Book Two
Chapter VI. Understanding Comes Too Late
 

Tavernake's first impression of Elizabeth was that he had never, even in his wildest thoughts, done her justice. He had never imagined her so wonderfully, so alluringly beautiful. She had received him, after a very long delay, in her sitting-room at Claridge's Hotel--a large apartment furnished more like a drawing-room. She was standing, when he entered, almost in the center of the room, dressed in a long lace cloak and a hat with a drooping black feather. She looked at him, as the door opened, as though for a moment half puzzled. Then she laughed softly and held out her hands.

"Why, of course I remember you!" she exclaimed. "And to think that when I had your card I couldn't imagine where I had heard the name before! You are my dear estate agent's clerk, who wouldn't take my money, and who was so wretchedly rude to me twelve months ago."

Tavernake was quite cool. He found himself wondering whether this was a pose, or whether she had indeed forgotten. He decided that it was a pose.

"I was also," he reminded her, "one night in your rooms at the Milan Court when your husband--"

She stopped him with an imperative gesture.

"Spare me, please," she begged. "Those were such terrible days --so dull, too! I remember that you were quite one of the brightest spots. You were absolutely different from every one I had ever met before, and you interested me immensely."

She looked at him and slowly shook her head.

"You look very nice," she said. "Your clothes fit you and you are most becomingly tanned, but you don't look half so awkward and so adorable."

"I am sorry," he replied, shortly.

"And you came to see me!" she went on. "That was really nice of you. You were quite fond of me, once, you know. Tell me, has it lasted?"

"That is exactly what I came to find out," he answered deliberately. "So far, I am inclined to think that it has not lasted."

She made a little wry face and drew his arm through hers.

"Come and sit down and tell me why," she insisted. "Be honest, now. Is it because you think I am looking older?"

"I have thought of you for many hours a day for months," Tavernake said, slowly, "and I never imagined you so beautiful as you seem now."

She clapped her hands.

"And yon mean it, too!" she exclaimed. "There is just the same delightfully convincing note in your tone. I am sure that you mean it. Please go on adoring me, Mr. Tavernake. I have no one who interests me at all just now. There is an Italian Count who wants to marry me, but he is terribly poor; and a young Australian, who follows me everywhere, but I am not sure about him. There is an English boy, too, who is going to commit suicide if I don't say 'yes' to him this week. On the whole, I think I am rather sorry that people know I am a widow. Tell me, Mr. Tavernake, are you going to adore me, too?"

"I don't think so," Tavernake answered. "I rather believe that I am cured."

She shrugged her shoulders and laughed musically.

"But you say that you still think I am beautiful," she went on, "and I am sure my clothes are perfect--they came straight from Paris. I hope you appreciate this lace," she added, drawing it through her fingers. "My figure is just as good, too, isn't it?"

She stood up and turned slowly round. Then she sat down suddenly, taking his hand in hers.

"Please don't say that you think I have grown less attractive," she begged.

"As regards your personal attractions," Tavernake replied, "I imagine that they are at least as great as ever. If you want the truth, I think that the reason I do not adore you any longer is because I saw your sister last night."

"Saw Beatrice!" she exclaimed. "Where?"

"She was singing at a miserable east-end music-hall so that her father might find some sort of employment," Tavernake said. "The people only forbore to hiss her father's turn for her sake. She goes about the country with him. Heaven knows what they earn, but it must be little enough! Beatrice is shabby and thin and pale. She is devoting the best years of her life to what she imagines to be her duty."

"And how does this affect me?" Elizabeth asked, coldly.

"Only in this way," Tavernake answered. "You asked me how it was that I could find you as beautiful as ever and adore you no longer. The reason is because I know you to be wretchedly selfish. I believed in you before. Everything that you did seemed right. That was because I was a fool, because you had filled my brain with impossible fancies, because I saw you and everything that you did through a distorted mirror."

"Have you come here to be rude?" she asked him.

"Not in the least," he replied. "I came here to see whether I was cured."

She began to laugh, very softly at first, but soon she threw herself back among the cushions and laid her hand caressingly upon his shoulder.

"Oh, you are just the same!" she cried. "Just the same dear, truthful bundle of honesty and awkwardness and ignorance. So you are going to be victim of Beatrice's bow and spear, after all."

"I have asked your sister to marry me," Tavernake admitted. "She will not."

"She was very wise," Elizabeth declared, wiping the tears from her eyes. "As an experience you are delightful. As a husband you would be terribly impossible. Are you going to stay and take me out to dinner this evening? I'm sure you have a dress suit now."

Tavernake shook his head.

"I am sorry," he said. "I have already an engagement."

She looked at him curiously. Was it really true that he had become indifferent? She was not used to men who escaped.

"Tell me," she asked, abruptly, "why did you come? I don't understand. You are here, and you pass your time being rude to me. I ask you to take me to dinner and you refuse. Do you know that scarcely a man in London would not have jumped at such a chance?"

"Very likely," Tavernake answered. "I have no experience in such matters. I only know that I am going to do something else."

"Something you want to do very much?" she whispered.

"I am going down to a little music-hall in Whitechapel," Tavernake said, "and I am going to meet your sister and I am going to put her in a cab and take her to have some supper, and I am going to worry her until she promises to be my wife."

"You are certainly a devoted admirer of the family," she laughed. "Perhaps you were in love with her all the time."

"Perhaps I was," he admitted.

She shook her head.

"I don't believe it," she said. "I think you were quite fond of me once. You have such absurdly old-fashioned ideas or I think that you would be fond of me now."

Tavernake rose to his feet.

"I am going," he declared. "This will be good-bye. To-morrow I am going to British Columbia."

The laughter faded for a moment from her face. She was suddenly serious.

"Don't go," she begged. "Listen. I know I am not good like Beatrice, but I do like you--I always did. I suppose it is that wonderful truthfulness of yours. You are a different type from the men one meets. I am rather a reckless person. It is such a comfort sometimes to meet any one like you. You seem such an anchorage. Stay and talk to me for a little time. Take me out to-night. You asked me to go with you once, you know, and I would not. To-night it is I who ask you."

He shook his head slowly.

"This is good-bye!" he said, firmly. "I suppose, after all, you were not unkind to me in those days, but you taught me a very bitter lesson. I came to you to-day in fear and trembling. I was afraid, perhaps, that the worst was not over, that there was more yet to come. Now I know that I am free."

She stamped her foot.

"You shall not go away like that," she declared.

He smiled.

"Do you think I do not understand?" he continued. "It is only because I am able to go, because the touch of your fingers, that look in your eyes, do not drive me half mad now, that you want me to stay. You would like to try your powers once more. I think not. I am satisfied that I am cured indeed, but perhaps it is safer to risk nothing."

She pointed to the door.

"Very well, then," she ordered, "you can go."

He bowed, and already his fingers were on the handle. Suddenly she called to him.

"Leonard! Leonard!"

He turned round. She was coming towards him with her arms outstretched, her eyes were full of tears, there were sobs in her voice.

"I am so lonely," she begged. "I have thought of you so much. Don't go away unkindly. Stay with me for this evening, at any rate. You can see Beatrice at any time. It is I who need you most now."

He looked around at the splendid apartment; he looked at the woman whose fingers, glittering with jewels, rested upon his shoulders. Then he thought of Beatrice in her shabby black gown and wan little face, and very gently he removed her hands.

"No," he said, "I do not think that you need me any more than I need you. This is a caprice of yours. You know it and I know it. Is it worth while to play with one another?"

Her hands fell to her sides. She turned half away but she said nothing. Tavernake, with a sudden impulse which had in it nothing of passion--very little, indeed, of affection--lifted her fingers to his lips and passed out of the room. He descended the stairs, filled with a wonderful sense of elation, a buoyancy of spirit which he could not understand. As he walked blithely to his hotel, however, he began to realize how much he had dreaded this interview. He was a free man, after all. The spell was broken. He could think of her now as she deserved to be thought of, as a consummate woman of the world, selfish, heartless, conscienceless. He was well out of her toils. It was nothing to him if even he had known that at that moment she was lying upon the sofa to which she had staggered as he left the room, weeping bitterly.

For over an hour Tavernake endured the smells and the bad atmosphere of that miserable little music-hall, watching eagerly each time the numbers were changed. Then at last, towards the end of the program, the manager appeared in front.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "I regret very much to inform you that owing to the indisposition of the young lady, Miss Beatrice Franklin and her father are unable to appear to-night. I have pleasure in announcing an extra turn, namely the Sisters De Vere in their wonderful burlesque act."

There was a murmur of disapprobation mingled with some cheering. Tavernake left his place and walked around to the back of the hall. Presently the manager came out to him.

"I am sorry to trouble you, sir," Tavernake said,"but I heard your announcement just now from the front. Can you give me the address of Professor Franklin? I am a friend, and I should like to go and see them."

The manager pointed to the stage-doorkeeper.

"This man will give it you," he announced, shortly. "It's quite close. I shall look in myself after the show to know how the young lady is."

Tavernake procured the address and set out in the taxicab which he had kept waiting. The driver listened to the direction doubtfully.

"It's a poor sort of neighborhood, sir," he remarked.

"We've got to go there," Tavernake told him.

They reached it in a few minutes, a miserable street indeed. Tavernake knocked at the door of the house to which he was directed, with sinking heart. A man, collarless and half dressed, in carpet slippers, opened the door after a few moments' waiting.

"Well, what is it?" he asked, gruffly.

"Is Professor Franklin here?" Tavernake inquired.

The man seemed as though he were about to slam the door, but thought better of it.

"If you're a friend of the professor's, as he calls himself," he said, "and you've any money to shell out, why, you're welcome, but if you're only asking out of curiosity, let me tell you that he used to lodge here but he's gone, and if I'd had my way he'd have gone a week ago, him and his daughter, too."

"I don't understand," Tavernake protested. "I thought the young lady was ill."

"She may be ill or she may not," the man replied, sulkily. "All I know is that they couldn't pay their rent, couldn't pay their food bill, couldn't pay for the drinks the old man was always sending out for. So tonight I spoke up and they've gone."

"At least you know where to!" Tavernake exclaimed.

"I ain't no sort of an idea," the man declared. "Take my word for it straight, guvnor, I know no more about where they went to than the man in the moon, except that I'm well shut of them, and there's a matter of eighteen and sixpence, if you care to pay it."

"I'll give you a sovereign," Tavernake promised, "if you will tell me where they are now."

"What's the good of making silly conditions like that!" the man grumbled. "If I knew where they were, I'd earn the quid soon enough, but I don't, and that's the long and the short of it! And if you ain't going to pay the eighteen and six, well, I've answered all the questions I feel inclined to."

"I'll make it two pounds," Tavernake promised. "I'm going to sail for America to-morrow morning early, and I must see them first."

The man leaned forward.

"Look here," he said, "if I knew where they was, a quid would be quite good enough for me, but I don't, and that's straight. If you want to look for them, I should try one of the doss houses. As likely there as anywhere."

He slammed the door and Tavernake turned away. A sudden despair had seized him. He looked up and down the street, he looked away beyond and thought of the miles and miles of streets, the myriads of chimneys, the huge branches of the great city stretching far and wide. At eight o'clock the next morning, he must leave for Southampton. Was it too late, after all, that he had discovered the truth?