at me."
Her lips trembled. Again jealousy seized her.
"I saw you that night in Conduit Street," she said. "You thought I didn't, but I did."
He still looked perfectly calm and untroubled.
"You were dining with Dick Garstin. May I not dine with someone?"
"Then why did you leave the restaurant?"
"I did not want you to see me."
"I thought you might not understand."
"I do understand. I understand perfectly!"
She drew her hand sharply away from his.
"Are you angry with me?"
"Angry? No! What does it matter to me?"
"I am a man. I live alone. My life is lonely. Must I give up everything before I know that some day I shall have the only thing I really wish? You know men. You know how we are. I do not defend. I only say that I am not better than the other men. I want to be happy. If that is not for me, then I want to make the time pass. I do not pretend. Men generally pretend very much to beautiful girls. But you would not believe such nonsense."
"Then why didn't you stay in the restaurant?"
"Because I thought to do that would be like an insult for you. Such girls as that—mud—they must not come into your life even by chance, even for a few minutes. No man wishes to show himself with mud to a lady he respects. I tell you just the truth."
"Have you—have you seen her again?"
"She is in Paris. She has been in Paris for many days. But she is nothing. Why speak of such people?"
"I don't know. But I hate—"
She moved restlessly. Then she got up and went to the fire. He followed her. She could not understand her own jealousy. It humiliated her as she had never been humiliated before. She felt jealous of this man's absolute freedom, of his past. A sort of rage possessed her when she thought of all the experiences he must certainly have had. She almost hated him for those experiences. She wished she could lay hands on them, tear them out of him, so that he should not have them any longer in memory's treasury. And yet she knew that, without them, he would probably attract her much less.
"Do you care then?" he said.
"Do you care what I do?"
"No, of course not!"
"But—you do care!" he said.
He said it without any triumph of the male, quite simply, almost as a boy might have said it.
"You do care!" he repeated.
And very gently, slowly, he put his arm round her, drew her close to him, bent down and gave her a long kiss.
For a moment she shut her eyes. She was giving herself up entirely to physical sensation. Fear, thought, everything except bodily feeling, seemed to cease in her entirely at that moment. Some fascination which he possessed, an intense fascination for women, entirely mysterious and inexplicable, a thing rooted in the body, absolutely overpowered her at that moment.
It was he who broke the physical spell. He lifted his lips from hers and she heard the words:
"I want you to marry me. Will you?"
Instantly she was released. A flood of thoughts, doubts, wonderings, flowed through her. She felt terribly startled.
Marriage with this man! Marriage with Nicolas Arabian! In all her thoughts of him she had never included the thought of marriage. Yet she had imagined many situations in which he and she played their parts. Wild dreams had come to her in sleepless nights, the dreams that visit women who are awake under fascination. She had lived through romances with him. She had been with him in strange places, had travelled with him in sandy wastes, seen the night come with him in remote corners of the earth, stood with him in great cities, watched the sea waves slipping away with him on the decks of Atlantic liners. All this she had done in imagination with him. But never had she seen herself as his wife.
To be the wife of Arabian!
He let her go directly he felt the surprise in her body.
"Marry you!" she said.
"It could not be anything else," he said, very simply. "Could it?"
She flushed as if he had punished her by his respect for her.
"But—but we scarcely know each other!" she stammered.
"You say that now!"
Again she felt rebuked, as if she were lighter than he and as if he were surprised by her lightness.
"But we are only—I mean—"
"Let us not talk of it then now if you dislike. But I cannot take such a thing any way but seriously, knowing what you are. I love you; I would follow you anywhere. Naturally, therefore, I must think of marriage with you, or that I am to have nothing."
He stopped. She said nothing; could not say anything.
"With light women one is light. I do not pretend to be a very good man, better than the others. Those so very good men, I do not believe in them very much. But I know that many women are good. Just at first, let me confess, I was not sure how you were. At the Cafe Royal that night, seeing you with all those funny people, I made a mistake. I thought, 'She is beautiful. She is audacious. She likes adventures. She wishes an adventure with me.' And I came to Dick Garstin's thinking of an adventure. But soon I knew—no! I heard you talk. I got to know your cultivation, your very fine mind. And then you held back from me, waiting till you should know me better. That pleased me. It taught me the value of you. And when at last you did not hold back, were willing to be alone with me, to lunch with me, to walk with me, I understood you had made up your mind: 'He is all right!' But, best of all, you at last asked me to your hotel, introduced me to the dear lady you live with. I understood what was in your mind: 'She, too, must be satisfied.' Then I knew it was not an adventure. And when you told me first about your sorrow! Ah! That was the great day for me! I knew you would not have told such a thing, kept from even Dick Garstin, unless you put me in your mind away from the others. That was a very great day for me!"
She shivered slightly by the fire. He was telling her things. She could not in return tell him the truth of herself. Perhaps he really believed all he had just said. And yet that shrewd glance he had given her by the river and again in that room! What had it meant if now he had spoken the truth?
"I knew then that you cared," he said, quietly and with earnest conviction. "I knew then that some day I could ask you to marry me. Anything else—it is impossible between you and me."
"Yes, of course! I never—you mustn't suppose—"
"I do not suppose. I know you as now you know me."
He did not touch her again, though, of course, he must know—any man must have known by this time—his physical power to charm, even to overwhelm her. His power over himself amazed her. It proved to her the strength in his character. The man was strong, and in two ways. She worshipped strength, but his still made her afraid.
"Now let us leave it," he said, with a change of manner. "It is getting dark. It is dreary outside. I will shut the curtains. I will sing to you in the firelight."
He went over to the windows, drew down the blinds, pulled forward the curtains. She watched him, sitting motionless, wondering at herself and at him. For the moment he was certainly her master. He governed her as much by what he did not do as by what he did. And it had always been so ever since she had known him. The assurance in his quiet was enormous. How many things he must have carried through in his life, the life of which she knew absolutely nothing! But this—would he carry through this? She tried to tell herself with certainty that he would not. And yet, as she looked at him, she was not sure. Will can drown will. Great power can overcome lesser power, mysteriously sometimes, but certainly. That play of which she had read an account in the Westminster Gazette was founded on the possibilities, was based upon a solid foundation. To the ignorant it might seem grotesque, incredible even, but not to those who had really studied life and the eddying currents of life. In life, almost all that is said to be impossible happens at times, though perhaps not often. And who knows, who can say with absolute certainty, that he or she is not an exception, was not born an exception?
As Miss Van Tuyn watched Arabian drawing the curtains across the windows which looked upon the Thames she did not know positively that she would not marry him. She remembered her sensation under his kiss. It had been a sensation of absolute surrender. That was why she had shut her eyes.
She might shut her eyes again. He might even make her do that.
After the curtains were drawn, and only the light from the fire lit up the room, Arabian went over to the piano, a baby grand, and sat down on the music-stool. He was looking very grave, almost romantically grave, but quite un-self-conscious. She wondered whether, even now, he cared what she thought about him. He showed none of the diffidence of the not-yet-accepted lover, eager to please, anxious about the future. But he showed nothing of triumph. The firelight played over his face as he struck a few chords. She wondered whether his manservant was with them in the flat, or whether they were quite alone—shut in together. He had not offered her tea. Perhaps the man had gone out. She did not feel afraid of Arabian at this moment. After what he had said she knew she had no reason to be afraid of him just now. But if she gave herself to him, if they ever were married? How would it be then? Life with him would surely be an extraordinary business. She remembered her solicitude about not being seen with him in public places. Already that seemed long ago. Dick Garstin had told her she had travelled. No doubt that was true. One may travel far perhaps in mind and in feeling without being self-consciously aware of it. But when one was aware, when one knew, it must surely be possible to stop. He had made to her a tremendous suggestion. She could refuse to entertain it. And when she refused, if she did refuse, what would happen? What would he say, do, when he realized her determination? How would he take a determined refusal? She could not imagine. But she knew that she could not imagine Arabian ever yielding his will to hers in any big matter which would seriously upset his life.
"Now, shall I sing to you?" he said, fixing his eyes upon her.
"Yes, please do," she answered, looking away from him into the fire.
"You know how I sing. I am not a musician of cultivation, but I have music in me. I have always had it. I have always sung, even as a boy. It is natural to me. But I have been very idle in my life. I have never been able to work, alas!"
She looked at him again. Always he was playing softly, improvising.
"Have you really never done any work?"
"Never. Unfortunately, perhaps, I have always had enough money to be idle."
"He's not poor!" she thought.
And then she felt glad, suddenly remembering how rich she was now, since the death of her father.
He said nothing more, but played a short prelude and began to sing in his small, but warm, tenor voice. And, sitting there by the fire, she watched him while he sang, and wondered again, as she had wondered in the studio, at the musical sense that was in him and that could show itself so easily and completely, without apparently any strong effort. The fascination she felt in him filled all his music, and appealed not only to her senses but to her musical understanding. She had a genuine passion for the right in all the arts, for the inevitable word in literature, the inevitable touch of colour that lights up a painting, fusing the whole into harmony, the inevitable emotional colouring of a musical phrase, the slackening or quickening of time, which make a song exactly what it should be. And to that passion he was able to appeal with his gift. He sang two Italian songs, and she felt Italy in them. Then he sang in French, and finally in Spanish—guitar songs. And presently she gave herself entirely to him as a singer. He had temperament, and she loved that. It meant, perhaps, too much to her. That, no doubt, was what drew her to him more surely than his remarkable physical beauty—temperament which has the keys of so many doors, and can open them at will, showing glimpses of wonderful rooms, and of gardens bathed in sunshine or steeped in mysterious twilight, and of savage wastes, the wilderness, the windy tracts by the sea, landscapes in snow, autumn breathing in mist; temperament which can even simulate knowledge, and can rouse all the under-longings which so often lie sleeping and unknown in women.
"With that man I could never be dull!"
That thought slipped through her while she listened. Where did he come from? In how many lands had he lived? How had his life been passed? She ought to know. Perhaps some day he would tell her. He must surely tell her. One cannot do great things which affect one's life in the dark.
Dark—that's his word! When had she thought that? She remembered. It had been in that room. And since then she had seen Garstin's terrible portrait.
But he was like a palm tree singing. Even Garstin had been forced to say that of him.
When at last he stopped all the artistic part of her was under his spell. He had, perhaps deliberately, perhaps at haphazard—she could not tell—aroused in her a great longing for multifarious experiences such as she had never yet suffered under or enjoyed. He had let her recklessness loose from its tethering chain. Was she just then the same woman who a short time ago had feared Minnie Birchington's curious eyes? She could scarcely believe it.
He got up from the piano. She too got up. He came up to her, put his hands on her shoulders gently, pressed them, contracting his strong brown fingers, and said, looking down into her eyes:
"How beautiful you are! Mon Dieu! how beautiful you are!"
And her vanity was gratified as it had never been gratified before by all the compliments she had received, by all the longings she had aroused in men.
Still holding her shoulders he said:
"Do something for me to-night."
"What is it? What do you want?"
"Oh, only a very simple thing."
She felt disappointed, but she said nothing.
"Let us dine together to-night! Afterwards I will take you to your hotel and leave you to think."
He smiled down at her.
"I am no longer afraid to let you think. Will you come?"
"Yes," she said.
"Where was it you were walking to that night when I was so rude as to follow after you?"
"To a restaurant in Soho."
"To the Bella Napoli."
He half shut his eyes.
"I love Naples. Is it Italian?"
"Let us go there. And before we go I will sing you a street song of Naples."
"You—you are not a Neapolitan?" she asked.
"No. I come from South America. But I know Naples very, very well. Listen!"
And almost laughing, and looking suddenly buffo, he spoke a few sentences in the Neapolitan patois.
"Ah, they are rascals there! But one forgives them because they are happy in their naughtiness, or at any rate they seem happy. And there is nothing like happiness for getting forgiveness. We will be happy to-night, and we shall get forgiven. We will go to the Bella Napoli."
She did not say "yes" or "no." She was thinking at that moment of Craven and Adela Sellingworth. It was just possible that they might be there. But if they were? What did it matter? Minnie Birchington had seen her with Arabian. Lady Archie Brooke had seen her. Craven had seen her. And why should she be ashamed. Ought and ought not! Had she ever been governed in her life and her doing by fear of opinion?
"Do you say yes?" he asked. "Or must you go back to dear Mademoiselle Cronin?"
She shook her head.
"Then what do you say?"
"Yes, I'll go there with you," she answered.
But there was a sound of defiance in her voice, and at that moment she had a feeling that she was going to do something more decisively unconventional, even more dangerous, than she had ever yet done.
If they were there! She remembered Craven's look at Arabian. She remembered, too, the change in Arabian's face as Craven had passed them.
But Craven had gone back to Adela Sellingworth. Arabian, perhaps, had been the cause of that return.
"Why do you look like that? What are you thinking of?"
"Naples," she said.
"I will sing you the street song. And then, presently, we will go. I know we must not be too late, or your dear Mademoiselle Cronin will be frightened about you."
He left her, and went once more to the piano.
About seven o'clock that evening Lady Sellingworth was sitting alone in her drawing-room. Sir Seymour Portman had been with her for an hour and had left her at half past six, believing that she was going to spend one of her usual solitary evenings, probably with a book by the fire. He would gladly, even thankfully, have stayed to keep her company. But no suggestion of that kind had been made to him. And, beyond calling regularly at the hour when he believed that he was welcome, he never pressed his company upon his dearly loved friend. Even in his great affection he preserved a certain ceremoniousness. Even in his love he never took a liberty. In modern days he still held to the reserve of the very great gentleman, old-fashioned perhaps now, but nevertheless precious in his sight.