"I don't care what she does for the present, if she just won't marry that man Phipps. Make her give you her word of honor not to have anything whatever to do with him for the next six months. By that time she will have forgotten all about him."
"I'll do my best," said Quin, rising. "You'll hear from me first thing in the morning."
"Well, go now! But ring first for Hannah. We must pack the child's things to-night. The main thing is to get her out of town before that hound can get here. Don't you think either Ranny or Isobel had better take her on to New York to-morrow?"
Quin returned to the Martels' breathing easily for the first time in twenty-four hours. As he passed Rose's room on the way to his own, he saw a light over the transom, and heard the girls' voices rising in heated argument. He knew that the subject under discussion was Harold Phipps, and that Rose's arraignment was meeting with indignant denial and protest. But the fact that Rose could offer specific evidence that would shake the staunchest confidence gave him grim satisfaction.
He stumbled into his own small room, and lay across the bed looking up at the shadows made by the street lamp on the ceiling. Would Miss Nell believe what she heard? Would it go very hard with her? Would she give Phipps up? Would she accept Madam's offer? And, if she did, would she ever be willing to come home again?
Then his thoughts swerved away from all those perplexing questions and went racing back over the events of the day. For nine blissful hours he had had Eleanor all to himself. They had taken a day-coach to avoid meeting any one she knew, and he had managed to secure a rear seat, out of the range of curious eyes. Here she had poured out all her troubles, allowing the accumulated bitterness of years to find vent in a torrent of unrestrained confidence.
She recalled the days of her unhappy childhood, when she had been fought over and litigated about and contended for, until the whole world seemed a place of hideous discord and petty jealousies. She pictured her circumscribed life at the Bartletts', shut in, watched over, smothered with care and affection, but never allowed an hour of freedom. She dwelt on the increasing tyranny of her grandmother, the objection to her friends, the ruthless handling of several prospective lovers. And she ended by telling him all about her affair with Harold Phipps, and declaring that nothing they could say or do would make her give him up! And then, quite worn out, she had fallen asleep and her head had drooped against his shoulder.
Quin could feel now the delicious weight of her limp body as she leaned against him. He had sat so still, in his fear of waking her, that his arm had been numb for an hour. Then, later on, when she did wake up, he had got her some cold water to bathe her face, and persuaded her to eat a sandwich and drink a glass of milk. After that she had felt much better, and even cheered up enough to laugh at the way he looked in the queer cap the obliging stranger had given him.
"I could make her happy! I know I could make her happy!" he whispered passionately to the shadows on the ceiling. "She don't love me now; but maybe when she gets over this——"
His thoughts leaped to the future. He must be ready if the time ever came. He must forge ahead in the next six months, and be in a position by the time Eleanor had tried out her experiment to put his fate to the test. He must make up to old Bangs, and stop criticizing his methods and saying things that annoyed him. He must sacrifice everything now to the one great object of pleasing him. Pleasing him meant advancement; advancement meant success; success might mean Eleanor!
He got up restlessly and tiptoed to the door. The light over Rose's transom was gone and the house was silent.
Eleanor did not leave for New York the following day. Neither did she see Harold Phipps when he arrived on the morning train. His anxious inquiries over the telephone were met by Rose's cool assurance that Miss Bartlett was spending the week-end with her, and that she would write and explain her silly telegram. His demand for an immediate interview was parried with the excuse that Miss Bartlett was confined to her bed with a severe headache and could not see any one. Without saying so directly, Rose managed to convey the impression that Miss Bartlett was quite indifferent to his presence in the city and not at all sure that she would be able to see him at all.
This was an interpretation of the situation decidedly more liberal than the facts warranted. Even after Eleanor had been served with the unpalatable truth, generously garnished with unpleasant gossip, she still clung to her belief in Harold and the conviction that he would be able to explain everything when she saw him. Quin's report of Madam's offer to send her to New York was received in noncommittal silence. She would agree to nothing, she declared, until she saw Harold, her only concession being that she would stay in bed until the afternoon and not see him before evening.
About noon a messenger-boy brought her a box of flowers and a bulky letter. The latter had evidently been written immediately after Harold's talk with Rose, and he made the fatal mistake of concluding, from her remarks, that Eleanor had changed her mind after sending the telegram and had not come to Chicago. He therefore gave free rein to his imagination, describing in burning rhetoric how he had received her message Saturday night just as he was retiring, how he tossed impatiently on his bed all night, and rose at dawn to be at the station when the train came in. He pictured vividly his ecstasy of expectation, his futile search, his bitter disappointment. He had dropped everything, he declared, to take the next train to Kentucky to find out what had changed her plans, and to persuade her to be married at once and return with him to Chicago. The epistle ended with a love rhapsody that deserved a better fate than to be torn into shreds and consigned to the waste-basket.
"Tell the boy not to wait!" was Eleanor's furious instruction. "Tell him there's no answer now or ever!"
Then she pitched the flowers after the note, locked her door, and refused to admit any one for the rest of the day.
After that her one desire was to get away. She felt utterly humiliated, disillusioned, disgraced, and her sole hope for peace lay in the further humiliation of accepting Madam's offer and trying to go on with her work. But even here she met an obstacle. A letter arrived from Papa Claude, saying that he would not be able to get possession of the little apartment until December first, a delay that necessitated Eleanor's remaining with the Martels for another month.
The situation was a delicate and a difficult one. Eleanor was more than willing to forgo the luxuries to which she had been accustomed and was even willing to share Rose's untidy bedroom; but the knowledge that she was adding another weight to Cass's already heavy burden was intolerable to her. To make things worse, she was besieged with notes and visits and telephone calls from various emissaries sent out by her grandmother.
"I'll go perfectly crazy if they don't leave me alone!" she declared one night to Quin. "They act as if studying for the stage were the wickedest thing in the world. Aunt Isobel was here all morning, harping on my immortal soul until I almost hoped I didn't have one. This afternoon Aunt Flo came and warned me against getting professional notions in my head, and talked about my social position, and what a blow it would be to the family. Then, to cap the climax, Uncle Ranny had the nerve to telephone and urge me against taking any step that would break my grandmother's heart. Uncle Ranny! Can you beat that?"
"I'd chuck the whole bunch for a while," was Quin's advice. "Why don't you let their standards go to gallagher and live up to your own?"
"That's what I want to do, Quin," she said earnestly. "My standards are just as good as theirs, every bit. I've got terrifically high ideals. Nobody knows how serious I feel about the whole thing. It isn't just a silly whim, as grandmother thinks; it's the one thing in the world I care about—now."
Quin started to speak, reconsidered it, and whistled softly instead. He had formed a Spartan resolve to put aside his own claims for the present, and be in word and deed that "best friend" to whom he had urged Eleanor to come in time of trouble. With heroic self-control, he set himself to meet her problems, even going so far as to encourage her spirit of independence and to help her build air-castles that at present were her only refuge from despair.
"Just think of all the wonderful things I can do if I succeed," she said. "Papa Claude need never take another pupil, and Myrna can go to college, and Cass and Fan Loomis can get married."
"And don't forget Rose," suggested Quin, to keep up the interest. "You must do something handsome for her. She's a great girl, Rose is!"
Eleanor looked at him curiously, and the smallest of puckers appeared between her perfectly arched brows. Quin saw it at once, and decided that Rose's recent handling of Mr. Phipps had met with disfavor, and he sighed as he thought of the hold the older man still had on Eleanor.
During the next difficult weeks Quin devoted all his spare time to the grateful occupation of diverting the Martels' woe-begone little guest. Hardly a day passed that he did not suggest some excursion that would divert her without bringing her into contact with her own social world, from which she shrank with aversion. On Sundays and half-holidays he took her on long trolley rides to queer out-of-the-way places where she had never been before: to Zachary Taylor's grave, and George Rogers Clark's birthplace, to the venerable tree in Iroquois Park that bore the carved inscription, "D. Boone, 1735." One Sunday morning they went to Shawnee Park and rented a rowboat, in which they followed the windings of the Ohio River below the falls, and had innumerable adventures that kept them out until sundown.
Eleanor had never before had so much liberty. She came and went as she pleased; and if she missed a meal the explanation that she was out with Quin was sufficient. Sometimes when the weather was good she would walk over to Central Park and meet him when he came home in the evening. They would sit under the bare trees and talk, or look over the books he had brought her from the library.
At first she had found his selections a tame substitute for her recent highly spiced literary diet; but before long she began to take a languid interest in them. They invariably had to do with outdoor things—stars and flowers, birds and beasts, and adventures in foreign lands.
"Here's a jim-dandy!" Quin would say enthusiastically. "It's all about bees. I can't pronounce the guy that wrote it, but, take it from me, he's got the dope all right."
It was in the long hours of the day, when Eleanor was in the house alone, that she faced her darkest problems. She had been burnt so badly in her recent affair that she wanted nothing more to do with fire; yet she was chilled and forlorn without it. With all her courage she tried to banish the unworthy image of Harold Phipps, but his melancholy eyes still exercised their old potent charm, and the memory of his low, insistent tones still echoed in her ears. She came to the tragic conclusion that she was the victim of a hopeless infatuation that would follow her to her grave.
So obsessed was she by the thought of her shattered love affair that she failed to see that a troubled conscience was equally responsible for her restlessness. Her life-long training in acquiescence and obedience was at grips with her desire to live her own life in her own way. She had not realized until she made the break how much she cared for the family approval, how dependent she was on the family advice and assistance, how hideous it was to make people unhappy. Now that she was about to obtain her freedom, she was afraid of it. Suppose she did not make good? Suppose she had no talent, after all? Suppose Papa Claude was as visionary about her career as he was about everything else? At such times a word of discouragement would have broken her spirit and sent her back to bondage.
"Would you go on with it?" she asked Quin, time and again.
"Sure," said Quin stoutly; "you'll never be satisfied until you try it out."
"But suppose I'm a failure?"
"Well, then you've got it out of your system, and won't have to go through life thinking about the big success you'd have been if you'd just had your chance."
She was not satisfied with his answer, but it had to suffice. While he never discouraged her, she felt that he shared the opinion of the family that her ambition was a caprice to be indulged and got rid of, the sooner the better.
The first day of December brought word from Claude Martel that the apartment was ready. Eleanor left on twenty-four hours' notice, and it required the combined efforts of both families to get her off. She had refused up to the last to see her grandmother, but had yielded to united pressure and written a stiff good-by note in which she thanked her for advancing the money, and added—not without a touch of bitterness—that it would all be spent for the purpose intended.
Randolph Bartlett took her to the station in his car, and Miss Isobel met them there with a suit-case full of articles that she feared Eleanor had failed to provide.
"I put in some overshoes," she said, fluttering about like a distracted hen whose adopted duckling unexpectedly takes to water. "I also fixed up a medicine-case and a sewing basket. I knew you would never think of them. And, dear, I know how you hate heavy underwear, but pneumonia is so prevalent. You must promise me not to take cold if you can possibly avoid it."
Eleanor promised. Somehow, Aunt Isobel, with her anxious face and her reddened eyelids, had never seemed so pathetic before.
"I'll write to you, auntie," she said reassuringly; "and you mustn't worry."
"Don't write to me," whispered Miss Isobel tremulously. "Write to mother. Just a line now and then to let her know you think of her. She's quite feeble, Nellie, and she talks about you from morning until night."
Eleanor's face hardened. She evidently did not enjoy imagining the nature of Madam's discourse. However, she squeezed Aunt Isobel's hand and said she would write.
Then Quin arrived with the ticket and the baggage-checks, the train was called, and Eleanor was duly embraced and wept over.
"We won't go through the gates," said Mr. Ranny, with consideration for Miss Isobel's tearful condition. "Quin will get you aboard all right. Good-by, kiddie!"
Eleanor stumbled after Quin with many a backward glance. Both Aunt Isobel and Uncle Ranny seemed to have acquired haloes of kindness and affection, and she felt like a selfish ingrate. She looked at the lunch-box in her hand, and thought of Rose rising at dawn to fix it before she went to work. She remembered the little gifts Cass and Myrna and Edwin had slipped in her bag. How good they had all been to her, and how she was going to miss them! Now that she was actually embarked on her great adventure, a terrible misgiving seized her.
"Train starts in two minutes, boss!" warned the porter, as Quin helped Eleanor aboard and piloted her to her seat.
"You couldn't hold it up for half an hour, could you?" asked Quin. Then, as he glanced down and met Eleanor's eyes brimming with all those recent tendernesses, his carefully practised stoicism received a frightful jolt.
As the "All aboard!" sounded, she clutched his sleeve in sudden panic.
"Oh, Quin, I know I'm going to be horribly lonesome and homesick. I—I wish you were going too!"
"All right! I'll go! Why not?"
"But you can't! I was fooling. You must get off this instant!"
"May I come on later? Say in the spring?"
"Yes, yes! But get off now! Quick, we are moving!"
She had almost to push him down the aisle and off the steps. Then, as the train gained speed, instead of looking forward to the wide fields of freedom stretching before her, she looked wistfully back to the disconsolate figure on the platform, and, with a sigh that was half for him and half for herself, she lifted her fingers to her lips and rashly blew him a good-by kiss.
That aerial kiss proved more intoxicating to Quin than all the more tangible ones he had ever received. It sent him swaggering through the next few months with his head in the air and his heart on fire. Nothing could stop him now, he told himself boastfully. Old Bangs was showing him signal favor, Madam Bartlett was his staunch friend, Mr. Ranny and the aunties were his allies, and even if Miss Nell didn't care for him yet, she didn't care for anybody else, and when a girl like Miss Nell looks at a fellow the way she had looked at him——
At this rapturous point he invariably abandoned cold prose for poetry and burst into song.
Almost every week brought him a letter from Eleanor—not the romantic, carefully penned epistles she had indited to Harold Phipps, but hasty scrawls often dashed off with a pencil. In them she described her absurd attempts at housekeeping in the little two-room apartment; her absorbing experiences in the dramatic school; all the ups and downs of her wonderful new life. She was evidently enjoying her freedom, but Quin flattered himself that between the lines he could find evidences of discouragement, of homesickness, and of the coming disillusionment on which he was counting to bring her home when her six months of study were over.
It was only when Rose read him Papa Claude's lengthy effusions that his heart misgave him. Papa Claude announced that Eleanor was sweeping everything before her at the dramatic school, where her beauty and talent were causing much comment, and that he had not been mistaken when he had foreseen her destiny, and, "single-handed against the world," forced its fulfilment.
Usually, upon reading one of Papa Claude's pyrotechnical efforts, Quin went to see Madam Bartlett. After all, he and the old lady were paddling in the same canoe, and their only chance of success was in pulling together.
As the end of the six months of probation approached, Madam became more and more anxious. Ever since Eleanor's high-handed departure she had been undergoing a metamorphosis. Like most autocrats, the only things of which she took notice were the ones that impeded her progress. When they proved sufficiently formidable to withstand annihilation, she awarded them the respect that was their due. Eleanor's childish whim, heretofore crushed under her disapprobation, now loomed as a terrifying possibility. The girl had proved her mettle by living through the winter on a smaller allowance than Madam paid her cook. She had shown perseverance and pluck, and an amazing ability to get along without the aid of the family. In a few months she would be of age, and with the small legacy left her by her spendthrift father, would be in a position to snap her fingers in the face of authority.
"If it weren't for that fool Phipps I'd have her home in twenty-four hours," Madam declared to Quin. "She'll be wanting to take a professional engagement next."
Quin tried to reassure her, but his words rang hollow. He too was growing anxious as the months passed and Eleanor showed no sign of returning. He longed to throw his influence with Madam's in trying to induce her to come back before it was too late. The only thing that deterred him was his sense of fair play to Eleanor.
"You let Miss Nell work it out for herself," he advised; "don't threaten, her or persuade her or bribe her. Leave her alone. She's got more common sense than you think. I bet she'll get enough of it by May."
"Well, if she doesn't, I'm through with her, and you can tell her so. I meant to make Eleanor a rich woman, but, mark my word, if she goes on the stage I'll rewrite my will and cut her off without a penny. I'll even entail what I leave Isobel and Enid. I'll make her sorry for what she's done!"
But with the approach of spring it was Madam who was sorry and not Eleanor. Quin's sympathies were roused every time he saw the old lady. Her affection and anxiety fought constantly against her pride and bitterness. For hours at a time she would talk to him about Eleanor, hungrily snatching at every crumb of news, and yet refusing to pen a line of conciliation.
"If she can do without me, I can do without her," she would say stubbornly.
Quin's business brought him to the Bartlett home oftener than usual these days. For twenty years Madam and Mr. Bangs, as partners in the firm of Bartlett & Bangs, had tried to run in opposite directions on the same track, with the result that head-on collisions were of frequent occurrence. Since Randolph Bartlett's retirement from the firm, Quin had succeeded him as official switchman, and had proven himself an adept. His skill in handling the old lady was soon apparent to Mr. Bangs, who lost no time in utilizing it.
One afternoon in April, when Quin was busily employed at his desk, his eyes happened to fall upon a calendar, the current date of which was circled in red ink. The effect of the discovery was immediate. His energetic mood promptly gave way to one of extreme languor, and his gaze wandered from the papers in his hand across the grimy roof tops.
This time last year he and Miss Nell had made their first pilgrimage to Valley Mead. It was just such a day as this, warm and lazy, with big white clouds loafing off there in the west. He wondered if the peach trees were in bloom now, and whether the white violets were coming up along the creek-bank. How happy and contented Miss Nell always seemed in the country! She had never known before what the outdoor life was like. How he would like to take her hunting for big game up in the Maine woods, or camping out in the Canadian Rockies with old Cherokee Jo for a guide! Or better still,—here his fancy bolted completely,—if he could only slip with her aboard a transport and make a thirty days' voyage through the South Seas!
It was at this transcendent stage of his reveries that a steely voice at his elbow observed:
"You seem to be finding a great deal to interest you in that smokestack, young man!"
Quin descended from his height with brisk embarrassment.
"Anything you wanted, sir?" he asked.
Mr. Bangs looked about cautiously to make sure that nobody was in ear-shot, then he said abruptly:
"I want you to come out to my place with me for overnight. I want to talk with you."
Quin's amazement at this request was so profound that for a moment he did not answer. Surmises as to the nature of the business ranged from summary dismissal to acceptance into the firm. Never in his experience at the factory had any employee been recognized unofficially by Mr. Bangs. To all appearances, he lived in a large limousine which deposited him at the office at exactly eight-thirty and collected him again on the stroke of four. Rumor hinted, however, that he owned a place in the suburbs, and that the establishment was one that did not invite publicity.
"Very well, sir," said Quin. "What time shall I be ready?"
"We will start at once," said Mr. Bangs, leading the way to the door.
On the drive out, Quin's efforts at conversation met with small encouragement. Mr. Bangs responded only when he felt like it, and did not scruple to leave an observation, or even a question, permanently suspended in an embarrassing silence. Quin soon found it much more interesting to commune with himself. It was exciting to conjecture what was about to happen, and what effect it would have on his love affair. If he got a raise, would he be justified in putting his fate to the test? All spring he had fought the temptation of going to New York in the hope that by waiting he would have more to offer. If by any miracle of grace Miss Nell should yield him the slightest foothold, he must be prepared to storm the citadel and take possession at once.
The abrupt turn of the automobile into a somber avenue of locusts recalled him to the present, and he looked about him curiously. Mr. Bangs had not been satisfied to build his habitation far from town; he had taken, the added precaution to place it a mile back from the road. It was a somewhat pretentious modern house, half hidden by a high hedge. The window-shades were drawn, the doors were closed. The only signs of life about the place were a porch chair, still rocking as if from recent occupation, and a thin blue scarf that had evidently been dropped in sudden flight.
Mr. Bangs let himself in with a latch-key, and led the way into a big dreary room that was evidently meant for a library. A handsome suite of regulation mahogany furniture did its best to justify the room's claim to its title, but rows of empty bookshelves yawned derision at the pretense.
Mr. Bangs lit the electrolier, and, motioning Quin to a chair, sat down heavily. Now that he had achieved a guest, he seemed at a loss to know what to do with him.
"Do you play chess?" he asked abruptly.
"I can play 'most anything," Quin boasted. "Poker's my specialty."
For an hour they bent over the chess-board, and Quin was conscious of those piercing black eyes studying him and grimly approving when he made a good play. For the first time, he began to rather like Mr. Bangs, and to experience a thrill of satisfaction in winning his good opinion.
Only once was the game interrupted. The colored chauffeur who had driven them out came to the door and asked:
"Shall I lay the table for two or three, sir?"
Mr. Bangs lifted his head long enough to give him one annihilating glance.
"I have but one guest," he said significantly. "Set the table for two."
The dinner was one of the best Quin had ever tasted, and his frank enjoyment of it, and franker comment, seemed further to ingratiate him with Mr. Bangs, who waxed almost agreeable in discussing the various viands.
After dinner they returned to the library and lit their cigars, and Quin waited hopefully.
This time he was not to be disappointed.
"Graham," said Mr. Bangs, "what salary are you drawing?"
"One hundred and fifty, sir."
"How long have you been at the factory?"
"A year last February."
"Not so long as I thought. You are satisfied, I take it?"
Quin saw his chance and seized it.
"It's all right until I can get something better."
Mr. Bangs relit his cigar, and took his time about it. Then he blew out the match and threw it on the floor.
"I am looking for a new traffic manager," he said.
"What's the matter with Mr. Shields?" Quin inquired in amazement.
"I have fired him. He talks too much. I want a man to manage traffic, not to superintend a Sunday-school."
"But Mr. Shields has been there for years!"
"That's the trouble. I want a younger man—one who is abreast of the times, familiar with modern methods."
Quin's heart leaped within him. Could Mr. Bangs be intimating that he, Quinby Graham, with one year and four months' experience, might step over the heads of all of those older and more experienced aspirants into the empty shoes of the former traffic manager?
The South Seas seemed to flow just around the corner.
"I have been considering the matter," continued Mr. Bangs, catching a white moth between his thumb and forefinger and taking apparent pleasure in its annihilation, "and I've decided not to get a new man in for the summer, but to let you take the work for the present and see what you can do with it."
Quin's joy was so swift and sudden that even the formidable banks of Mr. Bangs's presence could not keep it from overflowing.
"I can handle it as easy as falling off a log!" he cried excitedly. "I know every State in the Union and then some. Of course, I hate to see old Shields go, but he is a slow-coach. I'll put it all over him! You'll see if I don't!"
"I am not so sure about that," said Mr. Bangs. "Shields had the sense to do what he was told without arguing the matter."
Quin laughed joyously. "Right you are!" he agreed. "I'd have come out of the service with a couple of bars on my shoulders if I hadn't argued so much. I don't know what gets into me, but when I see a better way of running things I just have to say so."
"Well, I don't want you to say so to me," warned Mr. Bangs. "There are certain business methods that we've got to observe, whether we like them or not. Take the matter of listing freight, for instance. That's where Shields fell down. He knows perfectly well that there isn't a successful firm in the country that doesn't classify its stuff under the head that calls for the lowest freight rates."
"How do you mean?"
Mr. Bangs proceeded to explain, concluding his remarks with the observation that you couldn't afford to be too particular in these matters.
"But it is beating the railroads, isn't it?"
"The railroads can afford it. They lose no chance to gouge the manufacturers. It's like taxes. The government knows that everybody is going to dodge them, and so it allows for it. Nobody is deceived, and nobody is the worse for it. Human nature is what it is, and you can't change it."
"Does the traffic manager have to classify the exports?" Quin asked.
"Certainly; that and routing the cars is his principal business. It's a difficult and responsible position in many ways, and I have my doubts about your being able to fill it."
"I can fill it all right," said Quin, as confidently as before, but with a certain loss of enthusiasm. Upon the shining brows of his great opportunity he had spied the incipient horns of a dilemma.
For the next two hours Mr. Bangs explained in detail the duties of the new position, going into each phase of the matter with such efficient thoroughness that Quin forgot his scruples in his absorbed interest in the recital. It was no wonder, he said to himself, that Mr. Bangs was one of the most successful manufacturers in the South. A man who was not only an executive and administrator, but who could make with his own hands the most complicated farming implement in his factory, was one to command respect. Even if he did not like him personally, it was a great thing to work under him, to have his approval, to be trusted by him.
When Quin went up to his room at eleven o'clock, his head was whirling with statistics and other newly acquired facts, which he spent an hour recording in his note-book.
It was not until he went to bed and lay staring into the darkness that the mental tumult subsided and the moral tumult began. The questions that he had resolutely kept in abeyance all evening began to dance in impish insistence before him. What right had he to take Shields's place, when he had said exactly the things that Shields had been fired for saying? Did he want to go the way Shields had gone, compromising with his conscience in order to keep his job, ashamed to face his fellow man, cringing, remorseful, unhappy?
Then Mr. Bangs's arguments came back to him, specious, practical, convincing. Business was like politics; you could keep out if you didn't like it, but if you went in you must play the game as others played it or lose out. Five hundred a month! Why, a fellow wouldn't be ashamed to ask even a rich girl to marry him on that! The thought was balm to his pride.
As he lay there thinking, he was conscious of a disturbing sound in the adjoining room, and he lifted his head to listen. It sounded like some one crying—not a violent outburst, but the hopeless, steady sobbing of despair. His thoughts flew back to that blue scarf on the porch, to the inquiry about an extra seat at the table. They were true, then, those rumors about the lonely, unhappy woman whom Mr. Bangs had kept a virtual prisoner for years. Quin wondered if she was young, if she was pretty. A fierce sympathy for her seized him as he listened to her sobs on the other side of the wall. What a beast a man was to put a woman in a position like that!
His wrath, thus kindled, threw Mr. Bangs's other characteristics into startling relief. He saw him at the head of his firm, hated and despised by every employee. He saw him deceiving Madam Bartlett, sneering at Mr. Ranny's efforts at reform, terrorizing little Miss Leaks. Then he had a swift and relentless vision of himself in his new position, a well trained automaton, expected to execute Mr. Bangs's orders not only in the factory but in the Bartlett household as well.
He tossed restlessly on his pillow. If only that woman would stop crying, perhaps he could get a better line on the thing! But she did not stop, and somehow while she cried he could see nothing good in Bangs or what he stood for. Hour after hour his ambition and his love fought against his principles, and dawn found him still awake, staring at the ceiling.
Going back to town after an early breakfast, he said to Mr. Bangs:
"I've been thinking it over, sir, and if you don't mind I think I'll keep the position I've got."
"What do you mean?" demanded Mr. Bangs. "You decline the promotion?"
"I am afraid I am not the man for the job," said Quin.
"That's for me to decide."
Quin was visibly embarrassed. After his enthusiasm of the night before, his present attitude called for an explanation.
"Well, you see," he said awkwardly, "it may be good business and all that, but there are some things a fellow can't do when he feels about them the way I do."
"Meaning, I suppose, that your standards are so much higher than those of the rest of us that you cannot trade in the market-place?"
"No, sir; I don't mean anything of the kind," Quin flashed back, hot at the accusations of self-righteousness, but unable to defend himself without criticizing his employer.
"And this is final? You've definitely decided?"
"Very well; I am through with you." And Mr. Bangs unfolded his newspaper and read it the rest of the way to the city.
At the office door he was dismounting from the car with his silence still unbroken, when Quin asked nervously:
"Shall I go on with my old job, sir?"
Mr. Bangs wheeled upon him, his eyes like fiery gimlets.
"No!" he thundered. "You needn't go on with anything! For six months I have wasted time trying to teach you something about business. I've pushed you along faster than your ability warranted. I've given you a chance to quadruple your salary. And what is the result? You give me a lot of hot air about your conscience. Why don't you get a soap-box and preach on the street-corners? You can draw your money and go. There is no room on my pay-roll for angels!"
And, with a contemptuous shrug, he passed into the factory, leaving Quin standing dazed and appalled on the sidewalk.
As long as a man can see his goal shining, however faint and distant, he will steer his craft with tolerable reason and patience; but let the beacon-light be extinguished, and he promptly abandons reason and rashly trusts to instinct to guide him.
Quin, who had resolutely kept his course as long as he had been sure of his steady progress toward success, lost his head completely at this sudden collapse of his hopes, and took the first train for New York. A sudden mad necessity was upon him to see Eleanor at once. One look of encouragement, one word of hope from her, and he would rush back to port and gladly begin the voyage all over again.
He arrived at the Eighty-second Street apartment about six o'clock in the evening, and, after studying the dingy name-plates, took the five flights of stairs with uncommendable speed, and presented himself at the rear door on the sixth floor.
As he waited for an answer to his ring, he wondered if he had not made a mistake about the name on the door-plate. The narrow dark hall, permeated with a smell of onions and cabbage, was all too familiar to him, but it was not at all the proper setting for Eleanor. His bewilderment increased when the door was opened by a white-aproned figure, who after a moment of blank amazement seized his hand in both of hers and pressed it rapturously.
At least, that was what Quin imagined took place; but when, a moment later, he sat opposite a composed young lady who had removed her impulse with her apron, he knew that he must have been mistaken. She was still his adored Miss Nell, but with a difference that carried her leagues away from him. He knew how to cope with the hot-headed, rebellious Miss Nell; with the teasing, indifferent, provocative Miss Nell; and even with the disconsolate little Miss Nell who had wept against his shoulder coming home from Chicago. But in the presence of this beautiful, grown-up, self-contained young lady he felt thoroughly awkward and ill at ease. Had it not been for the warmth of her smile and the eagerness with which she plied him with questions, his courage would have failed him utterly.
"Now tell me all about everything!" she urged. "You are the first human being I've seen from home for four mortal months. How's everybody at grandmother's? Has Aunt Enid come home? How are Rose and the children?"
"One at a time!" protested Quin. "Tell me first about yourself. What sort of a place is this you are living in?"
"You mustn't criticize our suite!" she said gaily. "This is a combination bedroom, dining-room, and kitchen. I am the cook and housemaid, and Papa Claude is the butler. You ought to see the way I've learned to cook on the chafing-dish!"
Quin was not in the least interested in her culinary accomplishments. It offended his sense of the proprieties to see his divinity reduced to such necessities, and he did not at all approve of her surroundings.
"When are you coming home?" he asked abruptly.
Eleanor's eyes dropped.
"That depends. I may be here all summer. I've had an engagement offered me."
Quin's hands grew cold. "You don't mean that you're going to act for pay?"
"Of course. Why not? That's what I've been working for."
"But I thought when you tried it out that you would change your mind—that you wouldn't like it as much as you thought you would."
"But I do. I adore it! Nothing on earth can ever make me give it up!"
Quin's heart sank. "But I thought you'd had enough," he said. "I thought you were homesick and lonesome."
"Who wouldn't have been? Look at the way they have treated me at home? Do you know, none of them ever write to me any more?"
Quin tried not to look guilty, but the fact that he had counseled this course of discipline weighed upon him.
"Haven't I written enough for the family?" he asked.
But she was not to be put off.
"They treat me as if I had done something disgraceful!" she said indignantly. "My allowance is just half what it used to be, and yet I have to pay all my own expenses. As for clothes, I never was so shabby in my life. But I can stand that. It's grandmother's silence that I resent. How can she pretend to care for me when she ignores my letters and treats me with perfect indifference?"
Hurt pride quivered through the anger in her voice, and she looked at Quin appealingly. Stung by his silence, she burst out afresh:
"Doesn't she ever ask about me? Has she let me go for good and all?"
"Wasn't that what you wanted?"
"You know it wasn't! I did everything to get her consent. I'd—I'd give anything now if she would look at things differently. Do you think, when she finds out that I am actually on the stage, that she will ever forgive me—that she will ever want me to come home again?"
That was the moment when Quin should have delivered Madam's ultimatum; but, before he had the chance, a key was turned in the lock, and the next instant Claude Martel's effulgent presence filled the room.
For a moment he stood poised lightly, consciously, his cane and gloves in one hand, and his soft felt hat turned gracefully across the other. On his ankles were immaculate white spats, and in his buttonhole blossomed the inevitable rose.
"Quinby Graham!" he cried in accents of rapture. "My Cassius's beloved Quin! My beloved Quin! What happy fortune blew you hither? But no matter. You are here—you are ours. Eleanor and I are going out to a studio party at a dear, dear friend's. You shall accompany us!"
"Oh, no, Papa Claude," protested Eleanor. "Quin doesn't want to go to Miss Linton's messy old party. Neither do I. You go and leave us here. There are a million things I want to ask him."
But Papa Claude would not consider it. "You can ask them to-morrow," he said. "To-night I claim you both. We will introduce Quinby as one of the gallant heroes of the Great War. I shall tell his story—no—he shall tell it! Come, put on your hat, Eleanor; we must start at once."
"But here! Hold on!" protested Quin, laughing and freeing himself from Papa Claude's encircling arm, "I'm not fixed to go to a party, and I haven't got any story to tell. I'll clear out and come back to-morrow."
"No, no!" protested Eleanor and Papa Claude in a breath, and after a brief struggle for supremacy the latter triumphantly continued:
"I promise you shall say nothing, if you prefer it. Modesty is gallantry's crowning grace. But you must accompany us. My heart is set upon it. Eleanor darling, here's your wrap. Come, Quinby, my boy!" And the dynamic little gentleman hooked an arm through each of theirs and, in spite of their protests, bore them triumphantly down the stairs and off to the party.
It was not until they had boarded a crowded downtown car and found themselves wedged in the aisle that Quin and Eleanor managed to have another word alone.
"It's a shame we had to come!" she pouted, looking up at him from under a tilted hat-brim that supported three dangling cherries.
"Where are we going?" he asked, thrilled by the discovery that her lips and the cherries matched.
"To a studio party down in Washington Square. Papa Claude is trying to get Estelle Linton to play the lead in 'Phantom Love.' You always meet all sorts of freaks at her parties."
"I didn't come to New York to meet freaks."
"What did you come for?"
"Shall I tell you?"
"Of course—why not?"
"You want to know? Right now?"
He was looking at her with an expression that was never intended to be worn in a public conveyance, and the thin-faced Polish woman on whose toes they were all but standing looked at them with such lively comprehension that Eleanor felt called upon to assume her most haughty and dignified manner for the rest of the way.
Miss Linton's party was in full swing when they arrived. It was an extremely hilarious party, the interest centering about a fat man in a dress-suit, with a bath towel around his waist, who was attempting to distil a forbidden elixir from an ingenious condenser of his own invention.
The studio, under a grimy skylight, was cluttered with bric-a-brac, animate and inanimate. A Daibutsu in a gilded shrine dominated one corner, and a handsome woman in a Manchu coat and swinging ear-rings of jade held court in another. At sight of the Martel group she laid down the small silver pipe she was smoking, and swam toward them through a cloud of incense and tobacco smoke.
"Dear old C. M.! Bless his heart!" she cried, kissing Papa Claude effusively. Then she nodded good-naturedly to Eleanor, and held out a welcoming hand to Quin.
"Who is this nice boy?" she asked, her languid black eyes sweeping his face.
"Allow me to present ex-Sergeant Quinby Graham," said Papa Claude impressively—"a soldier of whom his friends and his country have every reason to be proud."
Then, to Quin's utter chagrin, he was conscious of the fact that Papa Claude was giving, in an audible aside, an account of his prowess that placed him second only to another sergeant whom the world acclaimed its chief hero.
"For the Lord's sake, head him off!" he whispered in an agony of embarrassment to Eleanor. "I didn't do half those things he's telling about, and besides——"
But it was too late to interfere. Papa Claude, the center of one animated group after another, was kissing his way through the crowd, whispering the news as he went—that the guest of the evening was no other than the distinguished young Graham whom they all doubtless remembered, etc.
Within fifteen minutes Quin found himself the lion of the evening. Even the fat man and his improvised still were eclipsed by the counter-attraction. His very earnestness in disclaiming the honors thrust upon him added enormously to his popularity. The more clumsy and awkward he was, and the more furiously he blushed and protested, the more attention he received.
"So naif!" "So perfectly natural!" "Nothing but a boy, and yet think what he has done!" were phrases heard on every side.
Papa Claude corralled him in the corner with the Daibutsu and pompously presented each guest in turn. Quin felt smothered by the incense and the flattery. His collar grew tight, perspiration beaded his brow, and he began to cough.
"Effects of mustard-gas," Papa Claude explained in a stage whisper.
For seeming hours the agony endured, until the advent of refreshments caused a momentary diversion, and he made a hasty bolt for Eleanor and freedom.
He found her sitting on the divan, looking rather bored by the attentions of a stout elderly person with small porcine eyes and a drooping black mustache. Without troubling to apologize, Quin interrupted the conversation to say abruptly:
"Miss Nell, I am going."
Eleanor started to rise, but the red-faced one lifted a protesting voice.
"See here, young man," he blustered. "You can't run off with this little girl just when I've got my first chance at her this evening. She's going to stay right here and let me make love to her—isn't she?"
He turned a confident eye upon Eleanor, and even ventured to lay a plump detaining finger on her cool, slim wrist.
Eleanor rose instantly.
"I thought you were never coming!" she said impatiently over the stout man's head, "I've been ready to go for an hour!"
Down in the open square, under the clear cool stars, they looked at each other and laughed.
"Lead me to a bus!" cried Quin. "I want to ride on top of it where the wind can blow through my whiskers. My head feels like a joss-house!"
"Oh, but you were funny!" cried Eleanor. "I wish you could have seen your face when all those women swarmed around you. I was afraid you were going to jump out of the window! Did you ever feel anything so hot and stuffy as that room? And weren't they all silly and make-believe?"
Quin gave a mighty sigh of relief at being out of it.
"Is this the sort of thing you get let in for often?" he inquired, aghast.
"Oftener than I like. You see, all those people are Papa Claude's old friends, and he's been having a lovely time showing me off as he showed you off to-night."
"But you surely don't like it?"
"Of course I don't. And they know it. They are already calling me a prig, and poking fun at me for not smoking and for not liking to have my hands patted and my cheeks pinched. Isn't it funny, Quin? At home I was always miserable because there were too many barriers; I wanted to tear them all down. Here, where there aren't any, I find myself building them up at every turn, and getting furious when people climb over them."
"Bartlett versus Martel, eh?"
"I suppose so. Heaven knows, I wish I were one thing or the other."
"Oh, I don't know," said Quin. "You are pretty nice just as you are." Then he added inconsequently: "Who was that fat man you were talking to when I came up?"
"Mr. Pfingst. He is Estelle Linton's backer."
"Backer?" queried Quin. Then, when he saw Eleanor's eyes drop, he added vaguely: "Oh! I see!"
For the next block, strange to say, he did not think so much about Eleanor as he did about Miss Isobel Bartlett. The whole situation kept presenting itself through her austere eyes, and instinctively he put a protecting hand on Eleanor's elbow.
When at last they were on top of the bus, with the big, noisy city apparently going in the opposite direction, they promptly forgot all about the studio party and plunged headlong into their own important affairs.
"Begin at the very beginning," commanded Eleanor, settling herself for a good long ride; "I want you to tell me everything."
The beginning and the end and all that lay between them could easily have been compassed in three words by Quin. But there were things he had pledged himself to tell her before he even broached the subject that was shrieking for utterance. With painstaking exactness he set forth the facts that led up to his dismissal, trying to be fair to Mr. Bangs as well as to himself, and, above all, to claim no credit for taking the stand he had.
But Eleanor would not see it thus. With characteristic fervor she espoused his cause. She declared he had been treated outrageously. He ought to have taken the matter straight to her grandmother. The very idea! After all the work he had done at the factory, for him to be dismissed just because he wouldn't do a thing that he considered dishonorable! She hated Mr. Bangs—she always had hated him; and the more she dwelt upon the fact, the more ardently she approved Quin's course.
"It was perfectly splendid of you to refuse his offer!" she cried, and her eyes blazed with that particular ray of feminine partisanship that is most soothing to the injured masculine. "And you won't lose by it in the long run. You'll get another position right off. Why don't you try to get one here in New York?"
"Would you like me to?"
"I should say I should! Then we could do all sorts of jolly things together. Not studio parties or cabarets, but jolly outdoor things like we used to do at home. Do stay, Quin; won't you?"
She was looking up at him with such frank urgency and such entire sympathy that Quin lost his head completely.
"Miss Nell," he blurted out, "if I stay and get a job and make good, will you marry me?"
Eleanor, who was used to much more subtle manoeuvers, was caught unaware by this sudden attack. For a second she was thrown into confusion; then she rallied all her forces for the defense.
"Why, of course I won't!" she said—then added with more conviction: "I am not going to marry anybody—not for years and years."
"But I'll wait years and years," persisted Quin eagerly. "I wouldn't marry any girl until I could take care of her. But if you'll just give me a tip that maybe some day perhaps——"
It was very difficult to go on addressing his remarks to an impassive classic profile—so difficult, in fact, that he abandoned the effort and let his eyes say the rest for him.
Eleanor stirred uneasily.
"I wish you wouldn't be foolish, Quin, and spoil all our fun. I've told you I mean to go on the stage for good and all. You know you wouldn't want an actress for a wife."
"I'd want you, whatever you were," he said with such fervor that she rashly gave him her luminous eyes again in gratitude.
He made the most of the opportunity thus offered.
"Honest, now!" he boldly challenged her. "You can't deny that you love me just a little bit, can you?"
She stared straight ahead of her down the long dim avenue, making no response to his question. The cherries that swung from her hat-brim stirred not a hair's-breadth, but the commotion their stillness caused in Quin's heart was nothing short of cyclonic.
"More than when you left Kentucky?" he persisted relentlessly.
This time a barely perceptible nod stirred the cherries.
"There!" he said triumphantly. "I knew it! Just keep right on the way you are going, and I won't say a word!"
"But I haven't given you any encouragement; you mustn't think I have."
"I know it. But you haven't turned me down."
At this she smiled at him helplessly.
"You are not very easy to turn down, Quin."
"No," he admitted; "it can't be done."
At this moment the bus rounded a sharp corner without slowing up, and the passengers on top were lurched forward with such violence that at least one masculine arm took advantage of the occasion to clasp a swaying lady with unnecessary solicitude. It may have been a second, and it may have been longer, that Quin sat with his arm about Eleanor and his hand clasping hers. Time and space ceased to exist for him and blessed infinity set in. And then——
"Good gracious!" she cried, starting up. "Where are we? I'd forgotten all about our cross-street."
As a matter of fact they were in Harlem.
All the way back Eleanor refused to be serious about anything. The mischievous, contradictory, incalculable little devil that always lurked in her took full possession. She teased Quin, and laughed at him, leading him on one minute and running to cover the next.
When they reached the apartment, she tripped up the five flights as lightly as a bird, and Quin, in his effort to keep up with her, overtaxed himself and paid the penalty. Heart and lungs were behaving outrageously when he reached the top landing, and he had to steady himself by the banister.
"Oh, Quin, I ought to have remembered!" Eleanor cried, with what he considered divine compassion. "I can't bear to hear you cough like that! It sounds as if it were tearing you to pieces."
"It's nothing!" said Quin, struggling to get his breath. "I'll be all right in a minute. What's the box by the door?"
Eleanor's glance followed his.
"If that old walrus, Pfingst, has dared to send me flowers again!" she cried, pouncing on the card and holding it so they both could read it.
Penciled in small, even lines were the words:
Sorry to find the lady-bird flown. Will call up in the morning. H. P.
Even in the dimly lighted hall, Quin could see the flush that suffused Eleanor's face.
"It's Harold Phipps," she said, trying to be casual. "I—I didn't know he was in town."
Quin followed her into the apartment, and stood dully by the table as she untied the box and lifted half a dozen exquisite white orchids from their bed of maidenhair ferns. Then, trying very hard to keep his voice steady, he asked gently:
"What does this mean, Miss Nell? I thought you weren't going to have anything more to do with that man."
"Well, I haven't. That is, not—not until he came on last month to see about the play."
"But why did you have to see him?"
"Because I am to be in the play."
"Not in his play?"
"No more his than Papa Claude's."
Quin's face darkened.
"I saw him for only a few minutes," Eleanor went on, "and Papa Claude was with us. I give you my word, Quin, I've never spoken to him alone, or answered one of his letters."
"Then he has been writing to you? What business has he got worrying you with letters and flowers when you have told him you are through with him?"
In spite of his effort to keep calm, there was a rising note of anger in his voice.
"He is not worrying me," said Eleanor, evidently conscious of her weakness in admitting Harold at the window of friendship when she had banished him from the door of love. "He understands perfectly that everything is over between us. But it would be silly for us to refuse to speak to each other when we shall necessarily be thrown together a lot."
"Thrown together? How do you mean?"
"Do you mean he is to be here in New York?"
"Yes—after next month. He has given up his position in Chicago, so he can devote all the time to the play. You see, he not only helped to write it, but he is financing it."
"So he is the—backer?" Quin was scarcely responsible for what he said, so suddenly had disaster trodden on the heels of ecstasy.
"He is Papa Claude's partner and producer," said Eleanor with dignity. "If I don't care anything for him, I don't see what harm there is in seeing him."
"Not liking whisky won't keep it from going to your head," said Quin stubbornly.
"That's perfect nonsense; and besides, what can I do? It's his play as well as ours. I can't ask him to stay away from rehearsals."
"No; but you can stay away yourself. You don't have to be in this play. Something else will turn up. You can afford to wait."
"But that's just the point—I can't! And, besides, think how silly and childish it would be for me to refuse a wonderful chance for a professional debut that might not come again in years."
"But don't you see, Miss Nell, you are in honor bound not to go on with this?"
"Honor bound? How do you mean?"
"Why, to Queen Vic."
"I agreed to break my engagement with Harold Phipps and not to answer any of his letters. I've kept my promise."
"Yes; but I thought, and I made her think, that you agreed not to see him or have anything to do with him for six months."
"Well, the time will be up in six weeks."
"Lots can happen in six weeks."
If Quin had been wise he would have taken another tack; but, in his earnest effort to make her see her duty to Madam, he failed to press his own more personal claims, and thus lost his one chance of reaching her.
Eleanor understood impulse, emotion, but she would not listen to reason. The mere mention of Madam's name stirred up a whirlwind that snuffed out any love-lights that might have been kindling. She stood with her back to the table, twisting Harold Phipps's card in her fingers, and she looked at Quin suspiciously.
"Did grandmother send you up here to see if I was keeping my word?"
"She did not. She doesn't know I am here."
"Then it's just you who don't trust me?"
"Well, I don't think you are playing quite fair," admitted Quin bluntly, "either to Queen Vic or to me."
"And I suppose you propose to go back and tell her so?"
"I propose nothing of the kind. It's up to you whether we both keep our word, or whether we both break it. You know what I think, and you see the position I am in."
"I can settle that," said Eleanor with spirit. "I can write home to-night and tell them what I intend to do. That will exonerate you, if that is what you are after."
"It isn't what I am after, and you know it! For God's sake, Miss Nell, be fair! You know you can't go on with this thing without starting up the old trouble with Mr. Phipps."
"But, I tell you, I can. I can control the situation perfectly. Why can't you trust me, Quin?"
"I don't trust him. He's got ways of compromising a girl that you don't know anything about. If he ever gets wind of your going to Chicago——"
"I wish you wouldn't throw that up to me!" There was real anger in her voice, which up to now had shown signs of softening. "Just because I happened to me a fool once, it doesn't follow that I'll be one again! It won't be pleasant for me, but I am not going to let his connection with 'Phantom Love' spoil my chance of a lifetime."
"And he will be at all the rehearsals, I suppose, and up here in the apartment between-times." Quin's jealousy ran through him like fire through dry stubble. "You'll probably be seeing him every day."
"And what if I do?" demanded Eleanor. "I have told you our relations are strictly professional."
"That card looks like it," said Quin bitterly.
Eleanor tossed the object referred to in the trash-basket and looked at him defiantly. The very weakness of her position made her peculiarly sensitive to criticism, and the fact that her mentor was her one-time slave augmented her wrath.
"See here, Miss Nell." Quin came a step closer, and his voice was husky with emotion. "I know how keen you are about the stage; but, take it from me, you are making a wrong start. If you'll just promise to wait until your time is up——"
"I won't promise anything! What's the use? Nobody believes me. Even you are siding with grandmother and suspecting me of breaking my word. I don't intend to submit to it any longer!"
Queer, spasmodic movements were going on in Quin's lungs, and he controlled his voice with difficulty.
"You mean you are going on seeing Mr. Phipps and letting him send you flowers and things?"
"I am not!" Eleanor cried furiously. "But, if I should, it's nobody's business but my own!"
For an agonizing moment they faced each other angrily, both of them lost in the labyrinth of their own situation. At the slightest plea for help on her part, Quin would have broken through his own difficulties and rushed to her rescue. He would even have offered to plead her cause again at the family tribunal. But she was like a wilful child who is determined to walk alone on a high and dangerous wall. The very effort to protect her might prove disastrous.
"If that's the case," said Quin, with his jaw thrust out and his nostrils quivering, "what do you want me to do?"
"I don't care what you do!" Eleanor flung back—"just so you leave me alone."
Without a word, he picked up his hat and strode out of the apartment and down the stairs. At every landing he paused, hoping against hope that she might call him back. Even at the door he paused, straining his ears for the faintest whisper from above. But no sound broke the stillness, and with a gesture of despair he flung open the door and passed out into the darkness.
When an extremely energetic person has spent eighteen months making connections with a family, he does not find it easy to sever them in a day. Quin's announcement that he was going to leave the Martels met with a storm of protest. He had the excellent excuse that when Cass married in June there would be no room for him, but it took all his diplomacy to effect the change without giving offense. Rose was tearful, and Cass furious, and a cloud of gloom enveloped the little brown house.
With the Bartletts it was no easier. On his return from New York he had found three notes from them, each of which requested an immediate interview. Madam's stated that she had heard of his dismissal from the factory and that she was ready to do battle for him to the death. "Geoffrey Bangs got rid of Ranny," she wrote, "and now he thinks he can ship you. But I guess I'll show him who is the head of the firm."
The second note was from Miss Isobel and was marked "Confidential." In incoherent sentences it told of a letter just received from Eleanor, in which she announced that she was planning to make her professional debut in July, and that as Mr. Phipps was connected with the play in which she was to appear, she felt that she could accept no further favors from her grandmother. Miss Isobel implored Quin to come at once and advise her what to do about telling Madam, especially as they were leaving for Maine within the next ten days.
The third delicately penned epistle was a gentle effusion from Miss Enid, who was home on a visit and eager to see "dear Quin, who had been the innocent means of reuniting her and the dearest man in all the world."
It was these letters that put Quin's desire for flight into instant action. He must go where he would not be questioned or asked for advice. The mere mention of Eleanor's name was agony to him. It contracted his throat and sent the blood pounding through his veins. His hurt was so intolerable that he shrank from even a touch of sympathy. Perhaps later on he would be able to face the situation, but just now his one desire was to get away from everything connected with his unhappiness.
In beating about in his mind for a temporary refuge, he remembered a downtown rooming-house to which he had once gone with Dirks, the foreman at Bartlett & Bangs. Here he transferred his few possessions, and persuaded Rose to tell the Bartletts that he had left town for an indefinite stay. This he hoped would account for his absence until they left for their summer vacation.
The ten weeks that followed are not pleasant ones to dwell upon. The picture of Quin tramping the streets by day in a half-hearted search for work, and tramping them again at night when he could not sleep, of him lying face downward on a cot in a small damp room, with all his confidence and bravado gone, and only his racking cough for company, are better left unchronicled.
He fought his despair with dogged determination, but his love for Eleanor had twined itself around everything that was worth while in him. In plucking it out he uprooted his ambition, his carefully acquired friendships, his belief in himself, his faith in the future. For eighteen months he had lived in the radiance of one all-absorbing dream, with a faith in its ultimate fulfilment that transcended every fear. And now that that hope was dead, the blackness of despair settled upon him.
That fact that Eleanor had broken faith with him, that she was willing to renew her friendship with Harold Phipps when she knew what he was, that she was willing to give up friends and family and her inheritance for the sake of being with him, could have but one explanation.
Quin used to tell himself this again and again, as he lay in the hot darkness with his hands clasped across his eyes. He used it as a whip with which to scourge any vagrant hopes that dared creep into his heart. Hadn't Miss Nell told him that she didn't care what he said or did, just so he left her alone? Hadn't she let him come away without expressing a regret for the past or a hope for the future?
But, even as his head condemned her, his heart rushed to her defense. After all, she had never said she cared for him. And why should she care for a fellow like him, with no education, or money, or position? Even with her faults, she was too good for the best man living. But she cared for Harold Phipps—and with that bitter thought the turmoil began all over again.
He was not only unhappy, but intolerably lonely and ill. He missed Rose and her care for him; he missed Cass's friendship; he missed his visits to the Bartletts; and above all he missed his work. His interest still clung to Bartlett & Bangs, and the only times of forgetfulness that he had were when he and Dirks were discussing the business of the firm.
What made matters worse was the humid heat of the summer. A low barometer, always an affliction to him, in his present nervous state was torture. Night after night he lay gasping for breath, and in the morning he rose gaunt and pale, with hollow rings under his eyes. Having little desire for food, he often made one meal a day suffice, substituting coffee for more solid food.
This method of living could have but one result. By the middle of July he was confined to his bed with a heavy bronchial cold and a temperature that boded ill. Once down and defenseless, he became a prey to all the feminine solicitude of the rooming-house. The old lady next door pottered in and out, putting mustard plasters on his chest and forgetting to take them off, and feeding him nauseous concoctions that she brewed over a coal-oil stove. A woman from upstairs insisted on keeping his window and door wide open, and trying cold compresses on his throat. While the majorful mother of six across the hall came in each night to sweep the other two out, close the window and door, and fill the room with eucalyptus fumes.
Quin let them do whatever they wanted. The mere business of breathing seemed to be about all he could attend to these days. The only point on which he was firm was his refusal to notify his friends or to have a doctor.
"I'll be all right when this beastly weather lets up," he said to Dirks one Sunday night. "Is there any sign of clearing?"
"Not much. It's thick and muggy and still raining in torrents. I wish you'd see a doctor."
Pride kept Quin from revealing the fact that he had no money to pay a doctor. Five weeks without work had completely exhausted his exchequer.
"I'm used to these knockouts," he wheezed with assumed cheerfulness one Sunday night. "It's not half as bad as it sounds. I'll be up in a day or so."
Dirks was not satisfied. His glance swept the small disordered room, and came back to the flushed face on the pillow.
"Don't you want some grub?" he suggested. "I'll get you anything you like."
"No, thanks; I'm not hungry. You might put the water-pitcher over here by the bed. My tongue feels like a shredded-wheat biscuit."
Dirks gave him some water, then turned to go.
"Oh, by the way," he said, "Here's a letter for you that's been laying around at the factory for a couple of days. Nobody knew where to forward it."
Like a shot Quin was up in bed and holding out an eager hand. But at sight of the small cramped writing he lay back on his pillow listlessly.
"It's from Miss Isobel Bartlett," he said indifferently. "Wonder what she's doing back in town in the middle of the summer."
"I hear they are all back," Dirks said. "The old lady is very ill and they had to bring her home. If you want anything in the night, just pound on the wall. I'm going to fetch a doctor if you ain't better in the morning."
When Dirks had gone Quin opened his letter and read:
I am rushing this off to the factory in the hope that they have your address and can get into communication with you at once. Mother has had two dreadful attacks with her appendix, and the doctors say she cannot survive another. But she refuses point-blank to be operated on, and my brother and sister and I are powerless to move her. Won't you come the moment you get this, and try to persuade her? She has such confidence in your judgment, and you could always do more with her than any one else. I am almost wild with anxiety and I don't know which way to turn. Do come at once.
Quin sprang out of bed, and then sat down limply, waiting for the furniture to stop revolving about him. It was evident that he would have to use his head to save his legs, if he expected to make any progress. Holding to the bed-post, he brought all his concentration to bear on the whereabouts of the various garments he had thrown off ten days before. The lack of a clean shirt and the imperative need of a shave presented grave difficulties, but he would have gone to Miss Isobel's rescue if he had had to go in pajamas!
When at last he had struggled into his clothes, he put out his light and tiptoed past Dirks' door. At the first sniff of night air he began to cough, and he clapped his hand over his mouth, swearing softly to himself. On the front steps he hesitated. The rain was falling in sheets, and the street lights shone through a blur of fog. For the first time, Quin realized it was a block to the car line, and that he had no umbrella. Hard experience had taught him the dire results of exposure and overexertion. But the excitement of once more getting in touch with the Bartletts, of being of service to Madam, and above all of hearing news of Eleanor, banished all other considerations. Turning up his coat collar and pulling his hat over his eyes, he went down the steps and started on an uncertain run for the corner.
During the days that Quin was floundering in the bog of poverty, illness and despair, Eleanor Bartlett was triumphantly climbing the peak of achievement. "Phantom Love," after weeks of strenuous rehearsal and nerve-racking uncertainty, had had its premiere performance at Atlantic City and scored an instantaneous hit.
All spring Eleanor had lived in excited anticipation of the event. In the hard work demanded of her she had found welcome relief from some of her own complicated problems. She wanted to forget that she had broken her word, that she was causing the family serious trouble, and more than all she wanted to forget Quinby Graham and the look on his face when he left her.
During her stay in New York she had suffered many disillusions. She had seen her dreams translated into actual and disconcerting realities. But, in spite of the fact that much of the gold and glamour had turned to tinsel, she was still fascinated by the life and its glorious possibilities.
It was not until she got into the full swing of the rehearsals that she made a disconcerting discovery. Try as she would, she could not adapt herself to the other members of the company. She hated their petty jealousies and intermittent intimacies, the little intrigues and the undercurrent of gossip that made up their days. From the first she realized that she was looked upon as an alien. The fact that she was shown special favors was hotly resented, and her refusal to rehearse daily the love passages with Finnegan, the promising young comedian who two years before had driven an ice-wagon in New Orleans, was a constant grievance to the stage manager. In the last matter Harold Phipps had upheld her, as he had in all others; but his very championship constituted her chief cause of worry.
Since the day of his joining the company she had given him no opportunity for seeing her alone. By a method of protection peculiarly her own, she had managed to achieve an isolation as complete as an alpine blossom in the heart of an iceberg. But in the heat and enthusiasm of a successful try-out, when everybody was effervescing with excitement, it was increasingly difficult to maintain this air of cold detachment.
Papa Claude alone was sufficient to warm any atmosphere. He radiated happiness. Every afternoon, arrayed in white flannels and a soft white hat, with a white rose in his buttonhole, he rode in his chair on the boardwalk, bowing to right and to left with the air of a sovereign graciously acknowledging his subjects. Night found him in the proscenium-box at the theater, beaming upon the audience, except when he turned vociferously to applaud Eleanor's exits and entrances.
The entire week of the first performance was nothing short of pandemonium. Mr. Pfingst had brought a large party down from New York on his yacht, and between rehearsals and performances there was an endless round of suppers and dinners and sailing-parties.
With the arrival of Sunday morning Eleanor was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. She was sitting before her dressing-table in a sleeveless pink negligee, with her hair dangling in two thick childish braids over her shoulder, when Papa Claude dashed in from the next room to announce that Mr. Pfingst had invited the entire cast to have lunch on his yacht.
"Not for me!" said Eleanor, sipping her coffee between yawns. "I am going straight back to bed and sleep all day."
"Morning megrims!" cried Papa Claude, fresher than the proverbial daisy. "What you need is a frolic with old Neptune! We bathe at eleven, go aboard the Minta at twelve, lunch at one. Pfingst's chef is an artist; he can create a lobster Newburg that is an epic!" Papa Claude's tongue made the circle of his lips as he spoke.
"I don't like lobster," Eleanor pouted; "and, what's more, I don't like Mr. Pfingst."
"Nonsense, my love! Pfingst is a prince of good fellows. Very generous—very generous indeed. Besides, there will be others on board—Harold and Estelle and myself."
Eleanor laid her face against his sleeve.
"I wish you and I could run off somewhere for the day alone. I am so sick of seeing those same people day in and day out. They never talk about anything but themselves."
Papa Claude stroked her hair and smiled tolerantly. It was natural that his little Eleanor should be capricious and variable and addicted to moods. She was evidently acquiring temperament.
Some one tapped at the door, and he sprang to answer it.
"I've just been to your room, and the maid said you were in here," said Harold Phipps's voice.
"Come right in!" cried Papa Claude, flinging wide the door. "We are just discussing plans, and need you to cast the deciding vote."
"But I'm not dressed, Papa Claude!" expostulated Eleanor. "I still have on my kimono."
"A charming costume," said Papa Claude—"one in which a whole nation appears in public. I leave it to my distinguished collaborator: could any toilet, however elaborate, be more becoming?"
Harold gave a light laugh as his glance rested with undisguised approval on the slender figure in its clinging silk garment, the rosy hues of which were reflected in the girl's flaming cheeks.
"Just stopped for a second, C. M.," Harold said, avoiding her indignant eyes. "I wanted to tell you about the New York press notices. They are simply superb! Tribune has a column. The Times and Herald give us a headliner. And even the old Sun says there are passages in 'Phantom Love' that might have been written by Moliere!"
"Where are the papers?" cried Papa Claude, prancing with excitement.
"I gave mine to Estelle. You can get them downstairs at the news-stand."
"I'll run down now—be back in a second." And Papa Claude rushed impetuously from the room.
Eleanor and Harold stood facing each other where he had left them, he with an air of apologetic amusement, and she with an angry dignity that rested incongruously on her childish prettiness.
"Will you please go down and tell Mr. Pfingst that I am not coming to his party?" she asked, with the obvious intention of getting rid of him.
"Why aren't you?"
"Because I don't like him."
"Neither do I. But what has that to do with it? Estelle Linton will take him off our hands."
"I don't care for Miss Linton, either. If I had known——"
"Oh, come! Haven't we got past that?" scoffed Harold, sitting astride a chair and looking at her quizzically. "Nobody pays any attention to Estelle's numerous little affairs. I'd as soon think of criticizing a Watteau lady on an ivory fan!"
"You can probably catch Mr. Pfingst in the dining-room if you go down at once," suggested Eleanor pointedly.
"But I've no intention of going down at once. Eleanor, why do you play with me like this? Can't you see that this can't go on? I've been patient, God knows. For two months I've done nothing but advance your interests, put you forward in every conceivable way. And what have I got? The merest civility! Do you suppose it's pleasant for me to know that everybody in the company is whispering about my infatuation for you and your indifference to me? The maddening part of it is that I know perfectly well you are not indifferent. You are in love with me. You always have been. You'd have married me last fall if some busybody hadn't filled your ears with scandal. Confess, wouldn't you?"
"I knew it! And you are going to marry me now. You can do anything you want, have anything you want. I'll put you at the head of your own company; I'll take you over to London. I'll do anything under heaven but give you up."
He rose suddenly and went toward her, catching her bare arm and trying to draw her toward him; but she struggled from his embrace.
"Let me go!" she cried furiously. "If you don't leave the room instantly, I will! There's Papa Claude now. Let me pass!"
It was not Papa Claude, however, to whom she opened the door. It was Estelle Linton, smartly attired for the day's expedition, and exhibiting all the compensating charms with which she sought to atone for her lack of brains and morals. With a glance of sophisticated comprehension she took in the disordered room, the perturbed young people, the unfinished breakfast-tray; then she burst into a gay little laugh.
"Ten thousand pardons!" she cried, backing away from the door in assumed confusion. "I shouldn't have called so early. I just ran in to bring you Town Topics. The most killing article about you, dear. By-by; I'll see you later!" And, kissing her hand to Eleanor, she flitted down the hall.
"Shall I go or will you?" Eleanor demanded of Harold.
She was standing in the open door, all the color fled from her face and her eyes blazing with anger.
"I'll go, of course," said Harold. "Only, you must not mind Estelle. Everybody knows she's a fool——"
The door was slammed in his face and locked before he finished the sentence.
For a moment Eleanor stood immovable; then her eye fell on the paper that Estelle Linton had thrust into her hand, and she saw her stage name on the title-page.
Pretty little romance back of the production of "Phantom Love" [she read]. It is rumored that a wealthy young Chicago playwright, having met with family opposition in winning a young Southern belle, took advantage of her histrionic ambition, and persuaded her to play a role in his new play, which he wrote especially for her. Those who saw the opening performance of "Phantom Love" at Atlantic City Wednesday night will have little trouble in recognizing the heroine of the story. Miss Nell Martel is one of the daintiest bits of femininity that have flitted behind the footlights in many moons. She has youth and beauty and a certain elusive charm. But the fact remains that she can not act. For the continued success of the really brilliant play, let us hope that the young lady's lover may soon become her husband, and that, having won his prize, he will substitute a professional for the charming young amateur who is in no way up to the rest of the really excellent cast.
Eleanor crushed the paper in her hand, flung herself across the bed, and buried her hot face in the pillow. All her life she had walked unafraid and inviolate, protected by her social position, the over-zealous solicitude of the family, and her own purity. She had flown out of the family nest, confident of her power to take care of herself, to breast any storm. And here, at the beginning of her flight, she found herself in utter confusion of body and spirit, powerless to protect herself against such conduct as Harold's, such printed gossip as lay before her, or such unspeakable insinuations as Estelle Linton's.
When Papa Claude returned, her first impulse was to pour out her troubles to him; but second thought restrained her. He was too much a part of that casual, irresponsible world to take anything it did or said seriously. She called through the door to him that she had gone to bed and was going to stay there.
But she did not stay there. She got up and knelt by the open window, looking across the seething mass of humanity on the boardwalk below to the calm stretches of blue sea beyond. For the first time, she faced her problem fairly and squarely. Up to now she had been trying to compromise, to be broad and tolerant and cosmopolitan. But she had to admit that the new life satisfied her no more than the old had. One was too circumscribed, the other too free. If it was true that she had no talent and was simply tolerated in the company because of Harold Phipps, she must know it at once. To be drawing a salary that she did not earn, and accepting favors for which a definite reward would be expected, was utterly intolerable to her.
A wild desire seized her to go back to New York and seek another engagement. In spite of what that odious article said, she believed that she could succeed on the stage. Papa Claude believed in her; the Kendall School people were enthusiastic about her work; they would help her to make another start.
But did she honestly want to make another start? A conscience that had overslept itself began to stir and waken. After all, what did the plaudits of hundreds of unknown people count for, when the approval and affection of those nearest and dearest was withdrawn? What would any success count for against the disgust she felt for herself.
A wave of terrific homesickness swept over her. But what was it she wanted, she asked herself, in place of this gay kaleidoscope of light and color and ceaseless confusion? Not the stagnation of the Bartlett household, certainly not the slipshod poverty of the Martels. She searched her heart for the answer.
And as she knelt there with her head on the window-sill, looking miserably out to sea, a strange thing happened to her. In a moment of swift, sure vision she saw Quinby Graham's homely, whimsical face, she felt his strong arms around her, and into her soul came a deep, still feeling of unutterable content.
"I am coming, Quin!" she whispered, with a little catch in her voice.
Then it was that Destiny played her second trump for Quin. It was in the form of a telegram that a bell-boy brought up from the office, and it announced that Madam Bartlett was not expected to live through the day.
Within twenty-four hours Eleanor was in Kentucky.
"Is she living?" she demanded of Hannah, who answered her ring at her grandmother's door.
"I don't know, honey," whispered Hannah, ashy with fright. "They's operatin' now. We thought she was going to die all day yesterday, but she never give in to be operated on till Mr. Quin come."
"Where are Aunt Isobel and Aunt Enid?"
"They's all in the library. Mr. Ranny's there, too. Ain't nobody upstairs with her but jest the doctors an' the nurse an' Mr. Quin."
Eleanor crept upstairs and sat down on the top step, outside that door before which she had halted in dread so many times before. Remorse and sympathy and acute apprehension struggled for mastery. All the old antagonism for her grandmother was swept away in the dread prospect of losing her. It was impossible to think of the family existing without her. She held it up, kept it together, maintained the proud old Bartlett tradition.
There was a sound behind the closed doors. Eleanor strained her ears to listen. It was someone coughing, at first gently, then violently. The next moment the door opened and a wild-eyed, unshaven figure staggered into the hall.
"Damn that ether!" some one muttered.
And then, before Eleanor could get to her feet, Quinby Graham came unsteadily toward her, stumbled twice, then pitched forward on his face, striking his head on the banister as he fell.
Two weeks later, when Quin struggled back to consciousness, he labored under the delusion that he was still in the army and back in the camp hospital. Eleanor, who scarcely left his bedside, was once more Miss Bartlett, the ward visitor, and he was Patient Number 7. He tried to explain to all those dim figures moving about the darkened room that he was making her a bead chain, and unless they got him more beads he could not finish it in time. When they reassured him and tried to get him to take food, he invariably wanted to know if Miss Bartlett had brought it, and which was her day to come again. Then the doctor and the nurse would argue with him, and try to make him remember things he was sure had never happened, and his mental distress would become acute. At such times somebody, who of course could not be Miss Bartlett, but who had her voice and eyes, would take his hand and tell him to go to sleep, then the tangles would all come straight.
One day he was startled out of a stupor by the sound of a querulous old voice saying:
"I guess if he could get out of bed to come across the city to me, I can come across the hall to him. Wheel me closer!"
Quin was drifting off again, when a hand gripped his wrist.
"Open your eyes, boy! Look at me. Do you know who this is?"
He lifted his heavy lids, and wondered dully what Madam was doing at the camp hospital.
"Put the blinds up," she commanded to some one back of her. "Let him see the wall-paper, the furniture. Move that fool screen away."
For the first time, Quin brought his confused attention to bear on his surroundings, and even glanced at the space over the mantel to see if a certain picture was at its old place.
"You are in my house," said Madam, with a finality that was not to be disputed. "Do you remember the first time you came here?"
He shook his head.
"Yes, you do. I fell down the steps and broke my leg, and you came in off the street to tie me up with an umbrella and the best table napkins. What are you smiling about?"
"Smelling salts," Quin murmured, as if to himself.
"You don't need any smelling salts!" cried Madam, missing his allusion. "All you need is to rouse yourself and put your mind on what I am saying. Do you remember living in this house?"
He could not truthfully say that he did, though familiar objects and sounds seemed to be all around him.
"Well, I'll make you," said Madam, nothing daunted. "You stayed in this very room for three months to keep the burglars from stealing Isobel and Enid, and every night you walked me up and down the hall on my crutches."
She paused and looked at him expectantly; but things were still a blur to him.
"You surely remember the Easter party?" she persisted. "If you can forget the way your shirt kept popping open that night, and the way your jaw swelled up, it's more than I can!"
Quin winced. Even concussion of the brain had failed to deaden the memory of that awful night.
"I sort of remember," he admitted.
"Good! That will do for to-day. As for the rest, I'll tell you what happened. You came here one night two weeks ago, when everybody had me dead and buried, and you deviled me into having an operation that saved my life. You stood right by me while they did it. Then you collapsed and knocked your head on the banister, and, as if that wasn't enough, developed pneumonia on top of it. Now all you've got to think about is getting well."
"But—but—Miss Eleanor?" Quin queried weakly, fearing that the blessed presence that had hovered over him was but a figment of his dreams.
"She came home to help bury me," said Madam. "Failing to get the job, she took to nursing you. Now stop talking and go to sleep. If I hear any more of this stuff and nonsense about your being in a hospital and making bead chains, I'll forbid Eleanor crossing the threshold; do you hear?"
From that time on Quin's convalescence was rapid—almost too rapid, in fact, for his peace of mind. Never in his life had he been so watched over and so tenderly cared for. Mr. Ranny kept him supplied with fresh eggs and cream from Valley Mead; Mr. Chester and Miss Enid deluged him with magazines and flowers; Miss Isobel gave him his medicine and fixed his tray herself; Madam chaperoned his thoughts and allowed no intruding fancies or vagaries.
But all these attentions were as nothing to him, compared with the miracle of Eleanor's presence. Just why she was remaining at home he dared not ask, for fear he should be told the date of her departure. The fact that she flitted in and out of his room, flirting with the doctor, teasing the aunties, assuming a divine proprietorship over him, was heaven enough in itself.
Sometimes, when they were alone and she thought he was asleep he would see the dancing, restless light die out of her eyes, and a beautiful exalted look come into them as if she were listening to the music of the spheres.
He attributed this to the fact that she was happy in being once more reconciled to the family. Even she and Madam seemed to be on terms of the closest intimacy, and he spent hours in trying to understand what had effected the change.
As he grew stronger and was allowed to sit up in bed, he realized, with a shock, what a fool's paradise he was living in. A few more days and he must go back to that dark, damp room in Chestnut Street. He must find work—and work, however menial, for which he had the strength. Eleanor would return to New York, and he would probably never see her again. During his illness she had been heavenly kind to him, but that was no reason for thinking she had changed her mind. She had given him his final answer there in New York, and he was grimly determined never to open the subject again.
But one day, when they were alone together, his resolution sustained a compound fracture. Eleanor was reading aloud to him, and in the midst of a sentence she put down the book and looked at him queerly.
"Quin," she said, "did you know I am not going back?"
"Why not? Did the play fail?"
"No. It's a big success. Papa Claude will probably make a small fortune out of it."
"But you? What's the trouble?"
"I've had enough. I had made up my mind to leave the company even before I was sent for."
Quin's eyes searched her face, but for once he held his tongue.
She was evidently finding it hard to continue. She twisted the fringe of the counterpane in her slender, white fingers, and she did not look at him.
"It all turned out as you said it would," she admitted at last. "I—I simply couldn't stand Harold Phipps."
Quin's heart performed an athletic feat. It leaped into his throat and remained there.
"But you'll be joining some other company, I suppose?" He tried to make his voice formal and detached.
"That depends," she said; and she looked at him again in that queer, tremulous, mysterious way that he did not in the least understand.
Her small hands were fluttering so close to his that he could have captured them both in one big palm; but he heroically refrained. He kept saying over and over to himself that it was just Miss Nell's way of being good to a fellow, and that, whatever happened, he must not make her unhappy and sorry—he must not lose his head.
"Quin,"—her voice dropped so low he could scarcely hear it,—"have you ever forgiven me for the way I behaved in New York?"
He was trembling now, and he wondered how much longer he could hold out.
"Do you—do you—still feel about me the way you—you did—that night on the bus?" she whispered.
Quin looked at her as a Christian martyr might have looked at his persecutor.
"I think about you the way I've always thought about you," he said hopelessly—"the way I shall go on thinking about you as long as I live."
"Well," said Eleanor, with a sigh of relief, "I guess that settles it"; and, to his unspeakable amazement, she laid her head on his pillow and her cheek on his.
When he recovered from his shock of subliminal ecstasy, his first thought was of the trouble he was storing up for Eleanor. Even his rapture was dimmed by the prospect of involving her in another love affair that could only meet with bitter opposition of her family.
"We must keep it dark for the present," he urged, holding her close as if he feared she would slip away. "Maybe, when I am well, and have a good position, and all, they won't take it so hard."
Eleanor refused to listen to any such counsel. She wanted to announce their engagement at once, and be married at the earliest possible date. He needed her to take care of him, she declared; and besides, they could make a start on the money that would soon be due her from her father's estate. To this proposition Quin would not listen, and they had a spirited quarrel and reached no agreement.
Eleanor had fallen seriously in love for the first time in her life, and it was a sudden and overwhelming experience. During those anxious days of Quin's illness, when his life had hung in the balance, she had time to realize what he meant to her. Now that he needed skilful nursing and constant care to assure his recovery, she was determined not to be separated from him.
In spite of his protests, she joyfully announced their engagement to Uncle Ranny and the aunties at dinner, and was surprised to find that the family tree, instead of being rocked to its foundation, was merely pleasantly stirred in its branches.
"You see, we could not help suspecting it," Miss Isobel twittered excitedly to Quin, when she brought him his tray. "You talked about her incessantly in your delirium, and the dear child was almost beside herself the night we thought you might not recover. I told sister then that if you got well——"
"But what about Madam?" Quin interrupted anxiously. "What will she think of Miss Nell's being engaged to a fellow like me, with no money or position, or any prospects of being able to marry for God knows how long?"
Miss Isobel looked grave. "Nellie is breaking the news to her now," she said primly. "I am afraid she is going to find it very hard. But, as sister says, there are times when one has to follow one's own judgments. When mother sees that we all stand together about this——"
She waved her hand with a little air of finality. It was the second time in her life that she had made even a gesture toward freedom.
The interview between Eleanor and her grandmother lasted for more than an hour, and nobody knew the outcome of it until the next morning, when a family council was called in Quin's room. Madam was wheeled in in state, resplendent in purple and gold, with her hair elaborately dressed, as usual.
To everybody's amazement, she opened the conference by abruptly announcing that she had decided that Eleanor and Quin should be married at once.
"She's at loose ends, and he's at loose ends. The sooner they get tied up, the better," was the way she put it.
"But hold on!" cried Quin, sitting up in bed. "I can't do that, you know; I've got to get on my feet first."
"How are you going to get on your feet until you get your strength back?" demanded Madam. "You look like going to work, don't you?"
"Well, the doctor has promised me I can go out on Saturday. I ought to be able to go to work in a couple of weeks."
"Couple of fiddle-sticks! Dr. Rawlins told me it would be two months before you would be fit for work, and even then you would have to be careful."