Then her eyes began absently studying the inscriptions on the windows of the next building, beyond an intervening court, and she smothered an impulse to scream as a sign across several broad panes flared at her in goldleaf.
"Hamilton Montagu Burton." A bitter fascination held her gaze there. She saw offices teeming with the fevered activity of a beehive—and another window showed a room where the electric lamps shone on emptiness. After she had watched it for a time a solitary figure came into view and stood by the ledge looking out. It was her brother, and though, through the gray fog, he was silhouetted there against the light at his back, something in the posture revealed his mood of Napoleonic implacability. It was as though he were, from an eminence, actually viewing the battle whose secret springs his fingers controlled, and as though he were well pleased.
Jefferson Edwardes had hurried out with a feeling of renewed strength. It was to him as though a promise of hope had been vouchsafed in a moment of despair. At Malone's office, he met Harrison, Meegan and several others. The old lion of the Street himself was slamming down the telephone as the newcomer entered.
"I've been talking with Washington," he announced, and his voice was one of steel coolness. At such an hour as this Malone wasted no minim of strength in futile anger. That belonged to other moments. "We have done what we could. It is not enough. We must do more. We have pegged those stocks where the slump would be most demoralizing and already this highbinder, Burton, has smashed those pegs like match-stems. We have sent money to a dozen banks that seemed hardest pressed, and scores are sending out calls for help. Good God, gentlemen, it's like sweeping back the sea with brooms."
"Why did you send for me?" demanded Edwardes, though he knew.
"To ask your aid," came the crisp reply. "This is a general alarm. The next few hours will roar to the continuous crash of falling banks—many of them banks that have a close relationship to you, Edwardes. Once more we must go to the rescue and it will take fifty additional millions. Otherwise—panic unparalleled. We expect you to stand your pro rata."
"Gentlemen," said the latest comer bluntly, "this raid is primarily aimed at me—its principal object is my destruction. Already I am hit for millions. I, too, was about to call for help from you. When this succession of crashes comes, Edwardes and Edwardes may be among the ruins."
The bushy brows of Malone came together in astonishment. "Great heavens, man! Edwardes and Edwardes is a synonym for Gibraltar."
"And under heavy enough artillery—" Edwardes spoke with bitter calmness—"Gibraltar would be a synonym for scattered junk. What news from Washington?"
"Washington has called Burton on the telephone. The Secretary of the Treasury has failed to connect with him. He does not acknowledge telegrams. He is ignoring the government and treating the President with contempt. He wants to have today for his massacre—and to talk about it tomorrow. We have sent repeatedly to his office. He can't be reached."
"That effort may as well be dropped." Edwardes shrugged his shoulders wearily. "He will have his day—and leave tomorrow to itself."
"And by the Immortal!" For an instant a baleful fire leaped into Malone's face. "We will have tomorrow! Every sinew of American finance shall be strained against him. But tomorrow may be too late. Can you hold out?"
Edwardes smiled grimly. "I'm trying like all hell," he said. "I've not laid down yet."
* * * * *
It was two o'clock and the Stock-Exchange was a shambles. Every security in the Street was down to panic figures and plunging plummet-like to further depths. At shortening intervals over the hoarse shrieks of the floor's tumult boomed the brazen hammer blows of the huge gong, which should sound only twice each day. At every recurring announcement of failure a wall-shaking howl went up and echoed among the sixty-two inverted golden blossoms of the ceiling.
The faces of the men to whom these cracked and hoarsened voices belonged had become bestial and wolfish. Where the morning had seen well-groomed representatives of Money's upper caste, the afternoon saw a seething mass of human ragamuffins, torn of clothing, sweat-drenched and lost to all senses save those twin emotions of ferocity and fear. Back and forth they swirled and eddied, and howled like wild things about carrion. At one side, panting, disheveled and bleeding from scratches incurred in the melee, bulked the gigantic figure of Len Haswell. He had no need now to bellow in a bull-like duel of voices and ferocity. The stampede had been so well put into motion that the floor was doing for him his deadly work of price-smashing. Telegraph wires were quivering from every section of the United States to the tune of—"Sell—cut loose—throw over!" A universal mania to get any price for anything was sweeping the land like a conflagration. Tomorrow would bring those reflexes from today when banks and trust companies from the Lakes to the Rio Grande would topple in the wake of their metropolitan predecessors. Ruin sat crowned and enthroned, monarch of the day and parent of a panic which should close mills, and starve the poor and foster anarchy—but Hamilton Burton's hand was nearer Edwardes' throat.
Staples and his twenty cooeperators fought on doggedly, grimly, to turn the tide before the close, but the nation was mad, and the men who fought and clamored here in this pit of its bowels were the most violent maniacs.
And while these things went forward Mary Burton still sat alone in the private office of Jefferson Edwardes, waiting. Through century-long hours she had in her ears only the din from the street and that incessant ticking of the stock-tape at her elbow.
Every few minutes she rose and anxiously ran through her fingers the long thin coil of paper which it fed so endlessly into its tall wicker basket. She could make little of those abbreviated letters and numbers, though she realized that every succeeding glance showed a shrinkage of each value. One thing she could read with a deadly clarity—those hideous words that meant the falling of the outposts. "So and So announce that they cannot meet their obligations." There were other grim scraps of information, too, wedged between the hurried quotations such as, "Police reserves called to quell riot at closed North Bank," and finally, "Troops from Governor's Island to guard sub-treasury."
Finally she went to the window and raised the sash to let the cold air blow against her fevered cheeks, and as she did so she heard yells and the gongs of patrol-wagons. The madness was spreading beyond the confines of enclosing walls.
Mary Burton turned, heavy-hearted, back to the room's interior and her glance fell on the clock. It recorded two-forty. She wondered when Edwardes would return. She had spent the day in his office because she knew that when he came in, as he had done several times, only to hasten out again, he found in her forced smile renewal of strength for his combat, which enabled him to go out smiling through the drawn agony of his harassment.
The hateful ticker drew her back with its light clatter. Perhaps at last it had good tidings to offer. Unless it brought them soon it would bring them too late—like a reprieve after execution. She took the narrow thread of paper in her hand and glanced at its latest entries. As she watched the small type wheel revolve and stamp, it broke upon her that the inanimate herald was spelling out, letter by letter, a familiar name.
"E-D-W-A-R-D-E-S A-N-D E-D-W-A-R-D-E-S."
With a smothered shriek Mary Burton dropped the tape as though it had scorched her fingers. She groped her way half-blindly to the chair by Jefferson's desk, and, sinking into it, buried her face in her crossed arms. She could not have shed a tear or uttered a word. She was paralyzed in an icy terror. That was how all these other announcements had begun: With the name of the failing firm. After what seemed a decade she drew herself up and sat erect and white, trembling from her throat to her feet. She forced her agonized features into a semblance of artificial calm. Suppose he should return to her now, defeated, ruined, crushed, and open his door on that picture of despair and surrender!
The clock said two-fifty-five. So she had been sitting here ten minutes! Grasping the arms of her chair and bracing herself, she rose with a labored effort and went resolutely back to the ticker where, as one draws aside a veil which may reveal tragedy, she picked up the tape again. She saw no name this time, and suddenly it occurred to her that the monstrous thing had passed callously on to other news—as though there were other news!
She dragged it out of its twisted coils in the basket and read in cold, unpunctuated capitals, EDWARDES AND EDWARDES FAIL TO MEET OBLIGATIONS.
The girl reeled and leaned limply against the wall, and, as she stood there overpowered and dizzy, a low incoherent moan came up from her throat. Then as she mechanically held the tenuous death-warrant in her pulseless fingers, her eyes fell on an item just finished.
MARKET TAKES TURN BURTON BROKERS BIDDING UP.
A comprehension came to her and her brain reeled in fury and torture. Now that his end was accomplished, the Great Bear had turned bull. He would sell back on the rise what he had slaughtered on the fall, and when tomorrow's reaction came with its roster of deluded misery he would harvest vast profits on his massacre.
She heard a sound beyond the ground glass as though a hand groped before its fingers found and closed upon the knob. Then slowly the door swung inward, and Jefferson Edwardes entered. His overcoat hung over one arm, and, as Mary saw his face, her hands clutched at her heart, but he did not seem to see her—or to see anything. With a most careful deliberation the ruined man closed the door silently behind him. He did it as though he were entering a sick room where he must guard against disturbing the patient with the slightest sound. Then he took a step or two forward and halted to stand gazing straight ahead of him, while with the sleeve of one arm he brushed at his forehead and moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue.
Mary wondered for an agonized instant whether the cord of his sanity had snapped under the day's terrific ordeal, and she stood there still leaning limp and pallid and wide-eyed against the wall, holding before her the tape that had told her the story—and not realizing that she held it. Then the man awoke from his sleep-walker's vacancy and realized her presence. At the sight of her despairing eyes and inert figure resting for support against the mahogany panels, his expression altered. His eyes woke to life and, again moistening his lips, he forced the ghost of a smile which at first succeeded only in being ghastly.
"So you know?" he questioned.
Mary Burton did not reply in words. She could not, but she nodded her head and something between a groan and a sob came from her parted lips. Then her voice returned and she murmured in heart-broken self-accusation: "It was because of me."
He stood shaking himself as a dog shakes off water. His drooped shoulders came back with an abrupt snap and his head threw itself up and his chest out. With a swift stride he had reached her and folded her into his embrace. For once the regal confidence had left her and the courage was dead in her heart. She lay in his arms a dead weight, which, but for his supporting strength, would have crumbled to a limp mass on the floor. But as he held her, fresh bravery flooded his arteries and his voice came clear and untainted of weakness:
"We still have each other," he told her passionately. "You once asked me whether, if you were penniless, I should still want you. Today I am penniless and owe millions—do you still want me?"
Her arms clung to him more closely and the eyes that gazed into his revealed, as they had on that first night, all that was in her soul. Once more she answered him with a question: "Look at me—do I want you?"
He swept her from her feet and carried her to a chair, where he put her gently down, then he knelt by her side with her hands clasped convulsively in his own. For a moment it is doubtful whether he realized anything save her presence. His voice was the voice of the man who had met her by the mountain road, of the man who had come to her in the darkness at Haverly Lodge and claimed her without preamble.
"The mountains still stand—and there are cottages there where even a very poor man may find shelter. I would rather have it, with you, than to own Manhattan Island without you."
There was a knock at the door of the private office, and Edwardes, rising from his knees, went to receive the message. He came back very gravely.
"I have to face an unpleasant interview, dearest," he said. "One of those bankers who were crushed as incidents to my ruin—who was guilty only of standing in your brother's path, is here. I'm told that he is half-mad, and I must do what I can." He opened a door into a small conference-room. "Will you wait for me—there?"
With his arm around her he led her across the threshold, and then, closing that door, he came back and opened the other.
The man who half-stepped, half-stumbled in staggered to the desk chair and dropped into it to raise a face in which the eyes burned wildly. The whole figure shook in an ague of unnerved excitement. He spread two trembling hands and tragically announced, "I'm ruined."
Edwardes nodded gravely. "You need a physician, Fairley. You're unstrung," he suggested. "Perhaps a drop of brandy would help. I think I have some here."
"No!" the reply was violent, and the President of the Metallic National shook his head with the uncontrolled air of a man who is close to the border of insanity. "No, by God, I'm past physicians. What I need next is an undertaker." He dropped his head to the desk and broke into a crazed storm of weak sobs.
"There is no profit in wild talk," his host reminded him. "I'm ruined, too. We must make a fresh start."
"Fresh start, hell!" The words rang queerly through the accompaniment of a bitter laugh. "Hamilton Burton took me and squeezed me dry. He put the thumbscrews on me and bled me of my Coal and Ore stock. He made me a traitor to Malone and today when Malone might have saved me I had no friends. Then because you sought to befriend me, Burton turned on me and ruined me. My family will be in the streets. Now—" the voice rose into a high treble of frenzy which penetrated to the room where Mary Burton waited—"I'm going to kill Hamilton Burton first and myself next."
With the wild threat the banker rose unsteadily and his palsied hand went into his overcoat pocket, to come out clutching a magazine pistol which he brandished before him.
Edwardes' first thought was to seize the wrist, but the breadth of the table intervened and he knew that he was dealing with a man of temporarily dethroned reason. So he held the wild and shifting gaze, as well as he could, with the cool steadiness of his own eyes and spoke in a measured, soothing voice:
"I shouldn't do that, Fairley. In the first place you don't know where to find him. Your effort would probably fail and you would only be locked up before you accomplished either purpose."
The noise of the outer offices had drowned the visitor's excited tones among the employees, but to Mary Burton, standing anxiously in the conference-room, all the words were intelligible.
Fairley leaned across the table, and for an instant left the weapon unguarded. With a movement of cat-like swiftness Edwardes seized it, but a wild snarl of rage burst from the other's lips and his fingers closed vise-like over Jefferson's hand.
"No—by God—you don't!" he screamed.
Mary Burton threw open the door, and saw the two figures bent across the table with four hands desperately gripped while between them glinted the blued metal of the pistol, which the frustrated Fairley was striving to turn upon his own breast and Edwardes struggled to divert.
Before she could give outcry or reach them, there came an out-spitting of fire from the ugly muzzle and a report which the confined space magnified to a sullen roar. Edwardes lurched suddenly forward and remained motionless with his face down and his arms outspread upon the desk, while a tiny red puddle spread on the mahogany.
Fairley had leaped back and cowered, suddenly sobered, against the wall as the outer door opened and figures poured into the room.
After the low scream that came moaningly up from her breast, which was drowned in the echoes of the report, Mary Burton made no outcry. She no longer leaned limp and nerveless against the support of the doorway. Something had seemed to snap the cords of her paralysis and out of her blanched face her eyes stared wide and piteous. As the older banker staggered back she was quick to reach the motionless figure and to lift its head to her breast. Yet she did not really have to look, something fateful and unquestionable told her from the first instant that no human aid could avail—and that he would not speak again or move a muscle in life. His employees found her supporting the weight of his shoulders against her bosom and seeking to staunch with her handkerchief the flow of blood from the temple.
In one trivial respect the cruelties of her day of cumulative tragedy were abated. The steel-nosed bullet, even at that close range, had cut clean and spared his face, save for the trickle of red and the smirch of powder burn—such defacement as she could not have endured. The eyes, not yet glazed, gazed out with their accustomed resolute calm and the lips were firm, a little grim with the purpose of thwarting another's death, but it was still, though lifeless, a face without surrender.
The girl bent low, whispering into the ear which could not hear her, and then she raised her eyes, still holding his head against her shoulder, to see the little circle of stunned faces, and hear Fairley's voice announcing in broken syllables, but very quietly, "I was—attempting suicide—and he grappled with me."
She knew even while she awaited the physicians that no spark of life remained and that this was the last time her arms would ever be closed around him in life or death, and as she stood there, for the time upheld by a strength beyond her ordinary physical powers, strange inconsequential little fragments of talk, things he had said to her and she to him, were repeating themselves in her memory, and the exact inflections of his voice were renewing themselves in her ears.
Then as two physicians hurried in, closely heeled by two policemen, she surrendered her beloved burden to stronger hands, and, as she moved back with still no trace of tears in her wide eyes, the whole picture darkened and out of muscle and nerve and brain-cell went every vestige of autonomy and consciousness. They caught her as she fell and laid her on a broad upholstered window seat. When her eyes next opened hot pains were scorching her temples and her gaze turned instinctively toward the desk. It was empty of its human burden, and, save for the clerk who had that morning received her in the outer room and a physician, the private office was empty, too.
Following the hungry question of her mismated eyes, the doctor gravely nodded his head.
"It was instantaneous and painless," he said. Then he added, "We have sent for your brother. He was not in his office, but—"
With the startling ferocity of an aroused tigress, Mary strove to rise and make her way to the door, but the physician restrained her. "Not yet," he gently commanded. "You are hardly ready for exertion;" and even before he had finished speaking her knees gave way and she sank back.
"My brother!" she whispered, and her eyes burned feverishly. "It will kill me to see him. I shall try to murder him—I—"
She was interrupted by the noiseless opening of the door, and Hamilton Burton stood across the threshold of the enemy whose life he had that day broken.
He was no longer the Napoleonic Burton. For the instant he was stunned and pale. It was breaking on him that the price of conquest may be excessive. Even before this staggering news had reached him he had seen the headlines of the extras, had read his name coupled with the open and bitter denunciation of public hate.
At his shoulder stood young Carl Bristoll, as pallid as a specter. But the brother came swiftly over, dropped to his knees by the girl's side. At sight of her stricken face all the tenderness of family love leaped into a freshly blazing power in his heart until for the time it burned out the remembrance of every other thing. He thrust out his arms and said in a shaken voice, "Little sister, little sister!"
But with a cry as though for protection from the touch of something unspeakably foul, she threw both arms across her face and turned, shuddering, from his touch.
"Doctor," she besought in a voice of supreme loathing, "in God's name protect me from this murderer!"
She struggled to her feet and stood with her back to the wall, her breast heaving and her pupils blazing out of the death-like pallor of a drawn face. Her hands lay flat against the wainscoting with spread fingers that convulsively twitched as if she were seeking to press back the solid partition and escape that way.
"Listen to me, or you will break my heart," pleaded Hamilton tensely. "I thought it was a curable infatuation. If I had known you cared so much—"
"Break your heart! I wish to God I could, but you have no heart," she screamed, and she swayed to the side until, had the doctor not supported her shoulder, she would have fallen, but her words poured on in a fierce torrent. "You have broken my heart, and you have killed him. You knew how much I cared. You are a monster, but not an idiot. You have sacrificed a country to your one unspeakable Moloch of a god—I hope you—and your god—are satisfied."
For an instant some echo of the old dominance flickered into the man's face. "Edwardes fought and defied me," he said. "I punished—" But his sister interrupted with a wrath which nothing could stem:
"You have overreached yourself—you, too, will go down in this carnage. I shall pray God that you do—my God who is over your god; my God and his." Her voice became calmer, but her phrases were broken by gasping pauses. She spoke as though her God had commanded her to read this bitter indictment against her brother.
"Because he shrined his honor above your insatiable greed you undertook to doom him. You have written a page ... into history ... a page full of horror ... you have made criminals of honest men ... and suicides of brave ones. Now in the trail of your incendiary malice you cast his life—" her voice fell in a tortured sob—"the life ... he so bravely fought for there in the hills ... and after it you toss my heart."
The financier moved a step forward and his lips opened, but the doctor laid a hand on his arm. "You must leave her, sir," he said quietly, but finally. "She is in no condition to stand more of this."
"How can I leave her like this?" remonstrated Hamilton and once more the physician raised his hand. "In such a case the doctor must be obeyed—unless—" his own voice hardened—"you are anxious to add even worse results to today's work."
Hamilton Burton turned. "Do what you can," he said. "I will send Paul." So he left the place, passing between the employees of the bankrupt firm of Edwardes and Edwardes in the anterooms.
At his elbow followed young Bristoll, but when they had reached the ground floor the secretary halted his chief with an impetuous touch on the arm.
"It's no use, sir—we separate here," he said passionately. "I must give you my resignation, at once."
At another time such an announcement would have been greeted by this imperious master with swift acceptance and quiet irony. This day he had smitten his enemies and they had withered before his power. Results had differed in no respect from the outlines of his preparations and yet so poignantly personal had been the recoil that he found himself, when his brain needed its most alert resourcefulness, inwardly admitting a new and strange sense of uncertainty—almost of uneasiness.
Once before for a weak moment he had felt that flagging of confidence—when Mary had left his house, but he had swiftly conquered it. He would as summarily conquer its repetition. His nerves were not such uncontrolled agents as to be shaken by the wild folly and accidents that grew out of weaker natures. All battlefields leave black scars and pictures which are not pretty pictures. To pause and surrender to brooding over these details is to clip one's wings and dull one's talons. He forced a smile.
"As you please, Carl," he said. "Though I had made the mistake of counting on your loyalty as dependable."
The young man answered with an effort.
"It's a hard thing to do. I haven't just worked for the salary. I have made a hero of you, and been very proud of even my small part in your career. It was as though I were a staff officer to a Man of Destiny."
"And now," the voice was bitingly satirical, "finding that the Man of Destiny can't always fight with confetti and the blowing of kisses, you grow faint-hearted."
"Put it as you like, Mr. Burton.... All I know is that, after today, I should no longer feel proud.... I should feel like an accomplice in crime."
Hamilton Burton laughed. It was a short and not a pleasant laugh.
"Please yourself. To me no man is indispensable. Good-night."
Mary did not wait for Paul. As she drove up-town with the physician, she had in her ears the shouts of newsboys heralding the death of Jefferson Edwardes—and other deaths.
When she was in her own bed they mercifully gave her something which smoothed her brain into the black velvet softness of sleep. The future must tell whether her body and mind could ever be brought back to the harbor of health.
* * * * *
Hamilton Burton's lights burned late that night in his office, and up to them many baleful glances turned from the sidewalks below. The financier told himself that he was the same man that he had been, safeguarded by his star; but as he worked he found himself instinctively turning to the chair where Carl Bristoll should be and where now sat a more inept subordinate. Each such moment brought its tiny stab at his pride and self-assurance, and the brain which he must concentrate kept straying to the disquieting vision of a grief-maddened girl leaning against the wall, with her fingers twitching in little groping gestures as her lips rained accusation. Today he had made a panic, but between the opening and closing peals of tomorrow's gong each hour must be filled with the most exact and brilliant maneuverings.
All day today he had borne down the market on a scale unprecedented. All day tomorrow he must be in a position to reap the harvest he had sown—else he might find himself the victim of a trap which he had prepared, at a mighty cost, for others. No one knew so well as he how even his colossal strength had been strained with the titanic effort of pushing apart the masonry of the temple's pillars.
He had no doubts of the morrow, but these troubling remembrances came blurringly across the crystal of his brain.
Abruptly he took up his telephone and rang his house number. "Yamuro," he said when he heard the sibilant, quaintly distorted voice of the Japanese from the other end, "ask Mr. Paul to wait for me there until I come in." Paul's music should soothe him.
"'Scuse, please," came the apologetic reply. "Mr. Paul, she no here. When she come, Yamuro tell. Thanks."
It was late when the financier left his car at his own door and demanded of Harrow, "Where is my brother?"
"In the music-room, I think, sir." Hamilton thought he detected in the butler's voice a note of anxiety and for a moment he glanced with a keen scrutiny into the servitor's eyes, and the eyes dropped under his gaze.
"Very well, I sha'n't need you again tonight." The Titan turned and climbed the stairs.
The lights of the music-room were burning brilliantly and on a table stood siphons and bottles and glasses. At the door Hamilton paused and glanced uneasily about, then he saw Paul, and smiled. Weary with his vigil Paul, the affectionate and faithful, had evidently fallen asleep in his chair. Hamilton crossed and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. Then as quickly he withdrew it. Something unaccustomed in the younger man's appearance arrested him and he stood gazing down.
The musician sprawled in an attitude of demoralized inertia and over his cameo face the dark hair hung disordered. His hands fell grotesquely and his closed eyes were puffed. Hamilton bent down and with a low oath studied his brother. His sleep was no natural napping. It was a drunken stupor proclaiming itself in a stertorous and uneasy breathing.
Angrily Hamilton shook the sagging shoulders until the sleeper's lids opened heavily and the lips voiced some incoherent thing. Then Paul attempted to turn his face away and go to sleep again.
"So," exclaimed the elder as he dragged his brother to his feet and restored him to a semblance of consciousness, "so this is the way you waited for me?"
Paul blinked owlishly through the stupidity of his condition, and upon his delicate features the unaccustomed and swollen flush dwelt in a disfiguring blot. He shook his head and informed thickly, "Jefferson Edwardes's dead."
"I know that—and you're drunk."
The musician stupidly nodded his assent to so incontrovertible a statement and as he gradually awoke to a fuller realization, he rose and made his way unsteadily to the piano. But his fingers were stiff and unresponsive, and after a brief effort he gave that up.
Once more he looked up and an expression of deep terror spread over his face. Tears welled into his eyes and he wept for awhile in silence as Hamilton looked on.
"Jeff'son Edwardes's dead," he reiterated with parrot-like singleness of idea. "Mary's heart's broke.... I'm drunk." One hand waved broadly in an oratorical gesture. After a moment he added in solemn afterthought, "Father's drunk, too."
Hamilton ground his teeth. "I suppose," he said bitterly, "you regard the first two facts as justification for the others."
Paul rose and through his condition something of his more normal self asserted itself. He laid his hands on his brother's shoulders. "Hamilton, I think my heart's broke, too. Mary's a sweet girl. I haven't slept f'r a long, long time—been worrying—an' tonight I—"
"Never mind explaining." Out of the elder brother's voice the wrath had died. "That won't help now. Come, I'll put you to bed."
As he turned away from Paul's bedroom a half-hour later the face of Hamilton Burton was not the face of the conqueror. In his own room he went to a window and looked out. He saw a star and some fancy identified it as the same star that had caught his eye that night when he came back to the farm-house and found his father ill. Once more it was not in the east riding toward the upper heavens, but in the west, setting beyond the Palisades of Jersey—soon to drop from view.
For a breathing-space Hamilton Burton felt faint and uncertain, as one may feel in a dream which is half-wakefulness.
Then he was conscious of his own voice speaking half-aloud:
"Slivers Martin paid me ten for 'em an' I got 'em for seven—an' he had to go after 'em."
The words had come involuntarily—as from another personality speaking with his tongue, and they startled him. With a fiercely impatient gesture he brushed his hand across his forehead and picked up from a table a new appreciation of the life and campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Yamuro slipped in with his cushioned tread and stood awaiting orders, and after a while the master whose attention refused to remain fixed even on Napoleon glanced up.
"You may go, Yamuro," he said in a wearied voice, but the Japanese valet did not go. Instead he approached and his face grew anxious as he noted the confused and fatigued droop of his master's eyes and lips.
"'Scuse, please," he hazarded as his white teeth flashed in an apologetic grin. "You tired. You go down gymnasium—take ex'cise—one half-hour. Yes, one half-hour and me rub you Japanese way; make you sleep—yes, please."
Hamilton Burton raised his head slowly. "Perhaps," he acceded in a dull voice, "that mightn't be a bad idea. I do feel a bit fagged—for some reason—and I need to be fit tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a decisive day."
So with the narrow-eyed little servitor in whose breast beat a heart of unquestioning loyalty, the untriumphant victor went down into the basement of his house, where between marble slabs and porphyry columns he had equipped a small gymnasium finished with the magnificence of a Roman bath.
Beyond an arched portal was another room where the basin of a swimming-pool spread cool and inviting between mosaic floors.
Here each morning Hamilton plunged into the icy water and came out with a splendid vitality glowing on his firm flesh. But at night he used only the warm shower and when they came into the gymnasium they did not touch the switch which lighted the pool.
Then Hamilton Burton stripped and attacked the punching bag until his muscles glistened and shone as if they had been freshly oiled. Yamuro stood looking on with sparkling eyes. Hamilton Burton stripped and in action would have brought a glow of delight to the face of those Hellenic masters of training who saw in the human body the most sacred temple of the human soul, and paid tribute to physical perfection. The flow and ripple of these strong, justly modeled sinews were like the play of steel under satin and their smoothness was as rhythmic and full of power as some young gladiator's, who might have stirred the appreciation of Phidias or Praxiteles. When at last he had burned his mental restlessness into physical weariness, Burton halted and stood with his shoulders thrown back and his head erect, the breathing of chest and abdomen as regular and deep as the sequence of waves at flood tide. Yamuro went out into still another room for the accessories of his Japanese art of muscle-kneading, and Hamilton turned idly toward the darkened swimming pool. He strolled over to the edge of the marble basin and walked out on the spring-board. It was all very dark in here, but his feet were familiar with every foot of space.
"I might as well cap it with a plunge," he told himself, and, lifting his hands above his head, launched outward in a graceful arc.
Yamuro came back a moment later and looked about the empty gymnasium. His face suddenly went pale. "Mr. Burton—please!" he screamed, and in his excitement his voice was more than ordinarily sibilant. Then he turned on the pool light and rushed frantically back. It had not occurred to him to warn his chief that that afternoon the basin had been emptied and repaired, and that below the diving-board were only six inches of water—just enough to give back, in semi-darkness, a liquid reflection, and, beneath that, solid slabs of marble.
Yamuro peered over the edge and a deep groan broke from him. At the bottom lay the figure of Hamilton Burton, with its head bent to one side. It lay very still, and the water was slowly coloring from a wound in the scalp.
Hamilton Burton had always denied with scorn the existence of blind luck as an element in human greatness or failure. Now if he had leaped head-foremost into an empty swimming pool, at the exact moment when he stood midway of an enterprise which should crown him as omnipotent—or ruin him, perhaps it was a thing beyond coincidence. Yesterday he had aligned colossal forces for today's conflict—and taken his toll of vengeance. Today he must turn to profit the chaos he had wrought to that end through plans known only to himself—and today he lay with a fractured skull, sleeping the sleep of unconsciousness.
Today every hand in the world of finance was turned against him with the desperation of a struggle for survival—save those of his own lieutenants who were leaderless. All the way down the line from the Department of Justice to the small sufferers of the provinces a slogan of war without quarter sounded against the most hated man in America. That such would be the case he had known yesterday, but he also knew—or thought he did—that his directing hand would still be on the tiller and his uncannily shrewd brain would be puzzling, bewildering and deluding his enemies into unwittingly serving his ends.
From the morning papers the secret of his accident had been successfully withheld. So the press of the country sounded forth a united thunder-peal of stinging and bitter anathema, pillorying Hamilton M. Burton as the most menacing of all public enemies and an ogre who had in a single day fattened his already superlative wealth on the sufferings, the starvation and the lives of his victims. Editorial pages from Park row to a thousand main streets, double-leaded and double-columned their clamorous demand that such a plunderer should be nailed to the cross of punishment. Burton-phobia was epidemic. At first the physicians who gathered in his darkened room would not commit themselves to any promise of recovery. The skull was fractured. Ahead lay a long illness at best—after that—but here they left off words and resorted to a non-committal shrugging of frock-coated shoulders.
"Do you mean," Elizabeth Burton put the question with trembling lips and chalk-white cheeks, "that perhaps—even if he gets physically well—" She, too, broke off.
"Frankness is best," responded the family physician, who feeling the most personal responsibility, assumed the hard role of spokesman. "Sometimes in cases of this sort the brain is left—with a permanent scar upon its efficiency."
The mother groaned. At her own house lay a daughter in that collapse which had followed the overtaxed courage of the first shock. Here lay Hamilton, her oldest; her Napoleonic boy for whose condign punishment a nation's voice cried out. To her they were simply her children, equally dear.
Only one child was left her in his proper condition of mind and body. He, because of his sensitive, almost clairvoyant nature, had always been very close to her. Now she turned to Paul, and Paul, although his heart was shaken with terror and distress, rose for the time beyond his weakness and was almost a man as he sought to brace his mother's need.
From her first interview with the doctors she went to the music-room and, pausing on the threshold, heard him at the piano. He was singing very low.
"If I were hanged to the highest tree—Mother o' mine, Mother o' mine, I know whose prayers would come up to me—Mother o' mine."
She went in and Paul took her in his arms and helped her to a chair. Then as he had used to do when a little boy he knelt down, gazing into her face while she talked, and she reached out a hand which was much thinner since her own late illness and ran it through the dark hair over his white forehead. For a merciful little moment it seemed to this grief-stricken woman that she was no longer white-haired and beautifully gowned. In her fancy the fingers with their wealth of rings were again red with the drudgery of the washtub and the head she caressed was the head of a little boy, who, because he was delicate and shrinking, found a greater delight here at her knee than in the rougher companionship of playmates. Paul spoke softly.
"Ham"—it had been a long time since he had used that abbreviated name. Perhaps he, too, had slipped back into the past—"Ham will get well—and work more miracles, mother. He won't surrender even to death. His spirit, and his star, will bring him through."
"I almost wish," her words were faint, "he had never had a star. I wish that we were all back there, close to the strength of the hills and the graves of our dead."
In these days Paul was very constantly with his mother, and by a thousand little attentions made himself indispensable to her.
It was a small thing, but costly to his feelings, since, for every one of these moments redolent of suffering and sadness, his own soul fiber, delicate and thin as a silk thread, must afterward pay in the reaction of a deep depression. To him echoes meant more than positive sounds, and the tears in his mother's voice, the unshed tears in her eyes, brought him a suffering so intense and genuine that when he went out the thought of returning to either of the stricken houses where she needed him was like returning to a jail. Then, too, there was the unexpressed fear which gnawed incessantly at his heart, that, in spite of his belief in Hamilton, business disaster might lie ahead. He wrote less often and with more effort to Loraine Haswell—and thought longingly of Marcia Terroll, who had forbidden him to see her.
* * * * *
Such a pregnant item of news as Hamilton Burton's accident could not long be kept from the Street and the public. On the morning following the occurrence it burst into print—and for a time the chorus of invective was silenced.
But the hands that had been raised to pull him down could not be stayed. He himself had never halted when the Gods of Chance had tossed into his lap a mighty advantage. At the first announcement that "Ursus Major" lay ill, perhaps mortally hurt, the trampled prices of securities began to revive like dusty blossoms under a shower. Day long came damp extras from the press heralding a bull day almost as wild and swift in its price recovery as yesterday's bear day had been terrific in its avalanche.
From post to post the deep voice of Len Haswell and other Burton lieutenants thundered in an effort to stem the altered tide—but they were generals of brigade without their field marshal, guessing blindly at a plan which had not been revealed by the master-tactician. Into the eyes of Jack Staples stole a glitter of premonitory triumph as he met them and beat them back. Burton millions were melting like hailstones falling on hot metal, and when the session ended Len Haswell turned away with an empty face. For two days he had almost forgotten, in his battle-lust, his own heart-ache. Now it was over and because he had followed Hamilton Burton with his own small fortunes as a camp-follower trails an army corps, he knew that he was wiped out and ruined. Hamilton might lose many millions, and "come back," but he and many like him were irretrievably done for.
One day when Hamilton had been ill for a week and had not yet emerged from the distorted land of delirium, Tom Burton strolled, as immaculate and well groomed as ever, into the National Union Club, and looked about for a bridge quorum of his cronies. The doctors held out hope and the father sought relaxation from anxiety. His face was flushed, for old Thomas Burton, too, had felt sorely the strain of these days, and had sought his own means of dulling apprehension's edge. His brain was not versatile in such matters.
General Penfrit occupied his customary chair by a Fifth-avenue window, and the newcomer smiled with pleasure to find him there. General Penfrit shared many interests with him, and was willing to share as many more, so long as Thomas Burton's bridge game continued to be of the contributory type.
Burton strolled over, swinging his stick, and nodded with a bland smile, but to his dismay the general glanced up and acknowledged the greeting without warmth. Perhaps his old friend was not feeling well today.
"I was wondering," suggested Burton, "whether we couldn't arrange a little rubber." He caught the eye of a waiter at the same moment and beckoned. "What will yours be, general?" he genially inquired.
"I don't believe I care to play." The voice was chilling at the start and became more icy with each added syllable, "and I won't have anything to drink."
Tom Burton stood looking down somewhat blankly.
"Nothing to drink?" he repeated in a perfectly warrantable astonishment. His ears must have tricked him.
The general rose stiffly. "With you—no," he spoke curtly, and took himself away with a waddle of studied dignity. For a full minute Hamilton Burton's father gazed vacantly out at the avenue, then he turned on his heel. Henry O'Horrissy was just entering the door and with him were two other members of a little group which had lunched and chatted and played bridge inseparably for several years. Each knew all the others' anecdotes and could laugh at the proper moments. They formed one of those small cliques of intimates into which this club resolved itself, and Tom Burton was of their valued brotherhood.
"Good-afternoon, gentlemen," accosted Burton. "How are you all today?"
With three silent nods the trio at the door turned and drifted aimlessly across to the billiard-room.
Tom Burton went and sat alone by a window. Slowly a brick-like flush spread and deepened on his full face. This club life had become very important to him—even indispensable. There was nothing with which to replace it. He wheeled his chair so that he might be plainly seen from the door, and as man after man came in, with whom he had spent his time and his son's money, men who had been pleased to court the father of the great Hamilton Montagu Burton, he genially accosted them—and one after another they returned greetings of frigid formality.
Then he turned his chair with its back to the room and looked out and the stubborn pride died in his eyes and his face grew old and pathetic. There was no further room for doubt. He was tasting ostracism and being included in this wave of hatred for his son, which he had regarded as newspaper rubbish. He leaned forward with his gloved hands on his cane and once or twice under his fastidiously trimmed beard, his lips twitched painfully. Finally he rose, ordering his next cocktail over a hotel bar, and though the stubbornness of pride forced him back on the morrow to lunch at his accustomed club table, he lunched alone, and was grateful for the solicitous courtesy of the negro who served him.
* * * * *
One afternoon Paul made his way down Fifth avenue on foot.
The sky was unbelievably blue and a flashing brilliancy sparkled in all the splinters of color that embroidered themselves along the parquetry of the street. The avenue has, at times, a magic of its own and today it was a swiftly flowing stream of brilliancy and life and laughter. But this was a mood to which Paul Burton found no response. His heart was attuned to echoes of a more somber tone—and he was bound on a mission which was, for him, a bold one. He was disobeying orders which until now he had not ventured to disobey. Marcia Terroll had banished him from her presence. Since that day in her apartment he had seen less of her than before and for many weeks now nothing at all. Marcia, unlike Loraine Haswell, recognized that they could not meet without dangerous drifting, and that such drifting could end only in disaster, so at last she had forbidden his visiting her even occasionally and to all his arguments she had steadfastly shaken her head with gentle obduracy.
For a time they had met as they might have met had the interview in her apartment on the drizzly afternoon never occurred. She had torn that page out of their chronicles of acquaintanceship, and assumed that it had never been included. Her wit had sparkled for him and her individual charm had blossomed as though her life had never known a season other than spring and blossom-time. Sometimes he found himself wondering if that afternoon had been actual.
He discovered himself using quaint phrases of her invention as part of his own conversational equipment, and often he found himself applauded for some flash of repartee which he knew was only a quotation from her. But also he found himself incapable of that continuous self-restraint which she required of him under their agreement of a future basis. He had his moments when he could no more avoid feeling and acting and declaring himself her lover than he could avoid later regretting them, and, for this inability, he had been exiled.
"To you," she told him, "it means a minor thing—but it's not minor to me. I have had unhappiness enough without risking more. We must not see or write to each other." Paul knew nothing of what this decision cost her or of the many letters she had written to him—and destroyed unmailed.
Now he was utterly miserable and his heart was aching for companionship outside the two houses where the mildew of misery tainted even the sunshine that came through the windows. He craved the cheer and strength of a heart braver than his own, and in defiance of her orders he was going to see the woman in whose presence he should find these things; the woman whom he had not seen for months.
As he reached Washington square it seemed that the quiet of the section held a sort of benediction, and such peace as hangs between old walls, where the fever of stress has passed and left in its wake a philosophy and a contentment.
But when he came to the house where he had visited her, he was told that she no longer lived there. With a sudden pang it occurred to him that once more she might have moved a step down the economic scale toward the furnished room in one of those dingy lodging-houses which she had dreaded; places where the heart sickens at the forlornness of its environment.
He inquired for the girl with whom Marcia had shared the little apartment, and to his relief learned that she still had her abode here and would receive him. As he opened the door, Dorothy Melliss was bending over her drawing-board by a north window, rushing through some fashion illustrations which must be delivered on the morrow. She greeted Paul with a nod and went on with her work, while he explained his mission.
Dorothy was a wholesome young person of clear complexion and straightforward eyes and she spoke with an independence of manner amounting to slanginess. She was one of those girls whom an unaided life in the city fosters. She could take care of herself—and did—but she knew life and looked it in the face—and dispensed with anything like a baby stare in doing so. Now she listened to Paul's talk, then suddenly shoved back her India-ink bottle and wiped her pen, while her pupils met his with directness.
"Before I answer any of your questions, Mr. Burton, I've got a few to ask you myself," she announced. "I might as well talk straight from the shoulder. Just how anxious you are to see Marcia isn't going to make such a great difference in my young life. Whether or not she wants you to find her—does make a great deal of difference."
"What do you mean, Miss Melliss?" Paul was genuinely puzzled.
"I mean that of course I know her address—or addresses—because they change every day. I also know that she gave me the most explicit orders not to tell you where she could be found."
"Oh!" he exclaimed in disappointment, relinquishing his inquiry at the first obstacle. "Then I suppose I may as well go."
"Hold on," she commanded tersely. "I'm Marcia Terroll's friend. I think I'm enough her friend to decide for myself whether I can help her most by obeying or disobeying her. Sit down for five minutes and listen to me. I feel like talking."
He obeyed, and the young woman's face flushed with her interest as she took a chair near him and lighted a cigarette. After that she sat for a few moments reflectively silent.
"I guess there isn't so much similarity between Marcia and me, but there's one thing—and it's a bond of kinship in a way." She looked at him unwaveringly. "We've both been on our own for some time in a town where there are more Don Juans than Walter Raleighs—and we're both straight. To the women of your protected set that wouldn't be so much to brag of—about as much as for a millionaire to boast that he'd never picked a pocket. None of those sheltered girls in your own world, where women nibble at life like bon-bons, have anything on Marcia Terroll. In brain and character and charm she has it over those female noncombatants like a tent."
"I know all that, Miss Melliss." His reply was vaguely apologetic.
"Maybe you do, but I'm not through yet. She was cut to a delicate pattern and meant for life's sunshine and God knows she's had plenty of shadow. She's kept a smile on her lips and a laugh in her eyes through things that would have crumpled up lots of those tender creatures you know. You don't guess what it means to that sort of woman—well, to see life from the angle we get on it, but Marcia knows. You came along and she—" The young woman broke off in sudden silence.
"She what?" Anxiety sounded through his question.
"Oh, she never told me anything. It's not her fashion to tell such things, but I have a pair of eyes myself. I figure that Marcia let herself in for a danger she thought she had put behind her. She allowed herself to have a dream." She paused and her gaze was almost accusing in its directness. "From the look in her eyes before she went away I guess she realized that it was a dream."
Miss Melliss had eyes of a brown softness, but just now they flashed hard as agate and her voice rose to a scornful indignation.
"As if we haven't enough to handle with the facts of Life, without hopeless dreams! I'm no anarchist railing at wealth and luxury ... but you men that want everything ... and give nothing—" She broke off and abruptly demanded, "Well, when you think about it, what do you call it to yourselves?"
"Where is she?" demanded Paul.
"She's out with a dinky, barnstorming company, playing one-night stands—on a route of tank-towns and whistling stations. It was all she could get. She's making early-morning jumps between shabby hotels with a bunch of cheap actors and cheaper actresses that are just about as congenial to her as a herd of goats." The voice vibrated with sincere feeling.
"Are you going to tell me where I can find her?"
The girl studied her cigarette, drew a puff upon it and exhaled a cloud of smoke before she answered. Then she spoke reflectively.
"I'm just wondering whether I am or not. If you're going to follow her up and make her dream again—only to wake up again, I certainly am not. If you're going to be any comfort to her I am, because God knows she needs some comfort. She is only going on her nerve."
"Please tell me," he urged very persuasively. At that moment it was in his mind to write a truthful letter to Loraine Haswell and go to Marcia with a proposal of marriage. He felt only his need of her—and her importance to himself. He failed to reckon on the thousand misgivings and indecisions which would assail him between the moment of impulse and that of execution. But his eyes were sincere and Dorothy believed them. She went to her desk and brought back a sheet of paper.
"That's the route for this week—and next," she said. "After that you must either find out for yourself or go without knowing."
That night with the holiday spirit of a lad let out of a cheerless school Paul Burton walked along the principal street of a small New England town where old-fashioned houses sprawled between stark elms. When he reached the Palace Theater, the performance had begun, so he hurriedly bought a ticket and found himself sitting near the front with many empty seats about him. It was a cheap "follow up" company with an old piece that had once been a Broadway hit. He had never seen Marcia act. Now he was seeing her under the most inauspicious circumstances—and he knew that only want of opportunity and the uncompromising plane on which she had pitched her dealings in managerial offices had balked her ambitions. She could act and was acting with a force, intelligence and finesse that were wasted here, and as he watched her suddenly their eyes met and across the blazing separation of the "foots" she recognized him. For just an instant her pupils dilated and she missed a cue. It looked as though she would "go up" in her lines, but before the prompter could come to her aid she had recovered herself and her performance went on unbroken. But during the following intermission the women who dressed near by could hear her humming a gay tune, and as she came out at her call they saw in her eyes a sparkle that had not been there before.
As Marcia sat in her dressing-room before the mirror which was fastened against a brick wall, the squalidness of the cubbyhole ceased to depress her. On the slab before her lay scattered the details of make-up, and crowded into one corner stood her open wardrobe trunk. A placard near a light-bulb read, "Please remember that YOU are here for a few days, but we are here all the time. Do not deface our home," and under that notice, probably tempted by it into irony, a former occupant had scrawled in huge letters "Oh, you home!"
But now the chilly little dressing-room was no longer a dingy cell. She had recognized Paul Burton's face out in front, and, as she changed for the next act, little snatches of song broke from her lips, and she smiled at herself in the glass until the small, glistening teeth flashed like those of a pleased child.
Fate gives no guarantee of responsibility for the targeting of the Love-God's darts. This whimsical deity seems to owe no duty to fitness or consistency. He may choose to make a strong and excellent character love one too weak to be worthy its thought and no higher power intervenes. After all, Marcia had met Paul when she was lonely and they had for a while comforted each other's unhappiness. When she had ordered him to stay away the damage was already done, and since then she had been infinitely more lonely—had craved more desperately companionship with someone of the world from which her poverty had so long exiled her, though its memories remained. Now he had disobeyed her and come to her. He had sought her out contrary to command and that must mean that he had found a new strength and would have something to say to her which a man may worthily say to a woman. He had so thoroughly understood her edict that his coming could have no other meaning. She could not know that he was still actuated solely by his own selfish craving for comfort, nor that he had occupied his time on the train countering and balancing considerations until his sudden determination had oozed miserably out of him. Although he could no longer awaken a throbbing of his pulses with the thought of Loraine Haswell, neither could he fortify his mind to cut the tie and give her up.
When the curtain rang down on the last act the door-man brought in his card, and Marcia ran light-heartedly out to meet him.
"You see, I disobeyed you," he announced, and she sought to reply with great severity, but delight broke through that affectation and riddled it with smiles.
"Unless you are too tired," she suggested, "let's take a walk before we go back to that desolate morgue they call a hotel."
It was a cold and sparkling night and the old street, which was once a post road, twisted between the elms under a moon that threw the rambling houses into softened shapes and underscored them duskily with shadow. They had walked perhaps a half-mile when they came upon a building that had in its more prosperous years been a mansion of some pretense and dignity. It sat back in its generous yard, with a cheery light blazing at its lower windows, wearing an aspect of elderly and beneficent reminiscence. An electric bulb by the gate lighted a small swinging sign inscribed in antique type, "The Sign of the Tea-pot. Lunch, tea and dancing."
"Down-at-the-heels gentility gone into trade," smiled Marcia.
Paul Burton halted and listened, but the dancing had ended and the old house was silent.
"I wonder," he ventured, "if the tea-pot is still on duty."
"By this time," she laughed, "it would have tucked its head under its wing and gone to roost."
"Let's try it, none the less," he challenged, and with the spirit of two children on a lark they opened the creaking gate and traversed the brick walk, arm in arm.
In answer to their knock, which echoed through the place, there came after a time a pleasant-faced elderly woman to the door. For a few moments she reflected, then decided that, although it was a little late, she would undertake to produce some sort of a supper—if they would make allowances for its deficient quality.
The scene seemed set for adventure, even romance. In a large, pleasantly furnished room glowed a cheery fire, and as they waited they sat before it, falling silent, and Marcia's face continued to smile. She had learned to make the most of a pleasant moment while it lasted and to leave regrets until they forced themselves.
When they had finished an excellent supper and the woman had withdrawn they asked and received permission to linger a while before the inviting hearth.
Abruptly Marcia looked up and announced, "I forgive you your disobedience. I'm glad you came. You can't imagine how lonely it's been." Her small nose puckered fastidiously as she added, "The company is odious and I hate the play and the hotels provide unfinished road-beds to sleep on and I've been headachy and altogether miserable." Then she broke off and laughed again, "Which will be about enough Jeremiad for the present. Have you missed me?"
Paul Burton bent forward and studied the red tip of his cigar. It seemed to him that he had missed her more than he had ever missed anyone else. For the first time since the terrible day in the Street with its battalion of misfortunes, his heart felt at rest and his nerves quiet.
He tossed the cigar away and took her hands in his. Deep in her eyes glowed a quiet tenderness and her breath quickened. The man seated himself on the arm of her deep chair, passing one arm about her and holding her two hands close to her breast. Her hat tilted back as he stooped to kiss her, but she did not appear to resent that disarrangement.
"I have missed you terribly," he said and the glow in her pupils heightened in brightness.
Marcia was content. After all, her dream was coming true. Here in this old room of an old house, where other generations had made courtly love, he would tell her that resolution had come to his heart, driving out weak vacillation, and resolution spelt her name. It was worth having been lonely for. Here were just the two of them in the light of a fire on a hearth—emblem of home.
On their two faces, close together, the blaze threw warm little dashes of its own color. Into the heart of Marcia Terroll stole belief once more, and the cheer of the glowing coals.
For a while they were content to remain silent; and afterward the man said, "I've been needing you, Marcia."
The fingers that he held tightened a little on his own. Now she thought he would tell her that he had given his problem the test of bold reflection and could come to her with his mind made up—and the decision was that he needed her. In the hope her loneliness saw an opening vista of happiness, but his next words were not of that.
"You have read the papers?" he questioned. "You know what has happened?"
Of course she knew and her heart had been full of grief for him in these days of distress. Had she not written him—and torn up unmailed—a score of letters in which she had told him tenderly and unreservedly all she felt? But when she had seen him tonight she had forgotten that, remembering only that he had searched for her and found her and come to her.
Now that he spoke of misfortune to himself and his family she wanted to give him only sympathy and comfort and love—yet coming like a sudden, chilling draught, a conviction struck in upon her heart and left it shuddering—with all its tender new hopes shattered.
For as he spoke she realized with the finality of revelation that the Paul Burton of whom she thought in her dreams had not come at all; only the Paul Burton who, too weak to bear his own sorrows, came to share them with her. He had not come offering her strength and companionship in loneliness—but asking them for himself. He had not come to offer marriage. She had, in the face of the old warnings, dreamed again—falsely idealized once more—and his mission was to waken in her anew the dreary reality of her life. Yet that same maternal instinct which made her love a thing more of giving than of asking endowed him with a greater dearness, as she realized the truth.
"Yes, dear," she said in a low voice, "I know—and I've been thinking of you all the while."
Then for a quarter of an hour he recited his griefs and forgot hers. She was there near him; his arms were about her and she was comforting him. That, for him, was all that was necessary. But at the end of it all she rose and turned half from him and her face was pale.
"If there was a single thing I could do," she said from her heart, "I would do it at any cost—" Her voice questioned him tensely. "You know that, don't you, dear? You believe it."
"You are doing something now," he declared. "You are giving me your own strength."
To herself she said bitterly that to make a mistake once is an accident with which life may ambush the most wary, but to walk twice into the same snare stamps the victim as a fool. She was paying the price now of that folly. She was indeed giving him, as he enthusiastically declared, her own strength for his adversities, and he was accepting it, using it, burning it up with no thought of how little of that particular capital she had to squander in the sharing.
Even at that moment with his self-pitying voice in her ears, reciting his Iliad of reflected troubles, her mind found a whimsical parallel for his self-absorption. He was like some unheroic wanderer in desert places who had stumbled upon another equally unfortunate, but more stalwart of heart. He had greedily fallen upon the depleted water-supply, drinking deep and never pausing to consider that the tongue of the wayfarer who offered him a flask was more parched than his own. He was a minstrel and a troubadour who held himself immune from the need of meeting stress with combat. His mission in life was to sing and accept, and now it pleased him to sing sadly of himself.
Yet the one way she could not go on helping him was the particular way he elected to be helped. He chose to let himself drift and vacillate, and the aid that he asked of her was that she should drift near enough for him to have her companionship. He was like a wakeful child who required that she, too, should be sleepless that he might escape loneliness.
"And so," she said, forcing a smile, which concealed all that was in her heart, "you were lonely, and you came to me."
"Yes, dear." His voice was eager. "I had to see you. To stay in exile any longer was unendurable. I was thinking of you always, wanting you always, and so I came. You forgive me, don't you?"
Marcia laughed. "It's very nice to be wanted," she answered, "but sit over there across the hearth and light your cigar. It's gone out."
Paul looked down resentfully at the cigar and lifted his hand to toss it away, but the girl laid her fingers on his wrist and laughed.
"No," she commanded. "Smoke it. Tobacco is soothing and I like the fragrance. It's a Romney panatella, isn't it?"
"How do you manage to remember details like that?" Paul inquired with boyish pleasure. "Other women don't carry in mind the brand of tobacco that a man prefers."
"I'm not other women," she reminded him lightly. "I have a genius for minute and trivial things. The others flatter you by burning incense to your music—and I remember that you take two lumps of sugar in your coffee and one slice of lemon in your tea and that you must have your Martini extra dry."
To herself she was saying, with a lump in her throat which waged war on the bright smile in her eyes, "I hoped that he might have come differently. I hoped that he might have made an end of vacillation. Now it's all going to be harder. I must send him away again—"
One hand which fell over the arm of her chair and which he could not see clutched its fingers convulsively, squeezing the handkerchief it held into a small wad of linen.
"You are wonderful, Marcia," he told her softly as he comfortably exhaled a cloud of blue smoke, and his delicate lips fell into a smile of contentment. His troubles were for the moment being assuaged in the effortless indolence of the lotus-eaters. He looked at her through half-closed lids, studying the face that smiled at him. Yes, she was giving him her strength. He would go back tomorrow appeased and soothed.
Then he suggested with the suddenness of a newly discovered thought: "But we've been talking about my troubles all the while. Tell me something about yourself. It must be proving a hard trip, isn't it? A bit of a trial at times?"
A hard trip! A bit of a trial at times! For an instant the smile died and the lips stiffened. She wanted to answer him with a stormy burst of words. She wanted to say that it had been sheer hell.
In the face of such callous complacency an indignant anger stirred deep in her breast. He had fled to her with his troubles, which after all were only the shadows of deeper troubles, of which other members of his household were bearing, unaided, the more direct brunt. He was asking her, whose life had known chapters of tragedy, to give him such sympathy as a woman has the right to give in exchange for a man's whole love. Had he no sense of fairness, even the fairness of good sportsmanship? But close on the heels of that realization came another which banished the wrath. God had chosen to paint him in soft and tender colors. God had given to his soul-pattern a certain beauty, and if there had gone into the design no bold strokes, he himself was no more to blame than he would have been for the failure to see, had he been born blind. His weakness doubtless carried its own penalty of suffering. Perhaps had the guidance been there, the wanted qualities might have been trained into him. Hamilton had seen that, but Hamilton's hand had not had the light touch for the delicacy of the task's beginnings.
Her mind flashed back to her girlhood. She was standing at the paddock fence of her grandfather's stock-farm in Kentucky.
Even in her childish heart there had been a mighty pride for the old gold and blue that were the colors of her grandfather's stables. They were silks that raced true to tradition, for no mere gambler's venturing, but for the gentleman's pride in his horse-flesh and his inherent love of sport. Much of the stamina that had kept her heart from breaking had been instilled in those lessons of the gallantry of the long struggle and the endurance of the home-stretch.
She remembered a certain chestnut colt whose name had gone down in turf history. She had known that colt from a weanling and to her he had not been an animal, but a personality.
Yet that splendid-hearted creature which could out-game his fields in a smothering drive when his heart was near bursting had been a disappointment in two-year-old form because he had seemed to sulk and falter and lack courage. Under the whip his speed died and his petulance cropped out. It had only been when a jockey was found whose soft touch of the reins nursed the head and held it up and encouraged, that the horse had come in to his own and made his name great. Might it not be so with a man as well as with a horse?
"Yes," she said, "it has been a bit of a trial, but it has been funny, too," and straightway she launched into a flow of anecdote that touched up with whimsical and delightful humor every bit of poor comedy that had tinged the days of the tour. And as she talked the man laughed with sheer delight and amusement.
But it was growing late, and Marcia was exhausted with the outflow of spirits. He might be comforted, but tomorrow she must again take up the dull thread of her routine. It would not be easier for tonight's disappointment; for the coming of the rescuing knight who upon arrival had only clamored mournfully for assistance.
After all she could only stand so much, and just now she felt that the margin of endurance was narrow. Yet there was to be said the most important thing of all, and the most trying.
"Paul," she began slowly, but in a voice of finality, "when you go back tomorrow, you mustn't come to see me again. At least not for a long while."
His face became a mask of tragic disappointment, and his voice was pleading.
"You are not going to reinstate your sentence of banishment, Marcia? You can't know what this evening has meant to me. A man must have in his life that comfort that only a woman like you can give. Surely you will give it."
"But, Paul," she said as gently as she would have argued with a child, "you must remember. There is a woman: a woman to whom you regard yourself pledged. Are you being very loyal to her? Are you being very loyal to either of us?"
To herself she added: "A woman whom I have never seen and whose battles I am called upon to fight."
"She's in Europe." Paul spoke rather sullenly, and though he said no more his voice intimated that so far as he was concerned she might remain there.
Marcia nodded her bend. "She is there to get a divorce—so that she can marry you. No, Paul, you know why I sent you away in the first place. Since then nothing has changed—unless it is that I see more clearly the fatality of drifting. I can't do it."
"And you—" he spoke somewhat brokenly—"doesn't it mean anything to you?"
Suddenly and momentarily her self-restraint broke.
"Mean anything to me!" she exclaimed passionately as her eyes widened and her whole attitude relaxed into a posture of collapse in her chair. "Mean anything—!" Then suddenly she straightened up and passed a hand across her brow as though to brush away a cloud that rested there. In a composed voice she added: "It means so much that you must do as I say, not merely until you feel like disobeying again, but always." After a long silence she rose. "I must get up early," she said, remembering that tomorrow brought its program of a train journey, a matinee and an evening performance.
"Paul," said Marcia as they walked back, "I have to leave a call for seven and catch a train at eight-thirty. There's no use in your getting up. No, please don't, and please don't hunt me out again." At the door of the hotel she said enigmatically, "What a wonderful balance Nature might have struck between your brother's strength and your—winning personality. Good-night."
* * * * *
The Duke de Metuan's failure to rehabilitate his impaired fortunes with Burton gold had left a more durable scar upon his optimism than any of the similar scars of the past. Mary Burton had been such a splendid combination of charm and opulence that a marriage with her would have made a pleasure of necessity. The Duke in his earlier stages of disappointment had felt first the pangs of a lover, and only in secondary degree the chagrin of a depleted exchequer. Several months had found him inconsolable, and when desperation had closed upon him he had wedded an estimable lady whose wealth was less dazzling than Mary's, but ample none the less. Her personal paucity of allurement was a handicap which his philosophy ignored as much as possible. In private he sometimes made a fastidious grimace, and accepted the inevitable.
Yet the duke had long been an epicure in life's pleasures, and though he must yield to the demands of his creditors, much as a young prince must yield to the edicts of his chancellery in making a required marriage, he did so with mental reservations. He had no intention of permitting that necessity to cast a perpetual cloud over his days and nights.
He had found it possible to leave his estate in Andalusia, where his duchess elected to remain with an imaginary malady from which she derived much melancholy pleasure, and in Nice he had been overjoyed to meet a charming acquaintance in the person of Loraine Haswell.
Loraine, too, was willing to have these hours which hung heavy alleviated with companionship, and Nice is a place where hours lend themselves to the process of being lightened.
There was a waiter at one of the esplanade cafes where the tables look out over the whiteness of the sea-front and the sapphire of the bay, who regarded his grace and madame as his regular clients. He knew without telling what hors d'oeuvres and vintages the dark gentleman affected and at what pastries the beautiful lady preferred to nibble. She nibbled decoratively between peals of soft laughter and snatches of small talk.
The garcon in question noted—and officially ignored—that the lady, who had at first worn a preoccupied, almost troubled, expression about her dark eyes, now smiled more often, and that into the black pupils of Carlos de Metuan there came frequently a glow which was akin to ardor.
In the same way he noticed that occasionally their hands met and lingered, as the lady formed the habit of losing her handkerchief and the gentleman habituated himself to its retrieving. A legal separation cannot be established in a day, and if one must remain away from one's friends at home, one may surely console oneself with friends abroad.
The duke was lavish in his entertainment. His wife's fortune permitted that, as well as his wife's ignorance of the disbursements, and of late Loraine's supply of money from America had arrived on a scale of diminuendo. Entertainment was welcome.
Half-jokingly and veiled in phrases which she was at liberty to construe as she wished, there had of late been an insidious vein of suggestion in the duke's conversation.
"Were I not married and were you not married and were I able to convince you with an eloquence which I lack, I think I might be happy," he informed her one night as he studied his cigarette end in the dark. Then he laughed and his hand sought hers as he added: "Yet, thank God a thousand times, we live in a day when friendship need not go shackled by dark-age absurdities." That had been the beginning.
"Friendship," she replied demurely, "has never had to be shackled, has it?"
He leaned forward and she caught the glint of his eyes and a flash of white teeth, as he answered:
"When friendship between man and woman is a feeble little fellow, he goes free, but when he grows very strong, then his lot was not so easy in other days. You understand me?"
"I'm sure I don't, but what matter?" she laughed. Carlos shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes, what matter?" he murmured. "As long as we can be together, why should we seek names for our companionship? It is—what it is."
Yet Loraine, still sure of her future, spelling a congenial and luxurious life with Paul, understood what she pretended not to understand. The Duke de Metuan was not a riddle to her; not even a figure tinged with mystery. His wife was an unlovely invalid. Her sole value was monetary, and the duke's hints and thoughts had all to do with an arrangement wherein life should yield him the compensating delights which his family denied.
Loraine's fastidiousness rather shuddered at this idea, yet perhaps a certain sort of character disintegration had set in, with her first cutting loose the moorings of preconceived standards. Possibly it was working a more rapid atrophy than she knew. She told herself that, in her exile, Carlos made a rather diverting companion, and that since she understood his purpose she could with ease control the situation. He should amuse and no more. If his hints became less ambiguous than she found agreeable, she would send him packing, but meanwhile she would permit his luncheons and his motors to serve her. The food and roads about Nice are excellent—and expensive.
There is in the western hemisphere one town whose local news is national news and international news. Its celebrities wear names which the nation mouths over with gusto, and its own name was, until comparatively recently, New Amsterdam. The country closely followed the first-column stories with which the press sought to keep abreast of the affairs of Hamilton Montagu Burton. It was interesting reading, for it dealt with a late potentate of power untold; now an invalid whose brain slept like a child taking its forenoon nap while his millions, counted in scores and hundreds, went back to their sources as the sun draws water into the clouds to spill it out again elsewhere. A giant of untold might had kindled the fires that slept at the heart of a volcano—and then had fallen asleep upon the slopes down which the lava must flow!
While he slept, Ruin, spelling itself with a capital letter, had signaled out the one pedestaled figure which had laughed at ruin, and mocked its potency and bragged of a star which was above menace.
Hamilton Burton lay for weeks in insensibility and delirium and when, in returned consciousness, he realized his predicament he raved like a madman against restraint, counting the precious moments, which were being used against him, bleeding him of vital power. This very fretting against the inevitable burdened him with a waste of nerve and brain which should send him forth, depleted in strength and weakened in resistance, to meet his adversaries.
Nor had the forces aligned against him marked time. When again he took the field he must take it in a realm of altered and shrunken boundaries, and the roll-call of his allies would show many missing—and many gone over to the foe. But greater than all these things was the change in himself. The cloyed wolf who had gorged too deep of success was no longer the lean fighting beast with a ravenous light of conquest in his eyes. That Burton might have met even the present and triumphed. This was a wolf on the defensive, fating a pack which had turned upon his leadership. His weakened fangs were against the jaws of all the rest—and he came scarred and spent from days and nights of physical feebleness.
Paul sat beside Hamilton in his car as they drove down-town on that first day when the financier defied the edicts of his physicians.
"Hamilton," questioned the younger brother, voicing for the first time that deep anxiety which had been clamoring within him for weeks, "will you be able to drive back your assailants? The papers predict that your reign is broken and your ruin near at hand."
Hamilton raised his face and smiled. It was the old imperious smile, but the face over which it spread was thinner and gaunter and between the hollowed cheekbones the smile lost something of its wonted illumination—failed somewhat of its old convincing force.
"The papers have had their opportunity to prattle without check. Now I am back again—we shall see." He broke off and laughed, then he rushed on fiercely. "They call this St. Helena. They lie." In the weakness which was still upon him, he gasped a moment for breath. "When Napoleon left Elba the papers of Paris raved about the escape of the unspeakable tyrant. When he reached the borders of France they announced, without comment, the approach of Napoleon Bonaparte, but when he was near the gates they raised a paean of triumphal welcome to the Emperor, who had returned to make France more glorious than ever among nations! I shall soon be at their city gates, Paul, and, while my star shines, no mortal power can stop me or stay my progress."
But the Napoleon of the later phases was not the Napoleon of Austerlitz. Out of the great heart and brain some essential element had gone. Burton, too, had tasted defeat and knew its bitterness. He was going back to rally shrunken forces and lead a forlorn hope and his eyes were grimly defiant—where once they had been regnantly confident. Perhaps Hamilton Burton during those next few months was after all more worthy of admiration than he had been since a boy whose dreams burned city-ward. Feeling each day a day of adversity and giving no hint, he recognized, yet refused to admit, the dawn of defeat when defeat was far past its dawning. Upon the world of allied assailants that pressed him back—back—ever back on dwindling millions and then shrinking hundreds of thousands he turned a fierce and unsurrendering face. To himself he said even now that his star was infallible.
But in the privacy of his own bedroom, when no alien eye penetrated his solitude, his bitterness was epic and terrible. In the consistency of that egotism which had first made, then unmade him, there was no room for remorse; no possibility of self-accusation. If his star was to set it would set on his last terrific stand against the squares of the enemy, with the old guard about him ... and when the end came, like another Antony, he would fall on his own sword.
And always to the sunken-eyed anxiety of his mother, and the puffy-eyed misgivings of his father and the quaking terror of his brother, he gave back laughing assurances of his unquenchable power. To them he treated as technicalities, which he would casually brush aside. Federal prosecutions and Congressional investigations and the solid phalanx of financial interests that constantly drew their strangling cordons around him. He never admitted to others or to himself as a possibility the reckoning which was sure beyond question. Yet except for a detail of months—or weeks—he was as irremediably ruined as though already the tape of the stock-ticker had spelled out its unemotional announcement, "Hamilton Burton cannot meet his obligations." He had been wounded through the one vulnerable joint of his armor: his great self-pride and unquestioning assurance were struck to the quick of the heart. His day was done.