The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IV. Breakfast With Beatrice
The girl, awakened, perhaps, by the passing of some heavy cart along the street below, or by the touch of the sunbeam which lay across her pillow, first opened her eyes and then, after a preliminary stare around, sat up in bed. The events of the previous night slowly shaped themselves in her mind. She remembered everything up to the commencement of that drive in the taxicab. Sometime after that she must have fainted. And now -- what had become of her? Where was she?
She looked around her in ever-increasing surprise. Certainly it was the strangest room she had ever been in. The floor was dusty and innocent of any carpet; the window was bare and uncurtained. The walls were unpapered but covered here and there with strange- looking plans, one of them taking up nearly the whole side of the room--a very rough piece of work with little dabs of blue paint here and there, and shadings and diagrams which were absolutely unintelligible. She herself was lying upon a battered iron bedstead, and she was wearing a very coarse nightdress. Her own clothes were folded up and lay upon a piece of brown paper on the floor by the side of the bed. To all appearance, the room was entirely unfurnished, except that in the middle of it was a hideous papier mache screen.
After her first bewildered inspection of her surroundings, it was upon this screen that her attention was naturally directed. Obviously it must be there to conceal something. Very carefully she leaned out of bed until she was able to see around the corner of it. Then her heart gave a little jump and she was only just able to stifle an exclamation of fear. Some one was sitting there--a man--sitting on a battered cane chair, bending over a roll of papers which were stretched upon a rude deal table. She felt her cheeks grow hot. It must be Tavernake! Where had he brought her? What did his presence in the room mean?
The bed creaked heavily as she regained her former position. A voice came to her from behind the screen. She knew it at once. It was Tavernake's.
"Are you awake?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered,--"yes, I am awake. Is that Mr. Tavernake? Where am I, please?"
"First of all, are you better?" he inquired.
"I am better," she assured him, sitting up in bed and pulling the clothes to her chin. "I am quite well now. Tell me at once where I am and what you are doing over there."
"There is nothing to be terrified about," Tavernake answered. "To all effects and purposes, I am in another room. When I move to the door, as I shall do directly, I shall drag the screen with me. I can promise you--"
"Please explain everything," she begged, "quickly. I am most -- uncomfortable."
"At half-past twelve this morning," Tavernake said, "I found myself alone in a taxicab with you, without any luggage or any idea where to go to. To make matters worse, you fainted. I tried two hotels but they refused to take you in; they were probably afraid that you were going to be ill. Then I thought of this room. I am employed, as you know, by a firm of estate agents. I do a great deal of work on my own account, however, which I prefer to do in secret, and unknown to any one. For that reason, I hired this room a year ago and I come here most evenings to work. Sometimes I stay late, so last month I bought a small bedstead and had it fixed up here. There is a woman who comes in to clean the room. I went to her house last night and persuaded her to come here. She undressed you and put you to bed. I am sorry that my presence here distresses you, but it is a large building and quite empty at night-time. I thought you might wake up and be frightened, so I borrowed this screen from the woman and have been sitting here."
"What, all night?" she gasped.
"Certainly," he answered. "The woman could not stop herself and this is not a residential building at all. All the lower floors are let for offices and warehouses, and there is no one else in the place until eight o'clock."
She put her hands to her head and sat quite still for a moment or two. It was really hard to take everything in.
"Aren't you very sleepy?" she asked, irrelevantly.
"Not very," he replied. I dozed for an hour, a little time ago. Since then I have been looking through some plans which interest me very much."
"Can I get up?" she inquired, timidly.
"If you feel strong enough, please do," he answered, with manifest relief. "I shall move towards the door, dragging the screen in front of me. You will find a brush and comb and some hairpins on your clothes. I could not think of anything else to get for you, but, if you will dress, we will walk to London Bridge Station, which is just across the way, and while I order some breakfast you can go into the ladies' room and do your hair properly. I did my best to get hold of a looking-glass, but it was quite impossible."
The girl's sense of humor was suddenly awake. She had hard work not to scream. He had evidently thought out all these details in painstaking fashion, one by one.
"Thank you," she said. "I will get up immediately, if you will do as you say."
He clutched the screen from the inside and dragged it towards the door. On the threshold, he spoke to her once more.
"I shall sit upon the stairs just outside," he announced.
"I sha'n't be more than five minutes," she assured him.
She sprang out of bed and dressed quickly. There was nothing beyond where the screen had been except a table covered with plans, and a particularly hard cane chair which she dragged over for her own use. As she dressed, she began to realize how much this matter-of-fact, unimpressionable young man had done for her during the last few hours. The reflection affected her in a curious manner. She became afflicted with a shyness which she bad not felt when he was in the room. When at last she had finished her toilette and opened the door, she was almost tongue-tied. He was sitting on the top step, with his back against the landing, and his eyes were closed. He opened them with a little start, however, as soon as he heard her approach.
"I am glad you have not been long," he remarked. "I want to be at my office at nine o'clock and I must go and have a bath somewhere. These stairs are rather steep. Please walk carefully."
She followed him in silence down three flights of stone steps. On each landing there were names upon the doors--two firms of hop merchants, a solicitor, and a commission agent. The ground floor was some sort of warehouse, from which came a strong smell of leather.
Tavernake opened the outside door with a small key and they passed into the street.
"London Bridge Station is just across the way," he said. "The refreshment room will be open and we can get some breakfast at once."
"What time is it?" she asked.
"About half-past seven."
She walked by his side quite meekly, and although there were many things which she was longing to say, she remained absolutely without the power of speech. Except that he was looking a little crumpled, there was nothing whatever in his appearance to indicate that he had been up all night. He looked exactly as he had done on the previous day, he seemed even quite unconscious that there was anything unusual in their relations. As soon as they arrived at the station, he pointed to the ladies' waiting-room.
"If you will go in and arrange your hair there," he said, "I will go and order breakfast and have a shave. I will be back here in about twenty minutes. You had better take this."
He offered her a shilling and she accepted it without hesitation. As soon as he had gone, however, she looked at the coin in her hand in blank wonder. She had accepted it from him with perfect naturalness and without even saying "Thank you!" With a queer little laugh, she pushed open the swinging doors and made her way into the waiting-room.
In hardly more than a quarter of an hour she emerged, to find Tavernake waiting for her. He had retied his tie, bought a fresh collar, had been shaved. She, too, had improved her appearance.
"Breakfast is waiting this way," he announced.
She followed him obediently and they sat down at a small table in the station refreshment-room.
"Mr. Tavernake," she asked, suddenly, "I must ask you something. Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"
"Nothing," he assured her, with some emphasis.
"You seem to take everything so much as a matter of course," she protested.
"Oh, I don't know," she replied, a little feebly. "Only -"
She found relief in a sudden and perfectly natural laugh.
"Come," he said, "that is better. I am glad that you feel like laughing."
"As a matter of fact," she declared, "I feel much more like crying. Don't you know that you were very foolish last night? You ought to have left me alone. Why didn't you? You would have saved yourself a great deal of trouble."
He nodded, as though that point of view did, in some degree, commend itself to him.
"Yes," he admitted, "I suppose I should. I do not, even now, understand why I interfered. I can only remember that it didn't seem possible not to at the time. I suppose one must have impulses," he added, with a little frown.
"The reflection," she remarked, helping herself to another roll, "seems to annoy you."
"It does," he confessed. "I do not like to feel impelled to do anything the reason for which is not apparent. I like to do just the things which seem likely to work out best for myself."
"How you must hate me!" she murmured.
"No, I do not hate you," he replied, "but, on the other hand, you have certainly been a trouble to me. First of all, I told a falsehood at the boarding-house, and I prefer always to tell the truth when I can. Then I followed you out of the house, which I disliked doing very much, and I seem to have spent a considerable portion of the time since, in your company, under somewhat extraordinary circumstances. I do not understand why I have done this."
"I suppose it is because you are a very good-hearted person," she remarked.
"But I am not," he assured her, calmly. "I am nothing of the sort. I have very little sympathy with good-hearted people. I think the world goes very much better when every one looks after himself, and the people who are not competent to do so go to the wall."
"It sounds a trifle selfish," she murmured.
"Perhaps it is. I have an idea that if I could phrase it differently it would become philosophy."
"Perhaps," she suggested, smiling across the table at him, "you have really done all this because you like me."
"I am quite sure that it is not that," he declared. "I feel an interest in you for which I cannot account, but it does not seem to me to be a personal one. Last night," he continued, "when I was sitting there waiting, I tried to puzzle it all out. I came to the conclusion that it was because you represent something which I do not understand. I am very curious and it always interests me to learn. I believe that must be the secret of my interest in you."
"You are very complimentary," she told him, mockingly. "I wonder what there is in the world which I could teach so superior a person as Mr. Tavernake?"
He took her question quite seriously.
"I wonder what there is myself," he answered. "And yet, in a way, I think I know."
"Your imagination should come to the rescue," she remarked.
"I have no imagination," he declared, gloomily.
They were silent for several minutes; she was still studying him.
"I wonder you don't ask me any questions about myself," she said, abruptly.
"There is only one thing," he answered, "concerning which I am in the least curious. Last night in the chemist's shop--"
"Don't!" she begged him, with suddenly whitening face. "Don't speak of that!"
"Very well," he replied, indifferently. "I thought that you were rather inviting my questions. You need not be afraid of any more. I really am not curious about personal matters; I find that my own life absorbs all my interests."
They had finished breakfast and he paid the bill. She began to put on her gloves.
"Whatever happens to me," she said, "I shall never forget that you have been very kind."
She hesitated for a moment and then she seemed to realize more completely how really kind he had been. There had been a certain crude delicacy about his actions which she had under-appreciated. She leaned towards him. There was nothing left this morning of that disfiguring sullenness. Her mouth was soft; her eyes were bright, almost appealing. If Tavernake had been a judge of woman's looks, he must certainly have found her attractive.
"I am very, very grateful to you," she continued, holding out her hand. "I shall always remember how kind you were. Good-bye!"
"You are not going?" he asked.
"Why, you didn't imagine that you had taken the care of me upon your shoulders for the rest of your life?" she demanded.
"No, I didn't imagine that," he answered. "At the same time, what plans have you made? Where are you going?"
"Oh! I shall think of something," she declared, indifferently.
He caught the gleam in her eyes, the sudden hopelessness which fell like a cloud upon her face. He spoke promptly and with decision.
"As a matter of fact," he remarked, "you do not know yourself. You are just going to drift out of this place and very likely find your way to a seat on the Embankment again."
Her lips quivered. She had tried to be brave but it was hard.
"Not necessarily," she replied. "Something may turn up."
He leaned a little across the table towards her.
"Listen," he said, deliberately, "I will make a proposition to you. It has come to me during the last few minutes. I am tired of the boarding-house and I wish to leave it. The work which I do at night is becoming more and more important. I should like to take two rooms somewhere. If I take a third, would you care to call yourself what I called you to the charwoman last night -- my sister? I should expect you to look after the meals and my clothes, and help me in certain other ways. I cannot give you much of a salary," he continued, "but you would have an opportunity during the daytime of looking out for some work, if that is what you want, and you would at least have a roof and plenty to eat and drink."
She looked at him in blank amazement. It was obvious that his proposition was entirely honest.
"But, Mr. Tavernake," she protested, "you forget that I am not really your sister."
"Does that matter?" he asked, without flinching. "I think you understand the sort of person I am. You would have nothing to fear from any admiration on my part--or anything of that sort," he added, with some show of clumsiness. "Those things do not come in my life. I am ambitious to get on, to succeed and become wealthy. Other things I do not even think about."
She was speechless. After a short pause, he went on.
"I am proposing this arrangement as much for my own sake as for yours. I am very well read and I know most of what there is to be known in my profession. But there are other things concerning which I am ignorant. Some of these things I believe you could teach me."
Still speechless, she sat and looked at him for several moments. Outside, the station now was filled with a hurrying throng on their way to the day's work. Engines were shrieking, bells ringing, the press of footsteps was unceasing. In the dark, ill- ventilated room itself there was the rattle of crockery, the yawning of discontented-looking young women behind the bar, young women with their hair still in curl-papers, as yet unprepared for their weak little assaults upon the good-nature or susceptibility of their customers. A queer corner of life it seemed. She looked at her companion and realized how fragmentary was her knowledge of him. There was nothing to be gathered from his face. He seemed to have no expression. He was simply waiting for her reply, with his thoughts already half engrossed upon the business of the day.
"Really," she began, "I--"
He came back from his momentary wandering and looked at her. She suddenly altered the manner of her speech. It was a strange proposition, perhaps, but this was one of the strangest of men.
"I am quite willing to try it," she decided. "Will you tell me where I can meet you later on?"
"I have an hour and a half for luncheon at one o'clock," he said. "Meet me exactly at the southeast corner of Trafalgar Square. Would you like a little money?" he added, rising.
"I have plenty, thank you," she answered.
He laid half-a-crown upon the table and made an entry in a small memorandum book which he drew from his pocket.
"You had better keep this," he said, "in case you want it. I am going to leave you alone here. You can find your way anywhere, I am sure, and I am in a hurry. At one o'clock, remember. I hope you will still be feeling better."
He put on his hat and went away without a backward glance. Beatrice sat in her chair and watched him out of sight.