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Chapter 8
Since it was her whim and the winds indulged, Helena had ordered that the rite of the late dinner be celebrated by candlelight alone. Ten shaded candles graced the places. In the centre of the table an ancient candelabrum of gold added the mellow illumination of its seven alabaster arms, whose small flames yearned upward ardently, with scarce a perceptible flicker, though every window was wide to the whispering night.

One of these that faced Matthias framed a shimmering sky of stars and the still black shield of the Sound, on which the fixed and undeviating glare of a remote light-house was reflected darkly, a long unwavering way of light; he thought of a tall wax candle burning amid the sanctified shadows of some vast and dark and still cathedral....

They were ten at table: from Helena's right, Pat Atherton (Tankerville's partner), a Mrs. Majendie, Marbridge, a Mrs. Cardrow, Tankerville at the head; on his right, Mrs. Pat Atherton, Matthias, Venetia Tankerville, Majendie. The latter and his wife were almost strangers to Matthias, having arrived only the previous afternoon: but he thought them as pleasant and handsome people as any of those with whom the Tankervilles liked to fill their house. The Athertons were old friends; he had known them well, long before Helena dreamed of marrying Tankerville. Marbridge was an indifferently familiar figure in the ways of his life; they frequented the same clubs, and of late he had begun to encounter the older man more and more frequently in his theatrical divagations. Remained Mrs. Cardrow, a widow, the acquaintance of a week's standing. Cardrow had been in some way connected with the enterprises of Messrs. Tankerville & Atherton; how, Matthias didn't remember; a man of whom rumour said little that was good until it began to say De mortuis.... He had killed himself for no accountable reason. His widow seemed to have survived bereavement with amazing grace.

Matthias admired her greatly. Women, he knew—Helena in their number—mistrusted her for no cause perceptible to him. He liked her, thought her little less than absolutely charming. So, evidently, did Marbridge, whose attitude toward her this evening was a little more noticeably attentive than ever before. He seemed to exert himself to interest and divert. His black eyes snapped. As he talked his heavy body swayed slightly from the hips, lending an accent to his animation. His laugh was frequent and infectious.

She was a woman who smiled more than she laughed. She smiled now, inscrutably, her beautiful, insolent eyes half veiled with demure lashes, her face turned to Marbridge, her chin a trifle high, bringing out the clear strong lines of her throat and shoulders, which had the texture, the pallor, and the firmness of fine ivory. Her eyes, when she chose to discover them, were brown, her eyebrows almost black, her hair dull gold, the gold of the candelabrum—the gold of artifice, on the word of Helena.

Perhaps it was to this odd colouring—ivory and brown, black and gold—that Mrs. Cardrow owed most of her strange and provoking quality. But there was something else, something one could not define: at once stimulating and elusive; less charm than allure; nameless; that attracted and repelled....

These were thoughts set stirring by a dozen semi-curious glances at the woman, in pauses in his conversation with Venetia. Matthias was in fact indifferent to Mrs. Cardrow. But he was tremendously interested in Venetia. It could hardly be otherwise—since his talk with Helena. He was to marry Venetia. Amazing thought!

She was adorable. Of the other women, none compared with Mrs. Cardrow: even Helena's beauty paled in contrast. But Venetia was to Mrs. Cardrow as dawn to noon. One looked at Venetia and thought of a still sea at daybreak, mobile to the young and fitful airs, radiant with sunlight, breathless with apprehension of the long, golden hours to come. One looked at Mrs. Cardrow and thought—of Woman. Venetia was dark, and the other fair; Venetia was by no means a child, Mrs. Cardrow not yet thirty. The gulf that set them apart was not so much of years as of caste: they lived and thought on different levels, mental if not social. Matthias liked to think Venetia of the higher order.

He was to marry her. Incredible!

And tonight her eyes were warm and kind for him, and all for him. He could not see that there was anything of self-interest in the infrequent glances she cast at those who sat opposite, playing their time-old game with such engaging candour. If she had thought much of Marbridge, surely she must have betrayed some little pique or chagrin. She was not blind; neither was she patient and prone to self-effacement. Matthias had known her long enough to have garnered vivid memories of her resentment of slights, whether real or fancied. She was unique and wonderful in many ways, but (he told himself in a catch-phrase of the hour) she was essentially human. He could not have cared for a woman without temper: he cared intensely for this girl-woman whose rare loveliness seemed almost exotic in its singular scheme, whose skin, fine of texture and colourless as milk-white satin, was splashed with lips of burning scarlet, whose eyes of deepest violet were luminous in the shadow of hair of the richness and lustre of burnished bronze ... luminous and kind to him: he dared to hope greatly of their sympathy.

Through dinner she had entertained him with a mirthful, inconsecutive narrative of the adventures of the day. Now, as ices were served, her interest swerved suddenly and found a new object in himself.

"Why did you run away last night?"

"You really noticed it?"

Light malice trembled on her lips: "Not till this morning."

"You were so busy"—an imperceptible nod indicated Marbridge—"I felt myself becoming ornamental. Whereas, utility's my proudest attribute. So I left you dancing, and skipped by the light of the moon."

"Not really?"

"I assure you—"

"Put out with me, I mean?"

He sought her eyes again and found them veiled and downcast. "Not the least in the world."

"Then, again, why—?"

"I wanted to get back to work. Besides, I had a little business with a manager."

And so he had; but until this moment he had forgotten it.

"Play business?"

"I'm afraid I know no other."

"Is something new to be produced?"

Matthias nodded: "Goes into rehearsal in August. A melodrama I wrote some time ago—'The Jade God.'"

"Who produces it?"

"Rideout."

"Who's he?"

"A foolish actor: played a sketch of mine in vaudeville for a couple of years and, because that got over, thinks this piece must."

"But it will, won't it?"

"I hope so; but I'm glad it's not my money."

"And where will you open?"

"Heaven and the Shuberts only know. Rideout books through the Shuberts, you understand."

"I'm afraid I don't."

"The Shuberts are the Independents—the opposition to the Syndicate headed by Klaw and Erlanger. You see, the theatres of this country are practically all controlled by one or the other combination. If you want booking for your show, you've got to take sides—serve God or Mammon."

"And which is which?"

"The difference is imperceptible to the innocent bystander."

"But you'll let us know—?"

"If we open within motoring distance of Town—rather!"

Tankerville, edging his plump little body forward on his chair, man?uvred his round and sun-scorched face in vain attempts to catch his wife's eye past the intervening candelabrum. Helena, however, divined his desire.

"Coffee in the card-room, George?"

"Please!" Tankerville bleated plaintively.

There was a concerted movement from the table.

Venetia lingered with Matthias.

"It's auction, tonight. Shall you play?"

"'Fraid I'll have to. So will you. Helena—you know—"

"Of course. We must. Only"—she sighed, petulant—"I'd rather not. I'd rather talk to you."

"Heroic measures!" he laughed. "But—consolation note!—we're two over two full tables. Therefore we'll have to cut in and out. That'll give us some time to ourselves."

"Yes," she agreed: "but it'll be just our luck to be disengaged at different times."

He paused in amused incredulity. "Do you really want to talk to me as badly as all that?"

She nodded, curtaining her eyes.

"Very much," she said softly.

They entered the card-room and were summoned to different tables. Matthias cut and edged Mrs. Cardrow out by a single pip. How Venetia fared he did not learn, more than that she was to play while Marbridge was to stay out the first rubber.

He played even less intelligently than usual, with a mind distracted. Venetia's new attitude, pleasant as had been all their association, was a development of disconcerting suddenness; or else he had been witless and blind beyond relief. And yet—how could he say? He was so frequently misled by faculties befogged with dreaming, that overlooked when they did not flatly deny the obvious: it was possible that Helena had been more wise than he.

A sense of strain handicapped his judgment; whether atmospheric or bred of his own emotion, he could not tell. And yet, plumbing the deeps of his humour, he discovered nothing there more exacting than bewilderment, more exciting than hope. On the other hand, he could fix upon nothing in the bearing of these amiable people to lead him to believe that the feeling of tensity to which he was susceptible was not the creation of his own fancy. They played with a certain abandon of enjoyment, absorbed in their diversion....

Looking past Venetia, at the other table—Venetia slim and tall and worshipful in a wonderful black gown that rendered dazzling the whiteness of her flesh—he could see Mrs. Cardrow and Marbridge at the piano in the drawing-room. The woman sat all but motionless, white arms alone moving graciously in the half-light as her deft hands wandered over the key-board. Marbridge, his arms folded, lounged over the piano, his back to the card-room. The eloquent movements of his round, dark head, its emphatic nods and argumentative waggings, seemed to indicate that he was bearing the burden of their talk; but the music, hushed though it was, covered his accents. The woman was looking up into his face with an expression of quick, pleased interest, her lips, half-parted, smiling.

It did not occur to Matthias to wonder about the substance of their conversation. But for a sure clue to the intrigue of Venetia's heart—and his own—he would have given worlds.

Throwing down his cards, Tankerville announced with satisfaction: "Game—rubber. Jack, you go out—praise the Saints! You've cost Mrs. Pat close onto fifteen dollars, more shame to you!"

"Sorry!" Matthias smiled cheerfully, rising. "You would have me play."

"Hearkening and repentance!" retorted Tankerville. "Next time I marry, you can bet your sweet life I'm going to pick out a family of sure-'nough bridgers.... Call Mrs. Cardrow, will you now, like a good fellow."

But Mrs. Cardrow had already left the piano. Matthias held a chair for her, and then, since the rubber at the other table was not yet decided, strolled to a window.

The night tempted him. Almost unconsciously he stepped out upon the terrace and wandered to the parapet.

Abstractedly he lighted a cigarette. When the tobacco was aglow he held the match from him at arm's-length over the abyss. Its flame burned as steadily as though protected, flickering out only when, released, it fell. No night ever more still than this: land and water alike spellbound in breathless calm; even on the brow of that high foreland where Tankerville had builded him his lordly pleasure home, no hint of movement in the air! And yet Matthias was conscious of nothing resembling oppression—exhilaration, rather. He smiled vaguely into the darkness.

From far below, echoing up from the placid waters of Port Madison as from a sounding-board, came the tinkle-tinkle of a banjo and the complaint of a harmonica. When these were silent the wailing of violins was clearly audible, bridging a distance of over a mile across the harbour, from the ball-room of the country club. Far out upon the Sound the night boat for Boston trudged along like a slow-winging firefly; and presently its wash swept inshore to rouse the beach below to sibilant and murmurous protest. In the east the vault of night was pallid, azure and silver, with the promise of the reluctant moon.

A hand fell gently upon his arm: Venetia's. He had not been aware of her approach, yet he was not startled. He turned his head slowly, smiling. She said softly: "Don't say anything—wait till it rises."

They waited in silence. Her hand lingered upon his arm; and that last, he knew, was trembling. The nearness of her person, the intimacy of her touch, weighed heavily upon his senses.

An edge of golden light appeared where the skies came down to the sea; hesitated; increased. That wan and spectral light, waxing, lent emphasis to the rare and delicious wonder of her loveliness, to the impregnable mystery of her womanhood. He regarded her with something near awe, with keen perception of his unworthiness: as a spirit from Heaven had stooped to commune with him. She lived; breathed; the hand upon his arm was warm and strong.... Incredible!

The gibbous disk swung clear of the horizon and like some strange misshapen acrobat climbed a low-lying lattice-work of clouds. The girl turned away to a huge willow basket-chair. Matthias found its fellow and drew near to her. He struggled to speak; he fancied that she waited for him to speak; but his mind refused to frame, his tongue to utter, aught but the stalest of banalities.

"No dew tonight," he hazarded at length, shame-faced.

After an instant of silence she laughed clearly and gently. "O romantic man!" she said. "Now that you have, shattered the spell—if you please, a cigarette."

He supplied this need; held a match; delayed holding it when it had served its purpose, enraptured with the refulgent wonder of that cameo of sweet flesh and blood set against the melting shadows, silver and purple and blue.

With a second low, light laugh, she bent forward and daintily extinguished the flame with a single puff.

"I don't wish to be stared at...."

"Pardon," he said mechanically, startled. "But ... why?"

"Perhaps I'm afraid you may see too much...."

"Impossible!" he declared with conviction.

"Odd as it may sound," she said in a mocking voice, "I have my secrets."

Her back was to the moon, her face a pallid oval framed in ebony, illegible; but the moonlight was full upon his face, and she who would might read. His disadvantage was obvious. It wasn't fair....

Lounging, she crossed her knees, puffed thrice and cast the cigarette into the gulf. Abruptly she sat forward, studying him intently. He was disturbed with a singular uneasiness.

"Jack," said Venetia very quietly, "is it true that you love me?"

"Good lord!" he cried, sitting up.

"Is it true?"

He blinked. His head was whirling. He said nothing; sank back; quite automatically puffed with such fury that in a trice he had reduced the cigarette to an inch of glowing coal; scorched his fingers and threw it from him.

Then he gasped stupidly: "Venetia!"

"Is it true?"

She had not moved. The question had the force of stubborn purpose through its very monotony, a monotony of inflexion no less than of repetition. Her accents were both serious and sincere. She was in earnest; she meant to know.

"But, Venetia—"

"Or have you been just making believe, all this long time?"

"It—I—why—of course it's true!" he stammered lamely.

"Then why haven't you ever told me so?"

There sounded reproach, not unkindly, but real. He shook his wits together.

"How could I guess you'd care to know?"

"Do you know me so little as to think I'd resent it, if I happened not to care?"

"I—don't know—didn't think of it that way. In fact—you've knocked me silly!"

"But why? Because I've been straightforward? Dear boy!"—she lifted a hand to him: he took it in trembling—"you're twenty-seven, I'm twenty-three. We know one another pretty well: we know ourselves—at least slightly. Why can't we face things—facts—as man and woman, not as children? What's the good of make-believe? If this thing lies between us, let's be frank about it!"

He hesitated, doubting, searching her face. Her look was very sweet and kind. Of a sudden he cried "Venetia!" came to his knees beside her chair, snatched her hand and crushed it between his own, to his lips.

"I love you—I've always loved you!..."

He felt the velvet of her lips, her breath, upon his forehead; and made as if to clasp her to him. But she slipped back, straightening an arm to fend him off.

"No," she whispered—"not now—not here. Dear boy, get up! Think—this moonlight—anybody might see—"

"I love you!"

"I know and, dear, I'm glad—so glad! But—you made me ask you!"

"I couldn't help that, Venetia: I was—afraid; I hardly dared to dream—of this. You were—you are—above, beyond—"

Gently her hand sealed his mouth.

"Dear, silly boy! Get up. If you won't, I must."

Releasing her hand, he rose. His emotion shook him violently. At discretion, he dropped back into his chair. He looked about him a little wildly, his glance embracing all the weird fantasy of the night: the cold, inaccessible, glittering vault of stars, the malformed and sardonic moon, the silken bosom of the Sound, the lace and purple velvet draperies of the land. Down on the harbour the banjo and harmonica were ragging to tatters a sentimental ballad of the day. From the house came a burst of laughter—Tankerville exultant in some successful stratagem at cards.

His gaze returned to Venetia. She sat without moving, wrapped in the exquisite mystery of her enigmatic heart, bewitching, bewildering, steadfastly reading him with eyes veiled and inscrutable in liquid shadow.

Muttering—"Preposterous!"—he dropped his head between his hands. "I'm mad—mad!" he groaned.

Without stirring, she demanded: "Why?"

He shook his head free. "To have—owned up—let this come to pass. I love you: but that's all I dare say to you."

"Isn't it, maybe, enough for me?"

"I mean—I'm mad to marry you. But how can I ask you to have me? What have I to offer you? The position of wife to a poverty-stricken, half-grown playwright! It's out of reason...."

"But possibly—am I not the one to judge of that?"

"No: I won't have you marry a man unable to provide for you in the way to which you've been educated. It's a point of honour—"

"But I have—"

"You must understand: I've got to be able—able!—to humour your every whim. With things that way—what of your own you choose to spend on yourself won't count. The issue is my ability to give you everything."

"But that will come—"

"When? I can't promise—I hardly dare hope—"

"This new play isn't your only hope?"

"No—"

"Success or failure, you'll keep on?"

"Certainly...."

"Then it's only a question of time."

"But you—how can I ask you to wait?"

"There's no necessity—"

"But it must be." He rose, unable to remain still. "Give me six months: I've got another piece of work under way—and others only waiting their turn. In six months I can—"

"No!"

The monosyllable brought him up sharply. He stared. Her white arms, radiant in that clear, unearthly light, lifted toward him.

"If you want me, dear," she said in a voice tense with emotion—"it must be now—soon! To wait—six months—I—that's im—"

The beautiful modulations of Helena Tankerville's voice interrupted.

Standing in one of the windows to the card-room, she said simply: "An exquisite night."

Then, coming out upon the terrace and seeing Venetia and Matthias, she moved toward them.

"Oh, there you are, Jack. You're wanted indoors."

Matthias, unable quickly to regain his poise, said nothing. Venetia answered for him, calmly:

"He can't come."

"What, dear?"

"I say, he can't come, Helena. He's engaged."

"Engaged!"

Recovering, Helena bore down upon them with a little call of delight.

"Not really!... O my dears! I'm so glad!"

She gathered Venetia into her arms.


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