The Incomplete Amorist

Part 2 - The Man

E. Nesbit

Chapter 10 - Seeing Life


The thoughts of the two who loved her were with Betty that night. The aunt, shaken, jolted, enduring much in the Paris, Lyons and Mediterranean express thought fondly of her.

"She's a nice little thing. I must take her about a bit," she mused, and even encouraged her fancy to play with the idea of a London season - a thing it had not done for years.

The Reverend Cecil, curtains drawn and lamp alight, paused to think of her even in the midst of his first thorough examination of his newest treasure in Seventeenth Century Tracts, "The Man Mouse baited and trapped for nibbling the margins of Eugenius Philalethes, being an assault on Henry Moore." It was bound up with, "The Second Wash, or the Moore scoured again," and a dozen others. A dumpy octavo, in brown leather, he had found it propping a beer barrel in the next village.

"Dear Lizzie! - I wonder if she will ever care for really important things. There must be treasures upon treasures in those boxes on the French quays that one reads about. But she never would learn to know one type from another."

He studied the fire thoughtfully.

"I wonder if she does understand how much she is to me," he thought. "Those are the things that are better unsaid. At least I always think so when she's here. But all these months - I wonder whether girls like you to say things, or to leave them to be understood. It is more delicate not to say them, perhaps."

Then his thoughts went back to the other Lizzie, about whom he had never felt these doubts. He had loved her, and had told her so. And she had told him her half of the story in very simple words - and most simply, and without at all "leaving things to be understood" they had planned the future that never was to be. He remembered the day when sitting over the drawing-room fire, and holding her dear hand he had said:

"This is how we shall sit when we are old and gray, dearest." It had seemed so impossibly far-off then.

And she had said:

"I hope we shall die the same day, Cec."

But this had not happened.

And he had said:

"And we shall have such a beautiful life - doing good, and working for God, and bringing up our children in the right way. Oh, Lizzie, it's very wonderful to think of that happiness, isn't it?"

And she had laid her head on his shoulder and whispered:

"I hope we shall have a little girl, dear."

And he had said:

"I shall call her Elizabeth, after my dear wife."

"She must have eyes like yours though."

"She will be exactly like both of us," he had said, and they sat hand in hand, and talked innocently, like two children, of the little child that was never to be.

He had wanted them to put on her tombstone, Lizzie daughter of - - and affianced wife of Cecil Underwood, but her mother had said that there there was no marrying or giving in marriage. In his heart the Reverend Cecil had sometimes dared to hope that that text had been misunderstood. To him his Lizzie had always been "as the angels of God in Heaven."

Then came the long broken years, and then the little girl - Elizabeth, his step-child.

The pent-up love of all his life spent itself on her: a love so fond, so tender, so sacred that it seemed only self-respecting to hide it a little from the world by a mask of coldness. And Betty had never seen anything but the mask.

"I think, when I see her, I will tell her all about my Lizzie," he said. "I wonder if she knows what the house is like without her. But of course she doesn't, or she would have asked to come home, long ago. I wonder whether she misses me very much. Madame Gautier is kind, she says; but no stranger can make a home, as love can make it."

Meanwhile Betty dining alone at a restaurant in the Boulevard St. Michel, within a mile of the Serpent, ordered what she called a nice dinner - it was mostly vegetables and sweet things - and ate it with appetite, looking about her. The long mirrors, the waiters were like the ones in London restaurants, but the people who ate there they were different. Everything was much shabbier, yet much gayer. Shopkeeping-looking men were dining with their wives; some of them had a child, napkin under chin, solemnly struggling with a big soup spoon or upturning on its little nose a tumbler of weak red wine and water. There were students - she knew them by their slouched hats and beards a day old - dining by twos and threes and fours. No one took any more notice of Betty than was shewn by a careless glance or two. She was very quietly dressed. Her hat even was rather an unbecoming brown thing. When she had eaten, she ordered coffee, and began to try to think, but thinking was difficult with the loud voices and the laughter, and the clink of glasses and the waiters' hurrying transits. And at the back of her mind was a thought waiting for her to think it. And she was afraid.

So presently she paid her bill, and went out, and found a tram, and rode on the top of it through the lighted streets, on the level of the first floor windows and the brown leaves of the trees in the Boulevards, and went away and away through the heart of Paris; and still all her mind could do nothing but thrust off, with both hands, the thought that was pushing forward towards her thinking. When the tram stopped at its journey's end she did not alight, but paid for, and made, the return journey, and found her feet again in the Boulevard St. Michel.

Of course, she had read her Trilby, and other works dealing with the Latin Quarter. She knew that in that quarter everyone is not respectable, but everyone is kind. It seemed good to her to go to a café, to sit at a marble topped table, and drink - not the strange liqueurs which men drink in books, but homely hot milk, such as some of the other girls there had before them. It would be perfectly simple, as well as interesting, to watch the faces of the students, boys and girls, and when she found a nice girl-face, to speak to it, asking for the address of a respectable hotel.

So she walked up the wide, tree-planted street feeling very Parisian indeed, as she called it the "Boule Miche" to herself. And she stopped at the first Café she came to, which happened to be the Café d'Harcourt.

She did not see its name, and if she had it would naturally not have conveyed any idea to her. The hour was not yet ten, and the Café d'Harcourt was very quiet. There were not a dozen people at the little tables. Most of them were women. It would be easy to ask her little questions, with so few people to stare and wonder if she addressed a stranger.

She sat down, and ordered her hot milk and, with a flutter, awaited it. This was life. And to-morrow she must telegraph to her step-father, and everything would end in the old round of parish duties; all her hopes and dreams would be submerged in the heavy morass of meeting mothers. The thought leapt up. - Betty hid her eyes and would not look at it. Instead, she looked at the other people seated at the tables - the women. They were laughing and talking among themselves. One or two looked at Betty and smiled with frank friendliness. Betty smiled back, but with embarrassment. She had heard that French ladies of rank and fashion would as soon go out without their stockings as without their paint, but she had not supposed that the practice extended to art students. And all these ladies were boldly painted - no mere soupçon of carmine and pearl powder, but good solid masterpieces in body colour, black, white and red. She smiled in answer to their obvious friendliness, but she did not ask them for addresses. A handsome black-browed scowling woman sitting alone frowned at her. She felt quite hurt. Why should anyone want to be unkind?

Men selling flowers, toy rabbits, rattling cardboard balls, offered their wares up and down the row of tables. Betty bought a bunch of fading late roses and thought, with a sudden sentimentality that shocked her, of the monthly rose below the window at home. It always bloomed well up to Christmas. Well, in two days she would see that rose-bush.

The trams rattled down the Boulevard, carriages rolled by. Every now and then one of these would stop, and a couple would alight. And people came on foot. The café was filling up. But still none of the women seemed to Betty exactly the right sort of person to know exactly the right sort of hotel.

Of course she knew from books that Hotels keep open all night, - but she did not happen to have read any book which told of the reluctance of respectable hotels to receive young women without luggage, late in the evening. So it seemed to her that there was plenty of time.

A blonde girl with jet black brows and eyes like big black beads was leaning her elbows on her table and talking to her companions, two tourist-looking Germans in loud checks. They kept glancing at Betty, and it made her nervous to know that they were talking about her. At last her eyes met the eyes of the girl, who smiled at her and made a little gesture of invitation to her, to come and sit at their table. Betty out of sheer embarrassment might have gone, but just at that moment the handsome scowling woman rose, rustled quickly to Betty, knocking over a chair in her passage, held out a hand, and said in excellent English:

"How do you do?"

Betty gave her hand, but "I don't remember you," said she.

"May I join you?" said the woman sitting down. She wore black and white and red, and she was frightfully smart, Betty thought. She glanced at the others - the tourists and the blonde; they were no longer looking at her.

"Look here," said the woman, speaking low, "I don't know you from Adam, of course, but I know you're a decent girl. For God's sake go home to your friends! I don't know what they're about to let you out alone like this."

"I'm alone in Paris just now," said Betty.

"Good God in Heaven, you little fool! Get back to your lodging. You've no business here."

"I've as much business as anyone else," said Betty. "I'm an artist, too, and I want to see life."

"You've not seen much yet," said the woman with a, laugh that Betty hated to hear. "Have you been brought up in a convent? You an artist! Look at all of us! Do you need to be told what our trade is?"

"Don't," said Betty; "oh, don't."

"Go home," said the woman, "and say your prayers - I suppose you do say your prayers? - and thank God that it isn't your trade too."

"I don't know what you mean," said Betty.

"Well then, go home and read your Bible. That'll tell you the sort of woman it is that stands about the corners of streets, or sits at the Café d'Harcourt. What are your people about?"

"My father's in England," said Betty; "he's a clergyman."

"I generally say mine was," said the other, "but I won't to you, because you'd believe me. My father was church organist, though. And the Vicarage people were rather fond of me. I used to do a lot of Parish work." She laughed again.

Betty laid a hand on the other woman's.

"Couldn't you go home to your father - or - something?" she asked feebly.

"He's cursed me forever - Put it all down in black and white - a regular commination service. It's you that have got to go home, and do it now, too." She shook off Betty's hand and waved her own to a man who was passing.

"Here, Mr. Temple - "

The man halted, hesitated and came up to them.

"Look here," said the black-browed woman, "look what a pretty flower I've found, - and here of all places!"

She indicated Betty by a look. The man looked too, and took the third chair at their table. Betty wished that the ground might open and cover her, but the Boule Miche asphalt is solid. The new-comer was tall and broad-shouldered, with a handsome, serious, boyish face, and fair hair.

"She won't listen to me - "

"Oh, I did!" Betty put in reproachfully.

"You talk to her like a father. Tell her where naughty little girls go who stay out late at the Café d'Harcourt - fire and brimstone, you know. She'll understand, she's a clergyman's daughter."

"I really do think you'd better go home," said the new-comer to Betty with gentle politeness.

"I would, directly," said Betty, almost in tears, "but - the fact is I haven't settled on a hotel, and I came to this café. I thought I could ask one of these art students to tell me a good hotel, but - so that's how it is."

"I should think not," Temple answered the hiatus. Then he looked at the black-browed, scowling woman, and his look was very kind.

"Nini and her German swine were beginning to be amiable," said the woman in an aside which Betty did not hear. "For Christ's sake take the child away, and put her safely for the night somewhere, if you have to ring up a Mother Superior or a Governesses' Aid Society."

"Right. I will." He turned to Betty.

"Will you allow me," he said, "to find a carriage for you, and see you to a hotel?"

"Thank you," said Betty.

He went out to the curbstone and scanned the road for a passing carriage.

"Look here," said the black-browed woman, turning suddenly on Betty; "I daresay you'll think it's not my place to speak - oh, if you don't think so you will some day, when you're grown up, - but look here. I'm not chaffing. It's deadly earnest. You be good. See? There's nothing else that's any good really."

"Yes," said Betty, "I know. If you're not good you won't be happy."

"There you go," the other answered almost fiercely; "it's always the way. Everyone says it - copybooks and Bible and everything - and no one believes it till they've tried the other way, and then it's no use believing anything."

"Oh, yes, it is," said Betty comfortingly, "and you're so kind. I don't know how to thank you. Being kind is being good too, isn't it?"

"Well, you aren't always a devil, even if you are in hell. I wish I could make you understand all the things I didn't understand when I was like you. But nobody can. That's part of the hell. And you don't even understand half I'm saying."

"I think I do," said Betty.

"Keep straight," the other said earnestly; "never mind how dull it is. I used to think it must be dull in Heaven. God knows it's dull in the other place! Look, he's got a carriage. You can trust him just for once, but as a rule I'd say 'Don't you trust any of them - they're all of a piece.' Good-bye; you're a nice little thing."

"Good-bye," said Betty; "oh, good-bye! You are kind, and good! People can't all be good the same way," she added, vaguely and seeking to comfort.

"Women can," said the other, "don't you make any mistake. Good-bye."

She watched the carriage drive away, and turned to meet the spiteful chaff of Nini and her German friends.

"Now," said Mr. Temple, as soon as the wheels began to revolve, "perhaps you will tell me how you come to be out in Paris alone at this hour."

Betty stared at him coldly.

"I shall be greatly obliged if you can recommend me a good hotel," she said.

"I don't even know your name," said he.

"No," she answered briefly.

"I cannot advise you unless you will trust me a little," he said gently.

"You are very kind, - but I have not yet asked for anyone's advice."

"I am sorry if I have offended you," he said, "but I only wish to be of service to you."

[Illustration: "She stared at him coldly"]

"Thank you very much," said Betty: "the only service I want is the name of a good hotel."

"You are unwise to refuse my help," he said. "The place where I found you shews that you are not to be trusted about alone."

"Look here," said Betty, speaking very fast, "I dare say you mean well, but it isn't your business. The lady I was speaking to - "

"That just shews," he said.

"She was very kind, and I like her. But I don't intend to be interfered with by any strangers, however well they mean."

He laughed for the first time, and she liked him better when she had heard the note of his laughter.

"Please forgive me," he said. "You are quite right. Miss Conway is very kind. And I really do want to help you, and I don't want to be impertinent. May I speak plainly?"

"Of course."

"Well the Café d'Harcourt is not a place for a respectable girl to go to."

"I gathered that," she answered quietly. "I won't go there again."

"Have you quarreled with your friends?" he persisted; "have you run away?"

"No," said Betty, and on a sudden inspiration, added: "I'm very, very tired. You can ask me any questions you like in the morning. Now: will you please tell the man where to go?"

The dismissal was unanswerable.

He took out his card-case and scribbled on a card.

"Where is your luggage?" he asked.

"Not here," she said briefly.

"I thought not," he smiled again. "I am discerning, am I not? Well, perhaps you didn't know that respectable hotels prefer travellers who have luggage. But they know me at this place. I have said you are my cousin," he added apologetically.

He stopped the carriage. "Hôtel de l'Unicorne," he told the driver and stood bareheaded till she was out of sight.

The Thought came out and said: "There will be an end of Me if you see that well-meaning person again." Betty would not face the Thought, but she was roused to protect it.

She stood up and touched the coachman on the arm.

"Go back to the Cafe d'Harcourt," she said. "I have forgotten something."

That was why, when Temple called, very early, at the Hôtel de l'Unicorne he heard that his cousin had not arrived there the night before - Had not, indeed, arrived at all.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"It's a pity," he said. "Certainly she had run away from home. I suppose I frightened her. I was always a clumsy brute with women."