"Have you and Mr. Cressy met before?"
He raised his head with a jerk and looked at her a moment in astonishment.
"Do you mind if I answer your question American fashion by asking another?" he said presently. "What put it into your head that we may have met before?"
"The way you looked at each other at the club, and again this morning."
Kerr shook his head. "You are an observant young person! The fact is, I've never met him—of that I'm certain, but I believe I've seen him before, and for the life of me, I can't think where. At the moment you spoke I was trying to remember."
"Was it in this country?" Flora prompted, hopeful of fishing something definite out of this vagueness.
"No, it was years ago. It must have been in England." He looked at her inquiringly, as if he expected her to help him.
"Oh, Harry's been in England," she said quickly; and then, with a flashing thought, came to her the one scene Harry had mentioned in his English experience. Was it at a ball? The question came to her lips, but she checked it there. She remembered how Harry had stopped her the night before with a nod, with a look, from mentioning that very thing. Still she hesitated—for the temptation was strong. But no; it was only loyal to Harry to speak to him first.
"So you're not going to tell me?" Kerr remarked, and she came back to a sudden consciousness of how her face must have reflected her thought.
"No—not this time!" she said, smiling, though somewhat flushed.
He knitted his brows at her. They had reached the arched gate, and the car that would carry her home was approaching.
"Ah, then, I am afraid it will be never," he said.
Was it possible this was their last meeting? Did he mean he was going away? The questions formed in her mind, but there was no time for words. He had stopped the car with a flick of his agile cane, and handed her in as if he had handed her into a carriage; and not a word as to whether they would see each other again, though she hoped and hesitated to the last moment.
Her hand was in his for the fraction of a minute. Then the car was widening the distance between them, and she was no longer looking into his face, which had seemed at their last moment both merry and wistful, but back at his diminishing figure, showing black against the pale Presidio hills.
He had so disturbed her, his presence had so obliterated other presences and annihilated time, that it took an encounter with Clara to remind her of her arrangement for the evening. The dance? No, she had given that up. She had promised Harry to be at home. Clara wanted to know rather austerely what she intended to do about the dinner. This was dreadful! Flora had forgotten it completely. Nothing to be done but go, and leave a message for Harry—apology, and assurance that she would be home early. She wondered if she were losing her memory.
She appeared to be changing altogether, for the dinner—a merry one—bored her. What she wanted was to get away from it as soon as possible for that interesting evening. When she had made the appointment with Harry she had been excited by the thought that he might tell her whether he had learned anything from the major that morning in the matter of the ring. But now she was more engrossed with the idea of asking about Kerr—whether Harry had really met him—if so, where; and, finally, why did not Harry want her to mention that Embassy ball?
Primed with these questions, she left immediately after coffee, arriving at her own red stone portal at ten. But coming in, all a-flutter with the idea of having kept him waiting when she had so much to ask, she found her note as she had left it. She questioned Shima. There had been no message from Mr. Cressy. Her first annoyance was lost in wonder. What could be the matter? If this was neglect on Harry's part—well, it would be the first time. But she did not believe it was neglect. He had been too eager that morning.
She went into the drawing-room—a dull-pink, stupendous chamber—knelt a moment before the flashing wood fire, then rose, and crossing to the window, looked anxiously out. She had a flight of fancy toward accidents, but in that case she would certainly have heard. The French clock on the mantel rang half-past ten. The sound had hardly died in the great spaces before she heard the fine snarl of the electric bell.
She restrained an impulse to dash into the hall, and stood impatient in the middle of the room.
He came in hastily, his lips all ready with words which hesitated at sight of her.
"Why, you're going out!" he said.
She had forgotten the cloak that still hung from her shoulders.
"No, I've just come in, and all my fine apologies for being out are wasted. How long do you think Clara'll let you stop at this hour?"
"Clara isn't here," he said.
"Well, then your time is all the shorter." She was nettled that he should be oblivious of his lapse. Their relation had never been sentimental, but he had always been punctilious.
"I'm sorry," he said, arriving at last at his apology. "I couldn't help being late. I've had a day of it." He drew his hands across his forehead, and she noticed that he was in his morning clothes and looked as rumpled and flurried as a man just from the office.
She relented. "Poor dear! You do look tired! Don't take that chair. It's more Louis Quinze than comfortable. Come into the library. And remember," she added, when Shima had set the decanter and glasses beside him, "you are to stay just twenty minutes."
He took a sip of his drink and looked at her over the top of his glass. "I may have to stay longer if you want to hear about it."
"Oh, Harry, you really know something? All the evening I've heard nothing but the wildest rumors. Some say Major Purdie couldn't speak because some one 'way up knows more than she should about it. And somebody else said it wasn't the real ring at all that was taken, only a paste copy, and that is why they're not doing more about getting it back."
"Not doing more about getting it back?" Harry laughed. "Is that the idea that generally prevails? Why, Flora—" He stopped, waited a moment while she leaned forward expectant. "Flora," he began again, "are you mum?"
She nodded, breathless.
"Not a word to Clara?"
"Oh, of course not."
"Well—" He twisted around in his chair the better to face her. "To-morrow there will be published a reward of twenty thousand dollars for the return of the Crew Idol, and no questions asked."
"Oh!" she said. And again, "Oh, is that all!" She was disappointed. "I don't see why you and the major should have been so mysterious about that."
"You don't, eh? Suppose you had taken the ring—wouldn't it make a difference to you if you knew twenty-four hours ahead that a reward of twenty thousand dollars would be published? Wouldn't you expect every man's hand to be against you at that price? If you had a pal, wouldn't you be afraid he'd sell you up? Wouldn't you be glad of twenty-four hours' start to keep him from turning state's evidence? Well—it's just so that he shan't have the start that the authorities are keeping so almighty dark about the reward. They want to spring it on him."
Flora leaned forward with knitted brows. "Yes, I can see that, but still, just among ourselves, this morning—"
Harry smiled. "You've lost sight of the fact that it is just among ourselves the thing has happened."
"Oh, oh! Now you're ridiculous!"
"I might be, if the thing had happened anywhere but in this town; but think a moment. How much do we know of the people we meet, where they were, and who they were, before they came here? There's a case in point. It was not quite 'among ourselves' this morning."
"Harry, how horrid of you!" She was on the point of declaring that she knew Kerr very well indeed; but she remembered this might not be the thing to say to Harry.
"My dear girl, I'm not saying anything against him. I only remarked that we did not know him."
"Don't you, Harry?"
He gave her a quick look. "Why, what put that into your head?"
"I—I don't know. I thought you looked at him very hard last night in the picture gallery. And afterward, at supper, don't you remember, you did not want me to mention your connection with something or other he was talking about?"
"Something or other he was talking about?" Harry inquired with a frowning smile.
"I think it was about that Embassy ball—"
"I didn't want you to mention the Embassy ball?" he repeated, and now he was only smiling. "My dear child, surely you are dreaming."
She looked at him with the bewildered feeling that he was flatly contradicting himself. And yet she could remember he had not shaken his head at her. He had only nodded. Could it be that her cherished imagination had played her a trick at last? But the next moment it occurred to her that somehow she had been led away from her first question.
"Then have you seen him, Harry?" she insisted.
"No!" He jerked it out so sharply that it startled her, but she stuck to her subject.
"And you wouldn't have minded my telling him you had been at that ball?"
There was a pause while Harry looked at the fire. Then—"Look here," he burst out, "did he ask you about it?"
"Oh, no," she protested. "I only just happened to wonder."
He stared at her as if he would have liked to shake her. But then he rose from his frowning attitude before the fire, came over to her, sat on the arm of her chair, and, with the tip of one finger under her chin, lifted her face; but she did not lift her eyes. She heard only his voice, very low, with a caressing note that she hardly knew as Harry's.
"It isn't that I care what you say to him. The fact is, Flora, I suppose I was a little jealous, but I naturally don't like the suggestion that you would discuss me with a stranger."
She knew herself properly reproved, and she reproached herself, not for what she had actually said to Kerr of Harry—that had been trivial enough—but for that wayward impulse she had to confide in this clear-eyed, whimsical stranger, as it had never occurred to her to confide in Harry.
She raised her eyes. "Certainly I shall not discuss you with him."
"Is that a promise?"
"Harry, how you do dislike him!"
"Well, suppose I do?" he shrugged.
"You've used up twice your twenty minutes," she said, "and Clara will be scandalized."
He stopped the caressing movement of his hand on her hair. "Are you afraid of Clara?" he asked.
"Mercy, yes!" She was half in earnest and half laughing. "But then I'm afraid of every one."
He put his arm affectionately around her. "But not of me?"
"Oh," she told him, "you're a great big purring pussy-cat, and I am your poor little mouse."
He thought this reply immensely witty, and Flora thought what a great boy he was, after all.
"Now, really, you must go home," she urged, trying to rise.
"But look here," he protested, still on the arm of her chair, "there's another thing I want to ask you about." And by the tip of one finger he lifted her left hand shining with rings. "You will have to have another one of these, you know. It's been on my mind for a week. Is there any sort you haven't already?"
She held up her hand to the light and fluttered its glitter.
"Any one that you gave me would be different from the others, wouldn't it?" she asked prettily.
"Oh, that's very nice of you, Flora, but I want to find you something new. When shall we look for it? To-morrow, in the morning?"
"Yes, I should love it," she answered, but with no particular enthusiasm, for the idea of shopping with Harry, and shopping at Shrove's, did not present a wide field of possibility. "But I have a luncheon to-morrow," she added, "so we must make it as early as ten."
"Oh, you two!"
At Clara's mildly reproving voice so close beside them both started like conspirators. They had not heard her come in, yet there she was, just inside the doorway, still wrapped in her cloak. But there was none of the impetus of arrested motion in her attitude. She stood at repose as if she might have waited not to interrupt them.
"Don't scold Flora," said Harry, rising. "It's my fault. She sent me away half an hour ago. But it is so comfortable here!"
Flora couldn't tell whether he was simply natural, or whether he was giving this domestic color to their interview on purpose. She rather thought it was the latter.
"To-morrow at ten, then!" he said cheerfully to Flora. The stiff curtains rustled behind him and the two women were left together.
"What an important appointment," said Clara lightly, "to bring a man at this hour to make it."
"Oh, it is, awfully!" Flora answered in the same key. "To choose my engagement ring."
Clara's delicate brows flew upward, and though Clara herself made no comment, the quick facial movement said, "I don't believe it."
The memory of Clara's incredulous glance remained with her as something curious, and she was not unprepared to be challenged when, the next morning, she hurried down the hall, drawing on her gloves. Clara's door did open, but the lady herself, yawning lightly on the threshold, had this time no questions for her. "Remember the luncheon," she advised, "and by the way, Ella wants us to sit in their box to-night. Don't forget to tell Harry."
Flora threw back a gay "All right," but she was in danger of forgetting even the object of their errand, once she and Harry were out in the bright glare of the street. The wind, keen and resinous from the wet Presidio woods, blew at their back down the short block of pavement, and buffeted them, broadside, as they waited on the corner for the slow-crawling little car. In spite of the blustering air Flora insisted on the side seat of the "dummy," and, catching her hat with one hand, pressing down her fluttering skirts with the other, she laughed, now sidelong at Harry, now out at the dancing face of the bay.
Each succeeding cross-street gave up a flash of blue water. The short blocks slid by, first stone fronts and fresh lawns, stucco and tiles; then here and there corner lots, the great gray, towered, wooden mansions the stock-brokers of the "seventies" built, and below them, like a contingent of shabby-genteel relations, the narrow gray wooden faces of what was "smart" in the "sixties". It was a continuous progress backward toward the old, the original town. There was no stately nucleus. This town was a succession of widening ripples of progress, each newer, more polished than the last, but not different in quality from the old center that still teemed—a region of frail wooden rookeries full of foreign contending interests, haunted with the adventures of its feverish past. It had built itself on the hopes of a moment, and what spread from it still was the spell of the new, the changing, and the reckless. It drew still from the ends of the earth. The broad road in over the mountains, the broad road out over the ocean made it where it stood, touching all trades, a road-house of the world.
Some dim perception of this touched Flora as the houses, gliding past, grew older, grayer, with steeper gardens, narrower streets, here and there even trees, lone, sentinel, at the edge of cobbled gutters. From the crest of the last hill they had looked a mile down the long gray throat of the street to where the ferry building lay stretched out with its one tall tower pricked up among the masts of shipping. Half-way between their momentary perch and the ferry slips the street suddenly thickened, darkened, swarmed, flying a yellow pennon high above blackened roofs. And now, as they slipped down the long decline into the foreign quarter the pungent oriental breath of Chinatown was blown up to them. She breathed it in readily. It was pleasant because it was strange, outlandish, suggesting a wide web of life beyond her own knowledge. She wondered what Harry was thinking of it, as he sat with his passive profile turned from her to the heathen street ahead. She guessed, by the curl of his nostril, that it was only present to him as an unpleasant odor to be got through as quickly as possible; but she was wrong. He had another thought. This time, oddly enough, a thought for her.
He gave it to her presently, abrupt, matter-of-fact, material. "That Chinese goldsmith down there has good stuff now and then. How'd you like to look in there before we go on to what-you-call-'em's,—the regular place?"
"You mean for a ring?" She was doubtful only of his being in earnest.
"You have so many of the Shrove kind," he explained. "I thought you might like it, Flora; you're so romantic!" he laughed.
"Like it!" she cried, too touched at his thought for her to resent the imputation. "I should love it! But I didn't know they had such things."
"Now and then—though it is a rare chance."
"But that will be just the fun of it," she hastened, half afraid lest Harry should change his mind, "to see if we can possibly find one that will be different from all these others."
She kept this little feeling of exploration close about her, as they left the car, a block above the green trees of the plaza, and entered one of the narrow streets that was not even a cross-street, but an alley, running to a bag's end, with balconies, green railings and narcissi taking the sun.
A slant-eyed baby in a mauve blouse stared after them; and a white face so poisoned in its badness that it gave Flora a start, peered at them from across the street. It made her shrink a little behind Harry's broad shoulder and take hold of his arm. The mere touch of that arm was security. His big presence, moving agilely beside her, seemed to fill the street with its strength, as if, by merely flinging out his arms, Samson-like, he could burst the dark walls asunder.
In the middle of the block, sunk a little back from the fronts of the others, the goldsmith's shop showed a single, filmed window; and the pale glow through it proclaimed that the worker in metals preferred another light to the sun's. The threshold was worn to a hollow that surprised the foot; and the interior into which it led them gloomed so suddenly around them after the broad sunlight, that it was a moment before they made out the little man behind the counter, sitting hunched up on a high stool.
"Hullo, Joe," said Harry, in the same voice that hailed his friends on the street-corners; but the goldsmith only nodded like a nodding mandarin, as if, without looking up, he took them in and sensed their errand. He wore a round, blue Chinese cap drawn over his crown; a pair of strange goggles like a mask over his eyes, and his little body seemed to poise as lightly on his high stool as a wisp, as if there were no more flesh in it than in his long, dry fingers that so marvelously manipulated the metal. Save for that glitter of gold on his glass plate, and the grin of a lighted brazier, all was dark, discolored and cluttered.
And the way Harry bloomed upon this background of dubious antiquity! He leaned on the little counter, which creaked under his weight, in his big, fresh coat, with his clear, fresh face bent above the shallow tray of trinkets—doubtful jades, dim-eyed rings, dull clasps and coins—his large, fastidious finger poked among. He was the one vital thing in the shop.
Over everything else was spread a dimness of age like dust. It enveloped the little man behind the counter, not with the frailness that belongs to human age, but with that weathered, polished hardness which time brings to antiques of wood and metal. Indeed, he appeared so like a carved idol in a curio shop that Flora was a little startled to find that he was looking at her. Chinamen had always seemed to her blank automatons; but this one looked keenly, pointedly, as if he personally took note. She told herself whimsically that perhaps it was his extraordinary glasses that gave point to that expression; and presently when he took them off she was surprised to see it seemed verily true. His little physiognomy had no more expression than a withered nut. But there was something about it more disturbing than its vanishing intelligence, something unexpected, and out of harmony with the rest of him, yet so illusive that, flit over him as her eye would, she failed to find it.
"Harry," she murmured to Cressy, who was still stirring the contents of the box with a disdainful forefinger, "this little man gives me the shivers."
"Old Joe?" Harry smiled indulgently. "He's a queer customer. Been quite a figurehead in Chinatown for twenty years. Say, Joe, heap bad!" and with the back of his hand he flicked the tray away from him.
The little man undoubled his knees and descended the stool. He stood breast-high behind the counter. He dropped a lack-luster eye to the box. "Velly nice," he murmured with vague, falling inflection.
"Oh, rotten!" Harry laughed at him.
"You no like?"
"No. No like. You got something else—something nice?"
"No." It was like a door closed in the face of their hope—that falling inflection, that blank of vacuity that settled over his face, and his whole drooping figure. He seemed to be only mutely awaiting their immediate departure to climb back again on his high stool. But Harry still leaned on the counter and grinned ingratiatingly. "Oh, Joe, you good flen'. You got something pretty—maybe?"
The curtain of vacuity parted just a crack—let through a gleam of intense intelligence. "Maybe." The goldsmith chuckled deeply, as if Harry had unwittingly perpetrated some joke—some particularly clever conjurer's trick. He sidled out behind the counter, past the grinning brazier, and shuffled into the back of the shop where he opened a door.
Flora had expected a cupboard, but the vista it gave upon was a long, black, incredibly narrow passage, that stretched away into gloom with all the suggestion of distance of a road going over a horizon. Down this the goldsmith went, with his straw slippers clapping on his heels, until his small figure merged in the gloom and presently disappeared altogether, and only the faint flipper-flap of his slippers came back growing more and more distant to them, and finally dying into silence. In the stillness that followed while they waited they could hear each other breathe. The little shop with the water-stained walls and the ancient odor—ancient as the empire of China—inclosed them like a spell cast around them by a vanishing enchanter to hold them there mute until his returning. They did not look at each other, but rather at the glowing brazier, at the gold on the glass plates, at the forms of people passing in the street, moving palely across the dim window pane, as distant to Flora's eye as though they moved in another world. Then came the flipper-flap of the goldsmith's slippers returning. The sound snapped their tension, and Harry laughed.
"Lord knows how far he went to get it!"
"Across the street?" Flora wondered.
"Or under it. And it won't be worth two bits when it gets here." He peered at the little man coming toward them down the passage, flapping and shuffling, and carrying, held before him in both hands, a square, deep little box.
It was a worn, nondescript box that he set down before them, but the jealous way he had carried it had suggested treasure, and Flora leaned eagerly forward as he raised the cover, half expecting the blaze of a jewel-case. She saw at first only dull shanks of metal tumbled one upon the other. But, after a moment's peering, between them she caught gleams of veritable light. Her fingers went in to retrieve a hoop of heavy silver, in the midst of which was sunk a flawed topaz. She admired a moment the play of light over the imperfection.
"But this isn't Chinese," she objected, turning her surprise on Harry.
"Lots of 'em aren't. These men glean everywhere. That's pretty." He held up a little circle of discolored but lusterful pearls—let it fall again, since it was worth only a glance. He leaned on the counter, indifferent to urge where value seemed so slight. He seemed amused at Flora's enthusiasm for clouded opals.
"They look well enough among this junk," he said, "but compare them with your own rings and you'll see the difference."
She heard him dreamily. She was wishing, as she turned over the tumble of damaged jewels, that things so pretty might have been perfect. To find a perfect thing in this place would be too extraordinary to hope for. Yet, taking up the next, and the next, she found herself wishing it might be this one—this cracked intaglio. No? Then this blue one—say. The setting spoke nothing for it. It was a plain, thin, round hoop of palpable brass, and the battered thing seemed almost too feeble to hold the solitary stone. But the stone! She looked it full in the eye, the big, blazing, blue eye of it. What was the matter with this one? A flaw? She held it to the light.
She felt Harry move behind her. She knew he couldn't but be looking at it. For how, by all that was marvelous, had she for a moment doubted it? Down to its very heart, which was near to black, it was clear fire, and outward toward the facets struck flaming hyacinth hues with zigzag white cross-lights that dazzled and mesmerized. Just the look of it—the marvelous deep well of its light—declared its truth.
"Harry," she breathed, without taking her gaze from the thing in her hand, "do look at this!"
She felt him lean closer. Then with an abrupt "Let's see it," he took it from her—held it to the light, laid it on his palm, looking sharply across the counter at the shopkeeper, then back at the ring with a long scrutiny. His face, too, had a flush of excitement.
"Is it—good?" Flora faltered.
"A sapphire," he said, and taking her third finger by the tip, he slid on the thin circle of metal.
She breathed high, looking down at the stone with eyes absorbed in the blue fire. There was none of the cupidity of women for jewels in her look. It was the intrinsic beauty of this drop of dark liquid light that had captured her. It had mystery, and her imagination woke to it—the wistful mystery of perfect beauty. And perfect beauty in such a place! It was too beautiful. The feeling it brought her was too sharp for pure pleasure. It was dimly like fear. Yet instinctively she shut her hand about the ring. She murmured out her wonder.
"How in the world did such a thing come here?"
"Oh, not so strange," Harry answered. He leaned on his elbow upon the counter, his head bent close to hers above the single, glittering point that drew the four eyes to one focus. "Sailors now and then pick up a thing of whose value they have no idea—get hard up, and pawn it—still without any idea. These chaps"—and his bold hand indicated the shopkeeper—"take in anything—that is, anything worth their while; and wait, and wait, and wait until they see just the moment—and turn it to account."
It might be because Harry's eyes were so taken with the jewel that his tongue ran recklessly. He had spoken low, but Flora sent an anxious glance to be sure the shopkeeper hadn't overheard. She had meant only to glance, but she found herself staring into eyes that stared back from the other side of the counter. That wide, unwinking scrutiny filled her whole vision. For an instant she saw nothing but the dance of scintillant pupils. Then, with a little gasp she clutched at her companion's arm.
His glance came quickly round to her. "Why, what's the matter?"
She murmured, "That Chinaman has blue eyes."
He looked at her with good-natured wonder.
"Why, Flora, haven't you blue on the brain? I believe he has, though," he added, as he peered across the counter at the shopkeeper, whose gaze now fluttered under narrowed lids; "but why in the world should blue eyes scare you?" His look returned indulgently to Flora's face.
She could not explain her reason of fear to him. She could not explain it to herself more than that the eyes had seemed to know. What? She could not tell; but they had had a deadly intelligence. She only whispered back, "But he is awful!"
"Oh, I guess not," Harry grinned, and turned his back to the counter, "only part white. Makes him a little sharper at a bargain."
But, in spite of his off-handedness, Flora saw he was alert, touched with excitement. Once or twice he looked from the shopkeeper to the sapphire.
"Do you like it, Flora?" he said. "Do you want it?" He spoke eagerly against her reluctance.
"It is the most beautiful thing I ever saw, but—" She could not put it to him why she shrank from it. That feeling which had touched her at the first had a little expanded, the sense of the sapphire's sinister charm. She faltered out as much as she could explain. "It's too much for me."
His shoulders shook with appreciation of this. "Oh, I guess not! If you keep that up I shall be thinking you mean it is too much for me."
It hadn't been in the least what she meant, but now that he had suggested it to her—"Well, I shouldn't like it to be," she blushed, but she braved him.
The ring of his laughter filled the little, dark, old shop, and made the proprietor blink.
"Oh, I guess not," he said again, and with that he seemed to make an end of her hesitations. There was not another objection she could bring up. She let him draw the ring off her hand with a mingled feeling of reluctance and relief. She saw him turn briskly to the shopkeeper.
"Now, Joe, how much you want?" That much she heard as she turned away with a fear lest it might, and a hope that it would be, too much for him!
She lingered away to the door, through whose upper glazed half she saw the street swarming and sunny, picked out with streamers of red and squares of green. The murmur of traffic outside was faint to her ears. The murmur of the two voices talking on inside the shop momently grew fainter. She looked behind her and saw them now in the back of the shop, close by the grinning brazier.
The light of it showed what would have been otherwise dark. It showed her Harry, straddling, hands in pockets, hat thrust back, a silhouette as hard as if cast in cold metal. The aspect of him, thus, was strange, not quite unlike himself, but giving her the feeling that she had never known how much Harry smoothed over.
Perhaps men were always like that with men. Still she looked away again because she felt she had taken a liberty in catching him when he was coming out so plain and coming out so positive to the shopkeeper, whom he seemed really to be bullying. She felt that, considering the sapphire, nothing that went on about it could be too extraordinary. And yet the tone their voices were taking on made her nervous. Whatever they were arguing about, she found it hard to go on standing thus with her back to it, and for so long, while her expectancy tightened, and her unreasonable idea that she did not want the ring, more and more took hold of her. If he did not want to sell it, why not let it go—the beautiful thing!
She thought she would call Harry, and suggest it—but no. She hesitated. She would give them a chance to finish it themselves. She would count ten pigtails past the window first. She watched the last far into the distance, and still she was there, blowing hot and cold. She would call to Harry—call out to him from where she stood, that she wouldn't have the thing.
She turned, and there they were yet. They had not moved. The shadow of the gesticulating little Chinaman danced like a bird on the wall, and before him Harry glowed, immovable, but ruddy, as if the hard metal whereof he was cast was slowly heating through. The thought came to her then. Harry was iron! The hard shade of his profile on the wall, the stiff movement of his lips, the forward thrust of his head on his shoulders gave her another thought. Was Harry also brutal? The sight of that brutality awake, feeding, as it were, on the fluttering little figure before it, distressed her. How long were they going on putting an edge to their argument? There was continually with her the fear that it might sharpen into a quarrel; for now the goldsmith had ceased his gesticulation and became suddenly immobile, and still Harry was requiring of him the same thing. It was insisted upon, by all the lines of his stiff braced figure, and she had a fluttered expectancy that if the little man didn't do something quickly, now—now it would happen.
What she expected of Harry, a violent act or a quick relaxation of his iron mood, she had not time to consider, for the shopkeeper had moved. He was jerking his head, his thumb, and finally his arm in the direction of the long, dim passage—such a pointed direction, such a singular gesture, as to startle her with its incongruity. What had that to do with the price of the ring? And if it had nothing to do with the price of the ring, what had they been talking about? Her small scruple against knowing what was going on behind her was forgotten. Indeed, now she was oblivious of everything else. She was taking it in with all her eyes, when Harry turned and looked at her. And, oddly enough, she thought he looked as if he wondered how she came there. She saw him return to it slowly. Then, in a flash, he met her brilliantly. He came toward her out of the gloom, holding the ring before him, as if with the light of that, and the flash of his smile, he was anxious immediately to cover his deficit.
"I had the very devil of a time getting it," he said. "The little beggar didn't want to let me have it." But there was a subsiding excitement in his face, and a something in his manner, both triumphant and troubled, which his explanation did not reasonably account for. Had Harry felt the touch of the same strange influence that the little shop, and the blue-eyed Chinaman, and the sapphire, had wrought around her? Or was it something more salient, the same thing that had suggested itself to her with the violent gesticulation of the shopkeeper at the passage—that some question other than the mere transfer of the ring had come up between them?
"Harry"—she hesitated—"are you quite sure it's all right?"
"All right?" The sudden edge in his voice made her look at him. "Why, it's genuine, if that's what you mean."
It hadn't been, quite; but her meaning was too vague to put into words—a mere sensation of uneasiness. She watched Harry turn the ring over, as if he were reluctant to let it go out of his hands. And then, looking at her, she thought his glance was a little uncertain. She thought he hesitated, and when he finally slid the ring over her finger, "I wouldn't wear it until it is reset," he said. "That setting isn't gold. It's hardly decent."
"Yes," she assented; "Clara will laugh at us."
"She won't if we don't show it to her until it's fit to appear. In fact, I would rather you wouldn't. As it is now, the thing doesn't represent my gift to you."
She felt this was Harry's conventional streak asserting itself. But even she had to admit that an engagement ring which was palpably not gold was rather out of the way.
"You'd better keep it a day or two and look it over and make up your mind how you want it set, and then we'll spring it on them," he advised.
But now it was finally on her finger, she did not want to think it would ever have to be taken off again. She drew her glove over it. The great facets showed sharp angles under the thin kid. She wished the sapphire were not quite so large, so difficult to reconcile with everything else. Now that she had the perfect thing with her, clasping her so heavily around the third finger, she was half afraid it was going to be too much for her, after all.
A SPELL IS CAST
It was hers! She did not believe it. It had been done too quickly. It seemed to her she had hardly felt Harry slip it on her finger before they had left the shop; that she had hardly shaken off the musty inclosed atmosphere, before Harry had left her on the corner of California and Powell Streets—left her alone with the ring! Still, she didn't believe she had it, even while she looked at the large lump it made under her glove. She kept feeling it with a cautious finger-tip.
A trio of girls she knew flocked off the California Street car and surrounded her. They were going to the White House for bargains in shirt waists. They wanted to carry her off in their company. They encompassed her in a chatter of lace and lingerie. There were held up to her all the interests of her every-day existence; but these seemed to have no part in her real life. They had never appeared more remote and trivial. She kept her conscious hand in the folds of her skirt. She would have liked to strip off her glove and show them the ring. It would have entertained them so much. To herself its entertainment was of the Arabian Nights—the way of its finding, its beauty in the false setting, the struggle over it in the shop—all were wine to her imagination. It was a thing to conjure adventure; it was a talisman of romance.
She colored faintly as she mentally corrected herself. It was her engagement ring, and as such she had never once thought of it. Strange, when all the forms of her engagement had been so well observed; when Harry himself represented that side of life to which she had tried to form herself from as far back as the old days when her mother had made fun of her fancies. It must be right, she thought, this life of conventions and forms; and the queer way she saw things, something wrong in her. But because she knew herself different, and because she felt life without understanding it, she feared it. It was too big to take hold of alone. And she was so alone; and Harry was so strong, so matter-of-fact; alone like herself, yet adequate in the world she was afraid of. She had accepted him as naturally, and yet as unreally, as she took all that life, and to the moment she had never questioned the wisdom or the happiness. She didn't question now. She only was shocked that so large a fact in her life as her engagement could be completely wiped out for the moment by a thing so trivial. It was not even the ring. It was the feeling she had about the ring. Her imagination was always running away with her, as it had the night at the club. And here it was, still uncurbed, speeding her forward into fields of romance.
She went over whole dramas—imaginary histories of chance and circumstance—woven about the ring, as she walked up and down the long, windy hills, westward and homeward, the blue bay on the one hand beaten green under the rising "trade," and the fog coming in before her. With the experience of the morning, and the exercise and the lively air, her spirits were riding high. From time to time she had the greatest longing to peep again at the sapphire, but not until the house door had closed after her did she dare draw off her glove and look. It was still glorious. What a pity she must take it off! Yet that point Harry had made about not showing it had been too sharp to be disregarded. But what could she say, supposing Clara asked about the morning's expedition? At this thought all her spring deserted her, and she went slowly up the stair. Perhaps Clara had forgotten about it, and then it recurred reassuringly to her mind how seldom Clara touched anywhere near the subject of her engagement.
None the less, she went very softly down the hall, anxious lest Clara might open her door and ask what she had brought home with her.
But even in the refuge of her own rooms the ring encircled Flora with unease. The light of it on her finger made her restless. It wasn't that she was apprehensive of it, but she could not forget it. She could hear the maid Marrika moving about in the room beyond. She could hear the rustle of clothes carried to and fro. She knew there were things to dress for—a luncheon, and a bevy of teas—things which must be gone through with, things which at other times she had found sufficiently pleasurable. But now, try as she would to turn her mind to these, it persistently wandered back to the jewel. All the fine, simple pleasure of the morning was dazzled out by it. She slipped it off her finger on to the dressing-table, and it lay among her laces like a purple prism, cast by some unearthly sun in a magic glass. She had jewels, rubies even—the most precious—but nothing that gave her this sense of individual beauty, of beauty so keen as to be disturbing. She emptied her jewel casket in a glittering heap around it. It shone out unquenched. It had not been the dingy little shop, and the dingy little street, and the odds and ends of jade and tarnished silver that had made it of such a value. It seemed to her that any eye would fix it, any hand pluck it out first from that shining heap before her.
Marrika was coming in, and quickly Flora swept the jewels and the sapphire back into the casket, turned the key upon them, and thrust it back in the far corner of the drawer. She would give every one a great surprise when the ring was properly set. She glanced nervously over her shoulder to see if Marrika had noticed her action. The Russian had been moving to and fro between the wardrobe and the dressing-table with a droning thread of song. And now she took up the combs and brushes, and filling her mouth with pins, began on the long river of yellow-brown hair that flowed down Flora's back. The broad, pale face reflected beside her own in the mirror was reassuring by its serene indifference. She had soothing hands, Marrika. It was a luxury to be dressed by her, a mental soporific. But to-day it wrought no relaxation in Flora's tightened nerves. All the while she was being combed and laced and hooked her eyes were alertly on the dressing-table drawer, that remained a little open; and presently she caught herself vaguely speculating on how, after she had been fastened up and into her clothes so securely, she could dispose upon herself the sapphire. How had she arrived at this consideration? No course of reasoning led up to it. She was annoyed with herself. If she wasn't going to wear the ring on her finger, and show it, why did she want to take it with her at all? For fear it might be lost? Lost, in her jewel box, in the back of the drawer! She blushed for herself. She looked severely at her guilty reflection in the mirror. Perhaps she did look tall; yes, and outwardly sophisticated, but underneath that bold exterior Flora knew she was only the smallest, youngest, most ridiculous child ever born. There were moments when this fact appeared to her more vividly than at others. One had been the other night when Kerr's eyes had looked through and through her; and here she was again, when she was going to a girls' luncheon, and most wanted to feel competent, stared out of countenance by the wonderful eye of a ring.
Through the long afternoon it was more apparent to her than the faces of the people around her. She was restless to get back to it, but people talked interminably. At the luncheon they talked of Kerr. Flora knew these girls felt a little resentment that she had so easily captured Harry Cressy; for Harry had been more than an eligible man in the little city. He had been an eligible personage. Not that he had money; not that his family tree was plainly planted in their midst; but that without these two things he had achieved what, with these things, the people he knew were all striving for. He stood before them as the embodiment of what they most believed in—perfect bodily splendor, and perfect knowledge of how to get on with the world; and the fact that he wouldn't quite be one of them, but after five years still stood a little off—made him shine with greater brilliance, especially in the eyes of these young girls. It was hard, they seemed to feel, that such an apparently remote and difficult person should have succumbed so easily; and now that a new luminary of equal luster was apparent in their sky, Flora felt their remarks a little triumphantly aimed at her. It was odd to her that they should envy her anything, especially those one or two exquisite flowers of old families, whose lovely eyes saw not one inch farther than her turquoise collar. And the way they talked of Kerr, with flourishes, made her feel a faint, responsive irritation that he had talked to so many of them in exactly the same way.
But between the threads of interest the table group wove together, kept flashing up her furtive desire to be away, to be at home, to see what had happened to the sapphire. Of course, she knew that nothing could have happened; but she wanted to look at it, to open the casket and see the flash of it before her eyes. For was she quite sure that it was not one of those fairy gifts, which, put into the hand in a blaze of beauty, may be found in the pocket as withered leaves? Yet her tenacious nets of duty caught and caught, and again caught her, so that when the carriage finally fetched her home it was between lighted street-lamps.
They were dining early that night on account of the Bullers' box party, but it was nearly eight o'clock before Flora reached the house. And it was, of course, for that reason that she ran up-stairs—ran wildly, regardlessly, before the eyes of Shima—and along the hall, her high heels clacking on the hard floors, and through her bedroom to the dressing-room, snatched open the table drawer, unlocked the casket with a twitch of the key—and, ah, it was there! It was really real! Why, what had she expected? She was laughing at herself.
She was gay in her relief at getting back to the sapphire, but at the same time she was already wondering what she should do about it that night—take it with her or leave it alone? Dared she wear it on her finger under her glove? Clara might notice the unfamiliar form of the jewel through the thin kid. Harry's warning had been phrased conventionally enough, but the hints his words conveyed had expanded in her mind—fear not only of Clara's laughter, that such a jewel had come from a junk shop, but of her wonder, her questions, her ability of getting out the story of the whole erratic proceeding, even to the strange pantomime between Harry and the blue-eyed Chinaman. Clara was marvelous!
Flora watched her curiously across the table that evening, wondering what was that quality of hers by which she acquired. Hitherto Flora had accepted it as a fact without question, but now she had a desire to place it. It was not beauty, for though Clara was pretty, like a polished Greuze, she was colorless and flavorless, lacking the vivid heat of magnetism. More probably it consisted in a certain sort of sweetness Clara could produce on occasions, a way she had of looking and speaking which Flora could only describe as smooth. But smooth without texture or softness; smooth as quick-flowing water, smooth as glass—a surface upon which even caution might lose its equilibrium. For the danger in Clara was that she was disarming. There was nothing antagonistic in her. One noticed her slowly. The flat tones of her voice made background for other people's conversations. The pale tints of her gown blended with the pale tones of her hair and flesh. Beside Clara's exquisite gradations Flora felt herself without shades, a creature of violent contrasts and impulses. If Clara had been going to carry the ring about with her she would have had a reason for it. But Flora had nothing but a silly fancy.
She made up her mind to leave the sapphire at home; but in her last moment in her room the resolution failed her. Harry, of course, would be angry if he knew, but Harry wouldn't see the thing under her glove.
She came down to where Clara was waiting for her, with the guilty feeling of a child who has concealed a contraband cake; but the way Clara looked her over made her conscious that she had not concealed her excitement. Clara was always cool. What would it be like, she wondered, to feel the same about everything? How would it seem to be no more elated by the expectation of listening to the most beautiful of tenors than over the next meeting of the Decade Club? Was that what she was coming to in time? Not to-night, she thought; and not, at least, while that talisman of romance clasped her around the third finger.
A SPARK OF HORROR
They found Harry waiting for them in the theater lobby. He had come up too late from Burlingame to do more than meet the party there. The Bullers were already in the box, he said, and the second act of I' Pagliacci just beginning.
As they came to the door of the box the lights were down, the curtain up on a dim stage, and the chorus still floating into the roof, while the three occupants of the box were indistinguishable figures, risen up and shuffling chairs to the front for Flora and Clara. It was too dark to distinguish faces.
But dark as it was, Flora knew who was sitting behind her. She heard him speaking. Under the notes of the recitative he was speaking to Clara. The pleasure of finding him here was sharpened by the surprise. She listened to his voice, the mere intonation of which brought back to her their walk through the Presidio woods as deliciously as if she were still there.
Then, as the tenor took up the theme, all talking ceased—Ella's husky whisper, Clara's smoother syllables, and the flat, slow, variable voice of Kerr—the whole house seemed to sink into stiller repose; the high chords floated above the heads of the black pit like colored bubbles, and Flora forgot the sapphire in the triple spell of the singing, the darkness, and the face she was yet to see. She felt relaxed and released from her guard by this darkness around her, that blotted out the sea of faces beneath, that dissolved the walls and high galleries, that obscured the very outline of the box where she sat, until she seemed to be poised, half-way up a void of darkness, looking into a pit in the hollowness of which a voice was singing.
The stage was a narrow shelf of wood swung in that void, from which the voice sang, and a bare finger of light followed it about from place to place. The sweet, searching tenor notes, the semblance of passion and reality the gesticulating Frenchman threw over all the stage, and the crescendo of the tragedy carried her into a mood that barred out Ella, barred out Clara, barred out Harry more than any; but, unaccountably, Kerr was still with her. He was there by no will of hers, but by some essence of his own, some quality that linked him, as it linked her, to the passionate subtleties of life. He seemed to her the eager spirit that was prompting and putting forward this comedy and tragedy playing on before her. She heard him reasserted, vigorous, lawless, wandering, in the voice of the mimic strolling player addressing his mimic audience. The appeal of the tenor to the voiceless galleries, "Underneath this little play we show, there is another play," seemed indeed the very voice of Kerr repeating itself. And with the climax of the sharp tragedy in the middle of the comic stage she placed him again, but placed him this time in the mimic audience looking on, neither applauding nor dissenting; but rather as if he watched the play and played it, too.
The lights went up with a spring. A wave of motion flickered over the house, the talking voices burst forth all at once, and she saw him, really saw him for the first time that evening, as in her fancy, part of the audience; as in her fancy, neither applauding nor dissenting, yet with what a difference! He leaned back in his chair, and leaned his head a little back, as if, for weariness, he wished there were a rest behind it; and how indifferently, how critically, how levelly he surveyed the fluttered house, and the figures in the box beside him! How foreign he appeared to the ardent spirit who had dominated the dark; how emptied of the heat of imagination, how worn, how dry; and even in his salience, how singularly pathetic! He was neither the satanic person of the first night, nor her comrade of the Presidio hills. And if the expression of his face was not quite so cheap as cynicism, it was just the absence of belief in anything.
She felt a lump in her throat, an ache of the cruelest disappointment, as though some masker, masking as the fire of life, had suddenly removed the covering of his face and showed her the burnt-out bones beneath. The shift from what she remembered him to what he now appeared was too rapid and considerable for her. She found herself looking at him through a mist of tears—there in the heart of publicity, in the middle of the circle of red velvet curtains!
He turned and saw her. She watched a smile of the frankest pleasure rising, as it were, to the surface of his weary preoccupation. Something had delighted him. Why, it was herself—just her being there! And she could only helplessly blink at him. Was ever anything so stupid as to be caught in tears over nothing! For the next moment he had caught her. She knew by the change of his look, interrogative, amused, incredulous. He straightened and leaned forward.
"Really," he said, "you must remember that little man has only gone out for a glass of beer."
So he thought it was the tenor who had brought her to the point of tears.
"Ah, why do you say that?" she protested.
He continued to smile indulgently upon her. "Would you really rather believe it true?"
"I don't know. But I wish you hadn't thought of the beer."
He brought the glare of his monocle to bear full upon her. "Why not? It is all we make sure of."
So he had taken that side of it. By his words as well as his looks he repudiated all the gallant show of romance he had paraded to her before, and had taken up the cause of the world as flatly as Harry could have done.
"Oh, if to be sure is all you want," she burst out; "but you don't mean it! Wouldn't you rather have something beautiful you weren't sure of, than something certain that didn't matter?"
He nodded to this quite casually, as if it were an old acquaintance.
"Oh, yes; but the time comes round when you want to be sure of something. The sun never sets twice alike over Mont Pelee; but you can always get the same brand of lager to-day that you had the week before." He looked at her with a faint amusement. "And by your expression I take it you don't know how fine some of those brands are. Life is not half bad—even when it is only a means to the beer."
Under these garish lights, in the middle of this theater of people, facing the bland, almost banal, stare of that monocle, it looked exceedingly probable that, after all, in spite of her dreaming, this was what life would prove to be. But she hated the thought, as she hated that Kerr should be the one to show it to her; as she would have hated her ring if, after all its splendor in the shop, it should have turned out to be a piece of colored glass.
"No, no! I won't believe you," she stoutly denied him. "There is more in life than you can touch. You're not like yourself to say there is not."
He laughed, but rather shortly.
"My dear child, forgive me; I'm sulky to-night. I feel, as I felt at eighteen, that the world has treated me badly. I've lost my luck."
The way his voice dropped at the last sounded to her the weariest thing she had ever heard. He settled back in his chair again, and looked moodily out across the brilliant house.
"I'm sorry." Her tone was sweetly vague. What could be the matter with him? Then, half timidly, she rallied him. "If you go on like this, I shall have to show you my talisman."
"Oh, have you indeed a talisman?" he humored her. And it was as if he said, "Oh, have you a doll?" He did not even turn his head to look at her.
She was chilled. She felt the disappointment, that his quick smile had lightened, return upon her. She hardly noticed the rise of the curtain on the second little play, and the singing voices did not reach her with any poignancy. She was vaguely aware of movements in the box—of Harry's coming in, of Clara's little rustle making room for him, of the shift of Ella's chair away from the business of listening, toward him, and her husky whisper going on with some prolonged tale of dull escapade; but to Flora they all made only a banal background for the brooding silence of her companion. He had thrown his mood over her until she was ready to doubt even the potency of her talisman to counteract it.
She felt of the stone. She drew off her glove and tried to look at it in the dim light, but couldn't get a gleam out of it. She was as impatient for the lights to go up that she might secretly be cheered by its wonder, as she had been that afternoon to get back from the luncheon, and make sure it was still in the drawer. She must see it in spite of Clara at her right hand, whose little chiseled profile might turn upon her at any moment a full face of inquiry.
She held her left hand low in the shadow of her chair; and if, as the lights went up again, there was any change in the sapphire, it was merely a sharper brilliance, as if, like an eye, it had moods, and this was one of its moments of excitement. In its extraordinary luster it seemed to possess a beauty that could not be valued; and she wanted to hold it up to Kerr, to see if she couldn't startle him out of his mood—to see if he wouldn't respond to it, "Yes, there is more in it than you can touch."
She turned to him with the daring flash of timid spirits. It was so sharp a motion that he started instantly from his reverie to meet it, but his alacrity was mechanical. She felt the smile he summoned was slow, as if he returned, from a long distance, a little painfully to his present surroundings.
The Intermezzo was playing, and to speak under the music he leaned so close his shoulder touched her chair. Through that narrow space between them, almost beneath his eyes, she moved her hand—a gesture so slightly emphasized as to seem accident. He had started to speak, but her motion seemed to stop his tongue. He looked hard at her hand, and something violent in his intentness made her clutch the side of the chair. Instantly she met his look, so fiercely, cruelly challenging, that it took her like a blow. For a moment they looked at each other, her eyes wide with fright, his narrowed to a glare under the terrible intentness of his brows. What had she done? What threatened her? What could save her in this sea of people? Then, while she gazed, his challenge burned out to a pale hard scrutiny, that faded to no expression at all—or was it that any expression would have seemed dim after the terrible one that had flashed across his face?
She was as shaken as if he had seized hold of her. If he had snatched the ring off her finger she wouldn't have been more shocked. The whole box must be transfixed by him, and the whole house be looking at nothing but their little circle of horror! She was ready for it. She was braced for anything but the fact which actually confronted her—that no one had noticed them at all. It was monstrous that such a thing could have been without their knowing! But there was no face in all the orchestra, the crowded galleries, or the tiers of boxes to affirm that anything had happened; no face in their own box had even stirred, but Clara's, and that had merely turned from profile to the full, faintly inquiring, mild, and palely pink in the warm reflections of the red velvet curtains.
And what could Clara have seen, if she had seen at all, but Flora a little paler than usual with a hand that trembled; and what worse could Clara conjecture than that she was being silly about Kerr? She turned slowly toward him, and looked at him with a courage that was part of her fear. But wasn't she, in a way, being silly about Kerr? What had become of his expression that had threatened her? There was nothing left of it but her own violent impression—and the longer Kerr sat there, talking from her to Clara, from Clara to Judge Buller, his eyes keeping pace with his light conversational flights, the less Flora felt sure he had ever fixed her with that intensity.
And yet the thing had actually happened. Its evidence was before her. He had been silent. Now he was talking. He had been absent. Now she thought she had never seen him more vividly concerned with the moment. Yet for all his cool looks and diffuse talk around the box, she felt uneasily that his concern was pointed at her, and that he would never let her go. He only waited for the cover of the last act to come back to her single-handed.
She would have deflected his attack, but it was too quick, too unexpected for her to do more than sit helpless, and let him lift up her left hand, delicately between thumb and finger, as if in itself it was some rare, fine curio, and, bending close, contemplate the sapphire unwinkingly. She had an instant when she thought she must cry out, but how impossible in the awful publicity of her place—a pinnacle in the face of thousands! And after the first fluttered impulse came a certain reassurance in such a frank and trivial action. For all its intensity, how could it be construed otherwise than a lively if unconventional interest? It must have been her own fancy which had discerned anything more than that in his first look at her. And yet, when he had laid her hand lightly back, and readjusted his monocle, and looked out, away from her, across the black house, she didn't know whether she was more reassured or troubled because he had not spoken a word. Yet the next moment he looked around at her.
"We shan't meet every evening in such a way as this," he said, and left the statement dangling unanswerable between them. It sounded portentous—final. She wondered that in the middle of her fear it could strike such a sharp note of regret in her. She knew she would regret not meeting him again; and yet she shrank from the thought she could still want to meet him. By one look her whole feeling of sympathy, of reliance, of admiration, that had flowed out to him so naturally she had scarcely been aware of it, had been troubled and mixed with fear. She couldn't answer. She could only look at him with a reflection of her trouble in her face.
"Are you surprised that I thought of that?" he inquired. "It's not so odd as you seem to think that I should want to see you again. I don't want to leave it to chance; do you?" He shot the question at her so suddenly, with such a casual eye, and such dry gravity of mouth, that he had her admission out of her before she realized the extent of its meaning. And the way he took that admission for granted, and overlooked her confusion, made her feel that for the sake of whatever he was after he was intentionally ignoring what it did not suit his convenience to see. She knew he must have seen; that every moment while she had changed and fluttered his eye had never left her.
"Then when are you at home?" he asked her; and by his tone, he conveyed the impression that he was only making courteous response to some invitation she had offered him; though, when she thought, she had not offered it, he had got it out of her. He had got it by sheer impertinence. But none the less he had it. She couldn't escape him there.
She answered somewhat stiffly: "Fridays, second and fourth."
He looked at her with a humorous twist of mouth. "What? So seldom?"
She was impotent if he wouldn't be snubbed; but at the worst she wouldn't be cornered. "Oh, dear, no—but people who come at other times take a chance."
"Does that mean that I may take mine to-morrow?"
He was pressing her too hard. Why was he so anxious to see her, as he had not been the first night or yesterday, or even ten minutes ago? She, who, ten minutes ago, would have been glad, now was doing her best to put him off. She was silent a moment, considering the conventions, and then, like him, she abandoned them. Without a word she turned away from him. Whatever she said, he had her. But, if she said nothing and still he came to-morrow, whatever she did then, he would have to take the consequences of his insistence. Her only desire now was to evade him, lest he should force her out of her non-committal attitude. She wanted to shield herself from further pursuit.
She couldn't escape yet, for the figures on the stage were still gesticulating and trilling, and the people around her, in the small inclosure where she sat, hemmed her in so that she could no more move away from Kerr than if she had been that impaled specimen he had made her feel at their first meeting. The most she could do was to turn away, but even thus, with her eyes averted and her ears full of Ella's voice, she was still acutely aware of him, sitting looking straight before him across the black house with a face worn, wary, weathered to any catastrophe, and such an air of being alertly fixed on something a long way off, that her silence made no more difference to him than her flutterings and her rudeness. And yet she knew he was only waiting; waiting his chance to get at her again and make her commit herself; and that, she was determined, should not happen.
What had already happened, through its very violence, had left an impression like a dream. It seemed unreal, and yet it had made her forget everything else—the stage, the people around her, and even the very sapphire that had generated her inexplicable situation. She drew her glove over the ring. The lights were imminent. It would be hard to hide the great flash of the jewel. And besides, she didn't trust it. She couldn't tell in what direction it might not strike out a spark of horror next.
The rustle of final departure was all over the house. The people in the box were stirring and beginning to stand up; and Flora saw Kerr turn and look at her. She wanted some one to stand between herself and Kerr, and it was to Harry that she turned; not alone that he was so large and adequate, but because she thought she saw in him an inclination to step into that very place where she wanted him. She saw he was a little sullen, and though she didn't suspect him quite of jealousy, she wondered if he had not a right to blame her for the appearance of flirtation that she and Kerr must have presented. Then how much more might he blame her for what she had actually done—for deliberately showing the sapphire to Kerr! The very thought of it frightened her. She knew she was rattling to Harry all the while he fetched her cloak and put it on her, and she was glad now of that ability she had cultivated in herself of making a smooth crust of talk over her seething feelings. She talked the harder, she even took hold of Harry's arm to be sure of keeping him there between her and what she was afraid of, as they came out on the sidewalk and stood waiting in the windy night for the approach of their carriage lights.
Row upon row of street lamps flared in the traveling gusts. The midnight noises of the city were at their loudest; and half their volume seemed to be a scattered chorus of hoarse voices yelling all together like a pack of wolves. Thin, ragged shapes shot in and out among the crowd, ducked under horses' feet and cut wild zigzags across the street like flying goblins. The sense of their cry was indistinguishable, but it was the same—the same inarticulate shape of sound on every tongue. First one throat, then another took up the raucous singsong shout, then all together again, as if the pack were in full cry on the scent of something. What was this fresh quarry of the press, Flora wondered, that made it give tongue so hideously? The hunting note of it made her want to cover her ears, and yet she strained to catch its meaning.
She had stooped her head to the carriage door, when Harry stopped and took one of the damp papers from a crier in the pack. She saw the head-line. It covered half the sheet—the great figure that was offered for the return of the Chatworth ring.
Just when the two ideas had coalesced in her mind Flora couldn't be sure. It had been some time in the first dark hour that she had spent wide awake in her bed. There had been two ideas distinctly. Two impressions of the evening remained with her; and the last one, the great figures that had stared at her from the paper, the fact that had been Harry's secret, made common now in round numbers, had for the moment swallowed up the first.
For all the way home that sum was kept before her by Clara's talk. She could remember nothing of that talk except that it hadn't been able for a moment to leave the Chatworth ring alone. It had been aimed at Harry, but it had fallen to Flora herself to answer Clara's quick speculations, for Harry had been obstinately silent, though not indifferent, as if in his own mind he was as unable to leave it alone as Clara. One with his silence, one with her talk, they had written the figures of the reward so blazingly in Flora's mind that for the moment she could see nothing else. Yet now she was alone her first adventure recurred to her. As soon as she was quiet in the dark there came back with reminiscent terror the look that Kerr had given her in the box. She wasn't really afraid of Kerr himself. She was afraid of the meaning of his look which she didn't understand. It only established in her mind a great significance for the sapphire, if it could produce such an expression on a human face. It had given him more than a mere expression. It had given him an impulse for pursuit, as if, like a magnet, it was fairly dragging him. He had covered his impulse by his very frankness, but she knew he had pursued her—that for the matter of seeing her again he had hunted her down. And what had followed that? Why, she was back again to the great figures in the paper.
At first it seemed as though she had taken a clean leap from one subject to another. She had in no way connected them. But all at once they were connected. She couldn't separate them. She didn't know whether she had been stupid not to have seen them so before, or whether she was stupid to see them so now. For the thought that had sprung up in her mind was monstrous. It startled her so broad awake that she sat up in bed to meet it the more alertly. She sat up trembling. She felt like one who has walked a long way in a wood, hearing crafty footsteps following in the bushes. And now the beast had sprung out, and she was panting, terrified, not knowing which way to run.
The room was dark except for now and again the yellow square of light, from some passing cable car, traveling along the ceiling. The four walls around her, their dark bulks of furniture and light ripple of moving curtains, shut her up with this monster of her mind. The longer she looked at it the less she felt sure it was real, and yet it was before her. It was there with none of the loveliness of her first fancies about the ring. It was there with grisly reality. It had not been conjured up. It had sprung upon her from the solid actualities of the night. And, yes, of the day before—and the night before that. Oh, she had known well enough that there had been something wrong at the goldsmith's shop. She had felt it even before she had seen the sapphire; and afterward how it had held them, both herself and Harry! To have moved Harry it must be something indeed! Had he suspected it then, or had he only wondered?
If he had suspected why hadn't he spoken of it? Well, her appalling fancy prompted, hadn't he spoken of it?—though not to her. There flashed back to her the memory of him there in the back of the shop with the blue-eyed Chinaman. How furiously he had assailed the little man! How uneasily, with what a dissatisfied air he had looked at the ring even after it was on her finger, as if, after all, he had not compassed what he had wanted. She could be almost sure that the monstrous idea which had just overtaken her had, however fleetingly, flashed before Harry's mind in the goldsmith's shop. But surely he couldn't have entertained it for a moment. That was impossible, or he would never have let her take the sapphire—Harry, who had seen the ring, the very Crew Idol itself, within the twenty-four hours.
"A little heathen god curled round himself with a big blue stone on the top-of his head." Harry hadn't said what sort of stone it was; but Kerr had said it was a sapphire. There was a sapphire on her hand now. She touched it with her finger-tips cautiously, as if to touch something hot. So near to her! In the same room with her! On her own hand! It was too much to be alone with in the dark! She reached out softly, as if she feared to disturb some threatening presence lurking around her, and lit the small night lamp on the low table by her bed. The shade was yellow, and that contended with the blue of the sapphire, but couldn't break its light. With the first flash of its splendor in her face she felt certainty threatening her. She shook the ring quickly off her finger and it fell with a light clatter on the table's marble top—fell with the sapphire face down, and all its light hidden. She took it up again a little fearfully, as if it might have got some harm; and again while she looked at it it seemed to her that nothing that happened about this jewel could be too extraordinary. If only it had been less wonderful, less beautiful, she would not have felt so terribly afraid! She put it back on the table and for a moment held her hand over it, as if she imprisoned a living thing.
Then, without looking again, she got out of bed and went to the window. It overlooked the dark steep of the garden, the moving trees and the lighter plane of the water. She leaned out, far out. Black housetops marched against the bay, and between them, light by light, her eyes followed the street-lamps down to the shore. If one could recover from such a nightmare as she had it would be by leaning out into and facing this wide soft dark. These shapeless roofs just below her the night made mysterious; and yet they covered people that she knew—her friends—kind, safe people! There had been nights when the city, through this very window, had seemed to her a savage place; but now the wicked fear that stood behind her—the fear that had got inside her house, that had slipped unseen through the circle of friends, that stood behind her now, filling her own room with its shadowy menace—had transformed the city into a very haven of security.
Oh, to escape out of this window into the innocent, sleeping city, away from the horror at her back! To look in from the outside and be even sure there was a horror! And if there was, to run away into the wide soft dark! But how did she know, her fantastic idea persisted, that the sapphire wouldn't follow her—the sapphire itself—the embodiment of her fear? Then she dared not be driven out.
But there was another way to be rid of it. The real idea occurred to her. How easy it would be to take it—that beautiful thing—and throw it; throw it as hard as she could, and let the night take care of it. The window was open, as if it stood ready, and there was the ring on the table. She went to it, looked at it a moment without touching it, holding her hands away.
Then with a little shiver she backed away from it and sat down on the foot of the bed. She looked pale and little, as if the eye of the ring, blazing under the feeble lamp, like the evil eye, had sapped her fire and youth. The only thing about her of any size and color was the heavy braid of hair fallen over her shoulder. She hugged her arms around her updrawn knees, and resting her chin upon them eyed the sapphire bravely.
"What shall I do with you?" she somberly inquired of it. "You are a dreadful thing. I don't know where you came from nor what you are, but I am afraid—I am afraid you are—" She hesitated. The sapphire lay shining like some idol set up for worship, and in spite of herself its beauty moved her, if not to worship, at least to awe and fear.
"I suppose you know I can't throw you away," she murmured, "and yet I can't keep you!" She pondered, chin in hand. To take it to Harry! That seemed the natural thing to do—the simplest way to be rid of it. She hesitated.
"If I only knew! If I only were sure!" She locked her fingers closer, staring hard. If it had been the whole Crew Idol, the undismembered god himself, then there would have been less terror, and one plain thing to do. She looked hard at the sapphire setting, as if she hoped to discover upon its brilliance some tell-tale trace of old soft gold; but there was only one great, glassy, polished eye, and out of what head it had come, whether from the forehead of the Crew Idol, or from that of some unheralded deity, who was there who could tell her?
She tried to summon a coherent thought, but again it was only a flash out of the darkness.
"Kerr! Why, he knows more than I." She looked at this stupidly for a moment as if it were too large to take in at once. Of course he must have known! Why hadn't she thought of that before? Why hadn't she thought of it that first moment, when he had turned on her in the box with such terrible eyes? She drew in her shoulders, looking all around at the dim corners of the room which the lamp flame failed to penetrate. Behind her present lively fear a second shadow was growing, more dim, more formless, more vast and dubious.
What series of circumstances might have led up to Kerr's knowledge she could not dream. He was one of whom nothing was incredible. From the first moment his face had shot into the light, from the moment she had heard his voice, like color in the level voices around him, she had been bewildered by his variety. He had caught her up to the clouds. He had whirled her along dubious levels, and more than once he had shown her that the lines she had supposed drawn so sharply between this and that could no more be discerned than meridians on green earth.
If she had noticed any earnestness in him, it was his relish, his gusto for the whole of life. He had no theory to set up. Just as it was he took it. If he persisted in requiring people to be themselves it was for no good to themselves, but for the pleasure he himself got out of it. If he made society into a little ball, and threw it away, it was only to show it could be done.
And where, she asked herself in a summing up, might such a man not be found? But there were few places, indeed, in even the broadest plain of possibility, which could hold knowledge of so particular and piercing a quality as his look had implied. There had been so much more than curiosity or surprise in it. She could hardly face the memory of it, so cruelly it had struck her. There was no doubt in her mind that Kerr had seen the ring. Somewhere in the pageant of his experience he had met it, known it—but what he wanted of it—
She broke off that thought, and looked long at the little flame of the lamp. It was strange, but there was no doubt in her mind but that he wanted it. That had been the strongest thing in his look. She felt herself picking her way along a very narrow path, one step over either edge of which would plunge her chasms deep. Now she snatched at a frail sapling to save herself. The fact that Kerr knew her stone didn't prove it belonged to the Crew Idol. And if it didn't—if it wasn't the crown of the heathen god, then her whole dreadful supposition fell to pieces. But she hadn't proved it and the simplest way was just to ask Kerr. Her chance for that was the chance he had fought so hard for, the chance of their meeting the next day.
She hadn't wanted that meeting when he had first asked her for it in the box. She had feared it then, and all the more she feared it now, because now she would have to do more than defend herself. She would take the offensive; she would make the attack, now that she had a question to ask. Why should the thought of it frighten her? If this was not the Crew sapphire she would be no worse off than she had been. If it was, her course would be clear. It seemed it should be simple, it should be easy to face Kerr with her question; but she was possessed by the apprehension that it would be neither. Would the question she had to ask be a safe thing to give him? And if she dared undertake it and should be overpowered after all—then everything would be lost.
What the "everything" was she feared to lose would not come clear to her. The only thing that did emerge definitely from the agitation of her mind was the knowledge that this question that had been thrust upon her made it tenfold more difficult to meet Kerr. And yet, to refuse to meet him now would be as cowardly as throwing the ring out of the window.
A LADY UNVEILED
She wakened in the morning to some one knocking. She thought the sound had been going on for a long time, but, now she was finally roused, it had stopped. This was odd, for no one came to her in the morning except Marrika, and it was tiresome to be thus imperatively beset before she was half awake. Now the knocking came again with a level, unimpatient repetition, and she called, "Come in!" at which Clara, in a pale morning gown, promptly entered—an apparition as cool and smooth and burnished as if she had spent the night, like a French doll, in tissue paper.
Clara's coming in in the morning was an unheard-of thing. Flora was taken aback.
"Why, Clara!" She was blank with astonishment. She sat up, flushed and tumbled, and still blinking. "I hope I didn't keep you knocking long."
"Oh, no, indeed; only three taps." Clara looked straight through Flora's astonishment, as if there had been no such thing in evidence. She drew up a chair and sat down beside the bed. It was a rocking-chair, but it did not sway with her calm poise. In the fine finish of her morning attire, with her hands placidly folded on her knee, she made Flora feel taken at a disadvantage, thus scarcely awake, disheveled and all but stripped. But Clara, if she looked at anything but Flora's eyes, looked only at her hands, one and then the other as they lay upon the coverlet.
"It isn't so very late," she said, "but I have ordered your breakfast. I thought you would want it if you had that ten-o'clock appointment; and there is something I want to ask you before you go out." Flora was conscious of a little apprehension. "It's about that place you talked of taking for the summer." She felt vaguely relieved, though she had had no actual grounds for anticipating an awkward question. "I came upon something in the oddest way you can imagine," Clara pursued her subject. "Had you any idea the Herricks were in straits?"
"The young Herricks?"
"Oh, no! The old Herricks, the Herricks, Mrs. Herrick whom you so much admire! Of course, one isn't told; but they must be, to be willing to let the old place."
"Not the San Mateo place?" said Flora, with a stir of interest. She felt as astonished as if some Confucian fanatic had set up his joss at auction.
Clara complacently nodded.
"Mrs. Herrick spoke to me herself. They don't want any publicity about it, but she had heard that we were looking, and she did me the favor"—Clara smiled a little dryly—"of telling me first."
Flora looked reflective. "I've never seen it, but they say it's beautiful."
"It is, in a way," Clara grudgingly admitted, "but it isn't new; and the ridiculous part is that she will let it only on condition that it shall not be done over. It is in sufficiently good shape, but it stands now just as Colonel Herrick furnished it forty years ago."
"Why, I should love that!" Flora frankly confessed, and gave a wistful glance at the walls around her, wondering how long before the soft, dark bloom of time, of use and wont, should descend on their crude faces.
"Well," Clara conceded, "at any rate we know it's genuine, and that's a consolation. The number of imitations going about and the way people pick them up is appalling! While I was getting that rug for you at Vigo's yesterday, Ella Buller came in and bought three imitation Bokharas, with the greatest enthusiasm. She buys quantities, and she's always taken in. It is enough to make one nervous about the people one sits next to at dinner there. One can not help suspecting them of being some of Ella's bargains. I wonder, now, where she picked up that Kerr."
This finale failed to take Flora off her guard. "At any rate, he is odd enough to be genuine," she said with a gleam of malice.
"Oh, no doubt of that," Clara mildly assented, "but genuine what?"
"Why, gentleman at large," said Flora, and quickly wanted to recall it, for Clara's glance seemed to give it a double significance. "I mean," she added, "just one of those chronic travelers who have nothing else to do, and whose way must be paved with letters of introduction"—she floundered. "At least, that was the idea he gave of himself." She broke off, doubly angry that she had tried to explain Kerr, and tried to explain herself, when the circumstances required nothing of the sort. She was sure Clara had not missed her nervousness, though Clara made no sign. Her eyes only traveled a second time to Flora's hands, as if among the flare of red and white jewels she was expecting to see another color. To Flora's palpitating consciousness this look made a perfect connection with Clara's next remark.