Chapter 9 - The Opportunity
Vernon in those two days decided that he did not wish to see Betty again. She was angry with him, and, though he never for an instant distrusted his power to dissipate the cloud, he felt that the lifting of it would leave him and her in that strong light wherein the frail flower of sentiment must wither and perish. Explications were fatal to the delicate mystery, the ethereal half-lights, that Vernon loved. Above all things he detested the trop dit.
Already a mood of much daylight was making him blink and shrink. He saw himself as he was - or nearly - and the spectacle did not please him. The thought of Lady St. Craye was the only one that seemed to make for any sort of complacency. The thought of Temple rankled oddly.
"He likes me, and he dislikes himself for liking me. Why does he like me? Why does anyone like me? I'm hanged if I know!"
This was the other side of his mood of most days, when the wonder seemed that everyone should not like him. Why shouldn't they? Ordinarily he was hanged if he knew that.
He had expected a note from Lady St. Craye to follow up his dinner with her. He knew how a woman rarely resists the temptation to write to the man in whom she is interested, even while his last words are still ringing in her ears. But no note came, and he concluded that Lady St. Craye was not interested. This reassured while it piqued.
The Hotel Bête is very near the Madeleine, and very near the heart of Paris - of gay Paris, that is, - yet it might have been a hundred miles from anywhere. You go along the Rue Boissy, and stopping at a gateway you turn into a dreary paved court, which is the Cité de la Retraite. Here the doors of the Hotel Bête open before you like the portals of a mausoleum. There is no greeting from the Patronne; your arrival gives rise to no pleasant welcoming bustle. The concierge receives you, and you see at once that her cheerful smile is assumed. No one could really be cheerful at the Hotel Bête.
Vernon felt as though he was entering a family vault of the highest respectability when he passed through its silent hall and enquired for Mr. James Vernon.
Monsieur Vernon was out. No, he had charged no one with a billet for monsieur. Monsieur Vernon would doubtless return for the déjeûner; it was certain that he would return for the diner. Would Monsieur wait?
Monsieur waited, in a little stiff salon with glass doors, prim furniture, and an elaborately ornamental French clock. It was silent, of course. One wonders sometimes whether ornamental French Ormolu clocks have any works, or are solid throughout. For no one has ever seen one of them going.
There were day-old English papers on the table, and the New York Herald. Through the glass doors he could see everyone who came in or went out. And he saw no one. There was a stillness as of the tomb.
Even the waiter, now laying covers for the déjeûner, wore list slippers and his movements were silent as a heron's ghost-gray flight.
He came to the glass door presently.
"Did Monsieur breakfast?"
Vernon was not minded to waste two days in the pursuit of uncles. Here he was, and here he stayed, till Uncle James should appear.
Yes, decidedly, Monsieur breakfasted.
He wondered where the clients of the hotel had hidden themselves. Were they all dead, or merely sight-seeing? As his watch shewed him the approach of half-past twelve he found himself listening for the tramp of approaching feet, the rustle of returning skirts. And still all was silent as the grave.
The sudden summoning sound of a bell roused him from a dreamy wonder as to whether Betty and her aunt had already left. If not, should he meet them at déjeûner? The idea of the possible meeting amused more than it interested him. He crossed the hall and entered the long bare salle á manger.
By Heaven - he was the only guest! A cover was laid for him only - no, at a distance of half the table for another. Then Betty and her aunt had gone. Well, so much the better.
He unfolded his table-napkin. In another moment, doubtless, Uncle James would appear to fill the vacant place.
But in another moment the vacant place was filled - and by Betty - Betty alone, unchaperoned, and bristling with hostility. She bowed very coldly, but she was crimson to the ears. He rose and came to her holding out his hand.
With the waiter looking on, Betty had to give hers, but she gave it in a way that said very plainly:
"I am very surprised and not at all pleased to see you here."
"This is a most unexpected pleasure," he said very distinctly, and added the truth about his uncle.
"Has Monsieur Vernon yet returned?" he asked the waiter who hovered anxiously near.
"No, Monsieur was not yet of return."
"So you see," his look answered the speech of her hand, "it is not my doing in the least."
"I hope your aunt is well," he went on, the waiter handing baked eggs the while.
"Quite well, thank you," said Betty. "And how is your wife? I ought to have asked yesterday, but I forgot."
"Oh, perhaps you aren't married yet. Of course my father told me of your engagement."
She crumbled bread and smiled pleasantly.
"So that's it," thought Vernon. "Fool that I was to forget it!"
"I am not married," he said coldly, "nor have I ever been engaged to be married."
And he ate eggs stolidly wondering what her next move would be. It was one that surprised him. For she leaned towards him and said in a perfectly new voice:
"Couldn't you get Franz to move you a little more this way? One can't shout across these acres of tablecloth, and I've heaps of things to tell you."
He moved nearer, and once again he wronged Betty by a mental shrinking. Was she really going to own that she had resented the news of his engagement? She was really hopeless. He began to bristle defensively.
[Illustration: "'Ah, don't be cross!' she said"]
"Anything you care to tell me will of course be of the greatest possible interest," he was beginning, but Betty interrupted him.
"Ah, don't be cross!" she said. "I know I was perfectly horrid yesterday, but I own I was rather hurt."
"Hold back," he adjured her, inwardly, "for Heaven's sake, hold back!"
"You see," she went on, "you and I were such good friends - you'd been so kind - and you told me - you talked to me about things you didn't talk of to other people, - and when I thought you'd told my step-father a secret of yours that you'd never told me, of course I felt hurt - anyone would have."
"I see," said he, beginning to.
"Of course I never dreamed that he'd lied, and even now I don't see - " Then suddenly she did see and crimsoned again.
"He didn't lie," said Vernon carefully, "it was I. But I would never have told him anything that I wouldn't have told you - nor half that I did tell you."
The waiter handed pale meat.
"Yes, the scenery in Brittany is most charming; I did some good work there. The people are so primitive and delightful too."
The waiter withdrew, and Betty said:
"How do you mean - he didn't lie?"
"The fact is," said Vernon, "he - he did not understand our friendship in the least. I imagine friendship was not invented when he was young. It's a tiresome subject, Miss Desmond; let's drop it - shall we?"
"If you like," said she, chilly as December.
"Oh, well then, just let me say it was done for your sake, Miss Desmond. He had no idea that two people should have any interests in common except - except matters of the heart, and the shortest way to convince him was to tell him that my heart was elsewhere. I don't like lies, but there are some people who insist on lies - nothing else will convince them of the truth. Here comes some abhorrent preparation of rice. How goes it with art?"
"I have been working very hard," she said, "but every day I seem to know less and less."
"Oh, that's all right! It's only that every day one knows more and more - of how little one does know. You'll have to pass many milestones before you pass out of that state. Do they always feed you like this here?"
"Some days it's custard," said Betty, "but we've only been here a week."
"We're friends again now, aren't we?" he questioned suddenly.
"Yes - oh, yes!"
"Then I may ask questions. I want to hear what you've been doing since we parted, and where you've been, and how you come to Paris - and where your aunt is, and what she'll say to me when she comes in."
"She likes you," said Betty, "and she won't come in, but Madame Gautier will. Aunt Julia went off this morning - she couldn't delay any longer because of catching the P. & O. at Brindisi; and I'm to wait here till Madame Gautier comes at three. Auntie came all the way back from America to see whether I was happy here. She is a dear!"
"And who is Madame Gautier? Is she also a dear? But let's have our coffee in the salon - and tell me everything from the beginning."
"Yes," said Betty, "oh, yes!"
But the salon window was darkened by a passing shape.
"My uncle, bless him!" said Vernon. "I must go. See, here's my card! Won't you write and tell me all about everything? You will, won't you?"
"Yes, but you musn't write to me. Madame Gautier opens all our letters, and friendships weren't invented when she was young either. Good-bye."
Vernon had to go towards the strong English voice that was filling the hall with its inquiries for "Ung Mossoo - ung mossoo Anglay qui avoir certainmong etty icy ce mattan."
Five minutes later Betty saw two figures go along the pavement on the other side of the decorous embroidered muslin blinds which, in the unlikely event of any happening in the Cite de la Retraite, ensure its not being distinctly seen by those who sojourn at the Hotel Bête.
Betty instantly experienced that feminine longing which makes women write to lovers or friends from whom they have but now parted, and she was weaker than Lady St. Craye. There was nothing to do. Her trunks were packed. She had before her two hours, or nearly, of waiting for Madame Gautier. So she wrote, and this is the letter, erasures and all. Vernon, when he got it, was most interested in the erasures here given in italics.
That was the letter which Betty posted. But the first letter she wrote was quite different. It began:
She burned this letter.
"The other must go," she said, "that's the worst of life. If I sent the one that's really written as I feel he'd think I was in love with him or some nonsense. But a child who was just in two syllables might have written the other. So that's all right."
She looked at her watch. The same silver watch with which she had once crossed the hand of one who told her fortune.
"How silly all that was!" she said. "I have learned wisdom now. Nearly half-past three. I never knew Madame late before."
And now Betty began to watch the windows for the arrival of her chaperone; and four o'clock came, and five, but no Madame Gautier.
She went out at last and asked to see the Patronne, and to her she explained in a French whose fluency out-ran its correctness, that a lady was to have called for her at three. It was now a quarter past five. What did Madame think she should do?
Madame was lethargic and uninterested. She had no idea. She could not advise. Probably Mademoiselle would do well to wait always.
The concierge was less aloof.
But without doubt Madame, Mademoiselle's friend had forgotten the hour. She would arrive later, certainly. If not, Mademoiselle could stay the night at the hotel, where a young lady would be perfectly well, and go to Madame her friend in the morning.
But Betty was not minded to stay the night alone at the Hótel Bête. For one thing she had very little money, - save that in the fat envelope addressed to Madame Gautier which her aunt had given her. It contained, she knew, the money to pay for her board and lessons during the next six months, - for the elder Miss Desmond was off to India, Japan and Thibet, and her horror of banks and cheques made her very downright in the matter of money. That in the envelope was all Betty had, and that was Madame Gautier's. But the other part of the advice - to go to Madame Gautier's in the morning? If in the morning, why not now?
She decided to go now. No one opposed the idea much. Only Franz seemed a little disturbed and the concierge tepidly urged patience.
But Betty was fretted by waiting. Also she knew that Vernon and his uncle might return at any moment. And it would perhaps be awkward for him to find her there - she would not for the world cause him a moment's annoyance. Besides he might think she had waited on the chance of seeing him again. That was not to be borne.
"I will return and take my trunks," she said; and a carriage was called.
There was something very exhilarating in driving through the streets of Paris, alone, in a nice little carriage with fat pneumatic tires. The street lamps were alight, and the shops not yet closed. Almost every house seemed to be a shop.
"I wonder where all the people live," said Betty.
The Place de la Concorde delighted her with its many lamps and its splendid space.
"How glorious it would be to live alone in Paris," she thought, "be driven about in cabs just when one liked and where one liked! Oh, I am tired of being a school-girl! I suppose they won't let me be grown up till I'm so old I shall wish I was a school-girl again."
She loved the river with its reflected lights, - but it made her shudder, too.
"Of course I shall never be allowed to see the Morgue," she said; "they won't let me see anything real. Even this little teeny tiny bit of a drive, I daresay it's not comme il faut! I do hope Madame won't be furious. She couldn't expect me to wait forever. Perhaps, too, she's ill, and no one to look after her. Oh, I'm sure I'm right to go."
The doubt, however, grew as the carriage jolted through narrower streets, and when it drew up at an open carriage-door, Betty jumped out, paid the coachman, and went in quite prepared to be scolded.
She went through the doorway and stood looking for the list of names such as are set at the foot of the stairs leading to flats in London. There was no such list. From a lighted doorway on the right came a babel of shrill, high-pitched voices. Betty looked in at the door and the voices ceased.
"Pardon, Madame," said Betty. "I seek Madame Gautier."
Everyone in the crowded stuffy lamplit little room drew a deep breath.
"Mademoiselle is without doubt one of Madame's young ladies?"
Perhaps it was the sudden hushing of the raised voices, perhaps it was something in the flushed faces that all turned towards her. To her dying day Betty will never know why she did not say "Yes." What she did say was:
"I am a friend of Madame's. Is she at home?"
"No, Mademoiselle, - she is not at home; she will never be at home more, the poor lady. She is dead, Mademoiselle - an accident, one of those cursed automobiles ran over her at her very door, Mademoiselle, before our eyes."
Betty felt sick.
"Thank you," she said, "it is very sudden."
"Will Mademoiselle leave her name?" the concierge asked curiously. "The brother of Madame, he is in the commerce at Nantes. A telegramme has been sent - he arrives to-morrow morning. He will give Mademoiselle details."
Again Betty said what she had not intended to say. She said:
"Miss Brown." Perhaps the brother in the commerce vaguely suggested the addition, "of Manchester."
Then she turned away, and got out of the light into the friendly dusk of the street.
"Tiens, but it is droll," said the concierge's friend, "a young girl, and all alone like that."
"Oh, it is nothing," said the concierge; "the English are mad - all! Their young girls run the streets at all hours, and the Devil guards them."
Betty stood in the street. She could not go back to that circle of harpy faces, all eagerly tearing to pieces the details of poor old Madame Gautier's death. She must be alone - think. She would have to write home. Her father would come to fetch her. Her aunt was beyond the reach of appeal. Her artist-life would be over. Everything would be over. She would be dragged back to the Parishing and the Mothers' meetings and the black-cotton-covered books and the Sunday School.
And she would never have lived in Paris at all!
She walked down the street.
"I can't think - I must think! I'll have this night to myself to think in, anyway. I'll go to some cheap hotel. I have enough for that."
She hailed a passing carriage, drove to the Hotel Bête, took her luggage to the Gare du Nord, and left it there.
Then as she stood on the station step, she felt something in her hand. It was the fat letter addressed to Madame Gautier. And she knew it was fat with bank notes.
She unfastened her dress and thrust the letter into her bosom, buttoning the dress carefully over it.
"But I won't go to my hotel yet," she said. "I won't even look for one. I'll see Paris a bit first."
She hailed a coachman.
"Go," she said, "to some restaurant in the Latin Quarter - where the art students eat."
"And I'm alone in Paris, and perfectly free," said Betty, leaning back on the cushions. "No, I won't tell my coachman to drive along the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, wherever that is. Oh, it is glorious to be perfectly free. Oh, poor Madame Gautier! Oh dear, oh dear!" She held her breath and wondered why she could feel sorry.
"You are a wretch," she said, "poor Madame was kind to you in her hard narrow way, and now is she lying cold and dead, all broken up by that cruel motor car."
The horror of the picture helped by Betty's excitement brought the tears and she encouraged them.
"It is something to find one is not entirely heartless," she said at last, drying her eyes, as the carriage drew up at a place where there were people and voices and many lights.