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   Chapter 8 No.8

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 9414

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Craven realized that he had "given himself away" directly Braybrooke was gone. The two empty glasses stood on a low table in front of his chair. He looked at them and for an instant was filled with anger against himself. To be immortal-he was old-fashioned enough to believe surreptitiously in his own immortality-and yet to be deflected from the straight path of good sense by a couple of dry Martinis! It was humiliating, and he raged against himself.

Braybrooke had certainly gone away thinking that he, Craven, had fallen in love with Lady Sellingworth. That thought, too, might possibly have come out of one of those little glasses, the one on the left. But nevertheless it would stick in Braybrooke's mind long after the Martinis were forgotten.

And what if it did?

Craven said that to himself, but he felt far less defiant than sensitively uncomfortable. He was surprised by himself. Evidently he had not known his own feelings. When Braybrooke mentioned Seymour Portman as a suitable husband for Lady Sellingworth something strong, almost violent, had risen up in Craven to protest. What was that? And why was he suddenly so angry? He was surely not going to make a fool of himself. He felt almost youthfully alarmed and also rather excited. An odd sense of romance suddenly floated about him. Did that too come from those cursed dry Martinis? Impossible to be sure for the moment. He found himself wondering whether teetotallers knew more about their souls than moderate drinkers, or less.

But the odd sense of romance persisted when the effect of the dry Martinis must certainly have worn off. It was something such as Craven had never known, or even imagined before. He had had his little adventures, and about them had thrown the woven robes that gleam with prismatic colours; he had even had deeper, passionate episodes-as he thought them-in his life. As he had acknowledged in the Ristorante Bella Napoli he had seldom or never started on a journey abroad without a secret hope of romance meeting him on the way. And sometimes it had met him. Or so he had believed at the time. But in all these episodes of the past there had been something definitely physical, something almost horribly natural, a prompting of the body, the kind of thing which belongs to youth, any youth, and which any doctor could explain in a few crude words. Even then, in those now dead moments, Craven had sometimes felt sensitive youth's impotent anger at being under the yoke which is laid upon the necks of innumerable others, clever, dull, aristocratic, common, the elect and the hopelessly vulgar.

In this new episode he was emancipated from that. He was able to feel that he was peculiar, if not unique. In the strong attraction which drew him towards Lady Sellingworth there was certainly nothing of the-well, to himself he called it "the medically physical." Something of the body there might possibly be. Indeed, perhaps it was impossible that there should not be. But the predominant factor had nothing whatever to do with the body. He felt certain of that.

When he got home from the Club he found on his table a note from Beryl Van Tuyn:

HYDE PARK HOTEL, Thursday.

My dear Mr. Craven,-What a pity you couldn't get away last night. But you were quite right to play Squire of Dames to our dear Lady Sellingworth. We had a rather wonderful evening after you had gone. Dick Garstin was in his best vein. Green chartreuse brings out his genius in a wonderful way. I wish it would do for me what it does for him. But I have tried it-in small doses-quite in vain. He and I walked home together and talked of everything under the stars. I believe he is going to paint me. Next time you make your way to the Bella Napoli we might go together. Two lovers of Italy must always feel at home there, and the sight of Vesuvius is encouraging, I think. So don't forget that my "beat," as you call it, often lies in Soho.

Isn't dear Adela Sellingworth delightful? She looked like a wonderful antique in that Italian frame. I love every line in her face and would give my best bronze to have white hair like hers. But somehow I am almost glad she didn't fall to the Cafe Royal. She is right. It is too Georgian for her. She is, as she says, definitely Edwardian and would scarcely understand the new jargon which comes as easily as how d'you do to our lips.

By the way, coming out of the Cafe Royal last night I saw a living bronze.-Yours,

BERYL VAN TUYN.

This note half amused and half irritated Craven on a first reading. On a second reading irritation predominated in him. Miss Van Tuyn's determined relegation of Lady Sellingworth to the past seemed somehow to strike at him, to make h

im-or to intend to make him-ridiculous; and her deliberate classing of him with herself in the underlined "our" seemed rather like an attempt to assert authority, the authority of youth over him. But no doubt this was very natural. Craven was quite sure that Miss Van Tuyn cared nothing about him. But he was a not disagreeable and quite presentable young man; he had looked into her violet eyes, had pressed her hand, had held it longer than was at all necessary, had in fact shown that he was just a young man and easily susceptible; and so she did not choose to let an elderly woman take possession of him even for an hour without sharpening a weapon or two and bringing them into use.

No wonder that men are conceited when women so swiftly take up arms on their account!

For a moment Craven almost disliked Miss Van Tuyn, and made up his mind that there would be no "next time" for him in Soho while she was in London. He knew that whenever they met he would feel her attraction; but he now classed it with those attractions of the past which were disgustingly explicable, and which just recently he had learnt to understand in a way that was almost old.

Was he putting on horn spectacles while his eyesight was still unimpaired? He felt doubtful, almost confused for a moment. Was his new feeling for Lady Sellingworth subtly pulling him away from his youth? Where was he going? Perhaps this new sensation of movement was only deceptive; perhaps he was not on the way to an unknown region. For a moment he wished that he could talk freely, openly, with some understanding friend, a man of course. But though he had plenty of men friends he could not think of one he would be able to confide his present feelings to.

Already he began to realize the human ridicule which always attends upon any departure from what, according to the decision of all absolutely ordinary people, is strictly normal.

Everybody would understand and approve if he were to fall desperately in love with Beryl Van Tuyn; but if he were to prefer a great friendship with Lady Sellingworth to a love affair with her youthful and beautiful friend no one would understand, and everybody would be ready to laugh and condemn.

He knew this and yet he felt obstinate, mulish almost, as he sat down to reply non-committally to Miss Van Tuyn's letter. It was only when he did this that he thought seriously about its last words.

Why had she troubled to write them down? Comparatively young though he was he knew that a woman's "by the way" usually means anything rather than what it seems to mean-namely, a sentence thrown out by chance because it has just happened to turn up in the mind. "A living bronze." Miss Van Tuyn was exceptionally fond of bronzes and collected them with enthusiasm. She knew of course the Museum at Naples. Craven had often visited it when he had been staying at the Villa Rosebery. He could remember clearly almost every important bronze in that wonderful collection. He realized what "a living bronze" must mean when written of by a woman. Miss Van Tuyn had evidently seen an amazingly handsome man coming out of the Cafe Royal. But why should she tell him about it? Perhaps her motive was the very ordinary one, an attempt to rouse the swift jealousy of the male animal. She was certainly "up" to all the usual feminine tricks. He thoroughly realized her vanity and, contrasting it with Lady Sellingworth's apparently almost careless lack of self-consciousness, he wondered whether Lady Sellingworth could ever have been what she was said to have been. If so, as a snake sheds its skin she must surely have sloughed her original nature. He was thankful for that, thankful for her absolute lack of pose and vanity. He even delighted in her self-mockery, divined by him. So few women mocked at themselves and so many mocked at others.

If Miss Van Tuyn had intended to give a flick to his jealousy at the end of her letter she had failed. If she met fifty living bronzes and added them to her collection it was nothing to him. He compared his feeling when Braybrooke had suggested Seymour Portman as a husband for Lady Sellingworth with his lack of feeling about Miss Van Tuyn and her bronze, and he was almost startled. And yet Miss Van Tuyn was lovely and certainly did not want him to go quite away out of her ken. And, when she chose, she had made him very foolish about her.

What did it all mean?

He wrote a little letter in answer to hers, charmingly polite, but rather vague about Soho. At the end of it, before signing himself "Yours"-he could do no less with her letter before him-he put, "I feel rather intrigued about the living bronze. Was it in petticoats or trousers?"

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