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   Chapter 20 No.20

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 24421

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Beryl Van Tuyn found that it was not necessary for her to cross the ocean on account of her father's sudden death. He had left all his affairs in excellent order, and the chief part of his fortune was bequeathed to her. She had always had plenty of money. Now she was rich. She went into mourning, answered suitably the many letters of condolence that poured in upon her, and then considered what she had better do.

Miss Cronin pleaded persistently for an immediate return to Paris. What was the good of staying on in London now? The winter was dreary in London. The flat in Paris was far more charming and elegant than any hotel. Beryl had all her lovely things about her there. Her chief friends were in Paris. She could see them quietly at home. And it was quite impossible for her to go about London now that she was plunged in mourning. What would they do there? She, Miss Cronin, could go on as usual, of course. She never did anything special. But Beryl would surely be bored to death living the life of a hermit in Claridge's.

Miss Van Tuyn listened to all that old Fanny had to say, and made no attempt to refute her arguments or reply to her exhortations. She merely remarked that she would think the matter over.

"But what is there to think over, darling?" said Miss Cronin, lifting her painted eyebrows. "There is nothing to keep us here. You never go to the Wallace Collection now."

"Do please allow me to be the judge of what I want to do with my life, Fanny," said Miss Van Tuyn, curtly. "When I wish to pack up I'll tell you."

And old Fanny collapsed like a pricked bladder. She could not understand Beryl any longer. The girl seemed to be quite beyond her reach. She thought of Alick Craven and of the man in the blue overcoat with the strange name. Nicolas Arabian. She had seen neither of them again. Beryl never mentioned them. But Fanny was sure that one, or both, of them held her in London. Something must be in the wind, something dangerous to any companion. She felt on the threshold of an alarming, perhaps disastrous, change. As she went nowhere she knew nothing of Beryl's visit to Rose Tree Gardens and of the gossip it had set going in certain circles in London. But she had never been able to forget the impression she had had when Beryl had introduced her to the man with the melting brown eyes. Beryl was surely in love. Yet she did not look happy. Certainly her father's death might have upset her. But Miss Cronin did not think that was sufficient to account for the change in the girl. She had something on her mind besides that. Miss Cronin was certain of it. Beryl's cool self-assurance was gone. She was restless. She brooded. She seemed quite unable to settle to anything or to come to any decision.

Old Fanny began to be seriously alarmed. Mrs. Clem Hodson had gone back to Philadelphia. She had no one to consult, no one to apply to. She felt quite helpless. Even Bourget could give her no solace. She had a weak imagination, but it now began to trouble her. As she lay upon her sofa, she, always feebly, imagined many things. But oftenest she saw a vague vision of Mr. Craven and Mr. Arabian fighting a duel because of Beryl. They were in a forest clearing near Paris in early morning. It was a duel with revolvers, as Bourget might have described it. She saw their buttoned-up coats, their stretched-out arms. Which did she wish to be the victor? And which would Beryl wish to return unwounded to Paris? Surely Mr. Arabian. He was so kind, so enticingly gentle; he had such beautiful eyes. And yet-and at this point old Fanny's imagination ceased to function, and something else displayed a certain amount of energy, her knowledge of the world. What would Mr. Arabian be like as a husband? He was charming, seductive even, caressingly sympathetic-yes, caressingly! But-as a husband? And old Fanny felt mysteriously that something in her recoiled from the idea of Arabian as the husband of Beryl, whereas she could think of Mr. Craven in that situation quite calmly. It was all very odd, and it made her very uncomfortable. It even agitated her, and she felt her solitude keenly. There had never been a real link between Beryl and her, and she knew it. But now she felt herself strangely alone in the midst of perhaps threatening dangers. If only Beryl would become frank, would speak out, would consult her, ask her advice! But the girl was enclosed in a reserve that was flawless. There was not a single breach in the wall. And the dark winter had descended on London.

One evening Miss Van Tuyn felt almost desperate. Enclosed in her reserve she longed for a confidante; she longed to talk things over, to take counsel with someone. She had even a desire to ask for advice. But she knew no one in London to whom she could unbosom herself. Fanny did not count. Old Fanny was a fool and quite incapable of being useful mentally to anyone with good brains. And to what other woman could she speak, she, Beryl Van Tuyn, the notoriously clever, notoriously independent, young beauty, who had always hitherto held the reins of her own destiny? If only she could speak to a man! But there the sex question intruded itself. No man would be impartial unless he were tremendously old. And she had no tremendously old man friend, having always preferred those who were still in possession of all their faculties.

No young man could be impartial, least of all Alick Craven, and yet she wished intensely that she had not lost her head that day in Glebe Place, that she had carried out her original intention and had introduced Craven to Arabian.

She knew what people were saying of her in London. Although she was in deep mourning and could not go about, several women had been to see her. They had come to condole with her, and had managed to let her understand what people were murmuring. Lady Archie had been with her. Mrs. Birchington had looked in. And two days after Lady Sellingworth's visit to Coombe Dindie Ackroyde had called. From her Miss Van Tuyn had heard of Craven's walk in the garden with Adela Sellingworth and early departure to London in Adela's motor. In addition to this piece of casually imparted news, Mrs. Ackroyde had frankly told Miss Van Tuyn that she was being gossiped about in a disagreeable way and that, in spite of her established reputation for unconventionality, she ought to be more careful. And Miss Van Tuyn-astonishingly-had not resented this plain speaking. Mrs. Ackroyde, of course, had tried to find out something about Nicolas Arabian, but Miss Van Tuyn had evaded the not really asked questions, and had treated the whole matter with an almost airy casualness which had belied all that was in her mind.

But these visits, and especially Dindie Ackroyde's, had deepened the nervous pre-occupation which was beginning seriously to alarm old Fanny.

If she took old Fanny's advice and left London? If she returned to Paris? She believed, indeed she felt certain, that to do that would not be to separate from Arabian. He would follow her there. If she took the wings of the morning and flew to the uttermost parts of the earth there surely she would find him. She began to think of him as a hound on the trail of her. And yet she did not want him to lose the trail. She combined fear with desire in a way that was inexplicable to herself, that sometimes seemed to her like a sort of complex madness. But her reason for remaining in London was not to be found in Arabian's presence there. And she knew that. If she went to Paris she would be separated from Alick Craven. She did not want to be separated from him. And now Dindie Ackroyde's news intensified her reluctance to yield to old Fanny's persuasions and to return to her bronzes. Her clever visit to Adela Sellingworth had evidently not achieved its object. In spite of her so deliberate confession to Adela the latter had once more taken possession of Craven.

Miss Van Tuyn felt angry and disgusted, even indignant, but she also felt saddened and almost alarmed.

Knowing men very well, being indeed an expert in male psychology, she realized that perhaps, probably even, her own action had driven Craven back to his friendship with Adela. But that fact did not make things more pleasant for her. She knew that she had seriously offended Craven. She remembered the look in his face was he passed quickly by her and Arabian in Glebe Place. He had not been to see her since, and had not written to condole with her. She knew that she had outraged his pride, and perhaps something else. Yet she could not make up her mind to leave England and drop out of his life. To do that would be like a confession of defeat. But it was not only her vanity which prompted her to stay on. She had a curious and strong liking for Craven which was very sincere. It was absolutely unlike the painful attraction which pushed her towards Arabian. There was trust in it, a longing for escape from something dangerous, something baleful, into peace and security. There was even a moral impulse in it such as she had never felt till now.

What was she to do? She suffered in uncertainty. Her nerves were all on edge. She felt irritable, angry, like someone being punished and resenting the punishment. And she felt horribly dull. Her mourning prohibited her from seeking distractions. People were gossiping about her unpleasantly already. She remembered Dindie Ackroyde's warning, and knew she had better heed it. She felt heartless because she was unable to be really distressed about the death of her father. Old Fanny bored her when she did not actively worry her. She was terribly sorry for herself.

In the evening, while she was sitting alone in her room listlessly reading a book on modern painting by an author with whose views she did not agree, and looking forward to a probably sleepless night, there was a knock on the door, and a rose cheeked page boy, all alertness and buttons, tripped in with a note on a salver.

"Any answer?" she said.

"No, mum."

She took the note, and at once recognized Dick Garstin's enormous handwriting. Quickly she opened it and read.

GLEBE.

Wed.

Dear B.-Does your mourning prevent you from looking at a damned good picture? If not, come round to the studio to-morrow any time after lunch and have a squint at a king in the underworld.

D. G.

At once her feeling of acute boredom left her, was replaced by a keen sense of excitement. She realized immediately that at last Garstin had finished his picture, that at last he had satisfied himself. She had not seen Garstin since the day when she had heard of her father's death. Nor had she seen Arabian. Characteristically, Garstin had not taken the trouble to send her a letter of condolence. He never bothered to do anything conventional. If he had written he would probably had congratulated her on coming into a fortune. Arabian's sympathy had already been expressed. Naturally, therefore, he had not written to her. But he had made no sign in all these days, had not left a card, had not attempted to see her. Day after day she had wondered whether he would do something, give some evidence of life, of intention. Nothing! He had just let her alone. But in his inaction she had felt him intensely, far more than she felt other men in their actions. He had, as it were, surrounded her with his silence, had weighed upon her by his absence. She feared and was fascinated by his apparent indifference, as formerly, when with him, she had feared and been fascinated by his reticence of speech and of conduct. Only once had he taken the initiative with her, when he had ordered the taxi-cab driver to go to Rose Tree Gardens. And even then, when he had had her there alone in his flat, nothing had happened. And he had let her go without any attempt to detain her.

In his passivity there was something hypnotic which acted upon her. She felt it charged with power, with intention, even almost with brutality. There was a great cry for her in his silence.

She did not answer Garstin's note. That was not necessary. She knew she would see him on the morrow.

Directly after lunch on the following day she walked to Glebe Place, wondering whether

Arabian would be there.

As usual, Garstin answered the door and covered her with a comprehensive glance as she stood on the doorstep.

"Black suits you," he said. "You ought never to go out of mourning."

"Thank you for your kind sympathy, Dick," she answered. "One can always depend on you for delicacy of feeling and expression in time of trouble."

He smiled as he shut the door.

"You tartar!" he said. "Be careful you don't develop into a shrew as you get on in life."

She noticed at once that he was looking unusually happy. There was even something almost of softness in his face, something almost of kindness, certainly of cordiality, in his eyes.

"Evidently coming into money hasn't had a softening influence upon you," he added.

To her surprise he took her into the ground floor studio and sat down on the big divan there.

"Aren't we going upstairs?" she said.

"In a minute. Don't be in such a blasted hurry, my girl!"

"Well, but-"

She followed his example and sat down.

"Is anyone up there?"

"Not a soul. Who should there be?"

"Well, I don't know. I thought perhaps-"

"Old Nick was there? Well, he isn't!"

"How absurd you are!" she said, almost with confusion, and looking away from him. "I only wondered whether you had a model with you."

"I know, I know!"

After a rather long pause she said:

"What are we waiting here for?"

"Oh-just to rest!"

"But I'm not tired."

"I didn't suppose you were."

Again there was a pause, in which Miss Van Tuyn felt a tingling of impatient irritation.

"I suppose you are doing this merely to whet my appetite," she said presently, unable to bear the unnatural silence. "Of course I know you have finished the picture at last. You have asked me to come here to see it. Then why on earth not let me see it? All this waiting can't come from timidity. I know you don't care for opinion so long as your own is satisfied."

He sent her an odd look that was almost boyish in its half mischievous, half wistful roguishness.

"My girl, you speak about a painter with great assurance, and, let me add, with great ignorance. I'll tell you the plain truth for once. I've been keeping you down here out of sheer diffidence. Now then!"

"Dick!"

His lean blue cheeks slightly reddened as he looked at her. She knew he had spoken the truth, and was touched. She got up quickly, went to him, and put one hand on his shoulder.

"You are afraid of me! But no-I can't believe it!"

"Ha!"

He got up.

"It is finished?"

"Yes, at last it's done."

"Has-have you shown-I suppose he has seen it?"

Garstin shook his head, and a dark lock of hair fell over his forehead.

"He doesn't even know it is finished, the ruffian! He's given me a damned lot of trouble. I'll keep him on the gridiron a bit longer. Grilling will do him good."

"Then I am the first?"

"Yes, you are the first."

"Thank you, Dick," she said soberly. "May I go up now?"

"Yes, come on!"

He went before her and mounted the stairs, taking long strides. She followed him eagerly, yet with a feeling of apprehension. What would it be-this portrait finished at last? Dick Garstin was cruelly fond of revelation. She thought of his judge who ought to be judged, of other pictures of his. Had he caught and revealed the secret of Arabian?

"Now then!"

But Garstin still hesitated.

"Sit here!"

She obeyed, and sat down on a sofa with the window behind her.

"I'll have a smoke."

"Oh!"

He went to the Spanish cabinet, and stood with his back to her, apparently searching. He lifted things, put them back. She glowed with almost furious impatience. At last he found the cigars. Probably he had never had to seek for them. He lit up.

"Now then-a drink!"

"Oh, Dick!" she breathed.

But she made no other protest.

"Will you?"

"No!" she said sharply.

Then she gazed at him and said:

"Yes."

He poured out whisky for her and himself, added some soda water, and lifted his glass.

"To Arabian!" he said.

"Why should we drink to Mr. Arabian?"

"He has done me a good turn."

There was a look in his eyes now which she did not like, a very intelligent and cruel look. She knew it well. It expressed almost blatantly the man's ruthlessness. She did not inquire what the good turn was, but raised her glass slowly and drank.

"Your hand trembles, my girl!" said Garstin.

"Nonsense! It does not! Now please show me the portrait. I will not wait any longer."

"Here you are then!"

He went over to a distant easel, pulled it forward with its back to them, then, when it was near to the sofa, turned it round.

"There he is!"

Miss Van Tuyn sat very still and gazed. After turning the easel Dick Garstin had gone to stand behind the sofa and her. She heard him making a little "t'p! t'p!" with his lips, getting rid, perhaps, of an adherent scrap of tobacco leaf. After what seemed to both of them a very long time she spoke.

"I don't believe it!" she said. "I don't believe it!"

"Like the man when he saw a giraffe for the first time? But he was wrong, my girl, for nature does turn out giraffes."

"No, Dick! It's too bad!"

Her cheeks were flaming with red.

"Too bad! Don't you think it's well painted?"

"Well painted? Of course it's well-it's magnificently painted!"

He chuckled contentedly behind her.

"Then what's the matter? What's the trouble?"

"You know what's the matter. You know quite well."

She turned sharply round on the sofa and faced him with angry eyes.

"There was a great actor once whose portrait was painted by a great artist, an artist as great as you are. It was exhibited and then handed over to the actor. From that moment it disappeared. No one ever saw it. The actor never mentioned it. And yet it was a masterpiece. When the actor died a search was made for the portrait, and it was found hidden in an attic of his house. It had been slashed almost to pieces with a knife. Till to-day I could not understand such a deed as that-the killing of a masterpiece. But now I can understand it."

"He shall have it and put a knife through it if he likes. But"-he snapped out the word with sudden fierce emphasis-"but I'll exhibit it first."

"He'll never let you!" Miss Van Tuyn almost cried out.

"Won't he? That was the bargain!"

"He didn't promise. I remember quite well all that was said. He didn't promise."

"It was understood. I told him I should exhibit the picture and that afterwards I'd hand it over to him."

"When is he going to see it?"

"Why do you ask? Do you want to be here when he does?"

She did not answer. She was staring at the portrait, and now the hot colour had faded from her face.

"If you do you can be here. I don't mind."

"I don't believe it," she repeated slowly.

All that she had sometimes fancied, almost dimly, and feared about Arabian was expressed in Garstin's portrait of him. The man was magnificent on the canvas, but he was horrible. Evil seemed to be subtly expressed all over him. That was what she felt. It looked out of his large brown eyes. But that was not all. Somehow, in some curious and terrible way, Garstin had saturated his mouth, his cheeks, his forehead, even his bare neck and shoulders with the hideous thing. Danger was everywhere, the warning that the living man surely did not give, or only gave now and then for a fleeting instant.

In Garstin's picture Arabian was unmistakably a being of the underworld, a being of the darkness, of secret places and hidden deeds, a being of unspeakable craft, of hideous knowledge, of ferocious cynicism. And yet he was marvellously handsome and full of force, even of power. It could not be said that great intellect was stamped on his face, but a fiercely vital mentality was there, a mentality that could frighten and subdue, that could command and be sure of obedience. In the eyes of a tiger there is a terrific mentality. Miss Van Tuyn thought of that as she gazed at the portrait.

In her silence now she was trying to get a strong hold on herself. The first shock of astonishment, and almost of horror, had passed. She was more sharply conscious now of Garstin in connexion with herself. At last she spoke again.

"Of course you realize, Dick, that such a portrait as that is an outrage. It's a master work, I believe, but it is an outrage. You cannot exhibit it."

"But I shall. This man, Arabian, isn't known."

"How can we tell that?"

"Do you know a living creature he knows or who knows him?"

"Everyone has acquaintances. Everyone almost has friends. He must certainly have both."

"God knows who or where they are."

"You cannot exhibit it," she repeated obstinately.

"I hate art in kid gloves. But this is too merciless. It is more. It is a libel."

"That's just where you're wrong."

"No."

"Beryl, my girl, you are lying. That's no use with me."

"I am not lying!" she said with hot anger.

Suddenly she felt that tears had come into her eyes.

"How hateful you are!" she exclaimed.

She felt frightened under the eyes of the portrait. Garstin's revelation had struck upon her like a blow. She felt dazed by it. Yet she longed to hit back. She wanted to defend Arabian, perhaps because she felt that she needed defence.

Garstin came abruptly round the sofa and sat down by her side.

"What's up?" he said in a kinder voice.

"Why do you paint like that? It's abominable!"

"Tell me the honest truth-God's own truth, as they call it, I don't know why-is that picture fine, is it my best work, or isn't it?"

"I've told you already. It's a technical masterpiece and a moral outrage. You have taken a man for a model and painted a beast."

"Beryl," he said almost solemnly, "believe it or not, as you can, that is Arabian!"

He pointed at the picture as he spoke. His keen eyes, half shut, were fixed upon it.

"That is the real man, and what you see is only the appearance he chooses to give of himself."

"How do you know? How can you know that?"

"Haven't I the power to show men and women as in essence they are?"

His eyes travelled round the big studio slowly, travelled from canvas to canvas, from the battered old siren of the streets to the girl who was dreaming of sins not yet committed; from Cora waiting for her prey to the judge who had condemned his.

"Haven't I? And don't you know it?"

"You are wrong this time," she said with mutinous determination, but still with the tears in her eyes. "You couldn't sum up Arabian. You tried and tried again. And now at last you have forced yourself to paint him. You have got angry. That's it. You have got furious with yourself and with him, because of your own impotence, and you have painted him in a passion."

"Oh, no!"

He shook his head.

"I never felt colder, more completely master of myself and my passions, than when I painted that portrait."

"But you asked me to find out his secret. You pushed me into his company that I might find it out and help you."

"I did!"

"Well!" she said, almost triumphantly, "I have never found it out."

"Oh, yes, you have."

"No. He is the most reserved, uncommunicative man I have ever known."

"Subconsciously you have found it out, and you have conveyed it to me. And that is the result. I suspected what the man was the first time I laid eyes on him. When I got him here I seemed to get off the track of him. For he's very deceptive-somehow. Yes, he's damned deceptive. But then you put me wise. Your growing terror of him put me wise."

He looked hard into her eyes.

"Beryl, my girl, your sex has intuitions. One of them, one of yours, I have painted. And there it is!"

The bell sounded below.

"Ha!" said Garstin, turning his head sharply.

He listened for an instant. Then he said:

"I'll bet you anything you like that's the king himself."

"The king?"

"In the underworld. Did you walk here?"

"Yes."

"He must have seen you. He's followed you. What a lark!"

His eyes shone with a sort of malicious glee.

"There goes the bell again! Beryl, I'll have him up. We'll show him himself."

He put a finger to his lips and went down, leaving her alone with the portrait.

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