The Incomplete Amorist/Book 3/Chapter XVI
"Love and Tupper"
"Whenever Vernon liked" proved to be the very next day. He was waiting outside the door of the atelier when Betty, in charcoal-smeared pinafore, left the afternoon class.
"Won't you dine with me somewhere to-night?" said he.
"I am going to Garnier's," she said. Not even for him, friend of hers and affianced of another as he might be, would she yet break the rule of a life Paula had instituted.
"Fallen as I am," he answered gaily, "I am not yet so low as to be incapable of dining at Garnier's."
So when Betty passed through the outer room of the restaurant and along the narrow little passage where eyes and nose attest strongly the neighborhood of the kitchen, she was attended by a figure that aroused the spontaneous envy of all her acquaintances. In the inner room where they dined it was remarked that such a figure would be more at home at Durand's or the Café de Paris than at Garnier's. That night the first breath of criticism assailed Betty. To afficher oneself with a fellow-student—a "type," Polish or otherwise—that was all very well, but with an obvious Boulevardier, a creature from the other side, this dashed itself against the conventions of the Artistic Quartier. And conventions—even of such quarters—are iron-strong.
"Fiddle-de-dee," said Miss Voscoe to her companions' shocked comments, "they were raised in the same village, or something. He used to give her peanuts when he was in short jackets, and she used to halve her candies with him. Friend of childhood's hour, that's all. And besides he's one of the presidents of our Sketch Club."
But all Garnier's marked that whereas the habitués contented themselves with an omelette aux champignons, sauté potatoes and a Petit Suisse, or the like modest menu, Betty's new friend ordered for himself, and for her, "a real regular dinner," beginning with hors d'oeuvre and ending with "mendiants." "Mendiants" are raisins and nuts, the nearest to dessert that at this season you could get at Garniers. Also he passed over with smiling disrelish the little carafons of weak wine for which one pays five sous if the wine be red, and six if it be white. He went out and interviewed Madame at her little desk among the flowers and nuts and special sweet dishes, and it was a bottle of real wine with a real cork to be drawn that adorned the table between him and Betty. To her the whole thing was of the nature of a festival. She enjoyed the little sensation created by her companion; and the knowledge which she thought she had of his relations to Lady St. Craye absolved her of any fear that in dining with him tête-à-tête she was doing anything "not quite nice." To her the thought of his engagement was as good or as bad as a chaperon. For Betty's innocence was deeply laid, and had survived the shock of all the waves that had beaten against it since her coming to Paris. It was more than innocence, it was a very honest, straightforward childish naiveté.
"It's almost the same as if he was married," she said: "there can't be any harm in having dinner with a man who's married—or almost married."
So she enjoyed herself. Vernon exerted himself to amuse her. But he was surprised to find that he was not so happy as he had expected to be. It was good that Betty had permitted him to dine with her alone, but it was flat. After dinner he took her to the Odeon, and she said good-night to him with a lighter heart than she had known since Paula left her.
In these rooms now sometimes it was hard to keep one's eyes shut. And to keep her eyes shut was now Betty's aim in life, even more than the art for which she pretended to herself that she lived. For now that Paula had gone the deception of her father would have seemed less justifiable, had she ever allowed herself to face the thought of it for more than a moment; but she used to fly the thought and go round to one of the girls' rooms to talk about Art with a big A, and forget how little she liked or admired Betty Desmond.
She was now one of a circle of English, American and German students. The Sketch Club had brought her eight new friends, and they went about in parties by twos and threes, or even sevens and eights, and Betty went with them, enjoying the fun of it all, which she liked, and missing all that she would not have liked if she had seen it. But Vernon was the only man with whom she dined tête-à-tête or went to the theatre alone.
To him the winter passed in a maze of doubt and self-contempt. He could not take what the gods held out: could not draw from his constant companionship of Betty the pleasure which his artistic principles, his trained instincts taught him to expect. He had now all the tête-à-têtes he cared to ask for, and he hated that it should be so. He almost wanted her to be in a position where such things should be impossible to her. He wanted her to be guarded, watched, sheltered. And he had never wanted that for any woman in his life before.
"I shall be wishing her in a convent next," he said, "with high walls with spikes on the top. Then I should walk round and round the outside of the walls and wish her out. But I should not be able to get at her. And nothing else would either."
Lady St. Craye was more charming than ever. Vernon knew it and sometimes he deliberately tried to let her charm him. But though he perceived her charm he could not feel it. Always before he had felt what he chose to feel. Or perhaps—he hated the thought and would not look at it—perhaps all his love affairs had been just pictures, perhaps he had never felt anything but an artistic pleasure in their grouping and lighting. Perhaps now he was really feeling natural human emotion, didn't they call it? But that was just it. He wasn't. What he felt was resentment, dissatisfaction, a growing inability to control events or to prearrange his sensations. He felt that he himself was controlled. He felt like a wild creature caught in a trap. The trap was not gilded, and he was very uncomfortable in it. Even the affairs of others almost ceased to amuse him. He could hardly call up a cynical smile at Lady St. Craye's evident misapprehension of those conscientious efforts of his to be charmed by her. He was only moved to a very faint amusement when one day Bobbie Temple, smoking in the studio, broke a long silence abruptly to say:
"Look here. Someone was saying the other day that a man can be in love with two women at a time. Do you think it's true?"
"Two? Yes. Or twenty."
"Then it's not love," said Temple wisely.
"They call it love," said Vernon. "I don't know what they mean by it. What do you mean?"
"I don't exactly know," said Temple slowly. "I suppose it's wanting to be with a person, and thinking about nothing else. And thinking they're the most beautiful and all that. And going over everything that they've ever said to you, and wanting—"
"Well, I suppose if it's really love you want to marry them."
"You can't marry them, you know," said Vernon; "at least not simultaneously. That's just it. Well?"
"Well that's all. If that's not love, what is?"
"I'm hanged if I know," said Vernon.
"I thought you knew all about those sort of things."
"So did I," said Vernon to himself. Aloud he said:
"If you want a philosophic definition: it's passion transfigured by tenderness—at least I've often said so."
"But can you feel that for two people at once?"
"Or," said Vernon, getting interested in his words, "it's tenderness intoxicated by passion, and not knowing that it's drunk—"
"But can you feel that for two—"
"Oh, bother," said Vernon, "every sort of fool-fancy calls itself love. There's the pleasure of pursuit—there's vanity, there's the satisfaction of your own amour-propre, there's desire, there's intellectual attraction, there's the love of beauty, there's the artist's joy in doing what you know you can do well, and getting a pretty woman for sole audience. You might feel one or two or twenty of these things for one woman, and one or two or twenty different ones for another. But if you mean do you love two women in the same way, I say no. Thank Heaven it's new every time."
"It mayn't be the same way," said Temple, "but it's the same thing to you—if you feel you can't bear to give either of them up."
"Well, then, you can marry one and keep on with the other. Or be 'friends' with both and marry neither. Or cut the whole show and go to the Colonies."
"Then you have to choose between being unhappy or being a blackguard."
"My good chap, that's the situation in which our emotions are always landing us—our confounded emotions and the conventions of Society."
"And how are you to know whether the thing's love—or—all those other things?"
"You don't know: you can't know till it's too late for your knowing to matter. Marriage is like spinach. You can't tell that you hate it till you've tried it. Only—"
"I think I've heard it said," Vernon voiced his own sudden conviction, very carelessly, "that love wants to give and passion wants to take. Love wants to possess the beloved object—and to make her happy. Desire wants possession too—but the happiness is to be for oneself; and if there's not enough happiness for both so much the worse. If I'm talking like a Sunday School book you've brought it on yourself."
"I like it," said Temple.
"Well, since the Dissenting surplice has fallen on me, I'll give you a test. I believe that the more you love a woman the less your thoughts will dwell on the physical side of the business. You want to take care of her."
"Yes," said Temple.
"And then often," Vernon went on, surprised to find that he wanted to help the other in his soul-searchings, "if a chap's not had much to do with women—the women of our class, I mean—he gets a bit dazed with them. They're all so nice, confound them. If a man felt he was falling in love with two women at once, and he had the tiresome temperament that takes these things seriously, it wouldn't be a bad thing for him to go away into the country, and moon about for a few weeks, and see which was the one that bothered his brain most. Then he'd know where he was, and not be led like a lamb to the slaughter by the wrong one. They can't both get him, you know, unless his intentions are strictly dishonourable."
"I wasn't putting the case that either of them wished to get him," said Temple carefully.
"Of course not. The thing simplifies itself wonderfully if neither of them wants to get him. Even if they both do, matters are less complicated. It's when only one of them wants him that it's the very devil for a man not to be sure what he wants. That's very clumsily put—what I mean is—"
"I see what you mean," said Temple impatiently.
"—It's the devil for him because then he lets himself drift and the one who wants him collars him and then of course she always turns out to be the one he didn't want. My observations are as full of wants as an advertisement column. But the thing to do in all relations of life is to make up your mind what it is that you do want, and then to jolly well see that you get it. What I want is a pipe."
He filled and lighted one.
"You talk," said Temple slowly, "as though a man could get anyone—I mean anything, he wanted."
"So he can, my dear chap, if he only wants her badly enough."
"Badly enough to make the supreme sacrifice to get her."
"?" Temple enquired.
"Marriage," Vernon answered; "there's only one excuse for marriage."
"Excuse. And that excuse is that one couldn't help it. The only excuse one will have to offer, some day, to the recording angel, for all one's other faults and follies. A man who can help getting married, and doesn't, deserves all he gets."
"I don't agree with you in the least," said Temple,—"about marriage, I mean. A man ought to want to get married—"
"To anybody? Without its being anybody in particular?"
"Yes," said Temple stoutly. "If he gets to thirty without wanting to marry any one in particular, he ought to look about till he finds some one he does want. It's the right and proper thing to marry and have kiddies."
"Oh, if you're going to be Patriarchal," said Vernon. "What a symbolic dialogue! We begin with love and we end with marriage! There's the tragedy of romance, in a nut-shell. Yes, life's a beastly rotten show, and the light won't last more than another two hours."
"Unfinished, but a disquieting likeness."
"Your hints are always as delicate as gossamer," said Temple. "Don't throw anything at me. I'm going."
He went, leaving his secret in Vernon's hands.
"Poor old Temple! That's the worst of walking carefully all your days: you do come such an awful cropper when you do come one. Two women. The Jasmine lady must have been practising on his poor little heart. Heigh-ho, I wish she could do as much for me! And the other one? Her—I suppose."
The use of the pronoun, the disuse of the grammar pulled him up short.
"By Jove," he said, "that's what people say when—But I'm not in love—with anybody. I want to work."
But he didn't work. He seldom did now. And when he did the work was not good. His easel held most often the portrait of Betty that had been begun at Long Barton—unfinished, but a disquieting likeness. He walked up and down his room not thinking, but dreaming. His dreams took him to the warren, in the pure morning light; he saw Betty; he told himself what he had said, what she had said.
"And it was I who advised her to come to Paris. If only I'd known then—"
He stopped and asked himself what he knew now that he had not known then, refused himself the answer, and went to call on Lady St. Craye.
Christmas came and went; the black winds of January swept the Boulevards, and snow lay white on the walls of court and garden. Betty's life was full now.
The empty cage that had opened its door to love at Long Barton had now other occupants. Ambition was beginning to grow its wing feathers. She could draw—at least some day she would be able to draw. Already she had won a prize with a charcoal study of a bare back. But she did not dare to name this to her father, and when he wrote to ask what was the subject of her prize drawing she replied with misleading truth that it was a study from nature. His imagination pictured a rustic cottage, a water-wheel, a castle and mountains in the distance and cows and a peasant in the foreground.
But though her life was now crowded with new interests that first-comer was not ousted. Only he had changed his plumage and she called him Friendship. She blushed sometimes and stamped her foot when she remembered those meetings in the summer mornings, her tremors, her heart-beats. And oh, the "drivel" she had written in her diary!
"Girls ought never to be allowed to lead that 'sheltered home life,'" she said to Miss Voscoe, "with nothing real in it. It makes your mind all swept and garnished and then you hurry to fill it up with rubbish."
"That's so," said her friend.
"If ever I have a daughter," said Betty, "she shall set to work at something definite the very instant she leaves school—if it's only Hebrew or algebra. Not just Parish duties that she didn't begin, and doesn't want to go on with. But something that's her own work."
"You're beginning to see straight. I surmised you would by and by. But don't you go to the other end of the see-saw, Miss Daisy-Face!"
"What do you mean?" asked Betty. It was the morning interval when students eat patisserie out of folded papers. The two were on the window ledge of the Atelier, looking down on the convent garden where already the buds were breaking to green leaf.
"Why, there's room for the devil even if your flat ain't swept and garnished. He folds up mighty small, and gets into less space than a poppy-seed."
"What do you mean?" asked Betty again.
"I mean that Vernon chap," said Miss Voscoe downrightly. "I told you to change partners every now and then. But with you it's that Vernon this week and last week and the week after next."
"I've known him longer than I have the others, and I like him," said Betty.
"Oh, he's all right; fine and dandy!" replied Miss Voscoe. "He's a big man, too, in his own line. Not the kind you expect to see knocking about at a students' crémerie. Does he give you lessons?"
"He did at home," said Betty.
"Take care he doesn't teach you what's the easiest thing in creation to learn about a man."
"What's that?" Betty did not like to have to ask the question.
"Why, how not to be able to do without him, of course," said Miss Voscoe.
"You're quite mistaken," said Betty eagerly: "one of the reasons I don't mind going about with him so much is that he's engaged to be married."
"Acquainted with the lady?"
"Yes," said Betty, sheltering behind the convention that an introduction at a tea-party constitutes acquaintanceship. She was glad Miss Voscoe had not asked her if she knew Lady St. Craye.
"Oh, well"—Miss Voscoe jumped up and shook the flakes of pastry off her pinafore—"if she doesn't mind, I guess I've got no call to. But why don't you give that saint in the go-to-hell collar a turn?"
"Mr. Temple. He admires you no end. He'd be always in your pocket if you'd let him. He's worth fifty of the other man as a man, if he isn't as an artist. I keep my eyes skinned—and the Sketch Club gives me a chance to tot them both up. I guess I can size up a man some. The other man isn't fast. That's how it strikes me."
"Fast?" echoed Betty, bewildered.
"Fast dye: fast colour. I suspicion he'd go wrong a bit in the wash. Temple's fast colour, warranted not to run."
"I know," said Betty, "but I don't care for the colour, and I'm rather tired of the pattern."
"I wish you'd tell me which of the two was the three-polite-word man."
"I know you do. But surely you see now?"
"You're too cute. Just as likely it's the Temple one, and that's why you're so sick of the pattern by now."
"Didn't I tell you you were clever?" laughed Betty.
But, all the same, next evening when Vernon called to take her to dinner, she said:
"Couldn't we go somewhere else? I'm tired of Garnier's."
Vernon was tired of Garnier's, too.
"Do you know Thirion's?" he said. "Thirion's in the Boulevard St. Germain, Thirion's where Du Maurier used to go, and Thackeray, and all sorts of celebrated people; and where the host treats you like a friend, and the waiter like a brother?"
"I should love to be treated like a waiter's brother. Do let's go," said Betty.
"He's a dream of a waiter," Vernon went on as they turned down the lighted slope of the Rue de Rennes, "has a voice like a trumpet, and takes a pride in calling twenty orders down the speaking-tube in one breath, ending up with a shout. He never makes a mistake either. Shall we walk, or take the tram, or a carriage?"
The Fate who was amusing herself by playing with Betty's destiny had sent Temple to call on Lady St. Craye that afternoon, and Lady St. Craye had seemed bored, so bored that she had hardly appeared to listen to Temple's talk, which, duly directed by her quite early into the channel she desired for it, flowed in a constant stream over the name, the history, the work, the personality of Vernon. When at last the stream ebbed Lady St. Craye made a pretty feint of stifling a yawn.
"Oh, how horrid I am!" she cried with instant penitence, "and how very rude you will think me! I think I have the blues to-day, or, to be more French and more poetic, the black butterflies. It is so sweet of you to have let me talk to you. I know I've been as stupid as an owl. Won't you stay and dine with me? I'll promise to cheer up if you will."
Mr. Temple would, more than gladly.
"Or no," Lady St. Craye went on, "that'll be dull for you, and perhaps even for me if I begin to think I'm boring you. Couldn't we do something desperate—dine at a Latin Quarter restaurant for instance? What was that place you were telling me of, where the waiter has a wonderful voice and makes the orders he shouts down the tube sound like the recitative of the basso at the Opera."
"Thirion's," said Temple; "but it wasn't I, it was Vernon."
"Thirion's, that's it!" Lady St. Craye broke in before Vernon's name left his lips. "Would you like to take me there to dine, Mr. Temple?"
It appeared that Mr. Temple would like it of all things.
"Then I'll go and put on my hat," said she and trailed her sea-green tea-gown across the room. At the door she turned to say: "It will be fun, won't it?"—and to laugh delightedly, like a child who is promised a treat.
That was how it happened that Lady St. Craye, brushing her dark furs against the wall of Thirion's staircase, came, followed by Temple, into the room where Betty and Vernon, their heads rather close together, were discussing the menu.
This was what Lady St. Craye had thought of more than a little. Yet it was not what she had expected. Vernon, perhaps, yes: or the girl. But not Vernon and the girl together. Not now. At her very first visit. It was not for a second that she hesitated. Temple had not even had time to see who it was to whom she spoke before she had walked over to the two, and greeted them.
"How perfectly delightful!" she said. "Miss Desmond, I've been meaning to call on you, but it's been so cold, and I've been so cross, I've called on nobody. Ah, Mr. Vernon, you too?"
She looked at the vacant chair near his, and Vernon had to say:
"You'll join us, of course?"
So the two little parties made one party, and one of the party was angry and annoyed, and no one of the party was quite pleased, and all four concealed what they felt, and affected what they did not feel, with as much of the tact of the truly well-bred as each could call up. In this polite exercise Lady St. Craye was easily first.
She was charming to Temple, she was very nice to Betty, and she spoke to Vernon with a delicate, subtle, faint suggestion of proprietorship in her tone. At least that was how it seemed to Betty. To Temple it seemed that she was tacitly apologising to an old friend for having involuntarily broken up a dinner à deux. To Vernon her tone seemed to spell out an all but overmastering jealousy proudly overmastered. All that pretty fiction of there being now no possibility of sentiment between him and her flickered down and died. And with it the interest that he had felt in her. "She have unexplored reserves? Bah!" he told himself, "she is just like the rest." He felt that she had not come from the other side of the river just to dine with Temple. He knew she had been looking for him. And the temptation assailed him to reward her tender anxiety by devoting himself wholly to Betty. Then he remembered what he had let Betty believe, as to the relations in which he stood to this other woman.
His face lighted up with a smile of answering tenderness. Without neglecting Betty he seemed to lay the real homage of his heart at the feet of that heart's lady.
"By Jove," he thought, as the dark, beautiful eyes met his in a look of more tenderness than he had seen in them this many a day, "if only she knew how she's playing my game for me!"
Betty, for her part, refused to recognise a little pain that gnawed at her heart and stole all taste from the best dishes of Thirion's. She talked as much as possible to Temple, because it was the proper thing to do, she told herself, and she talked very badly. Lady St. Craye was transfigured by Vernon's unexpected acceptance of her delicate advances, intoxicated by the sudden flutter of a dream she had only known with wings in full flight, into the region where dreams, clasped to the heart, become realities. She grew momently more beautiful. The host, going from table to table, talking easily to his guests, could not keep his fascinated eyes from her face. The proprietor of Thirion's had good taste, and knew a beautiful woman when he saw her.
Betty's eyes, too, strayed more and more often from her plate, and from Temple to the efflorescence of this new beauty-light. She felt mean and poor, ill-dressed, shabby, dowdy, dull, weary and uninteresting. Her face felt tired. It was an effort to smile.
When the dinner was over she said abruptly:
"If you'll excuse me—I've got a dreadful headache—no, I don't want anyone to see me home. Just put me in a carriage."
She insisted, and it was done.
When the carriage drew up in front of the closed porte cochère of 57 Boulevard Montparnasse, Betty was surprised and wounded to discover that she was crying.
"Well, you knew they were engaged!" she said as she let herself into her room with her latchkey. "You knew they were engaged! What did you expect?"
Temple could not remember afterwards exactly how he got separated from the others. It just happened, as such unimportant things will. He missed them somehow, at a crossing, looked about him in vain, shrugged his shoulders and went home.
Lady St. Craye hesitated a moment with her latchkey in her hand. Then she threw open the door of her flat.
"Come in, won't you?" she said, and led the way into her fire-warm, flower-scented, lamplit room. Vernon also hesitated a moment. Then he followed. He stood on the hearth-rug with his back to the wood fire. He did not speak.
Somehow it was difficult for her to take up their talk at the place and in the strain where it had broken off when Betty proclaimed her headache.
Yet this was what she must do, it seemed to her, or lose all the ground she had gained.
"You've been very charming to me this evening," she said at last, and knew as she said it that it was the wrong thing to say.
"You flatter me," said Vernon.
"I was so surprised to see you there," she went on.
Vernon was surprised that she should say it. He had thought more highly of her powers.
"The pleasure was mine," he said in his most banal tones, "the surprise, alas, was all for you—and all you gained."
"Weren't you surprised?"—Lady St. Craye was angry and humiliated. That she—she—should find herself nervous, at fault, find herself playing the game as crudely as any shopgirl!
"No," said Vernon.
"But you couldn't have expected me?" She knew quite well what she was doing, but she was too nervous to stop herself.
"I've always expected you," he said deliberately, "ever since I told you that I often dined at Thirion's."
"You expected me to—"
"To run after me?" said Vernon with paraded ingenuousness; "yes, didn't you?"
"I run after you? You—" she stopped short, for she saw in his eyes that, if she let him quarrel with her now, it was forever.
He at the same moment awoke from the trance of anger that had come upon him when he found himself alone with her; anger at her, and at himself, fanned to fury by the thought of Betty and of what she, at this moment, must be thinking. He laughed:
"Ah, don't break my heart!" he said, "I've been so happy all the evening fancying that you had—you had—"
"Had what?" she asked with dry lips, for the caress in his tone was such as to deceive the very elect.
"Had felt just the faintest little touch of interest in me. Had cared to know how I spent my evenings, and with whom!"
"You thought I could stoop to spy on you?" she asked. "Monsieur flatters himself."
The anger in him was raising its head again.
"Monsieur very seldom does," he said.
She took that as she chose to take it.
"No, you're beautifully humble."
"And you're proudly beautiful."
She flushed and looked down.
"Don't you like to be told that you're beautiful?"
"Not by you. Not like that!"
"And so you didn't come to Thirion's to see me? How one may deceive oneself! The highest hopes we cherish here! Another beautiful illusion gone!"
She said to herself: "I can do nothing with him in this mood," and aloud she could not help saying: "Was it a beautiful one?"
"Very," he answered gaily. "Can you doubt it?"
She found nothing to say. And even as she fought for words she suddenly found that he had caught her in his arms, and kissed her, and that the sound of the door that had banged behind him was echoing in her ears.
She put her hands to her head. She could not see clearly.