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- The Tempting of Tavernake - 4/65 -
"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
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