"Scold you, Mother? Oh, Mother—what must you think me! (Oh, poor Mother—poor Mother—she's gone daft!)"
"I always admired pretty broken bits of chiny," old Mrs. Bray confessed. "But the pitcher was a accident—reely it was, Nellie. I never went to let that fall. My arm breshed it. But the sasser and the pickle-dish and George's wife's lemonade-glass and Abbie Carter's cracker-jar—I done them apurpose. And I can't say I regret the pitcher, nuther."
"Yes, Mother! Yes, yes! It's all right; I understand. (Myry, don't you leave her! I thought she was gettin' childish, but Oh—to think—I'll have John go for Doc Bradley right away. Let 'er amuse herself—but don't you leave her alone a minute! Poor Mother! Poor old Mother! Aplayin' with broken chiny dishes!)"
"What's Nell awhisperin' to ye?" inquired old Mrs. Bray, sharply. "There's nothin' to whisper about as I know. Did ever you see anything purtier than this pink chiny piece, Myry? It broke so clean, and curved as a petal. And this here piece of George's wife's lemonade-glass—it's handsome as a brooch. See how the flower come out! Why, Myry, I've set here and fairly eat off these dishes!"
"Yes, Mother. But sha'n't we put them up now! Some one might drop in—Nell bein' here."
She could not bear that Marvin and John and the doctor should see this pitiful child's play.
Old Mrs. Bray assented with the utmost good nature. She drew up a box of lacquer and proceeded to lay her china service carefully and dextrously away. She set the box quite openly along the shelf beside her bonnet-box and the snug, little brown round pasteboard roll that held her little old round muff. Presently they heard steps in the sitting-room. Some one had dropped in—but it was only Marvin and John and old Doc Bradley.
Marvin's face held a look of scared apprehension; John's withheld judgment; Nell was frankly red-eyed. She had been walking fiercely back and forth in the yard unable to face again that piteous picture.
The only unclouded faces there were Doc Bradley's and old Mrs. Bray's. She gave him a shrewd look. He returned it in kind. "So—o—" said old Mrs. Bray, noting their various scrutiny. There was even an effect of state about her as she settled herself in her special rocker. But she said, quite simply and conversationally,
"Do you want I should tell you about them dishes?"
"Well—it was thisaway. And understand—I don't blame nobuddy. Folks are different. I always loved pretty dishes, but I never got to use 'em. First on account of you being little"—she eyed Nellie and Marvin with benignant allowance—"and after that, because of Nell always bein' agen' using things common. She's like her father. He was thataway. He was a good man, but he 'lowed good things shouldn't be used common. And then when Myry come with her purty weddin' dishes and all, I'd hoped she'd be sort o' different—more like me. But seem like she favored Nell. But I'd never thought of breakin' them if it hadn't a be'n for the pink cup. That give me the idee. That very night I broke the sasser to it. I figured I'd get the use of them dishes some way."
Old Mrs. Bray clucked pleasantly, and resumed.
"I'd always wanted to wear one o' my good dresses afternoons, too. Well—Myry made me one. And she was reel good about wantin' me to wear it common. I had a good man. I've had good children. I've lived a long life. But two things I wanted, I never had—pretty dishes to use, and to be dressed up afternoons. Myry makin' me that dress turned my head, I reckon. And the pink cup finished it."
"I take the full blame. It was me done both—broke the cup and sewed the dress"—spoke up Myry. "And it's you I favored all along, Mother. If you knew how I've honed to set the table with my weddin' dishes. And I could show you—I've got some things you've never seen—house-dresses—pink—sprigged—"
"Meanin' no offense, Nellie—and Marvin—you can't help bein' like your pa. I guess I'm just a foolish old woman."
"We're all like we're made," sounded the oracular accents of Mr. Peebles. "Joke's on you all right, Nell."
"I guess I'm it," she admitted cheerfully.
Doc Bradley looked sharply at Myra when she let him out. Perhaps he noted the pathos of that thin face; those speaking eyes, that seemed to confess a secret longing.
"If you should feel the call, just break a few dishes on your own account!" he advised her. "I like to see folks get what they want. If they want it bad enough, they'll get it." He thought it might be a dress, perhaps—something pretty. Women in Myry's case have odd notions.
Myry had an odd notion. She wanted to be told that she was beautiful and loved.
"You little black stringy thing!" she told herself fiercely. "He's fond of you. And good to you. He's like his pa; he won't show it common. And anyways—you beautiful!"
But every month she read, with a new and avid interest, those far-fetched, extravagant tales of beautiful and beloved women.
During the remainder of Nell's stay, old Mrs. Bray and Myra felt a certain delicacy about inaugurating the use of the white cloths, the wedding china, and the pretty bits on the safe-shelf. But when the Peebles's visit was over, the table achieved a patterned whiteness and a general festive appearance. Old Mrs. Bray donned the gray-and-lavender every afternoon, and Myra bloomed out in pink print. She scarcely ever went abroad now, but for all that, her world was infinitely widened. Once Marvin, dangling from two spread fingers a tiny yoke, inquired doubtfully, "Do you think it's big enough to go round his neck?"
He was always urging her to have help in, and not to tire herself out. But curiously, he never noted the pink print any more than if it had been dull slate. That had not been his pa's way; and it was not his way. But he was good to her. What more could a woman ask?
After Nell came, he felt aggrieved—quite useless and in the way. The women were always displaying things—digging them out from the bottoms of drawers—clouds of soft, white things, with here and there a rift of color in tassel or tufting.
There came a night when he sat alone. In the beginning, he had tried to read—he picked up her woman's magazine, eyeing it curiously, that these silly, floppy sheets should hold, as they did, women's eyes. There were pictures in it—always pictures—pictured embraces, with words beneath. "How beautiful you are! I love you—I love you! How beautiful you are!" Always harping on the same thing—love and beauty. As if life were a sentimental thing like that!
He flung it down. How could he stay his mind on such stuff, when Myry—when Myry—
Nell, important and managerial, occasionally came out and elbowed him about in some mysterious search. At such times, old Mrs. Bray, done up for the night in a highly flowered and mantle-like garment, came creeping inquiringly in.
"Now, Nell—you know what Myry told ye—if you was to fergit now—"
"All right, Mother. I won't forget."
"You know where to find 'em—"
"Yes, I know where to find 'em."
"Now, Nell, I promised Myry—"
"What did you promise Myry?" Marvin flared in sudden jealousy. Both women eyed him, as from a great and unattainable height. Then Nell's capable back disappeared beyond Myry's door; and his mother's little old grotesque and woolly figure was swallowed up by the black hall.
Again he took up the magazine. Again looked at the picture. Again, scarcely seeing them, he read the words. Again he sat; and again Nell elbowed him importantly, and his mother in her snail-like wrappings, came creeping in to remind Nell—
When Doc Bradley came out, at first he thought the man, sprawled loosely in the chair, must be asleep—till he lifted his eyes. They were sleepless and inflamed like a watch-dog's.
"Hold on! Wait a minute! Nell's boss now. You don't want to go in looking that way—you'd skeer 'im!"
"What'll I say?" inquired Marvin hoarsely; "Myry's a good woman—she 's been a good wife to me—too good—"
"Tell 'er something she don't know! Say something fond-like and foolish."
"You can come in now," granted the lofty Nell.
Somehow, old Mrs. Bray had preceded him. But he never saw her. He never even saw the managerial Nell. He saw his wife's face, looking so little and white from out a ruffled lace cap. There were circles of ruffles about her thin wrists. There was a lace ruffle in the neck of her gown. For these were Myry's coronation robes; it was about this adorning that old Mrs. Bray had continuously cautioned Nell. Nell, in that smug, proprietary manner of hers, had turned back a blanket—enough to show the tiny yoke which he had dangled, and the neck which it encircled, and the red and wrinkly head on top of that—-
Like a well-conned article of catechism, words came to Marvin—words he could never have got from his pa.
"Oh, Myry—I love you! How beautiful you are!"
A strange cosmetic glowed on Myra's white cheek. Happiness is the surest beautifier. He might never say it again. It was not likely that he would. He favored his pa. But she had had her great moment—her beautiful and beloved moment. She smiled drowsily up at old Mrs. Bray, beaming beneficently above; and remembered, in an odd flash, the pink china cup. This was her cup—full and running over.
"Come on out now, and let her sleep," ordered the dictatorial Nell. "Who'd a' thought, now, Myry had her little vanities? That lace cap now, and them ruffles—for Marvin! Some folks has the strangest notions."
"'Tain't notions!" protested old Mrs. Bray.
"Oh, yes, it is! And all right, if you feel that way—like you and your dishes, now."
"Myry and me both is powerful set on dishes," exulted old Mrs. Bray.
THE BLOOD-RED ONE
[Note 8: Copyright, 1918, by Charles Scribner's Sons.]
BY MAXWELL STRUTHERS BURT
From Scribner's Magazine
It was a February evening, so it seems, about five o'clock, and old Mr. Vandusen, having left his hat and ulster in the coatroom, had retraced his steps along the entrance hall of the St. Dunstan Club to the wide doorway that led into the first-floor library. He usually sought the library at this time of day; a little group of men, all of whom he knew well, were as a rule to be found there, and they were friendly, not overly argumentative, restful. Now he paused between the heavy portieres, partly drawn aside, and peered for a moment into the room. The light from the hall behind him made a pool of faint illumination at his feet, but beyond that there was only a brown darkness, scented with the smell of books in leather bindings, in which the figures of several men, sprawled out in big chairs before the window, were faintly visible. The window itself, a square of blank fog-blurred dusk, served merely to heighten the obscurity. Mr. Vandusen, a small, plump shadow in the surrounding shadows, found an unoccupied chair and sank into it silently.
"And that's just it," said Maury suddenly, and as if he was picking up the threads of a conversation dropped but a moment before; "and that's just the point"—and his usually gentle voice was heavy with a didacticism unlike itself—"that affects most deeply a man of my temperament and generation. Nemesis—fate—whatever you choose to call it. The fear that perhaps it doesn't exist at all. That there is no such thing; or worse yet, that in some strange, monstrous way man has made himself master of it—has no longer to fear it. And man isn't fit to be altogether master of anything as yet; he's still too much half devil, half ape. There's this damned choked feeling that the world's at loose ends. I don't know how to put it—as if, that is, we, with all the devilish new knowledge we've acquired within the past fifty years, the devilish new machines we've invented, have all at once become stronger than God; taken the final power out of the hands of the authority, whatever it is, toward which we used to look for a reckoning and balancing in the end, no matter what agony might lie between. Perhaps it's all right—I don't know. But it's an upsetting conclusion to ask a man of my generation offhandedly to accept. I was brought up—we all were—to believe in an ordered, if obscure, philosophical doctrine that evil inevitably finds its own punishment, and now—!"
"But—" began Tomlinson.
Maury interrupted him. "Yes, yes," he said, "I know all that; I know what you are going to say. I am perfectly aware of the fact that the ways of Nemesis are supposed to be slow ways—exceedingly. I am aware of the fact that in the Christian doctrine the process is not usually completed until after death, but nowadays things are different. How, since all else moves so swiftly, can a just God afford any longer to be patient? Time has been obliterated in the last four years; space and centuries telescoped; the sufferings of a century compressed into a few cycles of months. No, there is something wrong, some break in the rhythm of the universe, or those grotesque ghouls who started the whole thing, those full-bodied, cold-blooded hangmen, who for forty years have been sitting back planning the future of men and women as they planned the cards of their sniggering skat games, would awake to a sun dripping blood." He paused for a moment. "And as for that psychiatric cripple, their mouthpiece," he concluded sombrely, "that maimed man who broods over battle-fields, he would find a creeping horror in his brain like death made visible."
"And you think he will not?"....
In the darkness Mr. Vandusen suddenly sat up very straight and tried to pierce with his eyes the shadows to the right of him.
Again the chair creaked.
"And you think he will not?" asked the voice again.
The words fell one by one into the silence, like stones dropped into a pool by a precise hand. As the ripples of sound they created died away in the brown dusk, the room seemed for a moment to hold a hushed expectation that made ordinary quiet a matter of movement and sound. From the drab street outside the voice of a newsboy, strident and insistent, put a further edge to the sharp minute. "N'extra!" he shouted. "N'extra! 'Nother big raid on west'n front!"
It was Torrance who asked the question. "What—" he said. "But, but—why—!" And then his wheezing inarticulateness broke like a dislocated bellows.
Mr. Vandusen, leaning forward in his chair, did not realize at the time the unreasonableness of the sharp blaze of irritation that at the interruption burned within him. It was not until much later, indeed, that he realized other odd circumstances as well: Torrance's broken amazement, for instance; the silence of Maury, and Wheeler, and, above all, of Tomlinson. At the moment he realized nothing, except an intense curiosity to hear what the man who had just sat down next to him had to say. "An extraordinary voice! Altogether extraordinary! Like a bell, that is, if a bell could by any chance give a sense of an underlying humor." And yet, even considering all this, when one is old and has heard so many voices—But here he was quite rigid in the darkness. "Do be quiet!" he whispered sharply. "Can't we be quiet!"
"Thanks!" said the voice, with its cool, assured inflections. "There is nothing so very extraordinary. Men's brains are not unalike. Merely—shall I go on?"
And before Mr. Vandusen's hurried assent could be uttered, the quiet tones assumed the accent of narration. "Good," they said. "Very well, then. But first I must ask of you a large use of your imagination. I must ask you, for instance, to imagine a scene so utterly unlike this February night that your eyes will have to close themselves entirely to the present and open only to my words. I must ask you to imagine a beech forest in early November; a beech forest dreaming beneath the still magic of warm, hazy days; days that come before the first sharp cold of winter. Will you imagine that?"
"Yes!" murmured Mr. Vandusen; and he noticed that the other men did not answer at all.
"The mild sunlight," continued the voice, "filters through the naked boughs and touches the smooth silver trunks and the moss about their feet with a misty gold as iridescent as the wings of dragonflies. And as far as you can see on every side stretch these silver boles, dusted with sunlight; in straight lines, in oblique columns, until the eye loses itself in the argent shadows of the distance.
"In the hidden open places, where the grass is still green toward its roots, wild swine come out of the woods and stare with small red eyes; but save for the crackling of the twigs beneath their feet it is very quiet. Marvellously so. Quiet with the final hush of summer. Only rarely a breeze stirs the legions of the heaped-up gray leaves, and sometimes, but rarely, one hears far off the chattering of a squirrel. So!—that is my forest.
"Through it runs like a purple ribbon a smooth, well-kept road. And it, too, adds to the impression of stillness, as the untenanted handiwork of man always does. On the rolled, damp surface are the marks of the cloven feet of the swine.
"Now there is a snapping of dead wood, a rustling of leaves, and an immense tusker—a grizzled leader of a herd—comes ponderously through the sun-dappled aisles to the edge of the road. For a moment he stands there, secure and unperturbed, and then suddenly he throws up his head, his little eyes wide and startled, and, wheeling, charges back to where his satellites are browsing. There is a breathless scurrying of huge bodies; then utter silence again, except that far away a limb cracks. But only for a moment is the road deserted. It seems as if the shadow of the great tusker was still upon it when, beyond the bend, a horn, sweet as a hunting-horn, blows once, twice, ends in a fanfare of treble notes, and a long, gray motor-car sweeps into view, cutting the sunlight and the pooled shadow with its twinkling prow. Behind it is another, and another, and another, until six in all are in sight; and as they flash past one has a glimpse, on the seats of the landaulets, of a number of men in long cloaks and helmets; big and little men; fat men and sharp-featured; elderly men and young men, and particularly of one man, in the second car from the front, who looks straight ahead of him and is not interested in the chatter of his companions. He is a stern man, rather terrible, and his face wears a curious pallor. On the crest of a wooded slope, a quarter of a mile away, the giant boar sniffs the odor of the gasolene and delicately wrinkles his nose.
"And this," said the voice, "this convoy of motor-cars, these horns, almost as gay as the hunting-horns of former days, was, as you have guessed, The Maimed Man—as you choose to call him—come back to a hunting-lodge to rest, to slip from his shoulders for a while, if he could, the sodden cloak he had been wearing for the past three years and as many months.
"It was dark when they came to the hunting-lodge, a long, two-storied building of white plaster and timber-work above. The sun had been gone a while beyond the low hills to the west, and in the open place where the house stood only a remnant of the red dust of the sunset still floated in the pellucid air. Here the beeches gave way to solid ranks of pines and firs, and the evening sweetness of these fell upon the senses like the touch of cool water upon tired eyes. The headlights of the motor-cars cut wide arcs of blinding light in the gathering darkness. One by one the cars stopped before the entrance with throbbing engines and discharged their loads. The short flight of stairs became for a few minutes a swaying tableau of gray cloaks. There was a subdued ringing of spurs. The lamps from within the doorway touched the tips of the helmets so that they twinkled like little stars.
"The Maimed Man descended slowly and passed between his waiting suite. The scent of the pines had stirred his heart with memories. He was thinking of the last time he had been here, years before—well, not really so many years before, only four years, and yet it seemed like a recollection of his boyhood. He paused inside the threshold to remove his cloak. A hand, with a curious lack of duplication to it, stretched itself forward. The Maimed Man turned abruptly to see a servant with one arm bowing toward him. For a moment he paused, and then:
"'You are wounded?' he asked, and, although nothing was further from his desire, his voice had in it a little rasping sound; anger it seemed, although it might very well have been fear.
"The man turned a brick-red. He had never quite been able to recover from the feeling that in some way to be crippled was a shameful thing. He had been very strong before.
"'At Liege, your Majesty,' he murmured. 'In the first year.'
"'Always the left arm,' said The Maimed Man. 'Always the left. It seems always so.' But now he was angry. He turned to one of his suite. 'Can I not escape such things even here?' he asked. He went up without further words to his rooms. From his study a long door of glass opened onto a balcony. He remembered the balcony well. He opened the door and stepped out. The twilight had gone now. The night was very still and touched with a hint of crispness. Stars were beginning to show themselves. The black pines that came down to the edge of the clearing were like a great hidden army."
There was a little pause.
"And so," said the voice, "I can come now almost at once to the first of the two incidents I wish to tell you. I choose only two because there is no need of more. Two will do. And I shall call the first 'The story of the leaves that marched.'
"The warm days still held, and at the hunting-lodge there was much planning to keep things moving and every one busy and content. But secret planning, you understand. The Maimed Man is not an easy person for whom to plan unless he thinks that he has the final decision himself. There were rides and drives and picnics and, in the afternoons, usually a long walk, in which the older and stouter members of the suite either stayed at home or else followed painfully in the rear of their more active companions. The Maimed Man is a difficult person to keep up with; he walks very fast across country, swinging his stick, choosing, it would seem, the roughest ways. It is almost as if he wished to rid himself of others; and he is inordinately proud of his own activity. It was a curious sight to see his straggling attendants, spread out through the silver vistas of the beeches, like earnest trolls, all in one way or another bent upon a common end. And I suppose it was on account of this trick of The Maimed Man that one afternoon, toward dusk, he found himself almost completely alone, save for myself, who managed somehow to keep step, and a silent huntsman in gray who strode on ahead with the quiet, alert step of a wild animal.
"It was very still. There was no breeze at all. Not a sound except the sound of the dead leaves beneath our feet; and The Maimed Man was not, as was his usual wont, talking. Indeed, he seemed very preoccupied, almost morosely so. Every now and then he cut with his stick at a bush or a yellowed fern as he passed. Presently the trees opened upon a little glade swimming in sunlight. And then there was a brook to cross, and beyond that a gentle slope before the trees began again. The sunlight was pleasantly warm after the coolness of the forest, and the slope, with its soft dried grass, seemed an inviting place to rest. The Maimed Man continued until he had reached the farther belt of trees, and then he turned about and faced the sinking sun, that by now was changing itself into a nebulous radiance on the horizon. The forest stretched in gentle billows as far as the eye could see.
"'We will stop here,' said The Maimed Man, 'until the others catch up. Lazy-bones! If they had one-half the work to do that my poorest man has to the south they would not lose their legs so readily.' Then he sat down and lit a cigarette. I sat beside him. Farther up on the slope, in the shadow of the trees, sat the huntsman. We waited. The sun burned away its quivering aura and began to sink blood-red below the hills. Long shadows fell, penetrated with the dancing flecks of twilight.
"'Here they come!' said The Maimed Man suddenly. 'I see gray moving. There—below there, amongst the trees!' He pointed with his cane. Far back in the secret aisles of the forest across the brook there did indeed seem to be a movement. The Maimed Man half arose to his feet. 'I will shame them, the lazy-bones,' he said, and then he sat down again, with an odd, soft collapse.
"For, you see, it was very still, as I have said. Not a trace of wind. The forest seemed to be slumbering. And yet there had come out of it, and across the open place, and up the slope, so that it touched the hair and chilled the cheek, something that was not wind and yet was like it. A little clammy cat's-paw. So! And then was gone. And on its heels came the leaves. Yes, millions of them. But not blown; not hurriedly. Very hesitatingly; as if by their own volition. One might have said that they oozed with a monstrous slowness out from between the crepuscular tree-trunks and across the open space toward the brook. Gray leaves, creeping forward with a curious dogged languor. And when they came to the brook they paused on its farther edge and stopped, and the ones behind came pushing up to them. And looking down upon them, they might have been the backs of wounded men in gray, dragging themselves on their knees to water....
"I don't know how long this moment lasted—minutes perhaps; perhaps no longer than the drawing in and letting out of a breath. It was broken by the figure of a man—an upstanding man, this time—who stepped out of the forest opposite and, halting for a moment on the edge of the clearing, looked up to where The Maimed Man was sitting. Then he signalled to some one behind him, and presently one by one the figures of the belated suite appeared. They formed themselves in a little group and with some precision marched across the clearing. As they trampled upon the stricken leaves by the brookside the fixed stare in The Maimed Man's eyes faded, and he watched them with a rigid attention. Shortly they came to where he had got to his feet. A huge elderly man with a red face led them.
"'But your Majesty,' he objected, 'it is not fitting. You should not leave us in this way. Even here, is it altogether safe?'
"The Maimed Man did not answer. Covertly and with a sly shamefacedness, unlike himself, he was trying to read the expression in the huntsman's face. But that faithful fellow's eyes were bland. There was no sign that he had seen anything out of the ordinary....
"There is no need," said the voice, "for delay. From this to the second incident I would describe to you is only a step. I shall not go into details. For these I can safely trust to your imaginations. And yet I would not, of course, have you gather that what I have just told you is without background—was out of a clear sky. Naturally, it was not; it was a cumulation, an apex. Such things do not happen altogether suddenly. There is a nibbling away at the banks, a little rivulet here and there, and then, all at once, a torrent like a hunted river under the moon. I called the first apex 'The story of the leaves that marched'; I shall call the second 'The mist that came up suddenly.'
"Two weeks had passed; quiet days, slow weeks, quiet and slow as the sunlight through the trees. The two doctors at the hunting-lodge, round, sharp-spoken men, with big, near-sighted spectacles, rubbed their hands together and nodded with certainty when they held their daily consultations. 'He is improving rapidly,' they said. 'The lines in his face are going. A little more exercise, a little more diversion—so!' They imagined crosses on their chests.
"Have you ever known mist on a moonlight night in a forest? Not a woods, not an open country with timber scattered through it, but a real forest; so limitless, so close-pressing, that one has the same sense of diminished personality and at the same time the same sense of all obstructions cleared away between oneself and the loneliness of the universe that one has at sea. As if, that is, you found yourself, a mere shadow in the darkness, kneeling close before an altar on which blazed, so that you could not altogether raise your head, the magnificence of a star. But mist in a moonlight forest is even more disembodying than mist on a moonlight sea. There are the dark masses of the trees, showing every now and then above the changing wraiths of white, and the summits of half-seen hills, to give an impression of a horizon near yet seemingly unattainable.
"They had finished supper in the great oak-ceilinged room down below, where a fire burned in the stone embrasure, and the soft lights of candles in silver candelabra made only more tenebrous the darkness overhead. The Maimed Man leaned back in his chair and peered with narrowed eyelids through the smoke of his cigar at the long table stretching away from him. For a moment he felt reassured; a hint of the old assurance that had once been one of his greatest gifts. It was partly a physical thing, stirring in his veins like the cool blood that follows the awakening from healthy sleep. The sight of all these friends of his, these followers of his, with their keen, sunburnt faces, or their wrinkled and wise ones—! Surely he occupied a position almost unassailable; almost as unassailable as that of the God of Force whose purposes of late had at times puzzled him in a new and disturbing way—. What nonsense! He gripped power as securely as he could grip, if he wished, his sword. What strength in heaven or earth could break a man's will, provided that will had been sufficiently trained? He felt pleasantly tired from the walk of the afternoon; he thought that he would go up to his rooms for a while, perhaps write a personal letter or two, afterward come down again for a game of cards. He stood up; the long double lines of men at the table rose with him, as a unit, at attention. The Maimed Man looked at them for a prolonged second, his heart stirred with pride; then he wheeled about and departed.
"In his workroom above, two secretaries were writing at a table under the rays of a green-shaded lamp. They jumped to their feet as he entered, but he waved them aside.
"'I shall return in a moment,' he said. 'First I wish to finish my cigar.'
"He opened the glass door onto the balcony, but, as it was cool, he stepped back and asked for his military cloak. When this was adjusted, he stepped once more into the moonlight.... And then, suddenly, there was no moonlight at all, or just the faintest glimmer of it, like light seen through milky water. Instead, he had stepped into a swirling vapor that in an instant lost him completely from the door he had just left; a maelstrom of fog, that choked him, half blinded him, twisted about him like wet, coiling ropes, and in a dreadful moment he saw that through the fog were thrust out toward him arms of a famine thinness, the extended fingers of which groped at his throat, were obliterated by the fog, groped once more with a searching intentness.
"'God!' said The Maimed Man. 'God!'—and fought drunkenly for the wall behind him. His hands touched nothing. He did not even know in which direction the wall lay. He dreaded to move, for it seemed as if there was no longer a railing to save him from falling. There was no solidity anywhere. The world had become a thing of hideous flux, unstable as when first it was made. Gelid fingers, farther reaching than the rest, touched the back of his neck. He gave a hoarse, strangled cry and reeled forward, and fell across the balustrade that came up out of the mist to meet him. And slowly the mist retreated; down from the balcony and across the open place beneath. A narrow line of dew-brightened grass appeared and grew wider. The tops of the trees began to show. But The Maimed Man could not take his eyes off the mist, for it seemed to him that the open place was filled with the despairing arms of women and of children, and that through the shifting whiteness gleamed the whiteness of their serried faces. Behind him was the warm glow of the room, shining through the glass doors. But he did not dare go in as yet; it was necessary first to control the little flecks of foam that despite his endeavor still wet his lips. For you see," said the voice, and in the darkness its accents took on a slow, rhythmical sombreness, like the swish of a sword in a shuttered room, "this was far worse than the leaves. For, after all, the dead are only the dead, but to the living there is no end."
At least a minute—fully a minute—must have passed, a minute in which the brown shadows of the library, held back for now this long while by the weaving magic of the voice, stepped forward once more into their places, while Mr. Vandusen waited for the voice to continue. Then the spell broke like a shattered globe, and, with a sudden realization of many things, he leaned forward and felt the chair to the right of him. There was no one there. He paused with his hand still on the leather seat. "Would you mind telling me," he asked, and he found that he was speaking with some effort and with great precision, "if any of you know the gentleman who has just left?"
"Left?" said Tomlinson sharply.
Tomlinson's voice was incredulous. "But he couldn't have," he insisted. "From where I am sitting I would have seen him as he reached the door. Although, if he really is gone, I can say, thank the Lord, that I think he's a faker."
On silent feet young Wheeler had departed for the hall. Now he returned. "It may interest you to know," he said, "that I have just interviewed the doorman and the boy who is stationed at the steps leading back, and they both say no one has come in or out in the last half-hour."
Suddenly his careful voice rose to a high note. "What the devil—!" he sputtered. He strode over to the electric switch. "For Heaven's sake, let's have some light," he said. "Why do we always insist upon sitting in this confounded darkness?"
THE WEDDING JEST
[Note 9: Copyright, 1919, by The Century Company. Copyright, 1920, by James Branch Cabell.]
BY JAMES BRANCH CABELL
From The Century
I. CONCERNING SEVERAL COMPACTS
It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, telling how love began between Florian de Puysange and Adelaide de la Foret. They tell also how young Florian had earlier fancied other women for one reason or another; but that this, he knew, was the great love of his life, and a love which would endure unchanged as long as his life lasted.
And the tale tells how the Comte de la Foret stroked a gray beard and said:
"Well, after all, Puysange is a good fief—"
"As if that mattered!" cried his daughter, indignantly. "My father, you are a deplorably sordid person."
"My dear," replied the old gentleman, "it does matter. Fiefs last."
So he gave his consent to the match, and the two young people were married on Walburga's eve, on the last day of April.
And they narrate how Florian de Puysange was vexed by a thought that was in his mind. He did not know what this thought was. But something he had overlooked; something there was he had meant to do, and had not done; and a troubling consciousness of this lurked at the back of his mind like a small formless cloud. All day, while bustling about other matters, he had groped toward this unapprehended thought.
Now he had it: Tiburce.
The young Vicomte de Puysange stood in the doorway, looking back into the bright hall where they of Storisende were dancing at his marriage feast. His wife, for a whole half-hour his wife, was dancing with handsome Etienne de Nerac. Her glance met Florian's, and Adelaide flashed him an especial smile. Her hand went out as though to touch him, for all that the width of the hall severed them.
Florian remembered presently to smile back at her. Then he went out of the castle into a starless night that was as quiet as an unvoiced menace. A small and hard and gnarled-looking moon ruled over the dusk's secrecy. The moon this night, afloat in a luminous, gray void, somehow reminded Florian of a glistening and unripe huge apple.
The foliage about him moved at most as a sleeper breathes as Florian descended eastward through the walled gardens, and so came to the graveyard. White mists were rising, such mists as the witches of Amneran notoriously evoked in these parts on each Walburga's eve to purchase recreations which squeamishness leaves undescribed.
For five years now Tiburce d'Arnaye had lain there. Florian thought of his dead comrade and of the love which had been between them—a love more perfect and deeper and higher than commonly exists between men; and the thought came to Florian, and was petulantly thrust away, that Adelaide loved ignorantly where Tiburce d'Arnaye had loved with comprehension. Yes, he had known almost the worst of Florian de Puysange, this dear lad who, none the less, had flung himself between Black Torrismond's sword and the breast of Florian de Puysange. And it seemed to Florian unfair that all should prosper with him, and Tiburce lie there imprisoned in dirt which shut away the color and variousness of things and the drollness of things, wherein Tiburce d'Arnaye had taken such joy. And Tiburce, it seemed to Florian—for this was a strange night—was struggling futilely under all that dirt, which shut out movement, and clogged the mouth of Tiburce, and would not let him speak, and was struggling to voice a desire which was unsatisfied and hopeless.
"O comrade dear," said Florian, "you who loved merriment, there is a feast afoot on this strange night, and my heart is sad that you are not here to share in the feasting. Come, come, Tiburce, a right trusty friend you were to me; and, living or dead, you should not fail to make merry at my wedding."
Thus he spoke. White mists were rising, and it was Walburga's eve.
So a queer thing happened, and it was that the earth upon the grave began to heave and to break in fissures, as when a mole passes through the ground. And other queer things happened after that, and presently Tiburce d'Arnaye was standing there, gray and vague in the moonlight as he stood there brushing the mold from his brows, and as he stood there blinking bright, wild eyes. And he was not greatly changed, it seemed to Florian; only the brows and nose of Tiburce cast no shadows upon his face, nor did his moving hand cast any shadow there, either, though the moon was naked overhead.
"You had forgotten the promise that was between us," said Tiburce; and his voice had not changed much, though it was smaller.
"It is true. I had forgotten. I remember now." And Florian shivered a little, not with fear, but with distaste.
"A man prefers to forget these things when he marries. It is natural enough. But are you not afraid of me who come from yonder?"
"Why should I be afraid of you, Tiburce, who gave your life for mine?"
"I do not say. But we change yonder."
"And does love change, Tiburce? For surely love is immortal."
"Living or dead, love changes. I do not say love dies in us who may hope to gain nothing more from love. Still, lying alone in the dark clay, there is nothing to do as yet save to think of what life was, and of what sunlight was, and of what we sang and whispered in dark places when we had lips; and of how young grass and murmuring waters and the high stars beget fine follies even now; and to think of how merry our loved ones still contrive to be even now with their new playfellows. Such reflections are not always conducive to philanthropy."
"Tell me," said Florian then, "and is there no way in which we who are still alive may aid you to be happier yonder?"
"Oh, but assuredly," replied Tiburce d'Arnaye, and he discoursed of curious matters; and as he talked, the mists about the graveyard thickened. "And so," Tiburce said, in concluding his tale, "it is not permitted that I make merry at your wedding after the fashion of those who are still in the warm flesh. But now that you recall our ancient compact, it is permitted I have my peculiar share in the merriment, and I drink with you to the bride's welfare."
"I drink," said Florian as he took the proffered cup, "to the welfare of my beloved Adelaide, whom alone of women I have really loved, and whom I shall love always."
"I perceive," replied the other, "that you must still be having your joke."
Then Florian drank, and after him Tiburce. And Florian said:
"But it is a strange drink, Tiburce, and now that you have tasted it you are changed."
"You have not changed, at least," Tiburce answered, and for the first time he smiled, a little perturbingly by reason of the change in him.
"Tell me," said Florian, "of how you fare yonder."
So Tiburce told him of yet more curious matters. Now the augmenting mists had shut off all the rest of the world. Florian could see only vague, rolling graynesses and a gray and changed Tiburce sitting there, with bright, wild eyes, and discoursing in a small chill voice. The appearance of a woman came, and sat beside him on the right. She, too, was gray, as became Eve's senior; and she made a sign which Florian remembered, and it troubled him. Tiburce said then:
"And now, young Florian, you who were once so dear to me, it is to your welfare I drink."
"I drink to yours, Tiburce."
Tiburce drank first; and Florian, having drunk in turn, cried out: "You have changed beyond recognition!"
"You have not changed," Tiburce d'Arnaye replied again. "Now let me tell you of our pastimes yonder."
With that he talked of exceedingly curious matters. And Florian began to grow dissatisfied, for Tiburce was no longer recognizable, and Tiburce whispered things uncomfortable to believe; and other eyes, as wild as his, but lit with red flarings from behind, like a beast's eyes, showed in the mists to this side and to that side, and unhappy beings were passing through the mists upon secret errands which they discharged unwillingly. Then, too, the appearance of a gray man now sat to the left of that which had been Tiburce d'Arnaye, and this new-comer was marked so that all might know who he was; and Florian's heart was troubled to note how handsome and how admirable was that desecrated face even now.
"But I must go," said Florian, "lest they miss me at Storisende and Adelaide be worried."
"Surely it will not take long to toss off a third cup. Nay, comrade, who were once so dear, let us two now drink our last toast together. Then go, in Sclaug's name, and celebrate your marriage. But before that let us drink to the continuance of human mirth-making everywhere."
Florian drank first. Then Tiburce took his turn, looking at Florian as Tiburce drank slowly. As he drank, Tiburce d'Arnaye was changed even more, and the shape of him altered, and the shape of him trickled as though Tiburce were builded of sliding fine white sand. So Tiburce d'Arnaye returned to his own place. The appearances that had sat to his left and to his right were no longer there to trouble Florian with memories. And Florian saw that the mists of Walburga's eve had departed, and that the sun was rising, and that the graveyard was all overgrown with nettles and tall grass.
He had not remembered the place being thus, and it seemed to him the night had passed with unnatural quickness. But he thought more of the fact that he had been beguiled into spending his wedding-night in a graveyard in such questionable company, and of what explanation he could make to Adelaide.
II. OF YOUNG PERSONS IN MAY
The tale tells how Florian de Puysange came in the dawn through flowering gardens, and heard young people from afar, already about their maying. Two by two he saw them from afar as they went with romping and laughter into the tall woods behind Storisende to fetch back the May-pole with dubious old rites. And as they went they sang, as was customary, that song which Raimbaut de Vaqueiras made in the ancient time in honor of May's ageless triumph.
"May shows with godlike showing To-day for each that sees May's magic overthrowing All musty memories In him whom May decrees To be love's own. He saith, I wear love's liveries Until released by death.
"Thus all we laud May's sowing, Nor heed how harvests please When nowhere grain worth growing Greets autumn's questing breeze, And garnerers garner these— Vain words and wasted breath And spilth and tasteless lees— Until released by death.
"Unwillingly foreknowing That love with May-time flees, We take this day's bestowing, And feed on fantasies Such as love lends for ease Where none but travaileth, With lean, infrequent fees, Until released by death."
And Florian shook his sleek, black head. "A very foolish and pessimistical old song, a superfluous song, and a song that is particularly out of place in the loveliest spot in the loveliest of all possible worlds."
Yet Florian took no inventory of the gardens. There was but a happy sense of green and gold, with blue topping all; of twinkling, fluent, tossing leaves and of the gray under side of elongated, straining leaves; a sense of pert bird-noises, and of a longer shadow than usual slanting before him, and a sense of youth and well-being everywhere. Certainly it was not a morning wherein pessimism might hope to flourish.
Instead, it was of Adelaide that Florian thought: of the tall, impulsive, and yet timid, fair girl who was both shrewd and innocent, and of her tenderly colored loveliness, and of his abysmally unmerited felicity in having won her. Why, but what, he reflected, grimacing—what if he had too hastily married somebody else? For he had earlier fancied other women for one reason or another: but this, he knew, was the great love of his life, and a love which would endure unchanged as long as his life lasted.
III. WHAT COMES OF MARRYING HAPPILY
The tale tells how Florian de Puysange found Adelaide in the company of two ladies who were unknown to him. One of these was very old, the other an imposing matron in middle life. The three were pleasantly shaded by young oak-trees; beyond was a tall hedge of clipped yew. The older women were at chess, while Adelaide bent her meek, golden head to some of that fine needle-work in which the girl delighted. And beside them rippled a small sunlit stream, which babbled and gurgled with silver flashes. Florian hastily noted these things as he ran laughing to his wife.
"Heart's dearest!" he cried. And he saw, perplexed, that Adelaide had risen with a faint, wordless cry, and was gazing at him as though she were puzzled and alarmed a very little.
"Such an adventure as I have to tell you of!" said Florian then.
"But, hey, young man, who are you that would seem to know my daughter so well?" demanded the lady in middle life, and rose majestically from her chess-game.
Florian stared, as he well might.
"Your daughter, madame! But certainly you are not Dame Melicent."
At this the old, old woman raised her nodding head.
"Dame Melicent? And was it I you were seeking, sir?"
Now Florian looked from one to the other of these incomprehensible strangers, bewildered; and his eyes came back to his lovely wife, and his lips smiled irresolutely.
"Is this some jest to punish me, my dear?" But then a new and graver trouble kindled in his face, and his eyes narrowed, for there was something odd about his wife also.
"I have been drinking in queer company," he said. "It must be that my head is not yet clear. Now certainly it seems to me that you are Adelaide de la Foret, and certainly it seems to me that you are not Adelaide."
The girl replied:
"Why, no, messire; I am Sylvie de Nointel."
"Come, come," said the middle-aged lady, briskly, "let us have an end of this play-acting! There has been no Adelaide de la Foret in these parts for some twenty-five years, as nobody knows better than I. Young fellow, let us have a sniff at you. No, you are not tipsy, after all. Well, I am glad of that. So let us get to the bottom of this business. What do they call you when you are at home?"
"Florian de Puysange," he answered speaking meekly enough. This capable large person was to the young man rather intimidating.
"La!" said she. She looked at him very hard. She nodded gravely two or three times, so that her double chin opened and shut.
"Yes, and you favor him. How old are you?" He told her twenty-four. She said inconsequently: "So I was a fool, after all. Well, young man, you will never be as good-looking as your father, but I trust you have an honester nature. However, bygones are bygones. Is the old rascal still living, and was it he that had the impudence to send you to me?"
"My father, madame, was slain at the Battle of Marchfeld—"
"Some fifty years ago! And you are twenty-four. Young man, your parentage had unusual features, or else we are at cross-purposes. Let us start at the beginning of this. You tell us you are called Florian de Puysange and that you have been drinking in queer company. Now let us have the whole story."
Florian told of last night's happenings, with no more omissions than seemed desirable with feminine auditors.
Then the old woman said:
"I think this is a true tale, my daughter, for the witches of Amneran contrive strange things, with mists to aid them, and with Lilith and Sclaug to abet. Yes, and this fate has fallen before to men that have been over-friendly with the dead."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said the stout lady.
"But, no, my daughter. Thus seven persons slept at Ephesus, from the time of Decius to the time of Theodosius—"
"And the proof of it is that they were called Constantine and Dionysius and John and Malchus and Marcian and Maximian and Serapion. They were duly canonized. You cannot deny that this thing happened without asserting no less than seven blessed saints to have been unprincipled liars, and that would be a very horrible heresy—"
"Yet, Mother, you know as well as I do—"
"And thus Epimenides, another excellently spoken-of saint, slept at Athens for fifty-seven years. Thus Charlemagne slept in the Untersberg, and will sleep until the ravens of Miramon Lluagor have left his mountains. Thus Rhyming Thomas in the Eildon Hills, thus Ogier in Avalon, thus Oisin—"
The old lady bade fair to go on interminably in her gentle, resolute, piping old voice, but the other interrupted.
"Well, Mother, do not excite yourself about it, for it only makes your asthma worse, and does no especial good to anybody. Things may be as you say. Certainly I intended nothing irreligious. Yet these extended naps, appropriate enough for saints and emperors, are out of place in one's own family. So, if it is not stuff and nonsense, it ought to be. And that I stick to."
"But we forget the boy, my dear," said the old lady. "Now listen, Florian de Puysange. Thirty years ago last night, to the month and the day, it was that you vanished from our knowledge, leaving my daughter a forsaken bride. For I am what the years have made of Dame Melicent, and this is my daughter Adelaide, and yonder is her daughter Sylvie de Nointel."
"La! Mother," observed the stout lady, "but are you certain it was the last of April? I had been thinking it was some time in June. And I protest it could not have been all of thirty years. Let me see now, Sylvie, how old is your brother Richard? Twenty-eight, you say. Well, Mother, I always said you had a marvellous memory for things like that, and I often envy you. But how time does fly, to be sure!"
And Florian was perturbed.
"For this is an awkward thing, and Tiburce had played me an unworthy trick. He never did know when to leave off joking; but such posthumous frivolity is past endurance. For, see now, in what a pickle it has landed me! I have outlived my friends, I may encounter difficulty in regaining my fiefs, and certainly I have lost the fairest wife man ever had. Oh, can it be, madame, that you are indeed my Adelaide!"
"Yes, every pound of me, poor boy, and that says much."
"And that you have been untrue to the eternal fidelity which you swore to me here by this very stream? Oh, but I cannot believe it was thirty years ago, for not a grass-blade or a pebble has been altered; and I perfectly remember the lapping of water under those lichened rocks, and that continuous file of ripples yonder, which are shaped like arrow-heads."
Adelaide rubbed her nose.
"Did I promise eternal fidelity? I can hardly remember that far back. But I remember I wept a great deal, and my parents assured me you were either dead or a rascal, so that tears could not help either way. Then Ralph de Nointel came along, good man, and made me a fair husband, as husbands go—"
"As for that stream," then said Dame Melicent, "it is often I have thought of that stream, sitting here with my grandchildren where I once sat with gay young men whom nobody remembers now save me. Yes, it is strange to think that instantly, and within the speaking of any simple word, no drop of water retains the place it held before the word was spoken; and yet the stream remains unchanged, and stays as it was when I sat here with those young men who are gone. Yes, that is a strange thought, and it is a sad thought, too, for those of us who are old."
"But, Mother, of course the stream remains unchanged," agreed Dame Adelaide. "Streams always do except at high water. Everybody knows that, and I see nothing remarkable about it. As for you, Florian, if you stickle for love's being an immortal affair," she added, with a large twinkle, "I would have you know I have been a widow for three years. So the matter could be arranged."
Florian looked at her sadly. To him the situation was incongruous with the terrible archness of a fat woman.
"But, madame, you are no longer the same person."
She patted him upon the shoulder.
"Come, Florian, there is some sense in you, after all. Console yourself, lad, with the reflection that if you had stuck manfully by your wife instead of mooning about graveyards, I would still be just as I am to-day, and you would be tied to me. Your friend probably knew what he was about when he drank to our welfare, for we should never have suited each other, as you can see for yourself. Well, Mother, many things fall out queerly in this world, but with age we learn to accept what happens without flustering too much over it. What are we to do with this resurrected old lover of mine?"
It was horrible to Florian to see how prosaically these women dealt with his unusual misadventure. Here was a miracle occurring virtually before their eyes, and these women accepted it with maddening tranquillity as an affair for which they were not responsible. Florian began to reflect that elderly persons were always more or less unsympathetic and inadequate.
"First of all," said Dame Melicent, "I would give him some breakfast. He must be hungry after all these years. And you could put him in Adhelmar's room—"
"But," Florian said wildly, to Dame Adelaide, "you have committed the crime of bigamy, and you are, after all, my wife!"
She replied, herself not unworried:
"Yes, but, Mother, both the cook and the butler are somewhere in the bushes yonder, up to some nonsense that I prefer to know nothing about. You know how servants are, particularly on holidays. I could scramble him some eggs, though, with a rasher. And Adhelmar's room it had better be, I suppose, though I had meant to have it turned out. But as for bigamy and being your wife," she concluded more cheerfully, "it seems to me the least said the soonest mended. It is to nobody's interest to rake up those foolish bygones, so far as I can see."
"Adelaide, you profane equally love, which is divine, and marriage, which is a holy sacrament."
"Florian, do you really love Adelaide de Nointel?" asked this terrible woman. "And now that I am free to listen to your proposals, do you wish to marry me?"
"Well, no," said Florian; "for, as I have just said, you are no longer the same person."
"Why, then, you see for yourself. So do you quit talking nonsense about immortality and sacraments."
"But, still," cried Florian, "love is immortal. Yes, I repeat to you, precisely as I told Tiburce, love is immortal."
Then said Dame Melicent, nodding her shriveled old head:
"When I was young, and served by nimbler senses and desires, and housed in brightly colored flesh, there were many men who loved me. Minstrels yet tell of the men that loved me, and of how many tall men were slain because of their love for me, and of how in the end it was Perion who won me. For the noblest and the most faithful of all my lovers was Perion of the Forest, and through tempestuous years he sought me with a love that conquered time and chance; and so he won me. Thereafter he made me a fair husband, as husbands go. But I might not stay the girl he had loved, nor might he remain the lad that Melicent had dreamed of, with dreams be-drugging the long years in which Demetrios held Melicent a prisoner, and youth went away from her. No, Perion and I could not do that, any more than might two drops of water there retain their place in the stream's flowing. So Perion and I grew old together, friendly enough; and our senses and desires began to serve us more drowsily, so that we did not greatly mind the falling away of youth, nor greatly mind to note what shriveled hands now moved before us, performing common tasks; and we were content enough. But of the high passion that had wedded us there was no trace, and of little senseless human bickerings there were a great many. For one thing"—and the old lady's voice was changed—"for one thing, he was foolishly particular about what he would eat and what he would not eat, and that upset my house-keeping, and I had never any patience with such nonsense."
"Well, none the less," said Florian, "it is not quite nice of you to acknowledge it."
Then said Dame Adelaide:
"That is a true word, Mother. All men get finicky about their food, and think they are the only persons to be considered, and there is no end to it if once you begin to humor them. So there has to be a stand made. Well, and indeed my poor Ralph, too, was all for kissing and pretty talk at first, and I accepted it willingly enough. You know how girls are. They like to be made much of, and it is perfectly natural. But that leads to children. And when the children began to come, I had not much time to bother with him; and Ralph had his farming and his warfaring to keep him busy. A man with a growing family cannot afford to neglect his affairs. And certainly, being no fool, he began to notice that girls here and there had brighter eyes and trimmer waists than I. I do not know what such observations may have led to when he was away from me; I never inquired into it, because in such matters all men are fools. But I put up with no nonsense at home, and he made me a fair husband, as husbands go. That much I will say for him gladly; and if any widow says more than that, Florian, do you beware of her, for she is an untruthful woman."
"Be that as it may," replied Florian, "it is not quite becoming to speak thus of your dead husband. No doubt you speak the truth; there is no telling what sort of person you may have married in what still seems to me unseemly haste to provide me with a successor; but even so, a little charitable prevarication would be far more edifying."
He spoke with such earnestness that there fell a silence. The women seemed to pity him. And in the silence Florian heard from afar young persons returning from the woods behind Storisende, and bringing with them the May-pole. They were still singing.
"Unwillingly foreknowing That love with May-time flees, We take this day's bestowing, And feed on fantasies—"
IV. YOUTH SOLVES IT
The tale tells how lightly and sweetly, and compassionately, too, then spoke young Sylvie de Nointel:
"Ah, but, assuredly, Messire Florian, you do not argue with my pets quite seriously. Old people always have some such queer notions. Of course love all depends upon what sort of person you are. Now, as I see it, mama and grandmama are not the sort of persons who have real love-affairs. Devoted as I am to both of them, I cannot but perceive they are lacking in real depth of sentiment. They simply do not understand such matters. They are fine, straightforward, practical persons, poor dears, and always have been, of course, for in things like that one does not change, as I have often noticed. And father, and grandfather, too, as I remember him, was kind-hearted and admirable and all that, but nobody could ever have expected him to be a satisfactory lover. Why, he was bald as an egg, the poor pet!"
And Sylvie laughed again at the preposterous notions of old people. She flashed an especial smile at Florian. Her hand went out as though to touch him, in an unforgotten gesture. "Old people do not understand," said Sylvie de Nointel in tones which took this handsome young fellow ineffably into confidence.
"Mademoiselle," said Florian, with a sigh that was part relief and all approval, "it is you who speak the truth, and your elders have fallen victims to the cynicism of a crassly material age. Love is immortal when it is really love and one is the right sort of person. There is the love—known to how few, alas! and a passion of which I regret to find your mother incapable—that endures unchanged until the end of life."
"I am so glad you think so, Messire Florian," she answered demurely.
"And do you not think so, mademoiselle?"
"How should I know," she asked him, "as yet?" He noted she had incredibly long lashes.
"Thrice happy is he that convinces you!" says Florian. And about them, who were young in the world's recaptured youth, spring triumphed with an ageless rural pageant, and birds cried to their mates. He noted the red brevity of her lips and their probable softness.
Meanwhile the elder women regarded each other.
"It is the season of May. They are young and they are together. Poor children!" said Dame Melicent. "Youth cries to youth for the toys of youth, and saying, 'Lo! I cry with the voice of a great god!'"
"Still," said Madame Adelaide, "Puysange is a good fief."
But Florian heeded neither of them as he stood there by the sunlit stream, in which no drop of water retained its place for a moment, and which yet did not alter in appearance at all. He did not heed his elders for the excellent reason that Sylvie de Nointel was about to speak, and he preferred to listen to her. For this girl, he knew, was lovelier than any other person had ever been since Eve first raised just such admiring, innocent, and venturesome eyes to inspect what must have seemed to her the quaintest of all animals, called man. So it was with a shrug that Florian remembered how he had earlier fancied other women for one reason or another; since this, he knew, was the great love of his life, and a love which would endure unchanged as long as his life lasted.
THE WRISTS ON THE DOOR
[Note 10: Copyright, 1919, by The Ridgway Company. Copyright, 1920, by Horace Fish.]
BY HORACE FISH
From Everybody's Magazine
Between his leather easy-chair at one end of his drawing-room and the wall with his wife's portrait at the other, Henry Montagu was pacing in a state of agitation such as he had never experienced in his fifty years of life. The drawing-room was no longer "theirs." It was his—and the portrait's. The painting was of a girl who was not more beautiful in radiance of feature and lovable contour of body than the woman a generation older who had died two months ago.
Suddenly he stopped short in the middle of the room, his hands in his pockets. "My God!" he cried.
Then he shut his teeth on the words as sharply and passionately as he had uttered them, and raised one of his hands to his brow. There were drops of cold sweat upon it.
Mr. Montagu was a simple, selfish, good-natured business-man, never given to imaginative thoughts or to greater extremes of mood than the heights and depths of rising and falling stocks. Yet his experience of the last two hours had shown him to himself as a creature wretchedly inadequate to face the problem that confronted him—the simple problem of widowerhood.
He was not bitter at his wife's death. Not only did he consider himself too sensible for that, but he was too sensible. Death is an inevitable thing. And the one fact involving the simplicity of the problem was no more than many another man had borne without a thought—his childlessness.
Yet as if the whole two months in their strangeness their sad novelty, had been concentrating their loneliness for an accumulated spring at him, the last two hours had driven home to him that this secondary fact had not been inevitable, that what he was suffering to-night could have been avoided.
He had not wished to have children, and neither had the beautiful woman whose painted spirit smiled down so pitilessly now on his tragedy of jangled nerves and intolerable solitude. Deliberately and quite frankly, without even hiding behind the cowardly excuse of the tacit, they had outspokenly chosen not to.
After his desperate exclamation, he had laughed and thrown himself into his chair. He had forced the laugh, seeking to batter down with it a thrill that was akin to fright at an abrupt realization that in those two dreadful hours he had done three unprecedented things. He had spoken aloud there by himself, an action he had always ascribed exclusively to children and maniacs; he had harbored absurd temptations; and finally he had ejaculated "My God!" which he had thought appropriate to a man only in the distresses of fiction or after complete ruin on the Stock Exchange.
That exclamation had sprung from him when he had caught himself thinking how gladly he would give half his fortune if he could have a companion, even his butler, for the rest of the evening, his whole fortune, exactly as if he had died, if he could but have a son to give it to.
That freedom from care, which they had chosen to call freedom from responsibility, had been their mutual property, but to-night, in his hopeless solitude, it seemed that he was paying the whole price for it. She had met the unknown, but with the known—himself, her whole life—beside her, and her ordeal was over. His, he felt now, was worse, and already beginning. After all, he reflected, there was a certain rough justice in it; the one spared longer in the world of bodily people bore, in consequence, the reverting brunt of their double selfishness. But the remnant of life seemed a poor thing to-night. The further it stretched, in his suddenly stirred imagination, the poorer, the emptier, it seemed.
And having stirred, after a whole lifetime of healthy sleep, his imagination gripped him in a strong and merciless embrace. It seemed to twist him about and force him to look down the vista of the coming years and at all their possibilities, even the desecrational one of marrying again and calling into life the son that he had never wanted before. At the thought, he flushed with the idea that the portrait's eyes were reading his face, and compelled himself to look bravely at it; but as he met the lovely eyes strange questions darted into his brain: whether he would not rather have been solely to blame; whether his all-possessive love of her would not be more flawless now if she had been a flawless eternal-feminine type, longing for motherhood, but denying it for his sake; whether he would not be happier now in looking at her portrait if some warm tint from a Renaissance Madonna had mellowed the radiant Medici Venus who smiled from the frame. He was seized by a desire to turn the gazing picture to the wall.
Half-way across the room, he checked the impulse with a gasp of self-disgust, but with hands raised involuntarily toward it he cried:
"Oh, why didn't we?"
As he stood trembling with his back to it, the second absurd temptation of the night assailed him—to dash on his hat and go to Maurice's, a restaurant of oblique reputation to which his wife had once accompanied him out of curiosity, and which, in a surprising outburst of almost pious prudery, she had refused to visit again. Nor had she ever allowed him to go thereafter himself, and though she had made no dying request of him, he knew that, if she had, that would have been it.
In his shaken state the thought of his one club, the Business Men's, was repugnant. Maurice's, expansive, insinuating and brilliant, called to his loneliness arbitrarily, persistently. But with a glance over his shoulder at the portrait, he put the thought away. Then, straightening up, he walked to his chair again, sat tensely down, and faced the long room and his childish terror at its emptiness.
Innocent as had been his impulse toward Maurice's and full as was Broadway with places as glittering and noisy, his morbid duty to debar that one resort seemed to him to condemn him to the house for the night. Why was it the butler's night out? Even to know that he was below stairs—Would other nights be like this? Every night—The possibility turned him cold. His thoughts were racing now, and even as he gripped the arms of the chair a still worse terror gripped his mind. His loneliness seemed to have become an actual thing, real as a person, a spirit haunting the luxurious, silent house. He was facing the door, and its heavy mahogany, fixing his attention through his staring gaze, seemed to be shutting him alone with the dead. Save for his trembling self and his wife's painted eyes, the big room was lifeless. It was beyond the closed door that his imagination, now running beyond control, pictured the presence of his frightful guest—his own solitude, coming in ironical answer to his craving for companionship.
Were those live eyes of the dead creating his sense of an impending life in the house? Was it his wife, who, never having created a child for him, was forcing on him now a horrible companion? Again he started desperately toward the picture, again he caught himself, again he cried, "My God!" and faced his terror passionately, facing too, this time, the closed door.
"You fool! You fool!"
His voice sounded weak and strange to him as if indeed some one else had spoken. The paralyzing thought that such a mood of panic could be the beginning of real madness had shaken his voice and his whole body, and again Maurice's, now as a positive savior, rushed into his mind. But he threw the idea of refuge contemptuously away. He would stand his ground and not leave the house that night; yet even as he stood, he asked himself if this was not because he feared to open the door.
With a gasp, he drew himself up in the center of the room, and in a surge of determined anger, with his eyes on the door, facing it as he would have faced an enemy before he attacked, he deliberately gave his mind to his fear, letting it sweep through him, trying to magnify it, reading every horror that he could into the imagined presence that he intended to dispel, and then, tormenting himself with slow steps, he walked to the door, reached his hand to the knob, and opened it.
Though his mouth opened for a cry of terror, no sound came from him as he staggered back, and a waiting figure pitched into the room, rushed wildly past him with a whimper like that of a wounded animal, and flung itself, face forward, into the empty chair.
As if through the same doorway that had given entrance to the desperate wretch, his terror seemed to leave him. While he stood gasping, with pounding heart, staring at the limp, shuddering manhood that had hurled itself into his home, Henry Montagu suddenly felt himself a man again.
With the cold plunge of his senses into rationality, they told him that he was in the presence of some fatal and soul-sickening tragedy, yet this horror that had dashed into the hollow privacy of his house was at least real to him. Overwhelmed as he was by the frightful appearance of the young man, who was now weeping abandonedly, he had no fear of him, and his first act was a practical one—he swiftly, quietly closed the door. It was done in an instinct of protection. It would be useless to question him yet, but that he was a fugitive, and from something hideous, Montagu took for granted.
He stood looking across the room at his outlandish guest, trying to docket the kaleidoscopic flock of impressions that had flown into his mind from the instant he swung back the door. Though noble, even splendid in its slender lines, the youth's figure had half-fallen, half-sprung through the doorway, animal-like. There had not been even a ghost of sound in the hallway, yet it was as if he had been in the act of hurtling himself against the closed door, hammering at it with upraised hands. Mr. Montagu had been horrified by it instantaneously, as by a thing of violence with every suggestion of the sordid, but the poor sobbing fellow who now lay in the chair with his arms and head drooping over the big leather arm seemed to him as immaculately dressed as himself. Remembering the fleeting posture at the door, his eyes went involuntarily to the hanging, graphic hands. In the light of his reading-lamp they gleamed white, and as he watched, his heart sinking with pity at their thinness, two slow red drops rolled from under the cuffs down the palms, and fell to the floor.
"Good God!" breathed Henry Montagu.
He had never doubted for the fraction of a second that his guest was a criminal, and in every sense a desperate one, but, just as instinctively, he felt certain that no matter what the horror he had run from, he was more sinned against than sinning. Every line in the boy's fragile, pathetic figure went straight to the older man's heart. It came to him, almost joyously, that there had been premonition in his strange mood of longing for a son. As an end to this nerve-racking night, there was work to do—for the remainder of it, at least for a brief moment, he had a companion in his grim, empty house.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed aloud.
"Thank God! Thank God!"
The young man had spoken, and Mr. Montagu, as he heard the words, remembered that between the sobs there had been, in faint, broken syllables, "My God! My God!" again and again, and that he had understood at last what it was to hear that from a man who was neither ruined by the Stock Exchange nor the weak victim of childish terror. But now, this repetition of his varied expression startled him. It was like an echo of himself.
Again he shook himself together. If the boy could speak, it was time to question him. He had not yet seen his face, beyond a flashing imprint on his brain of a look of terrific fear and terrific exultation as it had dashed past him, but he was prepared to like it. He braced himself, walked over and stood in front of the chair. With an object—even this object—to justify it, he gladly surrendered himself now to the fatherly instinct he had so bitterly struggled against, and he felt that he would like, with his first words, to put his hand reassuringly on the crumpled shoulder. But the night had left his nerves still raw—in his sensitivity he could not bear the thought that the trembling figure would shrink from his touch, and he kept his hand firmly at his side.
"My boy," he said gently, "you mustn't be afraid of me. Tell me what you've done."
The young man raised his head, sank back in the chair, and looked at him.
Not once in the long evening of lonely terror, not when he had first heard himself talking aloud, not when he had dashed at his wife's portrait, not when he had faced the thought of madness, had Mr. Montagu had such a shock. An eternally lost soul, a damned thing staring at paradise, seemed to gaze at him out of the boy's eyes. He thought he was seeing all the sins of the world in them, yet the look was appallingly innocent. He seemed to be discovering those sins in the dark, ravening eyes, but to be feeling them in himself as if the forgotten, ignored innermost of his own life were quaking with guilt under the spell of this staring presence. In the state of horrified sympathy to which it had precipitated him, he morbidly felt almost responsible for the brooding evil in the boy as well as aghast at it. But even this sense of sin, implying as it did a skeleton of naked, primal right and wrong seemed of small import to his astounded mind beside the nameless, unmentionable sorrow that pervaded the face and stabbed at Henry Montagu's heart. He knew without question that he was looking at tragedy—worse than he had supposed the world could hold or any human thing, in any world, be subject to. It was a man's face in every line and poise and suggestion, but for all its frightful knowledge he had to call it beautiful—the clear-cut word "handsome" ran away from it like a mouse into a hole, leaving it a superb horror that, as soon as his paralyzed muscles could respond to his instinct, drove his hand to his face to shut away the deliberate, searching gaze.
"Done?" answered the young fellow at last. "What have I done? Good God!"
For the third time, it was one of his own three exclamations totally new to him that night, and the coincidence drove home to him, this time, with a sense of omen. But his guest was speaking again, and, forcing himself to look calmly at the tragic face he listened breathlessly.
"I've done a thing never accomplished in human life before, a thing more terrific than the world's entire history, from the moment of the first atom crawling on it has ever known!"
He could not have spoken more solemnly and convincingly if he had reverently murdered, one by one, a whole nation of people, and it was some such picture that came into Henry Montagu's mind as, shivering and fascinated, he watched him and listened.
But the young man said no more.
"If—if you will tell me what you've done," said Mr. Montagu haltingly, his pity sweeping every caution away, "or simply what you want of me, I will do anything for you that I possibly can."
"There is nothing in this world," answered the boy wearily, "that anybody can do for me." But suddenly, impulsively, he added: "There is just one thing, that you can do—not for me, but for yourself. Don't ask me questions. For your own sake don't!"
"But—" began Mr. Montagu.
"If you knew who I am or what I am, and what I've deliberately done," cried the boy, "you'd curse this night, and curse me, the longest day you lived! What—what is your name?"
"Henry Montagu," said his host simply.
He pondered it. "That has a nice sound. I like it. And I—I like you. So don't ask me questions!"
The elder man was looking down at the thin white hands again, and the naive comment brought a sudden contraction to his throat. "Poor little boy!" was on his lips, but an intuition like a woman's warned him that the words would make the desolate figure weep again, and his utmost strength quailed from the thought of seeing it, now that he had seen the face. As the white hands clasped themselves together, he had seen that the under sides of the wrists were bruised and dark. Facially, nothing could have been more unlike than this youth to the paint and plaster symbols that crowded before him from his memory, yet the red drops that he had seen drip to the floor, the wickedness and waste that he seemed to expiate and represent, the whole obvious torment of his being, had forced a simile upon him which he now blurted out.
"Whoever and whatever you are, whatever terrible thing you've done, I only know that you make me think of—of—Oh, the crown of thorns, the cross—you know what I mean!"
"Some one with a crown of thorns?" said the young man wonderingly. "Who was that?"
Mr. Montagu stared at him incredulously. That any man, no matter how base a criminal, and one, indeed, who had cried out again and again the name of God, should not know the story and the name of God's son, astonished him, for the moment, more than anything yet had done.
"Oh, yes, yes, I remember now," continued the boy. "Yes, that was very, very sad. But I'm selfish and preoccupied with my own dreadful trouble, and that whole history, tragic as it was, was a very happy one compared with mine!"
With a cold shudder, Henry Montagu believed him. He realized that as yet he had done nothing for him. Food and drink had occurred to him, but in the minutes that they had passed together the stranger had grown more virile. He was no longer the incredible figure of wretchedness that had dashed into the room. He was sitting forward in the chair now, his eyes on the portrait.
"Is that your wife?" he asked.
"My—my dead wife," answered Mr. Montagu.
His own eyes reverting again and again to the lacerated wrists, he did not see the changing expressions in his visitor's as they studied the eyes of the portrait; but as the boy now leaped impulsively to his feet he saw in them a fierce gleam that was like the hatred of a maniac. He thrilled with renewed terror as the boy once more sprang to him like an animal, and with a growl in his throat rushed toward the portrait.
"Stop!" he shouted, and the boy almost cringed to a halt in the middle of the floor.
When, after his first chill of horror at the act itself, Henry Montagu realized that the desecration was his own thought, his own impulse carried into fierce determination, he sank weak and dizzy into the chair that the boy had left. But again he mastered his frightened mind and thrust away from it the sinister oppression of omen and coincidence. Unwillingly but helplessly, he was letting into his thoughts the theory that, after he had opened the door instead of before he had opened it, the room had been harboring a maniac. And the theory stabbed him. A mushroom growth of tenderness had germinated in his pity and was growing nearer and nearer to a personal liking for the beautiful, pathetic figure of youth that stood before him, wilted and helpless again, in the center of the room.
"My boy," he said quietly, "I ought to resent that but strangely enough I don't find myself resenting the idea of your taking strange liberties in my house. In fact, I—I had that same impulse. I nearly did that myself, just before you burst in here."
The young man looked at him in amazement.
"You were going to turn—Mrs. Montagu's picture to the wall? Wh—why, you old dirty beast!"
To Henry Montagu there was no vulgarity in the words. Their huge reproach of him drove every other quality out of them and a deep color into his face.
"But I—I quelled the impulse. And y—you would actually have done it!" he stammered.
"I had a reason and a right to!" cried the young man. "I'd never seen it before and if it repelled me I had a right never to look at it again! But she was your wife!"
Once more he stood, his eyes avoiding the portrait and wandering hungrily about the rest of the beautiful room.
"Well," he said, after a few moments, "good-by!" And he walked toward the door.
"Stop!" cried Mr. Montagu again. He sat forward on the edge of the chair, trembling. After hours of successive surprises, the simple announcement of his visitor's departure had struck him cold with the accumulated force of his past lonely terror and his present intense curiosity. Again the boy had obeyed his command with a visible shiver, and it hurt the older man by recalling to him the suggestion of crime, of the place and the tragedy he must have escaped from, the unknown cloud he was under. But however involved in the horrible he might become by detaining him, shaken and filled with inexplicable grief as he was by his presence, worst of all was the fear of being alone again after a frightful, brief adventure in his life, vanished and unexplained. He wanted to reassure and comfort the wavering, sorrowful boy, but all he could stammer in apology for his shout was: "Wh—where are you going?"
"What difference does it make to you where I go?" asked the boy drearily. "If you must know, I'm going to Maurice's."
Mr. Montagu sprang to his feet. With bitten lips he kept himself silent at this final thrust of the hypernatural, but the damp beads had returned to his brow. His terror lasted only a moment, and in his resurging desire to hold back the boy, he demanded both curiously and assertively:
"What are you going to Maurice's for?"
He had not supposed that there was a particle of color in the pitiful face, but as the boy answered, a delicate flesh-tint seemed to leave it, turning him deathly white.
"I—I want to look at the women," he said.
At his agitation and pallor, the hectic whisper of his voice, above all, the light of fiendish hate that leapt into his beautiful eyes and ravaged their look, a physical sensation crept through the older man from head to foot and held him motionless.
But it was not horror at the boy himself. As he stood there wan and shivering before him, every best instinct in Henry Montagu rushed uppermost, and he felt that he would give anything in his life, gladly devote, if not actually give, that life itself, to set the boy right with the world. And with his terror gone and his horror going, he impulsively walked across the room and stood between him and the door.
"Why do you leave me this way? You mustn't mind what I say to you or how I say it, for it can't be any more abrupt or strange than the way you came here. I don't want you to go to Maurice's. And if you do, I'm going with you."
"No! No!" cried the boy fearfully.
"I don't want you to leave me. I want you to confide in me. I want you to trust me, and to tell me, without fear, what it is you've done."
"No, no, no, no! Don't ask me to!" cried the boy.
"I do ask you to. I have some right to know. I'd be justified in detaining you if I wanted to—"
"You couldn't!" cried the trembling youth passionately.
"I said I'd be justified. Are you, in dashing like a shot into my life and then leaving me without a word to explain it? I've played host to you gladly, though you've torn my nerves to pieces. Remember how you came here!"
"Yes! Yes!" ejaculated the boy bitterly. "I'm an intruder! I forced myself on you and I know it! God knows I know it!"
"I didn't mean it unkindly. I tell you, I want you to stay! I want you to, no matter what you are or what you've done. You've admitted that you've done something—something terrific—"
"And I have!" cried the boy, his eyes lighting wildly. "At last, at last! I've done it, I've done it!"
"And in spite of it, I want you to stay! Whatever it is, I want to protect you from the consequences of it!"
"Look to yourself!" cried the boy. "You'll curse me yet for coming here! Let me go, and protect yourself!"
"I am no longer considering myself, I've done that too much in my life, and to-night I'm reckless. No matter what the crime you've done—"
"Crime?" His visitor flashed wondering eyes upon him. "You fool! You fool!" Again, the exclamation was like an echo of himself, but Mr. Montagu had no time to entertain the thought, for the boy was stammering out his astonishment in hysterical syllables. "I—a criminal! I—I—Oh, I might have known it would seem that way to you! But I—"
Again under the penetrating gaze his host felt himself morbidly guilty, but there was a thrill of gladness in his heart that now welcomed the grim alternative of the boy's simple madness.
"Stay with me!" he cried. "Sleep here, and rest, and then—"
"Let me go to Maurice's!" cried the boy desperately. "You'll regret it if you don't! Oh, for the pity of God, for pity of yourself, let me leave you while I still offer to leave you!"
Mr. Montagu backed himself against the door.
"Why do you want to go there?" he demanded. "What is it you want to look at the women in Maurice's for?"
The boy hung fire under the determined voice.
"The—the women who go to Maurice's are—are—of a—certain kind, aren't they?"
"Some of them—most of them," said Mr. Montagu. "If you've never been there, why do you want so to go? They're not unusual; simply—painted women."
"Painted?" repeated the boy in astonishment. He turned to the portrait. "That's a painted woman, too. Aren't they alive at Maurice's?"
In his marvel at the enormous innocence of it, Mr. Montagu wondered, for the first time, what the young man's age could definitely be, but in a moment he remembered the one pitiful way to account for the pathetic question, and his voice was very gentle as he said:
"My boy, if you have your heart set on going to Maurice's, you shall go. But surely, after this mysterious time together in my house, and knowing that whatever you may be I welcome your companionship, you won't refuse my request to let me go with you? To say that I've enjoyed it would be to put a queer word to a terrible business that I have no way of understanding. But until you came I was bitterly, hungrily lonely—"
"Don't! Don't!" cried the boy. He had begun to tremble at the earnest tenderness of the voice. "I can't bear it! You don't know what you're talking about! Oh! let me go to Maurice's, and let me go alone! If you insist on going with me I can't stop you—"
"I do insist," said Mr. Montagu.
"But I can plead with you not to! And I can warn you what the price will be! Oh—" and he stretched out his hands in so imploring a gesture that his host could see the dull, dried blood of his cruelly injured wrists—"for God's sake, for God's sake, believe what I tell you! If you leave this house with me to-night, you're lost! Oh, God, God, I see you don't believe me! Tell me this, I beg of you, I demand of you—did you feel that I was in the hall to-night, before you opened the door?"
"Yes," said Mr. Montagu.
"Had I made any noise?"
"Then I can prove to you that I know what I'm saying! I did that! I made you feel me! Till after you let me in, I wasn't strong enough to make a sound! Yet I made you know I was there! Am I telling the truth, then? When I started to leave you, and now, even now, in warning you I was doing, I am doing, a more unselfish thing, a decenter thing, than any you've ever done in all your years of life! It's because I like you more than I want to! I'm unselfish, I tell you! I wanted you to go to Maurice's with me! I intended to make you, as I made you let me in! But if you do, you'll find me out! I'll tell you! I won't be able to conceal it! You'll know the truth about me! You've said all this was mysterious—for your own sake, let it stay so! You needn't think all truths are beautiful, and the truth about me is the most ghastly in the universe!"
"I want to find you out," said Mr. Montagu, steadying his voice. "I want to know the truth."
"By that cross and crown of thorns that mean so much to you and nothing at all to me," implored the boy, "don't go! I swear to you, mine is a more terrible secret than any living heart has ever held! You'll hate me, and I don't want you to! Oh, while I don't, while I'm merciful to you, believe me, and let me go alone! No loneliness that you could ever suffer would equal the price that you will pay if you go with me!"
Though the sense of horror sweeping indomitably through him was worse than any he had felt before, Mr. Montagu's answer was deliberate and resolute:
"I told myself only a few minutes ago that I would sacrifice anything in my life, almost my life itself, to—well, to this. Do you mean that the price would be—my—death?"
He threw every possible significance demandingly into the word, and the boy's voice was suddenly quiet in its tensity as he gazed back at him.
"It would be worse than death," he said solemnly. "If you let me go, and face your loneliness here, there's a chance for you, though I've warned you as it is. If you leave the house with me to-night, you're as lost as I am, and I am irretrievably damned and always have been damned. As truly as you see me standing before you now, the price is—madness."
"Come," said Mr. Montagu, and without another word he opened the door.
At Maurice's, Mr. Montagu led the way to the far side of the big room, threading in a zigzag through the gleam of bright silver, the glitter of white linen, the crimson of deep carnations. Maurice's in its own way was admirably tasteful; as distinctively quiet and smooth in its manners and rich hangings as it was distinctly loud in its lights and ragged in its music. No after-theatre corner of Broadway had a crisper American accent of vice, or displayed vice itself more delicately lacquered. The place was as openly innocent as a street, with a street's sightless and irresponsible gaze for what occurred in it. And nothing remarkable occurred, save the fungus growth of what was to occur elsewhere.
Mr. Montagu, on the way to the table, looked several times over his shoulder, ostensibly to speak to his companion, but in reality to see whether the extraordinary boy was running the gantlet of eyes he had presupposed he would. And each time he met inquisitive faces that were not only staring but listening.
His own conspicuousness was grilling, but it was part and parcel of his insistent bargain; he could understand, quite sympathetically, how the youth's appearance, as awful as it was immaculate, should pound open the heart of any woman alive; and his suppressed excitement was too powerful for him to resent even the obvious repugnance in the faces of the men until he imagined an intentional discourtesy to the boy on the part of the waiter.
To himself, the man was over-servile, and elaborately cautious in pulling out his chair, but he stood, with his face quite white, and his back to the boy, and pulled out none for him. Henry Montagu had never yet bullied a waiter, and he did not bully now. But with an icy glare of reproof at the man, he rose and set the chair for his guest himself.
"Shall I order for you?" he asked gently as the boy sat quietly down; and made irritably incisive by the tendency of near-by men and women to listen as well as watch, he emphasized his expensive order of foods and wines, repeated each item loudly to cheapen the listeners, and sent the man scuttling.
In his intense desire to see the effect of the queerly chosen place on his queerly chosen companion, he now turned to him. And as he saw the effect, every shock of the night seemed to recoil upon him. The feeling of mystery; the foreboding, despite his courage and his conviction that the boy was mad, of the imminent unknown; his recurrent and absorbing curiosity to learn the gruesome secret that he had declared; all rushed one by one back upon him, and then as swiftly left him to the simple grip of horror at his face. It was gazing at woman after woman, here, there and yonder, throughout the large room, deliberately, searchingly, venomously, its great eyes and set lips and every tense haggard line fuller and fuller of an undying hate that eclipsed even that which had shaken Henry Montagu before they came. Appalled and fascinated, he looked with him, and back at him, and with him again, to the next and the next. There were women there, and ladies of every sort, good, bad and indecipherable; yet in every instance the childlike, horribly sophisticated eyes had picked their victim unerringly, deterred by neither clothes, veneer, nor manner.