The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XXVII. Tavernake Chooses
Tavernake was kept waiting in the hall of the Milan Court for at least half an hour before Elizabeth was prepared to see him. He wandered aimlessly about watching the people come and go, looking out into the flower-hung courtyard, curiously unconscious of himself and of his errand, unable to concentrate his thoughts for a moment, yet filled all the time with the dull and uneasy sensation of one who moves in a dream. Every now and then he heard scraps of conversation from the servants and passers-by, referring to the last night's incident. He picked up a paper but threw it down after only a casual glance at the paragraph. He saw enough to convince him that for the present, at any rate, Elizabeth seemed assured of a certain amount of sympathy. The career of poor Wenham Gardner was set down in black and white, with little extenuation, little mercy. His misdeeds in Paris, his career in New York, spoke for themselves. He was quoted as a type, a decadent of the most debauched instincts, to whom crime was a relaxation and vice a habit. Tavernake would read no more. He might have been all these things, and yet she had become his wife!
At last came the message for which he was waiting. As usual, her maid met him at the door of her suite and ushered him in. Elizabeth was dressed for the part very simply, with a suggestion even of mourning in her gray gown. She welcomed him with a pathetic smile.
"Once more, my dear friend," she said, "I have to thank you."
Her fingers closed upon his and she smiled into his face. Tavernake found himself curiously unresponsive. It was the same smile, and he knew very well that he himself had not changed, yet it seemed as though life itself were in a state of suspense for him.
"You, too, are looking grave this morning, my friend," she continued. "Oh, how horrible it has all been! Within the last two hours I have had at least five reporters, a gentleman from Scotland Yard, another from the American Ambassador to see me. It is too terrible, of course," she went on. "Wenham's people are doing all they can to make it worse. They want to know why we were not together, why he was living in the country and I in town. They are trying to show that he was under restraint there, as if such a thing were possible! Mathers was his own servant-- poor Mathers!
She sighed and wiped her eyes. Still Tavernake said nothing. She looked at him, a little surprised.
"You are not very sympathetic," she observed. "Please come and sit down by my side and I will show you something."
He moved towards her but he did not sit down. She stretched out her hand and picked something up from the table, holding it towards him. Tavernake took it mechanically and held it in his fingers. It was a cheque for twelve thousand pounds.
"You see," she said, "I have not forgotten. This is the day, isn't it? If you like, you can stay and have lunch with me up here and we will drink to the success of our speculation."
Tavernake held the cheque in his fingers; he made no motion to put it in his pocket. She looked at him with a puzzled frown upon her face.
"Do talk or say something, please!" she exclaimed. "You look at me like some grim figure. Say something. Sit down and be natural."
"May I ask you some questions?"
"Of course you may," she replied. "You may do anything sooner than stand there looking so grim and unbending. What is it you want to know?"
"Did you understand that Wenham Gardner was this sort of man when you married him?"
She shrugged her shoulders slightly.
"I suppose I did," she admitted.
"You married him, then, only because he was rich?"
"What else do women marry for, my dear moralist?" she demanded. "It isn't my fault if it doesn't sound pretty. One must have money!"
Tavernake inclined his head gravely; he made no sign of dissent.
"You two came over to England," he went on, "with Beatrice and your father. Beatrice left you because she disapproved of certain things."
"You may as well know the truth," she said. "Beatrice has the most absurd ideas. After a week with Wenham, I knew that he was not a person with whom any woman could possibly live. His valet was really only his keeper; he was subject to such mad fits that he needed some one always with him. I was obliged to leave him in Cornwall. I can't tell you everything, but it was absolutely impossible for me to go on living with him."
"Beatrice," Tavernake remarked, "thought otherwise."
Elizabeth looked at him quickly from below her eyelids. It was hard, however, to gather anything from his face.
"Beatrice thought otherwise," Elizabeth admitted. "She thought that I ought to nurse him, put up with him, give up all my friends, and try and keep him alive. Why, it would have been absolute martyrdom, misery for me," she declared. "How could I be expected to do such a thing?"
Tavernake nodded gravely.
"And the money?" he asked.
"Well, perhaps there I was a trifle calculating," she confessed. "But you," she added, nodding at the cheque in his hand, "shouldn't grumble at that. I knew when we were married that I should have trouble. His people hated me, and I knew that in the event of anything happening like this thing which has happened, they would try to get as little as possible allowed me. So before we left New York, I got Wenham to turn as much as ever he could into cash. That we brought away with us."
"And who took care of it?"
"I did," she answered, "naturally."
"Tell me about last night," Tavernake said. "I suppose I am stupid but I don't quite understand."
"How should you?" she answered. "Listen, then. Wenham, I suppose got tired of being shut up with Mathers, although I am sure I don't see what else was possible. So he waited for his opportunity, and when the man wasn't looking--well, you know what happened," she added, with a shiver. "He got up to London somehow and made his way to Dover Street."
"Why Dover Street?"
"I suppose you know," Elizabeth explained, "that Wenham has a brother--Jerry--who is exactly like him. These two had rooms in Dover Street always, where they kept some English clothes and a servant. Jerry Gardner was over in London. I knew that, and was expecting to see him every day. Wenham found his way to the rooms, dressed himself in his brother's clothes, even wore his ring and some of his jewelry, which he knew I should recognize, and came here. I believed--yes, I believed all the time," she went on, her voice trembling, "that it was Jerry who was sitting with me. Once or twice I had a sort of terrible shiver. Then I remembered how much they were alike and it seemed to me ridiculous to be afraid. It was not till we got upstairs, till the door was closed behind me, that he turned round and I knew!"
Her head fell suddenly into her hands. It was almost the first sign of emotion. Tavernake analyzed it mercilessly. He knew very well that it was fear, the coward's fear of that terrible moment.
"Now," she went on, more cheerfully, "no one will venture to deny that Wenham is mad. He will be placed under restraint, of course, and the courts will make me an allowance. One thing is absolutely certain, and that is that he will not live a year."
Tavernake half closed his eyes. Was there no sign of his suffering, no warning note of the things which were passing out of his life! The woman who smiled upon him seemed to see nothing. The twitching of his fingers, the slight quivering of his face, she thought was because of his fear for her.
"And now," she declared, in a suddenly altered tone, "this is all over and done with. Now you know everything. There are no more mysteries," she added, smiling at him delightfully. "It is all very terrible, of course, but I feel as though a great weight had passed away. You and I are going to be friends, are we not?"
She rose slowly to her feet and came towards him. His eyes watched her slow, graceful movements as though fascinated. He remembered on that first visit of his how wonderful he had thought her walk. She was still smiling up at him; her fingers fell upon his shoulders.
"You are such a strange person," she murmured. "You aren't a little bit like any of the men I've ever known, any of the men I have ever cared to have as friends. There is something about you altogether different. I suppose that is why I rather like you. Are you glad?"
For a single wild moment Tavernake hesitated. She was so close to him that her hair touched his forehead, the breath from her upturned lips fell upon his cheeks. Her blue eyes were half pleading, half inviting.
"You are going to be my very dear friend, are you not--Leonard?" she whispered. "I do feel that I need some one strong like you to help me through these days."
Tavernake suddenly seized the hands that were upon his shoulders, and forced them back. She felt herself gripped as though by a vice, and a sudden terror seized her. He lifted her up and she caught a glimpse of his wild, set face. Then the breath came through his teeth. He shook all over but the fit had passed. He simply thrust her away from him.
"No," he said, "we cannot be friends! You are a woman without a heart, you are a murderess!"
He tore her cheque calmly in pieces and flung them scornfully away. She stood looking at him, breathing quickly, white to the lips though the murder had gone from his eyes.
"Beatrice warned me," he went on; "Pritchard warned me. Some things I saw for myself, but I suppose I was mad. Now I know!"
He turned away. Her eyes followed him wonderingly.
"Leonard," she cried out, "you are not going like this? You don't mean it!"
Ever afterwards his restraint amazed him. He did not reply. He closed both doors firmly behind him and walked to the lift. She came even to the outside door and called down the corridor.
"Leonard, come back for one moment!"
He turned his head and looked at her, looked at her from the corner of the corridor, steadfastly and without speech. Her fingers dropped from the handle of the door. She went back into her room with shaking knees, and began to cry softly. Afterwards she wondered at herself. It was the first time she had cried for many years.
Tavernake walked to the city and in less than half an hour's time found himself in Mr. Martin's office. The lawyer welcomed him warmly.
"I'm jolly glad to see you, Tavernake," he declared. "I hope you've got the money. Sit down."
Tavernake did not sit down; he had forgotten, indeed, to take of his hat.
"Martin," he said, "I am sorry for you. I have been fooled and you have to pay as well as I have. I can't take up the option on the property. I haven't a penny toward it except my own money, and you know how much that is. You can sell my plots, if you like, and call the money your costs. I've finished."
The lawyer looked at him with wide-open mouth.
"What on earth are you talking about, Tavernake?" he exclaimed. "Are you drunk, by any chance?"
"No, I am quite sober," Tavernake answered. "I have made one or two bad mistakes, that's all. You have a power of attorney for me. You can do what you like with my land, make any terms you please. Good-day!"
"But, Tavernake, look here!" the lawyer protested, springing to his feet. "I say, Tavernake!" he called out.
But Tavernake heard nothing, or, if he heard, he took no notice. He walked out into the street and was lost among the hurrying throngs upon the pavements.