Max's friends in society and the army did not let him pass into oblivion without a word; therefore some sort of story had to eventually be told to silence tongues, and, still worse, newspapers. Grant was singularly good at making up stories, and always had been since, as a boy, he had unobtrusively contrived to throw blame off his own shoulders on to those of Max if they were in a scrape together.
Half a lie, nicely mixed with a few truths, makes a concoction that the public swallows readily. Max was too young, and had been too much away from New York, to be greatly missed there, despite Rose Doran's popularity; and when such an interesting and handsome couple as Grant and Josephine Doran-Reeves began entertaining gorgeously in the renovated Doran house, the ex-lieutenant of cavalry was forgotten comparatively soon. It seemed, according to reluctant admissions made at last by Grant and Josephine to their acquaintances, that Max had had secret reasons for resigning his commission in the army and vanishing into space. It was his own wish to give up the old house to Josephine, his "distant cousin from France," and in saying this they carefully gave the impression that he had been well paid. Nobody dreamed that the money Mr. and Mrs. Grant Doran-Reeves spent in such charming ways had once belonged to Max. He was supposed to have "come a cropper" somehow, as so many young men did, and to have disappeared with everything he had, out of the country, for his country's good. When people realized that there was a secret, perhaps a disgraceful one, many were sorry for poor Grant and Josephine, mixed up in it through no fault of their own; and the name of Max Doran was dropped from conversation whenever his innocent relatives were within hearing distance. Then, by and by, it was practically dropped altogether, because it had passed out of recollection.
This was the state of affairs when the beautiful Billie (Mrs. Jeff Houston) arrived, covered with diamonds and pearls (the best of the latter were Max's), to storm social New York. She had already won its heart as an actress, but as a respectable married woman who had left the stage and connected herself by marriage with a sausage-maker she was a different "proposition."
"You ought to know some woman in the smart set," advised a friend in the half-smart set who had received favours from Billie, and had not been able to give the right sort of return. "Oh, of course, you do know a lot of the men, but they're worse than no use to you now. It must be a woman, 'way high up at the top.'"
Billie racked her brains, and thought of Josephine Doran-Reeves. Josephine was "way up at the top," because she was a Doran and very rich, and so queer that she amused the most bored people, whether she meant to or not. Unfortunately, Billie did not know her, but the next best thing, surely, was to have known Max Doran.
Billie had made capital out of Max in the shape of a famous blue diamond and a string of uniquely fine pearls, and her idea had been that she had got all there was to be got from him. In fact, she had not mentioned this little love-idyll even to her husband. Suddenly, however, she remembered that they two had been dear, dear friends—perfectly platonic friends, of course—and she felt justified in writing a sweet letter to Josephine asking tactfully for news of Max. She put her point charmingly, and begged that she might be allowed to call on dear Mrs. Doran-Reeves, to chat cozily about "that darling boy," or would Mrs. Doran-Reeves rather come and have tea with her one day, any day, at the Plaza Hotel? She was staying there until the house her husband had bought for her (quite near the Doran house) should be out of the decorator's hands.
But the last thing that appealed to Josephine was the thought of a cozy chat about "that darling boy" Max. Besides, the moment was a bad one with her. Captain de la Tour had got long leave and come to America, she did not know why at first, and had been inclined to feel rather flattered, if slightly frightened. But soon she found out. He had come to blackmail her. There were some silly letters she had written when they were in the thick of their flirtation at Sidi-bel-Abbes, and the height of her ambition had been to marry a French officer, no matter how poor. Captain de la Tour had kept those letters.
He did not threaten to show them to Grant Doran-Reeves. He judged the other man by himself and realized that, having married a girl for her money, Grant would not throw her over, or even hurt her feelings, while she still had it.
What Captain de la Tour proposed was to sell the letters and tell the romantic story of Mrs. Doran-Reeves's life in a little Algerian hotel if she did not buy up the whole secret and his estates in France at the same time. For the two together he asked only the ridiculously small price of three hundred thousand francs—sixty thousand dollars.
Josephine had raged, for Grant, even more than she, hated to spend money where a show could not be made with it. But Captain de la Tour was rather insistent and got on her nerves. In an hysterical fit, therefore, she made a clean breast of the story to her husband. When she had described to him as well as she could what was in the letters, and what a Bohemian sort of life she had led in Bel-Abbes, Grant decided that it would be romantic as well as sensible to buy the Chateau de la Tour. Josephine had actually been born there; and they could either keep the place or sell it when it had been improved a bit and made famous by a few choice house-parties.
So the Doran-Reeveses bought the chateau and got back the letters, and hoped that Captain de la Tour would take himself and his ill-gotten gains out of the United States. But he lingered, looking out for an American heiress, while Josephine existed in a state of constant irritation, fearing some new demand or an indiscretion. And it was just at this time that she received Mrs. Jeff Houston's letter. Naturally it gave her great pleasure to snub some one, especially a woman prettier than herself. She took no notice of Billie's appeal, and when Mrs. Houston, hoping somehow that it had not reached its destination, spoke to her sweetly one night at the opera, Josephine was rude before some of the "best people" in New York.
After that, Billie said to every one that Mrs. Doran-Reeves was insane as well as deformed; but that "cut no ice," as Jeff Houston remarked, and when the snapshot of Max St. George, deserter from the Foreign Legion, appeared with the newspaper story of Sanda Stanton, Billie did what Jeff described as "falling over herself" to get to the office of Town Tales.
She told nothing damaging to the late Miss Brookton in mentioning Max Doran, and of him she spoke with friendly enthusiasm. He had been so good, so kind to her, and so different from many young men who were good to actresses. It broke her heart to think of his fate, for there was no doubt that Max St. George, the Legionnaire, and Max Doran were one. Billie told how, to her certain knowledge, Max had sacrificed himself for Josephine Doran, who (for some reason he was too noble to reveal, but it had to do with a secret of ancestry) seemed to him the rightful heiress.
Penniless, Max had been forced to resign from an expensive regiment, where he lived expensively. He had done this for Josephine's sake, though he had loved his career better than anything else in the world. And then, last of all, he had effaced himself rather than accept pity or favours. He had enlisted in the Foreign Legion, and now he had further shown the nobility of his nature by the very way in which he had fallen into disgrace. But what did the Doran-Reeveses do, though they owed everything to him? They told lies and ignored his existence. Mrs. Jeff Houston said that she felt it her duty as Max Doran's only faithful friend to bring this injustice to public notice.
Town Tales was delighted to help her do this, because she was Billie Brookton, a celebrity, and because it was "good copy." Other papers—many other papers—took up the hue and cry which Town Tales started; and the Doran-Reeveses' life became not as agreeable as it had been.
They defended themselves to friends and enemies and newspaper men, and thought of suing Town Tales for libel, but were dissuaded from doing so by old Mr. Reeves. Then it occurred to Josephine to let every one know that, though she was being cruelly maligned, she wished, as a proof of her admiration for Max's desert exploits, to present him with all her French property, the magnificent old vineyard-surrounded Chateau de la Tour, where he could cultivate grapes and make his fortune.
The papers pointed out that this was something like sending coals to Newcastle, as St. George, alias Doran, was debarred from entering France unless he wanted to go to prison. But Josephine and Grant quickly retorted that the recipient of their bounty need not live in France in order to benefit. He could sell or let the Chateau de la Tour through some agent.
Not an echo of all this play of cross purposes reached Max at the nursing home in Cairo, where he had been carried by Sanda's orders after breaking down. But Sanda, who took in a dozen papers to see what they had to say about the "deserter," read what was going on at New York as well as in Rome and at Sidi-bel-Abbes. She saw that Max had been presented with estates in France by the woman who had taken everything and given nothing; and because of queer things Max had let drop in his delirium she understood more of the past than he would have revealed of his own free will. For one thing, she learnt that a certain Jack and Rose Doran had had a child born to them at the Chateau de la Tour. This enabled her to put other things together in her mind, and loving Max as she did, she saw no harm in thus using her wits, while she respected him with all her heart for not telling the secret. Besides, she had met Captain de la Tour in Sidi-bel-Abbes, and she had guessed that it was partly because of him and one or two others like him that her father had sent her to the Agha's rather than leave her at Bel-Abbes alone.
"It would be the most wonderful sort of poetic justice," she reflected, sitting at Max's bedside one day while he slept, "if the old place of his ancestors should come back to him at last."
This thought reminded her of her plan. Not that she ever forgot it; but she had to put it into the background of her mind until she was sure that Max was going to get well. Until then, she could not and would not leave him. But at last she was sure; and she was waiting only to find out if her father could help; or if not, till his leave was over and she was left to act for herself without compromising the Legion's colonel.
If Sanda had loved her father in their days together at Bel-Abbes, she loved him a thousand times more in those few days of his visit at Cairo. He forgave her without being asked for leaving him "in the lurch," as she repentantly called it, and letting herself be carried away by Stanton. "You thought you loved him, my darling," DeLisle said. "And I could forgive anything to love."
It was in his arms, with her face buried on his breast, that she told what her marriage had been, and then came the confession (for it seemed to her a confession, though she was not ashamed of it, but proud) about Max.
"He didn't speak one word of love to me," the girl said. "He tried not even to let his eyes speak. But they did, sometimes, in spite of him. And no man could possibly endure or do for a woman the things he endured and did for me, every one of those terrible days, if he didn't love her. So when I was afraid he might die from the viper's bite, I wanted him to have one happy moment in this world to remember in the next. I told him that I cared, and he kissed my hand and looked at me. That's all, except just a word or two that I keep too sacredly to tell even you. And afterward when Richard was dead, and Max and I were alone in the desert, save for a few Arabs, he never again referred to that night, or spoke of our love. I was sure it was only because we were alone and I depended on him. But after those weeks and months of facing death together, it seems that we belong to each other, he and I. Nothing must part us—nothing."
She was half afraid her father might remind her of the situation which had arisen between Max as a deserter and himself as colonel of the regiment from which Max had deserted.
But Colonel DeLisle did not say this or anything like it. He knew that love was the greatest thing in the world for his daughter, as it had been for him, and he could not cheat her out of it. He was sad because it seemed to him that in honour he could do nothing for this deserter who had done everything for him—nothing, that is, save give him his daughter, and abandon what remained of his own career by resigning his commission. As colonel of the Legion, his child could not be allowed to marry a deserter, a fugitive who dare not enter France. As for him, DeLisle, though the Legion was much to him, Sanda was more. But she said she and Max would not take happiness at that price. They must think of some other way. And the other way was the plan.
When the colonel returned to Algeria and his regiment Max had not yet gained enough strength to be seen and thanked for what he had done, even if DeLisle had found it compatible with his official duty to say to a deserter what was in his heart to say to Sanda's hero. And perhaps, Sanda thought, it was as well that they did not meet just then. Irrevocable things might have been spoken between them.
The day after her father's ship sailed for Algiers she took another that went from Port Said to Marseilles. From Marseilles she travelled to Paris, which was familiar ground to her. What she did there gave a new fillip to the Stanton-DeLisle-St. George sensation, though at the same time it put an extinguisher on all discussions: a blow to those retired officers who liked writing to the papers.
Lest what the papers said should be prematurely seen by the convalescent's eyes, however, Sanda hurried back to Egypt.
Max was sitting up in a reclining chair, for the first time, on the day of Sanda's return to Cairo.
He knew that she had gone to France on business of some sort, but he had no idea what it was. It did not occur to him that it might have to do with his affairs. Probably (he thought) it was connected with Stanton, who had left money, and who had "geographical investments," as he called them, all over the world, in France, perhaps, among other places. But somehow Max could not imagine Sanda accepting money for herself that came from Stanton, even if it were legally hers.
Although Max was still weak, he had begun to think urgently, insistently, about the future. All the objections that Colonel DeLisle could see to the marriage of Sanda Stanton with the deserter St. George, the deserter St. George saw, and many more. It was caddish to think of marrying her, and monstrous to think of giving her up. His anxious thoughts toiled round and round in a vicious circle whence there seemed no way out.
In the morning the doctor came in and laid down on the table, with his hat, gloves, and stick, a newspaper. As he examined his patient, the nurse picked up the journal and began to glance quickly from column to column in order to have absorbed the news by the time the doctor wanted her services—or his paper. Suddenly, not being possessed of great self-control except in professional emergencies, she gave vent to a shrill little squeak of excitement.
Max and the doctor both turned their heads; and when the latter saw his newspaper open in the young woman's hand, he guessed instantly what had excited her. He anathematized himself for putting the paper where she could get at it; for without doubt Mrs. Stanton would want to tell the great news herself. She must not be defrauded of the pleasure, for she would certainly make a point of getting back for a "look at the patient" to-day or to-morrow. If to-day, she might appear at any minute, for a P. & O. boat-train had arrived at Cairo late the night before, Doctor Taylor had heard, and it was now nine-thirty in the morning—not too early to expect her.
Nurse Yorke must not blurt out the tidings in her common way! But how to stop her without arousing St. George's curiosity?
"Oh, I suppose you've got hold of the advertisement of that sale I told you of," he said, glaring over the top of Max's head.
"Why! I've found——" the nurse began briskly, but withered under Doctor Taylor's forbidding gaze.
"I knew nothing else could have excited you so much," he went on masterfully, still hypnotizing her with his eyes, until even a duller woman would have grasped his meaning. But maybe he wanted to read out the news himself? Nurse Yorke handed him the paper.
"Perhaps Mr. St. George will be interested in the advertisement of this sale," she suggested, with a coy emphasis which made Doctor Taylor want to smother the well-meaning creature with a pillow.
"We'll let Mrs. Stanton read it to him when she comes," he said waspishly; and at that moment Mrs. Stanton came.
They both knew her knock, and Nurse Yorke flew to open the door.
She had a smile and a word for them, and then went straight to Max. "How splendid! You're sitting up," she said. "This is worth travelling fast for, if there were nothing else. But there is. There's something next best to your getting well." Then she caught sight of the open paper in the nurse's hand. "Have you—has any one been telling you—or reading you to-day's news?" she asked, breathless.
"Nurse Yorke was just beginning to read something about a sale, I think," Max answered, hardly knowing what he said because his eyes were upon her—this girl of girls, this pearl of pearls, whom honour was forcing him to give up, and at the same time bidding him to keep. He thought that he had never seen her so lovely as to-day, in the simple travelling dress and hat all of black, yet not mourning. There was a look of heaven in her eyes, and they seemed to say that this heaven was for him. Could he refuse it? He gave her back look for look; and neither he nor she knew what they said when Doctor Taylor invited Nurse Yorke to go with him into the next room and examine the chart.
"Are you glad I'm back?" Sanda asked, drawing a chair close up to the chaise longue.
"Glad? You're worth all the doctor's medicines and tonics. I'm well now!"
"Aren't you dying to hear my news?"
"It's such wonderful news that you've come, I can't think of anything else," Max assured her, gazing at her hair, her eyes, her mouth—her sweet, sweet mouth.
"All the same I'm going to tell you," Sanda insisted, panting a little over her heartbeats. "My news is not about a 'sale,' it's about a gift. Yet I think it's the very same news Nurse Yorke almost read you. Oh, I should have been thwarted, cheated, if she had! This is for me to tell you, my Soldier, me, and no one else, for the gift is to me, for you. The President of the French Republic has given it to me for Max St. George of the Tenth Company, First Regiment of the Legion; Max St. George, owner of the Chateau de la Tour, home of his far-off ancestors—where he and his Sanda will go some day together when he's tired of soldiering—and Sanda's father, Max's grateful colonel, will visit them. And that wonderful old Four Eyes, who has almost worked the Legion into a mutiny for the Soldier's sake, will live with them, if he can ever bear to leave the Legion. Now, can't you guess what the President's gift is?"
"Not—not pardon?" Max's lips formed the words which he could not speak aloud. But it was as if Sanda heard.
"Pardon, and a lieutenant's commission in the Legion."
All the worship of a man's heart and soul were in that name as it broke from him with a sob.
"My Soldier!" she answered, in his arms. And then they spoke no more; for again they were living through in that minute all the long months of agony and bliss in the desert, when their dream had been coming true.
* * * * *
Four months later Max left his bride to go with a French, English, and Russian contingent of the Legion to fight with the Allies in France, in the War of the World.
Sanda waits, and prays—and hopes.
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS GARDEN CITY, N.Y.