The Incomplete Amorist

Part 4 - The Other Man

E. Nesbit

Chapter 23 - Temperatures


"It isn't as though she were the sort of girl who can't take care of herself," said Lady St. Craye to the Inward Monitor who was buzzing its indiscreet common-places in her ear. "I've really done her a good turn by sending her to Grez. No - it's not in the least compromising for a girl to stay at the same hotel. And besides, there are lots of amusing people there, I expect. She'll have a delightful time, and get to know that Temple boy really well. I'm sure he'd repay investigation. If I weren't a besotted fool I could have pursued those researches myself. But it's not what's worth having that one wants; it's - it's what one does want. Yes. That's all."

Paris was growing intolerable. But for - well, a thousand reasons - Lady St. Craye would already have left it. The pavements were red-hot. When one drove it was through an air like the breath from the open mouth of a furnace.

She kept much within doors, filled her rooms with roses, and lived with every window open. Her balcony, too, was full of flowers, and the striped sun-blinds beyond each open window kept the rooms in pleasant shadow.

"But suppose something happens to her - all alone there," said the Inward Monitor.

"Nothing will. She's not that sort of girl." Her headache had been growing worse these three days. The Inward Monitor might have had pity, remembering that - but no.

"You told Him that all girls were the same sort of girls," said the pitiless voice.

"I didn't mean in that way. I suppose you'd have liked me to write that anonymous letter and restore her to the bosom of her furious family? I've done the girl a good turn - for what she did for me. She's a good little thing - too good for him, even if I didn't happen to - And Temple's her ideal mate. I wonder if he's found it out yet? He must have by now: three weeks in the same hotel."

Temple, however, was not in the same hotel. The very day of the river rescue and the double omelette he had moved his traps a couple of miles down the river to Montigny.

A couple of miles is a good distance. Also a very little way, as you choose to take it.

"You know it was a mean trick," said the Inward Monitor. "Why not have let the girl go away where she could be alone - and get over it?"

"Oh, be quiet!" said Lady St. Craye. "I never knew myself so tiresome before. I think I must be going to be ill. My head feels like an ice in an omelette."

Vernon, strolling in much later, found her with eyes closed, leaning back among her flowers as she had lain all that long afternoon.

"How pale you look," he said. "You ought to get away from here."

"Yes," she said, "I suppose I ought. It would be easier for you if you hadn't the awful responsibility of bringing me roses every other day. What beauty-darlings these are!" She dipped her face in the fresh pure whiteness of the ones he had laid on her knee. Their faces felt cold, like the faces of dead people. She shivered.

"Heaven knows what I should do without you to - to bring my - my roses to," he said.

"Do you bring me anything else to-day?" she roused herself to ask. "Any news, for instance?"

"No," he said. "There isn't any news - there never will be. She's gone home - I'm certain of it. Next week I shall go over to England and propose for her formally to her step-father."

"A very proper course!"

It was odd that talking to some one else should make one's head throb like this. And it was so difficult to know what to say. Very odd. It had been much easier to talk to the Inward Monitor.

She made herself say: "And suppose she isn't there?" She thought she said it rather well.

"Well, then there's no harm done."

"He doesn't like you." She was glad she had remembered that.

"He didn't - but the one little word 'marriage,' simply spoken, is a magic spell for taming savage relatives. They'll eat out of your hand after that - at least so I'm told."

It was awful that he should decide to do this - heart-breaking. But it did not seem to be hurting her heart. That felt as though it wasn't there. Could one feel emotion in one's hands and feet? Hers were ice cold - but inside they tingled and glowed, like a worm of fire in a chrysalis of ice. What a silly simile.

"Must you go?" was what she found herself saying. "Suppose she isn't there at all? You'll simply be giving her away - all her secret - and he'll fetch her home."

That at least was quite clearly put.

"I'm certain she is at home," he said. "And I don't see why I am waiting till next week. I'll go to-morrow."

If you are pulling a rose to pieces it is very important to lay the petals in even rows on your lap, especially if the rose be white.

"Eustace," she said, suddenly feeling quite coherent, "I wish you wouldn't go away from Paris just now. I don't believe you'd find her. I have a feeling that she's not far away. I think that is quite sensible. I am not saying it because I - And - I feel very ill, Eustace. I think I am - Oh, I am going, to be ill, very ill, I think! Won't you wait a little? You'll have such years and years to be happy in. I don't want to be ill here in Paris with no one to care."

She was leaning forward, her hands on the arms of her chair, and for the first time that day, he saw her face plainly. He said: "I shall go out now, and wire for your sister."

"Not for worlds! I forbid it. She'd drive me mad. No - but my head's running round like a beetle on a pin. I think you'd better go now. But don't go to-morrow. I mean I think I'll go to sleep. I feel as if I'd tumbled off the Eiffel tower and been caught on a cloud - one side of it's cold and the other's blazing."

He took her hand, felt her pulse. Then he kissed the hand.

"My dear, tired Jasmine Lady," he said, "I'll send in a doctor. And don't worry. I won't go to-morrow. I'll write."

"Oh, very well," she said, "write then, - and it will all come out - about her being here alone. And she'll always hate you. I don't care what you do!"

"I suppose I can write a letter as though - as though I'd not seen her since Long Barton." He inwardly thanked her for that hint.

"A letter written from Paris? That's so likely, isn't it? But do what you like. I don't care what you do."

She was faintly, agreeably surprised to notice that she was speaking the truth. "It's rather pleasant, do you know," she went on dreamily, "when everything that matters suddenly goes flat, and you wonder what on earth you ever worried about. Why do people always talk about cold shivers? I think hot shivers are much more amusing. It's like a skylark singing up close to the sun, and doing the tremolo with its wings. I'm sorry you're going away, though."

"I'm not going away," he said. "I wouldn't leave you when you're ill for all the life's happinesses that ever were. Oh, why can't you cure me? I don't want to want her; I want to want you."

"I'm certain," said Lady St. Craye brightly, "that what you've just been saying's most awfully interesting, but I like to hear things said ever so many times. Then the seventh time you understand everything, and the coldness and the hotness turn into silver and gold and everything is quite beautiful, and I think I am not saying exactly what you expected. - Don't think I don't know that what I say sounds like nonsense. I know that quite well, only I can't stop talking. You know one is like that sometimes. It was like that the night you hit me."

"I? Hit you?"

He was kneeling by her low chair holding her hand, as she lay back talking quickly in low, even tones, her golden eyes shining wonderfully.

"No - you didn't call it hitting. But things aren't always what we call them, are they? You mustn't kiss me now, Eustace. I think I've got some horrid fever - I'm sure I have. Because of course nobody could be bewitched nowadays, and put into a body that feels thick and thin in the wrong places. And my head isn't too big to get through the door. - Of course I know it isn't. It would be funny if it were. I do love funny things. - So do you. I like to hear you laugh. I wish I could say something funny, so as to hear you laugh now."

She was holding his hand very tightly with one of hers. The other held the white roses. All her mind braced itself to a great exertion as the muscles do for a needed effort. She spoke very slowly.

"Listen, Eustace. I am going to be ill. Get a nurse and a doctor and go away. Perhaps it is catching. And if I fall through the floor," she added laughing, "it is so hard to stop!"

"Put your arms round my neck," he said, for she had risen and was swaying like a flame in the wind - the white rose leaves fell in showers.

"I don't think I want to, now," she said, astonished that it should be so.

"Oh, yes, you do!" - He spoke as one speaks to a child. "Put your arms round Eustace's neck, - your own Eustace that's so fond of you."

"Are you?" she said, and her arms fell across his shoulders.

"Of course I am," he said. "Hold tight."

He lifted her and carried her, not quite steadily, for carrying a full-grown woman is not the bagatelle novelists would have us believe it.

He opened her bedroom door, laid her on the white, lacy coverlet of her bed.

"Now," he said, "you are to lie quite still. You've been so good and dear and unselfish. You've always done everything I've asked, even difficult things. This is quite easy. Just lie and think about me till I come back."

He bent over the bed and kissed her gently.

"Ah!" she sighed. There was a flacon on the table by the bed. He expected it to be jasmine. It was lavender water; he drenched her hair and brow and hands.

"That's nice," said she. "I'm not really ill. I think it's nice to be ill. Quite still do you mean, like that?"

She folded her hands, the white roses still clasped. The white bed, the white dress, the white flowers. Horrible!

"Yes," he said firmly, "just like that. I shall be back in five minutes."

He was not gone three. He came back and - till the doctor came, summoned by the concierge - he sat by her, holding her hands, covering her with furs from the wardrobe when she shivered, bathing her wrists with perfumed water when she threw off the furs and spoke of the fire that burned in her secret heart of cold clouds.

When the doctor came he went out by that excellent Irishman's direction and telegraphed for a nurse.

Then he waited in the cool shaded sitting-room, among the flowers. This was where he had hit her - as she said. There on the divan she had cried, leaning her head against his sleeve. Here, half-way to the door, they had kissed each other. No, he would certainly not go to England while she was ill. He felt sufficiently like a murderer already. But he would write. He glanced at her writing-table.

A little pang pricked him, and drove him to the balcony.

"No," he said, "if we are to hit people, at least let us hit them fairly." But all the same he found himself playing with the word-puzzle whose solution was the absolutely right letter to Betty's father, asking her hand in marriage.

"Well," he asked the doctor who closed softly the door of the bedroom and came forward, "is it brain-fever?"

"Holy Ann, no! Brain fever's a fell disease invented by novelists - I never met it in all my experience. The doctors in novels have special advantages. No, it's influenza - pretty severe touch too. She ought to have been in bed days ago. She'll want careful looking after."

"I see," said Vernon. "Any danger?"

"There's always danger, Lord - Saint-Croix isn't it?"

"I have not the honour to be Lady St. Craye's husband," said Vernon equably. "I was merely calling, and she seemed so ill that I took upon myself to - "

"I see - I see. Well, if you don't mind taking on yourself to let her husband know? It's a nasty case. Temperature 104. Perhaps her husband 'ud be as well here as anywhere."

"He's dead," said Vernon.

"Oh!" said the doctor with careful absence of expression. "Get some woman to put her to bed and to stay with her till the nurse comes. She's in a very excitable state. Good afternoon. I'll look in after dinner."

When Vernon had won the concierge to the desired service, had seen the nurse installed, had dined, called for news of Lady St. Craye, learned that she was "toujours très souffrante," he went home, pulled a table into the middle of his large, bare, hot studio, and sat down to write to the Reverend Cecil Underwood.

"I mean to do it," he told himself, "and it can't hurt her my doing it now instead of a month ahead, when she's well again. In fact, it's better for all of us to get it settled one way or another while she's not caring about anything."

So he wrote. And he wrote a great deal, though the letter that at last he signed was quite short:

My Dear Sir:
I have the honour to ask the hand of your daughter in marriage. When
you asked me, most properly, my intentions, I told you that I was
betrothed to another lady. This is not now the case. And I have
found myself wholly unable to forget the impression made upon me
last year by Miss Desmond. My income is about £1,700 a year, and
increases yearly. I beg to apologise for anything which may have
annoyed you in my conduct last year, and to assure you that my
esteem and affection for Miss Desmond are lasting and profound, and
that, should she do me the honour to accept my proposal, I shall
devote my life's efforts to secure her happiness.
I am, my dear Sir, Your obedient servant,
Eustace Vernon.

"That ought to do the trick," he told himself. "Talk of old world courtesy and ceremonial! Anyhow, I shall know whether she's at Long Barton by the time it takes to get an answer. If it's two days, she's there. If it's longer she isn't. He'll send my letter on to her - unless he suppresses it. Your really pious people are so shockingly unscrupulous."

There is nothing so irretrievable as a posted letter. This came home to Vernon as the envelope dropped on the others in the box at the Café du Dóme - came home to him rather forlornly.

Next morning he called with more roses for Lady St. Craye, pinky ones this time.

"Milady was toujours très souffrante. It would be ten days, at the least, before Milady could receive, even a very old friend, like Monsieur."

The letter reached Long Barton between the Guardian and a catalogue of Some Rare Books. The Reverend Cecil read it four times. He was trying to be just. At first he thought he would write "No" and tell Betty years later. But the young man had seen the error of his ways. And £1,700 a year! -

The surprise visit with which the Reverend Cecil had always intended to charm his step-daughter suddenly found its date quite definitely fixed. This could not be written. He must go to the child and break it to her very gently, very tenderly - find out quite delicately and cleverly exactly what her real feelings were. Girls were so shy about those things.

Miss Julia Desmond had wired him from Suez that she would be in Paris next week - had astonishingly asked him to meet her there.

"Paris next Tuesday Gare St. Lazare 6:45. Come and see Betty via Dieppe," had been her odd message.

He had not meant to go - not next Tuesday. He was afraid of Miss Julia Desmond. He would rather have his Lizzie all to himself. But now -

He wrote a cablegram to Miss Julia Desmond: "Care Captain S.S. Urania, Brindisi: Will meet you in Paris." Then he thought that this might seem to the telegraph people not quite nice, so he changed it to: "Going to see Lizzie Tuesday."

The fates that had slept so long were indeed waking up and beginning to take notice of Betty. Destiny, like the most attractive of the porters at the Gare de Lyon, "s'occupait d'elle."