The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter III. An Unpleasant Meeting
It was a quarter past eleven and the theatres were disgorging their usual nightly crowds. The most human thoroughfare in any of the world's great cities was at its best and brightest. Everywhere commissionaires were blowing their whistles, the streets were thronged with slowly-moving vehicles, the pavements were stirring with life. The little crowd which had gathered in front of the chemist's shop was swept away. After all, none of them knew exactly what they had been waiting for. There was a rumor that a woman had fainted or had met with an accident. Certainly she had been carried into the shop and into the inner room, the door of which was still closed. A few passers-by had gathered together and stared and waited for a few minutes, but had finally lost interest and melted away. A human thoroughfare, this, indeed, one of the pulses of the great city beating time night and day to the tragedies of life. The chemist's assistant, with impassive features, was serving a couple of casual customers from behind the counter. Only a few yards away, beyond the closed door, the chemist himself and a hastily summoned doctor fought with Death for the body of the girl who lay upon the floor, faint moans coming every now and then from her blue lips.
Tavernake, whose forced inaction during that terrible struggle had become a burden to him, slipped softly from the room as soon as the doctor had whispered that the acute crisis was over, and passed through the shop out into the street, a solemn, dazed figure among the light-hearted crowd. Even in those grim moments, the man's individualism spoke up to him. He was puzzled at his own action, He asked himself a question--not, indeed, with regret, but with something more than curiosity and actual selfprobing--as though, by concentrating his mind upon his recent course of action, he would be able to understand the motives which had influenced him. Why had he chosen to burden himself with the care of this desperate young woman? Supposing she lived, what was to become of her? He had acquired a certain definite responsibility with regard to her future, for whatever the doctor and his assistant might do, it was his own promptitude and presence of mind which had given her the first chance of life. Without a doubt, he had behaved foolishly. Why not vanish into the crowd and have done with it? What was it to him, after all, whether this girl lived or died? He had done his duty -- more than his duty. Why not disappear now and let her take her chance? His common sense spoke to him loudly; such thoughts as these beat upon his brain.
Just for once in his life, however, his common sense exercised an altogether subordinate position. He knew very well, even while he listened to these voices, that he was only counting the minutes until he could return. Having absolutely decided that the only reasonable course left for him to pursue was to return home and leave the girl to her fate, he found himself back inside the shop within a quarter of an hour. The chemist had just come out from the inner room, and looked up at his entrance.
"She'll do now," he announced.
Tavernake nodded. He was amazed at his own sense of relief.
"I am glad," he declared.
The doctor joined them, his black bag in his hand, prepared for departure. He addressed himself to Tavernake as the responsible person.
"The young lady will be all right now," he said, "but she may be rather queer for a day or two. Fortunately, she made the usual mistake of people who are ignorant of medicine and its effects -- she took enough poison to kill a whole household. You had better take care of her, young man," he added dryly. "She'll be getting into trouble if she tries this sort of thing again."
"Will she need any special attention during the next few days?" Tavernake asked. "The circumstances under which I brought her here are a little unusual, and I am not quite sure--"
"Take her home to bed," the doctor interrupted, "and you'll find she'll sleep it off. She seems to have a splendid constitution, although she has let herself run down. If you need any further advice and your own medical man is not available, I will come and see her if you send for me. Camden, my name is; telephone number 734 Gerrard."
"I should be glad to know the amount of your fee, if you please," Tavernake said.
"My fee is two guineas," the doctor answered.
Tavernake paid him and he went away. Already the shadow of the tragedy was passing. The chemist had joined his assistant and was busy dispensing drugs behind his counter.
"You can go in to the young lady, if you like," he remarked to Tavernake. "I dare say she'll feel better to have some one with her."
Tavernake passed slowly into the inner room, closing the door behind him. He was scarcely prepared for so piteous a sight. The girl's face was white and drawn as she lay upon the couch to which they had lifted her. The fighting spirit was dead; she was in a state of absolute and complete collapse. She opened her eyes at his coning, but closed them again almost immediately -- less, it seemed, from any consciousness of his presence than from sheer exhaustion.
"I am glad that you are better," he whispered crossing the room to her side.
"Thank you," she murmured almost inaudibly.
Tavernake stood looking down upon her, and his sense of perplexity increased. Stretched on the hard horsehair couch she seemed, indeed, pitifully thin and younger than her years. The scowl, which had passed from her face, had served in some measure as a disguise.
"We shall have to leave here in a few minutes," he said, softly. "They will want to close the shop."
"I am so sorry," she faltered, "to have given you all this trouble. You must send me to a hospital or the workhouse -- anywhere."
"You are sure that there are no friends to whom I can send?" he asked.
"There is no one!"
She closed her eyes and Tavernake sat quite still on the end of her couch, his elbow upon his knee, his head resting upon his hand. Presently, the rush of customers having ceased, the chemist came in.
"I think, if I were you, I should take her home now," he remarked. "She'll probably drop off to sleep very soon and wake up much stronger. I have made up a prescription here in case of exhaustion."
Tavernake stared at the man. Take her home! His sense of humor was faint enough but he found himself trying to imagine the faces of Mrs. Lawrence or Mrs. Fitzgerald if he should return with her to the boardinghouse at such an hour.
"I suppose you know where she lives?" the chemist inquired curiously.
"Of course," Tavernake assented. "You are quite right. I dare say she is strong enough now to walk as far as the pavement."
He paid the bill for the medicines, and they lifted her from the couch. Between them she walked slowly into the outer shop. Then she began to drag on their arms and she looked up at the chemist a little piteously.
"May I sit down for a moment?" she begged. "I feel faint."
They placed her in one of the cane chairs facing the door. The chemist mixed her some sal volatile.
"I am sorry," she murmured, "so sorry. In a few minutes--I shall be better."
Outside, the throng of pedestrians had grown less, but from the great restaurant opposite a constant stream of motor-cars and carriages was slowly bringing away the supper guests. Tavernake stood at the door, watching them idly. The traffic was momentarily blocked and almost opposite to him a motor-car, the simple magnificence of which filled him with wonder, had come to a standstill. The chauffeur and footman both wore livery which was almost white. Inside a swinging vase of flowers was suspended from the roof. A man and a woman leaned back in luxurious easy-chairs. The man was dark and had the look of a foreigner. The woman was very fair. She wore a long ermine cloak and a tiara of pearls.
Tavernake, whose interest in the passing throngs was entirely superficial, found himself for some reason curiously attracted by this glimpse into a world of luxury of which he knew nothing; attracted, too, by the woman's delicate face with its uncommon type of beauty. Their eyes met as he stood there, stolid and motionless, framed in the doorway. Tavernake continued to stare, unmindful, perhaps unconscious, of the rudeness of his action. The woman, after a moment, glanced away at the shopwindow. A sudden thought seemed to strike her. She spoke through the tube at her side and turned to her companion. Meanwhile, the footman, leaning from his place, held out his arm in warning and the car was slowly backed to the side of the pavement. The lady felt for a moment in a bag of white satin which lay upon the round table in front of her, and handed a slip of paper through the open window to the servant who had already descended and was standing waiting. He came at once towards the shop, passing Tavernake, who remained in the door-way.
"Will you make this up at once, please?" he directed, handing the paper across to the chemist.
The chemist took it in his hand and turned away mechanically toward the dispensing room. Suddenly he paused, and, looking back, shook his head.
"For whom is this prescription required?" he asked.
"For my mistress," the man answered. "Her name is there."
"Where is she?"
"Outside; she is waiting for it."
"If she really wants this made up to-night," the chemist declared, "she must come in and sign the book."
The footman looked across the counter, for a moment, a little blankly.
"Am I to tell her that?" he inquired. "It's only a sleeping draught. Her regular chemist makes it up all right."
"That may be," the man behind the counter replied, "but, you see, I am not her regular chemist. You had better go and tell her so."
The footman departed upon his errand without a glance at the girl who was sitting within a few feet of him.
"I am very sorry, madam," he announced to his mistress, "that the chemist declines to make up the prescription unless you sign the book."
"Very well, then, I will come," she declared.
The woman, handed from the automobile by her servant, lifted her white satin skirts in both hands and stepped lightly across the pavement. Tavernake stood on one side to let her pass. She seemed to him to be, indeed, a creature of that other world of which he knew nothing. Her slow, graceful movements, the shimmer of her skirt, her silk stockings, the flashing of the diamond buckles upon her shoes, the faint perfume from her clothes, the soft touch of her ermine as she swept by--all these things were indeed strange to him. His eyes followed her with rapt interest as she approached the counter.
"You wish me to sign for my prescription?" she asked the chemist. "I will do so, with pleasure, if it is necessary, only you must not keep me waiting long."
Her voice was very low and very musical; the slight smile which had parted her tired lips, was almost pathetic. Even the chemist felt himself to be a human being. He turned at once to his shelves and began to prepare the drug.
"I am sorry, madam, that it should have been necessary to fetch you in," he said, apologetically. "My assistant will give you the book if you will kindly sign it."
The assistant dived beneath the counter, reappearing almost immediately with a black volume and a pen and ink. The chemist was engrossed upon his task; Tavernake's eyes were still riveted upon this woman, who seemed to him the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in life. No one was watching the girl. The chemist was the first to see her face, and that only in a looking glass. He stopped in the act of mixing his drug and turned slowly round. His expression was such that they all followed his eyes. The girl was sitting up in her chair, with a sudden spot of color burning in her cheeks, her fingers gripping the counter as though for support, her eyes dilated, unnatural, burning in their white setting with an unholy fire. The lady was the last to turn her head, and the bottle of eau-de-cologne which she had taken up from the counter, slipped with a crash to the floor. All expression seemed to pass from her face; the very life seemed drawn from it. Those who were watching her saw suddenly an old woman looking at something of which she was afraid.
The girl seemed to find an unnatural strength. She dragged herself up and turned wildly to Tavernake.
"Take me away," she cried, in a low voice. "Take me away at once."
The woman at the counter did not speak. Tavernake stepped quickly forward and then hesitated. The girl was on her feet now and she clutched at his arms. Her eyes besought him.
"You must take me away, please," she begged, hoarsely. "I am well now--quite well. I can walk."
Tavernake's lack of imagination stood him in good stead then. He simply did what he was told, did it in perfectly mechanical fashion, without asking any questions. With the girl leaning heavily upon his arm, he stepped into the street and almost immediately into a passing taxicab which he had hailed from the threshold of the shop. As he closed the door, he glanced behind him. The woman was standing there, half turned towards him, still with that strange, stony look upon her lifeless face. The chemist was bending across the counter towards her, wondering, perhaps, if another incident were to be drawn into his night's work. The eau-de-cologne was running in a little stream across the floor.
"Where to, sir?" the taxicab driver asked Tavernake.
"Where to?" Tavernake repeated.
The girl was clinging to his arm.
"Tell him to drive away from here," she whispered, "to drive anywhere, but away from here."
"Drive straight on," Tavernake directed, "along Fleet Street and up Holborn. I will give you the address later on."
The man changed his speed and their pace increased. Tavernake sat quite still, dumfounded by these amazing happenings. The girl by his side was clutching his arm, sobbing a little hysterically, holding him all the time as though in terror.