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Charles did not answer.
"You're an ungrateful dog, Charles," said Frank, "it gets you out of your options too. That shall be part of my bargain. I really am going to Craddock with that scenario. There's no third act, it is true, but he will give me credit for thinking of something spicy. Tranby would take that sort of play like a shot. Craddock has 'done' me. Why shouldn't I 'do' him? Do those whom you've been done by. A very Christian sentiment, and an application of abstract justice."
Charles put down his palette and got off his stool. There was a Frank-ish, a fiendish ingenuity about this, which, in ordinary mental weather, so to speak, with a gleam of sun on his own part to give sparkle to the east wind of it, could not have failed to make brisk talking. But to-day with his nightmare of doubt swarming bat-like round him, he found no humour but only horror in it.
"Sometimes I hardly think you're human, Frank," he said. "If you really believe Craddock is a swindler, how can you make jokes about it? If it was true, it would be too terrible to speak of. But you believe it is true, and yet you dwell on it, and gloat on it. I think you're a sort of devil, rubbing your hands when you see poor souls damning themselves."
"Hullo!" said Frank, rather startled by this.
"It's no good saying 'hullo.' It isn't news to you," said Charles, standing in front of the fire, flushed and troubled and looking younger than ever. "I've often told you I hate your attitude towards Craddock. It hurts me to hear a jolly good friend of mine abused, and you're continually doing it."
It would have required a prodigiously dull fellow not to see that there was something serious at the bottom of this. For all Frank's cynicism, for all the armoured hardness with which he met the world, there was just one person for whom he felt an affection, a protective tenderness that he was half-ashamed of, and yet cherished and valued more than any of the other tinned foods, so to speak, in his spiritual larder. It had fragrance, the freshness of dew on it… He got up, and put his hands on Charles' shoulders.
"Charles, old chap," he said. "You never told me in that voice, you know."
Charles shook his head.
"I know I didn't," he said. "I never felt it in – in that voice before. But I do now. I can't bear the thought of anybody I know cheating and swindling and lying. Suppose I found out that you had been cheating me, or blackguarding me, should I be able to laugh about it, do you think, or sketch out a damned little play to read to you, which would show you up?"
"Yes, but you always say that Craddock's been so good to you," said Frank. "Till now, you have always half laughed at me when I slanged him. And who has been blackguarding you, I should like to know? What does that mean? Or … or are you referring to what Lady Crowborough asked me? I talked some rot about the explanation being that some one had been abusing you."
Charles grasped at this rather appealingly.
"Yes, it was rot, wasn't it, Frank?" he said.
"Of course it was.Charles, I never dreamed it would stick in your mind like this – but what has that got to do with Craddock and his nimble option?"
Charles interrupted clamourously.
"Nothing, nothing at all!" he said. "I've got the blues, the hump, the black cat, what you please. Now be a good chap, and don't think any more about it. I want to finish your hair. It won't take long."
The interrupted sitting had not been in progress many minutes before the telephone-bell stung the silence, and Charles went to it where it hung in a corner of the studio. A very few words appeased that black round open mouth and Charles put back the receiver. Frank noticed that his hands were a little unsteady.
"Craddock's coming down here almost immediately, Frank," he said. "He's bringing a man called Ward with him, for whom I copied Wroughton's Reynolds."
"Customer, I hope," said Frank. "What do you want me to do, Charles?"
Charles flared out at this with the uncontrolled irritability of his jangled nerves.
"Stop here, and behave like a gentleman, I hope," he said. If any other man in the world had said that he would assuredly have found the most convenient hard object in full flight for his head.
"All right, old boy," said Frank.
Craddock arrived not a quarter of an hour later, with Mr. Ward. He was in the height of cheerful spirits, having, only an hour before, disposed of his entire lunatic asylum of post-Impressionist pictures to a friend of Ward's whose ambition it was to spend as much as possible over the embellishment, in a manner totally unprecedented and unique, of his house in New York. The dining-room was called the Inferno; it had black walls with a frieze of real skulls… The floor of the drawing-room was on a steep slant, and all the tables and chairs had two short and two long legs in order to keep their occupants and appurtenances on the horizontal. It was for this room, brightly described to him by the owner, that the post-Impressionists were designed, and Craddock, in sympathy with his client's conviction that they were predestined for it, had put an enormous price on them, and the bargain had been instantly completed. After that he cheerfully gave up an hour to do Charles this good turn of taking Mr. Ward down to his studio, and on the way he found himself hoping that the picture of Mrs. Lathom had not yet gone in to the Academy. On the way, too, he gave the patron a short r?sum?.
"I think you never saw young Lathom when he was at your work on your Reynolds," he said. "You will find him a charming young fellow, and he, as soon as the Academy opens this year, will find himself famous. He will leap at one bound to the top of his profession. I strongly recommend you to get him to do a portrait of you now, in fact. His charge for a full length at present is only four hundred pounds. However, here we are, and you will judge for yourself on the value of his work."
Craddock made himself peculiarly amiable to Frank, while Ward looked at the portraits in the studio. Before the one of Charles' mother, he stopped a long time, regarding it steadily through his glasses. He was a spare middle-aged man, grey on the temples, rather hawk-like in face, with a low very pleasant voice. From it he looked at Charles and back again.
"You may be proud to have your mother's blood in you, Mr. Lathom," he said, "and I daresay she's not ashamed of you. I wish I'd got you to copy some more pictures for me at a hundred pounds apiece."
Craddock had given up wasting amiability on that desert of a playwright, and was standing close to the other two. Quite involuntarily Charles glanced at him, and he had one moment's remote uneasiness … he could not remember if he had given Charles a hundred pounds or not. But it really was of no importance. Should Charles say anything, what was easier than to look into so petty a mistake and rectify it? But Charles said nothing whatever.
Ward turned and saw Craddock close to him.
"I was saying to Mr. Lathom," he said, "that there were no more full length copies to be had for a hundred pounds, any more than there are any more original Reynolds of that calibre to be had for what I gave for Mr. Wroughton's."
"What did you give?" asked Charles deliberately. He felt his heart beat in his throat as he waited for the answer.
"Well, don't you tell anyone, Mr. Lathom," he said, "but I got it for ten thousand pounds. But I've felt ever since as if I had been robbing Mr. Wroughton."
This time Charles did not look at Mr. Craddock at all.
"Yes, I suppose that's cheap," he said, "considering what an enormous price a fine Reynolds fetches."
"Yes: now I suppose, Mr. Lathom, that portrait of your mother is not for sale. I am building, I may tell you, a sort of annex, or Luxembourg, to my picture gallery at Berta, entirely for modern artists. I should like to see that there: I should indeed."
"You must talk over that with Mr. Craddock," he said. "It belongs to him."
"You may be sure I will. And now I should be very grateful to you if you could find time and would consent to record – " Mr. Ward had a certain native redundancy – "to record at full length your impression of my blameless but uninteresting person. Your price, our friend tells me, is four hundred pounds, and I shall think I am making a very good bargain if you will execute your part of the contract."
Charles saw Craddock, from where he stood, just behind Mr. Ward, give him an almost imperceptible nod, to confirm this valuation. If he had not seen that it is very likely that he would have accepted this offer without correction. As it was that signal revolted him. It put him into partnership with … with the man in whose studio he now stood. Now and for all future time there could be nothing either secret or manifest between them.
"You have made a mistake about the price," he said to Ward. "I only charge two hundred for a portrait. I shall be delighted to paint you for that."
From a little way off he heard Frank make the noise which is written "Tut," and he saw a puzzled look cross Craddock's face, who just shrugged his shoulders, and turned on his heel.
"I am very busy for the rest of this week," said Charles, "but after that I shall be free."
He glanced at Craddock, who had moved away, and was looking at the portrait of Mrs. Fortescue.
"I am changing my studio," said Charles in a low voice. "I will send you my new address."
Craddock did not hear this, but Frank did. It seemed to him, with his quick wits, to supply a key to certain things Charles had said that morning. He felt no doubt of it.
Mr. Ward involved himself in a somewhat flowery speech of cong?.
"Next week will suit me admirably," he said, "and I shall think it an honour to sit to you. The only thing that does not quite satisfy me is the question of price. You must allow me at some future time to refer to that again. The picture I may tell you is designed to be a birthday present for Mrs. Ward, and though the intrinsic merit of the picture, I am sure, will be such that the donor – " he became aware that he could never get out of this labyrinth, and so burst, so to speak, through the hedge – "well, we must talk about it. And now I see I have already interrupted a sitting, and will interrupt no longer. Mr. Craddock, I shall take you away to have some conversation in our taxi about that picture of Mr. Lathom's mother."
Charles saw them to the door, and came back to Frank.
"I suppose you guess," he said. "Well, you've guessed right."
He threw himself into a chair.
"He has swindled Mr. Wroughton," he said. "He has swindled me, me, of a paltry wretched fifty pounds, which is worse, meaner than the other."
"And Mr. Wroughton?" asked Frank.
"He gave him five thousand for the Reynolds, receiving ten. That's not so despicable: there's some point in that. But to save fifty pounds, when he was giving me this studio, getting me commissions, doing everything for me! There's that damned telephone: see who it is, will you?"
Frank went to the instrument.
"Lady Crowborough," he said. "She wants to see you particularly, very particularly. Can you go to her house at three?"
"Yes," said Charles.
He got up from his chair, white and shaking.
"There may be something worse, Frank," he said. "She may have something to tell, much worse than this. Good God, I wish I had never seen him."
Frank came back across the studio to Charles.
"Charles, old chap," he said, "I've often told you there are swindlers in the world, and you've run up against one. Well, face it, don't wail."
Charles turned a piteous boyish face to him.
"But it hurts!" he said.
He paused a moment
"My father killed himself," he said, "because he had gambled everything away, and none of us knew, nor suspected. That's where it hurts, Frank. It's not anything like that, of course, but somehow it's the old place."
"We've all got an old place," said Frank. "Wounds? Good Lord, I could be a gaping mass of wounds if I sat down and encouraged myself. Buck up! And if you find there's anything to be done, or talked about, well, ring me up, won't you? Now, you're not going to sit here and mope. You are coming straight off with me to have lunch. There's nothing like food and drink when one is thoroughly upset. And afterwards I shall leave you at the house of that very mature siren."
Suddenly it occurred to Charles that Joyce was staying with her, or at any rate had done so last night. Till then his first outpouring of amazed disgust had caused him to forget that… And it is a fact that he ate a very creditable lunch indeed.
Lady Crowborough, as has been incidentally mentioned, was in the habit of hermetically sealing herself up in a small dark house in Half Moon Street for the winter months. This year as recounted, she had substituted a process of whole-hearted unsealedness in Egypt for a couple of months, but on her return had been more rigorously immured than ever, to counteract, it must be supposed, the possibly deleterious effects of so persistent an exposure to the air, and to fortify her for her coming visits to Charles' studio. In the evening, it is true, she often went out to dine, in a small brougham with the windows up, but except for her call yesterday on Charles' mother, the daylight of Piccadilly had scarcely beheld her since her return. Windows in the house were always kept tightly shut, except owing to the carelessness or approaching asphyxia of servants, rooms were ventilated by having their doors set ajar, so that the air of the passage came into them, and dry stalks of lavender were continually burned all over the house, so that it was impregnated with their fresh fragrance. She was a standing protest against those modern fads, so she labelled them, of sitting in a draught, and calling it hygiene, and certainly her procedure led to excellent results in her own case, for her health, always good, became exuberant when she had spent a week or two indoors, her natural vitality seemed accentuated, and she ate largely and injudiciously without the smallest ill-effects. Between meals, she worked at fine embroidery without spectacles, sitting very upright in a small straight-backed cane chair.
The house was tiny, and crammed from top to bottom with what she called "my rubbish," for, without collecting, she had an amazing knack of amassing things. Oil paintings, water-colour sketches, daguerrotypes, photographs, finely-shaded pencil drawings, samplers, trophies of arms, hung on the walls, and on chimney-pieces and tables and in cupboards and cabinets were legions of little interesting objects, Dresden figures, carved ivory chessmen, shells, silver boxes, commemorative mugs, pincushions, Indian filigree-work, bits of enamel, coins, coral, ebony elephants, all those innumerable trifles that in most houses get inexplicably lost. She had just cleared a shelf in a glass case by the fireplace in her minute drawing room, and was busy arranging the beads and doubtful scarabs of "me Egyptian campaign" in it when Charles entered. Upon which she dismissed from her shrewd and kindly old mind all concerns but his.
"Sit down, my dear," she said. "And light your cigarette. I saw your mother yesterday, as she may have told you. I'm coming to sit for you next week, and so please have the room well warmed, and not at all what these doctors call aired. Lord bless me, I had enough air in Egypt to last me for twenty years to come."
She indulged in these cheerful generalities until she saw that Charles was established. Then she broke them off completely.
"Now I sent for you because I wished to see you most particularly, Mr. Lathom," she said. "No, there's nobody here but me: I sent Joyce back to her father this morning, so if you think you're going to see her, you'll be disappointed. Now it's no use beating about the bush: there's something I've got to tell you, and here it comes. That Craddock – I call him that Craddock – told my son Philip that you were a disreputable young fellow, that's about what it comes to. I had it from Craddock's own lips that he did. Joyce knew from her father that somebody had done so, and guessed it was that Craddock. So I was as cool as a cucumber, and just said 'I'm sorry you had so bad a report to give my son of Mr. Lathom.' I said it so naturally that he never guessed I didn't know it was he. And there he was caught like a wasp in the marmalade. I wish he had been one. I'd have had the spoon over him in no time."
Charles sat quite still for a moment, and in that moment every feeling but one was expunged from his mind. There was left nothing but a still white anger that spread evenly and smoothly over his heart and his brain. He had no longer any regret that Craddock had done this, the consciousness that he had sufficed to choke all other emotions. More superficially the ordinary mechanism of thought went on.
"I never believed a word of it, my dear," went on Lady Crowborough, "nor did Joyce. But it was my duty, for reasons which you can guess, to find out if it was true or not. Well, I got your mother's account of you yesterday, as she may have told you, and your friend Mr. Armstrong's account, as he also may have told you, and there were several others. So either all these people are liars or else that Craddock is. And there ain't a sane person in the land who could doubt which it was. And Joyce has gone back home to tell her father."
Charles got up, still very quietly.
"I want to know one thing," he said. "Why did Craddock do it?"
"Good Lord, my dear," said Lady Crowborough, "as if that wasn't plain. Why the man wanted to marry Joyce himself, and proposed to her, too. He guessed, and I don't suppose he guessed very wrong either, that there was somebody in his way. At least," she added with a sudden fit of caution, "it might have been that in his mind. For my part the less I know about Craddock's mind the better I shall sleep at night."
"And that was why Mr. Wroughton didn't want me down there last autumn?" he asked.
"Why, of course. He wanted Joyce to marry the man. But Joyce will have told him all about it by now, and spoiled his lunch, too, I hope. But if he don't ask you down for next Sunday, when I'm going there, too, I'll be dratted if I don't take you down in my own dress basket, and open it in the middle of the drawing room. That's what I'll do. But he'll ask you, don't fear. I sent him a bit of my mind this morning about believing what the rats in the main drain tell him. Yes, a bit of my mind. And if he ain't satisfied with that there's more to come."
Suddenly over the sea of white anger that filled Charles there hovered a rainbow…
"Lady Crowborough," he said flushing a little. "You told me that it was your duty to find out whether these lies were true or not, for reasons that I could guess. Did you – did you mean I could really guess them?"
"Yes, my dear, unless you're a blockhead. But it ain't for me to talk about that, and I ain't going to. Now what about this Craddock? He's got to eat those lies up without any more waste of time, and he's got to tell Philip they were lies. How can we make him do that?"
Charles looked at her a minute, considering.
"I can make him do that," he said.
"By punching of his head?" asked Lady Crowborough.
"No, by a very simple threat. You told me once you had seen the cheque that Mr. Ward paid for Mr. Wroughton's Reynolds, and that it was five thousand pounds. That is so, is it not?"
"Yes, my dear."
"Mr. Ward paid him ten thousand pounds for it," said Charles.
"Good Lord, my dear, do you mean that?" she asked.
"Mr. Ward told me this morning that he paid Craddock ten thousand for it," said Charles.
"And certainly he gave Philip Mr. Ward's cheque for five thousand," said Lady Crowborough, "for I saw it myself and thought 'What a sum for a picture of a young woman!' Well, he's brought a pretty peck of trouble on himself, and I ain't a bit sorry for him. But even that's not so bad as what he did to you, with those nasty mean lies, as he thought could never be caught hold of. And so you'll go to him now, will you, and tell him what you know, and threaten that we'll have the law on him as a common swindler? Is that it?"
"Something like that," said Charles, getting up. "I think I shall see Frank Armstrong first."
"Aye do, and take him with you. He looks a hard one," said Lady Crowborough vindictively. "I wish I could come, too, and tell him what I thought about it all. And he wouldn't forget that in a hurry my dear if there's a rough side to my tongue! And you'll let me know, won't you?"
Charles paused a moment. Then he bent down and kissed her hand.
"I can't thank you," he said. "You don't know what you've done for me. It's – it's beyond thanks, altogether beyond it."
She drew his brown head down to hers and kissed him soundly.
"Get along, my dear," she said, "or you'll be calling me an idiot next minute, and then I shall have to quarrel with you. Get along and have a talk with that Craddock, and mind you shut the door tight when you go out."
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