"At least his manners are odd enough! There was a minute last night when he was really quite startling."
Flora felt a small, warm spot of color increasing in the middle of each cheek. She drew a long breath, as if to draw in courage. Then Clara had really seen! That smooth, blindish look of hers, last night, had seen everything! And here she was owning up to it, and affably offering herself as a confidante; and for what reason under the sun unless to find out what it was that had so startled Kerr? Flora felt like crying out, "If you only knew what that thing may be, you would never want to come nearer to it!"
"I am afraid he annoyed you, Flora."
The girl looked into the kindly solicitude of Clara's face with a hard, almost passionate incredulity. Was that really all Clara had supposed?
"These Continentals," she went on, now lightly swaying to and fro in her chair, "have singular notions of American women. They take us for savages, my dear."
"Then isn't it for us to show them that we are more than usually civilized? I can't run away from him like a frightened little native."
"Of course not; but that is where I come in; it's what I'm for—to get rid of such things for you." That small, cool smile made Flora feel more than ever the immature barbarian of her simile. Clara sat throwing the protection of her superior knowledge and capability around her, like a missionary garment; but Flora could have laughed with relief. Then Clara merely supposed Kerr had been impertinent. Her little invasion had been really nothing but pure kindness and protection; and Flora couldn't but feel grateful for it. Last night she had thought herself so absolutely alone; and here was a friend coming forward again, and stepping between her and the thing above all others she was helpless about—the real world.
Clara had risen, and stood considering a moment with that same sweet, impersonal eye which Flora found it hardest to comprehend.
"What I mean," she explicitly stated, "is that if he should undertake to carry out his preposterous suggestion, and call this afternoon, I am quite ready, if you wish, to take him off your hands."
This last took Flora's breath away. It had not occurred to her that Clara had overheard. It shocked her, frightened her; and yet Clara's way of stating the fact, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, made Flora feel that she herself was in the wrong to feel thus. For, after all, Clara had been most tactful, most considerate and delicate in conveying her knowledge, not hinting that Flora could have been in the slightest degree responsible for Kerr's behavior; but simply sweetly taking it for granted that they, of course, were banded together to exclude this outlander. Under her sense of obligation, and what she felt ought to be gratitude, Flora floundered for words.
"You're very kind," she managed to get out; and that seemed to leave her committed to hand Kerr over, tied hand and foot, when she wasn't at all sure she wanted to.
"Then shall I tell Mrs. Herrick that you will consider the house?" said Clara, already in the act of departure. "She is to call to-day to go into it with me more thoroughly. Thus far we've only played about the edges."
Her eyes strayed toward the dressing-table as she passed it, and as she reached the door she glanced over the chiffonier. It was on the tip of Flora's tongue to ask if she had mislaid something, when Clara turned and smiled her small, tight-curled smile, as if she were offering it as a symbol of mutual understanding. Curiously enough, it checked Flora's query about the straying glances, and made her wonder that this was the first time in their relation that she had thought Clara sweet.
But there was another quality in Clara she did not lose sight of, and she waited for the closing of a door further down the hall before she drew the sapphire from under her pillow.
With the knocking at the door her first act had been to thrust it there. The feeling that it was going to be hard to hide was still her strongest instinct about it; but the morning had dissipated the element of the supernatural and the horrid that it had shown her the night before. It seemed to have a clearer and a simpler beauty; and the hope revived in her that its beauty, after all, was the only remarkable thing about it.
Her conviction of the night before had sunk to a shadowy hypothesis. She knew nothing—nothing that would justify her in taking any step; and her only chance of knowing more lay in what she would get out of Kerr; for that he knew more about her ring than she, she was convinced. She was afraid of him, yet, in spite of her fear, she had no intention of handing him over to Clara. For on reflection she knew that Clara's offer must have a deeper motive than mere kindness, and she had a most unreasonable feeling that it would not be safe. She felt a little guilty to have seemed to take her companion's help, while she left her so much at sea as to the real facts. But, after all, it was Clara who had forced the issue.
She thought a good deal about Clara while she was dressing. A good many times lately she had looked forward to the fall, the time of her marriage, when their rather tense relationship would be ended. This house in the country, which was to be her last little bachelor fling, was to be Clara's last commission for her.
Think how she would, she could but feel as if she were ungratefully abandoning Clara. Clara had done so well by her in their three years together! There surely must be immediately forthcoming for such a remarkable person another large opportunity, and yet she couldn't help recalling their first encounter in the particularly dull boarding-house where Clara was temporarily shelved; where, nevertheless, she had not conceded an inch of her class, nor a ray of her luster to circumstance. This surprising luster was the gloss of her body, the quality of her clothes and accessories, the way she traveled and the way she smiled. It was the bloom of luxury she kept about her person through all her varying surroundings. She had never to rise to the level of a new position; she was there already; and she never came down.
Flora knew it was for just her air of being ready that she had trusted Clara, and for the three years of their association she had never failed to find her companion ready wherever their common interests were concerned. She had no reason for not trusting Clara now, except the knowledge that, by her own approaching marriage, their interests would be separated, and her feeling that Clara's prudence must already be by way of looking out for itself alone.
Yet Clara would do a kindness if it did not inconvenience her, and surely this morning she had been kind. Still Flora felt she didn't want to reveal anything until she was a little surer of her own position. When she knew better where she stood she would know what she could confide to Clara. Meanwhile, if there was any one to whom she could turn now it would surely be Harry.
Yet, if she did, what a lot of awkward explanations! She could not return the sapphire without giving a reason, and what a thing to explain—that she had not only worn it, but, in a freak, shown it to the one of all people he most objected to.
Nevertheless the most sensible thing clearly was to go through with it and confess to Harry. Then she must communicate with him at once. No—she would wait until after breakfast. There was plenty of time. Kerr would not come until the afternoon. But after breakfast, she wondered if it wouldn't be as well to ring him up at luncheon time? Then she would be sure of finding him at the club.
Meanwhile she dared not let the sapphire out of her grasp; and yet she could not wear it on her hand. She had thought of the tear-shaped pouch of gold which it was her custom to wear; but the slender length of chain that linked it to her neck was too frail for such a precious weight. At last she had fastened it around her neck on the strongest chain she owned, and thus she carried it all the morning under her bodice with a quieter mind than had been hers on the first day she had worn it, when there had been nothing to explain her uneasiness.
She was quite sure she was going to give back the sapphire to Harry, yet she couldn't help picturing to herself what her meeting with Kerr would have been, supposing she had decided differently. As the morning slipped by she found herself doubting that he would come at all. Her attitude of the night before had surely been enough to discourage any one. Yet if he didn't come she knew that she would be disappointed.
She was alone at luncheon, and in a dream. She glanced now and then at the clock. She rose only ten minutes before the hour that Harry was in the habit of leaving the club. She went up-stairs slowly and stopped in front of the telephone. She touched the receiver, drew her hand back and turned away. She shut the door of her own rooms smartly after her.
She did not try to—because she couldn't—understand her own proceeding. She merely sat, listening, as it seemed to her, for hours.
But when at last Kerr's card was handed in to her, it gave her a shock, as if something which couldn't happen, and yet which she had all along expected, had come to pass.
In her instant of indecision Marrika had got away from her, but she called the girl back from the door and told her to say to Mrs. Britton that Mr. Kerr had called, but that Miss Gilsey would see him herself.
She started with a rush. Half-way down the stairs she stopped, horrified to find what her fingers were doing. They were closed around the little lump that the ring made in the bosom of her gown, and she had not known it. What if she had rushed in to Kerr with this extraordinary manifestation? What if, while she was talking to him, her hand should continue to creep up again and yet again to that place, and close around the jewel, and make it evident, even in its hiding-place? The time had come when she must even hide it from herself. And yet, to creep back up the stair when she made sure Kerr must have heard her tumultuous downward rush! It would never do to soundlessly retreat. She must go back boldly, as if she had forgotten nothing more considerable than a pocket handkerchief.
Yet before she reached the top again she found herself going tiptoe, as if she were on an expedition so secret that her own ears should not hear her footsteps. But she went direct and unhesitating. It had come to her all in a flash where she would put the sapphire. The little buttoned pocket of her bath-robe. There it hung in the bath-room on one unvarying peg, the most immovable of all her garments, safe from the excursions of Marrika's needle or brushes, not to be disturbed for hours to come.
She passed through her bedroom, through her dressing-room into the bath-room. The robe was hanging behind the door. It took her a moment to draw out the ring and disentangle its chain, and while she was doing this she became aware of movings to and fro in her bedroom. She drew the door half open, the better to conceal herself behind it, and at the same time, through the widened crack of the jamb, to keep an eye on the dressing-room, and hurried lest Marrika should surprise her. But nevertheless she had barely slipped the ring into the little pocket and refastened the flap, when Clara opened the bedroom door and stood looking into the dressing-room.
Flora experienced a sharp start of surprise, and then of wonder. Here was Clara again seeking her out! Here she stood, brushed and polished, and finished to a pitch of virtue, again taking Flora at a disadvantage, hiding behind her own door. But at the least she was grateful that Clara had not seen her. She stood a minute collecting herself. She wasn't doing anything she need be ashamed of, or that she need explain, or that need even awaken suspicion. But before she could take her courage in both hands and come out of her retreat, Clara had reached the middle of the dressing-room, and stood still.
Her lifted veil made a fine mist above the luster of her eyes. She was perfect to the tips of her immaculate white gloves, and she wore the simple, sober look of a person who thinks himself alone. Then it wasn't Flora, Clara was looking for! She was looking all around—over the surface of every object in the room. Presently she went up to the dressing-table. She laid her gloved hands upon it, and looked at the small objects strewn over its top. She took a step backward and opened the top drawer. She reached into it, and delicately explored.
Flora could see the white gloves going to and fro among her white handkerchiefs, could see them find, open and examine the contents of her jewel-box. And the only thing that kept her from shrieking out was the feeling that this abominable thing which was being enacted before her eyes couldn't be a fact at all.
Clara took out an old pocket-book, shiny with years, shook from it a shower of receipts, newspaper clippings, verses. She let them lie. She took out a long violet box with a perfumer's seal upon it. It held a bunch of dried violets. She took out a bonbonniere of gold filigree. It was empty. A powder box, a glove box, a froth of lace, a handful of jewelers' boxes, a jewel flung loose into the drawer. This she pounced upon. It was a brooch! She let it fall—turned to the chiffonier; upended the two vases of Venetian glass, lifted the lids of jars and boxes, finally came to the drawers. One by one she took them out, turned the contents of each rapidly over, and left them standing, gaping white ruffles and lace upon the floor. She took up daintily, in her white kid fingers, slippers, shook them upside down. She opened the door of the closet, and disappeared within. There was audible the flutterings of all the distressed garments, with little busy pauses. Then Clara came out, with her hat a little crooked; and stood in the middle of the room still with her absorbed and sober face, looking over the gaping drawers, pulled out and rifled, with their contents heaped up and streaming over the floor.
Her eye fell upon the waste basket. She turned it upside down, and stooped over the litter. She gathered it up in her white gloves and dropped it back. Then, for the first time, she glanced at the bath-room door; stood looking at it, as if it had occurred to her to look in the soap dish. Then she turned again to the room, to the dressing-table. She put back the paste-board jewelers' boxes, the jeweled pin, the laces, which she shook out and folded daintily, the glove and powder boxes, the gold bonbonniere, the long violet box, the leather pocket-book,—each deftly and unhesitatingly in the place from which she had taken it, and all the heaps of white handkerchiefs.
One by one she laid back in the chiffonier drawers, the garments, properly and neatly folded, that she had so hastily snatched out of them. The sun, streaming full into the room, caught gleams in her pale hair, and struck blindingly upon the heaps of white around her, and made two dazzling points of her gloved hands that moved as deftly as hands uncovered. She slid back the last drawer into the chiffonier, and rose from her knees, lightly dusting off the front of her gown; went to the closet door and closed it. She stood before it a moment with a face perplexed and thoughtful, then turned alertly toward the outer door. As she passed the mirror she looked into it, and touched her hat straight again, but the action was subconscious. Clara wasn't thinking of it.
Flora stood as if she were afraid to move, while Clara crossed her bedroom, stopped, went on and closed the outer door behind her. And even after that soft little concussion she stood still, burning, choking, struggling with the overwhelming force of an affront whose import she did not yet realize. Out in her sunny dressing-room all the outraged furniture stood meek and in order, frauding the eye to believe that nothing had happened! She felt she couldn't look things in the face a moment longer. She hid her face in the folds of her dressing-gown.
Why, she had thought that such things couldn't happen! She had thought that people's private belongings, like their persons, were inviolable. They all always talked, she had talked, about such things as if they were mere nothings. They had talked about the very taking of the Crew Idol as if it were a splendid joke! But she had not dreamed what such things were like when they were near. When they were held up to you naked they were like this! In the shame of it she could no more have faced Clara than if she had surprised Clara naked.
She snatched the ring out of the pocket of her gown and clutched it in her hand. Was there no place in the world where she could be sure of safety for this?
With trembling fingers she fastened it again to the chain about her neck. She thought of Kerr down-stairs waiting for her. Well, she would rather keep it with her. Then, at least, she would know when it was taken from her. Still in the fury of her outraged faith, she passed through her violated rooms, and slowly along the hall and down the stairs.
THE MYSTERY TAKES HUMAN FORM
He turned from the window where he had presented a long, drooping, patient back, and his warm, ironic mirth—the same that had played with her the first night—flashed out at sight of her. But after a moment another expression mixed with it, sharpened it, and fastened upon her with an incredulous intentness.
She stood on the threshold, pale, and brilliant still in her blaze of anger, equal, at last, to anything. Kerr, as he signaled to her with every lineament of his enlivened face, his interest, his defiance, his uncontrollability, was not the man of her imaginary conversations. He was not here to be used and disposed of; but, as he came toward her, the new admiration in his face was bringing her reassurance that neither was she. The thought that her moment of bitter incredulity had made her formidable gave her courage to fight even him, of whom she was so much in awe; gave her courage even to smile, though she grew hot at the first words he spoke.
"You should not be brave and then run away, you know."
She thought of her rush up the stairs again. "I had to go back to see Mrs. Britton." (Oh, how she had seen her!)
It seemed to Flora that everything she had been through in the last few moments was blazoned on her face. But he only looked a little more gravely at her, though his sardonic eye-brow twitched.
"Ah, I thought you only ran back to hide in your doll's house."
She laughed. Such a picture of her!
"Well, at any rate, now I've come out, what have you to say to me?"
"Now you've come out," he repeated, and looked at her this time with full gravity, as if he realized finally how far she'd come.
She had taken the chair in the light of the eastern windows. She lay back in the cushions, her head a little bent, her hands interlaced with a perfect imitation of quietude. The dull satin of her slender foot was the only motion about her, but the long, slow rise and fall of her breath was just too deep-drawn for repose.
He looked down upon her from his height.
"I'm sorry I frightened you last night," he said, "but I'm not sorry I came, since you've seen me. You needn't have, you know, if you didn't want to. You could have stayed in the doll's house; and there, I suppose, you think I should never have found you—or it again?"
He was silent a moment, leaning on the chair opposite, watching her with knitted forehead, while her apprehension fluttered for what he should do next. He had done away with all the amenities of meeting and attacked his point with a directness that took her breath.
"You know what I've come for," he said, "but now I'm here, now that I see you, I wonder if there's something I haven't reckoned on." He looked at her earnestly. "If you think I've taken advantage of you—if you say so—I'll go away, and give you a chance to think it over."
It would have been so easy to have nodded him out, but instead she half put out her hand toward him. "No; stay."
He gave her a quick look—surprise and approbation at her courage. He dropped into a chair. "Then tell me about it."
Flora's heart went quick and little. She held herself very still, afraid in her intense consciousness lest her slightest movement might betray her. She only moved her eyes to look up at him questioningly, suspending acknowledgment of what he meant until he should further commit himself.
"I mean the sapphire," he said. He waited.
"Yes," she answered coolly. "I saw that it interested you last night, but I couldn't think especially why. It's a beautiful stone."
He laughed without a sound—shook noiselessly for a minute. "Meaning that a gentleman shouldn't pounce upon any beautiful stone he may happen to see?" He got up and moved about restlessly in the little space between their two chairs. "Quite so; lay it to my being more than a gentleman; lay it to my being a crack-brained enthusiast, a confounded beauty worshiper, a vicious curio dealer, an ill-mannered ass! But"—and he flashed around at her with a snap of his nervous fingers—"where did you get it?"
For the life of her she couldn't help her wave of color, but through it all she clung to her festal smile. Sheer nervousness made it easy.
"Well, suppose it was begged, borrowed, or—given to me? Suppose it came from here or far away yonder? What's that to do with its beauty?" She gave him question for question. "Did you ever see it before?"
He never left off looking at her, looking at her with a hard inquiry, as if she were some simple puzzle that he unaccountably failed to solve.
"That's rather neat, the way you dodge me," he said, dodging in his turn. "But I don't see it now. You're not wearing it?"
She played indifference with what a beating heart! "Oh, I only wear it off and on."
"Off and on!" His voice suddenly rang at her. "Off and on! Why, my good woman, it's just two days you could have worn it at all!"
She stood up—stood facing him. For a moment she knew nothing except that her horrible idea was a fact. She had the eye of the Crew Idol, and this man knew it! Yet the fact declared gave her courage. She could face his accusal if only he could give the reason for it. But after a moment, while they looked silently at each other, she saw he was not accusing her. He was threatening her and beseeching her indulgence in the same look. He opened his lips, hesitated, turned sharp about and walked away from her.
She watched him with increasing doubt. After saying so much, was he going to say nothing more? She had a feeling that she had not heard the worst yet, and when he turned back to her from the other end of the room there was something so haggard, so harassed, so fairly guilty about him that if she had ever thought of telling him the truth of how she came by the ring she put it away from her now.
But beneath his distress she recognized a desperate earnestness. There was something he wanted at any cost, but he was going to be gentle with her. She had felt before the potentiality of his gentleness, and she doubted her power to resist it. She fanned up all the flame of anger that had swept her into the room. She reminded herself that the greatest gentleness might only be a blind; that there was nothing stronger than wanting something very much, and that the protection of the jewel was very thin. But when he stood beside her she realized he held a stronger weapon against her than his gentleness, something apart from his intention. She felt that in whatever circumstance, at whatever time she should meet him he would make her feel thus—hot and cold, and happy for the mere presence of his body beside her. In a confusion she heard what he was saying.
He was speaking, almost coaxingly, as if to a child. "I understand," he was saying. "I know all about it. It's a mistake. But surely you don't expect to keep it now. It will only be an annoyance to you."
She turned on him. "What could it be to you?"
Kerr, planted before her, with his head dropped, looked, looked, looked, as if he gave silence leave to answer for him what it would. It answered with a hundred echoes ringing up to her from long corridors of conjecture, half-articulated words breathing of how extraordinary the answer must be that he did not dare to make. He looked her up and down carefully, impersonally, with that air he had of regarding a rare specimen, thoughtfully; as if he weighed such ephemeral substance as chance.
"What will you take for it?" he said at last.
She was silent. With a sick distrust it came to her that it was the very worst thing he could have said after that speaking silence.
She stepped away from him. "This thing is not for sale."
He stared at her with amazement; then threw back his head and laughed as if something had amused him above all tragedy.
"You are an extraordinary creature," he said, "but really I must have it. I can't explain the why of it; only give the sapphire to me, and you'll never be sorry for having done that for me. Whatever happens, you may be sure I won't talk. Even if the thing comes out, you shan't be mixed up in it." He had come near her again, and the point of his long forefinger rested on her arm. She was motionless, overwhelmed with pure terror, with despair. He was smiling, but there was a desperate something about him, stronger than the common desire of possession, terrifying in its intensity. She looked behind her. The thick glass of the window was there, a glimpse of the empty street and the figure of a woman in a blowing green veil turning the corner.
"Why not give it to me now," he urged, "since, of course, you can't keep it? I could have it now in spite of you."
Everything in her sprang up in antagonism to meet him. "I know what you are," she cried, "but you shan't have it. You have no more right to it than I. You can't get it away from me, and I shan't give it to you."
He had grown suddenly paler; his eyes were dancing, fastened upon her breast. His long hands closed and opened. She looked down, arrested at the sight of her hand clenched just where her breath was shortest, over the sapphire's hiding-place.
He smiled. How easily she had betrayed herself! But she abated not a jot of her defiance, challenging him, now he knew its hiding-place, to take the sapphire if he could. But he did not move. And it came to her then that she had been ridiculous to think for an instant that this man would take anything from her by force. What she had to fear was his will at work upon hers, his persuasion, his ingenuity. She thought of the purple irises, and how he had drawn them toward him in the crook of his cane—and her dread was lest he meant to overcome her with some subtlety she could not combat. For that he was secret, that he was daring, that he was fearless beyond belief, he showed her all too plainly, since here he stood, condemned by his own evidence, alone, in the midst of her household, within call of her servants, and had the sublime effrontery to look at her with admiration, and, it occurred to her, even with a little pity.
The click of a moving latch brought his eyes from hers to the door.
"Some one is coming in," he said in a guarded voice. It warned her that her face showed too much, but she could not hope to recover her composure. She hardly wanted to. She was in a state to fancy that a secret could be kept by main force; and she turned without abatement of her reckless mood and took her hand from where she had held it clenched upon her breast and stretched it out to Mrs. Herrick.
The lady had stood in the doorway a moment—a long-featured, whitish, modeled face, draped in a dull green veil, a tall figure whose flowing skirts of black melted away into the background of the hall—before she came forward and met her hostess' hand with a clasp firm and ready.
"I'm so glad to find you here," she said. She looked directly into Flora's eyes, into the very center of her agitation. She held her tremulous hand as if neither of these manifestations surprised her; as if a young woman and a young man in colloquy might often be found in such a state of mind.
Flora's first emotion was a guilty relief that, after all, her face had not betrayed Kerr. But she had no sooner murmured his name to Mrs. Herrick, no sooner had that lady's gray eyes lighted upon him, than they altered their clear confidence. The situation as reflected in Flora looked naive enough, but there was nothing naive about Kerr. The very perfection of his coolness, there in the face of her burning agitation, was appalling. Oh, why couldn't he see, Flora thought wildly, how it was damning him—how it was showing him so practised, so marvelously equal to any emergency, that his presence here among fleeces could be nothing less than wolfish?
Mrs. Herrick's face was taking on an expression no less than wary. What he was, Mrs. Herrick could not dream. She could not even suspect what Flora believed. But in the light of her terrible discovery Flora dared not have him suspected at all. The chasms of distrust and suspicion that had been opening between them she forgot. In a flash she was ready to throw herself in front of this man, to cover him from suspicion, even though by so doing she took it upon herself.
Now, if she had ever in her life, she talked over the top of her feelings; and though at first to her ears her voice rang out horribly alone, presently Mrs. Herrick was helping her, adding words to words. It was the house they spoke of, the San Mateo house, the subject about which Flora knew Mrs. Herrick had come to talk; but to Flora it was no longer a subject. It was a barrier, a shield. In this emergency it was the only subject large enough to fill the gap, and much as Flora had liked the idea of it, she had never built the house so large, so vivid, so wonderfully towering to please her fancy as she was doing now to cover Kerr. With questions she led Mrs. Herrick on to spin out the subject, to play it over with lights and shades, to beat all around it. And all the while she knew that Kerr was watching her; watching her once again in dubious admiration. It was a look that made Mrs. Herrick seem ready at a movement of his to lay her hand on Flora in protection.
The lady's clear gray eyes traveled between Flora's face and his. Under their steady light there was a strange alertness, as if she sat there ready enough to avert whatever threatened, but anxious to draw her skirts aside from it, distrusting the quality, hating to have come in upon anything so dubious. When the hall door opened and closed she listened as if for a deliverer; and when Clara appeared between the portieres she turned to her and met her with a flash of relief, as if here at last was a safe quantity. Clara was still wearing her hat, with the veil pushed up in a little mist above her eyes, and still had her white gloves on. The sight of Mrs. Herrick's hand soliciting the clasp of those gave Flora a curious sensation.
She looked from one face to another, and last at Kerr's. She shut her eyes an instant. Here was a thief. He was standing in her drawing-room now. She had been talking with him. She opened her eyes. The fact acknowledged had not altered the color of daylight. It was strange that things—furniture and walls and landscape—should remain so stolidly the same when such a thing had happened to her! For she had not only spoken with a thief, but she had shielded him. It struck her grotesquely that perhaps Mrs. Herrick's instinct was right, after all. Wasn't Clara the safest of the lot? Clara at least kept her gloves on, while she herself was shamelessly arrayed on the side of disorder. She was clinging to a piece of property that wasn't hers, and whatever way she dressed her motives they looked too much of a piece with the operations of the original miscreant.
Flora saw the evil spirit of tragic-comedy. He fairly grinned at her.
Then this was the end of all romance? She must turn her back on the charm, the power, the spell that had been wrought around her, and, horror-struck, pry into her own mind to discover what lawless thing could be in her to have drawn her to such a person, and to keep her, even now that she knew the worst, unwilling to relinquish the thought of him. His depravity loomed to her enormous; but was that all there was to be said of him? Did his delicacy, his insight, his tempered fineness, count for nothing beside it? Must their talks, their walking through the trees, the very memory of his voice, be lost inspiration?
She couldn't believe that this one spot could make him rotten throughout. Her mind ran back into the past. She could not recall a word, an action, or a glance of his that had shown the color of decay. He had not even been insincere with her. He had come out with his convictions so flatly that when she thought of it his nonchalance appalled her. He had been the same then that he was now. But the thing that was natural for him was impossible for her, and she had found it out—that was all.
Yet the mere consideration of him and his obsession as one thing was intolerable. She curiously separated his act from himself. She thought of it, not as a part of him, but as something that had invaded him—a disease—something inimical to himself and others, that mixed the thought of him with terrors, and filled her way with difficulties. Now it was no longer a question of how to meet him, but of how she was not to. It was not his strength she feared, but her own weakness where he was concerned. Her tendency to shield him—she must guard against that—and that disturbing influence he exercised over her, too evidently without intention. But he would be hard to avoid. This way and that she looked for a way out of her danger, yet all the while she was conscious that there was but one plain way of escape open to her. She could give the sapphire back to Harry within the twenty-four hours.
THRUST AND PARRY
MY DEAR FLORA—I am going out early and shall not be back to dinner. CLARA.
Flora let the little note fall as if she disliked the touch of it. She was relieved to think she would not have to see Clara that day. It was her desire never to see Clara again. If only they could part here and now! How she wanted to shake the whole thing off her shoulders! How foolish not to have gone to Harry when she had first made up her mind to! For why, after all, make him any explanations? Suppose she should just take the ring to him and say: "It gives me the shivers, Harry. Let's take it back and get something else." If he didn't suspect the sapphire already, he would never suspect it from that. The worst he could do would be to laugh, to tease, to tell her she could not live up to her own romantic notions, since, after all, she had weakened and was wanting the usual thing.
But there had been times when she had thought that he did suspect the sapphire. Well, if he did, giving it back to him would practically be giving it back into public custody in the most decorous manner for a properly bred young woman. And how beautifully it would extricate her from her wretched situation! Logically, there was no fault to be found with such a course. It was eminently sane and safe. Yet it still appeared to her as if she were acting a coward's part. She was neither frankly giving the jewel to the authorities with the proper information, nor frankly handing it over to Kerr. But she was trying to slip it back into the questionable nook from which it had been taken, and she grew hot at the thought of how Kerr would despise her if he knew the craven course she was meditating. She seemed to hear him saying, "I had thought braver things of you."
Of course, that was his way of expecting that she would give him the ring. And she felt a sort of rage against him that he should want that, and only that, so very much. Yet she didn't know what else she wanted him to want. Every time she thought of Kerr she found herself growing unreasonable; and she had to whip up her resolution with the hard facts of the case to prevent herself from drifting over on to his side completely.
But did she really want Harry to rid her of the ring? She would get hold of him first and then she would see what she would do.
She stepped into the hall with all the confidence of one who has fully made up her mind to carry matters with a high hand; but at the telephone she hesitated. Calling him up at such an hour of the morning demanding his attendance on such a fanciful errand—wouldn't he think it odd? No, he would think it the most natural thing in the world for her to be so flighty. Reassured, she gave the club number and stood waiting, listening to the half-syllables of switched-off voices and the crossing click, click, that was bringing her fate nearer to her. She heard some one coming up the stairs and down the hall toward her. Marrika stood stolid at her elbow.
"Mr. Cressy," she pronounced.
"Yes, yes," said Flora, with the club clamoring in her left ear.
"He is down-stairs," said Marrika.
Flora nearly let the receiver fall. Harry here? What a piece of luck! But here on his own account, at such an hour—how extraordinary!
"Hello, hello," persisted the club. "What's wanted?"
"Why, I—" Flora stammered. "It's a mistake; never mind. I don't want him now." She hoped that Harry had not heard her as he came in, since it was his informal fashion to await her in the large entrance hall. She didn't want to spoil the chance he had given her of seeming offhand about the ring. But the hall was empty, and as she descended the stairs she amused herself with the fancy that Shima had had a vision, and that she would still have to ring up the club and explain to the attendant that, after all, she wanted Mr. Cressy.
Then from the drawing-room threshold she caught sight of Harry standing in the big bay window of the drawing-room, in the same spot where Kerr had awaited her the afternoon before. Harry was tall and large and freshly colored, and yet he did not fill the room to her as the other man had done. He met her, kissed her, and she turned her head so that his lips met her cheek close beside her ear. She did not positively object to his kissing her on the lips, but her instinct was strong to offer him her cheek. He had sometimes laughed at this, but now he resented it. He insisted on his privilege, and she was passive to him, conscious of less love in this than assertion of possession.
"You are not going to Burlingame, are you?" she asked him with her first breath.
He looked down at her with a flushed and sulky air. "What difference would that make to you? I am, as it happens, but I suppose you think that's no reason for disturbing you so early." He was angry, but at what, she wondered, with creeping uneasiness. He held her and caressed her with a morose satisfaction, as if he had to make sure to himself that she was really his, and she permitted it and abetted it with a guile that astonished her.
"What is the matter?" she urged. "Are things going crookedly at Burlingame?"
"Things are going as crooked as you please, but not at Burlingame. Sit over there," he said, nodding toward the window-bench; "I want to talk to you."
Harry had the air of one about to scold, and certainly Flora thought if anybody was carrying matters with a high hand, it wasn't herself; but she didn't follow his direction. She continued to stand, while he, sitting on the table's edge, drumming the top of his hat, gloomily regarded her.
"Well?" she persisted, troubled by this look of his, and this silence.
"Look here," he began, "I have to be away a couple of days and I wish you'd do me a favor."
Flora's thought flew to the ring. Was he going to ask for it back, to have it reset, as he had promised on the threshold of the goldsmith's shop? Here might be the chance she had hoped for of getting rid of it. She grasped at it before she had time to waver.
"I wonder if it's the very favor I was going to ask of you."
But he didn't take it up. He seemed hardly to hear her, as if his mind was too much absorbed with quite another question—a question that the next moment came out flat. "What was that Kerr doing here yesterday?"
She was taken aback, so far had her apprehension of Harry's jealousy slipped into the background in the last twenty-four hours. But her consciousness that Harry was not behaving well, even for a jealous man, made her take it up all the more lightly.
"Why, he was calling, chatting, taking tea—what anybody else would do from four to six. What in the world gave you the idea that he was doing anything extraordinary?"
"Well," he said, "you shouldn't do the sort of thing that makes you talked about."
"'That makes me talked about'?" It made her pause in front of him.
"Why, yes, it isn't like you. It's never happened before. Look here. I drop into the Bullers' yesterday; find Clara sidled up to the judge; look around for you. 'Hello,' I say, 'where's Flora?' 'Oh,' says she, 'Flora's at home amusing Mr. Kerr.' 'Amusing Mr. Kerr!'" he repeated. "That's a nice thing to hear."
Flora went red. She walked down the room from him to give her suddenly tumultuous heart time. However little he might guess the real trend of her interview with Kerr, she couldn't hear him come near it without apprehension. She was angry, helplessly angry at Harry that he had taken this moment for his stupid jealousy. But she was more angry at Clara, since such a speech on Clara's part wasn't carelessness. She had meant it to work upon him, and here he stood, like the fine animal that he was, smoldering with the suspicion of encroachment on his prey.
She tried to laugh him out of it.
"Why, Harry, I never saw you jealous before!"
"It's all very well to say that—and you know I've never made a row about the other Johnnies. I knew you didn't care for any of them."
Her eyes narrowed and darkened.
"And you take it for granted I care for Mr. Kerr?"
"Oh, no, no!" He pushed his hand through his hair with an irascible gesture. "But it's plain enough you like him—you women always like a fellow that flourishes—but that's not the sort of man I care to see hanging around my girl."
Flora stood leaning on the table, breathing a little hurriedly, feeling rather as if she had been shaken. Harry, standing with his hands in his pockets, looked not unlike the threatening image he had appeared in the back of the goldsmith's shop.
"Of course, the fellow can talk," he admitted, "and he has a manner. But Lord knows where he comes from or who he is. Why, even the Bullers don't know."
Flora turned sharply on him. "Who told you that?"
"The judge. He picked him up at the club."
"Well," she kept it up, "some one had to introduce him there."
Harry smiled. "You wouldn't care to bow to some of those club members."
"Harry, do you know how you sound to me?" She was trembling at the daring of what she was going to say. "You talk as if you knew something against him."
Her statement seemed to bring him up short. "No, no, I don't," he said hastily.
She made a little gesture of despair. How was she to count on Harry if he was going to behave like this? How trust him when he was shuffling so?
She made one more bold stroke to make him speak out.
"Harry, you do know something about him! I know you have seen him before."
"Why, yes, I've seen him before. But that's got nothing to do with it."
He looked surprised that she should seem to accuse him of it, and she wondered if he could have forgotten how he had denied it before.
"And that isn't why you distrust him?"
The devil's tattoo that he beat on his hat stopped.
"I don't distrust him."
"Well, dislike him, then. When was it that you saw him before?"
"Isn't it enough for me to tell you that I don't want you to see him?"
"Oh!" She turned away from him. Every nerve in her was in revolt. Then he really wasn't going to tell her anything. He was keeping her out of it as if she were a child. She had relied on him to return the ring. She had counted upon his indifference and good nature. And he was neither indifferent nor good-natured. All desire of even mentioning the ring to him left her; and as to giving him her confidence—These hints that he had thrown out about Kerr—they might be mere jealousy—but he might have actual knowledge, knowledge that, with her own fitted to it, would make for him a complete figure. She caught her breath at the thought of how near she had come to actually betraying Kerr. Until that moment she had not realized that through all her waverings her one fixed intention had been not to betray him.
Harry had risen and was buttoning his overcoat. "You know you're never at home if you don't want to be," he said.
She stood misleadingly drooping before him. But though her appearance was passive enough for the most exacting lover her will had never been in more vigorous revolt. She knew Harry was taking her weariness for acquiescence, and she let him take it so. She even followed him into the hall, and with a vague idea of further propitiation, nodded away Shima and opened the door for him herself.
The fog was a chasm of white outside. Harry turned on the brink of it. "By the way, where's Clara?"
"Why, do you want to see her? She'll be out all day. She's dining with the Willie Herricks."
"No, I don't want to see her, but, by the way, she's not dining with the Willie Herricks; she's dining with the Bullers. I heard her make the engagement yesterday."
"Oh, no, Harry, I'm sure you're mistaken."
"Well, it doesn't matter. All I want to know is, why did you show that ring to Clara before it was set?"
She was genuinely aghast. "I didn't," she flashed. "What made you think I had?"
He shrugged. "Well, she asked me where we got it. I don't see why women always talk those things over." He was looking at her inquiringly.
"Well, I haven't," she said quickly. "Have you?"
He looked out upon the fog. "Told her where we got it, do you mean? No, I just chaffed her. I'd look out, if I were you. She strikes me as damned curious." He stood a moment on the threshold, looking from Flora to the chasm of fog outside, as if he were choosing between two chances. "I think I'll take that ring this morning," he said slowly.
The deliberate words came to her with a shock. But in the moment, while she looked into Harry's moody face, she realized how impossible to make a scene over what must still be maintained as a trivial matter betwixt them—the mere resetting of a jewel; what should she do to put him off? She looked up at him, and saw with relief that his face was turned from her to the fog, as if he had forgotten her. Then, still with averted head, as if he addressed the whiteness, or himself,—"No," he determined, "I won't. I'll take it when I come back." He pulled himself together with an effort, with a smile. "That is," he turned to her, "if you're in no great hurry about the setting? Very well, then. In a day or two."
He plunged away into the fog. A few rods from the door he disappeared, but she could still hear his footsteps growing thinner, lighter, passing away in the whiteness.
COMEDY CONVEYS A WARNING
She stood where he had left her in the open doorway, with the damp eddy of the fog blowing on her. She had had a narrow escape; but after the first fullness of her relief there returned upon her again the weight of her responsibility. There was no slipping out of it now, and it was going to be worse than she had imagined. So much had come out in the last half-hour that she felt bewildered by it. What Harry had let slip about Clara alarmed her. What in the world was Clara about? With one well-aimed observation she had stirred up Harry against Kerr and against Flora herself. And meanwhile she was running after the Bullers. Twice in two days, if Harry was not mistaken, and she was even nearing another engagement.
After all her fruitless mousings, Clara had too evidently got on the scent of something at last. How much she knew or guessed as yet, Flora could not be sure, but certainly, now, she couldn't let Clara go. For that would be turning adrift a dangerous person with a stronger motive than ever for pursuing her quest, and the opportunity for pursuing it unobserved, out of Flora's sight. Clara was at it even now, and the only consolation Flora had was that Harry, at least, would not play into her hands.
For Harry had a special secret interest of his own. The last ten minutes of their interview had made that plain. His manner, when he had declared his intention of taking the ring, had been anything but the manner of a care-free lover merely concerned with pleasing his lady. Then they were all of them racing each other for the same thing—the thing she held in her possession; and whether she feared most to be felled by a blow from Harry, or hunted far afield by Kerr, or trapped by Clara, she could not tell. She stood hesitating, looking out into the obscurity of the fog, as if she hoped to read the answer there. Presently she returned to the fact that Shima was waiting to close the door. Half-way across the hall she paused again, looking thoughtfully down the rose-colored vista of the drawing-room, and up at the broad black march of the stair. Vague mysteries peered at her from every side. Which should she flee from? Which walk boldly up to and dispel?
She went up-stairs slowly. She stood in her dressing-room absently before the mirror. She touched the hard, unyielding stone of the ring under the thin bodice of her gown. She recalled the morning when she had gone to get it, before anything had happened and the lure of life had been so exquisite. Now that it had come near—if this indeed were life that she was laboring in—it was steep and crabbed, like the brown hills in summer, far off, like velvet, to climb, plowed ground and stubble.
And yet she didn't wish herself back, but only forward. Now she had no leisure to imagine, to pretend, to enjoy, only the breathless sense that she must get forward. The chattering clock on her mantel warned her of the passing time and set her hurrying into her walking-gown, her hat, her gloves, as if the object of her errand would only wait for her a moment longer. When, for the second time, she opened the house door, she didn't hesitate. She descended into the white fog that covered all the city.
Above her the stone facade of her house loomed huge and pinkish in the mist. Her spirits rose with the feeling that she was going adventuring again, leaving that house where for the last two days she had awaited events with such vivid apprehensions. She hurried fast down the damp, glistening pavement, seeing long, dim gray faces of houses glimmer by, seeing figures come toward her through the fog, grow vivid, pass, and hearing at intervals the hoarse, lonely voice of the fog-horn at "The Heads" reaching her over many intervening hills. She did not feel sure what she should do at the end of her journey or what awaited her there. She knew herself a most unpractised hunter, she, who, all her life, had been the most artful of quarries. A quarry she was still, but in this chase she had to come out and stalk the facts in order to see which way to run; if, she told herself in her exhilaration, she decided to run at all.
She turned in at the low gate of imitation grill in front of an enormous wooden mansion, with towers and cupolas painted all a chill slate gray, with fuchsias, purple and red, clambering up the front. She rang, and was admitted into a hall, ornate and very high, with a wide staircase sweeping down into the middle of it.
The maid looked dubiously at Flora and thought Miss Buller was not at home, but would see. Flora turned into the room on her left and sat down among the Louis Quinze sofas and potted palms with a feeling that Miss Buller was at home, and, for one reason or another, preferred not to be seen. She waited apprehensively, wondering whether Ella was not seeing the world-in-general, or had really specified against herself. Could it be that Ella was one of those women whom Harry had alluded to as running after Kerr? In the short twenty-four hours every individual help she had counted upon had seemed to draw away from her—Kerr, whose understanding she had been so sure of; Clara, whose propriety had never failed; Harry, whose comfortable good nature she had so taken for granted! It seemed as if the sapphire, whose presence she was never unconscious of, for all she wore it out of sight, had a power like the evil eye over these people. But if it could turn such as Ella against her, why, the Brussels carpet beneath her might well open and let her down to deeper abysses than Judge Buller's wine-cellar.
She started nervously at the step of the maid returning. The message brought was unexpected. "Miss Buller says will you please walk up-stairs?"
Flora was amazed. That invitation would have been odd enough at any time, for she and Ella were hardly on such intimate footing. But now she was ushered up the majestic stair, and from the majestic upper hall abruptly into a wild little cluttered sewing-room, and thence into a wilder but more spacious bedroom, large curtains at the windows, large roses on the carpet, and over all objects in the room a clutter of miscellaneous articles, as if Ella's band-boxes, bureaus, and work-baskets habitually refused to contain themselves.
From the midst of this Ella confronted her, still in her "wrapper" and with the large puff of her hair a little awry. Under it her face was curiously pink, a color deepening to the tip of her nose and puffing out under her eyes.
"Well, Flora," she greeted her guest. "You were just the person I wanted to see. Sit down. No, not there—that's my bird of paradise feather! Oh, no, not there—that's the breakfast. Well, I guess you'll have to sit on the bed."
Flora swept aside the clothes that streamed across it and throned herself on the edge of the high, white plateau of Ella's four-poster. Ella, for all her eager greeting, looked upon her friend doubtfully, and Flora recognized in herself a similar hesitation, as if each were trying to make out, without asking, what thoughts the other harbored.
"I was afraid I shouldn't see you at all," Flora began at last.
"Well, you wouldn't if it hadn't happened to be you," said Ella paradoxically. "Look at me; did you ever see such a sight?"
"You don't look very well," Flora cautiously admitted. "Why, Ella, you've been crying!"
"Yes, I've been crying," said Ella, mopping her nose, which still showed a tendency to distil a tear at its tip. "And it's perfectly awful to me to think you've been living so long in the same house with her."
Flora murmured breathlessly, "What in the world do you mean?"
"If you don't know, I certainly ought to tell you. I mean Clara," said Ella distinctly.
Flora, sitting up on the edge of the high bed with the tips of her little shoes hardly touching the floor, looked at Ella fascinated, her lips a little apart. Ella had so exactly pronounced her own secret thought of Clara. She was breathless to know what had been Clara's performance at the Bullers'.
"Of course I've always known she was like that," said Ella, leaning back in her chair with an air of resignation. "She's always getting something. It's awful. It was the same even when we were at boarding-school. I suppose she never did have enough money, though her people were awfully nice; but she worked us all for invitations and rides in our carriages, and I remember she got lots through Lillie Lewis' elder brother, and he thought she was going to marry him, but she didn't. She married Lulu Britton's father; and I guess she worked him until he went under and they found there really was no money. So she's been living on people ever since." Ella rocked gloomily.
"But she does it so nicely," Flora suggested. She still had the feeling that it was not decent to own up to these most secret facts of people's failings.
"Oh, yes, she's a perfect wonder," Ella admitted grudgingly; "look at what she's done for you!" Ella's gesticulation was eloquent of how much that had been. "But don't you imagine she cares about you any more than she cares about me!" Ella began to cry again. "You were an awfully good thing for her, Flora, and now that you're going to be married she's got to have something else. But I do think she might have taken somebody besides papa."
Flora gasped. "'Taken!' Ella, what do you mean?"
"I mean married," said Ella.
"'Married!'" For the time Flora had become a helpless echo.
"Oh, not yet," Ella defiantly nodded. "Not while there's anything left of me."
Flora stammered. "Oh, Ella, no. Oh, Ella, are you sure?" She felt a hysterical impulse to giggle.
"Sure?" Miss Buller cried. "I should think so! Why, she's simply making a dead set for him."
This denouement, this climax to her somber expectations, struck Flora as something wildly and indecently ridiculous. "Why, but it's impossible!" she protested, and began helplessly to laugh.
"Well, I'd like to know why?" Ella snapped. "I'm sure papa is twice as rich as old Britton was, and twice as easy." She went off into sobs behind her handkerchief.
"Oh, don't, Ella, don't cry!" Flora begged, petting the large expanse of heaving shoulders. "I didn't mean anything. I was just silly. Of course it may be that she wants to marry him. But she never has before—at least, I mean, I don't believe she wants to now. What makes you think she does? What has she done?"
"Well," Ella burst out, "why is she coming here all the time, when she never used to, and petting papa? Why does she bother to be so agreeable to me when she never was before? Why does she make me ask her to dinner, when I don't want to?"
Each question knocked on Flora's brain to the accompaniment of Ella's furious rocking. She could not answer them, and Ella's explanation, absurd as it seemed, coming on top of her high expectations, wasn't impossible. It was like Clara to have more than one iron in the fire; but when Flora remembered the passionate intentness with which Clara had demolished the order of her room, she couldn't believe that Clara would pause in the midst of such pursuit to pounce on Judge Buller.
"Oh, Ella," Flora sympathetically urged, "I don't believe there's really any danger. And surely, even if she meant it, Judge Buller wouldn't be—"
"Oh, yes, he would," Ella cut her short. "Why, when she came yesterday he was just going out, and she went for him and made him stop to tea. Think of it—papa stopping to tea! And he was as pleased as Punch to have her make up to him. He hasn't the least idea of what she's after. Papa isn't used to ladies. He's always just lived with me."
This astonishing statement looking at Flora through Ella's unsuspecting eyes had nevertheless a pathos of its own. It conjured up a long vista of harmonious existence which the two, the daughter and the father, had made out of their mutual simplicity, and their mutual gusto for the material comforts which came comfortably.
"But I'll tell you one thing," Ella ended, still rocking vigorously; "if she comes here to-night to dinner when she knows I don't want her I shall tell her what I think of her, before she leaves this house! See if I don't."
"Don't do that, Ella," Flora entreated, "that would be awful." She was certain that such an interview would only end in Clara's making Ella more ridiculous than she was already. "Let me speak to her. I don't mind at all," she declared bravely, and in a manner truly, though she was fully aware that speaking to Clara would be anything but a treat.
"Oh, would you?" said Ella eagerly. "I really would be awfully obliged. I hated to ask you, Flora, but I thought perhaps you might be able to—to, well, perhaps be able to do something," she ended vaguely. "Do you think you could?"
"I'll speak to Clara to-night," said Flora heroically, "or to-morrow," she added; "I'm afraid I won't see her to-night."
"Well, I'll let you know if it makes any difference," said Ella hopefully.
Flora knew that nothing either of them could say would make any difference to Clara, or turn her from the thing she was pursuing; but by speaking she might at least find out if Judge Buller himself were really her object. And Ella's wail of assured calamity, "Papa has always been so happy with me," touched her with its absurd pathos.
She kissed Ella's misty cheek at parting. It wasn't fair, she thought remorsefully, for people like the Bullers to be at large on the same planet with people like Clara—and herself—and—and like—Her thoughts ran off into the fog. At least, thank heaven, it was the judge Clara was trailing and not Kerr.
The bells and whistles of one o'clock were making clangor as she ran up the steps of her house again. In the hall Shima presented her with a card. She looked at it with a quickening pulse. "Is he waiting?"
"No, madam. Mr. Kerr has gone. He waited half an hour."
Down went her spirits again. Yet surely after their last interview she ought not to be eager to meet him again. "In the morning," she thought, "and waited half an hour. How he must have wanted to see me!" She didn't know whether she liked that or not. "When did he come?"
"At eleven o'clock."
At this she was frightened; he had missed Harry by less than half an hour.
"He waited all that time alone?"
"No. Mr. Cressy came."
Flora felt a cold thrill in her nerves. Then Harry had come back! What had he come for?
"He also would wait," the Japanese explained.
Flora gasped. "They waited together!"
The Japanese shook his head. "They went away together."
She didn't believe her ears. "Mr. Kerr went away with Mr. Cressy?"
The Japanese seemed to revolve the problem of mastery. "No, Mr. Cressy accompanied Mr. Kerr." He had made a delicate oriental distinction. It put the whole thing before her in a moment. Harry had been the resistant, and the other with his brilliant initiative attacking, always attacking when he should have been hiding, had carried him off. "What had he done, and how had he managed, when Harry must have had such pressing reasons for wanting to stay?" Ah, she knew only too well Kerr's exquisite knowledge of managing; but why must he make such a reckless exposure of himself? Did he suppose Harry was to be managed? Had he no idea where Harry stood in this affair? In pity's name, didn't he know that Harry had seen him before—had seen him under circumstances of which Harry wouldn't talk? They were circumstances of which she knew nothing, and yet from that very fact there was left a horrible impression in her mind that they had been of a questionable character.
A LADY IN DISTRESS
She had returned, ready for pitched battle with Clara, and on the threshold there had met her the very turn in the affair that she had dreaded all along—the setting of Kerr and Harry upon each other.
These were two whom she had kept apart even in her mind—the man to whom she was pledged, with whom she had supposed herself in love, and the man for whom she was flying in the face of all her traditions. She had not scrutinized the reason of her extraordinary behavior; not since that dreadful day when the vanishing mystery had taken positive form in him had she dared to think how she felt about Kerr. She had only acted, acted; only asked herself what to do next, and never why; only taken his cause upon herself and made it her own, as if that was her natural right. She could hardly believe that it was she who had let herself go to this extent. All her life she had been docile to public opinion, buxom to conventions, respectful of those legal and moral rules laid down by some rigid material spirit lurking in mankind. But now when the moment had come, when the responsibility had descended upon her, she found that these things had in no way persuaded her. They were not vital enough for her proposition. They had no meaning now—no more than proper parlor furniture for a castaway on a desert island.
Then this was herself, a creature too much concerned with the primal harmonies of life to be impressed by the modulations her decade set upon them. This was that self which she had obscurely cherished as no more real than a fairy; but at Kerr's acclamation it had proclaimed itself more real than flesh and blood, and Kerr himself the most real thing in all her life.
Then what was Harry? The bland implacable pronouncement of Shima had summoned him up to stand beside Kerr more clearly than her own eyes could have shown him. Surely she was giving to Kerr what belonged to Harry, or else she had already given to Harry what ought to have been Kerr's. That was her last conclusion. It was horrible, it was hopeless, but it was not untrue. It had crept upon her so softly that it had taken her unawares. She was appalled at the unreason of passion. Unsought by him, unclaimed, in every common sense a stranger to him—how could she belong to him? And yet of that she was sure by the way he had unveiled her the first night, by the way he had quickened her dreaming into life. As many times as she had fancied what love was like she had never dreamed it could be like this. It was mockery that she could be concerned for one who only wanted of her—plunder. Yet it was so. She was as tremblingly concerned for his fate as if she owned his whole devotion; and his fate at this moment, she was convinced, was in Harry's hands.
Kerr, with his brilliant initiative, might carry him off, but Kerr was still the quarry. For had not Harry, from the very beginning, known something about him? Hadn't he at first denied having seen him before, and then admitted it? Hadn't he dropped hints and innuendoes without ever an explanation? She remembered the singular fact of the Embassy ball, twice mentioned, each time with that singular name of Farrell Wand. And to know—if that was what Harry knew—that a man of such fame was in a community where a ring of such fame had disappeared—what further proof was wanted?
Then why didn't Harry speak? And what was going on on his side of the affair? Harry's side would have been her side a few days before. Now, unaccountably, it was not. Nor was Kerr's side hers either. She was standing between the two—standing hesitating between her love of one and her loyalty to the other and what he represented. The power might be hers to tip the scales Harry held, either to Kerr's undoing, or to his protection. At least she thought she might protect him, if she could discover Harry's secret. Her special, authorized relation to him—her right to see him often, question him freely—even cajole—should make that easy. But she shrank from what seemed like betrayal, even though she did not betray him to Kerr by name.
Then, on the other hand, she doubted how much she could do with Harry. She wasn't sure how far she was prepared to try him after that scene of theirs. She had no desire to pique him further by seeing too much of Kerr. On her own account she wanted for the present to avoid Kerr. He roused a feeling in her that she feared—a feeling intoxicating to the senses, dazzling to the mind, unknitting to the will. How could she tell, if they were left alone together for a long enough space of time, that she might not take the jewel from her neck, at his request, and hand it to him—and damn them both? If only she could escape seeing him altogether until she could find out what Harry was doing, and what she must do!
Meanwhile, there was her promise to Ella. She recalled it with difficulty. It seemed a vague thing in the light of her latest discovery, though she could never meet Clara in disagreement without a qualm. But she made the plunge that evening, before Clara left for the Bullers', while she was at her dressing-table in the half-disarray which brings out all the softness and the disarming physical charm of women. From her low chair Flora spoke laughingly of Ella's perturbation. Clara paused, with the powder puff in her hand, while she listened to Flora's explanation of how Ella feared that some one might, after all these years, be going to marry Judge Buller. Who this might be she did not even hint at. She left it ever so sketchy. But the little stare with which Clara met it, the amusement, the surprise, and then the shortest possible little laugh, were guarantee that Clara had seen it all. She had filled out Flora's sketch to the full outline, and pronounced it, as Flora had, an absurdity. But though Clara had laughed she had gone away with her delicate brows a little drawn together, as if she'd really found more than a laugh, something worth considering, in Ella's state of mind.
Flora was left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps she had unwittingly delivered Ella into Clara's hands; that Ella, too, was in danger of becoming part of Clara's schemes. Danger seemed to be spreading like contagion. It was borne in upon her that from this time forward dangers would multiply. That nothing was going to be easier, but everything infinitely harder, to the end; and now was the time to act if ever she hoped to make way through the tangle.
She heard the wheels of Clara's departing conveyance. Now was her chance for an interview with Harry. She spent twenty minutes putting together three sentences that would not arouse his suspicions. She made two copies, and sent them by separate messengers, one to his rooms, one to the club, with orders they be brought back if he was not there to receive them. Then—the miserable business of waiting in the large house full of echoes and the round ghostly globes of electric lights, with that thing around her neck for which—did they but know of it—half the town would break in her windows and doors.
The wind traveled the streets without, and shook the window-casings. She cowered over the library fire, listening. The leaping flames set her shadow dancing like a goblin. A bell rang, and the shadow and the flame gave a higher leap as if in welcome of what had arrived. She went to the library door. In the glooms and lights outside Shima was standing, and two messengers. It was odd that both should arrive at once. She stepped back and stood waiting with a quicker pulse. Shima entered with two letters upon his tray. She had a moment's anxiety lest both her notes had been brought back to her, but no—the envelope which lay on top showed Harry's writing. She tore it open hastily. Harry wrote that he would be delighted, and might he bring a friend with him; a bully fellow whom he wanted her to meet? He added she might send over for some girl and they could have a jolly little party.
Flora looked at this communication blankly. Was Harry, who had always jumped at the chance of a tete-a-tete, dodging her? In her astonishment she let the other envelope fall. She stooped, and then for a moment remained thus, bent above it. The superscription was not hers. The note was not addressed to Harry, but to her, and in a handwriting she had never seen before!
Again the peal of the electric bell. Shima appeared with a third envelope. This time it was her own note returned to her. With the feeling she was bewitched she took up the mysterious letter from the floor and opened it. She read the strange handwriting:
May I see you, anywhere, at any time, to-night? ROBERT KERR.
It was as if Kerr himself had entered the room, masked and muffled beyond recognition, and then, face to face with her, let fall his disguise. She gazed at the words, at the signature, thrilled and frightened. She looked at Harry's note, hesitated; caught a glimpse between the half-open doors of the two messengers waiting stolidly in the hall. Waiting for answers! Answers to such communications! She made a dash for the table where were pens and ink and on one sheet scrawled:
"Certainly. Bring him," appending her initials; on the other the word "Impossible," and her full name. Then she hurried the letters into Shima's hands, lest her courage should fail her—lest she should regret her choice.
"Anywhere, at any time, to-night," she repeated softly. Why, the man must be mad! Yet she permitted herself a moment of imagining what might have been if her answers had been reversed.
But no, she dared not meet Kerr's impetuous attacks yet. First she must get at Harry. And how was that to be managed if he insisted on surrounding himself with "a jolly little party?"
She found a moment that evening in which to ask him to walk out to the Presidio with her the next morning. But he was going to Burlingame on the early train. He was woefully sorry. It was ages since he had had a moment with her alone, but at least he would see her that evening. She had not forgotten? They were going to that dinner—and then the reception afterward? Her suspicion that he was deliberately dodging wavered before his boyish, cheerful, unconscious face. And yet, following on the heels of his tendency to question and coerce her, this reticence was amazing. The next day would be lost with Harry beyond reach—twelve hours while Kerr was at the mercy of chance, and she was at the mercy of Kerr.
His tactics did not leave her breathing space. She felt as the lilies wavering just beyond his reach. She remembered his ingenuity. She thought of the blows of his cane. Lucky for her she was not rooted like the lilies! The only safety was in keeping beyond his reach.
Yet when his card was brought up to her the next morning she looked at the printed name as wistfully as if it had been his face. It cost an effort to send down the cold fiction that she was not at home, and she could not deny herself the consolation of leaning on the baluster of the second landing, and listening for his step in the hall below. But there was no movement. Could it be possible he was waiting for her to come in? Hush! That was the drawing-room door. But instead of Kerr, Shima emerged. He was heading for the stair with his little silver tray and upon it—a note. Oh, impudence! How dared he give her the lie, by the hand of her own butler! She stood her ground, and Shima delivered the missive as if it were most usual to find one's mistress beflounced in peignoir and petticoats, hanging breathless over the baluster.
"Take that back," she said coldly, "and tell him that I am out; and, Shima,"—she addressed the man's intelligence—"make him understand it."
She watched the note departing. How she longed to call Shima back and open it! There was a pause—then Kerr emerged from the drawing-room. As he crossed the hall he glanced up at the stair and as much as was visible of the landing. He hadn't taken Shima's word for it, after all!
The vestibule door closed noiselessly after him, the outer door shut with a heavy sound. Yet before that sound had ceased to vibrate, she heard it shut again. Was he coming back? There was a presence in the vestibule very vaguely seen through the glass and lace of the inner door. Her heart beat with apprehension. The door opened upon Clara.
Flora precipitately retreated. She was more disturbed than relieved by the unexpected appearance. For Clara must have seen Kerr leave the house. Three times now within three days he had been found with her or waiting for her. She wondered if Clara would ask her awkward questions. But Clara, when she entered Flora's dressing-room a few moments later with the shopping-list, instead of a question, offered a statement.
"I don't like that man," she announced.
"That Kerr. I met him just now on the steps. Don't you feel there is something wrong about him?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Flora vaguely.
Clara gave her a bright glance.
"But you weren't at home to him."
"I'm not at home to any one this morning," Flora answered evasively, feeling the probe of Clara's eyes. "I'm feeling ill. I'm not going out this evening either. I think I'll ring up Burlingame and tell Harry." It was in her mind that she might manage to make him stay with her while Clara went on to the reception.
"Burlingame! Harry!" Clara echoed in surprise. "Why, he's in town. I saw him just now as I was coming up."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. He was walking up Clay from Kearney. I was in the car."
"Why that—that is—" Flora stammered in her surprise. "Then something must have kept him," she altered her sentence quickly. But though this seemed the probable explanation she did not believe it. Harry walking toward Chinatown, when he had told her distinctly he would be in Burlingame! She thought of the goldsmith shop and there returned to her the memory of how Harry and the blue-eyed Chinaman had looked when she had turned from the window and seen them standing together in the back of the shop.
"You do look ill," Clara remarked. "Why don't you stay in bed, and not try to see any one?"
Flora murmured that that was her intention, but she was far from speaking the truth. She only waited to make sure of Clara's being in her own rooms to get out of the house and telephone to Harry.
It was not far to the nearest booth, a block or two down the cross-street. She rang, first, the office. The word came back promptly in his partner's voice. He had gone to Burlingame by the early train. It was the same at the club. He must be in town, then, on secret business. She left the apothecary's and, with serious face, walked on down the street, away from her house. She was thinking that now she knew Harry had lied to her. And it was the second time. But perhaps it was just because he thought her innocent that he was keeping her so in the dark. Suppose she should tell him flatly what she had found out about him to-day?
She walked rapidly, in her excitement, turning the troubling question over in her mind. She did not realize how far she had gone until some girl she knew, passing and nodding to her, called her out of her reverie. She was almost in front of the University Club. A few blocks more and she would be in the shopping district. She hesitated, then decided that it would be better to walk a little further and take a cross-town car.
A group of men was leaving the club. Two lingered on the steps, the other coming quickly out. At sight of him, she averted her face, and, hurrying, turned the corner and walked down a block. Her heart was beating rapidly. What if he had seen her! She looked about—there was no cab in sight—the best thing to do was to slip into one of the crowded shops, full of women, and wait until the danger had passed. Once inside the door of the nearest, she felt herself, with relief, only one of a horde of pricers, lookers and buyers. She felt as if she had lost her identity. She went to the nearest counter and asked for veils. Partly concealed behind the bulk of the woman next her, she kept her eye on the door. She saw Kerr come in. How absurd to think that she could escape him! She turned her back and waited a moment or two, still hoping he might pass her by. Then, she heard his voice behind her:
"Well, this is luck!"
She was conscious of giving him a limp hand. He sat down on the vacant stool next her, laughing.
"You are a most remarkably fast walker," he observed.
"I had to buy a veil," Flora murmured.
"Has it taken you all the morning?"
She could see she had not fooled him.
"I had a great many other things to do." She was resolved not to admit anything.
"No doubt, but I wanted to see you very much last night, and again this morning. I may see you this evening, perhaps?" He was grave now. She saw that he awaited her answer in anxiety.
"But—" she hesitated just a moment too long before she added, "I'm going out this evening."
She started nervously to rise.
"Wait," he said in a voice that was audible to the shop-girl, "your package has not come."
She looked at him helplessly, so attractive and so inimical to her. He swung around, back to the counter, and lowered his voice. "Did you know I called upon you yesterday morning, also?" he asked.
"Mr. Cressy and I waited for you together. Did he mention it to you?"
"No." Her lips let the word out slowly.
"That's a reticent friend of yours!" The exclamation, and the truth of it, put her on her guard.
"I can't discuss him with you," she said coldly.
"Yet no doubt you have discussed me with him?"
"You haven't told him anything?" The incredulity, the amazement of his face put before her, for the first time, how extraordinary her conduct must seem. What could he think of her? What construction would he put upon it? She blushed, neck to forehead, and her voice was scarcely audible as she answered "No."
But at that small word his whole mood warmed to her. "Why, then," he began eagerly, "if Cressy doesn't know—"
"Oh, but he—" Flora stopped in terror of herself. "I can't talk of him, I must not. Don't ask me!" she implored, "and please, please don't come to my house again!"
He gave his head a puzzled, impatient shake. "Then where am I to see you?"
"In a few days—perhaps to-morrow—I will let you know." She rose. She had her package now. She was getting back her courage. There was no further way of keeping her.
But he followed her closely through the crowd to the door. "Yes," he said quickly under his breath, "in a few days, perhaps to-morrow, as soon as you get rid of it, you won't mind meeting me! What are you afraid of? Surely not me?"
She was, but hotly denied it.
"I am not afraid of you. I am afraid of them!"
"Of them!" He peered at her. "What are you talking about now?"
Ah, she had said too much! She bit her lip. They had reached the corner, and the gliding cable car was approaching. She turned to him with a last appeal.
"Don't ask me anything! Don't come with me! Don't follow me!"
Not until she was safely inside the car did she dare look back at him. He was still on the corner, and he raised his hat and smiled so reassuringly that she was half-way home before she realized that, in spite of all she had urged upon him, he had not committed himself to any promise. And yet, she thought in dismay, he had almost made her give away Harry's confidence. She was seeing more and more clearly that this was the danger of meeting him. He always got something out of her and never, by chance, gave her anything in return. If he should seek her to-night she dared not be at home! Any place would be safer than her own house. It would be better to fulfil her engagement and go to the reception with Clara and Harry. That was a house Kerr did not know.
It was awkward to have to announce this sudden change of plan after her pretenses of the morning, but of late she had lived too constantly with danger for Clara's lifted eyebrows to daunt her. The mere trivial act of being dressed each day was fraught with danger. To get the sapphire off her person before Marrika should appear; to put it back somehow after Marrika had done; to shift it from one place to another as she wore gowns cut high or low—and every moment in fear lest she be discovered in the act! This was her daily manoeuver. To-night she clasped the chain around her waist beneath her petticoats. But Marrika's sensitive fingers, smoothing over, for the last time, the close-fitting front of the gown, felt the sapphire, fumbled with it, and tried to adjust it like a button.
"That is all right," Flora said quickly. "Nothing shows." Was it always to make itself known, she thought uneasily, no matter how it was hid?
She was ready early, in the hope that Harry might come, as he had been wont to do, a little before the appointed hour. But he turned up without a moment to spare. Clara was down-stairs in her cloak when he appeared. There was no chance for a word at dinner. But if she could not manage it later in the wider field of the reception, why, then she deserved to fail in everything.
But she found, upon their arrival that even this was going to be hard to bring about. For she was immediately pounced upon—first, by Ella Buller.
"Why, Flora," at the top of her voice, "where have you been all these days!" Then in a hot whisper, "Did you speak to her? It hasn't done one bit of good."
"I think you are mistaken," Flora murmured. "But be careful, and let me know—" She had only time for that broken sentence before she was surrounded; and other voices took up the chorus.
She was getting to be a perfect hermit.
She was forgetting all her old friends.
And a less kindly voice in the background added, "Yes, for new ones."
She realized with some alarm that though she had forgotten her public, it had kept its eye on her. She answered, laughing, that she was keeping Lent early, and allowed herself to be drifted about through the crowd by more or less entertaining people, now and then getting glimpses of Harry, tracking him by his burnished brown head, waiting her opportunity to get him cornered. At last she saw him making for the smoking-room. Connecting this with the drawing-room where she stood was a small red lounging-room, walls, floor and furniture all covered with crimson velvet. It had a third door which communicated indirectly with the reception-rooms, by means of a little hall. She was near that hall, and it would be the work of a moment to slip by way of it into the red room and stop Harry on his way through. She had not played at such a game since, as a child, she had jumped out on people from dark closets, and Harry was as much astonished as she could remember they had been. He was cutting the end of a cigar and he all but dropped it.
"What in the world are you doing here alone?" He spoke peevishly. "I don't see how a crowd of men can leave such a bundle of fascination at large!"
She made him a low courtesy and said she was preventing him from doing so.
"It's very good of you, and you are very pretty, Flora," he admitted with a grudging smile, "but I've got to see a man in there." His eyes went to the door of the smoking-room whence was audible a discussion of voices, and among them Judge Buller's basso. She was between Harry and the door. Laughingly, he made as if to put her aside, when the door through which she had entered opened again sharply; and Kerr came in.
"Forgive me. I followed you," he began. Then he saw Harry. "I—ha—ha—I've been hunting for you, Cressy, all the evening!"
Harry accepted the statement with a cynical smile. It was too evidently not for him Kerr had been hunting, and after the first stammer of embarrassment, the Englishman made no attempt to conceal his real intentions. His words merely served him as an excuse not to retreat.
"This is a good place to sit," he said, pushing forward a chair for Flora. She sank into it, wondering weakly what daring or what danger had brought him into a house where he was not known, to seek her. He sat down in the compartment of a double settee near her. Harry still stood with a dubious smile on his face. The look the two men exchanged appeared to her a prolongment of their earnest interrogation in the picture gallery; but this time it struck her that both carried it off less well. Harry, especially, bore it badly.
"Did you say you were looking for me?" he remarked. "Well, Buller's been looking for you. He wants to know about some Englishman that they're trying to put up at the club."
"How's that? Oh, yes! I remember." Kerr shrugged. "Never heard of him at home, and can't vouch for every fellow who comes along, just because he is English."
"Quite so!" said Harry, with a straight look at Kerr that made Flora uncomfortable.
"But Judge Buller has already vouched for that man," she said quickly, "so he must be all right."
Kerr inclined his head to her with a smile.
"Buller is easily taken in," said Harry calmly. Under the direct, the insolent meaning of his look Flora felt her face grow hot—her hands cold. Harry could sit there taunting this man, hitting him over another man's back, and Kerr could not resent it. He could only sit—his head a little canted forward—looking at Harry with the traces of a dry smile upon his lips.
She thought the next moment everything would be declared. She sprang up, and, with an impulse for rescue, went to the door of the smoking-room. "Judge Buller," she called.
There was a sudden cessation of talk; a movement of forms dimly seen in the thick blue element; and then through wreaths of smoke, the judge's face dawned upon her like a sun through fog.
"Well, well, Miss Flora," he wanted to know, "to what bad action of mine do I owe this good fortune?"
She retreated, beckoning him to the middle of the room. "You owe it to the bad action of another," she said gaily. "Your friends are being slandered."
Harry made a movement as if he would have stopped her, and the expression of his face, in its alarm, was comic. But she paid no heed. She laid her hand on Harry's arm. "Mr. Kerr is just about to accuse us of being impostors," she announced. She had robbed the situation of its peril by gaily turning it exactly inside out.
The judge blinked, puzzled at this extraordinary statement. Harry was disconcerted; but Kerr showed an astonishment that amazed her—a concern that she could not understand. He stared at her. Then he laughed rather shakily as he turned to her with a mock gallant bow.
"All women impose upon us, madam. And as for Mr. Cressy"—he fixed Harry with a look—"I could not accuse him of being an impostor since we have met in the sacred limits of of St. James'."
The two glances that crossed before Flora's watchful eyes were keen as thrust and parry of rapiers. Harry bowed stiffly.
"I believe, for a fact, we did not meet, but I think I saw you there once—at some Embassy ball."
The words rang, to Flora's ears, as if they had been shouted from the housetops. In the speaking pause that followed there was audible an unknown hortatory voice from the smoking-room.
"I tell you it's a damn-fool way to manage it! What's the good of twenty thousand dollars' reward?" Flora clutched nervously at the back of her chair. She seemed to see the danger of discovery piling up above Kerr like a mountain.
The judge chuckled. "You see what you saved me from. They've been at it hammer and tongs all the evening. Every man in town has his idea on that subject."
"For instance, what is that one?" Kerr's casual voice was in contrast to his guarded eyes.
The judge looked pleased. "That one? Why, that's my own—was, at least, half an hour ago. You see, about that twenty-thousand-dollar proposition—" They moved nearer him. They stood, the four, around the red velvet-covered table, like people waiting to be served. "The trouble is right here," said the judge, emphasizing with blunt forefinger. "The crook has a pal. That's probable, isn't it?"
Harry nodded. Flora felt Kerr's eyes upon her, but she could not look at him.
"And we see the thing is at a deadlock, don't we? Well, now," the judge went on triumphantly, "we know if any one person had the whole ring it would be turned in by this time. That is the weak spot in the reward policy. They didn't reckon on the thing's being split."
"Split? No, really, do you think that possible?" Kerr inquired, and Flora caught a glimmer of irony in his voice.
"Well, can you see one of those chaps trusting the other with more than half of it?" The judge was scornful. "And a fellow needs a whole ring if he is after a reward." He rolled his head waggishly. "Oh, I could have been a crook myself!" he chuckled, but his was the only smiling face in the party.
For Kerr's was pale, schooled to a rigid self-control.
And Harry's was crimson and swollen, as if with a sudden rush of blood. His twitching hands, his sullen eyes, responded to Judge Buller's last word as if it had been an accusation.
"It makes me damned sick, the way you fellows talk—as if it was the easiest thing in the world to—" He broke off. It was such a tone, loose, harsh and uncontrolled, as made Flora shrink.
As if he sensed that movement in her, he turned upon her furiously.
"Well, are we going to stand here all night?" He took her by the arm.
She felt as if he had struck her. Buller was staring at him, but Kerr had opened the door through which she had entered, and now, turning his back upon Harry, silently motioned her out.
She had a moment's fear that Harry's grasp, even then, wouldn't let go. Indeed, for a moment he stood clutching her, as if, now that his rage had spent itself, she was the one thing he could hold to. Then she felt his fingers loosen. He stood there alone, looking, with his great bulk, and his great strength, and his abashed bewilderment, rather pathetic.
But that aspect reached her dimly, for the fear of him was uppermost. Her arm still burned where he had grasped it. She moved away from him toward the door Kerr had opened for her. She passed from the light of the crimson room into the dark of the passage. Some one followed her and closed the door. Some one caught step with her. It was Kerr. He bent his dark head to speak low.
"I don't know why you did it, you quixotic child, but you must not expose yourself in this way, for any reason whatsoever."
The light of the crowded rooms burst upon them again.
"Oh," she turned to him beseechingly, "can't you get me away?"
"Surely." His manner was as if nothing had happened. His smile was reassuring. "I'll call your carriage, and find Mrs. Britton."
When Flora came down from the dressing-room she found Clara already in the carriage, and Kerr mounting guard in the hall. As he handed her in, Clara leaned forward.
"Where is Mr. Cressy?" she inquired.
"He sent his apologies," Kerr explained. "He is not able to get away just now."
Clara could not control a look of astonishment. As the carriage began to move and Kerr's face disappeared from the square of the window, she turned to Flora.
"Have you and Harry quarreled over that man?"
Flora's voice was low. "No. But Harry—Harry—" she stammered, hardly knowing how to put it, then put it most truly: "Harry is not quite himself to-night."
Flora lay back in the carriage. She was dimly aware of Clara's presence beside her, but for the moment Clara had ceased to be a factor. The shape that filled all the foreground of her thought was Harry. He loomed alarming to her imagination—all the more so since, for the moment, he had seemed to lose his grip. That was another thing she could not quite understand. That burst of violent irritation following, as it had, Judge Buller's words! If Kerr had been the speaker it would have been natural enough, since all through this interview Harry's evident antagonism had seemed strained to the snapping point.
But poor Judge Buller had been harmless enough. He had been merely theorizing. But—wait! She made so sharp a movement that Clara looked at her. The judge's theory might be close to facts that Harry was cognizant of.
For herself she had had no way of finding out how the sapphire had got adrift. But hadn't Harry? Hadn't he followed up that singular scene with the blue-eyed Chinaman by other visits to the goldsmith's shop? Why, yesterday, when he was supposed to be in Burlingame, Clara had seen him in Chinatown. The idea burst upon her then. Harry was after the whole ring. He counted the part she held already his, and for the rest he was groping in Chinatown; he was trying to reach it through the imperturbable little goldsmith. But he had not reached it yet—and she could read his irritation at his failure in his violent outburst when Judge Buller so innocently flung the difficulties in his face. She knew as much now as she could bear. If Harry did not suspect Kerr, it would be strange. But—Harry waiting to make sure of a reward before he unmasked a thief! It was an ugly thought!
And would he wait for the rest now—now that the situation was so galling to him? Might not he just decide to take the sapphire, and with the evidence of that, risk his putting his hand on the "Idol" when he grasped the thief?
The carriage was stopping. Clara was making ready to get out. She braced herself to face Clara, in the light, with a casual exterior—but when she had reached her own rooms she sank in a heap in the chair before her writing-table, and laid her head upon the table between her arms.
In her wretchedness she found herself turning to Kerr. How stoically he had endured it all, though it must have borne on him most heavily! How kind he had been to her! He had not even spoken of himself, though he must have known the shadows were closing over his head. Any moment he might be enshrouded. If it came to a choice between having him taken and giving him the blue jewel, she wondered which she would do.
In the gray hours of the morning she wrote him. She dared not put the perils into words, but she implied them. She vaguely threatened; and she implored him to go, avoiding them all, herself more than any; and, quaking at the possibility that he might, after all, overcome her, she declared that before he went she would not see him again. She closed with the forbidding statement that whether he stayed or went, at the end of three days she would make a sure disposal of the ring. She put all this in reckless black and white and sent it by the hand of Shima. Then she waited. She waited, in her little isolation, with the sapphire always hung about her neck, waited with what anticipation of marvelous results—avowals, ideal farewells, or possibly some incredible transformation of the grim face of the business. And the answer was silence.
THE HEART OF THE DILEMMA
There is, in the heart of each gale of events, a storm center of quiet. It is the very deadlock of contending forces, in which the individual has space for breath and apprehension. Into this lull Flora fell panting from her last experience, more frightened by this false calm than by the whirlwind that had landed her there. Now she had time to mark the echoes of the storm about her, and to realize her position. Her absorption had peopled the world for her with four people at most. Now she had time to look at the larger aspect.