MoboReader> Literature > December Love

   Chapter 5 No.5

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 23007

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Though ordinary enough in her youthful egoism, and entirely du jour in her flagrantly shown vanity, Miss Van Tuyn, as Craven was to find out, was really something of an original. Her independence was abnormal and was mental as well as physical. She lived a life of her own, and her brain was not purely imitative. She not only acted often originally, but thought for herself. She was not merely a very pretty girl. She was somebody. And somehow she had trained people to accept her daring way of life. In Paris she did exactly what she chose, and quite openly. There was no secrecy in her methods. In London she pursued the same housetop course. She seldom troubled about a chaperon, and would calmly give a lunch at the Carlton without one if she wanted to. Indeed, she had been seen there more than once, making one of a party of six, five of whom were men. She did not care for women as a sex, and said so in the plainest language, denouncing their mentality as still afflicted by a narrowness that smacked of the harem. But for certain women she had a cult, and among these women Lady Sellingworth held a prominent, perhaps the most prominent, place.

Three days after his visit to the Hyde Park Hotel Craven, having no dinner invitation and feeling disinclined for the well-known formality of the club where he often dined, resolved to yield to a faint inclination towards a very mild Bohemianism which sometimes beset him, and made his way in a day suit to Soho seeking a restaurant. He walked first down Greek Street, then turned into Frith Street. There he peeped into two or three restaurants without making up his mind to sample their cooking, and presently was attracted by a sound of guitars giving forth with almost Neapolitan fervour the well-known tune, "O Sole Mio!" The music issued from an unpretentious building over the door of which was inscribed, "Ristorante Bella Napoli."

It was a cold, dark evening, and Craven was feeling for the moment rather depressed and lonely. The music drew his thoughts to dear Italy, to sunshine, a great blue bay, brown, half-naked fishermen pulling in nets from the deep with careless and Pagan gestures, to the thoughtless, delicious life only possible in the golden heart of the South. He did not know the restaurant, but he hesitated no longer. Never mind what the cooking was like; he would eat to the sound of those guitars which he knew were being thrummed by Italian fingers. He pushed the swing door and at once found himself in a room which seemed redolent of the country which everyone loves.

It was a narrow room, with a sanded floor and the usual small tables. The walls were painted with volcanic pictures in which Vesuvius played a principal part. Vesuvius erupted on one wall, slept in the moonlight on another, at the end of the room was decked out in all the glories of an extremely Neapolitan sunset. Upon the ceiling was Capri, stretching out from an azure sea. For the moment the guitars had ceased, but their players, swarthy, velvet eyed, and unmistakable children of Italy, sat at ease, their instruments still held in brown hands ready for further plucking of the sonorous strings. And the room was alive with the uproar of Italian voices talking their native language, with the large and unselfconscious gestures of Italian hands, with the movement of Italian heads, with the flash and sparkle of animated Italian eyes. Chianti was being drunk; macaroni, minestra, gnocchi, ravioli, abione were being eaten; here and there Toscanas were being smoked. Italy was in the warm air, and in an instant from Craven's consciousness London was blotted out.

For a moment he stood just inside the door feeling almost confused. Opposite to him was the padrona, a large and lustrous woman with sleepy, ox-like eyes, sitting behind a sort of counter. Italian girls, with coal-black hair, slipped deftly to and fro among the tables serving the customers. The musicians stared at Craven with the fixed, unwinking definiteness which the traveller from England begins to meet with soon after he passes Lugano. Where was a table for an Englishman?

"Ecco, signorino!"

An Italian girl smiled and beckoned with a sort of intimate liveliness and understanding that quite warmed Craven's heart. There was a table free, just one, under Vesuvius erupting. Craven took it, quickly ordered all the Italian dishes he could think of and a bottle of Chianti Rosso, and then looked about the long, little room. He looked-to see Italian faces, and he saw many; but suddenly, instead of merely looking, he stared. His eyelids quivered; even his lips parted. Was it possible? Yes, it was! At a table tucked into a corner by the window were sitting Beryl Van Tuyn and actually-Santa Lucia!-Lady Sellingworth! And they were both eating-what was it? Craven stretched his neck-they were both eating Risotto alla Milanese!

At this moment the guitars struck up that most Neapolitan of songs, the "Canzona di Mergellina," the smiling Italian girl popped a heaped-up plate of macaroni blushing gently with tomato sauce before Craven, and placed a straw bottle of ruby hued Chianti by the bit of bread at his left hand, and Miss Van Tuyn turned her corn-coloured head to have a good look at the room and, incidentally, to allow the room to have a good look at her.

The violet eyes, full of conscious assurance, travelled from table to table and arrived at Craven and his macaroni. She looked surprised, then sent him a brilliant smile, turned quickly and spoke to Lady Sellingworth. The latter then also looked towards Craven, smiled kindly, and bowed with the careless, haphazard grace which seemed peculiar to her.

Craven hesitated for an instant, then got up and threading his way among Italians, went to greet the two ladies. It struck him that Lady Sellingworth looked marvellously at home with her feet on the sanded floor. Could she ever be not at home anywhere? He spoke a few words, then returned to his table with Miss Van Tuyn's parting sentence in his ears; "When you have dined come and smoke your Toscana with us."

As he ate his excellently cooked meal he felt pleasantly warmed and even the least bit excited. This was a wholly unexpected encounter. To meet the old age and the radiant youth which at the moment interested him more than any other old age, any other radiant youth, in London, in these surroundings, to watch them with the music of guitars in his ears and the taste of ravioli on his lips, silently to drink to them in authentic Chianti-all this gave a savour to his evening which he had certainly not anticipated. When now and then his eyes sought the table tucked into the corner by the window, he saw his two acquaintances plunged deep in conversation. Presently Miss Van Tuyn lit a cigarette, which she smoked in the short interval between two courses. She moved, and sat in such a way that her profile was presented to the room as clearly and definitely as a profile stamped on a finely cut coin. Certainly she was marvellously good-looking. She had not only the beauty of colouring; she had also the more distinguished and lasting beauty of line.

An Italian voice near to Craven remarked loudly, with a sort of coarse sentimentality:

"Che bella ragassa!"

Another Italian voice replied:

"Ha ragione di venire qui con quella povera vecchia! Com'e brutta la vecchiezza!"

For a moment Craven felt hot with a sort of intimate anger; but the guitars began "Santa Lucia," and took him away again to Naples. And what is the use of being angry with the Italian point of view? As well be angry with the Mediterranean for being a tideless sea. But he glanced at the profile and remembered the words, and could not help wondering whether Miss Van Tuyn's cult for Lady Sellingworth had its foundations in self-love rather than in attraction to her whom Braybrooke had called "the most charming old woman in London."

Presently Miss Van Tuyn, turning three-quarters face, sent him a "coffee-look," and he saw that a coffee apparatus of the hour-glass type was being placed on the table by the window. He nodded, but held up a clean spoon to indicate that his zabaione had yet to be swallowed. She smiled, understanding, and spoke again to Lady Sellingworth. A few minutes later Craven left his table and joined them, taking his Toscana with him.

They were charmingly prepared for his advent. Three cups were on the table, and coffee for three was mounting in the hour glass. The two friends were smoking cigarettes.

As he prepared to sit down on the chair placed ready for him with his back to the window, Miss Van Tuyn said:

"One minute! Please give the musicians this!"

She put five shillings into his hand.

"And ask them to play the Sicilian Pastorale, and 'A Mezzanotte,' and the Barcarola di Sorrento, and not to play 'Funiculi, Funicula.' Do you mind?"

"Of course not! But do let me-"

"No, no! This is my little treat to Lady Sellingworth. She has never been here before."

Craven went round to the musicians and carried out his directions. As he did so he saw adoring looks of comprehension come into their dark faces, and, turning, he caught a wonderful smile that was meant for them flickering on the soft lips of Miss Van Tuyn. That smile was as provocative, as definitely full of the siren quality, as if it had dawned for the only lover, instead of for three humble Italians, "hairdressers in the daytime," as Miss Van Tuyn explained to Craven while she poured out his coffee.

"I often come here," she added. "You're surprised, I can see."

"I must say I am," said Craven. "I thought your beat lay rather in the direction of the Carlton, the Ritz, and Claridge's."

"You see how little he knows me!" she said, turning to Lady Sellingworth.

"Beryl does not always tread beaten paths," said Lady Sellingworth to Craven.

"I hate beaten paths. One meets all the dull people on them, the people who hope they are walking where everyone walks. Beaten paths are like the front at Brighton on a Sunday morning. What do you say to our coffee, dearest?"

"It is the best I have drunk for a long while outside my own house," Lady Sellingworth answered.

Then she turned to Craven.

"Are you really going to smoke a Toscana?"

"If you really don't mind? It isn't a habit with me, but I assure you I know how to do it quite adequately."

"He's an artist," said Miss Van Tuyn. "He knows it's the only cigar that really goes with Vesuvius. Do light up!"

"I'm thankful I came here to-night," he said. "I felt very dull and terrifically English, so I turned to Soho as an antidote. The guitars lured me in here. I was at the Embassy in Rome for a year. In the summer we lived at the Villa Rosebery, near Naples. Ever since that time I've had an almost childish love of guitars."

Miss Van Tuyn held up a hand and formed "Sh!" with her rosy lips.

"It's the Barcarola di Sorrento!" she whispered.

A silence fell in the narrow room. The Italian voices were hushed. The padrona dreamed behind her counter with her large arms laid upon it, like an Italian woman spread out on her balcony for an afternoon's watching of the street below her window. And Craven let himself go to the music, as so many English people only let themselves go when something Italian is calling them. On his left Miss Van Tuyn, with one arm leaning on the table, listened intently, but not so intently that she forgot to watch Craven and to keep track of his mind. On his right L

ady Sellingworth sat very still. She had put away her only half-smoked cigarette. Her eyes looked down on the table cloth. Her very tall figure was held upright, but without any stiffness. One of her hands was hidden. The other, in a long white glove, rested on the table, and presently the fingers of it began gently to close and unclose, making, as they did this, a faint shuffling noise against the cloth.

Miss Van Tuyn glanced at those fingers and then again at Craven, but for the moment he did not notice her. He was standing by the little harbour at the Villa Rosebery, looking across the bay to Capri on a warm summer evening. And the sea people were in his thoughts. How often had he envied them their lives, as men envy those whose lives are utterly different from theirs!

But presently Miss Van Tuyn's persistent and vigorous mind must have got some hold on his, for he began to remember her beauty and to feel the lure of it in the music. And then, almost simultaneously, he was conscious of Lady Sellingworth, of her old age and of her departed beauty. And he felt her loss in the music.

Could such a woman enjoy listening to such music? Must it not rather bring a subtle pain into her heart, the pain that Italy brings to her devotees, when the years have stolen from them the last possibilities of personal romance? For a moment Craven imaginatively projected himself into old age, saw himself with white hair, a lined face, heavily-veined hands, faded eyes.

But her eyes were not faded. They still shone like lamps. Was she, perhaps, the victim of a youthful soul hidden in an old body, like trembling Love caged in a decaying tabernacle from which it could not escape?

He looked up. At the same moment Lady Sellingworth looked up. Their eyes met. She smiled faintly, and her eyes mocked something or someone; fate, perhaps, him, or herself. He did not know what or whom they mocked.

The music stopped, and, after some applause, conversation broke out again.

"Have you given up Italy as you have given up Paris?" Miss Van Tuyn asked of Lady Sellingworth.

"Oh, yes, long ago. I only go to Aix now for a cure, and sometimes in the early spring to Cap Martin."

"The hotel?"

"Yes; the hotel. I like the pine woods."

"So do I. But, to my mind, there's no longer a vestige of real romance on the French Riviera. Too many grand dukes have passed over it."

Lady Sellingworth laughed.

"But I don't seek romance when I leave London."

"No?"

She looked oddly doubtful for a moment. Then she said:

"Mr. Craven, will you tell us the truth?"

"It depends. What about?"

"Oh, a very simple matter."

"I'll do my best, but all men are liars."

"We only ask you to do your best."

"We!" he said, with a glance at Lady Sellingworth.

"Yes-yes," she said. "I go solid with my sex."

"Then-what is it?"

"Do you ever go travelling-ever, without a secret hope of romance meeting you on your travels, somewhere, somehow, wonderfully, suddenly? Do you?"

He thought for a moment. Then he said:

"Honestly, I don't think I ever do."

"There!" said Miss Van Tuyn triumphantly. "Nor do I."

She looked half defiantly, half inquisitively at Lady Sellingworth.

"My dear Beryl!" said the latter, "for all these lacks in your temperament you must wait."

"Wait? For how long?"

"Till you are fifty, perhaps."

"I know I shall want romance at fifty."

"Let us say sixty, then."

"Or," interrupted Craven, "until you are comfortably married."

"Comfortably married!" she cried. "Quelle horreur!"

"I had no idea Americans were so romantic," said Lady Sellingworth, with just a touch of featherweight malice.

"Americans! I believe the longing for romance covers both sexes and all the human race."

She let her eyes go into Craven's.

"Only up till a certain age," said Lady Sellingworth. "When we love to sit by the fire, we can do very well without it. But we must be careful to lay up treasure for our old age, mental treasure. We must cultivate tastes and habits which have nothing to do with wildness. A man in Sorrento taught me about that."

"A man in Sorrento!" said Miss Van Tuyn, suddenly and sharply on the alert.

"Yes. He was a famous writer, and had, I dare say, been a famous lover in his time. One day, as we drove beyond the town towards the hills, he described to me the compensations old age holds for sensible people. It's a question of cultivating and preparing the mind, of filling the storehouse against the day of famine. He had done it, and assured me that he didn't regret his lost youth or sigh after its unrecoverable pleasures. He had accustomed his mind to its task."

"What task, dearest?"

"Acting in connexion with the soul-his word that-as a thoroughly efficient substitute for his body as a pleasure giver."

At this moment the adoring eyes of the three musicians who were "hairdressers in the daytime" focussed passionately upon Miss Van Tuyn, distracted her attention. She felt masculinity intent upon her and responded automatically.

"The dear boys! They are asking if they shall play the Pastorale for me. Look at their eyes!" she said.

Craven did not bother to do that, but looked instead at hers, wondering a little at her widespread energy in net casting. Was it possible that once Lady Sellingworth had been like that, ceaselessly on the lookout for worship, requiring it as a right, even from men who were hairdressers in the daytime? As the musicians began to play he met her eyes again and felt sure that it could not have been so. Whatever she had done, whatever she had been, she could never have frequented the back stairs. That thought seemed a rather cruel thrust at Miss Van Tuyn. But there is a difference in vanities. Wonderful variety of nature!

When the players had finished the Pastorale and "A Mezzanotte," and had been rewarded by a long look of thanks from Miss Van Tuyn which evidently drove them over the borders of admiration into the regions of unfulfilled desire, Lady Sellingworth said she must go. And then an unexpected thing happened. It appeared that Miss Van Tuyn had asked a certain famous critic, who though English by birth was more Parisian than most French people, to call for her at the restaurant and take her on to join a party at the Cafe Royal. She, therefore, could not go yet, and she begged Lady Sellingworth to stay on and to finish up the evening in the company of Georgians at little marble tables. But Lady Sellingworth laughingly jibbed at the Cafe Royal.

"I should fall out of my assiette there!" she said.

"But no one is ever surprised at the Cafe Royal, dearest. It is the one place in London where-Ah! here is Jennings come to fetch us!"

A very small man, with a pointed black beard and wandering green eyes, wearing a Spanish sombrero and a black cloak, and carrying an ebony stick nearly as tall as himself, at this moment slipped furtively into the room, and, without changing his delicately plaintive expression, came up to Miss Van Tuyn and ceremoniously shook hands with her.

Lady Sellingworth looked for a moment at Craven.

"May I escort you home?" he said. "At any rate, let me get you a taxi."

"Lady Sellingworth, may I introduce Ambrose Jennings," said Miss Van Tuyn in a rather firm voice at this moment.

Lady Sellingworth bent kindly to the little man far down below her. After a word or two she said:

"Now I must go."

"Must you really? Then Mr. Craven will get you a taxi."

"If it's fine, I will walk. It seems more suitable to walk home after dining here."

"Walk! Then let us all walk together, and we'll persuade you into the Cafe Royal."

"Dick Garstin will be there," said Ambrose Jennings in a frail voice, "Enid Blunt, a Turkish refugee from Smyrna who writes quite decent verse, Thapoulos, Penitence Murray, who is just out of prison, and Smith the sculptor, with his mistress, a round-faced little Russian girl. She's the dearest little Bolshevik I know."

He looked plaintively yet critically at Lady Sellingworth, and pulled his little black beard with fingers covered with antique rings.

"Dear little bloodthirsty thing!" he added to Lady Sellingworth. "You would like her. I know it."

"I'm sure I should. There is something so alluring about Bolshevism when it's safely tucked up at the Cafe Royal. But I will only walk to the door."

"And then Mr. Craven will get you a taxi," said Miss Van Tuyn. "Shall we go?"

They fared forth into the London night-Craven last.

He realized that Miss Van Tuyn had made up her mind to keep both him and Jennings as her possessions of the evening, and to send Lady Sellingworth, if she would go home early, back to Berkeley Square without an escort. Her cult for her friend, though doubtless genuine, evidently weakened when there was any question of the allegiance of men. Craven made up his mind that he would not leave Lady Sellingworth until they were at the door of Number 18A, Berkeley Square.

In the street he found himself by the side of Miss Van Tuyn, behind Lady Sellingworth and Ambrose Jennings, who were really a living caricature as they proceeded through the night towards Shaftesbury Avenue. The smallness of Jennings, accentuated by his bat-like cloth cloak, his ample sombrero and fantastically long stick, made Lady Sellingworth look like a moving tower as she walked at his side, like a leaning tower when she bent graciously to catch the murmur of his persistent conversation. And as over the theatres in letters of fire were written the names of the stars in the London firmament-Marie Lohr, Moscovitch, Elsie Janis-so over, all over, Lady Sellingworth seemed to be written for Craven to read: "I am really not a Bohemian."

"Do you genuinely wish Lady Sellingworth to finish the evening at the Cafe Royal?" he asked of his companion.

"Yes. They would love her there. She would bring a new note."

"Probably. But would she love them?"

"I don't think you quite understand her," said Miss Van Tuyn.

"I'm quite sure I don't. Still-"

"In past years I am certain she has been to all the odd cafes of Paris."

"Perhaps. But one changes. And you yourself said there were-or was it had been?-two Adela Sellingworths, and that you only knew one."

"Yes. But perhaps at the Cafe Royal I should get to know the other."

"May she not be dead?"

"I have a theory that nothing of us really dies while we live. Our abode changes. We know that. But I believe the inhabitant is permanent. We are what we were, with, of course, innumerable additions brought to us by the years. For instance, I believe that Lady Sellingworth now is what she was, to all intents and purposes, with additions which naturally have made great apparent changes in her. An old moss-covered house, overgrown with creepers, looks quite different from the same house when it is new and bare. But go inside-the rooms are the same, and under the moss and the creepers are the same walls."

"It may be so. But what a difference the moss and the creepers make. Some may be climbing roses."

Craven felt the shrewd girlish eyes were looking at him closely.

"In her case some of them certainly are!" she said. "Oh, do look at them turning the corner! If Cirella were here he would have a subject for one of his most perfect caricatures. It is the leaning tower of Pisa with a bat."

The left wing of Ambrose Jennings's cloak flew out as he whirled into Regent Street by Lady Sellingworth's side.

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