The Incomplete Amorist

Part 3 - The Other Woman

E. Nesbit

Chapter 15 - On Mount Parnassus


At Long Barton the Reverend Cecil had strayed into Betty's room, now no longer boudoir and bedchamber, but just a room, swept, dusted, tidy, with the horrible tidiness of a room that is not used. There were squares of bright yellow on the dull drab of the wall-paper, marking the old hanging places of the photographs and pictures that Betty had taken to Paris. He opened the cupboard door: one or two faded skirts, a flattened garden hat and a pair of Betty's old shoes. He shut the door again quickly, as though he had seen Betty's ghost.

The next time he went to Sevenoaks he looked in at the builders and decorators, gave an order, and chose a wall paper with little pink roses on it. When Betty came home for Christmas she should not find her room the faded desert it was now. He ordered pink curtains to match the rosebuds. And it was when he got home that he found the letter that told him she was not to come at Christmas.

But he did not countermand his order. If not at Christmas then at Easter; and whenever it was she should find her room a bower. Since she had been away he had felt more and more the need to express his affection. He had expressed it, he thought, to the uttermost, by letting her go at all. And now he wanted to express it in detail, by pink curtains, satin-faced wall-paper with pink roses. The paper cost two shillings a piece, and he gloated over the extravagance and over his pretty, poetic choice. Usually the wall-papers at the Rectory had been chosen by Betty, and the price limited to sixpence. He would refrain from buying that Fuller's Church History, the beautiful brown folio whose perfect boards and rich yellow paper had lived in his dreams for the last three weeks, ever since he came upon it in the rag and bone shop in the little back street in Maidstone. When the rosebud paper and the pink curtains were in their place, the shabby carpet was an insult to their bright prettiness. The Reverend Cecil bought an Oriental carpet - of the bright-patterned jute variety - and was relieved to find that it only cost a pound.

The leaves were falling in brown dry showers in the Rectory garden, the chrysanthemums were nearly over, the dahlias blackened and blighted by the first frosts. A few pale blooms still clung to the gaunt hollyhock stems; here and there camomile flowers, "medicine daisies" Betty used to call them when she was little, their whiteness tarnished, showed among bent dry stalks of flowers dead and forgotten. Round Betty's window the monthly rose bloomed pale and pink amid disheartened foliage. The damp began to shew on the North walls of the rooms. A fire in the study now daily, for the sake of the books: one in the drawing-room, weekly, for the sake of the piano and the furniture. And for Betty, in far-away Paris, a fire of crackling twigs and long logs in the rusty fire-basket, and blue and yellow flames leaping to lick the royal arms of France on the wrought-iron fire-back.

The rooms were lonely to Betty now that Paula was gone. She missed her inexpressibly. But the loneliness was lighted by a glow of pride, of triumph, of achievement. Her deception of her step-father was justified. She had been the means of saving Paula. But for her Paula would not have returned, like the Prodigal son, to the father's house. Betty pictured her there, subdued, saddened, but inexpressibly happy, warming her cramped heart in the sun of forgiveness and love.

"Thank God, I have done some good in the world," said Betty.

In the brief interview which Vernon took to tell her that Paula had gone to England with her father, Betty noticed no change in him. She had no thought for him then. And in the next weeks, when she had thoughts for him, she did not see him.

She could not but be glad that he was in Paris. In the midst of her new experiences he seemed to her like an old friend. Yet his being there put a different complexion on her act of mutiny. When she decided to deceive her step-father, and to stay on in Paris alone Paula had been to be saved, and he had been, to her thought, in Vienna, not to be met. Now Paula was gone - and he was here. In the night when Betty lay wakeful and heard the hours chimed by a convent bell whose voice was toneless and gray as an autumn sky it seemed to her that all was wrong, that she had committed a fault that was almost a crime, that there was nothing now to be done but to confess, to go home and to expiate, as the Prodigal Son doubtless did among the thorny roses of forgiveness, those days in the far country. But always with the morning light came the remembrance that it was not her father's house to which she must go to make submission. It was her step-father's. And after all, it was her own life - she had to live it. Once that confession and submission made she saw herself enslaved beyond hope of freedom. Meanwhile here was the glad, gay life of independence, new experiences, new sensations. And her step-father was doubtless glad to be rid of her.

"It isn't as though anyone wanted me at home," she said; "and everything here is so new and good, and I have quite a few friends already - and I shall have more. This is what they call seeing life."

Life as she saw it was good to see. The darker, grimmer side of the student life was wholly hidden from Betty. She saw only a colony of young artists of all nations - but most of England and America - all good friends and comrades, working and playing with an equal enthusiasm. She saw girls treated as equals and friends by the men students. If money were short it was borrowed from the first friend one met, and quite usually repaid when the home allowance arrived. A young man would borrow from a young woman or a young woman from a young man as freely as school-boys from each other. Most girls had a special friend among the boys. Betty thought at first that these must be betrothed lovers. Miss Voscoe, the American, stared when she put the question about a pair who had just left the restaurant together with the announcement that they were off to the Musée Cluny for the afternoon.

"Engaged?" Not that I know of. Why should they be?" she said in a tone that convicted Betty of a social lapse in the putting of the question. Yet she defended herself.

"Well, you know, in England people don't generally go about together like that unless they're engaged, or relations."

"Yes," said Miss Voscoe, filling her glass from the little bottle of weak white wine that costs threepence at Garnier's, "I've heard that is so in your country. Your girls always marry the wrong man, don't they, because he's the first and only one they've ever had the privilege of conversing with?"

"Not quite always, I hope," said Betty good humouredly.

"Now in our country," Miss Voscoe went on, "girls look around so as they can tell there's more different sorts of boys than there are of squashes. Then when they get married to a husband it's because they like him, or because they like his dollars, or for some reason that isn't just that he's the only one they've ever said five words on end to."

"There's something in that," Betty owned; "but my aunt says men never want to be friends with girls - they always want - "

"To flirt? May be they do, though I don't think so. Our men don't, any way. But if the girl doesn't want to flirt things won't get very tangled up."

"But suppose a man got really fond of you, then he might think you liked him too, if you were always about with him - "

"Do him good to have his eyes opened then! Besides, who's always about with anyone? You have a special friend for a bit, and just walk around and see the sights, - and then change partners and have a turn with somebody else. It's just like at a dance. Nobody thinks you're in love because you dance three or four times running with one boy."

Betty reflected as she ate her noix de veau. It was certainly true that she had seen changes of partners. Milly St. Leger, the belle of the students' quarter, changed her partners every week.

"You see," the American went on, "We're not the stay-at-home-and-mind-Auntie kind that come here to study. What we want is to learn to paint and to have a good time in between. Don't you make any mistake, Miss Desmond. This time in Paris is the time of our lives to most of us. It's what we'll have to look back at and talk about. And suppose every time there was any fun going we had to send around to the nearest store for a chaperon how much fun would there be left by the time she toddled in? No - the folks at home who trust us to work trust us to play. And we have our little heads screwed on the right way."

Betty remembered that she had been trusted neither for play nor work. Yet, from the home standpoint she had been trustworthy, more trustworthy than most. She had not asked Vernon, her only friend, to come and see her, and when he had said, "When shall I see you again?" she had answered, "I don't know. Thank you very much. Good-bye."

"I don't know how you were raised," Miss Voscoe went on, "but I guess it was in the pretty sheltered home life. Now I'd bet you fell in love with the first man that said three polite words to you!"

"I'm not twenty yet," said Betty, with ears and face of scarlet.

"Oh, you mean I'm to think nobody's had time to say those three polite words yet? You come right along to my studio, I've got a tea on, and I'll see if I can't introduce my friends to you by threes, so as you get nine polite words at once. You can't fall in love with three boys a minute, can you?"

Betty went home and put on her prettiest frock. After all, one was risking a good deal for this Paris life, and one might as well get as much out of it as one could. And one always had a better time of it when one was decently dressed. Her gown was of dead-leaf velvet, with green undersleeves and touches of dull red and green embroidery at elbows and collar.

Miss Voscoe's studio was at the top of a hundred and seventeen polished wooden steps, and as Betty neared the top flight the sound of talking and laughter came down to her, mixed with the rattle of china and the subdued tinkle of a mandolin. She opened the door - the room seemed full of people, but she only saw two. One was Vernon and the other was Temple.

Betty furiously resented the blush that hotly covered neck, ears and face.

"Here you are!" cried Miss Voscoe. She was kind: she gave but one fleet glance at the blush and, linking her arm in Betty's, led her round the room. Betty heard her name and other names. People were being introduced to her. She heard:

"Pleased to know you, - "

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, - "

"Delighted to meet you - "

and realised that her circle of American acquaintances was widening. When Miss Voscoe paused with her before the group of which Temple and Vernon formed part Betty felt as though her face had swelled to that degree that her eyes must, with the next red wave, start out of her head. The two hands, held out in successive greeting, gave Miss Voscoe the key to Betty's flushed entrance.

She drew her quickly away, and led her up to a glaring poster where a young woman in a big red hat sat at a café table, and under cover of Betty's purely automatic recognition of the composition's talent, murmured:

"Which of them was it?"

"I beg your pardon?" Betty mechanically offered the deferent defence.

"Which was it that said the three polite words - before you'd ever met anyone else?"

"Ah!" said Betty, "you're so clever - "

"Too clever to live, yes," said Miss Voscoe; "but before I die - which was it?"

"I was going to say," said Betty, her face slowly drawing back into itself its natural colouring, "that you're so clever you don't want to be told things. If you're sure it's one of them, you ought to know which."

"Well," remarked Miss Voscoe, "I guess Mr. Temple."

"Didn't I say you were clever?" said Betty.

"Then it's the other one."

Before the studio tea was over, Vernon and Temple both had conveyed to Betty the information that it was the hope of meeting her that had drawn them to Miss Voscoe's studio that afternoon.

"Because, after all," said Vernon, "we do know each other better than either of us knows anyone else in Paris. And, if you'd let me, I could put you to a thing or two in the matter of your work. After all, I've been through the mill."

"It's very kind of you," said Betty, "but I'm all alone now Paula's gone, and - "

"We'll respect the conventions," said Vernon gaily, "but the conventions of the Quartier Latin aren't the conventions of Clapham."

"No, I know," said she, "but there's a point of honour." She paused. "There are reasons," she added, "why I ought to be more conventional than Clapham. I should like to tell you, some time, only - But I haven't got anyone to tell anything to. I wonder - "

"What? What do you wonder?"

Betty spoke with effort.

"I know it sounds insane, but, you know my stepfather thought you - you wanted to marry me. You didn't ever, did you?"

Vernon was silent: none of his habitual defences served him in this hour.

"You see," Betty went on, "all that sort of thing is such nonsense. If I knew you cared about someone else everything would be so simple."

"Eliminate love," said Vernon, "and the world is a simple example in vulgar fractions."

"I want it to be simple addition," said Betty. "Lady St. Craye is very beautiful."

"Yes," said Vernon.

"Is she in love with you?"

"Ask her," said Vernon, feeling like a schoolboy in an examination.

"If she were - and you cared for her - then you and I could be friends: I should like to be real friends with you."

"Let us be friends," said he when he had paused a moment. He made the proposal with every possible reservation.

"Really?" she said. "I'm so glad."

If there was a pang, Betty pretended to herself that there was none. If Vernon's conscience fluttered him he was able to soothe it; it was an art that he had studied for years.

"Say, you two!"

The voice of Miss Voscoe fell like a pebble into the pool of silence that was slowly widening between them.

"Say - we're going to start a sketch-club for really reliable girls. We can have it here, and it'll only be one franc an hour for the model, and say six sous each for tea. Two afternoons a week. Three, five, nine of us - you'll join, Miss Desmond?"

"Yes - oh, yes!" said Betty, conscientiously delighted with the idea of more work.

"That makes - nine six sous and two hours model - how much is that, Mr. Temple? - I see it written on your speaking brow that you took the mathematical wranglership at Oxford College."

"Four francs seventy," said Temple through the shout of laughter.

"Have I said something comme il ne faut pas?" said Miss Voscoe.

"You couldn't," said Vernon: "every word leaves your lips without a stain upon its character."

"Won't you let us join?" asked an Irish student. "You'll be lost entirely without a Lord of Creation to sharpen your pencils."

"We mean to work," said Miss Voscoe; "if you want to work take a box of matches and a couple of sticks of brimstone and make a little sketch class of your own."

"I don't see what you want with models," said a very young and shy boy student. "Couldn't you pose for each other, and - "

A murmur of dissent from the others drove him back into shy silence.

"No amateur models in this Academy," said Miss Voscoe. "Oh, we'll make the time-honoured institutions sit up with the work we'll do. Let's all pledge ourselves to send in to the Salon - or anyway to the Indépendants! What we're suffering from in this quarter's git-up-and-git. Why should we be contented to be nobody?"

"On the contrary," said Vernon, "Miss Voscoe is everybody - almost!"

"I'm the nobody who can't get a word in edgeways anyhow," she said. "What I've been trying to say ever since I was born - pretty near - is that what this class wants is a competent Professor, some bully top-of-the-tree artist, to come and pull our work all to pieces and wipe his boots on the bits. Mr. Vernon, don't you know any one who's pining to give us free crits?"

"Temple is," said Vernon. "There's no mistaking that longing glance of his."

"As a competent professor I make you my bow of gratitude," said Temple, "but I should never have the courage to criticise the work of nine fair ladies."

"You needn't criticise them all at once," said a large girl from Minneapolis, "nor yet all in the gaudy eye of heaven. We'll screen off a corner for our Professor - sort of confessional business. You sit there and we'll go to you one by one with our sins in our hand."

"That would scare him some I surmise," said Miss Voscoe.

"Not at all," said Temple, a little nettled, he hardly knew why.

"I didn't know you were so brave," said the Minneapolis girl.

"Perhaps he didn't want you to know," said Miss Voscoe; "perhaps that's his life's dark secret."

"People often pretend to a courage that they haven't," said Vernon. "A consistent pose of cowardice, that would be novel and - I see the idea developing - more than useful."

"Is that your pose?" asked Temple, still rather tartly, "because if it is, I beg to offer you, in the name of these ladies, the chair of Professor-behind-the-screen."

"I'm not afraid of the nine Muses," Vernon laughed back, "as long as they are nine. It's the light that lies in woman's eyes that I've always had such a nervous dread of."

"It does make you blink, bless it," said the Irish student, "but not from nine pairs at once, as you say. It's the light from one pair that turns your head."

"Mr. Vernon isn't weak in the head," said the shy boy suddenly.

"No," said Vernon, "it's the heart that's weak with me. I have to be very careful of it."

"Well, but will you?" said a downright girl.

"Will I what? I'm sorry, but I've lost my cue, I think. Where were we - at losing hearts, wasn't it?"

"No," said the downright girl, "I didn't mean that. I mean will you come and criticise our drawings?"

"Fiddle," said Miss Voscoe luminously. "Mr. Vernon's too big for that."

"Oh, well," said Vernon, "if you don't think I should be competent!"

"You don't mean to say you would?"

"Who wouldn't jump at the chance of playing Apollo to the fairest set of muses in the Quartier?" said Temple; "but after all, I had the refusal of the situation - I won't renounce - "

"Bobby, you unman me," interrupted Vernon, putting down his cup, "you shall not renounce the altruistic pleasure which you promise to yourself in yielding this professorship to me. I accept it."

"I'm hanged if you do!" said Temple. "You proposed me yourself, and I'm elected - aren't I, Miss Voscoe?"

"That's so," said she; "but Mr. Vernon's president too."

"I've long been struggling with the conviction that Temple and I were as brothers. Now I yield - Temple, to my arms!"

They embraced, elegantly, enthusiastically, almost as Frenchmen use; and the room applauded the faithful burlesque.

"What's come to me that I should play the goat like this?" Vernon asked himself, as he raised his head from Temple's broad shoulder. Then he met Betty's laughing eyes, and no longer regretted his assumption of that difficult role.

"It's settled then. Tuesdays and Fridays, four to six," he said. "At last I am to be - "

"The light of the harem," said Miss Voscoe.

"Can there be two lights?" asked Temple anxiously. "If not, consider the fraternal embrace withdrawn."

"No, you're the light, of course," said Betty. "Mr. Vernon's the Ancient Light. He's older than you are, isn't he?"

The roar of appreciation of her little joke surprised Betty, and, a little, pleased her - till Miss Voscoe whispered under cover of it:

"Ancient light? Then he was the three-polite-word man?"

Betty explained her little jest.

"All the same," said the other, "it wasn't any old blank walls you were thinking about. I believe he is the one."

"It's a great thing to be able to believe anything," said Betty; and the talk broke up into duets. She found that Temple was speaking to her.

"I came here to-day because I wanted to meet you, Miss Desmond," he was saying. "I hope you don't think it's cheek of me to say it, but there's something about you that reminds me of the country at home."

"That's a very pretty speech," said Betty. He reminded her of the Café d'Harcourt, but she did not say so.

"You remind me of a garden," he went on, "but I don't like to see a garden without a hedge round it."

"You think I ought to have a chaperon," said Betty bravely, "but chaperons aren't needed in this quarter."

"I wish I were your brother," said Temple.

"I'm so glad you're not," said Betty. She wanted no chaperonage, even fraternal. But the words made him shrink, and then sent a soft warmth through him. On the whole he was not sorry that he was not her brother.

At parting Vernon, at the foot of the staircase, said:

"And when may I see you again?"

"On Tuesday, when the class meets."

"But I didn't mean when shall I see the class. When shall I see Miss Desmond?"

"Oh, whenever you like," Betty answered gaily; "whenever Lady St. Craye can spare you."

He let her say it.