Varney assented with a laugh. Presently he said rather constrainedly: "Peter—I want you to tell me a little about that night. Who was caught?"
Peter named the two. "They wouldn't testify," he explained, "and I couldn't. Old Orrick was the only man I spotted. He will get punished for assault. I don't see that they've got a case against British. He was knocked out when the porch fell, and he hadn't done a thing then, except yell probably. You can't hang a man for yelling in this State."
"No. Did you—you—was anybody killed?"
"Bless your heart, no!" cried Peter. "Why, it was only a little old kicking-match and hair-pulling, you know, hardly worse than a college rush."
Varney looked suddenly and strangely relieved.
"I'm mighty glad to hear that," he said, and presently added: "Have you seen—Smith?"
"Smith! He went to New York some days ago. I remember—it was the very day you pulled up and got well. Why, what about him?"
"Didn't you know? He was there that night," said Varney. "Right in the thick of it, helping me."
"Helping you! Smith!"
Varney nodded. "The minute they closed in on me," he said after a moment, "and we all bunched together, I felt that there was somebody in there fighting on my side. Pretty soon I heard a voice in my ear, it said: 'Keep on your pins as long as you can: these dogs'll trample you if they get you down.' I said, 'Is that you, Smith?' and he laughed and said, 'Still on my studies.' Then somebody hit me over the head with something, and I went down and he went with me. He had one arm around me, I remember. I've been thinking, ever since I could think at all, that they might—might have finished him. I believe he saved my life, Smith did."
"Well—bully for him!" said Peter slowly, much impressed. "What on earth struck him to do that, do you suppose? Well, well! I'll certainly look that old boy up in New York and shake him by the hand."
There was a considerable silence. At just the moment when Varney was about to put another question, Peter opened his mouth and answered it.
"However," he said, an irrepressible note of irritation creeping into his honest voice, "even that was not the strangest thing that happened that night. Not by a long shot."
Varney's gaze fixed with sudden interest. "Higginson? You don't mean to say that he turned up?"
"I do. And got away with it again—confound his soul!"
"What happened? Any more dirty work? Did anything get into the papers?"
"No—oh, no! You've got that sized up wrong, Larry. He's no yellow journalist or anything like that. He's only the slickest underground worker this town ever saw—with his confounded apologetic, worried-looking mask of a face. As for more dirty work—well, I guess the bloodshed the other night scared him up so—"
"But go on and tell me! Where'd you see him? What did you say and—"
"Sitting in our front parlor, if you please, like a dear old friend of the family."
The remembrance of the way he had been affronted and outwitted chafed Peter's spirit uncontrollably. He rose and began pacing up and down the little porch, hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets.
"About an hour after we put you to bed," he exploded, "I slipped downstairs to tell Hare to keep everybody off the place. However, a lot of people had already come in. I glanced in at the parlor and it seemed full of them—Mrs. Carstairs and Mrs. Marne—they were the first to get here after Hare's delegation—Hammerton and another man from the Gazette, the committeemen, and several I'd never laid eyes on before. Well, there in a corner, looking like a hired mourner at a nigger funeral, sat that fellow Higginson. You could have knocked me flat with a pin feather. I'm as sure as I stand here that it was he who worked up that mob for Ryan, and the whole dirty scheme—and then coming around with his tongue in his cheek to inquire after the victim! Can you beat that gall?"
"Not easily. What happened?"
"They asked me how you were. I told'em. Then I said before the room-full: 'I was very sorry to find you out this afternoon, Mr. Higginson, when I called at your hotel.' The fellow looked white as a sheet and mumbled something I couldn't catch. Well—I couldn't smash him there before all the women, so I said: 'Please don't go away this time until I see you. I'm most anxious to have a little private conversation with you.' Oh, of course that was a mistake—I hate to think about it! But—well, I was a good deal worried just then," he explained, rather sheepishly, "and fact is, for the minute I wasn't thinking very much about Higginson. I needn't add that he had sneaked when I came down again. Had the cheek to leave behind a message with Hare saying he regretted to miss me, but felt it his duty to escort the ladies home."
Varney, though he had grounds for animosity which Peter never even guessed, laughed aloud. But it was a brief laugh, which quickly faded.
"And he's never been seen or heard of from that day to this? Well, for my part," he went on, rather constrainedly, "I'm almost ready to believe the man's a myth—a mere personification of evil—an allegorical name for the powers of darkness—"
"Myth!" cried Peter. "You'll see! Why, he's certain to turn up again, Larry—absolutely certain. You couldn't keep him away with a flock of cannon. If he doesn't come before, it's dead sure that he'll appear among us again on election day—four days from now—just to see the results of his pretty work. And when he does—"
"Well?" said Varney, amused through his own heartsoreness by Peter's vehemence. "When he does?"
"I've got two men watching every train, day and night," said Peter. "When Higginson sets foot in this town again, one man trails him, and the other runs for me.... Well, I'm a generous and forbearing man, Larry, and I recall that you havn't had much fun here. I'll—yes, hang it all!—I'll bring the old rogue to you, dead or alive, and stand by in silence while you speak him your little piece."
IN WHICH VARNEY, AFTER ALL, REDEEMS HIS PROMISE
From the roaring ovation which followed Peter's brief remarks there emerged again the sudden, clean-cut silence. Mayor Hare—Mayor by the narrowest margin in the heaviest vote ever cast in that town—stood upon the improvised little stand and looked out over the packed square. He rested one small hand upon the gay-clothed rail, and many people saw that it quivered. The showy "demonstration" of Peter's planning, brilliantly launched the moment the count was announced—the imported brass-band, the triumphal procession with the bugles, the streamers and the flag-wrapped carriages, and now the rostrum ready set and waiting in the heart of the dense crowd—all had taken him completely by surprise. His face showed it; yet he was not thinking of that exactly. All at once the Mayor's mind had harked back to another moment, not so many days before, when he had stood in this square to make a speech; and at the rushing thought of the great contrast between that moment and this, there rose in him a sense of gratefulness so deep that it took palpable form, and stuck, suffocatingly, in his throat.
The square swam before his blinded eyes. He took off his glasses and wiped them frankly. Stiff formality left him, without a nod at parting, carrying along the "few remarks" he had nervously thrown together in his Roman progress up Main Street.
"The modesty of the man who has just addressed you," he began unsteadily, "will deceive no one. You all know what I owe to him—what our town owes to him. You all know that if I am almost too proud and too happy to speak at all just now, it is because a kindly chance sent Mr. Maginnis to Hunston."
Cheers, more cheers, and yet again cheers; cheers running on and on as though they never meant to stop; spontaneous waves of applause that meant, what nearly all knew, that Maginnis personally had captured Hunston, and that his efficiency with a chair-leg had reared him into a kind of demi-god among certain rough fellows of the baser sort.
The speaker was resuming, not yet through with his tributes. His eye flitting over the shouting crowd had fallen upon a face.
"I know that both honesty and logic were on the side which Mr. Maginnis, coming here a stranger, elected to support. But honesty does not always make a winning cause, nor does logic. What I may call sympathy is often better than both. The splendid help that we got from Mr. Maginnis received this supplement. Sympathy came to aid Reform. A brutal outrage sullied the name of our town—an outrage which, there is sad reason to believe, was born of politics. The victim of that outrage, and the hero of that terrible night, is happily with us to-day.... I will not offend him with any words of praise. But may I not say in the market-place what is the truism of the committee-room ... that when this gentleman did what he did, he brought to Reform the sympathy which ... has made me Mayor of Hunston."
Every eye followed the direction of the speaker's glance and his grave bow; and by the chance of good position, it happened that nearly all could see. Upon a dingy porch, a few yards up the Main Street side of the square, stood a tall, young man leaning on a cane, a wide felt hat shading a rather badly marked face. And—there was no possibility of any mistake—it was Jim Hackley's porch that he stood upon, and—yes—it was Jim Hackley himself, a sober and genial Jim Hackley, who stood by his side, in intimate pose, and grinning somewhat sheepishly into the glare of fame which suddenly enveloped him.
What part Hackley had borne in the events to which the orator had referred was never officially known, but it may be said without exaggeration that there had been suspicions abroad against him. His present friendliness with the victim of those events, therefore, seemed the gauge and symbol of penitence and reconciliation.
It was the first time that Hunston had seen Varney since the night he was hurt, and the first time that most of Hunston had ever seen him. The story of his deeds and his sufferings, doubtless considerably embellished and known to every one, made him a figure of keen popular interest, and the cheers and hand-clappings now were thunderous, compelling him to lift his hat again and again. Some even started a swift descent upon the Hackley residence with the evident intention of carrying the young man to the stand on their shoulders. But Hackley came down to his gate to meet them and buffeted them away, explaining loudly, like an old friend and generally acknowledged sponsor: "He ain't up to it to-day, boys! Stand back!"
"Go on with your speech," said Peter in a fierce undertone to Hare. "He's going to faint."
"Let us give honor to whom honor is due," cried Hare, hastily, and so resumed his remarks.
Peter's melancholy prediction, though it spread quickly among the crowd after Varney left the porch, was quite unfounded. Varney had not the least idea of fainting. At Hare's tribute, which was as unexpected as he felt it to be totally undeserved, and the sudden rain of eyes upon him, an unaccountable dizziness had seized him, while he stood reluctantly bowing; he had thrust out his hand and caught hold of the post. This blackness passed as quickly as it had come. The next instant he felt as fit a man as ever; and to the tender requests of his host, Mr. Hackley, that he should withdraw into the house for a "leetle rest-up," he returned a laughing refusal. For this was his last appearance in Hunston, as well as his first in recent days, and very strongly did he desire to make it testify to his warm interest in the town's great day and the personal triumph of his friend, Peter Maginnis.
What removed Varney so abruptly from the Hackley porch and the public view was the sudden fulfilment of quite another prediction of Peter's: the one about the return to Hunston of the gum-shod Mr. Higginson.
The news came without warning. At just the moment when the Mayor replunged into his interrupted oratory, Varney became aware that a low, anxious voice behind him was insistently calling his name. He turned, and saw the figure of a man standing in Hackley's entryway, just inside the door; he had evidently slipped in from the rear; and now, catching the young man's eye, he began mysteriously beckoning and making signs.
"Kin I speak to you a minute, Mr. Varney?" he called in the same dramatic whisper.
Varney, in some surprise, advanced to the doorway and stepped inside the entry after the stranger—a poorly dressed fellow with an unshaven chin and a collarless neck.
"Well? What do you want, my man? And how do you know my name?"
At that the man gave the air of exploding, though his voice remained only a whisper, at once apologetic and immensely reproachful.
"Know your name, sir! Why, excuse me for usin' it so free, but I guess there ain't nobody in Hunston don't know you, Mr. Varney! Why, Mr. Varney, my six-year-old kid c'd pick you right out o' that crowd out there, same as 't was her pa, what with seein' your picture in the papers an' all, an' I guess there ain't anything you'd ever want in Hunston you couldn't have just for the trouble o' namin' it."
The random assertion struck some of the blood from the young man's cheek, but he said good-humoredly: "Well, I'm glad to hear it. But tell me who you are, and what I can do for you."
The man's face, which had grown rather loose and mobile, instantly became business-like and alert.
"I'm 'Lije Stobo, Mr. Varney—Hackley'll tell you. I was hired a week ago by Mr. Maginnis to watch trains for a certain party kind of expected to show up here." His voice, already very low, dropped several tones lower, as he hurriedly went on: "Well, Mr. Varney, the party come in on Number 14 just now. It ain't five minutes ago since he stepped down on the deepo platform—disguised in some pretty good glad rags, he was, but o' course we spotted him right off, and—"
The man nodded. "My partner was with me—Callery—and we shadows our party to the Palace Hotel where he takes Room 41 and sneaks upstairs. Callery's sitting in the lobby now, and I runs out to take the tip to Mr. Maginnis—but Lord bless you, Mr. Varney—" He pointed out the open door in the direction of the little speaker's stand where Peter sat impregnably walled in on all sides by dense human masses. "It might be an hour before I could get to him through that. I was up against it, f'r he'd sure kill me if I let our party give us the slip again, and then I heard 'em all cheerin' you, and thinks I, there's my man, and—"
Varney interrupted gratefully but briskly.
"You did exactly right, Mr. Stobo. I have long been anxious to see Mr.—that is, this party. In fact," he added, putting on his hat with significant firmness, "it is because of some business that I have with this party that Mr. Maginnis asked you to look out for him."
Mr. Stobo's eyes ardently approved the young man's readiness for "trouble."
"Well, sir—that's took a load off'n my mind, I tell you! I'll just skip on—will I, Mr. Varney?—and try to get the tip to Mr. Maginnis, as my orders was. He was that set on interviewin' this here party—but Lor', he'd give him to you, same's himself. Only—are you sure you're feelin' up to it to-day, Mr. Varney? If mebbe you'd let me'r Callery go along now, just in case, y' know—"
Varney gave an answer which Mr. Stobo found completely reassuring. At the same time, he rapidly produced his pocket-book and pulled out a bill of alluring complexion.
"I owe you a great deal for bringing me this information, Mr. Stobo—more than I can repay. But perhaps you would let me—"
He stopped suddenly, for the man had started backing off down the entryway, a dull unaccustomed color showing in his grimy face.
"You didn't mean it, Mr. Varney! Why, how'd I look my missus in the face—let alone myself—and tell her I took money off'n you—"
He disappeared out of the back door, and Varney, feeling uncomfortable and disproportionately touched, put his spurned bill back in his pocket. Hackley, now perceiving that his guest's visitor was gone, turned his back on the speechmaking and hurried forward solicitously.
"I could 'a' hit that Stobo sneakin' in a-botherin' and a-'noyin' you," he said in tones of great sympathy. "I know how it is, Mr. Varney. Bit of a inverlid myself, I am—no health and no constitootion whatsomever, sir. Feelin' a leetle stiddier now, are you? Better lie down on my parlor sofy a while and git rested up nice, hadn't ye?—many's the day I've lazied there, Lord knows, tryin' f'r to coddle my strength back."
Varney regretfully declined the offer. In fact, he must be going at once, he said, as he had a rather important business engagement; and would Mr. Hackley kindly show him the quiet back-exit to the street and the outer world?
Hackley, a tireless host, re-urged the charms of his sofy and cool well-water for invalids; but his guest remained politely firm. So there, on the little rear veranda, the two men parted with mutual esteem: Varney expressing sincere thanks for all Mr. Hackley's courtesies; Hackley compassionate over Mr. Varney's impaired constitution, but boggling over what regrets might haply betray him into the grip of the law's long arm.
Varney traversed the clothes-hung backyard, came out into the dingy alley, and made rapidly for the cross-street, where a string of carriages showed that "the quality" of Hunston was not without interest in the day's proceedings. He did not see the carriages; to himself he seemed suddenly to walk in a great and silent solitude. There was noise enough about him, in all conscience, for every sentence that fell from Hare's lips was punctuated by a salvo; but the tumult beat itself to stillness against the closed fastness of his mind.
Under his eye, half way down the block to which he drew near, rose the weatherworn flank of the Palace Hotel. Somewhere within the ugly pile was his mortal enemy Higginson, trapped to his reckoning at last. Within five minutes they two would stand face to face; and he had long since promised himself that Higginson would remember the meeting for as long as he lived. A moment ago, the thought had filled him with a strange exhilaration: the prospect of a final accounting with the intriguing fly-by-night who had wronged him past all forgiveness had set his blood to leaping. But, exactly because that wrong went so deep, his pleasurable excitement ebbed faster than it had mounted. The wound that he had had from Higginson was one that no vengeance would heal. And with the recurrence of this knowledge his battle-joy flickered and went out like a spent match, and the little alley was a war-list no longer but a stretch without end of dry and dusty years....
"I was lookin' for yer, Mist' Varney," said a husky, abashed voice.
Varney stared down at the small apparition before him with momentary unrecognition.
"Why—Tommy! Heaven bless us! Where did you spring from, boy?"
Tommy's eyes fell in awe, but sure enough, he was sticking out his small flipper in salutation. In fact, he had shaken hands a number of times since that first memorable occasion, and, in his way, was gradually beginning to catch the spirit of the thing.
"Kem up on the two-forty-five. Wit' Hauser's band. Got a loan of t'ree bucks off a frien'."
"The mischief you did! Where do you find friends like that nowadays? But what on earth made you pop back here? To hear Hauser's play and see all the fireworks?"
Tommy examined his toe with affected interest and shook his head.
"What then? Don't you like it in New York?"
"Yasser. Noo York's all right, it is." And reluctantly he added: "You be'n sick, ain't you? Thought I'd come and see how you was makin' it. Come afore now, on'y I couldn't get next to de price."
"Tommy," said Varney, snuggling the boy's left hand into his own right and resuming the promenade, "you're a mighty good friend to me."
They emerged into the street where a double line of vehicles, some of them gay with bright hats and parasols, flanked the curb on either side, and Varney turned north, his back to the square, unconscious of the many curious glances that were flung at him as he passed.
"Tommy," said Varney, "I'm bound for the hotel on business, but I'm not going to pull you away from all the fun—"
"Wut, that? That ain't no fun, sir."
"Don't you suppose I know fun when I meet it in the road, you little rascal? You stay here till it's all over and then I want you to come down to the yacht, and we'll have some dinner. Then I'll put you up for the night and to-morrow morning we'll go to New York together, eh? How's that?"
But Tommy said: "Nawser. We can't go yet. Somebody sent me to bring you. We got a car'dge here—"
"A victori'," emphasized Tommy.
"A victoria! All this on three bucks, Tommy! Well, well! You are the spender, though."
"Here's our victori'!" said Tommy proudly.
They halted abruptly before an open carriage ... a victoria, indeed: a handsome double victoria, all polished dark wood and blue upholstery and shining nickeled harness, and sleek bay horses. This he saw in the first flash, wondering by what miracle Tommy Orrick had secured control of so glorious an equipage. And then ... there was the pretty edge of a furbelowed skirt upon the carriage-floor ... a dainty patent-leather toe upon the foot-rest ... an unrolling panorama of white-gloved hands, pale buff dress, great plumed hat, eyes not seen yet known to be blue to match the upholstery ... an exquisite lady sitting in the victoria. And this lady had recognized his presence, first with a faint frightened "Oh!" and then with a movement of those great hat-plumes which was beyond all doubt or cavil a bow ... a bow of proper and civil greeting.
For him that meeting was stunning in its entire unexpectedness. The landscape went off in protest, exploded in pyrotechnic marvels; the earth spun and cavorted; the solar system was disrupted and planets ran amuck with din unbelievable. But he was used to these cataclysms now, and out of the roar of breakage he heard a voice much like his own saying pleasantly:
"Tommy refers to this calmly as his carriage, Miss Carstairs. See what a week of New York has done for him. Where did he disappear to—did you notice? A great day it has been"—in the rising inflection of farewell—"hasn't it?"
Came out of space in answer, like a fluttering bird from nowhere, a voice that had once seemed music in his ears:
"I sent him ... to look for you. They said that you were ... ill. Perhaps you would let us drive you to the river?"
"And make you miss the speech?" continued this easy and agreeable young man, whom Laurence Varney, a great distance off, stood dumbly and watched from the swirling void with a certain remote admiration. "Of course not. I was never better in my life and the walk will be pleasant on so nice an afternoon. But thank you very much."
Again his tone held the faint inflection of finality, of leave-taking. Came again the voice like tossed chimes out of space:
"Then ... won't you stay and hear the end? It would please Mr. Hare. From this carriage ... you can see and hear everything very well."
"Thank you," said the debonair spirit, rather carelessly—while Laurence Varney, off in another world, clutched at the invitation, fought for it, lied, thieved, prayed, lived and died for it—"I'm afraid I must go on now."
"There is something I wanted to say. And ... a message."
A shuffling of the cosmos, a shrieking readjustment of the universe, and he found himself sitting on a blue upholstered seat staring at two great golden moons, which later on turned out to be, after all, mere burnished buttons upon a coachman's purple back.
So, not for the first time, the sudden meeting with a lady knocked from the young man's head all recollection of his enemy. And if their parting had taken place in the entire privacy of a country road, their re-meeting, certainly, was in the fullest view of the many. Only, luckily, nobody chanced to be looking, or within eavesdropping distance; and even the coachman presently removed himself to stand at his horses' restive heads. Tommy's carriage happened to be the last one in the line. Behind it the street was a desert. Before it was nothing but a packed army of backs.
"I did not know that you were here until Mr. Hare spoke. And they all began to look...."
"Mr. Hackley especially invited me to share his porch ..." and the other Varney, not the one who sat so stiff and mute, desperate eyes glued on the far horizon, but the easy, negligent Varney, gay dare-devil that he was, actually achieved a pleasant laugh. "I must show you his note. It's been a long time since I have had anything to please me so much."
He unfolded and held out into the blue empyrean a rather soiled bit of paper, which a small white-gloved hand descended from heaven like a dove and took. Then, presumably, this was duly read:
MR. VARNEY. dear sir: Announcment of Election will be made in the Squair this p.m. around 6 p.m. Would feel onered if you would come to my Poarch where everthink can be seen & heard & no crouding, Josle ect. Will call at your Yot with horse and Bugy around 5 p.m. this p.m. if agreble though you don't nead no eskort anywairs in Hunston, the Unfortunit mistaik having been diskovered. Noing your intrest in our Poltix will add that I voated for Mister Hair, first think this a.m. with sorro for the Past and hoapes for your Speady convlessense,
S.P.—Should you come to my Poarch all would no as bygorns was bygorns.
"Wasn't that kind of him?" he asked when the note had again come down into the ornamental lap, which was the upper line of his range of vision. "And thoughtful. But then everybody has been so wonderfully kind to me. I think I shall remember Hunston as altogether the kindest town I ever saw."
There was quite a silence after that.
"I am like Jim," came the voice beside him, troubled chimes waving bravely, "in having wronged you by ... an unfortunate mistake. You have forgiven him, haven't you ... let by-gones be by-gones? Can you do as much ... for me?"
"Don't," he begged with sudden hoarseness—and there the mannersome insouciant Varney waved an easy hand and blew himself away, like the rascally light o' heels he was—"I have to ask forgiveness of you—not give it," he said.
"You have much to forgive. That day in the road—I was angry. I was not just ... not fair. I am mortified to remember ... what I said to you."
His heart contracted for the trouble in her voice; his spirit made obeisance to the courage which carried her so perfectly through that pretty suit for pardon; but for himself—
"There is not one thing—believe me—that your goodness can reproach itself for—not one thing for you to be sorry for. If you have forgiven me now—for all that you had to forgive—I go away quite happy."
His first easy composure, which far outmatched her own, had unsteadied her. His wasted and scarred face, which she had been quite unprepared for, had shocked her inexpressibly. And now there was this new thought knocking at the door of her mind—that he was going away quite happy.
"There was something else I wanted to tell you ... if you could wait a moment ... some news."
He turned toward her with a movement of pleasant interest, meant to verify his recent gallant promise; but he turned so quickly that his face had no time to come into the kindly conspiracy, and no triumph of hyperbole could have described its look as happy.
"Yes? Good news, I hope?"
"I won't ... be cowardly and let you think that this was accidental ... my seeing you ... and telling you that I'm sorry. We—we were going to drive down to the yacht ... after the speeches were over. I don't understand it all yet, but this afternoon a great thing happened. There came a letter from my father ... and everything is all settled now. He ... wants my mother ... more than me, now. Why shouldn't I tell you? It is what I have longed for ... prayed for every night ... for twelve years. We are going to New York—to-morrow—to see my father."
His great gladness at that made him forget himself entirely, and for the first time he could look at her.
"Why, I can't tell you how glad I am! How tremendously happy that makes me!"
She sat back in her cushioned seat, still as a sculptured lady, hands clasped on her silken lap, eyes gone off down the street, though not for vision, to where Hare was thundering a splendid peroration. He had already become aware, without looking at her, that she was richly and beautifully dressed; but he was hardly prepared for the effect which such a setting would have upon her face. For all his conjuring of memory, he had forgotten that she looked quite like that....
"Yes ... it makes me happy, too. And my mother wants to ask you—no, I do—that is, both of us want to ask you—if you won't allow us to go down ... in the yacht?"
Misunderstanding, the senseless world started mad antics again; but Intelligence, which saw more clearly, reached out a long arm and jerked it firmly back on its feet.
"Allow you! It's exactly what I'd like most immensely. She's all ready for you—I'll have my things off her in no time—catch the eight-ten to-night and go straight to congratulate Uncle Elbert. How great to see him so happy! I 'll run right down to the yacht this minute and attend to it."
"There is nothing to attend to ... is there? You said she was all ready. Of course we could not let you—leave her. We could not go in the yacht ... unless you will go with us."
But speech stuck in his throat like a bone gone wrong. She would get no help from him; that was evident. If suffering had wrought miracles of absolution, she alone could make that plain.
"You came to Hunston ... to take me to my father ... didn't you?" said Mary Carstairs. "Why ... won't you do it?"
A fugitive wave of pallor ran up her cheek, leaving its white trail behind. She knew now that she had said the last word to him that she could say, and that if he wanted to go away, he must go. The heavy curtain of her lashes fell, veiling her eyes ... but, as it chanced, fell slowly. He had turned at her words, very quickly; he caught the curtain half-drawn, and a look come and gone like an arrow had shot through those windows into the lit place beyond.
"I could only do that," he began unsteadily—"I—you know how it is with me.... To the longest day I live—I'll love you ... with every breath I draw. I could not do that—unless ... Will you marry me?"
The stillness about them then was like a tangible thing, measureless and infinite. But into it faltered almost at once that voice like silver bells.
"If you're perfectly sure you want me to," said Mary faintly.
Her eyes met his in a wonderful union, divinely sealed the promise of her lips, stamped it forever and ever with a heavenly stamp....
The bay horses curveted and pranced, the coachman sprang to his seat, a big red motor backed, snorted, honked, and whizzed past them. The speechmaking was over. The little line of gay carriages, breaking itself into pieces, was maneuvering for rights of way homeward. The bay horses, turning, too, were caught in the press and must needs go slowly: so that the whole vivid pageant might have been but the ordered setting for this moment—for Laurence Varney and the girl he had sworn to carry home to her father....
In the square, the lingering crowd, attuned to cheering, was summoning one name after another to noisy felicitation. Out of the tumult rose one persistent voice, clamoring a changeless request. Yes, it was Hackley's voice, very near, evidently on his own front porch, and he was saying over and over: "Lemme ask you! Lemme ask you!" And about the moment the victoria—Tommy's victori' (Tommy himself, if the truth be known, riding snugly on the back springs at that very moment)—got safely put about, Mr. Hackley secured what public notice he required and divulged the nature of his request.
"Fellers, what's the matter with Varney?"
Instantly a thousand voices pulverized the man's fatuous anxiety. Hard after, as the gallant slogan swept on to make assurance doubly sure, they gave back the name in a roar like the rush of waters....
But the man for whom all the voices strained themselves did not hear their doubt-destroying response, tumultuous though it was. Another voice, close beside him, had taken up that refrain, making all others inaudible, a shy, glad, whispering voice of chimes.
"He's all right."
The common words were glorified by that voice, made over into a sweet and solemn benediction. He sat very silent, humbled and awed by the revealed visage of his own great happiness. At last she found courage to venture a look at him; and she saw that over his pale and disfigured face there had come a kind of glory, the joy of sudden peace out of pain.
Soon he spoke; and his words at first seemed to her very far afield, though there was that in his unsteadied voice which reassured her beyond speech.
"Would you mind stopping at the hotel—only a minute? I—have an old enemy there, and I feel that I must see him."
"Oh, no, no!—must you? Oh, please—I can't let you go now! And I am afraid—afraid of what might happen—"
She stopped on that, somehow gathering without looking at him that she had not followed his thought.
"I want to take him by the hand," said Varney, "and tell him that it's all right now."
There was a light carriage-robe about them, for the vanished sun had left the breath of autumn in the air; and beneath it her hand, from which the white glove had been stripped, touched and was suddenly gathered into his own. A glorious tremble shot through his body; and now he could turn his shining face fully toward her.
"You aren't thinking that I could keep an enemy to-day!"
As the carriage stopped before the hotel entrance, he added:
"And I must tell him not to bother Peter any more. You see, Peter's a fine man, but he hasn't got my reasons for being—in love with all the world. I—I—I hate to go. Our first parting has come soon. But—this is a duty, and—and—good-bye!"
She never forgot the look upon his face.
"Good-bye. And oh! would you please hurry?"
With an herculean effort he detached himself from the carriage and rushed into the hotel. The same bored-looking clerk was sitting behind the desk, paring the same nails with the same office scissors. But this time, at sight of Varney, he sprang instantly to his feet, all smiles and eagerness to serve.
"Why, good evening, Mr. Varney! Well, sir! You're lookin' better'n we expected, and I tell you Hunston's mighty glad to see you up and about again."
Varney marveled how he had ever formed such a mean opinion of the clerk, whom he now saw to be a decidedly likable young man.
"Thank you—thank you! It's a wonderful little city—Hunston—wonderful! Try a few of these cigars—that's right; fill your pocket. And would you be good enough to send my card up to Mr. Higginson? Perhaps I'd better write just a line—"
"Mr. Higginson's in the small parlor, Mr. Varney—straight down the corridor. Yes, sir! Just came down and went in—I think he saw you coming—"
"And ran away again? Why, bless me, what's the old chap afraid of?"
He started gayly down the dim hall to the right of the desk, swinging his stick and humming to himself; and presently became aware that a man was following silently at his elbow.
"It's me—Callery," said the man apologetically, as Varney turned. "I—I 'll just be here, Mr. Varney, you know, if anything's wanted."
Varney laughed again. "You're mighty good to me, Mr. Callery," he said cordially—"you and Mr. Stobo—I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. But it isn't a bit of use, you know! I'm positively not going to kill anybody to-day."
"Yes, sir," said Callery. "Here's the door, Mr. Varney."
"Yes, sir. He come runnin' down the steps, spoke a word to the clerk, and then he dodges down here and slams the door behind him. Seen you through the window, I guess—"
"Well, I'll just step in and have a look at him, Mr. Gallery. Excuse me a minute."
He rapped on the closed door and called in a loud cheery voice: "Mr. Higginson."
"Come in," said a voice from within—a rather agitated voice which had a curiously familiar ring in the young man's ears.
Varney swung open the door, stepped into the small parlor, and (greatly to the disappointment of Mr. Gallery) closed the door behind him.
In the middle of the room, staring nervously toward the door, stood a handsome elderly gentleman, of distinguished presence and clothes of a rather notable perfection. At sight of him the young man's advance halted in utter bewilderment, and he fell back limply against the shut door.
But the elderly gentleman came running toward him with a suppressed cry, and seizing the young man's hand disarmingly in both his own, threw himself almost hysterically upon his apologia.
"Can you forgive me, my boy? Ah, I'll confess that I've dreaded this meeting, while longing for it, too! You look badly—ah, very badly!—yet—not bitter, not resentful—thank God, not unhappy! My boy, can you find it in your heart to forgive an old man who has suffered deeply for his sins?"
Out of his whirling confusion, his insane sense of the world suddenly gone upside down and the familiar order stood upon its head, the young man laughed dazedly. But he kept tight hold of the old one's hand, and fell to patting it with wild reassurance.
"Everything's all right—all right! Yes, indeed, sir. Of course! But I don't understand—I don't grasp—I came here looking for—Are you—you—Mr. Higginson?"
"Ah, you hadn't guessed then? And yet who could wonder, such a terrible, frightful mix-up as it all became! You see," the old gentleman hurried on, lowering his gaze, yet already recovering something of his normal composure, "you had scarcely started before I—I became strangely uneasy over the—seriousness of the matter and the possible consequences, and—and decided that I had best come on myself in—in a private manner, merely to have an eye on things. Believe me, that was all I meant. But I did not dare let you know that I was here, even in that way, having promised you that I would not interfere, and besides—I feared that you might think I had—ah—withheld the full facts about—her age."
In an access of nervous self-consciousness, the old man's voice trailed to an uncertain pause; and Varney comforted him with a burst of bewildered laughter.
"Forgive my glassy stare—no offence intended, but my head's going around, Mr. Higginson! It's all still nebulous, you know—topsy-turvy—incredible! That day of the luncheon, now—the mysterious warning—the bribe to Ferguson to smash up the yacht—"
A fine flush spread over the old man's face to the roots of his silvered hair. Yet it was obvious that the young man's unaffected cordiality had heartened him immensely.
"Well, you see, my dear boy," he began, embarrassedly, "by that time I had met her—she was so sweet to me from the start—and I began to hope that such heroic, such painful, measures might not be necessary. Yet perhaps they would be, after all, and so—ah, I did wrong, I know—wrong!—and yet—don't you see how inevitably it all came about? I did not dare communicate with you, begging you to let matters stand a few days—fearing that upon learning of my presence you would simply abandon the commission entirely, and God knows you would have been justified in doing so. Yet I longed to postpone the—the final step, holding it in reserve, in the ardent hope that it might be avoided entirely. So I—gave instructions to Ferguson. It was wrong not to trust you, and oh, I have been punished for it, suffered miserably—"
"Dear sir! I'm so sorry! But that is all past now—all past—and to-day all's right with the world!"
The old man's hands tightened their earnest clasp. Tears sprang suddenly into his fine eyes.
"But oh, I have been richly blest, too—far beyond my deserts! The night that you were hurt—I came quite unexpectedly face to face with Mrs. Carstairs at the cottage. We had a long talk that night—a wonderful talk, which gave me a totally new point of view, brought me new light and peace. And now—everything is arranged, and if you have truly forgiven me, I am happy as I never dreamed for happiness again."
"Forgiven you! For what, dear sir? Why, don't you begin to guess yet what you have done for me?"
He tucked the old man's hand masterfully under his arm, and drew him to the door.
"God bless you, boy, for what you've done for me and mine. But—where—where are we going?"
"Out into the world," said Varney, "where Mary Carstairs is waiting for you and me."
"But—but—I feel extremely nervous—does she know?"
"She is going to know in about thirty seconds, and we are the three happiest people in America."
"I think," said the old man palely, "that she—she likes me—"
"In less than a minute," said the young one, "she is going to love you."
His voice betrayed him a little on the words, but he instantly recovered his poise, and, hand on the knob, faced the other with his gayest smile.
"Tell me, Mr. Higginson—did you skip to New York that afternoon, when Maginnis and I, you know, dashed up here to assassinate you?"
"Yes," replied the handsome old intriguer with a nervous cough, "yes, I—you see, it had been reported to me that Mr. Maginnis had threatened to horsewhip me in the public square, after my attempt to buy the paper and save us all from scandal. So naturally, on the afternoon you mention, I—I anticipated trouble. However, I quietly returned to Hunston on the next train back, going, of course, to a different hotel, a most dreadful little place—"
"It's just as Peter said, I declare! You're the noblest plotter of them all, Mr. Higginson. Dear old Hunston will not look upon your like again."
The two enemies came out into the corridor arm-in-arm, and advanced in utter amity to the doorway. And as they walked, Varney's tongue unloosed, and he spoke his still incredible happiness aloud: only, because he was not Latin and exuberant, he spoke it according to the indirect uses of his race.
"That man we passed standing in the hall—the one with the face of incredulity and chagrin—was old Callery—horribly miffed because you and I failed to lock in mortal combat. He's a fine fellow, Callery is, only I imagine he's had a lot of hard luck. Did you ever see a prettier little hotel than this—I mean, of course, for a town of this size? Look! That's the clerk behind the desk there. An amazingly clever fellow—you just ought to have seen how sharp he was in knowing where you were—and that's a Cypriani cigar he's smoking, if you'd like to know. Jim Hackley's house is just over on the other corner—why, you can see it from here. I want you to know Hackley, sir! A great big whimsical fellow with a fist like a ham and a heart like a woman's.... Ah!..."
They emerged from the hotel upon the noisy street, still lively with the rush of home-goers; and now the two men stood side by side before the waiting carriage, and Varney's flow of talk had ceased.
From the square there came the shouts of many lingerers, making merry in the tail of the great day according to their desire. Down either sidewalk poured a stream of people, laughing, talking, and calling to each other; the street still rumbled under passing vehicles; the Palace Hotel, in particular, had become a lodestone and near to Tommy's victoria much human traffic converged. In truth, it was a public place where all who wished could see, and many did see. Yet there was nothing in the little scene to fix the gaze of the casual wayfarer: a young girl sitting in a well-appointed carriage, and two men, one young and one old, approaching with bared heads to speak to her. Only a close observer would have been likely to notice that the old man's cheek was markedly pale, and that upon the marred face of the younger one there had descended a strange and solemn look....
For Mary there had been no surprise in seeing the young man come out to her with the old one on his arm—had he not told her that he went in peace?—and even the glorious metamorphosis in Mr. Higginson's appearance quite failed to arrest her attention. She had smoothed his approach with a welcoming smile and the beginning of a gay greeting; but her eyes were for her lover. And now as she saw the look on Varney's face, and became aware of the odd and impressive silence in which he stood, like one called to officiate at some high ceremony, understanding incredibly dawned within her, and she was suddenly without speech or breath. Her little greeting was never finished; all at once her face, grown wonderfully sweet, was whiter than the old man's own; and the eyes which she now turned back to him were full and overfull of tears.
"Miss Carstairs," said Varney, not quite steadily, "may I have the great honor of presenting your father?"