"Won't you allow me to try to find you a place? Don't you know anybody here?"
"I know numbers of people, but I don't know where any of them are."
She told him of her efforts to get to Rosslyn by telephone, by telegraph, by train or taxicab. Little tears added a sparkle to laughter, but threatened rain. She ended with, "And now that I've unloaded my riddles on you, aren't you sorry you spoke?"
"Not yet," he said, with a subtle compliment pleasantly implying that she was perilous. Everybody likes to be thought perilous. He went on: "I don't know Rosslyn, but it can't be much of a place for size. If you have a friend there, we'll find her if we have to go to every house in Rosslyn."
"But it's getting rather late, isn't it, to be knocking at all the doors all by myself?"
She had not meant to hint, and it was a mere coincidence that he thought to say:
"Couldn't I go along?"
"Thank you, but it's out in the country rather far, I'm afraid."
"Then I must go along."
"I couldn't think of troubling you."
The end of it was that he had his way, or she hers, or both theirs. He made no nonsense of adventure or escapade about it, and she was too well used to traveling alone to feel ashamed or alarmed. He led her to the taxi, told the driver that Grinden Hall was their objective and must be found. Then he climbed in with her, and they rode in a dark broken with the fitful lightnings of street-lamps and motors.
The taxi glided out M Street. The little shops of Georgetown went sidelong by. The cab turned abruptly to the left and clattered across the old aqueduct bridge. On a broad reach of the Potomac the new-risen moon spread a vast sheet of tin-foil of a crinkled sheen. This was all that was beautiful about the sordid neighborhood, but it was very beautiful, and tender to a strange degree.
Once across, the driver stopped and leaned round to call in at the door:
"This is Rosslyn. Where do yew-all want to go next?"
"Grinden Hall. Ask somebody."
"Ask who? They ain't a soul tew be saw."
They waited in the dark awhile; then Davidge got out and, seeing a street-car coming down through the hills like a dragon in fiery scales, he stopped it to ask the motorman of Grinden Hall. He knew nothing, but a sleepy passenger said that he reckoned that that was the fancy name of Mr. Sawtell's place, and he shouted the directions:
"Yew go raht along this road ovah the caw tracks, and unda a bridge and keep a-goin' up a ridge and ova till yew come to a shawp tu'n to the raht. Big whaht mansion, ain't it?"
"I don't know," said Davidge. "I never saw it."
"Well, I reckon that's the place. Only 'Hall' I knaow about up heah."
The motorman kicked his bell and started off.
"Nothing like trying," said Davidge, and clambered in. The taxicab went veering and yawing over an unusually Virginian bad road. After a little they entered a forest. The driver threw on his search-light, and it tore from the darkness pictures of forest eerily green in the glare—old trees slanting out, deep channels blackening into mysterious glades. The car swung sharply to the right and growled up a hill, curving and swirling and threatening to capsize at every moment. The sense of being lost was irresistible.
Marie Louise fell to pondering; suddenly she grew afraid to find Grinden Hall. She knew that Polly knew Lady Clifton-Wyatt. They might have met since Polly wrote that letter. Lady Clifton-Wyatt had perhaps—had doubtless—told Polly all about Marie Louise. Polly would probably refuse her shelter. She knew Polly: there was no middle ground between her likes and dislikes; she doted or she hated. She was capable of smothering her friends with affection and of making them ancient enemies in an instant. For her enemies she had no use or tolerance. She let them know her wrath.
The car stopped. The driver got down and went forward to a narrow lane opening from the narrow road. There was a sign-board there. He read it by the light of the moon and a few matches. He came back and said:
"Here she is. Grinden Hall is what she says on that theah sign-bode."
Marie Louise was in a flutter. "What time is it?" she asked.
Davidge held his watch up and lighted a match.
"A little after one."
"It's awfully late," she said.
The car was turning at right angles now, and following a narrow track curling through a lawn studded with shrubbery. There was a moment's view of all Washington beyond the valley of the moon-illumined river. Its lights gleamed in a patient vigilance. It had the look of the holy city that it is. The Capitol was like a mosque in Mecca, the Mecca of the faithful who believe in freedom and equality. The Washington Monument, picked out from the dark by a search-light, was a lofty steeple in a dream-world.
Davidge caught a quick breath of piety and reverence. Marie Louise was too frightened by her own destiny to think of the world's anxieties.
The car raced round the circular road. Her eyes were snatched from the drowsy town, small with distance, to the imminent majesty of a great Colonial portico with columns tall and stately and white, a temple of Parthenonian dignity in the radiance of the priestly moon. There was not a light in any window, no sign of life.
The car stopped. But— Marie Louise simply dared not face Polly and risk a scene in the presence of Davidge. She tapped on the glass and motioned the driver to go on. He could not believe her gestures. She leaned out and whispered:
"Go on—go on! I'll not stop!"
Davidge was puzzled, but he said nothing; and Marie Louise made no explanation till they were outside again, and then she said:
"Do you think I'm insane?"
"This is not my party," he said.
She tried to explain: "There wasn't a light to be seen. They couldn't have got my telegram. They weren't expecting me. They may not have been at home. I hadn't the courage to stop and wake the house."
That was not her real reason, but Davidge asked for no other. If he noted that she was strangely excited over a trifle like getting a few servants and a hostess out of bed, he made no comment.
When she pleaded, "Do you mind if I go back to Washington with you?" he chuckled: "It's certainly better than going alone. But what will you do when you get there?"
"I'll go to the railroad station and sit up," Marie Louise announced. "I'm no end sorry to have been such a nuisance."
"Nuisance!" he protested, and left his intonation to convey all the compliments he dared not utter.
The cab dived into another woods and ran clattering down a roving hill road. Up the opposite steep it went with a weary gait. It crawled to the top with turtle-like labor. Davidge knew the symptoms, and he frowned in the shadow, yet smiled a little.
The car went banging down, held by a squealing brake. The light grew faint, and in the glimmer there was a close shave at the edge of a hazardous bridge over a deep, deep ravine. The cab rolled forward on the rough planks under its impetus, but it picked up no speed. Half-way across, it stopped.
"Whatever is the matter?" Marie Louise exclaimed.
Davidge leaned out and called to the driver, "What's the matter now?" though he knew full well.
"Gas is gone, I reckon," the fellow snarled, as he got down. After a moment's examination he confirmed his diagnosis. "Yep, gas is all gone. I been on the go too long on this one call."
"In Heaven's name, where can you get some more gasolene?" said Marie Louise.
"Nearest garodge is at Rosslyn, I reckon, lady."
"How far is that?"
"I'd hate to say, lady. Three, fo' mahls, most lahkly, and prob'ly closed naow."
"Go wake it up at once."
"No thanky, lady. I got mahty po' feet for them hills."
"What do you propose to do?"
"Ain't nothin' tew dew but wait fo' somebody to come along."
"When will that be?"
"Along todes mawnin' they ought to be somebody along, milkman or somethin'."
"Cheerful!" said Marie Louise.
"Batt'ries kind o' sick, tew, looks lahk. I was engaged by the houah, remember," the driver reminded them as he clambered back to his place, put his feet up on the dashboard and let his head roll into a position of ease.
The dimming lights waned and did not wax. By and by they went where lights go when they go out. There was no light now except the moonset, shimmering mistily across the tree-tops of the rotunda of the forest, just enough to emphasize the black of the well they were in.
How would she take it?
That was what interested Davidge most. What was she really like? And what would she do with this intractable situation? What would the situation do with her? For situations make people as well as people situations.
Now was the time for an acquaintance of souls. An almost absolute dark erased them from each other's sight. Their eyes were as useless as the useless eyes of fish in subterrene caverns. Miss Webling could have told Davidge the color of his eyes, of course, being a woman. But being a man, he could not remember the color of hers, because he had noted nothing about her eyes except that they were very eye-ish.
He would have blundered ridiculously in describing her appearance. His information of her character was all to gain. He had seen her wandering about Washington homeless among the crowds and turned from every door. She had borne the ordeal as well as could be asked. She had accepted his proffer of protection with neither terror nor assurance.
He supposed that in a similar plight the old-fashioned woman—or at least the ubiquitous woman of the special eternal type that fictionists call "old-fashioned"—would have been either a bleating, tremulous gazelle or a brazen siren. But Miss Webling behaved like neither of these. She took his gallantry with a matter-of-fact reasonableness, much as a man would accept the offer of another man's companionship on a tiresome journey. She gave none of those multitudinous little signals by which a woman indicates that she is either afraid that a man will try to hug her or afraid that he will not. She was apparently planning neither to flirt nor to faint.
Davidge asked in a matter-of-fact tone: "Do you think you could walk to town? The driver says it's only three-fo' miles."
She sighed: "My feet would never make it. And I have on high-heeled boots."
His "Too bad!" conveyed more sympathy than she expected. He had another suggestion.
"You could probably get back to the home of Mrs. Widdicombe. That isn't so far away."
She answered, bluntly, "I shouldn't think of it!"
He made another proposal without much enthusiasm.
"Then I'd better walk in to Washington and get a cab and come back for you."
She was even blunter about this: "I shouldn't dream of that. You're a wreck, too."
He lied pluckily, "Oh, I shouldn't mind."
"Well, I should! And I don't fancy the thought of staying here alone with that driver."
He smiled in the dark at the double-edged compliment of implying that she was safer with him than with the driver. But she did not hear his smile.
She apologized, meekly: "I've got you into an awful mess, haven't I? I usually do make a mess of everything I undertake. You'd better beware of me after this."
His "I'll risk it" was a whole cyclopedia of condensed gallantry.
They sat inept for a time, thinking aimlessly, seeing nothing, hearing only the bated breath of the night wind groping stealthily through the tree-tops, and from far beneath, the still, small voice of a brook feeling its way down its unlighted stairs.
At last her voice murmured, "Are you quite too horribly uncomfortable for words?"
His voice was a deep-toned bell somehow articulate: "I couldn't be more comfortable except for one thing. I'm all out of cigars."
"Oh!" He had a vague sense of her mental struggle before she spoke again, timidly:
"I fancy you don't smoke cigarettes?"
"When I can't get cigars; any tobacco is better than none."
Another blank of troubled silence, then, "I wonder if you'd say that of mine."
Her voice was both defiant and trepidate. He laughed. "I'll guarantee to."
A few years before he would have accepted a woman's confession that she smoked cigarettes as a confession of complete abandonment to all the other vices. A few years farther back, indeed, and he would have said that any man who smoked cigarettes was worthless. Since then he had seen so many burly heroes and so many unimpeachable ladies smoke them that he had almost forgotten his old prejudice. In some of the United States it was then against the law for men (not to say women and children) to sell or give away or even to possess cigarettes. After the war crusades would start against all forms of tobacco, and at least one clergyman would call every man who smoked cigarettes a "drug-addict." It is impossible for anybody to be moral enough not to be immoral to somebody.
But intolerances go out of style as suddenly as new creeds come in. He knew soldiers who held a lighted stub in one hand while they rolled a cigarette with the other. He knew Red Cross saints who could puff a forbidden cigarette like a prayer. He wondered how he or any one had ever made such a fierce taboo of a wisp of aromatic leaves kindled in a tiny parcel. Such strange things people choose for their tests of virtue—tests that have nothing whatever to do with the case, whether savage or civilized folk invent them.
He heard Miss Webling fumbling in a hand-bag. He heard the click of her rings against metal. He heard the little noise of the portals of a cigarette-case opening. His hands and hers stumbled together, and his fingers selected a little cylinder from the row.
He produced a match and held the flame before her. He filled his eyes with her vivid features as the glow detached her from the dark. Of her eyes he saw only the big lids, but he noted her lips, pursed a trifle with the kissing muscles, and he sighed as she blew a smoke about her like a goddess creating a cloud of vanishment. He lighted his own cigarette and threw the match away. They returned to a perfect gloom mitigated by the slight increase and decrease in the vividness of their tobacco-tips as they puffed.
She was the first to speak:
"I have a whole box of fags in my hand-bag. I usually have a good supply. When you want another— Does it horrify you to see a woman smoke?"
He was very superior to his old bigotry. "Quite the contrary!"
This was hardly honest enough, so he said:
"It did once, though. I remember how startled I was years ago when I was in England and I saw ladies smoking in hotel corridors; and on the steamer coming back, there was a countess or something who sat in the balcony and puffed away. Of course, at the big dinners in London they smoked, too. They did at Sir Joseph's, I remember."
He did not see her wince at this name.
"There were some odd fish surrounding old Sir Joseph. Some of them I couldn't quite make out. He was just a little hard to get at, himself. I got very huffy at the old boy once or twice, I'm sorry to say. It was about ships. I'm a crank on ships. Everybody has at least one mania. That's mine—ships. Sir Joseph and I quarreled about them. He wanted to buy all I could make, but he was in no hurry to have 'em finished. I told him he talked more like a German trying to stop production than like a Britisher trying to speed it up. That made him huffy. I'm sorry I did him such an injustice. When you insult a man, and he dies—What a terrible repartee dying is! He had offered me a big price, too, but it's not money I want to make; it's ships. And I want to see 'em at work. Did you ever see a ship launched?"
"No, I never did."
"There's nothing prettier. Come over to my shipyard and I'll show you. We're going to put one over before long. I'll let you christen her."
"That would be wonderful."
"It's better than that. The civilized world is starting out on the most poetic job it ever undertook."
"Yep. The German sharks are gradually dragging all our shipping under water. The inventors don't seem able to devise any cure for the submarines except to find 'em and fight 'em. They're hard to find, and they won't fight. But they keep popping up and stabbing our pretty ships to death. And now the great game is on, the greatest game that civilized men ever fought with hell."
"We're going to try to build ships faster than the Hun can sink 'em. Isn't that a glorious job for you? Was there ever a—well, a nobler idea? We can't kill the beast; so we're going to choke him to death with food." He laughed to hide his embarrassing exaltation.
She was not afraid of it: "It is rather a stupendous inspiration, isn't it?"
"Who was it said he'd rather have written Gray's 'Elegy' than taken Quebec? I'd rather have thought up this thought than written the Iliad. Nobody knows who invented the idea. He's gone to oblivion already, but he has done more for the salvation of freedom than all the poets of time."
This shocked her, yet thrilled her with its loftiness. She thrilled to him suddenly, too. She saw that she was within the aura of a fiery spirit—a business man aflame. And she saw in a white light that the builders of things, even of perishable things, are as great as the weavers of immortal words—not so well remembered, of course, for posterity has only the words. Poets and highbrows scorn them, but living women who can see the living men are not so foolish. They are apt to prefer the maker to the writer. They reward the poet with a smile and a compliment, but give their lives to the manufacturers, the machinists, the merchants. Then the neglected poets and their toadies the critics grow sarcastic about this and think that they have condemned women for materialism when they are themselves blind to its grandeur. They ignore the divinity that attends the mining and smelting and welding and selling of iron things, the hewing and sawing and planing of woods, the sowing and reaping and distribution of foods. They make a priestcraft and a ritual of artful language, and are ignorant of their own heresy. But since they deal in words, they have a fearful advantage and use it for their own glorification, as priests are wont to do.
Marie Louise had a vague insight into the truth, but was not aware of her own wisdom. She knew only that this Davidge who had made himself her gallant, her messenger and servant, was really a genius, a giant. She felt that the roles should be reversed and she should be waiting upon him.
In Sir Joseph's house there had been a bit of statuary representing Hercules and Omphale. The mighty one was wearing the woman's kirtle and carrying her distaff, and the girl was staggering under the lion-skin and leaning on the bludgeon. Marie Louise always hated the group. It seemed to her to represent just the way so many women tried to master the men they infatuated. But Marie Louise despised masterable men, and she had no wish to make a toy of one. Yet she had wondered if a man and a woman could not love each other more perfectly if neither were master or mistress, but both on a parity—a team, indeed.
Davidge enjoyed talking to her, at least. That comforted her. When she came back from her meditations he was saying:
"My company is reaching out. We've bought a big tract of swamp, and we're filling it in and clearing it, and we're going to lay out a shipyard there and turn out ships—standardized ships—as fast as we can. We're steadying the ground first, sinking concrete piles in steel casing—if you put 'em end to end, they'd reach twenty-five miles. They're just to hold the ground together. That's what the whole country has got to do before it can really begin to begin—put some solid ground under its feet. When the ship is launched she mustn't stick on the ways or in the mud.
"Of course, I'd rather go as a soldier, but I've got no right to. I can ride or walk all day, and shoot straight and stand all kinds of weather, and killing Germans would just about tickle me to death. But this is a time when every man has got to do what he can do better than he can do anything else. And I've spent my life in shipyards.
"I was a common laborer first—swinging a sledge; I had an arm then! That was before we had compressed-air riveters. I was a union man and went on strike and fought scabs and made the bosses eat crow. Now I'm one of the bosses. I'm what they call a capitalist and an oppressor of labor. Now I put down strikes and fight the unions—not that I don't believe in 'em, not that I don't know where labor was before they had unions and where it would be without 'em to-day and to-morrow, but because all these things have to be adjusted gradually, and because the main thing, after all, is building ships—just now, of course, especially.
"When I was a workman I took pride in my job, and I thought I was an artist at it. I wouldn't take anybody's lip. Now that I'm a boss I have to take everybody's lip, because I can't strike. I can't go to my boss and demand higher wages and easier hours, because my boss is the market. But I don't suppose there's anything on earth that interests you less than labor problems."
"They might if I knew the first thing about them."
"Well, the first thing is that they are the next war, the big war after this one's over. The job is to keep it down till peace comes. Then hell will pop—if you'll pardon my French. I'm all for labor getting its rights, but some of the men don't want the right to work—they want the right to loaf. I say let the sky be the limit of any man's opportunity—the sky and his own limitations and ambitions. But a lot of the workmen don't want opportunity; they've got no ambition; they hate to build things. They talk about the terrible conditions their families live in, and how gorgeously the rich men live. But the rich men were poor once, and the poor can be rich—if they can and will.
"The war is going to be the fight between the makers and the breakers, the uplifters and the down-draggers, you might say. And it's going to be some war!
"The men on the wrong side—what I call the wrong side, at least—are just as much our enemies as the Germans. We've got to watch 'em just as close. They'd just as soon burn an unfinished ship as the Germans would sink her when she's on her way.
"That little ship I'm building now! Would you believe it? It has to be guarded every minute. Most of our men are all right. They'd work themselves to death for the ship, and they pour out their sweat like prayers. But sneaks get in among 'em, and it only takes a fellow with a bomb one minute to undo the six months' work of a hundred."
"Tell me about your ship," she said.
A ship she could understand. It was personal and real; labor theories were as foreign to her as problems in metaphysics.
"Well, it's my first-born, this ship," he said. "Of course I've built a lot of other ships, but they were for other people—just jobs, for wages or commissions. This one is all my own—a freighter, ugly as sin and commodious as hell—I beg your pardon! But the world needs freighters—the hungry mobs of Europe, they'll be glad to see my little ship come in, if ever she does. If she doesn't I'll— But she'll last a few trips before they submarine her—I guess."
He fell silent among his visions and left her to her own.
He saw himself wandering about a shipyard, a poor thing, but his own. His mind was like a mold-loft full of designs and detail-drawings to scale, blue-prints and models. On the way a ship was growing for him. As yet she was a ghastly thing all ribs, like the skeleton of some ancient sea-monster left ashore at high tide and perished eons back, leaving only the bones.
His fancy saw her transverses taking on their iron flesh. He saw the day of her nativity. He heard them knock out the blocks that lowered the sliding-ways to the groundways and sent her swirling into the sea.
He saw her ready for her cargo, saw a Niagara of wheat cascading into her hold. He saw her go forth into the sea.
Then he saw the ship stagger, a wound opened in her side, from the bullet of a submarine.
It was all so vivid that he spoke aloud in a frenzy of ire:
"If the Germans kill my ship I'll kill a German! By God, I will!"
He was startled by the sound of his own voice, and he begged her pardon humbly.
She had been away in reverie, too. The word "submarine" had sent her back into her haunting remembrances of the Lusitania and of her own helpless entanglement in the fate of other ships—their names as unknown to her as the names and faces of the men that died with them, or perished of starvation and thirst in the lifeboats sent adrift. The thought of these poor anonymities frightened her. She shuddered with such violence that Davidge was startled from his own wrath.
"You're having a chill," he said. "I wish you would take my coat. You don't want to get sick."
She shook her head and chattered, "No, no."
"Then you'd better get out and walk up and down this bridge awhile. There's not even a lap-robe here."
"I should like to walk, I think."
She stepped out, aided by his hand, a strong hand, and warm about her icy fingers. Her knees were weak, and he set her elbow in the hollow of his arm and guided her. They walked like the blind leading the blind through a sea of pitch. The only glimmer was the little scratches of light pinked in the dead sky by a few stars.
"'It's beautiful overhead, if you're going that way,'" Davidge quoted.
He set out briskly, but Marie Louise hung back timidly.
"Not so fast! I can't see a thing."
"That's the best time to keep moving."
"But aren't you afraid to push on when you can't see where you're going?" she demanded.
"Who can ever tell where he's going? The sunlight is no guaranty. We're all bats in the daytime and not cats at night. The main thing is to sail on and on and on."
She caught a little of his recklessness—suffered him to hurry her to and fro through the inky air till she was panting for breath and tired. Then they groped to the rail and peered vainly down at the brook, which, like an unbroken child, was heard and not seen. They leaned their elbows on the rail and stared into the muffling gloom.
"I think I'll have another of your cigarettes," he said.
"So will I," said she.
There was a cozy fireside moment as they took their lights from the same match. When he threw the match overboard he said:
"Like a human life, eh? A little spark between dark and dark."
He was surprised at stumbling into rhyme, and apologized. But she said:
"Do you know, I rather like that. It reminds me of a poem about a rain-storm—Russell Lowell's, I fancy; it told of a flock of sheep scampering down a dusty road and clattering across a bridge and back to the dust again. He said it was like human life, 'a little noise between two silences.'"
"H'm!" was the best Davidge could do. But the agony of the brevity of existence seized them both by the hearts, and their hearts throbbed and bled like birds crushed in the claws of hawks. Their hearts had such capabilities of joy, such songs in them, such love and longing, such delight in beauty—and beauty was so beautiful, so frequent, so thrilling! Yet they could spend but a glance, a sigh, a regret, a gratitude, and then their eyes were out, their ears still, their lips cold, their hearts dust. The ache of it was beyond bearing.
"Let's walk. I'm cold again," she whispered.
He felt that she needed the sense of hurry, and he went so fast that she had to run to keep up with him. There seemed to be some comfort in the privilege of motion for its own sake; motion was life; motion was godhood; motion was escape from the run-down clock of death.
Back and forth they kept their promenade, till her body refused to answer the whips of restlessness. Her brain began to shut up shop. It would do no more thinking this night.
She stumbled toward the taxicab. Davidge lifted her in, and she sank down, completely done. She fell asleep.
Davidge took his place in the cab and wondered lazily at the quaint adventure. He was only slightly concerned with wondering at the cause of her uneasiness. He was used to minding his own business.
She slept so well that when the groping search-light of a coming automobile began to slash the night and the rubber wheels boomed across the bridge she did not waken. If the taxi-driver heard its sound, he preferred to pretend not to. The passengers in the passing car must have been surprised, but they took their wonderment with them. We so often imagine mischief when there is innocence and vice versa; for opportunity is just as likely to create distaste as interest and the lack of it to instigate enterprise.
Davidge drowsed and smiled contentedly in the dark and did not know that he was not awake until at some later time he was half aroused by the meteoric glow and whiz of another automobile. It had gone before he was quite awake, and he sank back into sleep.
Before he knew it, many black hours had slid by and daylight was come; the rosy fingers of light were moving about, recreating the world to vision, sketching a landscape hazily on a black canvas, then stippling in the colors, and finishing, swiftly but gradually, the details to an inconceivable minuteness of definition, giving each leaf its own sharp contour and every rock its every facet. From the brook below a mistlike cigarette smoke exhaled. The sky was crimson, then pink, then amber, then blue.
Birds began to twitter, to fashion little crystal stanzas, and to hurl themselves about the valley as if catapults propelled them. One songster perched on the iron rail of the bridge and practised a vocal lesson, cocking his head from side to side and seeming to approve his own skill.
A furred caterpillar resumed his march across the Appian Way, making of each crack between boards a great abyss to be bridged cautiously with his own body. The day's work was begun, while Davidge drowsed and smiled contentedly at the side of the strange, sleeping woman as if they had been married for years.
The sky was filled with morning when a noise startled Davidge out of nullity. He was amazed to find a strange woman asleep at his elbow. He remembered her suddenly.
With a clatter of wheels and cans and hoofs a milkman's wagon and team came out of the hills. Davidge stepped down from the car and stopped the loud-voiced, wide-mouthed driver with a gesture. He spoke in a low voice which the milkman did not copy. The taxi-driver woke to the extent of one eye and a horrible yawn, while Davidge explained his plight.
"Gasolene gave out, hey?" said the milkman.
"It certainly did," said Davidge, "and I'd be very much obliged if you'd get me some more."
"Wa-all, I'm purty busy."
"I'll pay you anything you ask."
The milkman was modest in his ambitions.
"How'd two dollars strike ye?"
"Five would be better if you hurried."
This looked suspicious, but the milkman consented.
"Wa-all, all right, but what would I fetch the gasolene in?"
"One of your milk-cans."
"They're all fuller melk."
"I'll buy one, milk and all."
"Wa-all, I reckon I'll hev to oblige you."
"Here's five dollars on account. There'll be five more when you get back."
"Wa-all, all ri-ight. Get along there, Jawn Henry."
John Henry got along. Even his cloppety-clop did not waken Miss Webling.
The return of the rattletrap and the racket of filling the tank with the elixir finished her sleep, however. She woke in confusion, finding herself sitting up, dressed, in her little room, with three strange men at work outside.
When the tank was filled, Davidge entered her compartment with a cheery "Good morning," and slammed the door after him. The gasolene, like the breath of a god, gave life to the dead. The car snarled and jumped, and went roaring across the bridge, up the hill and down another, and down that and up another.
Here they caught, through a frame of leaves, a glimpse of Washington in the sunrise, a great congregation of marble temples and trees and sky-colored waters, the shaft of the Monument lighted with the milky radiance of a mountain peak on its upper half, the lower part still dusk with valley shadow, and across the plateau of roofs the solemn Capitol in as mythical a splendor as the stately dome that Kubla Khan decreed in Xanadu.
This sight of Canaan from Pisgah-height was no luxury to the taxi-driver, and he hustled his coffee-grinder till he reached Rosslyn once more, crossed the Potomac's many-tinted stream, and rattled through Georgetown and the shabby, sleeping little shops of M Street into the tree-tunnels of Washington.
He paused to say, "Where do we go from here?"
Davidge and Marie Louise looked their chagrin. They still had no place to go.
"To the Pennsylvania Station," said Davidge. "We can at least get breakfast there."
The streets of Washington are never so beautiful as at this still hour when nothing stirs but the wind in the trees and the grass on the lawns, and hardly anybody is abroad except the generals on their bronze horses fronting their old battles with heroic eyes. The station outside was something Olympic but unfrequented. Inside, it was a vast cathedral of untenanted pews.
Davidge paid the driver a duke's ransom. There was no porter about, and he carried Marie Louise's suit-cases to the parcel-room. Her baggage had had a long journey. She retreated to the women's room for what toilet she could make, and came forth with a very much washed face. Somnambulistic negroes took their orders at the lunch-counter.
Marie Louise had weakly decided to return to New York again, but the hot coffee was full of defiance, and she said that she would make another try at Mrs. Widdicombe as soon as a human hour arrived.
And she showed a tactfulness that won much respect from Davidge when she said:
"Do get your morning paper and read it. I'm sure I have nothing to say that I haven't said, and if I had, it could wait till you find out how the battle goes in Europe."
He bought her a paper, too, and they sat on a long bench, exchanging comments on the news that made almost every front page a chapter in world history.
She heard him groan with rage. When she looked up he pointed to the submarine record of that week.
"Last week the losses took a horrible jump—forty ships of over sixteen hundred tons. This week it's almost as bad—thirty-eight ships of over sixteen hundred, thirteen ships under, and eight fishing-vessels. Think of it—all of 'em merchant-ships!
"Pretty soon I've got to send my ship out to run the gantlet. She's like Little Red Riding Hood going through the forest to take old Granny Britain some food. And the wolves are waiting for her. What a race of people, what a pack of beasts!"
Marie Louise had an idea. "I'll tell you a pretty name for your ship—Little Red Riding Hood. Why don't you give her that?"
He laughed. "The name would be heavier than the cargo. I wonder what the crew would make of it. No, this ship, my first one, is to be named after"—he lowered his voice as one does on entering a church—"after my mother."
"Oh, that's beautiful!" Marie Louise said. "And will she be there to christen— Oh, I remember, you said—"
He nodded three or four times in wretchedness. But the grief was his own, and he must not exploit it. He assumed an abrupt cheer.
"I'll name the next ship after you, if you don't mind."
This was too glorious to be believed. What bouquet or jewel could equal it? She clapped her hands like a child hearing a Christmas promise.
"What is your first name, Miss Webling?"
She suddenly realized that they were not, after all, such old friends as the night had seemed to make them.
"My first two names," she said, "are Marie Louise."
"Oh! Well, then we'll call the ship Marie Louise."
She saw that he was a little disappointed in the name, so she said:
"When I was a girl they called me Mamise."
She was puzzled to see how this startled him.
He jumped audibly and fastened a searching gaze on her. Mamise! He had thought of Mamise when he saw her, and now she gave the name. Could she possibly be the Mamise he remembered? He started to ask her, but checked himself and blushed. A fine thing it would be to ask this splendid young princess, "Pardon me, Princess, but were you playing in cheap vaudeville a few years ago?" It was an improbable coincidence that he should meet her thus, but an almost impossible coincidence that she should wear both the name and the mien of Mamise and not be Mamise. But he dared not ask her.
She noted his blush and stammer, but she was afraid to ask their cause.
"Mamise it shall be," he said.
And she answered, "I was never so honored in my life."
"Of course," he warned her, "the boat isn't built yet. In fact, the new yard isn't built yet. There's many a slip 'twixt the keel and the ship. She might never live to be launched. Some of these sneaking loafers on our side may blow her up before the submarines get a chance at her."
There he was, speaking of submarines once more! She shivered, and she looked at the clock and got up and said:
"I think I'll try Mrs. Widdicombe now."
"Let me go along," said Davidge.
But she shook her head. "I've taken enough of your life—for the present."
Trying to concoct a felicitous reply, he achieved only an eloquent silence. He put her and her luggage aboard a taxicab, and then she gave him her most cordial hand.
"I could never hope to thank you enough," she said, "and I won't begin to try. Send me your address when you have one, and I'll mail you Mrs. Widdicombe's confidential telephone number. I do want to see you soon again, unless you've had enough of me for a lifetime."
He did very handsomely by the lead she gave him:
"I couldn't have enough—not in a lifetime."
The taxi-driver snipped the strands of their gaze as he whisked her away.
Marie Louise felt a forenoon elation in the cool air and the bright streets, thick with men and women in herds hurrying to their patriotic tasks, and a multitude of officers and enlisted men seeking their desks. She was here to join them, and she hoped that it would not be too hard to find some job with a little thrill of service in it.
As she went through Georgetown now M Street was different—full of marketers and of briskness. The old bridge was crowded. As her car swooped up the hills and skirted the curves to Polly Widdicombe's she began to be afraid again. But she was committed to the adventure and she was eager for the worst of it. She found the house without trouble and saw in the white grove of columns Polly herself, bidding good-by to her husband, whose car was waiting at the foot of the steps.
Polly hailed Marie Louise with cries of such delight that before the cab had made the circle and drawn up at the steps the hunted look was gone and youth come back to Marie Louise's anxious smile. Polly kissed her and presented her husband, pointing to the gold leaves on his shoulders with militaristic pride.
Widdicombe blushed and said: "Fearless desk-fighter has to hurry off to battle with ruthless stenographers. Such are the horrors of war!"
He insisted on paying Marie Louise's driver, though she said, "Women will never be free so long as men insist on paying all their bills."
Polly said: "Hush, or the brute will set me free!"
He kissed Polly, waved to Marie Louise, stepped into his car, and shot away.
Polly watched him with devout eyes and said:
"Poor boy! he's dying to get across into the trenches, but they won't take him because he's a little near-sighted, thank God! And he works like a dog, day and night." Then she returned to the rites of hospitality. "Had your breakfast?"
"At the station." The truth for once coincided very pleasantly with convenience.
"Then I know what you want," said Polly, "a bath and a nap. After that all-night train-trip you ought to be a wreck."
Polly led her to a welcoming room that would have been quite pretty enough if it had had only a bed and a chair. Marie Louise felt as if she had come out of the wilderness into a city of refuge. Polly had an engagement, a committee meeting of women war-workers, and would not be back until luncheon-time. Marie Louise steeped herself in a hot tub, then in a long sweet sleep in a real bed. She was wakened by the voices of children, and looked out from her window to see the Widdicombe tots drilling in a company of three with a drum, a flag, and a wooden gun. The American army was not much bigger compared with the European nations in arms, but it would grow.
Polly came home well charged with electricity, the new-woman idea that was claiming half of the war, the true squaw-spirit that takes up the drudgery at home while the braves go out to swap missiles with the enemy. When Marie Louise said that she, too, had come to Washington to get into harness somewhere, Polly promised her a plethora of opportunities.
At luncheon Polly was reminded of the fact that a photographer was coming over from Washington. He had asked for sittings, and she had acceded to his request.
"I never can get photographs enough of my homely self," said Polly. "I'm always hoping that by some accident the next one will make me look as I want to look—make ithers see me as I see mysel'!"
When the camera-man arrived Polly insisted that Marie Louise must pose, too, and grew so urgent that she consented at last, to quiet her. They spent a harrowing afternoon striking attitudes all over the place, indoors and out, standing, sitting, heads and half-lengths, profile and three-quarters and full face. Their muscles ached with the struggle to assume and retain beatific expressions on an empty soul.
The consequences of that afternoon of self-impersonation were far-reaching for Marie Louise.
According to the Washingtonian custom, one of the new photographs appeared the following Sunday in each of the four newspapers. The Sunday after that Marie Louise's likeness appeared with "Dolly Madison's" and Jean Elliott's syndicated letters on "The Week in Washington" in Sunday supplements throughout the country. Every now and then her likeness popped out at her from Town and Country, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, The Spur, what not?
One of those countless images fell into the hands of Jake Nuddle, who had been keeping an incongruous eye on the Sunday supplements for some time. This time the double of Mamise was not posed as a farmerette in an English landscape, but as a woman of fashion in a Colonial drawing-room.
He hurried to his wife with the picture, and she called it "Mamise" with a recrudescent anguish of doubt.
"She's in this country now, the paper says," said Jake. "She's in Washington, and if I was you I'd write her a little letter astin' her is she our sister."
Mrs. Nuddle was crying too loosely to note that "our." The more Jake considered the matter the less he liked the thought of waiting for a letter to go and an answer to come.
"Meet 'em face to face; that's me!" he declared at last. "I think I'll just take a trip to the little old capital m'self. I can tell the rest the c'mittee I'm goin' to put a few things up to some them Senators and Congersmen. That'll get my expenses paid for me."
There simply was nobody that Jake Nuddle would not cheat, if he could.
His always depressing wife suggested: "Supposin' the lady says she ain't Mamise, how you goin' to prove she is? You never seen her."
Jake snarled at her for a fool, but he knew that she was right. He resisted the dismal necessity as long as he could, and then extended one of his most cordial invitations:
"Aw, hell! I reckon I'll have to drag you along."
He grumbled and cursed his fate and resolved to make Mamise pay double for ruining his excursion.
For a time Marie Louise had the solace of being busy and of nibbling at the edge of great occasions. The nation was reconstituting its whole life, and Washington was the capital of all the Allied peoples, their brazen serpent and their promise of salvation. Almost everybody was doing with his or her might what his or her hand found to do. Repetition and contradiction of effort abounded; there was every confusion of counsel and of action. But the Republic was gathering itself for a mighty leap into the arena. For the first time women were being not merely permitted, but pleaded with, to lend their aid.
Marie Louise rolled bandages at a Red Cross room presided over by a pleasant widow, Mrs. Perry Merithew, with a son in the aviation, who was forever needing bandages. Mamise tired of these, bought a car and joined the Women's Motor Corps. She had a collision with a reckless wretch named "Pet" Bettany, and resigned. She helped with big festivals, toiled day and night at sweaters, and finally bought herself a knitting-machine and spun out half a dozen pairs of socks a day, by keeping a sweatshop pace for sweatshop hours. She was trying to find a more useful job. The trouble was that everybody wanted to be at something, to get into a uniform of some sort, to join the universal mobilization.
She went out little of evenings, preferring to keep herself in the seclusion of the Rosslyn home. Gradually her fears subsided and she felt that her welcome was wearing through. She began to look for a place to live. Washington was in a panic of rentals. Apartments cost more than houses. A modest creature who had paid seventy-five dollars a month for a little flat let it for five hundred a month for the duration of the war. A gorgeous Sultana who had a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-month apartment rented it for a thousand dollars a month "for the duration." Marie Louise had money enough, but she could hardly find anything that it would buy.
She planned to secure a clerical post in some of the offices. She took up shorthand and poked a typewriter and read books on system and efficiency, then gave them up as Greek.
Once in a while she saw Ross Davidge. He suffered an intermittent fever of hope and despondency. He, too, was trying to do his bit, but he was lost in the maelstrom swirling through the channels of official life. He would come to town for a few days, wait about, fuming, and return in disgust to his shipyard. It was not altogether patriotism that pulled him back to Washington. Marie Louise was there, and he lost several appointments with the great folk he came to see, because their hours clashed with Marie Louise's.
On one of his voyages he was surprised to find at his hotel an invitation to dine at Mrs. Prothero's. Little as he knew of the eminent ones of the fashionable world, he knew the famous name of Prothero. He had spoken with reverence always of her late husband, one of the rebuilders of the American navy, a voice crying in the wilderness for a revival of the ancient glories of the merchant marine. Davidge had never met him or his widow. He felt that he could not refuse the unexplained opportunity to pay at least his respects to the relict of his idol.
But he wondered by what means Mrs. Prothero, whom everybody had heard of, had heard of him. When he entered her door on the designated evening his riddle was answered.
The butler glanced at his card, then picked from a heap on the console a little envelope which he proffered on his tray. The envelope was about the size of those that new-born parents use to inclose the proclamation of the advent of a new-born infant. The card inside Davidge's envelope carried the legend, "Miss Webling."
The butler led him to the drawing-room door and announced him. There indeed was Marie Louise, arm in arm with a majestic granddam in a coronet of white hair.
Marie Louise put out her hand, and Davidge went to it. She clasped his and passed it on to Mrs. Prothero with a character:
"This is the great Mr. Davidge, the shipwright."
Mrs. Prothero pressed his hand and kept it while she said: "It is like Marie Louise to bring youth to cheer up an old crone like me."
Davidge muffed the opening horribly. Instead of saying something brilliant about how young Mrs. Prothero looked, he said:
"Youth? I'm a hundred years old."
"You are!" Mrs. Prothero cried. "Then how old does that make me, in the Lord's name—a million?"
Davidge could not even recover the foot he had put in it. By looking foolish and keeping silent he barely saved himself from adding the other foot. Mrs. Prothero smiled at his discomfiture.
"Don't worry. I'm too ancient to be caught by pretty speeches—or to like the men who have 'em always ready."
She pressed his hand again and turned to welcome the financial Cyclops, James Dyckman, and his huge wife, and Captain Fargeton, a foreign military attache with service chevrons and wound-chevrons and a croix de guerre, and a wife, who had been Mildred Tait.
"All that and an American spouse!" said Davidge to Marie Louise.
"Have you never had an American spouse?" she asked, brazenly.
"Not one!" he confessed.
Major and Polly Widdicombe had come in with Marie Louise, and Davidge drifted into their circle. The great room filled gradually with men of past or future fame, and the poor women who were concerned in enduring its acquisition.
Marie Louise was radiant in mood and queenly in attire. Davidge was startled by the magnificence of her jewelry. Some of it was of old workmanship, royal heirloomry. Her accent was decidedly English, yet her race was undoubtedly American. The many things about her that had puzzled him subconsciously began to clamor at least for the attention of curiosity. He watched her making the best of herself, as a skilful woman does when she is all dressed up in handsome scenery among toplofty people.
Polly was describing the guests as they came in:
"That's Colonel Harvey Forbes. His name has been sent to Congress for approval as a brigadier-general. I knew him in the midst of the wildest scandal—remind me to tell you. He was only a captain then. He'll probably end as a king or something. This war is certainly good to some people."
Davidge watched Marie Louise studying the somber officer. He was a bit jealous, shamed by his own civilian clothes. Suddenly Marie Louise's smile at Polly's chatter stopped short, shriveled, then returned to her face with a look of effort. Her muscles seemed to be determined that her lips should not droop.
Davidge heard the butler announce:
"Lady Clifton-Wyatt and General Sir Hector Havendish."
Davidge wondered which of the two names could have so terrified Marie Louise. Naturally he supposed that it was the man's. He turned to study the officer in his British uniform. He saw a tall, loose-jointed, jovial man of horsy look and carriage, and no hint of mystery—one would say an intolerance of mystery.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt was equally amiable. She laughed and wrung the hands of Mrs. Prothero. They were like two school-girls met in another century.
Davidge noted that Marie Louise turned her back and listened with extraordinary interest to Major Widdicombe's old story about an Irishman who did or said something or other. Davidge heard Mrs. Prothero say to Lady Clifton-Wyatt, with all the joy in the world:
"Who do you suppose is here but our Marie Louise?"
"Our Marie Louise?" Lady Clifton-Wyatt echoed, with a slight chill.
"Yes, Marie Louise Webling. It was at her house that I met you. Where has the child got to? There she is."
Without raising her voice she focused it between Marie Louise's shoulder-blades.
"Marie Louise, my dear!"
Marie Louise turned and came up like a wax image on casters pulled forward by an invisible window-dresser. Lady Clifton-Wyatt's limber attitude grew erect, deadly, ominously hostile. She looked as if she would turn Marie Louise to stone with a Medusa glare, but she evidently felt that she had no right to commit petrifaction in Mrs. Prothero's home; so she bowed and murmured:
"Ah, yis! How are you?"
To Davidge's amazement, Miss Webling, instead of meeting the rebuff in kind, wavered before it and bowed almost gratefully. Then, to Davidge's confusion, Lady Clifton-Wyatt marched on him with a gush of cordiality as if she had been looking for him around the Seven Seas. She remembered him, called him by name and told him that she had seen his pickchah in one of the papahs, as one of the creatahs of the new fleet.
Mrs. Prothero was stunned for a moment by the scene, but she had passed through so many women's wars that she had learned to ignore them even when—especially when—her drawing-room was the battleground.
Her mind was drawn from the incident by the materialization of the butler.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt, noting that the tide was setting toward the dining-room and that absent-minded Sir Hector was floating along the current at the elbow of the pretty young girl, said to Davidge:
"Are you taking me out or—"
It was a horrible moment, for all its unimportance, but he mumbled:
"I—I am sorry, but—er—Miss Webling—"
"Oh! Ah!" said Lady Clifton-Wyatt. It was a very short "Oh!" and a very long "Ah!" a sort of gliding, crushing "Ah!" It went over him like a tank, leaving him flat.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt reached Sir Hector's arm in a few strides and unhooked him from the girl—also the girl from him. The girl was grateful. Sir Hector was used to disappointments.
Davidge went to Marie Louise, who stood lonely and distraught. He felt ashamed of his word "sorry" and hoped she hadn't heard it. Silently and crudely he angled his arm, and she took it and went along with him in a somnambulism.
Davidge, manlike, tried to cheer up his elbow-mate by a compliment. A man's first aid to a woman in distress is a compliment or a few pats of the hand. He said:
"This is the second big dinner you and I have attended. There were bushels of flowers between us before, but I'd rather see your face than a ton of roses."
The compliment fell out like a ton of coal. He did not like it at all. She seemed not to have heard him, for she murmured:
"Yis, isn't it?"
Then, as the occultists say, he went into the silence. There is nothing busier than a silence at a dinner. The effort to think with no outlet in speech kept up such a roaring in his head that he could hardly grasp what the rest were saying.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt sat at Davidge's right and kept invading his quiet communion with Marie Louise by making remarks of the utmost graciousness somehow fermented—like wine turned vinegar.
"I wonder if you remember when we met in London, Mr. Davidge? It was just after the poor Lusitania was sunk."
"So it was," said Davidge.
"It was at Sir Joseph Webling's. You knew he was dead, didn't you? Or did you?"
"Yes, Miss Webling told me."
"Oh, did she! I was curious to know."
She cast a look past him at Marie Louise and saw that the girl was about ready to make a scene. She smiled and deferred further torture.
Mrs. Prothero supervened. She had the beautiful theory that the way to make her guests happy was to get them to talking about themselves. She tried to draw Davidge out of his shell. But he talked about her husband instead, and of the great work he had done for the navy. He turned the tables of graciousness on her. Her nod recognized the chivalry; her lips smiled with pride in her husband's praise; her eyes glistened with an old regret made new. "He would have been useful now," she sighed.
"He was the man who laid the keel-blocks of our new navy," said Davidge. "The thing we haven't got and have got to get is a merchant marine."
He could talk of that, though he could not celebrate himself. He was still going strong when the dinner was finished.
Mrs. Prothero clung to the old custom. She took the women away with her to the drawing-room, leaving the men alone.
Davidge noted that Lady Clifton-Wyatt left the dining-room with a kind of eagerness, Marie Louise reluctantly. She cast him a look that seemed to cry "Help!" He wondered what the feud could be that threw Miss Webling into such apparent panic. He could not tolerate the thought that she had a yellow streak in her.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt, like many another woman, was kept in order by the presence of men. She knew that the least charming of attributes in masculine eyes are the female feline, the gift and art of claws.
Men can be catty, too—tom-catty, yet contemptibly feline when they are not on their good behavior. There are times when the warning, "Gentlemen, there are ladies present," restores them to order as quickly as the entrance of a teacher turns a school-room of young savages into an assembly of young saints.
The women in Mrs. Prothero's drawing-room could not hear any of the words the men mixed with their smoke, but they could hear now and then a muffled explosion of laughter of a quality that indicated what had provoked it.
The women, too, were relieved of a certain constraint by their isolation. They seemed to enjoy the release. It was like getting their minds out of tight corsets. They were not impatient for the men—as some of the men may have imagined. These women were of an age where they had something else to think of besides men. They had careers to make or keep among women as well as the men among men.
The servants kept them on guard till the coffee, tobacco, and liqueurs were distributed. Then recess was declared. Marie Louise found herself on a huge tapestried divan provided with deep, soft cushions that held her like a quicksands. On one side of her was the mountainous Mrs. Dyckman resembling a stack of cushions cased in silk; on the other was Mildred Tait Fargeton, whose father had been ambassador to France.
Marie Louise listened to their chatter with a frantic impatience. Polly was heliographing ironic messages with her eyes. Polly was hemmed in by the wife of a railroad juggler, who was furious at the Administration because it did not put all its transportation problems in her husband's hands. She would not have intrusted him with the buying of a spool of thread; but that was different.
Mrs. Prothero was monopolized by Lady Clifton-Wyatt. Marie Louise could see that she herself was the theme of the talk, for Mrs. Prothero kept casting startled glances Marie-Louise-ward, and Lady Clifton-Wyatt glances of baleful stealth.
Marie Louise had proved often enough that she was no coward, but even the brave turn poltroon when they fight without a sense of justification. Her pride told her that she ought to cross over to Lady Clifton-Wyatt and demand that she speak up. But her sense of guilt robbed her of her courage. And that oath she had given to Mr. Verrinder without the least reluctance now loomed before her as the greatest mistake of her life. Her sword and shield were both in pawn.
She gave herself up for lost and had only one hope, that the men would not come in—especially that Ross Davidge would not come in in time to learn what Lady Clifton-Wyatt was so eager to publish. She gave Mrs. Prothero up for lost, too, and Polly. But she wanted to keep Ross Davidge fond of her.
Then in a lull Mrs. Prothero spoke up sharply:
"I simply can't believe it, my dear. I don't know that I ever saw a German spy, but that child is not one. I'd stake my life on it."
"And now the avalanche!" thought Marie Louise.
The word "spy" was beginning to have more than an academic or fictional interest to Americans, and it caught the ear of every person present.
Mrs. Dyckman and Mme. Fargeton sat up as straight as their curves permitted and gasped:
"A German spy! Who? Where?"
Polly Widdicombe sprang to her feet and darted to Mrs. Prothero's side.
"Oh, how lovely! Tell me who she is! I'm dying to shoot a spy."
Marie Louise sickened at the bloodthirstiness of Polly the insouciante.
Mrs. Prothero tried to put down the riot of interest by saying:
"Oh, it's nothing. Lady Clifton-Wyatt is just joking."
Lady Clifton-Wyatt was at bay. She shot a glance at Marie Louise and insisted:
"Indeed I'm not! I tell you she is a spy."
"Who's a spy?" Polly demanded.
"Miss Webling," said Lady Clifton-Wyatt.
Polly began to giggle; then she frowned with disappointment.
"Oh, I thought you meant it."
"I do mean it, and if you'll take my advice you'll be warned in time."
Polly turned, expecting to find Marie Louise showing her contemptuous amusement, but the look she saw on Marie Louise's face was disconcerting. Polly's loyalty remained staunch. She hated Lady Clifton-Wyatt anyway, and the thought that she might be telling the truth made her a little more hatable. Polly stormed:
"I won't permit you to slander my best friend."
Lady Clifton-Wyatt replied, "I don't slahnda hah, and if she is yaw best friend—well—"
Lady Clifton-Wyatt hated Polly and was glad of the weapon against her. Polly felt a sudden terrific need of retorting with a blow. Men had never given up the fist on the mouth as the simple, direct answer to an insult too complicated for any other retort. She wanted to slap Lady Clifton-Wyatt's face. But she did not know how to fight. Perhaps women will acquire the male prerogative of the smash in the jaw along with the other once exclusive masculine privileges. It will do them no end of good and help to clarify all life for them. But for the present Polly could only groan, "Agh!" and turn to throw an arm about Marie Louise and drag her forward.
"I'd believe one word of Marie Louise against a thousand of yours," she declared.
"Very well—ahsk hah, then."
Polly was crying mad, and madder than ever because she hated herself for crying when she got mad. She almost sobbed now to Marie Louise, "Tell her it's a dirty, rotten lie."
Marie Louise had been dragged to her feet. She temporized, "What has she sai-said?"
Polly snickered nervously, "Oh, nothing—except that you were a German spy."
And now somewhere, somehow, Marie Louise found the courage of desperation. She laughed:
"Lady Clifton-Wyatt is notori—famous for her quaint sense of humor."
Lady Clifton-Wyatt sneered, "Could one expect a spy to admit it?"
Marie Louise smiled patiently. "Probably not. But surely even you would hardly insist that denying it proves it?"
This sophistry was too tangled for Polly. She spoke up:
"Let's have the details, Lady Clifton-Wyatt—if you don't mind."
"Yes, yes," the chorus murmured.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt braced herself. "Well, in the first place Miss Webling is not Miss Webling."
"Oh, but I am," said Marie Louise.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt gasped, "You don't mean to pretend that—"
"Did you read the will?" said Marie Louise.
"No, of course not, but—"
"It says there that I was their daughter."
"Well, we'll not quibble. Legally you may have been, but actually you were their adopted child."
"Yis?" said Marie Louise. "And where did they find me? Had you heard?"
"Since you force me to it, I must say that it is generally believed that you were the natural daughter of Sir Joseph."
Marie Louise was tremendously relieved by having something that she could deny. She laughed with a genuineness that swung the credulity all her way. She asked:
"And who was my mother—my natural mother, could you tell me? I really ought to know."
"She is believed to have been a—a native of Australia."
"Good Heavens! You don't mean a kangaroo?"
"An actress playing in Vienna."
"Oh, I am relieved! And Sir Joseph was my father—yes. Do go on."
"Whether Sir Joseph was your father or not, he was born in Germany and so was his wife, and they took a false oath of allegiance to his Majesty. All the while they were loyal only to the Kaiser. They worked for him, spied for him. It is said that the Kaiser had promised to make Sir Joseph one of the rulers over England when he captured the island. Sir Joseph was to have any castle he wanted and untold wealth."
"What was I to have?" Marie Louise was able to mock her. "Wasn't I to have at least Westminster Abbey to live in? And one of the crown princes for a husband?"
Lady Clifton-Wyatt lost her temper and her bearings.
"Heaven knows what you were promised, but you did your best to earn it, whatever it was."
Mrs. Prothero lost patience. "Really, my dear Lady Clifton-Wyatt, this is all getting beyond me."
Lady Clifton-Wyatt grew scarlet, too. She spoke with the wrath of a Tisiphone whipping herself to a frenzy. "I will bring you proofs. This creature was a paid secret agent, a go-between for Sir Joseph and the Wilhelmstrasse. She carried messages. She went into the slums of Whitechapel disguised as a beggar to meet the conspirators. She carried them lists of ships with their cargoes, dates of sailing, destinations. She carried great sums of money. She was the paymaster of the spies. Her hands are red with the blood of British sailors and women and children. She grew so bold that at last she attracted the attention of even Scotland Yard. She was followed, traced to Sir Joseph's home. It was found that she lived at his house.
"One of the spies, named Easling or Oesten, was her lover. He was caught and met his deserts before a firing-squad in the Tower. His confession implicated Sir Joseph. The police raided his place. A terrific fight ensued. He resisted arrest. He tried to shoot one of our police. The bullet went wild and killed his wife. Before he could fire again he was shot down by one of our men."
The astonishing transformations the story had undergone in its transit from gossip to gossip stunned Marie Louise. The memory of the reality saddened her beyond laughter. Her distress was real, but she had self-control enough to focus it on Lady Clifton-Wyatt and murmur:
"Poor thing, she is quite mad!"
There is nothing that so nearly drives one insane as to be accused of insanity.
The prosecutrix almost strangled on her indignation at Marie Louise's calm.
"The effrontery of this woman is unendurable, Mrs. Prothero. If you believe her, you must permit me to leave. I know what I am saying. I have had what I tell you from the best authority. Of course, it may sound insane, but wait until you learn what the German secret agents have been doing in America for years and what they are doing now."
There had been publication enough of the sickening duplicity of ambassadors and attaches to lead the Americans to believe that Teutonism meant anything revolting. Mrs. Prothero was befuddled at this explosion in her quiet home. She asked:
"But surely all this has never been published, has it? I think we should have heard of it here."
"Of course not," said Lady Clifton-Wyatt. "We don't publish the accounts of the submarines we sink, do we? No more do we tell the Germans what spies of theirs we have captured. And, since Sir Joseph and his wife were dead, there would have been no profit in publishing broadcast the story of the battle. So they agreed to let it be known that they died peacefully or rather painfully in their beds, of ptomaine poisoning."
"That's true," said Mrs. Prothero. "That's what I read. That's what I've always understood."
Now, curiously, as often happens in court, the discovery that a witness has stumbled on one truth in a pack of lies renders all he has said authentic and shifts the guilt to the other side. Marie Louise could feel the frost of suspicion against her forming in the air.
Polly made one more onset: "But, tell me, Lady Clifton-Wyatt, where was Marie Louise during all this Wild West End pistol-play?"
"In her room with her lover," snarled Lady Clifton-Wyatt. "The servants saw her there."
This threw a more odious light on Marie Louise. She was not merely a nice clean spy, but a wanton.
Polly groaned: "Tell that to Scotland Yard! I'd never believe it."
"Scotland Yard knows it without my telling," said Lady Clifton-Wyatt.
"But how did Marie Louise come to escape and get to America?"
"Because England did not want to shoot a woman, especially not a young woman of a certain prettiness. So they let her go, when she swore that she would never return to England. But they did not trust her. She is under observation now! Your home is watched, my dear Mrs. Widdicombe, and I dare say there is a man on guard outside now, my dear Mrs. Prothero."
This sent a chill along every spine. Marie Louise was frightened out of her own brief bravado.
There was a lull in the trial while everybody reveled in horror. Then Mrs. Prothero spoke in a judicial tone.
"And now, Miss Webling, please tell us your side of all this. What have you to say in your own behalf?"
Marie Louise's mouth suddenly turned dry as bark; her tongue was like a dead leaf. She was inarticulate with remembrance of her oath to Verrinder. She just managed to whisper:
It sounded like an autumn leaf rasping across a stone. Polly cried out in agony:
Marie Louise shook her head and could neither think nor speak. There was a hush of waiting. It was broken by the voices of the men strolling in together. They were utterly unwelcome. They stopped and stared at the women all staring at Marie Louise.
Seeing Davidge about to ask what the tableau stood for, she found voice to say:
"Mr. Davidge, would you be so good as to take me home—to Mrs. Widdicombe's, that is. I—I am a little faint."
"Delighted! I mean—I'm sorry—I'd be glad," he stammered, eager to be at her service, yet embarrassed by the sudden appeal.
"You'll pardon me, Mrs. Prothero, for running away!"
"Of course," said Mrs. Prothero, still dazed.
He bowed to her, and all round. Marie Louise nodded and whispered, "Good night!" and moved toward the door waveringly. Davidge's heart leaped with pity for her.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt checked him as he hurried past her.
"Oh, Mr. Davidge, I'm stopping at the Shoreham. Won't you drop in and have a cup of tea with me to-morrow at hahf pahst fah?"
"Thank you! Yes!"
The intended victim of Lady Clifton-Wyatt's little lynching-bee walked away, holding her head high. But she felt the noose still about her neck and wondered when the rope would draw her back and up.
Marie Louise marched through Mrs. Prothero's hall in excellent form, with just the right amount of dizziness to justify her escape on the plea of sudden illness. The butler, like a benign destiny, opened the door silently and let her out into the open as once before in London a butler had opened a door and let her into the welcome refuge of walls.
She gulped the cool night air thirstily, and it gave her courage. But it gave her no wisdom. She had indeed got away from Lady Clifton-Wyatt's direct accusation of being a spy and she had brought with her unscathed the only man whose good opinion was important to her. But she did not know what she wanted to do with him, except that she did not want him to fall into Lady Clifton-Wyatt's hands—in which she had left her reputation.
Polly Widdicombe would have gone after Marie Louise forthwith, but Polly did not intend to leave her pet foewoman in possession of the field—not that she loved Marie Louise more, but that she loved Lady Clifton-Wyatt less. Polly was dazed and bewildered by Marie Louise's defection, but she would not accept Lady Clifton-Wyatt's version of this story or of any other.
Besides, Polly gleaned that Marie Louise wanted to be alone, and she knew that the best gift friendship can bestow at times is solitude. The next best gift is defense in absence. Polly announced that she would not permit her friend to be traduced; and Lady Clifton-Wyatt, seeing that the men had flocked in from the dining-room and knowing that men always discount one woman's attack on another as mere cattiness, assumed her most angelic mien and changed the subject.
* * * * *
As usual in retreats, the first problem was transportation. Marie Louise found herself and Davidge outside Mrs. Prothero's door, with no means of getting to Rosslyn. She had come in the Widdicombe car; Davidge had come in a hotel cab and sent it away. Luckily at last a taxi returning to the railroad terminal whizzed by. Davidge yelled in vain. Then he put his two fingers to his mouth and let out a short blast that brought the taxi-driver round. In accordance with the traffic rules, he had to make the circuit of the big statue-crowned circle in front of Mrs. Prothero's home, one of those numerous hubs that give Washington the effect of what some one called "revolving streets."
When he drew up at the curb Davidge's first question was:
"How's your gasolene supply?"
"Full up, boss."
Marie Louise laughed. "You don't want to spend another night in a taxi with me, I see."
Davidge writhed at this deduction. He started to say, "I'd be glad to spend the rest of my life in a taxi with you." That sounded a little too flamboyant, especially with a driver listening in. So he said nothing but "Huh!"
He explained to the driver the route to Grinden Hall, and they set forth.
Marie Louise had a dilemma of her own. Lady Clifton-Wyatt had had the last word, and it had been an invitation to Davidge to call on her. Worse yet, he had accepted it. Lady Clifton-Wyatt's purpose was, of course, to rob Marie Louise of this last friend. Perhaps the wretch had a sentimental interest in Davidge, too. She was a widow and a man-grabber; she still had a tyrannic beauty and a greed of conquest. Marie Louise was determined that Davidge should not fall into her clutches, but she could hardly exact a promise from him to stay away.
The taxi was crossing the aqueduct bridge before she could brave the point. She was brazen enough to say, "You'll accept Lady Clifton-Wyatt's invitation to tea, of course?"
"Oh, I suppose so," said Davidge. "No American woman can resist a lord; so how could an American man resist a Lady?"
This helpless syllable expressed another defeat for Marie Louise. When they reached the house she bade him good night without making any arrangement for a good morrow, though Davidge held her hand decidedly longer than ever before.
She stood on the portico and watched his cab drive off. She gazed toward Washington and did not see the dreamy constellation it made with the shaft of the Monument ghostly luminous as if with a phosphorescence of its own. She felt an outcast indeed. She imagined Polly hurrying back to ask questions that could not be dodged any longer. She had no right to defend herself offensively from the rightful demands of a friend and hostess. Besides, the laws of hospitality would not protect her from Polly's temper. Polly would have a perfect right to order her from the house. And she would, too, when she knew everything. It would be best to decamp before being asked to.
Marie Louise whirled and sped into the house, rang for the maid, and said:
"My trunks! Please have them brought down—or up, from wherever they are, will you?"
"Your trunks, miss!"
"And a taxicab. I shall have to leave at once."
"But—oh, I am sorry. Shall I help you pack?"
"Thank you, no—yes—no!"
The maid went out with eyes popping, wondering what earthquake had sent the guest home alone for such a headlong exit.
Things flew in the drowsy house, and Marie Louise's chamber looked like the show-room of a commercial traveler for a linen-house when Polly appeared at the door and gasped:
"What in the name of—I didn't know you were sick enough to be delirious!"
She came forward through an archipelago of clothes to where Marie Louise was bending over a trunk. Polly took an armload of things away from her and put them back in the highboy. As she set her arms akimbo and stood staring at Marie Louise with a lovable and loving insolence, she heard the sound of a car rattling round the driveway, and her first words were:
"Who's coming here at this hour?"
"That's the taxi for me," Marie Louise explained.
Polly turned to the maid, "Go down and send it away—no, tell the driver to go to the asylum for a strait-jacket."
The maid smiled and left. Marie Louise was afraid to believe her own hopes.
"You don't mean you want me to stay, do you—not after what that woman said?"
"Do you imagine for a moment," returned Polly, "that I'd ever believe a word that cat could utter? Good Lord! if Lady Clifton-Wyatt told me it was raining and I could see it was, I'd know it wasn't and put down my umbrella."
Marie Louise rejoiced at the trust implied, but she could not make a fool of so loyal a friend. She spoke with difficulty:
"What if what she said was the truth, or, anyway, a kind of burlesque of it?"
"Marie Louise!" Polly gasped, and plounced into a chair. "Tell me the truth this minute, the true truth."
Marie Louise was perishing for a confidante. She had gone about as far without one as a normal woman can. She sat wondering how to begin, twirling her rings on her fingers. "Well, you see—you see—it is true that I'm not Sir Joseph's daughter. I was born in a little village—in America—Wakefield—out there in the Middle West. I ran away from home, and—"
She hesitated, blanched, blushed, skipped over the years she tried not to think of and managed never to speak of. She came down to:
"Well, anyway, at last I was in Berlin—on the stage—"
"You were an actress?" Polly gasped.
Marie Louise confessed, "Well, I'd hardly say that."
She told Polly what she had told Mr. Verrinder of the appearance of Sir Joseph and Lady Webling, of their thrill at her resemblance to their dead daughter, of their plea that she leave the stage and enter their family, of her new life, and the outbreak of the war.
Major Widdicombe pounded on the door and said: "Are you girls going to talk all night? I've got to get up at seven and save the country."
Polly cried to him, "Go away," and to Marie Louise, "Go on."
Marie Louise began again, but just as she reached the first suspicions of Sir Joseph's loyalty she remembered the oath she had plighted to Verrinder and stopped short.
"I forgot! I can't!"
Polly groaned: "Oh, my God! You're not going to stop there! I loathe serials."
Marie Louise shook her head. "If only I could tell you; but I just can't! That's all; I can't!"
Polly turned her eyes up in despair. "Well, I might as well go to bed, I suppose. But I sha'n't sleep a wink. Tell me one thing, though. You weren't really a German spy, were you?"
"No, no! Of course not! I loathe everything German."
"Well, let the rest rest, then. So long as Lady Clifton-Wyatt is a liar I can stand the strain. If you had been a spy, I suppose I'd have to shoot you or something; but so long as you're not, you don't budge out of this house. Is that understood?"
Marie Louise nodded with a pathetic gratitude, and Polly stamped a kiss on her brow like a notarial seal.
The next morning's paper announced that spring had officially arrived and been recognized at the Capitol—a certain Senator had taken off his wig. Washington accepted this as the sure sign that the weather was warm. It would not be officially autumn till that wig fell back into place.
There were less formal indications: for instance, the annual flower-duel between the two terraces on Massachusetts Avenue. The famous Embassy Terrace forsythias began it, and flaunted little fringes of yellow glory. The slopes of the Louise Home replied by setting their magnolia-trees on fire with flowers like lamps, flowers that hurried out ahead of their own leaves and then broke and covered the ground with great petals of shattered porcelain. The Embassy Terrace put out lamps of its own closer to the ground, but more gorgeous—irises in a row of blue, blue footlights.
The Louise Home, where gentlewomen of better days, ambassadresses of an earlier regime, kept their state, had the last word, the word that could not be bettered, for it uttered wistaria, wistful lavender clusters weeping from the trellises in languorous grace.
Marie Louise, looking from her open window in Rosslyn, felt in the wind a sense of stroking fingers. The trees were brisk with hope. The river went its way in a more sparkling flow. The air blew from the very fountains of youth with a teasing blarney. She thought of Ross Davidge and smiled tenderly to remember his amiable earnestness. But she frowned to remember his engagement with Lady Clifton-Wyatt. She wondered what excuse she could invent to checkmate that woman.
Suddenly inspiration came to her. She remembered that she had forgotten to pay Davidge for the seat he surrendered her in the chair-car. She telephoned him at his hotel. He was out. She pursued him by wire travel till she found him in an office of the Shipping Board. He talked on the corner of a busy man's desk. She heard the busy man say with a taunting voice, "A lady for you, Davidge."
She could hear the embarrassment in his voice. She was in for it now, and she felt silly when she explained why she bothered him. But she was stubborn, too. When he understood, he laughed with the constraint of a man bandying enforced gallantries on another man's telephone.
"I'd hate to be as honest as all that."
"It's not honesty," she persisted. "It's selfishness. I can't rest while the debt is on my mind."
He was perplexed. "I've got to see several men on the Shipping Board. There's a big fight on between the wooden-ship fellows and the steel-ship men, and I'm betwixt and between 'em. I won't have time to run out to see you."
"I shouldn't dream of asking you. I was coming in to town, anyway."
"Oh! Well, then—well—er—when can I meet you?"
"Whenever you say! The Willard at—When shall you be free?"
"Not before four and then only for half an hour."
"Four it is."
"Fine! Thank you ever so much. I'll buy me a lot of steel with all that money you owe me."
Marie Louise put up the receiver. People have got so used to the telephone that they can see by it. Marie Louise could visualize Davidge angry with embarrassment, confronting the important man whose office he had desecrated with this silly hammockese. She felt that she had made herself a nuisance and lost a trick. She had taken a deuce with her highest trump and had not captured the king.
Furthermore, to keep Davidge from meeting Lady Clifton-Wyatt would be only to-day's battle. There would still be to-morrows and the day-afters. Lady Clifton-Wyatt had declared herself openly hostile to Marie Louise, and would get her sooner or later. Flight from Washington would be the only safety.
But Marie Louise did not want to leave Washington. She loved Washington and the opportunities it offered a woman to do important work in the cosmopolitan whirl of its populace. But she could not live on at Polly Widdicombe's forever.
Marie Louise decided that her hour had struck. She must find a nook of her own. And she would have to live in it all by herself. Who was there to live with? She felt horribly deserted in life. She had looked at numerous houses and apartments from time to time. Apartments were costlier and fewer than houses. Since she was doomed to live alone, anyway, she might as well have a house. Her neighbors would more easily be kept aloof.
She sought a real-estate agent, Mr. Hailstorks, of the sort known as affable. But the dwellings he had to show were not even that. Places she had found not altogether odious before were rented now. Places that her heart went out to to-day proved to have been rented yesterday.
Finally she ran across a residence of a sort. She sighed to Mr. Hailstorks:
"Well, a carpenter made it—so let it pass for a house. I'll take it if it has a floor. I'm like Gelett Burgess: 'I don't so much care for a door, but this crawling around without touching the ground is getting to be quite a bore.'"
"Yes, ma'am," said Mr. Hailstorks, bewilderedly.
He unlocked the door of somebody's tenantless ex-home with its lonely furniture, and Marie Louise intruded, as one does, on the chairs, rugs, pictures, and vases that other people have been born with, have achieved, or have had thrust upon them. She wondered, as one does, what sort of beings they could have been that had selected such things to live among, and what excuse they had had for them.
Mr. Hailstorks had a surprise in store for her. He led her to the rear of the house and raised a shade. Instead of the expectable back yard, Marie Louise was startled to see a noble landscape leap into view. The house loomed over a precipitous descent into a great valley. A stream ran far below, and then the cliffs rose again opposite in a succession of uplifting terraces that reminded her somehow of Richmond Hill superbly built up above the silver Thames.
"Whatever is all that?" she cried.
"Rock Creek Park, ma'am," said Mr. Hailstorks, who had a sincere real-estately affection for parks, since they raised the price of adjoining property and made renting easier.
"And what's the price of all this grandeur?"
"Only three hundred a month," said Mr. Hailstorks.
"Only!" gasped Marie Louise.
"It will be four hundred in a week or two—yes ma'am," said Mr. Hailstorks.
So Marie Louise seized it before its price rose any farther.
She took a last look at Rock Creek Park, henceforth her private game-preserve. As she stared, an idea came to her. She needed one. The park, it occurred to her, was an excellent wilderness to get lost in—with Ross Davidge.
* * * * *
She was late to her meeting with Davidge—not unintentionally. He was waiting on the steps of the hotel, smoking, when she drove up in the car she had bought for her Motor Corps work.
He said what she hoped he would say:
"I didn't know you drove so well."
She quoted a popular phrase: "'You don't know the half of it, dearie.' Hop in, and I'll show you."
He thought of Lady Clifton-Wyatt, and Marie Louise knew he thought of her. But he was not hero or coward enough to tell a woman that he had an engagement with another woman. She pretended to have forgotten that he had told her, though she could think of little else. She whisked round the corner of I Street, or Eye Street, and thence up Sixteenth Street, fast and far.
She was amazed at her own audacity, and Davidge could not make her out. She had a scared look that puzzled him. She was really thinking that she was the most unconscionable kidnapper that ever ran off with some other body's child. He could hardly dun her for the money, and she had apparently forgotten it again.
They were well to the north when she said:
"Do you know Rock Creek Park?"
"No, I've never been in it."
"Would you like a glimpse? I think it's the prettiest park in the world."
She looked at her watch with that twist of the wrist now becoming almost universal and gasped:
"Oh, dear! I must turn back. But it's just about as short to go through the park. I mustn't make you late to Lady Clifton-Wyatt's tea."
He could find absolutely nothing to say to that except, "It's mighty pretty along here." She turned into Blagdon Road and coasted down the long, many-turning dark glade. At the end she failed to steer to the south. The creek itself crossed the road. She drove the car straight through its lilting waters. There was exhilaration in the splashing charge across the ford. Then the road wound along the bank, curling and writhing with it gracefully through thick forests, over bridges and once more right through the bright flood. The creek scrambling among its piled-up boulders was too gay to suggest any amorous mood, and Marie Louise did not quite dare to drive the car down to the water's edge at any of the little green plateaus where picnics were being celebrated on the grass.
"I always lose my way in this park," she said. "I expect I'm lost now."
She began to regret Davidge's approaching absence, with a strange loneliness. He was becoming tenderly necessary to her. She sighed, hardly meaning to speak aloud, "Too bad you're going away so soon."
He was startled to find that his departure meant something to her. He spoke with an affectionate reassurance.
She stopped the car on a lofty plateau where several ladies and gentlemen were exercising their horses at hurdle-jumping. The elan of rush, plunge and recovery could not excite Mamise now.
"I'll tell you what we'll do. The next time I come to Washington you drive me over to my shipyard and I'll show you the new boat and the new yard for the rest of the flock."
"That would be glorious. I should like to know something about ships."
"I can teach you all I know in a little while."
"You know all there is to know, don't you?"
"Lord help us, I should say not! I knew a little about the old methods, but they're all done away with. The fabricated ship is an absolute novelty. The old lines are gone, and the old methods. What few ship-builders we had are trying to forget what they know. Everybody is green. We had to find out for ourselves and pass it along to the foremen, and they hand it out to the laborers.
"The whole art is in a confusion. There is going to be a ghastly lot of mistakes and waste and scandal, but if we win out there'll be such a cloudburst that the Germans will think it's raining ships. Niagara Falls will be nothing to the cascade of iron hulls going overboard. Von Tirpitz with his ruthless policy will be like the old woman who tried to sweep the tide back with a broom."