The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VIII. Woman's Wiles
At eleven o'clock the next morning, Tavernake presented himself at the Milan Court and inquired for Mrs. Wenham Gardner. He was sent at once to her apartments in charge of a page. She was lying upon a sofa piled up with cushions, wrapped in a wonderful blue garment which seemed somehow to deepen the color of her eyes. By her side was a small table on which was some chocolate, a bowl of roses, and a roll of newspapers. She held out her hand toward Tavernake, but did not rise. There was something almost spiritual about her pallor, the delicate outline of her figure, so imperfectly concealed by the thin silk dressing-gown, the faint, tired smile with which she welcomed him.
"You will forgive my receiving you like this, Mr. Tavernake?" she begged. "To-day I have a headache. I have been anxious for your coming. You must sit by my side, please, and tell me at once whether you have seen Beatrice."
Tavernake did exactly as he was bidden. The chair toward which she had pointed was quite close to the sofa, but there was no other unoccupied in the room. She raised herself a little on the couch and turned towards him. Her eyes were fixed anxiously upon his, her forehead slightly wrinkled, her voice tremulous with eagerness.
"You have seen her?"
"I have," he admitted, looking steadily into the lining of his hat.
"She has been cruel," Elizabeth declared. "I can tell it from your face. You have bad news for me."
"I do not know," Tavernake replied, "whether she has been cruel or not. She refuses to allow me to tell you her address. She begged me, indeed, to keep away from you altogether."
"Why? Did she tell you why?"
"She says that you are her sister, that you have no money of your own and that your husband has left you," Tavernake answered, deliberately.
"Is that all?"
"No, it is not all," he continued. "As to the rest, she told me nothing definite. It is quite clear, however, that she is very anxious to keep away from you."
"But her reason?" Elizabeth persisted. "Did she give you no reason?"
Tavernake looked her in the face.
"She gave me no reason," he said.
"Do you believe that she is justified in treating me like this?" Elizabeth asked, playing nervously with a pendant which hung from her smooth, bare neck.
"Of course I do," he replied. "I am quite sure that she would not feel as she does unless you had been guilty of something very terrible indeed."
The woman on the couch winced as though some one had struck her. A more susceptible man than Tavernake must have felt a little remorseful at the tears which dimmed for a moment her beautiful eyes. Tavernake, however, although be felt a moment's uneasiness, although he felt himself assailed all the time by a curious new emotion which he utterly failed to understand, was nevertheless still immune. The things which were to happen to him had not yet, arrived.
"Of course," he continued, "I was very much disappointed to hear this, because I had hoped that we might have been able to let Grantham House to you. We cannot consider the matter at all now unless you pay for everything in advance."
She uncovered her eyes and looked at him. People so direct of speech as this had come very seldom into her life. She was conscious of a thrill of interest. The study of men was a passion with her. Here was indeed a new type!
"So you think that I am an adventuress," she murmured.
He reflected for a moment.
"I suppose," he admitted, "that it comes to that. I should not have returned at all if I had not promised. If there is any message which you wish me to give your sister, I will take it, but I cannot tell you her address."
She laid her hand suddenly upon his, and raising herself a little on the couch, leaned towards him. Her eyes and her lips both pleaded with him.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said slowly, "Beatrice is such a dear, obstinate creature, but she does not quite appreciate my position. Do me a favor, please. If you have promised not to give me her address let me at least know some way or some place in which I could come across her. I am sure she will be glad afterwards, and I--I shall be very grateful."
Tavernake felt that he was enveloped by something which he did not understand, but his lack of experience was so great that he did not even wonder at his insensibility.
"I shall keep my word to your sister," he announced, "in the spirit as well as the letter. It is quite useless to ask me to do otherwise."
Elizabeth was at first amazed, then angry, how angry she scarcely knew even herself. She had been a spoilt child, she had grown into a spoilt woman. Men, at least, had been ready enough to do her bidding all her life. Her beauty was of that peculiar kind, half seductive, half pathetic, wholly irresistible. And now there had come this strange, almost impossible person, against the armor of whose indifference she had spent herself in vain. Her eyes filled with tears once more as she looked at him, and Tavernake became uneasy. He glanced at the clock and again toward the door.
"I think, if you will excuse me," he began,--
"Mr. Tavernake," she interrupted, "you are very unkind to me, very unkind indeed."
"I cannot help it," he answered.
"If you knew everything," she continued, "you would not be so obstinate. If Beatrice herself were here, if I could whisper something in her ear, she would be only too thankful that I had found her out. Beatrice has always misunderstood me, Mr. Tavernake. It is a little hard upon me, for we are both so far away from home, from our friends."
"You can send her any message you like by me," Tavernake declared. "If you like, I will wait while you write a letter. If you really have anything to say to her which might change her opinion, you can write it, can't you?"
She looked down at her hands--very beautiful and well-kept hands --and sighed. This young man, with his unusual imperturbability and hateful common sense, was getting on her nerves.
"It is so hard to write things, Mr. Tavernake," she said, "but, of course, it is something to know that if the worst happens I can send her a letter. I shall think about that for a short time. Meanwhile, there is so much about her I would love to have you tell me. She has no money, has she? How does she support herself?"
"She sings occasionally at concerts," Tavernake replied after a moment's pause. "I suppose there is no harm in telling you that."
Elizabeth leaned towards him. She was very loth indeed to acknowledge defeat. Once more her voice was deliciously soft, her forehead delicately wrinkled, her blue eyes filled with alluring light.
"Mr. Tavernake," she murmured, "do you know that you are not in the least kind to me? Beatrice and I are sisters, after all. Even she has admitted that. She left me most unkindly at a critical time in my life; she misunderstood things; if I were to see her, I could explain everything. I feel it very much that she is living apart from me in this city where we are both strangers. I am anxious about her, Mr. Tavernake. Does she want money? If so, will you take her some from me? Can't you suggest any way in which I could help her? Do be my friend, please, and advise me."
Life was certainly opening out for Tavernake. The atmosphere by which he was surrounded, which she was deliberately creating around him, was the atmosphere of an unknown world. It was a position, this, entirely novel to him. Nevertheless, he did his best to cope with it intelligently. He reflected carefully before he made any reply, he refused absolutely to listen to the strange voices singing in his ears, and he delivered his decision with his usual air of finality.
"I am afraid," he said, "that since Beatrice refuses even to let you know her whereabouts, she would not wish to accept anything from you. It seems a pity," he went on, the instincts of the money-saver stirring within him; "she is certainly none too well off."
The lady on the couch sighed.
"Beatrice has at least a friend," she murmured. "It is a great deal to have a friend. It is more than I have. We are both so far from home here. Often I am sorry that we ever left America. England is not a hospitable country, Mr. Tavernake."
Again this painfully literal young man spoke out what was in his mind.
"There was a gentleman in the motor-car with you the other night," he reminded her.
She bit her lip.
"He was just an acquaintance," she answered, "a man whom I used to know in New York, passing through London. He called on me and asked me to go to the theatre and supper. Why not? I have had a terrible time during the last few months, Mr. Tavernake, and I am very lonely--lonelier than ever since my sister deserted me."
Tavernake began to feel, ridiculous though it seemed, that in some subtle and inexplicable fashion he was in danger. At any rate, he was hopelessly bewildered. He did not understand why this very beautiful lady should look at him as though they were old friends, why her eyes should appeal to him so often for sympathy, why her fingers, which a moment ago were resting lightly upon his hand, and which she had drawn away with reluctance, should have burned him like pin-pricks of fire. The woman who wishes to allure may be as subtle as possible in her methods, but a sense of her purpose, however vague it may be, is generally communicated to her wouldbe victim. Tavernake was becoming distinctly uneasy. He had no vanity. He knew from the first that this beautiful creature belonged to a world far removed from any of which he had any knowledge. The only solution of the situation which presented itself to him was that she might be thinking of borrowing money from him!
"There was never a time in my life," she continued softly, "when I felt that I needed a friend more. I am afraid that my sister has prejudiced you against me, Mr. Tavernake. Beatrice is very young, and the young are not always sympathetic, you know. They do not make allowances, they do not understand."
"Why did you tell Mr. Dowling things which were not true?" he asked bluntly.
She sighed, and looked down at the handkerchief with which she had been toying.
"It was a very silly piece of conceit," she admitted, "but, you see, I had to tell him something."
"Why did you come to the office at all?" he continued.
"Do you really want to know that?" she whispered softly.
"I will tell you," she went on suddenly. "It sounds foolish, in a way, and yet it wasn't really, because, you see,"--she smiled at him--" I was anxious about Beatrice. I saw you come out of the office that morning, and I recognized you at once. I knew that it was you who had been with Beatrice. I made an excuse about the house to come and see whether I could find you out."
Tavernake, in whom the vanity was not yet born, missed wholly the significance of her smile, her trifling hesitation.
"All that," he declared, "is no reason why you should have told Mr. Dowling that your husband was a millionaire and had given you carte blanche about taking a house."
"Did I mention--my husband?"
"Distinctly," he assured her.
For the first time she had faltered in her speech. Tavernake felt that she herself was shaken by some emotion. Her eyes for a moment were strangely-lit; something had come into her face which he did not understand. Then it passed. The delightful smile, half deprecating, half appealing, once more parted her lips; the gleam of horror no longer shone in her blue eyes.
"I am always so foolish about money," she declared, "so ignorant that I never know how I stand, but really I think that I have plenty, and a hundred or two more or less for rent didn't seem to matter much."
It was a point of view, this, which Tavernake utterly failed to comprehend. He looked at her in surprise.
"I suppose," he protested, "you know how much a year you have to live on?"
She shook her head.
"It seems to vary all the time," she sighed. "There are so many complications."
He looked at her in amazement.
"After all," he admitted, "you don't look as though you had much of a head for figures."
"If only I had some one to help me!" she murmured.
Tavernake moved uneasily in his chair. His sense of danger was growing.
"If you will excuse me now," he said, "I think that I must be getting back. I am an employee at Dowling, Spence & Company's, you know, and my time is not quite my own. I only came because I promised to."
"Mr. Tavernake," she begged, looking at him full out of those wonderful blue eyes, "please do me a great favor."
"What is it?" he asked with clumsy ungraciousness.
"Come and see me, every now and then, and let me know how my sister is. Perhaps you may be able to suggest some way in which I can help her."
Tavernake considered the question for a moment. He was angry with himself for the unaccountable sense of pleasure which her suggestion had given him.
"I am not quite sure," he said, "whether I had better come. Beatrice seemed quite anxious that I should not talk about her to you at all. She did not like my coming to-day."
"You seem to know a great deal about my sister," Elizabeth declared reflectively. "You call her by her Christian name and you appear to see her frequently. Perhaps, even, you are fond of her."
Tavernake met his questioner's inquiring gaze blankly. He was almost indignant.
"Fond of her!" he exclaimed. "I have never been fond of any one in my life, or anything--except my work," he added.
She looked at him a little bewildered at first.
"Oh, you strange person!" she cried, her lips breaking into a delightful smile. "Don't you know that you haven't begun to live at all yet? You don't even know anything about life, and at the back of it all you have capacity. Yes," she went on, "I think that you have the capacity for living."
Her hand fell upon his with a little gesture which was half a caress. He looked around him as though seeking for escape. He was on his feet now and he clutched at his hat.
"I must go," he insisted almost roughly.
"Am I keeping you?" she asked innocently. "Well, you shall go as soon as you please, only you must promise me one thing. You must come back, say within a week, and let me know how my sister is. I am not half so brutal as you think. I really am anxious about her. Please!"
"I will promise that," he answered.
"Wait one moment, then," she begged, turning to the letters by her side. "There is just something I want to ask you. Don't be impatient--it is entirely a matter of business."
All the time he was acutely conscious of that restless desire to get out of the room. The woman's white arms, from which the sleeves of her blue gown had fallen back, were stretched towards him as she lazily turned over her pile of correspondence. They were very beautiful arms and Tavernake, although he had had no experience, was dimly aware of the fact. Her eyes, too, seemed always to be trying to reach some part of him which was dead, or as yet unborn. He could feel her striving to get there, beating against the walls of his indifference. Why should a woman wear blue stockings because she had a blue gown, he wondered idly. She was not like Beatrice, this alluring, beautiful woman, who lay there talking to him in a manner whose meaning came to him only in strange, bewildering flashes. He could be with Beatrice and feel the truth of what he had once told her--that her sex was a thing which need not even be taken into account between them. With this woman it was different; he felt that she wished it to be different.
"Perhaps you had better tell me about that matter of business next time I am here," he suggested, with an abruptness which was almost brusque. "I must go now. I do not know why I have stayed so long."
She held out her fingers.
"You are a very sudden person," she declared, smiling at his discomfiture. "If you must go!"
He scarcely touched her hand, anxious only to get away. And then the door opened and a man of somewhat remarkable appearance entered the room with the air of a privileged person. He was oddly dressed, with little regard to the fashion of the moment. His black coat was cut after the mode of a past generation, his collar was of the type affected by Gladstone and his fellow- statesmen, his black bow was arranged with studied negligence and he showed more frilled white shirt-front than is usual in the daytime. His silk hat was glossy but broad-brimmed; his masses of gray hair, brushed back from a high, broad forehead, gave him almost a patriarchal aspect. His features were large and fairly well-shaped, but his mouth was weak and his cheeks lacked the color of a healthy life. Tavernake stared at him open-mouthed. He, for his part, looked at Tavernake as he might have looked at some strange wild animal.
"A thousand apologies, dear Elizabeth!" be exclaimed. "I knocked, but I imagine that you did not hear me. Knowing your habits, it did not occur to me that you might be engaged at this hour of the morning."
"It is a young man from the house agent's," she announced indifferently, "come to see me about a flat."
"In that case," he suggested amiably, "I am, perhaps, not in the way."
Elizabeth turned her head slightly and looked at him; he backed precipitately toward the door.
"In a few minutes," he said. "I will return in a few minutes."
Tavernake attempted to follow his example.
"There is no occasion for your friend to leave," he protested. "If you have any instructions for us, a note to the office will always bring some one here to see you."
She sat up on the couch and smiled at him. His obvious embarrassment amused her. It was a new sort of game, this, altogether.
"Come, Mr. Tavernake," she said, "three minutes more won't matter, will it? I will not keep you longer than that, I promise."
He came reluctantly a few steps back.
"I am sorry," he explained, "but we really are busy this morning."
"This is business," she declared, still smiling at him pleasantly. "My sister has filled you with suspicions about me. Some of them may be justifiable, some are not. I am not so rich as I should like some people to believe. It is so much easier to live well, you know, when people believe that you are rolling in money. Still, I am by no means a pauper. I cannot afford to take Grantham House, but neither can I afford to go on living here. I have decided to make a change, to try and economize, to try and live within my means. Now will you bring me a list of small houses or flats, something at not more than say two or three hundred a year? It shall be strictly a business proceeding. I will pay you for your time, if that is necessary, and your commission in advance. There, you can't refuse my offer on those terms, can you?"
Tavernake remained silent. He was conscious that his lack of response seemed both sullen and awkward, but he was for the moment tongue-tied. His habit of inopportune self-analysis had once more asserted itself. He could not understand the curious nature of his mistrust of this woman, nor could he understand the pleasure which her suggestion gave him. He wanted to refuse, and yet he was glad to be able to tell himself that he was, after all, but an employee of his firm and not in a position to decline business on their behalf.
She leaned a little towards him; her tone was almost beseeching.
"You are not going to be unkind? You will not refuse me?" she pleaded.
"I will bring you a list," he answered heavily, "on the terms you suggest."
"To-morrow morning?" she begged.
"As soon as I am able," he promised.
Then he escaped. Outside in the corridor, the man who had interrupted his interview was walking backwards and forwards. Tavernake passed him without responding to his bland greeting. He forgot all about the lift and descended five flights of stairs. . . .
A few minutes later, he presented himself at the office and reported that Mrs. Wenham Gardner had decided unfavorably about Grantham House, and that she was not disposed, indeed, to take premises of anything like such a rental. Mr. Dowling was disappointed, and inclined to think that his employee had mismanaged the affair.
"I wish that I had gone myself," he declared. "She obviously wished me to, but it happened to be inconvenient. By-the-bye, Tavernake, close the door, will you? There is another matter concerning which I should like to speak to you."
Tavernake did as he was bidden at once, without any disquietude. His own services to the firm were of such a nature that he had no misgiving whatever as to his employer's desire for a private interview.
"It is about the Marston Rise estate," Mr. Dowling explained, arranging his pince nez. "I believe that the time is coming when some sort of overtures should be made. You know what has been in my mind for a very considerable time."
"Yes," he admitted, "I know quite well."
"I did hear a rumor," Mr. Dowling continued, "that some one had bought one small plot on the outskirts of the estate. I dare say it is not true, and in any case it is not worth while troubling about, but it shows that the public is beginning to nibble. I am of opinion that the time is almost--yes, almost ripe for a move."
"Do you wish me to do anything in the matter, sir?" Tavernake asked.
"In the first place," Mr. Dowling declared, "I should like you to try to find out whether any of the plots have really been sold, and, if so, to whom, and what would be their price. Can you do this during the week?"
"I think so," Tavernake answered.
"Say Monday morning," Mr. Dowling suggested, taking down his hat. "I shall be playing golf to-morrow and Friday, and of course Saturday. Monday morning you might let me have a report."
Tavernake went back to his office. After all, then, things were to come to a crisis a little earlier than he had thought. He knew quite well that that report, if he made it honestly, and no other idea was likely to occur to him, would effectually sever his connection with Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company.