MoboReader> Literature > December Love

   Chapter 19 No.19

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 37393

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mrs. Ackroyde had a pretty little house in Upper Grosvenor Street, but she spent a good deal of her time in a country house which she had bought at Coombe close to London. She was always there from Saturday to Monday, when she was not paying visits or abroad, and Coombe Hall, as her place was called, was a rallying ground for members of the "old guard." Invariably guests came down on the Sunday to lunch and tea. Bridge was the great attraction for some. For others there were lawn tennis and golf. And often there was good music. For Mrs. Ackroyde was an excellent musician as well as an ardent card-player.

Lady Sellingworth had occasionally been to Coombe Hall, but for several years now she had ceased from going there. She did not care to show her white hair and lined face in Mrs. Ackroyde's rooms, which were always thronged with women she knew too well and with men who had ceased from admiring her. And she was no longer deeply interested in the gossip of a world in which formerly she had been one of the ruling spirits. She was, therefore, rather surprised at receiving a note from Mrs. Ackroyde soon after her return from Geneva urging her to motor to Coombe on the following Sunday for lunch.

"I suppose there will be the usual crowd," Mrs. Ackroyde wrote. "And I've asked Alick Craven and two or three who don't often come. What do you think of Beryl Van Tuyn's transformation into an heiress? I hear she's come into over three million dollars. I suppose she'll be more unconventional than ever now. Minnie Birchington met her just after her father's death, in fact the very day his death was announced in the papers. She'd just been to tea with a marvellously good-looking man called something Arabian, who has taken a flat in Rose Tree Gardens opposite to Minnie's. Evidently this is the newest way of going into deep mourning."

Lady Sellingworth hesitated for some time before answering this note. Probably, indeed almost certainly, she would have refused the invitation but for the last three sentences about Beryl Van Tuyn. She did not want to see the girl again, for she could not help hating her. She had, of course, sent a note of sympathy to Claridge's, and had received an affectionate reply, which she had torn up and burnt after reading it. But she had not gone to tell her regret at this death to Beryl, and Beryl had expressed no wish to see her.

In her heart Lady Sellingworth hated humbug, and she knew, of course, that any pretence of real friendship between Beryl and her would be humbug in an acute form. She might in the future sometimes have to pretend, but she was resolved not to rush upon insincerity. If Beryl sought her out again she would play her part of friend gallantly to conceal her wounds. But she would certainly not seek out Beryl.

She had not seen Craven since her return to London. In spite of her anger against him, which was complicated by a feeling of almost contemptuous disgust, she longed to see him again. Each day, when she had sat in her drawing-room in the late afternoon and had heard Murgatroyd's heavy step outside and the opening of the door, her heart beat fast, and she had thought, "Can it be he?" Each day, after the words "Sir Seymour Portman!" her heart had sunk and she had felt bitter and weary.

And now came this invitation, putting it in her power to meet Craven again naturally. Should she go?

She read Dindie Ackroyde's note once more carefully, and a strange feeling stung her. She had been angry with Beryl for being fond of Craven. (For she had supposed a real fondness in Beryl.) Now she was angry with Beryl for a totally different reason. It was evident to her that Beryl was behaving badly to Craven. As she looked at the note in her hand she remembered a conversation in a box at the theatre. Arabian! That was the name of the man Dick Garstin was painting, or had been painting. Dindie Ackroyde called him "Something Arabian." Lady Sellingworth's mind supplied the other name. It was Nicolas. Beryl had described him as "a living bronze."

She had gone out to tea with him in a flat on the day her father's sudden death had been announced in the papers. And yet she had pretended that she was hovering on the verge of love for Alick Craven. She had even implied that she was thinking of marrying him. Lady Sellingworth saw Beryl as a treacherous lover, as well as an unkind friend and a heartless daughter, and suddenly her anger against Craven died in pity. She had believed for a little while that she hated him, but now she longed to protect him from pain, to comfort him, to make him happy, as surely she had once made him happy, if only for an hour or two. She forgot her pride and her sense of injury in a sudden rush of feeling that was new to her, that perhaps, really, had something of motherliness in it. And she sat down quickly and wrote an acceptance to Mrs. Ackroyde.

When Sunday came she felt excited and eager, absurdly so for a woman of sixty. But her secret diffidence troubled her. She looked into her mirror and thought of the piercing eyes of the "old guard," of those merciless and horribly intelligent women who had marked with amazement her sudden collapse into old age ten years ago, who would mark with a perhaps even greater amazement this bizarre attempt at a partial return towards what she had once been.

And what would Alick Craven think?

Nevertheless she put a little more red on her lips, called her maid, had something done to her hair.

"It has been a great success!" said the little Frenchwoman. "Miladi looks wonderful to-day. Black and white is much better than unrelieved black for miladi. And the soupcon of blue on the hat and in the earrings of miladi lights up the whole personality. Miladi never did a wiser thing than when she visited Switzerland."

"You think not, Cecile?"

"Indeed yes, miladi. There is no specialist even in Paris like Monsieur Paulus. And as to the Doctor Lavallois, he is a marvel. Every woman who is no longer a girl should go to him."

Lady Sellingworth picked up a big muff and went down to the motor, leaving Cecile smiling behind her. As she disappeared down the stairs Cecile, who was on the bright side of thirty, with a smooth, clear skin and chestnut-coloured hair, pushed out her under-lip slowly and shook her head.

"La vieillesse!" she murmured. "La vieillesse amoureuse! Quelle horreur!"

Lady Sellingworth had never given the maid any confidence about her secret reasons for doing this or that. But Cecile was a Parisian. She fully understood the reason for their visit to Geneva. Miladi had fallen in love.

Lady Sellingworth's excitement increased as she drove towards Coombe. It was complicated by a feeling of shyness. To herself she said that she was like an old debutante. She had been out of the world for so long, and now she was venturing once more among the merciless women of the world that never rests from amusing itself, from watching the lives of others, from gossiping about them, from laughing at them. She had been a leader of this world until she had denied it, had shut herself away from it. And now she was venturing back-because of a man. As she drove on swiftly through the wintry and dull-looking streets, streets that seemed to grow meaner, more dingy, more joyless, as she drew near to the outskirts of London, she looked back over the past. And she saw always the same reason for the important actions of her life. All of them had been committed because of a man. And now, even at sixty-Presently she saw by the look of the landscape that she was nearing Coombe, and she drew a little mirror out of her muff and gazed into it anxiously.

"What will they say? What will he think? What will happen to me to-day?"

The car turned into a big gravel sweep between tall, red-brick walls, and drew up before Mrs. Ackroyde's door.

In the long drawing-room, with its four windows opening on to a terrace, from which Coombe Woods could be seen sunk in the misty winter, Lady Sellingworth found many cheerful people whom she knew. Mrs. Ackroyde gave her blunt, but kindly, greeting, with her strange eyes, fierce and remote, yet notably honest, taking in at a glance the results of Geneva. Lady Wrackley was there in an astonishing black hat trimmed with bird of paradise plumes. Glancing about her while she still spoke to Dindie Ackroyde carelessly, Lady Sellingworth saw young Leving; Sir Robert Syng; the Duchess of Wellingborough, shaking her broad shoulders and tossing up her big chin as she laughed at some joke; Jennie Farringdon, with her puffy pale cheeks and parrot-like nose, talking to old Hubert Mostine, the man of innumerable weddings, funerals and charity fetes, with his blinking eyelids and moustaches that drooped over a large and gossiping mouth; Magdalen Dearing, whose Mona Lisa smile had attracted three generations of men, and who had managed to look sad and be riotous for at least four decades; Francis Braybrooke, pulling at his beard; Mrs. Birchington; Lady Anne Smith, wiry, cock-nosed, brown, ugly, but supremely smart and self-assured; Eve Colton, painted like a wall, and leaning, with an old hand blazing with jewels, on a stick with a jade handle; Mrs. Dews, the witty actress, with her white, mobile face, and the large irresponsible eyes which laughed at herself, the critics and the world; Lord Alfred Craydon, thin, high church and political, who loved pretty women but receded farther and farther from marriage as the years spun by; and Lady Twickenham, a French poupee; and Julian Lamberhurst, the composer, who looked as if he had grown up to his six foot four in one night, like the mustard seed; and Hilary Lane, the friend of poets; and-how many more! For Dindie Ackroyde loved to gather a crowd for lunch, and had a sort of physical love of noise and human complications.

At the far end of the room there was a section which was raised a few inches above the rest. Here stood two Steinway grand pianos, tail to tail, their dark polished cases shining soberly in the pale light of November. There were some deep settees on this species of dais, and, looking towards it, over the heads of the crowd in the lower part of the room, Lady Sellingworth saw Craven again.

He was sitting beside a pretty girl, whom Lady Sellingworth did not know, and talking. His face looked hard and bored, but he was leaning towards the girl as if trying to seem engrossed, intent, on the conversation and on her.

Francis Braybrooke came up. Lady Sellingworth was busy, greeting and being greeted. Once more she made part of the regiment. But the ranks were broken. There was no review order here. Only for an instant had she been aware of formality, of the "eyes right" atmosphere-when she had entered the room. Then the old voices hummed about her. And she saw the well-known and experienced eyes examining her. And she had to listen and to answer, to be charming, to "hold her own."

"I'm putting Alick Craven next to you at lunch, Adela. I know you and he are pals. He's over there with Lily Bright."

"And who is Lily Bright?" said Lady Sellingworth in her most offhand way.

"A dear little New Englander, Knickerbocker to the bone."

She turned away composedly to meet another guest.

Francis Braybrooke began to talk to Lady Sellingworth, and almost immediately Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Birchington joined them.

"How marvellous you look, Adela!" said Lady Wrackley, staring with her birdlike eyes. "You will cut us all out. I must go to Geneva. Have you heard about Beryl? But of course you have. She was so delighted at coming into a fortune that she rushed away to Rose Tree Gardens to celebrate the event with a man without even waiting till she had got her mourning. Didn't she, Minnie?"

Francis Braybrooke was looking shocked.

"I cannot believe that Miss Van Tuyn-" he began.

But Mrs. Birchington interrupted him.

"But I was there!" she said.

"I beg your pardon!" said Braybrooke.

"It was the very day the death of her father was in the evening papers. I came back from the club with the paper in my hand, and met Beryl Van Tuyn getting out of the lift in Rose Tree Gardens with the man who lives opposite to me. She absolutely looked embarrassed."

"Impossible!" said Lady Wrackley. "She couldn't!"

"I assure you she did! But she introduced me to him."

"She cannot have heard of her father's death," said Braybrooke.

"But she had! For I expressed my sympathy and she thanked me."

Braybrooke looked very ill at ease and glanced plaintively towards the place where Craven was sitting with the pretty American.

"No doubt she had been to visit old friends," he said, "American friends."

"But this man, Nicolas Arabian, lives alone in his flat. And I'm sure he's not an American. Lady Archie has seen him several times with Beryl."

"What's he like?" asked Lady Wrackley.

"Marvellously handsome! A charmeur if ever there was one. Beryl certainly had good taste, but-"

At this moment there was a general movement. The butler had murmured to Mrs. Ackroyde that lunch was ready.

Lady Sellingworth was among the first few women who left the drawing-room, and was sitting at a round table in the big, stone-coloured dining-room when Baron de Melville, an habitue at Coombe, bent over her.

"I'm lucky enough to be beside you!" he said. "This is a rare occasion. One never meets you now."

He sat down on her right. The place on her left was vacant. People were still coming in, talking, laughing, finding their seats. The Duchess of Wellingborough, who was exactly opposite to Lady Sellingworth, leaned forward to speak to her.

"Adela . . . Adela!"

"Yes? How are you, Cora?"

"Very well, as I always am. Isn't Lavallois a marvel?"

"He is certainly very clever."

"You are proud of it, my dear. Have you heard what the Bolshevist envoy said to the Prime Minister when-"

But at this moment someone spoke to the duchess, who was already beginning to laugh at the story she was intending to tell and Lady Sellingworth was aware of a movement on her left. She felt as if she blushed, though no colour came into her face.

"How are you, Lady Sellingworth?"

She had not turned her head, but now she did, and met Craven's hard, uncompromising blue eyes and deliberately smiling lips.

"Oh, it's you! How nice!"

She gave him her hand. He just touched it coldly. What a boy he still was in his polite hostility! She thought of Camber Sands and the darkness falling over the waste, and, in spite of her self-control and her pity for him, there was an unconquerable feeling of injury in her heart. What reason, what right, had he to greet her so frigidly? How had she injured him?

A roar of conversation had begun in the room. Everyone seemed in high spirits. Mrs. Ackroyde, who was at the same table as Lady Sellingworth, with Lord Alfred Craydon on her right and Sir Robert Syng on her left, looked steadily round over the multitude of her guests with a comprehensive glance, the analyzing and summing-up glance of one to whom everything social was as an open book containing no secrets which her eyes did not read. Those eyes travelled calmly, and presently came to Craven and Adela Sellingworth. She smiled faintly and spoke to Robert Syng.

"This is her second debut," she said. "I'm bringing her out again. They are all amazed."

"What about?" said Sir Robert, in his grim and very masculine voice.

"Bobbie, you know as well as I do. I had a bet with Anne that she would accept. I'm five pounds to the good. Adela is a creature of impulses, and that sort of creature does young things to the day of its death."

"Is it doing a young thing to accept a luncheon invitation from you?"

"Yes-for her reason."

"Well, that's beyond me."

"How indifferent you are!"

He looked at her in silence.

Lady Sellingworth talked to the baron till half-way through lunch. He was a financier of rather obscure origin, long naturalized as an Englishman, and ardently patriotic. The noble words "we British people" were often upon his strangely foreign-looking lips. Many years ago the "old guard" had taken him to their generous bosoms. For he was enormously rich, and really not a bad sort. And he had been clever enough to remain unmarried, so hope attended him with undeviating steps.

Miss Van Tuyn was presently the theme of his discourse. Evidently he did not know anything about her and Alick Craven. For he discussed her and her change of fortune without embarrassment or any arriere pensee, and he, too, spoke of the visit to Rose Tree Gardens. Evidently all the Coombe set was full of this mysterious visit, paid to an Adonis whom nobody knew, in the shadow of a father's death.

The baron greatly admired Miss Van Tuyn, not only for her beauty but for her daring. And he was not at all shocked at what she had done.

"She never lived with her father. Why should she pretend to be upset at his death? The only difference it makes to her is an extremely agreeable one. If she celebrates it by a mild revel over the tea cups with an exceptionally good-looking man, who is to blame her? The fact is, we Britishers are all moral humbugs. It seems to be in the blood," etc.

He ran on with wholly un-English vivacity about Beryl and her wonderful man. Everybody wished to know who he was and all about him, but he seemed to be a profound mystery. Even Minnie Birchington, who lived opposite to him, knew little more than the rest of them. Since she had been introduced to him she had never set eyes on him, although she knew from her maid that he was still in the flat opposite, which he had rented furnished for three months with an option for a longer period. He had a Spanish manservant in the flat with him, but whether he, too, was Spanish Mrs. Birchington did not know. Where had Beryl Van Tuyn picked him up, and how had she come to know him so well? All the women were asking these questions. And the men were intrigued because of the report, carried by Lady Archie, and enthusiastically confirmed by Mrs. Birchington, of the fellow's extraordinary good looks.

Lady Sellingworth listened to all this with an air of polite, but rather detached, interest, wondering all the time whether Craven could overhear what was being said. Craven was sometimes talking to his neighbour, Mrs. Farringdon, but occasionally their conversation dropped, and Lady Sellingworth was aware of his sitting in silence. She wished, and yet almost feared, to talk to him, but she knew that she was interested in no one else in the room. Now that she was again with Craven she realized painfully how much she had missed him. Among a

ll these people, many of them talented, clever, even fascinating, she was only concerned about him. To her he seemed almost like a vital human being in the midst of a crowd of dummies endowed by some magic with the power of speech. She only felt him at this moment, though she was conscious of the baron, Mrs. Ackroyde, Bobbie Syng, the duchess, and others who were near her. This silent boy-he was still a boy in comparison with her-crumbling his bread, wiped them all out. Yet he was no cleverer than they were, no more vital than they. And half of her almost hated him still.

"Oh, why do I worry about him?" she thought, while she leaned towards the baron and looked energetically into his shifting dark eyes. "What is there in him that holds me and tortures me? He's only an ordinary man-horribly ordinary, I know that."

And she thought of Camber Sands and the twilight, and saw Craven seeking for Beryl's hand-footman and housemaid. What had she, Adela Sellingworth, with her knowledge and her past, her great burden of passionate experiences-what had she to do with such an ordinary young man?

"Nicolas might possibly be Greek or Russian. But what are we to make of Arabian?"

It was still the voice of the Baron-full, energetic, intensely un-English.

"Have you heard the name before, Lady Sellingworth?"

"Yes," she said.

"Really! What country does it belong to? Surely not to our England?"

"No."

Craven was not speaking at this moment, and she felt that he was listening to them. She remembered how Beryl had hurt her and, speaking with deliberate clearness, she added:

"Garstin, the painter, has had this man, Nicolas Arabian, as a sitter for a long time, certainly for a good many weeks. And Beryl is just now intensely interested in portrait painting."

"What-he's a model! But with a flat in Rose Tree Gardens!"

"He is evidently not an ordinary model. I believe Mr. Garstin picked him up somewhere, saw him by chance, probably at the Cafe Royal or some place of that kind, and asked him to sit."

"Do you know him?" asked the Baron, with sharp curiosity.

"Oh, no! I have never set eyes upon him. Beryl told me."

"Miss Van Tuyn! We all thought she was trying to keep the whole matter a secret."

"Well, she told me quite openly. You were there, weren't you?"

She turned rather abruptly to Craven. He started.

"What? I beg your pardon. I didn't catch what you were saying."

"He's lying!" she thought.

The Baron was addressed by his neighbour, Magdalen Dearing, whose husband he was supposed, perhaps quite wrongly, to finance, and Lady Sellingworth was left free for a conversation with Craven.

"We were speaking about Beryl," she began.

Suddenly she felt hard, and she wanted to punish Craven, as we only wish to punish those who can make us suffer because they have made us care for them.

"It seems that-they are all saying-"

She paused. She wanted to repeat the scandalous gossip about Beryl's visit to this mystery man, Arabian, immediately after her father's death. But she could not do it. No, she could not punish him with such a dirty weapon. He was worthy of polished steel, and this would be rusty scrap-iron.

"It's nothing but stupid gossip," she said. "And you and I have never dealt in that together, have we?"

"Oh, I enjoy hearing about my neighbours," he answered, "or I shouldn't come here."

She felt a sharp thrust of disappointment. His voice was cold and full of detachment; the glance of his blue eyes was hard and unrelenting. She had never seen him like this till to-day.

"What are they saying about Miss Van Tuyn?" he added. "Anything amusing?"

"No. And in any case it's not the moment to talk nonsense about her, just when she is in deep mourning."

With an almost bitter smile she continued, after a slight hesitation:

"There is a close time for game during which the guns must be patient. There ought to be a close time for human beings in sorrow. We ought not to fire at them all the year round."

"What does it matter? They fire at us all the year round. The carnage is mutual."

"Have you turned cynic?"

"I don't think I was ever a sentimentalist."

"Perhaps not. But must one be either the one or the other?"

"I am quite sure you are not the latter."

"I should be sorry to be the former," she said, with unusual earnestness.

Something in his voice made her suddenly feel very sad, with a coldness of sorrow that was like frost binding her heart. She looked across the big table. A long window was opposite to her. Through it she saw distant tree-tops rising into the misty grey sky. And she thought of the silence of the bare woods, so near and yet so remote. Why was life so heartless? Why could not he and she understand each other? Why had she nothing to rest on? Winter! She had entered into her winter, irrevocable, cold and leafless. But the longing for warmth would not leave her. Winter was terrible to her, would always be terrible.

How the Duchess of Wellingborough was laughing! Her broad shoulders shook. She threw up her chin and showed her white teeth. To her life was surely a splendid game, even in widowhood and old age. The crowd was enough for her. She fed on good stories. And so no doubt she would never go hungry. For a moment Lady Sellingworth thought that she envied the Duchess. But then something deep down in her knew it was not so. To need much-that is greater and better, even if the need brings that sorrow which perhaps many know nothing of. At that moment she connected desire with aspiration, and felt released from her lowest part.

Craven was speaking to Mrs. Farringdon; Lady Sellingworth heard her saying, in her curiously muffled, contralto voice:

"Old Bean is a wonderful horse. I fancy him for the next Derby. But some people say he is not a stayer. On a hard course he might crack up. Still, he's got a good deal of bone. The Farnham stable is absolutely rotten at present. Don't go near it."

"Oh, why did I come?" Lady Sellingworth thought, as she turned again to the Baron.

She had lost the habit of the world in her long seclusion. In her retreat she had developed into a sentimentalist. Or perhaps she had always been one, and old age had made the tendency more definite, had fixed her in the torturing groove. She began to feel terribly out of place in this company, but she knew that she did not look out of place. She had long ago mastered the art of appearance, and could never forget that cunning. And she gossiped gaily with the Baron until luncheon at last was over.

As she went towards the drawing-room Mrs. Ackroyde joined her.

"You were rather unkind to Alick Craven, Adela," she murmured. "Has he offended you?"

"On the contrary. I think he's a charming boy."

"Don't punish him all the afternoon then."

"But I am not going to be here all the afternoon. I have ordered the car for half-past three."

"It's that now."

"Well, then I must be going almost directly."

"You must stay for tea. A lot of people are coming, and we shall have music. Alick Craven only accepted because I told him you would be here."

"But you told me he had accepted when you asked me."

"That's how I do things when I really want people who may not want to come. I lied to both of you, and here you both are."

"Well at any rate you are honest in confession."

"I will counterorder your car. Henry, please tell Lady Sellingworth's chauffeur that he will be sent for when he is wanted. Oh, Anne, welcome the wandering sheep back to the social fold!"

She threaded her way slowly through the crowd, talking calmly to one and another, seeing everything, understanding everything, tremendously at home in the midst of complications.

Lady Sellingworth talked to Lady Anne, who had just come back from Mexico. It was her way to dart about the world, leaving her husband in his arm-chair at the Marlborough. She brought gossip with her from across the seas, gossip about exotic Presidents and their mistresses, about revolutionary generals and explorers, about opera singers in Havana, and great dancers in the Argentine. In her set she was called "the peripatetic pug," but she had none of the pug's snoring laziness. Presently someone took her away to play bridge, and for a moment Lady Sellingworth was standing alone. She was close to a great window which gave on to the terrace at the back of the house facing the falling gardens and the woods. She looked out, then looked across the room. Craven was standing near the door. He had just come in with a lot of men from the dining-room. He had a cigar in his hand. His cheeks were flushed. He looked hot and drawn, like a man in a noisy prison of heat which excited him, but tormented him too. His eyes shone almost feverishly. As she looked at him, not knowing that he was being watched he drew a long breath, almost like a man who feared suffocation. Immediately afterwards he glanced across the room and saw her.

She beckoned to him. With a reluctant air, and looking severe, he came across to her.

"Are you going to play bridge?" she said.

"I don't think so."

"Dindie has persuaded me to stay on for the music. Shall we take a little walk in the garden? I am so unaccustomed to crowds that I am longing for air."

She paused, then added:

"And a little quiet."

"Certainly," he said stiffly.

"Does he hate me?" she thought, with a sinking of despair. He went to fetch her wrap. They met in the hall.

"Where are you two going?"

Dindie Ackroyde's all-seeing eyes had perceived them.

"Only to get a breath of air in the garden," said Lady Sellingworth.

"How sensible!"

She gave them a watchful smile and spoke to Eve Colton, who was hunting for the right kind of bridge, stick in hand.

"I'll find Melville for you. Jennie and Sir Arthur are waiting in the card-room."

"I hope you don't mind coming out for a moment?"

Lady Sellingworth's unconquerable diffidence was persecuting her. She spoke almost with timidity to Craven on the doorstep.

"Oh, no. I am delighted."

His young voice was carefully frigid.

"More motors!" she said. "The whole of London will be here by tea time."

"Great fun, isn't it? Such a squash of interesting people."

"And I am taking you away from them!"

"That's all right!"

"Oh, what an Eton's boy's voice!" she thought.

But she loved it. That was the truth. His youngness was so apparent in his coldness that he was more dangerous than ever to her who had an unconquerable passion for youth.

"Let us go through this door in the wall. It must lead to the gardens."

"Certainly!"

He pushed it open. They passed through and were away from the motors, standing on a broad terrace which turned at right angles and skirted the back of the house.

"Don't let us go round the corner before all the drawing-room windows."

"No?" he said.

"Unless you prefer-"

"I will go wherever you like."

"I thought-what about this path?"

"Shall we do down it?"

"I think it looks rather tempting."

They walked slowly on, descending a slight incline, and came to a second long terrace on a lower level. There was a good deal of brick-work in Mrs. Ackroyde's garden, but there were some fine trees, and in summer the roses were wonderful. Now there were not many flowers, but at least there were calm and silence, and the breath of the winter woods came to Lady Sellingworth and Craven.

Craven said nothing, and walked stiffly beside his companion looking straight ahead. He seemed entirely unlike the man who had talked so enthusiastically in her drawing-room after the dinner in the Bella Napoli, and again on that second evening when they had dined together without the company of Beryl Van Tuyn. But Dindie Ackroyde had said he had come down that day because he had been told he would meet her. And Dindie was scarcely ever wrong about people. But this time surely she had made a mistake.

"Oh, there's the hard court!" Lady Sellingworth said.

"Yes."

"It looks a beauty."

"Do you play?"

"I used to. But I have given it up."

After a silence she added:

"You know I have given up everything. There comes a time-"

She hesitated.

"Perhaps you will not believe it, but I feel very strange here with all these people."

"But you know them all, don't you?"

"Nearly all. But they mean nothing to me now."

They were walking slowly up and down the long terrace.

"One passes away from things," she said, "as one goes on. It is rather a horrible feeling."

Suddenly, moved by an impulse that was almost girlish, she stopped on the path and said:

"What is the matter with you to-day? Why are you angry with me?"

Craven flushed.

"Angry! But I am not angry!"

"Yes, you are. Tell me why."

"How could I-I'm really not angry. As if I could be angry with you!"

"Then why are you so different?"

"In what way am I different?"

She did not answer, but said:

"Did you hear what the baron and I were talking about at lunch?"

"Just a few words."

"I hope you didn't think I wished to join in gossip about Beryl Van Tuyn?"

"Of course not."

"I hate all such talk. If that offended you-"

She was losing her dignity and knew it, but a great longing to overcome his rigidity drove her on.

"If you think-"

"It wasn't that!" he said. "I have no reason to mind what anyone says about Miss Van Tuyn."

"But she's your friend!"

"Is she? I think a friend is a very rare thing. You have taught me that."

"I? How?"

"You went abroad without letting me know."

"Is that it?" she said.

And there was a strange note, like a note of joy, in her voice.

"I think you might have told me. And you put me off. I was to have seen you-"

"Yes, I know."

She was silent. She could not explain. That was impossible. Yet she longed to tell him how much she had wished to see him, how much it had cost her to go without a word. But suddenly she remembered Camber. He was angry with her, but he had very soon consoled himself for her departure.

"I went away quite unexpectedly," she said. "I had to go like that."

"I-I hope you weren't ill?"

He recalled Braybrooke's remarks about doctors. Perhaps she had really been ill. Perhaps something had happened abroad, and he had done her a wrong.

"No, I haven't been ill. It wasn't that," she said.

The thought of Camber persisted, and now persecuted her.

"I am quite sure you didn't miss me," she said, with a colder voice.

"But I did!" he said.

"For how long?"

The mocking look he knew so well had come into her eyes. How much did she know?

"Have you seen Miss Van Tuyn since you came back?" he asked.

"Oh, yes. She paid me a visit soon after I arrived."

Craven looked down. He realized that something had been said, that Miss Van Tuyn had perhaps talked injudiciously. But even if she had, why should Lady Sellingworth mind? His relation with her was so utterly different from his relation with the lovely American. It never occurred to him that this wonderful elderly woman, for whom he had such a peculiar feeling, could care for him at all as a girl might, could think of him as a woman thinks of a man with whom she might have an affair of the heart. She fascinated him. Yes! But she did not fascinate that part of him which instinctively responded to Beryl Van Tuyn. And that he fascinated her in any physical way simply did not enter his mind. Nevertheless, at that moment he felt uncomfortable and, absurdly enough, almost guilty.

"Have you seen Beryl since her father's death?" said Lady Sellingworth.

"No," he said. "At least-yes, I suppose I have."

"You suppose?"

Her eyes had not lost their mocking expression.

"I happened to see her in Glebe Place with that fellow they are all chattering about, but I didn't speak to her. I believe her father was dead then. But I didn't know it at the time."

"Oh! Is he so very handsome, as they say?"

She could not help saying this, and watching him as she said it.

"I should say he was a good-looking chap," answered Craven frigidly. "But he looks like a wrong 'un."

"It is difficult to tell what people are at a glance."

"Some people-yes. But I think with others one look is enough."

"Yes, that's true," she said, thinking of him. "Shall we go a little farther towards the woods?"

"Yes; let us."

She knew he was suffering obscurely that day, perhaps in his pride, perhaps in something else. She hoped it was in his pride. Anyhow, she felt pity for him in her new-found happiness. For she was happier now in comparison with what she had been. And with that happiness came a great longing to comfort him, to draw him out of his cold reserve, to turn him into the eager and almost confidential boy he had been with her. As they passed the red tennis court and walked towards the end of the garden which skirted the woods she said:

"I want you to understand something. I know it must have seemed unfriendly in me to put you off, and then to leave England without letting you know. But I had a reason which I can't explain."

"Yes?"

"I shall never be able to explain it. But if I could you would realize at once that my friendship for you was unaltered."

"Well, but you didn't let me know you were back. You did not ask me to come to see you."

"I did not think you would care to come."

"But-why?"

"I-perhaps you-I don't find it easy now to think that anyone can care much to be bothered with me."

"Oh-Lady Sellingworth!"

"That really is the truth. Believe it or not, as you like. You see, I am out of things now."

"You need never be out of things unless you choose."

"Oh, the world goes on and leaves one behind. Don't you remember my telling you and Beryl once that I was an Edwardian?"

"If that means un-modern I think I prefer it to modernity. I think perhaps I have an old-fashioned soul."

He was smiling now. The hard look had gone from his eyes; the ice in his manner had melted. She felt that she was forgiven. And she tried to put the thought of Camber out of her mind. Beryl was unscrupulous. Perhaps she had exaggerated. And, in any case, surely she had treated, was treating, him badly.

She felt that he and she were friends again, that he was glad to be with her once more. There was really a link of sympathy between them. And he had been angry because she had gone abroad without telling him. She thought of his anger and loved it.

That day, after tea, while the music was still going on in Dindie Ackroyde's drawing-room, they drove back to London together, leaving their reputations quite comfortably behind them in the hand of the "old guard."

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares