"How did you find the time?"
"I had plenty of time last night, after we went to bed and you kept me awake by doing your grand combined kicking and contortion act. You take it from me—every time you get one of your restless fits, you smash all world's records for landing sudden and violent kicks in unexpected places."
Fanny laughed good-humoredly.
"Can I help it if I'm a little nervous once in a while?" she said.
"Of course not, and I don't blame you for it, but that doesn't give me back my sleep, does it?" Taking out his watch he added: "I've got to skin. I'll be a bit late as it is and McLoughlin's sure to be there waiting for me with a few pleasant words."
He stooped to kiss his wife.
"Good-bye, dear!" he said. "Get home early so as to be sure the dinner's all right, won't you?"
Hurriedly he went on:
"If it's O.K. about the car, have Virgie's chauffeur drive you home and leave it in front of the building where the neighbors can get a peek at it. I'll arrange about the garage when I get back."
Waving his hand, he made his way toward the door:
"Then good-bye. If we don't get that machine now after it being promised to us, after all the figuring I've done on it, it'll be hell, that's what it'll be—just hell!"
He disappeared and Fanny rose from her seat to go in search of her sister. She looked for her in the adjoining room but she was not there. Wondering where she could be, she went out into the hall and called:
Virginia entered from the bedroom where she had been busy packing some things. Running up to her, Fanny said quickly:
"You know I didn't mean what I said about leaving him."
Virginia looked steadily at her without answering. There was a moment's pause during which each sister looked at the other, as if trying to read her most secret thoughts. Finally, the younger one said:
"You didn't really?"
"No—honest, I didn't. I don't think I could leave him, no matter what he did. I love him! And you love Robert, don't you?"
"Well, a woman couldn't deliberately leave the man she loves, could she?"
Virginia made no reply and, anxiously, Fanny demanded again.
Virginia nodded. Slowly she said:
"I think a woman might—and be justified in it."
"Even if she loved him?"
"No matter how much she loved him."
Fanny was about to protest when there came a knock at the door, and Josephine entered, laden with jewel boxes of all sorts and sizes.
"These are all but the ruby cross, Madame. That is at the jeweller's. John showed me the receipt for it."
"Yes, I remember," said Virginia hurriedly.
The girl placed the boxes on the table near the other jewels.
"Aren't they beautiful!" exclaimed Fanny enthusiastically. Quickly she asked: "Which is your favorite?"
"The pearls," replied Virginia quietly.
Going to the table, the elder sister opened some of the boxes and took the jewels in her hand admiringly.
"They must have cost a fortune!" she went on ecstatically. "This is the first time I've seen them together. They're simply great!"
Josephine turned to address her mistress.
"Will Madame go out this morning?"
"What furs will Madame wear?"
"None. Bring my cloth coat and the hat that goes with it."
Fanny was still standing spellbound before the table, feasting her eyes on the valuable collection of costly gems.
"If these were mine," she went on enthusiastically, "I'd have them out and count 'em up every day. They'd have no chance to get away from me! My, but they're stunning! Robert's very good to you, isn't he?"
"Very," replied her sister dryly.
Picking up a diamond solitaire ring and examining it, Fanny asked:
"This was his first present, wasn't it?"
"Do you remember how scared we both were that somebody might break into the room and steal it and how we used to hide it under the mattress every night and take it out again when we got up?"
Virginia nodded. With averted face she said:
"And the morning we were in a hurry and forgot it till we were on the car! I can see you now, reaching for the bell and then getting off the wrong way. And how you did run! If you had gone in the ladies' race at the Shipping Clerks' Annual Picnic and had run as fast as that, you'd have won the genuine tortoise-shell side combs sure!"
Virginia smiled in spite of herself. Quietly she replied:
"I suppose I was excited. It was the first piece of real jewelry I had ever owned."
"And now see what you've got!"
Virginia remained silent and her sister opened another box. Taking out a superb necklace of pearls, she held it up admiringly.
"This was his wedding present! I remember you tried it on at least fifty times the first night you had it! I did the same with Jimmie's. It was a horse-shoe—that big!—of near-diamonds. I never wear it now, but I wouldn't part with it for the world."
"Jimmie's a pretty good husband, isn't he?" she said.
"Yes, indeed. He's stubborn at times—and cranky—and selfish—and wants everything his own way, but he's pretty good as husbands go! And then—we've got the baby."
At that moment Josephine re-entered with the coat and hat which she put down on a chair near the dressing table.
"Anything else, Madame?"
"No, Josephine, you needn't wait."
When the girl had left the room Fanny said:
"Josie's an awfully nice girl. Where did you get her?"
Before her sister could answer the question the door opened and the master of the house entered.
Stafford smiled pleasantly when he saw the two women and only a close observer would have noticed that his greeting lacked its customary spontaneity and heartiness. He at once made himself particularly agreeable to Fanny; but, while he chatted and laughed with his sister-in-law, anyone could see that he studiously avoided addressing his wife directly or even meeting her eye. To one who knew him well, his manner would have seemed unusually nervous and embarrassed.
The truth was that Robert Stafford felt very much of a fool. If he did not dare look Virginia in the face this morning it was because he was heartily ashamed of himself. He had only a faint recollection of what had happened the previous evening, but Virginia's coolness at breakfast had told him enough. It hurt his pride to think that he, who prided himself on being able to control thousands of workmen, failed utterly when it came to a question of controlling himself. That Virginia resented his conduct of the night before was very apparent. She was deeply offended and no doubt hated him. What would she do? Would this little domestic storm blow over as the others had done before or would there be a tremendous row, ending in no one knew what? The best plan was to appear as unconcerned as possible and leave matters to shape themselves. Looking round he asked:
"Has Jimmie gone?"
"Yes!" replied Fanny. Quickly she added: "He was a little bit worried though because—"
"Worried—why?" he demanded.
The millionaire looked searchingly at his sister-in-law. Imperatively he demanded:
"Why was he worried? Tell me—I insist!"
"Well, he was afraid you might forget your promises."
"Those you made last night."
Stafford stared, as if trying to comprehend.
"Promises! Oh, yes—of course!"
"If you didn't really mean them—" went on Fanny.
"But I did," he interrupted hastily. "Most certainly I did," he stammered. He stopped for a moment as if trying to recollect and then went on: "I meant everything I said—but I don't quite remember what it was."
Virginia shrugged her shoulders. Caustically she said:
"Part of it was a car which you promised to send to-day as a present for my little niece."
Stafford's face brightened. If liberality could make amends for the night before he was willing to do anything.
"Of course!" he exclaimed quickly. "She's been looking rather pale and I wanted her to get out in the open more. Fine! I'll arrange about it before I leave!"
"And you raised James' salary fifty dollars a week," said Fanny timidly.
"Naturally! Naturally!" he exclaimed, "to pay for the chauffeur and the upkeep. If I increase Jimmie's expenses, it's only fair that I should fix his salary so that he can meet them."
His sister-in-law went up to him. Eagerly she said:
"Then you did mean it really? It wasn't only a—a—I mean you didn't do it just because you were—you were—well—you did?"
He nodded and with a smile he replied:
"I made up my mind about it early in the week, but I told you a little sooner than I expected—that's all."
Fanny's face was radiant with happiness.
"Oh, Robert," she cried, "it's just lovely of you! You don't know how much we shall enjoy it."
"Is that all I promised?" he laughed. "I didn't agree to make Jimmie superintendent or anything?"
"No, that was all. It was enough, too."
Stafford turned to his wife.
"Yes," she answered coldly.
"Do you mind 'phoning for Oku to bring some ice-water?"
"Not at all."
Going to the 'phone on the wall, she took off the receiver and spoke into it.
"Hello! Have Oku bring some ice-water."
"I've got a terrible headache," he went on. "The man who drinks too much is a fool—" Looking towards Virginia, who stood silently by, he added:
"You don't have to say anything—I know you agree with me. And quite right too! I'm ashamed of myself."
Fanny discreetly went towards the door.
"I—I think I'll go," she said timidly.
"Don't go," he pleaded. "Please stay awhile and give me your moral support." Glancing at his wife, he added ruefully: "I feel that I'm going to need it."
Fanny halted and at that moment there was a knock at the door.
"Come in," said Virginia.
Oku entered with a pitcher oL ice water and glasses. Salaaming low, he said:
The butler filled a glass and offered it to Virginia, but she shook her head. He then offered it to Fanny, who also declined.
"Not them," smiled Stafford, "me!"
Draining the glass he handed it back.
"Anything else?" asked the man politely.
"Then excuse, please! Excuse."
The butler apologetically picked up his tray and started to go when his master stopped him.
Oku stopped, and his master made a sign to him to put the tray and ice-water on the table again.
"You want me leave water?"
The butler placed the tray on the table.
"Anything else, sir?"
"Then excuse, please! Excuse!"
Oku withdrew and Fanny approached her sister, who was seated at the window idly gazing into the street. Stafford rose and joined them.
"Well, dear?" he stammered nervously.
"Now I—I must go!" exclaimed Fanny.
"Please!" pleaded Stafford, motioning her not to desert him.
"But the baby," exclaimed his sister-in-law.
"Oh, come!" he laughed. "Don't desert a comrade in distress."
"But she might need me—really she might. So—excuse me."
She hurried away and for some minutes after she had gone there was complete silence. Virginia made no movement and Stafford, afraid to begin talking, contented himself by watching her. At last, unable to keep up the artificial restraint any longer he said:
"Dearie, before you say a word I want to tell you that I'm sorry for the condition I was in when I came home last night. I'm dreadfully sorry, and ashamed—"
She did not turn round and for a moment she made no reply. He thought she had not heard. Then, coldly, she said:
"Do you know what you said to me?"
He advanced closer and, in the most apologetic manner possible, went on:
"Sweetheart, I was drunk last night and I'm sorry. I'm ashamed—and I apologize! I've got a dreadful head this morning and I'm as nervous as I can be! So don't bother me any more than you have to, will you, dearie? Be nice to me this morning. Come on now, dearie, be nice to me!"
She rose from her chair and confronted him. Her face was pale and determined looking. There was no love in it now, nothing but the expression of a woman who had been hurt in her most sensitive feelings. Slowly, deliberately, in tones that cut him like a knife, she said:
"Last night you said that you had bought and paid for me!"
"But I've explained, haven't I?" he protested. "I've said that I'm ashamed, and I've apologized. Can I do any more? You don't know how nervous I am to-day—nor how I feel! I can't stand these rackets like I used to. Be a dear, good, sweet, little girl and don't scold me. Please dearie, please!"
"You said that you had bought and paid for me!" she repeated icily, with emphasis on the last words.
Bitterly she went on:
"It isn't the first time you have said it either. And the dreadful thing about it is—that it's true!"
"But it isn't true," he protested.
She half turned away from him, unwilling that he should see the tears that had started to her eyes.
"Yes—it is true enough," she said half hysterically. "If you hadn't been rich—I should not have married you—because I didn't feel towards you—then—as a girl should feel towards the man she is to marry."
"Virginia!" he cried, making a stride forward.
She drew back as she replied coldly:
"You know it, and last night you told me of it."
"But last night—"
"And so the fact remains that you did buy me!" Pointing to the boxes of jewels heaped high on the table, she went on: "And these are the things you bought me with! These are the things you bought me with—I give them all back to you!"
"Virginia!" he cried appealingly.
Calmly she went on:
"You bought me, but you didn't buy my self-respect. And no matter what happens I am going to keep that."
"It's the last thing in the world that I'd have you lose," he said with some show of emotion.
"Then why do you try to rob me of it? Why did you come to me—as you did last night—and insult and degrade me?"
"I'm sorry, dear."
"So you have told me before! And I've cried—and suffered—and forgiven you—and prayed that it would never happen again. And now, dear, I'm not going to cry any more, and it won't happen again."
He looked at her inquiringly—almost apprehensively.
"You—mean?" he stammered. She sank into a chair a little distance from him. The tears had disappeared from her eyes. She had recovered her self-possession. It was only a matter of business which they had to discuss now. Calmly she continued:
"I mean that we have got to have a definite and explicit understanding. I refuse to remain in a position where you can humiliate me as you have done. What must I think of myself if I do? I ask you, Robert, what must I think of myself?" He said nothing and after a short pause she went on: "A good woman must retain her respect for herself—she must know in her heart that she is sweet and fine; if she doesn't what is there left for her? There are just two ways in which I can keep my self respect—and I'm going to keep it—two and only two. One is this—you must promise me now that you will never touch drink again."
He was silent for a moment as if weighing the exact meaning of her words and their significance; then gravely he replied:
"I'm not sure that I could keep such a promise. I'll agree though to try—"
She shook her head.
"No, dear—that won't do. How many times already have you agreed to try and how many times have you failed? You can stop if you wish. You are not a weakling. You're a big man, a strong man. You can stop if you wish and you must promise me that you will or—I—"
"Or what?" he demanded.
"Or I shall take the only other course open to me and—leave you."
He looked at her curiously as if trying to see if she really meant what she said. He could hardly believe that she was serious. Rising, he went towards her, and bending over her said gravely:
"Let me get this straight. You say I must promise that I will never take another drink or you'll leave me. Is that it?"
"Your mind is made up?"
"Then it's an ultimatum?"
"And you want an answer here and now?"
"Very well, then, you shall have it. I won't promise."
His answer came upon her like a shock. She had expected that he would agree to anything, but he actually defied her.
"Robert!" she cried despairingly.
"I can't be driven and I won't be bullied," he said doggedly. "No man, by holding a revolver to my head, can force me to do anything I don't want to do, nor can any woman either—not even you."
As he spoke, her face grew a little paler, the lines about her mouth deepened. If that was the way he chose to look upon their relations, the sooner the end came the better.
"Very well," she said coldly.
She had turned as if to go to her room when he again spoke:
"Besides, there has to be a head of every family Just as there had to be a head of every business, and so long as I have any family I am going to be the head of it! If I had a partner and he came to me and said 'Do this thing or I quit you,' whether the thing was right or wrong, I'd say, 'Go ahead. Quit.' Because if I didn't, from that moment on, he, not I, would be the boss! So it is with us."
"Then I—am to—go," she said slowly.
"That is for you to say. But if you do go, remember that it is of your own volition. I want you to stay—you understand?"
She made no answer and he went on:
"One thing is certain. You can't think very much of me, or you couldn't even think of leaving me like this—"
"It is because I do love you," she cried hysterically, "that I must leave you. You don't understand that now but, oh! how I hope that some day you will. Good-bye!"
She went toward the dressing table as if to get her hat and coat. He halted her with a gesture.
"Just a minute, dear."
Approaching her, he said kindly:
"You are doing a very foolish thing."
She shook her head.
"I'm doing the right thing."
"I don't think so. Aside from marrying her husband, leaving him is the most serious step a woman can take. Serious steps should be given great consideration."
"I have considered this," she replied gravely.
"But not enough."
"Oh, yes, I have."
"In the first place you know that since you came into my life I haven't given any other woman even a thought. You know that, don't you?"
"In the next place you are leaving me! I am not leaving you. My home is still open to you and I want you for my wife—"
He stopped and looked at her as if expecting her to say something, but she was silent and he went on:
"Of course under any circumstances I shall see you are well provided for."
Virginia made a gesture of dissent.
"Oh, no!" she cried.
"You mean that you wouldn't take-any allowance?"
"Yes! I came to you with nothing—that is what I'll take away."
"Now do be a sensible little woman," he said coaxingly. "If you won't take anything from me, where are you to go, what are you to do?"
"You seem to forget that I managed to live before I met you!"
"You would try to do as you did then?"
"Because it's impossible—absolutely impossible."
"I don't think so."
He made an impatient gesture as if any such action were unthinkable.
"Come now, dearie, get all such foolish thoughts out of your head. The idea is absurd, ridiculous."
"Why?" she demanded.
"Among other reasons is the fact that I wouldn't let you."
"How can you prevent me? You can't keep me a prisoner here and you can't force me to take your money unless I wish to take it. You see?"
"The idea is preposterous, I tell you. You couldn't voluntarily go back and live as you did before. It isn't in human nature."
"I can try."
"And if you do, you'll fail. And I'll tell you why! When we met you were earning ten or twelve dollars a week."
"Ten," she corrected.
"On that you had to live and provide yourself with everything. You had a little room in Harlem and used to hang on to a strap every morning and night when you went to and from your work."
"And now you've had the touring car in the summer and the limousine in the winter; when the weather was cold you had your furs, when it was warm you had the yacht! Since we were married you have had every luxury that money could give and luxury gets in the blood, my dear. Luxury gets in the blood! It's got into mine! Could I, of my own free will, go back and live as I used to live and be satisfied? Certainly not! No more can you!"
"I can try," she said doggedly.
"Don't try," he pleaded. "Please don't! You're a dear, fine, sensible, high-minded little woman, but you weren't made to fight against such odds, and if you try it you'll fail. It's inevitable."
"Just the same I'm going to try it."
Her words were final. There was no recalling them. She was determined upon a separation. So be it, he thought to himself. He was as proud, as obstinate as she was. If she insisted on leaving him, he would not argue with her any longer. Sternly he said:
"Then mark my words—you'll either send for me or you'll come back to me."
"I won't, I tell you!" she retorted with spirit.
"That's what you think now."
"And it's what I shall always think!" she cried. "Send for you after last night? Come back to you and these same conditions? Never! Never!"
Once more he softened. He could not forget in a moment's anger what they had been to each other. Appealingly he said:
"Listen to me for just a minute, dear. You don't realize what you are undertaking. You don't know what you propose to do. Please, please don't do anything that is going to bring you so much misery and unhappiness. Think it over a little while and then perhaps—"
"My mind is made up," she said firmly.
Going to her dressing table, she picked up her hat and placed it on her head. Again he tried to dissuade her.
"I am quite decided, I tell you," she said firmly, putting on her hat.
"Don't do it, Virginia, don't do it!" he cried. "Remember, if you leave me like this you will have to come to me or it will be—forever."
"Then it will be forever!" she said decisively. "I won't be degraded and humiliated! I won't be told that I was bought and paid for! You've been able to say it up to now, but you'll never be able to say it again!" Pointing to the jewels she added: "There they are! I give them all back to you."
She stopped and suddenly noticed the rings she was wearing. They, also, were a present from him. With a subdued exclamation she muttered:
"I had almost forgotten these!"
Taking the gems off her fingers one by one, she laid them on the table before him. Her wedding ring still remained on her finger. That she hesitated to remove. She looked from the ring to her husband and made a movement as if about to remove it. Stafford, in his distress, made a supplicating gesture.
"Don't do that!" he cried
"Why not?" she replied coldly. "Since it's to be forever, why not?"
Taking off the wedding ring she placed it on the table with the others and left the room, closing the door behind her.
After she had gone Stafford went to the table, picked up the ring and softly read the inscription to himself:
"'From Robert to Virginia, with eternal love!' Eternal love!" he echoed bitterly to himself. "What irony!"
Slipping the ring into his pocket he stood for a time as if in deep thought. Then going to the telephone, he quickly unhooked the receiver.
"Hello! Give me Madison, 74. Hurry! Hurry! Is this Burley's Detective Agency? Is Mr. Burley there? Oh, is that you, Burley? This is Robert Stafford. I want the best man you have to meet me at my office in half an hour. Yes—your very best. What? No, no! I don't want him to watch anyone; I want him to protect someone. In half an hour, remember."
Replacing the telephone on the desk, he remained seated, and drawing from his pocket the wedding ring he gazed at it murmuring to himself:
"With eternal love!"
For the next few days there was an atmosphere of gloom and depression at No.— Riverside Drive. Below stairs consternation reigned. No one knew exactly what had occurred, but that the relations between master and mistress were badly strained was plainly evident. Mrs. Stafford had driven hurriedly away in a taxicab without saying where she was going or when she would return, and Mr. Stafford, having locked himself in his room and denied himself to all callers, was in such an ugly mood that he was absolutely unapproachable. Never before had Oku seen his master in such a vicious temper. He had practically kicked him out when he had politely inquired how many would be home for dinner, and all that evening he heard him striding restlessly up and down like a caged lion, raging and fuming, and once it had sounded suspiciously to Oku as if his master might be weeping.
The little Japanese butler not only felt hurt at such treatment after fifteen years of faithful service, but he was really concerned at the protracted and mysterious absence of his dear mistress. In the two years that Virginia had been at the head of the household she had endeared herself to all her dependents. Always courteous and considerate, never unreasonable or exacting, the servants literally worshipped her and as the days went by without the least sign of her coming back the general gloom deepened. In the evening, after the day's work was done, and all hands could sit in the kitchen and take things easy, the mistress' strange disappearance was the one topic of conversation. The cook, a stout, apoplectic-looking Irishwoman, spoke straight up: Her mistress, as nice a lady as she ever worked for, was smart enough to know her own mind and if she had left her husband there was a mighty good reason for it. The waitress, indignantly repudiating the insinuation that she made a practice of listening to table conversation as she passed the dishes, admitted that, having been provided by nature with ears, she could not help overhearing certain things. On the morning of Mrs. Stafford's departure, she had noticed a decided coolness at the breakfast table, and later when on going down stairs she had heard loud voices she had stopped to listen she had distinctly heard her mistress say: "Then I shall leave you!" This pointed clearly enough to a serious rupture, especially when Josephine, the French maid, told how, at her mistress' orders, she had taken from the safe all the boxes of jewelry and piled them up on the table where they still remained. Her candid opinion was that the master had been drinking again and that madame, disgusted at his behavior, had eloped with a tall, handsome stranger who had been seen loitering around the house. Oku scoffed at all this gossip. It was clear as daylight, he said. His master was tired of being married so long to the same woman, and as to madame, she also was weary of being married to the same man, so each had decided to try a little change, whereupon Lizzie, the second waitress—a buxom Irish girl who despised "furriners" in general and Japanese in particular—bid Oku hold his tongue and not jabber such heathenish nonsense.
But if the situation was productive of much unconscious humor in servants' hall, it was different upstairs. To Robert Stafford it was all serious enough, a tragedy which had suddenly blasted his life, and night after night as he sat alone in the library, making a hollow pretence at work, forcing his mind on a book or newspaper when really his thoughts were miles away, he wondered how he could have been such a fool as to allow his happiness slip through his fingers.
Now that Virginia was really gone, he realized what she had been to him and what he had lost. At the outset, he had taken it lightly, resentfully. He schooled himself to appear indifferent, afraid that he would be surrendering some of his pride if he displayed the slightest weakness. To himself he argued that if she chose to quarrel with him and disturb the harmony of their home on such a trivial pretext, he would be a poor weak fool to permit a woman to bully him and question rights which were of the very essence of his manhood. If she preferred to make a fuss and go her own way he could not prevent her. But when the door had closed behind her, when he saw that she was really in earnest, that she had been willing to give up all this comfort, all this luxury, to return to a precarious existence, a life of humiliation and self-denial, and all this for a mere matter of principle, he was startled.
The railroad promoter had never troubled to think deeply on matters outside his material interests. Of religion, he had none, and he seldom stopped to consider the ethical side of a question. But all at once, as by a miracle, the scales fell from his eyes. In a sudden flash of illuminating reason he saw himself as he was—selfish, cynical, inconsiderate, brutal. He was astounded at finding himself compelled to admit the truth of these self-made charges. He did not mean to be all these things. At heart he was a good fellow. It was simply the fault of his training. He saw now the truth of what in his egotism and cynicism he had always scoffed at before, that some women are strong enough morally, brave enough physically to do anything, make any sacrifice for the sake of right. How unworthy he had proved himself of such a woman! What respect could she have left for him, what respect had he left for himself?
And as the days went by without word from her and the full realization of what he had lost slowly came to him, he thought he would go mad from anxiety and remorse. He did not know where she had gone and his pride prevented him from communicating with her sister. James Gillie had handed in a haughty resignation the day following Virginia's departure, so there was no way of learning anything from that source, and the detective he had employed had thus far discovered nothing. She might be in difficulties, in actual want and would not ask assistance from sheer pride. The thought was maddening and for days Stafford, distraught, unable to attend to his affairs, remained in the house, hoping, half expecting, she would return until the uncertainty and continual disappointment nearly drove him insane. He could not eat; he could not sleep. His ears still rang with her reproaches, her stinging words of bitter denunciation. At night he would wake up suddenly in a cold sweat imagining he saw her standing at the bed, looking at him with her large, sorrowful eyes, full of tears and reproach.
If he had never been sure of it before, he knew now that he loved her. Everything in the house, now she was gone, told him so. As he wandered aimlessly through the deserted rooms, and his glance fell on the corners and objects with which she was associated—the deep easy chair in the library in which she would bury herself for hours with an interesting book; her baby grand piano, still open with the sheets of music scattered about; her private chamber with the bed undisturbed, closets empty, furniture arranged in precise order, and already beginning to accumulate dust—he realized for the first time all that she had been to him. He had not married young like most men. She had come into his life when his habits and opinions were already formed. For that reason he had treated his wife like a child, to be petted and indulged, but who at no time must be permitted to assert her independence or interfere in any way with her husband's mode of living. But little by little, even without his being conscious of it, she had taken a larger place in his life. Gradually, she had made herself necessary to him, to his peace of mind, to his comfort. Not only did she fill the house with her youthful enthusiasm and girlish laughter, but when business cares weighed heavy on his shoulders and he came home tired, glad of someone to whom he could confide his troubles, he found in her the most sympathetic of listeners. In the evening she would sit at the piano and play for him his favorite music. Ah, how divinely she played the Schubert Serenade; its sad, mournful melody was even now ringing in his ears, perfectly attuned to his present mood. Insensate fool that he had been! He had enjoyed all this and yet had deemed it of such little value that he had spurned it and driven it away. This woman, his wife, who had brought sunshine into his life and home—this loyal, faithful comrade—he had insulted beyond all forgiveness. When it all came clear to him, he thought he would go mad.
Ah, if she would only forgive him and come back! His first impulse was to go after her, humiliate himself, go on his knees if necessary, and beseech her to return. A dozen times he sat down and wrote her a letter, but they were never sent. His pride forbade it, and caused him to go about wearing a mask of indifference which he was far from feeling. No, he could not go after her. All through his life, he had prided himself on his strength of will. It was the keystone of his character, both in his relations with his workmen and also in his domestic life. If he were to weaken, no matter what the circumstances, after once taking a determined stand, he would forfeit not only the world's respect, but his own as well. He was as proud and self-willed as she. He had told her that he would never go to her unless she sent for him. If, therefore, she was as proud and determined as he was, they had said good-bye for ever. They would never see each other again. If she did not write, it was because she had tired of him and did not want to come back. Perhaps she had found someone for whom she cared more, and no doubt one of these days some lawyer would be serving him with papers in a separation or divorce suit. Thus, his brain conjuring up all kinds of possibilities, he began to nourish feelings of anger and resentment. Suppose he had been a little rough with her, it was far worse for her to abandon him and expose him to all kinds of slanderous rumors. Thus, steeling his heart, he tried to forget her.
For a time he went back to his old style of life, leading again that easy-going, bohemian existence of his bachelor days. He plunged into gaieties and dissipations of every kind. He gambled freely, drank heavily and gave midnight champagne suppers enlivened by "appetizing" vaudeville, to prominent ladies of the demi-monde. Yet even these excesses could not drown the prickings of conscience. Sometimes, amid one of these nocturnal debauches, and while the drunken revelry was at its height, he would suddenly see Virginia's pale, thoughtful face. Her eyes, dimmed with tears, and full of reproach, would seem to be gazing at him questioningly, wonderingly, that he should have so degraded himself. With a cry of disgust, he would spring up from his chair and go back to his desolate home.
Gradually the strain told upon him. He grew nervous and depressed. His physician warned him against working too hard.
"It's the grave malady of our time," said the doctor, shaking his head. "All our successful men fall victims to it. It's this cursed race to get rich quick."
Stafford shook his head. With a grim smile he said:
"You are mistaken, doctor. My affairs were never in better shape. I'm ashamed to tell you what ails me. It's a schoolboy's complaint. I'm in love—for the first time in my life."
"Mrs. Travers! Mr. Brown! Mr. Travers! Mr. Brown!"
The hotel pages, smart-looking in their tight-fitting uniforms with gold braid and buttons, hurried here and there, scurrying through the lobbies and drawing-rooms, calling out the names of guests who were wanted.
It was five o'clock and the bustle at the hotel was at its height. Guests were constantly arriving from train and steamer; others were departing, tipping their way out royally. Porters, their backs bent under the weight of heavy baggage, and waiters, their trays heaped up with silver dishes, pushed unceremoniously through the crowd. Women, fashionably gowned, were promenading the halls, or sipping tea in the palm garden; others sat in little groups watching the animated scene. Men of all conditions—preachers, actors, politicians, gamblers—stood in the lobbies, chatting and smoking, blocking the way so that it was almost impossible to pass. From the open doors of the brilliantly illuminated cafe came the noise and laughter of popping corks, the metallic ring of money, and the sound of men's voices in dispute. In another corner was heard the click of telegraph instruments and the industrious, perpetual rattle of typewriters. At the front entrance a doorman, resplendent in gold lace, was having a heated altercation with an obstreperous cabman. The desk was literally besieged by a pushing, unmannerly mob of persons, each of whom wanted to be waited on before the other, while haughty clerks, moving about with languid grace, tried to satisfy requests of every conceivable kind. There was nothing extraordinary in this apparent commotion. It suggested pandemonium; it was really only a rather dull and uneventful day in the ordinary routine of a big metropolitan hotel.
Virginia sat back in her chair and stretched herself. Every bone in her body ached. She had worked steadily since 8 o'clock that morning, with only a brief respite for lunch, and the fatigue was beginning to tell upon her. Formerly she could have done twice as much without feeling it, but since her marriage she had gotten out of the way of it. Her muscles were stiff; her recent luxurious mode of living had unfitted her for the strenuous life she used to lead. She had regained her independence, but it had not been without a bitter struggle.
It was a great shock to Fanny when her sister walked in on her that afternoon now some three months ago and quietly told her that she had left Robert for good. At first the elder sister laughed, not believing it, and then, when she saw by Virginia's face that it was only too true, she broke down and cried. They fell into each others' arms and wept together, just as they had done many times before when they were children.
When they were somewhat calmer she had told Fanny everything, keeping nothing from her, and declaring her intention to go back to the hotel, if she could get the position, and earn her own livelihood again. Seeing that it was useless, Fanny did not attempt to dissuade her. On the contrary, now she was acquainted with all the facts in the case, she was indignant herself and gave her sister credit for displaying so much spirit. Of course, it meant a serious pecuniary loss to them all. Jimmie could not possibly remain in his position, in view of this rupture; he would resign his lucrative job and they would be compelled to go back to the days when they struggled along on fourteen dollars a week. It was hard, but better that, she told Virginia with an affectionate hug, than that millionaires should go around thinking they could buy and sell women like so many cattle.
So everything was quickly settled. Virginia, of course, would live henceforth with them. She applied for her old position at the hotel, and after some delay secured it. This was a great relief to her, for she would never have consented to being a burden on her sister and it assured her a competence as long as she chose to stay.
Jimmie, much to his disgust, handed in his resignation, which was accepted more promptly than he had secretly hoped, the flat in One Hundred and Fortieth street was given up and the Gillies moved into one a little less pretentious, but more in keeping with their curtailed income. A job of some kind to keep the kettle boiling was very necessary, so Jimmie reluctantly applied for his old job and became once more a $14 a week shipping clerk. This however was a temporary makeshift, he protested. He was chock full of good ideas, and now he was rid of Stafford, who he claimed, had really paralyzed his efforts, he would be able to give free rein to his inventive genius. Fanny listened patiently. By this time she had few illusions left concerning her husband's chances of success in life. All she asked was that they should get along respectably and happily.
So the time had passed. It was now three months since Virginia had left her husband, and in all that time she had made no attempt to communicate with him. She had no desire to do so. If, sometimes, she had a secret yearning, if she sometimes hoped that he would miss her and come and fetch her back, she stifled it instantly. The very fact that he had made no attempt to come after her, showed plainly enough that he had never really cared for her. She thanked God that they had had no children. At least she was spared the torture of having brought unhappiness on innocent heads. At times she saw his name mentioned in the newspapers, and she smiled bitterly when she read accounts of sensational supper parties, scandalous proceedings which had attracted the attention of the public in which he had figured prominently. That was the kind of life he liked, the only kind he knew. How could she ever have dreamed that he was a man who would make her a good husband?
"Mr. Brown! Mr. Robinson! Mr. Brown! Mr. Robinson!"
The monotonous, shrill voices of the pages as they wearily made their rounds calling out the names of invisible guests, the orders of clerks and doormen, the chattering and laughing of the people as they passed and re-passed up and down the corridors made a perfect babel of conflicting sound. The afternoon was now well advanced. The crowds had begun to dispense. There was more breathing space in the passages. For the time being the rush was over and Virginia sat back in her chair, glad of a moment's respite after the busy day. She saw nothing and heard nothing of the commotion all around her. The noise and the crowds in the hotel lobby did not exist for her. Her thoughts, in spite of herself, were far away, with the man who before God's altar had solemnly promised to shield and protect her, and then permitted her to go out alone in the cold, unsympathetic world to earn her own living as best she could, without even making an effort to find how or where she was. With all his faults, she had always thought Robert kind-hearted. Why, then, should he have treated her in this cruel, heartless, indifferent manner? A man's voice suddenly aroused her from her words. In a cold, business-like tone it said:
"Are you busy? I have some letters to dictate."
Instantly aroused to a sense of her duties, Virginia sat up with a start. Without looking up, accustomed to be at the beck and call of the first stranger who came along, she said wearily:
"No, I'm not busy. I'll take the dictation."
The newcomer sat down at her desk. Virginia slipped a piece of paper into her machine and was ready to begin. Suddenly the man uttered an exclamation. She looked up and nearly fell from her chair.
"Mr. Hadley!" she exclaimed.
It was her husband's most intimate friend. Chance had brought him to the hotel and having some business letters to write, he had stopped at the desk of the first stenographer who appeared to be unoccupied. When he saw who the young operator was he could scarcely believe his eyes. With a gesture of the greatest concern, he exclaimed:
"Mrs. Stafford! You here?"
She smiled sadly.
"Yes. I've been here some time, ever since—" She stopped short, not knowing how much he might know of her difference with her husband. As yet the world knew nothing of the scandal that had shattered a home and as far as she was concerned it never would. After a pause she added timidly: "You see I am not rich—I have to support myself."
Hadley leaned forward and sympathetically grasped her hand. He had always liked Virginia. Her womanliness and spirit appealed strongly to him. Stafford had treated her like a brute. He ought never to have let her go. Many a time he had berated his friend for what he termed his pigheaded obstinacy.
"Oh, Mrs. Stafford!" he went on warmly. "I had no idea you were here. How noble and plucky it is of you—"
"Any self-respecting woman would do the same," she said quietly.
Hadley shrugged his shoulders. Cynically he replied:
"Some might, most wouldn't. You don't find women in our set making sacrifices even for a principle when it comes to giving up their comforts and their luxuries. I think you've acted splendidly and so does Bob, only he won't admit it. He's a good fellow at heart. The trouble was that he married too late in life. His habits were formed. He did not realize that to be happy in married life one must give as well as take; in other words, that a really happy marriage is a compromise. Always having had his own way, accustomed to imposing his will upon that of others, he failed to realize that when he married he conferred certain rights on the woman to whom he gave his name. Now it is different. He sees his mistake. It has been a bitter lesson to him."
A deep flush spread over Virginia's pale face. What did these words mean? Could it be true that her husband still loved her?
"You see him sometimes?" she murmured.
"Almost every day. I dined with him at the club last night."
"Is he well?"
Hadley made no answer, but bending forward, looked more closely at his friend's wife. He took quick note of her tired-looking eyes, the pallor of her face. Slowly he said:
"And you? Are you well? I think that is more important."
She smiled wearily as she answered:
"Oh, I'm a little tired, that's all. This work is very confining. In fact, I've quite gotten out of the way of it."
He looked at her intently for a moment in silence. Then he said:
"I had no idea where you had gone. None of his friends knew. Some think you are abroad. Bob has let that impression get about. Even I, his most intimate friend, did not know all the particulars! I guessed the truth. Yet Bob knew where you were."
Virginia, startled, looked up quickly:
"He knows?" she exclaimed.
"Yes—he has employed a man to watch you constantly from a distance. Not because he believed you would ever give him cause for divorce—to be fair to him, that has never entered his mind; but he wanted someone to watch over you, protect you—"
Virginia flushed; her heart was beating violently. In a low tone, she said:
"He has done that?" she exclaimed. "Then he has not forgotten me after all—"
The young man laughed.
"Forgotten you! I should think not. You are never out of his thoughts. He won't admit it, but I know it. He loves you to-day better than he ever did."
"Then why, if he knows where I am, doesn't he come to me?"
Hadley clenched his fist. Vehemently, almost angrily, he answered:
"Because he's a fool. He said he wouldn't come to you until you sent for him, and he hasn't the moral courage to change his mind—he's afraid to be laughed at."
Virginia shook her head. Sadly she said:
"Then I'm afraid the breach will never be healed. If he is proud, I am not less so. I shall never send for him."
"But you can't go on like this, my dear Mrs. Stafford," he protested. "You really can't. You'll make yourself ill. It's not the kind of life you're fitted for."
"What else can I do?" she inquired. "Teach? I have not the patience. Go into a store? It is too humiliating. No, this is the best I can think of. I'm living with my sister. I am comfortable and as happy as I can expect to be under the circumstances."
"But won't you change your mind, won't you forgive Bob?" he persisted. "Let me go back to him now with a message from you. It is all he is waiting for, I know it—just one word. It will make him the happiest of men!"
Virginia shook her head.
"You are very kind, Mr. Hadley. I know you mean well, and that you are my friend. My husband and I understand one another perfectly. Neither will consent to send for the other, so the situation will remain exactly where it is."
He rose to go.
"Is this final?"
She shook her head decisively.
"Yes—it is final."
"You will never go back to him?"
"Not till he comes for me."
He grasped her hand and the next minute was lost to view in the crowd.
All that night, while the Gillies slumbered peacefully, Virginia tossed restlessly on her bed, thinking over what Mr. Hadley had told her. Try as she would, she was unable to banish thoughts of her husband from her mind. If he still cared for her, if he missed her, why didn't he come for her? If he himself suffered, why did he let her go on weeping out her heart in this way? Why should two human beings allow their pride to make them suffer so abominably? She thought she would show herself the more generous of the two; and send him a message, urging him to come at once. Then, as she recalled his stern, merciless words, she again rebelled. No—no—it would degrade her in his eyes if she weakened! She would not—she would not! She loved him—yes—only now she realized how dearly she loved him; but it was just because she loved him that she would not forfeit his esteem. When morning broke, she was still wide awake, thinking, thinking, her eyes red and swollen from countless tears.
The Gillies' new home was nothing to boast of. In fact they were ashamed of its shabbiness and lived in constant dread of some of their former acquaintances discovering their whereabouts and coming to see them. Yet it was the best they could expect to find for the little rent they were able to pay. Situated in one of the cheapest parts of Harlem, the flat was in a row of tenement-like buildings, facing a street always filled with noisy, unkempt children. The corridors and staircases were gaudily decorated and the narrow halls and small rooms, shut off from proper light and air, gave one a sense of suffocation. The furnishings were of the scantiest. Jimmie having incurred certain heavy debts, reckoning that the palmy days would always last, had been forced to sell his household effects to satisfy pressing creditors, so now they had to be satisfied with as few odd cheap pieces as they could manage with—a plain deal dining-table and a few ricketty chairs. Times were indeed hard. The shipping firm had also made a cut in Jimmie's salary, reducing him from $14 to $13 a week, so even with the $5 which Virginia contributed to the expenses, strict economy had to be exercised in order to make both ends meet.
Fanny did her best to look cheerful under these depressing conditions, but there were days when her patience was sorely tried and when she found herself regretting that Virginia had "taken it so particular" with Mr. Stafford. Of course, they all suffered by the sacrifice, but most of the burden fell upon her. She certainly had the worst of it. Virginia, away all day, at least escaped the household drudgery. It was a terrible existence—scrubbing floors and washing dishes from morning till night, seeing nobody, beginning to lose hope that she would ever see a change for the better.
To-day she was feeling particularly tired and discouraged. She had been kept busy all morning looking after the baby's wants and cleaning the kitchen stove, and the exertion required by both duties had completely exhausted her. Wiping her grimy hands on her apron, she sank listlessly down on a chair in the kitchen to rest a while. It could not be for long. The afternoon was well advanced. Jim and Virginia would soon be home. She must think presently of getting dinner.
The baby slept soundly in her little crib undisturbed by the noise of the wintry gale outdoors. Fanny sighed as she fondly gazed on the chubby little face. How unfair to bring such an innocent into the world, only to inherit trouble and want! What had become of the brilliant prospects for her daughter once held out when Virginia was a rich man's wife? Instead of improving, their situation grew steadily worse. Jim was making no progress. Instead of his salary being increased, it was always being reduced. He was the kind of man who made progress backwards, like a crab. He was not practical—that was the trouble. If only he had fewer ideas, perhaps he would make more money. It was very discouraging. But what good did grumbling ever do? The work had to be done and the quicker she finished the stove, the better.
Wearily she rose from her seat and with a last look at the baby, was going towards the kitchen, when suddenly the doorbell rang violently. The baby started in its sleep. Indignant at the noise Fanny went and opened.
"Is that you, Jim?" she asked crossly.
"Yes," he called out.
"Well, I like your nerve!" she ejaculated. "Couldn't you make less noise? You woke the baby!"
Her husband entered, attired in a heavy overcoat, the collar of which was turned up. His nose was blue, his eyes red and he was shivering with cold.
"Gee! but it's tough weather, all right!"
Taking off his overcoat and muffler, and placing them on a chair together with his lunch box, he crossed the room to the radiator to warm his hands. Fanny, still fuming, went to the baby carriage, folded the blanket and arranged the cushions. Angrily she exclaimed:
"Is that why you must ring the bell and wake the baby when you have the key? Don't you think I've got enough to do running this flat and cooking for three people and looking after the baby without having to go and open the door for you? Why didn't you open it yourself?"
Her husband looked at her in a stupid kind of way. With a grin he said:
"Well, if you must know, I've lost my key."
"Lost your key?"
"Don't you know that keys cost twenty-five cents apiece?"
"Sure I do."
"Well," she went on indignantly, "you want to remember that every quarter—yes, and every nickel—counts these days. You're not working for Mr. Stafford at a hundred a week now; you're a shipping clerk getting thirteen per! Not even fourteen—thirteen!"
Her husband squirmed. Shifting his feet uneasily he muttered
"You needn't rub it in."
Fanny held out her hand.
"Hand it over," she commanded.
"The thirteen," she said determinedly. "This is pay day. Come on!—come on!—come on!" she ordered, going up to him threateningly.
With a grimace, he thrust his hand in his trousers' pocket and bringing out a small roll of bills, handed it to his wife. She counted the money carefully, and then stuffed it inside her dress. He watched her, a comic expression of resignation on his face.
"Don't I get any?" he grumbled.
"Yes," she answered quickly, "you get carfare and cigar money—twenty cents a day and you get it each day—"
Saying this, she turned her back and fastening on her apron, made a move towards the kitchen. Jimmie, with a gesture of disgust, threw his lunch box on the table and dropped into a chair.
"Can't I even have lunch money" he growled.
Fanny turned on him like a tigress. For some time he had been getting on her nerves and to-day she was in just the humor to let out what she felt. Angrily she exclaimed:
"Won't you ever get it into your head that I'm running this flat on eighteen dollars a week—thirteen from you and five from Virginia? Lunch money! You're lucky even to get lunch!"
He made no reply, but lapsed into a sulky silence. Presently, with a wry face, he growled:
"I'm getting tired of nothing but dry sandwiches and dill pickles."
"What do you expect for thirteen per?" she retorted, "terrapin or pate de fois gras? Getting tired of—"
She stopped short. Her eyes had just lighted on the lunch box on the table. Swooping down on it like an angry vulture she exclaimed angrily: "What's that?"
Even in his bluest moments, Jimmie never lost his sense of humor. Picking up the box and pretending to examine it, he said:
"I think it's a bunch of lilies of the valley."
He grinned, but got no response. Fanny was not in a mood to jest.
"Oh, don't get funny," she said crossly. "I know it's your lunch box all right, but what's it doing on the table? Put it in the drawer where it belongs." He hesitated, still grinning, and she went on sternly: "Go on, now! I've got enough to do without putting things away after you."
Rising, he took the offending box and placed it in a drawer of the sideboard. When this was done Fanny pointed to his hat and coat:
"Now hang them up in the hall," she ordered.
Without another word he picked up the things and left the room. Directly he was gone, Fanny took a key from under a vase, opened another drawer in the sideboard and put the money in it. Then she hastily locked the drawer and replaced the key. No sooner was this done than Jimmie reappeared. He was puffing a cheap cigar and judging by his expression the flavor was not all that it might be. After a few moments, and while Fanny was laying the cloth, he threw it away with an exclamation of disgust:
"It's no good! I can't get used to these damned cheap things. I suppose I'd be satisfied with 'em if I'd never smoked real cigars! But to be educated up to Villa de Villas and then drop to them—punkerinos—"
Fanny looked round, saw the cigar on the floor and then looked at him:
"Jimmie," she said, "pick that up and let it die outside."
He obeyed her without a word. Opening the window he picked up the offending weed and threw it out.
"Ha! ha!" he laughed bitterly. "In three months to parachute from first-class cafes to carrying home-made lunches; to go from threes for a half to twos for a nickel; instead of having plenty of money in pocket to be without even a cent! I tell you, Fanny, the way we're living now is—hell!"
Flopping down on a chair near the table, he presented an abject picture of utter despondency. If Fanny had been in better humor she would have laughed at him, but in her present mood his complaints only irritated her the more. Stopping in her work, she turned on him. Her face was flushed; her eyes flashed fire. At last the moment had come to give it to him:
"Don't you think I know it better than you do?" she cried. "I used to be able to pay twenty-five or thirty dollars for a hat, now when I want one I'll have to trim it myself; I could have a taxi once in a while, now I'm lucky if I can take a car; a seat in the orchestra at the matinees was none too good for me, now I think it is great to go to the moving pictures; I used to have a nine-room apartment at a Hundred and Fortieth street, now I've got a five-room flat at a Hundred and Seventy-sixth! My 'friends' don't come to see me because it's too far uptown. I used to have a servant to do my work and a woman come in to do my washing, now I have to do the work and the cooking and the washing into the bargain. Don't talk to me about your cigars, and your lunches, and your pocket money! Only a woman can know what it means to come down in the world!"
He listened in silence to her tirade, carelessly rocking back and forth on the two rear legs of his tilted chair. When finally she stopped for sheer want of breath he said:
"I guess you're right, Fanny, I'm sorry I spoke. The woman gets the worst of it every time."
"Yes—every time, Jimmie," she said emphatically as she proceeded to lay the table. "Whether she's right or wrong."
"If Virginia hadn't quit Stafford," he grumbled, "it would have been different."
"There's no use talking of that—she did leave him—"
Jimmie looked up, an injured expression on his face.
"Yes, and what day did she pick out?" he cried indignantly. "The very day Stafford raised me to a hundred and fifty!" Jumping up from his chair he began to pace the floor nervously. "Great Scott!" he exclaimed, "just think of it! I used to get a hundred and fifty! Of course I only got it for a day and a quarter—but I got it!"
His wife stopped in her work. Sharply she demanded:
"And whose fault was it that you only got it for a day and a quarter?"
"Mine, I suppose," he replied gloomily.
"You had no right to try to interfere between Mr. Stafford and Virginia—that was their business."
"So he told me! And when I said that anything that concerned my wife's sister was my business and I wouldn't be associated with a man who didn't treat her right, and walked out, I thought he'd send a messenger after me before I reached the corner. In fact, I waited at the corner."
"But the messenger didn't come," she said sarcastically.
"No. But even that didn't bother me much—then! I thought I'd soon get another job just as good."
Fanny shrugged her shoulders. With a sigh she said:
"I wonder if you'll ever have one 'just as good.'"
"Of course, I will," he said confidently.
"I'm likely to get a good job most any time."
"Well, till you do," she retorted, "hang on to the one you have. When rent day comes, thirteen dollars in real money is a heap sight better than a hundred and fifty in hopes."
Jim shifted about uneasily on his feet. Stupidly he said:
"Yes, I suppose so."
"I know so," she exclaimed.
"Besides," he said with some hesitation, "one of my ideas might turn out big."
His wife laughed scornfully.
"Might—yes," she exclaimed.
"Oh, I know you don't believe in 'em any more," he went on. "But let me tell you this—I've got one idea right now that would make me five hundred dollars just as easy as that—" He snapped his fingers at her as he continued: "Do you hear? As easy as that!" His wife, still skeptical, seemed to pay no heed, so petulantly he inquired: "Why don't you ask me about it?"
Fanny again stopped in her work and looked up.
"What is it?" she demanded in a resigned tone.
Jimmie frowned. He did not like his wife's incredulous attitude.
"That's a fine way to ask!" he exclaimed. Imitating her tone he went on: "What is it? You'd show more interest than that if I told you Mrs. Brown's canary had died of the croup!"
In spite of herself Fanny smiled. She was too good-natured to remain cross very long. After all, it was only natural that her husband should confide in her. In a more conciliatory tone, she said:
"I didn't mean anything, Jimmie. What is the idea?"
But he was offended now.
"Oh, what's the use?" he exclaimed.
"Go on, tell me," she coaxed.
"What's the use? You wouldn't think it was any good."
"All right, then, don't!" she exclaimed, turning away. "I know there'd be nothing in it, anyway."
He followed her across the room. Airily he said:
"Is that so? Well, just to prove that there is something in it, I will tell you. Of course I shouldn't really expect to do it—but the idea's there just the same."
"Well—what is it?" she asked, stopping in her work to listen.
Jimmie took a chair and sat down on it straddle-wise. Hesitatingly he said:
"You know the fuss the papers made about Stafford marrying Virginia and how the Sunday editions had page after page about it with illustrations—"
"Yes—what about it?" she demanded, impatient to get to the point.
"And you know," he went on, "how clever he's been in keeping this from them by sending out the news that she'd gone to Europe for the winter—"
"Well, if I was to go to one of 'em and tip off the story that instead of being in Europe, Virginia was workin' in a hotel for ten dollars a week, and I would agree not to tell any other paper about it, don't you think I could get five hundred for it? You just bet I could!"
Fanny had listened with growing indignation. When he had finished she exclaimed:
"Jimmie, if you did anything like that I'd never speak to you again—never!"
Weakening before her outburst, he said evasively:
"I told you I didn't expect to do it."
"Whether I think Virginia's a fool or not," went on his wife, "she's my sister. Right or wrong, she's my sister and nobody—not even you—is going to do anything to hurt her feelings and get away with it without a fight from me."
Jimmie rose and resumed his nervous pacing of the floor. Hastily he said:
"I ain't going to do anything to hurt her feelings! But I must say it's pretty tough on a fellow to have all his good ideas spoiled! Take the one I had about the auto. I could have sold it for fifteen hundred dollars, but Virginia wouldn't let me and made me send it back. There was a great idea gone wrong—" He was silent for a few moments and then suddenly he burst out: "I've got another one."
"What—another idea?" exclaimed his wife sarcastically.
"Yes," he replied eagerly, "and even you will think this one all right."
"What is it?"
He looked round as if to make sure no one was listening. Then, in a tragic whisper, he said:
"We must bring Virginia and Stafford together again."
"Jimmie!" exclaimed his wife, looking at him in amazement.
"You know she's still in love with him, don't you?" he went on calmly.
"And he's just crazy over her. He 'phoned me again to-day asking about her."
"Well—what of it?"
A crafty expression came into her husband's face. He looked wise for a moment; then he said solemnly:
"To make two people who are in love forget and forgive, all you have to do is to get them into each others' arms. That's the way it would be with them! Only stubbornness keeps them apart now—just stubbornness!"
"Yes—that's true," admitted Fanny.
"Well," he said significantly, "it's very simple—we must get them into each others' arms."
"How?" she demanded.
"Ah," he smiled, "that's where my idea comes in."
Fanny looked at him curiously. It was the first time she had ever heard her husband say anything sensible.
"Go on—tell me," she said eagerly.
"If she sent for him," he went on, "he'd break all speed laws getting up here, and if he came for her of his own accord—if she thought he did that she'd be in his arms so quick that she'd make a bounding antelope look like a plumber's assistant going back for his tools!"
Fanny looked puzzled. She did not quite understand his meaning.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Her husband hesitated for a moment as if not daring to suggest what was on his mind; then suddenly he blurted out:
"Suppose I 'phoned him—right now—that she had sent for him?"
"'Phone him—that Virginia—"
"Sure! He'd think she'd given in and she'd think the same of him. It would be a case of a pair of open arms, the rustle of a skirt, a little head on a manly chest and then good-bye John, farewell everything, and the lid is off! I imagine that is some idea!"
Fanny clasped her hands nervously. Hesitatingly she exclaimed:
"Oh—I think it's splendid! But—what if they found out?"
"What would it matter if they'd already made up?" he grinned.
"But do you think it would be right?"
"Oh, no!" he cried mockingly. "Certainly not! It would be a terrible crime to unite a husband and wife and fix up a broken home! To say nothing of giving me back my regular job at a hundred and fifty. Shall I?"
Fanny wrung her hands with excitement. It certainly was a daring plan.
"I—I'm scared," she stammered, unwilling to commit herself.
"I'm not," he said boldly, "I'm never afraid of any game where I can't lose! And if it came through, you know what it would mean for us—good clothes, good food, money to spend and nothing to worry about except moving down to a Hundred and Twenty-fifth street! What do you say?"
"I don't know—" she answered hesitatingly.
"And then," he continued persuasively, "you must think of little Virgie. A baby makes a lot of difference—"
"Indeed it does," she replied warmly. "I bet Virginia would never have left Robert if they had had a baby."
"Shall I do it?" he asked tentatively.
"I'm scared. I am—honest I am!"
"Oh, go on! Be game!" he coaxed. "Besides, we have everything to win and nothing to lose and for a gamble you can't beat that!"
"But, Jimmie—" she exclaimed fearfully.
He paid no attention to her objections. All absorbed in his idea, he went on eagerly:
"There's no time to lose. Virginia's likely to be back any minute now and if we're going to put it through, we must do it quick. Shall I? Shall I?"
Fanny, flustered, was at a loss what to say.
"Why do you put the responsibility on to me?" she exclaimed. "You're the one to decide. You're the head of the house."
He grinned. The head of the house? Of course he was. Why hadn't he thought of it before? That being the case, he need consult no one but himself. Swelling up with self-importance, he exclaimed:
"Sure I am. I'll do it!"
Going into the hall, he quickly took the receiver off the telephone.
"Jimmie!" exclaimed his wife excitedly.
He stayed his hand and looked around.
"What?" he asked.
"I don't think you'd better," she gasped.
He eyed her sternly. If she had always awed him before, it was different now. As the originator of an idea that was going to save them all, he held the whip hand.
"See here," he exclaimed, "Who is head of this house?"
"I don't think you'd better," she pleaded.
Shaking his head, he paid no attention to her protests:
"I'm going to just the same," he said firmly. "You've got nothing to say about it. I'm the head of this house." Taking off the receiver he spoke into the telephone.
"Hello—hello! Give me River 2540. Is this River 2540? Is Mr. Stafford there? Please tell him that Mr. Gillie wishes to talk to him. Yes, his brother-in-law, Mr. Gillie! Is that you, Mr. Stafford? This is Jimmie! No, not James—just Jimmie! Virgie told me to 'phone and ask you to come for her. Yes—that's it—I guess she can't stand being separated from you any longer. All right—I'll tell her. Good-bye!"
Hanging up the receiver he closed the door and exclaimed triumphantly:
"Oh—I'm scared to death!" gasped Fanny.
"I ain't," he grinned. Proudly he added: "After all, it takes a man to rise to the occasion."
"But if it should turn out wrong?" persisted his wife.
He shook his head incredulously as if such a thing were an utter impossibility. With a shrug of his shoulders he said:
"It's done now and that's all there is to it. I'll bet that by this time Stafford is in his machine and dashing up here like mad. Suppose he should get here before Virginia?"
"That would spoil everything!" exclaimed Fanny.
"Not necessarily," he replied loftily, as if no problem was so difficult that he could not grapple with it. "I'd probably get some kind of an idea in time to save the situation. Leave everything to me."
Fanny, lost in thought, said nothing, while her husband nervously paced the floor. Glancing at the clock, he exclaimed impatiently:
"I wish she'd come. She ought to be here by now—"
He stopped and listened, and then going out into the hall, opened the front door. No one was there and he came back into the room:
"I thought I heard her key in the door," he said.
"I'm so worried," exclaimed Fanny anxiously.
"What about?" he demanded airily. "I did the 'phoning. If there's any worrying to be done, let Jimmie do it!"
"I wish you hadn't," she said timidly.
"But I have," he cried. "Great Scott, ain't that just like a woman!" Reassuringly he went on: "Now look here, Fanny, you leave this to me. When Virginia comes you make yourself scarce, get busy in the kitchen or something and I'll talk to her. You'll see that I—"
As he spoke there was the metallic click of a key turning in the front door lock.
"Holy Jupiter!" he exclaimed. "Here she is! Be careful what you say." Greeting his sister-in-law amiably he called out: "Hallo, Virgie, we're in here!"
Virginia came in tired and worn-looking. Her clothes were soaked through from the storm and in her hand she carried a dripping umbrella. She smiled wearily as she greeted the others:
"Hello, Fanny! How's this for weather?" Holding out her umbrella to her brother-in-law she said: "Here, Jim, please take this."
While he went to put the gingham in the bathtub, Fanny helped to make the newcomer comfortable. With concern, she exclaimed:
"Poor darling—you're wet through. You'd better change everything."
Virginia threw off her raincoat and dropped, exhausted, into a seat.
"I'm too tired to do anything but sit down," she exclaimed wearily.
"Was it a hard day?" inquired her sister as she brought a pair of comfortable slippers to be exchanged for the wet shoes.
"Very," replied Virginia with a sigh of relief. "There are some days when everything goes wrong. This was one of them. People were cranky and exacting—there was a terrific rush. I scarcely had time to lunch and tonight the cars were so crowded that I had to stand all the way."
Jimmie, re-entering from the bedroom, caught the last few words. Anxious in furtherance of his plans to improve every opportunity of ingratiating himself in his sister-in-law's good graces he exclaimed apologetically:
"That's tough! Was the same fellow on the car?"
She nodded, while Fanny went to see how things were getting on in the kitchen.
"Yes," she said listlessly.
"And going downtown?"
"Did he speak to you?"
"Of course not!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Well, if he does or if he gets fresh at all," said her brother-in-law with a fierce gesture, "you tell me and I'll punch his head!"
"He won't," she smiled.
"He'd better not."
At that moment Fanny re-entered from the kitchen. Cheerfully she exclaimed:
"Dinner's all ready to put on, but I'll get you a cup of tea first!" Pointing to the wet rubbers, she made a significant gesture to her husband. "Jimmie!"
Docilely he picked up the rubbers and proceeded as before in the direction of the bathroom. Virginia looked at her sister gratefully.
"You're very good to me."
"Don't be silly!" exclaimed Fanny, as she busied Herself setting the table.
"You're the best sister in the world!" she murmured.
"No, I'm not, you are!" Cheerily, as her husband reappeared, she added:
"Now you sit still and talk to Jim while I get the tea ready."
She went out and the clerk carelessly took a chair. This was his opportunity. He could hardly hope for a better one. After a brief pause he said sympathetically:
"You're not looking well, Virginia. These last three months have told on you."
The young woman nodded. With a weary sigh she replied:
"Yes—I know it."
Thus encouraged, he continued:
"I guess you don't like it any better than we do."
"Like it!" she exclaimed. "Like working under tremendous pressure from morning till night in a public hotel corridor at the beck and call of the first comer, exposed to all kinds of insult and indignity? Like to have two dollars a week pocket money out of which I must pay my carfare and buy whatever I need? Like to come home every night so tired I can scarcely walk and with my head aching till I can hardly see? Like it! Like it, indeed!"
Quietly he replied:
"Then why don't you quit It? Why don't you go back to your husband?"
Virginia started. In spite of herself, her face changed color. Abruptly she said:
"I've asked you not to—"
"I know you have, but tonight I'm going to talk sense to you if I never do it again."
She held out a hand in protest.
"Yes, I am," he interrupted. "I hate to see you going on like this. You've been away from Stafford for less than three months and, on the level, you look five years older. Why don't you go back to him?"
"I've told you why—it's a matter of principle. You wouldn't have me give up my principles, would you?"
He shrugged his shoulders as he replied dryly:
"I don't know about yours, but I can tell you this about mine—if hanging on to 'em meant hard work, tired bones and an empty pocket while giving 'em up meant a fine house, a bully time and all the money I could spend, then I'd kiss my principles good-bye and pass 'em up without a quiver! That's common sense."
She turned her head away.
"We don't see things the same way," she said quietly.
He rose from the chair and began to pace the floor in silence. Then, turning on her suddenly he said:
"I never understood why you quit him anyway. Tell me, did he punch you?"
"Certainly not!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Was he mixed up with another woman?"
"Another woman! Robert? The idea!!"
"Well, if it wasn't one of them, in heaven's name what was it?"
"You wouldn't understand," she replied simply.
He stopped short in front of her and folded his arms. With as severe an air as he could muster he said sternly:
"Perhaps not, but here's something I can understand. Why did I quit my job? Because of you. Who has brought us down to this? You! Who makes Fanny work harder than any hired girl in the city? You! Who has ruined my career? You! You and your selfishness!"
Taken aback by the suddenness of his denunciation, Virginia stared at him in surprise, as if not comprehending.
"My selfishness?" she stammered.
"Just that!" he sneered. With pretended indignation he went on: "And the things you were going to do for little Virgie! She was going to have a governess; she was going to learn music and painting when she grew up; she was going to have a horse. A horse! Ha! ha! The only horse she'll ever have will be a clothes-horse!!"
Hurt in her most sensitive nature, Virginia listened to his words, each one of which fell on her with the weight of a blow.
"Please, Jimmie, please!" she cried.
But he had no pity; he was ready to inflict any suffering so long as it did not hurt himself and it accomplished his object.
"Yes," he went on, "and she'll have to do the same as Fanny does, break her back washing the things to put over it! And why? Because you think more of your 'principles' than you do of your relations. Because you think only of yourself. Because you're selfish. That's why!"
Almost in tears, Virginia put out her hand, pleading to him to desist.
"Stop, please!" she cried. "Don't you see how nervous and tired I am?"
At that instant Fanny re-entered with the tea things, in time to hear her sister's cry of distress. Turning indignantly to her husband, she said:
"You behave yourself! What have you been saying to her, anyway?"
He shrugged his shoulders as he replied carelessly:
"I've been telling her things for her own good." Almost viciously he added: "And I'm going to keep on telling her."
Virginia rose, her face flushed. With some spirit she cried:
"Who's going to stop me?" he demanded.
"I am," she said firmly. "I'm doing what I think is right and you're not going to bully me into doing what I think is wrong. If you ever mention my going back to my husband again, I'll—I'll—"
"I suppose you'll leave us as well?" he said sarcastically.
Fanny, meantime, was making frantic signs to her husband to desist. Angrily she exclaimed:
"Jimmie—will you stop?"
She was about to put her hand over her husband's mouth to silence him when Virginia interfered. In a resigned tone, she said weakly:
"Let him talk. No, I couldn't leave you. I've got to have some one to love. And you know I love you, don't you?"
"I should say so," exclaimed Fanny, embracing her.
Taking her sister's hand Virginia turned towards her brother-in-law. The look of anger and defiance had died out of her face. In its place was a peaceful expression of patient resignation. Gently she said:
"And I love the baby—dearly! Yes, and you as well, Jimmie! Oh, you don't know how hard this has been for me! You see, I've not only had my own sorrows and troubles—and they've been quite enough for any woman—"
Fanny tenderly embraced her sister. Placing a cup of tea in front of her she said soothingly:
"Never mind, dearie—everything will come out all right."
Virginia shook her head. Mournfully she said:
"But I've had yours as well—to know Jimmie lost his position because of me. To have you come down in the world like this—because of me; to know Jimmie is just where he started! To see you—breaking your back—at the washing—"
Standing over her, Fanny stroked her hair, trying to reassure her. Cheerily she said:
"Don't you worry about me. I'm all right."
"It's been dreadfully hard," went on Virginia tearfully. "At times I've felt that I just couldn't bear it—that I should—have—to go back, because, after all, I'm only human! And I may have to go back yet—I may—" She stopped abruptly and threw back her head. With spirit she exclaimed: "No, I won't go back. I won't!" Then, her tone changing again, she said pleadingly: "But please don't talk about it any more. I'm so tired!"
She sank listlessly into a chair at the table. Jimmie, judging the moment favorable to renew the attack, opened his mouth as if to speak, but before he could utter a word Fanny silenced him.
"Oh, shut up!" she exclaimed, more forcibly than elegantly.
"I didn't say anything," he protested.
"No, but you were going to!" she retorted. Turning to Virginia and pushing the tea-cup before her, she said coaxingly:
"Take your tea, dear, before it gets cold."
Jimmie was repulsed, but not beaten. The prize was too important to permit of his accepting defeat so easily. Rising from his seat, he said in a more conciliatory tone:
"I was only going to say—suppose he was to send for her—or come for her?"
Virginia looked up with an expression of mingled surprise and alarm. Almost anxiously she exclaimed:
"Robert—come for me! There isn't the slightest chance in the world."
The clerk grinned knowingly. With the self-important air of a man who enjoys the confidence of others, he said significantly:
"I wouldn't be so sure if I were you."
"Why what do you know about it?" demanded Fanny in pretended surprise.
"He's crazy in love with her—that's what I know," he said.
Virginia shook her head despondently.
"Not enough to come for me," she said. "He said he would never do it—and he never will. That's the kind of man he is."
"Per—perhaps" suggested Fanny, "just perhaps—he might."
"No," murmured Virginia, "you don't know him as well as I. Once he makes up his mind, no one can induce him to change it."
"But if he should," persisted Jimmie craftily, taking a seat near her and adopting a cordial, sympathetic tone.
"He won't," replied Virginia sadly. "We'll have to go along just as we are! And we might be much worse off, don't forget that. Even as it is, we're getting twenty dollars a week between us. I'm getting seven and Jimmie's getting thirteen—"
"I was getting thirteen," interrupted Jimmie ruefully.
Virginia looked at him.
"They've raised you?" she asked quickly.
"No. They've fired me."
"Do you mean to say you have lost your job?"
"Of course I have. How could you expect me to keep it? Do you think I could work under a man getting thirty dollars a week—me, who used to get a hundred and fifty?"
"Fired!" echoed Fanny, turning pale. "Why—what's the matter?"
Jimmie assumed an injured air. With nonchalance he explained:
"Oh, I could see that lots of things were wrong with the system. When I went to give the manager of the department the benefit of my advice and wide experience, instead of taking it and being thankful for it, he fired me—fired me cold. The bonehead!"
Virginia stared at him in dismay.
"But what are we going to do now?" she cried.
Fanny had collapsed on to a chair, the picture of utter discouragement. Weakly she repeated after her sister:
"Yes, what are we going to do now?"
"Don't worry," smiled the young man confidently. "Everything's going to be all right."
"But if it shouldn't?" argued his wife.
"It will," he retorted. With a significant glance towards his sister-in-law, he added: "You know about my new idea!"
Fanny gave a snort of scornful incredulity.
"Oh, you and your ideas!"
He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. What was the good of arguing with a bunch of women? That was just how his ideas had always been laughed at, and that was why he had never been able to do anything with them. Angrily he exclaimed:
"I know what you think about 'em. Gee, but ain't you women the comforting lot!"
With this parting shot he turned on his heel and disappeared into the kitchen. Virginia, afraid that she was the cause of this little domestic storm, said apologetically:
"I'm sorry you quarrelled. Don't blame him too much, though. Things are rather hard for him."
"For him?" echoed Fanny in surprise. "What about you?"
"Oh, I'll manage," replied her sister quietly.
"He had no right to lose that job," said Fanny angrily.
"He'll soon find another," said Virginia encouragingly. "Till he does we'll get along some way. We've shared the good times together and we'll take the hard ones the same way."
"My, but you are a thoroughbred!" exclaimed her sister admiringly. "If any girl ever deserved to be happy, you're the one."
"The same to you and many of them," laughed Virginia.
At that moment the front doorbell rang. Fanny half rose to go and open, but sat down again.
"Oh, it's only the postman. Jimmie will go."
Taking both her sister's hands in hers and bending over, Fanny embraced her sister affectionately. Soothingly she said:
"Things ought to turn for you pretty soon, dear. I hope that they will. How I hope they do!"
As she spoke the front doorbell rang again, this time more loudly. Fanny started to her feet.
"I thought Jimmie was there. He must have gone out."
"I wonder who it is?" murmured Virginia.
"I'll go and see," said Fanny. "I hope it isn't company. Our next door neighbors have been threatening to call for some time."
In no humor to be bothered by visitors, Virginia rose hastily.
"I don't want to see anyone," she said. "I'll go and lie down."
As her sister went toward the door, Virginia made a quick escape into the bedroom.
When the telephone message had come, telling him that his wife wished to see him, Stafford had been instantly raised from the depths of gloomy despondency, to dizzy heights of hope and joy. A mere sound wave vibrating along a copper wire had made him the happiest and most amazed man in New York.
He had come home particularly out of sorts that evening and instead of dining at his club as usual, had told Oku to prepare a meal. Since Virginia's departure he had seldom had the courage to dine at home. The large dining room with the big table set for himself alone only served to remind him the more keenly of his loss. Especially empty and cheerless they looked that day and his mind was obsessed by thoughts of the absent one when suddenly the loud ringing of the telephone bell had aroused his reveries. He picked up the receiver thinking it was Hadley calling him or possibly someone in his office, when to his amazement he heard the voice of Jimmie Gillie.
A thrill ran through him as he listened. At last she had sent for him. His life was not to be irretrievably blasted, after all. Virginia was ready to forgive him and to come home again. He could scarcely believe his ears and in his joy he was ready to embrace the polished surface of the telephone. A reconciliation was possible without the sacrifice of his self-respect. He did not stop to analyze her motives or to question the authenticity of the summons. It was enough that her sister's husband said she wanted to see him. Then, suddenly, an idea occurred to him, which sent the blood from his face. He felt hot and cold in turns. Suppose she were ill, dying and they had sent for him because she was on her death-bed. He would not delay a moment.
Touching a few electric bells, he set Oku and other servants running with hurry orders that galvanized new life into the sleepy household, and half an hour later he was in his motor car, speeding in the direction of Harlem.
At the first sound of the bell, instinct had told Fanny who it was. She had delayed answering in order not to unduly alarm Virginia, and for a few moments she was at a loss what to do. Jimmie had hastily but discreetly disappeared, preferring to let his wife now play her role in the little comedy intended to bring Robert and Virginia together, but it was by no means an easy part to play and it was only when she knew that the millionaire was standing outside waiting for admittance that she quite realized how difficult was her task. There was no telling how the plan would work. A lie had been told, even if it was a lie in a good cause. If Stafford found out that he had been imposed upon, it might make matters worse, and as to Virginia she would certainly never forgive them.
It was not, therefore, without misgivings that Fanny opened the door and with a cordial smile on her anxious face bade Robert Stafford welcome.
He greeted his sister-in-law in his usual hearty manner, as if nothing had occurred to interrupt their intimacy and friendship. But it was easy to see that his thoughts were on one person only. Directly he came in, his eyes wandered round the apartment in search of her and he seemed to be listening intently as if for the sound of her voice. Standing still and questioning Fanny with an anxious look he asked in a low tone:
"Where is she?"
"Gone to her room, probably."
"You're sure she's not ill?" he demanded anxiously.
"Quite sure," smiled Fanny.
"That's the truth, is it?"
"Of course it is. She—she's a little tired, that's all."
He gave a deep sigh of relief and taking off his greatcoat, threw it together with his chauffeur's cap on the sofa.
"Thank God it's only that!" he exclaimed. "Jimmie said there was nothing the matter with her, but all the time I was coming up here I was thinking that perhaps suddenly she—" Pausing abruptly he said: "Tell her, please."
Without a word or attempting to enter into any explanations which, under cross-examination, might become embarrassing, Fanny went to Virginia's room and knocked at the door.
"It's someone to see you, Virgie!" she called out.
"To see me?" echoed Virginia in a surprised tone.
"Very well, I'll be there in just a minute."
Approaching her big brother-in-law Fanny gently laid her hand on his arm. There was nothing to be said. Each understood the other.
"Be very kind to her," she said pleadingly.
"Don't worry," he smiled.
"She's had a hard time."
"So have I," he replied with some emotion.
Fanny turned away and without another word left the room. For a few moments that seemed like years, Stafford remained alone, his eyes fixed on the door through which would presently pass the one woman in the whole world. It seemed like an age before she appeared. Would she never come? Then, all at once, the door opened and Virginia appeared on the threshold. On seeing who the visitor was, she stood like one spellbound. The blood went from her cheeks, leaving her deathly pale. She made a step forward, but stumbled and nearly fell. He darted forward and caught her in his strong arms.
"Darling!" he whispered.
Her head rested on his shoulder as it had done that first time the day at his apartment on Riverside Drive when he asked her to be his wife. Her pale, weary face was turned upwards, her tired eyes looking wonderingly into his. Her lips were within his reach, but he resisted the temptation. It was enough to feel that once more she was safe within his arms. Slowly she murmured:
"Robert! You did come! You did!"
"Of course I did," he said soothingly, as he stroked her hair caressingly.
"I'm so happy, dear," she murmured.
"You're not a bit happier than I am," he said, trying to keep back the tears that were fast filling his own eyes.
"And you came for me!"
"Of course, dear. Did you think I wouldn't?"
"Yes, because I thought I knew you and understood you. But I didn't. I knew you were fine and big, but you are finer and bigger than ever I imagined and I adore you for it! Oh, my darling, you came for me!"
He listened, bewildered, not understanding. Gently he said:
She motioned him to a seat.
"Sit down, sweetheart, and let me sit on your knee, just as I used to."
"Yes, darling—just as we used to."
He took off his coat, threw it on the sofa and sat on a chair in front of the table. Virginia, with a cry of delight, jumped on his knee and threw her arm around his neck.
"Let me snuggle up to you in the way I love," she cried. "Hold me close—very, very close—and don't say a word—not even one."
Too happy to ask questions, he held her tight in his arms. In a low voice she murmured:
"I'm so tired, dear. I'm so tired—"
Fondly, tenderly, he caressed her.
"My poor little girl! Come, dear, the machine is outside. We'll go home at once."
"Not yet—please—I'm too happy. And it's you. It's really, really you."
"It really is," he smiled.
"Yes," she went on, "I've hoped and longed and prayed that you would come for me, but I didn't think you would. I imagined that your pride wouldn't let you."
"My pride?" he echoed, perplexed.
"Yes. You said you wouldn't come unless I sent for you."
Stafford started and stared fixedly at her.
"Virginia!" he exclaimed.
He was about to demand explanations when she interrupted him.
"I'm not reproaching you, dear. I mention it because it makes your coming all the bigger and finer!" Rising she added; "I'm the happiest girl in all the world. You came for me. Nothing else matters—"
Stafford listened to her in amazement. It was very clear. She had not sent for him after all. There had been some misunderstanding. Yet what of it? He had found her, he had clasped her once more to his breast. That was all he cared about. Not for anything in the world would he lose her again. He said nothing, gazing fondly into her dear tired face as she went on:
"If you hadn't come, I should probably have had to come to you! And that would have robbed me of everything I've been fighting for. But now I shall know that I didn't have to do what I knew to be wrong, and it makes me so happy, dear! So happy! So very, very happy!"
Sobbing she fell on her knees beside him and covered her face with her hands. For a moment or so he made no answer, but continued to caress her in silence. Then, slowly, he said:
"Of course I came for you! If I had known all that it meant to you I should have come long ago—"
She looked up at him eagerly.
"Then you did miss me?"
"I can't tell you how lonely I was. You had Fanny and Jimmie and the baby, but I had no one. As I sat alone in the house—the bigness of which seemed to make it all the lonelier—I thought of you, and your goodness, and sweetness and there I fought things out—I fought them out, and now I can make you any promise that you ask."
"But I don't ask any," she smiled.
"I give it to you just the same. I shall never, forgive myself either for letting you go. But I'll make it all up to you now. Ask for anything you please and you shall have it—to-morrow we'll go to Tiffany's and—"
Quickly she put her hand over his mouth.
"Don't dear, don't!" she cried. "I don't want you to buy things for me—I just want you to love me, dear! To love me! Love me! Love me!"
He smiled as he clasped her closer."
"No matter how hard I tried I couldn't help loving you."
"That's all I want," she murmured.
Her face was turned upwards and he bent down and kissed her. They were still in each others' embrace when the door opened slowly and Jimmie cautiously put his head in. He grinned when he saw the good results that had come of his work.
"May I come in?" he asked comically.
"Yes and go out again—that way," laughed Stafford good-humoredly. Pointing to the front door he added: "Tell Oku to bring the things out of the machine."
"You're on," grinned the clerk.
"And keep your mouth shut," said Stafford in a low tone.
"Tight as a clam!" grinned Jimmie.
As the millionaire turned to Virginia the young man again interrupted them.
"There's just one thing more," he said.
"When do I go back to work?"
"Tomorrow," laughed Stafford.
"What salary were you getting?"
"Well—one hundred and fifty a week."
"You were," laughed his employer, "for about fifteen minutes! Well—one hundred and fifty goes."
Jimmie nodded with satisfaction and went towards the door. Before he reached it he again turned round:
"And do we get the auto?"
"You do," laughed Stafford.
"Fine!" grinned Jimmie.
He disappeared and Stafford turned to Virginia.
"He's still the same old Jimmie!"
"And you're still the same generous Robert!"
He smiled indulgently at her as he said:
"I shall never miss what Jimmie gets."
"And it means so much to them," murmured Virginia.
"I'm glad it does. I'm glad I can make them happy for your—"
Before he could complete the sentence, Jimmie reappeared.
"Oku's coming," he grinned.
"You didn't get wet?" laughed Virginia.
"Not while I have my voice. I stood at the door and shouted to him. Here he is now."
The door was pushed open and the Japanese butler entered carrying a fur coat which he gave to his master. The millionaire turned to him.
"Oku, Mrs. Stafford has finished her visit to her sister and is coming home."
"How are you, Oku?" smiled Virginia.
The butler made a low salaam.
"I am big obliged. Anything else, sir?"
"Tell the chauffeur we're coming right out."
"Then excuse, please! Excuse! Oh, I am big obliged."
The butler went out and Stafford hurriedly held up his wife's coat.
"Here it is," he smiled.
At that instant Fanny opened the door and cautiously peeped in. Jimmie, seeing her, called out:
"Come in. It's all right."
She entered, looking timidly at her brother-in-law. Apprehensively, she said to Virginia:
Going up to her sister, Virginia threw her arms around her neck.
"Yes—and I'm so happy!"
"So am I," laughed Fanny almost hysterically. "One of Jimmie's ideas has turned out right at last."
"One of his ideas?" echoed Virginia puzzled.
"Yes—about you and Robert," said Fanny, ignoring her husband's dumb signals to keep silent.
"Shut up!" he whispered fiercely.
"Didn't she know?" demanded Fanny.
The clerk made a gesture of disgust.
"Know what?" asked Virginia in surprise.
"What didn't I know?" insisted Virginia. "What is it about you and me—" She looked to her husband for an explanation, but he was silent. Anxiously she said: "Robert, tell me! Tell me!"
Stafford went up to her. Tenderly he replied:
"I will. It probably would have come up some time and perhaps it's best that it has come up now. Listen, dear!"
"Don't you think it would be best to start afresh without there being even a chance for a misunderstanding between us—start on a basis of absolute truth?"
"Certainly! Aren't we starting that way?"
Stafford shook his head as he replied gravely:
Startled, she recoiled and looked at him in dismay.
"Robert!" she exclaimed.
"There's nothing to be alarmed about," he went on soothingly. "Everything is all right."