The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter III. Old Friends Meet
The professor set down his tumbler upon the zinc-rimmed counter. He was very little changed except that he had grown a shade stouter, and there was perhaps more color in his cheeks. He carried himself, too, like a man who believes in himself. In the small public-house he was, without doubt, an impressive figure.
"My friends," he remarked, "our host's whiskey is good. At the same time, I must not forget--"
"You'll have one with me, Professor," a youth at his elbow interrupted. "Two special whiskies, miss, if you please."
The professor shrugged his shoulders--it was a gesture which he wished every one to understand. He was suffering now the penalty for a popularity which would not be denied!
"You are very kind, sir," he said, "very kind, indeed. As I was about to say, I must not forget that in less than half an hour I am due upon the stage. It does not do to disappoint one's audience, sir. It is a poor place, this music-hall, but it is full, they tell me packed from floor to ceiling. At eight-thirty I must show myself."
"A marvelous turn, too, Professor," declared one of the young men by whom he was surrounded.
"I thank you, sir," the professor replied, turning towards the speaker, glass in hand. "There have been others who have paid me a similar compliment; others, I may say, not unconnected with the aristocracy of your country--not unconnected either, I might add," he went on, "with the very highest in the land, those who from their exalted position have never failed to shower favors upon the more fortunate sons of our profession. The science of which I am to some extent the pioneer--not a drop more, my young friend. Say, I'm in dead earnest this time! No more, indeed."
The young man in knickerbockers who had just come in banged the head of his cane upon the counter.
"You'll never refuse me, Professor," he asserted, confidently. "I'm an old supporter, I am. I've seen you in Blackburn and Manchester, and twice here. Just as wonderful as ever! And that young lady of yours, Professor, begging your pardon if she is your daughter, as no doubt she is, why, she's a nut and no mistake."
The professor sighed. He was in his element but he was getting uneasy at the flight of time.
"My young friend," he said, "your face is not familiar to me but I cannot refuse your kindly offer. It must be the last, however, absolutely the last."
Then Tavernake, directed here from the music-hall, pushed open the swing door and entered. The professor set down his glass untasted. Tavernake came slowly across the room.
"You haven't forgotten me, then, Professor?" he remarked, holding out his hand.
The professor welcomed him a little limply; something of the bombast had gone out of his manner. Tavernake's arrival had reminded him of things which he had only too easily forgotten.
"This is very surprising," he faltered, "very surprising indeed. Do you live in these parts?"
"Not far away," Tavernake answered. "I saw your announcement in the papers."
The professor nodded.
"Yes," he said, "I am on the war-path again. I tried resting but I got fat and lazy, and the people wouldn't have it, sir," he continued, recovering very quickly something of his former manner. "The number of offers I got through my agents by every post was simply astounding--astounding!"
"I am looking forward to seeing your performance this evening," Tavernake said politely. "In the meantime--"
"I know what you are thinking of," the professor interrupted. "Well, well, give me your arm and we will walk down to the hall together. My friends," the professor added, turning round, "I wish you all a good-night!"
Then the door was pushed half-way open and Tavernake's heart gave a jump. It was Beatrice who stood there, very pale, very tired, and much thinner even than the Beatrice of the boardinghouse, but still Beatrice.
"Father," she exclaimed, "do you know that it is nearly--"
Then she saw Tavernake and said no more. She seemed to sway a little, and Tavernake, taking a quick step forward, grasped her by the hands.
"Dear sister," he cried, "you have been ill!"
She was herself again almost in a moment.
"Ill? Never in my life," she replied. "Only I have been hurrying--we are late already for the performance--and seeing you there, well, it was quite a shock, you know. Walk down with us and tell me all about it.
Tell us what you are doing here--or rather, don't talk for a moment! It is all so amazing."
They turned down the narrow cobbled street, the professor walking in the middle of the roadway, swinging his cane, a very imposing and wonderful figure, with the tails of his frock-coat streaming in the wind, his long hair only half-hidden by his hat. He hummed a tune to himself and affected not to take any notice of the other two. Then Tavernake suddenly realized that he had done a cowardly action in leaving her without a word.
"There is so much to ask," she began at last, "but you have come back."
She looked at his workman's clothes.
"What have you been doing?" she asked, sharply.
"Working," Tavernake answered, "good work, too. I am the better for it. Don't mind my clothes, Beatrice. I have been mad for a time, but after all it has been a healthy madness."
"It was a strange thing that you did," she said,--"you disappeared."
"Some day," he told her, "I may, perhaps, be able to make you understand. Just now I don't think that I could."
"It was Elizabeth?" she whispered, softly.
"It was Elizabeth," he admitted.
They said no more then till they reached the hall. She stopped at the door and put out her hand timidly.
"I shall see you afterwards?" she ventured.
"Do you mind my coming to the performance?" he asked.
"A few moments ago," she remarked, smiling, "I was dreading your coming. Now I think that you had better. It will be all over at ten o'clock, and I shall look for you outside. You are living in Norwich?"
"I shall be here for to-night, at any rate," he answered.
"Very well, then," she said, "afterwards we will have a talk."
Tavernake passed through the scattered knot of loiterers at the door and bought a seat for himself in the little music-hall, which, notwithstanding the professor's boast, was none too well filled. It was a place of the old-fashioned sort, with small tables in the front, and waiters hurrying about serving drinks. The people were of the lowest order, and the atmosphere of the room was thick with tobacco smoke. A young woman in a flaxen wig and boy's clothes was singing a popular ditty, marching up and down the stage, and interspersing the words o f her song with grimaces and appropriate action. Tavernake sat down with a barely-smothered groan. He was beginning to realize the tragedy upon which he had stumbled. A comic singer followed, who in a dress suit several sizes too large for him gave an imitation of a popular Irish comedian. Then the curtain went up and the professor was seen, standing in front of the curtain and bowing solemnly to a somewhat unresponsive audience. A minute later Beatrice came quietly in and sat by his side. There was nothing new about the show. Tavernake had seen the same thing before, with the exception that the professor was perhaps a little behind the majority of his fellow-craftsmen. The performance was finished in dead silence, and after it was over, Beatrice came to the front and sang. She was a very unusual figure in such a place, in a plain black evening gown, with black gloves and no jewelry, but they encored her heartily, and she sang a song from the musical comedy in which Tavernake had first seen her. A sudden wave of reminiscence stirred within him. His thoughts seemed to go back to the night when he had waited for her outside the theatre and they had had supper at Imano's, to the day when he had left the boarding-house and entered upon his new life. It was more like a dream than ever now.
He rose and quitted the place immediately she had finished, waiting in the street until she appeared. She came out in a few minutes.
"Father is going to a supper," she announced, "at the inn where he has a room for receiving people. Will you come home with me for an hour? Then we can go round and fetch him."
"I should like to," Tavernake answered.
Her lodgings were only a few steps away--a strange little house in a narrow street. She opened the front door and ushered him in.
"You understand, of course," she said, smiling, "that we have abandoned the haunts of luxury altogether."
He looked around at the tiny room with its struggling fire and horsehair sofa, linoleum for carpet, oleographs for pictures, and he shivered, not for his own sake but for hers. On the sideboard were some bread and cheese and a bottle of ginger beer.
"Please imagine," she begged, taking the pins from her hat, "that you are in those dear comfortable rooms of ours down at Chelsea. Draw that easy-chair up to what there is of the fire, and listen. You smoke still?"
"I have taken to a pipe," he admitted.
"Then light it and listen," she went on, smoothing her hair for a minute in front of the looking-glass. "You want to know about Elizabeth, of course."
"Yes," he said, "I want to know."
"Elizabeth, on the whole," Beatrice continued, "got out of all her troubles very well. Her husband's people were wild with her, but Elizabeth was very clever. They were never able to prove that she had exercised more than proper control over poor Wenham. He died two months after they took him to the asylum. They offered Elizabeth a lump sum to waive all claims to his estate, and she accepted it. I think that she is now somewhere on the Continent."
"And you?" he asked. "Why did you leave the theatre?"
"It was a matter of looking after my father," she explained. "You see, while he was there with Elizabeth he had too much money and nothing to do. The consequence was that he was always --well, I suppose I had better say it--drinking too much, and he was losing all his desire for work. I made him promise that if I could get some engagements he would come away with me, so I went to an agent and we have been touring like this for quite a long time."
"But what a life for you!" Tavernake exclaimed. "Couldn't you have stayed on at the theatre and found him something in London?"
She shook her head.
"In London," she said, "he would never have got out of his old habits. And then," she went on, hesitatingly, "you understand that the public want something else besides the hypnotism--"
Tavernake interrupted her ruthlessly.
"Of course I understand," he declared, "I was there to-night. I understood at once why you were not very anxious for me to go. The people cared nothing at all about your father's performance. They simply waited for you. You would get the same money if you went round without him."
She nodded, a trifle shamefacedly.
"I am so afraid some one will tell him," she confessed. "They nearly always ask me to leave out his part of the performance. They have even offered me more money if I would come alone. But you see how it is. He believes in himself, he thinks he is very clever and he believes that the public like his show. It is the only thing which helps him to keep a little self-respect. He thinks that my singing is almost unnecessary."
Tavernake looked into that faint glimmer of miserable fire. He was conscious of a curious feeling in his throat. How little he knew of life! The pathos of what she had told him, the thought of her bravely traveling the country and singing at third-rate music-halls, never taking any credit to herself, simply that her father might still believe himself a man of talent, appealed to him irresistibly. He suddenly held out his hand.
"Poor little Beatrice!" he exclaimed. "Dear little sister!"
The hand he gripped was cold, she avoided his eyes.
"You--you mustn't," she murmured. "Please don't!"
He held out his other hand and half rose, but her lips suddenly ceased to quiver and she waved him back.
"No, Leonard," she begged, "please don't do or say anything foolish. Since we do meet again, though, like this, I am going to ask you one question. What made you come to me and ask me to marry you that day?"
He looked away; something in her eyes accused him.
"Beatrice," he confessed, "I was a thick-headed ignorant fool, without understanding. I came to you for safety. I was afraid of Elizabeth, I was afraid of what I felt for her. I wanted to escape from it."
She smiled piteously.
"It wasn't a very brave thing to do, was it?" she faltered.
"It was mean," he admitted. "It was worse than that. But, Beatrice," he went on, "I was missing you horribly. You did leave a big empty place when you went away. I am not going to excuse myself about Elizabeth. I lived through a time of the strangest, most marvelous emotions one could dream of. Then the thing came to an end and I felt as though the bottom had gone out of life. I suppose--I loved her," he continued hesitatingly. "I don't know. I only know that she filled every thought of my brain, that she lived in every beat of my heart, that I would have gone down into Hell to help her. And then I understood. That morning she told me something of the truth about herself, not meaning to--unconsciously - justifying herself all the time, not realizing that every word she said was damnable. And then there didn't seem to be anything else left, and I had only one desire. I turned my back upon everything and I went back to the place where I was born, a little fishing village. For the last thirty miles I walked. I shall never forget it. When I got there, what I wanted was work, work with my hands. I wanted to build something, to create anything that I could labor upon. I became a boat builder--I have been a boatbuilder ever since."
"And now?" she asked.
She turned and faced him. She looked into his eyes very searchingly, very wistfully.
"Beatrice," he said, "I ask you once more, only differently. Will you marry me now? I'll find some work, I'll make enough money for us. Do you remember," he went on, "how I used to talk, how I used to feel that I had only to put forth my strength and I could win anything? I'll feel like that again, Beatrice, if you'll come to me."
She shook her head slowly. She looked away from him with a sigh. She had the air of one who has sought for something which she has failed to find.
"You mustn't think of that again, Leonard," she told him. "It would be quite impossible. This is the only way I can save my father. We have a tour that will take us the best part of another year."
"But you are sacrificing yourself!" he declared. "I will keep your father."
"It isn't that only," she replied. "For one thing, I couldn't let you; and for another, it isn't only the money, it's the work. As long as he's made to think that the public expect him every night, he keeps off drinking too much. There is nothing else in the whole world which would keep him steady. Don't look as though you didn't understand, Leonard. He is my father, you know, and there isn't anything more terrible than to see any one who has a claim on us give way to anything like that. You mayn't quite approve, but please believe that I am doing what I feel to be right."
The little fire had gone out. Beatrice glanced at the clock and put on her jacket again.
"I am sorry, Leonard," she said, "but I think I must go and fetch father now. You can walk with me there, if you will. It has been very good to see you again. For the rest I don't know what to say to you. Do you think that it is quite what you were meant for--to build boats?"
"I don't seem to have any other ambition," he answered, wearily. "When I read in the paper this morning that you and your father were here, things seemed suddenly different. I came at once. I didn't know what I wanted until I saw you, but I know now, and it isn't any good."
"No good at all," she declared cheerfully. "It won't be very long, Leonard, before something else comes along to stir you. I don't think you were meant to build boats all your life."
He rose and took up his hat. She was waiting for him at the door. Again they passed down the narrow street.
"Tell, me, Beatrice," he begged, "is it because you don't like me well enough that you won't listen to what I ask?"
For a moment she half closed her eyes as though in pain. Then she laughed, not perhaps very naturally. They were standing now by the door of the public house.
"Leonard," she said, "you are very young in years but you are a baby in experience. Mind, there are other reasons why I could not--would not dream of marrying you, other reasons which are absolutely sufficient, but--do you know that you have asked me twice and you have never once said that you cared, that you have never once looked as though you cared? No, don't, please," she interrupted, "don't explain anything. You see, a woman always knows--too well, sometimes."
She nodded, and passed in through the swinging-doors. Standing out there in the narrow, crooked street, Tavernake heard the clapping and applause which greeted her entrance, he heard her father's voice. Some one struck a note at the piano--she was going to sing. Very slowly he turned away and walked down the cobbled hill.