THE TEMPTING OF TAVERNAKE
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
CHAPTER I. DESPAIR AND INTEREST
They stood upon the roof of a London boarding-house in the neighborhood of Russell Square—one of those grim shelters, the refuge of Transatlantic curiosity and British penury. The girl—she represented the former race was leaning against the frail palisading, with gloomy expression and eyes set as though in fixed contemplation of the uninspiring panorama. The young man—unmistakably, uncompromisingly English—stood with his back to the chimney a few feet away, watching his companion. The silence between them was as yet unbroken, had lasted, indeed, since she had stolen away from the shabby drawing-room below, where a florid lady with a raucous voice had been shouting a music-hall ditty. Close upon her heels, but without speech of any sort, he had followed. They were almost strangers, except for the occasional word or two of greeting which the etiquette of the establishment demanded. Yet she had accepted his espionage without any protest of word or look. He had followed her with a very definite object. Had she surmised it, he wondered? She had not turned her head or vouchsafed even a single question or remark to him since he had pushed his way through the trap-door almost at her heels and stepped out on to the leads. Yet it seemed to him that she must guess.
Below them, what seemed to be the phantasm of a painted city, a wilderness of housetops, of smoke-wreathed spires and chimneys, stretched away to a murky, blood-red horizon. Even as they stood there, a deeper color stained the sky, an angry sun began to sink into the piled up masses of thick, vaporous clouds. The girl watched with an air of sullen yet absorbed interest. Her companion's eyes were still fixed wholly and critically upon her. Who was she, he wondered? Why had she left her own country to come to a city where she seemed to have no friends, no manner of interest? In that caravansary of the world's stricken ones she had been an almost unnoticed figure, silent, indisposed for conversation, not in any obvious manner attractive. Her clothes, notwithstanding their air of having come from a first-class dressmaker, were shabby and out of fashion, their extreme neatness in itself pathetic. She was thin, yet not without a certain buoyant lightness of movement always at variance with her tired eyes, her ceaseless air of dejection. And withal she was a rebel. It was written in her attitude, it was evident in her lowering, militant expression, the smouldering fire in her eyes proclaimed it. Her long, rather narrow face was gripped between her hands; her elbows rested upon the brick parapet. She gazed at that world of blood-red mists, of unshapely, grotesque buildings, of strange, tawdry colors; she listened to the medley of sounds—crude, shrill, insistent, something like the groaning of a world stripped naked—and she had all the time the air of one who hates the thing she looks upon.
Tavernake, whose curiosity concerning his companion remained unappeased, decided that the moment for speech had arrived. He took a step forward upon the soft, pulpy leads. Even then he hesitated before he finally committed himself. About his appearance little was remarkable save the general air of determination which gave character to his undistinguished features. He was something above the medium height, broad-set, and with rather more thick black hair than he knew how to arrange advantageously. He wore a shirt which was somewhat frayed, and an indifferent tie; his boots were heavy and clumsy; he wore also a suit of ready-made clothes with the air of one who knew that they were ready-made and was satisfied with them. People of a nervous or sensitive disposition would, without doubt, have found him irritating but for a certain nameless gift—an almost Napoleonic concentration upon the things of the passing moment, which was in itself impressive and which somehow disarmed criticism.
"About that bracelet!" he said at last.
She moved her head and looked at him. A young man of less assurance would have turned and fled. Not so Tavernake. Once sure of his ground he was immovable. There was murder in her eyes but he was not even disturbed.
"I saw you take it from the little table by the piano, you know," he continued. "It was rather a rash thing to do. Mrs. Fitzgerald was looking for it before I reached the stairs. I expect she has called the police in by now."
Slowly her hand stole into the depths of her pocket and emerged. Something flashed for a moment high over her head. The young man caught her wrist just in time, caught it in a veritable grip of iron. Then, indeed, the evil fires flashed from her eyes, her teeth gleamed white, her bosom rose and fell in a storm of angry, unuttered sobs. She was dry-eyed and still speechless, but for all that she was a tigress. A strangely-cut silhouette they formed there upon the housetops, with a background of empty sky, their feet sinking in the warm leads.
"I think I had better take it," he said. "Let go."
Her fingers yielded the bracelet—a tawdry, ill-designed affair of rubies and diamonds. He looked at it disapprovingly.
"That's an ugly thing to go to prison for," he remarked, slipping it into his pocket. "It was a stupid thing to do, anyhow, you know. You couldn't have got away with it—unless," he added, looking over the parapet as though struck with a sudden idea, "unless you had a confederate below."
He heard the rush of her skirts and he was only just in time. Nothing, in fact, but a considerable amount of presence of mind and the full exercise of a strength which was continually providing surprises for his acquaintances, was sufficient to save her. Their struggles upon the very edge of the roof dislodged a brick from the palisading, which went hurtling down into the street. They both paused to watch it, his arms still gripping her and one foot pressed against an iron rod. It was immediately after they had seen it pitch harmlessly into the road that a new sensation came to this phlegmatic young man. For the first time in his life, he realized that it was possible to feel a certain pleasurable emotion in the close grasp of a being of the opposite sex. Consequently, although she had now ceased to struggle, he kept his arms locked around her, looking into her face with an interest intense enough, but more analytical than emotional, as though seeking to discover the meaning of this curious throbbing of his pulses. She herself, as though exhausted, remained quite passive, shivering a little in his grasp and breathing like a hunted animal whose last hour has come. Their eyes met; then she tore herself away.
"You are a hateful person," she said deliberately, "a hateful, interfering person. I detest you."
"I think that we will go down now," he replied.
He raised the trap-door and glanced at her significantly. She held her skirts closely together and passed through it without looking at him. She stepped lightly down the ladder and without hesitation descended also a flight of uncarpeted attic stairs. Here, however, upon the landing, she awaited him with obvious reluctance.
"Are you going to send for the police?" she asked without looking at him.
"No," he answered.
"If I had meant to give you away I should have told Mrs. Fitzgerald at once that I had seen you take her bracelet, instead of following you out on to the roof."
"Do you mind telling me what you do propose to do, then?" she continued still without looking at him, still without the slightest note of appeal in her tone.
He withdrew the bracelet from his pocket and balanced it upon his finger.
"I am going to say that I took it for a joke," he declared.
"Mrs. Fitzgerald's sense of humor is not elastic," she warned him.
"She will be very angry, of course," he assented, "but she will not believe that I meant to steal it."
The girl moved slowly a few steps away.
"I suppose that I ought to thank you," she said, still with averted face and sullen manner. "You have really been very decent. I am much obliged."
"Are you not coming down?" he asked.
"Not at present," she answered. "I am going to my room."
He looked around the landing on which they stood, at the miserable, uncarpeted floor, the ill-painted doors on which the long-forgotten varnish stood out in blisters, the jumble of dilapidated hot-water cans, a mop, and a medley of brooms and rags all thrown down together in a corner.
"But these are the servants' quarters, surely," he remarked.
"They are good enough for me; my room is here," she told him, turning the handle of one of the doors and disappearing. The prompt turning of the key sounded, he thought, a little ungracious.
With the bracelet in his hand, Tavernake descended three more flights of stairs and entered the drawing-room of the private hotel conducted by Mrs. Raithby Lawrence, whose husband, one learned from her frequent reiteration of the fact, had once occupied a distinguished post in the Merchant Service of his country. The disturbance following upon the disappearance of the bracelet was evidently at its height. There were at least a dozen people in the room, most of whom were standing up. The central figure of them all was Mrs. Fitzgerald, large and florid, whose yellow hair with its varied shades frankly admitted its indebtedness to peroxide; a lady of the dashing type, who had once made her mark in the music-halls, but was now happily married to a commercial traveler who was seldom visible. Mrs. Fitzgerald was talking.
"In respectable boarding-houses, Mrs. Lawrence," she declared with great emphasis, "thefts may sometimes take place, I will admit, in the servants' quarters, and with all their temptations, poor things, it's not so much to be wondered at. But no such thing as this has ever happened to me before—to have jewelry taken almost from my person in the drawing-room of what should be a well-conducted establishment. Not a servant in the room, remember, from the moment I took it off until I got up from the piano and found it missing. It's your guests you've got to look after, Mrs. Lawrence, sorry to say it though I am."
Mrs. Lawrence managed here, through sheer loss of breath on the part of her assailant, to interpose a tearful protest.
"I am quite sure," she protested feebly, "that there is not a person in this house who would dream of stealing anything, however valuable it was. I am most particular always about references."
"Valuable, indeed!" Mrs. Fitzgerald continued with increased volubility. "I'd have you understand that I am not one of those who wear trumpery jewelry. Thirty-five guineas that bracelet cost me if it cost a penny, and if my husband were only at home I could show you the receipt."
Then there came an interruption of almost tragical interest. Mrs. Fitzgerald, her mouth still open, her stream of eloquence suddenly arrested, stood with her artificially darkened eyes riveted upon the stolid, self-composed figure in the doorway. Every one else was gazing in the same direction. Tavernake was holding the bracelet in the palm of his hand.
"Thirty-five guineas!" he repeated. "If I had known that it was worth as much as that, I do not think that I should have dared to touch it."
"You—you took it!" Mrs. Fitzgerald gasped.
"I am afraid," he admitted, "that it was rather a clumsy joke. I apologize, Mrs. Fitzgerald. I hope you did not really imagine that it had been stolen."
One was conscious of the little thrill of emotion which marked the termination of the episode. Most of the people not directly concerned were disappointed; they were being robbed of their excitement, their hopes of a tragical denouement were frustrated. Mrs. Lawrence's worn face plainly showed her relief. The lady with the yellow hair, on the other hand, who had now succeeded in working herself up into a towering rage, snatched the bracelet from the young man's fingers and with a purple flush in her cheeks was obviously struggling with an intense desire to box his ears.
"That's not good enough for a tale!" she exclaimed harshly. "I tell you I don't believe a word of it. Took it for a joke, indeed! I only wish my husband were here; he'd know what to do."
"Your husband couldn't do much more than get your bracelet back, ma'am," Mrs. Lawrence replied with acerbity. "Such a fuss and calling every one thieves, too! I'd be ashamed to be so suspicious."
Mrs. Fitzgerald glared haughtily at her hostess.
"It's all very well for those that don't possess any jewelry and don't know the value of it, to talk," she declared, with her eyes fixed upon a black jet ornament which hung from the other woman's neck. "What I say is this, and you may just as well hear it from me now as later. I don't believe this cock-and-bull story of Mr. Tavernake's. Them as took my bracelet from that table meant keeping it, only they hadn't the courage. And I'm not referring to you, Mr. Tavernake," the lady continued vigorously, "because I don't believe you took it, for all your talk about a joke. And whom you may be shielding it wouldn't take me two guesses to name, and your motive must be clear to every one. The common hussy!"
"You are exciting yourself unnecessarily, Mrs. Fitzgerald," Tavernake remarked. "Let me assure you that it was I who took your bracelet from that table."
Mrs. Fitzgerald regarded him scornfully.
"Do you expect me to believe a tale like that?" she demanded.
"Why not?" Tavernake replied. "It is the truth. I am sorry that you have been so upset—"
"It is not the truth!"
More sensation! Another unexpected entrance! Once more interest in the affair was revived. After all, the lookers-on felt that they were not to be robbed of their tragedy. An old lady with yellow cheeks and jet black eyes leaned forward with her hand to her ear, anxious not to miss a syllable of what was coming. Tavernake bit his lip; it was the girl from the roof who had entered the room.
"I have no doubt," she continued in a cool, clear tone, "that Mrs. Fitzgerald's first guess would have been correct. I took the bracelet. I did not take it for a joke, I did not take it because I admire it—I think it is hideously ugly. I took it because I had no money."
She paused and looked around at them all, quietly, yet with something in her face from which they all shrank. She stood where the light fell full upon her shabby black gown and dejected-looking hat. The hollows in her pale cheeks, and the faint rims under her eyes, were clearly manifest; but notwithstanding her fragile appearance, she held herself with composure and even dignity. Twenty—thirty seconds must have passed whilst she stood there, slowly finishing the buttoning of her gloves. No one attempted to break the silence. She dominated them all—they felt that she had something more to say. Even Mrs. Fitzgerald felt a weight upon her tongue.
"It was a clumsy attempt," she went on. "I should have had no idea where to raise money upon the thing, but I apologize to you, nevertheless, Mrs. Fitzgerald, for the anxiety which my removal of your valuable property must have caused you," she added, turning to the owner of the bracelet, whose cheeks were once more hot with anger at the contempt in the girl's tone. "I suppose I ought to thank you, Mr. Tavernake, also, for your well-meant effort to preserve my character. In future, that shall be my sole charge. Has any one anything more to say to me before I go?"
Somehow or other, no one had. Mrs. Fitzgerald was irritated and fuming, but she contented herself with a snort. Her speech was ready enough as a rule, but there was a look in this girl's eyes from which she was glad enough to turn away. Mrs. Lawrence made a weak attempt at a farewell.
"I am sure," she began, "we are all sorry for what's occurred and that you must go—not that perhaps it isn't better, under the circumstances," she added hastily. "As regards—"
"There is nothing owing to you," the girl interrupted calmly. "You may congratulate yourself upon that, for if there were you would not get it. Nor have I stolen anything else."
"About your luggage?" Mrs. Lawrence asked.
"When I need it, I will send for it," the girl replied.
She turned her back upon them and before they realized it she was gone. She had, indeed, something of the grand manner. She had come to plead guilty to a theft and she had left them all feeling a little like snubbed children. Mrs. Fitzgerald, as soon as the spell of the girl's presence was removed, was one of the first to recover herself. She felt herself beginning to grow hot with renewed indignation.
"A thief!" she exclaimed looking around the room. "Just an ordinary self-convicted thief! That's what I call her, and nothing else. And here we all stood like a lot of ninnies. Why, if I'd done my duty I'd have locked the door and sent for a policeman."
"Too late now, anyway," Mrs. Lawrence declared. "She's gone for good, and no mistake. Walked right out of the house. I heard her slam the front door."
"And a good job, too," Mrs. Fitzgerald armed. "We don't want any of her sort here—not those who've got things of value about them. I bet she didn't leave America for nothing."
A little gray-haired lady, who had not as yet spoken, and who very seldom took part in any discussion at all, looked up from her knitting. She was desperately poor but she had charitable instincts.
"I wonder what made her want to steal," she remarked quietly.
"A born thief," Mrs. Fitzgerald declared with conviction,—"a real bad lot. One of your sly-looking ones, I call her."
The little lady sighed.
"When I was better off," she continued, "I used to help at a soup kitchen in Poplar. I have never forgotten a certain look we used to see occasionally in the faces of some of the men and women. I found out what it meant—it was hunger. Once or twice lately I have passed the girl who has just gone out, upon the stairs, and she almost frightened me. She had just the same look in her eyes. I noticed it yesterday—it was just before dinner, too—but she never came down."
"She paid so much for her room and extra for meals," Mrs. Lawrence said thoughtfully. "She never would have a meal unless she paid for it at the time. To tell you the truth, I was feeling a bit uneasy about her. She hasn't been in the dining-room for two days, and from what they tell me there's no signs of her having eaten anything in her room. As for getting anything out, why should she? It would be cheaper for her here than anywhere, if she'd got any money at all."
There was an uncomfortable silence. The little old lady with the knitting looked down the street into the sultry darkness which had swallowed up the girl.
"I wonder whether Mr. Tavernake knows anything about her," some one suggested.
But Tavernake was not in the room.
CHAPTER II. A TETE-A-TETE SUPPER
Tavernake caught her up in New Oxford Street and fell at once into step with her. He wasted no time whatever upon preliminaries.
"I should be glad," he said, "if you would tell me your name."
Her first glance at him was fierce enough to have terrified a different sort of man. Upon Tavernake it had absolutely no effect.
"You need not unless you like, of course," he went on, "but I wish to talk to you for a few moments and I thought that it would be more convenient if I addressed you by name. I do not remember to have heard it mentioned at Blenheim House, and Mrs. Lawrence, as you know, does not introduce her guests."
By this time they had walked a score or so of paces together. The girl, after her first furious glance, had taken absolutely no notice of him except to quicken her pace a little. Tavernake remained by her side, however, showing not the slightest sense of embarrassment or annoyance. He seemed perfectly content to wait and he had not in the least the appearance of a man who could be easily shaken off. From a fit of furious anger she passed suddenly and without warning to a state of half hysterical amusement.
"You are a foolish, absurd person," she declared. "Please go away. I do not wish you to walk with me."
Tavernake remained imperturbable. She remembered suddenly his intervention on her behalf.
"If you insist upon knowing," she said, "my name at Blenheim House was Beatrice Burnay. I am much obliged to you for what you did for me there, but that is finished. I do not wish to have any conversation with you, and I absolutely object to your company. Please leave me at once."
"I am sorry," he answered, "but that is not possible."
"Not possible?" she repeated, wonderingly.
He shook his head.
"You have no money, you have eaten no dinner, and I do not believe that you have any idea where you are going," he declared, deliberately.
Her face was once more dark with anger.
"Even if that were the truth," she insisted, "tell me what concern it is of yours? Your reminding me of these facts is simply an impertinence."
"I am sorry that you look upon it in that light," he remarked, still without the least sign of discomposure. "We will, if you do not mind, waive the discussion for the moment. Do you prefer a small restaurant or a corner in a big one? There is music at Frascati's but there are not so many people in the smaller ones."
She turned half around upon the pavement and looked at him steadfastly. His personality was at last beginning to interest her. His square jaw and measured speech were indices of a character at least unusual. She recognized certain invincible qualities under an exterior absolutely commonplace.
"Are you as persistent about everything in life?" she asked him.
"Why not?" he replied. "I try always to be consistent."
"What is your name?"
"Leonard Tavernake," he answered, promptly.
"Are you well off—I mean moderately well off?"
"I have a quite sufficient income."
"Have you any one dependent upon you?"
"Not a soul," he declared. "I am my own master in every sense of the word."
She laughed in an odd sort of way.
"Then you shall pay for your persistence," she said,—"I mean that I may as well rob you of a sovereign as the restaurant people."
"You must tell me now where you would like to go to," he insisted. "It is getting late."
"I do not like these foreign places," she replied. "I should prefer to go to the grill-room of a good restaurant."
"We will take a taxicab," he announced. "You have no objection?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"If you have the money and don't mind spending it," she said, "I will admit that I have had all the walking I want. Besides, the toe of my boot is worn through and I find it painful. Yesterday I tramped ten miles trying to find a man who was getting up a concert party for the provinces."
"And did you find him?" he asked, hailing a cab.
"Yes, I found him," she answered, indifferently. "We went through the usual programme. He heard me sing, tried to kiss me and promised to let me know. Nobody ever refuses anything in my profession, you see. They promise to let you know."
"Are you a singer, then, or an actress?"
"I am neither," she told him. "I said 'my profession' because it is the only one to which I have ever tried to belong. I have never succeeded in obtaining an engagement in this country. I do not suppose that even if I had persevered I should ever have had one."
"You have given up the idea, then," he remarked.
"I have given it up," she admitted, a little curtly. "Please do not think, because I am allowing you to be my companion for a short time, that you may ask me questions. How fast these taxies go!"
They drew up at their destination—a well-known restaurant in Regent Street. He paid the cabman and they descended a flight of stairs into the grill-room.
"I hope that this place will suit you," he said. "I have not much experience of restaurants."
She looked around and nodded.
"Yes," she replied, "I think that it will do."
She was very shabbily dressed, and he, although his appearance was by no means ordinary, was certainly not of the type which inspires immediate respect in even the grill-room of a fashionable restaurant. Nevertheless, they received prompt and almost officious service. Tavernake, as he watched his companion's air, her manner of seating herself and accepting the attentions of the head waiter, felt that nameless impulse which was responsible for his having followed her from Blenheim House and which he could only call curiosity, becoming stronger. An exceedingly matter-of-fact person, he was also by instinct and habit observant. He never doubted but that she belonged to a class of society from which the guests at the boarding-house where they had both lived were seldom recruited, and of which he himself knew little. He was not in the least a snob, this young man, but he found the fact interesting. Life with him was already very much the same as a ledger account—a matter of debits and credits, and he had never failed to include among the latter that curious gift of breeding for which he himself, denied it by heritage, had somehow substituted a complete and exceedingly rare naturalness.
"I should like," she announced, laying down the carte, "a fried sole, some cutlets, an ice, and black coffee."
The waiter bowed.
"And for Monsieur?"
Tavernake glanced at his watch; it was already ten o'clock.
"I will take the same," he declared.
"And to drink?"
She seemed indifferent.
"Any light wine," she answered, carelessly, "white or red."
Tavernake took up the wine list and ordered sauterne. They were left alone in their corner for a few minutes, almost the only occupants of the place.
"You are sure that you can afford this?" she asked, looking at him critically. "It may cost you a sovereign or thirty shillings."
He studied the prices on the menu.
"I can afford it quite well and I have plenty of money with me," he assured her, "but I do not think that it will cost more than eighteen shillings. While we are waiting for the sole, shall we talk? I can tell you, if you choose to hear, why I followed you from the boardinghouse."
"I don't mind listening to you," she told him, "or I will talk with you about anything you like. There is only one subject which I cannot discuss; that subject is myself and my own doings."
Tavernake was silent for a moment.
"That makes conversation a bit difficult," he remarked. She leaned back in her chair.
"After this evening," she said, "I go out of your life as completely and finally as though I had never existed. I have a fancy to take my poor secrets with me. If you wish to talk, tell me about yourself. You have gone out of your way to be kind to me. I wonder why. It doesn't seem to be your role."
He smiled slowly. His face was fashioned upon broad lines and the relaxing of his lips lightened it wonderfully. He had good teeth, clear gray eyes, and coarse black hair which he wore a trifle long; his forehead was too massive for good looks.
"No," he admitted, "I do not think that benevolence is one of my characteristics."
Her dark eyes were turned full upon him; her red lips, redder than ever they seemed against the pallor of her cheeks and her deep brown hair, curled slightly. There was something almost insolent in her tone.
"You understand, I hope," she continued, "that you have nothing whatever to look for from me in return for this sum which you propose to expend for my entertainment?"
"I understand that," he replied.
"Not even gratitude," she persisted. "I really do not feel grateful to you. You are probably doing this to gratify some selfish interest or curiosity. I warn you that I am quite incapable of any of the proper sentiments of life."
"Your gratitude would be of no value to me whatever," he assured her.
She was still not wholly satisfied. His complete stolidity frustrated every effort she made to penetrate beneath the surface.
"If I believed," she went on, "that you were one of those men—the world is full of them, you know—who will help a woman with a reasonable appearance so long as it does not seriously interfere with their own comfort—"
"Your sex has nothing whatever to do with it," he interrupted. "As to your appearance, I have not even considered it. I could not tell you whether you are beautiful or ugly—I am no judge of these matters. What I have done, I have done because it pleased me to do it."
"Do you always do what pleases you?" she asked.
She looked him over again attentively, with an interest obviously impersonal, a trifle supercilious.
"I suppose," she remarked, "you consider yourself one of the strong people of the world?"
"I do not know about that," he answered. "I do not often think about myself."
"I mean," she explained, "that you are one of those people who struggle hard to get just what they want in life."
His jaw suddenly tightened and she saw the likeness to Napoleon.
"I do more than struggle," he affirmed, "I succeed. If I make up my mind to do a thing, I do it; if I make up my mind to get a thing, I get it. It means hard work sometimes, but that is all."
For the first time, a really natural interest shone out of her eyes. The half sulky contempt with which she had received his advances passed away. She became at that moment a human being, self-forgetting, the heritage of her charms—for she really had a curious but very poignant attractiveness—suddenly evident. It was only a momentary lapse and it was entirely wasted. Not even one of the waiters happened to be looking that way, and Tavernake was thinking wholly of himself.
"It is a good deal to say—that," she remarked, reflectively.
"It is a good deal but it is not too much," he declared. "Every man who takes life seriously should say it."
Then she laughed—actually laughed—and he had a vision of flashing white teeth, of a mouth breaking into pleasant curves, of dark mirth-lit eyes, lustreless no longer, provocative, inspiring. A vague impression as of something pleasant warmed his blood. It was a rare thing for him to be so stirred, but even then it was not sufficient to disturb the focus of his thoughts.
"Tell me," she demanded, "what do you do? What is your profession or work?"
"I am with a firm of auctioneers and estate agents," he answered readily,—"Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company the name is. Our offices are in Waterloo Place."
"You find it interesting?"
"Of course," he answered. "Interesting? Why not? I work at it."
"Are you a partner?"
"No," he admitted. "Six years ago I was a carpenter; then I became an errand boy in Mr. Dowling's office I had to learn the business, you see. To-day I am a sort of manager. In eighteen months' time—perhaps before that if they do not offer me a partnership—I shall start for myself."
Once more the subtlest of smiles flickered at the corners of her lips.
"Do they know yet?" she asked, with faint irony.
"Not yet," he replied, with absolute seriousness. "They might tell me to go, and I have a few things to learn yet. I would rather make experiments for some one else than for myself. I can use the results later; they will help me to make money."
She laughed softly and wiped the tears out of her eyes. They were really very beautiful eyes notwithstanding the dark rims encircling them.
"If only I had met you before!" she murmured.
"Why?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Don't ask me," she begged. "It would not be good for your conceit, if you have any, to tell you."
"I have no conceit and I am not inquisitive," he said, "but I do not see why you laughed."
Their period of waiting came to an end at this point. The fish was brought and their conversation became disjointed. In the silence which followed, the old shadow crept over her face. Once only it lifted. It was while they were waiting for the cutlets. She leaned towards him, her elbows upon the tablecloth, her face supported by her fingers.
"I think that it is time we left these generalities," she insisted, "and you told me something rather more personal, something which I am very anxious to know. Tell me exactly why so self-centered a person as yourself should interest himself in a fellow-creature at all. It seems odd to me."
"It is odd," he admitted, frankly. "I will try to explain it to you but it will sound very bald, and I do not think that you will understand. I watched you a few nights ago out on the roof at Blenheim House. You were looking across the house-tops and you didn't seem to be seeing anything at all really, and yet all the time I knew that you were seeing things I couldn't, you were understanding and appreciating something which I knew nothing of, and it worried me. I tried to talk to you that evening, but you were rude."
"You really are a curious person," she remarked. "Are you always worried, then, if you find that some one else is seeing things or understanding things which are outside your comprehension?"
"Always," he replied promptly.
"You are too far-reaching," she affirmed. "You want to gather everything into your life. You cannot. You will only be unhappy if you try. No man can do it. You must learn your limitations or suffer all your days."
"Limitations!" He repeated the words with measureless scorn. "If I learn them at all," he declared, with unexpected force, "it will be with scars and bruises, for nothing else will content me."
"We are, I should say, almost the same age," she remarked slowly.
"I am twenty-five," he told her.
"I am twenty-two," she said. "It seems strange that two people whose ideas of life are as far apart as the Poles should have come together like this even for a moment. I do not understand it at all. Did you expect that I should tell you just what I saw in the clouds that night?"
"No," he answered, "not exactly. I have spoken of my first interest in you only. There are other things. I told a lie about the bracelet and I followed you out of the boarding-house and I brought you here, for some other for quite a different reason."
"Tell me what it was," she demanded.
"I do not know it myself," he declared solemnly. "I really and honestly do not know it. It is because I hoped that it might come to me while we were together, that I am here with you at this moment. I do not like impulses which I do not understand."
She laughed at him a little scornfully.
"After all," she said, "although it may not have dawned upon you yet, it is probably the same wretched reason. You are a man and you have the poison somewhere in your blood. I am really not bad-looking, you know."
He looked at her critically. She was a little over-slim, perhaps, but she was certainly wonderfully graceful. Even the poise of her head, the manner in which she leaned back in her chair, had its individuality. Her features, too, were good, though her mouth had grown a trifle hard. For the first time the dead pallor of her cheeks was relieved by a touch of color. Even Tavernake realized that there were great possibilities about her. Nevertheless, he shook his head.
"I do not agree with you in the least," he asserted firmly. "Your looks have nothing to do with it. I am sure that it is not that."
"Let me cross-examine you," she suggested. "Think carefully now. Does it give you no pleasure at all to be sitting here alone with me?"
He answered her deliberately; it was obvious that he was speaking the truth.
"I am not conscious that it does," he declared. "The only feeling I am aware of at the present moment in connection with you, is the curiosity of which I have already spoken."
She leaned a little towards him, extending her very shapely fingers. Once more the smile at her lips transformed her face.
"Look at my hand," she said. "Tell me—wouldn't you like to hold it just for a minute, if I gave it you?"
Her eyes challenged his, softly and yet imperiously. His whole attention, however, seemed to be absorbed by her finger-nails. It seemed strange to him that a girl in her straits should have devoted so much care to her hands.
"No," he answered deliberately, "I have no wish to hold your hand. Why should I?"
"Look at me," she insisted.
He did so without embarrassment or hesitation,—it was more than ever apparent that he was entirely truthful. She leaned back in her chair, laughing softly to herself.
"Oh, my friend Mr. Leonard Tavernake," she exclaimed, "if you were not so crudely, so adorably, so miraculously truthful, what a prig, prig, prig, you would be! The cutlets at last, thank goodness! Your cross-examination is over. I pronounce you 'Not Guilty!"'
During the progress of the rest of the meal, they talked very little. At its conclusion, Tavernake discharged the bill, having carefully checked each item and tipped the waiter the exact amount which the man had the right to expect. They ascended the stairs together to the street, the girl lingering a few steps behind. On the pavement her fingers touched his arm.
"I wonder, would you mind driving me down to the Embankment?" she asked almost humbly. "It was so close down there and I want some air."
This was an extravagance which he had scarcely contemplated, but he did not hesitate. He called a taxicab and seated himself by her side. Her manner seemed to have grown quieter and more subdued, her tone was no longer semi-belligerent.
"I will not keep you much longer," she promised. "I suppose I am not so strong as I used to be. I have had scarcely anything to eat for two days and conversation has become an unknown luxury. I think—it seems absurd—but I think that I am feeling a little faint."
"The air will soon revive you," he said. "As to our conversation, I am disappointed. I think that you are very foolish not to tell me more about yourself."
She closed her eyes, ignoring his remark. They turned presently into a narrower thoroughfare. She leaned towards him.
"You have been very good to me," she admitted almost timidly, "and I am afraid that I have not been very gracious. We shall not see one another again after this evening. I wonder—would you care to kiss me?"
He opened his lips and closed them again. He sat quite still, his eyes fixed upon the road ahead, until he had strangled something absolutely absurd, something unrecognizable.
"I would rather not," he decided quietly. "I know you mean to be kind but that sort of thing—well, I don't think I understand it. Besides," he added with a sudden naive relief, as he clutched at a fugitive but plausible thought, "if I did you would not believe the things which I have been telling you."
He had a curious idea that she was disappointed as she turned her head away, but she said nothing. Arrived at the Embankment, the cab came slowly to a standstill. The girl descended. There was something new in her manner; she looked away from him when she spoke.
"You had better leave me here," she said. "I am going to sit upon that seat."
Then came those few seconds' hesitation which were to count for a great deal in his life. The impulse which bade him stay with her was unaccountable but it conquered.
"If you do not object," he remarked with some stiffness, "I should like to sit here with you for a little time. There is certainly a breeze."
She made no comment but walked on. He paid the man and followed her to the empty seat. Opposite, some illuminated advertisements blazed their unsightly message across the murky sky. Between the two curving rows of yellow lights the river flowed—black, turgid, hopeless. Even here, though they had escaped from its absolute thrall, the far-away roar of the city beat upon their ears. She listened to it for a moment and then pressed her hands to the side of her head.
"Oh, how I hate it!" she moaned. "The voices, always the voices, calling, threatening, beating you away! Take my hands, Leonard Tavernake,—hold me."
He did as she bade him, clumsily, as yet without comprehension.
"You are not well," he muttered.
Her eyes opened and a flash of her old manner returned. She smiled at him, feebly but derisively.
"You foolish boy!" she cried. "Can't you see that I am dying? Hold my hands tightly and watch—watch! Here is one more thing you can see—that you cannot understand."
He saw the empty phial slip from her sleeve and fall on to the pavement. With a cry he sprang up and, carrying her in his arms, rushed out into the road.
CHAPTER III. AN UNPLEASANT MEETING
It was a quarter past eleven and the theatres were disgorging their usual nightly crowds. The most human thoroughfare in any of the world's great cities was at its best and brightest. Everywhere commissionaires were blowing their whistles, the streets were thronged with slowly-moving vehicles, the pavements were stirring with life. The little crowd which had gathered in front of the chemist's shop was swept away. After all, none of them knew exactly what they had been waiting for. There was a rumor that a woman had fainted or had met with an accident. Certainly she had been carried into the shop and into the inner room, the door of which was still closed. A few passers-by had gathered together and stared and waited for a few minutes, but had finally lost interest and melted away. A human thoroughfare, this, indeed, one of the pulses of the great city beating time night and day to the tragedies of life. The chemist's assistant, with impassive features, was serving a couple of casual customers from behind the counter. Only a few yards away, beyond the closed door, the chemist himself and a hastily summoned doctor fought with Death for the body of the girl who lay upon the floor, faint moans coming every now and then from her blue lips.
Tavernake, whose forced inaction during that terrible struggle had become a burden to him, slipped softly from the room as soon as the doctor had whispered that the acute crisis was over, and passed through the shop out into the street, a solemn, dazed figure among the light-hearted crowd. Even in those grim moments, the man's individualism spoke up to him. He was puzzled at his own action, He asked himself a question—not, indeed, with regret, but with something more than curiosity and actual selfprobing—as though, by concentrating his mind upon his recent course of action, he would be able to understand the motives which had influenced him. Why had he chosen to burden himself with the care of this desperate young woman? Supposing she lived, what was to become of her? He had acquired a certain definite responsibility with regard to her future, for whatever the doctor and his assistant might do, it was his own promptitude and presence of mind which had given her the first chance of life. Without a doubt, he had behaved foolishly. Why not vanish into the crowd and have done with it? What was it to him, after all, whether this girl lived or died? He had done his duty—more than his duty. Why not disappear now and let her take her chance? His common sense spoke to him loudly; such thoughts as these beat upon his brain.
Just for once in his life, however, his common sense exercised an altogether subordinate position. He knew very well, even while he listened to these voices, that he was only counting the minutes until he could return. Having absolutely decided that the only reasonable course left for him to pursue was to return home and leave the girl to her fate, he found himself back inside the shop within a quarter of an hour. The chemist had just come out from the inner room, and looked up at his entrance.
"She'll do now," he announced.
Tavernake nodded. He was amazed at his own sense of relief.
"I am glad," he declared.
The doctor joined them, his black bag in his hand, prepared for departure. He addressed himself to Tavernake as the responsible person.
"The young lady will be all right now," he said, "but she may be rather queer for a day or two. Fortunately, she made the usual mistake of people who are ignorant of medicine and its effects—she took enough poison to kill a whole household. You had better take care of her, young man," he added dryly. "She'll be getting into trouble if she tries this sort of thing again."
"Will she need any special attention during the next few days?" Tavernake asked. "The circumstances under which I brought her here are a little unusual, and I am not quite sure—"
"Take her home to bed," the doctor interrupted, "and you'll find she'll sleep it off. She seems to have a splendid constitution, although she has let herself run down. If you need any further advice and your own medical man is not available, I will come and see her if you send for me. Camden, my name is; telephone number 734 Gerrard."
"I should be glad to know the amount of your fee, if you please," Tavernake said.
"My fee is two guineas," the doctor answered.
Tavernake paid him and he went away. Already the shadow of the tragedy was passing. The chemist had joined his assistant and was busy dispensing drugs behind his counter.
"You can go in to the young lady, if you like," he remarked to Tavernake. "I dare say she'll feel better to have some one with her."
Tavernake passed slowly into the inner room, closing the door behind him. He was scarcely prepared for so piteous a sight. The girl's face was white and drawn as she lay upon the couch to which they had lifted her. The fighting spirit was dead; she was in a state of absolute and complete collapse. She opened her eyes at his coning, but closed them again almost immediately—less, it seemed, from any consciousness of his presence than from sheer exhaustion.
"I am glad that you are better," he whispered crossing the room to her side.
"Thank you," she murmured almost inaudibly.
Tavernake stood looking down upon her, and his sense of perplexity increased. Stretched on the hard horsehair couch she seemed, indeed, pitifully thin and younger than her years. The scowl, which had passed from her face, had served in some measure as a disguise.
"We shall have to leave here in a few minutes," he said, softly. "They will want to close the shop."
"I am so sorry," she faltered, "to have given you all this trouble. You must send me to a hospital or the workhouse—anywhere."
"You are sure that there are no friends to whom I can send?" he asked.
"There is no one!"
She closed her eyes and Tavernake sat quite still on the end of her couch, his elbow upon his knee, his head resting upon his hand. Presently, the rush of customers having ceased, the chemist came in.
"I think, if I were you, I should take her home now," he remarked. "She'll probably drop off to sleep very soon and wake up much stronger. I have made up a prescription here in case of exhaustion."
Tavernake stared at the man. Take her home! His sense of humor was faint enough but he found himself trying to imagine the faces of Mrs. Lawrence or Mrs. Fitzgerald if he should return with her to the boardinghouse at such an hour.
"I suppose you know where she lives?" the chemist inquired curiously.
"Of course," Tavernake assented. "You are quite right. I dare say she is strong enough now to walk as far as the pavement."
He paid the bill for the medicines, and they lifted her from the couch. Between them she walked slowly into the outer shop. Then she began to drag on their arms and she looked up at the chemist a little piteously.
"May I sit down for a moment?" she begged. "I feel faint."
They placed her in one of the cane chairs facing the door. The chemist mixed her some sal volatile.
"I am sorry," she murmured, "so sorry. In a few minutes—I shall be better."
Outside, the throng of pedestrians had grown less, but from the great restaurant opposite a constant stream of motor-cars and carriages was slowly bringing away the supper guests. Tavernake stood at the door, watching them idly. The traffic was momentarily blocked and almost opposite to him a motor-car, the simple magnificence of which filled him with wonder, had come to a standstill. The chauffeur and footman both wore livery which was almost white. Inside a swinging vase of flowers was suspended from the roof. A man and a woman leaned back in luxurious easy-chairs. The man was dark and had the look of a foreigner. The woman was very fair. She wore a long ermine cloak and a tiara of pearls.
Tavernake, whose interest in the passing throngs was entirely superficial, found himself for some reason curiously attracted by this glimpse into a world of luxury of which he knew nothing; attracted, too, by the woman's delicate face with its uncommon type of beauty. Their eyes met as he stood there, stolid and motionless, framed in the doorway. Tavernake continued to stare, unmindful, perhaps unconscious, of the rudeness of his action. The woman, after a moment, glanced away at the shopwindow. A sudden thought seemed to strike her. She spoke through the tube at her side and turned to her companion. Meanwhile, the footman, leaning from his place, held out his arm in warning and the car was slowly backed to the side of the pavement. The lady felt for a moment in a bag of white satin which lay upon the round table in front of her, and handed a slip of paper through the open window to the servant who had already descended and was standing waiting. He came at once towards the shop, passing Tavernake, who remained in the door-way.
"Will you make this up at once, please?" he directed, handing the paper across to the chemist.
The chemist took it in his hand and turned away mechanically toward the dispensing room. Suddenly he paused, and, looking back, shook his head.
"For whom is this prescription required?" he asked.
"For my mistress," the man answered. "Her name is there."
"Where is she?"
"Outside; she is waiting for it."
"If she really wants this made up to-night," the chemist declared, "she must come in and sign the book."
The footman looked across the counter, for a moment, a little blankly.
"Am I to tell her that?" he inquired. "It's only a sleeping draught. Her regular chemist makes it up all right."
"That may be," the man behind the counter replied, "but, you see, I am not her regular chemist. You had better go and tell her so."
The footman departed upon his errand without a glance at the girl who was sitting within a few feet of him.
"I am very sorry, madam," he announced to his mistress, "that the chemist declines to make up the prescription unless you sign the book."
"Very well, then, I will come," she declared.
The woman, handed from the automobile by her servant, lifted her white satin skirts in both hands and stepped lightly across the pavement. Tavernake stood on one side to let her pass. She seemed to him to be, indeed, a creature of that other world of which he knew nothing. Her slow, graceful movements, the shimmer of her skirt, her silk stockings, the flashing of the diamond buckles upon her shoes, the faint perfume from her clothes, the soft touch of her ermine as she swept by—all these things were indeed strange to him. His eyes followed her with rapt interest as she approached the counter.
"You wish me to sign for my prescription?" she asked the chemist. "I will do so, with pleasure, if it is necessary, only you must not keep me waiting long."
Her voice was very low and very musical; the slight smile which had parted her tired lips, was almost pathetic. Even the chemist felt himself to be a human being. He turned at once to his shelves and began to prepare the drug.
"I am sorry, madam, that it should have been necessary to fetch you in," he said, apologetically. "My assistant will give you the book if you will kindly sign it."
The assistant dived beneath the counter, reappearing almost immediately with a black volume and a pen and ink. The chemist was engrossed upon his task; Tavernake's eyes were still riveted upon this woman, who seemed to him the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in life. No one was watching the girl. The chemist was the first to see her face, and that only in a looking glass. He stopped in the act of mixing his drug and turned slowly round. His expression was such that they all followed his eyes. The girl was sitting up in her chair, with a sudden spot of color burning in her cheeks, her fingers gripping the counter as though for support, her eyes dilated, unnatural, burning in their white setting with an unholy fire. The lady was the last to turn her head, and the bottle of eau-de-cologne which she had taken up from the counter, slipped with a crash to the floor. All expression seemed to pass from her face; the very life seemed drawn from it. Those who were watching her saw suddenly an old woman looking at something of which she was afraid.
The girl seemed to find an unnatural strength. She dragged herself up and turned wildly to Tavernake.
"Take me away," she cried, in a low voice. "Take me away at once."
The woman at the counter did not speak. Tavernake stepped quickly forward and then hesitated. The girl was on her feet now and she clutched at his arms. Her eyes besought him.
"You must take me away, please," she begged, hoarsely. "I am well now—quite well. I can walk."
Tavernake's lack of imagination stood him in good stead then. He simply did what he was told, did it in perfectly mechanical fashion, without asking any questions. With the girl leaning heavily upon his arm, he stepped into the street and almost immediately into a passing taxicab which he had hailed from the threshold of the shop. As he closed the door, he glanced behind him. The woman was standing there, half turned towards him, still with that strange, stony look upon her lifeless face. The chemist was bending across the counter towards her, wondering, perhaps, if another incident were to be drawn into his night's work. The eau-de-cologne was running in a little stream across the floor.
"Where to, sir?" the taxicab driver asked Tavernake.
"Where to?" Tavernake repeated.
The girl was clinging to his arm.
"Tell him to drive away from here," she whispered, "to drive anywhere, but away from here."
"Drive straight on," Tavernake directed, "along Fleet Street and up Holborn. I will give you the address later on."
The man changed his speed and their pace increased. Tavernake sat quite still, dumfounded by these amazing happenings. The girl by his side was clutching his arm, sobbing a little hysterically, holding him all the time as though in terror.
CHAPTER IV. BREAKFAST WITH BEATRICE
The girl, awakened, perhaps, by the passing of some heavy cart along the street below, or by the touch of the sunbeam which lay across her pillow, first opened her eyes and then, after a preliminary stare around, sat up in bed. The events of the previous night slowly shaped themselves in her mind. She remembered everything up to the commencement of that drive in the taxicab. Sometime after that she must have fainted. And now—what had become of her? Where was she?
She looked around her in ever-increasing surprise. Certainly it was the strangest room she had ever been in. The floor was dusty and innocent of any carpet; the window was bare and uncurtained. The walls were unpapered but covered here and there with strange-looking plans, one of them taking up nearly the whole side of the room—a very rough piece of work with little dabs of blue paint here and there, and shadings and diagrams which were absolutely unintelligible. She herself was lying upon a battered iron bedstead, and she was wearing a very coarse nightdress. Her own clothes were folded up and lay upon a piece of brown paper on the floor by the side of the bed. To all appearance, the room was entirely unfurnished, except that in the middle of it was a hideous papier mache screen.
After her first bewildered inspection of her surroundings, it was upon this screen that her attention was naturally directed. Obviously it must be there to conceal something. Very carefully she leaned out of bed until she was able to see around the corner of it. Then her heart gave a little jump and she was only just able to stifle an exclamation of fear. Some one was sitting there—a man—sitting on a battered cane chair, bending over a roll of papers which were stretched upon a rude deal table. She felt her cheeks grow hot. It must be Tavernake! Where had he brought her? What did his presence in the room mean?
The bed creaked heavily as she regained her former position. A voice came to her from behind the screen. She knew it at once. It was Tavernake's.
"Are you awake?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered,—"yes, I am awake. Is that Mr. Tavernake? Where am I, please?"
"First of all, are you better?" he inquired.
"I am better," she assured him, sitting up in bed and pulling the clothes to her chin. "I am quite well now. Tell me at once where I am and what you are doing over there."
"There is nothing to be terrified about," Tavernake answered. "To all effects and purposes, I am in another room. When I move to the door, as I shall do directly, I shall drag the screen with me. I can promise you—"
"Please explain everything," she begged, "quickly. I am most—uncomfortable."
"At half-past twelve this morning," Tavernake said, "I found myself alone in a taxicab with you, without any luggage or any idea where to go to. To make matters worse, you fainted. I tried two hotels but they refused to take you in; they were probably afraid that you were going to be ill. Then I thought of this room. I am employed, as you know, by a firm of estate agents. I do a great deal of work on my own account, however, which I prefer to do in secret, and unknown to any one. For that reason, I hired this room a year ago and I come here most evenings to work. Sometimes I stay late, so last month I bought a small bedstead and had it fixed up here. There is a woman who comes in to clean the room. I went to her house last night and persuaded her to come here. She undressed you and put you to bed. I am sorry that my presence here distresses you, but it is a large building and quite empty at night-time. I thought you might wake up and be frightened, so I borrowed this screen from the woman and have been sitting here."
"What, all night?" she gasped.
"Certainly," he answered. "The woman could not stop herself and this is not a residential building at all. All the lower floors are let for offices and warehouses, and there is no one else in the place until eight o'clock."
She put her hands to her head and sat quite still for a moment or two. It was really hard to take everything in.
"Aren't you very sleepy?" she asked, irrelevantly.
"Not very," he replied. "I dozed for an hour, a little time ago. Since then I have been looking through some plans which interest me very much."
"Can I get up?" she inquired, timidly.
"If you feel strong enough, please do," he answered, with manifest relief. "I shall move towards the door, dragging the screen in front of me. You will find a brush and comb and some hairpins on your clothes. I could not think of anything else to get for you, but, if you will dress, we will walk to London Bridge Station, which is just across the way, and while I order some breakfast you can go into the ladies' room and do your hair properly. I did my best to get hold of a looking-glass, but it was quite impossible."
The girl's sense of humor was suddenly awake. She had hard work not to scream. He had evidently thought out all these details in painstaking fashion, one by one.
"Thank you," she said. "I will get up immediately, if you will do as you say."
He clutched the screen from the inside and dragged it towards the door. On the threshold, he spoke to her once more.
"I shall sit upon the stairs just outside," he announced.
"I sha'n't be more than five minutes," she assured him.
She sprang out of bed and dressed quickly. There was nothing beyond where the screen had been except a table covered with plans, and a particularly hard cane chair which she dragged over for her own use. As she dressed, she began to realize how much this matter-of-fact, unimpressionable young man had done for her during the last few hours. The reflection affected her in a curious manner. She became afflicted with a shyness which she had not felt when he was in the room. When at last she had finished her toilette and opened the door, she was almost tongue-tied. He was sitting on the top step, with his back against the landing, and his eyes were closed. He opened them with a little start, however, as soon as he heard her approach.
"I am glad you have not been long," he remarked. "I want to be at my office at nine o'clock and I must go and have a bath somewhere. These stairs are rather steep. Please walk carefully."
She followed him in silence down three flights of stone steps. On each landing there were names upon the doors—two firms of hop merchants, a solicitor, and a commission agent. The ground floor was some sort of warehouse, from which came a strong smell of leather.
Tavernake opened the outside door with a small key and they passed into the street.
"London Bridge Station is just across the way," he said. "The refreshment room will be open and we can get some breakfast at once."
"What time is it?" she asked.
"About half-past seven."
She walked by his side quite meekly, and although there were many things which she was longing to say, she remained absolutely without the power of speech. Except that he was looking a little crumpled, there was nothing whatever in his appearance to indicate that he had been up all night. He looked exactly as he had done on the previous day, he seemed even quite unconscious that there was anything unusual in their relations. As soon as they arrived at the station, he pointed to the ladies' waiting-room.
"If you will go in and arrange your hair there," he said, "I will go and order breakfast and have a shave. I will be back here in about twenty minutes. You had better take this."
He offered her a shilling and she accepted it without hesitation. As soon as he had gone, however, she looked at the coin in her hand in blank wonder. She had accepted it from him with perfect naturalness and without even saying "Thank you!" With a queer little laugh, she pushed open the swinging doors and made her way into the waiting-room.
In hardly more than a quarter of an hour she emerged, to find Tavernake waiting for her. He had retied his tie, bought a fresh collar, had been shaved. She, too, had improved her appearance.
"Breakfast is waiting this way," he announced.
She followed him obediently and they sat down at a small table in the station refreshment-room.
"Mr. Tavernake," she asked, suddenly, "I must ask you something. Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"
"Nothing," he assured her, with some emphasis.
"You seem to take everything so much as a matter of course," she protested.
"Oh, I don't know," she replied, a little feebly. "Only—"
She found relief in a sudden and perfectly natural laugh.
"Come," he said, "that is better. I am glad that you feel like laughing."
"As a matter of fact," she declared, "I feel much more like crying. Don't you know that you were very foolish last night? You ought to have left me alone. Why didn't you? You would have saved yourself a great deal of trouble."
He nodded, as though that point of view did, in some degree, commend itself to him.
"Yes," he admitted, "I suppose I should. I do not, even now, understand why I interfered. I can only remember that it didn't seem possible not to at the time. I suppose one must have impulses," he added, with a little frown.
"The reflection," she remarked, helping herself to another roll, "seems to annoy you."
"It does," he confessed. "I do not like to feel impelled to do anything the reason for which is not apparent. I like to do just the things which seem likely to work out best for myself."
"How you must hate me!" she murmured.
"No, I do not hate you," he replied, "but, on the other hand, you have certainly been a trouble to me. First of all, I told a falsehood at the boarding-house, and I prefer always to tell the truth when I can. Then I followed you out of the house, which I disliked doing very much, and I seem to have spent a considerable portion of the time since, in your company, under somewhat extraordinary circumstances. I do not understand why I have done this."
"I suppose it is because you are a very good-hearted person," she remarked.
"But I am not," he assured her, calmly. "I am nothing of the sort. I have very little sympathy with good-hearted people. I think the world goes very much better when every one looks after himself, and the people who are not competent to do so go to the wall."
"It sounds a trifle selfish," she murmured.
"Perhaps it is. I have an idea that if I could phrase it differently it would become philosophy."
"Perhaps," she suggested, smiling across the table at him, "you have really done all this because you like me."
"I am quite sure that it is not that," he declared. "I feel an interest in you for which I cannot account, but it does not seem to me to be a personal one. Last night," he continued, "when I was sitting there waiting, I tried to puzzle it all out. I came to the conclusion that it was because you represent something which I do not understand. I am very curious and it always interests me to learn. I believe that must be the secret of my interest in you."
"You are very complimentary," she told him, mockingly. "I wonder what there is in the world which I could teach so superior a person as Mr. Tavernake?"
He took her question quite seriously.
"I wonder what there is myself," he answered. "And yet, in a way, I think I know."
"Your imagination should come to the rescue," she remarked.
"I have no imagination," he declared, gloomily.
They were silent for several minutes; she was still studying him.
"I wonder you don't ask me any questions about myself," she said, abruptly.
"There is only one thing," he answered, "concerning which I am in the least curious. Last night in the chemist's shop—"
"Don't!" she begged him, with suddenly whitening face. "Don't speak of that!"
"Very well," he replied, indifferently. "I thought that you were rather inviting my questions. You need not be afraid of any more. I really am not curious about personal matters; I find that my own life absorbs all my interests."
They had finished breakfast and he paid the bill. She began to put on her gloves.
"Whatever happens to me," she said, "I shall never forget that you have been very kind."
She hesitated for a moment and then she seemed to realize more completely how really kind he had been. There had been a certain crude delicacy about his actions which she had under-appreciated. She leaned towards him. There was nothing left this morning of that disfiguring sullenness. Her mouth was soft; her eyes were bright, almost appealing. If Tavernake had been a judge of woman's looks, he must certainly have found her attractive.
"I am very, very grateful to you," she continued, holding out her hand. "I shall always remember how kind you were. Good-bye!"
"You are not going?" he asked.
"Why, you didn't imagine that you had taken the care of me upon your shoulders for the rest of your life?" she demanded.
"No, I didn't imagine that," he answered. "At the same time, what plans have you made? Where are you going?"
"Oh! I shall think of something," she declared, indifferently.
He caught the gleam in her eyes, the sudden hopelessness which fell like a cloud upon her face. He spoke promptly and with decision.
"As a matter of fact," he remarked, "you do not know yourself. You are just going to drift out of this place and very likely find your way to a seat on the Embankment again."
Her lips quivered. She had tried to be brave but it was hard.
"Not necessarily," she replied. "Something may turn up."
He leaned a little across the table towards her.
"Listen," he said, deliberately, "I will make a proposition to you. It has come to me during the last few minutes. I am tired of the boarding-house and I wish to leave it. The work which I do at night is becoming more and more important. I should like to take two rooms somewhere. If I take a third, would you care to call yourself what I called you to the charwoman last night—my sister? I should expect you to look after the meals and my clothes, and help me in certain other ways. I cannot give you much of a salary," he continued, "but you would have an opportunity during the daytime of looking out for some work, if that is what you want, and you would at least have a roof and plenty to eat and drink."
She looked at him in blank amazement. It was obvious that his proposition was entirely honest.
"But, Mr. Tavernake," she protested, "you forget that I am not really your sister."
"Does that matter?" he asked, without flinching. "I think you understand the sort of person I am. You would have nothing to fear from any admiration on my part—or anything of that sort," he added, with some show of clumsiness. "Those things do not come in my life. I am ambitious to get on, to succeed and become wealthy. Other things I do not even think about."
She was speechless. After a short pause, he went on.
"I am proposing this arrangement as much for my own sake as for yours. I am very well read and I know most of what there is to be known in my profession. But there are other things concerning which I am ignorant. Some of these things I believe you could teach me."
Still speechless, she sat and looked at him for several moments. Outside, the station now was filled with a hurrying throng on their way to the day's work. Engines were shrieking, bells ringing, the press of footsteps was unceasing. In the dark, ill-ventilated room itself there was the rattle of crockery, the yawning of discontented-looking young women behind the bar, young women with their hair still in curl-papers, as yet unprepared for their weak little assaults upon the good-nature or susceptibility of their customers. A queer corner of life it seemed. She looked at her companion and realized how fragmentary was her knowledge of him. There was nothing to be gathered from his face. He seemed to have no expression. He was simply waiting for her reply, with his thoughts already half engrossed upon the business of the day.
"Really," she began, "I—"
He came back from his momentary wandering and looked at her. She suddenly altered the manner of her speech. It was a strange proposition, perhaps, but this was one of the strangest of men.
"I am quite willing to try it," she decided. "Will you tell me where I can meet you later on?"
"I have an hour and a half for luncheon at one o'clock," he said. "Meet me exactly at the southeast corner of Trafalgar Square. Would you like a little money?" he added, rising.
"I have plenty, thank you," she answered.
He laid half-a-crown upon the table and made an entry in a small memorandum book which he drew from his pocket.
"You had better keep this," he said, "in case you want it. I am going to leave you alone here. You can find your way anywhere, I am sure, and I am in a hurry. At one o'clock, remember. I hope you will still be feeling better."
He put on his hat and went away without a backward glance. Beatrice sat in her chair and watched him out of sight.
CHAPTER V. INTRODUCING Mrs. WENHAM GARDNER
A very distinguished client was engaging the attention of Mr. Dowling, Senior, of Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company, auctioneers and estate agents, whose offices were situated in Waterloo Place, Pall Mall. Mr. Dowling was a fussy little man of between fifty and sixty years, who spent most of his time playing golf, and who, although he studiously contrived to ignore the fact, had long since lost touch with the details of his business. Consequently, in the absence of Mr. Dowling, Junior, who had developed a marked partiality for a certain bar in the locality, Tavernake was hastily summoned to the rescue from another part of the building, by a small boy violently out of breath.
"Never see the governor in such a fuss," the latter declared, confidentially, "She's asking no end of questions and he don't know a thing."
"Who is the lady?" Tavernake asked, on the way downstairs.
"Didn't hear her name," the boy replied. "She's all right, though, I can tell you—a regular slap-up beauty. Such a motor-car, too! Flowers and tables and all sorts of things inside. By Jove, won't the governor tear his hair if she goes before you get there!"
Tavernake quickened his steps and in a few moments knocked at the door of the private office and entered.
His chief welcomed him with a gesture of relief. The distinguished client of the firm, whose attention he was endeavoring to engage, had glanced toward the newcomer, at his first appearance, with an air of somewhat bored unconcern. Her eyes, however, did not immediately leave his face. On the contrary, from the moment of his entrance she watched him steadfastly. Tavernake, stolid, unruffled, at that time without comprehension, approached the desk.
"This is—er—Mr. Tavernake, our manager," Mr. Dowling announced, obsequiously. "In the absence of my son, he is in charge of the letting department. I have no doubt that he will be able to suggest something suitable. Tavernake," he continued, "this lady,"—he glanced at a card in front of him—"Mrs. Wenham Gardner of New York, is looking for a town house, and has been kind enough to favor us with an inquiry."
Tavernake made no immediate reply. Mr. Dowling was shortsighted, and in any case it would never have occurred to him to associate nervousness, or any form of emotion, with his responsible manager. The beautiful lady leaned back in her chair. Her lips were parted in a slight but very curious smile, her fingers supported her cheek, her eyelids were contracted as she looked into his face. Tavernake felt that their recognition was mutual. Once more he was back again in the tragic atmosphere of that chemist's shop, with Beatrice, half fainting, in his arms, the beautiful lady turned to stone. It was an odd tableau, that, so vividly imprinted upon his memory that it was there before him at this very moment. There was mystery in this woman's eyes, mystery and something else.
"I don't seem to have come across anything down here which—er—particularly attracts Mrs.—Mrs. Wenham Gardner," Mr. Dowling went on, taking up a little sheaf of papers from the desk. "I thought, perhaps, that the Bryanston Square house might have suited, but it seems that it is too small, far too small. Mrs. Gardner is used to entertaining, and has explained to me that she has a great many friends always coming and going from the other side of the water. She requires, apparently, twelve bedrooms, besides servants' quarters."
"Your list is scarcely up to date, sir," Tavernake reminded him. "If the rent is of no particular object, there is Grantham House."
Mr. Dowling's face was suddenly illuminated.
"Grantham House!" he exclaimed. "Precisely! Now I declare that it had absolutely slipped my memory for the moment—only for the moment, mind—that we have just had placed upon our books one of the most desirable mansions in the west end of London. A most valued client, too, one whom we are most anxious to oblige. Dear, dear me! It is very fortunate—very fortunate indeed that I happened to think of it, especially as it seems that no one had had the sense to place it upon my list. Tavernake, get the plans at once and show them to—er—to Mrs. Gardner."
Tavernake crossed the room in silence, opened a drawer, and returned with a stiff roll of papers, which he spread carefully out in front of this unexpected client. She spoke then for the first time since he had entered the room. Her voice was low and marvelously sweet. There was very little of the American accent about it, but something in the intonation, especially toward the end of her sentences, was just a trifle un-English.
"Where is this Grantham House?" she inquired.
"Within a stone's throw of Grosvenor Square," Tavernake answered, briskly. "It is really one of the most central spots in the west end. If you will allow me!"
For the next few minutes he was very fluent indeed. With pencil in hand, he explained the plans, dwelt on the advantages of the location, and from the very reserve of his praise created an impression that the house he was describing was the one absolutely perfect domicile in the whole of London.
"Can I look over the place?" she asked, when he had finished.
"By all means," Mr. Dowling declared, "by all means. I was on the point of suggesting it. It will be by far the most satisfactory proceeding. You will not be disappointed, my dear madam, I can assure you."
"I should like to do so, if I may, without delay," she said.
"There is no opportunity like the present," Mr. Dowling replied. "If you will permit me," he added, rising, "it will give me the greatest pleasure to escort you personally. My engagements for the rest of the day happen to be unimportant. Tavernake, let me have the keys of the rooms that are locked up. The caretaker, of course, is there in possession."
The beautiful visitor rose to her feet, and even that slight movement was accomplished with a grace unlike anything which Tavernake had ever seen before.
"I could not think of troubling you so far, Mr. Dowling," she protested. "It is not in the least necessary for you to come yourself. Your manager can, perhaps, spare me a few minutes. He seems to be so thoroughly posted in all the details," she added, apologetically, as she noticed the cloud on Mr. Dowling's brow.
"Just as you like, of course," he declared. "Mr. Tavernake can go, by all means. Now I come to think of it, it certainly would be inconvenient for me to be away from the office for more than a few minutes. Mr. Tavernake has all the details at his fingers' ends, and I only hope, Mrs. Gardner, that he will be able to persuade you to take the house. Our client," he added, with a bow, "would, I am sure, be delighted to hear that we had secured for him so distinguished a tenant."
She smiled at him, a delightful mixture of graciousness and condescension.
"You are very good," she answered. "The house sounds rather large for me but it depends so much upon circumstances. If you are ready, Mr.—"
"Tavernake," he told her.
"Mr. Tavernake," she continued, "my car is waiting outside and we might go on at once."
He bowed and held open the door for her, an office which he performed a little awkwardly. Mr. Dowling himself escorted her out on to the pavement. Tavernake stopped behind to get his hat, and passing out a moment afterwards, would have seated himself in front beside the chauffeur but that she held the door of the car open and beckoned to him.
"Will you come inside, please?" she insisted. "There are one or two questions which I might ask you as we go along. Please direct the chauffeur."
He obeyed without a word; the car glided off. As they swung round the first corner, she leaned forward from among the cushions of her seat and looked at him. Then Tavernake was conscious of new things. As though by inspiration, he knew that her visit to the office of Messrs. Dowling, Spence & Company had been no chance one.
She remembered him, remembered him as the companion of Beatrice during that strange, brief meeting. It was an incomprehensible world, this, into which he had wandered. The woman's face had lost her languid, gracious expression. There was something there almost akin to tragedy. Her fingers fell upon his arm and her touch was no light one. She was gripping him almost fiercely.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, "I have a memory for faces which seldom fails me. I have seen you before quite lately. You remember where, of course. Tell me the truth quickly, please."
The words seemed to leap from her lips. Beautiful and young though she undoubtedly was, her intense seriousness had suddenly aged her face. Tavernake was bewildered. He, too, was conscious of a curious emotional disturbance.
"The truth? What truth do you mean?" he demanded.
"It was you whom I saw with Beatrice!"
"You saw me one night about three weeks ago," he admitted slowly. "I was in a chemist's shop in the Strand. You were signing his book for a sleeping draught, I think."
She shivered all over.
"Yes, yes!" she cried. "Of course, I remember all about it. The young lady who was with you—what was she doing there? Where is she now?"
"The young lady was my sister," Tavernake answered stiffly.
Mrs. Wenham Gardner looked, for a moment, as though she would have struck him.
"You need not lie to me!" she exclaimed. "It is not worth while. Tell me where you met her, why you were with her at all in that intimate fashion, and where she is now!"
Tavernake realized at once that so far as this woman was concerned, the fable of his relationship with Beatrice was hopeless. She knew!
"Madam," he replied, "I made the acquaintance of the young lady with whom I was that evening, at the boarding-house where we both lived."
"What were you doing in the chemist's shop?" she demanded.
"The young lady had been ill," he proceeded deliberately, wondering how much to tell. "She had been taken very ill indeed. She was just recovering when you entered."
"Where is she now?" the woman asked eagerly. "Is she still at that boarding-house of which you spoke?"
"No," he answered.
Her fingers gripped his arm once more.
"Why do you answer me always in monosyllables? Don't you understand that you must tell me everything that you know about her. You must tell me where I can find her, at once."
Tavernake remained silent. The woman's voice had still that note of wonderful sweetness, but she had altogether lost her air of complete and aristocratic indifference. She was a very altered person now from the distinguished client who had first enlisted his services. For some reason or other, he knew that she was suffering from a terrible anxiety.
"I am not sure," he said at last, "whether I can do as you ask."
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed sharply.
"The young lady," he continued, "seemed, on the occasion to which you have referred, to be particularly anxious to avoid recognition. She hurried out of the place without speaking to you, and she has avoided the subject ever since. I do not know what her motives may have been, but I think that I should like to ask her first before I tell you where she is to be found."
Mrs. Wenham Gardner leaned towards him. It was certainly the first time that a woman in her apparent rank of life had looked upon Tavernake in such a manner. Her forehead was a little wrinkled, her lips were parted, her eyes were pathetically, delightfully eloquent.
"Mr. Tavernake, you must not—you must not refuse me," she pleaded. "If you only knew the importance of it, you would not hesitate for a moment. This is no idle curiosity on my part. I have reasons, very serious reasons indeed, for wishing to discover that poor girl's whereabouts at once. There is a possible danger of which she must be warned. No one can do it except myself."
"Are you her friend or her enemy?" Tavernake asked.
"Why do you ask such a question?" she demanded.
"I am only going by her expression when she saw you come into the chemist's shop," Tavernake persisted doggedly.
"It is a cruel suggestion, that," the woman cried. "I wish to be her friend, I am her friend. If I could only tell you everything, you would understand at once what a terrible situation, what a hideous quandary I am in."
Once more Tavernake paused for a few moments. He was never a quick thinker and the situation was certainly an embarrassing one for him.
"Madam," he replied at length, "I beg that you will tell me nothing. The young lady of whom you have spoken permits me to call myself her friend, and what she has not told me herself I do not wish to learn from others. I will tell her of this meeting with you, and if it is her desire, I will bring you her address myself within a few hours. I cannot do more than that."
Her face was suddenly cold and hard.
"You mean that you will not!" she exclaimed angrily. "You are obstinate. I do not know how you dare to refuse what I ask."
The car had come to a standstill. He stepped out on to the pavement.
"This is Grantham House, madam," he announced. "Will you descend?"
He heard her draw a quick breath between her teeth and he caught a gleam in her eyes which made him feel vaguely uneasy. She was very angry indeed.
"I do not think that it is necessary for me to do so," she said frigidly. "I do not like the look of the house at all. I do not believe that it will suit me."
"At least, now that you are here," he protested, "you will, if you please, go over it. I should like you to see the ballroom. The decorations are supposed to be quite exceptional."
She hesitated for a moment and then, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, she yielded. There was a note in his tone not exactly insistent, and yet dominant, a note which she obeyed although secretly she wondered at herself for doing so. They passed inside the house and she followed him from room to room, leaving him to do all the talking. She seemed very little interested but every now and then she asked a languid question.
"I do not think that it is in the least likely to suit me," she decided at last. "It is all very magnificent, of course, but I consider that the rent is exorbitant."
Tavernake regarded her thoughtfully.
"I believe," he said, "that our client might be disposed to consider some reduction, in the event of your seriously entertaining taking the house. If you like, I will see him on the subject. I feel sure that the amount I have mentioned could be reduced, if the other conditions were satisfactory."
"There would be no harm in your doing so," she assented. "How soon can you come and let me know?"
"I might be able to ring you up this evening; certainly to-morrow morning," he answered.
She shook her head.
"I will not speak upon the telephone," she declared. "I only allow it in my rooms under protest. You must come and tell me what your client says. When can you see him?"
"It is doubtful whether I shall be able to find him this evening," he replied. "It would probably be to-morrow morning."
"You might go and try at once," she suggested.
He was a little surprised.
"You are really interested in the matter, then?" he inquired.
"Yes, yes," she told him, "of course I am interested. I want you to come and see me directly you have heard. It is important. Supposing you are able to find your client to-night, shall you have seen the young lady before then?"
"I am afraid not," he answered.
"You must try," she begged, laying her fingers upon his shoulder. "Mr. Tavernake, do please try. You can't realize what all this anxiety means to me. I am not at all well and I am seriously worried about—about that young lady. I tell you that I must have an interview with her. It is not for my sake so much as hers. She must be warned."
"Warned?" Tavernake repeated. "I really don't understand."
"Of course you don't!" she exclaimed impatiently. "Why should you understand? I don't want to offend you, Mr. Tavernake," she went on hurriedly. "I would like to treat you quite frankly. It really isn't your place to make difficulties like this. What is this young lady to you that you should presume to consider yourself her guardian?"
"She is a boarding-house acquaintance," Tavernake confessed, "nothing more."
"Then why did you tell me, only a moment ago, that she was your sister?" Mrs. Gardner demanded.
Tavernake threw open the door before which they had been standing.
"This," he said, "is the famous dancing gallery. Lord Clumber is quite willing to allow the pictures to remain, and I may tell you that they are insured for over sixty thousand pounds. There is no finer dancing room than this in all London."
Her eyes swept around it carelessly.
"I have no doubt," she admitted coldly, "that it is very beautiful. I prefer to continue our discussion."
"The dining-room," he went on, "is almost as large. Lord Clumber tells us that he has frequently entertained eighty guests for dinner. The system of ventilation in this room is, as you see, entirely modern."
She took him by the arm and led him to a seat at the further end of the apartment.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, making an obvious attempt to control her temper, "you seem like a very sensible young man, if you will allow me to say so, and I want to convince you that it is your duty to answer my questions. In the first place—don't be offended, will you?—but I cannot possibly see what interest you and that young lady can have in one another. You belong, to put it baldly, to altogether different social stations, and it is not easy to imagine what you could have in common."
She paused, but Tavernake had nothing to say. His gift of silence amounted sometimes almost to genius. She leaned so close to him while she waited in vain for his reply, that the ermine about her neck brushed his cheek. The perfume of her clothes and hair, the pleading of her deep violet-blue eyes, all helped to keep him tongue-tied. Nothing of this sort had ever happened to him before. He did not in the least understand what it could possibly mean.
"I am speaking to you now, Mr. Tavernake," she continued earnestly, "for your own good. When you tell the young lady, as you have promised to this evening, that you have seen me, and that I am very, very anxious to find out where she is, she will very likely go down on her knees and beg you to give me no information whatever about her. She will do her best to make you promise to keep us apart. And yet that is all because she does not understand. Believe me, it is better that you should tell me the truth. You cannot know her very well, Mr. Tavernake, but she is not very wise, that young lady. She is very obstinate, and she has some strange ideas. It is not well for her that she should be left in the world alone. You must see that for yourself, Mr. Tavernake."
"She seems a very sensible young lady," he declared slowly. "I should have thought that she would have been old enough to know for herself what she wanted and what was best for her."
The woman at his side wrung her hands with a little gesture of despair.
"Oh, why can't I make you understand!" she exclaimed, the emotion once more quivering in her tone. "How can I—how can I possibly make you believe me? Listen. Something has happened of which she does not know—something terrible. It is absolutely necessary, in her own interests as well as mine, that I see her, and that very shortly."
"I shall tell her exactly what you say," Tavernake answered apparently unmoved. "Perhaps it would be as well now if we went on to view the sleeping apartments."
"Never mind about the sleeping apartments!" she cried quickly. "You must do more than tell her. You can't believe that I want to bring harm upon any one. Do I look like it? Have I the appearance of a person of evil disposition? You can be that young lady's best friend, Mr. Tavernake, if you will. Take me to her now, this minute. Believe me, if you do that, you will never regret it as long as you live."
Tavernake studied the pattern of the parquet floor for several moments. It was a difficult problem, this. Putting his own extraordinary sensations into the background, he was face to face with something which he did not comprehend, and he disliked the position intensely. After all, delay seemed safest.
"Madam," he protested, "a few hours more or less can make but little difference."
"That is for me to judge!" she exclaimed. "You say that because you do not understand. A few hours may make all the difference in the world."
He shook his head.
"I will tell you exactly what is in my mind," he said, deliberately. "The young lady was terrified when she saw you that night accidentally in the chemist's shop. She almost dragged me away, and although she was almost fainting when we reached the taxicab, her greatest and chief anxiety was that we should get away before you could follow us. I cannot forget this. Until I have received her permission, therefore, to disclose her whereabouts, we will, if you please, speak of something else."
He rose to his feet and glancing around was just in time to see the change in the face of his companion. That eloquently pleading smile had died away from her lips, her teeth were clenched. She looked like a woman struggling hard to control some overwhelming passion. Without the smile her lips seemed hard, even cruel. There were evil things shining out of her eyes. Tavernake felt chilled, almost afraid.
"We will see the rest of the house," she declared coldly.
They went on from room to room. Tavernake, recovering himself rapidly, master of his subject, was fluent and practical. The woman listened, with only a terse remark here and there. Once more they stood in the hall.
"Is there anything else you would like to see?" he asked.
"Nothing," she replied, "but there is one thing more I have to say."
He waited in stolid silence.
"Only a week ago," she went on, looking him in the face, "I told a man who is what you call, I think, an inquiry agent, that I would give a hundred pounds if he could discover that young woman for me within twenty-four hours."
Tavernake started, and the smile came back to the lips of Mrs. Wenham Gardner. After all, perhaps she had found the way!
"A hundred pounds is a great deal of money," he said thoughtfully.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Not so very much," she replied. "About a fortnight's rent of this house, Mr. Tavernake."
"Is the offer still open?" he asked.
She looked into his eyes, and her face had once more the beautiful ingenuousness of a child.
"Mr. Tavernake," she said, "the offer is still open. Get into the car with me and drive back to my rooms at the Milan Court, and I will give you a cheque for a hundred pounds at once. It will be very easily earned and you may just as well take it, for now I know where you are employed, I could have you followed day by day until I discover for myself what you are so foolishly concealing. Be reasonable, Mr. Tavernake."
Tavernake stood quite still. His arms were folded, he was looking out of the hall window at the smoky vista of roofs and chimneys. From the soles of his ready-made boots to his ill-brushed hair, he was a commonplace young man. A hundred pounds was to him a vast sum of money. It represented a year's strenuous savings, perhaps more. The woman who watched him imagined that he was hesitating. Tavernake, however, had no such thought in his mind. He stood there instead, wondering what strange thing had come to him that the mention of a hundred pounds, delightful sum though it was, never tempted him for a single second. What this woman had said might be true. She would probably be able to discover the address easily enough without his help. Yet no such reflection seemed to make the least difference. From the days of his earliest boyhood, from the time when he had flung himself into the struggle, money had always meant much to him, money not for its own sake but as the key to those things which he coveted in life. Yet at that moment something stronger seemed to have asserted itself.
"You will come?" she whispered, passing her arm through his. "We will be there in less than five minutes, and I will write you the cheque before you tell me anything."
He moved towards the door indeed, but he drew a little away from her.
"Madam," he said, "I am sorry to seem so obstinate, but I thought I had made you understand some time ago. I do not feel at liberty to tell you anything without that young lady's permission."
"You refuse?" she cried, incredulously. "You refuse a hundred pounds?"
He opened the door of the car. He seemed scarcely to have heard her.
"At about eleven o'clock to-morrow morning," he announced, "I shall have the pleasure of calling upon you. I trust that you will have decided to take the house."