The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter, XV. General Discontent
Elizabeth did not at once rejoin her friends. Instead, she sank on to the low settee close to where she had been standing, and drew Tavernake down to her side. She waved her hand across at the others, who were calling for her.
"In a moment, dear people," she said.
Then she leaned back among the cushions and laughed at her companion.
"Tell me, Mr. Tavernake," she asked, "don't you feel that you have stepped into a sort of modern Arabian Nights?"
"Oh, I know Mr. Pritchard's weakness," she continued. "He loves to throw a glamour around everything he says or does. Because he honors me by interesting himself in my concerns, he has probably told you all sorts of wonderful things about me and my friends. A very ingenious romancer, Mr. Pritchard, you know. Confess, now, didn't he tell you some stories about us?"
She might have spared herself the trouble of beating about the bush. There was no hesitation about Tavernake.
"He said that your friends were every one of them criminals," Tavernake declared, "and he admitted that he was working hard at the present moment to discover that you were one, too."
She laughed softly but heartily.
"I wonder what was his object," she remarked, "in taking you into his confidence."
"He happened to know," Tavernake explained, "that I was intimate with your sister. He wanted me to ask Beatrice a certain question."
Elizabeth laughed no more. She looked steadfastly into his eyes.
"And that question?"
"He wanted me to ask Beatrice why she left you and hid herself in London."
She tried to smile but not very successfully.
"According to his story," Tavernake continued, "you and Beatrice and your husband were away together somewhere in the country. Something happened there, something which resulted in the disappearance of your husband. Beatrice came back alone and has not been near you since. Soon afterwards, you, too, came back alone. Mr. Gardner has not been seen or heard of."
Elizabeth was bending over her dog, but even Tavernake, unobservant though he was, could see that she was shaken.
"Pritchard is a clever man, generally," she remarked, "diabolically clever. Why has he told you all this, I wonder? He must have known that you would probably repeat it to me. Why does he want to show me his hand?"
"I have no idea," Tavernake replied. "These matters are all beyond me. They do not concern me in any way. I am not keeping you from your friends? Please send me away when you like."
"Don't go just yet," she begged. "Sit with me for a moment. Can't you see," she added, whispering, "that I have had a shock? Sit with me. I can't go back to those others just yet."
Tavernake did as he was bidden. The woman at his side was still caressing the little animal she carried. Watching her, however, Tavernake could see that her bosom was rising and falling quickly. There was an unnatural pallor in her cheeks, a terrified gleam in her eyes. Nevertheless, these things passed. In a very few seconds she was herself again.
"Come," she said, "it is not often that I give way. The only time I am ever afraid is when there is something which I do not understand. I do not understand Mr. Pritchard to-night. I know that he is my enemy. I cannot imagine why he should talk to you. He must have known that you would repeat all he said. It is not like him. Tell me, Mr. Tavernake, you have heard all sorts of things about me. Do you believe them? Do you believe--it's rather a horrible thing to ask, isn't it?" she went on hurriedly, --"do you believe that I made away with my husband?"
"You surely do not need to ask me that question," Tavernake answered, fervently. "I should believe your word, whatever you told me. I should not believe that you could do anything wrong."
Her hand touched his for a moment and he was repaid.
"Don't think too well of me," she begged. "I don't want to disappoint you."
Some one pushed open the swing doors and she started nervously. It was only a waiter who passed through into the bar.
"What I think of you," Tavernake said slowly, "nothing could alter, but because I am stupid, I suppose, there is quite a good deal that I cannot understand. I cannot understand, for instance, why they should suspect you of having anything to do with your husband's disappearance. You can prove where you were when he left you?"
"Quite easily," she answered, "only, unfortunately, no one seems to have seen him go. He timed his departure so cunningly that he apparently vanished into thin air. Even then," she continued, "but for one thing I don't suppose that any one would have had suspicions. I dare say Mr. Pritchard told you that before we left New York my husband sold out some of his property and brought it over to Europe with him in cash. We had both determined that we would live abroad and have nothing more to do with America. It was not I who persuaded him to do this. It made no difference to me. If he had run away and left me, the courts would have given me money. If he had died and I had been a widow, he would have left me his property. But simply because there was all this money in our hands, and because he disappeared, his people and this man Pritchard suspect me."
"It is wicked," he muttered.
She turned slowly towards him.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, "do you know that you can help me very much indeed?"
"I only wish I could," he replied. "Try me."
"Can't you see," she went on, "that the great thing against me is that Beatrice left me suddenly when we were on that wretched expedition, and came back alone? She is in London, I know, quite close to me, and still she hides. Pritchard asks himself why. Mr. Tavernake, go and tell her what people are saying, go and tell her everything that has happened, let her understand that her keeping away is doing me a terrible injury, beg her to come and let people see that we are reconciled, and warn her, too, against Pritchard. Will you do this for me?"
"Of course I will," Tavernake answered. "I will see her to-morrow."
Elizabeth drew a little sigh of relief.
"And you'll let me know what she says?" she asked, rising.
"I shall be only too glad to," Tavernake assured her.
She looked up into his face with a smile which had turned the heads of hardened stagers in New York. No wonder that Tavernake felt his heart beat against his ribs! He took her hands and held them for a moment. Then he turned abruptly away.
"Good-night!" he said.
He disappeared through the swing doors. She strolled across the room to where her friends were sitting in a circle, laughing and talking. Her father, who had just come in and joined them, gripped her by the arm as she sat down.
"What does it mean?" he demanded, with shaking voice. "Did you see that he was there with Pritchard--your young man--that wretched estate agent's clerk? I tell you that Pritchard was pumping him for all he was worth."
"My dear father," she whispered, coldly, "don't be melodramatic. You give yourself away the whole time. Go to bed if you can't behave like a man."
The lights had been turned low, there was no one else in the room. The little old gentleman with the eyeglass leaned forward.
"Have you any notion, my dear Elizabeth," he asked, "why our friend Pritchard is so much in evidence just at present?"
"Not on account of you, Jimmy," she answered, "nor of any one else here, in fact. The truth is he has conceived a violent admiration for me--an admiration so pronounced, indeed, that he hates to let me out of his sight."
They all laughed uproariously. Then Walter Crease, the journalist, leaned forward,--a man with a long, narrow face, yellow-stained fingers, and hollow cheekbones. He glanced around the room before he spoke, and his voice sounded like a hoarse whisper.
"See here," he said, "seems to me Pritchard is getting mighty awkward. He hasn't got his posse around him in this country, anyway."
There was a dead silence for several seconds. Then the little old gentleman nodded solemnly.
"I am a trifle tired of Pritchard myself," he admitted, "and he certainly knows too much. He carries too much in his head to go around safely."
The eyes of Elizabeth were bright.
"He treats us like children," she declared. "To-night he has told the whole of my affairs to a perfect stranger. It is intolerable!"
The little party broke up soon after. Only Walter Crease and the man called Jimmy Post were left talking, and they retired into the window-seat, whispering together.
Tavernake, with his hands thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, left the hotel and strode along the Strand. Some fancy seized him before he had gone many paces, and turning abruptly to the left he descended to the Embankment. He made his way to the very seat upon which he had sat once before with Beatrice. With folded arms he leaned back in the corner, looking out across the river, at the curving line of lights, at the black, turgid waters, the slowly-moving hulk of a barge on its way down the stream. It was a new thing, this, for him to have to accuse himself of folly, of weakness. For the last few days he had moved in a mist of uncertainty, setting his heel upon all reflection, avoiding every issue. To-night he could escape those accusing thoughts no longer; to-night he was more than ever bitter with himself. What folly was this which had sprung up in his life--folly colossal, unimaginable, as unexpected as though it had fallen a thunderbolt from the skies! What had happened to change him so completely!
His thought traveled back to the boarding-house. It was there that the thing had begun. Before that night upon the roof, the finger-posts which he had set up with such care and deliberation along the road which led towards his coveted goal, had seemed to him to point with unfaltering directness towards everything in life worthy of consideration. To-night they were only dreary phantasms, marking time across a miserable plain. Perhaps, after all, there had been something in his nature, some rebel thing, intolerable yet to be reckoned with, which had been first born of that fateful curiosity of his. It had leapt up so suddenly, sprung with such scanty notice into strenuous and insistent life. Yet what place had it there? He must fight against it, root it out with both hands. What was this world of intrigue, this criminal, undesirable world, to him? His common sense forbade him altogether to dissociate Elizabeth from her friends, from her surroundings. She was the secret of the pain which was tearing at his heartstrings, of all the excitement, the joy, the passion which had swept like a full flood across the level way of his life, which had set him drifting among the unknown seas. Yet it was Beatrice who had brought this upon him. If she had never left, if he had not tasted the horrors of this new loneliness, he might have been able to struggle on. He missed her, missed her diabolically. The other things, marvelous though they were, had been more or less like a mirage. This world of new emotions had spread like a silken mesh over all his thoughts, over all his desires. Beatrice had been a tangible person, restful, delightful, a real companion, his one resource against this madness. And now she was gone, and he was powerless to get her back. He turned his head, he looked up the road along which he had torn that night with his arms around her. She owed him her life and she had gone! With all a man's inconsequence, it seemed to him as he rose heavily to his feet and started homeward, that she had repaid him with a certain amount of ingratitude, that she had left him at the one moment in his life when he needed her most.