Book One
Chapter XIII. An Evening Call
 

In the morning, when he left for the city, she was not down. When he came home in the evening, she was gone. Without removing his hat or overcoat, he took the letter which he found propped up on the mantelpiece and addressed to him to the window and read it.

DEAR BROTHER LEONARD,--It wasn't your fault and I don't think it was mine. If either of us is to blame, it is certainly I, for though you are such a clever and ambitious young person, you really know very little indeed of the world,--not so much, I think, as I do. I am going to stay for a few nights, at any rate, with one of the girls at the theatre, who I know wants some one to share her tiny flat with her. Afterwards, I shall see.

Don't throw this letter in the fire and don't think me ungrateful. I shall never forget what you did for me. How could I?

I will send you my address as soon as I am sure of it, or you can always write me to the theatre.

Good-bye, dear Leonard,
YOUR SISTER BEATRICE.

Tavernake looked from the sheet of notepaper out across the gray square. He knew that he was very angry, angry though he deliberately folded the letter up and placed it in his pocket, angry though he took off his overcoat and hung it up with his usual care; but his anger was with himself. He had blundered badly. This episode of his life was one which he had better forget. It was absolutely out of harmony with all his ideas. He told himself that he was glad Beatrice was gone. Housekeeping with an imaginary sister in this practical world was an absurdity. Sooner or later it must have come to an end. Better now, before it had gone too far--better now, much better! All the same, he knew that he was going to be very lonely.

He rang the bell for the woman who waited upon them, and whom he seldom saw, for Beatrice herself had supplied their immediate wants. He found some dinner ready, which he ate with absolute unconsciousness. Then he threw himself fiercely into his work. It was all very well for the first hour or so, but as ten o'clock grew near he began to find a curious difficulty in keeping his attention fixed upon those calculations. The matter of average rentals, percentage upon capital--things which but yesterday he had found fascinating--seemed suddenly irksome. He could fix his attention upon nothing. At last he pushed his papers away, put on his hat and coat, and walked into the street.

At the Milan Court, the hall-porter received his inquiry for Elizabeth with an air of faint but well-bred surprise. Tavernake, in those days, was a person exceedingly difficult to place. His clothes so obviously denoted the station in life which he really occupied, while the slight imperiousness of his manner, his absolute freedom from any sort of nervousness or awkwardness, seemed to bespeak a consideration which those who had to deal with him as a stranger found sometimes a little puzzling.

"Mrs. Wenham Gardner is in her rooms, I believe, sir," the man said. "If you will wait for a moment, I will inquire."

He disappeared into his office, thrusting his head out, a moment or two later, with the telephone receiver still in his hand.

"Mrs. Gardner would like the name again, sir, please," he remarked.

Tavernake repeated it firmly.

"You might say," he added, "that I shall not detain her for more than a few minutes."

The man disappeared once more. When he returned, he indicated the lift to Tavernake.

"If you will go up to the fifth floor, sir," he said, " Mrs. Gardner will see you."

Tavernake found his courage almost leaving him as he knocked at the door of her rooms. Her French maid ushered him into the little sitting-room, where, to his dismay, he found three men, one sitting on the table, the other two in easy-chairs. Elizabeth, in a dress of pale blue satin, was standing before the mirror. She turned round as Tavernake entered.

"Mr. Tavernake shall decide!" she exclaimed, waving her hand to him. " Mr. Tavernake, there is a difference of opinion about my earrings. Major Post here,"--she indicated a distinguished- looking elderly gentleman, with carefully trimmed beard and moustache, and an eyeglass attached to a thin band of black ribbon--" Major Post wants me to wear turquoises. I prefer my pearls. Mr. Crease half agrees with me, but as he never agrees with any one, on principle, he hates to say so. Mr. Faulkes is wavering. You shall decide; you, I know, are one of those people who never waver."

"I should wear the pearls," Tavernake said.

Elizabeth made them a little courtesy.

"You see, my dear friends," she declared, " you have to come to England, after all, to find a man who knows his own mind and speaks it without fear. The pearls it shall be."

"It may be decision," Crease drawled, speaking with a slight American accent, "or it may be gallantry. Mr. Tavernake knew your own choice."

"The last word, as usual," she sighed. "Now, if you good people will kindly go on downstairs, I will join you in a few minutes. Mr. Tavernake is my man of business and I am sure he has something to say to me."

She dismissed them all pleasantly. As soon as the door was closed she turned to Tavernake. Her manner seemed to become a shade less gracious.

"Well?"

"I don't know why I came," Tavernake confessed bluntly. "I was restless and I wanted to see you."

She looked at him for a moment and then she laughed. Tavernake felt a sense of relief; at least she was not angry.

"Oh, you strangest of mortals!" she exclaimed, holding out her hands. "Well, you see me--in one of my most becoming gowns, too. What do you think of the fit?"

She swept round and faced him again with an expectant look. Tavernake, who knew nothing of women's fashions, still realized the superbness of that one unbroken line.

"I can't think how you can move a step in it," he said, "but you look--"

He paused. It was as though he had lost his breath. Then he set his teeth and finished.

"You look beautiful," he declared. "I suppose you know that. I suppose they've all been telling you so."

She shook her head.

"They haven't all your courage, dear Briton," she remarked, "and if they did tell me so, I am not sure that I should be convinced. You see, most of my friends have lived so long and lived so quickly that they have learned to play with words until one never knows whether the things they speak come from their hearts. With you it is different."

"Yes," Tavernake admitted, "with me it is different!"

She glanced at the clock.

"Well," she said, "you have seen me and I am glad to have seen you, and you may kiss my fingers if you like, and then you must run away. I am engaged to have supper with my friends downstairs."

He raised her fingers clumsily enough to his lips and kept them there for a moment. When he let them go, she wrung them as though in pain, and looked at him. She turned abruptly away. In a sense she was disappointed. After all, he was an easy victim!

"Elise," she called out, "my cloak."

Her maid came hurrying from the next room. Elizabeth turned towards her, holding out her shoulders. She nodded to Tavernake.

"You know the way down, Mr. Tavernake? I shall see you again soon, sha'n't I? Good-night!"

She scarcely glanced at him as she sent him away, yet Tavernake walked on air.