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   Chapter 27 No.27

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 26077

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


After Lady Sellingworth had written and sent her note to Craven she felt that she was facing a new phase of life, and she thought of it as the last phase. Her sacrifice of self was surely complete at last. She had exposed her nature naked to Beryl Van Tuyn. She had given up her friendship with Alick Craven. There was nothing more for her to do. The call of youth had wrung from her a response which created loneliness around her. And now she had to find within herself the resolution to face this loneliness bravely.

When she wrote to Craven she had meant him to understand something of what he had understood. Yet she did not desire to hurt him. She would not have hurt him for the world. Secretly her heart yearned over him. But she could never let him know that. He might be puzzled by her letter. He might even resent it. But he would soon forget any feeling roused by it. And he would no doubt soon forget her, the old woman who had been kind to him for a time, who had even been almost Bohemian with him in a very mild way, and who had then tacitly given him up. Perhaps she would see him again. Probably she would. She had no intentions of permanently closing her door against him. But she would not encourage him to come. She would never dine out with him again. If he came he must come as an ordinary caller at the ordinary caller's hour.

Seymour Portman called on her in the late afternoon of the day when she wrote to Craven. Just before his arrival she was feeling peculiarly blank and almost confusedly dull. She had gone through so much recently, had lived at such high tension, had suffered such intense nervous excitement, in the restaurant of the Bella Napoli and afterwards, that both body and mind refused to function quite normally. Long ago she had stayed at St. Moritz in the depth of the winter, and had got up each morning to greet the fierce blue sky, the blazing sun, the white glare of the enveloping snows with a strange feeling of light, yet depressed, detachment. She began to have a similar feeling now. Far down she was horribly sad. But her surface seemed to say, "Nothing matters, because I am in an abnormal condition, and while I remain in this condition nothing can really matter to me." Surface and depths were in contradiction, yet she was not even fully aware of that. A numbness held her, and yet she was nervous.

She heard the drawing-room door open and Murgatroyd's voice make the familiar announcement; she saw Seymour's upright, soldierly figure come into the room; she smiled a greeting to her old friend; and the sound of Murgatroyd's voice, the sight of Seymour coming towards her, her own response to sound and sight, did not conquer the sensation of numbness.

"Yes, he is here. He does not forget me. He loves me and will always love me. But what does it matter?"

A voice seemed to be saying that within her. Recently she had suffered acutely; she had made a great effort; she had conquered herself and been conquered by another. And it had all been just too much for her. She was, she thought, like one who had fought desperately lying in deadly silence and calm on the deserted battlefield, utterly passive because utterly tired out.

But Seymour did not know that. He knew nothing of all that had happened, and Beryl knew everything. And she thought of a picture called "Love locked out." It was hardly fair that Seymour should know so little. And while he was quietly talking to her, telling her little bits of news which he thought would interest her, letting her in by proxy as it were to the life of the great world which she had abandoned but in which he still played a part, she was thinking, "If Seymour knew what I have done! If I told him, what would he think, what would he say?" He would be pleased, no doubt. But would he be surprised? And while she listened and talked she began to wonder, but always without intensity, about that. Seymour would think she had done the inevitable thing, what any thoroughbred was bound to do. And yet-would he be surprised nevertheless that she had been able to do it? She began presently to feel a slight tingle of curiosity about that. Had she, perhaps, to a certain extent justified Seymour's fidelity? He had a splendid character. She certainly had not. She had done countless things that Seymour must have hated, and secretly condemned. And yet he had somehow been able to go on loving her. Was that because he had always instinctively known that somewhere within her there was a traditional virtue which marched with his, that there was a voice which spoke his language?

"I suppose, in spite of all, in a way we are akin," she thought.

And she began to wish vaguely that he knew it, that he knew what had happened between her and Beryl. As she looked at his "cauliflower," bent towards her while he talked, at his strong soldier's face, at his faithful eyes, the eyes of the "old dog," she wished that it were possible to let Seymour know a little bit of the best of her. Not that she was proud of what she had done. She was too much akin to Seymour to be proud of such a thing, But Seymour would be pleased with her. And it would be pleasant to give him pleasure. It would be like giving him a small, a very small, reward for his long faithfulness, for his very beautiful and touching loyalty.

"What is it, Adela?" he said.

And a keen, searching look had come into his eyes.

She smiled vaguely, meeting his gaze. She still felt curiously detached, although she was able to think quite connectedly.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I feel you are not as usual to-day."

"In what way?"

"Something has happened. I don't, of course, wish to know what it is. But it has changed you, my dear."

"In what way?" she said again.

His reply startled her, set her free from her feeling of numbness, of light detachment, from what she called to herself her "St. Moritz feeling."

"I feel as if you were coming into possession of your true self at last," he said very gravely. "But as if perhaps you scarcely knew it yet."

A slow red crept in her cheeks, which would never know again the touch of the artificial red.

"Dear Seymour! My true self! I wonder what sort of self you think that is?"

"That's easily told. It is the self I have been loving for so many years. And now-"

He got up, still alert in his movement, out of his chair.

"You are going?"

"Yes. I have to meet 'Better not' at the Marlborough to talk over His Majesty's visit to Manchester."

"Ah!" she said.

"Better not" was the nickname given at Court to a certain much-valued gentleman about the king.

She did not try to detain Seymour. But when he had gone deep depression overcame her. She was the helpless victim of a tremendous reaction. So long as she had been in activity she had been able to endure. Even the horror of the Bella Napoli, complex and cruelly intense as the probing of steel among the nerves of the body, she had been able to live through without obvious flinching. But then there had been something to do, something to deal with, something to get the better of. There had been a necessity for action. And now there was nothing. Her activities were over. Seymour had broken the curious spell which for a short time had bound her, and now she realized everything with unnatural acuteness.

What was the good of coming into possession of her true self? What was the good of anything? Life was activity. Her late close contact with youth, her obligation to do something difficult and, to her, tremendous for youth had taught her that anew, and now she must somehow reconcile herself to extinction. For this was really what lay before her now-extinction while still alive. Better surely to be struggling with horrors than to be merely dying away. She even looked back to the scene with Beryl and thought of it almost with longing. For how she had lived in that scene! At moments during it she had entirely forgotten herself.

Was that perhaps life, the only real life-entire forgetfulness of self? If so, how seldom she had lived! In all her sixty years, in all her so-called "great life," for how short a time she had lived!

She had just then, even in the midst of her reaction, a feeling of illumination. She was in darkness, but around the darkness, as if enclosing it and her in it, there was light, a light she had never been really aware of till now. Something within her said:

"I see!"

She went up to her bedroom, shut herself in, went to a bookshelf, and took down a Bible which stood on it. She turned its pages till she came to the Sermon on the Mount. Then she began to read. And presently, as she read, a queer thought came to her. "If the 'old guard' could see me now!"

It was late when she stopped reading. She shut up the Holy Book, put it back on the shelf, and took down a volume of poems. And after reading the Bible she read the poem of the Wild Heart. And then she read nothing more. But her reading had waked up in her a longing which was not familiar to her except in connexion with what she supposed was the baser part of her, the part which had troubled, had even tortured her so many times in her life. She had often longed to do things for men whom she loved, or fancied she loved. Now she was conscious of a yearning more altruistic. She wished to be purely unselfish, if that were ever possible. And she believed it to be possible. For was not Seymour unselfish? He surely often forgot himself in her. But she had always remembered herself in others.

"What a monstrous egoist I have been all my life!" she thought, with a sense of despair. "Only once have I acted with a purely unselfish motive, and that was with Beryl. Yes, Beryl gave me the one opportunity I took advantage of. And now it is all over. Everything is finished. It is too late to try a new way of living."

She forgot many little sacrifices she had made in the war, or she did not count them to her credit. For patriotism in war seemed as natural to her as drawing breath. She was thinking of her personal life in connexion with individuals. She had once been unselfish-for Beryl. That was over. Everything was over. And yet Seymour had said that he felt as if at last she were coming into possession of her true self. So he had noticed a difference. It was as if what she had been able to do for Beryl had subtly altered her. But there was nothing more for her to do.

That evening she felt loneliness as she had never felt it before. A sort of mental nausea seized her as she dressed for her solitary dinner. For whom was she changing her gown? For Murgatroyd! How grotesque the unwritten regulations of a life like hers were! Why go down to dinner at all? She had no appetite. Nevertheless, everything was done in due order. Her hair was arranged. Cecile looked at her critically to see that everything was right. For Murgatroyd! Even a jewel was brought to be pinned in to the front of her gown. It was a big ruby surrounded by diamonds, and as it flashed in the light it brought back to her the hideous memory of Arabian.

What would he do now? It was very strange that after ten years she had been able, indeed she had been obliged, to revenge herself upon him, this man whom she had never known, to whom she had never even spoken. And she had never dreamed of revenge. She had let him go with his prey. Probably her jewels had enabled him to live as he wished to live for years. And now she had paid him back! Did Fate work blindly, or was there a terribly subtle and inexorable plan at work through all human life?

"Miladi does not like to wear this ruby?" said Cecile.

"Why do you say that?"

"Milady looks at it so strangely!"

"It reminds me of something. Yes, I will wear it to-night. But what's the good?"

"Miladi-?"

"No one will see it but myself."

"Milady should go out more, much more, and receive company here."

"Perhaps I'll give a series of dinners," said Lady Sellingworth with a smile.

And she turned away and went down.

Murgatroyd and a footman were waiting for her. On the dining table was a menu telling her what she had to eat, what her cook had been, and was, busy over in the kitchen. She sat down at the big table, picked up the menu and glanced at it. But she did not see what was written on it. She saw only in imagination the years before her, perhaps five years, perhaps ten, perhaps even more. For her race was a long living one. She might, like some of her forbears, live to be very old. Ten years more of dinners like this one in Berkeley Square! Could that be endured? As she sipped her soup she thought of travelling. She might shut up the house, go over the seas, wander through the world. There were things to be seen. Nature spread her infinite variety for the sons and the daughters of men. She might advertise in The Times for a travelling companion. There would be plenty of answers. Or she might get one of her many acquaintances to come with her, some pleasant woman who wo

uld not talk too much, or too little.

Fish!

When, finally, some fruit had been put before her, and Murgatroyd and the footman had left the room, she remained-so she thought of it-like a mummy in the tomb which belonged to her. And presently through the profound silence she heard the hoot of a motor-horn. Someone going somewhere! Someone who had something to do, somewhere to go! Someone from whom all the activities had not passed away for ever!

The motor-horn sounded again nearer. Now she heard the faint sound of wheels. The car was coming down her side of the Square. The buzz of the machine reached her ears now, then the grinding of brakes. The car had stopped somewhere close by, at the next house perhaps.

She heard an electric bell. That was in her own house. Then the car had stopped at her door.

She listened, and immediately heard a step in the hall. Murgatroyd, or the footman, was going to the door. She wondered who the caller could be. Possibly Seymour! But he never came at that hour.

A moment later Murgatroyd appeared in the room.

"Miss Van Tuyn has called, my lady, and begs you to see her."

"Miss Van Tuyn! Ask her-take her up to the drawing-room, please. I am just finishing. I will come in a minute."

"Yes, my lady."

Murgatroyd went out and shut the door behind him.

Then Lady Sellingworth took a peach from a dish in front of her and began to peel it. She had not intended to eat any fruit before Murgatroyd had given her this news. But she felt that she must have a few minutes by herself. Not long ago she had been appalled by the thought of extinction: had yearned for activity, had even desired opportunities for unselfishness. Now, suddenly, she was afraid, and clung to her loneliness. For she felt certain that Beryl had come to ask her to do something in connexion with Arabian. Something must have happened since their interview yesterday, and the girl had come to her to ask her help.

She ate the peach very slowly, scarcely tasting it. At last it was finished, and she got up from the table. She must not keep Beryl waiting any longer. She must go upstairs. But she went reluctantly, almost in fear, wondering, dreading what was coming upon her.

When she opened the drawing-room door she saw Beryl standing by the fire.

"Adela!"

Beryl came forward hurriedly with a nervous manner Lady Sellingworth had never noticed in her before. Her face was very pale. There were dark rings under her eyes. She looked apprehensive, distracted even.

"Do forgive me for bursting in on you like this at such an hour!"

"Of course!"

She took Beryl's hand. It was hot, and clasped hers with a closeness that was almost violent.

"What is it? Is anything the matter?"

"I want your advice. I don't-I don't quite know what to do. You see, there's nobody but you I can come to. I know I have no right-I have no claim upon you. You have been so good to me already. No other woman would have done what you have done. But you see, I promised never to-I can't speak to anyone else. I might have gone to Dick Garstin perhaps. . . . I don't know! But as it is I can't speak to a soul but you."

"Is it something about that man?"

"Yes. I'm afraid of him."

"Why?"

"I'm sure he doesn't mean to-I'm sure he won't give me up easily. I know he won't!"

"Sit down, Beryl."

"Yes-may I?"

"Have you seen him?"

"Oh, no-no!"

"Has he written?"

"Yes. And he has called to-day. Last night directly I got back to the hotel I gave orders at the bureau that if he called they were to say 'not at home.'"

"Well then-"

"But he got in!"

"How could he?"

"When they said I was out he asked for Fanny-Fanny Cronin, my companion. He sent up his card to her, and as I hadn't spoken to her-you know I promised not to say anything-she told them to let him come up. She likes him!"

"And were you in the hotel?"

"No, thank God I was really out. But I came back while he was still there."

"Then-"

"No, I didn't see him, as I told you. When I was just going up in the lift, something-it was almost like second sight, I think-prompted me to go to the bureau and ask if anyone was in our rooms. And they told me he was with Fanny, had been with her for over an hour."

"What did you do?"

"I went out at once. I called on one or two people, I stayed out till nearly half-past seven. I walked about in the dark. I was afraid to go near the hotel. It was horrible. Finally I thought he must have gone and I ventured to go back. I hurried through the hall. The lift was there. I went into it at once. I didn't look round. I was afraid he might have come down and be waiting about for me. When I got to our apartment I went straight to my bedroom and rang for my maid. She said he was gone. Then I went to Fanny. He had been having tea with her and had stayed two hours. He had-she's very foolish, poor old thing!-he had completely fascinated her."

Suddenly she blushed violently.

"I have no right to say that about Fanny. But I mean he had laid himself out to-"

"I quite understand," said Lady Sellingworth, with a sort of awkward dryness which she could not evade though she hated herself for it.

It was hideous, she felt, being mixed up with this old Miss Cronin and Beryl Van Tuyn in a sort of horrible sisterhood of victims of this vile man's fascination. Her flesh crept at the indignity of it, and all her patrician pride revolted at being remembered among his probably innumerable conquests. At that moment she felt punished for having so often in her life betrayed the best part of her nature.

"I quite understand, Beryl. You need not explain."

"No."

There was an unpleasant silence during which neither woman looked at the other. Then Lady Sellingworth said:

"But you haven't told me everything. And if I am to-if anything is to be done, can be done, I suppose you had better tell me everything."

"Yes. I want to. I must. Mr.-he told Fanny that I was-that I had promised to marry him."

"Ah!"

"He told her that I had been to his flat on the very day that I had heard of my father's death and since. He promised Fanny that-that when we were married she should have a home with us. Isn't that horrible? Fanny has been afraid of my marrying because, you see, she depends in a way on me. She doesn't want to leave me. She's got accustomed-"

"Yes-yes."

"He told her that people knew about my visits to him. Mrs. Birchington lives in the flat opposite his, and she knows. He contrived that she should know. I realize that now."

"A man like that lays his plans carefully."

"Yes. Oh-how humiliating it all is! Fanny was enthusiastic about him."

"What did you say?"

"I was very careful. Because I promised you! But I know she thinks-she must think I am in love with him. But that doesn't matter. Only it makes things difficult. But it isn't that which brought me here. I'm afraid of him."

"Have you ever written to him?"

"No-never!"

"But you say he has written to you."

"Yes. When he left Fanny he wrote a letter in the hotel and had it sent up to my room. Fanny gave it me just now. I've got it here."

She drew a letter out of a little bag she had brought with her.

"I-I can't show it-"

"Oh-please-I don't want to see it!" said Lady Sellingworth, with an irrepressible shrinking of disgust.

"No, of course not. Adela, please don't think I imagined you did! But I must tell you-I know you hate all this. You must hate it. Oh, do forgive me for coming here! I know I oughtn't to. But I'm afraid-I'm afraid of him!"

"Why are you so afraid? What can he do?"

"A man like that might do anything!"

"Are you sure? I think such a man is probably a coward at heart."

But Miss Van Tuyn shook her head.

"He's got nerves of steel. I am sure of it. Besides-"

She paused, and a strange conscious look came into her face-a look which Lady Sellingworth did not understand.

"Yes?" she said at last, as Beryl did not speak.

"Adela, I know you will not believe me. I know-you spoke once of my being very vain, but-but there are things a girl does know about a man, really there are! They may seem ridiculous, crazy to others, but-"

"What is it, Beryl?"

"I believe besides wanting my money he wants me. That's why I'm afraid. If it weren't for that I-perhaps I shouldn't have come to-night. Can you believe it?"

Lady Sellingworth looked at the girl with eyes which in spite of herself were hard. She knew they were hard, but she could not help it. Then she said:

"Yes, I can believe it."

"And that he may-he may persist in spite of all. He may refuse to give it up."

"Haven't you got a will?"

"Yes."

"Can't you use it?"

"Yes. But I'm afraid of him. I believe I've always been afraid of him. No one else has ever been able to make me feel as I do about him. Once I read an article in a paper. It was about a horrible play-a woman who was drawn to a man irresistibly in spite of herself, to a hateful man, a murderer. And she went; she had to go. I remember I thought of him then. It was a fascination of fear, Adela. There are such things."

"Do you mean to say that after what I have told you-"

"I want someone to get him away, to drive him away from me so that I shall never see him, so that he will never come near me again! I might go to Paris. But it would be no use. He would follow me there. I might go to America. But that would be just the same. He says so in this letter."

She held up the letter in her hand.

"Does he threaten you?"

"No-not exactly! No, he doesn't! It's worse than that. If he did I think I might find the courage. He's subtle, Adela. He's horribly subtle! Besides, he doesn't know-he can't know that you have told me what he is."

"He might guess it. He probably guessed it. He recognized me in the restaurant."

"Yes. He didn't want you to come to our table. But he never spoke of you afterwards. He didn't say a word, or show the slightest sign. But in this letter I feel that he suspects-that he is afraid something may happen through you, and that-"

"Perhaps he knows you came to see me last night."

"How could he?"

"It wouldn't be difficult for a man of that type."

"I walked home alone, and nobody-"

"That doesn't prove anything. He is subtle, as you say."

"I am sure from this letter that he guesses something has happened, that I may have been set against him, and that he doesn't mean to give me up, whatever happens. I feel that in his letter. And I want someone to drive him away from me. Oh, I wish I had never seen him! I wish I had never seen him!"

Again Lady Sellingworth heard the cry of youth, and this time it was piteous, almost despairing. She did not answer it in words. Indeed, instead of showing any pity, any strong instinct of protection, she turned away from Beryl.

The girl wondered why she did this, and for a moment thought that perhaps she was angry. The situation was difficult, horribly difficult. Beryl had delicacy enough to understand that. Perhaps she ought not to have come to Adela again. Perhaps she was asking too much, more than any woman could bring herself to do, or to try to do. But she had no one else to go to, and she was really afraid, miserably afraid.

Lady Sellingworth stood quite still by the fire with her back to Beryl, and as the silence continued at last Beryl made up her mind that there was nothing to be hoped for from her and got up slowly.

"Adela," she said, trying to summon some pride, some courage, "I understand. You can't do anything more. I oughtn't to have come. It was monstrous, I suppose. But-it's like that in life. So few people will help. And those that do-well, they get asked for more. I'll-I'll manage somehow. It's all my own fault. I must try to-"

Then Lady Sellingworth turned round. Her white face was very grave, almost stern, like the face of one who was thinking with concentration.

"I'm ready to try to do what I can, Beryl," she said. "But there's only one way I can think of. And to take it I shall have to tell the whole truth."

"About me?"

"About you and myself."

"Oh-but you couldn't do that!"

"I believe that I ought to."

"But-but-to whom?"

"There's only one person I could possibly speak to, and he's the finest man I have ever met. He might do something. I'm thinking of Seymour Portman."

"Adela! But you couldn't tell him!"

"Why not?"

"Adela-he loves you. Everyone knows that."

"And that's just why I could tell him-him only."

Miss Van Tuyn looked down. Suddenly she felt that she had tears in her eyes.

"You have kept your cab, haven't you?" said Lady Sellingworth.

"Yes."

"Go home now. I will telephone to Seymour. I'll let you know later-to-morrow morning perhaps-what he thinks had better be done. Now, good night, Beryl!"

She held out her hand. Beryl took it, but did not press it. Somehow she felt awed, and at a distance from this pale quiet woman.

Lady Sellingworth touched the bell, and Beryl Van Tuyn left the room.

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