Acquaintanceship which is nourished in the sunlight of laughter blooms rapidly into intimacy, and Paul Burton would have been surprised had he known how often his eyes wakened into a tell-tale glow of delight and admiration, and how easily any one looking on might have fallen into the egregious error of construing his attitude into one distinctly loverlike. All this while she continued to pique his curiosity by a sustained reserve as to herself.
She spoke quite frankly of her failures to get employment, making deliciously laughable stories out of disappointing and disheartening experiences, but it was only in incidental comments that she referred to things in the past which made him know that her life had once held in abundance those things which it now lacked.
One day when Paul had selected with great care a mass of roses of a new and particularly exotic variety to be sent to Loraine, the florist inquired, "Will that be all today, Mr. Burton?"
The musician had nodded, then suddenly he said, "No, I think there is something else I want." It suddenly came to him that he had never given Marcia any sort of present. Of course she would have no use for a small cart-load of expensive flowers. One had to send gifts of that sort to Loraine, because she was herself so gorgeously expensive, but Marcia might like some violets. Violets would look rather well on the blue suit she most often wore. He was to meet her in a half-hour, though he had not mentioned the appointment to Loraine. So he had the violets wrapped up, feeling somehow a sort of diffidence such as he had never felt before when giving flowers to women, and took them with him.
It was crisp afternoon and as he reached the square a small hand waved to him and he saw her walking briskly along by the arch, so he ordered the car stopped, and jumped out.
"I was just coming over for you," he said. "It would have been a disaster to have missed you. Barola is giving a violin recital at Carnegie Hall. Shall we run up? There's just time."
"You weren't going to miss me," she laughed. "I had no intention of letting you, but the afternoon was too utterly delectable to stay indoors, so I waylaid you here." Then after a moment, as she stepped lightly through the car door which he had opened, she added delightedly, "Barola! And I was just crying for some music. Did you hear my wails from the Flatiron building down?"
"I was too busy crying to see you," he laughed back. "My agonized sobs drowned the traffic whistles."
As the car turned, he held out the box, which proclaimed its contents, as violet boxes always do. A man may have a bottle of rum or a chest of stolen gold wrapped up so it looks as innocent as a pair of socks, but no swain bearing violets can deceive the eye of the most casual observer. Marcia was not deceived.
"Violets!" she exclaimed. "Do you mean they are for me?"
"Of course," he answered, and, for no reason at all, colored like a schoolboy.
Marcia opened the box and sat gazing at the flowers.
Into her face came a sudden gravity and the delicate features seemed almost sad. She said, "Thank you," in a low voice and continued to gaze at her gift. Then she buried her face in their fragrance and for a moment held it there. When she raised it to him again it was smiling, though still gravely.
"They are lovely," she told him. "I'm glad you thought of them."
"You seemed almost sad," Paul spoke with a voice of deep solicitude. "Did I make a mistake? Do violets stand for something you don't want to be reminded of?"
She shook her head and laughed, and this time with the old note of merriment.
"Violets stand for everything that's nice," she assured him. "It was just that—I hardly know—just that it suddenly occurred to me how long a time it's been since anyone gave me flowers."
"Someone is going to—often," the words came quickly, and impulsively he laid his hand over hers for just a moment.
"Do you know, I have the instincts of a sybarite?" she informed him. "When I go to sleep tonight, I shall put these violets near the head of my bed, and whenever I wake up I'll smell them."
* * * * *
Despite his strong defensive preparations and his almost clairvoyant foresight, in Hamilton Burton an insidious change was taking place and the brain which so astutely cooerdinated many things was totally unconscious of its own transitions. Egotism had made him. A self-faith which took no account of difficulties, had carried him to the apex of his ambitions. Now it was blinding him with its own brilliance. Hamilton Burton was drunk, drunk to the core of his soul, with the strong intoxicant of self-confidence. He looked on life through a mirror—and saw only himself.
So, while he intrenched and safeguarded his destiny, he failed to realize that he was being lulled into a reckless faith in the star he believed shone over him and for him. He did not pause to reflect that the wolf, gaunt and powerful, who by the courage in his shaggy breast and the strength of his fanged jaws, runs unchallenged at the pack head, may change.
He took no account of the fact that the wolf gorged is the wolf weakened.
As his plans grew his methods became more unscrupulous and his scorn for forms of law increased.
One day he sat in his mother's house showing her, with the enthusiastic glee of a child for new toys, several freshly acquired miniatures of the First Napoleon.
Mrs. Burton turned one of the priceless trinkets over in her hand and gazed at it wonderingly. It was a small thing, wrought on ivory by Jean Baptiste Jacques Augustin and framed in pearls. She thought she had seen more flattering portrayals of the round head which stared out from the jewelled circlet.
"I suppose," she said with such a sigh as mothers utter when they fail to understand with full sympathy the enthusiasms of their children, "I ought to rave over this. From your eyes I realize that it is treasure-trove and yet to me it is meaningless. Of course," she naively added, "the pearls are very pretty."
Tenderly, Hamilton stooped and kissed her forehead, then he took the miniature from her hand and stood looking at the painted face. He stood straight and lithe, and he spoke slowly:
"Sometimes I wonder if the belief in reincarnation is not the truest faith, mother. Sometimes, I seem to look back on the career of this man as on something in an unforgotten past. To me it is all more vital than history; more real than chronicle. It is memory!" He paused and his eyes were altogether grave.
"As I reflect on Austerlitz, I find myself saying, 'I did well there,' and for Waterloo and St. Helena my chagrin and misery are personal. Why should I doubt that once my own spirit dwelt in another body—in his, perhaps?" His voice mounted, and he continued, "But this time the spirit must go further. It must never taste defeat. Its triumph must grow to the end, and surrender its scepter and baton only to Death."
The mother looked up at the exalted fantasy which glowed in her son's face and her head shook uncomprehendingly. "It seems only yesterday," she said "that I held you, a soft little morsel of pink flesh, close to my breast. I dreamed of no great triumphs for you. Only goodness and health. Perhaps it was as well that way. I sometimes wonder if any woman could face her responsibilities if she knew she was giving birth to one of the masters of the world. My only vanity was to name you Hamilton. And Paul I named for the great apostle." She laughed very low—and her son knelt beside her chair and drew her into his embrace.
Paul, who was named for the apostle, and Loraine Haswell had drifted further into midstream than either realized. Less keen observers than Norvil Thayre now spoke of their frequent meetings. Club conversation intimated that not only financial stress was responsible for the silencing of Len Haswell's jovial laughter.
Loraine's point of view was shifting dangerously. Paul had at first been a pleasing playmate and a celebrity whose devotion was flattering as a tribute to her charm and beauty. Now a constant comparison asserted itself to her mind between her husband's financial limitations and the pleasing scope of Paul's access to Hamilton's treasury. Discontent had entered her Eden—and it was no longer an Eden.
One morning Paul's telephone rang before he was out of bed.
"I must see you," announced Loraine, and the familiar voice was excitedly urgent. "Len has been odious and I—I want your advice. There's no one else that I can talk to."
Paul Burton hesitated. His timidity balked at facing a moment which might call upon him to take a courageous stand or one fronting possible reprisals. Over his face crept a terror very much like that which had blanched it years ago when the Marquess kid threatened him with grimaces across the school aisle. He divined the subject which she wished to discuss and dreaded the interview. The ethical side of the matter gave him no concern; but the same lack of stamina which caused him to shrink made it impossible for him to refuse.
"Where shall I meet you?" he hesitantly inquired, "at Sherry's as usual?"
"No," she hastily objected. "That has become rather too usual." She named a place in lower Fifth avenue which Fashion regards as delightfully Bohemian and Bohemia considers alluringly fashionable. She named an hour when the place would be empty enough for an undisturbed rendezvous.
Now, as Paul Burton sat opposite Loraine Haswell at one of the small and snowy tables, he sought to cloak his nervousness under a guise of debonair ease and soon the woman was embarked upon the recital of her grievances.
"Len has had an utterly intolerable fit of jealousy," she confided; then fell silent while she nibbled at a melon. But her dark eyes were full of beauty's appeal and injured distress. "It's reached a point, Paul—" her voice became very soft, almost tearful—"where I'm afraid I must make a decision: the sort of decision that it's very hard for a woman to make."
"Was he unkind to you?" Her companion sought to speak with indignation, but a note sounded through his voice which punctured the assumption with falsity. It was occurring to him that Len Haswell might be particularly unkind to him.
She leaned far over the table and spoke guardedly.
"He has made me promise that I sha'n't see you again, except where we meet by accident; that all our innocent little parties must end."
"And you promised?"
Slowly and reluctantly she nodded her head. "It was that or—" she broke off.
"Or a separation. He said I must choose definitely between you." Paul Burton studied his plate in the silence of indecision, and she went on rather haltingly. "When marriage reaches the ultimatum stage, it doesn't offer much chance for happiness, does it?" Then after a pause she added thoughtfully, "It's not as though there were children to consider."
Her voice trembled with a seeming of repressed emotion of suffering under injustice and of bearing, with fortitude, a life of cumulative injury. Had Paul been bent on persuading her to remedy her alleged mistake, he could hardly have asked a more propitious opportunity.
But this man was capable of no swift and positive decisions. It was not his to cut Gordian knots. Never before had the woman across from him seemed so alluring, so desirable. Never had she so fully stirred his susceptible senses to intoxication as she did at this moment, and never had he felt his fondness for her so genuine. Yet, when she seemed almost to offer him herself and her life—if only he would stretch out his arm and lift her across the stream of dilemma—he could not urge, but sat tongue-tied. He could think only of the difficulties; and the thought of them staggered and blinded him. This was not the indecision of a man weighing the responsibilities of a step which might ruin the life of another man; it was merely the futility of "the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin."
"If your husband should hear of this meeting, after your promise of this morning," suggested Paul, "it might have serious results—I mean for you."
She shuddered a little at the thought. "I believe he would become a maniac," she answered, "but this place is safe enough. He would never think of our coming here. It's too far down-town."
"Too far for calling or shopping," Paul reminded her. "So entirely out of your accustomed orbit that if he learned of this, he could construe it only one way—as a clandestine conference."
"But, Paul," she declared, with deep self-pity and a strong appeal to his instincts of knight-errantry, "I had to talk with you—at any risk. If—if—it does come to a separation, I shall have absolutely nothing." Her voice was pathetic. "I suppose I should have to go to work."
She looked sadly at him and shook her dark head until he hated himself for not assuring her that she would not have to "go to work," yet he could say nothing.
Then as they sat there in an embarrassed silence, the tall figure of Len Haswell appeared in the door and the many mirrors of the wall panels multiplied him into a seeming army of giants.
With him was Norvil Thayre. For such a development Paul Burton found himself totally unprepared. No ready phrases came to his lips and his sudden pallor was a seeming confession of guilt. The husband stood for a moment in the door and his face, too, paled, but that was only momentary. At once it became fixed in a resolute determination to remain expressionless. The alert mind of Thayre, grasping the situation, addressed itself to averting its awkwardness with artless and inconsequential small talk. He came over to the table and shook hands, while Len Haswell stood at his elbow, saying nothing. Paul instinctively offered his hand, but Len ignored it. He heard Loraine declaring with a charmingly assumed innocence, "Chance brings us into quite a little party. First I happen on Mr. Burton, then on you two."
Suddenly an idea of escape struck Paul, as it had struck him at the school. He, too, laughed, turning to Loraine. "And since you are in better hands, I'll run along. I have an appointment at a studio on the square."
Len Haswell favored him with a satirical glance. "You seem," he suggested coolly, "to be only beginning your meal. We are here on business, and won't interrupt." The big man turned on his heel, and, followed by his companion, went into the adjoining dining-room. Loraine Haswell laughed nervously, but Paul's face clouded with deep anxiety.
After he had put Loraine into a taxi' the cloud deepened. The same self-accusations that had tortured his childhood with the suffering of self-contempt after each act of cowardice had him again by the throat. Never had it been his plan to urge this woman toward divorce. He had simply drifted with pleasant tides and now he found himself washed seaward with a dragging anchor. It was small compensation to reflect that his fault was less vicious than craven.
The square was bathed in a radiance of frosty sunlight, and the buildings at the south stood diamond-clear under a flawless sky. The monument to the man whose courage and decision had cradled a nation's birth gleamed in its granite whiteness. But Paul Burton felt small, afraid and besmirched of soul. He hurried to his own house and shut himself in with a thousand weak misgivings, until finally an idea formulated itself. He would go to Hamilton for counsel and strength.
* * * * *
As far as the clean sweep of mountain winds differ from the suffocation of a miasma, so far did the thoughts of Mary Burton differ from those of Paul that afternoon.
She and Jefferson Edwardes had been riding in the park, and though their horses had only cantered their hearts had ridden madly and on winged steeds. Now, with twilight stealing in and softly blotting out the angles of the room, they sat together, still in saddle-togs, before the great, carven mantel which Hamilton had brought back from a European castle where once Napoleon passed a night. A brave glare from roaring logs of driftwood cheerily flooded with light the hearth and the huge polar bear skin stretched before it. Mary Burton sat in a big chair, also castle-ravished, which swallowed her like a cavern, and as Jefferson Edwardes knelt on the rug beside her, and watched the flames caress into gorgeous vividness the color of her eyes and lips and cheeks and hair, it pleased him to think of her as seated on a throne, and of himself as at her feet.
They had no light but the firelight and needed none, for they had captured the brightness and joyousness and warmth of June and meant to carry it with them wheresoever they went and through all the meaner months.
Mary's right hand was still gloved, but the left was bare and she kept turning it this way and that, watching with engrossed fascination a diamond on one finger that caught and splintered the firelight. It was the jewel which proclaimed that Mary Burton was to be Mary Edwardes.
When her companion spoke, his voice was softened by a very tender triumph.
"Who am I," he asked wonderingly and humbly, "that life should be so lavish and generous with me? Mary, Mary, I told you once that you were as beautiful as starlight on water, but you are more than that. That is only a beauty to the eye, and you are a miracle to the heart and soul as well."
"Once," she said while her voice trembled happily, "I was satisfied with what beauty I had." She bent forward with a sudden gesture of possession and tenderness, as she caught his head between her two hands. "That was when it was my own. Now that it's yours I wish it were a hundred times greater."
"And you are the girl," he smiled, "who once pretended to think she had no soul, and very little heart."
"If I have either, dearest," she declared, "I owe it to you. You found a poor little spark of soul and fanned it into life—but a heart I have, and it's ablaze and it's yours to keep!" Her voice thrilled as she added: "If I had the world to give, it should all be yours, too—all of it."
"I feel," he assured her, "as though you have given me the universe."
For a while they sat silent; then the girl's eyes danced into sudden mischief as she reminded him, "We have still an ordeal ahead, you know. We have to tell Hamilton."
"A love that feared ordeals," he laughed easily, "would hardly be worth offering you. Does he still dislike me?"
The girl nodded. "He isn't exactly as mad about you as I am," she confessed. "But," her head came up and the regnant pride that seemed inherent there shone from her eyes, "my life is mine to use as I wish, and I have no use for it, dear heart, save to give it to you—for always!"
They heard the door open and close, then Hamilton's clear voice came from the hallway.
"You are a fool, Paul," it announced in a tone which blended irritation and indulgence. "This is the maddest sort of whim; nevertheless, if it appeals to you—all right." The two did not at once come into the library, but talked in the hall.
Paul answered nervously.
"How can you help me, Hamilton? She's married—it would be impossible."
"Impossibilities are my specialties. You say you want this adorable lady?"
"Yes." The response was faint.
"Very well," came the laconic announcement. "You shall have her, though you are, as I said, a fool. Loraine Haswell is a pretty and an empty-headed doll—"
"Don't!" Paul protested quickly, yet even in defending his lady's name, his voice carried more of weak appeal than command. "You mustn't say that!"
"I repeat, she is an empty-headed doll—but since she's not going to be my doll I shall dismiss that feature from consideration."
The colloquy had been so rapid that, as Hamilton and Paul showed themselves in the door, the two unwilling eaves-droppers came to their feet, startled.
Jefferson Edwardes turned toward the fire and stood silent, but his momentary expression of disgust had not escaped the financier and instantly all Hamilton's cumulative dislike burst into passion. From the threshold he demanded, "So you listened, did you?"
The visitor replied slowly and with a level voice: "We had not meant to overhear a private conversation—but we did hear."
"I suppose you realize that what you heard in no way concerns you?" The voice was surcharged with challenge, and under its sting Edwardes found self-composure a difficult matter. He had no habit of turning aside from quarrels which were seemingly thrust upon him, yet he realized that at this juncture he must govern his temper. For the moment he ignored the question and, with a gaze that met that of the other man in undeviating directness, he responded:
"I was waiting here to see you, Burton, on a mission which in every way concerns me." He raised the girl's hand to his lips and let his gesture explain his purpose.
But the pent-up animosity of Hamilton Burton could remember only the contemptuous curl he had recognized on the other man's lips. He came forward until he stood confronting Edwardes and as he was about to speak Mary interrupted him. Her voice was vibrant with anger and scorn. "If any one should feel called upon to make explanations and apologies, Hamilton, it is yourself ... after what we have just heard. It was monstrous." She shuddered.
Hamilton refused to be turned aside. In a tense voice he demanded of the girl's fiance: "Do you add your self-righteous approval to that sentiment?"
A sense of being intolerably bullied seized Edwardes and made red spots of anger dance before his eyes. His fists clenched and he took a forward step, then with tensed muscles he halted and stood there so close to the other that their eyes locked at a range of inches. Very deliberately he inquired: "Are you determined to force me into a quarrel, Burton? I'm seeking to avoid it."
"I am asking you a question and I demand an answer."
Edwardes' voice rang out passionately. "I am no prig who supplies unasked codes of conduct to others—even when they need it as badly as you do. But since you ask—yes, I agree fully, and I add this to boot. You are the most appallingly irresponsible man whose hands have ever grasped power. You are maddened with egotism until you are a more malignant pestilence than famine or flame. Now you have asked my opinion and in part you have it."
For an instant Mary Burton thought her brother would spring upon her lover in a tigerish abandon of fury, and she knew from the fighting flame in the other's eyes that he would be met half-way. Paul had dropped into a chair, where he sat as one stunned.
Burton returned the gaze which had never dropped from its inflexible directness; and his own voice was changed to a key of satirical quiet.
"If I am all the things you charge," he suggested, "it's a pretty full indictment and may warrant some discussion in passing. Paul," he added with a curt gesture of dismissal, "I hardly think this conversation will amuse you." The younger Burton rose and left the room, and as he went Mary took her place at the side of the man she had promised to marry and stood there as straight and unflinching as himself.
"Mr. Edwardes," Hamilton began, "years ago I was a country boy, not yet fully able to translate the voices that spoke to me from within: voices that told me I was a son of Destiny. In a fashion, I owe you something as an interpreter of those voices. You have just spoken more bitterly than it is easy for me to forgive. Yet, I am anxious to talk temperately—and God knows it will require an effort. Will you meet me half-way?"
Jefferson Edwardes had not moved. He was still white with anger, but the tempest that had brought his eruption of denunciation had passed, and he gravely bowed his head in assent.
"Very well. We seem to hold standards of conduct irreconcilably divergent. To my thinking you are a self-righteous and tedious dreamer and an impertinent preacher."
Edwardes nodded and his answer was composed. "We are all dreamers of varied sorts. You are yourself the mightiest of dreamers: because you make your visions realities. Paul is a lesser dreamer—almost a sleep-walker through life. As for Mary—" his voice grew suddenly tender—"why, I first saw her in the sun and dust of a mountain roadside, dreaming of fairy princes. I come last, but I'm a dreamer, too. All my visions are simple, but I've tried to keep them compatible with honest ideals."
"At least, you have hardly succeeded in keeping them to yourself." Hamilton Burton's voice was still controlled, but it was witheringly bitter. "Let me make myself clear. In an unhappy marriage I see a fact where you see a gauzy sacrament. I have become what I am, because to me the broad canvas alone is interesting, and picayunish prejudices are contemptible. You bring into my house a visage of disapproval, and when you overhear private talk permit yourself to sneer. It is intolerable."
There was such a ring of sincerity in the voicing of this distorted reasoning that Edwardes almost smiled.
"And yet," he answered, "until questioned I said nothing when I heard you offering to buy, as your brother's plaything, the wife of another man—a man who has served you with loyalty."
"You sneered. You allowed your sanctimonious lips to curl. Had you dared, you would have rebuked me out of your cramped virtue."
"Dared!" Once more Edwardes found his words leaping in fierce and uncontrolled anger. His hand had been almost drawn back to strike the man who stood there treating him as an emperor might have treated a corporal, but as the curb slipped from his cruelly reined temper, he felt the girl's hand on his arm, and stepped back, with every muscle in his body cramped under the tensity of his effort. Yet his words were hardly less an assault than blows.
"Had I dared!" he laughed ironically. "I dare to tell you now to your face what all men say of you in your absence. They believe you to be—and rightly—a conscienceless pirate. You are a scathe and a blight; a pestilential ogre, drunk with self-worship. When first I saw you, you were gloating over having bought lambs that you had never seen for seven dollars which you sold, still unseen, for ten. Since then you have simply amplified, on the scale of a Colossus, that single cheap ideal. You have exalted vandalism and rechristened it Conquest."
Hamilton Burton's face worked in a paroxysm of wrath and his words hurled out fury to meet fury.
"By Almighty God! I have listened to your damned insolence. Now you shall listen to me! I had meant to retire soon from the world of active business. I was almost satisfied. You have altered my plans. Just once again I shall return to the arena and I shall never leave it again, until I have accomplished my single purpose." He halted with eyes burning like those of a maniac, and the fever of passion shaking him. Words poured torrent-wise.
"I will go back into the Street. If need be I will tumble the entire structure of finance into ruins, but under it I will bury you! I will bury you deep beyond salvation! As there is a God in heaven, I will do that. I will neither rest nor abate my warfare until I have utterly ruined you! You and your self-righteous virtue shall become a jest to the world. From now on until you walk the streets, disgraced and penniless, I wholly dedicate myself to your destruction!"
He paused, panting, and wild of glance, with his fists clenched and his temples pulsing, and when he fell silent, Edwardes spoke slowly, almost as in soliloquy: "I was not mistaken in you. You are the pirate and no more. I will not call your boast empty. I have seen your power. You are willing to bury in general ruin all those innocent persons whom you must overthrow before you can reach me. Very well, you will find me fighting when you come after me."
"I am after you now," shouted the other. "I would wreck all New York to smash you. To me it will be worth the price, and, by God, I'll do it!"
Edwardes turned and held out his hand to Mary Burton. "Good-night, dear," he said. His voice was weary and, as he looked at her, a deep shadow of longing crossed his face.
"Wait!" she commanded—in a tone which neither of them had ever heard before, "I am going with you."
Mary Burton's usually colorful cheeks were now as pale as ivory. Her attitude and expression declared a total dedication to one idea: war upon the brother who could see in her entire future only a house of cards to be swept down because it had not been reared in harmony with his requirements. As she took a step toward the door Hamilton stepped between, barring her way. His outburst of infuriated words had left him breathing fast, and he drew a handkerchief from his pocket and passed it across his brow.
"Mary!" he exclaimed. "Are you mad?"
"I am so sane," she assured him, "that to your demented eyes I must seem a very maniac. You turned me from a woman into a doll and this man turned me from a doll into a woman again. I am his woman. He is my man, and my place is with him."
"That man," her brother pointed an outstretched finger to her fiance, "is going to have no place for you to share. My hand holds the power to make and crush and I have stamped him for obliteration. He is doomed. You are my sister, and you must hold loyalty above infatuation. You must not give countenance to my enemies in time of war, Mary. That spells treason."
It was as though the three persons standing there had all passed, at a single step, through the explosive phases of wrath to the colder, steadier and deadlier zone of feeling where all their words came level, and with an almost monotonous quiet.
"Loyalty!" Into her eyes came so splendid and serene a light that she seemed transfigured. "I am ready to hold loyalty above life itself. If Jefferson Edwardes goes to his execution, I shall go with him and I shall be prouder to share his ruin than any other man's victory. I have just promised to marry him...." Slowly she raised her hand and gazed at the engagement ring. The ghost of a smile trembled about her lips, though a sudden moisture dimmed her eyes. It was a mist of tenderness, not fear. "That promise was not given lightly," she added. "It outweighs even a Monte Cristo's arrogance."
Edwardes shook his head.
"I release you from that promise, dear," he told her. "It is to be war now, and bitter war. Before he can hurt me he must ruin hundreds of innocent noncombatants; must trample down scores of honorable institutions; and because I am responsible to them I must fight their fight to the end, asking no quarter." For just a moment his chin came up and he spoke with pride. "Our concern is no weak one. It has foundations in a nation's faith. Now it must meet the assaults of a Colossus running amuck. Your brother or I must go down. If it is I, you mustn't go down with me, dearest."
Very gravely she shook her head, and, turning her back on Hamilton, clasped her hands about her lover's neck.
"That, dear," she told him, "isn't exactly my idea of loving. Whoever fights you fights me as well. I am your mate. My brother has revealed his monstrous malignity of nature today and to sleep one night more under his roof would shrivel my soul. I'd rather walk the streets. I accepted you without terms. Now I impose one condition. You must marry me tonight. Take me away—make me anything but a Burton."
Edwardes pressed her close and neither of them for the moment spoke to Hamilton or looked at him. "It can't be too soon," fervently declared the lover.
"Do you suppose," inquired Hamilton Burton, his eyes narrowing until they held a homicidal gleam, "that I shall permit you to leave my house—with him?"
Mary laughed, then suddenly her voice rose fiercely, ignoring his question. "You say, Hamilton, it is to be war. I shall start the war—now. Jefferson, please find Len Haswell's telephone number. I'm going to give him warning."
With an exclamation of incoherent fury Hamilton Burton leaped for the telephone and tore it loose from its wires. He hurled the broken instrument clattering to the floor and the directory into the flames. Then he stood above the wreckage with his feet apart and his hands clenching and unclenching in a panting picture of demoniac rage.
Mary laughed as one might laugh at the passion of a child. "After all there are other telephones," she said, then added quietly: "You will find in my rooms all the gifts you have loaded upon me. Unfortunately I should have to go out of your house naked if I left behind me everything that has come from you. Will you ring for my maid?"
For a moment the financier stood glaring and silent; then with a powerful struggle for self-mastery he went over and touched a bell. "I can't use physical force against my sister," he said. "You are of age, and your own mistress, but if you make common cause with my enemies, you become my enemy yourself."
When Harrow responded to the call, only the broken telephone bore evidence of the violence of the past few minutes.
"Please ask Julie," instructed the girl quietly, "to pack a bag for me and one for herself. I shall only need enough things for a day or two. Ask her to hurry."
For several minutes the three stood without further speech, and when the brother broke the silence it was in an altered tone.
"Mary," he said seriously, "your happiness is very dear to me. For nothing else would I let any differences between us amount to an issue. For God's sake, forego this mad idea. You are disrupting a family for whose upbuilding I have fought with a very fierce singleness of purpose."
"And to what end?" she demanded, with blazing eyes. "Of my father you have made an artificial gentleman—and once he was a real man. To my mother you have given luxuries instead of life. Paul you have turned into a society lap-dog, and now by adding your strength to his weakness you are trying to make him a beast of prey."
"Those are very bitter accusations," he answered gravely. His face was set, but shame for his recent outburst safeguarded him for the moment against a second.
Harrow appeared after a short time to announce that the maid was ready, and Mary rose from her seat. "Good-by, Hamilton," she said.
"Will you at least go to my mother's house?" he questioned.
"Mother's house is as much your house as this one. No, I shall go where Jefferson Edwardes chooses to take me."
"Then, by God Almighty, you will not go at all!"
Hamilton Burton took his place at the door, and stood barring their way while a dangerous gleam came into Edwardes' eyes. Mary spoke very coldly.
"Hamilton, please let us pass. It would be a pity to edify your servants with a physical collision."
Over the taut whiteness of the brother's face went a wave of doubt. He recognized confronting him a spirit as indomitable as his own. Somehow his arrogance, under her gaze, withered and shrunk into a cheap bravado, and he realized it as such. He spoke once more and his words came slowly.
"I shall not use force. It is, of course, for you to decide. I have perhaps loved you better than any other member of my family. My pride in you has been triumphant. That man who stands at your side came into my house and poisoned your heart against me. He is a traitor and I have marked him for ruin. Decide between us calmly, Mary, because when I resolve I do not deviate."
"I have already decided," she answered. "Please let us pass."
He drew aside and stood there motionless as the street-door opened and closed. Afterward he walked slowly back into the room and stood restlessly on the great bear pelt, gazing into the cavernous hearth. Then he dropped down into the tall Moorish chair where a little while before his sister had been sitting, her eyes brimming with joy. He leaned forward and his hands fell limp from the wrists that rested limp on his knees. Something had gone suddenly out of Hamilton Burton. The eyes that stared into the blaze wore, for the first time, a trace of that fatigue and distress which portraits show in the eyes looking out from St. Helena. Mary was gone; gone with his enemy to fight under his enemy's colors! Her motive bewildered him. What was this love that so powerfully impelled her to desert her own blood? Suddenly his mind flashed back to a kitchen tableau of a small girl breaking into a sudden tempest of tears, and a boy saying, "I mean to see that Mary gets whatever she wants out of life." Then quite irrelevantly a fragment of verse leaped into his memory and prickled it with irritation.
"The Emperor there in his box of state, looked grave as though he had just then seen, The red flags fly from the city gates, where his eagles of bronze had been."
His gaze dropped to the white fur of the rug and abstractedly he picked up his sister's riding-crop and one glove. She had dropped them when Jefferson Edwardes placed the ring on her finger. Hamilton turned the things over in his hand and a groan escaped him. Then suddenly that mood vanished. He rose and paced the floor like a lion lashing itself into fury, and his eyes were fiercely tawny as he paced.
Well, she had chosen. One thing remained possible. The man responsible for this greatest sorrow and humiliation with which he had ever been visited should pay in full the score of reprisal.
With an abrupt impulse he sent for Paul and he was still pacing the room with quick, nervous strides when his brother arrived. The younger man's face was haggard and he cast a quick glance of trepidation about the room.
"Where's Mary?" he demanded, and Hamilton wheeled on him with eyes that were scarcely sane.
"Gone!" he barked out. "Gone with that rat, Edwardes. That's one of the things your whim has cost so far—your baby-doll—your toy-woman!"
With a sudden cry that came from his heart, Paul dropped into a chair and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook to his convulsive sobbing, and after a moment Hamilton went over and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Forgive me, little brother," he said softly. "After all, Edwardes was the real reason. Edwardes with his damned self-righteousness! Mary flew virtuously to his standards. She is no longer my sister, Paul."
But Paul rose with his face full of pleading. He talked rapidly, excitedly, like a frightened child.
"Hamilton, she is our sister. She loves him.... You promised her happiness years ago.... You can't let her go like this. It will kill us all."
His elder brother thrust him back at arm's length and gazed into his grief-stricken face. "It's not a question of letting her go. She went in spite of me. She went to the enemy." The words came very bitterly and for the first time in his life Paul saw tears in Hamilton's eyes.
The musician rose and passed an unsteady hand over his brow. "I'm thinking about mother," he said brokenly. "I must go up and be with her when she learns."
Hamilton wheeled, speaking quickly. "Yes, do. I shall follow you shortly. Tell mother that I withheld my approval to this marriage, and they took the bit in their teeth."
Within the half-hour Carl Bristoll, Ruferton and Tarring were with their chief and between them lay sheafs of memoranda and financial data, which littered the table.
"I want to know in exact detail," Hamilton Burton told them as his glance burned into their faces, "everything that it is possible to learn concerning the firm of Edwardes and Edwardes. Most particularly I want to learn their points of greatest vulnerability. I must have lists of those securities in which, directly or indirectly, they are most vitally interested and the exact nature and extent of all their liabilities."
* * * * *
Outside, Jefferson Edwardes found his car waiting, and the realization came ironically to his mind that it was precisely the hour he had expected to leave Hamilton Burton's house—though his intention had been to leave only long enough to change into evening-clothes and return for dinner. To his chauffeur he said in a low voice, "Drive in the park until I tell you to stop." Then as he took his seat beside the girl he turned upon her very serious eyes and said resolutely, "I couldn't debate it with you in his presence, Mary, but I can't marry you tonight."
She turned her face to him and the color left her cheeks.
"Not marry me?" she questioned in a dazed voice.
"Not yet, dearest. Under other circumstances no time could be too soon, but now—" He raised his hands in a gesture of weariness and sat looking at her with a hunger of the heart.
"Now what?" she prompted.
"Now I am pledged to a life-and-death duel with your brother. Now I must fight not only my fight, but that of many others. It is foolish to treat lightly the threats of Hamilton Burton. His power is incalculable and his implacability is absolute. I can't tear away every family tie that is rooted in your life merely to make you my comrade in ruin. That is not my idea of loving, dearest."
"And if not that—what?" Her chin was raised and her lips parted. Her voice was very soft, almost faint. Never, Edwardes thought, had she been so beautiful. "I have left my brother's house to go with you. I shall not return. Am I, then, to find myself like a beggar woman, with no place to go except the streets of New York?"
With a gasping exclamation of pain in his throat he bent forward and seized her in his arms. The car was now in the park and between the light globes were spaces of darkness.
"For God's sake," he cried, "don't. It is because I love you so!"
"I think, Jefferson," she answered as he held her close with his kisses on her cheeks, "you need me as much as I need you."
"Need you! Because I need you so much, I can't let you do this now."
"You spoke just now," she said, "as though you had no hope of victory in this warfare. If that is true you need me to help you fight. I have no intention of tame submission. You must have a Burton to fight this Burton."
"If I spoke so," he declared, and his voice was far from submissive, "it was because any chance of ruin is too great a chance to subject you to. It is because I mean to defend myself and my clients and my honor to the last breath that I say I can't marry you now. Certainly not until you have gravely considered these new occurrences. I shall take small pleasure in his overthrow, if I overthrow him, because he is your brother."
"I think," her eyes flashed into a fierce animosity, "I shall glory in it. I know that I shall not go back to his support. I offer myself to you. I cannot compel you."
For a long while they talked, she resolved to fight his fight with him or take off his ring; and he, in a torture of soul, refusing so great a gift at so ruinous a cost to herself. At last it was arranged that she should go to her mother's until she had made up her mind, and that they should both accept an invitation for a week at the hunting-lodge of friends in the Adirondacks. There, except for their host and hostess, they would be alone and Edwardes might have a breathing space before his battle.
There they tramped together on snowshoes over white-mantled hills and forgot that any shadow threatened their happiness. They drank deep of air that was spicy with the fragrance of pines and because to them the present seemed so perfect they refused to borrow fears from the future.
Sometimes the man would see a vagrant shadow of foreboding steal into the mismated eyes, but when Mary became aware of its recognition in his own, it was always swiftly banished for one of serene happiness and confidence.
"Dearest," he told her at such a moment—it was the moment of candle-lighting, when dusk brings shadows of fear, "why 'heed the rumble of the distant drum'? We love each other, and when my fight is over no one shall part us."
And she in the circle of his arms looked up and laughed and they both banished from their hearts all thought of Hamilton Burton.
At her mother's house before she came away, Mary had talked to Paul, and had won his weak promise that he would permit his brother to take no dishonorable step toward freeing Loraine Haswell. So she had not kept her threat of warning the husband, and after she had returned to town, her mother fell ill, and in the first call of loyalty there Mary remained with her. About this time she read that Loraine had gone to Europe, and had gone alone.
Days had passed into weeks and Hamilton Burton had struck no blow. Mary had begun to believe that he meant to strike none, and her lover encouraged that view, but he himself knew that it was a phantom hope. He knew that the arch master of financial strategy was building and strengthening every sinew of war, and that the crushing impact of his attack would be only the more terrific because he had curbed his impatience and held his hand until the exact fraction of the psychological moment.
Len Haswell carried a stricken face about the clubs where once he had been the center of jovial gatherings, when he appeared there—which was not often. Old associates who read the signs avoided him out of kindliness save those who like Thayre could be with him without reminding him of his hurt. Thayre, with all his seeming of bluff and noisy gaiety, had an underlying tenderness of heart and delicacy of perception which made him a friend for troubled hours. He knew how to remain silent as well as how to be loquacious and he could radiate an unspoken sympathy.
One evening the Englishman chanced on Haswell in the otherwise deserted reading-room of the National Union Club. Because it was a club chiefly dedicated to the elder generation Thayre came infrequently and it surprised him to find the other there. The big man was sitting with an unread paper on his knee and his eyes were brooding as he gazed out through the Fifth-avenue window on the twilight tide of motors and 'buses and hansoms that passed in an endless and unresting flow.
"I had the idea, Haswell," remarked Thayre as he plumped himself down on the leather arm of the other's chair and grinned his greeting, "that you came to this place once a year—when they held the annual meeting."
"And you?" countered Len in a dull voice. "I didn't regard you as an habitue either."
"Right-o!" The Englishman stretched out one gaitered foot and lighted a cigarette. "I'll tell you a secret. When I grow savage in mood—" his clear-eyed smile belied that state of mind—"I just run in here for a bit of bear-baiting—rather good sport—bear-baiting. This is a den of bears you know. Oh, yes, rather! They are all elderly bears, very crabbed and self-absorbed and very smart and immaculate—but bears none the less. Each has his particular chair, which to his own self-centered mind is his private pedestal. They sit here with their manicured hands resting idly on their robust, waistcoated tummies and stare out on the world like little clay gods." He saw that the other man was following him with a forced and uninterested attention, yet he went on, not like Larry Kirk, but because he was leading up to a purpose of friendship.
"Well, old chap, I just pop in here and squat on one of these pedestals, d'ye see? Presently its proper occupant comes in and glares at me from the door, puffing with indignation. Inwardly he is saying, 'How dare you trespass, you bally young cub?' and I pretend to be quite unconscious of his baleful gaze. I know there's really nothing he can do about it. If he were in London, I expect he'd write to the Times."
Thayre glanced up and started to add: "There's one now glaring at you," but he quickly bit off the words, for he recognized the stout frock-coated figure of old Tom Burton. Old Tom was progressing, for now before the lights were switched on something in his face told that the afternoon rubbers had not progressed without their libations.
After a long pause Haswell said in a heavy voice: "I come here because I don't meet many men who insist on talking to me."
"Oh, I beg pardon, old chap," Thayre hastily rose. "I'm sure I didn't mean—" But before he could finish the big fellow put out a hand and gripped his arm until a pain shot to the elbow.
"You are the one man I do want to see, Norvil. Even a miserable devil like me can talk to you, and there's a thing I want you to do for me, if you will."
Haswell glanced wearily about the big room and assured himself that no one was near enough to overhear his unbosoming. He still spoke in the dulled voice of a dulled heart. His utterance, like his movements, was slow and labored.
"There are times when you've got to talk—or get to feeling giddy and wrong in the head. I've about cut most of my clubs, but I can't cut meeting the men—down-town."
The Englishman nodded, but he said nothing.
"I'm getting rather sick of being asked—" Len halted, then forced the words doggedly—"how Loraine is and when I expect her back. I—well, I don't expect her back, and it hurts like hell to say so."
Norvil met the other's eyes and read in them a fulness of dumb suffering, such as might come into those of a great, faithful dog. His own question followed with a softness of assured sympathy. "And, of course, you want her back?"
A paroxysm of pain distorted his companion's face and his head flinched back as though it had been heavily struck.
"God! yes, like a strangling man wants breath," he said.
It was a misery for which there was no aid, so Thayre satisfied himself with the inquiry: "What is this thing you want me to do?"
"Just intimate to these men that they stop asking those questions, that's all."
"Is there any one you particularly blame?"
Haswell shook his head. "No. There was at first, but the principal point is that she has decided she can't be happy with me. If I try to hold her after knowing that I become her jailer. I treat her as my property. I hope I'm not that sort. I had my chance and have failed."
"I say, I don't want to be impertinent, you know." Thayre bent forward and spoke earnestly. "There are things a man doesn't like to have put up to him. But you aren't letting this knock you off your line, are you? You aren't going to let it bowl you over?"
Again the tall man shook his head. "No, I'm quite all right," he said. "I'm going fairly straight—so far."
Late that night a wet snow was falling and Madison square was almost deserted. Here and there in the Metropolitan and Flatiron buildings shone an isolated and belated window light. At the Garden a Wild West show with rings and side performances had long ago disgorged its crowds and quieted its pandemonium of brass bands. Len Haswell had been walking with the aimlessness of insomnia, and asking himself over and over one question: "What changed it all?" In answer he accused himself and argued the case for the woman without whom he was too lonely to go home and face an empty house.
It was after one o'clock and the saloon doors were barred, but as he passed a small place not far from the square, he saw a side door flap, and he entered it. It was an unprepossessing door, outwardly labeled, "ladies' entrance."
Haswell called for whiskey, and was served by a waiter in a spotted apron, whose dank hair fell over a sallow and oily face. Save for himself, there were only four other customers. In a corner partition a slovenly woman in bedraggled finery berated the man who sat with bloated eyes across from her. The waiter looked on sardonically. At another table were two derelicts from one of the Garden side shows. A truculent and beady-eyed dwarf whose face hardly showed above the boards was brow-beating a cringing giant of unbelievable immensity. "You crabbed my act, you big stiff," shrilled the midget truculently—and his huge vis-a-vis fell into a volume of excuse and apology.
Haswell set down his glass half-empty. "No good," he muttered as he rose and went out again into the streets. "One can't be alone." Yet he felt very much alone.
* * * * *
In these days Paul Burton found his thoughts turning often to Marcia Terroll and himself becoming more dependent on her companionship. In her sunny courage and sparkle of repartee he found a tonic exhilaration for his own jaded spirits and an antidote for growing morbidness. He knew that her daily rounds of the managers' offices were fruitless, and that she walked long distances to save nickels, and in his man's ignorance he marveled because her white gloves were always spotless and her appearance unmarked by poverty. With more money than he could use, his impulse clamored to volunteer assistance—and his judgment forbade the liberty. These days of growing intimacy were troubled days for him, too.
Loraine Haswell was away and her letters kept him reminded that the purpose of her exile was ridding herself of those encumbrances which stood between them. Yet in her absence, there was also the absence of her personal fascination, the daily renewal of her hold on his senses, and, strangely enough, he began to feel that instead of having barriers swept from the path of his love, he was being bound to a future marred by intervals of clouded misgiving.
The thought of Mary also brought him distress. There was no policy of ostrich-blind self-comfort by which he could escape from the realization that he was indirectly a party in responsibility for the destructive menace that hung over her happiness. His few attempts to discuss the subject with Hamilton had not been hopeful or pleasant, and he could not doubt that Edwardes would ultimately be swept into a chaos of ruin because he had opposed the irresistible onrush of his brother's power. He sought to persuade himself of Hamilton's infallible wisdom and Mary's folly of infatuation, but the only certain conviction was that of a bruised and heavy heart in his own breast. Paul was pitiably weak, but, also, he was sensitively tender. Love he gave and commanded with the uncalculating quality of a child.
To Marcia he had not confided any word of his status with Mrs. Haswell, but her quick intuition told her he was deeply troubled—and her quicker sympathy responded. Sometimes Paul longed to see Loraine, but after each visit to the tiny apartment where Marcia Terroll and a girl who drew fashion illustrations had set up their household gods, the vision of his far-away Cleopatra grew a shade dimmer and a trifle more impersonal.
Bit by bit he had pieced together a few sketchy fragments of Miss Terroll's biography, just enough to make the wish for fuller knowledge tantalizing. That was her maiden name, also used as a stage name, but she had been married when just out of Wellesley. She spoke little of that episode. Her girlhood was a pleasanter theme and its environment had been that of his own world—full of the gaiety and sunshine that is girlhood's inalienable right. All these scraps of personal history filtered into their conversation; rather as incidentals than as direct information. This young woman was not of the type that gratuitously relates a life-story. That she had been left resourceless with a young daughter and had fought the world unaided and unembittered, herself retaining the seeming of a child, Paul now knew, but he knew all too little to satisfy his interest. She had been secretary in a business house and an interpreter of German and Spanish. Now she was the only actress he knew—untypical and unemployed.
Paul felt that in the presence of her superior mind and larger education he ought to be abashed, yet he was not, because when she laughed it was with the merriment of a gay child and when she was serious she was sweetly grave. Sometimes he played for her and sometimes she sang for him, and both did what they did so well that the critic in the other found no disappointment.
Unpremeditatedly and very naturally they had struck the basis of a dependable comradeship. She saw the occasional flash of genius in his musical creativeness and his need of practical attributes. To him she was something of a mystery. To her, save for his well-kept secret of loving Loraine, he was an easily read human document. She told him of her broader experiences, always tinging them with a delicious humor in the recital, which twisted into comedy what might have been related as little tragedies, and because she had seen so much of life, where he had seen so little, she was willing to recognize his lovable qualities and overlook his weaknesses.
But just as Paul did not talk much to her of his own affairs and the people of his set, so he did not talk with them of her.
At first she had interested him as an experiment; then as affording the possibility for a new type of adventure in friendship, and when he came to know her in that degree which represented their present association, he ceased to ask why she interested him, and only knew that she did.
Of late she had been unusually gay because of revival of hope. A part which she knew she could play had been half-promised her which would bring Broadway recognition and the chance to be judged on her merits. More than that it would mean the possibility of bringing her small daughter back from the relatives who were playing parents in these days of uncertainty.
One gray and penetrating afternoon laid its depressing fingers on Paul Burton's heart with a heavier touch than usual. Even Hamilton was wearing a frowning and unsympathetic brow these days, and when the musician saw Mary, despite the inflexible courage of her eyes, there was something in them that hurt him to the quick. He knew and shared his mother's grief, but could not bear the trace of unshed tears in her voice. So, seeking asylum from the anxious ghosts that stalked between the walls of his house, he made his way down-town and rang the bell on Marcia Terroll's door. There are women men go to in triumph and women they go to when hurt. Often they are not the same women. It was a raw, bleak afternoon of disheartening drizzle and a reek of fog which veiled the tops of the taller buildings. As he waited for an answer to his ring, he could hear the fog-horn voice groaning over river and bay as though some huge monster were troubled in its sleep.
Then Marcia opened the door and as he made his way along the four-foot hall to the small living-room he discovered that she, too, was pale and distraite.
"What is it?" he demanded with that sympathy which always lay close to the surface of his nature. To his astonishment, the girl whose courage and composure had become the reliance of his own weakness dropped on the disguised cot and buried her face in her hands while her slim figure shook to her sobbing, among the cushions.
Paul stood embarrassed and perplexed. Then, moved by impulse, he crossed to the lounge and his hand fell with a gently caressing touch upon her arm. "Why, little girl," he remonstrated softly, "where is your gay bravery—what has happened?"
She sat up then and almost impatiently shook his hand away. After that she rose to her feet.
"That's just it," she declared, and for the first time in their acquaintanceship her eyes shone with an angry gleam, which quickly faded again into distress. Her tear-stained face confronted him accusingly "Everybody talks about my intelligence—and my courage. That's not what I want. I'm just human and I want a human chance."
"What sort of chance?" he asked in that vague distress which confuses a man and makes him stupid, at sight of a woman's tears.
She lifted her head defiantly. "A chance to work and live and be happy," she told him vehemently. "A chance to support my child and myself. They all praise me, but no one will hire me. I'm tired of fighting—unspeakably tired." Once more her face went into the support of the two small hands and her body shook.
"But your part in the new piece—don't you get it?" he questioned.
"They gave it to another woman," she told him faintly between her fingers. "A woman who—who is the friend of the author."
Heretofore Paul had always felt a half-submerged diffidence with Marcia, such a partially acknowledged deference as one accords to another who has drunk deeper of life and more extensively built wisdom from experience. With her his easy pose of acknowledged genius that passed current in the drawing-rooms lost its assurance, and with her he was at his best because most natural. But this was a new Marcia, a Marcia whose delicate, childlike face was stamped with grief; a child in distress and a child who needed comforting. Just as once before, when there was no escape, Paul had fought the Marquess kid and had been astonished at the ease of battle, so now an impulse seized him and he found himself acting without premeditation. He was the man looking on at the tears of a woman, and a woman whose laughter had often been his comfort. Instinctively he folded her in his arms and kissed the soft hair which was all that showed itself of the bowed head and hidden face.
Now when for the first time he held her close to him he felt a tremor of sobs run through the slender figure. His pulses heightened their tempo as he became conscious of the soft palpitation of her shoulders and bosom.
Sympathy, he thought, actuated him. He took the averted face between his hands and raised it gently, but with a strong pressure until the tear-stained eyes were looking into his own.
Her lips were very petal-like and her eyes were very dewy and on each cheek bloomed a spot of color heightened by the pallor of the moment.
Paul Burton at the instant forgot Loraine Haswell, the prize of his brother's grand larceny for his pleasure, forgot that this woman was no more than his Platonic friend and remembered only that her chin rested in his hand and that his arm encircled her, as he bent his head and pressed his lips against the mouth that trembled.
He did not think of the demonstration as necessarily loverlike. His nature was instinctive, not analytical, but suddenly there swept into the utterly lonely and battle-weary eyes of the woman, who was not a child, a smile of happiness and comfort which parted her lips, so that her face reminded him of sudden sunshine flashing into rainbow hope through an April shower. He could feel the heart fluttering wildly in her breast, and at once he knew that to her his kiss had meant an avowal of love—that in her code there was no place for light or unmeaning caresses.
He rose and his face paled. The indecisiveness which never dared to grasp the thistle firmly was troubling him with a new dilemma. Yet something in Marcia Terroll made a call upon him which no other woman had yet made—the call to be honest at all cost.
With his averted face toward the window, in a forced and level voice, not daring to meet her eyes, he told her almost all there was to tell about Loraine Haswell. The new spark of manhood she had awakened in him made him silent on one point. He said nothing of his own doubts; his own wonder whether after all he loved or wanted Loraine. Just now he fancied he wanted Marcia Terroll.
When the recital reached its end he stood for a space gazing into the fog which seemed an emblem of his own life. He was waiting for her to speak, but the silence remained unbroken. At last he turned and saw her sitting there no longer tearful, only a little stunned.
"I couldn't lie to you," he protested in a hurried utterance as he came over and knelt on the floor at her side. "Not to you.... Of course, you know that I love you very dearly as a man loves his rarest friends.... You know what our comradeship means to me—"
With an impulsive forward sweep of her hands she interrupted him and her voice was burdened with deep pain and heart-ache.
"Don't!" she pleaded, and the monosyllable was like a cry. "Oh, don't!" Then after a little while she went on slowly: "You are a romanticist, Paul, and a dreamer. Some day you will wake up. We all do."
"It was better to tell you, dear, wasn't it? It would have been unfair—"
She bowed her head wearily as though realizing the futility of expecting him to understand. "Yes, I suppose so, only—"
He waited a moment, then prompted:
"Only perhaps a stronger man would have told me before he—kissed me."
"Did that—make so much difference?"
The green-gray eyes grew soft and the lips smiled wanly. "Yes—all the difference," she said. "It made me think for a moment that—that everything was different.... Ordinarily people don't—I mean men don't—" She broke off and then explained a little laboriously. "To me that sort of kiss must mean a very great deal to excuse itself."
"But I did mean it," he fervently assured her. "Marcia, I have been horribly unhappy and you have been lonely. We have seen so much of each other because we wanted each other—needed each other."
The girl rose and went quietly over to the window. Outside the murk of the fog was raw and choking. The stertorous snore of the ferry whistles was uneasy, ominous: the spirit of the town's myriad anxieties. She began to speak with measured syllables and an averted face.
"No, you don't need me, Paul. I hadn't understood before, but I do now. I am this moment's whim, that's all. I don't need you either, I don't need anyone." A trace of resolution and hurt pride tinged the voice, but the resolution was predominant. "I've depended on myself for years and I can go on. When you came today I wasn't myself. I was disappointed and miserable and my misery made its appeal to your sympathy. You were carried away because you're emotional, and it was all my fault. I'm supposed to be practical and I let you do it. We must forget about it now, that's all."
"Some things—" his voice mounted to a thrill of feeling—"can't be forgotten."
"They must be."
"I have made you angry," he said with deep contrition, "and it's the last thing in the world I wanted to do."
Marcia smiled again, as she might have smiled on a child who promises to be good all its life, and who will in a forgetful half-hour be again breaking all the laws and ordinances of the nursery.
"No, I'm not angry," she said thoughtfully. "One should not be angry with a person of your exact sort, Paul. In another man the same thing would have made me angry, but not in you. I am only sorry it happened. Let's pretend it didn't."
"Why," he inquired, puzzled, as he gazed at the face still moist with its recent tears and now rather cryptic in its expression, "are your laws of judgment different for me than for other men?"
Marcia shook her head.
"Perhaps just because you are yourself different from other men. Maybe in the artist there is something of the woman and something of the child, as well as something of the man. One doesn't grow angry with a child."
"Oh!" The monosyllable came with an undernote of chagrin. "I'm not exactly responsible. That's what you mean?"
She did not answer in words, but her eyes as she looked off through the drizzle with her fingers hanging limply motionless at her sides gave him the affirmative reply, and he went on in a low voice.
"Of course, that would make you hate me. It must make anyone hate me if it's true."
There was a moment's silence and he heard her laugh. It was a sound of a single note and it was neither a laugh of amusement nor of ridicule. If there was any betrayal of laughing at the expense of someone, the someone was evidently herself, and Paul was not sure it was a laugh after all. Possibly it was a single sob or half-sob and half-laugh. But she went on in a voice flattened by weariness.
"Life deals in paradoxes. Possibly that very thing might make one love you."
Paul stood in the small room, feeling himself very small and contemptible. The face of Loraine rose before his memory, beautiful and petulant, appealing and regal, features of ivory with poppy-like lips, dominated by dusky eyes and night-black hair.
Suddenly she seemed responsible for all his uncertainties. He saw her just then as a Circe. He was a man, swung to an ebb and flow of mood by influences outwardly as nebulous as moon-mists. Just now the influence of Loraine Haswell was at ebb-tide. Tomorrow it might run again to flood, but Paul Burton obeyed the prompting of the present.
With a low exclamation that was wordless and a face tense and white, he was at the girl's side and his arms were again about her. She shook her head and tried to draw away, but he only held her the more closely until she raised her face and said patiently, "I'm very tired, don't make me fight both myself and you."
The musician shook his head and talked fast. "You said when I kissed you that you thought it meant something very different. You could have meant only that you thought I loved you. But that was not all. Thinking that I loved you would have meant nothing to you if you hadn't loved me—if you didn't love me now. You do. You have just said, 'Don't make me fight myself.' There would be no fight with yourself—if you didn't love me."
He paused and his arms held her very close, as he saw her turn away her face and make an effort to release herself, but in the eyes that she averted he read the cost of the effort.
"Please let me go." The words came faintly.
"Not until you answer me. I love you, Marcia. This time it means all that you thought it meant before. I love you."
Her eyes came around again and intently studied his own, then the voice spoke in low tone:
"No. You think you do—but it's only impulse."
"I love you," he insisted, "and you love me. Your pupils confess it. Why deny it with your lips? You love me."
She gently disengaged herself and sat again on the lounge.
"Very well," she told him as she looked at him with an honesty of expression under which his own gaze fell discomforted, "suppose I do confess it, what then? I hadn't ever meant to confess it, but perhaps it's better that we understand things. We mustn't drift blindly. Just now, Paul, when you declared your love you thought you meant it. For the fleeting time it took to say it you did mean it. If you saw her tomorrow you would tell her the same things, and you'd believe yourself honest. If I loved you beyond all hope of forgetting you, it would only prove that we had both made a mistake. We mustn't go on with it."
As a wind may veer without warning, the current of Paul Burton's emotions shifted. While wishing to deny and argue, he knew that what she told him was true. He had entered the house with no thought of love-making. Had she accepted his protestations at their face value, he would have left it shaken with an agony of doubt and misgiving. After all he had sworn his love first to Loraine. He had permitted her to separate from her husband on the assumption that his own allegiance would hold. Could a man truly love two women at the same time, he wondered. Whatever he did he must appear a weak fool. The fact that this phase of the matter presented itself for consideration at this time proved only that it was Paul Burton who found himself in the situation.
"I don't know what to say," he admitted brokenly. "I know only that I would like to be happy, if it's humanly possible, and I'd give anything on earth to see you happy. At least you believe that much, dear, don't you?"
She nodded. "Yes," she said, "I believe—that much."
Then after a few moments she continued seriously:
"We have been trusting ourselves on quicksands, Paul, and between us we've done one wise thing. We've discovered it in time. Maybe it would be still wiser now to be really frank for once and then to be very careful afterwards."
"What do you mean, exactly?"
"I divined your unhappiness, and I knew my own—for a long time I've known my own. You have been petted and praised by women—women of that world which was once mine. You say I love you. Do you know why—?" She wheeled suddenly and spoke without disguise. "Not because you are a great musician or a celebrity. It is because I realize how weak and foolish and helpless you are." The man winced, but she went on steadily. "In all woman-love there is a ruling element of mother-love. I wanted to take you into my heart and make you happy, to ... to give you all a woman can give a man."
He came forward and his words were unsteady.
"You can at least let me be your best and closest friend—"
"No. I doubt if men and women can really be friends. It comes to mean too much—or too little."
Again she interrupted and again the voice was monotonous, almost lifeless.
"No, dear. All our silly little jokes—things that have come to be dear little traditions between us—would be mockeries now." She raised her chin, and said suddenly, with a forced laugh: "I don't often have these brain-storms. They make me very foolish. We must see less of each other, Paul."
"And yet," he stubbornly argued, "it has been only an hour since the basis of our comradeship was secure enough."
"In that hour we have come a long way, dear. It's going to be hard enough to get back as it is."
She stood still and, after a brief silence, spoke once more.
"I must brush these cobwebs away from my brain ... only—" suddenly her eyes flooded and there was a gasping sob in her voice—"only they aren't cobwebs—they are cables and chains! I was a fool to expect to be happy. I haven't been happy for years. I've never had what I've wanted.... I haven't even been able to have my baby with me." Marcia went slowly to a chair and sat staring, wide-eyed, at the wall. At last she looked up and commanded in a whisper. "You must go now—don't say good-by—just go!"
Paul took up his hat and let himself out into the narrow hall.
The illness of Elizabeth Burton proved tedious and perplexing to the specialists who traced its origin beyond the purely physical to some unconfessed thing gnawing at the peace of her brain. Accordingly they did what they could and, having effected a temporary repair, fell back on the customary prescription of change and travel.
During these weeks Mary had been constantly with her mother—and when she was even a short while away the elder woman anxiously called for her. Sometimes she and Hamilton had met, but at these times there was no syllable of surrender from the lips of either; only a tacit sort of truce such as might have existed where two armies drawn tensely in confronting battle-lines pause to care for the wounded in which both have interest. But when the mandate came that Elizabeth Burton must go abroad Mary Burton faced the sternest dilemma which had ever presented itself for her decision. The mother refused absolutely to obey the verdict unless her daughter accompanied her, and while Mary was abroad she could only guess what crises her lover might be meeting at home—because he was her lover.
She and Edwardes were walking together one afternoon as they discussed this new complication in their affairs. They had chosen for their tryst neither the smooth stretch of the avenue nor the paths of the park, but those tangled by-ways that thread the woods back of the Jersey Palisades.
It was a cold day with air as biting as a lash and as clear as crystal, and since these woods were wild and desolate in spots though skirted by smooth road-ways and flanked by handsome estates they had for the most part uninterrupted solitude. Ragged outcroppings of rock stood baldly etched against the brilliant sky and through the open spaces they occasionally saw the Hudson and the contour of upper New York. Twice they came upon rouged and powdered men and women with beaded lashes, but these men and women were too busy doing varied things before cameras to take notice of them, for their refuge was also the open-air workshop of moving-picture folk.
"Of course you must go," Edwardes seriously told her. "Your mother's health—her life itself—may depend on it. You aren't the sort who can hesitate to answer such a call and it won't be forever, you know."
"And while I'm—over there—with an ocean between us"—she broke off and her eyes darkened with terror—"you may be facing a decisive battle here—a battle decisive for both of us. If you have to fight, it's my right to be near you—to share your fortunes and your misfortunes. Our love didn't begin as little loves do. It sha'n't end that way."
"If I thought—" his voice was very deep in its earnestness—"that anything could mean an end of our love, I couldn't make a fight whether you were here or elsewhere. I think our love will outlast all battles. I want you to go."
"And if I do go," she demanded with a gaze of questioning which demanded a truthful answer, "will you swear, by whatever is holiest and means most to you, that you will cable me at the first intimation of storm?"
For a while he stood silent and his features were trouble-stamped; then he took both her hands and their eyes met. Slowly he bowed his assent. "I swear it," he told her, "by my love for you, but if I read the signs aright the time is not quite that close at hand."
In these days Hamilton Burton's secret service was preternaturally active. Less of the Titan's affairs passed through the hands of Carl Bristoll. He could be implicitly trusted, but called on only for honest service. More went through Tarring and Ruferton and Hendricks—who questioned no motives.
After two months Mary returned, and when she met the gaze of Jefferson Edwardes she read in it the struggle which his fight against his heart's clamorous insistence had cost him. "I have thought of little else since I went away," she told him, "and I have decided that either I am worthy to stand with you in whatever comes to you, or I am not worthy to be your wife at all. Hamilton hurled his threat at us and we, like a pair of timid children, let him frighten us. In this as in everything else he has had his way and we are paying the price—giving up our lives."
"It's very hard," he answered, "to stand out against you, when only my mind argues against you and my heart is so insistent on the other side. You say you have thought of little else. I have thought of nothing else. The clocks have chimed it—the bells have rung it—the voice of the city has roared and echoed it. I want you so much, dear, that without you I am starving. You pledged yourself to me and then came this menace. I couldn't let you act blindly. Now if you are still resolute—"
"I am more so," she declared. "My brother issued his challenge and we accepted it. Yet we went abjectly away and obeyed him. If he means to fight he must fight now. I am no less a Burton than himself and I am tired of submission."
Jefferson Edwardes smiled. For the instant everything except her own undaunted courage seemed to shrink into minor consideration.
"You are right," he said, and he said it with a note of triumph. "We shall announce our engagement and set a day—neither hastening it nor delaying it—but acting precisely as you would act had he never opposed us. If he thinks he can stop us let him try." He paused and his face suddenly hardened as he added, "There have been moments when murder has tempted me—when I wanted to go to Hamilton Burton and kill him with my hands."
Paul was commissioned by his mother to convey to Hamilton the news which would on the following day appear in all the society columns, the statement that in thirty days Miss Mary Burton would become the bride of Mr. Jefferson Edwardes, head of Edwardes and Edwardes. At first Hamilton said nothing. His face paled a little and he reached out and fingered a paper-weight and a pen, with the gesture of one whose brain takes no thought of what his hand does.
Then slowly his eyes kindled into the tawny gleam of a tigerish light.
"It was very good of them to wait so long," he said significantly. "I think I am just about ready now."
"What do you mean, Hamilton?" Paul bent forward and spoke with alarm.
"Mean!" Hamilton came to his feet and his anger snapped across the table like a powerful current leaping a broken wire. He took up a delicately fashioned statuette of porcelain and tossed it to the stone flagging of the hearth where it lay shivered. He walked over and contemptuously kicked some of the fragments toward the open fire.
"Mean! I mean that I shall treat him like that. What's left when I'm through Mary can have—for a wedding or a funeral whichever seems most suitable."
For once in his life a flame of resistance and momentary courage leaped up in Paul Burton.
"You shall do nothing of the sort," he vehemently declared. "Mary is my blood and your blood and my mother's blood. You sha'n't sacrifice her, merely because she loves a man whom you hate."
"Stop!" Hamilton raised his hands warningly. "Don't throw yourself to the enemy, Paul. Don't make an irreconcilable breach between us. I don't find fault with your sympathy. I should hate you if you didn't feel it—but this man Edwardes is doomed. Nothing can save him. If heaven itself fought for him, I would make war on heaven, whoever attempts to thwart me—even if it be you, Paul, shall go with him to ruin. We won't talk of this again."
* * * * *
Mary Burton awoke one morning to see, through her window blinds, a mixture of snow and rain falling from low-hanging clouds; yet her lips parted in a smile. She glanced at the clock by her bed. It was eleven. In just one week and sixty minutes she and Jefferson Edwardes would be standing at the altar.
She threw a dressing-gown about her, and, slipping her small pink feet into small pink slippers, crossed idly to the window. Then with a face that in an instant went white with a premonition of disaster, she wheeled on Julie and her voice came in an agitated whisper.
"What are they calling extras about? Get me a paper quick." When a few minutes later a sheet still damp from the presses lay before her she needed only the flaring headlines to corroborate her fears. With throbbing temples she swayed unsteadily as she made her way to a chair and sank down, gripping the paper tightly in a clenched fist. Four words were hammering themselves into her brain and heart: "Stock-Exchange in Frenzy." ... Her apathy of inactivity lasted only a few moments. Then she came to her feet and, instead of panic, resolution sounded through her voice. "Dress me, Julie," she commanded. "Dress me quickly. I must be down-town at once. 'Phone for the car. Don't waste an instant." At least she would be there—where battle was raging.
"But, mademoiselle, in an hour you are due for a fitting—your wedding-gown."
"Don't stop to talk—hurry!"
Her wedding-gown! She wondered if she would ever need it.
As her car neared the business district she could feel in the air such an electric tensity as one might expect to find at the verge of a battle-field.
At first it was only a spirit of heightened excitement in the street crowds; and the way men ran to meet the newsboys half-way. Then it was humanity jostling about the doors of a bank with the excitement of swarming bees. Across City Hall park came a glimpse of surging throngs at the bulletin boards, and the unpleasant chorus of voices as fresh bulletins went up.
* * * * *
Hamilton Burton had reached his office that morning at eight-thirty and was ready upon their arrival to confer with those lieutenants whom he had ordered to be with him at nine. Len Haswell appeared with the lack-luster seeming of a jaded spirit and though Burton had on past occasions chosen him as leader of every fierce assault on the floor, because of his quick brain, his commanding physique and the voice that could boom out like a heavy gun over the pandemonium of a frenzied exchange, he now eyed his gigantic broker dubiously. This was no day for his lieutenants to carry into that Gehenna which he meant to precipitate senses dulled, or hearts cast down. This morning's work called for such spirit as carries forward a tide of bayonets thirsting for blood back of the trenches they charge. There must be the ferocity of barbarians bearing knife and torch: of the hordes of the Huns and Vandals. There of course was Hardinge, a man who, had he not been a broker, might have made a headquarters detective, so hard and devoid of humanity was the fashion in which he went about his work. His nature was that of a cock tossed into the pit or a bull turned into the ring. Such men Hamilton wanted now, for into the five hours of the Stock-Exchange day he meant to crowd such a sum of mad disaster and panic conflagration that the history of the Money World should be beggared for a comparison. They had tauntingly named him the Great Bear, but this day should demonstrate that heretofore he had been only a gentle and playful cub. Cash—cash, cash! Such had been his watchword and he had stamped on the world of finance a belief that his command of gold was endless. Even should he reach the end of his resources with his task unfinished, he knew that his tremendous nerve was in itself unlimited backing. The nature of the trading on the floor precluded any discovery, during the length of the session, of a depleted treasury—and left open the path for onward charges. But before his treasury was depleted the whole structure would lie in ruins.
He glanced out of his window and smiled. It was the sort of a day which men in police circles describe as "suicide weather." Coroners will tell you that on such days their calls are most numerous and history will tell you that on such days the greatest financial disasters of the world have visited stock-exchanges and bourses. Burton's jaws were set and his eyes ablaze with a fiery tenseness which was hardly sane. His loins were girded and to one focal object was every power dedicated. He was going to mete out death and destruction. He would grapple with enemies who had taught him the art of death and destruction. As he ended his instructions to his brokers he looked at his watch; it was nine-forty-five. "Cut loose!" he almost shouted. "Railway Generals closed at 175. By noon I want them down to 50. When Malone's gang begin pegging the market, break their pegs. Don't spare Coal and Ore. Keep them too busy with self-preservation to let them think of rescuing others. Give them slaughter—and unshirted hell!"
* * * * *
The light that rains down from the ceiling of the Stock-Exchange is a softened, benevolent light, even when the outer skies are lowering. The gentlemen inside play their game in a well-appointed gambling parlor.
It would not be fitting that they should seem pikers. Above them stretches a ceiling of soft color scheme in delicate pink and blue and from this canopy sixty-two ceiling lights shed down a tempered radiance from globes suggestive of inverted golden blossoms. The great bronze-framed windows, too, at the east and west make a greater part of the wall area as receptive of brightness as does a studio skylight—for the world's cleverest financiers must be cheered by brightness and protected against gloom.
Today the great interior cube of space needed all the light that could flood the area between its marble walls—for despite the sixty-two inverted blossoms it was to see black hours.
Of that there was of course no suspicion at first.
The assembled brokers chatted carelessly, and between them sedately passed the floor employees in cadet gray, and boys carrying green watering-pots with which, when many feet had pounded the boards into dust, they would sprinkle this hot-house of Finance, as they might have sprinkled a bed of thirsty geraniums.
Then from the marble balcony, where is placed the president's chair, sounded the clang of the opening gong. The session had begun.
Hamilton Burton's lieutenants meant to waste no moment of the five-hour session. Another day meant the drawing of new lines, and time for tallying and rallying, but what was done today was immutably done. Hardinge and Haswell stood near the post at whose head hung the sign, "Railway Generals." About them lounged a handful of dilatory brokers. Railway Generals had closed yesterday strong at 175, but quotations from London, where by reason of difference in time there had already been several hours of trading, reflected an unaccountable nervousness over-seas. So the stock opened five points off.
Every game has its traditional rules. It is a cardinal by-law of the Exchange that until the gong peals every man on the floor must maintain an unruffled and blase composure, though when the clamor of the big bell unleashes their restraint whosoever chooses may leap into the frenzy of a madhouse.
A voice at the Railway-Generals post drawled out "170 for any part of 5,000 Generals," and on the instant Hardinge's deep basso boomed a challenge and a battle cry as he yelled back, "Sold!"
The bidder was Jack Staples, and he bore the credentials of J.J. Malone. For just an instant he eyed his vis-a-vis and his prominent lower jaw seemed to protrude more aggressively, as his indolent manner dropped from him and his eyes kindled. He brushed back the white lock on his forehead and defiantly shouted, "168 for any part of 10,000," but before the words had come to conclusion on his lips, the rifle-like retort had met him from the throat of Hardinge, "Sold!"
"165 for any part of 10,000!"—"Sold!" This time the deep-lunged monosyllable burst volcanically from the lips of Len Haswell, and it rang across the floor and echoed between the walls like a thunderclap between the cliffs of a mountain gorge.
Instantly crowds surged forward and elbowed their ways to the Generals post. Where five minutes back there had been scant dozens there were now full hundreds who shouldered and shoved and fought, struck by a sudden wild realization that a fight was on. At the center of the vortex they could see the sandy head of Len Haswell high above the crowns of other men and in his face they read the gage of battle. No longer was this the heartsick face which of late had avoided the gaze of his fellows. It was the fighting face of one who hurls himself into the thick of a struggle, seeking forgetfulness in the ferocity of combat.
"163 for any part of 10,000"—"SOLD!"
With each repetition the unchanged formula took on an added ferocity—a deeper meaning. It was a three-cornered duel. Jack Staples leaned eagerly forward, his eyes burning and keen with aggressive alertness like a boxer facing opponents in a battle royal. Len Haswell seemed bending to meet him, his long arm raised and his face afire, while Hardinge, whose place had been for the moment preempted, mopped his brow, already perspiring, and smiled grimly like a relay racer waiting his turn.
But what gave an undercurrent of terrific force to the battle of these three men was the thing which every broker present understood—that one of them was the floor spokesman of Malone and Harrison and the old invincible order of Consolidated—and that two voiced the message of the new power and in the name of Hamilton Burton were declaring a war to the death.
"160 for any part of 20,000"—"SOLD!"
Generals had broken fifteen points in ten minutes and were slumping as though their foundations floated in thin air. A yell went up over the floor through which sounded demoniac notes of panic and rage. Men surged around the Generals post, struggling as cowards might struggle to leave a burning theater, collars tore loose and eyes glittered like those of a wolf-pack. The blackboards at north and south burst into a hysterical flashing of white numbers, and a word went out which set the cylinders of printing presses whirling. A Burton bear raid was on, and the Street was in panic-making excitement!
But close around the post three figures still dominated the picture. Staples with his tigerish teeth to the crowd fought the two men who carried Burton's orders and who with implacable monosyllables still hammered the market with sledges of mighty resource. What had been the orderly floor of an artistically designed mart of trade was now a hell of pandemonium. With the sweat pouring down his face, his hands clenched above his head, and his deep voice strained into a hoarse bellow, Jack Staples of Consolidated fought as a man fights death, to breast and stem and turn the tidal wave of disaster.
Other stocks followed suit, and while Haswell, forgetting in his excitement that he had been officially superseded, crouched face to face, battering his opponent, Hardinge fought his way like a madman out of the maelstrom and declared war on Coal and Ore. Voices blended into a frenzied Walpurgian uproar. Frantic telephone calls made the blackboard one flickering, wavering, confusing area of black and white where no spot was white for any consecutive minute and no spot black.
For an hour it raged so, down!—down!—down!—with no moment of recovery and no instant of changing tide. When now and again the din subsided for a few moments of recovered breath, while traders "verified," faces streaming sweat looked as haggard as though it was blood that was pouring from them. Voices cracked with hoarseness as men stood panting like dogs torn from the embrace of battle and waiting only for the leash to loosen and free them again for renewed battle. Underfoot they trod the confetti-like scraps of torn papers. Among them went the men with green watering-pots. Outside newsboys called yet new extras. The market had been open an hour and the Street was seeing the most delirious day of mania in its history. Then in one of the lulls came that sound which between the hours of ten and three is never heard save as the clarion of disaster. The great gong in the president's gallery sent out its strident and metallic voice, and in the dead silence that followed its command an announcement was made.
"The Western Trust Company announces that it cannot meet its obligations."
The weakest barrier had fallen, and it was only the beginning.
When Mary Burton presented herself in the anteroom of the suite whose ground-glass doors bore the legend "Edwardes and Edwardes," and asked for the banker, a man with a pale and demoralized face gazed at her blankly. Could any one seek to claim, except on most urgent business, one minute out of these crucially vital hours? They were hours when the real target of the whole panic-making bombardment was striving to compress into each relentless instant a separate struggle for survival.
"I am Mary Burton," she said simply; and the man stood dubiously shaking his head. His nerve-racked condition could only realize the name Burton—and in these offices it was not just now a favored name.
As he stood, barring the way to an inner room marked "private," the door opened and Jefferson Edwardes came hurriedly out. He looked as she had never seen him look before, for deep lines had seared themselves into his face, aging it distressingly, and the mouth was drawn as that of a man who has been called back from the margin of death. But his eyes held an unwavering fire and his jaw was set in the pattern of battle. Mary remembered a painting of a solitary and wounded artilleryman leaning against a shattered field gun amid the bodies of his fallen comrades. The painter had put sternly into the face an expression of one who awaits death, but denies defeat. Here, too, was such a face. The man, hastening out, halted suddenly. Then he stepped back into his own office, silently motioning her to follow.
"It has come," he told her quietly. "We should have expected it, yet we were taken by surprise. Today tells a grim story."
"What does it all mean?" she pleaded. She stood close with her face almost as dead white as the ermine that fell softly about her shoulders. "I read the papers—and I came at once—to be near you in these hours. What does it mean?"
"I can't explain now," he answered in the quick utterance of one to whom time is invaluable. "Now every minute may mean millions—even human lives and deaths. I told you that he must trample down the innocent and the ignorant to come within striking distance of me. He is doing it. The bottom has dropped out of everything—pandemonium reigns. Each minute is beggaring hundreds—each half-hour is sending old houses to the wall and shattering public confidence. By this afternoon the country will be in the lockjaw paralysis of panic—unless we can stem the tide. Will you wait here for me? I must go to Malone."
"And there is nothing I can do—nothing?" Her voice was agonized and, with his hand on the knob, he abruptly wheeled and came back. He caught her fiercely in his arms and held her so smotheringly to his breast that her breath came in gasps. She clung to him spasmodically and the lips that met his were hot with a fever of fear and love. "Nothing I can do," she whispered, "though I am—the Helen who brought on the war?"
"Yes," he spoke eagerly, passionately, and she could feel the muscles in his tensed arms play like flexible steel as her hands dropped to rest inertly upon them. "Yes, there is something you can do—something you are doing! You are giving me a strength beyond my own strength to fling myself on these wolves and beat them back. You are giving me a battle-lust and a hope.... Now I must go."
She released him and forced a smile for his departure, then sank into a chair—his chair by a paper-littered desk—and her eyes, very wide and fixed, gazed ahead—at first unseeing. Yet, after an interval they began to take in this and that detail of the place, where she had never been before.
This was his office, the workshop in which he carried on his affairs and the affairs of the concern which had its foundation in unshaken ideals and high honor. In an intangible fashion its inanimate accessories reflected something of himself. On one wall, from a generous spread of moose antlers, hung a rifle and a pair of restrung snowshoes: reminders of the open woods he loved. There were autographed portraits of many men whose names were names of achievement, and one, in a morocco frame surmounted by a gilt crown, attested the personal regard of a reigning monarch. With clenched hands and a grim determination to divert her mind from the danger of madness, she went about the walls, reading those brief tributes to the man she loved. Then she came back and picked up a gold frame which rested on his desk, where, as he worked, his eyes might never be long without its view—and she was gazing into her own eyes. She glanced out across the steep-walled, fog-reeking canons where Finance has its center and whence its myriad activities palpitate through arteries of masonry and nerves of wire. He was out there somewhere, in the maw of that incalculably destructive machine, fighting its determination to grind him between its wheels and cogs and teeth. Mary Burton shuddered and tried by the pressure of her fingers to still the violent throbbing of her temples.