The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XXII. Dinner With Elizabeth
The rest of that day was for Tavernake a period of feverish anxieties. He received two telegrams from Mr. Martin, his solicitor, and he himself was more uneasy than he cared to admit. At three o'clock in the afternoon, at eight in the evening, and again at eleven o'clock at night, he presented himself at the Milan Court, always with the same inquiry. On the last occasion, the hall porter had cheering news for him.
"Mrs. Wenham Gardner returned from the country an hour ago, sir," he announced. "I can send your name up now, if you wish to see her."
Tavernake was conscious of a sense of immense relief. Of course, he had known that she had not really gone away for good, but all the same her absence, especially after the event of the night before last, was a little disquieting.
"My name is Tavernake," he said. "I do not wish to intrude at such an hour, but if she could see me for a moment, I should be glad."
He sat down and waited patiently. Soon a message came that Mr. Tavernake was to go up. He ascended in the lift and knocked at the door of her suite. Her maid opened it grudgingly. She scarcely took the pains to conceal her disapproval of this young man--so ordinary, so gauche. Why Madame should waste her time upon such a one, she could not imagine!
"Mrs. Gardner will see you directly," she told him. "Madame is dressing now to go out for supper. She will be able to spare you only a few seconds."
Tavernake remained alone in the luxurious little sitting-room for nearly ten minutes. Then the door of the inner room was opened and Elizabeth appeared. Tavernake, rising slowly to his feet, looked at her for a moment in reluctant but wondering admiration. She was wearing an ivory satin gown, without trimming or lace of any sort, a gown the fit of which seemed to him almost a miracle. Her only jewelry was a long rope of pearls and a small tiara. Tavernake had never been brought into close contact with any one quite like this.
She was putting on her gloves as she entered and she gave him her left hand.
"What an extraordinary person you are, Mr. Tavernake!" she exclaimed. "You really do seem to turn up at the most astonishing times."
"I am very sorry to have intruded upon you to-night," he said. "As regards the last occasion, however, upon which I made an unexpected appearance, I make no apologies whatever," he added coolly.
She laughed softly. She was looking full into his eyes and yet he could not tell whether she was angry with him or only amused.
"You were by way of being a little melodramatic, were you not?" she remarked. "Still, you were very much in earnest, and one forgives a great deal to any one who is really in earnest. What do you want with me now? I am just going downstairs to supper."
"It is a matter of business," Tavernake replied. "I have a friend who is a partner with me in the Marston Rise building speculation, and he is worried because there is some one else in the field wanting to buy the property, and the day after to-morrow is our last chance of paying over the money."
She looked at him as though puzzled.
"The money which you agreed to lend me, or rather to invest in our building company," he reminded her.
"Of course! Why, I had forgotten all about it for the moment. You are going to give me ten per cent interest or something splendid, aren't you? Well, what about it? You don't want to take it away with you now, I suppose?"
"No," he answered, "it isn't that. To be honest with you, I came to make sure that you hadn't changed your mind."
"And why should I change my mind?"
"You might be angry with me," he said, "for interfering in your concerns the night before last."
"Perhaps I am," she remarked, indifferently.
"Do you wish to withdraw from your promise?" he asked.
"I really haven't thought much about it," she replied, carelessly. "By-the-bye, have you seen Beatrice lately?"
"We agreed, I think," he reminded her, "that we would not talk about your sister."
She looked at him over her shoulder.
"I do not remember that I agreed to anything of the sort," she declared. "I think it was you who laid down the law about that. As a matter of fact, I think that your silence about her is very unkind. I suppose you have seen her?"
"Yes, I have seen her," Tavernake admitted.
"She continues to be tragic," Elizabeth asked, "whenever my name is mentioned?"
"I should not call it tragic," Tavernake answered, reluctantly. "One gathers, however, that something transpired between you before she left, of a serious nature."
She looked at him earnestly.
"Really," she said, "you are a strange, stolid young man. I wonder," she went on, smiling into his face, "are you in love with my sister?"
Tavernake made no immediate response, only something flashed for a moment in his eyes which puzzled her.
"Why do you look at me like that?" she demanded. "You are not angry with me for asking?"
"No, I am not angry," he replied. "It isn't that. But you must know--you must see!"
Then she indeed did see that he was laboring under a very great emotion. She leaned towards him, laughing softly.
"Now you are really becoming interesting," she murmured. "Tell me--tell me all about it."
"I don't know what love is!" Tavernake declared fiercely. "I don't know what it means to be in love!"
Again she laughed in his face.
"Are you so sure?" she whispered.
She saw the veins stand out upon his temples, watched the passion which kept him at first tongue-tied.
"Sure!" he muttered. "Who can be sure when you look like that!"
He held out his arms. With a swift little backward movement she flitted away and leaned against the table.
"What a brother-in-law you would make!" she laughed. "So steady, so respectable, alas! so serious! Dear Mr. Tavernake, I wish you joy. As a matter of fact, you and Beatrice are very well suited for one another."
The telephone bell rang. She moved over and held the receiver to her ear. Her face changed. After the first few words to which she listened, it grew dark with anger.
"You mean to say that Professor Franklin has not been in since lunch-time?" she exclaimed. "I left word particularly that I should require him to-night. Is Major Post there, then? No? Mr. Crease--no? Nor Mr. Faulkes? Not one of them! Very well, ring me up directly the professor comes in, or any of them."
She replaced the receiver with a gesture of annoyance. Tavernake was astonished at the alteration in her expression. The smile had gone, and with its passing away lines had come under her eyes and about her mouth. Without a word to him she strode away into her bedroom. Tavernake was just wondering whether he should retire, when she came back.
"Listen, Mr. Tavernake," she said, "how far away are your rooms?"
"Down at Chelsea," he answered, "about two miles and a half."
"Take a taxi and drive there," she commanded, "or stop. You will find my car outside. I will telephone down to say that you are to use it. Change into your evening clothes and come back for me. I want you to take me out to supper."
He looked at her in amazement. She stamped her foot.
"Don't stand there hesitating!" she ordered. "Do as I say! You don't expect I am going to help you to buy your wretched property if you refuse me the simplest of favors? Hurry, I say! Hurry!"
"I am really very sorry," Tavernake interposed, "but I do not possess a dress suit. I would go, with pleasure, but I haven't got such a thing."
She looked at him for a moment incredulously. Then she broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. She sat down upon the edge of a couch and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Oh, you strange, you wonderful person!" she exclaimed. "You want to buy an estate and you want to borrow twelve thousand pounds, and you know where Beatrice is and you won't tell me, and you are fully convinced, because you burst into a house through the wall, that you saved poor Pritchard from being poisoned, and you don't possess a dress suit! Never mind, as it happens it doesn't matter about the dress suit. You shall take me out as you are."
Tavernake felt in his pockets and remembered that he had only thirty shillings with him.
"Here, carry my purse," she said carelessly. "We are going downstairs to the smaller restaurant. I have been traveling since six o'clock, and I am starving."
"But how about my clothes?" Tavernake objected. "Will they be all right?"
"It doesn't matter where we are going," she answered. "You look very well as you are. Come and let me put your tie straight."
She came close to him and her fingers played for a moment with his tie. She was very near to him and she laughed deliberately into his face. Tavernake held himself quite stiff and felt foolish. He also felt absurdly happy.
"There," she remarked, when she had arranged it to her satisfaction, "you look all right now. I wonder," she added, half to herself, "what you do look like. Something Colonial and forceful, I think. Never mind, help me on with my cloak and come along. You are a most respectable-looking escort, and a very useful one."
Although Tavernake was nominally the host, it was Elizabeth who selected the table and ordered the supper. There were very few other guests in the room, the majority being down in the larger restaurant, but among these few Tavernake noticed two of the girls from the chorus at the Atlas. Elizabeth had chosen a table from which she had a view of the door, and she took the seat facing it. From the first Tavernake felt certain that she was watching for some one.
"Talk to me now, please, about this speculation," she insisted. "I should like to know all about it, and whether you are sure that I shall get ten per cent for my money."
Tavernake was in no way reluctant. It was a safe topic for conversation, and one concerning which he had plenty to say. But after a time she stopped him.
"Well," she said, "I have discovered at any rate one subject on which you can be fluent. Now I have had enough of building properties, please, and house building. I should like to hear a little about Beatrice."
Tavernake was dumb.
"I do not wish to talk about Beatrice," he declared, "until I understand the cause of this estrangement between you."
Her eyes flashed angrily and her laugh sounded forced.
"Not even talk of her! My dear friend," she protested, "you scarcely repay the confidence I am placing in you!"
"You mean the money?"
"Precisely," she continued. "I trust you, why I do not know--I suppose because I am something of a physiognomist--with twelve thousand pounds of my hard-earned savings. You refuse to trust me with even a few simple particulars about the life of my own sister. Come, I don't think that things are quite as they should be between us."
"Do you know where I first met your sister?" Tavernake asked.
She shook her head pettishly.
"How should I? You told me nothing."
"She was staying in a boarding-house where I lived," Tavernake went on. "I think I told you that but nothing else. It was a cheap boarding-house but she had not enough money to pay for her meals. She was tired of life. She was in a desperate state altogether."
"Are you trying to tell me, or rather trying not to tell me, that Beatrice was mad enough to think of committing suicide?" Elizabeth inquired.
"She was in the frame of mind when such a step was possible," he answered, gravely. "You remember that night when I first saw you in the chemist's shop across the street? She had been very ill that evening, very ill indeed. You could see for yourself the effect meeting you had upon her."
Elizabeth nodded, and crumbled a little piece of roll between her fingers. Then she leaned over the table towards Tavernake.
"She seemed terrified, didn't she? She hurried you away--she seemed afraid."
"It was very noticeable," he admitted. "She was terrified. She dragged me out of the place. A few minutes later she fainted in the cab."
"Beatrice was always over-sensitive," she remarked. "Any sudden shock unnerved her altogether. Are you terrified of me, too, Mr. Tavernake?"
"I don't know," he answered, frankly. "Sometimes I think that I am."
She laughed softly.
"Why?" she whispered.
He looked into her eyes and he felt abject. How was it possible to sit within a few feet of her and remain sane!
"You are so wonderful," he said, in a low tone, "so different from any one else in the world!"
"You are glad that you met me, then--that you are here?" she asked.
He raised his eyes once more.
"I don't know," he answered simply. "If I really believed--if you were always kind like this--but, you see, you make two men of me. When I am with you I am a fool, your fool, to do as you will with. When I am away, some glimmerings of common sense come back, and I know."
"You know what?" she murmured.
"That you are not honest," he added.
"Mr. Tavernake!" she exclaimed, lifting her head a little.
"Oh, I don t mean dishonest in the ordinary way!" he protested, eagerly. "What I mean is that you look things which you don't feel, that you are willing for any one who can't help admiring you very much to believe for a moment that you, too, feel more kindly than you really do. This is so clumsy," he broke off, despairingly, "but you understand what I mean!"
"You have an adorable way of making yourself understood," she laughed. "Come, do let us talk sense for a minute or two. You say that when you are with me you are my slave. Then why is it that you do not bring Beatrice here when I beg you to?"
"I am your slave," he answered, "in everything that has to do with myself and my own actions. In that other matter it is for your sister to decide."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Well," she said, "I suppose I shall be able to endure life without her. At any rate, we will talk of something else. Tell me, are you not curious to know why I insisted upon bringing you here?"
"Yes," he admitted, "I am."
"Spoken with your usual candor, my dear Briton!" she exclaimed. "Well, I will gratify your curiosity. This, as you see, is not a popular supping place. A few people come in--mostly those who for some reason or other don't feel smart enough for the big restaurants. The people from the theatres come in here who have not time to change their clothes. As you perceive; the place has a distinctly Bohemian flavor."
Tavernake looked around.
"They seem to come in all sorts of clothes," he remarked. "I am glad."
"There is a man now in London," Elizabeth continued, "whom I am just as anxious to see as I am to find my sister. I believe that this is the most likely place to find him. That is why I have come. My father was to have been here to take me, but as you heard he has gone out somewhere and not returned. None of my other friends were available. You happened to come in just in time."
"And this man whom you want to see," Tavernake asked, "is he here?"
"Not yet," she answered.
There were, indeed, only a few scattered groups in the place, and most of these were obviously theatrical. But even at that moment a man came in alone through the circular doors, and stood just inside, looking around him. He was a man of medium height, thin, and of undistinguished appearance. His hair was light-colored and plastered a little in front over his forehead. His face was thin and he walked with a slight stoop. Something about his clothes and his manner of wearing them stamped him as an American. Tavernake glanced at his companion, wondering whether this, perhaps, might not be the person for whom she was watching. His first glance was careless enough, then he felt his heart thump against his ribs. A tragedy had come into the room! The woman at his side sat as though turned to stone. There was a look in her face as of one who sees Death. The small patch of rouge, invisible before, was now a staring daub of color in an oasis of ashen white. Her eyes were as hard as stones; her lips were twitching as though, indeed, she had been stricken with some disease. No longer was he sitting with this most beautiful lady at whose coming all heads were turned in admiration. It was as though an image of Death sat there, a frozen presentment of horror itself!