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   Chapter 29 No.29

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 16248

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Early on the following morning, soon after ten o'clock Miss Van Tuyn was startled by a knock on her bedroom door. Everything at all unexpected startled her just now. Her nerves, as even old Fanny could not help noticing, had gone "all to pieces." She lived in perpetual fear. Nearly all the previous night she had been lying awake turning over and over in her mind the horrible possibilities of the future. It was in vain that she tried to call her normal common sense to the rescue, in vain that she tried to look at facts calmly, to sum them up dispassionately, and to draw from them reasonable conclusions. She could not be reasonable. Her brain said to her: "You have no reason for fear. You are perfectly safe. Your folly and wilfulness, your carelessness of opinion, your reckless spirit of defiant independence, your ugly and abominable desires"-her brain did not spare her-"might easily have brought you to irretrievable ruin. They might have destroyed you. But Fate has intervened to protect you. You have been saved from the consequences of your own imprudence-to call it by no other name. Give thanks to the God of luck, and to the woman who sacrificed her pride for your sake, and live differently in the future." Her brain, in fact, told her she was saved. But something else that she could not classify, something still and remote and persistent, told her that she was in great danger. She said to herself, thinking of Arabian: "What can he do? I am my own mistress. If I choose to cut him dead he must accept my decision to have nothing more to do with him and go out of my life. He simply can't do anything else. I have the whole thing in my hands. He hasn't a scrap of my writing. He can't blackmail me. He can't compromise me more than I have already compromised myself by going about with him and being seen in his flat. He is helpless, and I have absolutely nothing to be afraid of." She said all this to herself, and yet she was full of fear. That fear had driven her to Lady Sellingworth on the previous evening, and it had grown in the night. The thought of Arabian tormented her. She said to herself that he could do nothing and, even while she said it, the inexorable something within her whispered: "What might not that man do?" Her imagination put no limit now to his possibilities for evil. All the horrors of the underworld were, for her, congregated together in him. She trembled at the memory of having been in his arms, shut up alone with him in the flat by the river. She attributed to him nameless powers. Something mysterious in him, something occult, had reduced her apparently to the level of an imaginative child, who peoples the night with spectres and conceives of terrors she cannot describe.

She felt that Arabian was not as other men, that he really was what Garstin had called him, a king in the underworld, and that that was why he had had power over her. She felt that he had within him something which ruled, which would have its way. She felt that he was more persistent than other men, more crafty, more self-possessed, more capable, more subtle. She felt that he had greatness as a ruffian, as another man might have greatness as a saint. And she felt above all that he was an expert with women.

If he had wanted Adela Sellingworth as well as her jewels, how would it have been then? What would have happened ten years ago? He had not wanted Adela Sellingworth. But he wanted her. She was positive of that. That he had known she was well off and was going to be rich she did not doubt for a moment. She could never forget as long as she lived the fleeting expression which had changed his face when she had told him of the death of her father. At that moment he had certainly felt that a fortune was probably almost within his grasp. Nevertheless she was positive, she was absolutely certain as a girl can be about such a thing, that he wanted and had long wanted her. He had waited because mingled with his man's desire for her there had been the other desire. He might have rushed at an intrigue. Such a man could have no real delicacies. He was too wise to rush at a marriage. And he must have had marriage in his mind almost ever since he had met her. He must have made inquiries, have found out all about her, and then laid his plans. Her looks had probably brought him for the first time to Garstin's studio. But it was not only his admiration for her appearance which had brought him there again and again, which had taught him detached self-control, almost distant respect, puzzling reserve, secrecy in intimacy, which had taught him to wait-till he knew.

And when he had not waited, when he had chosen to give way because the right moment had come, when he had made her go with him to his flat, when he had shown her what he wanted! His warmth then had not been a pretending. And yet, just before he had taken her in his arms, he had deliberately managed so that Mrs. Birchington should see her go into his flat. What a horrible mingling of elements there was in this man! Even his natural passions were intertwined with his hideous professional instincts The stretched-out hand of the lover was also the stretched-out hand of the thief.

When she heard the knock on her bedroom door she trembled.

"Yes?" she said, after a moment of hesitation.

She was up and was sitting in an arm-chair near the window having breakfast, and looking at her post.

"Yes?"

Another knock.

"Come in!" she cried.

The door was gingerly opened and a page-boy showed himself. Miss Van Tuyn looked at him with dread.

"What is it? Something for me?"

"There's a gentleman wants to see you, ma'am."

"I can't see anyone. I told them so at the bureau. Where is he?"

"Down below, ma'am."

"Send him away. Say I'm still asleep. Say-"

She noticed for the first time that the boy had a card. He had been hiding it pressed to a salver against his trouser-leg. Now he lifted the salver. But Miss Van Tuyn did not take the card. She was certain the man below was Arabian.

"I can't see anyone. It's much too early."

"The gentleman said it was very important, ma'am, and I was to say so," said the page, with a certain chubby dignity that was almost official.

Miss Van Tuyn was now terrified. It was Arabian, and he would not go till he had seen her. She was certain of that. He would wait downstairs. She would be a prisoner in her rooms. All her fear of him seemed to rush upon her intensified, a fear such as she had never felt before. She got up tingling all over, and with a feeling as if all the blood had suddenly sunk away from her temples.

"You must tell him-"

The page-boy was now holding out the salver with the card on it, almost as if in self-protection. Her eyes fell on it against her will, and she saw there were four printed words on it. On Arabian's card there were only two: Nicolas Arabian. Instantly she stretched out her hand and took the card up-

"General Sir Seymour Portman."

Her relief was so great that she could not conceal it.

"Oh!" she exclaimed.

"Ma'am?" said the boy, looking more official.

"Please run down-"

"Run ma'am?"

"Yes-down at once and bring the gentleman up to my sitting-room. Be as quick as you can."

The page retired with a stiff back and rather slow-moving legs.

So Adela had wasted no time! She had been as good as her word. What a splendid woman she was!

Miss Van Tuyn did something to her gown, to her hair. Not that she wanted to make an impression on Sir Seymour. Circumstances were combining at present to drive her away from her vanity. Really she acted mechanically. Then she prepared to go to the sitting-room. And then, at the bedroom door she hesitated, suddenly realizing what lay before her. Finally she opened the door and listened. She heard almost immediately another door opened and a boy's chirpy voice say:

"This way, sir, please!"

Then she went out and came upon Sir Seymour Portman in the lobby.

"How very kind of you to come!" she said, with an attempt at eager cordiality but feeling now strangely shy and guilty. "And so early!"

"Go

od morning! May I put my hat here?"

"Yes, do. And leave your coat. Is it cold out?"

"Rather cold."

"This is my little room."

She went before him into the sitting-room which had a dreadfully early morning air, with its only just beginning fire, and its wintry dimness of the poor and struggling day.

"If only we could have met in the evening!" she thought.

It was awful to discuss such a situation as hers when the milkman had scarcely finished his rounds, and when her vitality had not been warmed up.

"Do sit down, Sir Seymour!" she said.

"Thank you!"

And he sat down in a businesslike sort of way, and at once began.

"Rather late last night I saw Lady Sellingworth."

"Oh? Yes?"

"She sent for me. You know why, I understand."

"Yes. I had been with her."

"She told me the whole matter."

"Oh! Did she? I-I've been awfully foolish. I deserve to-I deserve everything. I know that. Adela has been so good to me. I can never say how good. She might so easily have-I mean considering the way I have-"

She stopped. Adela could not have told Sir Seymour about the unkindness of the girl she had sent him to help. Miss Van Tuyn remembered that just in time.

"Lady Sellingworth did what you wished," said Sir Seymour, still in a quiet and businesslike way, "and consulted me. She told me what you wanted; that this man, Arabian, should be made to understand that he must finally give up any plans he had formed with regard to you."

Miss Van Tuyn felt the red beginning to creep in her cheeks.

"Yes," she said, looking down.

"Perhaps this can be done," continued Sir Seymour, in a practical way, rather like a competent man at a board meeting. "We must see."

He did not suggest that she could do it herself. She was thankful to him for that.

"Have you a photograph of this man?" he continued.

"Oh-no!"

"That is a pity."

"But why do you want-"

"I should like to have his photograph to show at Scotland Yard."

"Oh!" she exclaimed.

Her face was scarlet now. Her forehead was burning. An acute and horrible sense of shame possessed her, seemed to be wrapped round her like a stinging garment.

"I've-I've never had a photograph of him," she said.

After a short pause Sir Seymour said:

"You've got his address."

The words seemed a statement as he said them.

"Yes," she said.

"Will you kindly write it down for me?"

"Yes."

She got up, still wrapped up in shame, and went to the writing-table. She took up a pen to write Arabian's address. But she could not remember the number of the flat. Her memory refused to give it to her.

"I can't remember the number," she said, standing by the writing-table.

"If you can give me the address of the flats I can easily find out the number."

"It is Rose Tree Gardens"-she began writing it down-"Rose Tree Gardens, Chelsea. It is close to the river."

She came away from the writing-table, and gave him the paper with the address on it.

"Thank you!"

He took the paper, folded it up, drew out a leather case from an inner pocket of his braided black jacket, and consigned the paper to it. Miss Van Tuyn sat down again.

"I understand you met this man at the studio of Mr. Garstin, the painter?" said Sir Seymour.

"Yes. But he wasn't a friend of Mr. Garstin's. Mr. Garstin saw him at the Cafe Royal and wished to paint him, so he asked him to come to the studio."

"And he has painted a portrait of him?"

"Yes."

"Is it a good one?"

"Yes, wonderful!" she said, with a shudder.

"I mean really is it a good likeness?"

"Oh! Yes, it is very like in a way, horribly like."

"In a way?"

"I mean that it gives the worst side. But it is like."

"I suppose the portrait is still in Mr. Garstin's studio?"

"I suppose it is. I haven't seen Mr. Garstin for two or three days. But I suppose it's there."

"Please give me Mr. Garstin's address-the studio address," said Sir Seymour.

"Yes."

She got up again and went to the writing-table. There seemed to her to be something deadly in this interview. She could not feel humanity in it. Sir Seymour was terribly impersonal. There was something almost machine like about him. She did not know him well, but how different he had been to her in Berkeley Square! There he had been a charming old courtier. He had shown a sort of gallant admiration of her. He had beamed kindly upon her youth and her daring. Now he showed nothing.

But-Adela had told him!

She wrote down Dick Garstin's address in Glebe Place, and was about to come away from the writing-table when Sir Seymour said:

"Could you also kindly give me your card with a line of introduction to Mr. Garstin? I don't know him."

"Oh, I will of course!"

She found one of her cards and hesitated.

"What shall I put?" she asked.

"You might put 'To introduce,' and then my name."

"Yes."

She wrote the words on the card.

"Perhaps it might be as well to add 'Please see him,' and underline it. I understand Mr. Garstin is a brusque sort of fellow."

"Yes, he is."

She added the words he had suggested.

"It's very-it's more than kind of you to take all this trouble," she said, again coming to him. "I am ashamed."

She gave him the card. She could not look into his face.

"I am ashamed," she repeated, in a low voice.

"Well now," he said, "try to get the matter off your mind. Don't give way to useless fears. Most of us fear far more than there is any occasion for."

He stood up.

"Yes?"

"If you wish for me, call me up. I am at St. James's Palace. But I don't suppose you will have need of me. By the way, there's one thing more I perhaps ought to ask you. Forgive me! Has there ever been anything in the nature of a threat from this fellow?"

"Oh, no!" she said. "No, no, no!"

She was swallowing sobs that suddenly began rising in her throat, sobs of utter shame and of stricken vanity.

"It's all too horrible!" she thought.

For a moment she hated the straight-backed, soldierly old man who was standing before her. For he saw her in the dust, where no one ought ever to see her.

"He's in love with me!" she said.

It was as if the words were forced out of her against her will. Directly she had said them she bitterly regretted them. They were the cry of her undying vanity that must try to put itself right, to stand up for itself at whatever cost. Directly she had spoken them she saw a slight twitch pull the left side of his face upward. It had upon her a moral effect. She felt it as his irresistible comment-a comment of the body, but coming from elsewhere-on her and her nature, and her recent association with Arabian. And suddenly her hatred died, and she longed to do something to establish herself in his regard, to gain his respect.

Already he was holding out his hand to her. She took his hand and held it tightly.

"Don't think too badly of me," she said imploringly. "I want you not to. Because I think you see clearly-you see people as they are. You saw Adela as she is. And perhaps no one else did. But you don't know how fine she is-even you don't. I had treated her badly. I had been unkind to her, very unkind. I had-I had been spiteful to her, and tried to harm her happiness. And yet she told me! I am sure no other woman would ever have done what she has done."

"She had to do it," he said gravely.

But his hand now slightly pressed hers.

"Had to? But why?"

"Because she happens to be a thoroughbred."

"Ah!" she breathed.

She was looking into his dark old eyes, and now they were kind, almost soft.

"We must take care," he added, "that what she had done shall not be done in vain. We owe her that. Good-bye."

"And you don't think too badly about me?"

"Once I called you the daffodil girl to her."

"Did you?"

"Youth is pretty cruel sometimes. When you've forgotten all this, don't forget to be kind."

"To her! But how could I?"

"But I don't mean only to her!"

And then he left her.

When he had gone she sat still for a long while, thinking. And the strange thing was that for once she was not thinking about herself.

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