The Incomplete Amorist/Book 3/Chapter XVIII
There was a silence.
"Come, my pretty Jasmine lady, speak the truth."
"I will: What a brute you are!"
"So another lady told me a few months ago. Come, tell me."
"Why should I tell you anything?" She tried to touch her tone with scorn.
"Because I choose. You thought you could play with me and fool me and trick me out of what I mean to have—"
"What you mean to have?"
"Yes, what I mean to have. I mean to marry Miss Desmond—if she'll have me."
"You—mean to marry? Saul is among the prophets with a vengeance!" The scorn came naturally to her voice now.
Vernon stood as if turned to stone. Nothing had ever astonished him so much as those four words, spoken in his own voice, "I mean to marry." He repeated them. "I mean to marry Miss Desmond, if she'll have me. And it's your doing."
"Of course," she shrugged her shoulders. "Naturally it would be. Won't you sit down? You look so uncomfortable. Those French tragedy scenes with the hero hat in one hand and gloves in the other always seem to me so comic."
That was her score, the first. He put down the hat and gloves and came towards her. And as he came he hastily sketched his plan of action. When he reached her it was ready formed. His anger was always short lived. It had died down and left him competent as ever to handle the scene.
He took her hands, pushed her gently into a chair near the table, and sat down beside her with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.
"Forgive me, dear," he said. "I was a brute. Forgive me—and help me. No one can help me but you."
It was a master-stroke: and he had staked a good deal on it. The stake was not lost. She found no words.
"My dear, sweet Jasmine lady," he said, "let me talk to you. Let me tell you everything. I can talk to you as I can talk to no one else, because I know you're fond of me. You are fond of me—a little, aren't you—for the sake of old times?"
"Yes," she said, "I am fond of you."
"And you forgive me—you do forgive me for being such a brute? I hardly knew what I was doing."
"Yes," she said, speaking as one speaks in dreams, "I forgive you."
"Thank you," he said humbly; "you were always generous. And you always understand."
"Wait—wait. I'll attend to you presently," she was saying to her heart. "Yes, I know it's all over. I know the game's up. Let me pull through this without disgracing myself, and I'll let you hurt me as much as you like afterwards."
"Tell me," she said gently to Vernon, "tell me everything."
He was silent, his face still hidden. He had cut the knot of an impossible situation and he was pausing to admire the cleverness of the stroke. In two minutes he had blotted out the last six months—months in which he and she had been adversaries. He had thrown himself on her mercy, and he had done wisely. Never, even in the days when he had carefully taught himself to be in love with her, had he liked her so well as now, when she got up from her chair to come and lay her hand softly on his shoulder and to say:
"My poor boy,—but there's nothing for you to be unhappy about. Tell me all about it—from the very beginning."
There was a luxurious temptation in the idea. It was not the first time, naturally, that Vernon had "told all about it" with a sympathetic woman-hand on his shoulder. He knew the strategic value of confidences. But always he had made the confidences fit the occasion—serve the end he had in view. Now, such end as had been in view was gained. He knew that it was only a matter of time now, before she should tell him of her own accord, what he could never by any brutality have forced her to tell. And the temptation to speak, for once, the truth about himself was overmastering. It is a luxury one can so very rarely afford. Most of us go the whole long life-way without tasting it. There was nothing to lose by speaking the truth. Moreover, he must say something, and why not the truth? So he said:
"It all comes of that confounded habit of mine of wanting to be in love."
"Yes," she said, "you were always so anxious to be—weren't you? And you never were—till now."
The echo of his hidden thought made it easier for him to go on.
"It was at Long Barton," he said,—"it's a little dead and alive place in Kent. I was painting that picture that you like—the one that's in the Salon, and I was bored to death, and she walked straight into the composition in a pink gown that made her look like a La France rose that has been rained on—you know the sort of pink-turning-to-mauve."
"And it was love at first sight?" said she, and took away her hand.
"Not it," said Vernon, catching the hand and holding it; "it was just the usual thing. I wanted it to be like all the others."
"Like mine," she said, looking down on him.
"Nothing could be like that," he had the grace to say, looking up at her: "that was only like the others in one thing—that it couldn't last.—What am I thinking of to let you stand there?"
He got up and led her to the divan. They sat down side by side. She wanted to laugh, to sing, to scream. Here was he sitting by her like a lover—holding her hand, the first time these two years, three years nearly—his voice tender as ever. And he was telling her about Her.
"No," he went on, burrowing his shoulder comfortably in the cushions, "it was just the ordinary outline sketch. But it was coming very nicely. She was beginning to be interested, and I had taught myself almost all that was needed—I didn't want to marry her; I didn't want anything except those delicate delightful emotions that come before one is quite, quite sure that she—But you know."
"Yes," she said. "I know."
"Then her father interfered, and vulgarized the whole thing. He's a parson—a weak little rat, but I was sorry for him. Then an aunt came on the scene—a most gentlemanly lady,"—he laughed a little at the recollection,—"and I promised not to go out of my way to see Her again. It was quite easy. The bloom was already brushed from the adventure. I finished the picture, and went to Brittany and forgot the whole silly business."
"There was some one in Brittany, of course?"
"Of course," said he; "there always is. I had a delightful summer. Then in October, sitting at the Café de la Paix, I saw her pass. It was the same day I saw you."
"Before or after you saw me?"
"Then if I'd stopped—if I'd made you come for a drive then and there, you'd never have seen her?"
"That's so," said Vernon; "and by Heaven I almost wish you had!"
The wish was a serpent in her heart. She said: "Go on."
And he went on, and, warming to his subject, grew eloquent on the events of the winter, his emotions, his surmises as to Betty's emotions, his slow awakening to the knowledge that now, for the first time—and so on and so forth.
"You don't know how I tried to fall in love with you again," he said, and kissed her hand. "You're prettier than she is, and cleverer and a thousand times more adorable. But it's no good; it's a sort of madness."
"You never were in love with me."
"No: I don't think I was: but I was happier with you than I shall ever be with her for all that. Talk of the joy of love! Love hurts—hurts damnably. I beg your pardon."
"Yes. I believe it's painful. Go on."
He went on. He was enjoying himself, now, thoroughly.
"And so," the long tale ended, "when I found she had scruples about going about with me alone—because her father had suggested that I was in love with her—I—I let her think that I was engaged to you."
"That is too much!" she cried and would have risen: but he kept her hand fast.
"Ah, don't be angry," he pleaded. "You see, I knew you didn't care about me a little bit: and I never thought you and she would come across each other."
"So you knew all the time that I didn't care?" her self-respect clutched at the spar he threw out.
"Of course. I'm not such a fool as to think—Ah, forgive me for letting her think that. It bought me all I cared to ask for of her time. She's so young, so innocent—she thought it was quite all right as long as I belonged to someone else, and couldn't make love to her."
"And haven't you?"
"Never—never once—since the days at Long Barton when it had to be 'made;' and even then I only made the very beginnings of it. Now—"
"I suppose you've been very, very happy?"
"Don't I tell you? I've never been so wretched in my life! I despise myself. I've always made everything go as I wanted it to go. Now I'm like a leaf in the wind—Pauvre feuille desechée, don't you know. And I hate it. And I hate her being here without anyone to look after her. A hundred times I've had it on the tip of my pen to send that doddering old Underwood an anonymous letter, telling him all about it."
"Her step-father.—Oh, I forgot—I didn't tell you." He proceeded to tell her Betty's secret, the death of Madame Gautier and Betty's bid for freedom.
"I see," she said slowly. "Well, there's no great harm done. But I wish you'd trusted me before. You wanted to know, at the beginning of this remarkable interview," she laughed rather forlornly, "what I had told Miss Desmond. Well, I went to see her, and when she told me that you'd told her you were engaged to me, I—I just acted the jealous a little bit. I thought I was helping you—playing up to you. I suppose I overdid it. I'm sorry."
"The question is," said he anxiously, "whether she'll forgive me for that lie. She's most awfully straight, you know."
"She seems to have lied herself," Lady St. Craye could not help saying.
"Ah, yes—but only to her father."
"That hardly counts, you think?"
"It's not the same thing as lying to the person you love. I wish—I wonder whether you'd mind if I never told her it was a lie? Couldn't I tell her that we were engaged but you've broken it off? That you found you liked Temple better, or something?"
She gasped before the sudden vision of the naked gigantic egotism of a man in love.
"You can tell her what you like," she said wearily: "a lie or two more or less—what does it matter?"
"I don't want to lie to her," said Vernon. "I hate to. But she'd never understand the truth."
"You think I understand? It is the truth you've been telling me?"
He laughed. "I don't think I ever told so much truth in all my life."
"And you've thoroughly enjoyed it! You alway did enjoy new sensations!"
"Ah, don't sneer at me. You don't understand—not quite. Everything's changed. I really do feel as though I'd been born again. The point of view has shifted—and so suddenly, so completely. It's a new Heaven and a new earth. But the new earth's not comfortable, and I don't suppose I shall ever get the new Heaven. But you'll help me—you'll advise me? Do you think I ought to tell her at once? You see, she's so different from other girls—she's—"
"She isn't," Lady St. Craye interrupted, "except that she's the one you love; she's not a bit different from other girls. No girl's different from other girls."
"Ah, you don't know her," he said. "You see, she's so young and brave and true and—what is it—Why—"
Lady St. Craye had rested her head against his coat-sleeve and he knew that she was crying.
"What is it? My dear, don't—you musn't cry."
"I'm not.—At least I'm very tired."
"Brute that I am!" he said with late compunction. "And I've been worrying you with all my silly affairs. Cheer up,—and smile at me before I go! Of course you're tired!"
His hand on her soft hair held her head against his arm.
"No," she said suddenly, "it isn't that I'm tired, really. You've told the truth,—why shouldn't I?" Vernon instantly and deeply regretted the lapse.
"You're really going to marry the girl? You mean it?"
"Then I'll help you. I'll do everything I can for you."
"You're a dear," he said kindly. "You always were."
"I'll be your true friend—oh, yes, I will! Because I love you, Eustace. I've always loved you—I always shall. It can't spoil anything now to tell you, because everything is spoilt. She'll never love you like I do. Nobody ever will."
"You're tired. I've bothered you. You're saying this just to—because—"
"I'm saying it because it's true. Why should you be the only one to speak the truth? Oh, Eustace—when you pretended to think I didn't care, two years ago, I was too proud to speak the truth then. I'm not proud now any more. Go away. I wish I'd never seen you; I wish I'd never been born."
"Yes, dear, yes. I'll go" he said, and rose. She buried her face in the cushion where his shoulder had been.
He was looking round for his hat and gloves—more uncomfortable than he ever remembered to have been.
As he reached the door she sprang up, and he heard the silken swish of her gray gown coming towards him.
"Say good-night," she pleaded. "Oh, Eustace, kiss me again—kindly, not like last time."
He met her half-way, took her in his arms and kissed her forehead very gently, very tenderly.
"My dearest Jasmine lady," he said, "it sounds an impertinence and I daresay you won't believe it, but I was never so sorry in my life as I am now. I'm a beast, and I don't deserve to live. Think what a beast I am—and try to hate me."
She, clung to him and laid her wet cheek against his. Then her lips implored his lips. There was a long silence. It was she—she was always glad of that—who at last found her courage, and drew back.
"Good-bye," she said. "I shall be quite sane to-morrow. And then I'll help you."
When he got out into the street he looked at his watch. It was not yet ten o'clock. He hailed a carriage.
"Fifty-seven Boulevard Montparnasse," he said.
He could still feel Lady St. Craye's wet cheek against his own. The despairing passion of her last kisses had thrilled him through and through.
He wanted to efface the mark of those kisses. He would not be haunted all night by any lips but Betty's.
He had never called at her rooms in the evening. He had been careful for her in that. Even now as he rang the bell he was careful, and when the latch clicked and the door was opened a cautious inch he was ready, as he entered, to call out, in passing the concierge's door not Miss Desmond's name, but the name of the Canadian artist who occupied the studio on the top floor.
He went softly up the stairs and stood listening outside Betty's door. Then he knocked gently. No one answered. Nothing stirred inside.
"She may be out," he told himself. "I'll wait a bit."
At the same time he tapped again; and this time beyond the door something did stir.
Then came Betty's voice:
"Qui est la?"
"It's me—Vernon. May I come in?"
A moment's pause. Then:
"No. You can't possibly. Is anything the matter?"
"No—oh, no, but I wanted so much to see you. May I come to-morrow early?"
"You're sure there's nothing wrong? At home or anything? You haven't come to break anything to me?"
"No—no; it's only something I wanted to tell you."
He began to feel a fool, with his guarded whispers through a locked door.
"Then come at twelve," said Betty in the tones of finality. "Good-night."
He heard an inner door close, and went slowly away. He walked a long way that night. It was not till he was back in his rooms and had lighted his candle and wound up his watch that Lady St. Craye's kisses began to haunt him in good earnest, as he had known they would.
Lady St. Craye, left alone, dried her eyes and set to work, with heart still beating wildly to look about her at the ruins of her world.
The room was quiet with the horrible quiet of a death chamber. And yet his voice still echoed in it. Only a moment ago she had been in his arms, as she had never hoped to be again—more—as she had never been before.
"He would have loved me now," she told herself, "if it hadn't been for that girl. He didn't love me before. He was only playing at love. He didn't know what love was. But he knows now. And it's all too late!"
But was it?
A word to Betty—and—
"But you promised to help him."
"That was before he kissed me."
"But a promise is a promise."
"Yes,—and your life's your life. You'll never have another."
She stood still, her hands hanging by her sides—clenched hands that the rings bit into.
"He will go to her early to-morrow. And she'll accept him, of course. She's never seen anyone else, the little fool."
She knew that she herself would have taken him, would have chosen him as the chief among ten thousand.
"She could have Temple. She'd be much happier with Temple. She and Eustace would make each other wretched. She'd never understand him, and he'd be tired of her in a week."
She had turned up the electric lights now, at her toilet table, and was pulling the pins out of her ruffled hair.
"And he'd never care about her children. And they'd be ugly little horrors."
She was twisting her hair up quickly and firmly.
"I have a right to live my own life," she said, just as Betty had said six months before. "Why am I to sacrifice everything to her—especially when I don't suppose she cares—and now that I know I could get him if she were out of the way?"
She looked at herself in the silver-framed mirror and laughed.
"And you always thought yourself a proud woman!"
Suddenly she dropped the brush; it rattled and spun on the polished floor.
She stamped her foot.
"That settles it!" she said. For in that instant she perceived quite clearly and without mistake that Vernon's attitude had been a parti-pris: that he had thrown, himself on her pity of set purpose, with an end to gain.
"Laughing at me all the time too, of course! And I thought I understood him. Well, I don't misunderstand him for long, anyway," she said, and picked up the hair brush.
"You silly fool," she said to the woman in the glass.
And now she was fully dressed—in long light coat and a hat with, as usual, violets in it. She paused a moment before her writing-table, turned up its light, turned it down again.
"No," she said, "one doesn't write anonymous letters. Besides it would be too late. He'll see her to-morrow early—early."
The door of the flat banged behind her as it had banged behind Vernon half an hour before. Like him, she called a carriage, and on her lips too, as the chill April air caressed them, was the sense of kisses.
And she, too, gave to the coachman the address:
Fifty-seven Boulevard Montparnasse.