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   Chapter 23 No.23

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 16077

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

"What has become of Adela?" exclaimed Miss Van Tuyn.

"I haven't the least idea," said Craven, looking uncomfortable. "Perhaps-She complained of the heat just now. She may have gone to the door to get some air. Please forgive me!"

He glanced from Miss Van Tuyn to Arabian, who was still standing up stiffly, with a rigidly polite expression on his face.

"I must just see!"

He turned away and walked down the restaurant.

When he got to the counter where the padrona sat enthroned he found their waitress standing near it.

"Where is the signora?" he asked.

"The signora took her fur and went out, signorino," said the woman.

"The bill, please!"

"Ecco, signorino!"

The woman presented the bill. Craven paid it, tipped her, got his coat and hat, and went hurriedly out.

He expected to find Lady Sellingworth on the doorstep, but no one was there, and he looked down the street, first to the right, then to the left. In the distance on the left he saw the tall figure of a woman walking slowly near a lamp-post, and he hurried down the street.

As his footsteps rang on the pavement the woman turned round, and showed the white face and luminous eyes of Lady Sellingworth.

"You have given me quite a turn, as the servants say!" he exclaimed, coming up to her. "What is the matter? Are you ill?"

He looked anxiously at her.

"What made you go away so suddenly? You didn't mind my-"

"No, no!" she interrupted. "But I do feel unwell. I feel very unwell."

"I'm most awfully sorry! Why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me leave you?"

"Beryl wanted you."

"It was only-she only wanted to suggest our all having coffee together."

Her mouth went awry.

"Oh, do take my arm!" he exclaimed. "What is it? Are you suffering?"

After a pause she said:


There seemed to him something ominous in the sound of the word as she spoke it.

"I'm horribly sorry. I must find you a cab."

"Yes, please do."

"But in Soho, it's so difficult! Can you manage-can you walk a little way?"

"Oh yes."

"Directly we get into Shaftesbury Avenue we are sure to see one. It's only a step."

She had taken his arm, but she did not lean heavily on it, only just touched it. He hardly felt the weight of her hand. Evidently she was not feeling faint, or very weak. He wondered intensely what was the matter. But she did not give any explanation. She had made that ominous answer to his question, and there she left it. He did not dare to make any further inquiry, and as she said nothing they walked on in silence. As they were turning into Shaftesbury Avenue an empty taxicab passed them with the flag up.

"There's a taxi!" said Craven. "One minute!"

He let her arm go and ran after it, while she stood waiting at the corner. In a moment he came back followed by the cab, which drew up by the kerb. He opened the door and she got in. He was preparing to follow her when she leaned forward and put her hand on the door.

"Mayn't I? Don't you wish me to come with you?"

She shook her head.

"But do let me see you home. If you are ill you really oughtn't to be alone."

"But I'm spoiling your evening. Why not go back?"

"Go back?"

"Yes-go back to Beryl?"

He stiffened, and the hard look came into his face. She saw his jaw quiver slightly.

"To Miss Van Tuyn? But she is with someone."

"But she asked you!"

"She asked both of us. I shall certainly not go back alone."

"Really, I wish you would! Go back and-and see Beryl home."

He looked at her in astonishment.

"Oh, I couldn't possibly do that! There was no suggestion-I couldn't do that, really. I wonder you ask me to. Well-"

She took her hand away from the door and he shut it. But he remained beside it-did not give the chauffeur her address.

"Why won't you let me take you back?" he said. "I don't understand."

She smiled, and he thought it was the saddest smile he had ever seen.

"One is only a bore to others when one is ill," she said. "Good-bye. Tell the man, please."

He obeyed her, then took off his hat. His face was grim and perplexed. As she was driven away in the night she gave him a strange look; tragic and pleading, he thought, a look that almost frightened him, that sent a shiver through him.

"Is she horribly ill?" he asked himself. "What can it be? Perhaps she did go to Switzerland to see a doctor. Perhaps . . . can he have condemned her to death?"

He shivered again. The expression of her eyes haunted him.

He stood for a moment at the street corner, pondering over her words. What could have induced her to ask him to go back to Beryl Van Tuyn, to see Beryl Van Tuyn home? She wanted him to interfere between Miss Van Tuyn and that man, Nicolas Arabian! She tried metaphorically to push him towards Miss Van Tuyn. It was inexplicable. Lady Sellingworth was a woman of the world, past mistress of all the convenances, one in whom any breach of good manners was impossible, unthinkable! And yet she had asked him to go back to the restaurant, and to thrust himself into the company of a girl and a man who were dining by themselves. She had even asked him, a young fellow, certainly younger than Beryl Van Tuyn's escort, to play the part of chaperon to the girl!

Did she-could she know something about Arabian?

Certainly she did not know him. In the restaurant she had inquired who he was. But, later, she had said that his profile seemed familiar to her, that perhaps she had seen him about London. Her departure from the restaurant had been strangely abrupt. Perhaps-could she have recognized Arabian after he, Craven, had left her alone and had gone to speak to Miss Van Tuyn? The man looked a wrong 'un. Craven felt certain he was a wrong 'un. But if so, surely Lady Sellingworth could not know him, or even know anything about him. There was something so remote and distinguished about her life, her solitary, retired life. She did not come in contact with such people.

"Get you a kib, gentleman?" said a soft cockney voice in Craven's ear.

He started, and walked on quickly. In Lady Sellingworth's conduct that night, in the last look she had given him, there was mystery. He was quite unable to fathom it, and he went home to his flat in the greatest perplexity, and feeling very uneasy.

When Murgatroyd opened the door to his mistress it was not much after nine, and he was surprised to see her back so early and alone.

"Tea, please, Murgatroyd!" she said.

"Yes, my lady."

She passed by him and ascended the big staircase. He heard her go into the drawing-room and shut the door.

When, a few minutes later, he brought in the tea, she was standing by the fire. She had taken off her big hat and laid it on a table.

"I shall want nothing more. Good night."

"Good night, my lady."

He went towards the door. When he was just going out he heard her say, "Murgatroyd!" and turned.

"My lady!"

"Please let Cecile know I shan't want her to-night. She is not to sit up for me. I'll manage for myself."

"Yes, my lady."

"Make it quite understood, please."

"Certainly, my lady."

He went out and shut the door.

When she was quite alone Lady Sellingworth stood for several minutes by the fire quite still, with her head bent down and her hands folded together. Then she went to the tea table, poured out a cup of tea, sat down and sipped it slowly, looking into vacancy with the eyes of one whose real gaze was turned inwards upon herself. She finished the tea, sat still for a little while, then got up, went to the writing-table, sat before it, took a pen and a sheet of note-paper, and began slowly to write.

She wrote first at the top of the sheet in the left-hand corner, "Strictly private," and underlined the words. Then she wrote:

"DEAR BERYL,-Please consider this letter absolutely private and personal. I rely on your never speaking of it to anyone, and I ask you to burn it directly you have read it. Although I hate more than anything else interfering in the private affairs of anoth

er, I feel that it is my absolute duty to send this to you. I am a very much older woman than you-indeed, almost an old woman. I know the world very well-too well-and I feel I can ask you to trust me when I give you a piece of advice, however unpleasant it may seem at the moment. You were dining to-night alone with a man who is totally unfit to be your companion, or the companion of any decent woman. I cannot explain to you how I know this, nor can I tell you why he is unfit to be in any reputable company. But I solemnly assure you-I give you my word-that I am telling you the truth. That man is a blackguard in the full acceptation of the word. I believe you met him by chance in a studio. I am quite positive that you know nothing whatever about him. I do. I know-"

She hesitated, leaning over the paper with the pen lifted, frowning painfully and with a look of fear in her eyes. Then her face hardened in an expression of white resolution, and she wrote:

"I know that he ought to be in prison. He is beyond the pale. You must never be seen with him again. I have said nothing of this to anyone. Mr. Craven has not a suspicion of it. Nor has anyone else whom we know. Drop that man at once. I don't think he will ask you for your reason. His not doing so will help to prove to you that I am telling you the truth.-Yours sincerely,


When she had finished this letter Lady Sellingworth read it over carefully twice, then put it into an envelope and wrote on the envelope Beryl's address, and in the corner "strictly private." But having done this she did not fasten the envelope, though she lit a red candle that was on the table and took up a stick of sealing-wax. Again hesitation seized her.

The written word remains. Might it not be very dangerous to send this letter? Suppose Beryl did show it to that man who called himself Nicolas Arabian? He might-it was improbable, but he might-bring an action for libel against the writer. Lady Sellingworth sickened as she thought of that, and rapidly she imagined a hideous scandal, all London talking of her, the Law Courts, herself in the witness-box, cross-examination. What evidence could she give to prove that the accusation she had written was true?

But surely Beryl would not show the letter. It would be dishonourable to show it, and though she could be very cruel Lady Sellingworth did not believe that Beryl was a dishonourable girl. But if she was in love with that man? If she was under his influence? Women in love, women under a spell, are capable of doing extraordinary things. Lady Sellingworth knew that only too well. She remembered her own madnesses, the madnesses of women she had known, women of the "old guard." And Arabian had fascination. She had felt it long ago. And Beryl was young and had wildness in her.

It might be very dangerous to send that letter.

But if she did not send it, what was she going to do? She could not leave things as they were, could not just hold her peace. To do that would be infamous. And she could not be infamous. She felt the obligation of age. Beryl had been cruel to her, but she could not leave the girl in ignorance of the character of Arabian. If she did something horrible might happen, would almost certainly happen. Beryl was very rich now, and no doubt that man knew it. The death of her father had been put in all the papers. There had been public chatter about the fortune he had left. Men like Arabian knew what they were about. They worked with deliberation, worked according to plan. And Beryl was beautiful as well as rich.

Things could not be left as they were.

If she did not send that letter Lady Sellingworth told herself that she would have to see Beryl and speak to her. She would have to say what she had written. But that would be intolerable. The girl would ask questions, would insist on explanations, would demand to be enlightened. And then-As she sat by the writing-table, plunged in thought, Lady Sellingworth lost all count of time. But at last she took the sealing-wax, put it to the candle flame, and sealed up the letter. She had resolved that she would take the risk of sending it. Anything was better than seeing Beryl, than speaking about this horror. And Beryl would surely not be dishonourable.

Having sealed the letter Lady Sellingworth took it with her upstairs. She had decided to leave it herself at Claridge's Hotel on the morrow.

But after a wretched night she was again seized by hesitation. A devil came and tempted her, asking her what business this was of hers, why she should interfere in this matter. Beryl was audacious, self-possessed, accustomed to take her own way, to live as she chose, to know all sorts and conditions of men. She was not an ignorant girl, inexperienced in the ways of the world. She knew how to take care of herself. Why not destroy the letter and just keep silence? She had really no responsibility in this matter. Beryl was only an acquaintance who had tried to harm her happiness. And then the tempter suggested to her that by taking any action she must inevitably injure her own life. He brought to her mind thoughts of Craven. If she let Beryl alone the fascination of Arabian might work upon the girl so effectually that Craven would mean nothing to her any more; but if she sent the letter, or spoke, and Beryl heeded the warning, eventually, perhaps very soon, Beryl would turn again to Craven.

By warning Beryl Lady Sellingworth would very probably turn a weapon upon herself. And she realized that fully. For she had no expectation of real gratitude from the girl expressing itself in instinctive unselfishness.

"I should merely make an enemy by doing it," she thought. "Or rather two enemies."

And she locked the letter up. She thought she would do nothing. But as the day wore on she was haunted by a feeling of self-hatred. She had done many wrong things in her life, but certain types of wrong things she had never yet done. Her sins had been the sins of what is called passion. There had been strong feeling behind them, prompting desire, a flame, though not always the purest sort of flame. She had not been a cold sinner. Nor had she been a contemptible coward. Now she was beset by an ugly sensation of cowardice which made her ill at ease with herself. She thought of Seymour Portman. He was able to love her, to go on loving her. Therefore, in spite of all her caprices, in spite of all she had done, he believed in that part of her which men have agreed to call character. She could not love him as he wished, but she had an immeasurable respect for him. And she knew that above all the other virtues he placed courage, moral and physical. Noblesse oblige. He would never fail. He considered it an obligation on those who were born in what he still thought of as the ruling class to hold their heads high in fearlessness. And in her blood, too, ran something of the same feeling of obligation.

If she put her case before Seymour what would he tell her to do? To ask that question was to answer it. He would not even tell. He would not think it necessary to do that. She could almost hear his voice saying: "There's only one thing to be done."

She was loved by Seymour; she simply could not be a coward.

And she unlocked the box in which the letter was lying, and ordered her car to come round.

"Please drive to Claridge's!" she said as she got into it.

On the way to the hotel she kept saying to herself: "Seymour! Seymour! It's the only thing to do. It's the only thing to do."

When the car stopped in front of the hotel she got out and went herself to the bureau.

"Please give this to Miss Van Tuyn at once. It is very important."

"Yes, my lady."

"Is she in?"

"I'm not sure, my lady, but I can soon-"

"No, no, it doesn't matter. But it is really important."

"It shall go up at once my lady."

"Thank you."

As Lady Sellingworth got into her car she felt a sense of relief.

"I've done the right thing. Nothing else matters."

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