The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XVII. The Balcony at Imano's
At six o'clock that evening, Tavernake rang up the Milan Court and inquired for Elizabeth. There was a moment or two's delay and then he heard her reply. Even over the telephone wires, even though he stood, cramped and uncomfortable, in that stuffy little telephone booth, he felt the quick start of pleasure, the thrill of something different in life, which came to him always at the sound of her voice, at the slightest suggestion of her presence.
"Well, my friend, what fortune?" she asked him.
"None," he answered. "I have done my best. Beatrice will not listen to me."
"She will not come and see me?"
"She will not."
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. When she spoke again, there was a change in her tone.
"You have failed, then."
"I did everything that could be done," Tavernake insisted eagerly. "I am quite sure that nothing anybody could say would move Beatrice. She is very decided indeed."
"I have another idea," Elizabeth remarked, after a brief pause. "She will not come to me; very well, I must go to her. You must take me there."
"I cannot do that," Tavernake answered.
"Beatrice has refused absolutely to permit me to tell you or any one else of her whereabouts," he declared. "Without her permission I cannot do it."
"Do you mean that?" she asked.
"Of course," he answered uncomfortably.
There was another silence. When she spoke again, her voice had changed for the second time. Tavernake felt his heart sink as he listened.
"Very well," she said. "I thought that you were my friend, that you wished to help me."
"I do," he replied, "but you would not have me break my word?"
"You are breaking your word with me," she told him.
"It is a different thing," he insisted.
"You will not take me there?" she said once more.
"I cannot," Tavernake answered.
"Very well, good-bye!"
"Don't go," he begged. "Can't I see you somewhere for a few minutes this evening?"
"I am afraid not," Elizabeth replied coolly.
"Are you going out?" he persisted.
"I am going to the Duke of York's Theatre with some friends," she answered. "I am sorry. You have disappointed me."
She rang off and he turned away from the telephone booth into the street. It seemed to him, as he walked down the crowded thoroughfare, that some reflection of his own self-contempt was visible in the countenances of the men and women who were hurrying past him. Wherever he looked, he was acutely conscious of it. In his heart he felt the bitter sense of shame of a man who wilfully succumbs to weakness. Yet that night he made his efforts.
For four hours he sat in his lonely rooms and worked. Then the unequal struggle was ended. With a groan he caught up his hat and coat and left the house. Half an hour later, he was among the little crowd of loiterers and footmen standing outside the doors of the Duke of York's Theatre.
It was still some time before the termination of the performance. As the slow minutes dragged by, he grew to hate himself, to hate this new thing in his life which had torn down his everyday standards, which had carried him off his feet in this strange and detestable fashion. It was a dormant sense, without a doubt, which Elizabeth had stirred into life--the sense of sex, quiescent in him so long, chiefly through his perfect physical sanity; perhaps, too, in some measure, from his half-starved imagination. It was significant, though, that once aroused it burned with surprising and unwavering fidelity. The whole world of women now were different creatures to him, but they left him as utterly unmoved as in his unawakened days. It was Elizabeth only he wanted, craved for fiercely, with all this late-born passion of mingled sentiment and desire. He felt himself, as he hung round there upon the pavement, rubbing shoulders with the liveried servants, the loafers, and the passers-by, a thing to be despised. He was like a whipped dog fawning back to his master. Yet if only he could persuade her to come with him, if it were but for an hour! If only she would sit opposite him in that wonderful little restaurant, where the lights and the music, the laughter and the wine, were all outward symbols of this new life from before which her fingers seemed to have torn aside the curtains! His heart beat with a fierce impatience. He watched the thin stream of people who left before the play was over, suburbanites mostly, in a hurry for their trains. Very soon the whole audience followed, commissionaires were busy with their whistles, the servants eagerly looking right and left for their masters. And then Elizabeth! She came out in the midst of half-a-dozen others, brilliant in a wonderful cloak and dress of turquoise blue, laughing with her friends, to all appearance the gayest of the party. Tavernake stepped quickly forward, but at that moment there was a crush and he could not advance. She passed within a yard of him, escorted by a couple of men, and for a moment their eyes met. She raised her eyebrows, as though in surprise, and her recognition was of the slightest. She passed on and entered a waiting motorcar, accompanied by the two men. Tavernake stood and looked after it. She did not even glance round. Except for that little gesture of cold surprise, she had ignored him. Tavernake, scarcely knowing what he did, turned slowly towards the Strand.
He was face to face now with a crisis before which he seemed powerless. Men were there in the world to be bullied, cajoled, or swept out of the way. What did one do with a woman who was kind one moment and insolent the next, who raised her eyebrows and passed on when he wanted her, when he was there longing for her? Those old solid dreams of his--wealth, power, his name on great prospectuses, a position in the world--these things now appeared like the day fancies of a child. He had seen his way towards them. Already he had felt his feet upon the rungs of the ladder which leads to material success. This was something different, something greater. Then a sense of despair chilled his heart. He felt how ignorant, how helpless he was. He had not even studied the first text-book of life. Those very qualities which had served him so well before were hopeless here. Persistence, Beatrice had told him once, only annoys a woman.
He came to a standstill outside the entrance to the Milan Court, and retraced his steps. The thought of Beatrice had brought something soothing with it. He felt that he must see her, see her at once. He walked back along the Strand and entered the restaurant where Beatrice and he had had their memorable supper. From the vestibule he could just see Grier's back as he stood talking to a waiter by the side of a round table in the middle of the room. Tavernake slowly withdrew and made his way upstairs. There were one or two little tables there in the balcony, hidden from the lower part of the room. He seated himself at one, handing his coat and hat mechanically to the waiter who came hurrying up.
"But, Monsieur," the man explained, with a deprecating gesture, "these tables are all taken."
Tavernake, who kept an account book in which he registered even his car fares, put five shillings in the man's hand.
"This one I will have," he said, firmly, and sat down.
The man looked at him and turned aside to speak to the head waiter. They conversed together in whispers. Tavernake took no notice. His jaw was set. Himself unseen, he was gazing steadfastly at that table below. The head waiter shrugged his shoulders and departed; his other clients must be mollified. There was a finality which was unanswerable about Tavernake's methods.
Tavernake ate and drank what they brought to him, ate and drank and suffered. Everything was as it had been that other night-- the popping of corks, the soft music, the laughter of women, the pleasant, luxurious sense of warmth and gayety pervading the whole place.
It was all just the same, but this time he sat outside and looked on. Beatrice was seated next Grier, and on her other side was a young man of the type which Tavernake detested, partly because it inspired him with a reluctant but insistent sense of inferiority. The young man was handsome, tall, and thin. His evening clothes fitted him perfectly, his studs and links were of the latest mode, his white tie arranged as though by the fingers of an artist. And yet he was no tailor's model. A gentleman, beyond a doubt, Tavernake decided, watching grudgingly the courteous movement of his head, listening sometimes to his well-bred but rather languid voice. Beatrice laughed often into his face. She admired him, of course. How could she help it! Grier sat at her other side. He, too, talked to her whenever he had the chance. It was a new fever which Tavernake was tasting, a new fever burning in his blood. He was jealous; he hated the whole party below. In imagination he saw Elizabeth with her friends, supping most likely in that other, more resplendent restaurant, only a few yards away. He imagined her the centre of every attention. Without a doubt, she was looking at her neighbor as she had looked at him. Tavernake bit his lip, frowning. If he had had it in his power, in those black moments, to have thrown a thunderbolt from his place, he would have wrecked every table in the room, he would have watched with joy the white, startled faces of the revelers as they fled away into the night. It was a new torture, indescribable, bitter. Indeed, this curiosity of his, of which he had spoken to Beatrice as they had walked together down Oxford Street on that first evening, was being satisfied with a vengeance! He was learning of those other things of life. He had sipped at the sweetness; he was drinking the bitters!
An altercation by his side distracted him. Again there was the head waiter and a protesting guest. Tavernake looked up and recognized Professor Franklin. With his broad-brimmed hat in his hand, the professor, in fluent phraseology and a strong American accent, was making himself decidedly disagreeable.
"You had better send for your manager right away, young man," he declared. "On Tuesday night he brought me here himself and I engaged this table for the week. No, I tell you I won't have any other! I guess my order was good enough. You send for Luigi right here. You know who I am? Professor Franklin's my name, from New York, and if I say I mean to have a thing, I expect to get it."
For the first time he recognized Tavernake, and paused for a moment in his speech.
"Have I got your table, Professor?" Tavernake asked, slowly.
"You have, sir," the professor answered. "I did not recognize you when I came in or I would have addressed you personally. I have particular reasons for occupying a front table here every night this week."
The thoughts began to crowd in upon Tavernake's brain. He hesitated.
"Why not sit down with me?" he suggested.
The professor acquiesced without a word. The head waiter, with a sigh of relief, took his hat and overcoat and accepted his order. Tavernake leaned across the table.
"Professor," he said, "why do you insist upon sitting up here?"
The professor moved his head slowly downwards.
"My young friend, I speak to you in confidence?"
"In confidence," Tavernake repeated.
"I come here secretly," the professor continued, "because it is the only chance I have of seeing a very dear relative of mine. I am obliged to keep away from her just now, but from here I can watch, I can see that she is well."
"You mean your daughter Beatrice," Tavernake said, calmly.
The professor trembled all over.
"You know!" he muttered.
"Yes, I know," Tavernake answered. "I have been able to be of some slight assistance to your daughter Beatrice."
The professor grasped his hand.
"Yes, yes," he said, "Elizabeth is very angry with you because you will not tell her where to find the little girl. You are right, Mr. Tavernake. You must never tell her."
"I don't intend it," Tavernake declared.
"Say, this is a great evening for me!" the professor went on, eagerly. "I found out by accident myself. I was at the bar and I saw her come in with a lot of others."
"Why don't you go and speak to her?" Tavernake asked.
The professor shivered.
"There has been a disagreement," he explained. "Beatrice and Elizabeth have quarreled. Mind you, Beatrice was right."
"Then why don't you go to her instead of staying with Elizabeth?" Tavernake demanded, bluntly.
The professor temporarily collapsed. He drank heavily of the whiskey and soda by his side, and answered gloomily.
"My young friend," he said, "Beatrice, when she left us, was penniless. Mind you, Elizabeth is the one with brains. It is Elizabeth who has the money. She has a strong will, too. She keeps me there whether I will or not, she makes me do many things --many things, surely--which I hate. But Elizabeth has her way. If I had gone with Beatrice, if I were to go to her now, I should be only a burden upon her."
"You have no money, then?" Tavernake remarked.
The professor shook his head sadly.
"Speculations, my young friend," he replied, "speculations undertaken solely with the object of making a fortune for my children. I have had money and lost it."
"Can't you earn any?" Tavernake asked. "Beatrice doesn't seem extravagant."
The professor regarded this outspoken young man with an air of hurt dignity.
"If you will forgive me," he said. "I think that we will choose another subject of conversation."
"At any rate," Tavernake declared, "you must be fond of your daughter or you would not come here night after night just to look at her."
The professor shook out a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes.
"Beatrice was always my favorite," he announced solemnly, "but Elizabeth--well, you can't get away from Elizabeth," he added, leaning across the table. "To tell you the truth, Mr. Tavernake, Elizabeth terrifies me sometimes, she is so bold. I am afraid where her scheming may land us. I would be happier with Beatrice if only she had the means to satisfy my trifling wants."
He turned to the waiter and ordered a pint of champagne.
"Veuve Clicquot '99," he instructed the man. "At my age," he remarked, with a sigh, "one has to be careful about these little matters. The wrong brand of champagne means a sleepless night."
Tavernake looked at him in a puzzled way. The professor was a riddle to him. He represented no type which had come within the orbit of his experience. With the arrival of the champagne, the professor became almost eloquent. He leaned forward, gazing stealthily down at the round table.
"If I could tell you of that girl's mother, Mr. Tavernake," he said, "if I could tell you what her history, our history, has been, it would seem to you so strange that you would probably regard me as a romancer. No, we have to carry our secrets with us."
"By-the-bye," Tavernake asked, "what are you a professor of?"
"Of the hidden sciences, sir," was the immediate reply. "Phrenology was my earliest love. Since then I have studied in the East; I have spent many years in a monastery in China. I have gratified in every way my natural love of the occult. I represent today those people of advanced thought who have traveled, even in spirit, for ever such a little distance across the line which divides the Seen from the Unseen, the Known from the Infinite."
He took a long draught of champagne. Tavernake gazed at him in blank amazement.
"I don't know much about science," he said. "It is only lately that I have begun to realize how ignorant I really am. Your daughter has helped to teach me."
The professor sighed heavily.
"A young woman of attainments, sir," he remarked, "of character, too. Look at the way she carries her head. That was a trick of her mother's."
"Don't you mean to speak to her at all, then?" Tavernake asked.
"I dare not," the professor replied. "I am naturally of a truthful disposition, and if Elizabeth were to ask me if I had spoken to her sister, I should give myself away at once. No, I look on and that is all."
Tavernake drummed with his fingers upon the tablecloth. Something in the merriment of that little party downstairs had filled him with a very bitter feeling.
"You ought to go and claim her, professor," he declared. "Look down at them now. Is that the best life for a girl? The men are almost strangers to her, and the girls are not fit for her to associate with. She has no friends, no relatives. Your daughter Elizabeth can do without you very well. She is strong enough to take care of herself."
"But my dear sir," the professor objected, "Beatrice could not support me."
Tavernake paid his bill without another word. Downstairs the lights had been lowered, the party at the round table were already upon their feet.
"Good-night, professor!" he said. "I am going to see the last of Beatrice from the top of the stairs."
The professor followed him--they stood there and watched her depart with Annie Legarde. The two girls got into a taxicab together, and Tavernake breathed a sigh of relief, a relief for which he was wholly unable to account, when he saw that Grier made no effort to follow them. As soon as the taxi had rolled away, they descended and passed into the street. Then the professor suddenly changed his tone.
"Mr. Tavernake," he said, "I know what you are thinking about me: I am a weak old man who drinks too much and who wasn't born altogether honest. I can't give up anything. I'd be happier, really happier, on a crust with Beatrice, but I daren't, I simply daren't try it. I prefer the flesh pots with Elizabeth, and you despise me for it. I don't blame you, Mr. Tavernake, but listen."
"Well?" Tavernake interjected.
The professor's fingers gripped his arm.
"You've known Beatrice longer--you don't know Elizabeth very well, but let me tell you this. Elizabeth is a very wonderful person. I know something about character, I know something about those hidden powers which men and women possess--strange powers which no one can understand, powers which drag a man to a woman's feet, or which make him shiver when he passes another even in a crowd. You see, these things are a science with me, Mr. Tavernake, but I don't pretend to understand everything. All I know is that Elizabeth is one of those people who can just do what she likes with men. I am her father and I am her slave. I tell myself that I would rather be with Beatrice, and I am as powerless to go as though I were bound with chains. You are a young ignorant man, Mr. Tavernake, you know nothing of life, and I will give you a word of warning. It is better for you that you keep away from over there."
He raised one hand and pointed across the street towards the Milan Court; with the other he once more gripped Tavernake's arm.
"Why she should take the trouble even to speak with you for a moment, I do not know," the professor continued, "but she does. It has pleased her to talk with you--why I can't imagine--only if I were you I would get away while there is yet time. She is my daughter but she has no heart, no pity. I saw her smile at you. I am sorry always for the man she smiles upon like that. Goodnight, Mr. Tavernake!"
The professor crossed the street. Tavernake watched him until he was out of sight. Then he felt an arm thrust through his.
"Why, this is what I call luck!" a familiar voice exclaimed. "Mr. Tavernake, you're the very man I was looking for!"