The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter V. Introducing Mrs. Wenham Gardner
A very distinguished client was engaging the attention of Mr. Dowling, Senior, of Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company, auctioneers and estate agents, whose offices were situated in Waterloo Place, Pall Mall. Mr. Dowling was a fussy little man of between fifty and sixty years, who spent most of his time playing golf, and who, although he studiously contrived to ignore the fact, had long since lost touch with the details of his business. Consequently, in the absence of Mr. Dowling, Junior, who had developed a marked partiality for a certain bar in the locality, Tavernake was hastily summoned to the rescue from another part of the building, by a small boy violently out of breath.
"Never see the governor in such a fuss," the latter declared, confidentially, "She's asking no end of questions and he don't know a thing."
"Who is the lady?" Tavernake asked, on the way downstairs.
"Didn't hear her name," the boy replied. "She's all right, though, I can tell you--a regular slap-up beauty. Such a motor-car, too! Flowers and tables and all sorts of things inside. By Jove, won't the governor tear his hair if she goes before you get there!"
Tavernake quickened his steps and in a few moments knocked at the door of the private office and entered.
His chief welcomed him with a gesture of relief. The distinguished client of the firm, whose attention he was endeavoring to engage, had glanced toward the newcomer, at his first appearance, with an air of somewhat bored unconcern. Her eyes, however, did not immediately leave his face. On the contrary, from the moment of his entrance she watched him steadfastly. Tavernake, stolid, unruffled, at that time without comprehension, approached the desk.
"This is--er--Mr. Tavernake, our manager," Mr. Dowling announced, obsequiously. "In the absence of my son, he is in charge of the letting department. I have no doubt that he will be able to suggest something suitable. Tavernake," he continued, "this lady,"--he glanced at a card in front of him--"Mrs. Wenham Gardner of New York, is looking for a town house, and has been kind enough to favor us with an inquiry."
Tavernake made no immediate reply. Mr. Dowling was shortsighted, and in any case it would never have occurred to him to associate nervousness, or any form of emotion, with his responsible manager. The beautiful lady leaned back in her chair. Her lips were parted in a slight but very curious smile, her fingers supported her cheek, her eyelids were contracted as she looked into his face. Tavernake felt that their recognition was mutual. Once more he was back again in the tragic atmosphere of that chemist's shop, with Beatrice, half fainting, in his arms, the beautiful lady turned to stone. It was an odd tableau, that, so vividly imprinted upon his memory that it was there before him at this very moment. There was mystery in this woman's eyes, mystery and something else.
"I don't seem to have come across anything down here which--er -- particularly attracts Mrs.--Mrs. Wenham Gardner," Mr. Dowling went on, taking up a little sheaf of papers from the desk. "I thought, perhaps, that the Bryanston Square house might have suited, but it seems that it is too small, far too small. Mrs. Gardner is used to entertaining, and has explained to me that she has a great many friends always coming and going from the other side of the water. She requires, apparently, twelve bedrooms, besides servants' quarters."
"Your list is scarcely up to date, sir," Tavernake reminded him. "If the rent is of no particular object, there is Grantham House."
Mr. Dowling's face was suddenly illuminated.
"Grantham House!" he exclaimed. "Precisely! Now I declare that it had absolutely slipped my memory for the moment--only for the moment, mind--that we have just had placed upon our books one of the most desirable mansions in the west end of London. A most valued client, too, one whom we are most anxious to oblige. Dear, dear me! It is very fortunate--very fortunate indeed that I happened to think of it, especially as it seems that no one had had the sense to place it upon my list. Tavernake, get the plans at once and show them to--er--to Mrs. Gardner."
Tavernake crossed the room in silence, opened a drawer, and returned with a stiff roll of papers, which he spread carefully out in front of this unexpected client. She spoke then for the first time since he had entered the room. Her voice was low and marvelously sweet. There was very little of the American accent about it, but something in the intonation, especially toward the end of her sentences, was just a trifle un-English.
"Where is this Grantham House?" she inquired.
"Within a stone's throw of Grosvenor Square," Tavernake answered, briskly. "It is really one of the most central spots in the west end. If you will allow me!"
For the next few minutes he was very fluent indeed. With pencil in hand, he explained the plans, dwelt on the advantages of the location, and from the very reserve of his praise created an impression that the house he was describing was the one absolutely perfect domicile in the whole of London.
"Can I look over the place?" she asked, when he had finished.
"By all means," Mr. Dowling declared, "by all means. I was on the point of suggesting it. It will be by far the most satisfactory proceeding. You will not be disappointed, my dear madam, I can assure you."
"I should like to do so, if I may, without delay," she said.
"There is no opportunity like the present," Mr. Dowling replied. "If you will permit me," he added, rising, "it will give me the greatest pleasure to escort you personally. My engagements for the rest of the day happen to be unimportant. Tavernake, let me have the keys of the rooms that are locked up. The caretaker, of course, is there in possession."
The beautiful visitor rose to her feet, and even that slight movement was accomplished with a grace unlike anything which Tavernake had ever seen before.
"I could not think of troubling you so far, Mr. Dowling," she protested. "It is not in the least necessary for you to come yourself. Your manager can, perhaps, spare me a few minutes. He seems to be so thoroughly posted in all the details," she added, apologetically, as she noticed the cloud on Mr. Dowling's brow.
"Just as you like, of course," he declared. "Mr. Tavernake can go, by all means. Now I come to think of it, it certainly would be inconvenient for me to be away from the office for more than a few minutes. Mr. Tavernake has all the details at his fingers' ends, and I only hope, Mrs. Gardner, that he will be able to persuade you to take the house. Our client," he added, with a bow, "would, I am sure, be delighted to hear that we had secured for him so distinguished a tenant."
She smiled at him, a delightful mixture of graciousness and condescension.
"You are very good," she answered. "The house sounds rather large for me but it depends so much upon circumstances. If you are ready, Mr.--"
"Tavernake," he told her.
"Mr. Tavernake," she continued, "my car is waiting outside and we might go on at once."
He bowed and held open the door for her, an office which he performed a little awkwardly. Mr. Dowling himself escorted her out on to the pavement. Tavernake stopped behind to get his hat, and passing out a moment afterwards, would have seated himself in front beside the chauffeur but that she held the door of the car open and beckoned to him.
"Will you come inside, please?" she insisted. "There are one or two questions which I might ask you as we go along. Please direct the chauffeur."
He obeyed without a word; the car glided off. As they swung round the first corner, she leaned forward from among the cushions of her seat and looked at him. Then Tavernake was conscious of new things. As though by inspiration, he knew that her visit to the office of Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company had been no chance one.
She remembered him, remembered him as the companion of Beatrice during that strange, brief meeting. It was an incomprehensible world, this, into which he had wandered. The woman's face had lost her languid, gracious expression. There was something there almost akin to tragedy. Her fingers fell upon his arm and her touch was no light one. She was gripping him almost fiercely.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, "I have a memory for faces which seldom fails me. I have seen you before quite lately. You remember where, of course. Tell me the truth quickly, please."
The words seemed to leap from her lips. Beautiful and young though she undoubtedly was, her intense seriousness had suddenly aged her face. Tavernake was bewildered. He, too, was conscious of a curious emotional disturbance.
"The truth? What truth do you mean?" he demanded.
"It was you whom I saw with Beatrice!"
"You saw me one night about three weeks ago," he admitted slowly. "I was in a chemist's shop in the Strand. You were signing his book for a sleeping draught, I think."
She shivered all over.
"Yes, yes!" she cried. "Of course, I remember all about it. The young lady who was with you--what was she doing there? Where is she now?"
"The young lady was my sister," Tavernake answered stiffly.
Mrs. Wenham Gardner looked, for a moment, as though she would have struck him.
"You need not lie to me!" she exclaimed. "It is not worth while. Tell me where you met her, why you were with her at all in that intimate fashion, and where she is now!"
Tavernake realized at once that so far as this woman was concerned, the fable of his relationship with Beatrice was hopeless. She knew!
"Madam," he replied, "I made the acquaintance of the young lady with whom I was that evening, at the boarding-house where we both lived."
"What were you doing in the chemist's shop?" she demanded.
"The young lady had been ill," he proceeded deliberately, wondering how much to tell. "She had been taken very ill indeed. She was just recovering when you entered."
"Where is she now?" the woman asked eagerly. "Is she still at that boarding-house of which you spoke?"
"No," he answered.
Her fingers gripped his arm once more.
"Why do you answer me always in monosyllables? Don't you understand that you must tell me everything that you know about her. You must tell me where I can find her, at once."
Tavernake remained silent. The woman's voice had still that note of wonderful sweetness, but she had altogether lost her air of complete and aristocratic indifferenoe. She was a very altered person now from the distinguished client who had first enlisted his services. For some reason or other, he knew that she was suffering from a terrible anxiety.
"I am not sure," he said at last, "whether I can do as you ask."
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed sharply.
"The young lady," he continued, "seemed, on the occasion to which you have referred, to be particularly anxious to avoid recognition. She hurried out of the place without speaking to you, and she has avoided the subject ever since. I do not know what her motives may have been, but I think that I should like to ask her first before I tell you where she is to be found."
Mrs. Wenham Gardner leaned towards him. It was certainly the first time that a woman in her apparent rank of life had looked upon Tavernake in such a manner. Her forehead was a little wrinkled, her lips were parted, her eyes were pathetically, delightfully eloquent.
"Mr. Tavernake, you must not--you must not refuse me," she pleaded. "If you only knew the importance of it, you would not hesitate for a moment. This is no idle curiosity on my part. I have reasons, very serious reasons indeed, for wishing to discover that poor girl's whereabouts at once. There is a possible danger of which she must be warned. No one can do it except myself."
"Are you her friend or her enemy?" Tavernake asked.
"Why do you ask such a question?" she demanded.
"I am only going by her expression when she saw you come into the chemist's shop," Tavernake persisted doggedly.
"It is a cruel suggestion, that," the woman cried. "I wish to be her friend, I am her friend. If I could only tell you everything, you would understand at once what a terrible situation, what a hideous quandary I am in."
Once more Tavernake paused for a few moments. He was never a quick thinker and the situation was certainly an embarrassing one for him.
"Madam," he replied at length, "I beg that you will tell me nothing. The young lady of whom you have spoken permits me to call myself her friend, and what she has not told me herself I do not wish to learn from others. I will tell her of this meeting with you, and if it is her desire, I will bring you her address myself within a few hours. I cannot do more than that."
Her face was suddenly cold and hard.
"You mean that you will not!" she exclaimed angrily. "You are obstinate. I do not know how you dare to refuse what I ask."
The car had come to a standstill. He stepped out on to the pavement.
"This is Grantham House, madam," he announced. "Will you descend?"
He heard her draw a quick breath between her teeth and he caught a gleam in her eyes which made him feel vaguely uneasy. She was very angry indeed.
"I do not think that it is necessary for me to do so," she said frigidly. "I do not like the look of the house at all. I do not believe that it will suit me."
"At least, now that you are here," he protested, "you will, if you please, go over it. I should like you to see the ballroom. The decorations are supposed to be quite exceptional."
She hesitated for a moment and then, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, she yielded. There was a note in his tone not exactly insistent, and yet dominant, a note which she obeyed although secretly she wondered at herself for doing so. They passed inside the house and she followed him from room to room, leaving him to do all the talking. She seemed very little interested but every now and then she asked a languid question.
"I do not think that it is in the least likely to suit me," she decided at last. "It is all very magnificent, of course, but I consider that the rent is exorbitant."
Tavernake regarded her thoughtfully.
"I believe," he said, " that our client might be disposed to consider some reduction, in the event of your seriously entertaining taking the house. If you like, I will see him on the subject. I feel sure that the amount I have mentioned could be reduced, if the other conditions were satisfactory."
"There would be no harm in your doing so," she assented. "How soon can you come and let me know'"
"I might be able to ring you up this evening; certainly to-morrow morning," he answered.
She shook her head.
"I will not speak upon the telephone," she declared. "I only allow it in my rooms under protest. You must come and tell me what your client says. When can you see him?"
"It is doubtful whether I shall be able to find him this evening," he replied. "It would probably be to-morrow morning."
"You might go and try at once," she suggested.
He was a little surprised.
"You are really interested in the matter, then?" he inquired.
"Yes, yes," she told him, "of course I am interested. I want you to come and see me directly you have heard. It is important. Supposing you are able to find your client to-night, shall you have seen the young lady before then?"
"I am afraid not," he answered.
"You must try," she begged, laying her fingers upon his shoulder. "Mr. Tavernake, do please try. You can't realize what all this anxiety means to me. I am not at all well and I am seriously worried about -about that young lady. I tell you that I must have an interview with her. It is not for my sake so much as hers. She must be warned."
"Warned?" Tavernake repeated. "I really don't understand."
"Of course you don't!" she exclaimed impatiently. "Why should you understand? I don't want to offend you, Mr. Tavernake," she went on hurriedly. "I would like to treat you quite frankly. It really isn't your place to make difficulties like this. What is this young lady to you that you should presume to consider yourself her guardian?"
"She is a boarding-house acquaintance," Tavernake confessed, "nothing more."
"Then why did you tell me, only a moment ago, that she was your sister?" Mrs. Gardner demanded.
Tavernake threw open the door before which they had been standing.
"This," he said, "is the famous dancing gallery. Lord Clumber is quite willing to allow the pictures to remain, and I may tell you that they are insured for over sixty thousand pounds. There is no finer dancing room than this in all London."
Her eyes swept around it carelessly.
"I have no doubt," she admitted coldly, "that it is very beautiful. I prefer to continue our discussion."
"The dining-room," he went on, "is almost as large. Lord Clumber tells us that he has frequently entertained eighty guests for dinner. The system of ventilation in this room is, as you see, entirely modern."
She took him by the arm and led him to a seat at the further end of the apartment.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, making an obvious attempt to control her temper, "you seem like a very sensible young man, if you will allow me to say so, and I want to convince you that it is your duty to answer my questions. In the first place--don't be offended, will you?--but I cannot possibly see what interest you and that young lady can have in one another. You belong, to put it baldly, to altogether different social stations, and it is not easy to imagine what you could have in common."
She paused, but Tavernake had nothing to say. His gift of silence amounted sometimes almost to genius. She leaned so close to him while she waited in vain for his reply, that the ermine about her neck brushed his cheek. The perfume of her clothes and hair, the pleading of her deep violet-blue eyes, all helped to keep him tongue-tied. Nothing of this sort had ever happened to him before. He did not in the least understand what it could possibly mean.
"I am speaking to you now, Mr. Tavernake," she continued earnestly, "for your own good. When you tell the young lady, as you have promised to this evening, that you have seen me, and that I am very, very anxious to find out where she is, she will very likely go down on her knees and beg you to give me no information whatever about her. She will do her best to make you promise to keep us apart. And yet that is all because she does not understand. Believe me, it is better that you should tell me the truth. You cannot know her very well, Mr. Tavernake, but she is not very wise, that young lady. She is very obstinate, and she has some strange ideas. It is not well for her that she should be left in the world alone. You must see that for yourself, Mr. Tavernake."
"She seems a very sensible young lady," he declared slowly. "I should have thought that she would have been old enough to know for herself what she wanted and what was best for her."
The woman at his side wrung her hands with a little gesture of despair.
"Oh, why can't I make you understand!" she exclaimed, the emotion once more quivering in her tone. "How can I--how can I possibly make you believe me? Listen. Something has happened of which she does not know--something terrible. It is absolutely necessary, in her own interests as well as mine, that I see her, and that very shortly."
"I shall tell her exactly what you say," Tavernake answered apparently unmoved. "Perhaps it would be as well now if we went on to view the sleeping apartments."
"Never mind about the sleeping apartments!" she cried quickly. "You must do more than tell her. You can't believe that I want to bring harm upon any one. Do I look like it? Have I the appearance of a person of evil disposition? You can be that young lady's best friend, Mr. Tavernake, if you will. Take me to her now, this minute. Believe me, if you do that, you will never regret it as long as you live."
Tavernake studied the pattern of the parquet floor for several moments. It was a difficult problem, this. Putting his own extraordinary sensations into the background, he was face to face with something which he did not comprehend, and he disliked the position intensely. After all, delay seemed safest.
"Madam," he protested, "a few hours more or less can make but little difference."
"That is for me to judge!" she exclaimed. "You say that because you do not understand. A few hours may make all the difference in the world."
He shook his head.
"I will tell you exactly what is in my mind," he said, deliberately. "The young lady was terrified when she saw you that night accidentally in the chemist's shop. She almost dragged me away, and although she was almost fainting when we reached the taxicab, her greatest and chief anxiety was that we should get away before you could follow us. I cannot forget this. Until I have received her permission, therefore, to disclose her whereabouts, we will, if you please, speak of something else."
He rose to his feet and glancing around was just in time to see the change in the face of his companion. That eloquently pleading smile had died away from her lips, her teeth were clenched. She looked like a woman struggling hard to control some overwhelming passion. Without the smile her lips seemed hard, even cruel. There were evil things shining out of her eyes. Tavernake felt chilled, almost afraid.
"We will see the rest of the house," she declared coldly.
They went on from room to room. Tavernake, recovering himself rapidly, master of his subject, was fluent and practical. The woman listened, with only a terse remark here and there. Once more they stood in the hall.
"Is there anything else you would like to see?" he asked.
"Nothing," she replied, "but there is one thing more I have to say."
He waited in stolid silence.
"Only a week ago," she went on, looking him in the face, "I told a man who is what you call, I think, an inquiry agent, that I would give a hundred pounds if he could discover that young woman for me within twenty-four hours."
Tavernake started, and the smile came back to the lips of Mrs. Wenham Gardner. After all, perhaps she had found the way!
"A hundred pounds is a great deal of money," he said thoughtfully.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Not so very much," she replied. "About a fortnight's rent of this house, Mr. Tavernake."
"Is the offer still open?" he asked.
She looked into his eyes, and her face had once more the beautiful ingenuousness of a child.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, "the offer is still open. Get into the car with me and drive back to my rooms at the Milan Court, and I will give you a cheque for a hundred pounds at once. It will be very easily earned and you may just as well take it, for now I know where you are employed, I could have you followed day by day until I discover for myself what you are so foolishly concealing. Be reasonable, Mr. Tavernake."
Tavernake stood quite still. His arms were folded, he was looking out of the hall window at the smoky vista of roofs and chimneys. From the soles of his ready-made boots to his ill-brushed hair, he was a commonplace young man. A hundred pounds was to him a vast sum of money. It represented a year's strenuous savings, perhaps more. The woman who watched him imagined that he was hesitating. Tavernake, however, had no such thought in his mind. He stood there instead, wondering what strange thing had come to him that the mention of a hundred pounds, delightful sum though it was, never tempted him for a single second. What this woman had said might be true. She would probably be able to discover the address easily enough without his help. Yet no such reflection seemed to make the least difference. From the days of his earliest boyhood, from the time when he had flung himself into the struggle, money had always meant much to him, money not for its own sake but as the key to those things which he coveted in life. Yet at that moment something stronger seemed to have asserted itself.
"You will come?" she whispered, passing her arm through his. "We will be there in less than five minutes, and I will write you the cheque before you tell me anything."
He moved towards the door indeed, but he drew a little away from her.
"Madam," he said, "I am sorry to seem so obstinate, but I thought I had made you understand some time ago. I do not feel at liberty to tell you anything without that young lady's permission."
"You refuse?" she cried, incredulously. "You refuse a hundred pounds?"
He opened the door of the car. He seemed scarcely to have heard her.
"At about eleven o'clock to-morrow morning," he announced, "I shall have the pleasure of calling upon you. I trust that you will have decided to take the house."