She had heard his heavy tread on the creaky steps, and was watching for him with the door ajar—an inch at first, and then wide open, her kerosene lamp held over the railing to give him light.
"Oh, but I'm glad you've come, Stephen. I was getting worried. I was afraid maybe you didn't get the letter. It's black dark outside, isn't it?" and she glanced at the cheap clock on the mantel behind her. "Come in, the kettle was boiling over when I heard you. I'll talk to you in a minute."
He followed with only a pressure of her hand, and, without a word of greeting, seated himself near a table. In the same quiet, silent way he watched her as she busied herself about the apartment, lifting the kettle from the stove, adjusting the wick of the lamp which had begun to smoke from the draft of the open door, taking from a shelf two cups and saucers and from a tin bread box a loaf and some crackers.
When, in one of her journeys to and fro, she passed where the light of the lamp fell full upon her round face, framed in its white cap and long strings, he gave a slight start. There were dark circles below her eyes and heavy lines near the corners of her mouth—signs he had not seen since the month she had spent in the Marine Hospital when the plague was stamped out. He noticed, too, that her robust figure, with its broad shoulders and capacious bosom, restful pillow to many a new-born baby, seemed shrunken—not in weight, but in its spring, as if all her alertness (she was under fifty) had oozed out. It was only when she had completed her labors and taken a chair beside him, her soft, nursing hand covering his own, that his mind reverted to the tragedy which had brought him to her side. Even then, although she sat with her face turned toward his, her eyes reading his own, some moments passed before either of them spoke. At last, in a wondering, dazed way, she exclaimed: "Have you, in all your life, Stephen, ever heard anything like it?"
Carlin shook his head. The letter had given him the facts, and no additional details could alter the situation. It was as if a dead body were lying in the next room awaiting interment; when the time came he would step in and look at it, ask the hour of burial, and step out again.
"I came as soon as I'd read your letter," he said slowly examining one by one his rough fingers bunched together in his lap. "We got chuck-a-block on Second Avenue or I'd have been here before. Why didn't you let me know sooner?" As he spoke he shifted his gaze to the wrinkles in her throat—a new anxiety rising as he noticed how many more had gathered since he saw her last.
"She wouldn't have it, and I want to tell you that you've got to be careful, as it is. And mind you don't speak too sudden to her."
In answer he craned his head as if to see around the jamb of the door leading into the smaller room and, lowering his voice, whispered: "Is she here now?"
"No, but she will be in a few minutes; she's often late, she waits until it's dark."
"How long has she been here with you?"
"About two weeks."
"Two weeks! You didn't tell me that."
"She wouldn't let me. She is having trouble enough and I have to do pretty much as she wants."
He ruminated for a moment, this time scrutinizing the palms of his hands, seemingly interested in some callous spots near the thumb-joint, and then asked: "How did she find you?"
"By God's mercy and nothing else. I was sitting in a Third Avenue car and there she was opposite. I couldn't believe my eyes, she was that changed! She would have been off the dock, I believe, if she hadn't found me. She has run away from Dalton now, and is so scared of him she trembles every time some one comes up the stairs. That's why I wrote you not to ring. He has nothing left. He kept a-hounding her to write to her father and nigh drove her crazy; so she left him."
"Does she know Mr. Felix is here?" He had finished with the callous spots and was cracking every horny knuckle in his fingers as he spoke, as if their loosening might help solve the problem that vexed him.
"No, I haven't dared tell her. She would be off the dock for sure then. She is more afraid of him than she is of Dalton."
"Mr. Felix won't hurt her," he rejoined sharply.
"Yes, but she knows she'd hurt HIM if he finds out how bad she's off. She'd rather he'd think she's living like she used to do. Oh, Stephen—Stephen, but it's a bad, bad business! I'm beat out wondering what ought to be done."
She pushed back her chair, and began walking up and down the room like one whose suffering can find no other relief, pausing now and then to speak to him as she passed. "I tried to get her to listen. I told her Mr. Felix might be coming over from London. I had to put it to her that way, but she nearly went out of her mind, stiffened up, and began to put on such a wild look that I had to stop. Have you heard from him lately?"
"No, I wrote and wrote and could get no answer. Then I went up to where he boarded, and the woman told me he'd been gone some months—she didn't know where. He left no word, and she forgot to get the name of the express that came for his trunk. He is down with sickness somewheres, or he'd have showed up. He was not himself at all when I last saw him—that's long before you got back from Canada. He's done nothing but walk the streets since he come ashore."
Stephen stopped, as if it were too painful for him to continue, looked around the room, noting its bareness, and asked, with a break in his voice: "Where do you put her?"
"In the little room. She wouldn't take mine and she won't let me help her. She got work at first on 14th Street, in that big store near the Square, and worked there for a while, that was when she was with Dalton. But Dalton drove her out. And when she was near dead, with nothing to eat, some people picked her up and she stayed with them all night—she never told me where. That was last spring. She stood it for some months living from hand to mouth, she working her fingers to the bone for him, until she was afraid of her life and left him again. She was going she didn't know where when I looked at her 'cross the car and she saw me.
"'Martha!' she cried, and was on the seat next me, my two arms about her. She was sobbing like a lost child who has found its mother again. There were two other women in the car, and they wanted to help, but I told them it was only my baby back again. We were near 10th Street at the time and I got her out and brought her here and put her to bed—Listen! Keep still a moment! That's her step! Yes, thank God, she's alone! I'm always scared lest he should come with her. Get in there behind the curtain!"
Martha had lifted the lamp again as she spoke, and was holding it over the banister, one hand down-stretched toward a woman whose small white fingers were clutching the mahogany rail, pulling herself up one step at a time.
"Don't hurry, my child. It's a hard climb, I know. Give me the box. I began to get worried. Are you tired?"
"A little. It has been a long day." She sighed as she passed into the room, the nurse following with a large pasteboard box.
"It's good to get back to you," she continued, sinking into a chair near the mantel and unfastening her cloak. "The stairs seem to grow steeper every time I come up. Thank you. Just hang it behind the door. And now my hat, please." She lifted the cheap black straw from her head, freeing a fluff of light-golden hair, and with her fingers combed it back from her forehead.
"And please bring me my slippers. I have walked all the way home, and my poor feet ache."
The nurse stooped for the hat, patted the thin shoulders, and went into the adjacent room for the slippers, whispering to Carlin on her way back to keep hidden until she called. He was still standing concealed by the folds of the calico curtain dividing the apartment, a choke in his throat as he watched the frail woman, her sharpened knees outlined under the folds of the black dress and, below it, the edge of a white petticoat bespattered with mud, the whole figure drooping as if there were not strength enough along its length to hold the body upright. What shocked him even more were the deep-sunken eyes and the hollows in the cheeks and about the brows. All the laugh and sparkle of the once joyous, beautiful girl he had known were gone. Only the gentle voice was left.
Martha was now back, kneeling on the floor, untying the shabby shoes, rubbing the small, delicately shaped feet in her plump hands to rest and warm them. "There, my lamb, that's better," he heard her say, as she drew on the heelless slippers. "I'll have tea in a minute. The kettle's been boiling this hour." Then, as though it were an afterthought: "Stephen wants to see you, so I told him maybe you would let him. Shall I tell him to come?"
"Your brother, you mean? The one who lives here in New York?" she asked listlessly.
"Yes, he's never forgotten you. And—"
"Some day I will see him, Martha. I shall be better soon, and then—"
She stopped and stared at Carlin, who misunderstanding Martha's words, had drawn aside the calico curtain and was advancing toward her, bowing as he walked, the choke still in his throat. "I hope your ladyship is not offended," he ventured. "It was all one family once, if I may say so, and there is only Martha and me."
She had straightened as she saw him coming and then, remembering that she was in Martha's room, and he Martha's brother, she held out her hand. "No, Stephen, I am very glad. I was only a little startled. It is a long time since I saw you, but I remember you quite well, and you have not changed. A little grayer perhaps. When was it?"
"When I came back from Calcutta, your ladyship, and the Rover was wrecked. Your father ordered the crew home. I was first mate, your ladyship remembers, and had to look after them. Some six years agone, I take it."
"Yes, it all comes back to me now," she answered dreamily "six years—is it not more than that?"
"No, your ladyship. Just about six."
She paused, rested her head on her hand, and looked at him intently from beneath the wave of hair that had dropped again about her brow, and asked: "Why do you still call me 'your ladyship' Stephen?"
"Well, I don't know, your ladyship. Mebbe it's because I've always been used to it. But I won't if your ladyship doesn't want me to."
"Never mind, it does not matter. It has been so long since I have heard it that it sounded odd, that was all." She roused herself with an effort and added, in a brighter tone, changing the topic: "It was very good of you to come to see Martha. She has me to look after now, and I am afraid she gets unhappy at times. You cannot think how good she is to me—so good—so good! I often wake in the night dreaming I am a child again and stretch out my hand to her, just as I used to do years ago when she slept beside me. She often speaks of you. I am glad you came to-day."
Carlin had been standing over her all the time, his rough pea-jacket buttoned across his broad chest, his ruddy sailor's face with its fringe of gray whiskers, bushy eyebrows, and clear, steady gaze in vivid contrast to her own shrinking weakness.
"It ain't altogether Martha," he exclaimed in tones suddenly grown deliberate. "It's you, your ladyship, that I particular came to see. You ain't fit to take care of yourself, and there ain't nobody but me and Martha that I can lay hands on now to help—nobody but just us two. I'm not here to judge nobody. I know what's happened and what you're going through, and you've got to let me lend a hand. If I lived to be a hundred I could never forget his lordship's kindness to me, and things can't go on as they are with you. There is a way out of it if you only knew it."
She threw back her head quickly. "Not my Father?"
"No, not your father. Although his lordship would haul down his colors mighty quick if once he saw you as I do now. But there are others who would be glad to take a hand at the wheel and help you steer out of all this misery. You ain't accustomed to it and you don't deserve it, and I'm going to put a stop to it if I can." This last came with still greater emphasis—the first mate was speaking now.
"Thank you, Stephen. You and Martha are very much alike. She has the loyalty of an old servant, and you have the loyalty of an old friend. But we must all pay for our mistakes—" she halted, drew in her breath, and added, picking at her dress, "—and our sins. Everybody condemns us but God. He is the only one who forgets, when we are sorry."
"Not so many remember as you may think, your ladyship. Some of 'em have forgotten—forgotten everything—and are standing by ready to catch a line or man a boat."
"Yes, there are always kind people in the world."
"Well, there mayn't be such an awful lot of 'em as you think, but I know one. There's Mr. Felix, for instance, who—"
She sprang to her feet, her hands held out as a barrier, and stood trembling, staring wildly at him, all the blood gone from her cheeks. "Stop, Stephen! Not another word. You must not mention that name to me. I cannot and will not permit it. I have listened too long already. I am very grateful for your kindness and for your offers to me, but you must not touch on my private affairs. I am earning my own living, and I shall continue to do so. And now I would like to be alone."
"But, your ladyship, I've got something to tell you which—"
Martha stepped between them. "I think, Stephen, you'd better not talk to her ladyship any more. You might come some other night when she's more rested. You see she's had a very bad day and—"
Stephen's voice rang out clear. "Not say anything more, when—"
Martha dug her fingers into his arm. "Hush!" she whispered hoarsely, her lips close against his hairy cheek. "She'll be on the floor in a dead faint in a minute. Didn't I tell you not to mention his name?"
She stepped quickly to the side of her charge, who had walked falteringly toward the window and now stood peering into the darkness through the panes of the dormer.
"It's only Stephen's way, child, and you mustn't mind him. He doesn't mean anything. He hasn't seen much of women, living aboard ship half his life. It's only his way of trying to be kind. And you see he's known you from a baby, same as me—and that's why he lets out."
She had folded the pitiful figure in her arms, her hand patting the bent shoulders. "But we'll get on together, my lamb—you and me. And we'll have supper right away—And I must ask you, Stephen, to go, now, because her ladyship is worn out and I'm going to put her to bed."
Carlin picked up his hat and stood fingering the rim, trying to make up his mind whether he should force the truth upon her then or obey orders and wait. The training of long years told.
"Well, just as you say, your ladyship, I won't stay if you don't want me, but don't forget I'm within call, not more than a half-hour away. All Martha's got to do is to send a postal card and I'm here. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. God knows I didn't mean to! Martha knows what I wanted to tell you. You'll have to come to it sooner or later. Good night. I hope your ladyship will be rested in the morning. Good night, Martha. You know you can write when you want me. Good night again, your ladyship."
He opened the door softly, closed it behind him without a sound, placed his hat on his head, and, reaching out for the hand-rail, felt his way in the dark down the rickety stairs and out onto the sidewalk.
Once there, he looked up and down the street as if undecided, turned sharply, and bent his steps toward Second Avenue, muttering to himself over and over again as he walked: "I got to find Mr. Felix. I got to find Mr. Felix."
Felix O'Day's runaway wife, despite the many quiet hours spent in Martha's room, near St. Mark's Place, had not told her old nurse all her story. She had wept her heart out on the dear woman's shoulder and had cuddled close in her arms, giving her scraps and bits of her unfortunate history, with side-lights here and there on a misery so abject and so terrifying that the dear nurse had hugged the frail figure all the tighter, seeing only the wound and knowing nothing of the steps that had led up to the final blow or the anger that hastened it.
Martha had known, of course, that there had been bankruptcy and ruin; that Oakdale, the ancestral estate of the O'Days—theirs for two centuries, with all its priceless old furniture, tapestries, pictures, and porcelains—had, after the owner's death, been sold at public auction; that Fernlodge, Mr. Felix's own home, had gone in the same way; that Lady Barbara, for some reason, had returned to her father, Lord Carnavon; that the girl baby had died; and that "Mr. Felix," as she always called him, had gone to London where he had taken up his abode at his club. Lady Barbara herself had given these details in a letter written a couple of weeks after the death of the child, Martha being in Toronto at the time.
Martha had also learned, through a letter from the head gardener's wife, that after a few months' stay, Lady Barbara had left her father's house because of a fierce scene with Lord Carnavon, who had sent for his carriage, conducted her into it, and given directions to his coachman either to set his daughter down on the main road, outside his gates, or to take her to the nearest public house.
She had learned, too, that her former charge, after having eloped with Dalton, had dropped entirely out of sight and, so far as her own knowledge was concerned, had never come to light again until, with a cry of joy, Lady Barbara sank sobbing on her shoulder in that Third Avenue car.
Much of this information had been gathered from newspaper clippings that her old uncle, living in London, had mailed to her. More particulars had come in a letter from James Muldoon, one of the grooms at Oakdale, who gave a most pitiful and graphic account of the way the London dealers crowded about the old porcelains in the ebony cabinets, and of the prices paid by the Earl of Brinsmore, who bought most of the pictures, half of the old Spanish furniture, as well as the largest but one of the great tapestries, to enrich the new mansion he was then building in London and in which James Muldoon was happy to say he had been promised a place.
In still other letters, open references had also been made to a much discussed speculation, entangling many of those whom Martha had formerly known, followed by a grand financial explosion in which some of the same people had been badly injured. In connection with these disasters mention was likewise made of a certain Mr. Dalton, who had disappeared shortly after, leaving rather a bad name behind him, altogether undeserved, according to many of the papers, he always having been a "financier of the highest standing." This last ball of gossip was rolled Martha's way by her nephew, who was a clerk in a solicitor's office off the Strand and who had mailed an editorial on the matter to his uncle, who promptly forwarded it to Martha. She had read it carefully to the end and had put it in her drawer without at first grasping the full meaning of the fact that, but for the activities of this same Mr. Dalton, her dear mistress and her dear mistress's husband, Felix O'Day, and her dear mistress's father-in-law, the late Sir Carroll O'Day, would still be in possession of their ancestral estates and in undisturbed enjoyment of whatever happiness they, individually and collectively, could get out of life.
What the dear woman never knew, and it was just as well that she did not, were the special happenings which ended in the overwhelming catastrophe.
It really began with a tea basket, holding enough for two, which was opened one lovely afternoon under the big willows skirting that little strip of land bordering the backwater at Cookham-on-Thames. My lady at the time was wearing a wide leghorn hat with blue ribbons that matched her eyes and set off the roses in her fair English cheeks. Her companion was in white flannels—a muscular, well-set-up young man of thirty, fifteen years younger than her husband and with twice his charm—one of those delightful companions who possess the rare quality of making an hour seem but five minutes. A gay party had dropped down the river in her father's launch, which had been tied up at Ferry Inn, and Dalton had insisted on taking my lady for just a half-hour's poling in a punt, Felix and the others preferring to take their tea at the Inn—plans readily agreed to and carried out, except that the half-hour prolonged itself into two whole ones.
Then there had come a week-end at Glenmore Castle and a garden party outside London, and then five-o'clock teas at half a dozen private houses, including one or two meetings a trifle more secluded. And all quite as it should be, for a most desirable and valuable guest was this same Mr. Guy Dalton, a man received everywhere with open arms, as "one of the rising men of the time, my dear sir," a financier of distinction, indeed, and a promoter of such skill that he had only to issue a prospectus, or wink knowingly on the street, or take you aside at the club and whisper confidentially to you, when everything he had issued, winked at, or whispered about would go up with a rush, and countless men and women—a goodly number were women—would be hundreds, nay, thousands of pounds the richer before the week was out.
That his own buoyant imagination, as well as that of those who followed his lead, should have been stretched to the utmost was quite within the possibilities when one recollects that the basis of all this wealth was crude rubber, a substance of pronounced elasticity. This, too, accounts for the vim and suddenness of the final recoil attending the final collapse—a recoil which smashed everything and everybody within its reach.
There were "words," of course, between Dalton and some of his victims. There always are "words" when the ball bounces back and you catch it full in the eye. And for salves and soothing plasters there were the customary explanations regarding the state of the market, the tightness of money, the non-arrival of important details, the delaying of despatches owing to a break in the cable, together with offers of heavy discounts, and increased allotments of stock for renewed subscriptions. But the end came, just as it always does.
And so did the aftermath, as was shown by the advertisements in the auction columns of the daily papers and the motley mob of hungry, perspiring dealers, pawing over the household gods; and, more disastrous still, because of its rarity, Felix's brave fight to save his father's name, the whole struggle ending in his own ruin.
As for the very pretty young woman who had been wearing the hat with blue ribbons, it may be as well to remark that when the milk in the heart of a woman has become slightly curdled, it is to be expected that, under certain exciting influences, the whole will turn sour. When to this curdling process is added the loss of her child and her fortune, calamities made all the more insupportable by reason of an interview lasting an hour in which her two hot hands were held in those of a sympathetic man of thirty, her cheeks within an inch of his lips, the quickest—in fact, the only way—yes, really the only way, to prevent any further calamity is to put your best gown in your best dressing-case, catch up your jewels, and exchange your husband's roof for that of your father's. And this is precisely what my lady did do, and there in her father's house she stayed, despite the entreaties of her own and her father's friends.
"And why not?" she had argued, with flashing eyes: "I am without a shilling of my own, owing to the Quixotic ideas of my husband, who, without thinking of me, has beggared himself to pay his father's debts. And that, too, just when I need to be comforted most. He does not care how I suffer; and now that my father has offered me a home, I will lead my own life, surrounded by the few friends who have loved me for myself alone."
That the eminent financier—it might be better perhaps to say the LATE eminent financier—was one of those same unselfish beings who had "loved her for herself alone," and that he had, at once and without the delay of an hour, flown to her side followed as a matter of course, as did the gossip, men and women in and about the clubs and drawing-rooms nodding meaningly or hinting behind their hands.
"Rather rough on O'Day," the men had agreed. "That comes of marrying a woman young enough to be your daughter." "She ought to have known better," was the verdict of the women. "So many other ways of getting what you want without making a scandal," this from a duchess from behind her fan to a divorcee. But few words of sympathy for the deserted husband escaped any of them and, except from his old servants, Felix allowed himself to receive none.
He had made no move to win her back. To him she was, at the worst, only the same wilful and spoiled child she had always been, while he was over twenty years her senior. What he hoped for was that her common sense, her breeding, and her pride would come to the rescue, and that after her pique had spent itself, she would become once more the loving wife.
And it is quite possible that this hope might have been realized had it not been for one of those unfortunate and greatly to be regretted concurrences which so often precede if they do not precipitate many of life's catastrophes.
One of Lord Carnavon's grooms was the unfortunate match that caused this explosion. He had been sent down to Dorsetshire for a horse and, in an out-of-the-way inn in one corner of the county, had stumbled—early the next morning—into a cosey little sitting-room. When he came to his senses—he never recovered the whole of them until he was safe once more inside his lordship's stables—he told, with bulging eyes and bated breath, what he had seen. Whereupon the head coachman forthwith informed his wife, who at once poured it into the ears of the housekeeper, who, being jealous of my lady, fearing her dominance, lost no time in amplifying the details to Lord Carnavon. That gentleman had walked his library the rest of the night and, on my lady's return from Scotland, two mornings later (she had "spent the night with her aunt"), had denounced her in tones so shrill that every word was heard at the end of the long gallery; the tirade, to his lordship's amazement, being cut short by his daughter's defiant answer: "And why not, if I love him?"
All of which accounts for the infamous order roared five minutes later by the distinguished nobleman to his coachman, who, having known her ladyship from a child and loved her accordingly, had not set her down on the main road, but had taken her to a cottage on an adjoining estate—her second change of roofs—from whence Dalton carried her off next day to Ostend, a refuge she had herself selected, the season there being then at its height.
Had either of them kept a diary, it is safe to say that the delirious hours which filled that first week at Ostend would have been checked off in gold letters. Neither of them had ever been so blissfully happy, nor so passionately enamoured of the other, nor so overjoyed that the dreary past, with all its misunderstandings, calumnies, and injustice, had been wiped out forever.
There had, of course, been a few colorless moments. On a certain Saturday, for instance, the eminent ex-financier, having lost his head after the manner of some born gamblers, had, at the Casino, played the wrong number—a series of wrong numbers, in fact—an error which resulted in his pushing a crisp bundle of Bank of England notes—almost all he had with him—toward the spidery hands of a suave gentleman with rat eyes and bloodless face, who gathered them up with a furtive, deadly smile.
The gold Letters might have been omitted here, and, in their stead, my lady could have made a common pinhole to remind her, if she ever cared to remember, that it was on that very night that her passionately enamoured lover had helped her unfasten from her throat a string of pearls which O'Day had given her, and which, strange to say, for a woman so injured, so maligned, and so misunderstood, she, with Dalton's advice, had carried off when she deserted both her husband and her husband's bed and board. And she might have inserted just below the pinhole the illuminating note that, after unfastening the string, Dalton had forgotten to return it.
And then there had come an August morning—the following Monday, to be exact—when, his coffee untasted, he had sat staring at a paragraph in the financial column of a London paper, not daring to lay it down for fear she would pick it up. It gave a full and detailed account of the discovery of a series of certificates bearing duplicate numbers, said duplicates claiming to be the genuine shares of the Bawhadder Rubber Co., Ltd. It also hinted at a searching investigation about to be made by a financial committee of the highest standing at its next regular meeting, but a few days off. More important still was a crisp editorial, charging the directors of the aforesaid company, and particularly its promoter—name withheld—with irregularities of the gravest import.
And it was on this same Monday morning—another pinhole, made with a big black pin would serve best here—before the stone-cold coffee and the dry, uneaten toast had been sent away, that there had arrived a most important telegram (that is, Dalton had SAID it had arrived) ordering him back to London on business of the UTMOST IMPORTANCE. So urgent were the summons that he was forced to leave at once—so he explained to the manager of the hotel—and as madame wished to avoid the night journey by way of Ostend—the channel being almost always rough, even in summer, and she easily disturbed—he had decided to take the shorter and more comfortable route, and would the urbane and obliging gentleman please secure two tickets to London by way of Calais and Dover? This would give them a day in Paris at the house of a friend, and the next morning would see them safely landed in London, in ample time for the business in question.
The pins can be dispensed with now; so can the pencil and so can any special entries. Henceforth life for these two exiles was to be one long toboggan slide, with every post they passed marking a lower level. The sled with its occupants made no stop at Paris nor did it go by way of Calais nor did it reach Dover. It swooped on down to Havre, the steamer sailing an hour after the train arrived, crossed the ocean at full speed, and dumped its two passengers one hot August night in front of a cheap and inconspicuous hotel on the East Side, New York, where Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, from Toronto, Canada, would he at home, should anybody call—which, it is quite safe to say, nobody ever did.
No, nothing of all this did the heart-broken woman tell the tender old nurse, who had carried her in her arms many a night, and who was now willing to sacrifice everything she possessed to give her mistress one hour of peace.
Nor did she tell of the shock which she, a woman of quality, had received when she entered the two cheaply furnished rooms, her only shelter for months, and which, to a woman accustomed from babyhood to a luxurious home and the care of attentive and loyal servants, had affected her more keenly than anything that had yet happened.
Neither did she confide into the willing ears of the sympathetic woman the details of her gradual awakening from Dalton's spell as his irritability, cowardice, and selfishness became more and more apparent. Nor yet of her growing anxiety as their resources declined; an anxiety which had so weighed upon her mind that she could neither sleep nor rest, despite his continued promises of daily remittances that never came and his rose-colored schemes for raising money which never materialized.
Neither did she uncover the secret places of her own heart, and tell the old nurse of the fight she had made in those earlier days when she had faced the situation without flinching; nor of her stubborn determination to still fight on to the end. She had even at one time sought to defend him against herself. All men had their weaknesses, she had reasoned; Guy had his. Moreover, the crash had been none of his doing. He had been deceived by false reports instigated by his enemies, including her own father-in-law and—yes, her husband as well, who could have avoided the catastrophe had he followed Guy's advice, and persuaded Sir Carroll O'Day to hold on to his shares. How, then, could she desert him, poor as he was and with the world against him? She had been untrue to everything else. Could she not redeem herself by being at least true to her sin?
What she did tell Martha, and there was the old ring in her voice as she spoke, was of her refusal to yield to Dalton's presistent entreaties to write to her father for sufficient money to start him in a new enterprise which, with "even his limited means"—thus ran the letter she was to copy and sign—"was already exceeding his most sanguine expectations, and which, with a few thousand pounds of additional capital, would yield enormous returns." And she might have added that so emphatic had been her refusal that, for the first time in all their intercourse, Dalton's eyes had been opened to something he had never realized in her before, the quality of the blood that runs in some Englishwomen's veins—this time the blood of the Carnavons, who for two centuries had been noted for their indomitable will.
Her defiance had seemed all the more remarkable to him because as he well knew their combined resources were dwindling. She had, in fact, only a few finger-rings left, together with some cheap trinkets; among them a pair of sleeve-buttons then in her cuff's, a pair which she had given Felix and which she found in her jewel-box the day after she left him, and which she had determined to return until she realized how small was their value.
The rest of her sad story came by fits and starts.
With her head on Martha's shoulder she told of the horror of that rainy April night when, with agonized hands against her hot cheeks, she had heard him stumbling up the narrow stairs staggering drunk, lunging through the door, and falling headlong at her feet. Of the deadly fear born in her, for the first time in her life, she, helpless and alone, without a human being to whom she could appeal, not daring to disclose her own identity lest graver results might follow; he, prostrate before her, naked to his inmost bone, with all his perfidy exposed. Of his cursing her conscientious scruples and family pride, her milk-and-water principles, demanding again that she should write her father and that very night, ending his entreaties with a blow of his fiat hand on her cheek which sent her reeling toward her narrow bed.
She had watched her chance, caught up her hat and cloak, and had slipped down-stairs, avoiding the crowd about the side-door, and had then fled as if for her life, to be found an hour later by an expressman's wife, who had put her to bed with a kindness and tenderness she had not known since she left her husband's roof.
Then there had followed a long, weary day's search for work, ending at last in defeat when, disheartened and footsore, she had dragged herself once more up the hotel stairs, with another tightening of her resolution to fight it out to the end.
Greatly to her surprise, Dalton had received her with marked politeness. He had begged her forgiveness, pleading that his nerves had been upset by his financial troubles. With his arm around her, he had told her how young and pretty she still was, and how sad it made him when he thought he had ruined her life and brought her all these weary miles from home, his contrition being apparently so genuine, that she had determined to trust him once more, and would have told him so had she not gone into her room to change her dress, only to find that he had pawned the few remaining trinkets and articles of wearing-apparel she possessed, in order to try his luck in a neighboring pool-room.
She had realized, then, where she stood. There was but one thing for her to do and that was to hunt again for work. She had been an expert needlewoman in her better days and this knowledge might earn her their board.
With this in her mind, she had consulted a woman, living on the floor above, who had often spoken to her when they passed each other on the stairs, and who was employed in a department store on 14th Street near Broadway, the result being that Stiger & Company had given "Mrs. Stanton" a place in the repair shop, her wages being equal to her own and Dalton's board. This had continued all through the summer, her earnings keeping the roof over their heads, Dalton leaving her for days at a time, his invariable excuse for his absence being that he was "trying to get employment."
Finally—and again her eyes burned, and the color mounted to her hot cheeks as she reached this part of her story—there had come that last awful, unforgettable December night.
She had come home from work and had put on a thin silk wrapper, too well worn for pawning, when the door of their little sitting-room was opened and Dalton entered, bringing two men with him. One of them kept his hat on as he talked, the other slouched his from his head after he had taken a seat and had had a chance to look her over. The three had come upon her suddenly, and she, realizing her dishabille, had risen hastily, excusing herself, when Dalton, who was half tipsy, stepped between her and her bedroom door.
"No, you'll stay here," he had cried; "you're prettier as you are. I never saw you so fetching. Don't mind them, they're friends of mine. We've ordered up something to drink."
She had stood trembling, looking from one to the other, her heart hammering wildly. No man had ever addressed her with such insolence and before such company. What she feared was that something would snap in her and she fall fainting to the floor.
"I will change my dress," she had answered firmly, speaking slowly to hide her terror. She was Lord Carnavon's daughter now.
"No, I tell you, Barbara—I—"
There was something in her eyes that told him he had reached the limit of her forbearance. Beyond that there was danger.
She had glided past him, shut and locked her bedroom door, struggled with bungling fingers into her walking-dress, pinned on her hat, thrown an old silk waterproof around her shoulders, had slid back the bolt of her chamber opening into the hall, crept down the steps, and fled.
Ten minutes later Martha's arms were about her, and she sobbing on her old nurse's shoulder.
The day following Stephen's visit was one of many spent by Lady Barbara in working at "home," as she called the simple apartment in which Martha had given her shelter.
With the aid of a shop-girl whose mother Martha had known, she had found employment at Rosenthal's, on upper Third Avenue. There had been need of an expert needlewoman in a department recently opened, and Mangan, in charge of the work, had taken her name and address. The repairing of rare laces had been one of her triumphs when a girl, she having placed an inset in the middle of an old piece of Valenciennes which had deceived even the experts at Kensington Museum. And so, when one of Rosenthal's agents had looked up her lodgings, had seen Martha, and noted "Mrs. Stanton's" quiet refinement, he had at once given her the place. She had retained, with Martha's advice, the name that Dalton had assumed for her on her arrival in New York, and Rosenthal's pay-roll and messengers knew her by no other.
These days at home bad been gradually extended, her employer finding that she could work there more satisfactorily, and of late the greater part of each week had been spent in the small suite of rooms in St. Mark's Place—much to Martha's delight, who had arranged her own duties so as to be with her mistress. The good woman had long since given up night-nursing, and the few patrons dependent upon her during the day had had to be content with an "exchange," which she generally managed to obtain, there being one or two of the fraternity on whom she could call.
And these days, in spite of the sorrow hovering over her charge, Martha never found wholly unhappy. They constantly reminded her of the good times at Oakdale when she used to bring in her young mistress's breakfast. She could recall the dainty, white egg-shell china, the squat silver service bearing the Carnavon arms, and the film of lace which she used to throw around her ladyship's shoulders, lifting her hair to give it room. The butler would bring the tray to the door, and Martha would carry it herself to the bedside, where she would be met with the cry, "Must I get up?" or the more soothing greeting of, "Oh, you good Martha—well, give me my wrapper!"
The delicate porcelain and heirloom silver were missing now, and so was the filmy lace, but the tired mistress, could sleep as long as she pleased, thank Heaven! and the same loving care be given her. And the meal could be as nicely served, even though the thick cup cost but a penny and the tea was poured from an earthen pot kept hot on the stove.
Martha's deft hands relieved her mistress, too, of many other little necessary duties, such as the repair of her clothes; having them carefully laid out for the morning so that the nap might be prolonged and time be given for the care of the beautiful hair and frail hands; helping her dress; serving her breakfast, and getting her ready for the day's work. These services over, Martha would move the small pine table close to the sill of the window, where the light was better, spread a clean white towel over its top, and sit beside her while she sewed.
This restful, almost happy, life had been rudely shaken, if not entirely wrecked, by Stephen's visit. Up to that time, Lady Barbara—who had been nearly three weeks with Martha—had not only delighted in her work, but had shown an enviable pride in keeping pace with her employer's engagements, often working rather late into the night to finish her allotment on time.
The particular work uppermost in her mind on the night Stephen had called was the repairing of a costly Spanish mantilla which had been picked up in Spain by one of Rosenthal's customers. Through the carelessness of a packer, it had been badly slashed near the centre—an ugly, ragged tear which only the most skilful of needles could restore. Mangan, some days before, had given it to her to repair with special instructions to return it at a given time, when he had agreed to deliver it to its owner. It was with a sudden gripping of her heart, therefore, that Martha on her return from an errand at noon had found the mantilla, promised for that very afternoon at three o'clock, lying neglected on the table, Lady Barbara sitting by the window with listless hands and drooping head. She grew still more anxious when at the appointed hour Rosenthal's messenger rapped at the door and stood silently waiting, his presence voicing the purpose of his mission, and she heard her mistress say, without an attempt at explanation: "I am sorry, tell Mr. Mangan, but the Spanish mantilla is not finished. Some of the other pieces are ready, but you need not wait. I cannot stop now, even to do them up properly, but I will bring the mantilla myself to-morrow. Please say so to Mr. Mangan."
The extreme lassitude of her manner only added to Martha's anxiety and, as the afternoon wore on, she watched Lady Barbara's every move with ever-increasing alarm. Now and then her poor mistress would drop her needle, turn her face to the window, and look out into vacancy, her mouth quivering as if with some inward thought which she had neither the will nor the desire to voice aloud.
As the hours lengthened, this mental absorption and growing physical weariness were followed by a certain nervous tension, so pronounced that the nurse, accustomed to various forms of feminine breakdowns, had already determined what remedies to use should the symptoms increase.
That Stephen's visit was responsible for this condition, she now no longer doubted. What she had intended as a relief had only complicated the situation. And yet in going over all that had happened and all that was likely to happen, she became more than ever convinced that either his visit must be repeated, or that she alone must make the announcement that had trembled on Stephen's lips. She had recognized, almost from the first, that despite the relief her mistress had enjoyed in the little apartment some strong, masculine hand and mind were needed to stem the tide of further disaster. Her own practical common sense also told her that their present way of living was far too precarious to be counted upon. Lady Barbara's position with Rosenthal was but temporary. At any moment it might be lost, and then would follow another dreary hunt for work, with all its rebuffs, and sooner or later the delicately nurtured woman would succumb and go under in a mental or physical collapse, the hospital her only alternative.
None of these forebodings, it must be said, had filled Lady Barbara's mind. As long as she continued under Martha's care she could rest in peace, free from the dread of the drunken step on the stair or the rude bursting in of her chamber door. Free, too, from other deadly terrors which had pursued her, and of which she could not even think without a shudder, for try as she could she never forgot Dalton's willingness to turn their home into a gamblers' resort.
That he would force her to return to him for any other purpose she did not believe. He had no legal hold upon her—such as an Englishman has upon his wife—and, as he had pawned everything of value she possessed and most of her clothes, she could be of no further use to him, except by applying to her father or to her friends for pecuniary relief. This, as she had told him, she would rather die than do, and from the oaths he had muttered at the time she was convinced he believed her.
All she wanted now was to earn her bread, help Martha with her rent, and, when the day's work was over, creep into her arms and rest.
And yet, while it was true that Stephen's visit had been responsible for her nervous breakdown, it was not for the reason that Martha supposed. His reference to her private affairs had of course offended her, and justly so, but there was something else which hurt her far more—a something in the old ship-chandler's manner when he spoke to her which forced to the front a question ever present in her mind, whatever her task and however tender the ministrations of the old nurse; one that during all her sojourn under this kindly roof had haunted her, like a nightmare.
And it was this. What did the look mean that she sometimes surprised in Martha's eyes—the same look she had detected in Stephen's? Were they looks of pity or were they—and she shuddered—looks of scorn? This was the nightmare which had haunted her, the problem she could not fathom.
And because she could not fathom it, she had passed a wakeful night, and this long, unhappy day. This mystery must end, and that very night.
When the shadows fell and the evening meal was ready, she put away her work, smoothed her hair and took her seat beside the nurse, eating little and answering Martha's anxious, but carefully worded questions in monosyllables. With the end of the meal, she pushed back her chair and sought her bedroom, saying that, if Martha did not mind, she would throw herself on her bed and rest awhile.
She lay there listening until the last clink of the plates and cups and the moving of the table told her that the evening's work was done and the things put away; then she called:
"Martha, won't you come and sit beside me, so that you can brush out my hair? I want to talk to you. You need not bring the lamp, I have light enough."
Martha hurried in and settled herself beside the narrow bed. Lady Barbara lifted her head so that the tresses were free for Martha's hands, and sinking back on the pillow said almost in a whisper: "I have been thinking of your brother, and want your help. What did he mean when he said that things could not go on as they were with me? And that he was going to put a stop to them if he could?"
Martha caught herself just in time. She was not ready yet to divulge her plans for her mistress's relief, and the question had taken her unawares. "He never forgets, my lady, what he owes your people," she answered at last. "And when he saw you, he was so sorry for you he was all shrivelled up."
She had the mass of blonde hair in her fingers now, the comb in hand prepared to straighten out the tangle.
For a moment Lady Barbara lay still, then turning her cheek, her eyes fixed on Martha's, she said in firmer tones: "You are to tell me the truth, you know; that is why I sent for you."
"I have told it, my lady."
"And you are keeping nothing back?"
The thin hand crept out and grasped the nurse's wrist.
"Then you are sure your brother does not despise me, Martha?"
"MY LADY! How can you say such a thing!" exclaimed Martha, dropping the comb.
"Well, everybody else does—everybody I know—and a great many I never saw and who never saw me. And now about yourself—and you must tell me frankly—do you hate me, Martha?"
"Hate you, you poor Lamb"—tears were now choking her—"you, whom I held in my arms?—Oh, don't talk that way to me—I can't stand it, my lady! Ever since you were a child, I—"
"Yes, Martha, that is one reason for my asking you. You did love me as a child—but do you love me as a woman? A child is forgiven because it knows no better; a woman DOES know. Tell me, straight from your heart; I want to know; it will not make any difference in the way I love you. You have been everything to me, father, mother—everything, Martha. Tell me, do you forgive me?"
"I have nothing to forgive, my lady," she answered, her voice clearing, her will asserting itself. "You have always been my lady and you always will be. Maybe you'd better not talk any more—you are all tired out, and—"
"Oh, yes, I will talk and you must Listen. Don't pick up my comb. Never mind about my hair now. I know very well that there is not a single human being at home who would not shut the door in my face. Some of them do not understand, and never will, and I should never try to explain my life to them. I have suffered for my mistakes and made myself an outcast, and nobody has any compassion for an outcast. That is why I sit and wonder about Stephen, and why I have sat all day and wondered about you, and whether I ought to run away, for I could not stay here if you felt about me as I know those people feel at home. I want you to love me, Martha. Oh! yes, you prove it. You do everything for me, but way down deep in your heart, how do you feel? Do you love me as you always did?—LOVE, Martha, not just pity, or feeling sorry like Stephen, or blaming me like the others? Yes, yes, yes, I know it, but I have wanted you to tell me. I am so in the dark. There, there, don't cry! Just one thing more. What did your brother mean when he said there were others who would lift me out of my misery?"
Again the old servant, brushing away her tears, hesitated to reply. She had sent for Stephen to answer this very question, and her mistress had practically driven him from the room. How, then, was she to meet it?
"He meant Mr. Felix, and if you had only listened, my lady, he would have—"
"Yes, I knew he did—although he did not dare say it," she cried with sudden intensity, sinking deeper back in her pillow as if to protect herself even from Martha. "I did not listen, for I never want to hear his name again. He drove me to what I did. He let me leave his house without so much as a word of regret, and not one line did he write me the whole time I was at my father's. Two months, Martha! TWO—WHOLE—MONTHS!" The words seemed to clog in her throat. "All that time he hid himself in his club, abusing me to every man he met. Somebody told me so. What was I to do? He had turned over to his father every shilling he possessed and left me without a penny—or, worse still, dependent on my father, and you know what that means! And then, when I could stand it no longer and went home, he sailed for South Africa on a shooting expedition."
Martha listened patiently. The outburst was not what she had expected, but she knew the unburdening would help in the end. She slid one plump hand under the tired head, and with the other stroked back the mass of hair from the damp forehead—very gently, as she might have calmed some fevered patient.
"May I finish what Stephen tried to tell you, my lady?" she crooned, still stroking back the hair. "And may I first tell you that Mr. Felix never went to Africa?"
"Oh, but he did!" she cried out again. "I know the men he went with. He was disgusted with the whole business—so he told one of his friends—and never wanted to see me or England again."
"You are sure?"
"Yes, I heard about it in Ostend when—" She did not finish the sentence.
The nurse's free hand now closed on Lady Barbara's thin fingers, with a quiet, compelling softness, as if preparing her for a shock.
"Mr. Felix—came here—to New York—my lady—and is here now—or was some weeks ago—doing nothing but walk the streets." The words had come one by one, Martha's clasp tightening as she spoke.
The wasted figure lifted itself from the pillow and sat bolt upright.
"MARTHA! What do you mean!"
"Yes, right here in New York, my lady."
"It isn't so!" Her hands were now clutching Martha's shoulders. "Tell me it isn't so! It can't be so!"
"It's the blessed God's truth, every word of it! He and Stephen have been looking for you day and night."
"Looking for me? Me! Oh, the shame of it, the shame!" Then with sudden fright: "But he must not find me! He shall not find me! You won't let him find me, will you, Martha?" Her arms were now tight about the old woman's neck, her agonized face turning wildly toward the door, as if she thought that Felix were already there. "You don't think he wants to kill me, do you?" she whispered at last, her face hidden in the nurse's neck.
Martha folded her own strong arms about the shaking woman, warming and comforting her, as she had warmed and comforted the child. She would go through with it now to the end.
"No, it's not you he wants to kill," she said firmly, when the trembling figure was still.
Lady Barbara loosened her grasp and stared at her companion. "Then what does he want to see me for?" she asked, in a dazed, distracted tone.
"He wants to help you. He never forgets that you were his wife. He'll have his arms around you the moment he gets his eyes on you, and all your troubles will be over."
"But I do not want his help and I won't accept his help," she exclaimed, drawing herself up. "And I won't see him if he comes! You must not let me see him! Promise me you won't! And he must not find"—she hesitated as if unwilling to pronounce the name—"he must not find Mr. Dalton. There has been scandal enough. You do not think he wants to find Mr. Dalton, too, do you, Martha?" she added slowly, as if some new terror were growing on her.
"That's what Stephen thinks—find him and kill him. That's why he wanted you to listen last night. That's why he wants to get you and Mr. Felix together. Mr. Dalton won't stay here if he knows Mr. Felix is looking for him. He's too big a coward."
Lady Barbara shivered, drew her gown closer, and sank to the bed again, gazing straight before her. "Yes, that is what will happen, Martha—he would kill him. I see it all now. That is what would have happened to our gardener who ruined the gatekeeper's daughter, if the man had not left England. She was only a girl—hardly grown; yes, it all comes back to me. I remember what my husband did." She was still speaking under her breath, reciting the story more to herself than to Martha, her voice rising and falling, at times hardly audible. "Nothing—happened then—because my husband—did not find the man."
She faced the nurse again. "You won't let him come here, will you, Martha?"
"He'll come, my lady, if Stephen can get hold of him," came the positive reply. "He had a room in a lodging-house not far from here, but he left it, and Stephen doesn't know where he's gone. But he'll turn up again down at the shop, and then—"
"But you must not let him come," she burst out.
Again she sat upright. "I won't have it—please—PLEASE! I will go away if you do, where nobody will ever find me. I could not have him see me—see me like this." She looked at her thin hands and over her shabby gown. "Not like THIS!"
"No, you won't go away, my lady." There was a ring of authority now in the nurse's voice. "You'll stay here. It's the only way out of this misery for you. As for Mr. Felix and that scoundrel who has ruined you, Mr. Felix will take care of him. But I'm going to let Mr. Felix in, if the dear Lord will let him come. Mr. Felix loves you and—"
Her body stiffened. "He never loved me. He only loved his father," she cried angrily, and again she sank back on her pillow. "All my misery came from that."
Martha bent closer. "You never got that right, my lady," she returned firmly. "You mustn't get angry with me, for I got to let it all out." She was the nurse no longer; no matter what happened, she would unburden her heart. "Mr. Felix isn't like other men. He stood by his father and helped him when he was in trouble, just as he'll stand by and help you, just as he helps everybody—Tom Moulton's daughter for one, that he picked up on the streets of London and sent home to her mother. If he'd killed Sam Lawson, who ruined her, he'd have given him what he deserved; and if he kills this man Dalton, he won't give him half what he deserves or what's coming to him sooner or later. Dalton isn't fit to live. He got Sir Carroll O'Day all tangled up so that his character and all his money was hanging by a thread, and then, when Mr. Felix gave up what he had to save Sir Carroll, Dalton coaxed you away. You didn't know that, did you? But it's true. That man Dalton ruined Mr. Felix's father. Oh, I know it all—and I have known it for a long time. Stephen told me all about it. No, don't stop me, my lady! I'm your old Martha, who's nursed you and sat by you many a night, and I'll never stop loving you as long as I live. I don't care what you do to me or what you have done to yourself. Your leaving Mr. Felix was like a good many other things you used to do when you were crossed. You would have your way, just as your father will have his way, no matter who is hurt. What Lord Carnavon wants, he wants, and there is no stopping him. Anybody else but his lordship would have hushed the matter up, instead of ruining everybody. But that's all past now; I don't love you any less for it; I'm only sorrier and sorrier for you every time I think of it. Now we've got to make another start. Stephen'll help and I'll work my fingers to the bone for you—and Mr. Felix'll help most of all."
Except for the gesture of surprise when Dalton's part in the ruin of her husband's father was mentioned, Lady Barbara had listened to the breathless outburst without moving her head. Even when the words cut deepest she had made no protest. She knew the nurse's heart, and that every word was meant for her good. Her utter helplessness, too, confronted her, surrounded as she was by conditions she could neither withstand nor evade.
"And if he comes, Martha," she asked in a low, resigned voice, "what will happen then?"
"He'll get you out of this—take you where you needn't work the soul out of you."
"Pay for my support, you mean?" she asked, with a certain dignity.
"Of course; why not?"
"Never—NEVER! I will never touch a penny of his money—I would rather starve than do it!"
"Oh, it wouldn't be much—he's as poor as any of us. When Stephen saw him last, all he had was a rubber coat to keep him warm. But little as he has you'll get half or all of it."
"Poor as—any of us! Oh, my God, Martha!" she groaned, covering her face with her hands. "I never thought it would come to that—I never thought he could be poor! I never thought he would suffer in that way. And it is my fault, Martha—all of it! You must not think I do not see it! Every word you say is true—and every one else knows that it is true. It was all vanity and selfishness and stubbornness, never caring whom I hurt, so that I had the things I wanted. I put the blame on my husband a while ago because I did not want you to hate me too much. All the women who do wrong talk that way, hoping for some comforting word in their misery. But it is I who am to blame, not he. I talk that way to myself in the night when I lie awake until I nearly lose my mind. Sometimes, too, I try to cheat myself by thinking that all these terrible things might not have happened had God not taken my baby. But I don't know. They might have happened just the same, my head was so full of all that was wicked. When I think of that, I am glad the baby died. It could never have called me mother. Oh, Martha, Martha, take me in your arms again—yes, like that—close against your breast! Kiss me, Martha, as you used to do when I was little! You do love me, don't you? And you will promise not to let my husband see me? And now go away, please, and leave me alone. I cannot stand any more."
The talk with Father Cruse, while it had calmed and, to a certain extent, reassured Felix, had not in any way swerved him from his determination to find his wife at any cost.
The only change he made in his plans was one of locality. Heretofore, with the exception of his visits to Stephen—long since discontinued now that he feared she was an outcast—he had mingled with the throngs crowding the Great White Way ablaze with light or had haunted the doors of the popular theatres and expensive restaurants, and the waiting-rooms of the more fashionable hotels. After this it must be the byways, places where the poor or worse would congregate: cheap eating-houses; barrooms, with so-called "family rooms" attached; and always the streets at a distance from those trodden by the rich and prosperous classes. Father Cruse might have been right in his diagnosis, and the sleeve-button might form but a minor link in the chain of events circling the problem to the solution of which he had again consecrated his life, but certain it was that the clew Kitty had discovered had only strengthened his own convictions. If the woman whom Kitty had picked up some months before, and put to bed, were not his wife, she must certainly have been near her person; which still meant not only poverty but the possibility of Dalton's having abandoned her. Possibly, too, this woman, whose outside garments had contrasted so strangely with her more sumptuous underwear, might have been an inmate of the same house in which his wife was living—some one, perhaps, in whom his wife had had confidence. Perhaps—no! That was impossible. Whatever the depths of suffering into which his wife had fallen, she had not yet reached the pit—of that he was convinced. If he were mistaken—at the thought his fingers tightened, and his heavy eyebrows and thin, drawn lips became two parallel straight lines—then he would know exactly what to do.
These convictions filled his mind when, having bid good-by to Kitty—who knew nothing of his interview with the priest—he buttoned his mackintosh close up to his throat, tucked his blackthorn stick under his arm, and, pressing his hat well on his head, bent his steps toward the East Side. A light rain was falling and most of the passers-by were carrying umbrellas. Overhead thundered the trains of the Elevated—a continuous line of lights flashing through the clouds of mist. Underneath stretched Third Avenue, its perspective dimmed in a slowly gathering fog.
As he tramped on, the brim of his soft hat shadowing his brow, he scanned without ceasing the faces of those he passed: the men with collars turned up, the women under the umbrellas—especially those with small feet. At 28th Street he entered a cheap restaurant, its bill of fare, written on a pasteboard card and tacked on the outside, indicating the modest prices of the several viands.
He had had no particular reason for selecting this eating-house from among the others. He had passed several just like it, and was only accustoming himself to his new line of search; for that purpose, one eating-house was as good as another.
Drawing out a chair from a table, he sat down and ran his eye over the interior.
What he saw was a collection of small tables, flanked by wooden chairs, their tops covered with white cloths and surmounted by cheap casters, a long bar with the usual glistening accessories, and a flight of steps which led to the floor above. His entrance, quiet as it had been, had evidently attracted some attention, for a waiter in a once-white apron detached himself from a group of men in the far corner of the room and, picking up, as he passed, a printed card from a table, asked him what he would have to eat.
"Nothing—not now. I will sit here and smoke." He loosened his mackintosh and drew his pipe from his pocket, adding: "Hand me a match, please."
The waiter looked at him dubiously. "Ain't you goin' to order nothin'?"
"Not yet—perhaps not at all. Do you object to my smoking here?"
"Don't object to nothin', but this ain't no place to warm up in, see!"
Felix looked at him, and a faint smile played about his lips—the first that had lightened them all day. "I shan't ask you to start a fresh fire," he said in a decided tone; "and now, do as I bid you, and pass me that box of matches."
The man caught the tone and expression, placed the box beside him, and joined the group in the rear. There was a whispered conference, and a stout man wearing a dingy jacket disengaged himself from the others and lounged toward Felix.
"Nasty night," he began. "Had a lot of this weather this month. Never see a December like it."
"Yes, a bad night. Your servant seemed to think I was in the way. Are you the proprietor?"
"Well, I am one of them. Why?"
"Nothing—only I hoped to find you more hospitable."
"Oh, smoke away—guess we can stand it, if you can. Dinner's over"—he looked at the big clock decorating the white wall—"but they'll be piling in here after the theatres is out. You live around here?"
"No, not immediately."
"Looking for any one?"
Felix gave a slight start and, from under his narrowed lids, shot one of his bull's-eye flashes.
The man caught the flash and, misinterpreting it, bent down and said in a hoarse whisper: "Come from the central office, don't you?"
Felix took a long puff at his pipe. "No, I am only a very tired man who has come in out of the wet to rest and smoke," he answered, with a dry smile, "but if it will add to your comfort and improve your hospitality in any way, you can send your waiter back here and I will order something to eat."
The stout man laid his hand confidently on Felix's shoulder. "That's all right, pard—I ain't worryin', and don't you. There's nothin' doin', and I'm a-givin' it to you straight."
Felix nodded in dismissal, rested his elbows on the table, and again puffed away at his brierwood. Being mistaken for a central office detective might or might not be of assistance. At present, he would let matters stand.
As he smoked on, the room, which had been almost entirely empty of customers, began filling up. A reporter bustled in, ordered a cup of coffee, and, clearing away the plates and casters, squared his elbows and attacked a roll of paper. Two belated shop-girls entered laughing, hung their wet waterproofs on a hook behind their chairs, and were soon lost in the intricacies of the printed menu. Groups of three and four passed him, beating the rain from their hats and cloaks, the women stamping their wet feet.
The sudden influx from the outside, bringing in the wet and mud of the streets, had started innumerable puddles over the clean, sanded floor. The man wearing the dingy white jacket craned his head, noticed the widening pools, opened a door behind the bar leading to the cellar below, and shouted down, in a coarse voice, "Here, Stuffy, git busy—everything slopped up," and resumed his place beside the group of men, their talk still centred on the stranger in the mackintosh, who could be seen scrutinizing each new arrival.
Something in the poise and dignity of the object of their attention as he sat quietly, paper in hand, a curl of blue smoke mounting ceilingward from his pipe, must also have impressed the newcomers, for no one of them drew out any of the empty chairs immediately beside him, although the room was now comparatively crowded. Finally, the man who answered to the name of "Stuffy" appeared from the direction of the group near the bar, and made his way toward Felix. He carried a broom and a bucket, from which trailed a mop used for swabbing wet floors. When he reached O'Day's table, he dropped to his knees and attacked a sluiceway leading to a miniature lake, fed by the umbrellas and waterproofs belonging to the two girls opposite.
"Got to ask ye to move a little, sir," he said in apology.
"Hold on," replied Felix, in considerate tones, "I will stand up and you can get at it better. Bad night for everybody." He was on his feet now, his long mackintosh hanging straight, his hat still on his head, and in his hand the blackthorn stick, which he had picked up from beside the table as he rose.
The man stared at the mackintosh, the hat, and the cane, and sprang to his feet. "I know ye!" he cried excitedly. "Do you know me?"
Felix studied him closely. "I do not think I do," he answered, frowning slightly.
"Well, ye ought to. I ain't never forgot ye, and I never will. You give me a meal once and a dollar to keep me going."
O'Day's brow relaxed. "Yes, now I do. You are the man whose wife left him, and who tried to steal my watch."
"That's it—you got it. You didn't give me away. Say, I been straight ever since. It's been tough, but I kep' on—I work here three nights in the week and I got another job in a joint on Second Avenue. Say—" he added, glancing furtively over his shoulder. Then finding his suspicions confirmed, and the attention of the group fastened on him, he began to push the broom vigorously, muttering in jerks to Felix: "This ain't no place for ye—git into trouble sure—what yer doin' here?—They're onto ye, or the bunch wouldn't have their heads together—don't make no difference who's here, everybody gits pinched—I can't talk—they'll git wise and fire me."
Felix's lip curled and an amused expression drifted over his face. His jaws set, the muscles forming little ridges about his ears.
"I will attend to that later," he said, in a firm voice. "Keep on with your work."
He shook the ashes from his pipe, resumed his seat, and leaned carelessly forward with his elbows on his thighs, his former protege, now deep in his work, squeezing the wet rag into the bucket, and using the broom where the mud was thickest. When the swabbing-up process brought the man within speaking distance again Felix leaned still further forward and asked:
"What sort of a place is this—a restaurant?"
The man turned his head. He was again on his knees, and had drawn nearer. He was now wiping the same spot so as to be within reach of Felix's ear.
"Downstairs—yes," he returned in a low voice. "Upstairs—in the rear—across a roof—" He glanced again at the group and stopped.
"A gambling house?"
"No—a pool-room. That's why I give ye the tip."
Felix ruminated, the man polishing vigorously. "What kind of people come here?"
"The kind ye see—and crooks."
"Do you know them all?"
"Why not? I been workin' here two months. Had two raids—that's why I posted ye. It's the chop-house game now, with a new deal all around, but they're onto it—so a pal of mine tells me."
Again Felix ruminated. "Women ever come here?"
"Oh, yes, up to ten o'clock or so—telephone operators, shop-girls—that kind. Two of 'em are over there now; they work in Cryder's store Christmas and New Year's, and they get taken on extra."
"You mean fancies?"
"No—straight, decent women, who may live around here and who come regularly in for their meals."
"Oh, yes—but they don't stay long. And then"—he nodded toward the group—"they don't want 'em to stay—no money in grub. Just a bluff they've put up."
"Have you come across your wife since I saw you?"
"No, and don't want to. I've got all over that. A man's a damn fool to get crazy over a woman, and a bigger damn fool to keep worryin' when she goes back on him. They ain't wuth it, none on 'em."
"What became of the man she went off with?"
"Got tired and chucked her, after he made a tank of her. That's what they all do."
"Have you ever tried to find her?"
"You might do her some good."
"Cut it out! Nuthin' doin'! She was rotten when she left me, and she's rotten now. Bums round a Raines joint over here on Twenty-eighth Street. Pick up anybody. Came staggerin' into the church full of booze, so a pal o' mine told me, and got half-way down the aisle before they could fire her. Drop in there sometime when you go by and ask the sexton if I'm a-lyin'. No more of that for me, I'm through. There ain't but one place for that kind, and that's Blackwell's Island, and that's where they fetch up. I went through hell afore I saw you because of her, and I'm just pullin' out and I want to stay out."
He raised his head, glanced furtively again at the group by the bar, and in a low whisper muttered:
"I've got to go now. They'll get onto me next."
"Never mind those men. They cannot harm you," Felix answered, and was about to add some word of sympathy, when he checked himself. It would only hurt him the more, he thought. He said instead, his voice conveying what his lips would have uttered:
"Do you like it here?"
Felix pushed back his chair, stood erect, and with a gesture as if his mind had been made up said: "Would you care to do something else?"
The man dropped his broom and straggled to his feet. "Can ye give me somethin'? I been a-tryin' everywhere, but this kind o' work hoodoos a man, and they won't give me no ref'rence 'cause I don't git more'n my board and they don't want to lose me. And then"—here he winked meaningly—"I know a thing or two. But, say, do ye mean it? I'll go anywhere you want."
Felix felt in his pocket, drew out a card, and pencilled his address. "Come some night—say about eight o'clock. It's not far from here. I am glad you pulled yourself together and went to work. That is a good deal better than the business you tried to follow when we first met,"—and one of his dry smiles flickered about his mouth. "And now, good night," and he held out his hand.
The man drew back. It was a new experience. "You mean it?" he asked.
"Yes, give me your hand. Now that you are decent I want to shake it. That is the only way we can help each other."
Kitty was poring over her accounts when Felix arrived at the express-office and made his way to her sitting-room. She had had a busy day, the holiday season always bringing a rush of extra work, and her wagons had been kept going since daylight. The trend of travel was to Long Island and Jersey towns, the goods being mainly for the Christmas and New Year's festivities. John was away—somewhere between the Battery and Central Park—and so were Mike and Bobby, the boy having been pressed into service now that his vacation had begun.
"Are you too busy to talk to me, Mistress Kitty?" he said, stripping off his mackintosh and hanging it where its drip would do no harm.
"Too busy! God rest ye. Mr. O'Day! I'm never too busy to eat, sleep, look after John and Bobby, and listen to what ye've got to say. Hold on till I put these bills away. There ain't one of 'em'll be paid till after New Year—not then, if the customer can help it. They'll all spend their own money or somebody else's. There!"—and she laid the pile on a shelf behind her. "Now, go on—what's it ye want? Come, out with it; and mind, I've said 'Yes, and welcome' before ye've asked it."
O'Day, from his seat near the stove, studied her face for a moment, his own brightening as he felt the warmth of her loyalty. "Don't promise too much till you hear me out. I am looking for a job."
Kitty turned quickly, her eyes two round O's, all the ruddiness gone from her cheeks. "Mr. O'Day! Why! Why!—and what's Otto done to ye? I'll go to him this minute and—"
Felix laughed gently. "You will do nothing of the kind. Mr. Kling is all right and so am I. I want the job for a tramp who tried to hold me up one night, and who is now scrubbing the floor in a rather disreputable public house on Third Avenue."
Kitty let out all her breath and brought her plump hands down on her plump knees, her body rocking as she did so. "Oh, is that it? What a start ye give me! I thought ye and Kling had quarrelled. Sure, I'll take your tramp if ye say so. We want a man to wash the wagons, and help Mike clean up. John fired the macaroni we had last month and I didn't blame him. What can yer man do?"
"What do ye know about him?"
"Nothing, except that he tried to rob me."
"And what do ye want me to take him on for? To have him get away some night with a Saratoga trunk and—"
"No, to KEEP him from getting away with it. He's been on the ragged edge of life for some months, if I read him aright, and has all he can do to keep his footing. I found him a while ago by the merest accident, and he is still holding on. A week with you and your husband will do him more good than a legacy. He will get a new standard."
"What's he been doin' that he's up against it like this?" she asked, ignoring the compliment.
"Trying to forget a wife who went back on him—so he tells me."
"Has he done it?"
"Yes. If you can believe him. She has become a drunkard."
"Well—that's about the worst thing can happen to a man—if he's telling ye the truth. What's become of her?"
"He did not say. All I know is that he has not seen her since she went away."
"Maybe he didn't want to," she flashed back. "Did ye get out of him whose fault it was?"
Felix, whose remarks had been addressed to the red-hot coals in the stove, glanced quickly toward Kitty, but made no answer.
"Ye don't know, that's it, and so ye don't say I'll tell ye that it's the man's fault more'n half the time."
"And what makes you think so, Mistress Kitty?" he asked, trying to speak casually, not daring to look at her for fear she would detect the tremor on his lips, wondering all the time at her interest in the subject.
"It ain't for thinkin', Mr. O'Day, it's just seein' what goes on every day, and it sets me crazy. If a man's got gumption enough to make a girl love him well enough to marry him, he ought to know enough to keep it goin' night and day—if he don't want her to forget him. Half of 'em—poor souls!—are as ignorant as unborn babes, and don't know any more what's comin' to them than a chicken before its head's cut off. She wakes up some mornin' after they've been married a year or two and finds her man's gone to work without kissin' her good-by—when he was nigh crazy before they were married if he didn't get one every ten minutes. The next thing he does is to stay out half the night, and when she is nigh frightened to death, and tells him so with her eyes streamin', instead of comfortin' her, he tells her she ought to have better sense, and why didn't she go to sleep and not worry, that he was of age and could take care of himself—when all the time she is only lovin' him and pretty near out of her mind lest he gets hurted. And last he gets to lyin' as to where he HAS been—maybe it's the lodge, or a game in a back room, or somethin' ye can't talk about—anyhow, he lies about it, and then she finds it out, and everything comes tumblin' down together, and the pieces are all over the floor. That runs on for a while, and pretty soon in comes a dandy-lookin' chap and tells her she's an abused woman—and she HAS been—and he begins pickin' up the scraps and piecin' them together, tellin' her all the time the pretty things the first man told her and which, fool-like, she believes over agin, and then one fine day she skips off and the husband goes round, tearin' his hair with shame or shakin' his fist with rage, and says she broke up his home, and if she ever sets foot on his doorstep again he'll set the dogs on her, or let her starve before he'd give her a crumb. Don't it make you laugh? It does me. And you should see 'em swell round and air their troubles when most everybody knows just what's happened from the beginnin'! If it was any of my business, I'd let out and tell 'em so.
"What my John knows, I know; and what I know, he knows. There's never been a time, and there ain't one now, when I'm beat out and my bones are hangin' stiff in me—and I get that way sometimes even now—that I don't go to John and say, 'John, dear, get yer arms around me and hold me tight, I'm that tired,' and down goes everything, and he's got my head on his shoulder and pattin' my cheeks, and up I get all made over new, and him too. That's the way we get on, and that's the way they all ought to get on if—"
She paused, stretching her neck as if for more air.
"God save me! Will ye hear me run on? And ye sittin' there drinkin' it all in, not known' a word about the women and carin' less. Ye've got to forgive me, for I'm like John's alarm-clock in this wife business, and when I'm wound up I keep strikin' until I run down. Whew! What a heat I got myself into! Now go on, Mr. O'Day. What'll I pay him, and when's he comin?"
Felix waved his hand deprecatingly. "And so you never think, Mistress Kitty, that it may be the woman's fault?"
"Yes, sometimes it is. Faults on both sides, maybe. If it's the woman's fault, it always begins when she lets her man do all the work. Look up and down 'The Avenue' here! Every wife is helpin' her husband in his business, and every wife knows as much about it as the man does. That ain't the way up around Central Park. Half of 'em ain't out of bed till purty nigh lunch-time. I've heard 'em all talk; and worse yet, they glory in it. What can ye expect when there ain't five of 'em to a block who knows whether her husband has made a million in the past year or whether he's flat broke, except what he tells her? No wonder, when trouble comes, they shift husbands as they do their petticoats, and try it over again with a new one!"
"And if she takes this last plunge, when will she wake up to her mistake?" asked Felix, in a low voice.
"Oh, ye can't always tell. It'll generally run on for a while until she starts up and stares about her like she's been in a trance or a nightmare, and then the dear God help her after that, for nobody else can—nor will! That's the worst of it—NOR WILL! John was readin' out to me the other night about the Red Cross Society for pickin' up wounded off the battle-field, and carryin' them in where they can be patched up again and join their companies when they get well. Why don't they have a Red Cross for some of the poor girls and wives who are hurted—hundreds of 'em lyin' all over the lot—and patch 'em up and bring 'em back to their homes? Now I'm done."
"No! Not yet. One more question. After the last nightmare, what?"
"The gutter—or worse—that's what! And when it's all over, most people say: 'Served her right—she had a happy home once, why didn't she stay in it?' And somebody else says: 'She was always wild and foolish—I knew her as a girl.' And some don't say a blessed word because they couldn't dirty their clean lips with her name-the hypocrites!—and so they cart off her poor body and dump it in a lot back of Calvary cemetery. Oh, I know 'em, and that's what makes me get hot under the collar every time I get talkin' as I've been to-night!—And now let's quit it. If yer dead-beat wants a job, and we can keep him from stealin' the tires off the wagon and the shoes off my big Jim, he can come to work in the mornin', and John will pay him a dollar a day and he can sleep over the stables. And if he's decent, he can come in here once in a while and I'll warm him up with a cup of coffee. I'm glad to take him on just because ye want it—and ye knew that before I said it, for there's nothin' I wouldn't do for ye, and ye know that, too. Listen! That's John drivin' in, and I'm going out to meet him."
To the fears already possessing Lady Barbara a new one had now been added, freezing her blood and leaving her prostrate and helpless, like a plant stricken by an icy blast.
There had been no sleep for her after Martha's revelations regarding the presence of Felix in town, and turn as she would on her pillow, she could not escape the dread of one hideous possibility—her meeting him face to face, uncovering to his penetrating gaze her shame.
That he had had any other purpose in pursuing her across the sea than to humiliate and punish her, she did not believe. No man, certainly no man as proud as her husband, would forgive a woman who had trailed his ancestral name in the mud, and made his family life a byword in clubs and drawing-rooms. That Martha believed he could still love her was natural. Such good souls, women of the people, who had always led restrained and wholesome lives, would believe nothing else, but not a woman of her own class. She had only to recall a dozen instances where the bonds of marriage had been broken, with all the attendant scandal and misery, to be convinced of what would befall her were she and Felix to meet.
Her one hope was that her husband, baffled in his search, had left the city, and that neither Martha nor Stephen would ever see him again. Their inability to find him of late might mean that he had given up the search, having found no trace of her during all the months in which he had been trying to find her. Or it might mean that he, too, had succumbed to the same poverty which she had endured and, being no longer able to maintain himself in the great city, had sought work elsewhere.
As the thought of this last possibility suddenly took possession of her, her heart gave a great bound of relief, and in the quiet that ensued, a certain tenderness for the man whom she had wronged began to well up within her. She recalled their early life and his unfailing generosity. Never in all the years she had known him had he refused her the slightest thing which could, in any way, add to her happiness. Indeed, he had often denied himself many of the luxuries to which a man of his tastes and training was entitled, in order to add to her store. Nor had he ever restrained her in her whims or her extravagance, and never, in any way, had he curtailed her freedom. She had been free to come and free to go, and with whom she pleased. Her intimacy with Dalton had been proof of all this, as well as her friendships with various men to whose companionship many another husband might have objected. "All right, Barbara," was his invariable reply; "you will get over your youth one of these days, and then you and I will settle down."
Even when the financial crash had come, he had begged her to go with him to Australia, where he had important family connections, and where he could build up his fortunes anew. It was by no means certain, he had told her, that he was entirely ruined. His father's estate, when all the debts were paid, might still leave a surplus. There was some land just outside of London, too, on the line of suburban improvement, and this, with the title which had come to him with his father's death, would doubtless, after a few years, enable them to return to England and resume their former position. She remembered very well the night he had pleaded with her, and she remembered, too, with a gripping at her heart, her own contemptuous answer, and her departure the next morning for her father's roof. And then the lie she had told!—that Felix had bluntly announced to her his plan for raising sheep in Australia, ordering her to get ready to go with him at once.
She recalled, too, this time with burning cheeks, a certain unsigned letter, in an unknown hand, which had reached her after her flight with Dalton, describing her husband as stunned and dazed by the blow, the writer denouncing her for her desertion, and warning her of the retribution in store for her if she remained with a man like the one on whom she had staked her future happiness. She had laughed at its contents and tossed it across the table to Dalton, who had read it with a smile, caught it between a pair of tongs and, lighting a match, held it over the flame until it was consumed.
Then—as, tortured by these recollections, she lay staring at the dark—Martha's prediction, based on Stephen's, belief, that Felix would kill Dalton at sight, rose up in her mind, and with it came another great fear—one that, for a moment, stopped her heart from beating and left her numb. In the quick succession of blows that Martha had dealt, she had not fully grasped this part of the story. Now she did. That her husband was capable of it she fully believed. Quiet, reticent men like Felix—men who had served their country both in India and Egypt—men who never boasted, who never discussed their intentions or plans until they were carried out, were the men to take the law into their own hands when their honor was involved, no matter who was hurt. Such a catastrophe would not only bring to light her own misery, but the unavoidable publicity would tarnish still further the good name of her people at home. Even were only an attempt on Dalton's life made, and an official investigation held—as she was convinced would be the case—the scandal would be almost as bad. Rather than have this occur she would make any sacrifice, even that of humiliating herself on her knees before Felix—begging his forgiveness, not for the sake of the man she now feared and detested, but for the sake of her father at home, and to shield her own identity. She feared, too, for Felix. He, of all men, should be saved from committing such an act.
With this a sudden resolve born of her fears and shattered nerves took possession of her. She would not only see her husband whenever he came, but she would send word in the morning to Stephen to redouble his search, leaving no stone unturned until he was found.
Nothing of all this did she say to Martha, who helped her dress, watching the dark circles beneath the eyes. Breakfast over, she silently took her seat by the window, drew from the big paper box at her feet her several pieces of lace, including the mantilla, and began to work.
As she held up to the light the ragged tear in the Spanish lace, and noted the width and length of the gash in its delicate texture, her heart sank. She saw at a glance that she could not finish it before closing time, even if she devoted the whole day to its repair. Better complete, thought she, the other and smaller pieces—one a fichu of Brussels lace, and the others some embroidered handkerchiefs on which she was to place monograms. These she would finish and take to Mangan. When he saw how tired she was, he would accept her excuses and give her another day for the large and more important piece. She did not have to leave the house until four o'clock, and as Martha was to be out most of the day, she could work on without distraction of any kind.