The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VI. Questions and Answers
Tavernake sat a few hours later at his evening meal in the tiny sitting-room of an apartment house in Chelsea. He wore a black tie, and although he had not yet aspired to a dinner coat, the details of his person and toilet showed signs of a new attention. Opposite to him was Beatrice.
"Tell me," she asked, as soon as the small maid-servant who brought in their first dish had disappeared, "what have you been doing all day? Have you been letting houses or surveying land or book-keeping, or have you been out to Marston Rise?"
It was her customary question, this. She really took an interest in his work.
"I have been attending a rich American client," he announced, "a compatriot of your own. I went with her to Grantham House in her own motor-car. I believe she thinks of taking it."
"American!" Beatrice remarked. "What was her name? "
Tavernake looked up from his plate across the little table, across the bowl of simple flowers which was its sole decoration.
"She called herself Mrs. Wenham Garner!"
Away like a flash went the new-found peace in the girl's face. She caught at her breath, her fingers gripped the table in front of her. Once more she was as he had known her first--pale, with great terrified eyes shining out of a haggard face.
"She has been to you," Beatrice gasped, "for a house? You are sure?"
"I am quite sure," Tavernake declared, calmly.
"You recognized her?"
He assented gravely.
"It was the woman who stood in the chemist's shop that night, signing her name in a book," he said.
He did not apologize in any way for the shock he had given her. He had done it deliberately. From that very first morning, when they had breakfasted together at London Bridge, he had felt that he deserved her confidence, and in a sense it was a grievance with him that she had withheld it.
"Did she recognize you?"
"Yes," he admitted. "I was sent for into the office and found her there with the chief. I felt sure that she recognized me from the first, and when she agreed to look at Grantham House, she insisted upon it that I should accompany her. While we were in the motor-car, she asked me about you. She wished for your address."
"Did you give it to her?" the girl cried, breathlessly.
"No; I said that I must consult you first."
She drew a little sigh of relief. Nevertheless, she was looking white and shaken.
"Did she say what she wanted me for?"
"She was very mysterious," Tavernake answered. "She spoke of some danger of which you knew nothing. Before I came away, she offered me a hundred pounds to let her know where you were."
Beatrice laughed softly.
"That is just like Elizabeth," she declared. "You must have made her very angry. When she wants anything, she wants it very badly indeed, and she will never believe that every person has not his price. Money means everything to her. If she had it, she would buy, buy, buy all the time."
"On the face of it," Tavernake remarked, soberly, "her offer seemed rather an absurd one. If she is in earnest, if she is really so anxious to discover your whereabouts, she will certainly be able to do so without my help."
"I am not so sure," Beatrice replied. "London is a great hiding place."
"A private detective," he began,--
Beatrice shook her head.
"I do not think," she said, "that Elizabeth will care to employ a private detective. Tell me, have you to see her upon this business again?"
"I am going to her flat at the Milan Court to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock."
Beatrice leaned back in her chair. Presently she recommenced her dinner. She had the air of one to whom a respite has been granted. Tavernake, in a way, began to resent this continued silence of hers. He had certainly hoped that she would at least have gone so far as to explain her anxiety to keep her whereabouts secret.
"You must remember," he went on, after a short pause, "that I am in a somewhat peculiar position with regard to you, Beatrice. I know so little that I do not even know how to answer in your interests such questions as Mrs. Wenham Gardner asked me. I am not complaining, but is this state of absolute ignorance necessary?"
A new thought seemed to come to Beatrice. She looked at her companion curiously.
"Tell me," she asked, "what did you think of Mrs. Wenham Gardner?"
Tavernake answered deliberately, and after a moment's reflection.
"I thought her," he said, "one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. That is not saying very much, perhaps, but to me it meant a good deal. She was exceedingly gracious and her interest in you seemed quite real and even affectionate. I do not understand why you should wish to hide from such a woman."
"You found her attractive?" Beatrice persisted.
"I found her very attractive indeed," Tavernake admitted, without hesitation. "She had an air with her. She was quite different from all the women I have ever met at the boarding-house or anywhere else. She has a face which reminded me somehow of the Madonnas you took me to see in the National Gallery the other day."
Beatrice shivered slightly. For some reason, his remark seemed to have distressed her.
"I am very, very sorry," she declared, "that Elizabeth ever came to your office. I want you to promise me, Leonard, that you will be careful whenever you are with her."
"Careful!" he repeated. "She isn't likely to be even civil to me tomorrow when I tell her that I have seen you and I refuse to give her your address. Careful, indeed! What has a poor clerk in a house-agent's office to fear from such a personage?"
The servant had reappeared with their second and last course. For a few moments they spoke of casual subjects. Afterwards, however, Tavernake asked a question.
"By the way," he said, "we are hoping to let Grantham House to Mrs. Wenham Gardner. I suppose she must be very wealthy?"
Beatrice looked at him curiously.
"Why do you come to me for information?" she demanded. "I suppose that she brought you references?"
"We haven't quite got to that stage yet," he answered. "Somehow or other, from her manner of talking and general appearance, I do not think that either Mr. Dowling or I doubted her financial position."
"I should never have thought you so credulous a person," remarked Beatrice, with a smile.
Tavernake was genuinely disturbed. His business instincts were aroused.
"Do you really mean that this Mrs. Wenham Gardner is not a person of substance?" he inquired.
Beatrice shrugged her shoulders.
"She is the wife of a man who had the reputation of being very wealthy," she replied. "She has no money of her own, I am sure."
"She still lives with her husband, I suppose?" Tavernake asked.
Beatrice closed her eyes.
"I know very little about her," she declared. "Last time I heard, he had disappeared, gone away, or something of the sort."
"And she has no money," Tavernake persisted, "except what she gets from him? No settlement, even, or anything of that sort?"
"Nothing at all," Beatrice answered.
"This is very bad news," Tavernake remarked, thinking gloomily of his wasted day. "It will be a great disappointment to Mr. Dowling. Why, her motor-car was magnificent, and she talked as though money were no object at all. I suppose you are quite sure of what you are saying?"
Beatrice shrugged her shoulders.
"I ought to know," she answered, grimly, "for she is my sister."
Tavernake remained quite motionless for a minute, without speech; it was his way of showing surprise. When he was sure that he had grasped the import of her words, he spoke again.
"Your sister!" he repeated. "There is a likeness, of course. You are dark and she is fair, but there is a likeness. That would account," he continued, "for her anxiety to find you."
"It also accounts," Beatrice replied, with a little break of the lips, "for my anxiety that she should not find me. Leonard," she added, touching his hand for a moment with hers, "I wish that I could tell you everything, but there are things behind, things so terrible, that even to you, my dear brother, I could not speak of them."
Tavernake rose to his feet and lit a cigarette--a new habit with him, while Beatrice busied herself with a small coffee-making machine. He sat in an easy-chair and smoked slowly. He was still wearing his ready-made clothes, but his collar was of the fashionable shape, his tie well chosen and neatly adjusted. He seemed somehow to have developed.
"Beatrice," he asked, "what am I to tell your sister to-morrow?"
She shivered as she set his coffee-cup down by his side.
"Tell her, if you will, that I am well and not in want," she answered. "Tell her, too, that I refuse to send my address. Tell her that the one aim of my life is to keep the knowledge of my whereabouts a secret from her."
Tavernake relapsed into silence. He was thinking. Mysteries had no attraction for him--he loathed them. Against this one especially he felt a distinct grudge. Nevertheless, some instinct forbade his questioning the girl.
"Apart from more personal matters, then," he asked after some time, "you would not advise me to enter into any business negotiations with this lady?"
"You must not think of it," Beatrice replied, firmly. "So far as money is concerned, Elizabeth has no conscience whatever. The things she wants in life she will have somehow, but it is all the time at other people's expense. Some day she will have to pay for it."
"It is very unfortunate," he declared. "The commission on the letting of Grantham House would have been worth having."
"After all, it is only your firm's loss," she reminded him.
"It does not appeal to me like that," he continued. "So long as I am manager for Dowling & Spence, I feel these things personally. However, that does not matter. I am afraid it is a disagreeable subject for you, and we will not talk about it any longer."
She lit a cigarette with a little gesture of relief. She came once more to his side.
"Leonard," she said, "I know that I am treating you badly in telling you nothing, but it is simply because I do not want to descend to half truths. I should like to tell you all or nothing. At present I cannot tell you all."
"Very well," he replied, "I am quite content to leave it with you to do as you think best."
"Leonard," she continued, "of course you think me unreasonable. I can't help it. There are things between my sister and myself the knowledge of which is a constant nightmare to me. During the last few months of my life it has grown to be a perfect terror. It sent me into hiding at Blenheim House, it reconciled me even to the decision I came to that night on the Embankment. I had decided that sooner than go back, sooner than ask help from her or any one connected with her, I would do what I tried to do the time when you saved my life."
Tavernake looked at her wonderingly. She was, indeed, under the spell of some deep emotion. Her memory seemed to have carried her back into another world, somewhere far away from this dingy little sitting-room which they two were sharing together, back into a world where life and death were matters of small moment, where the great passions were unchained, and men and women moved among the naked things of life. Almost he felt the thrill of it. It was something new to him, the touch of a magic finger upon his eyelids. Then the moment passed and he was himself again, matter-of-fact, prosaic.
"Let us dismiss the subject finally," he said. "I must see your sister on business to-morrow, but it shall be for the last time."
"I think," she murmured, "that you will be wise."
He crossed the room and returned with a newspaper.
"I saw your music in the hall as I came in," he remarked. "Are you singing to-night?"
The question was entirely in his ordinary tone. It brought her back to the world of every-day things as nothing else could have done.
"Yes; isn't it luck?" she told him. "Three in one week. I only heard an hour ago."
"A city dinner?" he inquired.
"Something of the sort," she replied. "I am to be at the Whitehall Rooms at ten o'clock. If you are tired, Leonard, please let me go alone. I really do not mind. I can get a 'bus to the door, there and back again."
"I am not tired," he declared. "To tell you the truth, I scarcely know what it is to be tired. I shall go with you, of course."
She looked at him with a momentary admiration of his powerful frame, his strong, forceful face.
"It seems too bad," she remarked, "after a long day's work to drag you out again."
"I really like to come," he assured her. "Besides," he added, after a moment's pause, "I like to hear you sing."
"I wonder if you mean that?" she asked, looking at him curiously. "I have watched you once or twice when I have been singing to you. Do you really care for it?"
"Certainly I do. How can you doubt it? I do not," he continued, slowly, "understand music, or anything of that sort, of course, any more than I do the pictures you take me to see, and some of the books you talk about. There are lots of things I can't get the hang of entirely, but they all leave a sort of pleasure behind. One feels it even if one only half appreciates."
She came over to his chair.
"I am glad," she said, a little wistfully, "that there is one thing I do which you like."
He looked at her reprovingly.
"My dear Beatrice," he said, "I often wish I could make you understand how extraordinarily helpful and useful to me you have been."
"Tell me in what way?" she begged.
"You have given me," he assured her, "an insight into many things in life which I had found most perplexing. You see, you have traveled and I haven't. You have mixed with all classes of people, and I have gone steadily on in one groove. You have told me many things which I shall find very useful indeed later on."
"Dear me," she laughed, "you are making me quite conceited!"
"Anyhow," he replied, "I don't want you to look upon me, Beatrice, in any way as a benefactor. I am much more comfortable here than at the boarding-house and it is costing no more money, especially since you began to get those singing engagements. By the way, hadn't you better go and get ready?"
She smothered a sigh as she turned away and went slowly upstairs. To all appearance, no person who ever breathed was more ordinary than this strong-featured, self-centered young man who had put out his arm and snatched her from the Maelstrom. Yet it seemed to her that there was something almost unnatural about his unapproachability. She was convinced that he was entirely honest, not only with regard to his actual relations toward her, but with regard to all his purposes. Her sex did not even seem to exist for him. The fact that she was good-looking, and with her renewed health daily becoming more so, seemed to be of no account to him whatever. He showed interest in her appearance sometimes, but it was interest of an entirely impersonal sort. He simply expressed himself as satisfied or dissatisfied, as a matter of taste. It came to her at that moment that she had never seen him really relax. Only when he sat opposite to that great map which hung now in the further room, and wandered about from section to section with a pencil in one hand and a piece of rubber in another, did he show anything which in any way approached enthusiasm, and even then it was always the unmistakable enthusiasm born of dead things. Suddenly she laughed at herself in the little mirror, laughed softly but heartily. This was the guardian whom Fate had sent for her! If Elizabeth had only understood!