From the middle of her calm she saw many inexplicable appearances. She saw them everywhere, from the small round of Clara's movement to the larger wheel of the public aspect. Clara was taking tea with the Bullers, and the papers had ceased to mention the Crew Idol.
It had not even been a nine days' wonder. It had not dwindled. It had simply dropped from head-lines to nothing; and after the first murmur of astonishment at this strange vanishing, after a little vain conjecture as to the reason of it, the subject dropped out of the public mouth. The silence was so sudden it was like a suppression. To Flora it shadowed some forces working so secretly, so surely, that they had extinguished the light of publicity. They must be going on with concentrated and terrible activity in cycles, which perhaps had not yet touched her.
So, seeing Major Purdie among the crowd at some one's "afternoon" where she was pouring tea, she looked up at his cheerful face and high bald dome with a passionate curiosity. He knew why the press had been extinguished, and what they were doing in the dark. She knew where the sapphire was—and where the culprit was to be found. And to think that they could tell each other, if they would, each a tale the other would hardly dare believe. Amazing appearances! How far away, how foreign from the facts they covered! But Major Purdie had the best of it. He at least was doing his duty. He was standing stiffly on one side, while she hesitated between, trying desperately to push Kerr out of sight before she dared uncover the jewel. But he wouldn't move. In spite of all she had done, he wouldn't.
Across the room that very afternoon she caught the twinkle of his resisting smile. He had had her letter then for two days, and still he had come here, though he'd been bidden to stay away; though he had been warned to keep away from all places where she, or these people around her, might find him; though he had been implored to go, finally, as far away as the round surface of the world would let him.
By what he had heard and seen in the red room that night, he must know her warning had not been ridiculous. And there was another threat less apparent on the face of things, but evident enough to her. It was the change in Clara after she had begun her attack on the Bullers, her appearance of being busy with something, absorbed with, intent upon, something, which, if she had not secured it yet, at least she had well in reach. And that thing—suppose it had to do with the Crew Idol; and suppose Clara should play into Harry's hands!
For Kerr's escape Flora had been holding the ring, fighting off events, and yet all the while she had not wanted to lose the sight of him. Well, now, when she had made up her mind finally to resign herself to the dreariness of that, might he not at least have done his part of it and decently disappeared? So much he might have done for her. Instead of smiling at her across crowded tea-rooms, and obliquely glancing at her down decorous dinner-tables, and with the same fatal facility he had displayed in getting at her, now keeping away from her, out of all possible reach.
He was playing her own trick on her, but her chances for getting at him again were fewer than his had been with her. She could not besiege him in his abode; and in the places where they met, large houses crowded with people, the eye of the world was upon her. For how long had she forgotten it—she who had been all her life so deferential toward it! Even now she remembered it only because it interfered with what she wanted to do.
For the eye of her small society was very keenly upon Kerr. She realized, all at once, that he had become a personage; and then, by smiles, by lifted eyebrows, by glances, she gathered that her name was being linked with his. She was astonished. How could their luncheon together at the Purdies', their words that night in the opera box, their few minutes' talk in the shop, have crystallized into this gossip? It vexed her—alarmed her, how it had got about when she had seen him so seldom, had known him scarcely more than a week. It was simply in the air. It was in her attitude and in his, but how far it had gone she did not dream, until in the dense crowd of some one's at-home she caught the words of a young girl. The voice was so sweet and so prettily modulated that at its first notes Flora turned involuntarily to glimpse the speaker, a slender creature in a delicate mist of muslin, with an indeterminate chin and the cheek of a pale peach.
"Just think," Flora heard her saying, "he went to see her three times in two days, but to-day, did you notice, he wouldn't look at her until she went up and spoke to him. I don't see how a girl can! Harry Cressy—"
She moved away and the words were lost. Flora looked after her. For the moment she felt only scorn for the creatures who had clapped that interpretation upon her great responsibility. These people around her seemed poor indeed, absorbed only in petty considerations, and seeing everything down the narrow vista of the "correct." Her eyes followed the young girl's course through the room, easy to trace by her shining blond head, and the unusual deliciousness of her muslin gown. She stopped beside two women, and with a certain sense of pleasure and embarrassment Flora recognized one of them—Mrs. Herrick. She caught the lady's eye and bowed. Mrs. Herrick smiled, with a gracious inclination in which her graceful shoulders had a part.
It gave Flora the sense Mrs. Herrick's presence always brought her, of protection, or security, and the possibility of friendship finer than she had ever known. She started forward. But Mrs. Herrick, presenting instantly her profile, drew the young girl's hand through her arm and moved away.
Flora winced as if she had received a blow. The other people who had heard the same gossip of her had been, on account of it, all the more amused, and anxious to talk to her. But Mrs. Herrick, though she bowed and smiled, did not want her too near her daughter; perhaps, herself, would have preferred not to speak to her.
She felt herself judged—judged from the outside, it is true—but still there was justice in it. She had been flying in the face of custom, ignoring common good behavior, in short, sticking to her own convictions in defiance of the world's. And she must pay the penalty—the loss of the possibility of such a friend.
But it was hard, she thought, to pay the price without getting the thing she had paid for. It was more like a gamble in which she had staked all on a chance. And never had this chance appeared more improbable to her than now. For if Kerr valued the ring more than he valued his safety, what argument was left her? She thought—if only she had been a different sort of woman—the sort with whom men fall in love—ah, then she might have been able to make one further appeal to him—one that surely would not have failed.
On the third day she opened her eyes to the sun with the thought: Where is he? From the windows of her room she could see the two pale points and the narrow way of water that led into the western ocean. Had he sailed out yonder west into the east, into that oblivion which was his only safety, for ever out of her sight? Or was he still at hand, ignoring warning, defying fate? "What difference can that make to me now?" she thought, "since whether he is here or yonder I've come to the end."
She drew out the sapphire and held it in her hand. The cloud of events had cast no film over its luster, but she looked at it now without pleasure. For all its beauty it wasn't worth what they were doing for it. Well, to-day they were both of them to see the last of it. To-day she was going to take it to Mr. Purdie to deliver it into his hands, to tell him how it had fallen into hers in the goldsmith's shop—all of the story that was possible for her to tell. For the rest, how she came to fix suspicion on the jewel, he might think her fanciful or morbid. It didn't matter as long as the weary thing was out of her hands. It couldn't matter!
She had made it out all clear in her mind that this was the right thing to do. It hadn't occurred to her she had made it out only on the hypothesis of Kerr's certainly going. It had not occurred to her that she might have to make her great moral move in the dark; or, what was worse, in the face of his most gallant resistance. In this discouraging light she saw her intention dwindle to the vanishing point, but the great move was just as good as it had been before—just as solid, just as advisable. Being so very solid, wouldn't it wait until she had time to show him that she really meant what she said, supposing she ever had a chance to see him again? The possibility that at this moment he might actually have gone had almost escaped her. She recalled it with a disagreeable shock, but, after all, that was the best she could hope, never to see him again! She ought to be grateful to be sure of that, and yet if she were, oh, never could she deprive him of so much beauty and light by her keeping of the sapphire as he would then have taken away from her!
She would come down then, indeed, level with plainest, palest, hardest things—people and facts. Her romance—she had seen it; she had had it in her hands, and it had somehow eluded her. It had vanished, evaporated. It had come to her in rather a terrific guise, presented to her on that night at the club by the first debonair wave of the man's hand; and now he might have gone out through that white way into the east, taking back her romance as the fairy takes back his unappreciated gift.
She leaned and looked through the thin veil of her curtains at the splendid day. It was one of February's freaks. It was hot. The white ghost of noon lay over shore and sea. Beneath her the city seemed to sleep gray and glistening. The tops of hills that rose above the up-creeping houses were misted green. Across the bay, along the northern shore, there was a pale green coast of hills dividing blue and blue. Ships in the bay hung out white canvas drying, and the sky showed whiter clouds, slow-moving, like sails upon a languid sea. Beneath her, directly down, through hanging darts of eucalyptus leaves, hemmed with high hedges, the oval of her garden showed her a pattern like a Persian carpet. Roofs sloped beyond it, and beyond these the diagram of streets and houses, and empty unbuilt grassy lots.
She looked down upon all, as lone and lonely as a deserted lady in a tower, lifted above these happy, peaceful things by her strange responsibility. Her thoughts could not stay with them; her eyes traveled seaward. She parted the curtains and, leaning a little out, looked westward at the white sea gate.
A whistle, as of some child calling his mate, came sweetly in the silence. It was near, and the questing, expectant note caught her ear. Again it came, sharper, imperative, directly beneath her. She looked down; she was speechless. There was a sudden wild current of blood in her veins. There he stood, the whistler, neither child nor bird, but the man himself—Kerr, looking up at her from the gay oval of her garden. She hung over the window-sill. She looked directly down upon him, foreshortened to a face, and even with the distance and the broad glare of noon between them she recognized his aspect—his gayest, of diabolic glee. There lurked about him the impish quality of the whistle that had summoned her.
"Come down," he called.
All sorts of wonders and terrors were beating around her. He had transcended her wildest wish; he had come to her more openly, more daringly, more romantically than she could have dreamed. All the amazement of why and how he had braved the battery of the windows of her house was swallowed up in the greater joy of seeing him there, standing in his "grays," with stiff black hat pushed off his hot forehead, hands behind him, looking up at her from the middle of anemones and daffodils.
"Come down," he called again, and waved at her with his slim, glittering stick. How far he had come since their last encounter, to wave at and command her, as if she were verily his own! She left the window, left the room, ran quickly down the stair. The house was hushed; no passing but her own, no butler in the hall, no kitchen-maid on the back stair. Only grim faces of pictures—ancestors not her own—glimmered reproachful upon her as she fled past. Light echoes called her back along the hall. The furniture, the muffling curtains, her own reflection flying through the mirrors, held up to her her madness, and by their mute stability seemed to remind her of the shelter she was leaving—seemed to forbid.
She ran. This was not shelter; it was prison. He was rescue; he was light itself. The only chance for her was to get near enough to him. Near him no shadow lived. The thing was to get near enough. She rushed direct from shadow into light. She came out into the sun, into the garden with its blaze of wintry summer, its whispering life and the free air over it. The man standing in the middle of it, for all his pot hat and Gothic stick, was none the less its demigod waiting for her, laughing. He might well laugh that she who had written that unflinching letter should come thus flying at his call; but there was more than laughter, there was more than mischief in him. The high tide of his spirits was only the sparkle of his excitement. It was evident that he was there with something of mighty importance to say.
Was it that her letter had finally touched him? Had he come at last to transcend her idea with some even greater purpose? She seemed to see the power, the will for that and the kindness—she could not call it by another word—but though she was beseeching him with all her silent attitude to tell her instantly what the great thing was, he kept it back a moment, looking at her whimsically, indulgently, even tenderly.
"I have come for you," he said.
"Oh, for me!" she murmured. Surely he couldn't mean that! He was simply putting her off with that.
"I mean it, I mean it," he assured her. "This doesn't make it any less real, my getting at you through a garden. Better," he added, "and sweet of you to make the duller way impossible."
She took a step back. It had not been play to her; but he would have it nothing else. He, too, stepped back and away from her.
"Come," he said, and behind him she saw the lower garden gate that opened on the grassy pitch of the hill, swinging idle and open. The sight of him about to vanish lured her on, and as he continued to walk backward she advanced, following.
"Oh, where?" she pleaded.
"With me!" Such a guaranty of good faith he made it!
She tried to summon her reluctance.
"We'll talk about it as we go along." His hand was on the gate. "We can't stop here, you know. She'll be watching us from the window."
Flora glanced behind her. The windows were all discreetly draped—most likely ambush—but that he should apprehend Clara's eyes behind them! Ah, then, he did know what he was about! He saw Clara as she did. She would almost have been ready to trust him on the strength of that alone. Still she hung back.
"But my things!" she protested. She held up her garden hat. "And my gown!" She looked down at her frail silk flounces. Was ever any woman seen on the street like this!
"Oh, la, la, la," he cut her short. "We can't stop to dress the part. You'll forget 'em."
She smiled at him suddenly, looked back at the house, put on her hat—the garden hat. The moment she had dreaded was upon her. In spite of her warning reason, in spite of everything, she was going with him.
Beyond the looming roofs as they descended the hill she saw white sails sink out of sight. All the little panorama upon which she had looked down sprang up around her, large and living. He whistled to the car as he helped her down the last steep pitch, whistled and waved, and they ran for it. No time for back-looking, no time now for a faint heart. Before she knew they were fairly crowded into the narrow front seat, and the long street was running up to them and streaming by.
This was never the car one went out the front door to take. This creaked and crawled low, taking the corners comfortably, past houses with all their windows blinking recognition. Hadn't it passed them so for twenty years? Old houses in long gardens, and little houses creeping back behind their yards, not yet encroached upon by fresher ties of living. Past all these and gliding down under high, ragged banks, green grass above with wooden stairways straggling up their naked faces; past these again; past lower levels; past little gray and cluttered houses; past loaded carts of vegetables; past children playing shrilly, bearing down always on the green square of the plaza wide, worn and foreign, and the Greek church "domed" with blue and yellow, bearing down as if it had fairly determined to make its course straight through this stable center. Then in the very shadow it swerved aside to clatter off in quite another direction along a wider street with whiter shops, and more glittering windows with gilded letters flashing foreign names, with more marked and brilliant colors moving in the crowd, with a clearer stamp on all of Latin living.
Then suddenly for them the sliding panorama ceased. The car had stopped and they had left it, and were standing upon the corner of a still street that came down from the high hills behind them and crossed the car-track and climbed again a little way to curve over into the sky. Dingy houses two blocks above them stood silhouetted against the blue. They were walking upward toward this horizon, leaving color and motion behind them. With every step the street grew more empty, lonely and colorless. Many of the windows that glimmered at them, passing, were the blank windows of empty houses. Were they taking this way, this curious roundabout out-of-the-world way, of dropping over into the shipping which lay under the hill? For all she knew this might really be his notion, for since they had left the garden gate, though they had looked together at the light and color of the pictures moving past their eyes, they had not exchanged a word.
But all at once he stopped at the intersection of two dusty streets, and his eyes veered down the four perspectives like a voyageur taking his soundings. Elegant as ever and odd enough, yet he wasn't any odder here at the jumping off place of nowhere than he had appeared in the box at the theater, or in the picture gallery. She had the clear impression all at once that he wasn't too odd for anything.
"Here we are!" he said, and indicated with his glittering stick straight before them a little house. It was low, as if it crouched against the wind, faded and beaten by the sun to the drab of the rock itself, and made so secret with tight-drawn curtains that it seemed to have shut itself up against the world for ever. She wavered. She wasn't afraid of herself out here, out-of-doors under the sky, but she was afraid that those four walls might shut out her new unreasoning joy, might steal away his new tenderness, and bring her back face to face with the same ugly fact that had confronted her in her drawing-room.
"Oh, no," she said, and put her hands behind her with a determination that she wasn't going to move.
"Oh, yes," he said, but he didn't smile. He looked at her quite gravely, reproachfully, and the touch of his fingers on her arm was fine, was delicate, as if to say, "I wouldn't harm you for the world."
She blushed a slow, painful crimson. She hadn't meant that. She hadn't even thought of it; but, since he had, there was nothing for it but to go in. The door shut behind her sharply, with a click like a little trap; and she breathed such an atmosphere, flat, faint and stale, the mere ghost of some fuller, more fragrant flavor. In the little anteroom where they stood, whose faded ceiling all but brushed their heads, and in the larger little room beyond the Nottingham lace curtains, prevailed a mild shabbiness, a respectable decay. Curtains and table-cloths alike showed a dull and tempered whiteness as if the shadow of time had fallen dim across the whole. The little restaurant seemed left behind in the onward march of the city, and its faded, kindly face was but a shadow of what had been of the vigor and flourish of bourgeois Spain thirty years before. There was no one eating at the little tables, no one sitting behind the high cash-desk in the anteroom. Not a stir of human life in all the place.
"Hello," said Kerr among the tables looking around him, "we've caught them asleep." He rapped on the wall with his cane. Flora peered at him between the curtains, all her fascinated apprehension of what was to follow plain upon her face. "Shall it be a giant or dwarf?" he asked her. "There's nothing I won't do for you, you know."
The door opened and a little girl with a long black braid and purple apron came in.
"A dwarf," cried Flora. She laughed with a quick relaxing of her strained nerves. It might almost have been the truth from that old little swarthy face and sedate demeanor that hardly noticed them. The child walked gravely up to the desk and mounting to the high stool struck a faint-voiced bell.
"There," said Kerr, "ends formality. Now let the real magic begin!"
"Not black magic," Flora took up his fancy.
He had drawn out a chair for her. "That depends on you. I'm not the magic maker. I have no talisman."
She felt the conscious jewel burn in her possession. She looked up beseechingly at him, but he only laughed, and, with a swing, lifted the chair a little off the ground as he set her up to the table, as if to show how easily he could put forth strength. There was nothing defiant in him. He was taking her with him—taking her upon the wings of his high spirits; but mischievously, obstinately, he would not show her where the flight was leading, nor let her listen to anything but the rustling of those wings. He was determined to make holiday, whatever was to follow. For the glimpse of blue through the dim window might be the Bay of Naples; and, ah! Chianti. Perhaps the sort one gets down Monte Video way, where France fades into Italy—perhaps, at least if her kind fancy could get the better of the reality. In Sicily there were just such table-cloths as these, and just such fat floor-shaking contadini to wait upon you. And look now at the purple one behind the desk—child or gnome—feet not touching the floor—centuries of Italy in her face. Oh, calculation, indifference!
"She wouldn't care if you jumped up and threw me out of the window," he affirmed. "That's why this hole is so harmless. Oh, isn't that harmless? What's more harmless than to let one alone? There's only one dangerous thing here," he grinned and let her take her choice of which.
She came straight at it.
"You know I can't let you alone."
He laughed. "Well, isn't that why we're here at last—that you may dictate your terms?"
"I have. Didn't you get my letter?"
"Oh, indeed I did. Haven't I obeyed it? Haven't I kept away from your house? Have I tried to approach you?"
"Haven't you, though?" she threw at him accusingly.
"Ah," he deprecated, "you came to me. I was down in the garden."
She looked at him through his persiflage wistfully, searchingly. "But there were other things in that letter."
"There were?" He regarded her with grave surprise. Oh, how she mistrusted his gravity! "Why, to be sure there were things—things that you didn't mean—one thing above all others you couldn't mean, that you want me to drop out when the game is half done, to slink away and leave it all like this—abandon you and my Idol so to each other! My dear, for what do you take me?"
She burst out. "But can't you see the danger?"
He met it quietly.
"Certainly. I have been seeing nothing else but the danger—to you. Do you think I've been idle all these days? Every line I have followed has ended in that. It's brought me finally to this." The gesture of his hand included their predicament and the dingy little room. "You'll really have to help me, after all."
"Oh, haven't I tried to? That is why I wrote. Don't you see your own danger at all?"
"No, but I'd like to." He leaned toward her, brows lifted to a quizzical peak.
"Oh, I can't tell you," she despaired. "But somehow I shall have to make you go."
"That will be easy," he said. Leaning back, nursing his chin in his hand, he watched her with a gloomy sort of brooding. "You know what it is I'm waiting for. You know I won't go without it." His words came sadly, but doggedly, with a grim finality, as if he gave himself up to the course he was following as something he knew was inevitable. The faintness of despair came over her. Only the narrow table was between them, yet all at once, with the mention of the ring, he seemed a long way off. What was this terrible obsession that outweighed every other consideration with him? How get at it? How get through it? Or was it between them for ever?
"Do you care for it so very much?" she asked him, trembling but valiant.
"I care so very much," he repeated slowly, and after a moment of wonder: "Why, don't you?"
"Oh, not for that," she cried sharply. "Not for the sapphire!"
He stared. She had startled him clean out of his brooding. "In Heaven's name, for what, then?"
Oh, she could never tell him it was for him! In her distress and embarrassment she looked all ways.
His quick white finger touched her on the wrist. "For Cressy?"
The abrupt stern note of his question startled her. She held herself stiff and still for a moment, then: "For every one in this wretched business. I have to."
"Ah," he sighed out the satisfaction of his long uncertainty, "then Cressy is in it."
"No, I didn't mean that—you mustn't think it—I can't discuss him with you!" She was hot to recapture her fugitive admission.
"Don't let that disturb you. You haven't given him away to me. I had all I'm likely to get from the man himself."
"He—he told you?" she faltered.
"He told me nothing. Don't you know that he misdoubts me? I got it out of him, by sleight of hand—where we had met before. Has he never told you anything of that morning when we left your house together?"
"Never." The admission cost her an effort.
He mused at her. "As I said, he told me nothing, but it occurred to me when he came in that we might be there on the same errand."
She paled. "You mean—?"
"I mean I thought it might be safer all around that you should not see him that morning; so I got him away. He hasn't asked you for it since?"
"The sapphire?" she faltered. "No!" The more her instinct warned that it had been the jewel Harry had returned for, the more she repudiated the idea to Kerr.
"Why should you think he came for that? What has he to do with it?" she murmured.
"My God! how you do champion him!" He leaned forward sharply across the table. "What is this man to you?"
He was going too far. He had no right to that question. "The man I have promised to marry." Her hot look, her cold manner defied him to command her here. Yet for a moment, leaning forward with his clenched hands on the table, he looked ready to spring up and force her words back on her. The next he let it go and dropped back in his chair again.
"Quite so," he said. "But I didn't believe it." He stared at her with a dull, profound resentment. "Yet it's most possible; since it isn't the sapphire it would be that." He mused. "But, you extraordinary woman, why on earth—" he broke off, still looking at her, looking with a persistent, sharp, studying eye, as if she were the most puzzling and, it came to her gradually, the most dubious thing on earth. He was verily a magician, a worker of black magic; for under the spell of his eyes she felt herself turning into something horrible. However innocent she was in intention, the ugly appearance was covering her.
"Then what are you doing here with the ring on you?" he demanded solemnly. "Why are you dealing with me? What do you think you'll get out of it? Good God! women are hideous! How can you betray the man you love?"
"Oh," she cried, with a wail of horror. She stood up trembling and pale. "I don't—I don't—I don't! I've kept it from them. I'm standing against them all. I shall never give it to them. When have I ever betrayed you?"
He drew back, away from her, as if to ward off her meaning, but she leaned toward him, her hands flung out, holding herself up to him for all she meant. He got up slowly and the creeping tide of red, dusky and violent, rising over his face, swelling his features, darkening his eyes, hung before her like a banner of shame.
"I didn't know, I didn't know," he repeated in a low voice. His eyes were on the ground. Then, with a sharp motion, as if merely standing in front of her was unendurable, "Oh, Lord!" he said, and, turning, walked from her toward the window. He went precipitately, as if he meant to go through it, but he only leaned against it and stood motionless; and from her side of the table, trembling, breathless, she watched his stricken silhouette black upon the gray, fading light.
The knowledge of how far she had gone, of how much she had betrayed herself, swelled and swelled before her mind until it seemed to fill her life, but she looked at it hardily and unabashed. All the decencies in the world should sink before he thought her a traitor. She came softly up beside him.
"Don't be sorry for what I told you."
"I'm not," he said. His voice sounded muffled. He did not look at her, only held out his arm in a mute sign to her to come. She felt it around her, but it was a mere symbol of protection. It lay limp on her shoulder, and he continued to stare through the window at the street. "I'm not sorry for what you said," he repeated slowly. "I'm glad; but, child, I wish it wasn't true."
"Don't, don't!" she besought him, "for I don't."
He gave her a look. "That's beautiful of you, but"—and he turned to the window again and spoke to himself—"it puts an awful face on my business. All along you've made me think for you, and of you, more than you deserve, more than I can afford." The stare she gave this forced out of him a reluctant smile. "Why, didn't you know it? Do you think I couldn't have had the sapphire that first night I saw it on your hand, if it hadn't been—well, for the way I thought of you? I fancied you knew that then." He made a restless movement. His arm fell from her shoulder. "There's been only one thing to do from the first," he said, "and I don't see my way to it."
"Oh, don't take it! Leave it!" she pleaded. "Leave it with me! What does it matter so much? A jewel! If only you would leave it and go away from me!"
He whirled on her. "In Heaven's name, a fine piece of logic! Leave the sapphire to people who can make no better use of it than I? Leave you to go on with this business and marry this Cressy? Even suppose you gave me the sapphire, I couldn't let you do that!"
"If I gave you the sapphire," Flora said, "oh, he wouldn't marry me then!" She couldn't tell how this had come to her, but all at once it was clear, like a sign of her complete failure; but Kerr only wondered at her distress.
"Well, if you don't want to marry him, what do you care?"
"Oh, I don't, I don't care for that." She sank back listlessly in her chair again. She couldn't explain, but in her own mind she knew that if she lost the sapphire she would so lose in her own esteem; so fail at every point that counted, that she would never be able to see or be seen in the world again as the same creature. Even to Kerr—even to him to whom she would have yielded she would have become a different thing. She realized now she had staked everything on the premise that she wouldn't have to yield; and now it began to appear to her that she would. His weakness was appearing now as a terrible strength, a strength that seemed on the point of crushing her, but it could never convince her. That strength of his had brought her here. Was it to happen here, that strange thing she had foreseen, the end of her? Was it here she was to lose the sapphire, and him?
She looked vaguely around the room, at the most impassive aspect of the place, as at a place she never expected to leave; the darkening windows, the fast-shut door, the child leaning on the desk, watching them with sharp, incurious eyes—this would be her niche for ever. She would be left for ever with the crusts and the dregs. And Kerr's figure in the twilight seemed each time it moved to be on the point of vanishing into the grayness. He moved continually up and down the narrow spaces between the tables. He troubled the dry repose of the place. Sometimes he looked at her, studying, questioning, undecided. Once he stopped, as if just there an idea had arrested him. He looked at her, as if, she thought, he were afraid of her. Then for long moments he stood looking blankly, steadily out of the window. He did not approach her. He seemed to avoid her, until, as though he had come at last to his decision, he walked straight up to her and stood above her. She rose to meet him. He was smiling.
"Don't you know that you could easily get rid of me?" he demanded. "Cressy would be too glad to do it for you; and there are more ways than one that I could get the sapphire from you, if I could face the idea of it—but really, really we care too much for each other. There's only one way out for you and me and the sapphire. I'll take you both."
Her clenched hands opened and fell at her sides. A great wave of helplessness flowed over her. Her eyes, her throat filled up with a rush of blinding tears. She put out her hands, trying to thrust him off, but he took the wrists and held them apart, and held her a moment helpless before him.
"Oh, no," she whispered.
"But I love you."
Her head fell back. She looked at him as if he had spoken the incredible.
"I love you," he repeated, "though God knows how it has happened!"
The blood rushed to her heart.
He was drawing her nearer.
She felt his breath upon her face; she saw the image of herself in his eyes. She started to herself on the edge of danger, and made a struggle to release her wrists. He let them go. She sank down into her chair.
"Why not? Why won't you go with me?" she heard him say again, still close beside her.
"I can't, I can't!" She clung to the words, but for the moment she had forgotten her reasons. She had forgotten everything but the wonderful fact that he loved her. He was there within reach, and she had only to stretch out her hand, only to say one word, and he would cut through the ranks of her perplexities and terrors, and carry her away.
"Why not, if you love me?" he insisted. "Are you afraid of those people? Are you afraid of Cressy? He shall never come near you."
She shook her head. "No, it isn't that."
He stooped and looked into her face. "Then what keeps you?"
She looked up slowly.
"Your honor!" For a moment her answer seemed to have him by surprise. He mused, and again it came dreamily back to her that he was looking at her across a vast difference no will of hers could ever bridge.
"Don't you see what I am?" she murmured. "Can't you imagine where I stand in this hideous business? It's my trust. I'm on their side; and, oh, in spite of everything, I can't make myself believe in giving it to you!"
He pondered this very gravely.
"Yes, I can see how you might feel that way. But is the feeling really yours? Are you sure they haven't put it on you? Might not my honor do as well for you, if you were mine?" It struck her she had never connected him with honor, and he read her thought with a flash of humor. "Evidently it hasn't occurred to you that I have an honor."
She looked at him sadly. "In spite of everything I'm on the other side. I belong to them."
"You belong to me." His hand closed on hers. "Mine is the only honor you have to think of. Can't you trust that I am right? Can't you see it through my eyes? Can't you make yourself all mine?" His arm was around her now, holding her fast, but she turned her face away, and his kisses fell only on her cheek and hair.
"Oh," she cried, "if only I could!"
"Don't you love me?"
"Oh, yes, but that makes me see, all the more, the dreadful difference between us."
"You silly child, there is no difference, really."
"Ah, yes, you know it as well as I. You were afraid of it, too. All that long time you were walking around you were wondering whether you dared to take me."
He denied her steadily, "Never!"
She loved him for that gallant denial, for she knew he had been afraid, horribly afraid, more afraid than she was now; but that strange quality of his that gave to a double risk a double zest had set him all the hotter on this resolution.
He sat for some long moments thoughtfully looking straight before him. She, glancing at his profile, white and faintly glimmering in the twilight, thought it looked sharp, absorbed and set. She could see his great determination growing there in the gloom between them, looming and overshadowing them both.
"I see," he said at last. "I'll simply have to take you in spite of it." He turned around to her, and reached his hands down through the dusk. She was being drawn up into arms which she could not see. Her hands were clasped around a neck, her cheek was against a face which she had never hoped to touch. Her reason and her fears were stifled and caught away from her lips with her breath. She was giving up to her awful weakness. She was giving up to the power of love. She was letting herself sink into it as she would sink into deep water. The sense of drowning in this profound, unfathomable element, of shutting her eyes and opening her arms to it, was the highest she had ever touched; but all at once the memory of what she was leaving behind her, like a last glimpse of sky, swept her with fear. She made a desperate effort to rescue herself before the waters quite closed over her head.
She pulled herself free. Without his arms around her for the first moment she could hardly stand. She took an uncertain step forward; then with a rush she reached the white curtains. They flapped behind her. She heard Kerr laugh, a note, quiet, caressing, almost content. It came from the gloom like a disembodied voice of triumph. Her rush had carried her into the middle of the anteroom. At this last moment was there to be no miracle to save her? There was no rescue among these dumb walls and closed-up windows. The purple child gave her a sharp, bird-like glance, as if the most that this wild woman could want was "change." Flora looked behind her and saw Kerr, who had put aside the curtains and was standing looking at her. He was bright and triumphant in that twilight room. He was not afraid of losing her now. He knew in that one moment he had imprisoned her for ever! She saw him approaching, but though all her mind and spirit strained for flight, something had happened to her will. It tottered like her knees.
He stooped and picked up an artificial rose, which had fallen from her hat, and put it into her hand. A moment, with his head bent, he stood looking into her face, but without touching her.
"Sit down over there," he said, and pointed toward a chair against the wall. She went meekly like a prisoner. He spoke to the child in the purple apron, who was still sitting behind the desk. He put some money on the cash-desk in front of her. It was gold. It shone gorgeously in the dull surrounding, and the child pounced upon it, incredulous of her luck. Then he turned, crossed the room, soundlessly opened the door, and went out into the violet dark of the street.
The child furtively tested her coin, biting it as if to taste the glitter, and Flora waited, lost, given up by herself, passively watching for the room to be filled again with his presence. He was back after a long minute, and this time took up his stand at the door, where, pushing aside the tight-drawn curtain a little, from time to time he looked out into the street. Sometimes his eyes followed the cracks of the plastered wall, sometimes he studied the floor at his feet; every moment she saw he was alert, expectantly watching and waiting; and though he never looked at her sitting behind him, she felt his protection between her and the darkening street. She sat in the shadow of it, feeling it all around her, claiming her as it would claim her henceforth, from, the world. A ghost of light glimmered along the curtains of the window, and stopped, quivering, in the middle of the curtained door. Then he turned about and beckoned her. Sheer weakness kept her sitting. He went to her, took her face between his hands, and looked into it long and intently.
"You don't want to go!" The words fell from his lips like an accusal. His sudden realization of what she felt held him there dumb with disappointment. "You have won me," her look was saying, "and yet I have immediately become a worthless thing, because I am going; and I don't believe in going." She felt she had failed him—how cruelly, was written in his face. But it was only for a moment that she made him hesitate. The next he shook himself free.
"Well, come," he said.
She felt that all doors would fly open at his bidding. She felt herself swept powerless at his will with all the yielding in her soul that she had felt in her body when his arms were around her. He had taken her by the hand—he was leading her out into the gusty night, where all lights flared—the gas-lights marching up the street over the hill into the unknown, and the lights gleaming at her like eyes in the dark bulk of the carriage waiting before the door. It all glimmered before her—a picture she might never see again—might not see after she passed through the carriage door that gaped for her. The will that had swept her out of the door was moving her beyond her own will, as it had moved her that morning in the garden, beyond all things that she knew. There was no feeling left in her but the despair of extreme surrender.
She found herself in the carriage. She saw his face in the carriage door as pale as anger, yet not angry; it was some bigger thing that looked at her from his eyes. He looked a long while, as if he bade her never to forget this moment. Then, "I'll give you twenty-four hours," he said. "This man will take you home." He shut the carriage door—shut it between them. Before she had gathered breath he had straightened, fallen back, raised his hat, and the carriage was turning. Flora thrust her head, straw hat and ribbons out of the window.
"Oh, I love you!" she called to him. She sank back in the cushions and covered her face with her hands.
For a little she kept her face hidden, shutting out the present, jealously living with the wonderful thing that had happened to her. It was as wonderful as anything she had dreamed might come when she had written him that letter. And if she needed any proof of his love, she had had it in the moment when he had let her go. There he had transcended her hope. She felt lifted up, she felt triumphant, though the triumph had not been hers. It was all his; he had saved her from her own weakness; his was the miracle. How he shone to her! The dark, swaying hollow of the carriage seemed still full of his presence, full of his hurried whispering; and again she seemed to see him standing outside the window in the deep blue evening holding out his hands to her cry of "I love you!"
He had been wonderful in a way she had not expected. He had shown her so beautifully that he could be reached in spite of his obsession. Might not she hope to touch him just a little further? Was there any height now that he might not rise to? She seemed to see the possible end of it all shaping itself out of his magnanimity. She seemed to see him finally relinquishing his passion for the jewel, and his passion for her for the sake of something finer than both. She had seen it foreshadowed in what he had done this day—having them both in his hands, he had put them away from him. Yet in that action she knew there had been no finality. She had touched him, but she had not convinced him, and as long as he was unconvinced he would be at her again in some other way.
Her hands dropped from her face, and she confronted the fact drearily. "No," she thought, "he never gives up what he wants."
She looked out of the window. The flickers of gas-lamps fell intermittently through it upon her. Her queer vehicle was rattling crazily—jolting as if every spring were at its last leap. She was out of the quiet, blue street. Montgomery Avenue, with its lights, its glittering gilt names and Latin insignia, was traveling by on either side of her. The voice of the city was growing louder in her ears, the crowd on the pavement increased. At intervals the carriage dipped through glares of electric lights that illuminated its interior in a flash broader than day—the ragged cushions, the raveled tassels, the limp-swinging shutters, and, glimmering in the midst, wild and disheveled, herself in all the little wavy mirrors. She sat looking out at the maze of moving lights and figures without seeing them, intent on an idea that was growing clearer, larger, moment by moment in her mind.
Kerr's appearance in her garden—his capture of her—had not been the fantastic freak it had seemed. He had had his purpose. He had taken her out of her environment; he had carried her beyond succor or menace just that he might carry them both so much further and faster through their differences. They had not reached the point of agreement yet, but might they not on some other ground, where they could be unchallenged? It seemed to her if she could only meet him on her own ground for once—instead of for ever on Clara's or Harry's—only meet him alone, somewhere beyond their reach, it might be accomplished, it might be brought to the end she so wished. Yet where to go to be rid of Clara and Harry, the two so closely associated with every fact of her life?
The hack, which had been moving along at a rapid pace, slowed now to a walk among the thickening traffic, and from a mere moving mass the crowd appeared as individuals—a stream of dark figures and white faces. Her eyes slipped from one to another. Here one stood still on the lamp-lit corner, looking down, with lips moving quickly and silently. It was strange to see those rapid, eager, moving lips with no sound from them audible. Then her eyes were startled by something familiar in the figure, though the direct down-glare of the ball of light above him distorted the features with shadows. She pressed her face against the window-glass in palpitating doubt. It was Harry.
She cowered in the corner of the carriage. In a moment the risks of her situation were before her. Had he seen her? Oh, no, at least not yet. He had been too intent on whomever he was talking to. She peered to make sure that he was still safely on the street corner. He was just opposite, and now that the eddy of the crowd had left a little clear space around him she saw with whom he was talking. It was a small, very small, shabby, nondescript man—possibly only a boy, so short he seemed. His back was toward her. His clothes hung upon him with an odd un-Anglo-Saxon air. He was foreign with a foreignness no country could explain—Italian, Portuguese, Greek—whatever he was, he was a strange foil to Harry, so bright and burnished.
The hack was turning. She realized with dismay that it was turning sharp around that very corner where they stood. Suppose Harry should chance to glance through its window and see Flora Gilsey sitting trembling within. The hack wheezed and cramped, and all at once she heard it scrape the curb. Then she was lost! She looked up brave in her desperation, ready to meet Harry's eyes. She saw the back of his head. For a moment it loomed directly above her, then it moved. He was separating from his companion. With one stride he vanished out of the square frame of the window, and there remained full fronting her, staring in upon her, the face of his companion.
Back flashed to her memory the goldsmith's shop—dull hues and odors all at once—and that wide unwinking stare that had fixed her from the other side of the counter. The blue-eyed Chinaman! In the glare of white light, in his terrible clearness and nearness, she knew him instantly.
The hack plunged forward, the face was gone. But she remained nerveless, powerless to move, frozen in her stupefaction, while her vehicle pursued its crazy course. It was clattering up Sutter Street toward Kearney, where at this hour the town was widest awake, and the crowd was a crowd she knew. At any instant people she knew might be going in and out of the florists' shops and restaurants, or passing her in carriages. And what of Flora Gilsey in her morning dress and garden hat, in a night-hawk of a Telegraph Hill hack, flying through their midst like a mad woman? They were the least of her fears. She had forgotten them. The only thing that remained to her was the memory of Harry and the blue-eyed Chinaman together on the street corner.
She had been given a glimpse of that large scheme that Harry was carrying forward somewhere out of her sight—such a glimpse as Clara had given her in the rifling of her room, as Ella had shown in her hysterical revelation. Again she felt the threat of these ominous signs of danger, as a lone general at a last stand with his troops clustered at his back sees in front, and behind, on either side of him, the glitter of bayonets in the bushes.
She was in the midst of the tangled traffic of Kearney Street. Swimming lights and crowds were all around her. She peered forth cautiously upon it. She saw a florid face, a woman, she knew casually—and there her eyes fastened, not for the woman's brilliant presence, but for what she saw directly in front of it, thrown into relief upon its background—a short and shabby figure, foreign, equivocal, reticent, the figure of a blue-eyed Chinaman.
He was standing still while the crowd flowed past him. This time he was alone. He seemed to be waiting, yet not to watch, as if he had already seen what he was expecting and knew that it must pass his way. It was uncanny, his reappearance, at a second interval of her route, standing as if he had stood there from the first, patient, expectant, motionless. It was worse than uncanny.
All at once an idea, wild and illogical enough, jumped up in her mind. Couldn't this miserable vehicle that was lumbering like a disabled bug move faster and rattle her on out of reach of the glare, the publicity, the threat of discovery, and, above all, of her discomforting notion? She breathed out relief as the carriage dipped into the comparative quiet again, and she felt herself being driven on and up a gently rising street between block-apart, lone gas-lamps. She thrust her face as far out of the window as she dared, looking back at the lights and traffic which were drifting behind her. At this distance she could single out no one figure from the crowd, and no figure which could possibly be that of the blue-eyed Chinaman was moving up the street behind her. There only remained a disquieting memory of him on the corner with Harry. Together they made a combination, to her mind, threatening to the man she loved, for whom she so desperately feared.
If ever she had felt herself helpless, it was in this moment passing along the half-lit, half-empty city street. By what she knew, by what she wore around her neck, she was separated from all peace-abiding citizens—she was outlawed. Every closed door and shaded window (so many she had opened or looked out of!) now seemed shut and shaded against her for ever. Night and the reticent gray city, averting their eyes, let her slip through unregarded.
She was passing that section of large, old-fashioned mansions, cupolaed, towered, indistinct at the top of their high, broad steps, or back among the trees of their gardens. Along the front of one stretched a high hedge of laurestinas black as a ribbon of the night, capacious of shadows; and it seemed to Flora that all at once a shadow detached itself. She looked with a start. It flashed along the pavement—if shadow it were—running head down with a strange, scattering movement of arms and legs, yet seeming to make such speed that for a moment it kept abreast of the cab. She could see no features, no lineament of this strange thing to recognize, yet instantly she knew what it must be—what she had feared and thought impossible. She thrust her head far out and addressed the driver.
"Go as fast as you can, faster! and I'll give you twice what he gave you." The words rang so wildly to her own ears that she half expected the driver to peer down like an old bird of prey from his perch and demand her reason. But he made no sound or sign. It may have been that in his time he had heard even wilder requests than hers. He only sent his whip cracking forward to the ears of the lean horse, and the cab began to rattle like a mad thing.
Flora leaned back with a sigh of relief. The mere sensation of being borne along at such a rate, the sight of houses, lamp-posts, even people here and there, flitting away from the eye, unable to interrupt her course, or even to glimpse her identity, gave her a feeling of safety. The more she was getting into the residence part of the city, the more deserted the streets, the closer shut the windows of the houses, the more it seemed to her as if the night itself covered and abetted her flight. So swiftly she went it was only a wonder how the cab held together. She had never traveled more rapidly in her light and silent carriage. Now they whirled the corner and plunged at the steep rise of a cross street. Just above, over the crown of the hill, she saw the sky, moonless, blackish, spattered with stars. Then against it a little fluttering shape like a sentinel wisp—the only living thing in sight. It was incredible, impossible, horrible that he should be there, in front of her, waiting for her, who had driven so fast—too fast, it had seemed, for human foot to follow. By what unimaginable route had he traveled? She was ready to believe he had flown over the housetops. And above all other horrors, why was he pursuing her?
The carriage was abreast the Chinaman now, and immediately he took up his trot, for a little while keeping up, dodging along between light and shadow, presently falling behind. At intervals she heard the patter, patter, patter of his footsteps following; at intervals she lost the sound, and shadows would engulf the figure, and she would wait in a panic for its reappearance. For she knew it was there somewhere, on one side of the street or the other. But, oh, not to see it! To expect at any moment it might start up again—Heaven knew where, perhaps at her very carriage window. Her unconscious hand was doubled to a fist upon her breast, fast closed upon the sapphire.
With all her body braced, she leaned and looked far backward, and far forward, and now for a long time saw nothing. The distance was empty. The glare of arc-lights showed her the shadows of her own progress—the shadow of her vehicle shooting huge and misshapen now on the cobbles, now along a blank wall, wheels, body and driver, all lurching like one; now heaped on each other, now tenuously drawn out, now twisting themselves into shapes the mind could not account for. For here, whirling the corner, the carriage seemed to wave an arm, and now between the wheels, fast twinkling, she saw a pair of legs. She leaned and looked, so mesmerized with this grotesque appearance that it scarcely troubled her that all the way down the last long hill she knew it must be that a man was running at her wheel.
The warm lights of her house were just before her, offering succor, stiffening courage. It would be but a dash from the door of the cab to her own door. There was no second course, once the cab stopped. She felt that to lurk in its gloom would mean robbery, perhaps death. She thought without fear, but with an intense calculation. Her hand held the door at swing as the cab drew up. Before it should stop she must leap. She gathered her skirts and sprang—sprang clean to the sidewalk. The steps of her house rushed by her in her upward flight. Her bell pealed. She covered her eyes.
For the moment before Shima opened the door there was nothing but darkness and silence. She had never been so glad of anything in her life as of the kind, astute, yellow face he presented to her distressed appeal.
"Shima," she panted, "pay the cab; and if there's any one else there say that I'll call the police—no, no, send him away." There was no question or hesitation in Shima's obedience. Through the glass of the door she watched him descend upon his errand, until he disappeared over the edge of the illumination of the vestibule. She waited, dimly aware of voices going on beyond the curtains of the drawing-room, but all her listening power was concentrated on the silence without—a silence that remained unbroken, and out of which Shima returned with the same imperturable countenance.
"He wants ten dollars."
"Oh, yes, give him anything," Flora gasped. If that was all the Chinaman had followed her for! But her relief was momentary, for instantly Shima was back again.
"I gave him ten dollars, the cabman."
Now she gasped indeed. "Oh, the cabman! But the other one!" For an instant Shima seemed to hesitate; glancing past her shoulder as if there was something that he doubted behind her. Then as she still hung on his answer he brought it out in a lowered voice.
"Madam, there was no one else there."
THE FACE IN THE GARDEN
With her hand at her distressed forehead she turned, and saw, between the curtains of the drawing-room, Harry, and behind him Clara, looking out at her with faces of amazement, and she fancied, horror. Harry came straight for her.
"Why, you poor child, what's happened to you?"
She gave him a look. She couldn't forget their scene in the red room, but the mixture of apprehension and real concern in his face went far toward melting her. She might even have told him something, at least a part of the truth, but for that other standing watching her from the drawing-room door. With Clara, there was nothing for it but to ignore her disordered hair, her hat in her hand, her ruffle torn and trailing on the floor.
She put on a splendid nonchalance, as if it were none of their business. "Oh, I am sorry if I kept you waiting."
It was Clara who spoke to her, past Harry's blank astonishment. "Why, we don't mind waiting a few moments more while you dress."
"I shan't have to dress." Such a statement Flora felt must amaze even Shima, waiting like an image on the threshold of the dining-room. But if these people were waiting to be amazed she felt herself equal to amazing them to the top of their expectations.
"Oh, but at least go up and let Marrika give you some pins," Clara protested, hurrying forward as if fairly to drive her.
"Thank you, no, this will do," Flora said. On one point she was quite clear. She wasn't going to leave those two together for a moment to discuss her plight; not till she could first get at Harry alone. Then and there she turned to the mirror and with her combs began to catch back and smooth the disorder of her hair, seeing all the while Clara's reflection hovering perturbed and vigilant in the background of her own.
While her hands were busy seeming to accommodate Clara, her mind was marshaled to Clara's outwitting. The only thing to do was to tell nothing. Let Clara spend her time in guessing. Unless by some wild chance she had seen Kerr in the garden she couldn't come near the truth of what had happened. But what was to be done with Harry? Harry was too close to her to be ignored. Her attitude toward him had undergone a change. In the moment in the red room, when she had seen him break the one feeling that had held her to him, the feeling of awe and respect had evaporated. She felt that it was quite impossible now for them to go on on the same footing; yet, as long as she kept the sapphire she must somehow manage to keep up an appearance of it. She must tell him something.
At that dreadful dinner, where she sat a conscious frustrater of these two silent ones, glancing at Harry's face, she knew that if she didn't attack she would be attacked by him. It was here in the midst of the noiseless passings of Shima, watching Harry's suspicious glances flashing across the table at her strange disorder, that the idea occurred to her of a way out of it. She was bold enough to try a daring thrust at the mystery. If ever a hunter was to be led off on a false scent, Harry was that one. She was amazed at the sudden, fearless impulse that had sprung up in her. She wasn't even afraid to say to him under Clara's nose, "Harry, I want you to myself after dinner. Come up into the garden study."
He was very willing to follow her. She thought she detected in his alacrity something more than curiosity or concern. It seemed almost as if Harry was ashamed of that scene in the red room, and anxious to make it up with her. He even tried before they had reached the head of the stairs. "Oh, Flora—I say, Flora, I—"
But an explanation between them was the last thing she wanted just then. She fairly ran, leaving him panting in the wake of her airy skirts.
For the first time since the thing began Clara was left out completely. Flora knew she was even left out of a possibility of listening at the keyhole. For the bright, tight, little room into which Harry followed her was approached by a square entry and a double door. The room itself overhung the garden as a ship's deck overhangs the sea. Leather books and long red curtains were the note of it. She and Harry had often been here together before. Harry had made love to her here, and she had found it pleasurable enough. But the fact that she could recall it now with distaste made this familiar surrounding seem strange, and they themselves strangest of all.
He hadn't got his breath. He had hardly shut the door on them before she began. "Well, something has happened." She had his attention. His other purpose was arrested. "Oh, something extraordinary. I would have told you on the spot, only I thought you would rather Clara didn't know it."
"I?" That left him staring. "What have I to do with it?"
At this she gave him a long look. "It was through you he ever had the chance of seeing me. I mean the blue-eyed Chinaman. He has followed me all the evening. He followed me here to the very door." Flora's array of facts fell so fast, so hard, so pointed, that for a moment they held him speechless in the middle of the room.
Any fleeting suspicion she might have had of his complicity in the Chinaman's pursuit vanished. He showed plain bewilderment. For a moment he was more at sea than herself. The next she saw the shadow of a thought so disturbing that it sharpened his ruddy face to harshness. He stepped toward her. "What did he say to you?" He loomed directly above her, threatening.
"Nothing. He didn't say anything. But I know he followed me quite to the house, for I saw his shadow all the way down the hill."
Harry still breathed quickly. "Where—how did he come across you?"
She'd been prepared for that question.
"I was driving down Sutter Street and he saw me at the carriage window."
Harry stood tense, poised, catching everything as she tossed it off; then as if all at once he felt the full weight of the burden, "Lord!" he said, and let himself down heavily into a chair. It was plain in his helpless stare that he knew exactly what it all meant. Laying her hands on the high chair-arms, leaning down so that she could look into his face, Flora made her thrust.
"What do you think he wants?" she gently asked. It was as if she would coax it out of him. His answer was correspondingly low and soft.
"It's that damned ring."
She heard her secret fear spoken aloud with such assurance that she waited, certain at the next moment Harry's voice would people the silence with all the facts that had so far escaped her. But when, after a moment of looking before him he did speak, he went back to the beginning, which they both knew.
"You know he didn't want to part with it in the first place."
"Yes, yes; but he did," Flora insisted.
"Well," he answered quickly, "but that was before—" He caught himself and went on with a scarcely perceptible break: "He may have had a better offer for it since."
He couldn't have put it more mildly, and yet that temperate phrase brought back to her in a flash a windy night full of raucous voices and the great figures in the paper that had covered half a page—the reward for the Crew Idol. Could it be that—that sum so overwhelming to human caution and human decency which Harry had cloaked by his grudging phrase "some better offer"? What else could he mean? And what else could the blue-eyed Chinaman mean by his strange pursuit of her?
"Some one must have wanted it awfully," Flora tried again, keeping step with his mild admission.
Harry covered her with an impressive stare. "There's something queer about that ring," he nodded to her. He was going to tell her at last! She gazed at him in expectation, but presently she realized that nothing more was coming. He had stopped at the beginning. She tried to urge him on.
"Queer, what do you mean?" She was feigning surprise.
He looked at her cautiously. "Why, you must have noticed it yourself when we were at the shop. And now, to-night, his having followed you."
She could see him hesitate, choosing his words. She knew well enough her own fear of saying too much—but, what was Harry afraid of? Did he suspect her feeling for Kerr? Was that why he was holding back, leaving out, giving her the small, expurgated version of what he knew. She tried again, making it plainer.
"You think the ring is something he ought not to have had; something that belongs somewhere else?"
He looked away from her, around the room, as if to pick up his answer from some of the corners. "Well, anyway, it's lucky we waited about that setting," he said with quick irrelevance. "If you're going to be annoyed in this way you'd better let me have it."
Why hadn't she thought of that! It was what any man might say, after hearing such a story as hers, yet it was the last thing she had thought of, and the last thing she wanted.
"Oh, leave it with me," she quavered, "at least till you're sure!"
"Oh, no!" He gave his head a quick, decided shake. "If something should come out you wouldn't want to be mixed up in it."
"Then why not give it back to the Chinaman?" she tried him.
"Oh, that's ridiculous." He was in a passion. His darkening eyes, his swelling nostrils, his aspect so out of proportion to her mild and almost playful suggestion, frightened her. He saw it and instantly his mood dropped to mere irritation. "Oh, Flora, don't make a scene about it. This thing has been on my mind for days—the thought that you had the ring. I was afraid I had no business to let you have it in the first place, and what you've told me to-night has clean knocked me out. I don't know what I'm saying. Come, let me have it; and if there's anything queer about the business, at least we'll get it cleared up."
But, smiling, she retreated before him.
"Why, Flora," he argued, half laughing, but still with that dry end of irritation in his voice, "what on earth do you want to keep the thing for?"
By this time she backed against the window, and faced him. "Why, it's my engagement ring."
He looked at her. She couldn't tell whether he was readiest to laugh or rage.
"You gave it to me for that," she pleaded. "Why shouldn't I keep it, until you give me a real reason for giving it up? If you really know anything, why don't you tell me?" She was sure she had him there; but he burst out at last:
"Well, for a fact, I know it is stolen!" He leaned toward her; and his arms, still flung out with the hands open as argument had left them, seemed to her frightened eyes all ready for her, ready with his last argument, his strength.
Once before she had feared herself face to face with the same threat in the eyes and body of another man, but here, her only fear was lest Harry should get the sapphire away from her. His doing so would dash down no ideal of him. It was mere physical terror that made her tremble and raise her hand to her breast. Instantly she saw how she had betrayed the sapphire again. He had taken hold of her wrist, and, twist as she might, he held it, horribly gentle.
She pressed back against the glass until she felt it hard behind her.
"Harry," she whispered, "if you care anything, if you ever want me for yours, you'll take your hands away." She meant it; she was sincere in that moment, for all she shrank from him. Her body and mind would not have been too great a price to give him for the sapphire.
But these he seemed to set aside as trivial. These he expected as a matter of course; he was going to have that other thing, too—the thing she had clung to as a man clings to life; and that now, parting from, she would give up not without a struggle as sharp as that with which the body gives up breath. She wrestled. He seemed all hands. He put aside her struggles, her pleadings, as if they were thistle-down.
Then all at once she felt his arm around her neck. She couldn't move her body. She could only turn her head from his hot breath. For a moment he held her, and yet another moment; and then, terrified at what this strange immobility might mean, she raised her eyes and saw he was not looking at her. Though he held her fast he was not conscious of her. Straight over her head he looked, through the window and down, into the garden. Her eyes followed. It lay beneath, the wonder of its morning aspect all blanched and dim. She saw the silhouette of rose branches in black on the sky. She saw the flowers and bushes all one dull tone. But in the midst of them the oval of the path shone white; and there, as in the afternoon, standing, looking upward, was the dark figure of a man.
Her heart gave a great leap. Just so she'd been summoned once before that day, but what infernal freak had fetched him back to repeat that dangerous sally, and brought him finally into his enemy's grasp? She tried to make a gesture to warn him, and just there Harry released her, dropped her so that she half fell upon the window-seat, and made a dash across the room for the light. In a moment they were in darkness. In a moment, to Flora pressed against the window, the garden sprang clear, and on the formless figure below the face appeared, white in the starlight looking up. She cried out in wonder. It was not Kerr. It was the blue-eyed Chinaman.
After her haunted drive, after her escape, after Shima's search, he was there, still inexorably there; small, diminished by the great facade of the house, but looking up at it with his calm eye, surveying it, measuring its height, numbering its doors, trying its windows. Harry was beside her again. He was tugging frantically at the window. It resisted. She saw his hands trembling while he wrestled with it. Then it went shrieking up and he leaned out.
"What do you want?" he called, and, though he used no name, Flora saw he knew with whom he was speaking. The Chinaman stood immobile, lifting his round, white face, whose mouth seemed to gape a little. Harry leaned far out and lowered his voice.
"Go away, Joe! Don't come here; never come here!" There was a quiver in his voice. Anger or apprehension, or both, whatever his passion was, for the moment it overwhelmed him, and as the Chinaman stood unmoved, unmoving, at his commands, Harry turned sharp from the window and dashed out of the room. Flora heard him running, running down the stairs. She hung there breathless, waiting to see him meet the motionless figure; but while she looked and waited that motionless figure suddenly took life. It moved, it turned, it flitted, it mixed with shadows, became a shadow; and then there was nothing there.
Nothing was there when Harry burst out of the garden door and stood staring in the empty oval. How distracted, how violent he looked, balked of his prey! He was stalking the garden, beating the bushes, walking up and down. All at once he stopped and raised a white baffled face to her window. She shrank away. She was in peril of Harry now. He knew her no longer innocent. She had held the ring against him in the face of the fact he had told her it was stolen. And he must guess her motive. He must suspect her now.
In her turn she ran, up and up a twisted side stair, shortest passage to her own rooms. At least lock and key could keep her safe for the next few hours. After that she must think of something else.
By five o'clock in the morning she was already moving softly to and fro, so softly as not to rouse the sleeping Marrika. By seven her lightest bag was packed, herself was bathed, brushed, dressed even to hat and gloves, and standing at her window with all the listening alert look of one in a waiting-room expecting a train. She was watching for the city to begin to stir; watching for enough traffic below in the streets to make her own movement there not too noticeable. Yet every moment she waited she was in terror lest her fate should take violent form at last and assail her in the moment of escape. She listened for a foot ascending to her room with a message from Clara demanding an audience. She listened for the peal of the electric bell under Harry's hasty hand—Harry, arrived even at this unwarranted hour with Heaven knew what representative of law to force the sapphire from her.
But all her household was still unstirring when at last she went, soft step after step, down the broad and polished stair and across the empty hall. She went quiet, direct, determined, not at all as she had fled on her other perilous enterprise only yesterday. She shut the outer door after her without a sound and with great relief breathed in the fresh and faintly smoky air of morning.
She walked quickly. The windows of her house still overlooked her, and her greatest terror was that some voice, some appearance, out of that house, might command her return. The street was nearly empty. A maid scrubbing down steps looked after her sharply, and she wondered if she had been recognized. She had no intention of keeping to this street, or even taking a car and traveling down its broad, gray and gleaming vista of formal houses and formal gardens that she knew and that knew her so well. It was a cross-town car bound for quite another locality that she climbed aboard. It was filled only with mechanics and workmen with picks and shovels. She sat crowded elbow to elbow among odors of stale tobacco, stale garlic, stale perspiration, and looking straight before her through the car window watched the aspect of the city, still gray, grow less gleaming and formal and finally quite dirty, and quite, quite dull.
This was all as she had intended, very much in the direction of her errand, and safe. But in Market Street the car-line ended, and she was turned out again in this broad artery of commerce where she was in danger of meeting at any moment people she knew. She made straight across the thoroughfare to its south side, turned down Eighteenth and in a moment was hidden in Mission Street.
Now really the worst danger of detection was over. She saw no reason why a woman with a small hat and a hand-bag should not pass for a school-teacher. Indeed, the men did let her go at that, but the women—women with shawls over their heads, and women with uncovered heads and ear-rings in their ears, and thin, weak-eyed women with bags in their hands—the teachers themselves, one of whom she hoped to pass for—all stared at her. It didn't matter much, she thought, whether they thought her queer or not since they couldn't stop her.
She went, glancing at windows as she passed, looking for a place where she could go to breakfast. She turned into the first restaurant that offered, and after a hasty glance around it to be sure no one lurked there that might betray her she subsided into the clatter with relief. It was one more place to let time pass in, for it would be full two hours before she could fulfil her errand. She stayed as long as she dared, drinking two cups of the hideous coffee; stayed while many came and went, until she felt the proprietor noticing her. That revived her consciousness of the possible dangers still between her and the end she held in view. She had heard of people being arrested for suspicious conduct. She didn't feel sure in what this might consist, but surely such an appearance could be avoided by walking fast and seeming to know exactly where one was going.
It was ten o'clock in the morning, three hours since she had left her house and a most reasonable time of daylight, when Flora turned out of the flatness of "south of Market Street" and began to mount a slow-rising hill. It was a wooden sidewalk she followed flanking a wood-paved street, and these, with the wooden fences and dusty cypress hedges and the houses peering over them upon her looked worn, battered and belonging all to the past. None the less it bore traces of having been a dignified past, and farther up on the crown of the hill among deep-bosomed trees, two or three large mansions wore the gravely triumphant aspect of having been brought successfully from a past empire into a present with all their traditions and mahogany complete. Upward toward these Flora was looking. Her breath was short from fast climbing. Her cheeks under her thin veil were hot and bright.
As she neared the hilltop she glanced at a card from her chatelaine, consulting the address upon it. Then anxiously she scanned the house-fronts. It was not this one, nor this; but the square white mansion she came to now stood so far retired at the end of its lawn that she could not make out the number. As she peered a young girl came down the steps between the dark wings of the cypress hedge, a slim, fair, even-gaited creature dressed for the street and drawing on her gloves. As she passed Flora made sure she had seen her before. There was something familiar in the carriage of the girl's head and hands; something also like a pale reflection of another presence. Pale as it was, it was enough to reassure her that this was the house she wanted.
She ascended the steps beneath the arch of cypress and immediately found herself entering an atmosphere quieter even than that of the little street below. It was quiet with the quiet of protectedness, as if some one brooding, vigilant care encircled it, defending it against all inroads of violent action and thought. It had been long since any young girl had carried such a heart of passionate hopes and fears up this mossed path between these peaceful flower-beds.
This appearance of the place began to bring before Flora the full enormity and impertinence of her errand, but though her heart beat on her side as loud as the brass knocker upon the door, she had no mind for turning back.
A high, cool, darkly gleaming interior, mellow with that precious tint of time which her own house so lacked, received her. And here, as well as out of doors, all the while she sat waiting she felt that protected peace was still the deity of the place. To Flora's eager heart time was streaming by, but the tall clock facing her measured it out slowly. Its longest golden finger had pointed out five minutes before the sweeping of a skirt coming down the hall brought her to her feet.
Mrs. Herrick came in hatless, a honeysuckle leaf caught in her gray crown of hair, geraniums in her hand. Flora had never seen her so informal and so gay.
"I would have asked you to come out into the garden, except that it's so wet, and there's no place to sit," she said.
Flora apologized. "I knew if I came at this hour I should interrupt you, but really there was no help for it." She glanced down at her satchel. "I had to go this morning, and before I went I had to see you about the house. I'm going down to look at it and—and to stop a while."
Mrs. Herrick hesitated, deprecated. "But you know Mrs. Britton wasn't satisfied with the price I asked."
"Oh," said Flora promptly, "but I shall be perfectly satisfied with it, and I want to take possession at once."
The positive manner in which she waved Clara out of her way brought up in Mrs. Herrick's face a faint flash of surprise; but it was gone in an instant, supplanted by her questioning puzzled consideration of the main proposition.
"Oh, I hope you haven't come to tell me you want it changed," she protested. "You know it's quite absurd in places—quite terrible indeed. It's 1870 straight through, and French at that; but even such whims acquire a dignity if they've been long cherished. You couldn't put in or take out one thing without spoiling the whole character."
"But I don't want to change it, I want it just as it is," Flora explained. "It isn't about the house itself I've come, it's about going down there. You see there are—some people, some friends of mine. I haven't promised them to show the house, but I have quite promised myself to show it to them, and they are only here for a few days more. They are going immediately." She was looking at Mrs. Herrick all the while she was telling her wretched lie, and now she even managed to smile at her. "I thought how lovely it would be if you could go there with me. I should like so very much to be in it first with you, to have you go over it with me and tell me how to take care of it, as it's always been done. I should hate to do it any disrespect."
Her hostess smiled with ready answer. "Of course I will go down. I should be glad, but it must be in a day or two. Indeed, perhaps it would be better for you to have your people first, and I can come down, say Monday afternoon or Tuesday."
Flora faced this unexpected turn of the matter a little blankly. "Ah, but the trouble is I can't go down alone."
It was Mrs. Herrick's turn to look blank. "But Mrs. Britton?"
"Mrs. Britton isn't going with me; she can't."
"I see." Mrs. Herrick with a long, soft scrutiny seemed to be taking in more than Flora's mere words represented. "And you wouldn't put it off until she can?"
"I couldn't put it off a moment," Flora ended with a little breathless laugh. "I do so wish you would come down with me this morning, for I must go, and you see I can't go alone."
Mrs. Herrick, sitting there, composed, in her cool, flowing, white and violet gown with the red flowers in her lap, still looked at Flora inquiringly. "But aren't there some women in your party old enough to make it possible and young enough to take pleasure in it?"
Flora shook her head. "Oh, no," she said. Her house of cards was tottering. She could not keep up her brave smiling. She knew her distress must be plain. Indeed, as she looked at Mrs. Herrick she saw the effect of it. Gaiety still looked at her out of that face, but the warmth, the spontaneity were gone; and the steady eyes, if anything so aloof could be suspicious, surely suspected her.
Her heart sank. If only she had told the truth—even so much of it as to say there was something she could not tell. What she had said was unworthy not only of herself but of the end she was so desperately holding out for. Now in the lucid gaze confronting her she knew all her intentions were taking on a dubious color, stained false, like her words, under the dark cloud of her own misrepresentation. Yet they were not false, she knew. Her motives, the end she was struggling for, were as austere as truth itself. She could not give up without one bold stroke to clear them of this accusation.
"Do you think there's anything queer about it?" she faltered.
"Queer?" To Flora's ears that sounded the coldest word she had ever heard. "I hardly think I understand what you mean."
"I mean is it that you think there's more in what I'm asking of you than I have said?" The two looked at each other and before that flat question Mrs. Herrick drew back a little in her chair.
"I have no right to think about it at all," she said.
"Well, there is," Flora insisted. "There's a great deal more. I am sorry. I should have told you, but I was afraid. I don't know why I was afraid of you, except that in this matter I've grown afraid of every one. It's true that there may be people going down—at least, a person. But it isn't, as I let you think it, a house party at all. It's for something, something that I can't do any other way—something," she had a sudden flash of insight, "that, if I could tell you, you would believe in, too."
Mrs. Herrick's look had faded to a mere concentrated attention. "You mean that there is something you wish to do for whoever is going down?"
"Oh, something I must do," Flora insisted.
Mrs. Herrick considered a moment. "Why can't he do it for himself?" she threw out suddenly.
It made Flora start, but she met it gallantly. "Because he won't. I shall have to make him."
"You!" For a moment Flora knew that she was preposterous in Mrs. Herrick's eyes—and then that she was pathetic. Her companion was looking at her with a sad sort of humor. "My dear, are you sure that that is your responsibility?"
Flora's answering smile was faint. "It seems as strange to me as it seems absurd to you, but I think I have done something already."
"Are you sure, or has he only let you think so? We have all at some time longed, or even thought it was our duty, to adjust something when it would have been safer to have kept our hand off," Mrs. Herrick went on gently.
"Oh, safer," Flora breathed. "Oh, yes; indeed, I know. But if something had been put into your hands without your choice; if all the life of some one that you cared about depended on you, would you think of being safe?" Flora, leaning forward, chin in hand, with shining eyes, seemed fairly to impart a reflection of her own passionate concentration to the woman before her.
Mrs. Herrick, so calm in her reposeful attitude, calm as the old portrait on the wall behind her, none the less began to show a curious sparkle of excitement in her face. "If I were sure that person's life did depend on me," she measured out her words deliberately. "But that so seldom happens, and it is so hard to tell."
"But if you were sure, sure, sure!" Flora rang it out certainly.
Mrs. Herrick in her turn leaned forward. "Ah, even then it would depend on him. And do you think you can make a man do otherwise than his nature?"
"You think I should fail?" Flora took it up fearlessly. "Well, if I do, at least I shall have done my best. I shall have to have done my best or I can never forgive myself."
"I see," Mrs. Herrick sighed. "But it sounds to me a risk too great for any reward that could come of its success." She thought. "If you could tell me more." Then, as Flora only looked at her wistfully and silently: "Isn't there some one you can confide in? Not Mrs. Britton?"
"Clara? Oh, no; never!" Flora startled Mrs. Herrick with the passionate repudiation.
"But could not Mr. Cressy—" and with that broken sentence several things that Mrs. Herrick had been keeping back looked out of her face.
Flora answered with a stare of misery. "I know what you must be thinking—what you can not help thinking," she said, "that the whole thing is unheard-of—outrageous—especially for a girl so soon to—to be—" She caught her breath with a sob, for the words she could not speak. "But there is nothing in this disloyal to my engagement, even though I can not speak of it to Harry Cressy; and nothing I hope to gain for myself by what I am trying to do. If I succeed it will only mean I shall never see him—the other one—again."
Mrs. Herrick rose, in her turn beseeching. "Oh, I can't help you go into it! It is too dubious. My dear, I know so much better than you what the end may mean."
"I know what the end may mean, and I can't keep out of it."
"But I can not go with you." There was a stern note in Mrs. Herrick's voice.
Flora looked around the room, the sunny windows, the still shadows, the tall, monotonous clock, as if this were the last glimpse of peace and protection she would ever have. She rose and put out her hand.
"I'm afraid I didn't quite realize how much I was asking of you. You have been very good even to listen to me. It's right, I suppose, that I should go alone."
Mrs. Herrick looked at her in dismay. "But that is impossible!" Then, as Flora turned away, she kept her hand. "Think, think," she urged, "how you will be misunderstood."
"Oh, I shall have to bear that—from the people who don't know."
"Yes, and even from the one for whom you are spending yourself!"
Flora gave her head a quick shake. "He understands," she said.
"My dear, he is not worth it."
Flora turned on her with anger. "You don't know what he is worth to me!"
Mrs. Herrick looked steadily at this unanswerable argument. Her hold on Flora's hand relaxed, but she did not quite release it. Her brows drew together. "You are quite sure you must go?"
Flora nodded. She was speechless.
"Did Mrs. Britton know you were coming to me?"
"No. She doesn't even know that I am going out of town. She must not," Flora protested.
"Indeed she must. You must not place yourself in such a false position. Write her and tell her you are going to San Mateo with me."
"Oh, if you would!" Tears sprang to Flora's eyes. "But will you, even if I can't tell you anything?"
"I shall not ask you anything. Now write her immediately. You can do it here while I am getting ready."
She had taken authoritative command of the details of their expedition, and Flora willingly obeyed her. She was still trembling from the stress of their interview, and she blinked back tears before she was able to see what she was writing.
It had all been brought about more quickly and completely than she had hoped, but it was in her mind all the while she indited her message to Clara, that Kerr, for whom it had been accomplished, was not yet informed of the existence of the scheme, or the part of guest he was to play. Yet she was sure that if she asked he would be promptly there. She wrote to him briefly:
At San Mateo, at the Herricks'. I want you there to-night. I have made up my mind.
As she was sealing it she started at a step approaching in the hall. She had wanted to conceal that betraying letter before Mrs. Herrick came back. She glanced quickly behind her, and saw standing between the half-open folding doors, the slim figure of a girl—slimmer, younger even than the one who had passed her at the gate, but like her, with the same large eyes, the same small indeterminate chin. Just at the chin the likeness to Mrs. Herrick failed with the strength of her last generation—but the eyes were perfect; and they gazed at Flora wondering. With the sixth sense of youth they recognized the enactment of something strange and thrilling.
Another instant and Mrs. Herrick's presence dawned behind her daughter—and her voice—"Why, child, what are you doing there?"—and her hands seemed apprehensive in their haste to hurry the child away, as if, truly, in this drawing-room, for the first time, something was dangerous.
THE HOUSE OF QUIET
The day which had dawned so still and gloomy was wakening to something like wildness, threatening, brightening, gusty, when they stepped out of the train upon the platform of the San Mateo station. Clouds were piling gray and castle-like from the east up toward the zenith, and dark fragments kept tearing off the edges and spinning away across the sky. But between them the bright face of the sun flashed out with double splendor, and the thinned atmosphere made the sky seem high and far, and all form beneath it clarified and intense.
There upon the narrow platform Mrs. Herrick hesitated a moment, looking at Flora. "What train do you want to meet?" she asked.
Flora stood perplexed. "I hardly know. You see I can't tell how soon my letter would reach—would be received."
"Then we would better meet them all," the elder woman decided.
They drove away into the face of the wet, fresh wind and flying drops of rain. Flora, leaning back in the carriage, looked out through the window with quiet eyes. The spirited movement of the sky, the racing of its shadows on the grass, the rolling foliage of the trees, seen tempestuous against flying cloud, were alike to her consoling and inspiring. She had never felt so free as now, driving through the fitful weather, nor so safe as with this companion who was sitting silent by her side. She was driving away from all her complications. She was retreating to a fresh stronghold, where her conflict would be a duel hand to hand, and where the outside forces, which had harassed her and threatened ignobly to down her antagonist with a stab in the back, could be held at bay.
Already she was looking toward the house which she had never seen as her own kindly castle; and the generous opening of its gate—old granite crowned with rose of sharon—did not disappoint her. The house was hidden in the swelling trees, but the drive winding beneath them gave glimpses through of lawns, of roses wreathing scarletly the old gray fountain basin, of magnolia and acacia, doubly delicate and white and fragile beneath the thunderous sky.
The house, when finally it loomed upon them, with its irregular roofs topped by curious square turrets, with its tremendous ground floor rambling away in wings on every side, with its deep upper and lower verandas, looked out upon by a multitude of long French windows, seemed too large, too strangely imposing for a structure of wood. But whatever of original ugliness had been there was hidden now under a splendid tapestry of vines, and Flora, looking up at the rose and honeysuckle that panoplied its front, felt her throat swell for sheer delight.
For a moment after they had left the carriage they stood together in the porte-cochere, looking around them. Then half wistfully, half humorously, Mrs. Herrick turned to Flora. "I do hope you won't want to buy it!"
"Oh, I'm afraid I shall," Flora murmured, "that is, if—" She left her sentence hanging, as one who would have said "if I come out of this alive," and Mrs. Herrick, with a quick start of protection, laid her hand on Flora's arm.
"If you must," she said lightly, "if you do buy it, then at least I shall know it is in good hands."
Flora gave her a look of gratitude, not so much for the slight kindness of her words as for the great kindness of her attitude in thus so readily resuming the first assumption on which her presence there had been invited. That was the house itself.
It was plain to Flora from the moment she set foot over the threshold that the house was to be no mean ally of theirs, but Mrs. Herrick was making it help them doubly in their hard interval of waiting. Alone together with unspoken, unspeakable things between them—things that for mere decency or honor could not be uttered—with nothing but these to think of, nothing but each other to look at, they must yet, in sheer desperation and suspense, have inevitably burst out with question or confession, had not the great house been there to interpose its personality. And the way Mrs. Herrick was making the most of that! The way immediately, even before she had shown anything, she began to revivify the spirit of the place, as the two women stood with their hats not yet off in the room that was to be Flora's, talking and looking out upon the lawn!
With her silences, with her expressive self as well as with her words, Mrs. Herrick was reanimating it all the while they lunched and rested, still in the upper-rooms overlooking the garden. And later, when they made the tour of the house, she began unwinding from her memory incidents of its early beginnings, pieces of its intimate, personal history, as one would make a friend familiar to another friend. And these past histories and the rooms themselves were leading Flora away out of her anxious self, were soothing her prying apprehensions, were giving her a detachment in the present, till what she so anticipated lay quiescent at the back of her brain.
But it was there. And now and then, when in a gust of wind the lights and shadows danced on the dim, polished floors, it stirred; and at the sound of wheels on the drive below it leaped, and all her fears again were in her face. At such moments the two women did look deeply at each other, and the suspense, the premonition, hovered in Mrs. Herrick's eyes. It was as unconscious, as involuntary, as Flora's start at the swinging of a door; but no question crossed her lips. She let the matter as severely alone as if it had been a jewel not her own. Yet, it came to Flora all at once that here, for the first time, she was with one to whom she could have revealed the sapphire on her neck and yet remain unchallenged.
"Ah, you're too lovely!" she burst out at last. "It is more than I deserve that you should take it all like this, as if there really wasn't anything." The elder lady's eyes wavered a little at the plain words.
"I'm too deeply doubtful of it to take it any other way," she said.
"That is why I feel most guilty," Flora explained. "For dragging you into it and then—bringing it into your house." She glanced around at the high, quiet, damasked room. "Such a thing to happen here!"
"Ah, my dear,"—Mrs. Herrick's laugh was uncertain—"the things that have happened here—the things that have happened and been endured and been forgotten! and see," she said, laying her hand on one of the walls, "the peace of it now!"
Flora wondered. She seemed to feel such distances of life extending yet beyond her sight as dwindled her, tiny and innocent.
"It isn't what happens, but the way we take it that makes the afterward," Mrs. Herrick added.
The thought of an afterward had stood very dim in Flora's mind, and even now that Mrs. Herrick's words confronted her with it she couldn't fancy what it would be like. She couldn't imagine her existence going on at all on the other side of failure.
"But suppose," she tremulously urged, "suppose there seemed only one way to take what had happened to you, and that way, if it failed, would leave you no afterward at all, no peace, no courage, nothing."
Mrs. Herrick's eyes fixed her with their deep pity and their deeper apprehension. "There are few things so bad as that," she said slowly, "and those are the ones we must not touch."
Flora paused a moment on the brink of her last plunge. "Do you think what I am going to do is such a thing as that?"
"Oh, my poor child, how do I know? I hope, I pray it is not!" Her fingers closed on Flora's hand, and the girl clung to the kind grasp. It was a comfort, though it could not save her from the real finality.