MoboReader> Literature > December Love

   Chapter 13 No.13

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 21508

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Miss Van Tuyn and the members of the "old guard" went home to bed that night realizing that Lady Sellingworth had had "things" done to herself before she came out to the theatre party.

"She's beginning again after-how many years is it?" said Lady Wrackley to Mrs. Ackroyde in the motor as they drove away from Shaftesbury.

"Ten," said Mrs. Ackroyde, who was blessed with a sometimes painfully retentive memory.

"I suppose it's Zotos," observed Lady Wrackley.

"Who's Zotos?" inquired young Leving of the turned-up nose and the larky expression.

"A Greek who's a genius and who lives in South Moulton Street."

"What's he do?"

"Things that men shouldn't be allowed to know anything about. Talk to Bobbie for a minute, will you?"

She turned again to Mrs. Ackroyde.

"It must be Zotos. But even he will be in a difficulty with her if she wants to have very much done. She made the mistake of her life when she became an old woman. I remember saying at the time that some day she would repent in dust and ashes and want to get back, and that then it would be too late. How foolish she was!"

"She will be much more foolish now if she really begins again," said Mrs. Ackroyde in her cool, common-sense way.

The young men were talking, and after a moment she continued:

"When a thing's once been thoroughly seen by everyone and recognized for what it is, it is worse than useless to hide it or try to hide it. Adela should know that. But I must say she looked remarkably well to-night-for her. He's a good-looking boy."

"He must be at least twenty-eight years younger than she is."

"More, probably. But she prefers them like that. Don't you remember Rochecouart? He was a mere child. When we gave our hop at Prince's she was mad about him. And afterwards she wanted to marry Rupert Louth. It nearly killed her when she found out he had married that awful girl who called herself an actress. And there was someone else after Rupert."

"I know. I often wonder who it was. Someone we don't know."

"Someone quite out of our world. Anyhow, he must have broken her heart for the time. And it's taken ten years to mend. Do you think that she sold her jewels secretly to pay that man's debts, or gave them to him, and that then he threw her over? I have often wondered."

"So have we all. But we shall never know. Adela is very clever."

"And now it's another boy! And only twenty-eight or so. He can't be more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Poor old Adela!"

"Perhaps he likes white hair. There are boys who do."

"But not for long. Beryl was furious."

"It is hardly a compliment to her. I expect her cult for Adela will diminish rapidly."

"Oh, she'll very soon get him away. Even Zotos won't be able to do very much for Adela now. She burnt all her boats ten years ago. Her case is really hopeless, and she'll very soon find that out."

"Do you remember when she tried to live up to Rupert Louth as an Amazon?"

"Yes. She nearly killed herself over it; but I must say she stuck to it splendidly. She has plenty of courage."

"Is Alick Craven athletic? I scarcely know him."

"Well, he's never been a rough rider like Rupert Louth; but I believe he's a sportsman, does all the usual things."

"Then I dare say we shall soon see Adela on the links and at Kings'."

"Probably. I'll get them both down to Coombe and see if she'll play tennis on my hard court. I shouldn't wonder. She has pluck enough for anything."

"Ask me that Sunday. I wonder how long it will last."

"Not long. It can't."

"And then she'll go crash again. It must be awful to have a temperament like hers."

"Her great mistake is that apparently she puts some heart into it every time. I can't think how she manages it, but she does. Do you remember twelve years ago, when she was crazy about Harry Blake? Well-"

But at this moment the motor drew up at the Carlton, and a huge man in uniform opened the door.

Mrs. Ackroyde was right in her comment on Miss Van Tuyn. In spite of Craven's acting that night Miss Van Tuyn had thoroughly understood how things really were. She had persuaded Braybrooke to invite Lady Sellingworth to make a fourth in order that she might find out whether any link had been forged between Craven and Lady Sellingworth, whether there was really any secret understanding between them, or whether that tete-a-tete dinner in Soho had been merely a passing pleasure, managed by Lady Sellingworth, meaning little, and likely to lead to nothing. And she had found out that there certainly was a secret understanding between Lady Sellingworth and Craven from which she was excluded. Craven had preferred Adela Sellingworth to herself, and Adela Sellingworth was fully aware of it.

It was characteristic of Miss Van Tuyn that though her vanity was so great and was now severely wounded she did not debate the matter within herself, did not for a moment attempt to deceive herself about it. And yet really she had very little ground to go upon. Craven had been charming to her, had replied to her glances, had almost made love to her at dinner, had sat very close to her during the last act of the play. Yes; but it had all been acting on his part. Quite coolly she told herself that. And Lady Sellingworth had certainly wished him to act, had even prompted him to it.

Miss Van Tuyn felt very angry with Lady Sellingworth. She was less angry with Craven. Indeed, she was not sure that she was angry with him at all. He was several years older than herself, but she began to think of him as really very young, as much younger in mind and temperament than she was. He was only a clever boy, susceptible to flattery, easily influenced by a determined will, and probably absurdly chivalrous. She knew the sort of chivalry which was a symptom really of babyhood in the masculine mind. It was characteristic of sensitive natures, she believed, and it often led to strange aberrations. Craven was only a baby, although a baby of the world, and Adela Sellingworth with her vast experience had, of course, seen that at a glance and was now busily playing upon baby's young chivalry. Miss Van Tuyn could almost hear the talk about being so lonely in the big house in Berkeley Square, about the freedom of men and the difficulty of having any real freedom when one is a solitary woman with no man to look after you, about the tragedy of being considered old when your heart and your nature are really still young, almost as young as ever they were. Adela Sellingworth would know how to touch every string, would be an adept at calling out the music she wanted. How easily experienced women played upon men! It was really pathetic! And as Craven had thought of protecting Lady Sellingworth against Miss Van Tuyn, so now Miss van Tuyn felt inclined to protect Alick Craven against Lady Sellingworth. She did not want to see a nice and interesting boy make a fool of himself. Yet Craven was on the verge of doing that, if he had not already done it. Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde had seen how things were, had taken in the whole situation in a moment. Miss Van Tuyn knew that, and in her knowledge there was bitterness. These two women had seen Lady Sellingworth preferred before her by a mere boy, had seen her beauty and youth go for nothing beside a woman of sixty's fascination.

There must be something quite extraordinary in Craven. He must be utterly unlike other young men. She began to wonder about him intensely.

On the following morning, as usual, she went to Glebe Place to take what she had called her "lesson" from Dick Garstin. She arrived rather early, a few minutes before eleven, and found Garstin alone, looking tired and irritable.

"You look as if you had been up all night," she said as he let her in.

"So I have!"

She did not ask him what he had been doing. He would probably refuse to tell her. Instead she remarked:

"Will you be able to paint?"

"Probably not. But perhaps the fellow won't come."

"Why not. He always-" She stopped; then said quickly, "So he was up all night too?"

"Yes."

"I didn't know you knew him out of the studio."

"Of course I know him wherever I meet him. What do you mean?"

"I didn't know you did meet him."

Garstin said nothing. She turned and went up the staircase to the big studio. On an easel nearly in the middle of the room, and not very far from the portrait of the judge, there was a sketch of Nicolas Arabian's head, neck and shoulders. No collar or clothes were shown. Garstin had told Arabian flatly that he wasn't going to paint a magnificent torso like his concealed by infernal linen and serge, and Arabian had been quite willing that his neck and shoulders should be painted in the nude.

In the strong light of the studio Garstin's unusual appearance of fatigue was more noticeable, and Miss Van Tuyn could not help saying:

"What on earth have you been doing, Dick? You always seem made of iron. But to-day you look like an ordinary man who has been dissipating."

"I played poker all night," said Garstin.

"With Arabian?"

"And two other fellows-picked them up at the Cafe Royal."

"Well, I hope you won."

"No, I didn't. Both Arabian and I lost a lot. We played here."

"Here!"

"Yes. And I haven't had a wink since they left. I don't suppose he'll turn up. And if he does I shan't be able to do anything at it."

He went to stand in front of the sketch, which was in oils, and stared at it with lack-lustre eyes.

"What d'you think of it?" he said at last.

Miss Van Tuyn was rather surprised by the question. Garstin was not in the habit of asking other people's opinions about his work.

"It's rather difficult to say," she said, with some hesitation.

"That means you think it's rotten."

"No. But it isn't finished and-I don't know."

"Well, I hate it."

He turned away, sat down on a divan, and let his big knuckly hands drop down between his knees.

"Fact is, I haven't got at the fellow's secret," he said meditatively. "I got a first impression-"

He paused.

"I know!" said Miss Van Tuyn, deeply interested. "You told me what it was."

"The successful blackmailer. Yes. But now I don't know. I can't make him out. He's the hardest nut to crack I ever came across."

He moved his long lips from side to side three or four times, then pursed them up, lifted his small eyes, which had been staring between his feet at a Persian rug on the parquet in front of the divan, looked at Miss Van Tuyn, who was standing before him, and said:

"That's why I sat up all night playing poker with him."

"Ah!" she said, beginning to understand

She sat down beside him, turned towards him, and said eagerly:

"You wanted to get really to know him

?"

"Yes; but I didn't. The fellow's an enigma. He's bad. And that's practically all I know about him."

He glanced with distaste at the sketch he had made.

"And it isn't enough. It isn't enough by a damned long way."

"Is he a good loser?" she asked.

"The best I ever saw. Never turned a hair, and went away looking as fresh as a well-watered gardenia, damn him!"

"Who were the others?"

"Two Americans I've seen now and then at the Cafe Royal. I believe they live mostly in Paris."

"Friends of his?"

"I don't think so. He said they came and sat down at his table in the cafe and started talking. I suggested the poker. They didn't. So it wasn't a plant."

"Perhaps he isn't bad," she said; "and perhaps that's why you can't paint him."

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean because you have made up your mind that he is. I think you have a fixed idea about that."

"What?"

"You have painted so many brutes, that you seek for the brute in everyone who sits to you. If you were to paint me you'd-"

"Now, now! There you are at it again! I'll paint you if I ever feel like it-not a minute before."

"I was only going to say that if you ever painted me you'd try to find something horrible in me that you could drag to the surface."

"Well, d'you mean that you have the toupet to tell me there is nothing horrible in you?"

"Now we are getting away from Arabian," she said, with cool self-possession.

"Owing to your infernal egoism, my girl!"

"Override it, then, with your equally infernal altruism, my boy!"

Garstin smiled, and for a moment looked a little less fatigued, but in a moment his almost morose preoccupation returned. He glanced again towards the sketch.

"I should like to slit it up with a palette knife!" he said. "The devil of it is that I felt I could do a really great thing with that fellow. I struck out a fine phrase that night. D'you remember?"

"Yes. You called him a king in the underworld."

Abruptly he got up and began to walk about the studio, stopping now here, now there, before his portraits. He paused for quite a long time before the portraits of Cora and the judge. Then he came back to the sketch of Arabian.

"You must help me!" he said at last.

"I!" she exclaimed, with almost sharp surprise. "How can I help you?"

He turned, and she saw the pin-points of light.

"What do you think of the fellow?" he said. "After all, you asked me to paint him. What do you think of him?"

"I think he's magnificently handsome."

"Blast his envelope!" Garstin almost roared out. "What do you think of his nature? What do you think of his soul? I'm not a painter of surfaces."

Miss Van Tuyn sat for a moment looking steadily at him. She was unusually natural and unself-conscious, like one thinking too strongly to bother about herself. At last she said:

"Arabian is a very difficult man to understand, and I don't understand him."

"Do you like him?"

"I couldn't exactly say that."

"Do you hate him?"

"No."

Garstin suddenly looked almost maliciously sly.

"I can tell you something that you feel about him."

"What?"

"You are afraid of him."

Miss Van Tuyn's silky fair skin reddened.

"I'm not afraid of anyone," she retorted. "If I have one virtue, I think it's courage."

"You're certainly not a Miss Nancy as a rule. In fact, your cheek is pretty well known in Paris. But you're afraid of Arabian."

"Am I really?" said the girl, recovering from her surprise and facing him hardily. "And how have you found that out?"

"You took a fancy to the fellow the first time you saw him."

"I did not take a fancy. I am not an under-housemaid."

"There's not really a particle of difference between an under-housemaid and a super-lady when it comes to a good-looking man."

"Dick, you're a great painter, but you're also a great vulgarian!"

"Well, my father was a national schoolmaster and my mother was a butcher's daughter. I can't help my vernacular. You took a fancy to this fellow in the Cafe Royal, and you begged me to paint him so that you might get to know him. I obeyed you-"

"The heavens will certainly fall before you become obedient."

"-and asked him here. Then I asked you. You came. He came. I started painting. How many sittings have I had?"

"Three."

"Then you've met him here four times?"

"Yes."

"And why have you always let him go away alone from the studio?"

"Why should I go with him? I much prefer to stay on here and have a talk with you. You are far more interesting than Arabian is. He says very little. Probably he knows very little. I can learn from you."

"That's all very well. I will say you're damned keen on acquiring knowledge. But Arabian interests you in a way I certainly don't; in a sex way."

"That'll do, Dick!"

"And directly a woman gets to that all the lumber of knowledge can go to the devil for her! When Nature drives the coach brain interests occupy the back seat. That is a rule with women to which I've never yet found an exception. Every day you're longing to go away from here with Arabian; every day he does his level best to get you to go. Yet you don't go. Why's that? You're held back by fear. You're afraid of the fellow, my girl, and it's not a bit of use your denying it. When I see a thing I see it-it's there. I don't deal in hallucinations."

All this time his small eyes were fixed upon her, and the fierce little lights in them seemed to touch her like the points of two pins.

"You talk about fear! Does it never occur to you that Arabian's a man you picked up at the Cafe Royal, that we neither of us know anything about him, that he may be-"

"Anyhow, he's far more presentable than I am."

"Of course he's presentable, as you call it. He's very well dressed and very good-looking, but still-"

At that moment she thought of Craven, and in her mind quickly compared the two men.

"But still you're afraid of him. Where is your frankness? Why don't you acknowledge what I already know?"

Miss Van Tuyn looked down and sat for a moment quite still without speaking. Then she began to take off her gloves. Finally, she lifted her hands to her head, took off her hat, and laid it on the divan beside her.

"It isn't that I am afraid of Arabian," she then said, at last looking up. "But the fact is I am like you. I don't understand him. I can't place him. I don't even know what his nationality is. He knows nobody I do. I feel certain of that. Yet he must belong somewhere, have some set of friends, some circle of acquaintances, I suppose. He isn't at all vulgar. One couldn't call him genteel, which is worse, I think. It's all very odd. I'm not conventional. In Paris I'm considered even terribly unconventional. I've met all sorts of men, but I've never met a man like Arabian. But the other day-don't you remember?-you summed him up. You said he had no education, no knowledge, no love of art or literature, that he was clever, sensual, idle, acquisitive, made of iron, with nerves of steel. Don't you remember?"

"To be sure I do."

"Isn't that enough to go upon?"

"For the painting? No, it isn't. Besides, you said you weren't sure I was right in my diagnosis of the chap's character and physical part."

"I wasn't sure, and I'm not sure now."

"Tell me God's own truth, Beryl. Come on!"

He came up to her, put one hand on her left shoulder, and looked down into her eyes.

"Aren't you a bit afraid of the fellow?"

She met his eyes steadily.

"There's something-" She paused.

"Go ahead, I tell you!"

"I couldn't describe it. It's more like an atmosphere than anything else. It seems to hang about him. I've never felt anything quite like it when I've been with anyone else."

"An atmosphere! Now we're getting at it."

He took his heavy hand away from her shoulder.

"A woman feels that sort of thing more sensitively than a man does. Sex! Go on! What about it?"

"But I scarcely know what I mean-really, Dick. No! But it's-it's an unsafe atmosphere."

"Ah!"

"One doesn't know where one is in it. At least, I don't. Once in London I was lost for a little while in Regents Park in a fog. It's-it's something like that. I couldn't see the way, and I heard steps and voices that sounded strange and-I don't know."

"Find out!"

"That's all very well. You are terribly selfish, Dick. You don't care what happens so long as you can paint as you wish to paint. You'd sacrifice me, anyone-"

The girl seemed strangely uneasy. Her usual coolness had left her. The hot blood had come back to her cheeks and glowed there in uneven patches of red. Garstin gazed at her with profound and cruel interest.

"Sacrifice!" he said. "Who talked of sacrificing you? Who wishes to sacrifice you? I only want-"

"One doesn't know-with a man like that one doesn't know where it would lead to."

"Then you think he's a thundering blackguard? And yet you defended him just now, said perhaps I couldn't paint him just because I'd made up my mind he was a brute. You're a mass of contradictions."

"I don't say he's bad. He may not be bad."

"Fact is, as I said, you're in a mortal funk of him."

"I am not!" she said, with sudden anger. "No one shall say I'm afraid of any man. You can ask anyone who knows me really well, and you will always hear the same story. I'm afraid of no one and nothing, and I've proved it again and again."

"Well then, what's to prevent you proving it to me, my girl?"

"I will!"

She lifted her chin and looked suddenly impudent.

"What do you wish me to do to prove it?" she asked him defiantly.

"If Arabian does come to-day go away with him when he goes. Get to know him really. You could, I believe. But ever since he's come here to sit he has shut up the box which contains the truth of what he is, locked it, and lost the key. His face is a mask, and I don't paint masks."

"Very well. I will."

"Good!" said Garstin sonorously, and looking suddenly much less tired and morose.

"But why do you think I could get to know him?"

"Because he's-but you know why better than I do."

"I don't."

"Arabian's in love with you, my girl. By Jove! There he is!"

The bell had sounded below.

With a swift movement Garstin got hold of a palette knife, sprang at the sketch of Arabian, and ripped up the canvas from top to bottom. Miss Van Tuyn uttered a cry.

"Dick!"

"That's all right!"

He threw the knife down.

"We'll do better than that by a long way."

He got hold of her hand.

"Stick to your word, my girl, and I'll paint you yet-and not an Academy portrait. But you've got to live. Just now, with your cheeks all in patches you looked stunning."

The bell went again.

"Now for him!"

He hurried downstairs.

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