The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XVI. An Offer of Marriage
The next afternoon, at half-past four, Tavernake was having tea with Beatrice in the tiny flat which she was sharing with another girl, off Kingsway. She opened the door to him herself, and though she chattered ceaselessly, it seemed to him that she was by no means at her ease. She installed him in the only available chair, an absurd little wicker thing many sizes too small for him, and seated herself upon the hearth-rug a few feet away.
"You have soon managed to find me out, Leonard," she remarked.
"Yes," he answered. "I had to go to the stage doorkeeper for your address."
"He hadn't the slightest right to give it you," she declared.
Tavernake shrugged his shoulders.
"I had to have it," he said simply.
"The power of the purse again!" she laughed. "Now that you are here, I don't believe that you are a bit glad to see me. Are you?"
He did not answer for a moment. He was thinking of that vigil upon the Embankment, of the long walk home, of the battle with himself, the continual striving to tear from his heart this new thing, for which, with a curious and most masculine inconsistency, he persisted in holding her responsible.
"You know, Leonard," she continued, getting up abruptly and beginning to make the tea, "I believe that you are angry with me. If you are, all I can say is that you are a very foolish person. I had to come away. Can't you see that?"
"I cannot," he answered stolidly.
"You are not a reasonable person," she declared. "I suppose it is because you have led such a queer life, and had no womenfolk to look after you. You don't understand. It was absurd, in a way, that I should ever have called myself your sister, that we should even have attempted such a ridiculous experiment. But after--after the other night--"
"Can't we forget that?" he interrupted.
She raised her eyes and looked at him.
"Can you?" she asked.
There was a curious, almost a pleading earnestness in her tone. Her eyes had something new to say, something which, though it failed to stir his blood, made him vaguely uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he answered her without hesitation.
"Yes," he replied, "I could forget it. I will promise to forget it."
It was unaccountable, but he almost fancied that he saw this new thing pass from her face, leaving her pale and tremulous. She looked away again and busied herself with the tea-caddy, but the fingers which held the spoon were shaking a little.
"Oh, I suppose I could forget," she said, "but it would be very difficult for either of us to behave as though it had never happened. Besides, it really was an impossible situation, you know," she went on, looking down into the tea-caddy. "It is much better for me to be here with Annie. You can come and see me now and then and we can still be very good friends."
Tavernake was annoyed. He said nothing, and Beatrice, glancing up, laughed at his gloomy expression.
"You certainly are," she declared, "the most impossible, the most primitive person I ever met. London isn't Arcadia, you know, and you are not my brother. Besides, you were such an autocrat. You didn't even like my going out to supper with Mr. Grier."
"I hate the fellow!" Tavernake admitted. "Are you seeing much of him?"
"He took us all out to supper last night," she replied. "I thought it was very kind of him to ask me."
"Kind, indeed! Does he want to marry you?" Tavernake demanded.
She set down the teapot and again she laughed softly. In her plain black gown, very simple, adorned only by the little white bow at her neck, quakerlike and spotless, with the added color in her cheeks, too, which seemed to have come there during the last few moments, she was a very alluring person.
"He can't," she declared. "He is married already."
Then there came to Tavernake an inspiration, an inspiration so wonderful that he gripped the sides of his chair and sat up. Here, after all, was the way out for him, the way out from his garden of madness, the way to escape from that mysterious, paralyzing yoke whose burden was already heavy upon his shoulders. In that swift, vivid moment he saw something of the truth. He saw himself losing all his virility, the tool and plaything of this woman who had bewitched him, a poor, fond creature living only for the kind words and glances she might throw him at her pleasure. In those few seconds he knew the true from the false. Without hesitation, he gripped with all the colossal selfishness of his unthinking sex at the rope which was thrown to him.
"Well, then, I do," he said firmly. "Will you marry me, Beatrice?"
She threw her head back and laughed, laughed long and softly, and Tavernake, simple and unversed in the ways of women, believed that she was indeed amused.
"Neither you nor any one else, dear Leonard!" she exclaimed.
"But I want you to," he persisted. "I think that you will."
There was coquetry now in the tantalizing look she flashed him.
"Am I, too, then, one of these things to be attained in your life?" she asked. "Dear Leonard, you mustn't say it like that. I don't like the look of your jaw. It frightens me."
"There is nothing to be afraid of in marrying me," he answered. "I should make you a very good husband. Some day you would be rich, very rich indeed. I am quite sure that I shall succeed, if not at once, very soon. There is plenty of money to be made in the world if one perseveres."
She had the air of trying to take him seriously.
"You sound quite convincing," she admitted, "but I do wish that you would put all these thoughts out of your mind, Leonard. It doesn't sound like you in the least. Remember what you told me that first night; you assured me that women had not the slightest part in your life."
"I have changed," he confessed. "I did not expect anything of the sort to happen, but it has. It would be foolish of me to deny it. I have been all my life learning, Beatrice," he continued, with a sudden curious softness in his tone, "and yet, somehow or other, it seems to me that I never knew anything at all until lately. There was no one to direct me, no one to show me just what is worth while in life. You have taught me a great deal, you have taught me how little I know. And there are things," he went on, solemnly, "of which I am afraid, things which I do not begin even to understand. Can't you see how it is with me? I am really very ignorant. I want some one who understands; I want you, Beatrice, very badly."
She patted the back of his hand caressingly.
"You mustn't talk like that, Leonard," she said. "I shouldn't make you a good wife. I am not going to marry any one."
"And why?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"That is my secret," she told him, looking into the fire.
"You mean to say that, you will never marry?" he persisted.
"Oh, I suppose I shall change, like other women," she answered. "Just at present, I feel like that."
"Is it because your sister's marriage--"
She caught hold of both his hands; her eyes were suddenly full of terror.
"You mustn't talk about Elizabeth," she begged, "you please mustn't talk about her. Promise that you won't."
"But I came here to talk about her," he replied.
Beatrice, for a moment, said nothing. Then she threw down his hands and laughed once more. As she flung herself back in her place, it seemed to Tavernake that he saw once more the girl who had stood upon the roof of the boarding-house.
"You came to talk about Elizabeth!" she exclaimed. "I forgot. Well, go on, what is it?"
"Your sister is in trouble!"
"Are you her confidant?" Beatrice asked.
"I am not exactly that," he admitted, "but she has asked me to come and see you."
Beatrice had suddenly grown hard, her lips were set together, even her attitude was uncompromising.
"Say exactly what you have to say," she told him. "I will not interrupt."
"It sounds foolish," Tavernake declared, "because I know so little, but it seems that your sister is being annoyed by a man named Pritchard, an American detective. She tells me that he suspects her of being concerned in some way with the disappearance of her husband. One of his reasons is that you left her abruptly and went into hiding, that you will not see or speak to her. She wishes you to be reconciled."
"Is that all?" Beatrice asked.
"It is all," he replied, "so long as you understand its significance. If you go to see your sister, or let her come to see you, this man Pritchard will have one of his causes for suspicion removed."
"So you came as Elizabeth's ambassador," Beatrice said, half as though to herself. "Well, here is my answer. I will not go to Elizabeth. If she finds out my whereabouts and comes here, then I shall go away again and hide. I shall never willingly exchange another word with her as long as I live."
Tavernake looked at her doubtfully.
"But she is your sister!" he explained.
"She is my sister," Beatrice repeated, "and yet what I have said to you I mean."
There was a short silence. Tavernake felt unaccountably ill at ease. Something had sprung up between them which he did not understand. He was swift to recognize, however, the note of absolute finality in her tone.
"I have given my message," he declared. "I shall tell her what you say. Perhaps I had better go now."
He half rose to his feet. Suddenly she lost control of herself.
"Leonard, Leonard," she cried, "don't you see that you are being very foolish indeed? You have been good to me. Let me try and repay it a little. Elizabeth is my sister, but listen! What I say to you now I say in deadly earnest. Elizabeth has no heart, she has no thought for other people, she makes use of them and they count for no more to her than the figures that pass through one's dreams. She has some sort of hateful gift," Beatrice continued, and her voice shook and her eyes flashed, "some hateful gift of attracting people to her and making them do her bidding, of spoiling their lives and throwing them away when they have ceased to be useful. Leonard, you must not let her do this with you."
He rose to his feet awkwardly. Very likely it was all true, and yet, what difference did it make?
"Thank you," he said.
They stood, for a moment, hand in hand. Then they heard the sound of a key in the lock.
"Here's Annie coming back!" Beatrice exclaimed.
Tavernake was introduced to Miss Annie Legarde, who thought he was a very strange person indeed because he did not fit in with any of the types of men, young or old, of whom she knew anything. And as for Tavernake, he considered that Miss Annie Legarde would have looked at least as well in a hat half the size, and much better without the powder upon her face. Her clothes were obviously more expensive than Beatrice's, but they were put on with less care and taste.
Beatrice came out on to the landing with him.
"So you won't marry me, Beatrice?" he said, as she held out her hand.
She looked at him for a moment and then turned away with a faint sob, without even a word of farewell. He watched her disappear and heard the door shut. Slowly he began to descend the stone steps. There was something to him a little fateful about the closed door above, the long yet easy descent into the street.