The Incomplete Amorist

Part 3 - The Other Woman

E. Nesbit

Chapter 17 - Interventions


That kiss gave Lady St. Craye furiously to think, as they say in France.

Had it meant - ? What had it meant? Was it the crown of her hopes, her dreams? Was it possible that now, at last, after all that had gone before, she might win him - had won him, even?

The sex-instinct said "No."

Then, if "No" were the answer to that question, the kiss had been mere brutality. It had meant just:

"You chose to follow me - to play the spy. What the deuce do you want? Is it this? God knows you're welcome," the kiss following.

The kiss stung. It was not the first. But the others - even the last of them, two years before, had not had that sting.

Lady St. Craye, biting her lips in lonely dissection of herself and of him, dared take no comfort. Also, she no longer dared to follow him, to watch him, to spy on him.

In her jasmine-scented leisure Lady St. Craye analysed herself, and him and Her. Above all Her - who was Betty. To find out how it all seemed to her - that, presently, seemed to Lady St. Craye the one possible, the one important thing. So after she had given a few days to the analysis of that kiss, had failed to reach certainty as to its elements, had writhed in her failure, and bitterly resented the mysteries constituent that falsified all her calculations, she dressed herself beautifully, and went to call on the constituent, Betty.

Betty was at home. She was drawing at a table, cunningly placed at right angles to the window. She rose with a grace that Lady St. Craye had not seen in her. She was dressed in a plain gown, that hung from the shoulders in long, straight, green folds. Her hair was down. - And Betty had beautiful hair. Lady St. Craye's hair had never been long. Betty's fell nearly to her knees.

"Oh, was the door open?" she said. "I didn't know, I've - I'm so sorry - I've been washing my hair."

"It's lovely," said the other woman, with an appreciation quite genuine. "What a pity you can't always wear it like that!"

"It's long," said Betty disparagingly, "but the colour's horrid. What Miss Voscoe calls Boy colour."

"Boy colour?"

"Oh, just nothing in particular. Mousy."

"If you had golden hair, or black, Miss Desmond, you'd have a quite unfair advantage over the rest of us."

"I don't think so," said Betty very simply; "you see, no one ever sees it down."

"What a charming place you've got here," Lady St. Craye went on.

"Yes," said Betty, "it is nice," and she thought of Paula.

"And do you live here all alone?"

"Yes: I had a friend with me at first, but she's gone back to England."

"Don't you find it very dull?"

"Oh, no! I know lots of people now."

"And they come to see you here?"

Lady St. Craye had decided that it was not necessary to go delicately. The girl was evidently stupid, and one need not pick one's words.

"Yes," said Betty.

"Mr. Vernon's a great friend of yours, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"I suppose you see a great deal of him?"

"Yes. Is there anything else you would like to know?"

The scratch was so sudden, so fierce, so feline that for a moment Lady St. Craye could only look blankly at her hostess. Then she recovered herself enough to say:

"Oh, I'm so sorry! Was I asking a lot of questions? It's a dreadful habit of mine, I'm afraid, when I'm interested in people."

Betty scratched again quite calmly and quite mercilessly.

"It's quite natural that Mr. Vernon should interest you. But I don't think I'm likely to be able to tell you anything about him that you don't know. May I get you some tea?"

It was impossible for Lady St. Craye to reply: "I meant that I was interested in you - not in Mr. Vernon;" so she said:

"Thank you - that will be delightful."

Betty went along the little passage to her kitchen, and her visitor was left to revise her impressions.

When Betty came back with the tea-tray, her hair was twisted up. The kettle could be heard hissing in the tiny kitchen.

"Can't I help you?" Lady St. Craye asked, leaning back indolently in the most comfortable chair.

"No, thank you: it's all done now."

[Illustration: "'No, thank you it's all done now'"]

Betty poured the tea for the other woman to drink. Her own remained untasted. She exerted herself to manufacture small-talk, was very amiable, very attentive. Lady St. Craye almost thought she must have dreamed those two sharp cat-scratches at the beginning of the interview. But presently Betty's polite remarks came less readily. There were longer intervals of silence. And Lady St. Craye for once was at a loss. Her nerve was gone. She dared not tempt the claws again. After the longest pause of all Betty said suddenly:

"I think I know why you came to-day."

"I came to see you, because you're a friend of Mr. Vernon's."

"You came to see me because you wanted to find out exactly how much I'm a friend of Mr. Vernon's. Didn't you?"

Candour is the most disconcerting of the virtues.

"Not in the least," Lady St. Craye found herself saying. "I came to see you - because - as I said."

"I don't think it is much use your coming to see me," Betty went on, "though, if you meant it kindly - But you didn't - you didn't! If you had it wouldn't have made any difference. We should never get on with each other, never."

"Really, Miss Desmond" - Lady St. Craye clutched her card-case and half rose - "I begin to think we never should."

Betty's ignorance of the usages of good society stood her friend. She ignored, not consciously, but by the prompting of nature, the social law which decrees that one should not speak of things that really interest one.

"Do sit down," she said. "I'm glad you came - because I know exactly what you mean, now."

"If the knowledge were only mutual!" sighed Lady St. Craye, and found courage to raise eyebrows wearily.

"You don't like my going about with Mr. Vernon. Well, you've only to say so. Only when you're married you'll find you've got your work cut out to keep him from having any friends except you."

Lady St. Craye had the best of reasons for believing this likely to be the truth. She said:

"When I'm married?"

"Yes," said Betty firmly. "You're jealous; you've no cause to be - and I tell you that because I think being jealous must hurt. But it would have been nicer of you, if you'd come straight to me and said: 'Look here, I don't like you going about with the man I'm engaged to.' I should have understood then and respected you. But to come like a child's Guide to Knowledge - "

The other woman was not listening. "Engaged to him!" - The words sang deliciously, disquietingly in her ears.

"But who said I was engaged to him?"

"He did, of course. He isn't ashamed of it - if you are."

"He told you that!"

"Yes. Now aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

Country-bred Betty, braced by the straightforward directness of Miss Voscoe, and full of the nervous energy engendered by a half-understood trouble, had routed, for a moment, the woman of the world. But only for a moment. Then Lady St. Craye, unable to estimate the gain or loss of the encounter, pulled herself together to make good her retreat.

"Yes," she said, with her charming smile. "I am ashamed of myself. I was jealous - I own it. But I shouldn't have shown it as I did if I'd known the sort of girl you are. Come, forgive me! Can't you understand - and forgive?"

"It was all my fault." The generosity of Betty hastened to meet what it took to be the generosity of the other. "Forgive me. I won't see him again at all - if you don't want me to."

"No, no." Even at that moment, in one illuminating flash, Lady St. Craye saw the explications that must follow the announcement of that renunciatory decision. "No, no. If you do that I shall feel sure that you don't forgive me for being so silly. Just let everything go on - won't you? And please, please don't tell him anything about - about to-day."

"How could I?" asked Betty.

"But promise you won't. You know - men are so vain. I should hate him to know" - she hesitated and then finished the sentence with fine art - "to know - how much I care."

"Of course you care," said Betty downrightly. "You ought to care. It would be horrid of you if you didn't."

"But I don't, now. Now I know you, Miss Desmond. I understand so well - and I like to think of his being with you."

Even to Betty's ears this did not ring quite true.

"You like - ?" she said.

"I mean I quite understand now. I thought - I don't know what I thought. You're so pretty, you know. And he has had so very many - love-affairs."

"He hasn't one with me," said Betty briefly.

"Ah, you're still angry. And no wonder. Do forgive me, Miss Desmond, and let's be friends."

Betty's look as she gave her hand was doubtful. But the hand was given.

"And you'll keep my poor little secret?"

"I should have thought you would have been proud for him to know how much you care."

"Ah, my dear," Lady St. Craye became natural for an instant under the transfiguring influence of her real thoughts as she spoke them, "my dear, don't believe it! When a man's sure of you he doesn't care any more. It's while he's not quite sure that he cares."

"I don't think that's so always," said Betty.

"Ah, believe me, there are 'more ways of killing a cat than choking it with butter.' Forgive the homely aphorism. When you have a lover of your own - or perhaps you have now?"

"Perhaps I have." Betty stood on guard with a steady face.

"Well, when you have - or if you have - remember never to let him be quite sure. It's the only way."

The two parted, with a mutually kindly feeling that surprised one as much as the other. Lady St. Craye drove home contrasting bitterly the excellence of her maxims with the ineptitude of her practice. She had let him know that she cared. And he had left her. That was two years ago. And, now that she had met him again, when she might have played the part she had recommended to that chit with the long hair - the part she knew to be the wise one - she had once more suffered passion to overcome wisdom, and had shown him that she loved him. And he had kissed her.

She blushed in the dusk of her carriage for the shame of that kiss.

But he had told that girl that he was engaged to her.

A delicious other flush replaced the blush of shame. Why should he have done that unless he really meant - ? In that case the kiss was nothing to blush about. And yet it was. She knew it.

She had time to think in the days that followed, days that brought Temple more than once to her doors, but Vernon never.

Betty left alone let down her damp hair and tried to resume her drawing. But it would not do. The emotion of the interview was too recent. Her heart was beating still with anger, and resentment, and other feelings less easily named.

Vernon was to come to fetch her at seven. She would not face him. Let him go and dine with the woman he belonged to!

Betty went out at half-past six. She would not go to Garnier's, nor to Thirion's. That was where he would look for her.

She walked steadily on, down the boulevard. She would dine at some place she had never been to before. A sickening vision of that first night in Paris swam before her. She saw again the Café d'Harcourt, heard the voices of the women who had spoken to Paula, saw the eyes of the men who had been the companions of those women. In that rout the face of Temple shone - clear cut, severe. She remembered the instant resentment that had thrilled her at his protective attitude, remembered it and wondered at it a little. She would not have felt that now. She knew her Paris better than she had done then.

And with the thought, the face of Temple came towards her out of the crowd. He raised his hat in response to her frigid bow, and had almost passed her, when she spoke on an impulse that surprised herself.

"Oh - Mr. Temple!"

He stopped and turned.

"I was looking for a place to dine. I'm tired of Garnier's and Thirion's."

He hesitated. And he, too, remembered the night at the Café d'Harcourt, when she had disdained his advice and gone back to take the advice of Paula.

He caught himself assuring himself that a man need not be ashamed to risk being snubbed - making a fool of himself even - if he could do any good. So he said: "You know I have horrid old-fashioned ideas about women," and stopped short.

"Don't you know of any good quiet place near here?" said Betty.

"I think women ought to be taken care of. But some of them - Miss Desmond, I'm so afraid of you - I'm afraid of boring you - "

Remorse stirred her.

"You've always been most awfully kind," she said warmly. "I've often wanted to tell you that I'm sorry about that first time I saw you - I'm not sorry for what I did," she added in haste; "I can never be anything but glad for that. But I'm sorry I seemed ungrateful to you."

"Now you give me courage," he said. "I do know a quiet little place quite near here. And, as you haven't any of your friends with you, won't you take pity on me and let me dine with you?"

"You're sure you're not giving up some nice engagement - just to - to be kind to me?" she asked. And the forlornness of her tone made him almost forget that he had half promised to join a party of Lady St. Craye's.

"I should like to come with you - I should like it of all things," he said; and he said it convincingly.

They dined together, and the dinner was unexpectedly pleasant to both of them. They talked of England, of wood, field and meadow, and Betty found herself talking to him of the garden at home and of the things that grew there, as she had talked to Paula, and as she had never talked to Vernon.

"It's so lovely all the year," she said. "When the last mignonette's over, there are the chrysanthemums, and then the Christmas roses, and ever so early in January the winter aconite and the snow-drops, and the violets under the south wall. And then the little green daffodil leaves come up and the buds, though it's weeks before they turn into flowers. And if it's a mild winter the primroses - just little baby ones - seem to go on all the time."

"Yes," he said, "I know. And the wallflowers, they're green all the time. - And the monthly roses, they flower at Christmas. And then when the real roses begin to bud - and when June comes - and you're drunk with the scent of red roses - the kind you always long for at Christmas."

"Oh, yes," said Betty - "do you feel like that too? And if you get them, they're soft limp-stalked things, like caterpillars half disguised as roses by some incompetent fairy. Not like the stiff solid heavy velvet roses with thick green leaves and heaps of thorns. Those are the roses one longs for."

"Yes," he said. "Those are the roses one longs for." And an odd pause punctuated the sentence.

But the pause did not last. There was so much to talk of - now that barrier of resentment, wattled with remorse, was broken down. It was an odd revelation to each - the love of the other for certain authors, certain pictures, certain symphonies, certain dramas. The discovery of this sort of community of tastes is like the meeting in far foreign countries of a man who speaks the tongue of one's mother land. The two lingered long over their coffee, and the "Grand Marnier" which their liking for "The Garden of Lies" led to their ordering. Betty had forgotten Vernon, forgotten Lady St. Craye, in the delightful interchange of:

"Oh, I do like - "

"And don't you like - ?"

"And isn't that splendid?"

These simple sentences, interchanged, took on the value of intimate confidences.

"I've had such a jolly time," Temple said. "I haven't had such a talk for ages."

And yet all the talk had been mere confessions of faith - in Ibsen, in Browning, in Maeterlinck, in English gardens, in Art for Art's sake, and in Whistler and Beethoven.

"I've liked it too," said Betty.

"And it's awfully jolly," he went on, "to feel that you've forgiven me" - the speech suddenly became difficult, - at least I mean to say - " he ended lamely.

"It's I who ought to be forgiven," said Betty. "I'm very glad I met you. I've enjoyed our talk ever so much."

Vernon spent an empty evening, and waylaid Betty as she left her class next day.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I couldn't help it. I suddenly felt I wanted something different. So I dined at a new place."

"Alone?" said Vernon.

"No," said Betty with her chin in the air.

Vernon digested, as best he might, his first mouthful of jealousy - real downright sickening jealousy. The sensation astonished him so much that he lacked the courage to dissect it.

"Will you dine with me to-night?" was all he found to say.

"With pleasure," said Betty. But it was not with pleasure that she dined. There was something between her and Vernon. Both felt it, and both attributed it to the same cause.

The three dinners that followed in the next fortnight brought none of that old lighthearted companionship which had been the gayest of table-decorations. Something was gone - lost - as though a royal rose had suddenly faded, a rainbow-coloured bubble had broken.

"I'm glad," said Betty; "if he's engaged, I don't want to feel happy with him."

She did not feel happy without him. The Inward Monitor grew more and more insistent. She caught herself wondering how Temple, with the serious face and the honest eyes, would regard the lies, the trickeries, the whole tissue of deceit that had won her her chance of following her own art, of living her own life.

Vernon understood, presently, that not even that evening at Thirion's could give the key to this uncomforting change. He had not seen Lady St. Craye since the night of the kiss.

It was after the fourth flat dinner with Betty that he said good-night to her early and abruptly, and drove to Lady St. Craye's.

She was alone. She rose to greet him, and he saw that her eyes were dark-rimmed, and her lips rough.

"This is very nice of you," she said. "It's nearly a month since I saw you."

"Yes," he said. "I know it is. Do you remember the last time? Hasn't that taught you not to play with me?"

The kiss was explained now. Lady St. Craye shivered.

"I don't know what you mean?" she said, feebly.

"Oh, yes, you do! You're much too clever not to understand. Come to think of it, you're much too everything - too clever, too beautiful, too charming, too everything."

"You overwhelm me," she made herself say.

"Not at all. You know your points. What I want to know is just one thing - and that's the thing you're going to tell me."

She drew her dry lips inward to moisten them.

"What do you want to know? Why do you speak to me like that? What have I done?"

"That's what you're going to tell me."

"I shall tell you nothing - while you ask in that tone."

"Won't you? How can I persuade you?" his tone caressed and stung. "What arguments can I use? Must I kiss you again?"

She drew herself up, called wildly on all her powers to resent the insult. Nothing came at her call.

"What do you want me to tell you?" she asked, and her eyes implored the mercy she would not consciously have asked.

He saw, and he came a little nearer to her - looking down at her upturned face with eyes before which her own fell.

"You don't want another kiss?" he said. "Then tell me what you've been saying to Miss Desmond."