The Incomplete Amorist

Part 2 - The Man

E. Nesbit

Chapter 13 - Contrasts


Vernon's idea of a studio was a place to work in, a place where there should be room for all the tools of one's trade, and besides, a great space to walk up and down in those moods that seize on all artists when their work will not come as they want it.

But when he gave tea-parties he had store of draperies to pull out from his carved cupboard, deeply coloured things embroidered in rich silk and heavy gold - Chinese, Burmese, Japanese, Russian.

He came in to-day with an armful of fair chrysanthemums, deftly set them in tall brazen jars, pulled out his draperies and arranged them swiftly. There was a screen to be hung with a Chinese mandarin's dress, where, on black, gold dragons writhed squarely among blue roses; the couch was covered by a red burnous with a gold border. There were Persian praying mats to lay on the bare floor, kakemonos to be fastened with drawing pins on the bare walls. A tea cloth worked by Russian peasants lay under the tea-cups - two only - of yellow Chinese egg-shell ware. His tea-pot and cream-jug were Queen Anne silver, heirlooms at which he mocked. But he saw to it that they were kept bright.

He lighted the spirit-lamp.

"She was always confoundedly punctual," he said.

But to-day Lady St. Craye was not punctual. She arrived half an hour late, and the delay had given her host time to think about her.

He heard her voice in the courtyard at last - but the only window that looked that way was set high in the wall of the little corridor, and he could not see who it was to whom she was talking. And he wondered, because the inflection of her voice was English - not the exquisite imitation of the French inflexion which he had so often admired in her.

He opened the door and went to the stair head. The voices were coming up the steps.

"A caller," said Vernon, and added a word or two. However little you may be in love with a woman, two is better company than three.

The voices came up. He saw the golden brown shimmer of Lady St. Craye's hat, and knew that it matched her hair and that there would be violets somewhere under the brim of it - violets that would make her eyes look violet too. She was coming up - a man just behind her. She came round the last turn, and the man was Temple.

"What an Alpine ascent!" she exclaimed, reaching up her hand so that Vernon drew her up the last three steps. "We have been hunting you together, on both the other staircases. Now that the chase is ended, won't you present your friend? And I'll bow to him as soon as I'm on firm ground!"

Vernon made the presentation and held the door open for Lady St. Craye to pass. As she did so Temple behind her raised eyebrows which said:

"Am I inconvenient? Shall I borrow a book or something and go?"

Vernon shook his head. It was annoying, but inevitable. He could only hope that Lady St. Craye also was disappointed.

"How punctual you are," he said. "Sit here, won't you? - I hadn't finished laying the table." He deliberately brought out four more cups. "What unnatural penetration you have, Temple! How did you find out that this is the day when I sit 'at home' and wait for people to come and buy my pictures?"

"And no one's come?" Lady St. Craye had sunk into the chair and was pulling off her gloves. "That's very disappointing. I thought I should meet dozens of clever and interesting people, and I only meet two."

Her brilliant smile made the words seem neither banal nor impertinent.

Vernon was pleased to note that he was not the only one who was disappointed.

"You are too kind," he said gravely.

Temple was looking around the room.

"Jolly place you've got here," he said, "but it's hard to find. I should have gone off in despair if I hadn't met Lady St. Craye."

"We kept each other's courage up, didn't we, Mr. Temple? It was like arctic explorers. I was beginning to think we should have to make a camp and cook my muff for tea."

She held out the sable and Vernon laid it on the couch when he had held it to his face for a moment.

"I love the touch of fur," he said; "and your fur is scented with the scent of summer gardens, 'open jasmine muffled lattices,'" he quoted softly. Temple had wandered to the window.

"What ripping roofs!" he said. "Can one get out on them?"

"Now what," demanded Vernon, "is the hidden mainspring that impels every man who comes into these rooms to ask, instantly, whether one can get out on to the roof? It's only Englishmen, by the way; Americans never ask it, nor Frenchmen."

"It's the exploring spirit, I suppose," said Temple idly; "the spirit that has made England the Empire which - et cetera."

"On which the sun never sets. Yes - but I think the sunset would be one of the attractions of your roof, Mr. Vernon."

"Sunset is never attractive to me," said he, "nor Autumn. Give me sunrise, and Spring."

"Ah, yes," said Lady St. Craye, "you only like beginnings. Even Summer - "

"Even Summer, as you say," he answered equably. "The sketch is always so much better than the picture."

"I believe that is your philosophy of life," said Temple.

"This man," Vernon explained, "spends his days in doing ripping etchings and black and white stuff and looking for my philosophy of life."

"One would like to see that in black and white. Will you etch it for me, Mr. Temple, when you find it?"

"I don't think the medium would be adequate," Temple said. "I haven't found it yet, but I should fancy it would be rather highly coloured."

"Iridescent, perhaps. Did you ever speculate as to the colour of people's souls? I'm quite sure every soul has a colour."

"What is yours?" asked Vernon of course.

"I'm too humble to tell you. But some souls are thick - body-colour, don't you know - and some are clear like jewels."

"And mine's an opal, is it?"

"With more green in it, perhaps; you know the lovely colour on the dykes in the marshes?"

"Stagnant water? Thank you!"

"I don't know what it is. It has some hateful chemical name, I daresay. They have vases the colour I mean, mounted in silver, at the Army and Navy Stores."

"And your soul - it is a pearl, isn't it?"

"Never! Nothing opaque. If you will force my modesty to the confession I believe in my heart that it is a sapphire. True blue, don't you know!"

"And Temple's - but you've not known him long enough to judge."

"So it's no use my saying that I am sure his soul is a dewdrop."

"To be dried up by the sun of life?" Temple questioned.

"No - to be hardened into a diamond - by the fire of life. No, don't explain that dewdrops don't harden Into diamonds. I know I'm not scientific, but I honestly did mean to be complimentary. Isn't your kettle boiling over, Mr. Vernon?"

Lady St. Craye's eyes, while they delicately condoled with Vernon on the spoiling of his tete-a-tete with her, were also made to indicate a certain interest in the spoiler. Temple was more than six feet high, well built. He had regular features and clear gray eyes, with well-cut cases and very long dark lashes. His mouth was firm and its lines were good. But for his close-cropped hair and for a bearing at once frank, assured, and modest, he would have been much handsomer than a man has any need to be. But his expression saved him: No one had ever called him a barber's block or a hairdresser's apprentice.

To Temple Lady St. Craye appeared the most charming woman he had ever seen. It was an effect which she had the habit of producing. He had said of her in his haste that she was all clothes and no woman, now he saw that on the contrary the clothes were quite intimately part of the woman, and took such value as they had, from her.

She carried her head with the dainty alertness of a beautiful bird. She had a gift denied to most Englishwomen - the genius for wearing clothes. No one had ever seen her dress dusty or crushed, her hat crooked. No uncomfortable accidents ever happened to her. Blacks never settled on her face, the buttons never came off her gloves, she never lost her umbrella, and in the windiest weather no loose untidy wisps escaped from her thick heavy shining hair to wander unbecomingly round the ears that were pearly and pink like the little shells of Vanessae. Some of the women who hated her used to say that she dyed her hair. It was certainly very much lighter than her brows and lashes. To-day she was wearing a corduroy dress of a gold some shades grayer than the gold of her hair. Sable trimmed it, and violet silk lined the loose sleeves and the coat, now unfastened and thrown back. There were, as Vernon had known there would be, violets under the brim of the hat that matched her hair.

The chair in which she sat wore a Chinese blue drapery. The yellow tea-cups gave the highest note in the picture.

"If I were Whistler, I should ask you to let me paint your portrait like that - yes, with my despicable yellow tea-cup in your honourable hand."

"If you were Mr. Whistler - or anything in the least like Mr. Whistler - I shouldn't be drinking tea out of your honourable tea-cup," she said. "Do you really think, Mr. Temple, that one ought not to say one doesn't like people just because they're dead?"

He had been thinking something a little like it.

"Well," he said rather awkwardly, "you see dead people can't hit back."

"No more can live ones when you don't hit them, but only stick pins in their effigies. I'd rather speak ill of the dead than the living."

"Yet it doesn't seem fair, somehow," Temple insisted.

"But why? No one can go and tell the poor things what people are saying of them. You don't go and unfold a shroud just to whisper in a corpse's ear: 'It was horrid of her to say it, but I thought you ought to know, dear.' - And if you did, they wouldn't lie awake at night worrying over it as the poor live people do. - No more tea, thank you."

"Do you really think anyone worries about what anyone says?"

"Don't you, Mr. Temple?"

He reflected.

"He never has anything to worry about," Vernon put in; "no one ever says anything unkind about him. The cruelest thing anyone ever said of him was that he would make as excellent a husband as Albert the Good."

"The white flower of a blameless life? My felicitations," Lady St. Craye smiled them.

Temple flushed.

"Now isn't it odd," Vernon asked, "that however much one plumes oneself on one's blamelessness, one hates to hear it attributed to one by others? One is good by stealth and blushes to find it fame. I myself - "

"Yes!" said Lady St. Craye with an accent of finality.

"What a man really likes is to be saint with the reputation of being a bit of a devil."

"And a woman likes, you think, to be a bit of a devil, with the reputation of a saint?"

"Or a bit of a saint with a reputation that rhymes to the reality. It's the reputation that's important, isn't it?"

"Isn't the inward truth the really important thing?" said Temple rather heavily.

Lady St. Craye looked at him in such a way as to make him understand that she understood. Vernon looked at them both, and turning to the window looked out on his admired roofs.

"Yes," she said very softly, "but one doesn't talk about that, any more than one does of one's prayers or one's love affairs."

The plural vexed Temple, and he told himself how unreasonable the vexation was.

Lady St. Craye turned her charming head to look at him, to look at Vernon. One had been in love with her. The other might be. There is in the world no better company than this.

Temple, always deeply uninterested in women's clothes, was noting the long, firm folds of her skirt. Vernon had turned from the window to approve the loving closeness of those violets against her hair. Lady St. Craye in her graceful attitude of conscious unconsciousness was the focus of their eyes.

"Here comes a millionaire, to buy your pictures," she said suddenly, - "no - a millionairess, by the sound of her high-heeled shoes. How beautiful are the feet - "

The men had heard nothing, but following hard on her words came the sound of footsteps along the little corridor, an agitated knock on the door.

Vernon opened the door - to Betty.

"Oh - come in," he said cordially, and his pause of absolute astonishment was brief as an eye-flash. "This is delightful - "

And as she passed into the room he caught her eyes and, looking a warning, said: "I am so glad to see you. I began to be afraid you wouldn't be able to come."

"I saw you in the Bois the other day," said Lady St. Craye, "and I have been wanting to know you ever since."

"You are very kind," said Betty. Her hat was on one side, her hair was very untidy, and it was not a becoming untidiness either. She had no gloves, and a bit of the velvet binding of her skirt was loose. Her eyes were red and swollen with crying. There was a black smudge on her cheek.

"Take this chair," said Vernon, and moved a comfortable one with its back to the light.

"Temple - let me present you to Miss Desmond."

Temple bowed, with no flicker of recognition visible in his face. But Betty, flushing scarlet, said:

"Mr. Temple and I have met before."

There was the tiniest pause. Then Temple said: "I am so glad to meet you again. I thought you had perhaps left Paris."

"Let me give you some tea," said Vernon.

Tea was made for her, - and conversation. She drank the tea, but she seemed not to know what to do with the conversation.

It fluttered, aimlessly, like a bird with a broken wing. Lady St. Craye did her best, but talk is not easy when each one of a party has its own secret pre-occupying interest, and an overlapping interest in the preoccupation of the others. The air was too electric.

Lady St. Craye had it on her lips that she must go - when Betty rose suddenly.

"Good-bye," she said generally, looking round with miserable eyes that tried to look merely polite.

"Must you go?" asked Vernon, furious with the complicated emotions that, warring in him, left him just as helpless as anyone else.

"I do hope we shall meet again," said Lady St. Craye.

"Mayn't I see you home?" asked Temple unexpectedly, even to himself.

Betty's "No, thank you," was most definite.

She went. Vernon had to let her go. He had guests. He could not leave them. He had lost wholly his ordinary control of circumstances. All through the petrifying awkwardness of the late talk he had been seeking an excuse to go with Betty - to find out what was the matter.

He closed the door and came back. There was no help for it.

But there was help. Lady St. Craye gave it. She rose as Vernon came back.

"Quick!" she said, "Shall we go? Hadn't you better bring her back here? Go after her at once."

"You're an angel," said Vernon. "No, don't go. Temple, look after Lady St. Craye. If you'll not think me rude? - Miss Desmond is in trouble, I'm afraid."

"Of course she is - poor little thing. Oh, Mr. Vernon, do run! She looks quite despairing. There's your hat. Go - go!"

The door banged behind her.

The other two, left alone, looked at each other.

"I wonder - " said she.

"Yes," said he, "it's certainly mysterious."

"We ought to have gone at once," said she. "I should have done, of course, only Mr. Vernon so elaborately explained that he expected her. One had to play up. And so she's a friend of yours?"

"She's not a friend of mine," said Temple rather ruefully, "and I didn't know Vernon was a friend of hers. You saw that she wouldn't have my company at any price."

"Mr. Vernon's a friend of her people, I believe. We saw her the other day in the Bois, and he told me he knew them in England. Did you know them there too? Poor child, what a woe-begone little face it was!"

"No, not in England. I met her in Paris about a fortnight ago, but she didn't like me, from the first, and our acquaintance broke off short."

There was a silence. Lady St. Craye perceived a ring-fence of reticence round the subject that interested her, and knew that she had no art strong enough to break it down.

She spoke again suddenly:

"Do you know you're not a bit the kind of man I expected you to be, Mr. Temple? I've heard so much of you from Mr. Vernon. We're such old friends, you know."

"Apparently he can't paint so well with words as he does with oils. May I ask exactly how flattering the portrait was?"

"It wasn't flattering at all. - In fact it wasn't a portrait."

"A caricature?"

"But you don't mind what people say of you, do you?"

"You are trying to frighten me."

"No, really," she said with pretty earnestness; "it's only that he has always talked about you as his best friend, and I imagined you would be like him."

Temple's uneasy wonderings about Betty's trouble, her acquaintance with Vernon, the meaning of her visit to him, were pushed to the back of his mind.

"I wish I were like him," said he, - "at any rate, in his paintings."

"At any rate - yes. But one can't have everything, you know. You have qualities which he hasn't - qualities that you wouldn't exchange for any qualities of his."

"That wasn't what I meant; I - the fact is, I like old Vernon, but I can't understand him."

"That philosophy of life eludes you still? Now, I understand him, but I don't always like him - not all of him."

"I wonder whether anyone understands him?"

"He's not such a sphinx as he looks!" Her tone betrayed a slight pique - "Now, your character would be much harder to read. That's one of the differences."

"We are all transparent enough - to those who look through the right glasses," said Temple. "And part of my character is my inability to find any glass through which I could see him clearly."

This comparison of his character and Vernon's, with its sudden assumption of intimacy, charmed yet embarrassed him.

She saw both emotions and pitied him a little. But it was necessary to interest this young man enough to keep him there till Vernon should return. Then Vernon would see her home, and she might find out something, however little, about Betty. But if this young man went she too must go. She could not outstay him in the rooms of his friend. So she talked on, and Temple was just as much at her mercy as Betty had been at the mercy of the brother artist in the rabbit warren at Long Barton.

But at seven o'clock Vernon had not returned, and it was, after all, Temple who saw her home.

Temple, free from the immediate enchantment of her presence, felt the revival of a resentful curiosity.

Why had Betty refused his help? Why had she sought Vernon's? Why did women treat him as though he were a curate and Vernon as though he were a god? Well - Lady St. Craye at least had not treated him as curates are treated.