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   Chapter 17 No.17

December Love By Robert Hichens Characters: 16488

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

On the following day Miss Van Tuyn, remembering her feeling at Camber in the twilight, went to the telephone and called up Number 18A, Berkeley Square. The solemn voice of a butler-she knew at once a butler was speaking-replied inquiring her business. She gave her name and asked whether Lady Sellingworth had returned to London. The answer was that her ladyship had arrived in London from the Continent on Saturday evening.

"Please tell her ladyship that her friend, Miss Van Tuyn, will call on her this afternoon about five o'clock," said Miss Van Tuyn.

Soon afterwards she put on her hat and fur coat and set off on her way to Chelsea.

A little before five she turned into Berkeley Square on foot, coming from Carlos Place.

She felt both curious and slightly hostile. She wondered very much why Adela had gone away so mysteriously; she wondered where Adela had been and whether she had returned changed. When Miss Van Tuyn had alluded to the sheaves the thought in her mind had been markedly feminine. It had occurred to her that Adela might have stolen away to have "things" done to her; that she might come back to London mysteriously rejuvenated. Such a thing was possible even at sixty. Miss Van Tuyn had known of waning beauties who had vanished, and who had returned to the world looking alarmingly young. Certainly she had never known of a woman as old in appearance as Adela becoming transformed. Nevertheless in modern days, when the culture of beauty counts in its service such marvellous experts, almost all things are possible. If Adela had gone quite mad about Alick Craven the golden age might be found suddenly domiciled in Number 18A. Then Adela's intention would be plain. She would have returned from abroad armed cap-a-pie for conquest.

The knowledge that Adela was in London had revived in Miss Van Tuyn the creeping hostility which she had felt before her friend's departure. She remembered her lonely walk to Soho, what she had seen through the lit-up window of the Bella Napoli. The sensation of ill treatment returned to her. She would have scorned to acknowledge even to herself that she was afraid of Adela, that she dreaded Adela's influence on a man. But when she thought of Craven she was conscious of a strange fluttering of anxiety. She wanted to keep Craven as a friend. She wanted him to be her special friend. This he had been, but only since Lady Sellingworth had been out of London. Now she had come back. Over there shone the light above the door of the house in which she was at this moment. How would it be now?

A hard, resolute look came into Miss Van Tuyn's face as she walked past the block of flats at the top of the square. She had a definite and strong feeling that she must keep Craven as her friend, that she might need him in the future. And of what use is a man who belongs to another woman?

Arabian had told her that day that he had found a flat which suited him in Chelsea looking over the river, and that he was leaving the Charing Cross Hotel. For some reason the news had startled her. He had spoken in a casual way, but his eyes had not been casual as they looked into hers. And she had felt that Arabian had taken a step forward, that he was moving towards some project with which she was connected in his mind, and that the taking of this flat was part of the project.

She must not lose Craven as a friend. If she did she would lose one on whom she was beginning to rely. Women are of no use in certain contingencies, and a beautiful woman can seldom thoroughly trust another woman. Miss Van Tuyn absolutely trusted no woman. But she trusted Craven. She thought she must be very fond of him. And yet she had none of the feeling for him which persecuted her now when she was with Arabian. Arabian drew her in an almost occult way. She felt his tug like the mysterious tug of water when one stands near a weir in a river. When she was with him she sometimes had a physical impulse to lean backward. And that came because of another strong and opposing impulse which seemed mental.

Adela should not entice Craven back to her. She was long past the age of needing trusty comrades and possible helpers, in Beryl's opinion. Whatever she did, or hoped, or wanted, or strove for, life was really over for her, the life that is life, with its unsuspected turns, and intrigues, and passions and startling occurrences. Even if for a time such a man as Craven were hypnotized by a woman's strong will-power, such an unnatural condition could not possibly last. But Beryl made up her mind that she would not suffer even a short interim of power exercised by Adela. Even for poor Adela's own sake such an interim was undesirable. It would only lead to suffering. And while it lasted she, Beryl, might need something and lack it. That must not be. Adela was finished, and she must learn to understand that she was finished. No woman ought to seek to prolong her reign beyond a certain age. If Adela had come back with her sheaves they must be resolutely scattered to the winds-by somebody.

Arabian had taken a flat in Chelsea looking over the river. Evidently he was going to settle down in London.

"But I live in Paris!" thought Miss Van Tuyn, as she pushed Lady Sellingworth's bell.

Her ladyship was at home, and Miss Van Tuyn mounted the stairs full of expectation.

When she came into the big drawing-room she noticed at once how dimly lit it was. Besides the firelight there was only one electric lamp turned on, and that was protected by a rather large shade, and stood on a table at some distance from Lady Sellingworth's sofa. A tall figure got up from this sofa as Miss Van Tuyn made her way towards the fire, and the well-remembered and very individual husky voice said:

"Dear Beryl! It's good of you to come to see me so soon. I only arrived on Saturday."

"Dearest! How dark it is! I can scarcely see you."

"I love to give the firelight a chance. Didn't you know that? Come and sit down and tell me what you have been doing. You have quite given up Paris?"

"Yes, for the time. I've become engrossed in painting. Dick Garstin has given me the run of his studio. But where have you been?"

As she put the question Miss Van Tuyn looked closely at her friend, and, in spite of the dimness, she noticed a difference in her appearance. The white hair still crowned the beautifully shaped head, but it looked thicker, more alive than formerly. The change which struck her most, however, was in the appearance of the face. It seemed, she thought, markedly younger and fresher, smoother than she remembered it, firmer in texture. Surely some, many even, of the wrinkles had disappeared. And the lips, once so pale and weary, were rosy now-if the light was not deceiving her. The invariable black dress, too, had vanished. Adela wore a lovely gown of a deep violet colour and had a violet band in her hair. She sat very upright. Her tall figure seemed almost braced up. And surely she looked less absolutely natural than usual. There was something-a slight hardness, perhaps, a touch of conscious imperviousness in look and manner, a watchful something-which made Miss Van Tuyn for a moment think of a photograph she had seen on a member of the "old guard's" table.

The sheaves! The sheaves!

But the girl longed for more light. She knew she was not deceived entirely by the dimness, but she longed for crude revelation. Already her mind was busily at work on the future. She felt, although she had only been in the room for two or three minutes, that the Lady Sellingworth who had just come back to London must presently be her enemy. And she wished to get in the first blow, since blows there would have to be.

"Where have I been?" said Lady Sellingworth. "In the place of the swans-in Geneva."

"Geneva! We thought you had gone to the Riviera, probably to Cap Martin."

"I did go to the Riviera first."

"It must have been a desert."

"Not quite. Cannes would have been quite pleasant. But I had to go on to Geneva to see a friend."

Miss Van Tuyn thought of Lausanne, of doctors. Many women whom she knew in Paris swore by the doctors of Berne and Lausanne. There were wonderful treatments now for old women. Extraordinary t

hings were done with monkey glands and other mysterious preparations and inoculations. Was not Adela's manner changed? Did she not diffuse an atmosphere of intention, of vigour, which had not been hers before? Did she not seem younger?

"Did you stay long at the Beau Rivage?" she asked.

"Yes, I did."

"We have missed you."

"I like to think that."

"London loses its most characteristic note for me when you are not in it."

Miss Van Tuyn's curiosity was becoming intense, but how could she gratify it? She sought about for an opening, but found none. For it was seldom her way to be quite blunt with women, though with men she was often blunt.

"Everyone has been wondering where you were," she said. "Mr. Braybrooke was quite in a turmoil. Does he know you are back?"

"I haven't told him. But he gets to know everything in less than five minutes. And what have you been doing?"

This simple question suddenly gave Miss Van Tuyn the idea for a plan of campaign. It sprang into her brain, flashed upon it like an inspiration. For a moment she was rigid. Her body was strongly influenced. Then as the idea made itself at home in her she became supple and soft again.

"I've got a lot to tell you," she said, "if you won't be bored."

"You never bore me, Beryl."

"No, I don't believe I do. Well, first I must tell you how good Dick Garstin has been to me."

"Garstin the painter?"


And she enlarged upon her intense interest in painting, her admiration for Garstin's genius, her curiosity about his methods and aims, her passion for understanding the arts although she could not create herself. Lady Sellingworth, who knew the girl's genuine interest in all art developments, listened quite convinced of Beryl's sincerity. Arabian was never mentioned. Miss Van Tuyn did not go into details. She spoke only of models, of Garstin's varying moods, of his way of getting a thing on to canvas, of his views on colour and technique.

"It must be absorbingly interesting to watch such a man at work," Lady Sellingworth said presently.

"It is. It's fascinating."

"And so that is the reason why you are staying so long in smoky old London?"

"No, Adela, it isn't. At least, that's not the only reason."

The words were spoken slowly and were followed by a curiously conscious, almost, indeed, embarrassed look from the girl's violet eyes.


After a long pause Beryl said:

"You know I have always looked upon you as a book of wisdom."

"It's very difficult to be wise," said Lady Sellingworth, with a touch of bitterness. "And sometimes very dull."

"But you are wise, dearest. I feel it. You have known and done so much, and you have had brains to understand, to seek out the truth from experience. You have lived with understanding. You are not like the people who travel round the world and come back just the same as if they had been from Piccadilly Circus to Hampstead Heath and back. One feels you have been round the world when one is with you."

"Does one?" said Lady Sellingworth, rather drily. "But I fancied nowadays the young thought all the wisdom lay with them."

"Well, I don't. And, besides, I think you are marvellously discreet."

"Wise! Discreet! I begin to feel as if I ought to sit on the Bench!"

Again there was the touch of bitterness in the voice. A very faint smile hovered for an instant about Miss Van Tuyn's lips.

"Judging the foolish women! Well, I think you are one of the few who would have a right to do that. You are so marvellously sensible."

"Anyhow, I have no wish to do it. But-you were going to tell me?"

"In confidence."

"Of course. The book of wisdom never opens its leaves to the mob."

"I want very much to know your opinion of young Alick Craven."

As she heard the word "young" Lady Sellingworth had great difficulty in keeping her face still. Her mouth wanted to writhe, to twist to the left. She had the same intense shooting feeling that had hurt her when Seymour Portman had called Alick Craven a boy.

"Of Mr. Craven!" she said, with sudden severe reserve. "Why? Why?"

Directly she had spoken she regretted the repetition. Her mind felt stiff, unyielding. And all her body felt stiff too.

"That's what I want to tell you," said Miss Van Tuyn, speaking with some apparent embarrassment.

And immediately Lady Sellingworth knew that she did not want to hear, that it would be dangerous, almost deadly, for her to hear. She longed to spread out her hands in the protesting gesture of one keeping something off, away from her, to say, "Don't! Don't! I won't hear!" And she sat very still, and murmured a casual "Yes?"

And then Miss Van Tuyn shot her bolt very cleverly, her aim being careful and good, her hand steady as a rock, her eyes fixed undeviatingly on the object she meant to bring down. She consulted Lady Sellingworth about her great friendship with Craven, told Lady Sellingworth how for some time, "ever since the night we all went to the theatre," Craven had been seeking her out persistently, spoke of his visits, their dinners together, their games of golf at Beaconsfield, finally came to Sunday, "yesterday."

"In the morning the telephone rang and we had a little talk. A Daimler car was suggested and a run down to Rye. You know my American ideas, Adela. A long day alone in the country with a boy-"

"Mr. Craven is scarcely a boy, I think!"

"But we call them boys!"

"Oh, yes!"

"With a boy means nothing extraordinary to a girl with my ideas. But I think he took it rather differently. Anyhow, we spent the whole day out playing golf together, and in the evening, when twilight was coming on, we drove to Camber Sands. Do you know them?"


"They are vast and absolutely deserted. It was rather stormy, but we took a long walk on them, and then sat on a sand bank to watch the night coming on. I dare say it all sounds very ridiculous and sentimental to you! I am sure it must!"

"No, no. Besides, I know you Americans do all these things with no sentiment at all, merely pour passer le temps."

"Yes, sometimes. But he isn't an American."

Again she looked slightly embarrassed and seemed to hesitate.

"You mean-you think that he-?"

"It was that evening . . . last night only, in fact-"

"Oh, yes, of course it was last night. To-day is Monday."

"That I began to realize that we were getting into a rather different relation to each other. When it began to get dark he wanted to hold my hand and-but I needn't go into all that. It would only seem silly to you. You see, we are both young, though, of course, he is older than I. But he is very young, quite a boy in feeling and even in manner very often. I have seen him lately in all sorts of circumstances, so I know."

She stopped as if thinking. Lady Sellingworth sat very upright on her sofa, with her head held rather high, and her hands, in their long white gloves, quite still. And there was a moment of absolute silence in the drawing-room. At last Miss Van Tuyn spoke again.

"I feel since last night that things are different between Alick and me."

"Are you engaged to him-to Mr. Craven?"

"Oh, no. He hasn't asked me to be. But I want to know what you think of him. It would help me. I like him very much. But you know far more about men than I do."

"I doubt it, Beryl. I see scarcely anyone now. You live in Paris surrounded by clever men and-"

"But you have had decades more of experience than I have. In fact, you have been round the world and I have, so to speak, only crossed the Channel. Do help me, Adela. I am full of hesitation and doubt, and yet I am getting very fond of Alick. And I don't want to hurt him. I think I hurt him a little yesterday, but-"

"Sir Seymour Portman!" said Murgatroyd's heavy voice at the door.

And the old courtier entered almost eagerly, his dark eyes shining under the thatch of eyebrows and the white gleam of the "cauliflower."

And very soon Miss Van Tuyn went away, without the advice which she was so anxious to have. As she walked through Berkeley Square she felt more at ease than when she had come into it. But she was puzzled about something. And she said to herself:

"Can she have tried monkey glands too?"

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