The Incomplete Amorist/Book 4/Chapter XXVII
The Pink Silk Story
To call on the concierge at Betty's old address, and to ask for news of her had come to seem to Vernon the unbroken habit of a life-time. There never was any news: there never would be any news. But there always might be.
The days went by, days occupied in these fruitless gold-edged enquiries, in the other rose-accompanied enquiries after the health of Lady St. Craye, and in watching for the postman who should bring the answer to his formal proposal of marriage.
To his deep surprise and increasing disquietude, no answer came. Was the Reverend Cecil dead, or merely inabordable? Had Betty despised his offer too deeply to answer it? The lore learned in, as it seemed, another life assured him that a woman never despises an offer too much to say "No" to it.
Watch for the postman. Look at Betty's portrait. Call on the concierge. (He had been used to dislike the employment of dirty instruments.) Call on the florist. (There was a decency in things, even if all one's being were contemptibly parched for the sight of another woman.) Call and enquire for the poor Jasmine Lady. Studio—think of Betty—look at her portrait—pretend to work. Meals at fairly correct intervals. Call on the concierge. Look at the portrait again. Such were the recurrent incidents of Vernon's life. Between the incidents came a padding of futile endeavour. Work, he had always asserted, was the cure for inconvenient emotions. Only now the cure was not available.
And the postman brought nothing interesting, except a letter, post-mark Denver, Col., a letter of tender remonstrance from the Brittany girl, Miss Van Tromp.
Then came the morning when the concierge, demurely assuring him of her devotion to his interests, offered to post a letter. No bribe—and he was shameless in his offers—could wring more than that from her. And even the posting of the letter cost a sum that the woman chuckled over through all the days during which the letter lay in her locked drawer, under Lady St. Craye's bank note and the divers tokens of "ce monsieur's" interest in the intrigue—whatever the intrigue might be—its details were not what interested.
Vernon went home, pulled the table into the middle of the bare studio and wrote. This letter wrote itself without revision.
"Why did you go away?" it said. "Where are you? where can I see you? What has happened? Have your people found out?"
A long pause—the end of the pen bitten.
"I want to have no lies or deceit any more between us. I must tell you the truth. I have never been engaged to anyone. But you would not let me see you without that, so I let you think it. Will you forgive me? Can you? For lying to you? If you can't I shall know that nothing matters at all. But if you can forgive me—then I shall let myself hope for impossible things.
"Dear, whether it's all to end here or not, let me write this once without thinking of anything but you and me. I have written to your father asking his permission to ask you to marry me. To you I want to say that I love you, love you, love you—and I have never loved anyone else. That's part of my punishment for—I don't know what exactly. Playing with fire, I suppose. Dear—can you love me? Ever since I met you at Long Barton" (Pause: what about Miss Van Tromp? Nothing, nothing, nothing!) "I've not thought of anything but you. I want you for my very own. There is no one like you, my love, my Princess.
"You'll write to me. Even if you don't care a little bit you'll write. Dear, I hardly dare hope that you care, but I daren't fear that you don't. I shall count the minutes till I get your answer. I feel like a schoolboy.
"Dear it's my very heart I'm sending you here. If I didn't love you, love you, love you I could write a better letter, tell you better how I love you. Write now. You will write?
"Did someone tell you something or write you something that made you go away? It's not true, whatever it is. Nothing's true, but that I want you. As I've never wanted anything. Let me see you. Let me tell you. I'll explain everything—if anyone has been telling lies.
"If you don't care enough to write, I don't care enough to go on living. Oh, my dear Dear, all the words and phrases have been used up before. There's nothing new to say, I know. But what's in my heart for you—that's new, that's all that matters—that and what your heart might hold for me. Does it? Tell me. If I can't have your love, I can't bear my life. And I won't.—You'll think this letter isn't like me. It isn't, I know. But I can't help it. I am a new man: and you have made me. Dear,—can't you love the man you've made? Write, write, write!
"Yours—as I never thought I could be anyone's,
"It's too long," he said, "most inartistic, but I won't re-write it. Contemptible ass! If she cares it won't matter. If she doesn't, it won't matter either."
And that was the letter that lay in the locked drawer for a week. And through that week the watching for the postman went on—went on. And the enquiries, mechanically.
And no answer came at all, to either of his letters. Had the Concierge deceived him? Had she really no address to which to send the letter?
"Are you sure that you posted the letter?"
"Altogether, monsieur," said the concierge, fingering the key of the drawer that held it.
And the hot ferment of Paris life seethed and fretted all around him. If Betty were at Long Barton—oh, the dewy gray grass in the warren—and the long shadows on the grass!
Three days more went by.
"You have posted the letter?"
"But yes, Monsieur. Be tranquil. Without doubt it was a letter that should exact time for the response."
It was on the fifth day that he met Mimi Chantal, the prettiest model on the left bank.
"Is monsieur by chance painting the great picture which shall put him between Velasquez and Caran d'Ache on the last day?"
"I am painting nothing," said Vernon. "And why is the prettiest model in Paris not at work?"
"I was in lateness but a little quarter of an hour, Monsieur. And behold me—chucked."
"It wasn't for the first time, then?"
"A nothing one or two days last week. Monsieur had better begin to paint that chef d'oeuvre—to-day even. It isn't often that the prettiest model in Paris is free to sit at a moment's notice."
"But," said Vernon, "I haven't an idea for a picture even. It is too hot for ideas. I'm going into the country at the end of the month, to do landscape."
"To paint a picture it is then absolutely necessary to have an idea?"
"An idea—or a commission."
"There is always something that lacks! With me it is the technique that is to seek; with you the ideas! Otherwise we should both be masters. For you have technique both hands full; I have ideas, me."
"Tell me some of them," said Vernon, strolling along by her side. It was not his habit to stroll along beside models. But to-day he was fretted and chafed by long waiting for that answer to his letter. Anything seemed better than the empty studio where one waited.
"Here is one! I have the idea that artists have no eyes. How they pose me ever as l'Été or La Source or Leda, or that clumsy Suzanne with her eternal old men. As if they knew better than I do how a woman holds herself up or sits herself down, or nurses a duck, or defends herself!"
"Your idea is probably correct. I understand you to propose that I should paint a picture called The Blind Artist?"
"Don't do the imbecile. I propose for subject Me—not posed; me as I am in the Rest. Is it not that it is then that I am the most pretty, the most chic?"
"It certainly is," said he. "And you propose that I should paint you as you appear in the Rest?"
"Perfectly," she interrupted. "Tender rose colour—it goes to a marvel with my Cléo de Mérode hair. And if you want a contrast—or one of those little tricks to make people say: 'What does it mean?'"
"I don't, thank you," he laughed.
"Paint that white drowned girl's face that hangs behind your stove. Paint her and me looking at each other. She has the air of felicitating herself that she is dead. Me, I will have the air of felicitating myself that I am alive. You will see, Monsieur. Essay but one sole little sketch, and you will think of nothing else. One might entitle it 'The Rivals.'"
"Or 'The Rest,'" said Vernon, a little interested. "Oh, well, I'm not doing anything.—I'll make a sketch and give it you as a present. Come in an hour."
"Auntie, wake up, wake up!" Betty, white-faced and determined, was pulling back the curtain with fingers that rigidly would not tremble.
"Shut the door and spare my blushes," said her aunt. "What's up now?" She looked at the watch on the bed-table. "Why its only just six."
"I can't help it," said Betty; "you've had all the night to sleep in. I haven't. I want you to get up and dress and come to Paris with me by the early train."
"Sit down," said the aunt. "No, not on the bed. I hate that. In this chair. Now remember that we all parted last night in the best of spirits, and that as far as I know nothing has happened since."
"Oh, no—nothing of course!" said Betty.
"Don't be ironical," said Miss Desmond; "at six in the morning it's positively immoral. Tell me all—let me hear the sad sweet story of your life."
"Very well," said Betty, "if you're only going to gibe I'll go alone. Or I'll get Mr. Temple to take me."
"To see the other man? That will be nice."
"Who said anything about—?"
"You did, the moment you came in. Come child; sit down and tell me. I'm not unsympathetic. I'm only very, very sleepy. And I did think everything was arranged. I was dreaming of orange blossoms and The Voice That Breathed. And the most beautiful trousseau marked E. T. And silver fish-knives, and salt-cellars in a case lined with purple velvet."
"Go on," said Betty, "if it amuses you."
"No, no. I'm sorry. Forgive the ravings of delirium. Go on. Poor little Betty! Don't worry. Tell its own aunt."
"It's not a joke," said Betty.
"So I more and more perceive, now that I'm really waking up," said the aunt, sitting up and throwing back her thick blond hair. "Come, I'll get up now. Give me my stockings—and tell me—"
"They were under my big hat," said Betty, doing as she was told; "the one I wore the night you came. And I'd thrown it down on the chest of drawers—and they were underneath."
"No—my letters. Two of them. And one of them's from Him. It's a week old. And he says he won't live if I don't love him."
"They always do," said Miss Desmond, pouring water into the basin. "Well?"
"And he wants me to marry him, and he was never engaged to Lady St. Craye; and it was a lie. I've had a letter from her."
"I can't understand a word you say," said Miss Desmond through splashings.
"My friend Paula, that I told you about. She never went home to her father. Mr. Vernon set her up in a restaurant! Oh, how good and noble he is! Here are your shoes—and he says he won't live without me; and I'm going straight off to him, and I wouldn't go without telling you. It's no use telling father yet, but I did think you'd understand."
"Hand me that green silk petticoat. Thank you. What did you think I'd understand?"
"Why that I—that it's him I love."
"You do, do you?"
"Yes, always, always! And I must go to him. But I won't go and leave Bobbie to think I'm going to marry him some day. I must tell him first, and then I'm going straight to Paris to find him, and give him the answer to his letter."
"You must do as you like. It's your life, not mine. But it's a pity," said her aunt, "and I should send a telegram to prepare him."
"The office won't be open. There's a train at seven forty-five. Oh, do hurry. I've ordered the pony. We'll call and tell Mr. Temple."
It was not the 7:45 that was caught, however, but the 10:15, because Temple was, naturally, in bed. When he had been roused, and had dressed and come out to them, in the gay terrace overhanging the river where the little tables are and the flowers in pots and the vine-covered trellis, Miss Desmond turned and positively fled before the gay radiance of his face.
"This is dear and sweet of you," he said to Betty. "What lovely scheme have you come to break to me? But what's the matter? You're not ill?"
"Oh, don't," said Betty; "don't look like that! I couldn't go without telling you. It's all over, Bobbie."
She had never before called him by that name, and now she did not know what she had called him.
"What's all over?" he asked mechanically.
"Everything," she said; "your thinking I was going to, perhaps, some time—and all that. Because now I never shall. O, Bobbie, I do hate hurting you, and I do like you so frightfully much! But he's written to me: the letter's been delayed. And it's all a mistake. And I'm going to him now. Oh,—I hope you'll be able to forgive me!"
"It's not your fault," he said. "Wait a minute. It's so sudden. Yes, I see. Don't you worry about me, dearest, I shall be all right. May I know who it is?"
"It's Mr. Vernon," said Betty.
"Oh, my God!" Temple's hand clenched. "No, no, no, no!"
"I am so very, very sorry," said Betty in the tone one uses who has trodden on another's foot in an omnibus.
He had sat down at one of the little tables, and was looking out over the shining river with eyes half shut.
"But it's not true," he said. "It can't be true! He's going to marry Lady St. Craye."
"That's all a mistake," said Betty eagerly; "he only said that because—I haven't time to tell you all about it now. But it was all a mistake."
"Betty, dear," he said, using in his turn, for the first time, her Christian name, "don't do it. Don't marry him. You don't know."
"I thought you were his friend."
"So I am," said Temple. "I like him right enough. But what's all the friendship in the world compared with your happiness? Don't marry him—dear. Don't."
"I shall marry whom I choose," said Betty, chin in air, "and it won't be you." ("I don't care if I am vulgar and brutal," she told herself, "it serves him right")
"It's not for me, dear. It's not for me—it's for you. I'll go right away and never see you again. Marry some straight chap—anyone—But not Vernon."
"I am going to marry Mr. Vernon," said Betty with lofty calm, "and I am very sorry for any annoyance I may have caused you. Of course, I see now that I could never—I mean," she added angrily, "I hate people who are false to their friends. Yes—and now I've missed my train."
"Forgive me," said Temple when the fact was substantiated, and the gray pony put up, "after all, I was your friend before I—before you—before all this that can't come to anything. Let me give you both some coffee and see you to the station. And Betty, don't you go and be sorry about me afterwards. Because, really, it's not your fault and," he laughed and was silent a moment, "and I'd rather have loved you and have it end like this, dear, than never have known you. I truly would."
The journey to Paris was interminable. Betty had decided not to think of Temple, yet that happy morning face of his would come between her and the things she wanted to think of. To have hurt him like that!—It hurt her horribly; much more than she would have believed possible. And she had been cruel. "Of course it's natural that he should say things about Him. He must hate anyone that—He nearly cried when he said that about rather have loved me than not—Yes—" A lump came in Betty's own throat, and her eyes pricked.
"Come, don't cry," said her aunt briskly; "you've made your choice, and you're going to your lover. Don't be like Lot's wife. You can't eat your cake and have it too."
Vernon's concierge assured these ladies that Monsieur was at home.
"He makes the painting in this moment," she said. "Mount then, my ladies."
Betty remembered her last—her first—visit to his studio: when Paula had disappeared and she had gone to him for help. She remembered how the velvet had come off her dress, and how awful her hair had been when she had looked in the glass afterwards. And Lady St. Craye—how beautifully dressed, how smiling and superior!
"Hateful cat!" said Betty on the stairs.
"Eh?" said her aunt.
Now there would be no one in the studio but Vernon. He would be reading over her letters—nothing in them—only little notes about whether she would or wouldn't be free on Tuesday—whether she could or couldn't dine with him on Wednesday. But he would be reading them over—perhaps—
The key was in the door.
"Do you mind waiting on the stairs, Auntie dear," said Betty in a voice of honey; "just the first minute?—I would like to have it for us two—alone. You don't mind?"
"Do as you like," said the aunt rather sadly. "I should knock if I were you."
Betty did not knock. She opened the studio door softly. She would like to see him before he saw her.
She had her wish.
A big canvas stood on the easel, a stool in front of it. The table was in the middle of the room, a yellow embroidered cloth on it. There was food on the cloth—little breads, pretty cakes and strawberries and cherries, and wine in tall, beautiful, topaz-coloured glasses.
Vernon sat in his big chair. Betty could see his profile. He sat there, laughing. On the further arm of the chair sat, laughing also, a very pretty young woman. Her black hair was piled high on her head and fastened with a jewelled pin. The sunlight played in the jewels. She wore a pink silk garment. She held cherries in her hand.
"On the further arm of the chair sat, laughing also, a very pretty young woman."
"V'la cheri!" she said, and put one of the twin cherries in her mouth; then she leant over him laughing, and Vernon reached his head forward to take in his mouth the second cherry that dangled below her chin. His mouth was on the cherry, and his eyes in the black eyes of the girl in pink.
Betty banged the door.
"Come away!" she said to Miss Desmond. And she, who had seen, too, the pink picture, came away, holding Betty's arm tight.
"I wonder," she said as they reached the bottom of the staircase, "I wonder he didn't come after us to—to—try to explain."
"I locked the door," said Betty. "Don't speak to me, please."
They were in the train before either broke silence. Betty's face was white and she looked old—thirty almost her aunt thought.
It was Miss Desmond who spoke.
"Betty," she said, "I know how you feel. But you're very young. I think I ought to say that that girl—"
"Don't!" said Betty.
"I mean what we saw doesn't necessarily mean that he doesn't love you."
"Perhaps not," said Betty, fierce as a white flame. "Anyhow, it means that I don't love him."
Miss Desmond's tact, worn by three days of anxiety and agitation, broke suddenly, and she said what she regretted for some months:
"Oh, you don't love him now? Well, the other man will console you."
"I hate you," said Betty, "and I hate him; and I hope I shall never see a man again as long as I live!"