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   Chapter 2 No.2

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 11670

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


A fortnight later Craven received a note from his old friend saying that Braybrooke had spoken about him to "Adela Sellingworth," and that she would be glad to know him. Braybrooke was off to Paris to stay with the Mariguys, but all Craven had to do was to leave a card at Number 18A, Berkeley Square, and when this formality had been accomplished Lady Sellingworth would no doubt write to him and suggest an hour for a meeting. Craven thanked his friend, left a card at Number 18A, and a day or two later received an invitation to go to tea with Lady Sellingworth on the following Sunday. He stayed in London on purpose to do this, although he had promised to go into the country from Saturday to Monday. Braybrooke had succeeded in rousing keen interest in him. It was not Craven's habit to be at the feet of old ladies. He much preferred to them young or youngish women, unmarried or married. But Lady Sellingworth "intrigued" him. She had been a reigning beauty. She had "lived" as not many English women had lived. And then-the stolen jewels and her extraordinary indifference about their loss!

Decidedly he wanted to know her!

Number 18A, Berkeley Square was a large town mansion, and on the green front door there was a plate upon which was engraved in bold lettering, "The Dowager Countess of Sellingworth." Craven looked at this plate and at the big knocker above it as he rang the electric bell. Almost as soon as he had pressed the button the big door was opened, and a very tall footman in a pale pink livery appeared. Behind him stood a handsome, middle-aged butler.

A large square hall was before Craven, with a hooded chair and a big fire burning on a wide hearth. Beyond was a fine staircase, which had a balustrade of beautifully wrought ironwork with gold ornamentations. He gave his hat, coat and stick to the footman-after taking his name, the butler had moved away, and was pausing not far from the staircase-Craven suddenly felt as if he stood in a London more solid, more dignified, more peaceful, even more gentlemanlike, than the London he was accustomed to. There seemed to be in this house a large calm, an almost remote stillness, which put modern Bond Street, just around the corner, at a very great distance. As he followed the butler, walking softly, up the beautiful staircase, Craven was conscious of a flavour in this mansion which was new to him, but which savoured of spacious times, when the servant question was not acute, when decent people did not move from house to house like gipsies changing camp, when flats were unknown-spacious times and more elegant times than ours.

The butler and Craven gained a large landing on which was displayed a remarkable collection of oriental china. The butler opened a tall mahogany door and bent his head again to receive the murmur of Craven's name. It was announced, and Craven found himself in a great drawing-room, at the far end of which, by a fire, were sitting three people. They were Lady Sellingworth, the faithful Sir Seymour Portman, and a beautiful girl, slim, fair, with an athletic figure, and vividly intelligent, though rather sarcastic, violet eyes. This was Miss Beryl Van Tuyn. (Craven did not know who she was, though he recognized at once the erect figure, faithful, penetrating eyes and curly white hair-cauliflower hair-of the general, whom he had often seen about town and "in attendance" on royalty at functions.)

Lady Sellingworth got up to receive him. As she did so he was almost startled by her height.

She was astonishingly tall, probably well over six feet, very slim, thin even, with a small head covered with rather wavy white hair and set on a long neck, sloping shoulders, long, aristocratic hands on which she wore loose white gloves, narrow, delicate feet, very fine wrists and ankles. Her head reminded Craven of the head of a deer. As for her face, once marvellously beautiful according to the report of competent judges who had seen all the beauties of their day, it was now quite frankly a ruin, lined, fallen in here and there, haggard, drawn. Nevertheless, looking upon it, one could guess that once upon a time it must have been a face with a mobile, almost imperial, outline, perhaps almost insolently striking, the arrogant countenance of a conqueror. When gazing at it one gazed at the ruin, not of a cottage or of a gimcrack villa, but at the ruins of a palace. Lady Sellingworth's eyes were very dark and still magnificent, like two brilliant lamps in her head. A keen intelligence gazed out of them. There was often something half sad, half mocking in their expression. But Craven thought that they mocked at herself rather than at others. She was very plainly dressed in black, and her dress was very high at the neck. She wore no ornaments except a wedding ring, and two sapphires in her ears, which were tiny and beautiful.

Her greeting to Craven was very kind. He noticed at once that her manner was as natural almost as a frank, manly schoolboy's, carelessly, strikingly natural. There could never, he thought, have been a grain of affectation in her. The idea even came into his head that she was as natural as a tramp. Nevertheless the stamp of the great lady was imprinted all over her. She had a voice that was low, very sensitive and husky.

Instantly she fascinated Craven. Instantly he did not care whether she was old or young, in perfect preservation or a ruin. For she seemed to him penetratingly human, simply and absolutely herself as God had made her. And what a rare joy that was, to meet in London a woman of the great world totally devoid of the smallest shred of make-believe! Craven felt that if she appeared before her Maker she would be exactly as she was when she said how do you do to him.

She introduced him to Miss Van Tuyn and the general, made him sit

next to her, and gave him tea.

Miss Van Tuyn began talking, evidently continuing a conversation which had been checked for a moment by the arrival of Craven. She was obviously intelligent and had enormous vitality. She was also obviously preoccupied with her own beauty and with the effect it was having upon her hearers. She not only listened to herself while she spoke; she seemed also to be trying to visualize herself while she spoke. In her imagination she was certainly watching herself, and noting with interest and pleasure her young and ardent beauty, which seemed to Craven more remarkable when she was speaking than when she was silent. She must, Craven thought, often have stood before a mirror and carefully "memorized" herself in all her variety and detail. As he sat there listening he could not help comparing her exquisite bloom of youth with the ravages of time so apparent in Lady Sellingworth, and being struck by the inexorable cruelty of life. Yet there was something which persisted and over which time had no empire-charm. On that afternoon the charm of Lady Sellingworth's quiet attention to her girl visitor seemed to Craven even greater than the charm of that girl visitor's vivid vitality.

Sir Seymour, who had the self-contained and rather detached manner of the old courtier, mingled with the straight-forward self-possession of the old soldier thoroughly accustomed to dealing with men in difficult moments, threw in a word or two occasionally. Although a grave, even a rather sad-looking man, he was evidently entertained by Miss Van Tuyn's volubility and almost passionate, yet not vulgar, egoism. Probably he thought such a lovely girl had a right to admire herself. She talked of herself in modern Paris with the greatest enthusiasm, cleverly grouping Paris, its gardens, its monuments, its pictures, its brilliant men and women as a decor around the one central figure-Miss Beryl Van Tuyn.

"Why do you never come to Paris, dearest?" she presently said to Lady Sellingworth. "You used to know it so very well, didn't you?"

"Oh, yes; I had an apartment in Paris for years. But that was almost before you were born," said the husky, sympathetic voice of her hostess.

Craven glanced at her. She was smiling.

"Surely you loved Paris, didn't you?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

"Very much, and understood it very well."

"Oh-that! She understands everything, doesn't she, Sir Seymour?"

"Perhaps we ought to except mathematics and military tactics," he replied, with a glance at Lady Sellingworth half humorous, half affectionate. "But certainly everything connected with the art of living is her possession."

"And-the art of dying?" Lady Sellingworth said, with a lightly mocking sound in her voice.

Miss Van Tuyn opened her violet eyes very wide.

"But is there an art of dying? Living-yes; for that is being and is continuous. But dying is ceasing."

"And there is an art of ceasing, Beryl. Some day you may know that."

"Well, but even very old people are always planning for the future on earth. No one expects to cease. Isn't it so, Mr. Craven?"

She turned to him, and he agreed with her and instanced a certain old duchess who, at the age of eighty, was preparing for a tour round the world when influenza stepped in and carried her off, to the great vexation of Thomas Cook and Son.

"We must remember that that duchess was an American," observed Sir Seymour.

"You mean that we Americans are more determined not to cease than you English?" she asked. "That we are very persistent?"

"Don't you think so?"

"Perhaps we are."

She turned and laid a hand gently, almost caressingly, on Lady Sellingworth's.

"I shall persist until I get you over to Paris," she said. "I do want you to see my apartment, and my bronzes-particularly my bronzes. When were you last in Paris?"

"Passing through or staying-do you mean?"

"Staying."

Lady Sellingworth was silent for an instant, and Craven saw the half sad, half mocking expression in her eyes.

"I haven't stayed in Paris for ten years," she said.

She glanced at Sir Seymour, who slightly bent his curly head as if in assent.

"It's almost incredible, isn't it, Mr. Craven?" said Miss Van Tuyn. "So unlike the man who expressed a wish to be buried in Paris."

Craven remembered at that moment Braybrooke's remark in the club that Lady Sellingworth's jewelry were stolen in Paris at the Gare du Nord ten years ago. Did Miss Van Tuyn know about that? He wondered as he murmured something non-committal.

Miss Van Tuyn now tried to extract a word of honour promise from Lady Sellingworth to visit her in Paris, where, it seemed, she lived very independently with a dame de compagnie, who was always in one room with a cold reading the novels of Paul Bourget. ("Bourget keeps on writing for her!" the gay girl said, not without malice.)

But Lady Sellingworth evaded her gently.

"I'm too lazy for Paris now," she said. "I no longer care for moving about. This old town house of mine has become to me like my shell. I'm lazy, Beryl; I'm lazy. You don't know what that is; nor do you, Mr. Craven. Even you, Seymour, you don't know. For you are a man of action, and at Court there is always movement. But I, my friends-" She gave Craven a deliciously kind yet impersonal smile. "I am a contemplative. There is nothing oriental about me, but I am just a quiet British contemplative, untouched by the unrest of your age."

"But it's your age, too!" cried Miss Van Tuyn.

"No, dear. I was an Edwardian."

"I wish I had known you then!" said Miss Van Tuyn impulsively.

"You would not have known me then," returned Lady Sellingworth, with the slightest possible stress on the penultimate word.

Then she changed the conversation. Craven felt that she was not fond of talking about herself.

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