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The Tempting of Tavernake

I.1. Despair And Interest
They stood upon the roof of a London boarding-house in the neighborhood of Russell
Square--one of those grim shelters, the refuge of Transatlantic curiosity and British
penury. The girl --she represented the former race was leaning against the frail
palisading, with gloomy expression and eyes set as though in fixed contemplation of the
uninspiring panorama. The young man --unmistakably, uncompromisingly English--
stood with his back to the chimney a few feet away, watching his companion. The silence
between them was as yet unbroken, had lasted, indeed, since she had stolen away from
the shabby drawingroom below, where a florid lady with a raucous voice had been
shouting a music-hall ditty. Close upon her heels, but without speech of any sort, he had
followed. They were almost strangers, except for the occasional word or two of greeting
which the etiquette of the establishment demanded. Yet she had accepted his espionage
without any protest of word or look. He had followed her with a very definite object. Had
she surmised it, he wondered? She had not turned her head or vouchsafed even a single
question or remark to him since he had pushed his way through the trap-door almost at
her heels and stepped out on to the leads. Yet it seemed to him that she must guess.
Below them, what seemed to be the phantasm of a painted city, a wilderness of
housetops, of smoke-wreathed spires and chimneys, stretched away to a murky, blood-red
horizon. Even as they stood there, a deeper color stained the sky, an angry sun began to
sink into the piled up masses of thick, vaporous clouds. The girl watched with an air of
sullen yet absorbed interest. Her companion's eyes were still fixed wholly and critically
upon her. Who was she, he wondered? Why had she left her own country to come to a
city where she seemed to have no friends, no manner of interest? In that caravansary of
the world's stricken ones she had been an almost unnoticed figure, silent, indisposed for
conversation, not in any obvious manner attractive. Her clothes, notwithstanding their air
of having come from a first-class dressmaker, were shabby and out of fashion, their
extreme neatness in itself pathetic. She was thin, yet not without a certain buoyant
lightness of movement always at variance with her tired eyes, her ceaseless air of
dejection. And withal she was a rebel. It was written in her attitude, it was evident in her
lowering, militant expression, the smouldering fire in her eyes proclaimed it. Her long,
rather narrow face was gripped between her hands; her elbows rested upon the brick
parapet. She gazed at that world of blood-red mists, of unshapely, grotesque buildings, of
strange, tawdry colors; she listened to the medley of sounds--crude, shrill, insistent,
something like the groaning of a world stripped naked--and she had all the time the air of
one who hates the thing she looks upon.
Tavernake, whose curiosity concerning his companion remained unappeased, decided
that the moment for speech had arrived. He took a step forward upon the soft, pulpy
leads. Even then he hesitated before he finally committed himself. About his appearance
little was remarkable save the general air of determination which gave character to his
undistinguished features. He was something above the medium height, broad-set, and
with rather more thick black hair than he knew how to arrange advantageously. He wore
 
 
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