The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XXIV. Close to Tragedy
The actual words of greeting which passed between Elizabeth and the man whose advent had caused her so much emotion were unimpressive. The newcomer, with the tips of his fingers resting upon the tablecloth, leaned slightly towards her. At close quarters, he was even more unattractive than when Tavernake had first seen him. He was faultily shaped; there was something a little decadent about his deep-set eyes and receding forehead. Neither was his expression prepossessing. He looked at her as a man looks upon the thing he hates.
"So, Elizabeth," he said, "this pleasure has come at last!"
"I heard that you were back in England," she replied. "Pray sit down."
Even then her eyes never left his. All the time they seemed to be fiercely questioning, seeking for something in his features which eluded them. It was terrible to see the change which the last few minutes had wrought in her. Her smooth, girlish face had lost its comeliness. Her eyes, always a little narrow, seemed to have receded. It was such a change, this, as comes to a brave man who, in the prime of life, feels fear for the first time.
"I am glad to find you at supper," he declared, taking up the menu. "I am hungry. You can bring me some grilled cutlets at once," he added to the waiter who stood by his side, "and some brandy. Nothing else."
The waiter bowed and hurried off. The woman played with her fan but her fingers were shaking.
"I fear," he remarked, "that my coming is rather a shock to you. I am sorry to see you looking so distressed."
"It is not that," she answered with some show of courage. "You know me too well to believe me capable of seeking a meeting which I feared. It is the strange thing which has happened to you during these last few months--this last year. Do you know--has any one told you--that you seem to have become even more like --the image of--"
He nodded understandingly.
"Of poor Wenham! Many people have told me that. Of course, you know that we were always appallingly alike, and they always said that we should become more so in middle-age. After all, there is only a year between us. We might have been twins."
"It is the most terrible thing in likenesses I have ever seen," the woman continued slowly. "When you entered the room a few seconds ago, it seemed to me that a miracle had happened. It seemed to me that the dead had come to life."
"It must have been a shock," the man murmured, with his eyes upon the tablecloth.
"It was," she agreed, hoarsely. "Can't you see it in my face? I do not always look like a woman of forty. Can't you see the gray shadows that are there? You see, I admit it frankly. I was terrified--I am terrified!"
"And why?" he asked.
"Why?" she repeated, looking at him wonderingly. "Doesn't it seem to you a terrible thing to think of the dead coming back to life?"
He tapped lightly upon the tablecloth for a minute with the fingers of one hand. Then he looked at her again.
"It depends," he said, "upon the manner of their death."
An executioner of the Middle Ages could not have played with his victim more skillfully. The woman was shivering now, preserving some outward appearance of calm only by the most fierce and unnatural effort.
"What do you mean by that, Jerry?" she asked. "I was not even with--Wenham, when he was lost. You know all about it, I suppose,--how it happened?"
The man nodded thoughtfully.
"I have heard many stories," he admitted. "Before we leave the subject for ever, I should like to hear it from you, from your own lips."
There was a bottle of champagne upon the table, ordered at the commencement of the meal. She touched her glass; the waiter filled it. She raised it to her lips and set it down empty. Her fingers were clutching the tablecloth.
"You ask me a hard thing, Jerry," she said. "It is not easy to talk of anything so painful. From the moment we left New York, Wenham was strange. He drank a good deal upon the steamer. He used to talk sometimes in the most wild way. We came to London. He had an attack of delirium tremens. I nursed him through it and took him into the country, down into Cornwall. We took a small cottage on the outskirts of a fishing village--St. Catherine's, the place was called. There we lived quietly for a time. Sometimes he was better, sometimes worse. The doctor in the village was very kind and came often to see him. He brought a friend from the neighboring town and they agreed that with complete rest Wenham would soon be better. All the time my life was a miserable one. He was not fit to be alone and yet he was a terrible companion. I did my best. I was with him half of every day, sometimes longer. I was with him till my own health began to suffer. At last I could stand the solitude no longer. I sent for my father. He came and lived with us."
"The professor," her listener murmured.
"It was a little better then for me," she went on, "except that poor Wenham seemed to take such a dislike to my father. However, he hated every one in turn, even the doctors, who always did their best for him. One day, I admit, I lost my temper. We quarreled; I could not help it--life was becoming insupportable. He rushed out of the house--it was about three o'clock in the afternoon. I have never seen him since."
The man was looking at her, looking at her closely although he was blinking all the time.
"What do you think became of him?" he asked. "What do people think? "
She shook her head.
"The only thing he cared to do was swim," she said. "His clothes and hat were found down in the little cove near where we had a tent."
"You think, then, that he was drowned?" the man asked.
She nodded. Speech seemed to be becoming too painful.
"Drowning," her companion continued, helping himself to brandy, "is not a pleasant death. Once I was nearly drowned myself. One struggles for a short time and one thinks--yes, one thinks!" he added.
He raised his glass to his lips and set it down.
"It is an easy death, though," he went on, "quite an easy death. By the way, were those clothes that were found of poor Wenham's identified as the clothes he wore when he left the house?"
She shook her head.
"One could not say for certain," she answered. "I never noticed how he was dressed. He wore nearly always the same sort of things, but he had an endless variety."
"And this was seven months ago -seven months."
"Poor Wenham," he murmured. "I suppose he is dead. What are you going to do, Elizabeth?"
"I do not know," she replied. "Soon I must go to the lawyers and ask for advice. I have very little more money left. I have written several times to New York to you, to his friends, but I have had no answer. After all, Jerry, I am his wife. No one liked my marrying him, but I am his wife. I have a right to a share of his property if he is dead. If he has deserted me, surely I shall be allowed something. I do not even know how rich he was."
The man at her side smiled.
"Much better off than I ever was," he declared. "But, Elizabeth!"
"There were rumors that, before you left New York, Wenham converted very large sums of money into letters of credit and bonds, very large sums indeed." She shook her head. "He had a letter of credit for about a thousand pounds, I think," she said. "There is very little left of the money he had with him."
"And you find living here expensive, I dare say?"
"Very expensive indeed," she agreed, with a sigh. "I have been looking forward to seeing you, Jerry. I thought, perhaps, for the sake of old times you might advise me."
"Of old times," he repeated to himself softly. "Elizabeth, do you think of them sometimes?"
She was becoming more herself. This was a game she was used to playing. Of old times, indeed! It seemed only yesterday that these two brothers, who had the reputation in those days of being the richest young men in New York, were both at her feet. So far, she had scarcely been fortunate. There was still a chance, however. She looked up. It seemed to her that he was losing his composure. Yes, there was something of the old gleam in his eyes! Once he had been madly enough in love with her. It ought not to be impossible!
"Jerry," she said, "I have told you these things. It has been so very, very painful for me. Won't you try now and be kind? Remember that I am all alone and it is all very difficult for me. I have been looking forward to your coming. I have thought so often of those times we spent together in New York. Won't you be my friend again? Won't you help me through these dark days?"
Her hand touched his. For a moment he snatched his away as though stung. Then he caught her fingers in his and held them as though in a vice. She smiled, the smile of conscious power. The flush of beauty was streaming once more into her face. Poor fellow, he was still in love, then! The fingers which had closed upon hers were burning. What a pity that he was not a little more presentable!
"Yes," he muttered, "we must be friends, Elizabeth. Wenham had all the luck at first. Perhaps it's going to be my turn now, eh?"
He bent towards her. She laughed into his face for a moment and then was once more suddenly colorless, the smile frozen upon her lips. She began to shiver.
"What is it?" he asked. "What is it, Elizabeth?"
"Nothing," she faltered, "only I wish--I do wish that you were not so much like Wenham. Sometimes a trick of your voice, the way you hold your head--it terrifies me!"
He laughed oddly.
"You must get used to that, Elizabeth," he declared. "I can't help being like him, you know. We were great friends always until you came. I wonder why you preferred Wenham."
"Don't ask me--please don't ask me that," she begged. "Really, I think he happened to be there just at the moment I felt like making a clean sweep of everything, of leaving New York and every one and starting life again, and I thought Wenham meant it. I thought I should be able to keep him from drinking and to help him start a new life altogether over here or on the Continent."
"Poor little woman," he said, "you have been disappointed, I am afraid."
"I am only human, you know," she went on. "Every one told me that Wenham was a millionaire, too. See how much I have benefited by it. I am almost penniless, I do not know whether he is dead or alive, I do not know what to do to get some money. Was Wenham very rich, Jerry?"
The man laughed.
"Oh, he was very rich indeed!" he assured her. "It is terrible that you should be left like this. We will talk about it together presently, you and I. In the meantime, you must let me be your banker."
"Dear Jerry," she whispered, "you were always generous."
"You have not spoken of the little prude--dear Miss Beatrice," he reminded her suddenly.
"Beatrice was a great trial from the first," she declared. "You know how she disliked you both--she was scarcely even civil to Wenham, and she would never have come to Europe with us if father hadn't insisted upon it. We took her down to Cornwall with us and there she became absolutely insupportable. She was always interfering between Wenham and me and imagining the most absurd things. One day she left us without a word of warning. I have never seen her since."
The man stared gloomily into his plate.
"She was a queer little thing," he muttered. "She was good, and she seemed to like being good."
Elizabeth laughed, not quite pleasantly.
"You speak as though the rest of us," she remarked, "were qualified to take orders in wickedness."
He helped himself to more brandy.
"Think back," he said. "Think of those days in New York, the life we led, the wild things we did week after week, month after month, the same eternal round of turning night into day, of struggling everywhere to find new pleasures, pulling vice to pieces like children trying to find the inside of their playthings."
"I don't like your mood in the least," she interrupted.
He drummed for a moment upon the tablecloth with his fingers.
"We were talking of Beatrice. You don't even know where she is now, then?"
"I have no idea," Elizabeth declared.
"She was with you for long in Cornwall?" he asked.
Elizabeth toyed with her wineglass for a minute.
"She was there about a month," she admitted.
"And she didn't approve of the way you and Wenham behaved?" he demanded.
"Apparently not. She left us, anyway. She didn't understand Wenham in the least. I shouldn't be surprised," Elizabeth went on, "to hear that she was a hospital nurse, or learning typing, or a clerk in an office. She was a young woman of gloomy ideas, although she was my sister."
He came a little closer towards her.
"Elizabeth," he said, "we will not talk any more about Beatrice. We will not talk any more about anything except our two selves."
"Are you really glad to see me again, Jerry?" she asked softly.
"You must know it, dear," he whispered. "You must know that I loved you always, that I adored you. Oh, you knew it! Don't tell me you didn't. You knew it, Elizabeth!"
She looked down at the tablecloth.
"Yes, I knew it," she admitted, softly.
"Can't you guess what it is to me to see you again like this?" he continued.
"It is something for me, too, to feel that I have a friend close at hand."
"Come," he said, "they are turning out the lights here. You want to know about Wenham's property. Let me come upstairs with you for a little time and I will tell you as much as I can from memory."
He paid the bill, helped her on with her cloak. His fingers seemed like burning spots upon her flesh. They went up in the lift. In the corridors he drew her to him and she began to tremble.
"What is there strange about you, Jerry?" she faltered, looking into his face. "You terrify me!"
"You are glad to see me? Say you are glad to see me?"
"Yes, I am glad," she whispered.
Outside the door of her rooms, she hesitated.
"Perhaps," she suggested, faintly,--"wouldn't it be better if you came to-morrow morning?"
Once more his fingers touched her and again that extraordinary sense of fear seemed to turn her blood cold.
"No," he replied, "I have been put off long enough! You must let me in, you must talk with me for half an hour. I will go then, I promise. Half an hour! Elizabeth, haven't I waited an eternity for it?"
He took the keys from her fingers and opened the door, closing it again behind them. She led the way into the sitting-room. The whole place was in darkness but she turned on the electric light. The cloak slipped from her shoulders. He took her hands and looked at her.
"Jerry," she whispered, "you mustn't look at me like that. You terrify me! Let me go!"
She wrenched herself free with an effort. She stepped back to the corner of the room, as far as she could get from him. Her heart was beating fiercely. Somehow or other, neither of these two young men, over whose lives she had certainly brought to bear a very wonderful influence, had ever before stirred her pulses like this. What was it, she wondered? What was the meaning of it? Why didn't he speak? He did nothing but look, and there were unutterable things in his eyes. Was he angry with her because she had married Wenham, or was he blaming her because Wenham had gone? There was passion in his face, but such passion! Desire, perhaps, but what else? She caught up a telegram which lay upon her writing desk, and tore it open. It was an escape for a moment. She read the words, stared, and read them aloud incredulously. It was from her father.
"Jerry Gardner sailed for New York to-day."
She looked up at the man, and as she looked her face grew gray and the thin sheet went quivering from her lifeless fingers to the floor. Then he began to laugh, and she knew.
"Wenham!" she shrieked. "Wenham!"
There was murder in his face, murder almost in his laugh.
"Your loving husband!" he answered.
She sprang for the door but even as she moved she heard the click of the bolt shot back. He touched the electric switch and the room was suddenly in darkness. She heard him coming towards her, she felt his hot breath upon her cheek.
"My loving wife!" he whispered. "At last!"