"Hello, Quinby; what are you doing here?" asked a voice behind him; and turning he saw the long, oval face and lady-like figure of Mr. Chester.
"Same thing you are," said Quin, grinning sympathetically. "Only if I was in your shoes I'd be walking the tracks to meet the train."
Mr. Chester shook his head and smiled primly.
"When you have waited twenty years for a young lady, twenty minutes more or less do not matter."
"They would to me!" Quin declared emphatically. "When is the wedding to be?"
"On the fourteenth. And that reminds me"—Mr. Chester ran his arm confidentially through Quin's and tried to catch step. "I want to ask a favor of you."
A favor to Quin meant anything from twenty-five cents to twenty-five dollars, and the fact that Mr. Chester should come to him flattered and embarrassed him at the same time.
"What's mine is yours," he said magnanimously.
"No, you don't understand," said Mr. Chester. "You see, not being a club man or a society man, I have in a way dropped out of things. I have comparatively few friends, and unfortunately they are not in a set personally known to Madam Bartlett. Miss Enid and I thought that it might solve the difficulty, and avoid complications, if you would agree to serve as my best man."
"Why, I'd be willing to serve as the preacher to see you and Miss Enid get married," said Quin heartily. Then his thoughts flew after his departed Tuxedo and the gorgeous wing-toed pumps. "What'll I have to wear?"
"It is to be a noon affair," reassured Mr. Chester. "Simple morning coat, you know, and light-gray tie."
Quin's ideas concerning a morning coat were extremely vague, and the possibility of his procuring one vaguer still; but the occasion was too portentous to admit of hesitation. He and Mr. Chester continued their walk to the far end of the shed, and then stood looking down at the coal cars being loaded from the yards.
"White gloves, I suppose?" observed Quin.
"Pearl gray, with very narrow stitching. I think that's better taste, don't you?"
"Sure," agreed Quin. "Flower in the buttonhole, or anything like that?"
While this all-important detail was being decided, a clanging bell and the hiss of an engine announced the incoming train. Before the two waiting cavaliers could reach the gate, Eleanor Bartlett came through, laden with wraps and umbrellas.
"I like the way you meet us," she called out. "For mercy sake, help me." And she deposited her burden in Quin's outstretched arms. Then, as Mr. Chester strode past them with flying coat-tails in quest of Miss Enid, she burst out laughing.
"Say, you are looking great," said Quin, with devouring eyes, as he surveyed her over the top of his impedimenta.
"It's more than you are." She scanned his face in dismay. "Have you been sick?"
"No, indeed. Never felt better."
"I know—it was nursing Cass that did it. Rose wrote me all about it. If you don't look better right away, I shall make you go straight to bed and I'll come feed you chicken soup."
"My fever's rising this minute!" cried Quin, "I believe I've got a chill. Send for the ambulance!"
"Not till after the wedding. I'll have you know I am to be Aunt Enid's bridesmaid."
"You've got nothing on me," said Quin, "I'm the best man!"
This struck them both as being so excruciatingly funny that they did not see the approaching cavalcade, with Madam walking slowly at its head, until Quin heard his name called.
"Oh, dear," said Eleanor, "there they come. And I've got a thousand questions to ask you and a million things to tell you."
"Come here, young man, and see me walk!" was Madam's greeting. "Do I look like a cripple? Leg off at the knee, crutches for life? Bah! We fooled them, didn't we?"
Quin made a tremendous fuss over the old lady. He also threw the aunties into pleased confusion by pretending that he was going to kiss them, and occasioned no end of laughter and good-natured banter by his incessant teasing of Mr. Chester. He was in that state of effervescence that demanded an immediate outlet.
Madam found him so amusing that she promptly detailed him as her special escort.
"Eleanor can look after the baggage," she said, "and Isobel can look after Eleanor. The turtle-doves can take a taxi." And she closed her strong old fingers around Quin's wrist and pulled him forward.
He shot an appealing glance over his shoulder at Eleanor, who shook her head in exasperation; then he obediently conducted Madam to her carriage and scrambled in beside her.
"Now," she said, when he had got a cushion at her back and a stool under her foot, "tell me: where's Ranny—drunk as usual?"
"No, siree!" said Quin proudly. "Sober as usual. He hasn't touched a drop since you went away."
She looked at him incredulously.
"Are you lying?"
"I am not."
Her hard, suspicious old face began to twitch and her eyelids reddened.
"This is your doing," she said gruffly. "You've put more backbone into him than all the doctors together."
"That's not all I've done," said Quin. "What are you going to say when I tell you I've sold him a farm?"
"A farm? You've got no farm; and he had no money to buy it, if you had."
"That's all right. He has had a farm for three months. You ought to see him—up at six o'clock every morning looking after things, and so keen about getting back to it in the evening that he never thinks about going to the club or staying in town."
"What's all this nonsense you are talking?"
"It's not nonsense. He's bought a little place out near Anchordale. They are living there."
"And they did this without consulting me!" Madam's eyes blazed. "Why, he is no more capable of running a farm than a ten-year-old child! I have fought it for years. He knew perfectly well if he told me I'd stop it instantly. He will appeal to me to help out within six months, you'll see! I sha'n't do it! I'll show my children if they can do without me that I can go without them."
She was working herself into a fine rage. The aigrette on her bonnet quivered, and the black velvet band about her neck was getting so tight that it looked as if it couldn't stand the strain much longer.
"Why didn't he write me?" she stormed. "Am I too old and decrepit to be consulted any more? Is he going to follow Enid's high-handed way of deciding things without the slightest reference to my wishes?"
"I expect he is," said Quin cheerfully. "You see, you can't stiffen a fellow's backbone, as you call it, for one thing and not another. When he found out he could stop drinking, he decided he could do other things as well. He's started a chicken farm."
Madam groaned: "Of course. I never knew a fool that sooner or later didn't gravitate to chickens. He will get an incubator next."
"He has two already. He and Mrs. Ranny are studying out the whole business scientifically."
"And I suppose they've got a rabbit hutch, and a monkey, and some white mice?"
"Not quite. But they've got a nice place. Want to go out with me next Saturday and see 'em?"
"I do not. I'm not interested in menageries. I never expect to cross the threshold."
Quin pulled up the cape that had slipped from her shoulder, and adjusted it carefully.
"When Mr. Ranny comes in to see you," he said, "I hope you won't ball him out right away. He's awful keen on this stunt, you know. It sort of takes the place of the things he has given up."
Madam glared straight ahead of her for a few moments, then she said curtly:
"I'll not mention it until he does."
"Oh, but I want you to. He's as nervous as a witch about how you are going to take it. You see, he thinks more of your opinion than he does of anybody's, and he wants your approval. If you could jump right in and say you think it's a bully idea, and that you are coming out to see what he has done, and——"
"Do you want me to lie?" Madam demanded fiercely.
"No," said Quin, laughing; "I am trying to warm you up to the project now, so you won't have to lie." Then, seeing her face relax a little, he leaned toward her and said in his most persuasive tone:
"See here, now! I did my best to straighten Mr. Ranny out. He's making the fight of his life to keep straight. It's up to you to stand by us. You don't want to pitch the fat back in the fire, do you?"
They had reached the big house on Third Avenue, and the carriage was slowing up at the curbing. Quin, receiving no answer to his question, carefully helped Madam up the steps and into the house, where black Hannah was waiting to receive her.
"You can't come in," said Madam gruffly. "I am tired. I will see you some other time."
"All right," said Quin. "What time shall I come Saturday afternoon?"
"Saturday afternoon? Why then?"
"To go out to Mr. Ranny's farm."
For an instant they measured glances; then Quin began to laugh—a confident, boyish laugh full of teasing affection.
"Come on," he coaxed, "be a good scout. Let's give 'em the surprise of their lives."
"You rascal, you!" she said, hitting at him with her cane. "I believe you are at the bottom of all this. Mind, I promise you nothing."
"You don't have to," he called back. "I can trust you. I'll be here at three!"
He arrived on Saturday an hour early in the hope of seeing Eleanor, and was gloriously rewarded by thirty minutes alone with her in the big dark drawing-room. All the way up from the factory he had thought of the things he wanted to tell her—all the Martel news, the progress of affairs at Valley Mead, the fact that he had won his first-term certificate at the university, and above all about his promotion at Bartlett & Bangs. But Eleanor gave him no chance to tell her anything. She was like a dammed-up stream that suddenly finds an outlet. Into Quin's sympathetic ears she poured her own troubles, talking with her hands and her eyes as well as her lips, exaggerating, dramatizing, laughing one minute, half crying the next.
The summer, it seemed, had been one long series of clashes with her grandmother. She hadn't enjoyed one day of it, she assured him; that is, not a whole day, for of course there were some gorgeous times in between. Her friends had not been welcome at the house, and one (whom Quin devoutly hoped was Mr. Phipps) had been openly insulted. She had not been allowed to take part in the play given at the club-house, when it had been planned with her especially in mind for the leading role. She had even been forbidden to go to the last boathouse dance, because it was a moonlight affair, and grandmother had never heard of such a thing as dancing without lights.
"She has spent the entire summer nagging at me," Eleanor concluded. "I couldn't do a thing to please her. If I stayed in she wanted me to go out; if I went out she thought I ought to stay in. If I put on one dress she invariably made me change it for another. And as for being late to meals, why, each time it happened you would have thought I'd broken the ten commandments."
"Couldn't you have pushed up the stroke and got there on time?" asked Quin, whose army training made him inclined to sympathize with Madam at this point.
"No, I could not. I am always late. It's a Martel trait—that's why it infuriates grandmother. But it wasn't any of these things I've been telling you that caused the real trouble. It was her constant interference in my private affairs. I am simply sick of being dictated to about my choice of friends."
"You mean Mr. Phipps?"
She looked at him quickly. "How did you know?"
"Mrs. Ranny told me he was up there, and I guessed there was a shindy."
"I should say there was—for the entire three days he was there! If he hadn't been big enough to rise above it and ignore grandmother, she would have succeeded in breaking up one of the most beautiful friendships of my life."
Quin absently twisted a corner of the corpulent sofa cushion which he held in his lap, before he asked cautiously:
"What is it you like so much in him. Miss Nell?"
Eleanor curled her feet under her on the sofa, and launched forth on a favorite theme:
"Well, to begin with, he's the most cosmopolitan man I ever met."
"Cosmopolitan? How do you mean?"
"Awfully sophisticated. A sort of citizen of the world, you know."
"You mean he's traveled a lot, knocked around in queer places, like me?"
"Oh, no; it isn't that. As a matter of fact, he has never been out of this country. But I mean that, wherever he'd go, he would be at home."
"Yes," Quin admitted, with a grim smile; "that's where he was most of the time when he was in the army. What else do you like about him?"
"I sha'n't tell you. You are prejudiced, like all the rest. He says that only an artist can understand an artist."
"Meaning, I suppose, that he understands you?"
"Yes; and I believe I understand him. Of course I don't agree with him in all his ideas. But then, I've been brought up in such a narrow way that I know I am frightfully conventional. He is awfully advanced, you know. Why don't you like him, Quin?"
Numerous concrete and very emphatic reasons sprang to Quin's lips. He would have liked nothing better than to answer her question fully and finally; but instead he only smiled at her and said:
"Why, I guess the main reason is because you do."
Eleanor looked at him dubiously: "No," she said; "it's something besides that. The family have probably filled your ears with silly gossip. Mr. Phipps was wild at one time—he told me all about it. But that's ancient history; you can take my word for it."
Quin would have taken her word for almost anything when she looked at him with such star-eyed earnestness, but he was obliged to make an exception in the present instance.
"He's nothing in my young life," he said indifferently. "What I want to know is whether you are home to stay?"
Eleanor glanced at the door, listened, then she said:
"I don't know yet. You see, Papa Claude is to be in New York this winter, finishing his play. He says if I will come on he will put me in the Kendall School of Expression and see that I get the right start. It's the chance of a life-time, and I'm simply wild to go."
"And Queen Vic won't hear of it?"
"Not for a second. She knows perfectly well that I can go on the stage the day I am twenty-one, yet through sheer obstinacy she refuses to advance me a penny to do as I like with before the 20th of next July."
"She don't do it for meanness," Quin ventured. "She'd give you all she had if it came to a showdown. But none of 'em realize you are grown up; they are afraid to turn you loose."
"Well, I've stood it as long as I intend to. I made up my mind that I would stick it out until after Aunt Enid's wedding. It nearly breaks my heart to do anything to hurt her and Aunt Isobel; but even they are beginning to rebel against grandmother's tyranny."
"What do you mean to do?" asked Quin, with a sudden sinking of the heart.
"I am not sure yet; I haven't quite made up my mind. But I am not going to stay here. I am too unhappy, Quin, and with Aunt Enid gone——" Her voice broke, and as she caught her lip between her small white teeth she stared ahead of her with tragic eyes.
Quin laid his arm along the sofa, as close to her shoulders as he dared, and looked at her in dumb sympathy.
"Don't you think you might try a different tack with the old lady?" he ventured presently. "Even a porcupine likes to have its head scratched, and I think sometimes she's kind of hungry for somebody to cotton up to her a bit. Don't you think you might——"
"Who left that front door open?" broke in a harsh, peremptory voice from the landing. "I don't care who opened it—I want it shut, and kept shut. Where's Quinby Graham? I thought you said he was waiting."
Quin rose precipitately and made a dash for the hall, while Eleanor discreetly disappeared through a rear door.
"Well," said Madam grimly, pulling on her gloves, "it is a novel experience to find a young person who has a respect for other people's time."
For the next two weeks Eleanor made a heroic effort to follow Quin's advice and be nice to Madam. She wanted, with all her heart, to gain her point peacefully, and she also wanted Quin's approval of what she was doing. In spite of his obvious adoration, she frequently detected a note of criticism in his voice, that, while it piqued her, also stirred her conscience and made her see things in a new and disturbing light. For the first time, she began to wonder if she could be partly to blame for the friction that always existed between herself and her grandmother. She certainly had taken an unholy joy in flaunting her Martel characteristics in the old lady's face. It was not that she preferred to identify herself with her mother's family rather than with her father's. The Martel shiftlessness and visionary improvidence were quite as intolerable to her as the iron-clad conventions of the Bartletts. She could take correction from Aunt Isobel and Aunt Enid, but there was something in her grandmother's caustic comments that made her tingle with instant opposition, as a delicate vase will shiver at the sound of its own vibration.
During the days before the wedding she surprised herself by her docility and acquiescence in all that was proposed for her. She even accepted without demur the white swiss and blue ribbons that a week before she had considered entirely too infantile for an adult maid of honor. This particular exhibition of virtue was due to the exemplary behavior of the bride herself. Miss Enid had longed for the regulation white satin, tulle veil, and orange blossoms; but Madam had promptly cited the case of the old maid who waited so long to marry that her orange blossoms turned to oranges.
Miss Enid was married in a sober traveling dress, and carried a prayer-book. She and Mr. Chester stood in front of the drawing-room mantel, where twenty years before Madam had expressed her opinion concerning sentimental young fools who thought they could live on fifteen dollars a week.
The budding romance, snatched ruthlessly up and flung into the dust-heap of common sense, had lain dormant all these years, until Quinby Graham had stumbled upon its dried old roots, and planted them once again in the garden of dreams.
Why is it that we will breathlessly follow the callowest youth and the silliest maiden through the most intricate labyrinth of love, never losing interest until they drop safely into one another's arms, and yet when two seasoned, mellowed human beings tried by life and found worthy of the prize of love, dare lift a sentimental lid or sigh a word of romance, we straightway howl with derision?
It was not until Eleanor stood beside the elderly bride that the affair ceased to be funny to her. For the first time, she saw something pathetic and beautiful in the permanence of a love that, starved and thwarted and blasted by ridicule, could survive the years and make two faded, middle-aged people like Aunt Enid and Mr. Chester eager to drain the dregs of life together, when they had been denied the good red wine.
Her eyes wandered from their worn, elated faces to the rows of solemn figures behind them. Madam, as usual, dominated the scene. Her portrait gazed in portentously from the hall; her marble bust gleamed from a distant corner; and she herself, the most resplendent person present, sat in a chair of state placed like a proscenium-box, and critically observed the performance.
"If she only wouldn't curl her lip like that!" thought Eleanor shudderingly; then she remembered her resolution and looked at Quin.
He too was looking preternaturally solemn, and his lips were moving softly in unison with Mr. Chester's. If Eleanor could have heard those inaudible responses she would have been startled by the words: "I, Quinby, take thee, Eleanor." But she only observed that he was lost in a day-dream, and that she had never seen him look so nice.
Indeed, he was a very different-looking person from the boy that six months ago had mortified her by his appearance at her Easter party in "the classiest coat in the market." The propriety of his garments made her suspect that Uncle Ranny had had a hand in their selection.
"And I like the way he's got his hair slicked back," she thought. "I wonder how he ever managed it?"
After the wedding breakfast, which was a lavish one, and the departure of the bride and groom, for California, where they were to make their future home, Madam summoned Eleanor.
"There's no use in you and Quin Graham staying here with all these fossils," she said, lowering her voice. "People hate to go home from a wedding almost as much as they do from a funeral! You two take this and go to a matinee."
This unexpected concession to Eleanor's weakness touched her deeply. She flew into the hall to tell Quin, and then rushed upstairs to change her dress.
"I believe the scheme is working!" she said joyously, as she and Quin sat in the theater waiting for the curtain to rise. "Grandmother has been peaches and cream to me all week. This morning she capped the climax by giving me a check for a hundred dollars to buy a gold mesh bag."
"A what!" cried Quin, aghast.
"A mesh bag. But I am not going to get it. I sent the check to Rose. It has nearly killed me not to have a penny to send them all summer, and this came just in time. Have you heard about Myrna?"
"Being asked to spend the winter at Mrs. Ranny's? I should say I have! She's the happiest kid alive."
"And grandmother has even stood for that! It's a perfect scream to hear her bragging about 'my son's farm.' She will be talking about 'my daughter's husband' next."
"Queen Vic's all right," Quin declared stoutly. "Her only trouble is that she's been trying to play baseball by herself; she's got to learn team-work."
The play happened to be "The Better 'Ole"; and from the moment the curtain rose Eleanor was oblivious to everything but the humor and pathos and glory of the story. She followed with ready tears and smiles the adventures of the three Tommies; she thrilled to the sentimental songs beside the stage camp fire; she laughed at the antics of the incomparable Corporal Bill. It was not until the second act that she became conscious of the queer behavior of her companion.
Quin sat hunched up in his wedding suit, his jaw set like a vise, staring solemnly into space with an expression she had never seen in his face before. He seemed to have forgotten where he was and whom he was with. His hand had crushed the program into a ball, and his breath came short, as it always did when he was excited or over-exerted.
Eleanor, whose emotions up to now had been pleasantly and superficially stirred, suddenly saw the play from a new angle. With quick imagination she visualized the great reality of which all this was but a clever sham. She saw Quin passing through it all, not to the thunder of stage shrapnel and the glare of a red spot-light, but in the life-and-death struggle of those eighteen months in the trenches. Before she knew it, she too was gazing absently into space, shaken with the profound realization that here beside her, his shoulder touching hers, was one who had lived more in a day than she had ever lived in a life-time.
They said little during the last intermission, and the silence brought them closer together than any words could have done.
"It takes a fellow back—all this," Quin roused himself to say in half-apology.
"I know," said Eleanor.
They walked home in the autumn twilight in that exalted, romantic mood in which a good play leaves one. Now that the tension was over, it was quite possible to prolong the enjoyment by discussing the strong and weak points of the performance. Eleanor was surprised to find that Quin, while ignorant of the meaning of the word technic nevertheless had decided and worth-while opinions about every detail, and that his comments were often startlingly pertinent.
They reached the Bartletts' before they knew it, and Quin sighed ruefully:
"I wish Miss Enid and Mr. Chester could get married every Wednesday! When can I see you again?"
"Some time soon."
"I am afraid that's too soon."
"No; I am going to a dance at the Country Club Friday night."
Still he lingered disconsolately on the lower step, unable to tear himself away.
"Do you know," he said, gaining time by presenting a grievance, "you never have danced with me but twice in your life?"
She looked at him dreamily.
"The funny thing is that I remember those two dances better than any I've ever had with anybody else."
He came up the steps two at a time.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded. "Are you joshing me?"
"No, honest. That New Year's eve with the blizzard raging outside, and that bright crowded hall, and all you boys just home from France. Do you remember the big blue parrots that swung in hoops from the chandeliers? And that wonderful saxophone and the big bass drum!"
"Then it isn't me that you remember? Just a darned old parrot hanging on a hoop, and a saxophone and a drum!"
"You silly! Of course it's you too! I remember every single thing you told me, and how terribly thrilled I was. This afternoon brought it all back. I shall never forget this, either. Not as long as I live!"
She started to put out her hand; but, seeing the look in Quin's eyes, she reconsidered and opened the door instead.
"So long," she said casually. "I'll probably see you sometime next week. In the meanwhile I'll be good to granny!"
When Eleanor reached the Country Club on Friday night, she found a box of flowers waiting for her in the dressing-room. It was the second box she had received that day. The first bore the conspicuous label, "Wear-Well Shoes," and contained a bunch of wild evening primroses wrapped in wet moss. With this more sophisticated floral offering was a sealed note which she opened eagerly:
Mademoiselle Beaux Yeux—[she read]:
Save all the dances after the intermission for me. I will reach L. at nine-thirty, get out to the club for a couple of hours with you, and catch the midnight express back to Chicago. Pin my blossoms close to your heart, and bid it heed what they whisper.
Eleanor read the note twice, conscious of the fact that a dozen envious eyes were watching her. She considered this quite the most romantic thing that had happened to her. For a man like Mr. Phipps to travel sixteen hours out of the twenty-four just to dance with her was a triumph indeed. It made her think of her old friend Joseph, in the Bret Harte poem, who
Swam the Elk's creek and all that, Just to dance with old Folingsbee's daughter, The Lily of Poverty Flat.
Not that Eleanor felt in the least humble. She had never felt so proud in her life as she smiled a little superior smile and slipped the note in her bosom.
"Not orchids!" exclaimed Kitty Mason, poking an inquisitive finger under the waxed paper.
"Why not?" Eleanor asked nonchalantly. "They are my favorite flowers."
"But I thought the orchid king was in Chicago?"
"He is—that is, he was. He's probably on the train now. I have just had a note saying he was running down for the dance and would go back to-night."
The news had the desired effect. Six noses, which were being vigorously powdered, were neglected while their owners burst forth in a chorus of exclamations sufficiently charged with envious admiration to satisfy the most rapacious debutante.
"I should think you'd be perfectly paralyzed trying to think of things to talk to him about," said little Bessie Meed, who had not yet put her hair up. "Older men scare me stiff."
"They don't me," declared Lou Pierce; "they make me tired. Sitting out dances, and holding hands, and talking high-brow. When I come to a dance I want to dance. Give me Johnnie Rawlings or Pink Bailey and a good old jazz."
Eleanor pinned on her orchids and moved away. The girls seemed incredibly young and noisy and crass. Less than six months ago she, too, was romping through the dances with Jimmy and Pink, and imagining that a fox-trot divided between ten partners constituted the height of enjoyment. Mr. Phipps had told her in the summer that she was changing. "The little butterfly is emerging from her chrysalis," was the poetic way he had phrased it, with an accompanying look that spoke volumes.
Once on the dance floor, however, she forgot her superior mood and enjoyed herself inordinately until supper-time. Just as she and Pink were starting for the refreshment room, she caught sight of a familiar graceful figure, standing apart from the crowd, watching her with level, penetrating eyes.
"Pink, I forgot!" she said hastily; "I'm engaged for supper. I'll see you later." And without further apology she slipped through the throng and joined Harold.
"Let's get out of this," he said, lightly touching her bare arm and piloting her toward the porch.
"But don't you want any supper?" asked Eleanor, amazed.
"Not when I have you," whispered Harold.
Eleanor gave a regretful glance at a mammoth tray of sandwiches being passed, then allowed herself to be drawn out through the French window into the cool darkness of the wide veranda.
"Let's sit in that car down by the first tee," Harold suggested. "It's only a step."
Eleanor hesitated. One of the ten social commandments imposed upon her was that she was never to leave the porch at a Country Club dance. That the porch edge should be regarded as the limit of propriety had always seemed to her the height of absurdity; but so far she had obeyed the family and confined her flirtations to shadowy corners and dim nooks under bending palms.
"What's the trouble?" Harold inquired solicitously. "The little gold slippers?"
"No—I don't mind the slippers; but, you see, I'm not supposed to go off the porch."
"How ridiculous! Of course you are going off the porch. I have only one hour to stay, and I've something very important to tell you."
"But why can't we sit here?" she insisted, indicating an unoccupied bench.
"Because those ubiquitous youngsters will be clamoring for you the moment the music begins. Haven't you had enough noise for one night? Perhaps you prefer to go inside and be pushed about and eat messy things with your fingers?"
"Now you are horrid!" Eleanor pouted. "I only thought——"
"You mean you didn't think!" corrected Harold, putting the tip of his finger under her chin and tilting her face up to his. "You just repeated what you'd been taught to say. Use your brains, Eleanor. What possible harm can there be in our quietly sitting out under the light of the stars, instead of on this crowded piazza with that distracting din going on inside?"
"Of course there isn't really."
"Well, then, come on"; and he led the way across the strip of dewy lawn and handed her into the car.
Eleanor experienced a delicious sense of forbidden joy as she sank on the soft cushions and looked back at the brilliantly lighted club-house. The knowledge that in many of those other cars parked along the roadway other couples were cozily twosing, and that not a girl among them but would have changed places with her, added materially to her enjoyment.
It was not that Harold Phipps was popular. She had to admit that he had more enemies than friends. But rumors of his wealth, his position, and his talent, together with his distinguished appearance, had made him the most sought after officer stationed at the camp. That he should have swooped down from his eagle flight with Uncle Ranny's sophisticated group to snatch her out of the pool of youthful minnows was a compliment she did not forget.
"Well," he said, lazily sinking into his corner of the car and observing her with satisfaction, "haven't you something pretty to say to me, after I've come all these miles to hear it?"
Eleanor laughed in embarrassment. It was much easier to say pretty things in letters than to say them face to face.
"There is one thing that I always have to say to you," she said, "and that's thank you. These orchids are perfectly sweet, and the candy that came yesterday——"
"Was also perfectly sweet? Come, Eleanor, let's skip the formalities. Were you or were you not glad to see me?"
"Why, of course I was."
"Well, you didn't look it. I am not used to having girls treat me as casually as you do. How much have you missed me?"
"Heaps. How's the play coming on?"
"Marvelously! We've worked out all the main difficulties, and I signed up this week with a manager."
"Not really! When will it be produced?"
"Sometime in the spring. I go on to New York next month to make the final arrangements. When do you go?"
"I don't know that I am going. I'm trying my best to get grandmother's consent."
"You must go anyhow," said Harold. "I want you to have three months at the Kendall School, and then do you know what I am going to do?"
"What?" she asked with sparkling eagerness.
"I am going to try you out in 'Phantom Love.' You remember you said if I wrote a part especially for you that nothing in heaven or earth could prevent your taking it."
"And have you written a part especially for me?"
"I certainly have. A young Southern girl who moves through the play like a strain of exquisite music. The only trouble is that the role promises to be more appealing than the star's."
"That's the loveliest thing I ever heard of anybody doing!" cried Eleanor, breathless with gratitude. "Does Papa Claude know?"
"Of course he knows. We worked it out together. I am going to find him a small apartment, so he can be ready for you when you come. It shouldn't be later than November the first."
Eleanor wore such a look as Joan of Arc must have worn when she first heard the heavenly voices. Her shapely bare arms hung limp at her sides, and her white face, with its contrasting black hair, shone like a delicate cameo against the darkness.
Harold, leaning forward with elbows on his knees, kept lightly touching and retouching his mustache.
"In the first act," he continued softly, "I've put you in the Red Cross Uniform—the little blue and white one, you know, that you used to break hearts in out at the camp hospital. In the second act you are to be in riding togs, smart in every detail, something very chic, that will show your figure to advantage; in the last act I want you exactly as you are this minute—this soft clingy gold gown, and the gold slippers, and your hair high and plain like that, with the band of dull gold around it. I wouldn't change an inch of you, not from your head to your blessed little feet!"
As he talked Eleanor forgot him completely. She was busy visualizing the different costumes, even going so far as to see herself slipping through folds of crimson velvet to take insistent curtain calls. Already in imagination she was rich and famous, dispensing munificent bounty to the entire Martel family. Then a disturbing thought pricked her dream and brought her rudely back to the present. As long as her grandmother regarded her going to New York as a foolish whim, a passing craze, she might be wheedled into yielding; but at the first suggestion of a professional engagement, her opposition would become active and violent, Eleanor sighed helplessly and looked at Harold.
"What shall I do if grandmother refuses to send me?" she asked desperately.
"You can let me send you," he said quietly. "It's folly to keep up this pretense any longer, Eleanor. You love me, don't you?"
"I—I like you," faltered Eleanor, "better than almost anybody. But I am never going to marry; I don't think I shall ever care for anybody—that way."
He watched her with an amused practised glance. "We won't talk about it now," he said lightly. "We will talk instead of your career. You remember that night at Ran's when you recited for me? I can hear you now saying those lines:
'Or if thou think'st I am too quickly won I'll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay.'
For days I was haunted by the beauty and subtlety of your voice, the unconscious grace of your poses, your little tricks of coquetry, and the play of your eyebrows."
"Did you really see all that in me the first night?"
"I saw more. I saw that, if taken in time, you were destined to be a great actress. I swore then and there that you should have your chance, and that I should be the one to give it to you."
"No. Don't answer me now. You are like a little bud that's afraid to open its petals. Once you get out of this chilling atmosphere of criticism and opposition, you will burst into glorious bloom."
"But it would mean a terrible break with the family. I don't believe I can——"
"Yes, you can. I know you better than you know yourself. If Madam Bartlett persists in refusing to send you to New York, you are going to be big enough to let me do it."
He was holding her hand now, and talking with unusual earnestness. Eleanor thought she had never seen a greater exhibition of magnanimity. That he was willing to give all and ask for nothing, to be patient with her vacillations, and understand and sympathize with what everybody else condemned in her, touched her greatly. She turned to him impulsively.
"I'll do whatever you say," she said. "You and Papa Claude go ahead and make the arrangements, and I promise you I'll come."
Harold Phipps should have left it there; but Eleanor was never more irresistible than when she was in a yielding mood, and now, when she lifted starry eyes of gratitude, he tumbled off his pedestal of noble detachment, and drew her suddenly into his arms.
In an instant her soft mood vanished. She scrambled hastily to her feet and got out of the car.
"I am going in," she said abruptly. "I'm cold."
Harold laughingly followed. "Cold?" he repeated in his laziest tone. "My dear girl, you could understudy the North Pole! However, it was my mistake; I'm sorry. Shall we go in and dance?"
For the next half-hour he and Eleanor were the most observed couple on the floor. The "ubiquitous youngsters," seeing his air of proprietorship, forbore to break in, and it was not until the last dance that Pink Bailey, looking the immature college boy he was, presented himself apologetically to take Eleanor home.
"Bring your car around, and she will be ready," said Harold loftily. Then he turned to Eleanor, "I shall expect a letter every day. You must keep me posted how things are going."
They were standing on the club-house steps now, and she was looking dreamily off across the golf links.
"Did you hear me?" he said impatiently.
"Oh, I was listening to the whip-poor-wills. They always take me back to Valley Mead. Write every day? Heavens, no. I hate to write letters."
"But you'll write to me, you little ingrate! I shall send you such nice letters that you'll have to answer them."
A vagrant breeze, with a hint of autumn, blew Eleanor's scarf across his shoulder, and he tenderly replaced it about her throat.
"Are you cold?" he asked solicitously.
Eleanor, under cover of the crowd that was surging about them, felt a sudden access of boldness.
"Not so cold as some people think," she said mischievously; then, without waiting for further good-by, she sped down the steps and into the waiting car.
Of all the multitudinous ways in which Dan Cupid, Unlimited, does business, none is more nefarious than his course by correspondence. Once he has induced two guileless clients to plunge into the traffic of love letters, the rest is easy. Wild speculation in love stock, false valuations, hysterical desire to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market, invariably follow. Before the end of the month Harold Phipps and Eleanor Bartlett were gambling in the love market with a recklessness that would have staggered the most hardened old speculator.
Harold, instead of being handicapped by his absence at the most critical point in his love affair, took advantage of it to exhibit one of his most brilliant accomplishments. He sent Eleanor a handsome tooled-leather portfolio to hold his letters, which he wrote on loose-leaf sheets and mailed unfolded. They were letters that deserved preservation, prose poems composed with infinite pains and copied with meticulous care. If the potpourri was at times redolent of the dried flowers of other men's loves, Eleanor was blissfully unaware of it. When he wrote of the lonesome October of his most immemorial year, or spoke of her pilgrim soul coming to him at midnight in the silence of the sleep-time, she thrilled with admiration for his genius.
Such literary masterpieces deserved adequate answers, and she found herself trying to make up in quantity what she lacked in quality. His letters always began, "Dearest Heloise," or "Melisande," or "Baucis," or "Isolde"; and, rather than acknowledge her ignorance of these classic allusions, she looked them up and sent her answers to "Dear Abelard," or "Pelleas," or "Philemon," or "Tristan," as the case demanded. She indited her missives with a dainty gold pen engraved with an orchid, which Harold had requested her never to profane by secular use.
The correspondence, while throbbing with emotion, was not by any means devoid of practical details. Harold lost no opportunity of urging Eleanor to remain firm in her resolve to go to New York. It would be sheer folly, he pointed out, to give up the chance of a professional debut, a chance that might not come again in years. He pointed out that her grandfather had changed all his plans on the strength of her coming, and would be utterly heartbroken if she failed to keep her promise. He delicately intimated that her failure to take the part he had so laboriously written for her might seal the fate of "Phantom Love" and prove the downfall of both its creators.
His conclusion to all these specious arguments was that the only way out of the tangle was for her to consent to a nominal engagement to him that would bind her to nothing, and yet would give him the right to send her to New York if Madam Bartlett refused to do so. In answer to Eleanor's doubts and misgivings, he assured her in polyphonic prose that he knew her far better than she knew herself, and that he would be "content to wait at the feet of little Galatea, asking nothing, giving all, until the happy day when she should wake to life and love and the consciousness that she was wholly and happily his."
And Galatea read his letters with increasing ardor and slept with them under her pillow. It was all so secret and romantic, this glorious adventure rushing to fulfilment, under the prosy surface of everyday life. Of course she did not want to be married—not for ages and ages; but to be engaged, to be indefinitely adored by a consummate lover like Harold Phipps, who so beautifully shared her ambition, was an exciting and tempting proposition. Like most girls of her type, when her personal concerns became too complex for reason, she abandoned herself to impulse. She merely shut her eyes and allowed herself to drift toward a destination that was not of her choosing. Like a peripatetic Sleeping Beauty, she moved through the days in a sort of trance, waiting liberation from her thraldom, but fearing to put her fate to the test by laying the matter squarely and finally before her grandmother.
It was easy enough to drop out of her old round of festivities. She had been away all summer, and new groups had formed with which she took no trouble to ally herself. Her friends seemed inordinately young and foolish. She wondered how she had ever endured the trivial chatter of Kitty Mason and the school-boy antics of Pink Bailey and Johnnie Rawlings. After declining half a dozen invitations she was left in peace, free to devote all her time to composing her letters, to poring over plays and books about the theater, or to sitting listless absorbed in day-dreams.
The one old friend who refused to be disposed of was Quinby Graham. On one pretext or another he managed to come to the house almost every day, and he seldom left it without managing to see her. Sometimes when she was in the most arduous throes of composition, the maid would come to her door and say: "Mr. Quin's downstairs, and he says can you come to the steps a minute—he's got something to show you?" Or Miss Isobel would pause on the threshold to say: "Quinby is looking for you, Eleanor. I think it is something about a new tire for your automobile."
And Eleanor would impatiently thrust her letter into a desk drawer and go downstairs, where she would invariably get so interested in what Quin had to say to her or to show her that she would forget to come up again.
Sometimes they went out to Valley Mead together for week-ends. On those days Eleanor not only failed to write to Harold, but also failed to think about him. The excitement of seeing what new wonders had been wrought since the last visit, of scouring the woods for nuts and berries, of going on all-day picnics to a neighboring hill-top, made her quite forget her castles in the air. She descended from the clouds of art and under Quin's tutelage learned to fry chops and bacon and cook eggs in the open. She got her face and hands smudged and her hair tumbled, and she forgot all about enunciating clearly and holding her poses. So abandoned was she to what Harold called her "bourgeois mood" that she was conscious of nothing but the sheer joy of living.
Often when she and Quin were alone together, she longed to take him into her confidence. She was desperately in need of counsel, and his level head and clear judgments had solved more than one problem for her. But she realized that, in spite of the heroic effort he was making to keep within bounds, he was nevertheless liable to overflow into sentiment with the slightest encouragement. Confession of her proposed flight, moreover, involved an explanation of her relation to Harold Phipps, and upon that point Quin could not be counted to sympathize.
With the first of November came a letter that brought matters to a crisis. Claude Martel wrote that he must know immediately the date of her arrival in New York, since the place he had bespoken for her at the Kendall School of Expression could no longer be held open; he must also give a definite answer about the apartment.
Eleanor received the letter one Saturday as she was starting to a tea. All afternoon she listened to the local chatter about her as a lark poised for flight might listen to the twittering of house sparrows. Her mind was in a ferment of elation and doubt, of trepidation and joyful anticipation. The moment she had longed for and yet dreaded was at hand.
Returning across Central Park in the dusk, she rehearsed what she was going to say to her grandmother. The moment for approaching her had never seemed more propitious. Ever since she had accepted Quin's advice and "cottoned up" to the old lady, relations between them had been amazingly amicable. Her willingness to stay at home in the evening and take Miss Enid's place as official reader and amanuensis had placed her in high favor, and Madam, not to be outdone in magnanimity, had allowed her many privileges.
Now that there seemed some ground for the hope that she might gain her grandmother's consent to the New York proposition, Eleanor realized how ardently she wanted it. It was not the money alone, it was her moral support and approval—hers and Aunt Isobel's. Aunt Enid would understand, had understood in a way; so would Uncle Ranny and Aunt Flo. As for Quin Graham——
She heard a cough near by, and turning saw a couple sitting on a bench half hidden in the heavy shrubbery. Their backs were toward her, and she noticed that the girl's hand rested on the man's shoulder and that their heads were bent in intimate conversation. The next instant she recognized Rose Mattel's hat and the dim outline of Quin's troubled profile.
Turning sharply to the right, she hurried up through the pergola and out into the avenue. She wondered why she was so unaccountably angry. Rose and Quin had a perfect right to sit in the square at twilight and talk as much as they liked. It was not her business, anyhow, she told herself; she ought to be glad for poor Rose to have any diversion she could get after being in that hideous store all day. She didn't blame Rose one bit. But if Quin thought as much of somebody else as he pretended to, she couldn't see what he would have to say to another girl out here in the park at twilight, especially a girl that he saw three times a day at home! Could there be anything between them? She had scorned the idea when it was once tentatively suggested to her by Harold Phipps. Of course there couldn't. And yet——
So preoccupied was she with these disturbing reflections that she almost forgot the real business in hand until she stood on her own doorstep waiting to be admitted.
"Old Miss says for you to come up to her room the minute you git in," Hannah said, with an ominous note in her voice.
"What's the matter, Hannah? Uncle Ranny?"
"Lord, no, honey! Mr. Ranny's behavin' himself like a angel. Hit was somethin' that come in the mail. Miss Isobel she don't know, and I don't know; but Old Miss certainly has got it in fer somebody."
Eleanor's new-found confidence promptly deserted her, and she hastily took stock of her own shortcomings. Of course she was writing daily to Harold, but the matter of her private correspondence had been threshed out during the summer and she had emerged battered but victorious. Aside from that, she could think of no probable cause she had given for offense.
In the hall she met Miss Isobel.
"Mother has been asking for you, dear," she said in a voice heavy with premonition. "She's very much upset about something."
Eleanor anxiously mounted the stairs. It was evidently not a propitious moment to present her case; and yet, Papa Claude must have an answer within twenty-four hours. At the door of Madam's room she hesitated. Then she took the small remnant of her courage in both hands and entered.
Madam was sitting at her desk under the crystal chandelier, with a severity of expression that suggested nothing less than a court martial. Without speaking she waved Eleanor to a seat, and began searching through her papers. The light fell full on her high white pompadour and threw the deep lines about her grim mouth into heavy relief.
"Do you remember," she began ponderously, "a check I gave you the day of Enid's wedding?"
"Well, where is the bag you bought with it?"
Evasion had so often been Eleanor's sole weapon of defense that she seized it now.
"I—I haven't bought it yet," she faltered; then she added weakly: "I haven't seen any I particularly cared about."
"You still have the money?"
"Well—I've spent some of it."
"I don't know that I remember exactly."
Madam's lip curled.
"Perhaps I can stimulate your memory," she said, running her fingers through a bunch of canceled checks. "Here is the check I gave you, indorsed to Rose Martel."
Eleanor flushed crimson. The imputation of untruthfulness was one to which she was particularly sensitive. Her fear of her grandmother had taught her early in life to take refuge in subterfuge, a shelter that she heartily despised but which she still clung to. In her desire to meet Rose's imperative need, she had passed her gift on to her, with the intention of saving enough from her own allowance to get the mesh bag later. The fact that the canceled check would be returned to her grandmother had never occurred to her.
"So that's where my money has been going!" cried Madam. "They've succeeded in working me through you, have they? Just as they succeeded in working Ranny through Quinby Graham."
"No—no, grandmother! Please listen! They have never asked me for a penny. But when I found out the terrible time they'd been having, the children sick all summer and Cass down with typhoid—why, if it hadn't been for Quin——"
"So they sponged on him too, did they? He's a bigger fool than I gave him credit for being."
"But they didn't sponge. He is Cass's best friend, and he was glad to help. He and Rose did all the nursing themselves."
"Yes, I heard about it. In the house alone for six weeks. That doesn't speak very well for her reputation."
"Grandmother! You've no right to say that! Rose may talk recklessly and do foolish things, but she wouldn't do anything wrong for the world."
"Well, if she did, she wouldn't be the first member of her family to compromise a man so that he had to marry her."
"What do you mean?" demanded Eleanor, quivering with indignation.
"That's neither here nor there," said Madam. "There's enough rottenness in the present without raking up the past. But one thing is certain: if they ask you for money again——"
"I tell you, they didn't ask me!"
"Not in so many words, perhaps, but they worked on your sympathies. I know them! As for Claude Martel, he would want nothing better than have you traveling around in some Punch and Judy show. But I scotched that nonsense once and for all. As for their bleeding you for money,"—she rose and crushed the check in her hand,—"I guess I know a way to stop that."
Eleanor rose too, and faced her. She was very pale now, her anger having reached a white heat.
"My mother's people may be poor," she said deliberately, "but they aren't beggars, and at least they've come by what they have honestly."
It was Madam's turn to flinch. A certain famous law-suit in the history of Bartlett & Bangs had brought out some startling testimony, and the subject was one to which reference was never allowed in Madam's presence. At Eleanor's words the whirlwind of her wrath let loose. Her words hurtled like flying missiles in a cyclone. She lashed herself into a fury, coming back to Eleanor again and again as the cause of all her trouble.
"I tried giving you your head," she raged in conclusion; "I let you work through that crazy stage fever; I gave in about that man Phipps coming up to Maine, in the hope that you'd find out what a fool he is. That wasn't enough! You had to write to him. Very well, said I; go ahead and write to him. I flattered myself that you might develop a little sense. But I was mistaken. You haven't got the judgment of a ten-year-old child. Therefore I intend to treat you like a child. From this time on you are not to write to him at all. And you'll get no allowance. I'll buy you what you need, and you'll account for all the pin-money you spend, down to every postage stamp. Do you understand?"
Eleanor was by this time at the door, standing with her hand on the knob, straight, pale, and defiant, but quivering in every limb. She felt as beaten, bruised, and humiliated as if the violence directed against her had been physical. A sick longing surged over her for Aunt Enid, into whose arms she could rush for comfort. But there was no Aunt Enid to turn to, and it was no use seeking Aunt Isobel, whose sole advice in such a crisis was to apologize and propitiate.
Catching her breath in a long, sobbing sigh, Eleanor rushed down the gloomy hall and shut herself in her room. For ten minutes she sat at her desk, staring grimly at the wall, with her hands gripped in her lap. She was like a frenzied prisoner, determined to escape but with no destination in view. Suddenly her eyes fell on an unopened letter on her blotting-pad. She tore off the envelop and read it twice. For another five minutes she stared at the wall. Then she seized her pen and dashed off a note. It took but a few minutes after that to change her light gown for a dark one and to fling some things into a suit-case. Just as dinner was being announced, she slipped down the back stairs and out of the side door into the somber dusk of the November evening.
Quin's life at the factory these past three weeks had been full of new and engrossing business complications. Mr. Bangs seemed bent upon trying him out in various departments, each change bringing new and distracting duties. Just what was the object of the proceeding Quin had no idea; but he realized that he was being singled out and experimented with, and he applied to each new task the accumulated knowledge and experience of those that had gone before. It was all very exciting and gratifying to a person possessed of an inordinate ambition to have a worthy shrine ready the moment his goddess evinced the slightest willingness to occupy it.
"Old Iron Jaw's got his optic on you for something," said Miss Leaks, the stenographer. "Maybe he wants you to pussy-foot around in Shields' shoes and do his dirty work for him."
"Well, he's got another guess coming," said Quin; but her remark disturbed him. Of course it was no concern of his how the firm did business, but more than once he had been called upon to negotiate some delicate matter that was not at all to his liking.
"See here, young man," Mr. Bangs said upon one of these occasions, "I am not paying you for advice. You are here to carry out my orders and to make no comments."
"That's all right," Quin agreed good-naturedly; "but I got a conscience that was trained to stand on its hind legs and bark at a lie."
"The quicker you muzzle it the better," said Mr. Bangs. "You can't do business these days by the Golden Rule."
On the Saturday when Eleanor saw Quin in the park with Rose Martel, the factory had been in the throes of one of its most violent upheavals. Some weeks before the old steam engine had been replaced by an expensive electric drive. There had been much interest manifested in the installation of the modern motor, and Quin, with his natural love of machinery, had rejoiced that his duties as shipping clerk required him to be present at the unpacking. He and Dirk, the foreman, never tired of discussing the perfection of each particular feature. But a few days after the departure of the installation foreman, the new motor burnt out, necessitating the shutting down of the factory and causing much inconvenience.
Dirk was beside himself with rage. He declared that something heavy had been dropped upon the armature winding, and he blamed every one who could have been responsible, and some who could not. In the midst of his tirade he was summoned to the office, where he was closeted for more than an hour with Mr. Bangs and Mr. Shields. When he emerged, it was with the avowed belief that the armature had been defective when received. This sudden change of front, taken in connection with the fact that the third payment was due on the motor in less than sixty days, set every tongue wagging.
Quin was in no way involved in the transaction; but, as usual, he had an emphatic opinion, which he did not hesitate to express.
"I don't know what's got into Dirk!" he said indignantly to Mr. Shields, the traffic manager, as they left the office together. "He knows the injury to the armature was done in our shop and that we are responsible for it."
"I guess Dirk's like the rest of us," said Shields bitterly; "he knows a lot he can't tell."
"What do you mean? Do you think it was a frame-up?"
"Well, we don't call it that. But when the boss gets in a hole, somebody's got to pull him out. I'm getting mighty sick of it myself. Wish to the Lord I could pull up stakes as Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Chester did."
It was not until they separated that Quin's thoughts left the disturbing events of the day and flew to something more pleasing. For two weeks now he had had to content himself with chance interviews with Eleanor, meager diet for a person with an omnivorous appetite; but to-night there was the prospect for a long, uninterrupted evening. Since the day of Miss Enid's wedding he had found her perplexed and absent-minded; but the fact that she always had a smile for him, and that nothing was seen or heard of Harold Phipps, sufficed to satisfy him.
When he started across Central Park the sun was just setting, and he turned off the main path and dropped down on a bench to rest for a moment. He had acquired a taste for sunsets at a tender age, having watched them from many a steamer's prow. He knew how the harbor of Hongkong brimmed like a goblet of red wine, how Fujiyama's snow-capped peak turned rose, he knew how beautiful the sun could look through a barrage of fire. But it was of none of these that he thought as he sat on the park bench, his arms extended along the back, his long legs stretched out, and his eyes on a distant smokestack. He was thinking of a country stile and a girl in white and green, in whose limpid eyes he watched the reflected light of the most wonderful of all his sunsets.
For the third time since leaving the office, he consulted his watch. Six-thirty! Another hour and a half must be got through before he could see her.
A rustle of leaves behind him made him look up, but before he could turn his head two hands were clapped over his eyes. Investigation proved them to be feminine, and he promptly took them captive.
"It's Rose?" he guessed.
"Let me go!" she laughed; "somebody will see you."
She slipped around the bench and dropped down beside him.
"I was coming out the avenue and spied you mooning over here by yourself. What's the trouble?"
"No trouble at all. Just stopped to get my wind a bit—and watch the sunset."
"I think you are working too hard." She looked at him with anxious solicitude. "I've a good notion to put you on buttermilk again."
"Good work! Put me on anything you like except dried peaches and wienies."
"And you need more recreation," Rose persisted. "It's not good for anybody to work all day and go to school at night. What's the matter with us getting Cass and Fan Loomis and going down to Fontaine Ferry to-night?"
"Can't do it," said Quin with ill-concealed pride. "Got a date with Miss Eleanor Bartlett."
Rose sat silent for a moment, stirring the dead leaves with her shabby boot; then she turned and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Quin," she said, "I am worried sick about Nell and Harold Phipps."
Quin, who had been trying to beguile a squirrel into believing that a pebble was a nut, looked up sharply.
"What do you mean?" he said. "She hasn't seen him since last summer, and she never mentions his name."
"Don't she? She hardly talks about anything else. She writes to him all the time and wears his picture in her watch!"
"Do you know that?"
"Of course I know it. She can't talk about him at home, so she pours it all out to me."
"But haven't you told her what you know about him?"
"I've hinted at it, but she won't believe me because she knows I hate him. I wanted to tell her about what he said to me, and about that nurse he got into trouble out at the hospital; but I was afraid it might make an awful row and spoil everything for Papa Claude."
"I don't care who it spoils things for! She's got to be told." Quin's eyes were blazing.
"But perhaps if we leave it alone he'll get tired of her. They say he keeps after a girl until he gets her engaged to him, then drops her."
"He'd never drop Miss Nell. No man would. He'd be trying to marry her."
"But what can we do? The more people talk about him, the more she's going to take up for him. That's Nell all over."
"Couldn't Mr. Martel——"
"Papa Claude's as much taken in as she is. You remember the night over home when he talked about his lovely detached soul? He never sees the truth about anybody."
"Well, he's going to see the truth about this. If you don't write to him to-night and tell him the kind of man Mr. Phipps is, I will!"
"Wait till to-morrow. I'll have another round with Nell. I've got some proof that I think she'll have to believe."
Quin rose restlessly. He wanted to go to the Bartletts' at once, if only to stand guard at the gate against the danger that threatened Eleanor.
"Aren't you coming home to supper?" asked Rose.
"No," he said absently; "I don't want any supper."
For an hour he paced the streets, trying to think things out. His burning desire was to go straight to Eleanor and lay the whole matter before her. But according to his ethics it was a poor sport who would discredit a rival, especially on hearsay. He must leave it to Rose, and let her furnish the proof she said she possessed.
At eight o'clock he rang the Bartletts' bell, and was surprised when Miss Isobel opened the door.
"She isn't here," she said in answer to his inquiry. "We cannot imagine what has become of her. She must have gone out just before dinner, and she has not returned."
"Didn't she say where she was going?"
"No." Miss Isobel's lips worked nervously; then she drew Quin into the dining-room and closed the door, "She and mother had a very serious misunderstanding, and—and I'm afraid mother was a little severe. I did not know Eleanor was gone until she failed to come down to dinner. I've just sent Hannah up to telephone my brother to see if she is there."
"She probably is," Quin spoke with more assurance than he felt. "About what time did she leave here?"
"It must have been between six-thirty and seven. How long would it take her to get out to Ranny's?"
"Depends on whether she went in her machine or a street-car," said Quin evasively. "Besides, she may have gone to the Martels'."
"I don't think so," said Miss Isobel, twisting her handkerchief in her slender fingers; "because, you see, she—she took her suit-case."
For the first time, Quin's face reflected the anxiety of Miss Isobel's.
When Hannah returned she reported that no one answered the telephone at the Randolph Bartletts'.
"Suppose the child gets there and nobody is at home!" groaned Miss Isobel, whose imagination always rushed toward disaster. "What on earth shall I do?"
"Leave it to me," said Quin. "I'll run around to the Martels', and if she's not there I'll go out to Valley Mead. She's sure to be one place or the other."
"Of course she must be; but I'm so anxious! You will go right away, won't you? And telephone the minute you find out where she is. Then I'll tell mother I gave her permission to go."
Miss Isobel pushed him toward the door as she spoke:
"You—you don't think anything dreadful could have happened to her, do you?"
Quin patted her shoulder reassuringly.
"Of course not," he blustered. "She'll probably be in before I get around the corner. If not, I bet I find her at the Martels', toasting marshmallows."
In spite of his assumed confidence, he ran every step of the way home. As he turned the corner he saw with dismay that the house was dark. His call in the front hall brought no answer. He turned on the light, and saw an unstamped letter addressed to himself on the table. The fact that the writing was Eleanor's did not tend to decrease his alarm.
He tore off the envelop and read:
Grandmother has said things to me that I can never forgive as long as I live. I am leaving her house in a few moments forever. By the time you get this I shall be on my way to Chicago to join Harold Phipps. We have been engaged for two weeks. I did not mean to marry him for years and years, but I've simply got to do something. He cares more for me and my career than any one else in the world, and he understands me better than anybody.
You'll get this when you go home to supper, and I want you to telephone Aunt Isobel right away and tell her I won't be home to-night. She will think I am with Rose and that will keep her from being anxious. I don't care how anxious grandmother is! To-morrow I'll send them a wire from Chicago telling them I'm married.
Dear Quin, I know this is a terribly serious step, and I know you won't approve; but I am unhappy enough to die, and I don't know where else to turn, or what to do. Some day I hope you will know Mr. Phipps better, and see what a really fine man he is. Do try to comfort Aunt Isobel, and make her understand. Please don't hate me, but try to forgive your utterly miserable friend,
E. M. B.
Quin stood staring at the letter. He felt as he had on that August day when the flying shrapnel struck him—the same intense nausea, the deadly exhaustion, the bursting pain in his head. Involuntarily he raised his hand to the old wound, half expecting to feel the blood stream again through his fingers.
"Married! Married!" he kept repeating to himself dazedly. "Miss Nell gone to marry that man, that scoundrel!"
He sat down on the stair steps and tried to hold the thought in his mind long enough to realize it. But Phipps himself kept getting in the way: Phipps the slacker, as he had known him in the army; Phipps the condescending lord of creation, who had refused to take his hand at Mr. Ranny's; and oftenest of all Phipps the philanderer, who had insulted Rose Mattel, and been responsible for the dismissal of more than one nurse from the hospital. The mere thought of such a man in connection with Eleanor Bartlett made Quin's strong fingers clench around an imaginary neck and brought beads of perspiration to his forehead.
"Something's got to be done!" he thought wildly, staggering to his feet. "I got to stop it; I got——"
Then the sense of his helplessness swept over him, and he sat down again on the steps. She had evidently left on the eight-o'clock train for Chicago, and it was now eight-thirty. There was nothing to be done. What a fool he had been to go on hoping and daring! She had told him again and again that she didn't care for him; but she had also told him that she did not intend to many anybody. But if she hadn't cared for him, why had she come to him with her troubles, and followed his advice, and wanted his good opinion? Why had she looked at him the way she had the day of Miss Enid's wedding, and said she remembered her dances with him better than those with anybody else? In bitterness of spirit he went over all the treasured words and glances he had hoarded since the day he met her. He didn't believe she loved Harold Phipps! She didn't love anybody—yet. But, in her mad desire to escape from home, she had taken the first means that presented itself. She had stepped into a trap, from which he was powerless to rescue her.
In a sudden anguish of despair he flung himself face downward on the steps and gave way to his anguish. There was no one to see and no one to hear. All the doubts and discouragements, the humiliations and disappointments, through which he had passed to win her, came back to mock him, now he had lost her. The world had suddenly become an intolerable vacuum in which he gasped frantically for breath.
What was the use in going on? Why not put an end to everything? He could make it appear an accident. Nobody would be the wiser. The temptation was growing stronger every second, when he suddenly remembered Miss Isobel.
"I forgot she was waiting," he muttered, stumbling into the sitting-room and fumbling for the telephone. "Miss Nell said I was to keep her from being anxious—she wanted me to comfort her. But what in hell can I say!"
At nine-thirty Edwin came in and passed up the creaking stairs. Ten minutes later Cass limped by the door, stopping a moment in the pantry to get a bite to eat. Quin sat motionless in the dark sitting-room and made no sign. He was waiting for Rose, with a dumb dependence the strongest man feels for the understanding feminine in times of crisis.
When he heard her cheerful voice calling good night to Fan Loomis, the clock was just striking ten.
"Quin! What is it?" she cried in alarm the moment she saw his face. "Is anybody dead?"
"Worse! She's run away to get married!"
"No. Miss Nell. She left to-night for Chicago to marry Phipps!"
"But she can't!" cried Rose wildly. "It's got to be stopped. He's not fit to marry anybody! We've got to stop her!"
"I tell you, it's too late! She left on the eight-o'clock train."
"Who said so? Are you sure? Do the Bartletts know?"
"Nobody knows but you and me; nobody must know—yet. Maybe she'll change her mind."
"But the Bartletts will miss her. Have they called up?"
"I 'phoned Miss Isobel that she was all right and she'd telephone in the morning. All right! Good God, Rose, can't we do something?"
"If I could get Harold Phipps's address I'd send him a telegram that would scare the wits out of him."
Quin brushed the suggestion aside. "It's no use wasting time on him; we've got to reach her."
"But how can we? Let me think. Do you suppose I could send her a telegram to be delivered on the train? Anything that would make her wait until somebody could get to her."
"I'll get to her," Quin cried. "I'll search every hotel in Chicago. You send the telegram and I'll start on the next train."
A hurried consultation of time-tables showed that a Pennsylvania train left in ten minutes, and was due in Chicago the next morning at seven-thirty.
"You can't make that," said Rose, but even as she spoke Quin was rushing for the door.
"Have you got enough money?" she called after him.
His meteor flight was checked. Ramming his hands in his pockets, he pulled out a handful of silver.
"Wait!" cried Rose, speeding up to her room and returning with a small roll of bills. "It's what's left of Nell's check. Good-by—I'll send the telegram."
Ten minutes later, as the night express for Chicago pulled out of the station, the bystanders were amused by the sight of a bare-headed young man dashing madly through the gate and across the railroad tracks. The train had not yet got under way, but its speed was increasing and the runner's chances lessened every moment.
"He'll never catch it," said the gate-keeper. "He'd lost his wind before he got here."
"He ain't lost his nerve," said a negro porter, craning his neck in lively interest. "He's lettin' hisself go lak a Derby-winner on de home stretch!"
"Has he give up?" asked the gate-keeper, turning aside to stamp a ticket.
"Not him. He's bound to ketch dat train ef it busts a hamstring. He's done got holt de rear platform! He's pullin' hisself up! There! I tole you so! I knowed he was the kind of fellow that gits what he goes after."
Quin caught the train, but he paid for his run. A brakeman found him collapsed on the platform, in such a paroxysm of coughing that the train had covered many miles before he was sufficiently recovered to go inside and take a seat. But, even as he leaned back limp and exhausted, he was conscious of a dull satisfaction that he was traveling toward Eleanor. He refused to think of the absurdity of his wild quest, of her probable anger at his interference. He fought back his despair, his jealousy, his inordinate fear. The one thing necessary now was to get to her—to be on hand in case she needed him.
Through the interminable hours of the night almost every breath came with an effort, but he scarcely heeded the fact. With characteristic persistence he forced himself to follow her steps in imagination from the time she left home until she reached her destination. The eight-o'clock sleeper that she had taken was due in Chicago at five-thirty. She would probably not leave it before seven at the earliest, and by that time Rose's telegram ought to have reached her. He tried to picture its effect on her. Much would depend upon the time that intervened between its reception and her seeing Mr. Phipps. If he met her, as he probably would, he would sweep aside all her doubts. If, on the other hand, Eleanor had time to think the matter over, her innate common sense might make her wait at least until she heard what Rose had to tell her. On the bare chance of his not meeting her, what would she do? Take the next train home? Go to his apartment? Go to a hotel alone?
Plan after plan rushed through Quin's mind, only to be impatiently discarded. He sat tense and still, with his clenched hands rammed in his pockets and his eyes fixed on the black square of the window. Sometimes dim objects flew past, and now and then sharp, vivid lights stabbed the darkness. Once the smelting-pots of a huge iron foundry belched forth a circle of swirling flames, and for a moment wrenched his mind off his problems. Then the regular pounding of the wheels on the rails recalled him.
"She's gone to be married. Gone—to be married. Gone—to be married."
He realized that they had been saying it in monotonous rhythm ever since he started—that they would go on saying it through eternity.
Suddenly the train jarred to a standstill. Figures with lanterns emerged through a cloud of steam and stood under his window.
"Guess we got a hot-box," said a sleepy passenger across the aisle. "That means I'll miss my connection."
Quin got up and went out on the platform. He was filled with rage at the lazy deliberation with which the men set about their task. He longed to wrench the tools out of their hands and do the job himself.
"How much will this put us behind?" he demanded of the conductor.
"Oh, not more than twenty minutes. We'll make some of it up before morning."
Once more under way, Quin dropped into a troubled sleep. He dreamed that he was pursuing a Hun over miles of barbed-wire entanglements; but when he overtook him and forced him to the ground, the face under the steel helmet was the smiling, supercilious face of Harold Phipps. He woke up with a start and stretched his cold limbs. The black square of the window had turned to gray; arrows of rain shot diagonally across it. He realized for the first time that he had neither hat nor overcoat, but he did not care. In ten minutes more he would be in Chicago, in the same city with Eleanor.
Notwithstanding the fact that it was pouring rain when the train pulled into the station, Quin stood on the lowest step of the platform, ready to alight.
"Say, young fellow, you forgot your hat," said a man behind him.
"Didn't have any," answered Quin.
"I got an extra cap if you want it," offered the man obligingly.
Quin, already on the platform, caught it as the man tossed it out to him. Dashing through the depot, he hurled himself into a taxi.
"Monon Station!" he shouted, "and drive like the devil."
Just what kind of chauffeur the devil is has never been demonstrated, but if that taxi-driver, urged on by Quin, was his counterpart, it is safe to infer that there are no traffic laws in Hades. In spite of the fact that the streets were like glass from the driving rain, and the wind-shield a gray blur, in spite of the fact that a tire went flat on a rear wheel, that decrepit old taxi rose to the occasion and made the transit in record time.
Arrived at the station, Quin thrust a bill into the driver's hand and dashed down the steps to the lower level. In answer to his frenzied inquiry he was told that the Express had come in two hours before and that the passengers had probably all left the sleeper by this time.
Nothing daunted, he rushed out to the tracks and accosted a porter who was sweeping out the rear coach.
"Yas, sir, this is it," answered the negro. "Young lady? Yas, sir; there was five or six of 'em on board last night. Pretty? Yas, sir, they was all pretty—all but one, and she wasn't so bad looking."
"Did one of them get a telegram in the night or this morning?"
The porter's face brightened. "Yas, sir. Boy come through soon as we got in. Had a wire for young lady in lower six."
"Do you know what time she left the car?"
"About half hour ago, I should say. Party she was expecting to meet her didn't turn up, and I had to git her a red-cap to carry her suit-case. Thanky, sir."
Quin tore back to the station and dashed through the waiting-room, the dining-room, the baggage-room. He was on the point of going out to the taxi-stand and interrogating each driver in turn, when his eyes were caught by a smart suit-case that lay unattended on one of the seats. It bore the inscription "E.M.B.—Ky."
In his sudden relief he could have snatched it up and embraced it. But where was Eleanor? For five interminable minutes he stood guard over her property, watching every exit and entrance, and pacing the floor in his impatience. Suddenly an idea occurred to him, and, cursing himself for his stupidity, he strode over to the telephone-booths.
Eleanor was in the corner one, the receiver at her ear, evidently waiting for her call. As Quin flung upon the door she turned and faced him in defiant surprise.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded indignantly. "Did grandmother send you?"
"No; she doesn't know I'm here."
Eleanor turned nervously to the telephone.
"Hello! I can't understand you. Put—what? Oh! I forgot. Wait a minute——"
Letting the receiver swing, she fumbled in her purse; then, finding no small change, looked appealingly at Quin.
He produced the necessary coin and handed it to her.
"I don't think I'd put it in just yet," he said quietly.
For a moment she paused irresolute; then she dropped the coin in the slot.
"Is this the Hotel Kington?" she asked. "Will you please try again to get Mr. Phipps—Harold Phipps? P-h-i-p-p-s."
Quin watched her fingers drumming on the shelf, and he knew he ought to go out of the booth and close the door; but instead he stayed in and closed it.
"He doesn't answer?" Eleanor was repeating over the telephone. "Will you please page the dining-room, and if he is not at breakfast send a bell-boy up to waken him? It's very important."
Again there was a long wait, during which Eleanor did not so much as turn her head in Quin's direction. It was only when her answer came that she looked at him blankly.
"They say he isn't there. The chambermaid was cleaning the room, and said his bed had not been disturbed."
Then, seeing a humorously unsympathetic look flit across Quin's face, she burst out angrily:
"What right had you to follow me over here?"
They were standing very close in the narrow glass enclosure, and as he looked down at the small, trembling figure with her back against the wall and her eyes full of frightened defiance, he felt uncomfortably like a hunter who has run down some young wild thing and holds it at bay.
"Please, Miss Nell," he implored, "don't think I'm going to peach on you! Whatever you do, I'll stand by you. Only I thought, perhaps, you might need a friend."
"I have a friend!" she retorted furiously. "If Harold Phipps had received my telegram last night, nothing in the world could have stopped him from meeting me—nothing!"
Then the defiance dropped from her eyes, leaving her small sensitive face quivering with hurt pride and an overwhelming doubt. She bit her lips and turned away to hide her tears.
Quin put a firm hand on her arm and piloted her back to her suit-case.
"What we both need is breakfast," he said. "Come to think of it, I haven't had a mouthful since yesterday noon."
"Neither have I; but I couldn't swallow a bite. Besides, I've got to find Harold."
"Well, you can't do anything till he gets back to the hotel. If you'll come in with me while I get a cup of coffee, we can talk things over."
She followed him reluctantly into the dining-room, but refused to order anything. For some time she sat with her chin on her clasped hands, watching the door; then she turned toward him accusingly.
"Did you see Rose's telegram?"
He watched her open her purse and take out a yellow slip, which she handed to him.
"Don't take the step planned. Imperative reasons forbid. Rose."
he read slowly; then he looked up. "Well?" he said.
"What does she mean?" burst forth Eleanor. "How dared she send me a message like that unless she knew something——"
She broke off abruptly and her eyes searched Quin's face. But he was apparently counting the grains of sugar that were going into his coffee, and refused to look up.
"If it had been grandmother or Aunt Isobel I shouldn't have been in the least surprised; they are just a bunch of prejudices and believe every idle story they hear. But Rose is different. She's known about Harold and me for months. She forwarded his letters to me when I was in Baltimore. And now for her to turn against me like this——"
"Why don't you wait till you hear her side of it?" suggested Quin, still concerned with the sugar-bowl.
"How can I?" cried Eleanor, flinging out her hands. "I've no place to go, and I've no money. If I had had money enough I'd have gone straight to Papa Claude last night."
Quin's heart gained a beat. He made a hurried calculation of his financial resources in the vain hope that that might yet be the solution of the difficulty. Whatever was to be done must be done at once, for Harold Phipps might arrive at any moment, and Quin felt instinctively that his advent would decide the matter.
"I wish I had enough to send you," he said, "but all I've got is my return ticket and enough to buy another one for you."
At the mere suggestion Eleanor's anger flared.
"I'll never go back to grandmother's! I'll jump in the lake first!"
"What's the matter with Valley Mead?"
"What good would that do? Grandmother would make Uncle Ranny send me straight home. No; I've thought of all those things—it's no use."
"You could go to the Martels'."
"Yes, and put another burden on Cass. I tell you, I'm not going home. I am going to see Harold, and—and talk things over, and perhaps go straight on to New York to-night."
"You can't see him if he is out of town."
"Why do you think he is out of town?"
"Well, he isn't here," Quin observed dryly.
The next moment he was sorry he had said it, for the light died out of her face and she looked so absurdly young and helpless that it was all he could do to refrain from gathering her up in his arms and carrying her home by force.
"See here, Miss Nell," he said earnestly, leaning across the table. "Would you be willing to go back to the Martels' if you knew that this time next month you'd be in New York with money enough to carry you through the winter?"
"No. That is—whose money?"
"Your own. I'll go to Queen Vic and put the whole thing up to her so she can't get around it."
Eleanor brushed the suggestion aside impatiently.
"Don't you suppose I've exhausted every possible argument? And now, when she finds out what I've done——"
"But you haven't done anything—yet."
"She wouldn't believe me if I told her that I hadn't seen Harold. She never believes me."
"She'd believe me," said Quin, "and what's more she'd listen to me."
Eleanor did not answer; she sat doggedly watching the swinging doors, through which a draggled throng came and went.
"He'll be here soon," she said half-heartedly—"unless he's gone off for a week-end somewhere. If he doesn't come soon we can go up to the hotel and find out whether he left any address. Perhaps you could get me a room there until to-morrow."
Quin's courage was at its lowest ebb. It was like trying to save a drowning person who fights desperately against being saved. He heard a stentorian voice through a megaphone announcing that the eight-thirty train for the southwest would leave in five minutes on track three, and he decided to stake his all on a last chance.
"That's my train," he said, rising briskly. "Are you coming with me, or are you going to stay here?"
"I am going to stay. But you can't leave me like this! It's pouring rain and I haven't any umbrella, and if I get to the hotel and he isn't there, what shall I do? Why don't you help me, Quin? Why don't you stay with me till he comes?"
"Sorry," said Quin, steeling his heart against those appealing eyes and praying for strength to be firm, "but I've got to be ready to go back to work to-morrow morning. Is it good-by?"
He held out his hand, but she did not take it. Instead she clutched his sleeve.
"What would you do, Quin?" she asked. "Tell me honestly, not what you want me to do, or think I ought to do, but what would you do in my place?"
In spite of his pretended haste, he stopped to consider the matter.
"Well," he admitted frankly, "it would depend entirely on how much I trusted the fellow I'd promised to marry."
"I do trust him, and I'm going to marry him; but, you see, Rose's telegram, and his not being here, and all, have made me so unhappy! I know he can explain everything when I see him, only I don't know what to do now. Do you think I ought to go back?"
"That's for you to decide."
"But I tell you I can't decide. Somebody's always made up my mind for me, and now to have to decide this big thing all in a minute——"
"All aboard for the Southwestern Limited!" came the voice through the megaphone.
Eleanor glanced instinctively at her suit-case, then up at Quin.
"Shall I take it?" he asked, with his heart in his throat; and then, when she did not say no, he seized it in one hand and her in the other.
"We'd better run for it!" he said.
"But, Quin—wait a minute—I won't go to grandmother's! You've got to protect me——"
"You leave it to me!" he said, as he thrust her almost roughly through the crowd and rushed her toward the gate.
"So I am to understand that the young lady defies my authority and refuses point-blank to come home."
"That's about what it comes to, I reckon."
It was evening of that eventful Sunday when Eleanor and Quin had returned from Chicago. He and Madam Bartlett sat facing each other in the sepulchral library, where the green reading-light cast its sickly light on Lincoln and his Cabinet, on Andrew Jackson dying in the bosom of his family, on Madam savagely gripping the lions' heads on the arms of her mahogany chair.
That her quarrel with Eleanor and the girl's subsequent flight had made the old lady suffer was evinced by the pinched look of her nostrils and the heavy, sagging lines about her mouth; but in her grim old eyes there was no sign of compromise.
"Very well!" she said. "Let her stay at her precious Martels'. She will stand just about one week of their shiftlessness. I shan't send her a stitch of clothes or a cent of money. Maybe I can starve some sense into her."
Quin traced the pattern in the table-cover with a massive brass paper-knife. It was a delicate business, this he had committed himself to, and everything depended upon his keeping Madam's confidence.
"You never did try letting her have her head, did you?" He put the question as a disinterested observer.
"No. I don't intend to until she gets this fool stage business out of her mind."
"Well, of course you can hold that up for six months, but you can't stop it in the end."
"Yes, I can, too. I'd like to know if I didn't keep Isobel from being a missionary, and Enid from marrying Francis Chester when he didn't make enough money to pay her carfare."
"That's so," agreed Quin cheerfully. "And then, there was Mr. Ranny." He waited for the remark to sink in; then he went on lightly: "But say! They all belong to another generation. Things are run on different lines these days."
"More's the pity! Every little fool of a kite thinks all it has to do is to break its string to be free."
"Miss Nell don't want to break the string; she just wants it lengthened."
Madam turned upon him fiercely.
"See here, young man. You think I don't know what you are up to; but, remember, I wasn't born yesterday. If Eleanor has sent you up here to talk this New York stuff——"
"She hasn't; I came of my own accord."
"Well, you needn't think just because I've shown you a few favors that you can meddle in family affairs. It's not the first time you've attended to other people's business."
Her fingers were working nervously and her eyes beginning to twitch. She made Quin think of Minerva when Mr. Bangs came into the office.
"I bet there's one time you are glad I meddled," he said with easy good humor. "You might have been walking on a peg-stick, Queen Vic, if I hadn't butted in. Do you have to use your crutches now?"
"Crutches! I should say not. I don't even use a cane. See here!"
She rose and, steadying herself, walked slowly and painfully to the door and back.
"Bully for you!" said Quin, helping her back into the chair. "Now what were we talking about?"
"You were trying to hold a brief for Eleanor."
"So I was. You see, I had an idea that if you'd let me put the case up to you fair and square, maybe you'd see it in a different light."
"Well, that's where you were mistaken."
"How do you know? You haven't listened to me yet!"
Madam glared at him grimly.
"Go ahead," he said. "Get it out of your system."
"Well, it's like this," Quin plunged into his subject. "Next July Miss Nell will be of age and have her own money to do as she likes with, won't she?"
"She won't have much," interpolated Madam. "Twenty thousand won't take her far."
"It will take her to New York and let her live pretty fine for two or three years. Everybody will cotton up to her and flatter her and make her think she's a second Julia Marlowe, and meantime they'll be helping her spend her money. Now, my plan is this. Why don't you give her just barely enough to live on, and let her try it out on the seamy side for the next six months? Nobody will know who she is or what's coming to her, and maybe when she comes up against the real thing she won't be so keen about it."
Madam followed him closely, and for a moment it looked as if the common sense of his argument appealed to her. Then her face set like a vise.
"No!" she thundered her decision. "It would be nothing less than handing her over bodily to that pompous old biped Claude Martel! For the next six months she has got to stay right here, where I can know what she is doing and where she is!"
"Do you know where she was last night?" Quin played his last trump.
She shot a suspicious look at him from under her shaggy brows.
"You said she was at the Martels'."
"I did not. I said she was all right and you'd hear from her to-day."
"Where was she?"
"She was on the way to Chicago to join Mr. Phipps."
He could not have aimed his blow more accurately. Its effect was so appalling that he feared the consequences. Her face blanched to an ashy white and her eyes were fixed with terror.
"She—she—hasn't married him?" she cried hoarsely.
"No, no; not yet. But she may any time."
"Good Lord! Why haven't you told me this before? Call Isobel! No! she's at church! Get Ranny! Somebody must go after the child!"
Quin laid a quieting hand on her arm, which was shaking as if with the palsy.
"Don't get excited," he urged. "Somebody did go after her last night, and brought her home."
"But where is she now? Where is that contemptible Phipps? I'll have him arrested! Are you sure Nellie is safe?"
"I left her safe and sound at the Martels' half an hour ago. Will you listen while I tell you all about it?"
As quietly as he could he told the story, interrupted again and again by Madam's hysterical outbursts. When he had finished she struggled to her feet.
"The child is stark mad!" she cried. "I am going after her this instant."
"She won't see you," warned Quin.
"I'll show you whether she sees me or not! I am going to bring her home with me to-night. She's got to be protected against that scoundrel. Ring for the carriage!"
Quin did not move. "She said if any of you started after her you'd find her gone when you got there."
"But who will tell her?"
"I will. I promised she wouldn't have to see you. It was the only way I could get her back from Chicago."
She scowled at him in silence, measuring his determination against her own.
"Very well," she said at last. "Since you are in such high favor, go and tell her that she can come home, and nothing more will be said about it. I suppose there's nothing else to do under the circumstances. But I'll teach her a lesson later!"
Quin balanced the paper-knife carefully on one finger.
"I don't think you quite understand," he said. "She isn't coming home. She still says she is going to marry Mr. Phipps. He will probably get her telegram when he goes to the hotel, and when she doesn't turn up in Chicago he will take the first train down here. That's the way I've figured it out."
"And do you think I am going to sit here, and do nothing while all this is taking place?"
"No; that's what I been driving at all along. I want you and Miss Nell to come to some compromise before he gets here."
"What sort of compromise? Haven't I swallowed my pride and promised to say nothing if she comes back? Does she want me to get down on my knees and apologize?"
"No. That's the trouble. She don't want you to do anything. All she is thinking about is getting married and going to New York."
"She can go to New York without that! That contemptible man! I knew all summer he was filling her head with romantic notions, but I never dreamed of this. Why, she's nothing but a child! She doesn't know what love is——" Then her voice broke in sudden panic. "We must stop it at any cost. Go—go promise her anything. Tell her I'll send her to New York, to Europe, anywhere to get her out of that wretch's clutches. My poor child! My poor baby!"
Her grief was no less violent than her anger had been, and her tearless sobs almost shook her worn old frame to pieces.
Quin knew just how she felt. It had been like that with him last night when he heard the news. With one stride he was beside her and had gathered her into his arms.
"There, there!" he said tenderly. "It's going to be all right. We are going to find a way out."
This unexpected caress, probably the first one Madam had received in many years, reduced her to a state of unprecedented humility. She transferred her resentment from Eleanor to Harold Phipps, and announced herself ready to follow whatever course Quin suggested.
"I'd offer her just this and nothing more," he advised: "The fare to New York, tuition at the dramatic school, and ten dollars a week."
"She can't live on that."
"Yes, she can. Rose Martel does."
Madam became truculent at once.
"Don't quote that girl to me. Eleanor's been used to very different surroundings."
"That's the point. Let her have what she hasn't been used to. You have tried giving her a bunch of your money and telling her how to spend it. Try giving her a little of her own and letting her do as she likes with it."