Chapter 14 - Renunciation
Vernon tore down the stairs three and four at a time, and caught Betty as she was stepping into a hired carriage.
"What is it?" he asked. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, go back to your friends!" said Betty angrily.
"My friends are all right. They'll amuse each other. Tell me."
"Then you must come with me," said she. "If I try to tell you here I shall begin to cry again. Don't speak to me. I can't bear it."
He got into the carriage. It was not until Betty had let herself into her room and he had followed her in - not till they stood face to face in the middle of the carpet that he spoke again.
"Now," he said, "what is it? Where's your aunt, and - "
"Sit down, won't you?" she said, pulling off her hat and throwing it on the couch; "it'll take rather a long time to tell, but I must tell you all about it, or else you can't help me. And if you don't help me I don't know what I shall do."
Despair was in her voice.
He sat down. Betty, in the chair opposite his, sat with hands nervously locked together.
"Look here," she said abruptly, "you're sure to think that everything I've done is wrong, but it's no use your saying so."
"I won't say so."
"Well, then - that day, you know, after I saw you at the Bête - Madame Gautier didn't come to fetch me, and I waited, and waited, and at last I went to her flat, and she was dead, - and I ought to have telegraphed to my step-father to fetch me, but I thought I would like to have one night in Paris first - you know I hadn't seen Paris at all, really."
"Yes," he said, trying not to let any anxiety into his voice. "Yes - go on."
"And I went to the Café d'Harcourt - What did you say?"
"I thought it was where the art students went. And I met a girl there, and she was kind to me."
"What sort of a girl? Not an art student?"
"No," said Betty hardly, "she wasn't an art student. She told me what she was."
"And I - I don't think I should have done it just for me alone, but - I did want to stay in Paris and work - and I wanted to help her to be good - she is good really, in spite of everything. Oh, I know you're horribly shocked, but I can't help it! And now she's gone, - and I can't find her."
"I'm not shocked," he said deliberately, "but I'm extremely stupid. How gone?"
"She was living with me here. - Oh, she found the rooms and showed me where to go for meals and gave me good advice - oh, she did everything for me! And now she's gone. And I don't know what to do. Paris is such a horrible place. Perhaps she's been kidnapped or something. And I don't know even how to tell the police. And all this time I'm talking to you is wasted time."
"It isn't wasted. But I must understand. You met this girl and she - "
"She asked your friend Mr. Temple - he was passing and she called out to him - to tell me of a decent hotel, but he asked so many questions. He gave me an address and I didn't go. I went back to her, and we went to a hotel and I persuaded her to come and live with me."
"But your aunt?"
Betty explained about her aunt.
"And your father?"
She explained about her father.
"And now she has gone, and you want to find her?"
"Want to find her?" - Betty started up and began to walk up and down the room. - "I don't care about anything else in the world! She's a dear; you don't know what a dear she is - and I know she was happy here - and now she's gone! I never had a girl friend before - what?"
Vernon had winced, just as Paula had winced, and at the same words.
"You've looked for her at the Café d'Harcourt?"
"No; I promised her that I'd never go there again."
"She seems to have given you some good advice."
"She advised me not to have anything to do with you" said Betty, suddenly spiteful.
"That was good advice - when she gave it," said Vernon, quietly; "but now it's different."
He was silent a moment, realising with a wonder beyond words how different it was. Every word, every glance between him and Betty had, hitherto, been part of a play. She had been a charming figure in a charming comedy. He had known, as it were by rote, that she had feelings - a heart, affections - but they had seemed pale, dream-like, just a delightful background to his own sensations, strong and conscious and delicate. Now for the first time he perceived her as real, a human being in the stress of a real human emotion. And he was conscious of a feeling of protective tenderness, a real, open-air primitive sentiment, with no smell of the footlights about it. He was alone with Betty. He was the only person in Paris to whom she could turn for help. What an opportunity for a fine scene in his best manner! And he found that he did not want a scene: he wanted to help her.
"Why don't you say something?" she said impatiently. "What am I to do?"
"You can't do anything. I'll do everything. You say she knows Temple. Well, I'll find him, and we'll go to her lodgings and find out if she's there. You don't know the address?"
"No," said Betty. "I went there, but it was at night and I don't even know the street."
"Now look here." He took both her hands and held them firmly. "You aren't to worry. I'll do everything. Perhaps she has been taken ill. In that case, when we find her, she'll need you to look after her. You must rest. I'm certain to find her. You must eat something. I'll send you in some dinner. And then lie down."
"I couldn't sleep," said Betty, looking at him with the eyes of a child that has cried its heart out.
"Of course you couldn't. Lie down, and make yourself read. I'll get back as soon as I can. Good-bye." There was something further that wanted to get itself said, but the words that came nearest to expressing it were "God bless you," - and he did not say them.
On the top of his staircase he found Temple lounging.
"Hullo - still here? I'm afraid I've been a devil of a time gone, but Miss Desmond's - "
"I don't want to shove my oar in," said Temple, "but I came back when I'd seen Lady St. Craye home. I hope there's nothing wrong with Miss Desmond."
"Come in," said Vernon. "I'll tell you the whole thing."
They went into the room desolate with the disorder of half empty cups and scattered plates with crumbs of cake on them.
"Miss Desmond told me about her meeting you. Well, she gave you the slip; she went back and got that woman - Lottie what's her name - and took her to live with her."
"Good God! She didn't know, of course?"
"But she did know - that's the knock-down blow. She knew, and she wanted to save her."
Temple was silent a moment.
"I say, you know, though - that's rather fine," he said presently.
"Oh, yes," said Vernon impatiently, "it's very romantic and all that. Well, the woman stayed a fortnight and disappeared to-day. Miss Desmond is breaking her heart about her."
"So she took her up, and - she's rather young for rescue work."
"Rescue work? Bah! She talks of the woman as the only girl friend she's ever had. And the woman's probably gone off with her watch and chain and a collection of light valuables. Only I couldn't tell Miss Desmond that. So I promised to try and find the woman. She's a thorough bad lot. I've run up against her once or twice with chaps I know."
"She's not that sort," said Temple. "I know her fairly well."
"What - Sir Galahad? Oh, I won't ask inconvenient questions." Vernon's sneer was not pretty.
"She used to live with de Villermay," said Temple steadily; "he was the first - the usual coffee maker business, you know, though God knows how an English girl got into it. When he went home to be married - It was rather beastly. The father came up - offered her a present. She threw it at him. Then Schauermacher wanted her to live with him. No. She'd go to the devil her own way. And she's gone."
"Can't something be done?" said Vernon.
"I've tried all I know. You can save a woman who doesn't know where she's going. Not one who knows and means to go. Besides, she's been at it six months; she's past reclaiming now."
"I wonder," said Vernon - and his sneer had gone and he looked ten years younger - "I wonder whether anybody's past reclaiming? Do you think I am? Or you?"
The other stared at him.
"Well," Vernon's face aged again instantly, "the thing is: we've got to find the woman."
"To get her to go back and live with that innocent girl?"
"Lord - no! To find her. To find out why she bolted, and to make certain that she won't go back and live with that innocent girl. Do you know her address?"
But she was not to be found at her address. She had come back, paid her bill, and taken away her effects.
It was at the Café d'Harcourt, after all, that they found her, one of a party of four. She nodded to them, and presently left her party and came to spread her black and white flounces at their table.
"What's the best news with you?" she asked gaily. "It's a hundred years since I saw you, Bobby, and at least a million since I saw your friend."
"The last time I saw you," Temple said, "was the night when you asked me to take care of a girl."
"So it was! And did you?"
"No," said Temple; "she wouldn't let me. She went back to you."
"So you've seen her again? Oh, I see - you've come to ask me what I meant by daring to contaminate an innocent girl by my society? - Well, you can go to Hell, and ask there."
She rose, knocking over a chair.
"Don't go," said Vernon. "That's not what we want to ask."
"'We' too," she turned fiercely on him: "as if you were a king or a deputation."
"One and one are two," said Vernon; "and I did very much want to talk to you."
"And two are company."
She had turned her head away.
"You aren't going to be cruel," Vernon asked.
"Well, send him off then. I won't be bullied by a crowd of you."
Temple took off his hat and went.
"I've got an appointment. I've no time for fool talk," she said.
"Sit down," said Vernon. "First I want to thank you for the care you've taken of Miss Desmond, and for all your kindness and goodness to her."
"Oh!" was all Paula could say. She had expected something so different. "I don't see what business it is of yours, though," she added next moment.
"Only that she's alone here, and I'm the only person she knows in Paris. And I know, much better than she does, all that you've done for her sake."
"I did it for my own sake. It was no end of a lark," said Paula eagerly, "that little dull pious life. And all the time I used to laugh inside to think what a sentimental fool she was."
"Yes," said Vernon slowly, "it must have been amusing for you."
"I just did it for the fun of the thing. But I couldn't stand it any longer, so I just came away. I was bored to death."
"Yes," he said, "you must have been. Just playing at cooking and housework, reading aloud to her while she drew - yes, she told me that. And the flowers and all her little trumpery odds and ends about. Awfully amusing it must have been."
"Don't," said Paula.
"And to have her loving you and trusting you as she did - awfully comic, wasn't it? Calling you her girl-friend - "
"Shut up, will you?"
"And thinking she had created a new heaven and a new earth for you. Silly sentimental little school-girl!"
"Will you hold your tongue?"
"So long, Lottie," cried the girl of her party; "we're off to the Bullier. You've got better fish to fry, I see."
"Yes," said Paula with sudden effrontery; "perhaps we'll look in later."
The others laughed and went.
"Now," she said, turning furiously on Vernon, "will you go? Or shall I? I don't want any more of you."
"Just one word more," he said with the odd change of expression that made him look young. "Tell me why you left her. She's crying her eyes out for you."
"Why I left her? Because I was sick of - "
"Don't. Let me tell you. You went with her because she was alone and friendless. You found her rooms, you set her in the way of making friends. And when you saw that she was in a fair way to be happy and comfortable, you came away, because - "
"Because?" she leaned forward eagerly.
"Because you were afraid."
"Afraid of handicapping her. You knew you would meet people who knew you. You gave it all up - all the new life, the new chances - for her sake, and came away. Do I understand? Is it fool-talk?"
Paula leaned her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands.
"You're not like most men," she said; "you make me out better than I am. That's not the usual mistake. Yes, it was all that, partly. And I should have liked to stay - for ever and ever - if I could. But suppose I couldn't? Suppose I'd begun to find myself wishing for - all sorts of things, longing for them. Suppose I'd stayed till I began to think of things that I wouldn't think of while she was with me. That's what I was afraid of."
"And you didn't long for the old life at all?"
She laughed. "Long for that? But I might have. I might have. It was safer. - Well, go back to her and tell her I've gone to the devil and it's not her fault. Tell her I wasn't worth saving. But I did try to save her. If you're half a man you won't undo my one little bit of work."
"What do you mean?"
"You know well enough what I mean. Let the girl alone."
He leaned forward, and spoke very earnestly. "Look here," he said, "I won't jaw. But this about you and her - well, it's made a difference to me that I can't explain. And I wouldn't own that to anyone but her friend. I mean to be a friend to her too, a good friend. No nonsense."
"Swear it by God in Heaven," she said fiercely.
"I do swear it," he said, "by God in Heaven. And I can't tell her you've gone to the devil. You must write to her. And you can't tell her that either."
"What's the good of writing?"
"A lie or two isn't much, when you've done all this for her. Come up to my place. You can write to her there."
This was the letter that Paula wrote in Vernon's studio, among the half-empty cups and the scattered plates with cake-crumbs on them.
"Will that do?" she laughed as she held out the letter.
He read it. And he did not laugh.
"Yes - that'll do," he said. "I'll tell her you've gone to England, and I'll send the letter to London to be posted."
"Then that's all settled!"
"Can I do anything for you?" he asked.
"God Himself can't do anything for me," she said, biting the edge of her veil.
"Where are you going now?"
"Back to the d'Harcourt. It's early yet."
She stood defiantly smiling at him.
"What were you doing there - the night you met her?" he asked abruptly.
"What does one do?"
"What's become of de Villermay?" he asked.
"Gone home - got married."
"And so you thought - "
"Oh, if you want to know what I thought you're welcome! I thought I'd damn myself as deep as I could - to pile up the reckoning for him; and I've about done it. Good-bye. I must be getting on."
"I'll come a bit of the way with you," he said.
At the door he turned, took her hand and kissed it gently and reverently.
"That's very sweet of you." She opened astonished eyes at him. "I always used to think you an awful brute."
"It was very theatrical of me," he told himself later. "But it summed up the situation. Sentimental ass you're growing!"
Betty got her letter from England and cried over it and was glad over it.
"I have done one thing, anyway," she told herself, "one really truly good thing. I've saved my poor dear Paula. Oh, how right I was! How I knew her!"