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   Chapter 22 No.22

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 28624

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


About seven o'clock that evening Lady Sellingworth was sitting alone in her drawing-room. Sir Seymour Portman had been with her for an hour and had left her at half past six, believing that she was going to spend one of her usual solitary evenings, probably with a book by the fire. He would gladly, even thankfully, have stayed to keep her company. But no suggestion of that kind had been made to him. And, beyond calling regularly at the hour when he believed that he was welcome, he never pressed his company upon his dearly loved friend. Even in his great affection he preserved a certain ceremoniousness. Even in his love he never took a liberty. In modern days he still held to the reserve of the very great gentleman, old-fashioned perhaps now, but nevertheless precious in his sight.

He would have been not a little surprised had he been able to see his Adela at this moment.

She had changed the plain black gown in which she had received him, and was dressed in dark red velvet. She wore a black hat. Two big rubies gleamed in her ears, and there was another, surrounded with diamonds, at her throat. Her gown was trimmed with an edging of some dark fur. As usual her hands were covered by loose white gloves. She was shod for walking out. Her eyebrows had been carefully darkened. There was some artificial red on her lips. Her white hair was fluffed out under the hat brim, and looked very thick and vital. Her white skin was smooth and even. Her eyes shone, as Cecile had just told her, "comme deux lampes." She was a striking figure as she sat on her sofa very upright near a lamp, holding a book in her hand. She even looked very handsome and, of course, very distinguished. But her face was anxious, her bright eyes were uneasy, and there was a perceptible stamp of artificiality upon her. A woman would have noticed it instantly. Even an observant man would probably not have missed it.

She seemed to be reading at first, and presently there was a faint rustle. She had turned a page. But soon she put the book down in her lap, still keeping her hand on it, and sat looking about the room. The clock chimed seven. She moved and sighed. Then again she sat very still like one listening. After a while she lifted the book, glanced at it again, and then put it down, got up and went to the fireplace. She turned on the lights there, leaned forward and looked into the glass. Her face became stern with intentness when she did that. She put up a hand to her hair, turned her head a little to one side, smiled faintly, then a little more, and looked grave, then earnest. Finally she put both her hands on the mantelpiece, grasped it and stared into the glass.

In that moment she was feeling afraid.

She had arranged to dine with Alick Craven once more at the Bella Napoli. He would come for her in a few minutes. She was wondering very much how exactly she would appear to him, how old, how good-looking-or plain. She had tried, with Cecile's help, to look her very best. Cecile had declared the result was a success. "Miladi est merveilleusement belle ce soir, mais vraiment belle!" But a maid, of course, would not scruple to lie about such a matter. One could not depend on a maid's word. She was in love with Alick Craven, desperately in love as only an elderly woman can be with a man much younger than herself. And that love made her afraid.

There was a tiny mole on her face, near the mouth. She wished she had had it removed in Geneva. Why had not she had that done? No doubt because she was so accustomed to it that for years she had never thought of it, had never even seen it. Now suddenly she saw it, and it seemed to her noticeable, an ugly blemish. Anyone who looked at her must surely look at it, think of it. For a moment she felt desperate about it, and her whole body was suddenly hot as if a flame went over it. Then the mocking look came into her eyes. She was trying to laugh at herself.

"He doesn't think of me in that way! No man will ever think of me in that way again!"

But the mocking expression died out and the fear did not go. She was afraid of Craven's young eyes. It was terrible to feel so humble, so full of trembling diffidence. Oh, for a moment of the conquering sensation she had sometimes known in the years long ago when men had made her aware of her power!

Since their meeting in Dindie Ackroyde's drawing-room her friendship with Craven, renewed, had grown into something like intimacy. But there was an uneasiness in it which she felt acutely. There were humbug and fear in this friendship. Because she was desperately in love she was forced to be insincere with Craven. Haunted perpetually by the fear of losing what she had, the liking of a man who was not, and could never be, in love with her, she had to give Craven the impression that she was beyond the age of love, that the sensations of love were dead in her beyond hope of resurrection. She had to play at detachment when her one desire was to absorb and to be absorbed, had to sustain an appearance of physical coldness while she was burning with physical fever. She had to create a false atmosphere about her, and to do it so cleverly that it seemed absolutely genuine, the emanation of her personality in unstudied naturalness.

Her lack of all affection helped her to deceive. Though in moments she might seem constrained, oddly remote, frigidly detached, she was never affected. Now and then Craven had wondered about her, but he had never guessed that she was acting a part. The charm of her was still active about him, and it was the charm of apparent sincerity. To him so far the false atmosphere seemed real, and he was not aware of the fear.

Lady Sellingworth feared being found out by Craven, and feared what might happen if he found out that she was in love with him. She feared her age and the addition each passing day made to it. She feared her natural appearance, and now strove to conceal it as much as possible without being unskilful or blatant. And she feared the future terribly.

For Time galloped now. She often felt herself rushing towards the abyss of the seventies.

The worst of it all was that in humbug she was never at ease. Instead of, like many women, living comfortably in insincerity, she longed to be sincere. To love as she did and be insincere was abominable to her. To her insincerity now seemed to be the direct contradiction of love. Often when she was deceiving Alick Craven she felt almost criminal. Perhaps if she had been much younger she might not have been so troubled in the soul by the necessity for constant pretence. But to those who are of any real worth the years bring a growing need of sincerity, a growing hunger which only true things can satisfy. And she knew that need and suffered that hunger.

She was feeling it now as she waited for Craven. She longed to be able to let him see her as she was and to be accepted by him as she was. But he would not accept her. She knew that. He did not want her as she wanted him. He was satisfied with things as they were. She was at a terrible disadvantage with him, for she was in his power, while he was not in hers. He could ruin such happiness as she now had. But she could not ruin his happiness. If he gave her up she would be broken, though probably no one would know it. But if she gave him up he would not mind very much, though no doubt his pride would be hurt. Perhaps, even now, she was only a palliative in his life. Beryl Van Tuyn had evidently treated him badly. He turned to others for some casual consolation.

Lady Sellingworth often wondered painfully what Craven felt about the American girl. Was she only comforting Craven, playing a sort of dear old mother's part to him? Did he come to her because he considered her a skilful binder up of wounds? Could Beryl whenever she chose take him away?

Lady Sellingworth's instinct told her that while she had been abroad Craven and Beryl had travelled in their friendship. But she did not yet know exactly how far Craven had gone. It seemed evident now that Beryl had been suddenly diverted, no doubt by some strong influence, on to another track; Lady Sellingworth knew that she and Craven were no longer meeting. Something had happened which had interfered with their intimacy. Rumour said that Beryl Van Tuyn was in love with another man, with this Nicolas Arabian, whom nobody knew. Everyone in the Coombe set was talking about it. How keenly did Craven feel this sudden defection? That it had hurt his young pride Lady Sellingworth was certain. But she was not certain whether it had seriously wounded his heart.

"Am I a palliative?" she thought as she gazed into the glass.

And then came the terrible question:

"How can I be anything else?"

She heard the door opening behind her, took her hands from the mantelpiece, and turned round quickly.

"Mr. Craven, my lady."

"You're all ready? Capital! I say, am I late?"

"No. It's only a little past seven."

He had taken her hand. She longed to press his, but she did not press it. He looked at her, she thought, rather curiously.

"I've got a taxi at the door. It's rather a horrid night. You're not dressed for walking?"

Again his look seemed to question her.

She put up a hand to her face, near the mouth, nervously.

"We had better drive. In these winter evenings walking isn't very pleasant. We must be a little less Bohemian in taste, mustn't we?"

He seemed now slightly constrained. His eyes did not rest upon her quite naturally, she thought.

"Shall we go down?" she said.

"Yes, do let us."

As she moved to go she looked into the glass. She could not help doing that. He noticed it, and thought:

"I wonder why she has begun making her face up like this?"

He did not like it. He preferred her as she had been when he had first come to her house on an autumn evening. To him there was something almost distressing in this change which he noticed specially to-night. And her look into the glass had shown him that she was preoccupied about her appearance. Such a preoccupation on her part seemed foreign to her character as he had conceived of it. Her greatest charm had been her extraordinary lack, or apparent lack, of all self-consciousness. She had never seemed to bother about herself, to be thinking of the impression she was making on others.

But she was certainly looking very handsome.

She put on a fur. They got into the cab and drove to Soho.

Craven had ordered the table in the window to be reserved for them. The restaurant was fairly, but not quite, full. The musicians were in their accustomed places looking very Italian. The lustrous padrona smiled a greeting to them from her counter. Their bright-eyed waitress hurried up and welcomed them in Italian. Vesuvius erupted at them from the walls. There was a cozy warmth in the unpretentious room, an atmosphere of careless intimacy and good fellowship.

"Let me take off your fur!"

She slipped out of it, and he hung it up on a hook among hats and coats which looked as if they could never have anything to do with it.

"I'll sit with my back to the window," she said. She sat down, and he sat on her left facing the entrance.

Then the menu was brought, and they began to consult about what they would eat. She did not care what it was, but she pretended to care very much. To do that was part of the game. If only she could think of all this as a game, could take it lightly, merrily! She resolved to make a strong effort to conquer the underlying melancholy which had accompanied her into this new friendship, and which she could not shake off. It came from a lost battle, from a silent and great defeat. She was afraid of it, for it was black and profound beyond all plumbing. Often in her ten years of retirement she had felt melancholy. But this was a new sort of sadness. There was an acrid edge to it. It had the peculiar and subtle terror of a grief that was not caused only by events, but also, and specially, by something within herself.

"Gnocchi-we must have gnocchi!"

"Oh, yes."

"But wait, though! There are ravioli! It would hardly do to have both, I suppose, would it?"

"No; they are too much alike."

"Then which shall we have?"

She was going to say, "I don't mind!" but remembered her role and said:

"Please, ravioli for me."

And she believed that she said it with gusto, as if she really did care.

"For me too!" said Craven.

And he went on considering and asking, with his dark head bent over the menu and his blue eyes fixed upon it.

"There! That ought to be a nice dinner!" he said, at last. "And for wine Chianti, I suppose?"

"Yes, Chianti Rosso," she answered, with the definiteness, she hoped, of the epicure.

This small fuss about what they were going to eat marked for her the severing difference between Craven's mental attitude at this moment and hers. For him this little dinner was merely a pleasant way of spending a casual evening in the company of one who was kind to him, whom he found sympathetic, whom he admired probably as a striking representative of an era that was past, the Edwardian era. For her it was an event full of torment and joy. The joy came from being alone with him. But she was tortured by yearnings which he knew nothing of. He was able to give himself out to her naturally. She was obliged to hold herself in, to conceal the horrible fact that she was obsessed by him, that she was longing to commit sacrifices for him, to take him as her exclusive possession, to surround him with love and worship. He wanted from her what she was apparently giving him and nothing more. She wanted from him all that he was not giving her and would never give her. The dinner would be a tranquil pleasure for him, and a quivering torture for her, mingled with some moments of forgetfulness in which she would have a brief illusion of happiness. She made the comparison and thought with despair of the unevenness of Fate. Meanwhile she was smiling and praising the vegetable soup sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

One of the musicians came up to their table, and inquired whether the signora would like any special thing played. Lady Sellingworth shook her head. She was afraid of their songs of the South, and dared not choose on

e.

"Anything you like!" she said.

"They are all much the same," she added to Craven.

"But I thought you were so fond of the songs of Naples and the Bay. Don't you remember that first evening when-"

"Yes, I remember," she interrupted him, almost sharply. "But still these songs are really all very much alike. They all express the same sort of thing-Neapolitan desires."

"And not only Neapolitan desires, I should say," said Craven.

At that moment a hard look came into his eyes, a grimness altered his mouth. His face completely changed, evidently under the influence of some sudden and keen gust of feeling. He slightly bent his head, and the colour rose in his cheeks.

Lady Sellingworth who, for the moment, had been wholly intent on Craven, now looked to see what had caused this sudden and evidently uncontrollable exhibition of feeling. She saw two people, a tall girl and a man, walking down the restaurant towards the further end. The girl she immediately recognized.

"Oh-there's Beryl!" she said.

Her heart sank as she looked at Craven.

"Yes," he said.

"Did she see me?"

"I don't know. Probably she did. But she seemed in a hurry."

"Oh! Whom is she with?"

"That fellow they are all talking about, Arabian. At least, I suppose so. Anyhow, it's the fellow I saw in Glebe Place. Ah, there they go with Sole mio!"

The musicians were beginning the melody of which Italians never seem to weary. Lady Sellingworth listened to it as she looked down the long and narrow room now crowded with people. Beryl Van Tuyn was standing by a table near the wall. Lady Sellingworth saw her in profile. Her companion stood beside her with his back to the room. Lady Sellingworth noticed that he was tall with an athletic figure, that he was broad-shouldered, that his head was covered with thickly growing brown hair. He gave her the impression of a strong and good-looking man. She gazed at him with an interest she scarcely understood at that moment, an interest surely more intense than even the gossip she had heard about him warranted.

He helped Miss Van Tuyn out of her coat, then took off his, and went to hang them on a stand against the wall. In doing this he turned, and for a moment showed his profile to Lady Sellingworth. She saw the line of his brown face, his arm raised, his head slightly thrown back.

So that was Nicolas Arabian, the man all the women in the Coombe set were gossiping about! She could not see him very well. He was rather a long way off, and two moving people, a waitress carrying food, an Italian man going to speak to a gesticulating friend, intervened and shut him out from her sight while he was still arranging the coats. But there was something in his profile, something in his movement and in the carriage of his head which seemed familiar to her. And she drew her brows together, wondering. Craven spoke to her through the music. She looked at him, answered him. Then once more she glanced down the room. Beryl and Arabian had sat down. Beryl was facing her. Arabian was at the side. Lady Sellingworth still saw him in profile. He was talking to the waitress.

"I am sure I know that man's face!" Lady Sellingworth thought.

And she expressed her thought to Craven.

"If that is Nicolas Arabian I think I must have seen him about London," she said. "His side face seems familiar to me somehow."

Why would not Beryl look at her?

"I wonder whether Beryl saw me when she came in," continued Lady Sellingworth. "She saw you, of course."

"Yes, she saw me."

From the sound of Craven's voice, from the constraint of his manner, Lady Sellingworth gathered the knowledge that her evening was spoilt. A few minutes before she had been quivering with anxiety, had been struggling to conquer the melancholy which, she knew, put her at a disadvantage with Craven, had been seized with despair as she compared her fate with his. Now she looked back at that beginning of the evening and thought of it as happy. For Craven had seemed contented then. Now he was obviously restless, ill at ease. He never looked down the room. He devoted himself to her. He talked even more than usual. But she was aware of effort in it all, and knew that his thoughts were with Beryl Van Tuyn and the stranger who seemed vaguely familiar to her.

Formerly-with what intensity she remembered, visualized, the occasions-Craven had been restless with Beryl Van Tuyn because he wished to be with her; now he was restless with her. And she did not need to ask herself why.

This remembrance made her feel angry in her despair. Her hatred of Beryl revived. She recalled the girl's cruelty to her. Now Beryl had been cruel to Craven. And yet Craven was longing after her. What was the good of kindness, of the warm heart full of burning desires to be of use, to comfort, to bring joy into a life? The cruel fascinated, perhaps were even loved. Men were bored by any love that was wholly unselfish.

But was her love unselfish? She put that question from her. She felt injured, wounded. It was difficult for her any longer to conceal her misery. But she tried to talk cheerfully, naturally. She forced her lips to smile. She praised the excellence of the cooking, the efforts of the musicians.

Nevertheless the conversation presently languished. There was no spontaneity in it. All around them loud voices were talking volubly in Italian. She glanced from table to table. It seemed to her that everyone was feeling happy and at ease except herself and Craven. They were ill matched. She became horribly self-conscious. She felt as if people were looking at them with surprise, as if an undercurrent of ridicule was creeping through the room. Surely many were wondering who the painted old woman and the young man were, why they sat together in the corner by the window! She saw one of the musicians smile and whisper to the companion beside him, and felt certain he was speaking about her, was smiling, at some ugly thought which he had just put into words.

To an Italian she must certainly seem an old wreck of a woman, "una vecchia," an object of contempt, or of smiling pity. She looked down at her red dress, remembered the jewels in her ears and at her throat. How useless and absurd were her efforts to look her best! A terrible phrase of Caroline Briggs came into her mind: "I feel as if I were looking at bones decked out in jewels." And again she was back in Paris ten years ago; again she saw a contrast bizarre as the contrast she and Craven now presented to the crowd in the restaurant. Before the eyes of her mind there rose an old woman in a black wig and a marvellously handsome young man.

Suddenly a thrill shot through her. It was like a sharp physical pain, a sword-thrust of agony.

That profile which had seemed vaguely familiar to her just now, was it not like his profile? She tried to reason with herself, to tell herself that she was yielding to a crazy fancy, brought about by her nervous excitement and by the mental pain she was suffering. Many men slightly, sometimes markedly, resemble other men. One face seen in profile is often very much like another. But the even dark brown of the complexion! That was not very common, not the type of complexion one sees every day.

She glanced at the men near to her. Most of them were Italians and swarthy. But not one had that peculiar, almost bronze-like darkness.

Beryl had spoken of "a living bronze."

Craven was speaking to her again. She forced herself to reply to him, though she scarcely knew what she was saying. She saw a look of surprise in the eyes which he fixed on her.

"Isn't it getting very hot?" she said quickly.

"It is rather hot. Shall I ask them to open the window a little? But it is just behind you."

"It doesn't matter. I have brought my fan."

She picked the fan up and began to use it unsteadily.

"The room is so very crowded to-night," she murmured.

"Yes. No wonder with such cooking. Here is the Zabaione."

The waitress put two large glasses before them filled with the thick yellow custard, then brought them a plate of biscuits.

Lady Sellingworth laid down the fan and picked up her spoon. She must eat. But she did not know how she was going to force herself to do it. Although she kept on saying to herself: "It's impossible!" she could not get rid of the horrible suspicion which had assailed her. On the contrary, it seemed to grow in her till it was almost a conviction. She tried to eat tranquilly. She praised the Zabaione. She sipped her Chianti Rosso. But she tasted nothing, and when the musicians struck up another melody she did not know what they were playing.

"Are you tired of it?"

Craven had spoken to her.

"Of what?" she asked, as if almost startled.

"That-Santa Lucia?"

"Oh-is it?"

He looked astonished.

"Oh-yes, I must say I am rather sick of it!" she said quickly.

She laid down her spoon.

"Don't you like the Zabaione?"

"Yes, it's delicious. But I have had enough. You ordered such a very good dinner!"

She began to use her fan again. The noise of voices in the room was becoming like the noise of voices in a nightmare. She was longing to confirm or banish her suspicion by a long look at Beryl's companion. She felt sure now that if she looked again at Arabian she would be absolutely certain, even from a distance, whether he was or was not the man who had brought about the robbery of her jewels at the Gard du Nord ten years ago. Her mind was fully awake now, and she would be able to see. But, knowing that, she did not dare to look towards Arabian. She was miserable in her uncertainty, but she was afraid of having her horrible suspicion confirmed. She was a coward at that moment, and she knew it.

Craven finished his Zabaione and put down his spoon. They had not ordered another course. The dinner was over. But they had not had their coffee yet, and he asked for it.

"Are you going to smoke a Toscana?" she said, forcing herself to smile.

"Yes, I think I will. Do let me give you a cigarette."

He drew out his case and offered it to her. She took a cigarette, lit it, and began to smoke. Their coffee was brought.

"Oh, it's too hot to drink!" she said, almost irritably.

"But we aren't in a hurry, are we?" he said, looking at her with surprise.

"No, of course not."

Now she was gazing resolutely down at the tablecloth. She was afraid to raise her eyes, was afraid of what they might see. Her whole mind now was bent upon getting away from the restaurant as soon as possible. She had decided to go without making sure whether Arabian was the man who had robbed her or not. Even uncertainty would surely be better than a certainty that might bring in its train necessities too terrible to contemplate mentally.

As she was looking down she did not see something which just then happened in the room. It was this:

Miss Van Tuyn, who had not said a word to Arabian of her friends who were dining by the window, although she guessed that he had probably noticed Alick Craven when they came in, resolved to take a bold step. It was useless any longer to play for concealment. Since she came out to dine in public with Arabian, since he had asked her to marry him and she had not refused-though she had not accepted-since she knew very well that she had not the will power to send him out of her life, she resolved to do what she had not done in Glebe Place and introduce him to Craven. She even decided that if it seemed possible that the two men could get on amicably for a few minutes she would go a step farther; she would introduce Arabian to Adela Sellingworth.

Adela should see that she, Beryl, was absolutely indifferent to what Craven did, or did not do. And Craven should be made to understand that she went on her way happily without him, and not with an old man, though he had chosen as his companion an old woman. And, incidentally, she would put Arabian to the test which had been missed in Glebe Place. With this determination in her mind she said to Arabian:

"There are two friends of mine at the table in the corner by the window."

"Yes?" he said.

And he turned his head to look.

As he did so, perhaps influenced by his eyes, or by the fact that the attention of two minds was at that moment concentrated on him, Craven looked towards them.

"I want to introduce you to them if possible," said Miss Van Tuyn.

And she made a gesture to Craven, beckoned to him to come to her. He looked surprised, reluctant. She saw that he flushed slightly. But she persisted in her invitation. She had lost her head in Glebe Place, but now she would retrieve the situation. Vanity, fear, an obscure jealousy, and something else pushed her on. And she beckoned again. She saw Craven lean over and say something to Lady Sellingworth. Then he got up and came down the room towards her, threading his way among the many tables.

Miss Van Tuyn was looking at him just then and not at Arabian.

Craven came up, looking stiff, almost awkward, and markedly more English than usual. At least she thought so.

"How d'you do, Miss Van Tuyn? How are you?"

She gave him her hand with a smile.

"Very well! You see, I've not forgotten my old haunts. And I see you haven't, either. Let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Arabian. Mr. Craven-Mr. Arabian."

Arabian got up and bowed.

"Pleased to meet you!" he said in a formal voice.

"Good evening!" said Craven, staring hard at him.

"I mustn't ask you to sit down," said Miss Van Tuyn. "As you are tied up with Adela. But"-she hesitated for an instant, then continued with hardihood-"can't you persuade Adela to join us for coffee?"

At this moment Arabian made a movement and opened his lips as if about to say something.

"Yes?" she said, looking at him.

"I was only going to say that these tables are so very small. Is it not so? How should we manage?"

"Oh, we can tuck in somehow."

She turned again to Craven.

"Do ask her. Or we might come over to you."

"Very well!" said Craven, still stiffly.

He glanced round towards the window and started.

"What's the matter?"

Miss Van Tuyn leaned forward and looked.

There was no longer anyone sitting at the table by the window.

Lady Sellingworth had disappeared.

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