The Incomplete Amorist

Part 2 - The Man

E. Nesbit

Chapter 8 - The One And The Other


"Some idiot," remarked Eustace Vernon, sipping Vermouth at a little table, "insists that, if you sit long enough outside the Café de la Paix, you will see everyone you have ever known or ever wanted to know pass by. I have sat here for half-an-hour - and - voila."

"You met me, half an hour ago," said the other man.

"Oh, you!" said Vernon affectionately.

"And your hat has gone off every half minute ever since," said the other man.

"Ah, that's to the people I've known. It's the people I've wanted to know that are the rarity."

"Do you mean people you have wanted to know and not known?"

"There aren't many of those," said Vernon; "no it's - Jove, that's a sweet woman!"

"I hate the type," said the other man briefly: "all clothes - no real human being."

The woman was beautifully dressed, in the key whose harmonies are only mastered by Frenchwomen and Americans. She turned her head as her carriage passed, and Vernon's hat went off once more.

"I'd forgotten her profile," said Vernon, "and she's learned how to dress since I saw her last. She's quite human, really, and as charming as anyone ought to be."

"So I should think," said the other man. "I'm sorry I said that, but I didn't know you knew her. How's trade?"

"Oh, I did a picture - well, but a picture! I did it in England in the Spring. Best thing I've done yet. Come and see it."

"I should like to look you up. Where do you hang out?"

"Eighty-six bis Rue Notre Dame des Champs," said Vernon. "Everyone in fiction lives there. It's the only street on the other side that authors seem ever to have dreamed of. Still, it's convenient, so I herd there with all sorts of blackguards, heroes and villains and what not. Eighty-six bis."

"I'll come," said the other man, slowly. "Do you know, Vernon, I'd like awfully to get at your point of view - your philosophy of life?"

"Haven't you got one, my dear chap! - 'sufficient unto' is my motto."

"You paint pictures,", the other went on, "so very much too good for the sort of life you lead."

Vernon laughed.

"My dear Temple," he said, "I live, mostly, the life of a vestal virgin."

"You know well enough I'm not quarrelling with the way you spend your evenings," said his dear Temple; "it's your whole outlook that doesn't match your work. Yet there must be some relation between the two, that's what I'd like to get at."

There is a bond stronger than friendship, stronger than love - a bond that cannot be forged in any other shop than the one - the bond between old schoolfellows. Vernon had sometimes wondered why he "stood so much" from Temple. It is a wonder that old schoolfellows often feel, mutually.

"The subject you've started," said he, "is of course, to me, the most interesting. Please develop your thesis."

"Well then, your pictures are good, strong, thorough stuff, with sentiment - yes, just enough sentiment to keep them from the brutality of Degas or the sensualism of Latouche. Whereas you, yourself, seem to have no sentiment."

"I? No sentiment! Oh, Bobby, this is too much! Why, I'm a mass of it! Ask - "

"Yes, ask any woman of your acquaintance. That's just it - or just part of it. You fool them into thinking - oh, I don't know what; but you don't fool me."

"I haven't tried."

"Then you're not brutal, except half a dozen times in the year when you - And I've noticed that when your temper goes smash your morals go at the same time. Is that cause or effect? What's the real you like, and where do you keep it?"

"The real me," said Vernon, "is seen in my pictures, and - and appreciated by my friends; you for instance, are, I believe, genuinely attached to me."

"Oh, rot!" said Bobby.

"I don't see," said Vernon, moving his iron chair to make room for two people at the next table, "why you should expect my pictures to rhyme with my life. A man's art doesn't rhyme with his personality. Most often it contradicts flatly. Look at musicians - what a divine art, and what pigs of high priests! And look at actors - but no, one can't; the spectacle is too sickening."

"I sometimes think," said Temple, emptying his glass, "that the real you isn't made yet. It's waiting for - "

"For the refining touch of a woman's hand, eh? You think the real me is - Oh, Temple, Temple, I've no heart for these childish imaginings! The real me is the man that paints pictures, damn good pictures, too, though I say it."

"And is that what all the women think?

"Ask them, my dear chap; ask them. They won't tell you the truth."

"They're not the only ones who won't. I should like to know what you really think of women, Vernon."

"I don't think about them at all," lied Vernon equably. "They aren't subjects for thought but for emotion - and even of that as little as may be. It's impossible seriously to regard a woman as a human being; she's merely a dear, delightful, dainty - "

"Plaything?"

"Well, yes - or rather a very delicately tuned musical instrument. If you know the scales and the common chords, you can improvise nice little airs and charming variations. She's a sort of - well, a penny whistle, and the music you get depends not on her at all, but on your own technique."

"I've never been in love," said Temple; "not seriously, I mean," he hastened to add, for Vernon was smiling, "not a life or death matter, don't you know; but I do hate the way you talk, and one of these days you'll hate it too."

Miss Desmond's warning floated up through the dim waters of half a year.

"So a lady told me, only last Spring," he said. "Well, I'll take my chance. Going? Well, I'm glad we ran across each other. Don't forget to look me up."

Temple moved off, and Vernon was left alone. He sat idly smoking cigarette after cigarette, and watched the shifting crowd. It was a bright October day, and the crowd was a gay one.

Suddenly his fingers tightened on his cigarette, - but he kept the hand that held it before his face, and he bent his head forward.

Two ladies were passing, on foot. One was the elder Miss Desmond - she who had warned him that one of these days he would be caught - and the other, hanging lovingly on her aunt's arm, was, of course, Betty. But a smart, changed, awakened Betty! She was dressed almost as beautifully as the lady whose profile he had failed to recognise, but much more simply. Her eyes were alight, and she was babbling away to her aunt. She was even gesticulating a little, for all the world like a French girl. He noted the well-gloved hand with which she emphasized some point in her talk.

"That's the hand," he said, "that I held when we sat on the plough in the shed and I told her fortune."

He had risen, and his feet led him along the road they had taken. Ten yards ahead of him he saw the swing of the aunt's serviceable brown skirt and beside it Betty's green and gray.

"I am not breaking my word," he replied to the Inward Monitor. "Who's going out of his way to speak to the girl?"

He watched the brown gown and the green all the way down the Boulevard des Capucines, saw them cross the road and go up the steps of the Madeleine. He paused at the corner. It was hard, certainly, to keep his promise; yet so far it was easy, because he could not well recall himself to the Misses Desmond on the ground of his having six months ago involved the one in a row with her relations, and discussed the situation afterwards with the other.

"I do wonder where they're staying, though," he told himself. "If one were properly introduced - ?" But he knew that the aunt would consider no introduction a proper one that should renew his acquaintance with Betty.

"Wolf, wolf," he said, "let the fold alone! There's no door for you, and you've pledged your sacred word as an honourable wolf not to jump any more hurdles."

And as he stood musing, the elder Miss Desmond came down the church steps and walked briskly away.

Some men would, doubtless, have followed her example, if not her direction. Vernon was not one of these. He found himself going up the steps of the great church. He had as good a right to go into the Madeleine as the next man. He would probably not see the girl. If he did he would not speak. Almost certainly he would not even see her.

But Destiny had remembered Mr. Vernon once more. Betty was standing just inside the door, her face upturned, and all her soul in her eyes. The mutterings of the organ and the voices of boys filled the great dark building.

He went and stood close by her. He would not speak. He would keep his word. But she should have a chance of speaking. His eyes were on her face. The hymn ended. She exhaled a held breath, started and spoke.

"You?" she said, "you?" The two words are spelled alike. Spoken, they are capable of infinite variations. The first "you" sent Vernon's blood leaping. The second froze it to what it had been before he met her. For indeed that little unfinished idyll had been almost forgotten by the man who sat drinking Vermouth outside the Café de la Paix.

"How are you?" he whispered. "Won't you shake hands?"

She gave him a limp and unresponsive glove.

"I had almost forgotten you," she said, "but I am glad to see you - because - Come to the door. I don't like talking in churches."

They stood on the steps behind one of the great pillars.

"Do you think it is wise to stand here?" he said. "Your aunt might see us."

"So you followed us in?" said Betty with perfect self-possession. "That was very kind. I have often wished to see you, to tell you how much obliged I am for all your kindness in the Spring. I was only a child then, and I didn't understand, but now I quite see how good it was of you."

"Why do you talk like that?" he said. "You don't think - you can't think it was my fault?"

"Your fault! What?"

"Why, your father finding us and - "

"Oh, that!" she said lightly. "Oh, I had forgotten that! Ridiculous, wasn't it? No, I mean your kindness in giving so many hours to teaching a perfect duffer. Well, now I've seen you and said what I had to say, I think I'll go back."

"No, don't go," he said. "I want to know - oh, all sorts of things! I can see your aunt from afar, and fly if she approaches."

"You don't suppose," said Betty, opening her eyes at him, "that I shan't tell her I've seen you?"

He had supposed it, and cursed his clumsiness.

"Ah, I see," she went on, "you think I should deceive my aunt now because I deceived my step-father in the Spring. But I was a child then, - and besides, I'm fond of my aunt."

"Did you know that she came to see me?"

"Of course. You seem to think we live in an atmosphere of deceit, Mr. Vernon."

"What's the matter with you?" he said bluntly, for finer weapons seemed useless. "What have I done to make you hate me?"

"I hate you? Oh, no - not in the least," said Betty spitefully. I am very grateful to you for all your kindness."

"Where are you staying?" he asked.

"Hotel Bête," said Betty, off her guard, "but - "

The "but" marked his first score.

"I wish I could have called to see your aunt," he said carelessly, "but I am off to Vienna to-morrow."

Betty believed that she did not change countenance by a hair's breadth.

"I hope you'll have a delightful time," she said politely.

"Thanks. I am sure I shall. The only consolation for leaving Paris is that one is going to Vienna. Are you here for long?"

"I don't know." Betty was on her guard again.

"Paris is a delightful city, isn't it?"

"Most charming."

"Have you been here long?"

"No, not very long."

"Are you still working at your painting? It would be a pity to give that up."

"I am not working just now."

"I see your aunt," he said hurriedly. "Are you going to send me away like this? Don't be so unjust, so ungenerous. It's not like you - my pupil of last Spring was not unjust."

"Your pupil of last Spring was a child and a duffer, Mr. Vernon, as I said before. But she is grateful to you for one thing - no, two."

"What's the other?" he asked swiftly.

"Your drawing-lessons," she demurely answered.

"Then what's the one?"

"Good-bye," she said, and went down the steps to meet her aunt. He effaced himself behind a pillar. In spite of her new coldness, he could not believe that she would tell her aunt of the meeting. And he was right, though Betty's reasons were not his reasons.

"What's the good?" she asked herself as she and her aunt walked across to their hotel. "He's going away to-morrow, and I shall never see him again. Well, I behaved beautifully, that's one thing. He must simply loathe me. So that's all right! If he were staying on in Paris, of course I would tell her."

She believed this fully.

He waited five minutes behind that pillar, and then had himself driven to the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, choosing as driver a man with a white hat, in strict accordance with the advice in Baedeker, though he had never read any of the works of that author.

This new Betty, with the smart gown and the distant manner, awoke at the same time that she contradicted his memories of the Betty of Long Barton. And he should not see her again. Of course he was not going to Vienna, but neither was he going to hang round the Hotel Bête, or to bribe Franz or Elise to smuggle notes to Miss Betty.

"It's never any use trying to join things on again," he told himself. "As well try to mend a spider's web when you have put your boot through it."

'No diver brings up love again
Dropped once
In such cold seas!'

"But what has happened? Why does she hate me so? You acted very nicely, dear, but that wasn't indifference. It was hatred, if ever I've seen it. I wonder what it means? Another lover? No - then she'd be sorry for me. It's something that belongs to me - not another man's shadow. But what I shall never know. And she's prettier than ever, too. Oh, hang it!"

His key turned in the lock, and on the door-mat shewed the white square of an envelope - a note from the other woman, the one whose profile he had not remembered. She was in Paris for a time. She had seen him at the Paix, had wondered whether he had his old rooms, had driven straight up on the chance of being able to leave this - wasn't that devotion? - and would he care to call for her at eight and they could dine somewhere and talk over old times? One familiar initial, that of her first name, curled in the corner and the card smelt of jasmine - not of jasmine-scent in bottles, but of the real flower. He had never known how she managed it.

Vernon was not fond of talking over old times, but Betty would be dining at the Hotel Bête - some dull hole, no doubt; he had never heard of it. Well, he could not dine at the Bête, and after all one must dine somewhere. And the other woman had never bored him. That is a terrible weapon in the hands of a rival. And Betty had been most unjust. And what was Betty to him, anyway? His thoughts turned to the American girl who had sketched with him in Brittany that Summer. Ah, if she had not been whisked back to New York by her people, it would not now be a question of Betty or of the Jasmine lady. He took out Miss Van Tromp's portrait and sat looking at it: it was admirable, the fearless poise of the head, the laughing eyes, the full pouting lips. Then Betty's face and the face of the Jasmine lady came between him and Miss Van Tromp.

"Bah," he said, "smell, kiss, wear - at last throw away. Never keep a rose till it's faded." A little tide of Breton memories swept through him.

"Bah," he said again, "she was perfectly charming, but what is the use of charm, half the world away?"

He pulled his trunk from the front of the fire-place, pushed up the iron damper, and made a little fire. He burned all Miss Van Tromp's letters, and her photograph - but, from habit, or from gratitude, he kissed it before he burned it.

"Now," said he as the last sparks died redly on the black embers, "the decks are cleared for action. Shall I sentimentalise about Betty - cold, cruel, changed Betty - or shall I call for the Jasmine lady?"

He did both, and the Jasmine lady might have found him dull. As it happened, she only found him distrait, and that interested her.

"When we parted," she said, "it was I who was in tears. Now it's you. What is it?"

"If I am in tears," he roused himself to say, "it is only because everything passes, 'tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse.'"

"What's broken now?" she asked; "another heart? Oh, yes! you broke mine all to little, little bits. But I've mended it. I wanted frightfully to see you to thank you!

"This is a grateful day for women," thought Vernon, looking the interrogatory.

"Why, for showing me how hearts are broken," she explained; "it's quite easy when you know how, and it's a perfectly delightful game. I play it myself now, and I can't imagine how I ever got on before I learned the rules."

"You forget," he said, smiling. "It was you who broke my heart. And it's not mended yet."

"That's very sweet of you. But really, you know, I'm very glad it was you who broke my heart, and not anyone else. Because, now it's mended, that gives us something to talk about. We have a past. That's really what I wanted to tell you. And that's such a bond, isn't it? When it really is past - dead, you know, no nonsense about cataleptic trances, but stone dead."

"Yes," he said, "it is a link. But it isn't the past for me, you know. It can never - "

She held up a pretty jewelled hand.

"Now, don't," she said. "That's just what you don't understand. All that's out of the picture. I know you too well. Just realize that I'm the only nice woman you know who doesn't either expect you to make love to her in the future or hate you for having done it in the past, and you'll want to see me every day. Think of the novelty of it."

"I do and I do," said he, "and I won't protest any more while you're in this mood. Bear with me if I seem idiotic to-night - I've been burning old letters, and that always makes me like a funeral."

"Old letters - mine?"

"I burned yours long ago."

"And it isn't two years since we parted! How many have there been since?"

"Is this the Inquisition or is it Durand's?"

"It's somewhere where we both are," she said, without a trace of sentiment; "that's good enough for me. Do you know I've been married since I saw you last? And left a widow - in a short three months it all happened. And - well I'm not very clever, as you know, but - can you imagine what it is like to be married to a man who doesn't understand a single word you say, unless it's about the weather or things to eat? No, don't look shocked. He was a good fellow, and very happy till the motor accident took him and left me this."

She shewed a scar on her smooth arm.

"What a woman it is for surprises! So he was very happy? But of course he was."

"Yes, of course, as you say. I was a model wife. I wore black for a whole year too!"

"Why did you marry him?"

"Well, at the time I thought you might hear of it and be disappointed, or hurt, or something."

"So I am," said Vernon with truth.

"You needn't be," said she. "You'll find me much nicer now I don't want to disappoint you or hurt you, but only to have a good time, and there's no nonsense about love to get in the way, and spoil everything."

"So you're - But this isn't proper! Here am I dining with a lady and I don't even know her name!"

"I know - I wouldn't put it to the note. Didn't that single initial arouse your suspicions? Her name? Her title if you please! I married Harry St. Craye. You remember how we used to laugh at him together."

"That little - I beg your pardon, Lady St. Craye."

"Yes," she said, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum: of the dead nothing but the bones. If he had lived he would certainly have beaten me. Here's to our new friendship!"

"Our new friendship!" he repeated, raising his glass and looking in her eyes. Lady St. Craye looked very beautiful, and Betty was not there. In fact, just now there was no Betty.

He went back to his room humming a song of Yvette Guilbert's. There might have been no flowering May, no buttercup meadows in all the world, for any thought of memory that he had of them. And Betty was a thousand miles away.

That was at night. In the morning Betty was at the Hotel Bête, and the Hotel Bête was no longer a petty little hotel which he did not know and never should know. For the early post brought him a letter which said:

"I am in Paris for a few days and should like to see you if you can make it convenient to call at my hotel on Thursday."

This was Tuesday.

The letter was signed with the name of the uncle from whom Vernon had expectations, and at the head of the letter was the address:

"Hôtel Bête,
Cité de Retraite,
Rue Boissy d'Anglais."

"Now bear witness!" cried Vernon, appealing to the Universe, "bear witness that this is not my fault!"