The Incomplete Amorist/Book 4/Chapter XXVIII
The banging of his door, the locking of it, annoyed Vernon, yet interested him but little. One's acquaintances have such queer notions of humour. He had the excuse—and by good luck the rope—to explore his celebrated roofs. Mimi was more agitated than he, so he dismissed her for the day with many compliments and a bunch of roses, and spent what was left of the light in painting in a background to the sketch of Betty—the warren as his sketch-book helped him to remember it. Perhaps he and she would go there together some day.
He looked with extreme content at the picture on the easel.
He had worked quickly and well. The thing was coming splendidly. Mimi had been right. She could pose herself as no artist had ever posed her. He would make a picture of the thing after all.
The next morning brought him a letter. That he, who had hated letters, should have come to care for a letter more than for anything that could have come to him except a girl. He kissed the letter before he opened it.
"The next morning brought him a letter."
"At last," he said. "Oh, this minute was worth waiting for!"
He opened the envelope with a smile mingled of triumph and something better than triumph—and read:
"Dear Mr. Vernon:
"I hope that nothing in my manner has led you to expect any other answer than the one I must give. That answer is, of course, no. Although thanking you sincerely for your flattering offer, I am obliged to say that I have never thought of you except as a friend. I was extremely surprised by your letter. I hope I have not been in any way to blame. With every wish for your happiness, and regrets that this should have happened, I am yours faithfully,
He read the letter, re-read it, raised his eyebrows. Then he took two turns across the studio, shrugged his shoulders impatiently, lit a match and watched the letter burn. As the last yellow moving sparks died in the black of its ash, he bit his lip.
"Damn," he said, "oh, damn!"
Next day he went to Spain. A bunch of roses bigger and redder than any roses he had ever sent her came to Lady St. Craye with his card—p.d.a. in the corner.
She, too, shrugged her shoulders, bit her lip and—arranged the roses in water. Presently she tried to take up her life at the point where she had laid it down when, last October, Vernon had taken it into his hands. Succeeding as one does succeed in such enterprises.
It was May again when Vernon found himself once more sitting at one of the little tables in front of the Café de la Paix.
"Sit here long enough," he said, "and you see every one you have ever known or ever wanted to know. Last year it was the jasmine lady—and that girl—on the same one and wonderful day. This year it's—by Jove!"
He rose and moved among the closely set chairs and tables to the pavement. The sightless stare of light-blanched spectacles met his eyes. A gentlemanly-looking lady in short skirts stood awaiting him.
"How are you?" she said. "Yes, I know you didn't see me, but I thought you'd like to."
"I do like to, indeed. May I walk with you—or—" he glanced back at the table where his Vermouth stood untasted.
"The impertinence of it! Frightfully improper to sit outside cafés, isn't it?—for women, I mean—and this Café in particular. Yes, I'll join you with the greatest pleasure. Coffee please."
"It's ages since I saw you," he said amiably, "not since—"
"Since I called on you at your hotel. How frightened you were!"
"Not for long," he answered, looking at her with the eyes she loved, the eyes of someone who was not Vernon—"Ah, me, a lot of water has run—"
"Not under the bridges," she pleaded: "say off the umbrellas."
"Since," he pursued, "we had that good talk. You remember, I wanted to call on you in London and you wouldn't let me. You might let me now."
"I will," she said. "97 Curzon Street. Your eyes haven't changed colour a bit. Nor your nature, I suppose. Yet something about you's changed. Got over Betty yet?"
"Quite, thanks," he said tranquilly. "But last time we met, you remember we agreed that I had no intentions."
"Wrong lead," she said, smiling frankly at him; "and besides I hold all the trumps. Ace, King, Queen; and Ace, Knave and Queen of another suit."
"Expound, I implore."
"Aces equal general definite and decisive information. King and Queen of hearts equal Betty and the other man."
"There was another man then?"
"There always is, isn't there? Knave—your honoured self. Queen—where is the Queen, by the way,—the beautiful Queen with the sad eyes, blind, poor dear, quite blind to everything but the abominable Knave?"
"It's not an unbecoming cap," she said, stirring her coffee, "and you wear it with an air. Where's the Queen of your suit?"
"I confess I'm at fault."
"The odd trick is mine. And the honours. You may as well throw down your hand. Yes. I play whist. Not bridge. Where is your Queen—Lady St.—what is it?"
"I haven't seen her," he said steadily, "since last June. I left Paris on a sudden impulse, and I hadn't time to say good-bye to her."
"Didn't you even leave a card? That's not like your eyes."
"I think I sent a tub of hydrangeas or something, pour dire adieu."
"That was definite. Remember the date?"
"No," he said, remembering perfectly.
"Not the eleventh, was it? That was the day when you would get Betty's letter of rejection."
"It may have been the eleventh.—In fact it was."
"Ah, that's better! And the tenth—who let you out of your studio on the tenth? I've often wondered."
"I've often wondered who locked me in. It couldn't have been you, of course?"
"As you say. But I was there."
"But it was. I thought you'd guess that. She got your letter and came up ready to fall into your arms—opened the door softly like any heroine of fiction—I told her to knock—but no: beheld the pink silk picture and fled the happy shore forever."
"Damn!" he said. "I do beg your pardon, but really—"
"Don't waste those really convincing damns on ancient history. I told her it didn't mean that you didn't love her."
"That was clear-sighted of you."
"It was also quite futile. She said it means she didn't love you at any rate. I suppose she wrote and told you so."
A long pause. Then:
"As you say," said Vernon, "it's ancient history. But you said something about another man."
"Oh, yes—your friend Temple.—Say 'damn' again if it's the slightest comfort to you—I've heard worse words."
"When?" asked Vernon, and he sipped his Vermouth; "not straight away?"
"Bless me, no! Months and months. That picture in your studio gave her the distaste for all men for quite a long time. We took her home, her father and me: by the way, he and she are tremendous chums now."
"You don't want me to tell you the sweet secret tale of their betrothal? He just came down—at Christmas it was. She was decorating the church. Her father had a transient gleam of common sense and sent him down to her. 'Is it you?' 'Is it you?'—All was over! They returned to that Rectory an engaged couple. They were made for each other.—Same tastes, same sentiments. They love the same things—gardens scenery, the simple life, lofty ideals, cathedrals and Walt Whitman."
"And when are they to be married?"
"They are married. 'What are we waiting for, you and I?' No, I don't know which of them said it. They were married at Easter: Sunday-school children throwing cowslips—quite idyllic. All the old ladies from the Mother's Mutual Twaddle Club came and shed fat tears. They presented a tea-set; maroon with blue roses—most 'igh class and select."
"Easter?" said Vernon, refusing interest to the maroon and blue tea-cups. "She must indeed have been extravagantly fond of me."
"Not she! She wanted to be in love. We all do, you know. And you were the first. But she'd never have suited you. I've never known but two women who would."
"Two?" he said. "Which?"
"Myself for one, saving your presence." She laughed and finished her coffee. "If I'd happened to meet you when I was young—and not bad-looking. It's only my age that keeps you from falling in love with me. The other one's the Queen of your suit, poor lady, that you sent the haystack of sunflowers to. Well—Good-bye. Come and see me when you're in town—97 Curzon Street; don't forget."
"I shan't forget," he said; "and if I thought you would condescend to look at me, it isn't what you call your age that would keep me from falling in love with you."
"Heaven defend me!" she cried. "Au revoir."
When Vernon had finished his Vermouth, he strolled along to the street where last year Lady St. Craye had had a flat.
Yes—Madame retained still the apartment. It was to-day that Madame received. But the last of the friends of Madame had departed. Monsieur would find Madame alone.
Monsieur found Madame alone, and reading. She laid the book face downwards on the table and held out the hand he had always loved—slender, and loosely made, that one felt one could so easily crush in one's own.
"How time flies," she said. "It seems only yesterday that you were here. How sweet you were to me when I had influenza. How are you? You look very tired."
"I am tired," he said. "I have been in Spain. And in Italy. And in Algiers."
"Very fatiguing countries, I understand. And what is your best news?"
He stood on the hearth-rug, looking down at her.
"Betty Desmond's married," he said.
"Yes," she answered, "to that nice boy Temple, too. I saw it in the paper. Dreadful isn't it? Here to-day and gone to-morrow!"
"I'll tell you why she married him," said Vernon, letting himself down into a chair, "if you'd like me to. At least I'll tell you why she didn't marry me. But perhaps the subject has ceased to interest you?"
"Not at all," she answered with extreme politeness.
So he told her.
"Yes, I suppose it would be like that. It must have annoyed you very much. It's left marks on your face, Eustace. You look tired to death."
"That sort of thing does leave marks."
"That girl taught you something, Eustace; something that's stuck."
"It is not impossible, I suppose," he said and then very carelessly, as one leading the talk to lighter things, he added: "I suppose you wouldn't care to marry me?"
"Candidly," she answered, calling all her powers of deception to her aid, "candidly, I don't think I should."
"I knew it," said Vernon, smiling; "my heart told me so."
"She," said Lady St. Craye, "was frightened away from her life's happiness, as they call it, by seeing you rather near to a pink silk model. I suppose you think I shouldn't mind such things?"
"You forget," said Vernon demurely. "Such things never happen after one is married."
"No," she said, "of course they don't. I forgot that."
"You might as well marry me," he said, and the look of youth had come back suddenly, as it's way was, to his face.
"I might very much better not."
They looked at each other steadily. She saw in his eyes a little of what it was that Betty had taught him.
She never knew what he saw in hers, for all in a moment he was kneeling beside her; his arm was across the back of her chair, his head was on her shoulder and his face was laid against her neck, as the face of a child, tired with a long play-day, is laid against the neck of its mother.
"Ah, be nice to me!" he said. "I am very tired."
Her arm went round his shoulders as the mother's arm goes round the shoulders of the child.