The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VIII. Back to Civilization
Pritchard, trim and neat, a New Yorker from the careful arrangement of his tie to the tips of his patent boots, gazed with something like amazement at the man whom he had come to meet at the Grand Central Station. Tavernake looked, indeed, like some splendid bushman whose life has been spent in the kingdom of the winds and the sun and the rain. He was inches broader round the chest, and carried himself with a new freedom. His face was bronzed right down to the neck. His beard was fullgrown, his clothes travel-stained and worn. He seemed like a breath of real life in the great New York depot, surrounded by streams of black-coated, pale-cheeked men.
Pritchard laughed softly as he passed his arm through his friend's.
"Come, my Briton," he said, "my primitive man, I have rooms for you in a hotel close here. A bath and a mint julep, then I'll take you to a tailor's. What about the big country? It's better than your salt marshes, eh? Better than your little fishing village? Better than building boats?"
"You know it," Tavernake answered. "I feel as though I'd been drawing in life for month after month. Have I got to wear boots like yours--patent?"
"Got to be done," Pritchard declared.
"And the hat--oh, my Heavens!" Tavernake groaned. "I'll never become civilized again."
"We'll see," Pritchard laughed. "Say, Tavernake, it was a great trip of ours. Everything's turning out marvelously. The oil and the copper are big, man--big, I tell you. I reckon your five thousand dollars will be well on the way to half a million. I'm pretty near there myself."
It was not until later on, when he was alone, that Tavernake realized with how little interest he listened to his companion's talk of their success. It was so short a time ago since the building up of a fortune had been the one aim upon which every nerve of his body was centered. Curiously enough, now he seemed to take it as a matter of course.
"On second thoughts, I'll send a tailor round to the hotel," Pritchard declared. "I've rooms myself next yours. We can go out and buy boots and the other things afterwards."
By nightfall, Tavernake's wardrobe was complete. Even Pritchard regarded him with a certain surprise. He seemed, somehow, to have gained a new dignity.
"Say, but you look great!" he exclaimed. "They won't believe it at the meeting to-morrow that you are the man who crossed the Yolite Mountains and swam the Peraneek River. That's a wonderful country you were in, Tavernake, after you left the tracks."
They were in Broadway, with the roar of the city in their ears, and Tavernake, lifting his face starwards, suddenly seemed to feel the silence once more, the perfume of the pine woods, the scent of nature herself, freed through all these generations of any presence of man.
"I'll never keep away from it," he said, softly. "I'll have to go back."
"When your report's in shape and the dollars are being scooped in, they'll send you back fast enough--that is, if you still want to go," he remarked. "I tell you, Leonard Tavernake, our city men here are out for the dollars. Over on your side, a man makes a million or so and he's had enough. One fortune here only seems to whet the appetite of a New Yorker. By the way," he added, after a moment's hesitation, "does it interest you to know that an old friend of yours is in New York?"
Tavernake's head went round swiftly.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"Mrs. Wenham Gardner."
Tavernake set his teeth.
"No," he said, slowly, "I don't know that that interests me."
"Glad of it," Pritchard went on. "I can tell you I don't think things have been going extra well with the lady. She's spent most of what she got from the Gardner family, and she doesn't seem to have had the best of luck with it, either. I came across her by accident. She is staying at a flashy hotel, but it's in the wrong quarter--second-rate--quite second-rate."
"I wonder whether we shall see anything of her," Tavernake remarked.
"Do you want to?" Pritchard asked. "She'll probably be at Martin's for lunch, at the Plaza for tea, and Rector's for supper. She's not exactly the lady to remain hidden, you know."
"We'll avoid those places, then, if you are taking me around," Tavernake said.
"You're cured, are you?" Pritchard inquired.
"Yes, I am cured," Tavernake answered, "cured of that and a great many other things, thanks to you. You found me the right tonic."
"Tonic," Pritchard repeated, meditatively. "That reminds me. This way for the best cocktail in New York." . . .
The night was not to pass, however, without its own especial thrill for Tavernake. The two men dined together at Delmonico's and went afterwards to a roof garden, a new form of entertainment for Tavernake, and one which interested him vastly. They secured one of the outside tables near the parapets, and below them New York stretched, a flaming phantasmagoria of lights and crude buildings. Down the broad avenues with their towering blocks, their street cars striking fire all the time like toys below, the people streamed like insects away to the Hudson, where the great ferry boats, ablaze with lights, went screaming across the dark waters. Tavernake leaned over and forgot. There was so much that was amazing in this marvelous city for a man who had only just begun to find himself.
The orchestra, stationed within a few yards of him, commenced to play a popular waltz, and Pritchard to talk. Tavernake turned his fascinated eyes from the prospect below.
"My young friend," Pritchard said, "you are up against it to-night. Take a drink of your wine and then brace yourself."
Tavernake did as he was told.
"What is this danger?" he asked. "What's wrong, anyway?"
Pritchard had no need to answer. As Tavernake set his glass down, his eyes fell upon the little party who had just taken the table almost next to theirs. There were Walter Crease, Major Post, two men whom he had never seen before in his life--heavy of cheek, both, dull-eyed, but dressed with a rigid observance of the fashion of the city, in short dinner coats and black ties. And between them was Elizabeth. Tavernake gripped the sides of his chair and looked. Yes, she had altered. Her eyebrows were a trifle made up, there was a tinge in her hair which he did not recognize, a touch of color in her cheeks which he doubted. Yet her figure and her wonderful presence remained, that art of wearing her clothes as no other woman could. She was easily the most noticeable-looking of her sex among all the people there. Tavernake heard the sound of her voice and once more the thrill came and passed. She was the same Elizabeth. Thank God, he thought, that he was not the same Tavernake!
"Do you wish to go?" Pritchard asked.
Tavernake shook his head.
"Not I!" he answered. "This place is far too fascinating. Can't we have some more wine? This is my treat. And, Pritchard, why do you look at me like that? You are not supposing for a moment that I am capable of making an ass of myself again?"
Pritchard smiled in a relieved fashion.
"My young friend," he said, "I have lived in the world so long and seen so many strange things, especially between men and women, that I am never surprised at anything. I thought you'd shed your follies as your grip upon life had tightened, but one is never sure."
"Oh, I have shed the worst of my follies!" he answered. "I only wish--"
He never finished his sentence. Elizabeth had suddenly seen him. For a moment she leaned forward as though to assure herself that she was not mistaken. Then she half sprang to her feet and sat down again. Her lips were parted--she was once more bewilderingly beautiful.
"Mr. Tavernake," she cried, "come and speak to me at once."
Tavernake rose without hesitation, and walked firmly across the few yards which separated them. She held out both her hands.
"This is wonderful!" she exclaimed. "You in New York! And I have wondered so often what became of you."
"It is my first night here," he said. "For two years I have been prospecting in the far west."
"Then I saw your name in the papers," she declared. "It was for the Manhattan Syndicate, wasn't it?"
Tavernake nodded, and one of the men of the party leaned forward with interest.
"You're going to make millions and millions," she assured him. "You always knew you would, didn't you?"
"I am afraid that I was almost too confident," he answered. "But certainly we have been quite fortunate."
One of Elizabeth's companions intervened--he was the one who had pricked up his ears at the mention of the Manhattan Syndicate.
"Say, Elizabeth," he remarked, "I'd like to meet your friend."
Elizabeth, with a frown, performed the introduction.
"Mr. Anthony Cruxhall - Mr. Tavernake!"
Mr. Cruxhall held out a fat white hand, on the little finger of which glittered a big diamond ring.
"Say, are you the Mr. Tavernake that was surveyor to the prospecting party sent out by the Manhattan Syndicate?" he inquired.
"I was," Tavernake admitted, briefly. "I still am, I hope."
"Then you're just the man I was hoping to meet," Mr. Cruxhall declared. "Won't you sit down with us right here? I'd like to talk some about that trip. I'm interested in the Syndicate."
Tavernake shook his head.
"I've had enough of work for a time," he said. "Besides, I couldn't talk about it till after my report to the meeting to-morrow."
"Just a few words," Mr. Cruxhall persisted. "We'll have a bottle of champagne, eh?"
"You will excuse me, I am sure," Tavernake replied, "when I tell you that it would not be correct on my part to discuss my trip until after I have handed in my report to the company. I am very glad to have seen you again, Mrs. Gardner."
"But you are not going!" she exclaimed, in dismay.
"I have left Mr. Pritchard alone," Tavernake answered.
Elizabeth smiled, and waved her hand to the solitary figure.
"Our friend Mr. Pritchard again," she remarked. "Well, it is really a curious meeting, isn't it? I wonder,"--she lifted her head to his and her eyes called him closer to hers--"have you forgotten everything?"
He pointed over the roofs of the houses. His back was to the river and he pointed westward.
"I have been in a country where one forgets," he answered. "I think that I have thrown the knapsack of my follies away. I think that it is buried. There are some things which I do not forget, but they are scarcely to be spoken of."
"You are a strange young man," she said. "Was I wrong, or were you not once in love with me?"
"I was terribly in love with you," Tavernake confessed.
"Yet you tore up my cheque and flung yourself away when you found out that my standard of morals was not quite what you had expected," she murmured. "Haven't you got over that quixoticism a little, Leonard?"
He drew a deep sigh.
"I am thankful to say," he declared, earnestly, "that I have not got over it, that, if anything, my prejudices are stronger than ever."
She sat for a moment quite still, and her face had become hard and expressionless. She was looking past him, past the line of lights, out into the blue darkness.
"Somehow," she said, softly, "I always prayed that you might remember. You were the one true thing I had ever met, you were in earnest. It is past, then?"
"It is past," Tavernake answered, bravely.
The music of a Hungarian waltz came floating down to them. She half closed her eyes. Her head moved slowly with the melody. Tavernake looked away.
"Will you come and see me just once?" she asked, suddenly. "I am staying at the Delvedere, in Forty-Second Street."
"Thank you very much," Tavernake replied. "I do not know how long I shall be in New York. If I am here for a few days, I shall take my chance at finding you at home."
He bowed, and returned to Pritchard, who welcomed him with a quiet smile.
"You're wise, Tavernake," he said, softly. "I could hear no words, but I know that you have been wise. Between you and me," he added, in a lower tone, "she is going downhill. She is in with the wrong lot here. She can't seem to keep away from them. They are on the very fringe of Bohemia, a great deal nearer the arm of the law than makes for respectable society. The man to whom I saw you introduced is a millionaire one day and a thief the next. They're none of them any good. Did you notice, too, that she is wearing sham jewelry? That always looks bad."
"No, I didn't notice," Tavernake answered.
He was silent for a moment. Then he leaned a little forward.
"I wonder," he asked, "do you know anything about her sister?"
Pritchard finished his wine and knocked the ash from his cigar.
"Not much," he replied. "I believe she had a very hard time. She took on the father, you know, the old professor, and did her best to keep him straight. He died about a year ago and Miss Beatrice tried to get back into the theatre, but she'd missed her chance. Theatrical business has been shocking in London. I heard she'd come out here. Wherever she is, she keeps right away from that sort of set," he wound up, moving his head towards Elizabeth's friends.
"I wonder if she is in New York," Tavernake said, with a strange thrill at his heart.
Pritchard made no reply. His eyes were fixed upon the little group at the next table. Elizabeth was leaning back in her chair. She seemed to have abandoned the conversation. Her eyes were always seeking Tavernake's. Pritchard rose to his feet abruptly.
"It's time we were in bed," he declared. "Remember the meeting to-morrow."
Tavernake rose to his feet. As they passed the next table, Elizabeth leaned over to him. Her eyes pleaded with his almost passionately.
"Dear Leonard," she whispered, "you must--you must come and see me. I shall stay in between four and six every evening this week. The Delvedere, remember."
"Thank you very much," Tavernake answered. "I shall not forget."