Book One
Chapter XXVI. A Crisis

Pritchard was the first visitor who had ever found his way into Tavernake's lodgings. It was barely eight o'clock on the same morning. Tavernake, hollow-eyed and bewildered, sat up upon the sofa and gazed across the room.

"Pritchard!" he exclaimed. "Why, what do you want?"

Pritchard laid his hat and gloves upon the table. Already his first swift glance had taken in the details of the little apartment. The overcoat and hat which Tavernake had worn the night before lay by his side. The table was still arranged for some meal of the previous day. Apart from these things, a single glance assured him that Tavernake had not been to bed.

Pritchard drew up an easy-chair and seated himself deliberately.

"My young friend," he announced, "I have come to the conclusion that you need some more advice."

Tavernake rose to his feet. His own reflection in the looking-glass startled him. His hair was crumpled, his tie undone, the marks of his night of agony were all too apparent. He felt himself at a disadvantage.

"How did you find me out?" he asked. "I never gave you my address."

Pritchard smiled.

"Even in this country, with a little help," he said, "those things are easy enough. I made up my mind that this morning would be to some extent a crisis with you. You know, Tavernake, I am not a man who says much, but you are the right sort. You've been in with me twice when I should have missed you if you hadn't been there."

Tavernake seemed to have lost the power of speech. He had relapsed again into his place upon the sofa. He simply waited.

"How in the name of mischief," Pritchard continued, impressively, "you came to be mixed up in the lives of this amiable trio, I cannot imagine! I am not saying a word against Miss Beatrice, mind. All that surprises me is that you and she should ever have come together, or, having come together, that you should ever have exchanged a word. You see, I am here to speak plain truths. You are, I take it, a good sample of the hard, stubborn, middle-class Briton. These three people of whom I have spoken, belong--Miss Beatrice, perhaps, by force of circumstances--but still they do belong to the land of Bohemia. However, when one has got over the surprise of finding you on intimate terms with Miss Beatrice, there comes a more amazing thing. You, with hard common sense written everywhere in your face, have been prepared at any moment, for all I know are prepared now, to make an utter and complete idiot of yourself over Elizabeth Gardner."

Still Tavernake did not speak. Pritchard looked at him curiously.

"Say," he went on, "I have come here to do you a service, if I can. So far as I know at present, this very wonderful young lady has kept on the right side of the law. But see here, Tavernake, she's been on the wrong side of everything that's decent and straight all her days. She married that poor creature for his money, and set herself deliberately to drive him off his head. Last night's tragedy was her doing, not his, though he, poor devil, will have to end his days in an asylum, and the lady will have his money to make herself more beautiful than ever with. Now I am going to let you behind the scenes, my young friend."

Then Tavernake rose to his feet. In the shabby little room he seemed to have grown suddenly taller. He struck the crazy table with his clenched fist so that the crockery upon it rattled. Pritchard was used to seeing men--strong men, too--moved by various passions, but in Tavernake's face he seemed to see new things.

"Pritchard," Tavernake exclaimed, "I don't want to hear another word!"

Pritchard smiled.

"Look here," he said, "what I am going to tell you is the truth. What I am going to tell you I'd as soon say in the presence of the lady as here."

Tavernake took a step forward and Pritchard suddenly realized the man who had thrown himself through that little opening in the wall, one against three, without a thought of danger.

"If you say a single word more against her," Tavernake shouted hoarsely, "I shall throw you out of the room!"

Pritchard stared at him. There was something amazing about this young man's attitude, something which he could not wholly grasp. He could see, too, that Tavernake's words were so few simply because he was trembling under the influence of an immense passion.

"If you won't listen," Pritchard declared, slowly, "I can't talk. Still, you've got common sense, I take it. You've the ordinary powers of judging between right and wrong, and knowing when a man or a woman's honest. I want to save you--"

"Silence!" Tavernake exclaimed. "Look here, Pritchard," he went on, breathing a little more naturally now, "you came here meaning to do the right thing--I know that. You're all right, only you don't understand. You don't understand the sort of person I am. I am twenty-four years old, I have worked for my own living up here in London since I was twelve. I was a man, so far as work and independence went, at fifteen. Since then I have had my shoulder to the wheel; I have lived on nothing; I have made a little money where it didn't seem possible. I have worried my way into posts which it seemed that no one could think of giving me, but all the time I have lived in a little corner of the world --like that."

His finger suddenly described a circle in the air.

"You don't understand--you can't," he went on, "but there it is. I never spoke to a woman until I spoke to Beatrice. Chance made me her friend. I began to understand the outside of some of those things which I had never even dreamed of before. She set me right in many ways. I began to read, think, absorb little bits of the real world. It was all wonderful. Then Elizabeth came. I met her, too, by accident--she came to my office for a house--Elizabeth!"

Pritchard found something almost pathetic in the sudden dropping of Tavernake's voice, the softening of his face.

"I don't know how to talk about these things," Tavernake said, simply. "There's a literature that's reached from before the Bible to now, full of nothing else. It's all as old as the hills. I suppose I am about the only sane man in this city who knew nothing of it; but I did know nothing of it, and she was the first woman. Now you understand. I can't hear a word against her--I won't! She may be what you say. If so, she's got to tell me so herself!"

"You mean that you are going to believe any story she likes to put up?"

"I mean that I am going to her," Tavernake answered, "and I have no idea in the world what will happen--whether I shall believe her or not. I can see what you think of me," he went on, becoming a little more himself as the stress of unaccustomed speech passed him by. "I will tell you something that will show you that I realize a good deal. I know the difference between Beatrice and Elizabeth. Less than a week ago, I asked Beatrice to marry me. It was the only way I could think of, the only way I could kill the fever."

"And Beatrice?" Pritchard asked, curiously.

"She wouldn't," Tavernake replied. "After all, why should she? I have my way to make yet. I can't expect others to believe in me as I believe in myself. She was kind but she wouldn't."

Pritchard lit a cigar.

"Look here, Tavernake," he said, "you are a young man, you've got your life before you and life's a biggish thing. Empty out those romantic thoughts of yours, roll up your shirt sleeves and get at it. You are not one of these weaklings that need a woman's whispers in their ears to spur them on. You can work without that. It's only a chapter in your life--the passing of these three people. A few months ago, you knew nothing of them. Let them go. Get back to where you were."

Then Tavernake for the first time laughed--a laugh that sounded even natural.

"Have you ever found a man who could do that?" he asked. "The candle gives a good light sometimes, but you'll never think it the finest illumination in the world when you've seen the sun. Never mind me, Pritchard. I'm going to do my best still, but there's one thing that nothing will alter. I am going to make that woman tell me her story, I am going to listen to the way she tells it to me. You think that where women are concerned I am a fool. I am, but there is one great boon which has been vouchsafed to fools--they can tell the true from the false. Some sort of instinct, I suppose. Elizabeth shall tell me her story and I shall know, when she tells it, whether she is what you say or what she has seemed to me."

Pritchard held out his hand.

"You're a queer sort, Tavernake," he declared. "You take life plaguy seriously. I only hope you 'll get all out of it you expect to. So long!"

Tavernake opened the window after his visitor had gone, and leaned out for some few minutes, letting the fresh air into the close, stifling room. Then he went upstairs, bathed and changed his clothes, made some pretense at breakfast, went through his letters with methodical exactness. At eleven o'clock he set out upon his pilgrimage.