The Incomplete Amorist/Book 2/Chapter XII
When Vernon had read Betty's letter—and holding it up to the light he was able to read the scratched-out words almost as easily as the others—he decided that he might as well know where she worked, and one day, after he had called on Lady St. Craye, he found himself walking along the Rue de Vaugirard. Lady St. Craye was charming. And she had been quite right when she had said that he would find a special charm in the companionship of one in whose heart his past love-making seemed to have planted no thorns. Yet her charm, by its very nature—its finished elegance, its conscious authority—made him think with the more interest of the unformed, immature grace of the other woman—Betty, in whose heart he had not had the chance to plant either thorns or roses.
How could he find out? Concierges are venal, but Vernon disliked base instruments. He would act boldly. It was always the best way. He would ask to see this Madame Gautier—if Betty were present he must take his chance. It would be interesting to see whether she would commit herself to his plot by not recognizing him. If she did that—Yet he hoped she wouldn't. If she did recognize him he would say that it was through Miss Desmond's relatives that he had heard of Madame Gautier. Betty could not contradict him. He would invent a niece whose parents wished to place her with Madame. Then he could ask as many questions as he liked, about hours and studios, and all the details of the life Betty led.
It was a simple straight-forward design, and one that carried success in its pocket. No one could suspect anything.
Yet at the very first step suspicion, or what looked like it, stared at him from the eyes of the concierge when he asked for Madame Gautier.
"Monsieur is not of the friends of Madame?" she asked curiously.
He knew better than to resent the curiosity. He explained that he desired to see Madame on business.
"You will see her never," the woman said dramatically; "she sees no one any more."
"Is it that she is ill?"
"It is that she is dead,—and the dead do not receive, Monsieur." She laughed, and told the tale of death circumstantially, with grim relish of detail.
"And the young ladies—they have returned to their parents?"
"Ah, it is in the young ladies that Monsieur interests himself? But yes. Madame's brother, who is in the Commerce of Nantes, he restored instantly the young ladies to their friends. One was already with her aunt."
Vernon had money ready in his hand.
"What was her name, Madame—the young lady with the aunt?"
"But I know not, Monsieur. She was a new young lady, who had been with Madame at her Villa—I have not seen her. At the time of the regrettable accident she was with her aunt, and doubtless remains there. Thank you, Monsieur. That is all I know."
"Thank you, Madame. I am desolated to have disturbed you. Good day."
And Vernon was in the street again.
So Betty had never come to the Rue Vaugirard! The aunt must somehow have heard the news—perhaps she had called on the way to the train—she had returned to the Bête and Betty now was Heaven alone knew where. Perhaps at Long Barton. Perhaps in Paris, with some other dragon.
Vernon for a day or two made a point of being near when the studios—Julien's, Carlorossi's, Delacluse's, disgorged their students. He did not see Betty, because she was not studying at any of these places, but at the Atelier Bianchi, of which he never thought. So he shrugged his shoulders, and dined again with Lady St. Craye, and began to have leisure to analyse the emotions with which she inspired him. He had not believed that he could be so attracted by a woman with whom he had played the entire comedy, from first glance to last tear—from meeting hands to severed hearts. Yet attracted he was, and strongly. He experienced a sort of resentment, a feeling that she had kept something from him, that she had reserves of which he knew nothing, that he, who in his blind complacency had imagined himself to have sucked the orange and thrown away the skin, had really, in point of fact, had a strange lovely fruit snatched from him before his blunt teeth had done more than nibble at its seemingly commonplace rind.
In the old days she had reared barriers of reserve, walls of reticence over which he could see so easily; now she posed as having no reserves, and he seemed to himself to be following her through a darkling wood, where the branches flew back and hit him in the face so that he could not see the path.
"You know," she said, "what makes it so delightful to talk to you is that I can say exactly what I like. You won't expect me to be clever, or shy, or any of those tiresome things. We can be perfectly frank with each other. And that's such a relief, isn't it?"
"I wonder whether it would be—supposing it could be?" said he.
They were driving in the Bois, among the autumn tinted trees where the pale mist wreaths wandered like ghosts in the late afternoon.
"Of course it could be; it is," she said, opening her eyes at him under the brim of her marvel of a hat: "at least it is for simple folk like me. Why don't you wear a window in your breast as I do?"
She laid her perfectly gloved hand on her sables.
"Is there really a window? Can one see into your heart?"
"One can—not the rest. Just the one from whom one feareth nothing, expecteth nothing, hopeth nothing. That's out of the Bible, isn't it?"
"It's near enough," said he. "Of course, to you it's a new sensation to have the window in your breast. Whereas I, from innocent childhood to earnest manhood, have ever been open as the day."
"Yes," she said, "you were always transparent enough. But one is so blind when one is in love."
Her calm references to the past always piqued him.
"I don't think Love is so blind as he's painted," he said: "always as soon as I begin to be in love with people I begin to see their faults."
"You may be transparent, but you haven't a good mirror," she laughed; "you don't see yourself as you are. It isn't when you begin to love people that you see their faults, is it? It's really when they begin to love you."
"But I never begin to love people till they begin to love me. I'm too modest."
"And I never love people after they've done loving me. I'm too—"
"Too something—forgetful, is it? I mean it takes two to make a quarrel, and it certainly takes two to make a love affair."
"And what about all the broken hearts?"
"What broken hearts?"
"The ones you find in the poets and the story books."
"That's just where you do find them. Nowhere else.—Now, honestly, has your heart ever been broken?"
"Not yet: so be careful how you play with it. You don't often find such a perfect specimen—absolutely not a crack or a chip."
"The pitcher shouldn't crow too loud—can pitchers crow? They have ears, of course, but only the little pitchers. The ones that go to the well should go in modest silence."
"Dear Lady," he said almost impatiently, "what is there about me that drives my friends to stick up danger boards all along my path? 'This way to Destruction!' You all label them. I am always being solemnly warned that I shall get my heart broken one of these days, if I don't look out."
"I wish you wouldn't call me dear Lady," she said; "it's not the mode any more now."
"What may I call you?" he had to ask, turning to look in her eyes.
"You needn't call me anything. I hate being called names. That's a pretty girl—not the dark one, the one with the fur hat."
He turned to look.
Two girls were walking briskly under the falling leaves. And the one with the fur hat was Betty. But it was at the other that he gazed even as he returned Betty's prim little bow. He even turned a little as the carriage passed, to look more intently at the tall figure in shabby black whose arm Betty held.
"Well?" said Lady St. Craye, breaking the silence that followed.
"Well?" said he, rousing himself, but too late. "You were saying I might call you—"
"It's not what I was saying—it's what you were looking. Who is the girl, and why don't you approve of her companion?"
"Who says I don't wear a window in my breast?" he laughed. "The girl's a little country girl I knew in England—I didn't know she was in Paris. And I thought I knew the woman, too, but that's impossible: it's only a likeness."
"One nice thing about me is that I never ask impertinent questions—or hardly ever. That one slipped out and I withdraw it. I don't want to know anything about anything and I'm sorry I spoke. I see, of course, that she is a little country girl you knew in England, and that you are not at all interested in her. How fast the leaves fall now, don't they?"
"No question of your's could be im—could be anything but flattering. But since you are interested—"
"Not at all," she said politely.
"Oh, but do be interested," he urged, intent on checking her inconvenient interest, "because, really, it is rather interesting when you come to think of it. I was painting my big picture—I wish you'd come and see it, by the way. Will you some day, and have tea in my studio?"
"I should love it. When shall I come?"
"Whenever you will."
He wished she would ask another question about Betty, but she wouldn't. He had to go on, a little awkwardly.
"Well, I only knew them for a week—her and her aunt and her father—and she's a nice, quiet little thing. The father's a parson—all of them are all that there is of most respectable."
She listened but she did not speak.
"And I was rather surprised to see her here. And for the moment I thought the woman with her was—well, the last kind of woman who could have been with her, don't you know."
"I see," said Lady St. Craye. "Well, it's fortunate that the dark woman isn't that kind of woman. No doubt you'll be seeing your little friend. You might ask her to tea when I come to see your picture."
"I wish I could." Vernon's manner was never so frank as when he was most on his guard. "She'd love to know you. I wish I could ask them to tea, but I don't know them well enough. And their address I don't know at all. It's a pity; she's a nice little thing."
It was beautifully done. Lady St. Craye inwardly applauded Vernon's acting, and none the less that her own part had grown strangely difficult. She was suddenly conscious of a longing to be alone—to let her face go. She gave herself a moment's pause, caught at her fine courage and said:
"Yes, it is a pity. However, I daresay it's safer for her that you can't ask her to tea. She is a nice little thing, and she might fall in love with you, and then, your modesty appeased, you might follow suit! Isn't it annoying when one can't pick up the thread of a conversation? All the time you've been talking I've been wondering what we were talking about before I pointed out the fur hat to you. And I nearly remember, and I can't quite. That is always so worrying, isn't it?"
Her acting was as good as his. And his perception at the moment less clear than hers.
He gave a breath of relief. It would never have done to have Lady St. Craye spying on him and Betty; and now he knew that she was in Paris he knew too that it would be "him and Betty."
"We were talking," he said carefully, "about calling names."
"Oh, thank you!—When one can't remember those silly little things it's like wanting to sneeze and not being able to, isn't it? But we must turn back, or I shall be late for dinner, and I daren't think of the names my hostess will call me then. She has a vocabulary, you know." She named a name and Vernon thought it was he who kept the talk busy among acquaintances till the moment for parting. Lady St. Craye knew that it was she.
The moment Betty had bowed to Mr. Vernon she turned her head in answer to the pressure on her arm.
"Who's that?" her friend asked.
Betty named him, and in a voice genuinely unconcerned.
"How long have you known him?"
"I knew him for a week last Spring: he gave me a few lessons. He is a great favourite of my aunt's, but we don't know him much. And I thought he was in Vienna."
"Does he know where you are?"
"Then mind he doesn't."
"Because when girls are living alone they can't be too careful. Remember you're the person that's responsible for Betty Desmond now. You haven't your aunt and your father to take care of you."
"I've got you," said Betty affectionately.
"Yes, you've got me," said her friend.
Life in the new rooms was going very easily and pleasantly. Betty had covered some cushions with the soft green silk of an old evening dress Aunt Julia had given her; she had bought chrysanthemums in pots; and now all her little belongings, the same that had "given the cachet" to her boudoir bedroom at home lay about, and here, in this foreign setting, did really stamp the room with a pretty, delicate, conventional individuality. The embroidered blotting-book, the silver pen-tray, the wicker work-basket lined with blue satin, the long worked pin-cushion stuck with Betty's sparkling hat-pins,—all these, commonplace at Long Barton were here not commonplace. There was nothing of Paula's lying about. She had brought nothing with her, and had fetched nothing from her room save clothes—dresses and hats of the plainest.
The experiments in cooking were amusing; so were the marketings in odd little shops that sold what one wanted, and a great many things that one had never heard of. The round of concerts and theatres and tram-rides had not begun yet. In the evenings Betty drew, while Paula read aloud—from the library of stray Tauchnitz books Betty had gleaned from foreign book-stalls. It was a very busy, pleasant home-life. And the studio life did not lack interest.
Betty suffered a martyrdom of nervousness when first—a little late—she entered the Atelier. It is a large light room; a semi-circular alcove at one end, hung with pleasant-coloured drapery, holds a grand piano. All along one side are big windows that give on an old garden—once a convent garden where nuns used to walk, telling their beads. The walls are covered with sketches, posters, studies. Betty looked nervously round—the scene was agitatingly unfamiliar. The strange faces, the girls in many-hued painting pinafores, the little forest of easels, and on the square wooden platform the model—smooth, brown, with limbs set, moveless as a figure of wax.
Betty got to work, as soon as she knew how one began to get to work. It was her first attempt at a drawing from the life, saving certain not unsuccessful caricatures of her fellow pupils, her professor and her chaperon. So far she had only been set to do landscape, and laborious drawings of casts from the antique. The work was much harder than she had expected. And the heat was overpowering. She wondered how these other girls could stand it. Their amused, half-patronising, half-disdainful glances made her furious.
She rubbed out most of the lines she had put in and gasped for breath.
The room, the students, the naked brown girl on the model's throne, all swam before her eyes. She got to the door somehow, opened and shut it, and found herself sitting on the top stair with closed eyelids and heart beating heavily.
"Betty looked nervously around—the scene was agitatingly unfamiliar."
Some one held water to her lips. She was being fanned with a handkerchief.
"I'm all right," she said.
"Yes, it's hotter than usual to-day," said the handkerchief-holder, fanning vigorously.
"Why do they have it so hot?" asked poor Betty.
"Because of the model, of course. Poor thing! she hasn't got a nice blue gown and a pinky-greeny pinafore to keep her warm. We have to try to match the garden of Eden climate—when we're drawing from a girl who's only allowed to use Eve's fashion plates."
Betty laughed and opened her eyes.
"How jolly of you to come out after me," she said.
"Oh, I was just the same at first. All right now? I ought to get back. You just sit here till you feel fit again. So long!"
So Betty sat there on the bare wide brown stair, staring at the window, till things had steadied themselves, and then she went back to her work.
Her easel was there, and her half-rubbed out drawing—No, that was not her drawing. It was a head, vaguely but very competently sketched, a likeness—no, a caricature—of Betty herself.
She looked round—one quick but quite sufficient look. The girl next her, and the one to that girl's right, were exchanging glances, and the exchange ceased just too late. Betty saw.
From then till the rest Betty did not look at the model. She looked, but furtively, at those two girls. When, at the rest-time, the model stretched and yawned and got off her throne and into a striped petticoat, most of the students took their "easy" on the stairs: among these the two.
Betty, who never lacked courage, took charcoal in hand and advanced quite boldly to the easel next to her own.
How she envied the quality of the drawing she saw there. But envy does not teach mercy. The little sketch that Betty left on the corner of the drawing was quite as faithful, and far more cruel, than the one on her own paper. Then she went on to the next easel. The few students who were chatting to the model looked curiously at her and giggled among themselves.
When the rest was over and the model had reassumed, quite easily and certainly, that pose of the uplifted arms which looked so difficult, the students trooped back and the two girls—Betty's enemies, as she bitterly felt—returned to their easels. They looked at their drawings, they looked at each other, and they looked at Betty. And when they looked at her they smiled.
"Well done!" the girl next her said softly. "For a tenderfoot you hit back fairly straight. I guess you'll do!"
"You're very kind," said Betty haughtily.
"Don't you get your quills up," said the girl. "I hit first, but you hit hardest. I don't know you,—but I want to."
She smiled so queer yet friendly a smile that Betty's haughtiness had to dissolve in an answering smile.
"My name's Betty Desmond," she said. "I wonder why you wanted to hit a man when he was down."
"My!" said the girl, "how was I to surmise about you being down? You looked dandy enough—fit to lick all creation."
"I've never been in a studio before," said Betty, fixing fresh paper.
"My!" said the girl again. "Turn the faucet off now. The model don't like us to whisper. Can't stand the draught."
So Betty was silent, working busily. But next day she was greeted with friendly nods and she had some one to speak to in the rest-intervals.
On the third day she was asked to a studio party by the girl who had fanned her on the stairs. "And bring your friend with you," she said.
But Betty's friend had a headache that day. Betty went alone and came home full of the party.
"She's got such a jolly studio," she said; "ever so high up,—and busts and casts and things. Everyone was so nice to me you can't think: it was just like what one hears of Girton Cocoa parties. We had tea—such weak tea, Paula, it could hardly crawl out of the teapot! We had it out of green basins. And the loveliest cakes! There were only two chairs, so some of us sat on the sommier and the rest on the floor."
"Were there any young men?" asked Paula.
"Two or three very, very young ones—they came late. But they might as well have been girls; there wasn't any flirting or nonsense of that sort, Paula. Don't you think we might give a party—not now, but presently, when we know some more people? Do you think they'd like it? Or would they think it a bore?"
"They'd love it, I should think." Paula looked round the room which already she loved. "And what did you all talk about?"
"Work," said Betty, "work and work and work and work and work: everyone talked about their work, and everyone else listened and watched for the chance to begin to talk about theirs. This is real life, my dear. I am so glad I'm beginning to know people. Miss Voscoe is very queer, but she's a dear. She's the one who caricatured me the first day. Oh, we shall do now, shan't we?"
"Yes," said the other, "you'll do now."
"I said 'we,'" Betty corrected softly.
"I meant we, of course," said Miss Conway.