The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IX. The Plot Thickens
The man whom Tavernake had left walking up and down the corridor lost no time in presenting himself once more at the apartments of Mrs. Wenham Gardner. He entered the suite without ceremony, carefully closing both doors behind him. It became obvious then that his deportment on the occasion of his previous appearance had been in the nature of a bluff. The air with which he looked across the room at the woman who watched him was furtive; the hand which laid his hat upon the table was shaking; there was a gleam almost of terror in his eyes. The woman remained impassive, inscrutable, simply watching him. After a moment or two, however, she spoke--a single monosyllable.
The man broke down.
"Elizabeth," he exclaimed, "you are too--too ghastly! I can't stand it. You are unnatural."
She stretched herself upon the couch and turned towards him.
"Unnatural, am I?" she remarked. "And what are you?"
He sank into a chair. He had become very flabby indeed.
"What you are always calling me, I suppose," he muttered,--"a coward. You have so little consideration, Elizabeth. My health isn't what it was."
His eyes had wandered longingly toward the cupboard at the further end of the apartment. The woman upon the couch smiled.
"You may help yourself," she directed carelessly. "Perhaps then you will be able to tell me why you have come in such a state."
He crossed the room in a few hasty steps, his head and shoulders disappeared inside the cupboard. There was the sound of the withdrawal of a cork, the fizz of a sodawater syphon. He returned to his place a different man.
"You must remember my age, Elizabeth dear," he said, apologetically. "I haven't your nerve--it isn't likely that I should have. When I was twenty-five, there was nothing in the world of which I was afraid."
She looked him over critically.
"Perhaps I am not so absolutely courageous as you think," she remarked. "To tell you the truth, there are a good many things of which I am afraid when you come to me in such a state. I am afraid of you, of what you will do or say."
"You need not be," he assured her hastily. "When I am away from you, I am dumb. What I suffer no one knows. I keep it to myself."
She nodded, a little contemptuously.
"I suppose you do your best," she declared. "Tell me, now, what is this fresh thing which has disturbed you?"
Her visitor stared at her.
"Does there need to be any fresh thing?" he muttered.
"I suppose it is something about Wenham?" she asked.
The man shivered. He opened his lips and closed them again. The woman's tone, if possible, grew colder.
"I hope you are not going to tell me that you have disobeyed my orders," she said.
"No," he protested, "no! I was there yesterday. I came back by the mail from Penzance. I had to motor thirty miles to catch it."
"Something has happened, of course," she went on, "something which you are afraid to tell 'me. Sit up like a man, my dear father, and let me have the truth."
"Nothing fresh has happened at all," he assured her. "It is simply that the memory of the day I spent at that place and that the sight of him has got on my nerves till I can't sleep or think of anything else."
"What rubbish!" she exclaimed.
"You have only seen the place in fine weather," he continued, dropping his voice a little. "Elizabeth, you have no idea what it is really like. Yesterday morning I got out of the train at Bodmin and I motored through to the village of Clawes. After that there were five miles to walk. There's no road, only a sort of broken track, and for the whole of that five miles there isn't even a farm building to be seen and I didn't meet a human soul. There was a sort of pall of white-gray mists everywhere over the moor, sometimes so dense that I couldn't see my way, and you could stop and listen and there wasn't a thing to be heard, not even a sheep bell."
She laughed softly. .
"My dear, foolish father," she murmured, "you don't understand what a rest cure is. This is quite all right, quite as it should be. Poor Wenham has been seeing too many people all his life -- that is why we have to keep him quiet for a time. You can skip the scenery. I suppose you got to the house at last?"
"Yes, I got there," continued her father. "You know what a bleak-looking place it is, right on the side of a bare hill--a square, gray stone place just the color of the hillside. Well, I got there and walked in. There was Ted Mathers, half dressed, no collar, with a bottle of whiskey on the table, playing some wretched game of cards by himself. Elizabeth, what a brute that man is!"
She shook her head.
"Go on," she said. "What about Wenham?"
"He was there in a corner, gazing out of the window. When I came he sprang up, but when he saw who it was, he--he tried to hide. He was afraid of me."
"Why?" she asked.
"He said that I--I reminded him of you."
"Absurd!" she murmured. "Tell me, how did he look?"
"Ill, wretched, paler and thinner than ever, and wilder looking."
"What did Mathers say about him?" she demanded.
"What could he? He told me that he cried all day and begged to be taken back to America."
"No one goes near the place, I suppose?" she asked.
"Not a soul. A man comes from the village to sell things once a week. Mathers knows when to expect him and takes care that Wenham is not around. They are out of the world there--no road, no paths, nothing to bring even a tourist. I could have imagined such a spot in Arizona, Elizabeth, but in England--no!"
"Has he any amusements at all?" she inquired.
The man's hands were shaking; once more his eyes went longingly toward the cupboard.
"He has made--a doll," he said, "carved it out of a piece of wood and dressed it in oddments from his ties. Mathers showed it to me as a joke. Elizabeth, it was wonderful--horrible!"
"Why?" she asked him.
"It is you," he continued, moistening his lips with his tongue, "you, in a blue gown--your favorite shade. He has even made blue stockings and strange little shoes. He has got some hair from somewhere and parted it just like yours."
"It sounds very touching," she remarked.
The man was shivering again.
"Elizabeth," he said, "I do not think that he means it kindly. Mathers took me up into his room. He has made something there which looks like a scaffold. The doll was hanging by a piece of string from the gallows. Elizabeth!--my God, but it was like you!" he cried, suddenly dropping his head upon his arms.
For a moment, a reflection of the terror which had seized him flashed in her own face. It passed quickly away. She laughed mockingly.
"My dear father," she protested, "you are certainly not yourself this morning."
"I saw you swinging," he muttered, "swinging by that piece of cord! There was a great black pin through your heart. Elizabeth, if he should get away sometime! If some one should come over from America and discover where he was! If he should find us out! Oh, my God, if he should find us out!"
Elizabeth had risen to her feet. She was standing now before the fire, her left elbow resting upon the mantelpiece, a trifle of silver gleaming in her right hand.
"Father," she said, "there is no danger in life for those who know no fear. Look at me."
His eyes sought hers, fascinated.
"If he should find me out," she continued, "it would be no such terrible thing, after all. It would be the end."
Her fingers disclosed the little ornament she was carrying--a tiny pistol. She slipped it back into her pocket. The man was wondering how such a thing as this came to be his daughter.
"You have courage, Elizabeth," he whispered.
"I have courage," she assented, "because I have brains. I never allow myself to be in a position where I should be likely to get the worst of it. Ever since the day when he turned so suddenly against me, I have been careful."
Her father leaned towards her.
"Elizabeth," he said, "I never really understood. What was it that came over him so suddenly? One day he was your slave, the next I think he would have murdered you if he could."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Honestly," she replied, "I felt it impossible to keep up the sham any longer. I married Wenham Gardner in New York because he was supposed to be a millionaire and because it seemed to be the best thing to do, but as to living with him, I never meant that. You know how ridiculous his behavior was on the boat. He never let me out of his sight, but swore that he was going to give up smoking and drinking and lead a new life for my sake. I really believe he meant it, too."
"Wouldn't it have been better, dear," her father suggested, timidly, "to have encouraged him?"
She shook her head.
"He was absolutely hopeless," she declared. "You say that I have no nerves; that is because I do not allow myself to suffer. If I had gone on living with Wenham, it would have driven me mad. His habits, his manner of life, everything disgusted me. Until I came to see so much of him, I never understood what the term 'decadent' really can mean. The very touch of him grew to be hateful. No woman could live with such a man. By the way, he signed the draft, I suppose?"
Her father handed her a slip of paper, which she looked at and locked in her drawer.
"Did he make any trouble about it?" she asked.
The professor shivered.
"He refused to sign it," he said, in a low tone, "swore he would never sign it. Mathers sent me out for a few minutes, made me go into another room. When I came back, he gave me the draft. I heard him calling out."
"Mathers certainly earns his money," she remarked, drily.
He gazed at her with grudging admiration. This was his daughter, his own flesh and blood. Back through the years, for a moment, he seemed to see her, a child with hair down her back, sitting on his knee, listening to his stories, wondering at the little arts and tricks by which he had wrested their pennies and sixpennies from a credulous public. Phrenologist, hypnotist, conjurer--all these things the great Professor Franklin had called himself. Often, from the rude stage where he had given his performance, he had terrified to death the women and children of his audience. It flashed upon him at that moment that never, even in the days of her childhood, had he seen fear in Elizabeth's face.
"You should have been a man, Elizabeth," he muttered.
She shook her head, smiling as though not ill-pleased at the compliment.
"The power of a man is so limited," she declared. "A woman has more weapons."
"More weapons indeed," the professor agreed, as his eyes traveled over the slim yet wonderful perfection of her form, lingered for a moment at the little knot of lace at her throat, wrestled with the delicate sweetness of her features, struggling hard to think from whom among his ancestors could have come a creature so physically attractive.
"More weapons, indeed," he repeated. "Elizabeth, what a gift-- what a gift!"
"You speak," she replied, "as though it were an evil one."
"I was only thinking," he said, "that it seems a pity. You are so wonderful, we might have found an easier and a less dangerous way to fortune."
"The Bohemian blood in me, I suppose," she remarked. "The crooked ways attract, you know, when one has been brought up as I was."
"Your poor mother had no love for them," he reminded her.
"Beatrice has inherited everything that belonged to my mother. I am your own daughter, father. You ought to be proud of me. But there, I gave you another commission. Is it true that Jerry is really here?"
"He arrived in England on Wednesday on the Lusitania. He has been in town all the time since."
A distinct frown darkened her face.
"He must have had my letter, then," she murmured, half to herself.
"Without a doubt," her father admitted. "Elizabeth, why do you take chances about seeing this man? He was fond of you in New York, I know, but then he was fond of his brother, too. He may not believe your story. It may be dangerous."
"I think I can convince Jerry Gardner of anything I choose to tell him," she said. "Besides, it is absolutely necessary that I have some information about Wenham's affairs. He must have a great deal more money somewhere and I must find out how we are to get at it."
The professor shook his head.
"I don't like it," he muttered. "Supposing he finds Beatrice!"
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders.
"Beatrice is made of silent stuff," she declared. "I should never be afraid of her. All the same, I wish I could find out just where she is. It would look better if we were living together."
The professor shook his head sadly.
"She left us of her own free will," he said, "and I don't believe, Elizabeth, that she would ever come back again. She knew very well what she was doing. She knew that our views of life were not hers. She didn't know half but she knew enough. You were quite right in what you said just now; Beatrice was more like her mother, and her mother was a good woman."
"Really!" Elizabeth remarked, insolently.
"Don't answer like that," he blustered, striking the table. "She was your mother, too."
The woman's face was inscrutable, hard, and flawless behind the little cloud of tobacco smoke. The man began to tremble once more. Every time he ventured to assert himself, a single look from her was sufficient to quell him.
"Elizabeth," he muttered, "you haven't a heart, you haven't a soul, you haven't a conscience. I wonder--what sort of a woman you are!"
"I am your daughter," she reminded him, pleasantly.
"I was never quite so bad as that," he went on, taking a large silk handkerchief from his pocket and dabbing his forehead. "I had to live and times were hard. I have cheated the public, perhaps. I haven't been above playing at cards a little cleverly, or making something where I could out of the weaker men. But, Elizabeth, I am afraid of you."
"Men are generally afraid of the big stakes," she remarked, flicking the ash from her cigarette. "They will cheat and lie for halfpennies, but they are bad gamblers when life or death -- the big things are in the balance. Bah!" she went on. "Father, I want Jerry Gardner to come and see me."
"If you can't make him come, my dear," the professor said, "I am sure it will be of no use my trying."
"He has had my letter," she continued, half to herself; "he has had my letter and he does not come."
"There is nothing to be done but wait," her father decided.
"And meanwhile," she went on, "supposing he were to discover Beatrice, supposing they two were to come together; supposing he were to tell her what he knows and she were to tell him what she guessed!"
The professor buried his face in his hands. Elizabeth threw her cigarette away with an impatient gesture.
"What an idiot I am!" she declared. "What is the use of wasting time like this?"
There was a knock at the door. A trim-looking French maid presented herself. She addressed her mistress in voluble French. A coiffeur and a manicurist were waiting in the next apartment; it was time that Madame habited herself. The professor listened to these announcements with an air of half-admiring wonder.
"I suppose I must be going," he said, rising to his feet. "There is just one thing I should like to ask you, Elizabeth, if I may, before I go."
"Who was the young man whom I met here just now?"
"Why do you ask that?" she demanded.
"I really do not know," her father replied, thoughtfully, "except that his appearance seemed a little singular. In some respects he appeared so commonplace. His clothes and bearing, in fact, were so ordinary that I was surprised to find him here with you. And, on the other hand, his face--you must remember, my dear, that this is entirely a professional instinct; I am still interested in faces--"
"Quite so," she admitted. "Go on. The young man rather puzzles me myself. I should like to hear what you make of him. What did you think of his face?"
"There was something powerful about it," he declared, "something dogged, splendid, narrow, impossible,--the sort of face which belongs to a man who achieves great things because he is too stupid to recognize failure, even when it has him in its arms and its fingers are upon his throat. That young man has qualities, my dear, I am sure. Mind you, at present they are dormant, but he has qualities."
She led him to the door.
"My dear father," she said, "sometimes I really respect you. If you should come across that young man again, keep your eye upon him. He knows one thing at least which I wish he would tell us -- he knows where Beatrice is."
Her father looked at her in amazement.
"He knows where Beatrice is and he has not told you?"
"You tried to have him tell you and he refused?" the professor persisted.
"Exactly," she admitted.
Her father put on his hat.
"I knew that young man was something out of the common."