Book One
Chapter XXIII. On an Errand of Chivalry
 

The seconds passed; the woman beside him showed no sign of life. Tavernake felt a fear run cold in his blood, such as in all his days he had never known. This, indeed, was something belonging to a world of which he knew nothing. What was it? Illness? Pain? Surprise? There was only his instinct to tell him. It was terror, the terror of one who looks beyond the grave.

"Mrs. Gardner!" he exclaimed. "Elizabeth!"

The sound of his voice seemed to break the spell. A half-choked sob came through her teeth; the struggle for composure commenced.

"I am ill," she murmured. "Give me my glass. Give it to me."

Her fingers were feeling for it but it seemed as though she dared not move her head. He filled it with wine and placed the stem in her hand. Even then she spilled some of it upon the tablecloth. As she raised it to her lips, the man who stood still upon the threshold of the restaurant looked into her face. Slowly, as though his quest were over, he came down the room.

"Go away," she said to Tavernake. "Go away, please. He is coming to speak to me. I want to be alone with him."

Strangely enough, at that moment Tavernake saw nothing out of the common in her request. He rose at once, without any formal leave-taking, and made his way toward the other end of the caf‚. As he turned the corner towards the smoking-room, he glanced once behind. The man had approached quite close to Elizabeth; he was standing before her table, they seemed to be exchanging greetings.

Tavernake went on into the smoking-room and threw himself into an easy-chair. He had been there perhaps for ten minutes when Pritchard entered. Certainly it was a night of surprises! Even Pritchard, cool, deliberate, slow in his movements and speech, seemed temporarily flurried. He came into the room walking quickly. As the door swung back, he turned round as though to assure himself that he was not being followed. He did not at first see Tavernake. He sat on the arm of an easy-chair, his hands in his pockets, his eternal cigar in the corner of his mouth, his eyes fixed upon the doors through which he had issued. Without a doubt, something had disturbed him. He had the look of a man who had received a blow, a surprise of some sort over which he was still ruminating. Then he glanced around the room and saw Tavernake.

"Hullo, young man!" he exclaimed. "So this is the way you follow my advice!"

"I never promised to follow it," Tavernake reminded him.

Pritchard wheeled an easy-chair across the room and called to the waiter.

"Come," he said, "you shall stand me a drink. Two whiskies and sodas, Tim. And now, Mr. Leonard Tavernake, you are going to answer me a question."

"Am I?" Tavernake muttered.

"You came down in the lift with Mrs. Wenham Gardner half an hour ago, you went into the restaurant and ordered supper. She is there still and you are here. Have you quarreled?"

"No, we did not quarrel," Tavernake answered. "She explained that she was supping in the caf‚ only for the sake of meeting one man. She wanted an escort. I filled that post until the man came."

"He is there now?" Pritchard asked.

"He is there now," Tavernake assented.

Pritchard withdrew the cigar from his mouth and watched it for a moment.

"Say, Tavernake," he went on, "is that man who is now having supper with Mrs. Wenham Gardner the man whom she expected?"

"I imagine so," Tavernake replied.

"Didn't she seem in any way scared or disturbed when he first turned up?"

"She looked as I have seen no one else on earth look before," Tavernake admitted. "She seemed simply terrified to death. I do not know why--she didn't explain--but that is how she looked."

"Yet she sent you away!"

"She sent me away. She didn't care what became of me. She was watching the door all the time before he came. Who is he, Pritchard?"

"That sounds a simple question," Pritchard answered gravely, "but it means a good deal. There's mischief afoot to-night, Tavernake."

"You seem to thrive on it," Tavernake retorted, drily. "Any more bunkum?"

Pritchard smiled.

"Come," he said," you're a sensible chap. Take these things for what they're worth. Believe me when I tell you now that there is a great deal more in the coming of this man than Mrs. Wenham Gardner ever bargained for."

"I wish you'd tell me who he is," Tavernake begged. "All this mystery about Beatrice and her sister, and that lazy old hulk of a father, is most irritating."

Pritchard nodded sympathetically.

"You'll have to put up with it a little longer, I'm afraid, my young friend," he declared. "You've done me a good turn; I'll do you one. I'll give you some good advice. Keep out of this place so long as the old man and his daughter are hanging out here. The girl 's clever--oh, she's as clever as they make them--but she's gone wrong from the start. They ain't your sort, Tavernake. You don't fit in anywhere. Take my advice and hook it altogether."

Tavernake shook his head.

"I can't do that just now," he said. "Good-night! I'm off for the present, at any rate."

Pritchard, too, rose to his feet. He passed his arm through Tavernake's.

"Young man," he remarked, "there are not many in this country whom I can trust. You're one of them. There's a sort of solidity about you that I rather admire. You are not likely to break out and do silly things. Do you care for adventures?"

"I detest them," Tavernake answered, "especially the sort I tumbled into the other night."

Pritchard laughed softly. They had left the room now and were walking along the open space at the end of the restaurant, leading to the main exit.

"That's the difference between us," he declared thoughtfully. "Now adventures to me are the salt of my life. I hang about here and watch these few respectable-looking men and women, and there doesn't seem to be much in it to an outsider, but, gee whiz! there's sometimes things underneath which you fellows don't tumble to. A man asks another in there to have a drink. They make a cheerful appointment to meet for lunch, to motor to Brighton. It all sounds so harmless, and yet there are the seeds of a conspiracy already sown. They hate me here, but they know very well that wherever they went I should be around. I suppose some day they'll get rid of me."

"More bunkum!" Tavernake muttered.

They stood in front of the door and passed through into the courtyard. On their right, the interior of the smaller restaurant was shielded from view by a lattice-work, covered with flowers and shrubs. Pritchard came to a standstill at a certain point, and stooping down looked through. He remained there without moving for what seemed to Tavernake an extraordinarily long time. When he stood up again, there was a distinct change in his face. He was looking more serious than Tavernake had ever seen him. But for the improbability of the thing, Tavernake would have thought that he had turned pale.

"My young friend," he said, "you've got to see me through this. You 've a sort of fancy for Mrs. Wenham Gardner, I know. To-night you shall be on her side."

"I don't want any more mysteries," Tavernake protested. "I'd rather go home."

"It can't be done," Pritchard declared, taking his arm once more. "You've got to see me through this. Come up to my rooms for a minute."

They entered the Court and ascended to the eighth floor. Pritchard turned on the lights in his room, a plainly furnished and somewhat bare apartment. From a cupboard he took out a pair of rubber-soled shoes and threw them to Tavernake.

"Put those on," he directed.

"What are we going to do?" Tavernake asked.

"You are going to help me," Pritchard answered. "Take my word for it, Tavernake, it's all right. I could tackle the job alone, but I'd rather not. Now drink this whiskey and soda and light a cigarette. I shall be ready in five minutes."

"But where are we going?" Tavernake demanded.

"You are going," Pritchard replied, "on an errand of chivalry. You are going to become once more a rescuer of woman in distress. You are going to save the life of your beautiful friend Elizabeth."