"My responsibility would be."
"The responsibility is mine. I'm my own mistress. If I chose to be yours the responsibility is mine—"
"Don't say such things, Athalie!"
"Why not? Such things happen—or they don't happen. I have no idea they're likely to happen to us.... I'm not a bit alarmed, Clive.... Perhaps it's the courage of ignorance—" She glanced at him again with the same curious, questioning look in her eyes,—"Perhaps because I cannot comprehend any such temptation.... And never could.... Nevertheless if you fall in love with me, tell me. I would not wish you to remain dumb. You have a right to speak. Love isn't a question of conditions or of convenience. You ought to have your chance."
"To win me."
"Win you!—when I can't marry you—"
"I didn't say marry; I said, win.... If you ever fell in love with me you would wish to win my love, wouldn't you? And if you did, and I gave it to you, you would have won me for yourself, wouldn't you? Then why should you worry concerning how I might love you? That would be my affair, my personal responsibility. And I admit to you that I know no more than a kitten what I might do about it."
She looked at him a moment, her hands still resting on his shoulders, and suddenly threw back her head, laughing deliciously: "Did you ever before take part in such a ridiculous conversation?" she demanded. "Oh, but I have always adored theoretical conversations. Only give me an interesting subject and take one end of it and I'll gratefully grasp the other, Clive. What an odd man you are; and I suppose I'm odd, too. And we may yet live to inhabit an odd little house together.... Wouldn't the world tear me to tatters!... I wonder if I'd dare—even knowing I was all right!"... The laughter died in her eyes; a swift tenderness melted them: "I do care for you so truly, Clive! I can't bear to think of ever again living without you.... You know it isn't silliness or love or anything except what I've always felt for you—loyalty and devotion, endless, eternal. And that is all there is or ever will be in my heart and mind."
So clear and sweet and confident in his understanding were her eyes that the quick emotion that leaped responsive left only a ruddy trace on his face and a slight quiver on his lips.
He said: "Nothing shall ever threaten your trust in me. No man can ask for more than you give, Athalie."
"I give you all I am. What more is there?"
"I ask no more."
"Is there more to wish for? Are you really satisfied, Clive?"
"Perfectly;"—but he looked away from her.
"And you don't imagine that you love me, do you?"
"No,"—still looking away from her.
"Meet my eyes, and say it."
"There is no—"
"Clive, obey me!"
So he turned and looked her in the eyes. And after a moment's silence she laughed, uncertainly, almost nervously.
"You—you do imagine it!" she said. "Don't you?"
He made no reply.
Presently she began to laugh again, a gay, tormenting, excited little laugh. Something in his face seemed to exhilarate her, sending the blood like wine to her cheeks.
"You do imagine it! Oh, Clive! You! You think yourself in love with your old comrade!... I knew it! There was something about you—I can't explain exactly what—but there was something that told me."
She was laughing, now, almost wickedly and with all the naive and innocently malicious delight of a child delighting in its fellow's torment.
"Oh, Clive!" she said, "what are you going to do about it? And why do you gaze at me so oddly?—as though I were angry or disconcerted. I'm not. I'm happy. I'm crazy about this new relation of ours. It makes you more interesting than I ever dreamed even you could be—"
"You know," he said almost grimly, "if you are going to take it like this—"
"The knowledge that—"
"That you are in love with me? Then you are! Oh, Clive, Clive! You dear, sweet, funny boy! And you've told me so, haven't you? Or it amounts to that; doesn't it?"
"Yes; I love you."
She leaned swiftly toward him, sparkling, flushed, radiant, tender:
"You dear boy! I'm not really laughing at you. I'm laughing—I don't know why: happiness—excitement—pride—I don't know.... Do you suppose it actually is love? It won't make you unhappy, will it? Besides you can be very busy trying to win me. That will be exciting enough for both of us, won't it?"
"Yes—if I try."
"But you will try, won't you?" she demanded mockingly.
He said, forcing a smile: "You seem to think it impossible that I could win you."
"Oh," she said airily, "I don't say that. You see I don't know the method of procedure. I don't know what you're going to do about your falling in love with me."
He leaned over and took her by the waist; and she drew back instinctively, surprised and disconcerted.
"That is silly," she said. "Are you going to be silly with me, Clive?"
"No," he said, "I won't be that."
He sat looking at her in silence for a few moments. And slowly the belief entered his heart like a slim steel blade that she had never loved, and that there was in her nothing except what she had said there was, loyalty and devotion, unsullied and spiritual, clean of all else lower and less noble, guiltless of passion, ignorant of desire.
As he looked at her he remembered the past—remembered that once he might have taught her love in all its attributes—that once he might have married her. For in a school so gentle and secure as wedlock such a girl might learn to love.
He had had his chance. What did he want of her now, then?—more than he had of her already. Love? Her devotion amounted to that—all of it that could concern a man already married—hopelessly married to a woman who would never submit to divorce. What did he want of her then?
He turned and walked to the open window and stood looking out over the city. Sunset blazed crimson at the western end of every cross-street. Far away on the Jersey shore electric lights began to sparkle.
He did not know she was behind him until one arm fell lightly on his shoulder.
It remained there after her imprisoned waist yielded a little to his arm.
"You are not unhappy, are you, Clive?"
"I didn't mean to take it lightly. I don't comprehend; that's all. It seems to me that I can't care for you more than I do already. Do you understand?"
She raised one cool hand and drew his cheek gently against her own, and rested so a moment, looking out across the misty city.
He remembered that night of his departure when she had put both arms around his neck and kissed him. It had been like the serene touch of a crucifix to his lips. It was like that now,—the smooth, passionless touch of her cool, young face against his, and her slim hand framing his cheek.
"To think," she murmured to herself, "that you should ever care for me in that way, too.... It is wonderful, wonderful—and very sweet—if it does not make you unhappy. Does it?"
"It's so dear of you to love me that way, Clive. Could—could I do anything—about it?"
"Would you care to kiss me?" she asked with a faint smile. And turned her face.
Chaste, cool and fresh as a flower her young mouth met his, lingered; then, still smiling, and a trifle flushed and shy, she laid her cheek against his shoulder, and her hands in his, calm in her security.
"You see," she said, "you need not worry over me. I am glad you are in love with me."
It was in the days when nothing physical tainted her passionate attachment to Clive. When she was with him she enjoyed the moment with all her heart and soul—gave to it and to him everything that was best in her—all the richness of her mental and bodily vigour, all the unspoiled enthusiasm of her years, all the sturdy freshness of youth, eager, receptive, credulous, unsatiated.
With them, once more, the old happy companionship began; the Cafe Arabesque, the Regina, the theatres, the suburban restaurants knew them again. Familiar faces among the waiters welcomed them to the same tables; the same ushers guided them through familiar aisles; the same taxi drivers touched their caps with the same alacrity; the same porters bestirred themselves for tips.
Sometimes when they were not alone, they and their friends danced late at Castle House or the Sans-Souci, or the Humming-Bird, or some such resort, at that time in vogue.
Sometimes on Saturday afternoons or on Sundays and holidays they spent hours in the museums and libraries—not that Clive had either inherited or been educated to any truer appreciation of things worth while than the average New York man—but like the majority he admitted the solemnity and fearsomeness of art and letters, and his attitude toward them was as carefully respectful as it was in church.
Which first perplexed and then amused Athalie who, with no opportunities, had been born with a wholesome passion for all things beautiful of the mind.
The little she knew she had learned from books or from her companionship with Captain Dane that first summer after Clive had gone abroad. And there was nothing orthodox, nothing pedantic, nothing simulated or artificial in her likes or dislikes, her preferences or her indifference.
Yet, somehow, even without knowing, the girl instinctively gravitated toward all things good.
In modern art—with the exception of a few painters—she found little to attract her; but the magnificence of the great Venetians, the sombre splendour of the great Spaniards, the nobility of the great English and Dutch masters held her with a spell forever new. And, as for the exquisite, naively self-conscious works of Greuze, Lancret, Fragonard, Boucher, Watteau, and Nattier, she adored them with all the fresh and natural appetite of a capacity for visual pleasure unjaded.
He recognised Raphael with respect and pleasure when authority reassured him it was Raphael. Also he probably knew more about the history of art than did she. Otherwise it was Athalie who led, instinctively, toward what gallery and library held as their best.
Her favourite lingering places were amid the immortal Chinese porcelains and the masterpieces of the Renaissance. And thither she frequently beguiled Clive,—not that he required any persuading to follow this young and lovely creature who ranged the full boundaries of her environment, living to the full life as it had been allotted her.
Wholesome with that charming and rounded slenderness of perfect health there yet seemed no limit to her capacity for the enjoyment of all things for which an appetite exists—pleasures, mental or physical—it did not seem to matter.
She adored walking; to exercise her body delighted her. Always she ate and drank with a relish that fascinated; she was mad about the theatre and about music:—and whatever she chanced to be doing she did with all the vigour, intelligence, and pleasure of which she was capable, throwing into it her entire heart and soul.
It led to temporary misunderstandings—particularly with the men she met—even in the small circle of friends whom she received and with whom she went about. Arthur Ensart entirely mistook her until fiercely set right one evening when alone with him; James Allys also listened to a curt but righteously impassioned discourse which he never forgot. Hargrave's gentlemanly and suavely villainous intentions, when finally comprehended, became radically modified under her coolly scornful rebuke. Welter, fat and sentimental, never was more than tiresomely saccharine; Ferris and Lyndhurst betrayed symptoms of being misunderstood, but it was a toss-up as to the degree of seriousness in their intentions.
The intentions of men are seldom more serious than they have to be. But they all were helplessly, hopelessly caught in the magic, gossamer web of Athalie's beauty and personal charm; and some merely kicked and buzzed and some tried to rend the frail rainbow fabric, and some struggled silently against they knew not what—themselves probably. And some, like Dane, hung motionless, enmeshed, knowing that to struggle was futile. And some, like Clive, were still lying under her jewelled feet in the very centre of the sorcery, so far silent and unstirring, awaiting to see whether the grace of God would fall upon them or the coup-de-grace that ended all. Eventually, however, like all other men, Clive gave signs of life and impatience.
"Can't you love me, Athalie?" he said abruptly one night, when they had returned from the theatre and he had already taken his leave—and had come back from the door to take it again more tenderly. The girl let him kiss her.
She, in her clinging, sparkling evening gown was standing by her crystal, the fingers of one hand lightly poised upon it, looking down at it.
"Love you, Clive," she repeated in smiling surprise. "Why, I do, you dear, foolish boy. I've admitted it to you. Also haven't you just kissed me?"
"I know.... But I mean—couldn't you love me above all other men—above everything in this world—"
"But I do! Were you annoyed because I was silly with Cecil to-night?"
"No.... I understand. You simply can't help turning everybody's head. It's in you,—it's part of you—"
"I'm merely having a good time," she protested. "It means no more than you see, when I flirt with other men.... It never goes any farther—except—once or twice I have let men kiss me.... Only two or three.... Before you came back, of course—"
"I didn't know that," he said sullenly.
"Didn't you? Then the men were more decent than I supposed.... Yes, I let John Lyndhurst kiss me once. And Francis Hargrave did it.... And Jim Allys tried to, against my wishes—but he never attempted it after that."
She had been looking down again at the crystal while speaking; her attitude was penitential, but the faint smile on her lips adorably mischievous. Presently she glanced up at him to see how he was taking it. He must have been taking it very badly, for:
"Clive!" she said, startled; "are you really annoyed with me?"
The gathering scowl faded and he forced a smile. Then the frown returned; he flung one arm around her supple waist and gathered both her hands into his, holding them closely imprisoned.
"You must love!" he said almost roughly.
"My dear! I've told you that I do love you."
"And I tell you you don't! Your calm and cheerful friendship for me isn't love!"
"Oh. What else is it, please?"
He kissed her on the mouth. She suffered his lips again without flinching, then drew back laughingly to avoid him.
"Why are you becoming so very demonstrative?" she asked. "If you are not careful it will become a horrid habit with you."
"Does it mean nothing more than a habit to you?" he asked, unsmilingly.
"It means that I care enough for you to let you do it more than once, doesn't it?"
He shrugged and turned his face toward the window:
"And you believe that you love me," he said, sullenly and partly to himself.
"You amazingly sulky man, what are you muttering to yourself?" she demanded, bending forward and across his shoulder to see his face which was still turned from her. He swung about and caught her fiercely in his arms; and the embrace left her breathless and flushed.
"Can't you care for me! For God's sake show it if you can!"
"Can't you!" he repeated unsteadily, drawing her closer. "You know what I am asking. Answer me!"
She bent her head and rested it against his shoulder a moment, considering; she then looked away from him, troubled:
"I don't want to be your—mistress," she said. Truth disconcerts the vast majority. It disconcerted him—after a ringing silence through which the beating of rain on the window came to him like the steady tattoo of his own heart.
"I did not ask that," he said, very red.
"You meant that.... Because I've been everything to you except that."
"I want you for my wife," he interrupted sharply.
"But you are married, Clive. So what more can I be to you, unless I become—what I don't want to become—"
"I merely want you to love me—until I can find some way out of this hell on earth I'm living in!"
"Dear, I'm sorry! I'm sorry you are so unhappy. But you can't get free,—can you? She won't let you, will she?"
"I've got to have my freedom! I can't stand this. Good God! Must a man do life for being a fool once? Isn't there any allowance to be made for a first offence? I've always wanted to marry you. I was a miserable, crazy coward to do what I did! Haven't I paid for it? Do you know what I've been through?"
She said very sweetly and pitifully: "Dear, I know what people suffer—what lonely hearts endure. I think I understand what you have been through."
"I know you understand! Fool that I am who enlightened you. But yours was the injury of bruised faith—the suffering caused by outrage. No hell of self-contempt set you crawling about the world in agony; no despicable self-knowledge drove you out into the waste places. Yours was the sorrow of a self-respecting victim; mine the grief of the damned fool who has done to death all that he ever loved for the love of expediency and of self!"
"That's what I am!" he interrupted fiercely, "a damned fool! I don't know what else I am, but I can't live without you, and I won't!"
She said: "You told me that being in love with me would not make you unhappy. So I told you to love me. I was wrong to let you do it."
"You darling! I am more than happy!"
"It was a dreadful mistake, Clive! I shouldn't have let you."
"Do you think you could have stopped me?"
"I don't know. Couldn't I? I've stopped other men.... I shouldn't have let you. But it was so delightful—to be really loved by you! All my pride responded. It seemed to dignify everything; it seemed to make me really a woman, with a place among other women—to be loved by such a man as you ... and I was not selfish about it; I did ask you whether it would make you unhappy to be in love with me. Oh, I see now that I was very wrong, Clive—very foolish, very wrong! Because it is making you restless and unhappy—"
"If you could only love me a little in return!"
"I don't know how to love you except the way I am doing—"
"There is a more vital emotion—"
"It seems impossible that I could care for you more deeply than I do."
"If you could only respond with a little tenderness—"
"I do respond—as well as I know how," she said piteously.
He drew her nearer and touched her cheek with his lips:
"I know, dear. I don't mean to complain."
"Oh, Clive! I have let you fall in love with me and it is making you miserable! And now it's making me miserable, too, because you are disappointed in me."
"You are! I'm not what you expected—not what you wanted—"
"You are everything I want!—if I could only wake your heart!" he said in a low tense voice.
"It isn't my heart that is asleep.... I know what you miss in me.... And I can't help it. I—I don't wish to help it—or to be different."
She dropped her head against his shoulder. After a few moments she spoke from there in a muffled, childish voice:
"What can I do about it? I don't want to be your mistress, Clive.... I never wanted to do—anything—like that."
A deeper colour burnt his face. He said: "Could you love me enough to marry me if I managed to free myself?"
"I have never thought of marrying you, Clive. It isn't that I couldn't love you—that way. I suppose I could. Probably I could. Only—I don't know anything about it—"
"Let me try to free myself, anyway."
"How is it possible?"
He said, exasperated: "Do you suppose I can endure this sort of existence forever?"
The swift tears sprang to her eyes. "I don't know—I don't know," she faltered. "I thought this existence of ours ideal. I thought you were going to be happy; I supposed that our being together again would bring happiness to us both. It doesn't! It is making us wretched. You are not contented with our friendship!" She turned on him passionately: "I don't wish to be your mistress. I don't want you to make me wish to be. No girl naturally desires less than she is entitled to, or more than the law permits—unless some man teaches her to wish for it. Don't make such a girl of me, Clive! You—you are beginning to do it. And I don't wish it! Truly I don't!"
In that fierce flash of candour,—of guiltless passion, she had revealed herself. Never, until that moment, had he supposed himself so absolutely dominant, invested with such power for good or evil. That he could sway her one way or the other through her pure loyalty, devotion, and sympathy he had not understood.
To do him justice he desired no such responsibility. He had meant to be honest and generous and unselfish even when the outlook seemed most hopeless,—when he was convinced that he had no chance of freedom.
But a man with the girl he loves in his arms might as well set a net to catch the wind as to set boundaries to his desires. Perhaps he could not so ardently have desired his freedom to marry her had he not as ardently desired her love.
Love he had of her, but it was an affection utterly innocent of passion. He knew it; she realised it; realised too that the capacity for passion was in her. And had asked him not awaken her to it, instinctively recoiling from it. Generous, unsullied, proudly ignorant, she desired to remain so. Yet knew her peril; and candidly revealed it to him in the most honest appeal ever made to him.
For if the girl herself suspected and dreaded whither her loyalty and deep devotion to him might lead her, he had realised very suddenly what his leadership meant in such a companionship.
Now it sobered him, awed him,—and chilled him a trifle.
Himself, his own love for her, his own passion he could control and in a measure subdue. But, once awakened, could he control such an ally as she might be to his own lesser, impatient and hot-headed self?
Where her disposition was to deny, he could still fetter self and acquiesce. But he began to understand that half his strength lay in her unwillingness; half of their safety in her inexperience, her undisturbed tranquillity, her aloofness from physical emotion and her ignorance of the mastery of the lesser passions.
The girl had builded wholesomely and wisely for herself. Instinct had led her truly and well as far as that tangled moment in her life. Instinct still would lead her safely if she were let alone,—instinct and the intelligence she herself had developed. For the ethical view of the question remained only as a vague memory of precepts mechanical and meaningless to a healthy child. She had lost her mother too early to have understood the casual morals so gently inculcated. And nobody else had told her anything.
Also intelligence is often a foe to instinct. She might, with little persuasion accept an unconventional view of life; with a little emotional awakening she might more easily still be persuaded to a logic builded on false foundations. Add to these her ardent devotion to this man, and her deep and tender concern lest he be unhappy, and Athalie's chances for remaining her own mistress were slim enough.
Something of this Clive seemed to understand; and the understanding left him very serious and silent where he stood in the soft glow of the lamp with this young girl in his arms and her warm, sweet head on his breast.
He said after a long silence: "You are right, Athalie. It is better, safer, not to respond to me. I'm just in love with you and I want to marry you—that's all. I shall not be unhappy about it. I am not, now. If I marry you, you'll fall in love, too, in your own way. That will be as it should be. I could desire no more than that. I do desire nothing more."
He looked down at her, smiled, releasing her gently. But she clung to him for a moment.
"You are so wonderful, Clive—so dear! I do love you. I will marry you if I can. I want to make up everything to you—the lonely years, your deep unhappiness—even," she added shyly, "your little disappointment in me—"
"You don't understand, Athalie. I am not disappointed—"
"I do understand. And I am thinking of what will happen if you fail to free yourself.... Because I realize now that I don't propose to leave you to grow old all alone.... I shall live with you when you're old whatever people may think. I tell you, Clive, I'm the same child, the same girl that you once knew, only grown into a woman. I know right from wrong. I had rather not do wrong. But if I've got to—I won't whimper. And I'll do it thoroughly!"
"You won't do it at all," he said, smiling at her threat to the little tin gods.
"I don't know. If they won't give you your freedom, and if—"
"Nonsense, Athalie," he said, laughing, coolly master of himself once more. "We mustn't be unwholesomely romantic, you and I. I'll marry you if I can; if I can't, God help us, that's all."
But she had become very grave: "God help us," she repeated slowly. "Because I believe that, rightly or wrongly, I shall one day belong to you."
He said: "It can be only in one way. The right way." Perhaps he had awakened too late to a realisation of his power over her, for the girl made no response, no longer even looked at him.
"Only one way," he repeated, uneasily;—"the right way, Athalie."
But into her dark blue eyes had come a vague and brooding beauty which he had never before seen. In it was tenderness, and a new wisdom, alas! and a faint and shadowy something, profound, starlike, inscrutable.
"As for love," he said, forcing a lighter tone, "there are fifty-seven different varieties, Athalie; and only one is poisonous,—unless taken with the other fifty-six, and in small doses."
She smiled faintly and walked to the window. Rain beat there in the darkness spattering the little iron balcony. Below, the bleared lights of the city stretched away to the sky-line.
He followed, and slipped his arm through hers; and she bent her wrist, interlacing her slim fingers with his.
"You know," he said, "that when I often speak with apparent authority I am wrong. In the final analysis you are the real leader, Athalie. Your instincts are the right ones; your convictions honest, your conclusions just. Mine are too often confused with selfishness and indecision. For mine is an irresolute character;—or it was. I'm trying to make it firmer."
She pressed his hand lightly, her eyes still fixed on the light-smeared darkness.
He went on more gravely: "Candour and the intuition born of common sense,—that is where you are so admirable, dear. Add to that the tenderest heart that ever beat, and a proud ignorance of the lesser, baser emotions—and, who am I to interfere,—to come into the sweet order of your life with demands that confuse you—with complaints against the very destiny I brought upon us both—with the clamour of a selfish and ignoble philosophy which your every instinct rejects, and which your heart entertains only because it is your heart, and its heavenly sympathy has never failed me yet.... Oh, Athalie, Athalie, it would be a shameful day for me and a bitter day for you if my selfishness and irresolution ever swerved you. What I have lost—if I have indeed lost it—is lost irrevocably. And I've got to learn to face it."
She said, still gazing absently into the darkness: "Yes. But I am just beginning to wonder what it is that I may have lost,—what it is that I have never known."
"Don't think of it! Don't permit anything I have said or done to trouble you or stir you toward such an awakening.... I don't want to stand charged with that. You are tranquil, now—"
"You are still!" he said in quick concern. "Listen, Athalie—the majority of men lose their grip at moments; men as irresolute as I lose it oftener. Don't waste sympathy on me; it was nothing but a whine born of a lesser impulse—born of emotions less decent than you could comprehend—"
"Maybe I am beginning to comprehend."
"You shall not! You shall remain as you are! Dear, don't you realise that I can't steady myself unless I can look up to you? You've raised yourself to where you stand; you've made your own pedestal. Look down at me from it; don't ever step down; don't ever condescend; don't ever let me think you mortal. You are not, now. Don't ever descend entirely to my level—even if we marry."
She turned, smiling too wisely, yet adorably: "What endless romance there is in that boy's heart of yours! There always was,—when you came running back to me where I stood alone by the closed door,—when you found me living as all women who work live, and made a beautiful home for me and gave me more than I wished to take, asking nothing of me in return. Oh, Clive, you were chivalrous and romantic, too, when you listened to your mother's wishes and gave me up. I understand it so much better, now. I know how it was—with your father dead and your beautiful mother, broken, desolate, confiding to your keeping all her hope and pride and future happiness,—all the traditions of the family, and its dignity and honour!
"In the light of a clearer knowledge, do you suppose I blame you now? Do you suppose I blame you for anything?—for your long and broken-hearted and bitter silence?—for the quick resurgence of your affection for me—for your love—Oh, Clive!—for your passion?
"Do you suppose I think less of you because you love me—care for me in the many and inexplicable ways that a man cares for a woman?—because you want me as a man wants the woman he loves, as his wife if it may be so, as his own, anyhow?"
She let her eyes rest on him in a new and fearless comprehension, tender, curious, sad by turns.
"It is the romance of passion in you that has been fighting to awaken the Sleeping Princess of a legend," she said with a slight smile; "it is the same illogical, impulsive romance that draws back just as her closed lids tremble, fearing to awaken her to the sorrows and temptations of a world which, after all, God made for us to wake in."
"Athalie! I am a scoundrel if I have—"
"Oh, Clive!" she laughed, mocking the solemn measure of her own words; "adorable boy of impulse and romance, never to outgrow its magic armour, destined always to be ruled by dreams through the sweetest and most generous of hearts, you need not fear for me. I am already awake—at least I am sufficiently aroused to understand you—and something, too, of my own self which I have never hitherto understood."
For a second, lightly, she rested her warm, fresh cheek against his. When it was burning she disengaged her fingers from his and leaned aside against the rain-swept window.
"You see?" she said calmly but with heightened colour.... "I am very human after all.... But it is still my mind that rules, not my emotions."
She turned to him in her old sweetly humorous and mocking manner:
"That is all the romance of which I am capable, Clive—if there be any real romance in a very clear mind. For it is my intellect that must lead me to salvation or to destruction. If I am to come crashing down at your feet, I shall have already planned the fall. If I am to be destroyed, it will not be by any accident of romantic emotion, of unconsidered impulse, or sudden blindness of passion; it will be because my intelligence coolly courted destruction, and accepted every chance, every hazard."
So spoke Athalie, smiling, in the full confidence and pride of her superb youth, certain of the mind's autocracy over matter, lightly defying within herself the latent tempest, of which she as yet divined no more than the first exquisitely disturbing breeze;—deriding, too, the as yet unloosened bolts of the old gods themselves,—the white lightning of desire.
"Come," she said, half mockingly, half seriously, passing her arm through Clive's;—"we are quite safe together in this safe and sane old world—unless I choose—otherwise."
She turned and touched her lips lightly to his hair:
"So you may safely behave as irrationally, irresponsibly, and romantically as you choose.... As long as I now am wide awake."
And then, for the first time, he realised his utter responsibility to this girl who so gaily and audaciously relieved him of it. And he understood how pitifully unarmed she really stood, and how imminent the necessity for him to forge for himself the armour of character, and to wear it eternally for his own safety as well as hers.
"Good night, dear," he said.
In her new and magnificent self-confidence she turned and put both arms around his neck, drawing his lips against hers.
But after he had gone she leaned against the closed door, less confident, her heart beating too fast and hard to entirely justify this new enfranchisement of the body, or her overwhelming faith in its wise and trusted guardian, the mind.
And he went soberly on his way through the rain to his hotel, troubled but determined upon his new role as his own soul's armourer. All that was in him of romance and of chivalry was responding passionately to the girl's unconscious revelation of her new need.
For now he realised that her boasted armour was of gauze; he could see her naked heart beating behind it; he beheld, through the shield she lifted on high to protect them both, the moon shining with its false, reflected light.
Never did Athalie stand in such dire need of the armour she supposed that she was wearing.
And he must put on his own, rapidly, and rivet it fast—the inflexible mail of character which alone can shield such souls as his—and hers.
* * * * *
When he came into his own room, a thick letter from his wife lay on the table. Before he broke the seal he laid aside his wet garments, being in no haste to read any more of the now incessant reproaches and complaints with which Winifred had recently deluged him.
Finally, when he was ready, he cut the envelope and seated himself beside the lamp. She wrote from the house in Kent:
"It was a very different matter when you were travelling about and I could say that you were off on another exploring expedition. But your return from South America was mentioned in the London papers; and the fact that you are now not only in New York but that you have also gone into business there is known and is the subject of comment.
"I shall be, as usual, perfectly frank with you; I do not care whether you are here or not; in fact I infinitely prefer your absence to your presence. But your engaging in business in New York is a very different matter, and creates a different situation for me.
"You like to travel. Why don't you do it? I don't care to be the subject of gossip; and I shall be—am, no doubt, already,—because you are making the situation too plain and too public.
"It's well enough for one's friends to surmise the condition of affairs; no unpleasantness for me results. But let it once become newspaper gossip and my situation among people I most earnestly desire to cultivate would become instantly precarious and perhaps impossible.
"It is not necessary for me to inform you what is the very insecure status of an American woman here, particularly in view of the Court's well known state of mind concerning marital irregularities.
"The King's views coincide with the Queen's. And the Queen's are perfectly well known.
"If you continue your exploring expeditions, which you evidently like to engage in, and if you report here at intervals for the sake of appearances, I can get on very well and very comfortably. But if you settle in New York and engage in business there, and continue to remain away from this country where you are popularly supposed to maintain residences in town and country, I shall certainly begin to experience very disagreeably the consequences of your selfish conduct.
"Your reply to my last letter has thoroughly incensed me.
"You always have been selfish. From the time I had the misfortune to marry you I had to suffer from your selfish, self-centred, demonstrative, and rather common character—until you finally learned that demonstration is offensive to decent breeding, and that, although I happened to be married to you, I intended to keep to my own notions of delicacy, reserve, privacy, and self-respect.
"Of course you thought it a sufficient reason for us to have children merely because you once thought you wanted them; and I shall not forget what was your brutal attitude toward me when I told you very plainly that I refused to be saddled with the nasty, grubby little brats. Evidently you are incapable of understanding any woman who is not half animal.
"I did not desire children, and that ought to have been sufficient for you. I am not demonstrative toward anybody; I leave that custom to my servants. And is it any crime if the things that interest and appeal to you do not happen to attract me?
"And I'll tell you now that your subjects of conversation always bored me. I make no pretences; I frankly do not care for what you so smugly designate as 'the things of the mind' and 'things worth while.' I am no hypocrite: I like well bred, well dressed people; I like what they do and say and think. Their characters may be negative as you say, but their poise and freedom from demonstration are most agreeable to me.
"You politely designated them as fools, and what they said you characterised as piffle. You had the exceedingly bad taste to sneer at various members of an ancient and established aristocracy—people who by inheritance from generations of social authority, require no toleration from such a man as you.
"These are the people who are my friends; among whom I enjoy an established position. This position you now threaten by coolly going into business in New York. In other and uglier words you advertise to the world that you have abandoned your home and wife.
"Of course I cannot help it if you insist on doing this common and disgraceful thing.
"And I suppose, considering the reigning family's attitude toward divorce, that you believe me to be at your mercy.
"Permit me to inform you that I am not. If, in a certain set, wherein I now have the entree, divorce is not tolerated,—at any rate where the divorced wife of an American would not be received,—nevertheless there are other sets as desirable, perhaps even more desirable, and which enjoy a prestige as weighty.
"And I'll tell you now that in case you persist in affronting me by remaining in business in New York, I shall be forced to procure a separation—possibly a divorce. And I shall not suffer for it socially as no doubt you think I will.
"There is only one reason why I have not done so already—disinclination to be disturbed in a social milieu which suits me. It's merely the inconvenience of a transfer to another equally agreeable set.
"But if your selfish conduct forces me to make the change, don't doubt for one minute, my friend, that I'm entirely capable and able to accomplish it without any detriment or anything worse than some slight inconvenience to myself.
"Whether it be a separation or a divorce I have not yet made up my mind.
"There is only one reason why I should hesitate and that is the thought that possibly you might be glad of your freedom. If I were sure of that I'd punish you by asking for a separation. But I do not suppose it really matters to you. I think I know you well enough to know that you have no desire to marry again. And, as for the young woman in whose company you made yourself notorious before we were engaged—well, I think you would hesitate to offer her marriage, or even, perhaps, the not unprecedented privilege of being your chere amie. I do you the honour of believing you too fastidious to select a public fortune teller for your mistress, or to parade a cheap trance-medium as a specimen of your personal taste in pulchritude.
"Meanwhile your attitude in domestic matters continues to annoy me. Be good enough to let me know, definitely, what you propose to do, so that I may take proper measures to protect myself—because I have always been obliged to protect myself from you and your vulgar notions ever since my mother and yours made a fool of me. "WINIFRED STUART BAILEY."
With his care-worn eyes still fixed on the written pages he rested his elbow on the table and dropped his head on his hand, heavily.
Rain swept the windows; the wind also was rising; his room seemed to be full of sounds; even the clock which had a subdued tick and a most discreet manner of announcing the passing of time, seemed noisy to him.
"God! what a mess I've made of life," he said aloud. For a moment a swift anger burned fiercely against the woman who had written him; then the flame of it blew against himself, scorching him with the wrath of self-contempt.
"Hell!" he said between his teeth. "It isn't the fault of that little girl across the ocean. It's my fault, mine, and the fault of nobody else."
Indecision, the weakness of a heart easily appealed to, the irresolution of a man who was not man enough to guard and maintain his own freedom of action and the right to live his own life—these had encompassed the wrecking of him.
It seemed that he was at least man enough to admit it, generous enough to concede it, even if perhaps it was not altogether true.
But never once had he permitted himself, even for a second, to censure the part played by his mother in the catastrophe. That he had been persuaded, swerved, over-ridden, dominated, was his own fault.
The boy had been appealed to, subtly, cleverly, on his most vulnerable side; he had been bothered and badgered and beset. Two women, clever and hard as nails, had made up their minds to the marriage; the third remained passive, indifferent, but acquiescent. Wiser, firmer, and more experienced men than Clive had surrendered earlier. Only the memory of Athalie held him at all;—some vague, indefinite hope may have remained that somehow, somewhere, sometime, either the world's attitude might change or he might develop the courage to ignore it and to seek his happiness where it lay and let the world howl.
That is probably all that held him at all. And after a while the constant pressure snapped that thread. This was the result.
* * * * *
He lifted his head and stared, heavy-eyed, at his wife's letter. Then, dropping the sheets to the floor he turned and laid both arms upon the table and buried his face in them.
Toward morning his servant discovered him there, asleep.
The following day Clive replied to his wife by cable: "As it seems to make no unpleasant difference to you I have concluded to remain in New York. Please take whatever steps you may find most convenient and agreeable for yourself."
And, following this he wrote her:
"I am inexpressibly sorry to cause you any new annoyance and to arouse once more your just impatience and resentment. But I see no use in a recapitulation of my shortcomings and of your own many disappointments in the man you married.
"Please remember that I have always assumed all blame for our marriage; and that I shall always charge myself with it. I have no reply to make to your reproaches,—no defence; I was not in love with you when I married you—which is as serious an offence as any man can perpetrate toward any woman. And I do not now blame you for a very natural refusal to tolerate anything approaching the sympathy and intimacy that ought to exist between husband and wife.
"I did entertain a hazy idea that affection and perhaps love might be ultimately possible even under the circumstances of such a marriage as ours; and in a youthful, ignorant, and inexperienced way I attempted to bring it about. My notions of our mutual obligations were very vague and indefinite.
"Please believe I did not realise how utterly distasteful any such ideas were to you, and how deep was your personal disinclination for the man you married.
"I understand now how many mistakes I made before I finally rid you of myself, and gave you a chance to live your life in your own way unharassed by the interference of a young, ignorant, and probably aggressive man.
"Your aversion to motherhood was, after all, your own affair. Man has no right to demand that of woman. I took a very bullying and intolerant attitude toward you—not, as I now realise, from any real conviction on the subject, but because I liked and wanted children, and also because I was influenced by the cant of the hour—the fashion being to demand of woman, on ethical grounds, quantitative reproduction as a marriage offering to the Almighty. As though indiscriminate and wholesale addition to humanity were an admirable and religious duty. Nothing, even in the Old Testament, is more stupid than such a doctrine; no child should ever be born unwelcome to both parents.
"I am sorry I could not find your circle of friends interesting. I sometimes think I might have, had you and I been mutually sympathetic. But the situation was impossible; our ideas, interests, convictions, tastes, were radically at variance; we had absolutely nothing in common to build on. What marriage ties could endure the strain of such conditions? The fault was mine, Winifred; I am sorry for you.
"I don't know much about anything, but, thinking as clearly and as impersonally as it is in me to think, I begin to believe that divorce, far from deserving the stigma attached to it, is a step forward in civilisation.
"Perhaps it may be only a temporary substitute for something better—say for more wholesome and more honest social conditions where the proposition for mating and the selection of a mate may lie as freely with your sex as with mine.
"Until then I know of nothing more honest and more sensible than to undo the wrong that ignorance and inexperience has accomplished. No woman's moral or spiritual salvation is dependent upon her wearing the fetters of a marriage abhorred. Such a stupid sacrifice is unthinkable to modesty and decency, and is repulsive to common sense. And any god who is supposed to demand that of humanity is not the true God, but is as grotesque and false as any African idol or any deity ever worshipped by Puritan or Pagan or by any orthodox assassin of free minds since the first murder was perpetrated on account of creed.
"You are entitled to divorce. I don't know whether I am or not, having done this thing. Nobody likes to endure unhappy consequences. I don't. But it was my own doing and I have no ground for complaint.
"You, however, have. You ought to be free of me. Of course, I'd be very glad to have my freedom; I shall not lie about it; but the difference is that you deserve yours and I don't. But I'll be very grateful if you care to give it to me.
"Don't write any more bitterly than you can help. I don't believe it really affords you any satisfaction; and it depresses me more than you could realise. I know only too well what I have been and wherein I have failed so miserably. Let me forget it whenever I can, Winifred. And if, for me, there remains any chance, any outlook, be generous enough to let me try to take it. "Your husband, "C. BAILEY."
The consequences of this letter did not seem to be very fortunate. There came a letter from her so bitter and menacing that a cleverer man might have read in it enough of menace between the lines to forearm him with caution at least.
But Clive merely read it once and destroyed it and tried to forget it.
* * * * *
It was not until some time afterward that, gradually, some instinct in him awoke suspicion. But for a long while he was not perfectly sure that he was being followed.
However, when he could no longer doubt it, and when the lurking figures and faces of at least two of the men who dogged him everywhere had become sufficiently familiar to him, he wrote a short note to his wife asking for an explanation.
But he got none—principally because his wife had already sailed.
The effect of Winifred's letters on an impressionable, sensitive, and self-distrustful character, was never very quickly effaced.
Whatever was morbid in the man became apparent after he had received such letters, and took the form of a quiet withdrawal from the circles which he affected, until such time as mortification and shame had subsided.
He had written briefly to Athalie saying that business would take him out of town for a few weeks. Which it did as a matter of fact, landing him at Spring Pond, Long Island, where he completed the purchase of the Greensleeve tavern and took title in his own name.
Old Ledlie had died; his only heir appeared to be glad enough to sell; the title was free and clear; the possibilities of the place fascinating.
Clive prowled around the place in two minds whether he might venture to call in a local builder and have him strip the protuberances from the house, which was all that was necessary to restore it to its original form; or whether he ought to leave that for Athalie to manage.
But there remained considerable to be done; May was in full bud and blossom already; and if Athalie was to enjoy the place at all that summer it ought to be made livable.
So Clive summoned several people to his aid with the following quick results: A New York general contractor took over the entire job guaranteeing quick results or forfeiture. A local nurseryman and an emergency gang started in. They hedged the entire front with privet for immediate effect, cleared, relocated, and restored the ancient flower garden on its quaint original lines; planted its borders thickly with old time perennials, peonies, larkspurs, hollyhocks, clove pinks, irises, and lilies; replanted the rose beds with old-fashioned roses, set the wall beds with fruit trees and gay annuals, sodded, trimmed, raked, levelled, cleaned up, and pruned, until the garden was a charming and logical thing.
Fortunately the newness was not apparent because the old stucco walls remained laden with wistaria and honeysuckle, and the alley of ancient box trees required clipping only.
In the centre of the lawn he built a circular pool and piped the water from Spring Brook. It fell in a slender jet, icy cold, powdering pool, basin and grass with spray.
Where half-dead locust and cedar trees had to be felled Clive set tall arbor vitae and soft maples. He was an expensive young man where Athalie's pleasure was concerned; and as he worked there in the lovely May weather his interest and enthusiasm grew with every fresh fragrant spadeful of brown earth turned.
The local building genius repainted the aged house after bay window and gingerbread had been stripped from its otherwise dignified facade; replaced broken slates on the roof, mended the great fat chimneys, matched the traces of pale bluish-green that remained on the window shutters, filled in the sashes with small, square panes, instituted modern plumbing, drainage, sewage, and electric lights—all of which was emergency work and not too difficult as the city improvements had now been extended as far as the village a mile to the eastward. But it was expensive.
At first Clive had decided to leave the interior to Athalie, but he finally made up his mind to restore the place on its original lines with the exception of her mother's room. This room he recognised from her frequent description of it; and he locked it, pocketed the key, and turned loose his men.
All that they did was to plaster where it was needed, re-kalsomine all walls and ceilings, scrape, clean, mend, and re-enamel the ancient woodwork. Trim, casings, wainscot, and stairs were restored to their original design and finish; dark hardwood floors replaced the painted boards which had rotted; wherever a scrap of early wall-paper remained he matched it as closely as possible, having an expert from New York to do the business; and the fixtures he chose were simple and graceful and reflected the period as nearly as electric light fixtures can simulate an era of candle-sticks and tallow dips.
He was tremendously tempted to go ahead, so fascinating had the work become to him, but he realised that it was not fair to Athalie. All that he could reasonably do he had done; the place was clean and fresh, and restored to its original condition outside and in, except for the modern necessities of lighting, heating, plumbing, and running water in pantry, laundry, kitchen, and bathrooms. Two of the latter had replaced two clothes-presses; the ancient cellar had been cemented and whitewashed, and heavily stocked with furnace and kitchen coal and kindling.
Also there were fire-dogs for the three fine old-fashioned fireplaces in the house which had been disinterred from under bricked-in and plastered surfaces where only the aged mantel shelves and a hole for a stove pipe revealed their probable presence.
The carpets were too ragged and soiled to retain; the furniture too awful. But he replaced the latter, leaving its disposition and the pleasure of choosing new furniture and new floor coverings to Athalie.
Hers also was to be the pleasure of re-stocking the house with linen; of selecting upholstery and curtains and the requisites for pantry, kitchen, and dining-room.
Once she told him what she had meant to do with the bar. And he took the liberty of doing it, turning the place into a charming sun-parlour, where, in a stone basin, gold-fish swam and a forest of feathery and flowering semi-tropical plants spread a fretwork of blue shadows over the cool stone floor.
But he left the big stove as it had been; and the rather quaint old chairs with their rush-bottoms renovated and their lustrous wood stained and polished by years of use.
Every other day he went to Spring Pond from his office in New York to watch the progress of the work. The contractor was under penalty; Clive had not balked at the expense; and the work was put through with a rush.
In the meanwhile he called on Athalie occasionally, pretending always whenever she spoke of it, that negotiations were still under way concerning the property in question, and that such transactions required patience and time.
One matter, too, was gradually effaced from his mind. The tall man and the short man who had been following him so persistently had utterly disappeared. And nobody else seemed to have taken their places. Eventually he forgot it altogether.
Two months was the period agreed upon for the completion of Athalie's house and garden, and the first week in July found the work done.
It had promised to be a hot week in the city: Athalie, who had been nowhere except for an evening at some suburban restaurant, had begun to feel fagged and listless and in need of a vacation.
And that morning she had decided to go away for a month to some quiet place in the mountains, and she was already consulting various folders and advertisements which she had accumulated since early spring, when the telephone in her bedroom rang.
She had never heard Clive's voice so gay over the wire. She told him so; and she could hear his quick and rather excited laugh.
"Are you very busy to-day?" he asked.
"No; I'm going to close up shop for a month, Clive. I'm hot and tired and dying for a glimpse of something green. I was just looking over a lot of advertisements—cottages and hotels. Come up and help me."
"I want you to spend the day with me in the country. Will you?"
"I'd love to. Where?"
"At Spring Pond."
"Clive! Do you really want to go there?"
"Yes. As your guest."
"If you will invite me. Will you?"
"What do you mean? Have you bought the place for me?"
"I have the deed in my pocket, all ready to be transferred to you."
"You darling! Clive, I am so excited—"
"So am I. Shall I come for you in my brand new car? I've invested in an inexpensive Stinger runabout. May I drive you down? It won't take much longer than by train. And it will cool us off."
"Come as soon as you can get here!" she cried, delighted. "This is going to be the happiest day of my entire life!"
* * * * *
And so it came about that Athalie in her pretty new gown and hat of lilac lingerie, followed by a maid bearing three suit-cases, hat-box, toilet satchel, and automobile coat, emerged from the main entrance of the building where Clive sat waiting in a smart Stinger runabout. When he saw her he sprang out and came forward, hat in hand.
"You darling," she said in a low, happy voice. "You've made me happier than I ever dreamed of being. I don't know what to say to you; I simply don't know how to thank you for doing this wonderful thing for me."
He, too, was happier than he had ever been in all his life; and so much in love that he found nothing to say for a moment save the few trite phrases in which a man in love says many commonplaces, all of which only mean, "I love you."
Doubtless she understood the complicated code, for she laughed and blushed a trifle and looked around at her maid laden with luggage.
"Where can we put these, Clive?" she asked.
"What on earth is all that luggage?" he asked, surprised.
"I'm going to remain a few days," she explained, "so I've brought a few things."
"But do you imagine there is anything to eat or anywhere to lay your head in that tumble down old house?" he demanded, secretly enchanted with her rash enthusiasm.
"I propose to camp. I can buy milk, crackers, and sardines at Spring Pond village; also sufficient bathroom and bed linen. That is all I require to be perfectly comfortable."
There was no rumble on the Stinger, only a baggage rack and boot. Here he secured, covered, and strapped Athalie's impedimenta; the maid slipped on her travelling coat; she sprang lightly into the seat; and Clive went around and climbed in beside her, taking the wheel.
The journey downtown and across the Queensboro Bridge was the usual uncomfortable and exasperating progress familiar to all who pilot cars to Long Island. Brooklyn was negotiated prayerfully; they swung into the great turnpike, through the ugliest suburbs this humiliated world ever endured, on through the shabby, filthy, sordid environment of the gigantic Burrough, past ignoble villages, desolate wastes, networks of railway tracks where grade crossings menaced them, and on along the purlieus of suburban deserts until the flat green Long Island country spread away on either side dotted with woods and greenhouses and quaint farm-houses and old-time spires.
"It is pretty when you get here," he said, "but it's like climbing over a mile of garbage to get out of one's front door. No European city would endure being isolated by such a desert of squalor and abominable desolation."
But Athalie merely smiled. She had been far too excited to notice the familiar ugliness and filth of the dirty city's soiled and ragged outskirts.
And now the car sped on amid the flat, endless acres of cultivated land, and already her dainty nose was sniffing familiar but half-forgotten odours—the faintest hint of ocean, the sun-warmed scent of freshly cut salt hay; perfumes from woodlands in heavy foliage, and the more homely smell from barn-yard and compost-heap; from the sunny, dusty village streets through which they rolled; from village lanes heavy with honeysuckle.
"I seem to be speeding back toward my childhood," she said. "Every breath of this air, every breeze, every odour is making it more real to me.... I wonder whatever became of my ragged red hood and cloak. I can't remember."
"I'd like to have them," he said. "I'd fold them and lay them away for—"
He checked himself, sobered, suddenly and painfully aware that the magic of the moment had opened for him an unreal vista where, in the false dawn, the phantom of Hope stood smiling. Her happy smile had altered, too; and her gloved hand stole out and rested on his own for a moment in silence. Neither said anything for a while, and yet the sky was so blue, the wind so soft and aromatic, and the sun's splendour was turning the very earth to powdered gold. And maybe the gods would yet be kind. Maybe, one day, others, with Athalie's hair and eyes, might smooth the faded scarlet hood and cloak with softly inquiring fingers.
He spoke almost harshly from his brief dream: "There is the Bay!"
But she had turned to look back at the quiet little cemetery already behind them, and a moment or two passed before she lifted her eyes and looked out across the familiar stretch of water. Azure and silver it glimmered there in the sun. Red-shouldered blackbirds hovered, fluttered, dropped back into the tall reeds; meadow larks whistled sweetly, persistently; a slow mouse-hawk sailed low over the fields, his broad wings tipped up like a Japanese kite, the silver full-moon flashing on his back as he swerved. And then the old tavern came into sight behind its new hedge of privet.
Athalie caught sight of it,—of the tall hedge, the new posts of stone through which a private road now curved into the grounds and around a circle before the porch; saw the new stone wall inclosing it ablaze with nasturtiums, the brilliant loveliness of the old and long neglected garden beyond; saw the ancient house in all its quaint and charming simplicity bereft of bow-window, spindle, and gingerbread fretwork,—saw the white front of it, the green shutters, the big, thick chimneys, the sunlight sparkling on small square panes, and on the glass of the sun parlour.
The girl was trembling when he stopped the car at the front door, sprang out, and aided her to descend.
A man in overalls came up, diffidently, and touched his broad straw hat. To him Clive gave a low-voiced order or two, then stepped forward to where the girl was standing.
"It is too beautiful—" she began, but her voice failed, and he saw the sensitive lips tremulous in their silence and the eyes brilliant with the menace of tears.
He drew her arm through his and they went in, moving slowly and in silence from room to room. Only the almost convulsive pressure of her arm on his told him of a happiness too deep for expression.
On the landing above he offered her the key to her mother's room.
"Nothing is changed there," he said; and, fitting the key, unlocked the door, and turned away.
But the girl caught his hand in hers and drew him with her into the faded, shabby room where her mother's chair stood in its accustomed place, and the faded hassock lay beside it.
"Sit here," she said. And when he was seated she dropped on the hassock at his feet and laid her cheek on his knees.
The room was very still and sunny; her lover remained silent and unstirring; and the girl's eyes wandered from carpet to ceiling and from wall to wall, resting on familiar objects; then, passing dreamily, remained fixed on space—sweet, brooding eyes, dim with the deepest emotion she had ever known.
A new, profound, and thrilling peace possessed her—a heavenly sense of tranquillity and security, as though, somehow, all problems had been solved for her and for him.
Presently in a low, hushed, happy voice she began to speak about her mother. Little unimportant, unconnected incidents came to her mind—brief moments, episodes as ephemeral as they had been insignificant.
Sitting on the faded hassock at his feet she lifted her head and rested both arms across his knees.
"It is all so perfect now," she said,—"you here in mother's room, and I at your feet: and the sunny world waiting for us outside. How mellow is this light! Always in the demi-dusk of this house there seemed to me to linger a golden tint—even on dark days—even at night—as though somewhere a ray of sun had been lost and had not entirely faded out."
"It came from your own heart, Athalie—that wonderful and golden heart of yours where light and warmth can never die.... Dear, are you contented with what I have ventured to do?"
She looked silently into his eyes, then with a little sigh dropped her head on his knees again.
Far away somewhere in the depths of the house somebody was moving. And presently she asked him who it was.
"Connor, the man of all work. I sent him to Spring Pond village to buy bed linen and bath towels. I ventured to install a brass bed or two in case you had thought of coming here with your maid. You see," he added, smiling, "it was fortunate that I did."
"You are the most wonderful man in the world, Clive," she murmured, her eyes fixed dreamily on his face. "Always you have been making life delightful for me; smoothing my path, helping me where the road is rough."... She sighed: "Clive, you are very wonderful to me."
* * * * *
Mrs. Jim Connor had come to help; and now, at high noon, she sought them where they were standing in the garden,—Athalie in ecstasy before the scented thickets of old-fashioned rockets massed in a long, broad border against a background of trees.
So they went in to luncheon, which was more of a dinner; and Mrs. Connor served them with apology, bustle, and not too garrulously for the humour they were in.
High spirits had returned to them when they stepped out of doors; and they came back to the house for luncheon in the gayest of humour, Athalie chattering away blithe as a linnet in a thorn bush, and Clive not a whit more reticent.
"Hafiz is going to adore this!" exclaimed the girl. "My angel pussy!—why was I mean enough to leave you in the city!... I'll have a dog, too—a soft, roly-poly puppy, who shall grow up with a wholesome respect for Hafiz. And, Clive! I shall have a nice fat horse, a safe and sane old Dobbin—so I can poke about the countryside at my leisure, through byways and lanes and disused roads."
"You need a car, too."
"No, no, I really don't. Anyway," she said airily, "your car is sufficient, isn't it?"
"Of course," he smiled.
"I think so, too. I shall not require or desire a car unless you also are to be in it. But I'd love to possess a Dobbin and a double buckboard. Also I shall, in due time, purchase a sail-boat—" She checked herself, laughed at the sudden memory, and said with delightful malice: "I suppose you have not yet learned to sail a boat, have you?"
He laughed, too: "How you scorned me for my ignorance, didn't you? Oh, but I've learned a great many things since those days, Athalie."
"To sail a boat, too?"
"Oh, yes. I had to learn. There's a lot of water in the world; and I've been very far afield."
"I know," she said. There was a subtle sympathy in her voice,—an exquisite recognition of the lonely years which now seemed to lie far, far behind them both.
She glanced down at her fresh plate which Mrs. Connor had just placed before her.
"Clive!" she exclaimed, enchanted, "do you see! Peach turnovers!"
"Certainly. Do you suppose this housewarming could be a proper one without peach turnovers?" And to Mrs. Connor he said: "That is all, thank you. Miss Greensleeve and I will eat our turnovers by the stove in the sun-parlour."
And there they ate their peach turnovers, seated on the old-time rush-bottomed chairs beside the stove—just as they had sat so many years ago when Athalie was a child of twelve and wore a ragged cloak and hood of red.
Sometimes, leisurely consuming her pastry, she glanced demurely at her lover, sometimes her blue eyes wandered to the sunny picture outside where roses grew and honeysuckle trailed and the blessed green grass enchanted the tired eyes of those who dwelt in the monstrous and arid city.
Presently she went away to the room he had prepared for her; and he lay back lazily in his chair and lighted a cigarette, and watched the thin spirals of smoke mounting through the sunshine. When she returned to him she was clad in white from crown to toe, and he told her she was enchanting, which made her eyes sparkle and the dimples come.
"Mrs. Connor is going to remain and help me," she said. "All my things are unpacked, and the bed is made very nicely, and it is all going to be too heavenly for words. Oh, I wish you could stay!"
"Yes. But I suppose it would ruin us if anybody knew."
He said nothing as they walked back into the main hallway.
"What a charming old building it is!" she exclaimed. "Isn't it odd that I never before appreciated the house from an esthetic angle? I don't suppose you'd call this architecture, but whatever else it may be it certainly is dignified. I adore the simplicity of the rooms; don't you? I shall have some pretty silk curtains made; and, in the bedrooms, chintz. And maybe you will help me hunt for furniture and rugs. Will you, dear?"
"We'll find some old mahogany for this floor and white enamel for the bedrooms if you like. What do you say?"
"Enchanting! I adore antique mahogany! You know how crazy I am about the furniture of bygone days. I shall squander every penny on things Chippendale and Sheraton and Hepplewhite. Oh, it is going to be a darling house and I'm the happiest girl in the world. And you have made me so!—dearest of men!"
She caught his hand to her lips as he bent to kiss hers, and their faces came together in a swift and clinging embrace. Which left her flushed and wordless for the moment, and disposed to hang her head as she walked slowly beside him to the front door.
Out in the sunshine, however, her self-possession returned in a pretty exclamation of delight; and she called his attention to a tiny rainbow formed in the spray of the garden hose where Connor was watering the grass.
"Symbol of hope for us," he said under his breath.
She nodded, and stood inhaling the fragrance of the garden.
"I know a path—if it still exists—where I used to go as a child. Would you care to follow it with me?"
So they walked down to the causeway bridge spanning the outlet to Spring Pond, turned to the right amid a tangle of milk-weed in heavy bloom, and grapevines hanging in festoons from rock and sapling.
The path had not changed; it wound along the wooded shore of the pond, then sloped upward and came out into a grassy upland, where it followed the woods' edge under the cool shadow of the trees.
And as they walked she told him of her childish journeys along this path until it reached the wooded and pebbly height of land beyond, which is one of the vertebrae in the backbone of Long Island.
To reach that ridge was her ultimate ambition in those youthful days; and when on one afternoon of reckless daring she had attained it, and far to the northward she saw the waters of the great Sound sparkling in the sun, she had felt like Balboa in sight of the Pacific, awed to the point of prayer by her own miraculous achievement.
Where the path re-entered the woods, far down the slope, they could hear the waters of Spring Brook flowing; and presently they could see the clear glint of the stream; and she told him tales of alder-poles and home-made hooks, and of dusky troutlings that haunted the woodland pools far in the dusk of leafy and mysterious depths.
On the brink of the slope, but firmly imbedded, there had been a big mossy log. She discovered it presently, and drew him down to a seat beside her, taking possession of one of his arms and drawing it closely under her own. Then she crossed one knee over the other and looked out into the magic half-light of a woodland which, to her childish eyes, had once seemed a vast and depthless forest. A bar of sunlight fell across her slim shoe and ankle clothed in white, and across the log, making the moss greener than emeralds.
From far below came pleasantly the noise of the brook; overhead leaves stirred and whispered in the breezes; shadows moved; sun-spots waxed and waned on tree-trunk and leaf and on the brown ground under foot. A scarlet-banded butterfly—he they call the Red Admiral—flitted persistently about an oak tree where the stain of sap darkened the bark.
From somewhere came the mellow tinkle of cow-bells, which moved Athalie to speech; and she poured out her heart to Clive on the subject of domestic kine and of chickens and ducks.
"I'm a country girl; there can be no doubt about it," she admitted. "I do not think a day passes in the city but I miss the cock-crow and the plaint of barn-yard fowl, and the lowing of cattle and the whimper and coo of pigeons. And my country eyes grow weary for a glimpse of green, Clive,—and for wide horizons and the vast flotillas of white clouds that sail over pastures and salt meadows and bays and oceans. Never have I been as contented as I am at this moment—here—under the sky alone with you."
"That also is all I ask in life—the open world, and you."
"Maybe it will happen."
She dropped her eyes and remained very still. For the first time in her life she had thought of children as her own—and his. And the thought which had flashed unbidden through her mind left her silent, and a little bewildered by its sweetness.
He was saying: "You should, by this time, have the means which enable you to live in the country."
Cecil Reeve had advised her in her investments. The girl's financial circumstances were modest, but adequate and sound.
"I never told you how much I have," she said. "May I?"
"If you care to."
She told him, explaining every detail very carefully; and he listened, fascinated by this charming girl's account of how in four years, she had won from the world the traditional living to which all are supposed to be entitled.
"You see," she said, "that gives me a modest income. I could live here very nicely. It has always been my dream.... But of course everything now depends on where you are."
Surprised and touched he turned toward her: she flushed and smiled, suddenly realising the naivete of her avowal.
"It's true," she said. "Every day I seem to become more and more entangled with you. I'm wondering whether I've already crossed the bounds of friendship, and how far I am outside. I can't seem to realise any longer that there is no bond between us stronger than preference.... I was thinking—very unusual and very curious thoughts—about us both." She drew a deep, unsteady, but smiling, breath: "Clive, I wish you could marry me."
"You wish it, Athalie?" he asked, profoundly moved.
After a silence she leaned over and rested her cheek against his shoulder.
"Ah, yes," she said under her breath,—"that is what I begin to wish for. A home, and you.... And—children."
He put his arm around her.
"Isn't it strange, Clive, that I should think about children—at my age—and with little chance of ever having any. I don't know what possesses me to suddenly want them.... Wouldn't they be wonderful in that house? And they'd have that darling garden to play in.... There ought to be a boy—several in fact, and some girls.... I'd know what to do for them. Isn't it odd that I should know exactly how to bring them up. But I do. I know I do.... I can almost see them playing in the garden—I can see their dear little faces—hear their voices—"
His arm was clasping her slim body very tightly, but she suddenly sat upright, resting one slender hand on his shoulder; and her gaze became steady and fixed.
Presently he noticed it and turned his head in the same direction, but saw nothing except the sunlight sifting through the trees and the golden half-light of the woods beyond.
"What is it, Athalie?" he asked.
She said in a curiously still voice: "Children."
"Playing in the woods."
"Where?" he repeated; "I do not see them."
She did not answer. Presently she closed her eyes and rested her face against his shoulder again, pressing close to him as though lonely.
"They went away," she said in answer to his question.... "I feel a little tired, Clive.... Do you care for me a great deal?"
"Can you ask?"
"Yes.... Because of the years ahead of us. I think there are to be many—for us both. The future is so bewildering—like a tangled and endless forest, and very dim to see in.... But sometimes there comes a rift in the foliage—and there is a glimpse of far skies shining. And for a moment one—'sees clearly'—into the depths—a little way.... And surmises something of what remains unseen. And imagines more, perhaps.... I wonder if you love me—enough."
"Let it remain unsaid, Clive. A girl must learn one day. But never from the asking. And the same sun shall continue to rise and set, whatever her answer is to be; and the moon, too; and the stars shall remain unchanged—whatever changes us. How still the woods are—as still as dreams."
She lifted her head, looked at him, smiled, then, freeing herself, sprang to her feet and stood a moment drawing her slim hand across her eyes.
"I shall have a tennis court, Clive. And a canoe on Spring Pond.... What kind of puppy was that I said I wanted?"
"One which would grow up with proper fear and respect for Hafiz," he said, smilingly, perplexed by the rapid sequence of her moods.
"If you like."
"I wonder," she murmured, "whether they are safe for children—" She looked up laughing: "Isn't it odd! I simply cannot seem to free my mind of children whenever I think about that house."
As they moved along the path toward the new home he said: "What was it you saw in the woods?"
"Had they died?"
"They have not yet been born," she said in a low voice.
"I did not know you could see such things."
"I am not sure that I can. It is very difficult for me, sometimes, to distinguish between vividly imaginative visualisation and—other things."
Walking back through the soft afternoon light the girl tried to tell him all that she knew about herself and her clairvoyance—strove to explain, to make him understand, and, perhaps, to understand herself.
But after a while silence intervened between them; and when they spoke again they spoke of other things. For the isolation of souls is a solitude inviolable; there can be no intimacy there, only the longing for it—the craving, endless, unsatisfied.
Over the garden a waning moon silvered the water in the pool and picked out from banked masses of bloom a tall lily here and there.
All the blossom-spangled vines were misty with the hovering wings of night-moths. Through alternate bands of moonlight and dusk the jet from the pool split into a thin shower of palely flashing jewels, sometimes raining back on the water, sometimes drifting with the wind across the grass. And through the dim enchantment moved Athalie, leaning on Clive's arm, like some slim sorceress in a secret maze, silent, absent-eyed, brooding magic.
Already into her garden had come the little fantastic creatures of the night as though drawn thither by a spell to do her bidding. Like a fat sprite a speckled toad hopped and hobbled and scrambled from their path; a tiny snake, green as the grass blades that it stirred, slipped from a pool of moonlight into a lake of shadow. Somewhere a small owl, tremulously melodious, called and called: and from the salt meadows, distantly, the elfin whistle of plover answered.
Like some lost wanderer from the moon itself a great moth with nile-green wings fell flopping on the grass at the girl's feet. And Clive, wondering, lifted it gingerly for her inspection.
Together they examined the twin moons shining on its translucent wings, the furry, snow-white body and the six downy feet of palest rose. Then, at Athalie's request, Clive tossed the angelic creature into the air; and there came a sudden blur of black wings in the moonlight, and a bat took it.
But neither he nor she had seen in allegory the darting thing with devil's wings that dashed the little spirit of the moon into eternal night. And out of the black void above, one by one, flakes from the frail wings came floating.
To and fro they moved. She with both hands clasped and resting on his arm, peering through darkness down at the flowers, as one perfume, mounting, overpowered another—clove-pink, rocket, lily, and petunia, each in its turn dominant, triumphant.
Puffs of fragrance from the distant sea stirred the garden's tranquil air from time to time: somewhere honeyed bunches hung high from locust trees; and the salt meadow's aromatic tang lent savour to the night.
"I must go back to town," he said irresolutely.
He heard her sigh, felt her soft clasp tighten slightly over his arm. But she turned back in silence with him toward the house, passed in the open door before him, her fair head lowered, and stood so, leaning against the newel-post.
"Good night," he said in a low voice, still irresolute.
"Must you go?"
"I ought to."
"There is that other bedroom. And Mrs. Connor has gone home for the night."
"I told her to remain," he said sharply.
"I told her to go."
"Because I wanted you to stay—this first night here—with me—in the home of my youth which you have given to me again."
He came to her and looked into her eyes, framing her face between his hands:
"Dear, it would be unwise for me to remain."
"Because you love me?"
"No." He added with a forced smile: "I have put on armour in our behalf. No, that is not the reason."
"Then—may you not stay?"
"Suppose it became known? What would you do, Athalie?"
"Hold my head high ... guilty or not."
"You don't know what you are saying."
"Not exactly, perhaps.... But I know that I have been changing. This day alone with you is finishing the transformation. I'm not sure just when it began. I realise, now, that it has been in process for a long, long while." She drew away from him, leaned back on the banisters.
"I may not have much time;—I want to be candid—I want to think honestly. I don't desire to deny even to myself that I am now become what I am—a stranger to myself."
He said, still with his forced smile; "What pretty and unknown stranger have you so suddenly discovered in yourself, Athalie?"
She looked up at him, unsmiling: "A stranger to celibacy.... Why do you not take me, Clive?"
"Do you understand what you are saying!"
"Yes. And now I can understand anything you may say or do ... I couldn't, yesterday." She turned her face away from him and folded her hands over the newel-post. And, not looking at him, she said: "Since we have been here alone together I have known a confidence and security I never dreamed of. Nothing now matters, nothing causes apprehension, nothing of fear remains—not even that ignorance of fear which the world calls innocence.
"I am what I am; I am not afraid to be and live what I have become.... I am capable of love. Yesterday I was not. I have been fashioned to love, I think.... But there is only one man who can make me certain.... My trust and confidence are wholly his—as fearlessly as though he had become this day my husband....
"And if he will stay, here under this roof which is not mine unless it is his also—here in this house where, within the law or without it, nevertheless everything is his—then he enters into possession of what is his own. And I at last receive my birthright,—which is to serve where I am served, love where love is mine—with gratitude, and unafraid—"
Her voice trembled, broke; she covered her face with her hands; and when he took her in his arms she leaned her forehead against his breast:
—"Oh, Clive—I can't deny them!—How can I deny them?—The little flower-like faces, pleading to me for life!—And their tender arms—around my neck—there in the garden, Clive!—The winsome lips on mine, warm and heavenly sweet; and the voices calling, calling from the golden woodland, calling from meadow and upland, height and hollow!—And sometimes like far echoes of wind-blown laughter they call me—gay little voices, confident and sweet; and sometimes, winning and shy, they whisper close to my cheek—mother!—mother—"
His arms fell from her and he stepped back, trembling.
She lifted her pale tear-stained face. And, save for the painted Virgins of an ancient day he never before had seen such spiritual passion in any face—features where nothing sensuous had ever left an imprint; where the sensitive, tremulous mouth curved with the loveliness of a desire as innocent as a child's.
And he read there no taint of lesser passion, nothing of less noble emotion; only a fearless and overwhelming acknowledgment of her craving to employ the gifts with which her womanhood endowed her—love and life, and service never ending.
* * * * *
In her mother's room they sat long talking, her hands resting on his, her fresh and delicate face a pale white blur in the dusk.
It was very late before he went to the room allotted him, knowing that he could not hope for sleep. Seated there by his open window he heard the owl's tremolo rise, quaver, and die away in the moonlight; he heard the murmuring plaint of marsh-fowl, and the sea-breeze stirring the reeds.
Now, in this supreme crisis of his life, looking out into darkness he saw a star fall, leaving an incandescent curve against the heavens which faded slowly as he looked.
Into an obscurity as depthless, his soul was peering, now, naked, unarmoured, clasping hands with hers. And every imperious and furious tide that sweeps the souls and bodies of men now mounted overwhelmingly and set toward her. It seemed at moments as though their dragging was actually moving his limbs from where he sat; and he closed his eyes and his strong hand fell on the sill, grasping it as though for anchorage.
Now,—if there were in him anything higher than the mere clay that clotted his bones—now was the moment to show it. And if there were a diviner armour within reach of his unsteady hand, he must don it now and rivet it fast in the name of God.
Darkness is a treacherous councillor; he rose heavily, and turned the switch, flooding the room with light, then flung himself across the bed, his clenched fists over his face.
In his ears he seemed to hear the dull roar of the current which, so far through life, had borne him on its crest, tossing, hurling him whither it had listed.
It should never again have its will of him. This night he must set his course forever.
But the faint, clear call was no more real, and no less, than the voice which was ringing always in his ears, now,—no softer, no less winning.
After a moment he raised himself to his elbows and gazed, half-blinded, toward the door. Then he got clumsily to his feet, stumbled across the floor, and opened it.
She stood there in her frail chamber robe of silk and swansdown, smiling, forlornly humorous, and displaying a book as symbol of her own insomnia.
"Can't you sleep?" she asked. "We'll both be dead in the morning. I thought I'd better tell you to go to sleep when I saw your light break out.... So I've come to tell you."
"How could you see that my window was lighted?"
"I was leaning out of my window listening to the little owl, and suddenly I saw the light from yours fall criss-cross across the grass.... Can't you sleep?"
"Yes. I'll turn out the light. Will you promise to go to sleep?"
"If I can. The night is so beautiful—"
With a gay little smile and gesture she turned away; but halfway down the corridor she hesitated and looked back at him.
"If you are sleepless," she called softly, "you may wake me and I'll talk to you."
There was a window at the end of the corridor. He saw her continue on past her door and stand there looking out into the garden. She was still standing there when he closed his door and went back to his chair.
The night seemed interminable; its moonlit fragrance unendurable. With sleepless eyes he gazed into the darkness, appalled at the future—fearing such nights to come—nights like this, alone with her; and the grim battle to be renewed, inexorably renewed until that day should come—if ever it was to come—when he dared take in the name of God what Destiny had already made his own, and was now clamouring for him to take.
After a long while he rose from the window, went to his door again, opened it and looked out. And saw her still leaning against the window at the corridor's dim end.
She looked around, laughing softly as he came up: "All this—the night, the fragrance, and you, have hopelessly bewitched me. I can't sleep; I don't wish to.... But you, poor boy—you haven't even undressed. You look very tired and white, Clive. Why is it you can't sleep?"
He did not answer.
"Shall I get my book and read aloud to you? It's silly stuff—love, and such things. Shall I?"
"No—I'm going back," he answered curtly.
She glanced around at him curiously. For, that day, a new comprehension of men and their various humours had come to enlighten her; she had begun to understand even where she could not feel.
And so, tenderly, gently, in shy sympathy with the powerful currents that swept this man beside her,—but still herself ignorant of their power, she laid her cool cheek against his, drawing his head closer.
"Dearest—dearest—" she murmured vaguely.
His head turned, and hers turned instinctively to meet it; and her arms crept up around his neck.
Then of a sudden she had freed herself, stepped back, one nervous arm outflung as if in self-defence. But her hand fell, caught on the window-sill and clung there for support; and she rested against it breathing rapidly and unevenly.
"Let me go now—"
Her lips burned for an instant under his; were wrenched away:
"Let me go, Clive—"
"You must not tremble so—"
"I can't help it.... I am afraid. I want to go, now. I—I want to go—"
There was a chair by the window; she sank down on it and dropped her head back against the wall behind.
And, as he stood there beside her, over her shoulder through the open window he saw two men in the garden below, watching them.
Presently she lifted her head. His eyes remained fixed on the men below who never moved.
She said with an effort; "Are you displeased, Clive?"
"No, my darling."
"It was not because I do not love you. Only—I—"
"I know," he whispered, his eyes fixed steadily on the men.
After a silence she said under her breath: "I understand better now why I ought to wait for you—if there is any hope for us,—as long as there is any chance. And after that—if there is no chance for us—then nothing can matter."
"To-night, earlier, I did not understand why I should deny myself to myself, to you, to them.... I did not understand that what I wished for so treacherously masked a—a lesser impulse—"
He said, quietly: "Nothing is surer than that you and I, one day, shall face our destiny together. I really care nothing for custom, law, or folk-way, or dogma, excepting only for your sake. Outside of that, man's folk-ways, man's notions of God, mean nothing to me: only my own intelligence and belief appeal to me. I must guide myself."
"Guide me, too," she said. "For I have come into a wisdom which dismays me."
He nodded and looked down, calmly, at the two men who had not stirred from the shadow of the foliage.
She rose to her feet, hesitated, slowly stretched out her hand, then, on impulse, pressed it lightly against his lips.
"That demonstration," she said with a troubled laugh, "is to be our limit. Good night. You will try to sleep, won't you?... And if I am now suddenly learning to be a little shy with you—you will not mistake me; will you?... Because it may seem silly at this late date.... But, somehow, everything comes late to me—even love, and its lesser lore and its wisdom and its cunning. So, if I ever seem indifferent—don't doubt me, Clive.... Good night."
* * * * *
When she had entered her room and closed the door he went downstairs, swiftly, let himself out of the house, and moved straight toward the garden.
Neither of the men seemed very greatly surprised; both retreated with docile alacrity across the lawn to the driveway gate.
"Anyway," said the taller man, good-humouredly, "you've got to hand it to us, Mr. Bailey. I guess we pinch the goods on you all right this time. What about it?"
But Clive silently locked the outer gates, then turned and stared at the shadowy house as though it had suddenly crumbled into ruins there under the July moon.
A fine lace-work of mist lay over the salt meadows; the fairy trilling of the little owl had ceased. Marsh-fowl were sleepily astir; the last firefly floated low into the shrouded bushes and its lamp glimmered a moment and went out.
Where the east was growing grey long lines of wild-ducks went stringing out to sea; a few birds sang loudly in meadows still obscure; cattle in foggy upland pastures were awake.
When the first cock-crow rang, cow-bells had been clanking for an hour or more; the rising sun turned land and sea to palest gold; every hedge and thicket became noisy with birds; bay-men stepped spars and hoisted sail, and their long sweeps dripped liquid fire as they pulled away into the blinding glory of the east.
And Clive rose wearily from his window chair, care-worn and haggard, with nothing determined, nothing solved of this new and imminent peril which was already menacing Athalie with disgrace and threatening him with that unwholesome notoriety which men usually survive but under which a woman droops and perishes.
He bathed, dressed again, dully uneasy in the garments of yesterday, uncomfortable for lack of fresh linen and toilet requisites; little things indeed to add such undue weight to his depression. And only yesterday he had laughed at inconvenience and had still found charm to thrill him in the happy unconventionality of that day and night.
Connor was already weeding in the garden when he went out; and the dull surprise in the Irishman's sunburnt visage sent a swift and painful colour into his own pallid face.
"Miss Greensleeve was kind enough to put me up last night," he said briefly.
Connor stood silent, slowly combing the soil from the claw of his weeder with work-worn fingers.
Clive said: "Since I have been coming down here to watch the progress on Miss Greensleeve's house have you happened to notice any strangers hanging about the grounds?"
Connor's grey eyes narrowed and became fixed on nothing.
Presently he nodded to himself:
"There was inquiries made, sorr, I'm minded now that ye mention it."
"Yes, sorr. There was strangers askin' f'r to know was it you that owns the house or what."
"What was said?"
"I axed them would they chase themselves,—it being none o' their business. 'Twas no satisfaction they had of me, Misther Bailey, sorr."
"Who were they, Connor?"
"I just disremember now. Maybe there was a big wan and a little wan.... Yes, sorr; there was two of them hangin' about on and off these six weeks past, like they was minded to take a job and then again not minded. Sure there was the two o' thim, now I think of it. Wan was big and thin and wan was a little scutt wid a big nose."
Clive nodded: "Keep them off the place, Connor. Keep all strangers outside. Miss Greensleeve will be here for several days alone and she must not be annoyed."
"Divil a bit, sorr."
"I want you and Mrs. Connor to sleep in the house for the present. And I do not wish you to answer any questions from anybody concerning either Miss Greensleeve or myself. Can I depend on you?"
"You can, sorr."
"I'm sure of it. Now, I'd like to have you go to the village and buy me something to shave with and to comb my hair with. I had not intended to remain here over night, but I did not care to leave Miss Greensleeve entirely alone in the house."
"Sure, sorr, Jenny was fixed f'r to stay—"
"I know. Miss Greensleeve told her she might go home. It was a misunderstanding. But I want her to remain hereafter until Miss Greensleeve's servants come from New York."
So Connor went away to the village and Clive seated himself on a garden bench to wait.
Nothing stirred inside the house; the shades in Athalie's room remained lowered.
He watched the chimney swifts soaring and darting above the house. A faint dun-coloured haze crowned the kitchen chimney. Mrs. Connor was already busy over their breakfast.
When the gardener returned with the purchases Clive went to his room again and remained there busy until a knock on the door and Mrs. Connor's hearty voice announced breakfast.
As he stepped out into the passage-way he met Athalie coming from her room in a soft morning negligee, and still yawning.
She bade him good morning in a sweet, sleepy voice, linked her white, lace-clouded arm in his, glanced sideways at him, humorously ashamed:
"I'm a disgrace," she said; "I could have slain Mrs. Connor when she woke me. Oh, Clive, I am so sleepy!"
"Why did you get up?"
"My dear, I'm also hungry; that is why. I could scent the coffee from afar. And you know, Clive, if you ever wish to hopelessly alienate my affections, you have only to deprive me of my breakfast. Tell me, did you get any sleep?"