Book One
Chapter II. A Tete-a-Tete Supper
 

Tavernake caught her up in New Oxford Street and fell at once into step with her. He wasted no time whatever upon preliminaries.

"I should be glad," he said, "if you would tell me your name."

Her first glance at him was fierce enough to have terrified a different sort of man. Upon Tavernake it had absolutely no effect.

"You need not unless you like, of course," he went on, "but I wish to talk to you for a few moments and I thought that it would be more convenient if I addressed you by name. I do not remember to have heard it mentioned at Blenheim House, and Mrs. Lawrence, as you know, does not introduce her guests."

By this time they had walked a score or so of paces together. The girl, after her first furious glance, had taken absolutely no notice of him except to quicken her pace a little. Tavernake remained by her side, however, showing not the slightest sense of embarrassment or annoyance. He seemed perfectly content to wait and he had not in the least the appearance of a man who could be easily shaken off. From a fit of furious anger she passed suddenly and without warning to a state of half hysterical amusement.

"You are a foolish, absurd person," she declared. "Please go away. I do not wish you to walk with me."

Tavernake remained imperturbable. She remembered suddenly his intervention on her behalf.

"If you insist upon knowing," she said, "my name at Blenheim House was Beatrice Burnay. I am much obliged to you for what you did for me there, but that is finished. I do not wish to have any conversation with you, and I absolutely object to your company. Please leave me at once."

"I am sorry," he answered, "but that is not possible."

"Not possible?" she repeated, wonderingly.

He shook his head.

"You have no money, you have eaten no dinner, and I do not believe that you have any idea where you are going," he declared, deliberately.

Her face was once more dark with anger.

"Even if that were the truth," she insisted, "tell me what concern it is of yours? Your reminding me of these facts is simply an impertinence."

"I am sorry that you look upon it in that light," he remarked, still without the least sign of discomposure. "We will, if you do not mind, waive the discussion for the moment. Do you prefer a small restaurant or a corner in a big one? There is music at Frascati's but there are not so many people in the smaller ones."

She turned half around upon the pavement and looked at him steadfastly. His personality was at last beginning to interest her. His square jaw and measured speech were indices of a character at least unusual. She recognized certain invincible qualities under an exterior absolutely commonplace.

"Are you as persistent about everything in life?" she asked him.

"Why not?" he replied. "I try always to be consistent."

"What is your name?"

"Leonard Tavernake," he answered, promptly.

"Are you well off--I mean moderately well off?"

"I have a quite sufficient income."

"Have you any one dependent upon you?"

"Not a soul," he declared. "I am my own master in every sense of the word."

She laughed in an odd sort of way.

"Then you shall pay for your persistence," she said, ---"I mean that I may as well rob you of a sovereign as the restaurant people."

"You must tell me now where you would like to go to," he insisted. "It is getting late."

"I do not like these foreign places," she replied. "I should prefer to go to the grill-room of a good restaurant."

"We will take a taxicab," he announced. "You have no objection?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"If you have the money and don't mind spending it," she said, "I will admit that I have had all the walking I want. Besides, the toe of my boot is worn through and I find it painful. Yesterday I tramped ten miles trying to find a man who was getting up a concert party for the provinces."

"And did you find him?" he asked, hailing a cab.

"Yes, I found him," she answered, indifferently. "We went through the usual programme. He heard me sing, tried to kiss me and promised to let me know. Nobody ever refuses anything in my profession, you see. They promise to let you know."

"Are you a singer, then, or an actress?"

"I am neither," she told him. "I said 'my profession' because it is the only one to which I have ever tried to belong. I have never succeeded in obtaining an engagement in this country. I do not suppose that even if I had persevered I should ever have had one."

"You have given up the idea, then," he remarked.

"I have given it up," she admitted, a little curtly. "Please do not think, because I am allowing you to be my companion for a short time, that you may ask me questions. How fast these taxies go!"

They drew up at their destination--a well-known restaurant in Regent Street. He paid the cabman and they descended a flight of stairs into the grill-room.

"I hope that this place will suit you," he said. "I have not much experience of restaurants."

She looked around and nodded.

"Yes," she replied, "I think that it will do."

She was very shabbily dressed, and he, although his appearance was by no means ordinary, was certainly not of the type which inspires immediate respect in even the grill-room of a fashionable restaurant. Nevertheless, they received prompt and almost ofcious service. Tavernake, as he watched his companion's air, her manner of seating herself and accepting the attentions of the head waiter, felt that nameless impulse which was responsible for his having followed her from Blenheim House and which he could only call curiosity, becoming stronger. An exceedingly matter-of-fact person, he was also by instinct and habit observant. He never doubted but that she belonged to a class of society from which the guests at the boarding-house where they had both lived were seldom recruited, and of which he himself knew little. He was not in the least a snob, this young man, but he found the fact interesting. Life with him was already very much the same as a ledger account--a matter of debits and credits, and he had never failed to include among the latter that curious gift of breeding for which he himself, denied it by heritage, had somehow substituted a complete and exceedingly rare naturalness.

"I should like," she announced, laying down the carte, "a fried sole, some cutlets, an ice, and black coffee."

The waiter bowed.

"And for Monsieur?"

Tavernake glanced at his watch; it was already ten o'clock.

"I will take the same," he declared.

"And to drink?"

She seemed indifferent.

"Any light wine," she answered, carelessly, "white or red."

Tavernake took up the wine list and ordered sauterne. They were left alone in their corner for a few minutes, almost the only occupants of the place.

"You are sure that you can afford this?" she asked, looking at him critically. "It may cost you a sovereign or thirty shillings."

He studied the prices on the menu.

"I can afford it quite well and I have plenty of money with me," he assured her, "but I do not think that it will cost more than eighteen shillings. While we are waiting for the sole, shall we talk? I can tell you, if you choose to hear, why I followed you from the boardinghouse."

"I don't mind listening to you," she told him, "or I will talk with you about anything you like. There is only one subject which I cannot discuss; that subject is myself and my own doings."

Tavernake was silent for a moment.

"That makes conversation a bit difficult," he remarked. She leaned back in her chair.

"After this evening," she said, "I go out of your life as completely and finally as though I had never existed. I have a fancy to take my poor secrets with me. If you wish to talk, tell me about yourself. You have gone out of your way to be kind to me. I wonder why. It doesn't seem to be your role."

He smiled slowly. His face was fashioned upon broad lines and the relaxing of his lips lightened it wonderfully. He had good teeth, clear gray eyes, and coarse black hair which he wore a trifle long; his forehead was too massive for good looks.

"No," he admitted, "I do not think that benevolence is one of my characteristics."

Her dark eyes were turned full upon him; her red lips, redder than ever they seemed against the pallor of her cheeks and her deep brown hair, curled slightly. There was something almost insolent in her tone.

"You understand, I hope," she continued, "that you have nothing whatever to look for from me in return for this sum which you propose to expend for my entertainment?"

"I understand that," he replied.

"Not even gratitude," she persisted. "I really do not feel grateful to you. You are probably doing this to gratify some selfish interest or curiosity. I warn you that I am quite incapable of any of the proper sentiments of life."

"Your gratitude would be of no value to me whatever," he assured her.

She was still not wholly satisfied. His complete stolidity frustrated every effort she made to penetrate beneath the surface.

"If I believed," she went on, "that you were one of those men-- the world is full of them, you know--who will help a woman with a reasonable appearance so long as it does not seriously interfere with their own comfort--"

"Your sex has nothing whatever to do with it," he interrupted. "As to your appearance, I have not even considered it. I could not tell you whether you are beautiful or ugly--I am no judge of these matters. What I have done, I have done because it pleased me to do it."

"Do you always do what pleases you?" she asked.

"Nearly always."

She looked him over again attentively, with an interest obviously impersonal, a trifle supercilious.

"I suppose," she remarked, "you consider yourself one of the strong people of the world?"

"I do not know about that," he answered. "I do not often think about myself."

"I mean," she explained, "that you are one of those people who struggle hard to get just what they want in life."

His jaw suddenly tightened and she saw the likeness to Napoleon.

"I do more than struggle," he affirmed, "I succeed. If I make up my mind to do a thing, I do it; if I make up my mind to get a thing, I get it. It means hard work sometimes, but that is all."

For the first time, a really natural interest shone out of her eyes. The half sulky contempt with which she had received his advances passed away. She became at that moment a human being, self-forgetting, the heritage of her charms--for she really had a curious but very poignant attractiveness--suddenly evident. It was only a momentary lapse and it was entirely wasted. Not even one of the waiters happened to be looking that way, and Tavernake was thinking wholly of himself.

"It is a good deal to say--that," she remarked, reflectively.

"It is a good deal but it is not too much," he declared. "Every man who takes life seriously should say it."

Then she laughed--actually laughed--and he had a vision of flashing white teeth, of a mouth breaking into pleasant curves, of dark mirth-lit eyes, lustreless no longer, provocative, inspiring. A vague impression as of something pleasant warmed his blood. It was a rare thing for him to be so stirred, but even then it was not sufficient to disturb the focus of his thoughts.

"Tell me," she demanded, "what do you do? What is your profession or work?"

"I am with a firm of auctioneers and estate agents," he answered readily,--"Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company the name is. Our offices are in Waterloo Place."

"You find it interesting?"

"Of course," he answered. "Interesting? Why not? I work at it."

"Are you a partner?"

"No," he admitted. "Six years ago I was a carpenter; then I became an errand boy in Mr. Dowling's office I had to learn the business, you see. To-day I am a sort of manager. In eighteen months' time--perhaps before that if they do not offer me a partnership--I shall start for myself."

Once more the subtlest of smiles flickered at the corners of her lips.

"Do they know yet?" she asked, with faint irony.

"Not yet," he replied, with absolute seriousness. "They might tell me to go, and I have a few things to learn yet. I would rather make experiments for some one else than for myself. I can use the results later; they will help me to make money."

She laughed softly and wiped the tears out of her eyes. They were really very beautiful eyes notwithstanding the dark rims encircling them.

"If only I had met you before!" she murmured.

"Why?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"Don't ask me," she begged. "It would not be good for your conceit, if you have any, to tell you."

"I have no conceit and I am not inquisitive," he said, "but I do not see why you laughed."

Their period of waiting came to an end at this point. The fish was brought and their conversation became disjointed. In the silence which followed, the old shadow crept over her face. Once only it lifted. It was while they were waiting for the cutlets. She leaned towards him, her elbows upon the tablecloth, her face supported by her fingers.

"I think that it is time we left these generalities," she insisted, "and you told me something rather more personal, something which I am very anxious to know. Tell me exactly why so self-centered a person as yourself should interest himself in a fellow-creature at all. It seems odd to me."

"It is odd," he admitted, frankly. "I will try to explain it to you but it will sound very bald, and I do not think that you will understand. I watched you a few nights ago out on the roof at Blenheim House. You were looking across the house-tops and you didn't seem to be seeing anything at all really, and yet all the time I knew that you were seeing things I couldn't, you were understanding and appreciating something which I knew nothing of, and it worried me. I tried to talk to you that evening, but you were rude."

"You really are a curious person," she remarked. "Are you always worried, then, if you find that some one else is seeing things or understanding things which are outside your comprehension?"

"Always," he replied promptly.

"You are too far-reaching," she affirmed. "You want to gather everything into your life. You cannot. You will only be unhappy if you try. No man can do it. You must learn your limitations or suffer all your days."

"Limitations!" He repeated the words with measureless scorn. "If I learn them at all," he declared, with unexpected force, "it will be with scars and bruises, for nothing else will content me."

"We are, I should say, almost the same age," she remarked slowly.

"I am twenty-five," he told her.

"I am twenty-two," she said. "It seems strange that two people whose ideas of life are as far apart as the Poles should have come together like this even for a moment. I do not understand it at all. Did you expect that I should tell you just what I saw in the clouds that night?"

"No," he answered, "not exactly. I have spoken of my first interest in you only. There are other things. I told a lie about the bracelet and I followed you out of the boarding-house and I brought you here, for some other for quite a different reason."

"Tell me what it was," she demanded.

"I do not know it myself," he declared solemnly. "I really and honestly do not know it. It is because I hoped that it might come to me while we were together, that I am here with you at this moment. I do not like impulses which I do not understand."

She laughed at him a little scornfully.

"After all," she said, "although it may not have dawned upon you yet, it is probably the same wretched reason. You are a man and you have the poison somewhere in your blood. I am really not bad-looking, you know."

He looked at her critically. She was a little over-slim, perhaps, but she was certainly wonderfully graceful. Even the poise of her head, the manner in which she leaned back in her chair, had its individuality. Her features, too, were good, though her mouth had grown a trifle hard. For the first time the dead pallor of her cheeks was relieved by a touch of color. Even Tavernake realized that there were great possibilities about her. Nevertheless, he shook his head.

"I do not agree with you in the least," he asserted firmly. "Your looks have nothing to do with it. I am sure that it is not that."

"Let me cross-examine you," she suggested. "Think carefully now. Does it give you no pleasure at all to be sitting here alone with me?"

He answered her deliberately; it was obvious that he was speaking the truth.

"I am not conscious that it does," he declared. "The only feeling I am aware of at the present moment in connection with you, is the curiosity of which I have already spoken."

She leaned a little towards him, extending her very shapely fingers. Once more the smile at her lips transformed her face.

"Look at my hand," she said. "Tell me--wouldn't you like to hold it just for a minute, if I gave it you?"

Her eyes challenged his, softly and yet imperiously. His whole attention, however, seemed to be absorbed by her finger-nails. It seemed strange to him that a girl in her straits should have devoted so much care to her hands.

"No," he answered deliberately, "I have no wish to hold your hand. Why should I?"

"Look at me," she insisted.

He did so without embarrassment or hesitation,--it was more than ever apparent that he was entirely truthful. She leaned back in her chair, laughing softly to herself.

"Oh, my friend Mr. Leonard Tavernake," she exclaimed, "if you were not so crudely, so adorably, so miraculously truthful, what a prig, prig, prig, you would be! The cutlets at last, thank goodness! Your cross-examination is over. I pronounce you 'Not Guilty!"'

During the progress of the rest of the meal, they talked very little. At its conclusion, Tavernake discharged the bill, having carefully checked each item and tipped the waiter the exact amount which the man had the right to expect. They ascended the stairs together to the street, the girl lingering a few steps behind. On the pavement her fingers touched his arm.

"I wonder, would you mind driving me down to the Embankment?" she asked almost humbly. "It was so close down there and I want some air."

This was an extravagance which he had scarcely contemplated, but he did not hesitate. He called a taxicab and seated himself by her side. Her manner seemed to have grown quieter and more subdued, her tone was no longer semi-belligerent.

"I will not keep you much longer," she promised. "I suppose I am not so strong as I used to be. I have had scarcely anything to eat for two days and conversation has become an unknown luxury. I think--it seems absurd--but I think that I am feeling a little faint."

"The air will soon revive you," he said. "As to our conversation, I am disappointed. I think that you are very foolish not to tell me more about yourself."

She closed her eyes, ignoring his remark. They turned presently into a narrower thoroughfare. She leaned towards him.

"You have been very good to me," she admitted almost timidly, "and I am afraid that I have not been very gracious. We shall not see one another again after this evening. I wonder--would you care to kiss me?"

He opened his lips and closed them again. He sat quite still, his eyes fixed upon the road ahead, until he had strangled something absolutely absurd, something unrecognizable.

"I would rather not," he decided quietly. "I know you mean to be kind but that sort of thing--well, I don't think I understand it. Besides," he added with a sudden načve relief, as he clutched at a fugitive but plausible thought, "if I did you would not believe the things which I have been telling you."

He had a curious idea that she was disappointed as she turned her head away, but she said nothing. Arrived at the Embankment, the cab came slowly to a standstill. The girl descended. There was something new in her manner; she looked away from him when she spoke.

"You had better leave me here," she said. "I am going to sit upon that seat."

Then came those few seconds' hesitation which were to count for a great deal in his life. The impulse which bade him stay with her was unaccountable but it conquered.

"If you do not object," he remarked with some stiffness, "I should like to sit here with you for a little time. There is certainly a breeze."

She made no comment but walked on. He paid the man and followed her to the empty seat. Opposite, some illuminated advertisements blazed their unsightly message across the murky sky. Between the two curving rows of yellow lights the river flowed--black, turgid, hopeless. Even here, though they had escaped from its absolute thrall, the far-away roar of the city beat upon their ears. She listened to it for a moment and then pressed her hands to the side of her head.

"Oh, how I hate it!" she moaned. "The voices, always the voices, calling, threatening, beating you away! Take my hands, Leonard Tavernake,--hold me."

He did as she bade him, clumsily, as yet without comprehension.

"You are not well," he muttered.

Her eyes opened and a flash of her old manner returned. She smiled at him, feebly but derisively.

"You foolish boy!" she cried. "Can't you see that I am dying? Hold my hands tightly and watch--watch! Here is one more thing you can see--that you cannot understand."

He saw the empty phial slip from her sleeve and fall on to the pavement. With a cry he sprang up and, carrying her in his arms, rushed out into the road.