The Incomplete Amorist

Part 3 - The Other Woman

E. Nesbit

Chapter 20 - Waking-Up Time


Dear Mr. Vernon. This is to thank you very much for all your help and criticism of my work, and to say good-bye. I am called away quite suddenly, so I can't thank you in person, but I shall never forget your kindness. Please remember me to Lady St. Craye. I suppose you will be married quite soon now. And I am sure you will both be very happy.

Yours very sincerely,
Elizabeth Desmond.

This was the letter that Vernon read standing in the shadow of the arch by the concierge's window. The concierge had hailed him as he hurried through to climb the wide shallow stairs and to keep his appointment with Betty when she should leave the atelier.

"But yes, Mademoiselle had departed this morning at nine o'clock. To which station? To the Gare St. Lazare. Yes - Mademoiselle had charged her to remit the billet to Monsieur. No, Mademoiselle had not left any address. But perhaps chez Madame Bianchi?"

But chez Madame Bianchi there was no further news. The so amiable Mademoiselle Desmond had paid her account, had embraced Madame, and - Voila! she was gone. One divined that she had been called suddenly to return to the family roof. A sudden illness of Monsieur her father without doubt.

Could some faint jasmine memory have lingered on the staircase? Or was it some subtler echo of Lady St. Craye's personality that clung there? Abruptly, as he passed Betty's door, the suspicion stung him. Had the Jasmine lady had any hand in this sudden departure?

"Pooh - nonsense!" he said. But all the same he paused at the concierge's window.

"I am desolated to have deranged Madame," - gold coin changed hands. - "A lady came to see Mademoiselle this morning, is it not?"

"No, no lady had visited Mademoiselle to-day: no one at all in effect."

"Nor last night - very late?"

"No, monsieur," the woman answered meaningly; "no visitor came in last night except Monsieur himself and he came, not to see Mademoiselle, that understands itself, but to see Monsieur Beauchèsne an troisième. No - I am quite sure - I never deceive myself. And Mademoiselle has had no letters since three days. Thanks a thousand times, Monsieur. Good morning."

She locked up the gold piece in the little drawer where already lay the hundred franc note that Lady St. Craye had given her at six o'clock that morning.

"And there'll be another fifty from her next month," she chuckled. "The good God be blessed for intrigues! Without intrigues what would become of us poor concierges?"

For Vernon Paris was empty - the spring sunshine positively distasteful. He did what he could; he enquired at the Gare St. Lazare, describing Betty with careful detail that brought smiles to the lips of the employés. He would not call on Miss Voscoe. He made himself wait till the Sketch Club afternoon - made himself wait, indeed, till all the sketches were criticised - till the last cup of tea was swallowed, or left to cool - the last cake munched - the last student's footfall had died away on the stairs, and he and Miss Voscoe were alone among the scattered tea-cups, blackened bread-crumbs and torn paper.

Then he put his question. Miss Voscoe knew nothing. Guessed Miss Desmond knew her own business best.

"But she's so young," said Vernon; "anything might have happened to her."

"I reckon she's safe enough - where she is," said Miss Voscoe with intention.

"But haven't you any idea why she's gone?" he asked, not at all expecting any answer but "Not the least."

But Miss Voscoe said:

"I have a quite first-class idea and so have you."

He could but beg her pardon interrogatively.

"Oh, you know well enough," said she. "She'd got to go. And it was up to her to do it right now, I guess."

Vernon had to ask why.

"Well, you being engaged to another girl, don't you surmise it might kind of come home to her there were healthier spots for you than the end of her apron strings? Maybe she thought the other lady's apron strings 'ud be suffering for a little show?"

"I'm not engaged," said Vernon shortly.

"Then it's time you were," the answer came with equal shortness. "You'll pardon me making this a heart-to-heart talk - and anyway it's no funeral of mine. But she's the loveliest girl and I right down like her. So you take it from me. That F.F.V. Lady with the violets - Oh, don't pretend you don't know who I mean - the one you're always about with when you aren't with Betty. She's your ticket. Betty's not. Your friend's her style. You pass, this hand, and give the girl a chance."

"I really don't understand - "

"I bet you do," she interrupted with conviction. "I've sized you up right enough, Mr. Vernon. You're no fool. If you've discontinued your engagement Betty doesn't know it. Nor she shan't from me. And one of these next days it'll be borne in on your friend that she's the girl of his life - and when he meets her again he'll get her to see it his way. Don't you spoil the day's fishing."

Vernon laughed.

"You have all the imagination of the greatest nation in the world, Miss Voscoe," he said. "Thank you. These straight talks to young men are the salt of life. Good-bye."

"You haven't all the obfuscation of the stupidest nation in the world," she retorted. "If you had had you'd have had a chance to find out what straight talking means - which it's my belief you never have yet. Good-bye. You take my tip. Either you go back to where you were before you sighted Betty, or if the other one's sick of you too, just shuffle the cards, take a fresh deal and start fair. You go home and spend a quiet evening and think it all over."

Vernon went off laughing, and wondering why he didn't hate Miss Voscoe. He did not laugh long. He sat in his studio, musing till it was too late to go out to dine. Then he found some biscuits and sherry - remnants of preparations for the call of a picture dealer - ate and drank, and spent the evening in the way recommended by Miss Voscoe. He lay face downward on the divan, in the dark, and he did "think it all over."

But first there was the long time when he lay quite still - did not think at all, only remembered her hands and her eyes and her hair, and the pretty way her brows lifted when she was surprised or perplexed - and the four sudden sweet dimples that came near the corners of her mouth when she was amused, and the way her mouth drooped when she was tired.

"I want you. I want you. I want you," said the man who had been the Amorist. "I want you, dear!"

When he did begin to think, he moved uneasily in the dark as thought after thought crept out and stung him and slunk away. The verses he had written at Long Barton - ironic verses, written with the tongue in the cheek - came back with the force of iron truth:

"I love you to my heart's hid core:
Those other loves? How can one learn
From marshlights how the great fires burn?
Ah, no - I never loved before!"

He had smiled at Temple's confidences - when Betty was at hand - to be watched and guarded. Now Betty was away - anywhere. And Temple was deciding whether it was she whom he loved. Suppose he did decide that it was she, and, as Miss Voscoe had said, made her see it? "Damn," said Vernon, "Oh, damn!"

He was beginning to be a connoisseur in the fine flavours of the different brands of jealousy. Anyway there was food for thought.

There was food for little else, in the days that followed. Mr. Vernon's heart, hungry for the first time, had to starve. He went often to Lady St. Craye's. She was so gentle, sweet, yet not too sympathetic - bright, amusing even, but not too vivacious. He approved deeply the delicacy with which she ignored that last wild interview. She was sister, she was friend - and she had the rare merit of seeming to forget that she had been confidante.

It was he who re-opened the subject, after ten days. She had told herself that it was only a question of time. And it was.

"Do you know she's disappeared?" he said abruptly.

"Disappeared?" No one was ever more astonished than Lady St. Craye. Quite natural, the astonishment. Not overdone by so much as a hair's breadth.

So he told her all about it, and she twisted her long topaz chain and listened with exactly the right shade of interest. He told her what Miss Voscoe had said - at least most of it.

"And I worry about Temple," he said; "like any school boy, I worry. If he does decide that he loves her better than you - You said you'd help me. Can't you make sure that he won't love her better?"

"I could, I suppose," she admitted. To herself she said: "Temple's at Grez. She's at Grez. They've been there ten days."

"If only you would," he said. "It's too much to ask, I know. But I can't ask anything that isn't too much! And you're so much more noble and generous than other people - "

"No butter, thanks," she said.

"It's the best butter," he earnestly urged. "I mean that I mean it. Won't you?"

"When I see him again - but it's not very fair to him, is it?"

"He's an awfully good chap, you know," said Vernon innocently. And once more Lady St. Craye bowed before the sublime apparition of the Egoism of Man.

"Good enough for me, you think? Well, perhaps you're right. He's a dear boy. One would feel very safe if one loved a man like that."

"Yes - wouldn't one?" said Vernon.

She wondered whether Betty was feeling safe. No: ten days are a long time, especially in the country - but it would take longer than that to cure even a little imbecile like Betty of the Vernon habit. It was worse than opium. Who ought to know if not she who sat, calm and sympathetic, promising to entangle Temple so as to leave Betty free to become a hopeless prey to the fell disease?

Quite suddenly and to her own intense surprise, she laughed out loud.

"What is it?" his alert vanity bristled in the query.

"It's nothing - only everything! Life's so futile! We pat and pinch our little bit of clay, and look at it and love it and think it's going to be a masterpiece. - and then God glances at it - and He doesn't like the modelling, and He sticks his thumb down, and the whole thing's broken up, and there's nothing left to do but throw away the bits."

"Oh, no," said Vernon; "everything's bound to come right in the end. It all works out straight somehow."

She laughed again.

"Optimism - from you?"

"It's not optimism," he asserted eagerly, "it's only - well, if everything doesn't come right somehow, somewhere, some day, what did He bother to make the world for?"

"That's exactly what I said, my dear," said she. She permitted herself the little endearment now and then with an ironical inflection, as one fearful of being robbed might show a diamond pretending that it was paste.

"You think He made it for a joke?"

"If He did it's a joke in the worst possible taste," said she, "but I see your point of view. There can't be so very much wrong with a world that has Her in it, - and you - and possibilities."

"Do you know," he said slowly, "I'm not at all sure that - Do you remember the chap in Jane Eyre? - he knew quite well that that Rosamund girl wouldn't make him the wife he wanted. Yet he wanted nothing else. I don't want anything but her; and it doesn't make a scrap of difference that I know exactly what sort of fool I am."

"A knowledge of anatomy doesn't keep a broken bone from hurting," said she, "and all even you know about love won't keep off the heartache. I could have told you that long ago."

"I know I'm a fool," he said, "but I can't help it. Sometimes I think I wouldn't help it if I could."

"I know," she said, and something in her voice touched the trained sensibilities of the Amorist. He stooped to kiss the hand that teased the topazes.

"Dear Jasmine Lady," he said, "my optimism doesn't keep its colour long, does it? Give me some tea, won't you? There's nothing so wearing as emotion."

She gave him tea.

"It's a sort of judgment on you, though," was what she gave him with his first cup: "you've dealt out this very thing to so many women, - and now it's come home to roost."

"I didn't know what a fearful wildfowl it was," he answered smiling. "I swear I didn't. I begin to think I never knew anything at all before."

"And yet they say Love's blind."

"And so he is! That's just it. My exotic flower of optimism withers at your feet. It's all exactly the muddle you say it is. Pray Heaven for a clear way out! Meantime thank whatever gods may be - I've got you."

"Monsieur's confidante is always at his distinguished service," she said. And thus sealed the fountain of confidences for that day.

But it broke forth again and again in the days that came after. For now he saw her almost every day. And for her, to be with him, to know that she had of him more of everything, save the heart, than any other woman, spelled something wonderfully like happiness. More like it than she had the art to spell in any other letters.

Vernon still went twice a week to the sketch-club. To have stayed away would have been to confess, to the whole alert and interested class, that he had only gone there for the sake of Betty.

Those afternoons were seasons of salutary torture.

He tried very hard to work, but, though he still remembered how a paint brush should be handled, there seemed no good reason for using one. He had always found his planned and cultivated emotions strongly useful in forwarding his work. This undesired unrest mocked at work, and at all the things that had made up the solid fabric of one's days. The ways of love - he had called it love; it was a name like another - had merely been a sort of dram-drinking. Such love was the intoxicant necessary to transfigure life to the point where all things, even work, look beautiful. Now he tasted the real draught. It flooded his veins like fire and stung like poison. And it made work, and all things else, look mean and poor and unimportant.

"I want you - I want you - I want you," said Vernon to the vision with the pretty kitten face, and the large gray eyes. "I want you more than everything in the world," he said, "everything in the world put together. Oh, come back to me - dear, dear, dear."

He was haunted without cease by the little poem he had written when he was training himself to be in love with Betty:

"I love you to my heart's hid core:
Those other loves? How should one learn
From marshlights how the great fires burn?
Ah, no - I never loved before!"

"Prophetic, I suppose," he said, "though God knows I never meant it. Any fool of a prophet must hit the bull's eye at least once in a life. But there was a curious unanimity of prophecy about this. The aunt warned me; that Conway woman warned me; the Jasmine Lady warned me. And now it's happened," he told himself. "And I who thought I knew all about everything!"

Miss Conway's name, moving through his thoughts, left the trail of a new hope.

Next day he breakfasted at Montmartre.

The neatest little Crémerie; white paint, green walls stenciled with fat white geraniums. On each small table a vase of green Bruges ware or Breton pottery holding not a crushed crowded bouquet, but one single flower - a pink tulip, a pink carnation, a pink rose. On the desk from behind which the Proprietress ruled her staff, enormous pink peonies in a tall pot of Grez de Flandre.

Behind the desk Paula Conway, incredibly neat and business-like, her black hair severely braided, her plain black gown fitting a figure grown lean as any grey-hound's, her lace collar a marvel of fine laundry work.

Dapper-waisted waitresses in black, with white aprons, served the customers. Vernon was served by Madame herself. The clientele formed its own opinion of the cause of this, her only such condescension.

"Well, and how's trade?" he asked over his asparagus.

"Trade's beautiful," Paula answered, with the frank smile that Betty had seen, only once or twice, and had loved very much: "if trade will only go on behaving like this for another six weeks my cruel creditor will be paid every penny of the money that launched me."

Her eyes dwelt on him with candid affection.

"Your cruel creditor's not in any hurry," he said. "By the way, I suppose you've not heard anything of Miss Desmond?"

"How could I? You know you made me write that she wasn't to write."

"I didn't make you write anything."

"You approved. But anyway she hasn't my address. Why?"

"She's gone away: and she also has left no address."

"You don't think? - Oh, no - nothing could have happened to her!"

"No, no," he hastened to say. "I expect her father sent for her, or fetched her."

"The best thing too," said Paula. "I always wondered he let her come."

"Yes," - Vernon remembered how little Paula knew.

"Oh, yes, she's probably gone home."

"Look here," said Miss Conway very earnestly; "there wasn't any love business between you and her, was there?"

"No," he answered strongly.

"I was always afraid of that. Do you know - if you don't mind, when I've really paid my cruel creditor everything, I should like to write and tell her what he's done for me. I should like her to know that she really did save me - and how. Because if it hadn't been for her you'd never have thought of helping me. Do you think I might?"

"It could do no harm," said Vernon after a silent moment. "You'd really like her to know you're all right. You are all right?"

"I'm right; as I never thought I could be ever again."

"Well, you needn't exaggerate the little services of your cruel creditor. Come to think of it, you needn't name him. Just say it was a man you knew."

But when Paula came to write the letter that was not just what she said.