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- The Tempting of Tavernake - 50/65 -
Tavernake took a step forward and Pritchard suddenly realized the man who had thrown himself through that little opening in the wall, one against three, without a thought of danger.
"If you say a single word more against her," Tavernake shouted hoarsely, "I shall throw you out of the room!"
Pritchard stared at him. There was something amazing about this young man's attitude, something which he could not wholly grasp. He could see, too, that Tavernake's words were so few simply because he was trembling under the influence of an immense passion.
"If you won't listen," Pritchard declared, slowly, "I can't talk. Still, you've got common sense, I take it. You've the ordinary powers of judging between right and wrong, and knowing when a man or a woman's honest. I want to save you--"
"Silence!" Tavernake exclaimed. "Look here, Pritchard," he went on, breathing a little more naturally now, "you came here meaning to do the right thing--I know that. You're all right, only you don't understand. You don't understand the sort of person I am. I am twenty-four years old, I have worked for my own living up here in London since I was twelve. I was a man, so far as work and independence went, at fifteen. Since then I have had my shoulder to the wheel; I have lived on nothing; I have made a little money where it didn't seem possible. I have worried my way into posts which it seemed that no one could think of giving me, but all the time I have lived in a little corner of the world --like that."
His finger suddenly described a circle in the air.
"You don't understand--you can't," he went on, "but there it is. I never spoke to a woman until I spoke to Beatrice. Chance made me her friend. I began to understand the outside of some of those things which I had never even dreamed of before. She set me right in many ways. I began to read, think, absorb little bits of the real world. It was all wonderful. Then Elizabeth came. I met her, too, by accident--she came to my office for a house--Elizabeth!"
Pritchard found something almost pathetic in the sudden dropping of Tavernake's voice, the softening of his face.
"I don't know how to talk about these things," Tavernake said, simply. "There's a literature that's reached from before the Bible to now, full of nothing else. It's all as old as the hills. I suppose I am about the only sane man in this city who knew nothing of it; but I did know nothing of it, and she was the first woman. Now you understand. I can't hear a word against her--I won't! She may be what you say. If so, she's got to tell me so herself!"
"You mean that you are going to believe any story she likes to put up?"
"I mean that I am going to her," Tavernake answered, "and I have no idea in the world what will happen--whether I shall believe her or not. I can see what you think of me," he went on, becoming a little more himself as the stress of unaccustomed speech passed him by. "I will tell you something that will show you that I realize a good deal. I know the difference between Beatrice and Elizabeth. Less than a week ago, I asked Beatrice to marry me. It was the only way I could think of, the only way I could kill the fever."
"And Beatrice?" Pritchard asked, curiously.
"She wouldn't," Tavernake replied. "After all, why should she? I have my way to make yet. I can't expect others to believe in me as I believe in myself. She was kind but she wouldn't."
Pritchard lit a cigar.
"Look here, Tavernake," he said, "you are a young man, you've got your life before you and life's a biggish thing. Empty out those romantic thoughts of yours, roll up your shirt sleeves and get at it. You are not one of these weaklings that need a woman's whispers in their ears to spur them on. You can work without that. It's only a chapter in your life--the passing of these three people. A few months ago, you knew nothing of them. Let them go. Get back to where you were."
Then Tavernake for the first time laughed--a laugh that sounded even natural.
"Have you ever found a man who could do that?" he asked. "The candle gives a good light sometimes, but you'll never think it the finest illumination in the world when you've seen the sun. Never mind me, Pritchard. I'm going to do my best still, but there's one thing that nothing will alter. I am going to make that woman tell me her story, I am going to listen to the way she tells it to me. You think that where women are concerned I am a fool. I am, but there is one great boon which has been vouchsafed to fools--they can tell the true from the false. Some sort of instinct, I suppose. Elizabeth shall tell me her story and I shall know, when she tells it, whether she is what you say or what she has seemed to me."
Pritchard held out his hand.
"You're a queer sort, Tavernake," he declared. "You take life plaguy seriously. I only hope you 'll get all out of it you expect to. So long!"
Tavernake opened the window after his visitor had gone, and leaned out for some few minutes, letting the fresh air into the close, stifling room. Then he went upstairs, bathed and changed his clothes, made some pretense at breakfast, went through his letters with methodical exactness. At eleven o'clock he set out upon his pilgrimage.
Tavernake was kept waiting in the hall of the Milan Court for at least half an hour before Elizabeth was prepared to see him. He wandered aimlessly about watching the people come and go, looking out into the flower-hung courtyard, curiously unconscious of himself and of his errand, unable to concentrate his thoughts for a moment, yet filled all the time with the dull and uneasy sensation of one who moves in a dream. Every now and then he heard scraps of conversation from the servants and passers-by, referring to the last night's incident. He picked up a paper but threw it down after only a casual glance at the paragraph. He saw enough to convince him that for the present, at any rate, Elizabeth seemed assured of a certain amount of sympathy. The career of poor Wenham Gardner was set down in black and white, with little extenuation, little mercy. His misdeeds in Paris, his career in New York, spoke for themselves. He was quoted as a type, a decadent of the most debauched instincts, to whom crime was a relaxation and vice a habit. Tavernake would read no more. He might have been all these things, and yet she had become his wife!
At last came the message for which he was waiting. As usual, her maid met him at the door of her suite and ushered him in. Elizabeth was dressed for the part very simply, with a suggestion even of mourning in her gray gown. She welcomed him with a pathetic smile.
"Once more, my dear friend," she said, "I have to thank you."
Her fingers closed upon his and she smiled into his face. Tavernake found himself curiously unresponsive. It was the same smile, and he knew very well that he himself had not changed, yet it seemed as though life itself were in a state of suspense for him.
"You, too, are looking grave this morning, my friend," she continued. "Oh, how horrible it has all been! Within the last two hours I have had at least five reporters, a gentleman from Scotland Yard, another from the American Ambassador to see me. It is too terrible, of course," she went on. "Wenham's people are doing all they can to make it worse. They want to know why we were not together, why he was living in the country and I in town. They are trying to show that he was under restraint there, as if such a thing were possible! Mathers was his own servant-- poor Mathers!
She sighed and wiped her eyes. Still Tavernake said nothing. She looked at him, a little surprised.
"You are not very sympathetic," she observed. "Please come and sit down by my side and I will show you something."
He moved towards her but he did not sit down. She stretched out her hand and picked something up from the table, holding it towards him. Tavernake took it mechanically and held it in his fingers. It was a cheque for twelve thousand pounds.
"You see," she said, "I have not forgotten. This is the day, isn't it? If you like, you can stay and have lunch with me up here and we will drink to the success of our speculation."
Tavernake held the cheque in his fingers; he made no motion to put it in his pocket. She looked at him with a puzzled frown upon her face.
"Do talk or say something, please!" she exclaimed. "You look at me like some grim figure. Say something. Sit down and be natural."
"May I ask you some questions?"
"Of course you may," she replied. "You may do anything sooner than stand there looking so grim and unbending. What is it you want to know?"
"Did you understand that Wenham Gardner was this sort of man when you married him?"
She shrugged her shoulders slightly.
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