MoboReader> Literature > December Love

   Chapter 12 No.12

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 48882

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Two days after the visit of Arabian to Dick Garstin's studio Lady Sellingworth received a note from Francis Braybrooke, who invited her to dine with him at the Carlton on the following evening, and to visit a theatre afterwards. "Our young friends, Beryl Van Tuyn and Alick Craven" would be of the party, he hoped. Lady Sellingworth had no engagement. She seldom left home in the evening. Yet she hesitated to accept this invitation. She had not seen Miss Van Tuyn since the evening in Soho, nor Braybrooke since his visit to Berkeley Square to tell her about his trip to Paris, but she had seen Craven three times, and each time alone. Their intimacy had deepened with a rapidity which now almost startled her as she thought of it, holding Braybrooke's unanswered note. Already it seemed very strange to recall the time when she had not known Craven, when she had never seen him, had never heard of him. Sixty years she had lived without this young man in her life. She could hardly believe that. And now, with this call to meet him in public, before very watchful eyes, and in the company of two people who she was sure were in different ways hostile to her intimacy with him, she felt the cold touch of fear. And she doubted what course to take.

She wondered why Braybrooke had asked her and suspected a purpose. In a moment she believed that she had guessed what that purpose was. Braybrooke was meditating a stroke against her. She had felt that in her drawing-room with him. For some reason-perhaps only that of a social busybody-he wanted to bring about a match between Craven and Miss Van Tuyn. He had said with emphasis that Craven had almost raved about the lovely American. Lady Sellingworth did not believe that assertion. She felt sure that when he had made it Braybrooke had told her a lie. Craven had amply proved to her his indifference towards Miss Van Tuyn. Braybrooke's lie surely indicated a desire to detach his old friend's attention from the young man he had introduced into her life, and must mean that he was a little afraid of her influence. It had been practically a suggestion to her that youth triumphant must win in any battle with old age; yet it had implied a doubt, if not an actual uneasiness. And now came this invitation to meet "our young friends." Lady Sellingworth thought of the contrast between herself and Beryl Van Tuyn. She had not worried about it in the Bella Napoli when she and the young friends were together. But now-things were different now. She had, or believed she had, something to lose. And she did not want to lose it. It would be horrible to lose it!

Perhaps Braybrooke wished Craven to see her with Beryl Van Tuyn in the glare of electric light. Perhaps that was the reason of this unexpected invitation. If so, it was an almost diabolically cruel reason.

She resolved to refuse the invitation. But again a voice through the telephone caused her to change her mind. And again it was Craven's voice. It asked her whether she had received an invitation from Braybrooke, and on her replying that she had, it begged her to accept it if she had not done so already. And she yielded. If Craven wished her to go she would go. Why should she be afraid? In her ugliness surely she triumphed as no beauty could ever triumph. She told herself that and for a moment felt reassured, more than reassured, safe and happy. For the inner thing, the dweller in the temple, felt that it, and it alone, was exercising intimate power. But then a look into the glass terrified her. And she sat down and wrote two notes. One was to Francis Braybrooke accepting the invitation; the other was to a man with a Greek name and was addressed to a house in South Moulton Street.

Francis Braybrooke felt rather uneasy about his party when the day came, but he was a man of the world, and resolved to "put a good face on it." No more social catastrophes for him! Another fiasco would, he was certain, destroy his nerve and render him quite unfit to retain his place in society. He pulled himself together, using his will to the uttermost, and dressed for dinner with a still determination to carry things through with a high hand. The worst of it was that he had an uneasy feeling-quite uncalled for, he was sure of that-of being a false friend. For Lady Sellingworth was his friend. He had known her for many years, whereas Craven and Beryl Van Tuyn were comparatively new-comers in his life. And yet he was engaged in something not quite unlike a conspiracy against this old friend. Craven had said she was lonely. Perhaps that was true. Women who lived by themselves generally felt lonelier than men in a like situation. Craven, perhaps, was bringing a little solace into this lonely life. And now he, Braybrooke, was endeavouring to make an end of that solace. For he quite understood that, women being as they are, a strong friendship between Adela Sellingworth and Craven was quite incompatible with a love affair between Craven and Beryl Van Tuyn. He hoped he was not a traitor as he carefully arranged his rather large tie. But anything was better than a tragedy. And with women of Adela Sellingworth's reputed temperament one never knew quite what might happen. Her emergence, after ten years, into Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho had severely shaken Braybrooke's faith in her sobriety, fostered though it had been, created even, by her ten years of distinguished retirement. Damped-down fires sometimes blaze forth unexpectedly and rage with fury. He hoped he was doing the right thing. Anyhow, it was not his fault that Lady Sellingworth was to be of his party tonight. Miss Van Tuyn was responsible for that.

He rang the bell, which was answered by his valet.

"Please fetch the theatre ticket, Walter. It is in the drawer of my writing-table in the library. A box for the Shaftesbury Theatre."

"Yes, sir."

Walter went out and returned in a moment with the ticket. He was an old servant and occasionally exchanged ideas with his master. As he gave Braybrooke the envelope containing the ticket, he said:

"A very remarkable play, sir. I think you will enjoy it."

"What! Have you seen it?"

"Yes, sir, The Great Lover. My wife would go. She liked the name, sir. About a singer, sir, who kept on loving like a young man when the age for it was really what one might call over, sir. But it seems that for some it never is over, sir."

"Good heavens, have I done the wrong thing again?" thought Braybrooke, who had chosen the play almost at random, without knowing much about it except that an actor unknown to him, one Moscovitch, was said to be very fine in it.

"How old is the singer?" he inquired anxiously.

"I couldn't say for certain, sir. But somewhere in the forties, I should think, and nearing fifty. He loses his voice, sir, but still answers to young women at the telephone."

"Dear! Dear!"

"But as my wife says, sir, with a man it's not such a great matter. But with a woman-well!"

He pursed his narrow lips and half-shut his small grey eyes.

"Ah!" said Braybrooke, feeling extremely uncomfortable. "Good night, Walter. You needn't sit up."

"Thank you, sir. Good night, sir."

"Really the evil eye must have looked at me!" thought Braybrooke, as he went downstairs. "I'm thoroughly out of luck."

He arrived in good time at the Carlton and waited for his guests in the Palm Court. Craven was the first to arrive. He looked cheerful and eager as he came in, and, Braybrooke thought, very young and handsome. He had got away from the F. O. that afternoon, he said, and had been down at Beaconsfield playing golf. Apparently his game had been unusually good and that fact had put him into spirits.

"There's nothing like being in form with one's drive for bucking one up!" he acknowledged.

And he broke out into an almost boyish paean in praise of golf.

"But I always thought you preferred lawn tennis!" said Braybrooke.

"Oh, I don't know! Yes, I'm as keen as ever on tennis, but anyone can play golf. Mrs. Sandhurst was out to-day playing a splendid game, and she's well over sixty. That's the best of golf. People can play, and play decently, too, up to almost any age."

"Well, but my dear boy you're not in the sixties yet!"

"No. But I wasn't thinking about myself."

Braybrooke looked at him rather narrowly, and wondered of whom he had been thinking. But he said nothing more, for at this moment Miss Van Tuyn appeared in the doorway at the end of the court. Braybrooke went to meet her, but Craven stayed were he was.

"Is Adela Sellingworth coming?" she asked instantly, as Braybrooke took her hand.

"She promised to come. I'm expecting her."

He made a movement, but she stood still, though they where close to the doorway.

"And what are we going to see?"

"A play called The Great Lover. Here is Alick Craven."

At this moment Craven joined them. Seeing Miss Van Tuyn standing still with a certain obstinacy he came up and took her hand.

"Nice to meet you again," he said.

Braybrooke thought of Miss Van Tuyn's remark about the Foreign Office manner, and hoped Craven was going to be at his best that evening. It seemed to him that there was a certain dryness in the young people's greeting. Miss Van Tuyn was looking lovely, and almost alarmingly youthful and self-possessed, in a white dress. Craven, fresh from his successes at golf, looked full of the open-air spirit and the robustness of the galloping twenties. In appearance the two were splendidly matched. The faint defiance which Braybrooke thought he detected in their eyes suited them both, giving to them just a touch of the arrogance which youth and health render charming, but which in old people is repellent and ugly. They wore it like a feather set at just the right rakish angle in a cap. Nevertheless, this slight dryness must be got rid of if the evening were to be a success, and Braybrooke set himself to the task of banishing it. He talked of golf. Like many American girls, Miss Van Tuyn was at home in most sports and games. She was a good whip, a fine skater and lawn tennis player, had shot and hunted in France, liked racing, and had learnt to play golf on the links at Cannes when she was a girl of fifteen. But to-night she was not enthusiastic about golf, perhaps because Craven was. She said it was an irritating game, that playing it much always gave people a worried look, that a man who had sliced his first drive was a bore for the rest of the day, that a woman whom you beat in a match tried to do you harm as long as you and she lived. Finally she said it was certainly a fine game, but a game for old people. Craven protested, but she held resolutely to her point. In other games-except croquet, which she frankly loathed in spite of its scientific possibilities-you moved quickly, were obliged to be perpetually on the alert. In tennis and lawn tennis, in racquets, in hockey, in cricket, you never knew what was going to happen, when you might have to do something, or make a swift movement, a dash here or there, a dive, a leap, a run. But in golf half your time was spent in solemnly walking-toddling, she chose to call it-from point to point. This was, no doubt, excellent for the health, but she preferred swiftness. But then she was only a light-footed girl, not an elderly statesman.

"When I play golf much I always begin to feel like a gouty Prime Minister who has been ordered to play for the good of the country," she said. "But when I'm an old woman I shall certainly play regularly for the sake of my figure and my complexion. When I am sixty you will probably see me every day on the links."

Braybrooke saw a cloud float over Craven's face as she said this, but it vanished as he looked away towards the hall. There, through the glass of the dividing screen, Lady Sellingworth's tall and thin figure, wrapped in a long cloak of dark fur, was visible, going with her careless, trampish walk to the ladies' cloak-room.

"Ah, there is Adela Sellingworth!" said Braybrooke.

Miss Van Tuyn turned quickly, with a charming, youthful grace, made up of a suppleness and litheness which suggested almost the movement of a fluid. Craven noted it with a little thrill of unexpected pleasure, against which an instant later something in him rebelled.

"Where is she?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

"She's just gone into the ladies' cloak-room," answered Braybrooke.

"But not to powder her face!" said Miss Van Tuyn. "She keeps us waiting, like the great prima donna in a concert, just long enough to give a touch of excitement to her appearance. Dear Lady Sellingworth! She has a wonderful knowledge of just how to do things. That only comes out of a vast experience."

"Or-don't you think that kind of thing may be instinctive?" said Craven.

She sought his eyes with a sort of soft hardihood which was very alluring.

"Women are not half as instinctive as men think them," she said. "I'll tell you a little secret. They calculate more than a senior wrangler does."

"Now you are maligning yourself," he said, smiling.

"No. For I haven't quite got to the age of calculation yet."

"Oh-I see."

"Here she comes!" said Braybrooke.

And he went towards the door, leaving "our young friends" for a moment.

"But what has she done to herself?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

"Done! Lady Sellingworth?"

"Yes. Or is it only her hair?"

Craven wondered, too, as Lady Sellingworth joined them, accompanied by her host. For there was surely some slight, and yet definite, change in her appearance. She looked, he thought, younger, brighter, more vivid than she generally looked. Her white hair certainly was arranged differently from the way he was now accustomed to. It seemed thicker; there seemed to be more of it than usual. It looked more alive, too, and it marked in, he thought, an exquisite way the beautiful shape of her head. A black riband was cleverly entangled in it, and a big diamond shone upon the riband in front above her white forehead, weary with the years, but uncommonly expressive. She wore black as usual, and had another broad black riband round her throat with a fine diamond broach fastened to it. Her gown was slightly open at the front. There were magnificent diamond earrings in her ears. They made Craven think of the jewels stolen long ago at the station in Paris. This evening the whiteness of her hair seemed wonderful, as the whiteness of thickly powdered hair sometimes seems. And her eyes beneath it were amazingly vivid, startlingly alive in their glancing brightness. They looked careless and laughingly self-possessed as she came up to greet the girl and young man, matching delightfully her careless and self-possessed movement.

At that moment Craven realized, as he had certainly never realized before, what a beauty-in his mind he said what a "stunning beauty"-Lady Sellingworth must once have been. Even her face seemed to him in some way altered to-night, though he could not have told how.

Certainly she looked younger than usual. He was positive of that: still positive when he saw her standing by Miss Van Tuyn and taking her hand. Then she turned to him and gave him a friendly and careless, almost haphazard, greeting, still smiling and looking ready for anything. And then at once they went into the restaurant up the broad steps. And Craven noticed that everyone they passed by glanced at Lady Sellingworth.

At that moment he felt very proud of her friendship. He even felt a touch of romance in it, of a strange and unusual romance far removed from the sort of thing usually sung of by poets and written of by novelists.

"She is unusual!" he thought. "And so am I; and our friendship is unusual too. There has never before been anything quite like it."

And he glowed with a warming sense of difference from ordinary life.

But Miss Van Tuyn was claiming his urgent attention, and a waiter was giving him Whitstable oysters, and Chablis was being poured into his glass, and the band was beginning to play a selection from the music of Grieg, full of the poetry and the love of the North, where deep passions come out of the snows and last often longer than the loves of the South. He must give himself up to it all, and to the wonderful white-haired woman, too, with the great diamonds gleaming in her ears.

It really was quite a buoyant dinner, and Braybrooke began to feel more at ease. He had told them all where they were going afterwards, but had said nothing about Walter's description of the play. None of them had seen it, but Craven seemed to know all about it, and said it was an entertaining study of life behind the scenes at the opera, with a great singer as protagonist.

"He was drawn, I believe, from a famous baritone."

During a great part of her life Lady Sellingworth had been an ardent lover of the opera, and she had known many of the leading singers in Paris and London.

"They always seemed to me to be torn by jealousy," she said, "and often to suffer from the mania of persecution! Really, they are like a race apart."

And the conversation turned to jealousy. Braybrooke said he had never suffered from it, did not know what it was. And they smiled at him, and told him that then he could have no temperament. Craven declared that he believed almost the whole human race knew the ugly intimacies of jealousy in some form or other.

"And yourself?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

"I!" he said, and looking up saw Lady Sellingworth's brilliant eyes fixed on him.

"Do you know them?"

"I have felt jealousy certainly, but never yet as I could feel it."

"What! You are conscious of a great capacity for feeling jealous, a capacity which has never yet had its full fling?" said the girl.

"Yes," he said.

And his lips were smiling, but there was a serious look in his eyes.

And they discussed the causes of jealousy.

"We shall see it to-night on the stage in its professional form," said Craven.

"And that is the least forgivable form," said Lady Sellingworth. "Jealousy which is not bound up with the affections is a cold and hideous thing. But I cannot understand a love which is incapable of jealousy. In fact, I don't think I could believe it to be love at all."

This remark, coming from those lips, surprised Braybrooke. For Lady Sellingworth was not wont to turn any talk in which she took part upon questions concerned with the heart. He had frequently noticed her apparent aversion from all topics connected with deep feeling. To-night, it seemed, this aversion had died out of her.

In answer to the last remark Miss Van Tuyn said:

"Then, dear, you rule out perfect trust in a matter of love, do you? All the sentimentalists say that perfect love breeds perfect trust. If that is so, how can great lovers be jealous? For jealousy, I suppose-I have never felt it myself in that way-is born out of doubt, but can never exist side by side with complete confidence."

"Ah! But Beryl, in how many people in the course of a lifetime can one have complete confidence I have scarcely met one. What do you say?"

She turned her head towards Braybrooke. He looked suddenly rather plaintive, like a man who realizes unexpectedly how lonely he is.

"Oh, I hope I know a few such people," he rejoined rather anxiously. "I have been very lucky in my friends. And I like to think the best of people."

"That is kind," said Lady Sellingworth. "But I prefer to know the truth of people. And I must say I think most of us are quicksands. The worst of it is that so often when we do for a moment feel we are on firm ground we find it either too hard for our feet or too flat for our liking."

At that moment she thought of Sir Seymour Portman.

"You think it is doubt which breeds fascination?" said Craven.

"Alas for us if it is so," she answered, smiling.

"The human race is a very unsatisfactory race," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I am only twenty-four and have found that out already. It is very clever of the French to cultivate irony as they do. The ironist always wears clothes and an undershirt of mail. But the sentimentalist goes naked in the east wind which blows through society. Not only is he bound to take cold, but he is liable to be pierced by every arrow that flies."

"Yes, it is wise to cultivate irony," said Lady Sellingworth.

"You have," said Miss Van Tuyn. "One often sees it in your eyes. Isn't it true?"

She turned to Craven; but he did not choose to agree with her.

"I'm a sentimentalist," he said firmly. "And I never look about for irony. Perhaps that's why I have not found it in Lady Sellingworth."

Miss Van Tuyn sent him a glance which said plainly, but prettily, "You humbug!" But he did not mind. Once he had discussed Lady Sellingworth with Miss Van Tuyn. They had wondered about her together. They had even talked about her mystery. But that seemed to Craven a long time ago. Now he would far rather discuss Miss Van Tuyn with Lady Sellingworth than discuss Lady Sellingworth with Miss Van Tuyn. So he would not even acknowledge that he had noticed the mocking look in Lady Sellingworth's eyes. Already he had the feeling of a friend who does not care to dissect the mentality and character of his friend with another. Something in him even had an instinct to protect Lady Sellingworth from Miss Van Tuyn. That was surely absurd; unless, indeed, age always needs protection from the cruelty of youth.

Francis Braybrooke began to speak about Paris, and again Miss Van Tuyn said that she would never rest till she had persuaded Lady Sellingworth to renew her acquaintance with that intense and apparently light-hearted city, which contains so many secret terrors.

"You will come some day," she said, with a sort of almost ruthless obstinacy.

"Why not?" said Lady Sellingworth. "I have been very happy in Paris."

"And yet you have deserted it for years and years! You are an enigma. Isn't she, Mr. Braybrooke?"

Before Braybrooke had time to reply to this direct question an interruption occurred. Two ladies, coming in to dinner accompanied by two young men, paused by Braybrooke's table, and someone said in a clear, hard voice:

"What a dinky little party! And where are you all going afterwards?"

Craven and Braybrooke got up to greet two famous members of the "old guard," Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde. Lady Sellingworth and Miss Van Tuyn turned in their chairs, and for a moment there was a little disjointed conversation, in the course of which it came out that this quartet, too, was bound for the Shaftesbury Theatre.

"You are coming out of your shell, Adela! Better late than never!" said Lady Wrackley to Lady Sellingworth, while Miss Van Tuyn quietly collected the two young men, both of whom she knew, with her violet eyes. "I hear of you all over the place."

She glanced penetratingly at Craven with her carefully made-up eyes, which were the eyes of a handsome and wary bird. Her perfectly arranged hair was glossy brown, with glints in it like the colour of a horse-chestnut. She showed her wonderful teeth in the smile which came like a sudden gleam of electric light, and went as if a hand had turned back the switch.

"I'm becoming dissipated," said Lady Sellingworth. "Three evenings out in one month! If I have one foot in the grave, I shall have the other in the Shaftesbury Theatre to-night."

One of the young men, a fair, horsey-looking boy, with a yellow moustache, a turned-up nose, and an almost abnormally impudent and larky expression, laughed in a very male and soldierly way; the other, who was dark, with a tall figure and severe grey eyes, looked impenetrably grave and absent minded.

"Well, I shall die if I don't have a good dinner at once," said Mrs. Ackroyde. "Is that a Doucet frock, Beryl?"

"No. Count Kalinsky designed it."

"Oh-Igor Kalinsky! Adela, we are in Box B. We must have a powwow between the acts."

She looked from Lady Sellingworth to Craven and back again. Short, very handsome, always in perfect health, with brows and eyes which somehow suggested a wild creature, she had an honest and quite unaffected face. Her manner was bold and direct. There was something lasting-some said everlasting-in her atmosphere.

"I cannot conceive of London without Dindie Ackroyde," said Braybrooke, as Mrs. Ackroyde led the way to the next table and sat down opposite to Craven.

And they began to talk about people. Craven said

very little. Since the arrival of the other quartet he had begun to feel sensitively uncomfortable. He realized that already his new friendship for Lady Sellingworth had "got about," though how he could not imagine. He was certain that the "old guard" were already beginning to talk of Addie Sellingworth's "new man." He had seen awareness, that strange feminine interest which is more than half hostile, in the eyes of both Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde. Was it impossible, then, in this horrible whispering gallery of London, to have any privacy of the soul? (He thought that his friendship really had something of the soul in it.) He felt stripped by the eyes of those two women at the neighbouring table, and he glanced at Lady Sellingworth almost furtively, wondering what she was feeling. But she looked exactly as usual, and was talking with animation, and he realized that her long habit of the world enabled her to wear a mask at will. Or was she less sensitive in such matters than he was?

"How preoccupied you are!" said Miss Van Tuyn's voice in his ear. "You see I was right. Golf ruins the social qualities in a man."

Then Craven resolutely set himself to be sociable. He even acted a part, still acutely conscious of the eyes of the "old guard," and almost made love to Miss Van Tuyn, as a man may make love at a dinner table. He was sure Lady Sellingworth would not misunderstand him. Whether Miss Van Tuyn misunderstood him or not did not matter to him at that moment. He saw her beauty clearly; he was able to note all the fluid fascination of her delicious youthfulness; the charm of it went to him; and yet he felt no inclination to waver in his allegiance to Lady Sellingworth. It was as if a personality enveloped him, held his senses as well as his mind in a soft and powerful grasp. Not that his senses were irritated to alertness, or played upon to exasperation. They were merely inhibited from any activity in connexion with another, however beautiful and desirable. Lady Sellingworth roused no physical desire in Craven, although she fascinated him. What she did was just this: she deprived him of physical desire. Miss Van Tuyn's arrows were shot all in vain that night. But Craven now acted well, for women's keen eyes were upon him.

Presently they got up to go to the theatre, leaving the other quartet behind them, quite willing to be late.

"Moscovitch doesn't come on for some time," said Mrs. Ackroyde. "And we are only going to see him. The play is nothing extraordinary. Where are you sitting?"

Braybrooke told her the number of their box.

"We are just opposite to you then," she said.

"Mind you behave prettily, Adela!" said Lady Wrackley.

"I have almost forgotten how to behave in a theatre," she said. "I go to the play so seldom. You shall give me some hints on conduct, Mr. Craven."

And she turned and led the way out of the restaurant, nodding to people here and there whom she knew.

Her big motor was waiting outside, and they all got into it. Braybrooke and Craven sat on the small front seats, sideways, so that they could talk to their companions; and they flashed through the busy streets, coming now and then into the gleam of lamplight and looking vivid, then gliding on into shadows and becoming vague and almost mysterious. As they crossed Piccadilly Circus Miss Van Tuyn said:

"What a contrast to our walk that night!"

"This way of travelling?" said Lady Sellingworth.

"Yes. Which do you prefer, the life of Soho and the streets and raw humanity, or the Rolls-Royce life?"

"Oh, I am far too old, and far too fixed in my habits to make any drastic change in my way of life," said Lady Sellingworth, looking out of the window.

"You didn't like your little experience the other night enough to repeat it?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

As she spoke Craven saw her eyes gazing at him in the shadow. They looked rather hard and searching, he thought.

"Oh, some day I'll go to the Bella Napoli again with you, Beryl, if you like."

"Thank you, dearest," said Miss Van Tuyn, rather drily.

And again Craven saw her eyes fixed upon him with a hard, steady look.

The car sped by the Monico, and Braybrooke, glancing with distaste at the crowd of people one could never wish to know outside it, wondered how the tall woman opposite to him with the diamonds flashing in her ears had ever condescended to push her way among them at night, to rub shoulders with those awful women, those furtive and evil-looking men. "But she must have some kink in her!" he thought, and thanked God because he had no kink, or at any rate knew of none which disturbed him. The car drew up at the theatre, and they went to their box. It was large enough for three to sit in a row in the front, and Craven insisted on Braybrooke taking the place between the two women, while he took the chair in the shadow behind Lady Sellingworth.

The curtain was already up when they came in, and a large and voluble man, almost like a human earthquake, was talking in broken English interspersed with sonorous Italian to a worried-looking man who sat before a table in a large and gaudily furnished office.

The talk was all about singers, contracts, the opera.

Craven glanced across the theatre and saw a big, empty box on the opposite side of the house. The rest of the house was full. He saw many Jews.

Lady Sellingworth leaned well forward with her eyes fixed on the stage, and seemed interested as the play developed.

"They are just like that!" she whispered presently, half turning to Craven.

Miss Van Tuyn looked round. She seemed bored. Paris, perhaps, had spoiled her for the acting in London, or the play so far did not interest her. Braybrooke glanced at her rather anxiously. He did not approve of the way in which he and his guests were seated in the box, and was sure she did not like it. Craven ought to be beside her.

"What do you think of it?" he murmured.

"The operatic types aren't bad."

She leaned with an elbow on the edge of the box and looked vaguely about the house.

"I shall insist on a change of seats after the interval!" thought Braybrooke.

A few minutes passed. Then the door of the box opposite was opened and Lady Wrackley appeared, followed by Dindie Ackroyde and the two young men who had dined with them. Lady Wrackley, looking-Craven thought-like a remarkably fine pouter pigeon, came to the front of the box and stared about the house, while the young man with the turned-up nose gently, yet rather familiarly, withdrew from her a long coat of ermine. Meanwhile Mrs. Ackroyde sat down, keeping on her cloak, which was the colour of an Indian sky at night, and immediately became absorbed in the traffic of the stage. It was obvious that she really cared for art, while Lady Wrackley cared about the effect she was creating on the audience. It seemed a long time before she sat down, and let the two young men sit down too. But suddenly there was applause and no one was looking at her. Moscovitch had walked upon the stage.

"That man can act!"

Miss Van Tuyn had spoken.

"He gets you merely by coming on. That is acting!"

And immediately she was intent on the stage.

When the curtain fell Braybrooke got up resolutely and stood at the back of the box. Craven, too stood up, and they all discussed the play.

"It's a character study, simply that," said Miss Van Tuyn. "The persistent lover who can't leave off-"

"Trying to love!" interposed Lady Sellingworth. "Following the great illusion."

And they debated whether the great singer was an idealist or merely a sensualist, or perhaps both. Miss Van Tuyn thought he was only the latter, and Braybrooke agreed with her. But Lady Sellingworth said no.

"He is in love with love, I think, and everyone who is in love with love is seeking the flame in the darkness. We wrong many people by dubbing them mere sensualists. The mystery has a driving force which many cannot resist."

"What mystery, dearest?" said Miss Van Tuyn, not without irony.

But at this moment there was a tap at the door of the box, and Craven opened it to find Mrs. Ackroyde and the young man with the severe eyes waiting outside.

"May we come in? Is there room?" said Mrs. Ackroyde.

There was plenty of room.

"Lena will be happier without us," Mrs. Ackroyde explained, without a smile, and looking calmly at Lady Sellingworth. "If I sit quite at the back here I can smoke a cigarette without being stopped. Bobbie you might give me a match."

The severe young man, who looked like a sad sensualist, one of those men who try to cloak intensity with grimness, did as he was bid, and they renewed the discussion which had been stopped for a moment, bringing the newcomers into it. Lady Sellingworth explained that the mystery she had spoken of was the inner necessity to try to find love which drives many human beings. She spoke without sentimentality, almost with a sort of scientific coldness as one stating facts not to be gainsaid. Mrs. Ackroyde said she liked the theory. It was such a comfortable one. Whenever she made a sidestep she would now be able to feel that she was driven to it by an inner necessity, planted in her family by the Immanent Will, or whatever it was that governed humanity. As she spoke she looked at the man she had called Bobbie, who was Sir Robert Syng, private secretary to a prominent minister, and when she stopped speaking he said he had never been able to believe in free will, though he always behaved as if he thought he possessed it.

Miss Van Tuyn thereupon remarked that as some people are born with tempers and intellects and some without them, perhaps it was the same with free will. She was quite positive she had a free will, but the very first time she had seen Sir Robert she had had her doubts about his having that precious possession. This sally, designed to break up the general conversation and to fasten Sir Robert's attention on herself, led to an animated discussion between her and Mrs. Ackroyde's "man." But Mrs. Ackroyde, though her large dark eyes showed complete understanding of the manoeuvre, did not seem to mind, and, turning her attention to Craven, she began to speak about acting. Meanwhile Lady Sellingworth went out into the corridor with Braybrooke to "get a little air."

While Mrs. Ackroyde talked Craven felt that she was thinking about him with an enormously experienced mind. She had been married twice, and was now a widow. No woman knew more about life and the world in a general way than she did. Her complete but quiet self-possession, her rather blunt good nature, and her perfect health, had carried her safely, and as a rule successfully, through multifarious experiences and perhaps through many dangers. It was impossible to conceive of her being ever "knocked out" by any happening however untoward it might be. She was one of the stalwarts of the "old guard." Craven certainly did not dislike her. But now he felt almost afraid of her. For he knew her present interest in him arose from suspicions about him and Lady Sellingworth which were floating through her brain. She had heard something; had been informed of something; someone had hinted; someone had told. How do such things become suspected in a city like London? Craven could not imagine how the "old guard" had come already to know of his new friendship with Lady Sellingworth. But he was now quite sure that he had been talked about, and that Mrs. Ackroyde was considering him, his temperament, his character, his possibilities in connexion with the famous Adela, once of the "old guard," but long since traitress to it.

And he felt as if he were made of glass beneath those experienced and calmly investigating eyes, as he talked steadily about acting till the bell went for the second act, and Lady Sellingworth and Braybrooke returned to the box.

"Come and see me," said Mrs. Ackroyde, getting up. "You never come near me. And come down to Coombe to lunch one Sunday."

"Thank you very much. I will."

"And bring Adela with you!"

With a casual nod or two, and a "Come, Bobbie, I am sure you have flirted quite enough with Beryl by this time!" she went out of the box, followed by her grim but good-looking cavalier.

"You must sit in front through this act."

Braybrooke spoke.

"Oh, but-"

"No, really-I insist! You don't see properly behind."

Craven took the chair between the two women. As he did so he glanced at Miss Van Tuyn. His chair was certainly nearer to hers than to Lady Sellingworth's, much nearer. Syng had sat in it and must have moved it. As she half turned and said something to Craven her bare silky arm touched his sleeve, and their faces were very near together. Her eyes spoke to him definitely, called him to be young again with her. And as the curtain went up she whispered:

"It was I who insisted on a party of four to-night."

Lady Sellingworth and Braybrooke were talking together, and Craven answered:

"To Mr. Braybrooke?"

"Yes; so that we might have a nice little time. And Adela and he are old friends and contemporaries! I knew they would be happy together."

Craven shrank inwardly as he heard Miss Van Tuyn say "Adela," but he only nodded and tried to return adequately the expression in her eyes. Then he looked across the theatre, and saw Mrs. Ackroyde speaking to Lady Wrackley. After a moment they both gazed at him, and, seeing his eyes fixed on her, Lady Wrackley let go her smile at him and made a little gesture with her hand.

"She knows too-damn her!" thought Craven, impolitely.

He set his teeth.

"They know everything, these women! It's useless to try to have the smallest secret from them!"

And then he said to himself what so many have said:

"What does it matter what they know, what they think, what they say? I don't care!"

But he did care. He hated their knowing of his friendship with Lady Sellingworth, and it seemed to him that they were scattering dust all over the dew of his feeling.

The second act of the play was more interesting than the first, but, as Miss Van Tuyn said, the whole thing was rather a clever character study than a solidly constructed and elaborately worked out play. It was the fascination of Moscovitch which held the audience tight and which brought thunders of applause when the curtain fell.

"If that man acted in French he could have enormous success in Paris," said Miss Van Tuyn. "You have chosen well," she added, turning to Braybrooke. "You have introduced us to a great temperament."

Braybrooke was delighted, and still more delighted when Lady Sellingworth and Craven both said that it was the best acting they had seen in London for years.

"But it comes out of Russia, I suppose," said Lady Sellingworth. "Poor, wonderful, horrible, glorious Russia!"

"Forgive me for a moment," said Braybrooke. "Lady Wrackley seems to want me."

Indeed, the electric-light smile was being turned on and off in the box opposite with unmistakable intention, and, glancing across, Craven noticed that the young men had disappeared, no doubt to smoke cigarettes in the foyer. Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde were alone, and, seeing them alone, it was easier to Craven to compare their appearance with Lady Sellingworth's.

Lady Wrackley looked shiningly artificial, seemed to glisten with artificiality, and her certainly remarkable figure suggested to him an advertisement for a corset designed by a genius with a view to the concealment of fat. Mrs. Ackroyde was far less artificial, and though her hair was dyed it did not proclaim the fact blatantly. Certainly it was difficult to believe that both those ladies, whom Braybrooke now joined, were much the same age as Lady Sellingworth. And yet, in Craven's opinion, to-night she made them both look ordinary, undistinguished. There was something magnificent in her appearance which they utterly lacked.

Braybrooke sat down in their box, and Craven was sure they were all talking about Lady Sellingworth and him. He saw Braybrooke's broad-fingered hand go to his beard and was almost positive his old friend was on the defensive. He was surely saying, "No, really, I don't think so! I feel convinced there is nothing in it!" Craven's eyes met Lady Sellingworth's, and it seemed to him at that moment that she and he spoke together without the knowledge of Miss Van Tuyn. But immediately, and as if to get away from their strange and occult privacy, she said:

"What have you been doing lately, Beryl? I hear Miss Cronin has come over. But I thought you were not staying long. Have you changed your mind?"

Miss Van Tuyn said she might stay on for some time, and explained that she was having lessons in painting.

"In London! I didn't know you painted, and surely the best school of painting is in Paris."

"I don't paint, dearest. But one can take lessons in an art without actually practising the art. And that is what I am doing. I like to know even though I cannot, or don't want to, do. Dick Garstin is my master. He has given me the run of his studio in Glebe Place."

"And you watch him at work?" said Craven.

"Yes."

She fixed her eyes on him, and added:

"He is painting a living bronze."

"Somebody very handsome?" said Lady Sellingworth, glancing across the house to the trio in the box opposite.

"Yes, a man called Nicolas Arabian."

"What a curious name!" said Lady Sellingworth, still looking towards the opposite box. "Is it an Englishman?"

"No. I don't know his nationality. But he makes a magnificent model."

"Oh, he's a model!" said Craven, also looking at the box opposite.

"He isn't a professional model. Dick Garstin doesn't pay him to sit. I only mean that he is a marvellous subject for a portrait and sits well. Dick happened to see him and asked him to sit. Dick paints the people he wants to paint, not those who want to be painted by him. But he's a really big man. You ought to know him."

She said the last words to Lady Sellingworth, who replied:

"I very seldom make new acquaintances now."

"You made Mr. Craven's!" said Miss Van Tuyn, smiling.

"But that was by special favour. I owe Mr. Braybrooke that!" said Craven. "And I shall be eternally grateful to him."

His eyes met Lady Sellingworth's, and he immediately added, turning to Miss Van Tuyn:

"I have to thank him for two delightful new friends-if I may use that word."

"Mr. Braybrooke is a great benefactor," said Miss Van Tuyn. "I wonder how this play is going to end."

And then they talked about Moscovitch and the persistence of a ruling passion till Braybrooke came back. He looked rather grave and preoccupied, and Craven felt sure that the talk in the opposite box had been about Lady Sellingworth and her "new man," himself, and, unusually self-conscious, or moved, perhaps, by an instinct of self-preservation, he devoted himself almost with intensity to Miss Van Tuyn till the curtain went up. And after it went up he kept his chair very close to hers, sat almost "in her pocket," and occasionally murmured to her remarks about the play.

The last act was a panorama of shifting moods, and although there was little action they all followed it with an intense interest which afterwards surprised them. But a master hand was playing on the audience, and drew at will from them what emotions he chose. Now and then, during the progress of this act, Braybrooke sent an anxious glance to Lady Sellingworth. All this about loss, though it was the loss of a voice, about the end of a great career, about age and desertion, was dangerous ground. The love-scene between Moscovitch and the young girl seriously perturbed Braybrooke. He hoped, he sincerely hoped, that Adela Sellingworth would not be upset, would not think that he had chosen the Shaftesbury Theatre for their place of entertainment with any arriere pensee. He fancied that her face began to look rather hard and "set" as the act drew near its end. But he was not sure. For the auditorium was rather dark; he could not see her quite clearly. And he looked at Craven and Miss Van Tuyn and thought, rather bitterly, how sane and how right his intentions had been. Youth should mate with youth. It was not natural for mature, or old, age to be closely allied with youth in any passionate bond. In such a bond youth was at a manifest disadvantage. And it seemed to Braybrooke that age was sometimes, too often indeed, a vampire going about to satisfy its appetite on youth, to slake its sad thirst at the well-spring of youth. He looked, too, at the women in the box opposite, and at the young men with them, and he regretted that so many human beings were at grips with the natural. He at any rate, although he carefully concealed his age, never did unsuitable things, or fell into anything undignified. Yet was he rewarded for his intense and unremitting carefulness in life?

A telephone bell sounded on the stage, and the unhappy singer, bereft of romance, his career finished, decadence and old age staring him in the face, went to answer the call. But suddenly his face changed; a brightness, an alertness came into it and even, mysteriously, into all his body. There was a woman at the other end of the wire, and she was young and pretty, and she was asking him to meet her. As he was replying gaily, with smiling lips, and a greedy look in his eyes that was half child-like, half satyr-like, the curtain fell. The play was at an end, leaving the impression upon the audience that there is no end to the life of a ruling passion in a man while he lives, that the ruling passion can only die when he dies.

Miss Van Tuyn and Craven, standing up in the box, applauded vigorously.

"That's a true finish!" the girl said. "He's really a modern Baron Hulot. When he's seventy he'll creep upstairs to a servant girl. We don't change, I've always said it. We don't change!"

And she looked from Craven to Lady Sellingworth.

Moscovitch bowed many times.

"Well, Mr. Braybrooke," said Miss Van Tuyn, "I've seen some acting in London to-night that I should like to show to Paris. Thank you!"

She was more beautiful and more human than Craven had ever seen her before in her genuine enthusiasm. And he thought, "Great art moves her as nothing else moves her."

"What do you say about it, dearest?" she said, as Craven helped her to put on her cloak.

(Braybrooke was attending to Lady Sellingworth.)

"It's a great piece of acting!"

"And horribly true! Don't you think so?"

"I dare say it is," Lady Sellingworth answered.

She turned quickly and led the way out of the box.

In the hall they encountered the other quartet and stood talking to them for a moment, and Craven noticed how Miss Van Tuyn had been stirred up by the play and how silent Lady Sellingworth was. He longed to go back to Berkeley Square alone with the latter, and to have a long talk; but something told him to get away from both the white-haired woman and the eager girl. And when the motor came up he said very definitely that he had an engagement and must find a cab. Then he bade them good-bye and left them in the motor with Braybrooke. As he was turning away to get out of the crowd a clear, firm voice said to him:

"I am so glad you have performed the miracle, Mr. Craven."

He looked round and saw Mrs. Ackroyde's investigating eyes fixed upon him.

"But what miracle?" he asked.

"You have pulled Adela Sellingworth out of the shell in which she has been living curled up for over ten years."

"Yes. You are a prodigy!" said Lady Wrackley, showing her teeth.

"But I'm afraid I can't claim that triumph. I'm afraid it's due to Mr. Braybrooke's diplomacy."

"Oh, no!" Mrs. Ackroyde said calmly. "Adela would never yield to his cotton-glove persuasions. Besides, his diplomacy would shy away from Soho."

"Soho!" said Craven, startled.

"Yes!"

"Oh, but Miss Van Tuyn performed that miracle!" said Craven, recovering himself.

"I don't think so. You are too modest. But now, mind, I expect you to come down to Coombe to lunch on the first fine Sunday, and to bring Adela with you. Good night! Bobbie, where are you?"

And she followed Lady Wrackley and the young man with the turned-up nose to a big and shining motor which had just glided noiselessly up.

"Damn the women!" muttered Craven, as he pushed through the crowd into the ugly freedom of Shaftesbury Avenue.

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