Book One
Chapter XI. A Bewildering Offer
 

Elizabeth stood with her hands behind her back, leaning slightly against the writing-table. The professor, with his broad-brimmed hat clinched in his fingers, walked restlessly up and down the little room. The discussion had not been altogether a pleasant one. Elizabeth was composed but serious, her father nervous and excited.

"You are mad, Elizabeth!" he declared. "Is it that you do not understand, or will not? I tell you that we must go."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Where would you drag me to?" she asked. "We certainly can't go back to New York."

He turned fiercely upon her.

"Whose fault is it that we can't?" he demanded. "If it weren't for you and your confounded schemes, I could be walking down Broadway next week. God's own city it is, too!" he muttered. "I wish we'd never seen those two young men."

"It was a pity, perhaps," she admitted, "yet we had to do something. We were absolutely stonybroke, as they say over here."

"Anyway, we've got to get out of this," the professor declared.

"My dear father," she replied, "I will agree that if a new city or a new world could arise from the bottom of the

Once more he struck the table. Then he threw out his hands above his head with the melodramatic instinct which had always been strong in his blood.

"Do you think that I am a fool?" he cried. "Do you think I do not know that if there were not something moving in your brain you would think no more of that clerk, that bourgeois estate agent, than of the door-mat beneath your feet? It is what I always complain about. You make use of me as a tool. There are always things which I do not understand. He comes here, this young man, under a pretext, whether he knows it or not. You talk to him for an hour at a time. There should be nothing in your life which I do not know of, Elizabeth," he continued, his voice suddenly hoarse as he leaned towards her. "Can't you see that there is danger in friendships for you and for me, there is danger in intimacies of any sort? I share the danger; I have a right to share the knowledge. This young man has no money of his own, I take it. Of what use is he to us?"

"You are too hasty, my dear father," she replied. "Let me assure you that there is nothing at all mysterious about Mr. Tavernake. The simple truth is that the young man rather attracts me."

The professor gazed at her incredulously.

"Attracts you! He!"

"You have never perfectly understood me, my dear parent," she murmured. "You have never appreciated that trait in my character, that strange preference, if you like, for the absolutely original. Now in all my life I never met such a young man as this. He wears the clothes and he has the features and speech of just such a person as you have described, but there is a difference."

"A difference, indeed!" the professor interrupted roughly. "What difference, I should like to know?"

She shrugged her shoulders lightly.

"He is stolid without being stupid," she explained. "He is entirely self-centered. I smile at him, and he waits patiently until I have finished to get on with our business. I have said quite nice things to him and he has stared at me without change of expression, absolutely without pleasure or emotion of any sort."

"You are too vain, Elizabeth," her father declared. "You have been spoilt. There are a few people in the world whom even you might fail to charm. No doubt this young man is one of them."

She sighed gently.

"It really does seem," she admitted, "as though you were right, but we shall see. By-the-bye, hadn't you better go? The five minutes are nearly up."

He came over to her side, his hat and gloves in his hand, prepared for departure.

"Will you tell me, upon your honor, Elizabeth," he begged, "that there is no other reason for your interest? That you are not engaged in any fresh schemes of which I know nothing? Things are bad enough as they are. I cannot sleep, I cannot rest, for thinking of our position. If I thought that you had any fresh plans on hand--"

She flicked the ash from her cigarette and checked him with a little gesture.

"He knows where Beatrice is," she remarked thoughtfully, "and I can't get him to tell me. There is nothing beyond -- absolutely nothing." . . .

When Tavernake was announced, Elizabeth was still smoking, sitting in an easy-chair and looking into the fire. Something in her attitude, the droop of her head as it rested upon her fingers, reminded him suddenly of Beatrice. He showed no other emotion than a sudden pause in his walk across the room. Even that, however, in a person whose machinelike attitude towards her provoked her resentment, was noticeable.

"Good morning, my friend!" she said pleasantly. "You have brought me the fresh list?"

"Unfortunately, no, madam," Tavernake answered. "I have called simply to announce that I am not able to be of any further assistance to you in the matter."

She looked at him for a moment without remark.

"Are you serious, Mr. Tavernake?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. "The fact is I am not in a position to help you. I have left the employ of Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company."

"Of your own accord?" she inquired quietly.

"No, I was dismissed," he confessed. "I should have been compelled to leave in a very short time, but Mr. Dowling forestalled me."

"Won't you sit down and tell me about it?" she invited.

He looked her in the eyes, square and unflinching. He was still able to do that!

"It could not possibly interest you," he said.

"And-- my sister? You have seen her?"

"I have seen your sister," Tavernake answered, without hesitation.

"You have a message for me?"

"None," he declared.

"She refuses-- to be reconciled, then?"

"I am afraid she has no friendly feelings towards you."

"She gave you no reason?"

"No direct reason," he admitted, "but her attitude is-- quite uncompromising."

She rose and swept across the floor towards him. With firm but gentle fingers she took his worn bowler hat and mended gloves from his hand. Her gesture guided him towards a sofa.

"Beatrice has prejudiced you against me," she murmured. "It is not fair. Please come and sit down-- for five minutes," she pleaded. "I want you to tell me why you have quarrelled with that funny little man, Mr. Dowling."

"But, madam,--" he protested.

"If you refuse, I shall think that my sister has been telling you stories about me," she declared, watching him closely.

Tavernake drew a little away from her but seated himself on the sofa which she had indicated. He took up as much room as possible, and to his relief she did not persist in her first intention, which was obviously to seat herself beside him.

"Your sister has told me nothing about you whatsoever," he said deliberately. "At the same time, she asked me not to give you her address."

"We will talk about that presently," she interrupted. "In the first place, tell me why you have left your place."

"Mr. Dowling discovered," he told her, in a matter-of-fact tone, "that I had been doing some business on my own account. He was quite right to disapprove. I have not been back to the office since he found it out."

"What sort of business?" she asked.

"The business of the firm is to buy property in undeveloped districts and sell it for building estate," he explained. "I have been very successful hitherto in finding sites for their operations. A short time ago, I discovered one so good that I invested all my own savings in buying certain lots, and have an option upon the whole. Mr. Dowling found it out and dismissed me."

"But it seems most unfair," she declared.

"Not at all," he answered. "In Mr. Dowling's place I should have done the same thing. Every one with his way in life to make must look out for himself. Strictly speaking, what I did was wrong. I wish, however, that I had done it before. One must think of one's self first."

"And now?" she inquired. "What are you going to do now?"

"I am going to find a capitalist or float a company to buy the rest of the site," he announced. "After that, we must see about building. There is no hurry about that, though. The first thing is to secure the site."

"How much money does it require?"

"About twelve thousand pounds," he told her.

"It seems very little," she murmured.

"The need for money comes afterwards," he explained. "We want to drain and plan and build without mortgages. As soon as we are sure of the site, one can think of that. My option only extends for a week or so."

"Do you really think that it is a good speculation?" she asked.

"I do not think about such matters," he answered, drily. "I know."

She leaned back in her chair, watching him for several seconds - admiring him, as a matter of fact. The profound conviction of his words was almost inspiring. In her presence, and she knew that she was a very beautiful woman, he appeared, notwithstanding his absence of any knowledge of her sex and his lack of social status, unmoved, wholly undisturbed. He sat there in perfect naturalness. It did not seem to him even unaccountable that she should be interested in his concerns. He was not conceited or aggressive in any way. His complete self-confidence lacked any militant impulse. He was-- himself, impervious to surroundings, however unusual.

"Why should I not be your capitalist?" she inquired slowly.

"Have you as much as twelve thousand pounds that you want to invest?" he asked, incredulously.

She rose to her feet and moved across to her desk. He sat quite still, watching her without any apparent curiosity. She unlocked a drawer and returned to him with a bankbook in her hand.

"Add that up," she directed, "and tell me how much I have."

He drew a lead pencil from his pocket and quickly added up the total.

"If you have not given any cheques since this was made up," he said calmly, "you have a credit balance of thirteen thousand, one hundred and eighteen pounds, nine shillings and fourpence. It is very foolish of you to keep so much money on current account. You are absolutely losing about eight pounds a week."

She smiled.

"It is foolish of me, I suppose," she admitted, "but I have no one to advise me just now. My father knows no more about money than a child, and I have just had quite a large amount paid to me in cash. I only wish we could get Beatrice to share some of this, Mr. Tavernake."

He made no remark. To all appearance, he had never heard of her sister. She came and sat down by his side again.

"Will you have me for a partner, Mr. Tavernake?" she whispered.

Then, indeed, for a moment, the impassivity of his features relaxed. He was frankly amazed.

"You cannot mean this," he declared. "You know nothing about the value of the property, nothing about the affair at all. It is quite impossible."

"I know what you have told me," she said. "Is not that enough? You are sure that it will make money and you have just told me how foolish I am to keep so much money in my bank. Very well, then, I give it to you to invest. You must pay me quite a good deal of interest."

"But you know nothing about me," he protested, "nothing about the property."

"One must trust somebody," she replied. "Why shouldn't I trust you?"

He was nonplussed. This woman seemed to have an answer for everything. Besides, when once he had got over the unexpectedness of the thing, it was, of course, a wonderful stroke of fortune for him. Then came a whole rush of thoughts, a glow which he thrust back sternly. It would mean seeing her often; it would mean coming here to her rooms; it would mean, perhaps, that she might come to look upon him as a friend. He set his teeth hard. This was folly!

"Have you any idea about terms?" he inquired.

She laughed softly.

"My dear friend," she said, "why do you ask me such a question? You know quite well that I am not competent to discuss terms with you. Listen. You are engaged in a speculation to carry out which you want the loan of twelve thousand pounds. Draw up a paper in which you state what my share will be of the profits, what interest I shall get for my money, and give particulars of the property. Then I will take it to my solicitor, if you insist upon it, although I am willing to accept what you think is fair."

"You must take it to a solicitor, of course," he answered, thoughtfully. "I may as well tell you at once, however, that he will probably advise you against investing it in such a way."

"That will make no difference at all," she declared. "Solicitors hate all investments, I know, except their horrid mortgages. There are only two conditions that I shall make."

"What are they?" he asked.

"The first is that you must not say a word of this to my sister."

Tavernake frowned.

"That is a little difficult," he remarked. "It happens that your sister knows something about the estate and my plans."

"There is no need to tell her the name of your partner," Elizabeth said. "I want this to be our secret entirely, yours and mine."

Her hand fell upon his; he gripped the sides of his chair. Again he was conscious of this bewildering, incomprehensible sensation.

"And the other condition?" he demanded, hoarsely.

"That you come sometimes and tell me how things are going on."

"Come here?" he repeated.

She nodded.

"Please! I am very lonely. I shall look forward to your visits."

Tavernake rose slowly to his feet. He held out his hand -she knew better than to attempt to keep him. He made a speech which was for him gallant, but while he made it he looked into her eyes with a directness to which she was indeed unaccustomed.

"I shall come," he said. "I should have wanted to come, anyhow."

Then he turned abruptly away and left the room. It was the first speech of its sort which he had ever made in his life.