Chapter 19 - The Truth With A Vengeance
In those three weeks whose meetings with Vernon had been so lacking in charm there had been other meetings for Betty, and in these charm had not been to seek. But it was the charm of restful, pleasant companionship illuminated by a growing certainty that Mr. Temple admired her very much, that he liked her very much, that he did not think her untidy and countrified and ill-dressed, and all the things she had felt herself to be that night when Lady St. Craye and her furs had rustled up the staircase at Thirion's. And she had dined with Mr. Temple and lunched with Mr. Temple, and there had been an afternoon at St. Cloud, and a day at Versailles. Miss Voscoe and some of the other students had been in the party, but not of it as far as Betty was concerned. She had talked to Temple all the time.
"I'm glad to see you've taken my advice," said Miss Voscoe, "only you do go at things so - like a bull at a gate. A month ago it was all that ruffian Vernon. Now it's all Mr. Go-to-Hell. Why not have a change? Try a Pole or a German."
But Betty declined to try a Pole or a German.
What she wanted to do was to persuade herself that she liked Temple as much as she liked Vernon, and, further, that she did not care a straw for either.
Of course it is very wrong indeed to talk pleasantly with a young man when you think you know that he might, just possibly, be falling in love with you. But then it is very interesting, too. To be loved, even by the wrong person, seems in youth's selfish eyes to light up the world as the candle lights the Japanese lantern. And besides, after all, one can't be sure. And it is not maidenly to say "No," even by the vaguest movements of retreat, to a question that has not been asked and perhaps never will be.
And when she was talking to Temple she was not thinking so much of Vernon, and of her unselfish friendship for him, and the depth of her hope that he really would be happy with that woman.
So that it was with quite a sick feeling that her days had been robbed of something that made them easier to live, if not quite worth living, that she read and reread the letter that she found waiting for her after that last unsuccessful dinner with the man whom Temple helped her to forget.
You will see by the letter what progress friendship can make in a month between a young man and woman, even when each is half in love with some one else.
Betty, in bed, was re-reading this when Vernon's knock came at her door. She spoke to him through the door with the letter in her hand. And her real thought when she asked him if he had come to break bad news was that something had happened to Temple.
She went back to bed, but not to sleep. Try as she would, she could not keep away the wonder - what could Vernon have had to say that wanted so badly to get itself said? She hid her eyes and would not look in the face of her hope. There had been a tone in his voice as he whispered on the other side of that stupid door, a tone she had not heard since Long Barton.
Oh, why had she gone to bed early that night of all nights? She would never go to bed early again as long as she lived!
What? - No, impossible! Yes. Another knock at her door. She sprang out of bed, and stood listening. There was no doubt about it. Vernon had come back. After all what he had to say would not keep till morning. A wild idea of dressing and letting him in was sternly dismissed. For one thing, at topmost speed, it took twenty minutes to dress. He would not wait twenty minutes. Another knock.
She threw on her dressing gown and ran along her little passage - and stooped to the key-hole just as another tap, discreet but insistent, rang on the door panel.
"Go away," she said low and earnestly. "I can't talk to you to-night whatever it is. It must wait till the morning."
"It's I," said the very last voice in all Paris that she expected to hear, "it's Lady St. Craye. - Won't you let me in?"
"Are you alone?" said Betty.
"Of course I'm alone. It's most important. Do open the door."
The door was slowly opened. The visitor rustled through, and Betty shut the door. Then she followed Lady St. Craye into the sitting-room, lighted the lamp, drew the curtain across the clear April night, and stood looking enquiry - and not looking it kindly. Her lips were set in a hard line and she was frowning.
She waited for the other to speak, but after all it was she who broke the silence.
"Well," she said, "what do you want now?"
"I hardly know how to begin," said Lady St. Craye with great truth.
"I should think not!" said Betty. "I don't want to be disagreeable, but I can't think of anything that gives you the right to come and knock me up like this in the middle of the night."
"It's only just past eleven," said Lady St. Craye. And there was another silence. She did not know what to say. A dozen openings suggested themselves, and were instantly rejected. Then, quite suddenly, she knew exactly what to say, what to do. That move of Vernon's - it was a good one, a move too often neglected in this cynical world, but always successful on the stage.
"May I sit down?" she asked forlornly.
Betty, rather roughly, pushed forward a chair.
Lady St. Craye sank into it, looked full at Betty for a long minute; and by the lamp's yellow light Betty saw the tears rise, brim over and fall from the other woman's lashes. Then Lady St. Craye pulled out her handkerchief and began to cry in good earnest.
It was quite easy.
At first Betty looked on in cold contempt. Lady St. Craye had counted on that: she let herself go, wholly. If it ended in hysterics so much the more impressive. She thought of Vernon, of all the hopes of these months, of the downfall of them - everything that should make it impossible for her to stop crying.
"Don't distress yourself," said Betty, very chill and distant.
"Can you - can you lend me a handkerchief?" said the other unexpectedly, screwing up her own drenched cambric in her hand.
Betty fetched a handkerchief.
"I haven't any scent," she said. "I'm sorry."
That nearly dried the tears - but not quite: Lady St. Craye was a persevering woman.
Betty watching her, slowly melted, just as the other knew she would. She put her hand at last on the shoulder of the light coat.
"Come," she said, "don't cry so. I'm sure there's nothing to be so upset about - "
Then came to her sharp as any knife, the thought of what there might be.
"There's nothing wrong with anyone? There hasn't been an accident or anything?"
The other, still speechless, conveyed "No."
"Don't," said Betty again. And slowly and very artistically the flood was abated. Lady St. Craye was almost calm, though still her breath caught now and then in little broken sighs.
"I am so sorry," she said, "so ashamed. - Breaking down like this. You don't know what it is to be as unhappy as I am."
Betty thought she did. We all think we do, in the presence of any grief not our own.
"Can I do anything?" She spoke much more kindly than she had expected to speak.
"Will you let me tell you everything? The whole truth?"
"Of course if you want to, but - "
"Then do sit down - and oh, don't be angry with me, I am so wretched. Just now you thought something had happened to Mr. Vernon. Will you just tell me one thing? - Do you love him?"
"You've no right to ask me that."
"I know I haven't. Well, I'll trust you - though you don't trust me. I'll tell you everything. Two years ago Mr. Vernon and I were engaged."
This was not true; but it took less time to tell than the truth would have taken, and sounded better.
"We were engaged, and I was very fond of him. But he - you know what he is about Women?"
"No," said Betty steadily. "I don't want to hear anything about him."
"But you must. - He is - I don't know how to put it. There's always some woman besides the One with him. I understand that now; I didn't then. I don't think he can help it. It's his temperament."
"I see," said Betty evenly. Her hands and feet were very cold. She was astonished to find how little moved she was in this interview whose end she foresaw so very plainly.
"Yes, and there was a girl at that time - he was always about with her. And I made him scenes - always a most stupid thing to do with a man, you know; and at last I said he must give her up, or give me up. And he gave me up. And I was too proud to let him think I cared - and just to show him how little I cared I married Sir Harry St. Craye. I might just as well have let it alone. He never even heard I had been married till last October! And then it was I who told him. My husband was a brute, and I'm thankful to say he didn't live long. You're very much shocked, I'm afraid?"
"Not at all," said Betty, who was, rather.
"Well, then I met Him again, and we got engaged again, as he told you. And again there was a girl - oh, and another woman besides. But this time I tried to bear it - you know I did try not to be jealous of you."
"You had no cause," said Betty.
"Well, I thought I had. That hurts just as much. And what's the end of it all - all my patience and trying not to see things, and letting him have his own way? He came to me to-night and begged me to release him from his engagement, because - oh, he was beautifully candid - because he meant to marry you."
Betty's heart gave a jump.
"He seems to have been very sure of me," she said loftily.
"No, no; he's not a hairdresser's apprentice - to tell one woman that he's sure of another. He said: 'I mean to marry Miss Desmond if she'll have me.'"
"How kind of him!"
"I wish you'd heard the way he spoke of you."
"I don't want to hear."
"I had to. And I've released him. And now I've come to you. I was proud two years ago. I'm not proud now. I don't care what I do. I'll kneel down at your feet and pray to you as if you were God not to take him away from me. And if you love him it'll all be no good. I know that."
"But - supposing I weren't here - do you think you could get him back?"
"I know I could. Unless of course you were to tell him I'd been here to-night. I should have no chance after that - naturally. I wish I knew what to say to you. You're very young; you'll find someone else, a better man. He's not a good man. There's a girl at Montmartre at this very moment - a girl he's set up in a restaurant. He goes to see her. You'd never stand that sort of thing. I know the sort of girl you are. And you're quite right. But I've got beyond that. I don't care what he is, I don't care what he does. I understand him. I can make allowances for him. I'm his real mate. I could make him happy. You never would - you're too good. Ever since I first met him I've thought of nothing else, cared for nothing else. If he whistled to me I'd give up everything else, everything, and follow him barefoot round the world."
"I heard someone say that in a play once," said Betty musing.
"So did I," said Lady St. Craye very sharply - "but it's true for all that. Well - you can do as you like."
"Of course I can," said Betty.
"I've done all I can now. I've said everything there is to say. And if you love him as I love him every word I've said won't make a scrap of difference. I know that well enough. What I want to know is - do you love him?"
The scene had been set deliberately. But the passion that spoke in it was not assumed. Betty felt young, school-girlish, awkward in the presence of this love - so different from her own timid dreams. The emotion of the other woman had softened her.
"I don't know," she said.
"If you don't know, you don't love him. - At least don't see him till you're sure. You'll do that? As long as he's not married to anyone, there's just a chance that he may love me again. Won't you have pity? Won't you go away like that sensible young man Temple? Mr. Vernon told me he was going into the country to decide which of the two women he likes best is the one he really likes best! Won't you do that?"
"Yes," said Betty slowly, "I'll do that. Look here, I am most awfully sorry, but I don't know - I can't think to-night. I'll go right away - I won't see him to-morrow. Oh, no. I can't come between you and the man you're engaged to," her thoughts were clearing themselves as she spoke. "Of course I knew you were engaged to him. But I never thought. At least - Yes. I'll go away the first thing to-morrow."
"You are very, very good," said Lady St. Craye, and she meant it.
"But I don't know where to go. Tell me where to go."
"Can't you go home?"
"No: I won't. That's too much."
"Go somewhere and sketch."
"Yes, - but where?" said poor Betty impatiently.
"Go to Grez," said the other, not without second thoughts. "It's a lovely place - close to Fontainebleau - Hotel Chevillon. I'll write it down for you. - Old Madame Chevillon's a darling. She'll look after you. It is good of you to forgive me for everything. I'm afraid I was a cat to you."
"No," said Betty, "it was right and brave of you to tell me the whole truth. Oh, truth's the only thing that's any good!"
Lady St. Craye also thought it a useful thing - in moderation. She rose.
"I'll never forget what you're doing for me," she said. "You're a girl in thousand. Look here, my dear: I'm not blind. Don't think I don't value what you're doing. You cared for him in England a little, - and you care a little now. And everything I've said tonight has hurt you hatefully. And you didn't know you cared. You thought it was friendship, didn't you - till you thought I'd come to tell you that something had happened to him. And then you knew. I'm going to accept your sacrifice. I've got to. I can't live if I don't. But I don't want you to think I don't know what a sacrifice it is. I know better than you do - at this moment. No - don't say anything. I don't want to force your confidence. But I do understand."
"I wish everything was different," said Betty.
"Yes. You're thinking, aren't you, that if it hadn't been for Mr. Vernon you'd rather have liked me? And I know now that if it hadn't been for him I should have been very fond of you. And even as it is - "
She put her arms round Betty and spoke close to her ear.
"You're doing more for me than anyone has ever done for me in my life," she said - "more than I'd do for you or any woman. And I love you for it. Dear brave little girl. I hope it isn't going to hurt very badly. I love you for it - and I'll never forget it to the day I die. Kiss me and try to forgive me."
The two clung together for an instant.
"Good-bye," said Lady St. Craye in quite a different voice. "I'm sorry I made a scene. But, really, sometimes I believe one isn't quite sane. Let me write the Grez address. I wish I could think of any set of circumstances in which you'd be pleased to see me again."
"I'll pack to-night," said Betty. "I hope you'll be happy anyway. Do you know I think I have been hating you rather badly without quite knowing it."
"Of course you have," said the other heartily, "but you don't now. Of course you won't leave your address here? If you do that you might as well not go away at all!"
"I'm not quite a fool," said Betty.
"No," said the other with a sigh, "it's I that am the fool. You're - No, I won't say what you are. But - Well. Good night, dear. Try not to hate me again when you come to think it all over quietly."