The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IX. For Always
Once again it seemed to Beatrice that history was repeating itself. The dingy, oblong dining-room, with its mosquito netting, stained tablecloth, and hard cane chairs, expanded until she fancied herself in the drawing-room of Blenheim House. Between the landladies there was little enough to choose. Mrs. Raithby Lawrence, notwithstanding her caustic tongue and suspicious nature, had at least made some pretense at gentility. The woman who faced her now--hard-featured, with narrow, suspicious eyes and a mass of florid hair--was unmistakably and brutally vulgar.
"What's the good of your keeping on saying you hope to get an engagement next week?" she demanded, with a sneer. "Who's likely to engage you? Why, you've lost your color and your looks and your weight since you came to stay here. They don't want such as you in the chorus. And for the rest, you're too high and mighty, that's my opinion of you. Take what you can get, and how you can get it, and be thankful,--that's my motto. Day after day you tramp about the streets with your head in the air, and won't take this and won't take that, and meanwhile my bill gets bigger and bigger. Now where have you been to this morning, I should like to know?"
Beatrice, who was faint and tired, shaking in every limb, tried to pass out of the room, but her questioner barred the way.
"I have been up town," she answered, nervously.
"Hear of anything?"
Beatrice shook her head.
"Not yet. Please let me go upstairs and lie down. I am tired and I need to rest."
"And I need my money," Mrs. Selina P. Watkins declared, without quitting her position, "and it's no good your going up to your room because the door's locked."
"What do you mean?" Beatrice faltered.
"I mean that I've done with you," the lodging-house keeper announced. "Your room's locked up and the key's in my pocket, and the sooner you get out of this, the better I shall be pleased."
"But my box--my clothes," Beatrice cried.
"I'll keep 'em a week for you," the woman answered. "Bring me the money by then and you shall have them. If I don't hear anything of you, they'll go to the auction mart."
Something of her old spirit fired the girl for a moment. She was angry, and she forgot that her knees were trembling with fatigue, that she was weak and aching with hunger.
"How dare you talk like that!" she exclaimed. "You shall have your money shortly, but I must have my clothes. I cannot go anywhere without them."
The woman laughed harshly.
"Look here, my young lady," she said, "you'll see your box again when I see the color of your money, and not before. And now out you go, please,--out you go! If you're going to make any trouble, Solly will have to show you the way down the steps."
The woman had opened the door, and a colored servant, half dressed, with a broom in her hand, came slouching down the passage. Beatrice turned and fled out of the greasy, noisome atmosphere, down the wooden, uneven steps, out into the ugly street. She turned toward the nearest elevated as though by instinct, but when she came to the bottom of the stairs she stopped short with a little groan. She knew very well that she had not a nickel to pay the fare. Her pockets were empty. All day she had eaten nothing, and her last coin had gone for the car which had brought her back from Broadway. And here she was on the other side of New York, in the region of low-class lodging houses, with the Bowery between her and Broadway. She had neither the strength nor the courage to walk. With a half-stifled sob she took off her one remaining ornament, a cheap enameled brooch, and entered a pawnbroker's shop close to where she had been standing.
"Will you give me something on this, please?" she asked, desperately.
A man who seemed to be sorting a pile of ready-made coats, paused in his task for a moment, took the ornament into his hand, and threw it contemptuously upon the counter.
"Not worth anything," he answered.
"But it must be worth something," Beatrice protested. "I only want a very little."
Something in her voice compelled the man's attention. He looked at her white face.
"What's the trouble?" he inquired.
"I must get up to Fifth Avenue somehow," she declared. "I can't walk and I haven't a nickel."
He pushed the brooch back to her and threw a dime upon the counter.
"Well," he said, "you don't look fit to walk, and that's a fact, but the brooch isn't worth entering up. There's a dime for you. Now git, please, I'm busy."
Beatrice clutched the coin and, almost forgetting to thank him, found her way up the iron stairs on to the platform of the elevated. Soon she was seated in the train, rattling and shaking on its way through the slums into the heart of the wonderful city. There was only one thing left for her to try, a thing which she had had in her mind for days. Yet she found herself, even now she was committed to it, thinking of what lay before her with something like black horror. It was her last resource, indeed. Strong though she was, she knew by many small signs that her strength was almost at an end. The days and weeks of "disappointments, the long fruitless trudges from office to office, the heart-sickness of constant refusals, poor food, the long fasts, had all told their tale. She was attractive enough still. Her pallor seemed to have given her a wonderful delicacy. The curve of her lips and the soft light in her gray eyes, were still as potent as ever. When she thought, though, what a poor asset her appearance had been, the color flamed in her cheeks.
In Broadway she made her way to a very magnificent block of buildings, and passing inside took the lift to the seventh floor. Here she got out and knocked timidly at a glass-paneled door, on which was inscribed the name of Mr. Anthony Cruxhall. A very superior young man bade her enter and inquired her business.
"I wish to see Mr. Cruxhall for a moment, privately," she said. "I shall not detain him for more than a minute. My name is Franklin--Miss Beatrice Franklin."
The young man's lips seemed about to shape themselves into a whistle, but something in the girl's face made him change his mind.
"I guess the boss is in," he admitted. "He's just got back from a big meeting, but I am not sure about his seeing any one to-day. However, I'll tell him that you're here."
He disappeared into an inner room. Presently he came out again and held the door open.
"Will you walk right in, Miss Franklin?" he invited.
Beatrice went in bravely enough, but her knees began to tremble when she found herself in the presence of the man she had come to visit. Mr. Anthony Cruxhall was not a pleasant-looking person. His cheeks were fat and puffy, he wore a diamond ring upon the finger of his toowhite hand, and a diamond pin in his somewhat flashily arranged necktie. He was smoking a black cigar, which he omitted to remove from between his teeth as he welcomed his visitor.
"So you've come to see me at last, little Miss Beatrice!" he said, with a particularly unpleasant smile. "Come and sit down here by the side of me. That's right, eh? Now what can I do for you?"
Beatrice was trembling all over. The man's eyes were hateful, his smile was hideous.
"I have not a cent in the world, Mr. Cruxhall," she faltered, "I cannot get an engagement, I have been turned out of my rooms, and I am hungry. My father always told me that you would be a friend if at any time it happened that I needed help. I am very sorry to have to come and beg, yet that is what I am doing. Will you lend or give me ten or twenty dollars, so that I can go on for a little longer? Or will you help me to get a place among some of your theatrical people? "
Mr. Cruxhall puffed steadily at his cigar for a moment, and leaning back in his chair thrust his hand into his trousers' pocket.
"So bad as that, is it?" he remarked. "So bad as that, eh?"
"It is very bad indeed," she answered, looking at him quietly, "or you know that I should not have come to you."
Mr. Cruxhall smiled.
"I remember the last time we talked together," he said, "we didn't get on very well. Too high and mighty in those days, weren't you, Miss Beatrice? Wouldn't have anything to say to a bad lot like Anthony Cruxhall. You're having to come to it, eh?"
She began to tremble again, but she held herself in.
"I must live," she murmured. "Give me a little money and let me go away."
"Oh, I'll do better than that for you," he answered, thrusting his hand into his waistcoat pocket and drawing out a pile of dollar bills. "Let's look at you. Gee whiz! Yes, you're shabby, aren't you? Take this," he went on, slamming some notes down before her. "Go and get yourself a new frock and a hat fit to wear, and meet me at the Madison Square roof garden at eight o'clock. We'll have some dinner and I guess we can fix matters up."
Then he smiled at her again, and Beatrice, whose hand was already upon the bills, suddenly felt her knees shake. A great black horror was upon her. She turned and fled out of the room, past the astonished clerk, into the lift, and was downstairs on the main floor before she remembered where she was, what she had done. The clerk, after gazing at her retreating form, hurried into the inner office.
"Young woman hasn't bolted with anything, eh?" he asked.
Mr. Cruxhall smiled wickedly.
"Why, no," he replied, "I guess she'll come back!"
Tavernake left the meeting on that same afternoon with his future practically assured for life. He had been appointed surveyor to the company at a salary of ten thousand dollars a year, and the mine in which his savings were invested was likely to return him his small capital a hundredfold. Very kind things had been said of him and to him.
Pritchard and he had left the place together. When they had reached the street, they paused for a moment.
"I am going to make a call near here," Pritchard said. "Don't forget that we are dining together, unless you find something better to do, and in the meantime"--he took a card from his pocket and handed it to Tavernake--"I don't know whether I am a fool or not to give you this," he added. "However, there it is. Do as you choose about it."
He walked away a little abruptly. Tavernake glanced at the address upon the card: 1134, East Third Street. For a moment he was puzzled. Then the light broke in upon him suddenly. His heart gave a leap. He turned back into the place to ask for some directions and once more stopped short. Down the stone corridor, like one who flies from some hideous fate, came a slim black figure, with white face and set, horrified stare. Tavernake held out his hands and she came to him with a great wondering sob.
"Leonard!" she cried. "Leonard!"
"There's no doubt about me," he answered, quickly. "Am I such a very terrifying object?"
She stood quite still and struggled hard. By and by the giddiness passed.
"Leonard," she murmured, "I am ill."
Then she began to smile.
"It is too absurd," she faltered, "but you've got to do it all over again."'
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Get me something to eat at once," she begged. "I am starving. Somewhere where it's cool. Leonard, how wonderful! I never even knew that you were in New York."
He called a carriage and took her off to a roof garden. There, as it was early, they got a seat near the parapet. Tavernake talked clumsily about himself most of the time. There was a lump in his throat. He felt all the while that tragedy was very near. By degrees, though, as she ate and drank, the color came back to her cheeks, the fear of a breakdown seemed to pass away. She became even cheerful.
"We are really the most amazing people, Leonard," she declared. "You stumbled into my life once before when I was on the point of being turned out of my rooms. You've come into it again and you find me once more homeless. Don't spend too much money upon our dinner, for I warn you that I am going to borrow from you."
"That's good news," he remarked, "but I'm not sure that I'm going to lend anything."
He leaned across the table. Their dinner had taken long in preparing and the dusk was falling now. Over them were the stars, the band was playing soft music, the hubbub of the streets lay far below. Almost they were in a little world by themselves.
"Dear Beatrice," he said, "three times I asked you to marry me and you would not, and I asked you because I was a selfish brute, and because I knew that it was good for me and that it would save me from things of which I was afraid. And now I am asking you the same thing again, but I have a bigger reason, Beatrice. I have been alone most of the last two years, I have lived the sort of life which brings a man face to face with the truth, helps him to know himself and others, and I have found out something."
"Yes?" she faltered. "Tell me, Leonard."
"I found out that it was you I cared for always," he continued, "and that is why I am asking you to marry me now, Beatrice, only this time I ask you because I love you, and because no one else in the world could ever take your place or be anything at all to me."
"Leonard!" she murmured.
"You are not sorry that I have said this?" he begged.
She opened her eyes again.
"I always prayed that I might hear you say it," she answered, "but it seems--oh, it seems so one-sided! Here am I starving and penniless, and you--you, I suppose, are well on the way towards the success you worshiped."
"I am well on the way," he said, earnestly, "towards something greater, Beatrice. I am well on the way towards understanding what success really is, what things count and what don't. I have even found out," he whispered, "the thing which counts for more than anything else in the world, and now that I have found it out, I shall never let it go again."
He pressed her hand and she looked across the table at him with swimming eyes. The waiter, who had been approaching, turned discreetly away. The band started to play a fresh tune. From down in the streets came the clanging of the cars. A curious, cosmopolitan murmur of sounds, but between those two there was the wonderful silence.