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   Chapter 14 No.14

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 17395

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Three days later, soon after four o'clock, Craven rang the bell at Lady Sellingworth's door. As he stood for a moment waiting for it to be answered he wondered whether she would be at home to him, how she would greet him if she chose to see him. The door was opened by a footman.

"Is her ladyship at home?"

"Her ladyship has gone out of town, sir."

"When will she be back?"

"I couldn't say, sir. Her ladyship has gone abroad."

Craven stood for a moment without speaking. He was amazed, and felt as if he had received a blow. Finally, he said:

"Do you think she will be long away?"

"Her ladyship has gone for some time, sir, I believe."

The young man's face, firm, with rosy cheeks and shallow, blue eyes, was strangely inexpressive. Craven hesitated, then said:

"Do you know where her ladyship has gone? I-I wish to write a note to her."

"I believe it's some place near Monte Carlo, sir. Her ladyship gave orders that no letters were to be forwarded for the present."

"Thank you."

Craven turned away and walked slowly towards Mayfair. He felt startled and hurt, even angry. So this was friendship! And he had been foolish enough to think that Lady Sellingworth was beginning to value his company, that she was a lonely woman, and that perhaps his visits, his sympathy, meant something, even a great deal to her. What a young fool he had been! And what a humbug she must be! Suddenly London seemed empty. He remembered the coldness in the wording of the note she had sent him saying that she could not see him the day after the theatre party. She had put forward no excuse, no explanation. What had happened? He felt that something must have happened which had changed her feeling towards him. For though he told himself that she must be a humbug, he did not really feel that she was one. Perhaps she was angry with him, and that was why she had not chosen to tell him that she was going abroad before she started. But what reason had he given her for anger? Mentally he reviewed the events of their last evening together. It had been quite a gay evening. Nothing disagreeable had happened unless-Lady Wrackley and Mrs. Ackroyde came to his mind. He saw them before him with their observant, experienced eyes, their smiling, satirical lips. They had made him secretly uncomfortable. He had felt undressed when he was with them, and had realized that they knew of and were probably amused by his friendship for Lady Sellingworth. And he had hated their knowledge. Perhaps she had hated it too, although she had not shown a trace of discomfort. Or, perhaps, she had disliked his manner with Miss Van Tuyn, assumed to hide his own sensitiveness. And at that moment he thought of his intercourse with Miss Van Tuyn with exaggeration. It was possible that he had acted badly, had been blatant. But anyhow Lady Sellingworth had been very unkind. She ought to have told him that she was going abroad, to have let him see her before she went.

He felt that this short episode in his life was quite over. It had ended abruptly, undramatically. It had seemed to mean a good deal, and it had really meant nothing. What a boy he had been through it all! His cheeks burned at the thought. And he had prided himself on being a thorough man of the world. Evidently, despite his knowledge of life, his Foreign Office training, his experience of war-he had been a soldier for two years-he was really something of a simpleton. He had "given himself away" to Braybrooke, and probably to others as well, to Lady Wrackley, Mrs. Ackroyde, and perhaps even to Miss Van Tuyn. And to Lady Sellingworth!

What had she thought of him? What did she think of him? Nothing perhaps. She had belonged to the "old guard." Many men had passed through her hands. He felt at that moment acute hostility to women. They were treacherous, unreliable, even the best of them. They had not the continuity which belonged to men. Even elderly women-he was thinking of women of the world-even they were not to be trusted. Life was warfare even when war was over. One had to fight always against the instability of those around you. And yet there was planted in a man-at any rate there was planted in him-a deep longing for stability, a need to trust, a desire to attach himself to someone with whom he could be quite unreserved, to whom he could "open out" without fear of criticism or of misunderstanding.

He had believed that in Lady Sellingworth he had found such an one, and now he had been shown his mistake. He reached the house in which he lived, but although he had walked to it with the intention of going in he paused on the threshold, then turned away and went on towards Hyde Park. Night was falling; the damp softness of late autumn companioned him wistfully. The streets were not very full. London seemed unusually quiet that evening. But when he reached the Marble Arch he saw people streaming hither and thither, hurrying towards Oxford Street, pouring into the Edgware Road, climbing upon omnibuses which were bound for Notting Hill, Ealing and Acton, drifting towards the wide and gloomy spaces of the Park. He crossed the great roadway and went into the Park, too. Attracted by a small gathering of dark figures he joined them, and standing among nondescript loungers he listened for a few minutes to a narrow-chested man with a long, haggard face, a wispy beard and protruding, decayed teeth, who was addressing those about him on the mysteries of life.

He spoke of the struggle for bread, of materialism, of the illusions of sensuality, of the Universal Intelligence, of the blind cruelty of existence.

"You are all unhappy!" he exclaimed, in a thin but carrying voice, which sounded genteel and fanatical. "You rush here and there not knowing why or wherefore. Many of you have come into this very Park to-night without any object, driven by the wish for something to take you out of your miseries. Can you deny it, I say?"

A tall soldier who was standing near Craven looked down at the plump girl beside him and said:

"How's that, Lil? We're both jolly miserable, ain't we?"

"Go along with yer! Not me!" was the response, with an impudent look.

"Then let's get on where it's quieter. What ho!"

They moved demurely away.

"Can you deny," the narrow-chested man continued, sawing the air with a thin, dirty hand, "that you are all dissatisfied with life, that you wonder about it, as Plato wondered, as Tolstoi wondered, as the Dean of St. Paul's wonders, as I am wondering now? From this very Park you look up at the stars, when there are any, and you ask yourselves-"

At this point in the discourse Craven turned away, feeling that edification was scarcely to be found by him here.

Certainly at this moment he was dissatisfied with life. But that was Lady Sellingworth's fault. If he were sitting with her now in Berkeley square the scheme of things would probably not seem all out of gear. He wondered where she was, what she was doing! The footman had said he believed she was near Monte Carlo. Craven remembered once hearing her say she was fond of Cap Martin. Probably she was staying there. It occurred to him that possibly she had told some of her friends of her approaching departure, though she had chosen to conceal it from him. Miss Van Tuyn might have known of it. He resolved to go to Brook Street and find out whether the charming girl had been in the secret. Claridge's was close by. It would be something to do. If he could not see Lady Sellingworth he wanted to talk about her. And at that moment his obscure irritation made him turn towards youth. Old age had cheated him. Well, he was young; he would seek consolation!

At Claridge's he inquired for Miss Van Tuyn, and was told she was out, had been out since the morning. Craven was pulling his card-case out of his pocket when he heard a voice say: "Are there any letters for me?" He swung round and there stood Miss Van Tuyn quite near him. For an instant she did not see him, and he had time to note that she looked even unusually vivid and brilliant. An attendant handed her some letters. She took them, turned and saw Craven.

"I had just asked for you," he said, taking off his hat.

"Oh! How nice of you!"

Her eyes were shining. He felt a controlled excitement in her. Her face seemed to be trying to tell something which her mind would not choose to tell. He wondered what it was, this secret which he divined.

"Come upstairs and we'll have a talk in my sitting-room."

She looked at him narrowly, he thought, as they went together to the lift. She seemed to have a little less self-possession than usual, even to be slightly self-conscious and because of th

at watchful.

When they were in her sitting-room she took off her hat, as if tired, put it on a table and sat down by the fire.

"I've been out all day," she said.

"Yes? Are you still having painting lessons?"

"That's it-painting lessons. Dick is an extraordinary man."

"You mean Dick Garstin. I don't know him."

"He's absolutely unscrupulous, but a genius. I believe genius always is unscrupulous. I am sure of it. It cannot be anything else."

"That's a pity."

"I don't know that it is."

"But how does Dick Garstin show his unscrupulousness?"

Miss Van Tuyn looked suddenly wary.

"Oh-in all sorts of ways. He uses people. He looks on people as mere material. He doesn't care for their feelings. He doesn't care what happens to them. If he gets out of them what he wants it's enough. After that they may go to perdition, and he wouldn't stretch out a finger to save them."

"What a delightful individual!"

"Ah!-you don't understand genius."

Craven felt rather nettled. He cared a good deal for the arts, and had no wish to be set among the Philistines.

"And-do you?" he asked.

"Yes, I think so. I'm not creative, but I'm very comprehending. Artists of all kinds feel that instinctively. That's why they come round me in Paris."

"Yes, you do understand!" he acknowledged, remembering her enthusiasm at the theatre. "But I think you are unscrupulous, too."

He said it hardily, looking straight at her, and wondering what she had been doing that afternoon before she arrived at the hotel.

She smiled, making her eyes narrow.

"Then perhaps I am half-way to genius."

"Would you be willing to sacrifice all the moral qualities if you could have genius in exchange?"

"You can't expect me to say so. But it would be grand to have power over men."

"You have that already."

She looked at him satirically.

"Do you know you're a terrible humbug?" she said.

"And are not you?"

"No; I think I show myself very much as I really am."

"Can a woman do that?" he said, with sudden moodiness.

"It depends. Mrs. Ackroyde can and Lady Wrackley can't."

"And-Lady Sellingworth?" he asked.

"I'm afraid she is a bit of a humbug," said Miss Van Tuyn, without venom.

"I wonder when she'll be back?"

"Back? Where from?"

"Surely you know she had gone abroad?"

The look of surprise in Miss Van Tuyn's face was so obviously genuine that Craven added:

"You didn't? Well, she has gone away for some time."

"Where to?"

"Somewhere on the Riviera, I believe. Probably Cap Martin. But letters are not to be forwarded."

"At this time of year! Has she gone away alone?"

"I suppose so."

Miss Van Tuyn looked at him with a sort of cold, almost hostile shrewdness.

"And she told you she was going?"

"Why should she tell me?" he said, with a hint of defiance.

Miss Van Tuyn left that at once.

"So Adela has run away!" she said.

She sat for a moment quite still, like one considering something carefully.

"But she will come back," she said presently, looking up at him, "bringing her sheaves with her."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't you remember-in the Bible?"

"But what has that to do with Lady Sellingworth?"

"Perhaps you'll understand when she comes back."

"I am really quite in the dark," he said, with obvious sincerity. "And it's nothing to me whether Lady Sellingworth comes back or stops away."

"I thought you joined with me in adoring her."

"Adoration isn't the word. And you know it."

"And letters are not to be forwarded?" said Miss Van Tuyn.

"I heard so."

"Ah! when you went to call on her!"

"Now you are merely guessing!"

"It must be terrible to be old!" said Miss Van Tuyn, with a change of manner. "Just think of going off alone to the Riviera in the autumn at the age of sixty! Beauties ought to die at fifty. Plain women can live to a hundred if they like, and it doesn't really matter. Their tragedy is not much worse then than it is at thirty-five. But beauties should never live beyond fifty-at the very latest."

"Then you must commit suicide at that age."

"Thank you. The old women in hotels!"

She shivered, and it seemed to him that her body shook naturally, as if it couldn't help shaking.

"But-remember-she'll come back with her sheaves!" she added, looking at him. "And then the 'old guard' will fall upon her."

For a moment she looked cruel, and though he did not understand her meaning Craven realized that she would not have much pity for Lady Sellingworth in misfortune. But Lady Sellingworth was cruel, too, had been cruel to him. And he saw humanity without tenderness, teeth and claws at work, barbarity coming to its own through the varnish.

He only said:

"I may be very stupid, but I don't understand."

And then he changed the subject of conversation. Miss Van Tuyn became gradually nicer to him, but he felt that she still cherished a faint hostility to him. Perhaps she thought he regarded her as a substitute. And was not that really the fact? He tried to sweep the hostility away. He laid himself out to be charming to her. The Lady Sellingworth episode was over. He would give himself to a different side of his nature, a side to which Miss Van Tuyn appealed. She did not encourage him at first, and he was driven to force the note slightly. When he went away they had arranged to play golf together, to dine together one night at the Bella Napoli. It was he who had suggested, even urged these diversions. For she had almost made him plead to her, had seemed oddly doubtful about seeing more of him in intimacy. And when he left her he was half angry with himself for making such a fuss about trifles. But the truth was-and perhaps she suspected it-that he was trying to escape from depression, caused by a sense of injury, through an adventure. He felt Miss Van Tuyn's great physical attraction, and just then he wished that it would overwhelm him. If it did he would soon cease from minding what Lady Sellingworth had done. A certain recklessness possessed him.

He dined with a friend at the club and stayed there rather late. When he was leaving about half past eleven Braybrooke dropped in after a party, and he told Braybrooke of Lady Sellingworth's departure for the Continent. The world's governess showed even more surprise than Miss Van Tuyn had shown. He had had no idea that Adela Sellingworth was going abroad. She must have decided on it very abruptly. He had seen nothing in the Morning Post. Had she gone alone? And no letters to be forwarded! Dear me! It was all very odd and unexpected. And she had gone on the Riviera at this time of year! But it was a desert; not a soul one knew would be there. The best hotels were not even open, he believed.

As he made his comments he observed Craven closely with his small hazel eyes, but the young man showed no feeling, and Braybrooke began to think that really perhaps he had made a mountain out of a molehill, that he had done Adela Sellingworth an injustice. If she had really been inclined to any folly about his young friend she would certainly not have left London in this mysterious manner.

"I suppose she let you know she was going?" he hazarded.

"Oh, no. I happened to call and the footman gave me the news."

"I hope she isn't ill," said Braybrooke with sudden gravity.

"Ill? Why should you think-?"

"There are women who hate it to be known when they are ill. Catherine Bewdley went away without a word and was operated on at Lausanne, and not one of us knew of it till it was all over. I don't quite like the look of things. Letters not being forwarded-ha!"

"But near Monte Carlo!"

"Is it near Monte Carlo?"

He pursed his lips and went into the club looking grave, while Craven went out into the night. It was black and damp. The pavement seemed sweating. The hands of both autumn and winter were laid upon London. But soon the hands of autumn would fail and winter would have the huge city as its possession.

"Is it Monte Carlo?"

Braybrooke's question echoed in Craven's mind. Could he have done Lady Sellingworth a wrong? Was there perhaps something behind her sudden departure in silence which altogether excused it? She might be ill and have disappeared without a word to some doctor's clinic, as Braybrooke had suggested. Women sometimes had heroic silences. Craven thought she could be heroic. There was something very strong in her, he thought, combined perhaps with many weaknesses. He wished he knew where she was, what she was doing, whom she was with or whether she was alone. His desire trailed after her against his will. Undoubtedly he missed her, and felt oddly homeless now she was gone.

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