The Tempting of Tavernake
I.3. An Unpleasant Meeting
It was a quarter past eleven and the theatres were disgorging their usual nightly crowds.
The most human thoroughfare in any of the world's great cities was at its best and
brightest. Everywhere commissionaires were blowing their whistles, the streets were
thronged with slowly-moving vehicles, the pavements were stirring with life. The little
crowd which had gathered in front of the chemist's shop was swept away. After all, none
of them knew exactly what they had been waiting for. There was a rumor that a woman
had fainted or had met with an accident. Certainly she had been carried into the shop and
into the inner room, the door of which was still closed. A few passers-by had gathered
together and stared and waited for a few minutes, but had finally lost interest and melted
away. A human thoroughfare, this, indeed, one of the pulses of the great city beating time
night and day to the tragedies of life. The chemist's assistant, with impassive features,
was serving a couple of casual customers from behind the counter. Only a few yards
away, beyond the closed door, the chemist himself and a hastily summoned doctor fought
with Death for the body of the girl who lay upon the floor, faint moans coming every now
and then from her blue lips.
Tavernake, whose forced inaction during that terrible struggle had become a burden to
him, slipped softly from the room as soon as the doctor had whispered that the acute
crisis was over, and passed through the shop out into the street, a solemn, dazed figure
among the light-hearted crowd. Even in those grim moments, the man's individualism
spoke up to him. He was puzzled at his own action, He asked himself a question--not,
indeed, with regret, but with something more than curiosity and actual selfprobing--as
though, by concentrating his mind upon his recent course of action, he would be able to
understand the motives which had influenced him. Why had he chosen to burden himself
with the care of this desperate young woman? Supposing she lived, what was to become
of her? He had acquired a certain definite responsibility with regard to her future, for
whatever the doctor and his assistant might do, it was his own promptitude and presence
of mind which had given her the first chance of life. Without a doubt, he had behaved
foolishly. Why not vanish into the crowd and have done with it? What was it to him, after
all, whether this girl lived or died? He had done his duty -- more than his duty. Why not
disappear now and let her take her chance? His common sense spoke to him loudly; such
thoughts as these beat upon his brain.
Just for once in his life, however, his common sense exercised an altogether subordinate
position. He knew very well, even while he listened to these voices, that he was only
counting the minutes until he could return. Having absolutely decided that the only
reasonable course left for him to pursue was to return home and leave the girl to her fate,
he found himself back inside the shop within a quarter of an hour. The chemist had just
come out from the inner room, and looked up at his entrance.
"She'll do now," he announced.
Tavernake nodded. He was amazed at his own sense of relief.