"Why, Stephen!" exclaimed Fleetwood, hastening forward, "I didn't know you were laid up like this!"
Siward offered his hand inquiringly; then his eyes turned toward Plank, who stood behind Fleetwood; and, slowly disengaging his hand from Fleetwood's sympathetic grip, he offered it to Plank.
"It is very kind of you," he said. "Gumble, Mr. Fleetwood prefers rye, for some inscrutable reason. Mr. Plank?" His smile was a question.
"If you don't mind," said Plank, "I should like to have some tea—that is, if—"
"Tea, Gumble, for two. We'll tipple in company, Mr. Plank," he added. "And the cigars are at your elbow, Billy," with another smile at Fleetwood.
"Now," said the latter, after he had lighted his cigar, "what is the matter, Stephen?"
Siward glanced at his stiffly extended foot. "Nothing much." He reddened faintly, "I slipped. It's only a twisted ankle."
For a moment or two the answer satisfied Fleetwood, then a sudden, curious flash of suspicion came into his eyes; he glanced sharply at Siward, who lowered his eyes, while the red tint in his hollow cheeks deepened.
Neither spoke for a while. Plank sipped the tea which Wands, the second man, brought. Siward brooded over his cup, head bent. Fleetwood made more noise than necessary with his ice.
"I miss you like hell!" said Fleetwood musingly, measuring out the old rye from the quaint decanter. "Why did you drop the Saddle Club, Stephen?"
"I'm not riding; I have no use for it," replied Siward.
"You've cut out the Proscenium Club, too, and the Owl's Head, and the Trophy. It's a shame, Stephen."
"I'm tired of clubs."
"Don't talk that way."
"Very well, I won't," said Siward, smiling. "Tell me what is happening—out there," he made a gesture toward the window; "all the gossip the newspapers miss. I've talked Dr. Grisby to death; I've talked Gumble to death; I've read myself stupid. What's going on, Billy?"
So Fleetwood sketched for him a gay cartoon of events, caricaturing various episodes in the social kaleidoscope which might interest him. He gossiped cynically, but without malice, about people they both knew, about engagements, marriages, and divorces, plans and ambitions; about those absent from the metropolis and the newcomers to be welcomed. He commented briefly on the opera, reviewed the newer plays at the theatres, touched on the now dormant gaiety which had made the season at nearby country clubs conspicuous; then drifted into the hunting field, gossiping pleasantly in the vernacular about horses and packs and drag-hunts and stables, and what people thought of the new English hounds of the trial pack, and how the new M. F. H., Maitland Gray, had managed to break so many bones at Southbury.
Politics were touched upon, and they spoke of the possibility of Ferrall going to the Assembly, the sport of boss-baiting having become fashionable among amateurs, and providing a new amusement for the idle rich.
So city, State, and national issues were run through lightly, business conditions noticed, the stock market speculated upon; and presently conversation died out, with a yawn from Fleetwood as he looked into his empty glass at the last bit of ice.
"Don't do that, Billy," smiled Siward. "You haven't discoursed upon art, literature, and science yet, and you can't go until you've adjusted the affairs of the nation for the next twenty-four hours."
"Art?" yawned Fleetwood. "Oh, pictures? Don't like 'em. Nobody ever looks at 'em except debutantes, who do it out of deviltry, to floor a man at a dinner or a dance."
"How about literature?" inquired Siward gravely. "Anything doing?"
"Nothing in it," replied Fleetwood more gravely still. "It's another feminine bluff—like all that music talk they hand you after the opera."
"I see. And science?"
"Spider Flynn is matched to meet Kid Holloway; is that what you mean, Stephen? Somebody tumbled out of an air-ship the other day; is that what you mean? And they're selling scientific jewelry on Broadway at a dollar a quart; is that what you want to know?"
Siward rested his head on his hand with a smile. "Yes, that's about what I wanted to know, Billy—all about the arts and sciences. ... Much obliged. You needn't stay any longer, if you don't want to."
"How soon will you be out?" inquired Fleetwood.
"Out? I don't know. I shall try to drive to the office to-morrow."
"Why the devil did you resign from all your clubs? How can I see you if I don't come here?" began Fleetwood impatiently. "I know, of course, that you're not going anywhere, but a man always goes to his club. You don't look well, Stephen. You are too much alone."
Siward did not answer. His face and body had certainly grown thinner since Fleetwood had last seen him. Plank, too, had been shocked at the change in him—the dark, hard lines under the eyes; the pallor, the curious immobility of the man, save for his fingers, which were always restless, now moving in search of some small object to worry and turn over and over, now nervously settling into a grasp on the arm of his chair.
"How is Amalgamated Electric?" asked Fleetwood, abruptly.
"I think it's all right. Want to buy some?" replied Siward, smiling.
Plank stirred in his chair ponderously. "Somebody is kicking it to pieces," he said.
"Somebody is trying to," smiled Siward.
"Harrington," nodded Fleetwood. Siward nodded back. Plank was silent.
"Of course," continued Fleetwood, tentatively, "you people need not worry, with Howard Quarrier back of you."
Nobody said anything for a while. Presently Siward's restless hands, moving in search of something, encountered a pencil lying on the table beside him, and he picked it up and began drawing initials and scrolls on the margin of a newspaper; and all the scrolls framed initials, and all the initials were the same, twining and twisting into endless variations of the letters S. L.
"Yes, I must go to the office to-morrow," he repeated absently. "I am better—in fact I am quite well, except for this sprain." He looked down at his bandaged foot, then his pencil moved listlessly again, continuing the endless variations on the two letters. It was plain that he was tired.
Fleetwood rose and made his adieux almost affectionately. Plank moved forward on tiptoe, bulky and noiseless; and Siward held out his hand, saying something amiably formal.
"Would you like to have me come again?" asked Plank, red with embarrassment, yet so naively that at first Siward found no words to answer him; then—
"Would you care to come, Mr. Plank?"
Siward looked at him curiously, almost cautiously. His first impressions of the man had been summed up in one contemptuous word. Besides, barring that, what was there in common between himself and such a type as Plank? He had not even troubled himself to avoid him at Shotover; he had merely been aware of him when Plank spoke to him; never otherwise, except that afternoon beside the swimming pool, when he had made one of his rare criticisms on Plank.
Perhaps Plank had changed, perhaps Siward had; for he found nothing offensive in the bulky young man now—nothing particularly attractive, either, except for a certain simplicity, a certain direct candour in the heavy blue eyes which met his squarely.
"Come in for a cigar when you have a few moments idle," said Siward slowly.
"It will give me great pleasure," said Plank, bowing.
And that was all. He followed Fleetwood down the stairs; Wands held their coats, and bowed them out into the falling shadows of the winter twilight.
Siward, sitting beside his window, watched them enter their hansom and drive away up the avenue. A dull flush had settled over his cheeks; the aroma of spirits hung in the air, and he looked across the room at the decanter. Presently he drank some of his tea, but it was lukewarm, and he pushed the cup from him.
The clatter of the cup brought the old butler, who toddled hither and thither, removing trays, pulling chairs into place, fussing and pattering about, until a maid came in noiselessly, bearing a lamp. She pulled down the shades, drew the sad-coloured curtains, went to the mantelpiece and peered at the clock, then brought a wineglass and a spoon to Siward, and measured the dose in silence. He swallowed it, shrugged, permitted her to change the position of his chair and footstool, and nodded thanks and dismissal.
"Gumble, are you there?" he asked carelessly.
The butler entered from the hallway. "Yes, sir."
"You may leave that decanter."
But the old servant may have misunderstood, for he only bowed and ambled off downstairs with the decanter, either heedless or deaf to his master's sharp order to return.
For a while Siward sat there, eyes fixed, scowling into vacancy; then the old, listless, careworn expression returned; he rested one elbow on the window-sill, his worn cheek on his hand, and with the other hand fell to weaving initials with his pencil on the margin of the newspaper lying on the table beside him.
Lamplight brought out sharply the physical change in him—the angular shadows flat under the cheek-bones, the hard, slightly swollen flesh in the bluish shadows around the eyes. The mark of the master-vice was there; its stamp in the swollen, worn-out hollows; its imprint in the fine lines at the corners of his mouth; its sign manual in the faintest relaxation of the under lip, which had not yet become a looseness.
For the last of the Siwards had at last stepped into the highway which his doomed forebears had travelled before him.
"Gumble!" he called irritably.
A quavering voice, an unsteady step, and the old man entered again. "Mr. Stephen, sir?"
"Bring that decanter back. Didn't you hear me tell you just now?"
"Didn't you hear me?"
"Yes, Mr. Stephen, sir."
There was a silence.
"Are you going to bring that decanter?"
The old butler bowed, and ambled from the room, and for a long while Siward sat sullenly listening and scoring the edges of the paper with his trembling pencil. Then the lead broke short, and he flung it from him and pulled the bell. Wands came this time, a lank, sandy, silent man, grown gray as a rat in the service of the Siwards. He received his master's orders, and withdrew; and again Siward waited, biting his under lip and tearing bits from the edges of the newspaper with fingers never still; but nobody came with the decanter, and after a while his tense muscles relaxed; something in his very soul seemed to snap, and he sank back in his chair, the hot tears blinding him.
He had got as far as that; moments of self-pity were becoming almost as frequent as scorching intervals of self-contempt.
So they all knew what was the matter with him—they all knew—the doctor, the servants, his friends. Had he not surprised the quick suspicion in Fleetwood's glance, when he told him he had slipped, and sprained his ankle? What if he had been drunk when he fell—fell on his own doorsteps, carried into the old Siward house by old Siward servants, drunk as his forefathers? It was none of Fleetwood's business. It was none of the servants' business. It was nobody's business except his own. Who the devil were all these people, to pry into his affairs and doctor him and dose him and form secret leagues to disobey him, and hide decanters from him? Why should anybody have the impertinence to meddle with him? Of what concern to them were his vices or his virtues?
The tears dried in his hot eyes; he jerked the old-fashioned bell savagely; and after a long while he heard servants whispering together in the passageway outside his door.
He lay very still in his chair; his hearing had become abnormally acute, but he could not make out what they were saying; and as the dull, intestinal aching grew sharper, parching, searing every strained muscle in throat and chest, he struck the table beside him, and clenched his teeth in the fierce rush of agony that swept him from head to foot, crying out an inarticulate menace on his household. And Dr. Grisby came into the room from the outer shadows of the hall.
He was very small, very meagre, very bald, and clean-shaven, with a face like a nut-cracker; and the brown wig he wore was atrocious, and curled forward over his colourless ears. He wore steel-rimmed spectacles, each glass divided into two lenses; and he stood on tiptoe to look out through the upper lenses on the world, and always bent almost double to use the lower or reading lenses.
Besides that, he affected frilled shirts, and string ties, which nobody had ever seen snugly tied. His loose string tie was the first thing Siward could remember about the doctor; and that the doctor had permitted him to pull it when he had the measles, at the age of six.
"What's all this racket?" said the little old doctor harshly. "Got colic? Got the toothache? I'm ashamed of you, Stephen, cutting capers and pounding the furniture! Look up! Look at me! Out with your tongue! Well, now, what the devil's the trouble?"
"You—know," muttered Siward, abandoning his wrist to the little man, who seated himself beside him. Dr. Grisby scarcely noted the pulse; the delicate pressure had become a strong caress.
"Know what?" he grunted. "How do I know what's the matter with you? Hey? Now, now, don't try to explain, Steve; don't fly off the handle! All right; grant that I do know what's bothering you; I want to see that ankle first. Here, somebody! Light that gas. Why the mischief don't you have the house wired for electricity, Stephen? It's wholesome. Gas isn't. Lamps are worse, sir. Do as I tell you!" And he went on loquaciously, grumbling and muttering, and never ceasing his talk, while Siward, wincing as the dressing was removed, lay back and closed his eyes.
Half an hour later Gumble appeared, to announce dinner.
"I don't want any," said Siward.
"Eat!" said Dr. Grisby harshly.
"I—don't care to."
"Eat, I tell you! Do you think I don't mean what I say?"
So he ate his broth and toast, the doctor curtly declining to join him. He ate hurriedly, closing his eyes in aversion. Even the iced tea was flat and distasteful to him.
And at last he lay back, white and unstrung, the momentarily deadened desperation glimmering under his half-closed eyes. And for a long while Dr. Grisby sat, doubled almost in two, cuddling his bony little knees and studying the patterns in the faded carpet.
"I guess you'd better go, Stephen," he said at length.
"Up the river—to Mulqueen's?"
"Yes. Let's try it, Steve. You'll be on your feet in two weeks. Then you'd better go—up the river—to Mulqueen's."
"I—I'll go, if you say so. But I can't go now."
"I didn't say go now. I said in two weeks."
"Will you give me your word?" demanded the doctor sharply.
"Because I may have to be here on business. There seems to be some sort of crisis coming which I don't understand."
"There's a crisis right here, Steve, which I understand!" snapped Dr. Grisby. "Face it like a man! Face it like a man! You're sick—to your bones, boy—sick! sick! Fight the fight, Steve! Fight a good fight. There's a fighting chance; on my soul of honour, there is, Steve, a fighting chance for you! Now! now, boy! Buckle up tight! Tuck up your sword-sleeve! At 'em, Steve! Give 'em hell! Oh, my boy, my boy, I know; I know!" The little man's voice broke, but he steadied it instantly with a snap of his nut-cracker jaws, and scowled on his patient and shook his little withered fist at him.
His patient lay very still in the shadow.
"I want you to go," said the doctor harshly, "before your self-control goes. Do you understand? I want you to go before your decision is undermined; before you begin to do devious things, sly things, cheating things, slinking things—anything and everything to get at the thing you crave. I've given you something to fight with, and you won't take it faithfully. I've given you free rein in tobacco and tea and coffee. I've helped you as much as I dare to weather the nights. Now, you help me—do you hear?"
"Yes ... I will."
"You say so; now do it. Do something for yourself. Do anything! If you're sick of reading—and I don't blame you, considering the stuff you read—get people down here to see you; get lots of people. Telephone 'em; you've a telephone there, haven't you? There it is, by your elbow. Use it! Call up people. Talk all the time."
"Yes, I will."
"Good! Now, Steve, we know what's the matter, physically, don't we? Of course we do! Now, then, what's the matter mentally?"
"Mentally?" repeated Siward under his breath.
"Yes, mentally. What's the trouble? Stocks? Bonds? Lawsuits? Love?" the slightest pause, and a narrowing of the gimlet eyes behind the lenses. "Love?" he repeated harshly. "Which is it, boy? They're all good to let alone."
"Business," said Siward. But, being a Siward, he was obliged to add "partly."
"Business—partly," repeated the doctor. "What's the matter with business—partly?"
"I don't know. There are rumours. Hetherington is pounding us—apparently. That Inter-County crowd is acting ominously, too. There's something underhand, somewhere." He bent his head and fell to plucking at the faded brocade on the arm of his chair, muttering to himself, "somewhere, somehow, something underhand. I don't know what; I really don't."
"All right—all right," said the doctor testily; "let it go at that! There's treachery, eh? You suspect it? You're sure of it—as reasonably sure as a gentleman can be of something he is not fashioned to understand? That's it, is it? All right, sir—all right! Very well—ver-y well. Now, sir, look at me! Business symptoms admitted, what about the 'partly,' Stephen?—what about it, eh? What about it?"
But Siward fell silent again.
"Eh? Did you say something? No? Oh, very well, ver-y well, sir. ... Perfectly correct, Stephen. You have not earned the right to admit further symptoms. No, sir, you have not earned the right to admit them to anybody, not even to yourself. Nor to—her!"
"I have—admitted them."
"To yourself, Steve? I'm sorry. You have no right to—yet. I'm sorry—"
"I have admitted them—admitted them—to her."
"That settles it," said the doctor grimly, "that clinches it! That locks you to the wheel! That pledges you. The squabble is on, now. It's your honour that's engaged now, not your nerves, not your intestines. It's a good fight—a very good fight, with no chance of losing anything but life. You go up the river to Mulqueen's. That's the strategy in this campaign; that's excellent manoeuvring; that's good generalship! Eh? Mask your purpose, Steve; make a feint of camping out here under my guns; then suddenly fling your entire force up the Hudson and fortify yourself at Mulqueen's! Ho, that'll fix 'em! That's going to astonish the enemy!"
His harsh, dry, crackling laughter broke out like the distant rattle of musketry.
The ghost of a smile glimmered in Siward's haunted eyes, then faded as he leaned forward.
"She has refused me," he said simply.
The little doctor, after an incredulous stare, began chattering with wrath. "Refused you! Pah! Pooh! That's nothing! That signifies absolutely nothing! It's meaningless! It's a detail. You get well—do you hear? You go and get well; then try it again! Then you'll see! And if she is an idiot—in the event of her irrational persistence in an incredible and utterly indefensible attitude"—he choked up, then fairly barked at Siward—"take her anyway, sir! Run off with her! Dominate circumstances, sir! take charge of events! ... But you can't do it till you've clapped yourself into prison for life. ... And God help you if you let yourself escape!"
And after a long while Siward said: "If I should ever marry—and—and—"
"Had children, eh? Is that it? Oh, it is, eh? Well, I say, marry! I say, have children! If you're a man, you'll breed men. The chances are they may not inherit what you have. It skips some generations—some, now and then. But if they do, good God! I say it's better to be born and have a chance to fight than never to come into the arena at all! By winning out, the world learns; by failure, the world is no less wise. The important thing is birth. The main point is to breed—to produce—to reproduce! but not until you stand, sword in hand, and your armed heel on the breast of your prostrate and subconscious self!"
He jumped up and began running about the room with short little bantam steps, talking all the while.
"People say, 'Shall criminals be allowed to mate and produce young? Shall malefactors be allowed to beget? No!' And I say no, too. Never so long as they remain criminals and malefactors; so long as the evil in them is in the ascendant. Never, until they are cured. That's what I say; that's what I maintain. Crime is a disease; criminals are sick people. No marriage for them until they're cured; no children for them until they're well. If they cure themselves, let 'em marry; let 'em breed; for then, if their children inherit the inclination, they also inherit the grit to cauterise the malady."
He produced a huge handkerchief from the tails of his coat, and wiped his damp features and polished his forehead so violently that his wig took a new and jaunty angle.
"I'm talking too much," he said fretfully; "I'm talking a great deal—all the time—continually. I've other patients—several—plenty! Do you think you're the only man I know who's trying to disfigure his liver and make spots come out all over inside him? Do you?"
Siward smiled again, a worn, pallid smile.
"I can stand it while you are here, doctor, but when I'm alone it's—hard. One of those crises is close now. I've a bad night ahead—a bad outlook. Couldn't you—"
"—Enough to dull it—just a little? I don't ask for enough to make me sleep—not even to make me doze. You have your needle; haven't you, doctor?"
"Then, just this once—for the last time."
"Why? Are you afraid? You needn't be, doctor. I don't care for it except to give me a little respite, a little rest on a night like this. I'm so tired of this ache. If I could only have some sleep, and wake up in good shape, I'd stand a better chance of fighting. ... Wait, doctor! Just one moment. I don't mean to be a coward, but I've had a hard fight, and—I'm tired. ... If you could see your way to helping me—"
"I dare not help you any more that way."
"Not this once?"
"Not this once."
There was a dead silence, broken at last by the doctor with a violent gesture toward the telephone. "Talk to the girl! Why don't you talk to the girl! If she's worth a hill o' beans she'll help you to hang on. What's she for, if she isn't for such moments? Tell her you need her voice; tell her you need her faith in you. Damn central! Talk out in church! Don't make a goddess of a woman. The men who want to marry her, and can't, will do that! The nincompoop can always be counted on to deify the commonplace. And she is commonplace. If she isn't, she's no good! Commend me to sanity and the commonplace. I take off my hat to it! I honour it. God bless it! Good-night!"
Siward lay still for a long while after the doctor had gone. More than an hour had passed before he slowly sat up and groped for the telephone book, opened it, and searched in a blind, hesitating way until he found the number he was looking for.
He had never telephoned to her; he had never written her except once, in reply to her letter in regard to his mother's death—that strange, timid, formal letter, in which, grief-stunned as he was, he saw only the formality, and had answered it more formally still. And that was all that had come of the days and nights by that northern sea—a letter and its answer, and silence.
And, thinking of these things, he shut the book wearily, and lay back in the shadow of the faded curtain, closing his sunken eyes.
CHAPTER IX CONFESSIONS
In a city in transition, where yesterday is as dead as a dead century, where those who prepare the old year for burial are already taking the ante-mortem statement of the new, the future fulfils the functions of the present. Time itself is considered merely as a by-product of horse-power, discounted with flippancy as the unavoidable friction clogging the fly-wheel of progress.
Memory, once a fine art, is becoming a lost art in Manhattan.
His world and his city had almost ceased to think of Siward.
For a few weeks men spoke of him in the several clubs of which he had lately been a member—spoke of him always in the past tense; and after a little while spoke of him no more.
In that section of the social system which he had inhabited, his absence on account of his mother's death being taken for granted, people laid him away in their minds almost as ceremoniously as they had laid away the memory of his mother. Nothing halted because he was not present; nothing was delayed, rearranged, or abandoned because his familiar presence chanced to be missing. There remained only one more place to fill at a cotillion, dinner, or bridge party; only another man for opera box or week's end; one man the more to be counted on, one more man to be counted out—transferred to the credit of profit and loss, and the ledger closed for the season.
They who remembered him, among those who had not yet lost that old-fashioned art, were very few—a young girl here and there, over whom he had been absent-mindedly sentimental; a debutante or two who had adored him from a distance as a friend of elder sister or brother; here and there an old, old lady to whom he had been considerate, and who perhaps remembered something of the winning charm of the Siwards when the town was young—his father, perhaps, perhaps his grandfather—these thought of him at intervals; the remainder had no leisure to remember even if they had not forgotten how to do it. Several cabmen missed him for a while; now and then a privileged cafe waiter inquired about him from gay, noisy parties entering some old haunt of his. Mr. Desmond, of art gallery and roulette notoriety, whose business is not to forget, was politely regretful at his absence from certain occult ceremonies which he had at irregular intervals graced with votive offerings. And the list ended there—almost, not quite; for there were two people who had not forgotten Siward: Howard Quarrier and Beverly Plank; and one other, a third, who could not yet forget him if she would—but, as yet, she had not tried very desperately.
The day that Siward left New York to visit everybody's friend, Mr. Mulqueen, in the country, Plank called on him for the second time in his life, and was presently received in the south drawing-room, the library being limited to an informality and intimacy not for Mr. Plank.
Siward, still lame, and using unskilfully two shiny new crutches, came down the stairs and stumped into the drawing-room, which, in spite of the sombre, clustering curtains, was brightly illuminated by the winter sunshine reflected from the snow in the street. Plank was shocked at the change in him—at the ghost of a voice, listlessly formal; at the thin, nerveless hand offered; startled, so that he forgot his shyness, and retained the bony hand tightly in his, and instinctively laid his other great cushion-like paw over it, holding it imprisoned, unable to speak, unconscious, in the impulse of the moment, of the liberty he permitted himself, and which he had never dreamed of taking with such a man as Siward.
The effect on Siward was composite; his tired voice ceased; surprise, inability to understand tinged with instinctive displeasure, were succeeded by humourous curiosity; and, very slowly it became plain to him that this beefy young man liked him, was naively concerned about him, felt friendly toward him, and was showing it as spontaneously as a child. Because he now understood something of how it is with a man who is in the process of being forgotten, his perceptions were perhaps the finer in these days, and the direct unconsciousness of Plank touched him more heavily than the pair of heavy hands enclosing his.
"I thought I'd come," began Plank, growing redder and redder as he began to realise the enormity of familiarity committed only on the warrant of impulse. "You don't look well."
"It was good of you to think of me," said Siward. "Come up to the library, if you've a few minutes to spare an invalid. Please go first; I'm a trifle lame yet."
"I—I am sorry," muttered Plank, "very, very sorry."
At first, in the library, Plank was awkward and silent, finding nothing to say, and nowhere to dispose of his hands, until Siward gave him a cigar to occupy his fingers. Even then he continued to sit uncomfortably, his bulk balanced on a rickety, spindle-legged chair, which he stubbornly refused to exchange for another, at Siward's suggestion, out of sheer embarrassment, and with a confused idea that his refusal would somehow ultimately put him at his ease with his surroundings.
Siward, secretly amused, rang for tea, although the hour was early. After a little while, either the toast or the tea appeared to act on Plank as a lingual laxative, for he began suddenly to talk, which is characteristic of bashful men; and Siward gravely helped him on when he floundered and turned shy. After a little, matters went very well with them, and Plank, much more at ease than he had ever dared to hope he could be with Siward, talked and talked; and Siward, his crutches across his knees, lay back in his arm-chair, chatting with that winning informality so becoming to men who are unconscious of their charm.
Watching Plank, it occurred to him gradually that this great, cumbersome creature was not a shrewd, thrifty, self-made and self-finished adult at all; only a big, wistful, lonely boy, without comrades and with nowhere to play. On Plank's round face there remained no trace of shrewdness, of stubbornness, nothing even of the heavy, saturnine placidity of a dogged man who waits his turn.
Plank spoke of himself after a while, sounding the personal note with tentative timidity. Siward gravely encouraged him, and in a little while the outlines of his crude autobiography appeared, embodying his eventless boyhood in a Pennsylvania town; his career at the high school; the dawning desire for college equipment, satisfied by his father, who owned shares in the promising Deepvale Steel Plank Company; the unhappy years at Harvard—hard years, for he learned with difficulty; solitary years, for he was not sought by those whom he desired to know. Then he ventured to speak of his father's growing interest in steel; the merging and absorbing of independent plants; his own entry upon the scene on the death of his father; and—the rest—material fortune and prosperity, which, perhaps, might stand substitute as a social sponsor for him; stand, perhaps, for something of what he lacked in himself, which only long residence amid the best, long-formed habits for the best, or a long inheritance of the best could give. Did Siward think so? Was the best beyond his reach? Was it hopeless for such a man as he to try? And why?
The innocent snobbery, the abashed but absolute simplicity of this ponderous pilgrim from the smelting pits clambering upward through the high school of the smoky town, groping laboriously through the chilly halls of Harvard toward the outer breastworks of Manhattan, interested Siward; and he said so in his pleasant way, without offence, and with a smiling question at the end.
"Worth while?" repeated Plank, flushing heavily, "it is worth while to me. I have always desired to be a part of the best that there is in my own country; and the best is here, isn't it?"
"Not necessarily," said Siward, still smiling. "The noisiest is here, and some of the best."
"Which is the best?" inquired Plank naively.
"Why, all plain people, whose education, breeding, and fortune permit them the luxury of thinking, and whose tastes, intelligence, and sanity enable them to express their thoughts. There are such people here, and some of them form a portion of the gaudier and noisier galaxy we call society."
"That is what I wish to be part of," said Plank. "Could you tell me what are the requirements?"
"I don't believe I could, exactly," said Siward, amused. "With us, the social system, as an established and finished system, has too recently been evolved from outer chaos to be characteristic of anything except the crudity and energy of the chaos from which it emerged. The balance between wealth, intelligence, and breeding has not yet been established—not from lack of wealth or intelligence. The formula has not been announced, that is all."
"What is the formula?" insisted Plank.
"The formula is the receipt for a real society," replied Siward, laughing. "At present we have its uncombined ingredients in the raw—noisy wealth and flippant fashion, arrogant intelligence and dowdy breeding—all excellent materials, when filtered and fused in the retort; and many of our test tubes have already precipitated pure metal besides, and our national laboratory is turning out fine alloys. Some day we'll understand the formula, and we'll weld the entire mass; and that will be society, Mr. Plank."
"In the meanwhile," repeated Plank, unsmiling, "I want to be part of the best we have. I want to be part of the brightness of things. I mean, that I cannot be contented with an imitation."
"Of the best—of what you say is not yet society. I ask no more than your footing among the people of this city. I wish to be able to go where such men as you go; be permitted, asked, desired to be part of what you always have been part of. Is it a great deal I ask? Tell me, Mr. Siward—for I don't know—is it too much to expect?"
"I don't think it is a very high ambition," said Siward, smiling. "What you ask is not very much to ask of life, Mr. Plank."
"But is there any reason why I may not hope to go where I wish to go?"
"I think it depends upon yourself," said Siward, "upon your capacity for being, or for making people believe you to be exactly what they require. You ask me whether you may be able to go where you desire; and I answer you that there is no limit to any journey except the sprinting ability of the pilgrim."
Plank laughed a little, and his squared jaws relaxed; then, after a few moments' thought:
"It is curious that what you cast away from you so easily, I am waiting for with all the patience I have in me. And yet it is always yours to pick up again whenever you wish; and I may never live to possess it."
He was so perfectly right that Siward said nothing; in fact, he could have no particular interest or sympathy for a man's quest of what he himself did not understand the lack of. Those born without a tag unmistakably ticketing them and their positions in the world were perforce ticketed. Siward took it for granted that a man belonged where he was to be met; and all he cared about was to find him civil, whether he happened to be a policeman or a master of fox-hounds.
He was, now that he knew Plank, contented to accept him anywhere he met him; but Plank's upward evolutions upon the social ladder were of no interest to him, and his naive snobbery was becoming something of a bore.
So Siward directed the conversation into other channels, and Plank, accepting another cup of tea, became very communicative about his stables and his dogs, and the preservation of game; and after a while, looking up confidently at Siward, he said:
"Do you think it beastly to drive pheasants the way I did at Black Fells? I have heard that you were disgusted."
"It isn't my idea of a square deal," said Siward frankly.
"That settles it, then."
"But you should not let me interfere with—"
"I'll take your opinion, and thank you for it. It didn't seem to me to be the thing; only it's done over here, you know. The De Coursay's and the—"
"Yes, I know. ... Glad you feel that way about it, Plank. It's pretty rotten sportsmanship. Don't you think so?"
"I do. I—would you—I should like to ask you to try some square shooting at the Fells," stammered Plank, "next season, if you would care to."
"You're very good. I should like to, if I were going to shoot at all; but I fancy my shooting days are over, for a while."
"Business," nodded Siward, absently grave again. "I see no prospect of my idling for the next year or two."
"You are in—in Amalgamated Electric, I think," ventured Plank.
"Very much in," replied the other frankly. "You've read the papers and heard rumours, I suppose?"
"Some. I don't suppose anybody quite understands the attacks on Amalgamated."
"I don't—not yet. Do you?"
Plank sat silent, then his shrewd under lip began to protrude.
"I'm wondering," he began cautiously, "how much the Algonquin crowd understands about the matter?"
Siward's troubled eyes were on him as he spoke, watching closely, narrowly.
"I've heard that rumour before," he said.
"So have I," said Plank, "and it seems incredible." He looked warily at Siward. "Suppose it is true that the Algonquin Trust Company is godfather to Inter-County. That doesn't explain why a man should kick his own door down when there's a bell to ring and servants to let him in—and out again, too."
"I have wondered," said Siward, "whether the door he might be inclined to kick down is really his own door any longer."
"I, too," said Plank simply. "It may belong to a personal enemy—if he has any. He could afford to have an enemy, I suppose."
"Then, hadn't you better—I beg your pardon! You have not asked me to advise you."
"No. I may ask your advice some day. Will you give it when I do?"
"With pleasure," said Plank, so warmly disinterested, so plainly proud and eager to do a service that Siward, surprised and touched, found no word to utter.
Plank rose. Siward attempted to stand up, but had trouble with his crutches.
"Please don't try," said Plank, coming over and offering his hand. "May I stop in again soon? Oh, you are off to the country for a month or two? I see. ... You don't look very well. I hope it will benefit you. Awfully glad to have seen you. I—I hope you won't forget me—entirely."
"I am the man people are forgetting," returned Siward, "not you. It was very nice of you to come. You are one of very few who remember me at all."
"I have very few people to remember," said Plank; "and if I had as many as I could desire I should remember you first."
Here he became very much embarrassed. Siward offered his hand again. Plank shook it awkwardly, and went away on tiptoe down the stairs which creaked decorously under his weight.
And that ended the first interview between Plank and Siward in the first days of the latter's decline.
The months that passed during Siward's absence from the city began to prove rather eventful for Plank. He was finally elected a member of the Patroons Club, without serious opposition; he had dined twice with the Kemp Ferralls; he and Major Belwether were seen together at the Caithness dance, and in the Caithness box at the opera. Once a respectable newspaper reported him at Tuxedo for the week's end; his name, linked with the clergy, frequently occupied such space under the column headed "Ecclesiastical News" as was devoted to the progress of the new chapel, and many old ladies began to become familiar with his name.
At the right moment the Mortimers featured him between two fashionable bishops at a dinner. Mrs. Vendenning, who adored bishops, immediately remembered him among those asked to her famous annual bal poudre; a celebrated yacht club admitted him to membership; a whole shoal of excellent minor clubs which really needed new members followed suit, and even the rock-ribbed Lenox, wearied of its own time-honoured immobility, displayed the preliminary fidgets which boded well for the stolid candidate. The Mountain was preparing to take the first stiff step toward Mohammed. It was the prophet's cue to sit tight and yawn occasionally.
Meanwhile he didn't want to; he was becoming anxious to do things for himself, which Leila Mortimer, of course, would not permit. It was difficult for him to understand that any effort of his own would probably be disastrous; that progress could come only through his own receptive passivity; that nothing was demanded, nothing required, nothing permitted from him as yet, save a capacity for assimilating such opportunities as sections of the social system condescended to offer.
For instance, he wanted to open his art gallery to the public; he said it was good strategy; and Mrs. Mortimer sat upon the suggestion with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. Well, then, couldn't he possibly do something with his great, gilded ball-room? No, he couldn't; and the less in evidence his galleries and his ball-rooms were at present the better his chances with people who, perfectly aware that he possessed them, were very slowly learning to overlook the insolence of the accident that permitted him to possess what they had never known the want of. First of all people must tire of repeating to each other that he was nobody, and that would happen when they wearied of explaining to one another why he was ever asked anywhere. There was time enough for him to offer amusement to people after they had ceased to find amusement in snubbing him; plenty of time in the future for them to lash him to a gallop for their pleasure. In the meanwhile he was doing very well, because he began to appear regularly in the Caithness-Bonnesdel box, and old Peter Caithness was already boring him at the Patroons; which meant that the thrifty old gentleman considered Plank's millions as a possible underpinning for the sagging house of Caithness, of which his pallid daughter Agatha was the sole sustaining caryatid in perspective.
Yes, he was doing well; for that despotic beauty, Sylvia Landis, whose capricious perversity had recently astonished those who remembered her in her first season as a sweet, reasonable, and unspoiled girl, was always friendly with him. That must be looked upon as important, considering Sylvia's unassailable position, and her kinship to the autocratic old lady whose kindly ukase had for generations remained the undisputed law in the social system of Manhattan.
"There is another matter," said Leila Mortimer innocently, as Plank, lingering after a disastrous rubber of bridge with her, her husband, and Agatha Caithness, had followed her into her own apartments to write his cheque for what he owed. "You've driven with me so much and you come here so often and we are seen together so frequently that the clans are sharpening up their dirks for us. And that helps some."
"What!" exclaimed Plank, reddening, and twisting around in his chair.
"Certainly. You didn't suppose I could escape, did you?"
"Escape! What?" demanded Plank, getting redder.
"Escape being talked about, savagely, mercilessly. Can't you see how it helps? Oh dear, are you stupid, Beverly?
"I don't know," replied Plank, staring, "just how stupid I am. If you mean that I'm compromising you—"
"Oh, please! Why do you use back-stairs words? Nobody talks about compromising now; all that went out with New Year's calls and brown-stone stoops."
"What do they call it, then?" asked Plank seriously.
"Call what? you great boy!"
"What you say I'm doing?"
"I don't say it."
Leila laughed, leaned back in her big, padded chair, dropping one knee over the other. Her dark eyes with the Japanese slant to them rested mockingly on Plank, who had now turned completely around in his chair, leaving his half-written cheque on her escritoire behind him.
"You're simply credited with an affair with a pretty woman," she said, watching the dull colour mounting to his temples, "and that is certain to be useful to you, and it doesn't affect me. What on earth are you blushing about?" And as he said nothing, she added, with a daring little laugh: "You are credited with being very agreeable, you see."
"If—if that's the way you take it—" he began.
"Of course! What do you expect me to do—call for help before I'm hurt?"
"You mean that this talk—gossip—doesn't hurt?"
"How silly!" She looked at him, smiling. "You know how likely I am to require protection from your importunities." She dropped her pretty head, and began plaiting with her fingers the silken gown over her knee. "Or how likely I would be to shriek for it even if"—she looked up with childlike directness—"even if I needed it."
"Of course you can take care of yourself," said Plank, wincing.
"I could, if I wanted to."
"Everybody knows that. I know it, Leroy knows it; only I don't care to figure as that kind of man."
Already he had lost sight of her position in the matter; and she drew a long, quiet breath, almost like a sigh.
"Time enough after you marry," she said deliberately, and lighted a cigarette from a candle, recreating her knees the other way.
He considered her, started to speak, checked himself, and swung around to the desk again. His pen hovered over the space to be filled in. He tried to recollect the amount, hesitated, dated the cheque and affixed his signature, still trying to remember; then he looked at her over his shoulder.
"I forget the exact amount."
She surveyed him through the haze of her cigarette, but made no answer.
"I forget the amount," he repeated.
"So do I," she nodded indolently.
"Let it go. Besides, I shall not accept it."
He flushed up, astonished. "You can't refuse to take a gambling debt."
"I do," she retorted coolly. "I'm tired of taking your money."
"But you won it."
"I'm tired of winning it. It is all I ever do win ... from you."
Her pretty head was wreathed in smoke. She tipped the ashes from the cigarette's end, watching them fall to powder on the rug.
"I don't know what you mean," he persisted doggedly.
"Don't you? I don't believe I do, either. There are intervals in my career which might prove eloquent if I opened my lips. But I don't, except to make floating rings and cabalistic signs out of cigarette smoke. Can you read their meaning? Look! There goes one, and there's another, and another—all twisting and uncurling into hieroglyphics. They are very significant; they might tell you a lot of things, if you would only translate them. But you haven't the key—have you?"
There was a heavy, jarring step in the main living-room, and Mortimer's bulk darkened the doorway.
"Entrez, mon ami," nodded Leila, glancing up. "Where is Agatha?"
"I'm going to Desmond's," he grunted, ignoring his wife's question; "do you want to try it again, Beverly?"
"I can't make Leila take her own winnings," said Plank, holding out the signed but unfilled cheque to Mortimer, who took it and scrutinised it for a moment, rubbing his heavy, inflamed eyes; then, gesticulating, the cheque fluttering in his puffy fingers:
"Come on," he insisted. "I've a notion that I can give Desmond a whirl that he won't forget in a hurry. Agatha's asleep; she's going to that ball—where is it?" he demanded, turning on his wife. "Yes, yes; the Page blow-out. You're going, I suppose?"
Leila nodded, and lighted another cigarette.
"All right," continued Mortimer impatiently; "you and Agatha won't start before one. And if you think Plank had better go, why, we'll be back here in time."
"That means you won't be back at all," observed his wife coolly; "and it's good policy for Beverly to go where he's asked. Can't you turn in and sleep, now, and amuse your friend Desmond to-morrow night?"
"No, I can't. What a fool I'd be to let a chance slip when I feel like a winner!"
"You never feel otherwise when you gamble," said Leila.
"Yes, I do," he retorted peevishly. "I can tell almost every time what the cards are going to do to me. Leila, go to sleep. We'll be back here for you by one, or half past."
"Look here, Leroy," began Plank, "there's one thing I can't stand for, and that's this continual loss of sleep. If I go with you I'll not be fit to go to the Pages."
"What a farmer you are!" sneered Mortimer. "I believe you roost on the foot-board of your bed, like a confounded turkey. Come on! You'd better begin training, you know. People in this town are not going to stand for the merry ploughboy game, you see!"
But Plank was shrewdly covering his principal reason for declining; he had too often "temporarily" assisted Mortimer at Desmond's and Burbank's, when Mortimer, cleaned out and unable to draw against a balance non-existent, had plucked him by the sleeve from the faro table with the breathless request for a loan.
"I tell you I can wring Desmond dry to-night," repeated Mortimer sullenly. "It isn't a case of 'want to,' either; it's a case of 'got to.' That old pink-and-white rabbit, Belwether, got me into a game this afternoon, and between him and Voucher and Alderdine I'm stripped clean as a kennel bone."
But Plank shook his head, pretending to yawn; and Mortimer, glowering and lingering, presently went off, his swollen hands thrust into his trousers' pockets, his gross features dark with disgust; and presently they heard the front door slam, and a rattling tattoo of horses' feet on the asphalt; and Leila sprang up impatiently, and, passing Plank, traversed the passage to the windows of the front room.
"He's taken the horses—the beast!" she said calmly, as Plank joined her at the great windows and looked out into the night, where the round, drooping, flower-like globes of the electric lamps spread a lake of silver before the house.
It was rather rough on Leila. The Mortimers maintained one pair of horses only; and the use given them at all hours resulted in endless scenes, and an utter impossibility for Leila to retain the same coachman and footman for more than a few weeks at a time.
"He won't come back; he'll keep Martin and the horses standing in front of Delmonico's all night. You'd better call up the stables, Beverly."
So Plank called up a livery and arranged for transportation at one; and Leila seated herself at a card-table and began to deal herself cold decks, thoughtfully.
"That bit in 'Carmen,'" she said, "it always brings the shudder; it never palls on me, never grows stale." She whipped the ominous spade from the pack and held it out. "La Mort!" she exclaimed in mock tragedy, yet there was another undertone ringing through it, sounding, too, in her following laugh. "Draw!" she commanded, holding out the pack; and Plank drew a diamond.
"Naturally," she nodded, shuffling the pack with her smooth, savant fingers and laying them out as she repeated the formula: "Qui frappe? Qui entre? Qui prend chaise? Qui parle? Oh, the deuce! it's always the same! Tiens! je m'ennui!" There was a flash of her bare arm, a flutter, and the cards fell in a shower over them both.
Plank flipped a card from his knee, laughing uncertainly, aware of symptoms in his pretty vis-a-vis which always made him uncomfortable. For months, now, at certain intervals, these recurrent symptoms had made him wary; but what they might portend he did not know, only that, alone with her, moments occurred when he was heavily aware of a tension which, after a while, affected even his few thick nerves. One of those intervals was threatening now: her flushed cheeks, her feverish activity with her hands, the unconscious reflex movement of her silken knees and restless slippers, all foreboded it. Next would come the nervous laughter, the swift epigram which bored and puzzled him, the veiled badinage he was unequal to; and then the hint of weariness, the curious pathos of long silences, the burnt-out beauty of her eyes from which the fire had gone as though quenched by invisible tears within.
He ascribed it—desired to ascribe it—to her relations with her husband. He had naturally learned and divined how matters stood with them; he had learned considerable in the last month or two—something of Mortimer's record as a burly brother to the rich; something of his position among those who made no question of his presence anywhere. Something of Leila, too, he had heard, or rather deduced from hinted word or shrug or smiling silence, not meant for him, but indifferent to what he might hear and what he might think of what he heard.
He did listen; he did patiently add two and two in the long solitudes of his Louis XV chamber; and if the results were not always four, at least they came within a fraction of the proper answer. And this did not alter his policy or weaken his faith in his mentors; nor did it impair his real gratitude to them, and his real and simple friendship for them both. He was faithful in friendship once formed, obstinately so, for better or for worse; but he was shrewd enough to ignore opportunities for friendships which he foresaw could do him no good on his plodding pilgrimage toward the temple of his inexorable desire.
Lifting, now, his Delft-coloured eyes furtively, he studied the silk-and-lace swathed figure of the young matron opposite, flung back into the depths of her great chair, profile turned from him, her chin imprisoned in her ringed fingers. The brooding abandon of the attitude contrasted sharply with the grooming of the woman, making both the more effective.
"Turn in, if you want to," she said, her voice indistinct, smothered by her pink palm. "You're to dress in Leroy's quarters."
"I don't want to turn in just yet."
"You said you needed sleep."
"I do. But it's not eleven yet."
She slipped into another posture, reaching for a cigarette, and, setting it afire from the match he offered, exhaled a cloud of smoke and looked dreamily through it at him.
"Who is she?" she asked in a colourless voice. "Tell me, for I don't know. Agatha? Marion Page? Mrs. Vendenning? or the Tassel girl?"
"Nobody—yet," he admitted cheerfully.
"Nobody—yet," she repeated, musing over her cigarette. "That's good politics, if it's true."
"Am I untruthful?" he asked simply.
"I don't know. Are you? You're a man."
"Don't talk that way, Leila."
"No, I won't. What is it that you and Sylvia Landis have to talk about so continuously every time you meet?"
"She's merely civil to me," he explained.
"That's more than she is to a lot of people. What do you talk about?"
"I don't know—nothing in particular; mostly about Shotover, and the people there last summer."
"Doesn't she ever mention Stephen Siward?"
"Usually. She knows I like him."
"She likes him, too," said Leila, looking at him steadily.
"I know it. Everybody likes him—or did. I do, yet."
"I do, too," observed Mrs. Mortimer coolly. "I was in love with him. He was only a boy then."
Plank nodded in silence.
"Where is he now—do, you know?" she asked. "Everybody says he's gone to the devil."
"He's in the country somewhere," replied Plank cautiously. "I stopped in to see him the other day, but nobody seemed to know when he would return."
Mrs. Mortimer tossed her cigarette onto the hearth. For a long interval of silence she lay there in her chair, changing her position restlessly from moment to moment; and at length she lay quite still, so long that Plank began to think she had fallen asleep in her chair.
He rose. She did not stir, and, passing her, he instinctively glanced down. Her cheeks, half buried against the back of the chair, were overflushed; under the closed lids the lashes glistened wet in the lamplight.
Surprised, embarrassed, he halted, as though afraid to move; and she sat up with a nervous shake of her shoulders.
"What a life!" she said, under her breath; "what a life for a woman to lead!"
"Wh-whose?" he blurted out.
He stared at her uneasily, finding nothing to say. He had never before heard anything like this from her.
"Can't anybody help me out of it?" she said quietly.
"Who? How? ... Do you mean—"
"Yes, I mean it! I mean it! I—"
And suddenly she broke down, in a strange, stammering, tearless way, opening the dry flood-gates over which rattled an avalanche of words—bitter, breathless phrases rushing brokenly from lips that shrank as they formed them.
Plank sat inert, the corroding echo of the words clattering in his ears. And after a while he heard his own altered voice sounding persistently in repetition:
"Don't say those things, Leila; don't tell me such things."
"Why? Don't you care?"
"Yes, yes, I care; but I can't do anything! I have no business to hear—to see you this way."
"To whom can I speak, then, if I can not speak to you? To whom can I turn? Where am I to turn, in all the world?"
"I don't know," he said fearfully; "the only way is to go on."
"What else have I done? What else am I doing?" she cried. "Go on? Am I not trudging on and on through life, dragging the horror of it behind me through the mud, except when the horror drags me? To whom am I to turn—to other beasts like him?—sitting patiently around, grinning and slavering, awaiting their turn when the horror of it crushes me to the mud?"
She stretched out a rounded, quivering arm, and laid the small fingers of the left hand on its flawless contour. "Look!" she said, exasperated, "I am young yet; the horror has not yet corrupted the youth in me. I am fashioned for some reason, am I not?—for some purpose, some happiness. I am not bad; I am human. What poison has soaked into me can be eliminated. I tell you, no woman is capable of being so thoroughly poisoned that the antidote proves useless.
"But I tell you men, also, that unless she find that antidote she will surely reinfect herself. A man can not do what that man has done to me and expect me to recover unaided. People talk of me, and I have given them subjects enough! But—look at me! Straight between the eyes! Every law have I broken except that! Do you understand? That one, which you men consider yourselves exempt from, I have not broken—yet! Shall I speak plainer? It is the fashion to be crude. But—I can't be; I am unfashionable, you see."
She laughed, her haunted eyes fixed on his.
"Is there no chance for me? Because I drag his bedraggled name about with me is there no decent chance, no decent hope? Is there only indecency in prospect, if a man comes to care for a married woman? Can't a decent man love her at all? I—I think—"
Her hands, outstretched, trembled, then flew to her face; and she stood there swaying, until Plank perforce stepped to her side and steadied her against him.
So they remained for a while, until she looked up dazed, weary, ashamed, expecting nothing of him; and when it came, leaving her still incredulous, his arms around her, his tense, flushed face recoiling from their first kiss, she did not seem to comprehend.
"I can't turn on him," he stammered, "I—we are friends, you see. How can I love you, if that is so?"
"Could you love me?" she asked calmly.
"I—I don't know. I did love—I do care for—another woman. I can't marry her, though I am given to understand there is a chance. Perhaps it is partly ambition," he said honestly, "for I am quite sure she has never cared for me, never thought of me in that way. I think a man can't stand that long."
"No; only women can. Who is she?"
"You won't ask me, will you?"
"No. Are you sorry that I am in love with you?"
His arms unclasped her body, and he stepped back, facing her.
"Are you?" she asked violently.
"You speak like a man," she said tremulously. "Am I to be permitted to adore you in peace, then—decently, and in peace?"
"Don't speak that way, Leila. I—there is no woman, no friend, I care for as much as I do you. It is easy, I think, for a woman, like you, to make a man care for her. You will not do it, will you?"
"I will," she said softly.
"It's no use; I can't turn on him. I can't! He is my friend, you see."
"Let him remain so. I shall do what I can. Let him remain a monument to his fellow-beasts. What do I care? Do you think I desire to turn you into his image? Do you think I hope for your degradation and mine? Are you afraid I should not recognise love unaccompanied by the attendant beast? I—I don't know; you had better teach me, if I prove blind. If you can love me, do so in charity before I go blind forever."
She laid one hand on his arm, looked at him, then turned and passed slowly through the doorway.
"If you are going to sleep before we start you had better be about it!" she said, looking back at him from the stairs.
But he had no further need of sleep; and for a long while he stood at the windows watching the lamps of cabs and carriages sparkling through the leafless thickets of the park like winter fire-flies.
At one o'clock, hearing Agatha Caithness speak to Leila's maid, he left the window, and sitting down at the desk, telephoned to Desmond's; and he was informed that Mortimer, hard hit, had signified his intention of recouping at Burbank's. Then he managed to get Burbank's on the wire, and finally Mortimer himself, but was only cursed for his pains and cut off in the middle of his pleading.
So he wandered up-stairs into Mortimer's apartments, where he tubbed and dressed, and finally descended, to find Agatha Caithness alone in the library, spinning a roulette wheel and whistling an air from "La Bacchante."
"That's pretty," he said; "sing it."
"No; it's better off without the words; and so are you," added Agatha candidly, relinquishing the wheel and strolling with languid grace about the room, hands on her hips, timing her vagrant steps to the indolent, wicked air. And,
"'Je rougirais de men ivresse Si tu conservais ta raison!'"
she hummed deliberately, pivoting on her heels and advancing again toward Plank, her pretty, pale face delicate as an enamelled cameo under the flood of light from the crystal chandeliers.
"I understand that Mr. Mortimer is not coming with us," she said carelessly. "Are you going to dance with me, if I find nobody better?"
He expressed himself flattered, cautiously. He was one of many who never understood this tall, white, low-voiced girl, with eyes too pale for beauty, yet strangely alluring, too. Few men denied the indefinable enchantment of her; few men could meet her deep-lidded, transparent gaze unmoved. In the sensitive curve of her mouth there was a kind of sensuousness; in her low voice, in her pallor, in the slim grace of her a vague provocation that made men restless and women silently curious for something more definite on which to base their curiosity.
She was wearing, over the smooth, dead-white skin of her neck, a collar of superb diamonds and aquamarines—almost an effrontery, as the latter were even darker than her eyes; yet the strange and effective harmony was evident, and Plank spoke of the splendour of the gems.
She nodded indifferently, saying they were new, and that she had picked them up at Tiffany's; and he mentally sketched out the value of the diamonds, a trifle surprised, because Leila Mortimer had carefully informed him about the condition of the Caithness exchequer.
That youthful matron herself appeared in a few moments, very lustrous, very lovely in her fragrant, exotic brightness, and Plank for the first time thought that she was handsome—the vigorous, youthful incarnation of Life itself, in contrast to Agatha's almost deathly beauty. She greeted him not only without a trace of embarrassment, but with such a friendly, fresh, gay confidence that he scarcely recognised in her the dry-eyed, feverish woman of an hour ago, whose very lips shrank back, scorched by the torrent of her own invective.
And so they drove the three short blocks to the Page's in their hired livery; the street was inadequate for the crush of vehicles; and the glittering pressure within the house was outrageous; all of which confused Plank, who became easily confused by such things.
How they got in—how they managed to present themselves—who took Leila and Agatha from him—where they went—where he himself might be—he did not understand very clearly. The house was large, strange, full of strangers. He attempted to obtain his bearings by wandering about looking for a small rococo reception-room where he remembered he had once talked kennel talk with Marion Page, and had on another occasion perspired freely under the arrogant and strabismic glare of her mother. That good lady had really rather liked him; he never suspected it.
But he couldn't find the rococo room—or perhaps he didn't recognise it. So many people—so many, many people whom he did not know, whom he had never before laid eyes on—high-bred faces hard as diamonds; young, gay, laughing faces; brilliant eyes encountering his without a softening of recognition; clean-cut, attractive men in swarms, all animated, all amused, all at home among themselves and among the silken visions of loveliness passing and repassing, with here an extended gloved arm and the cordial greeting of camaraderie, there a quick smile, a swift turn in passing, a capricious bending forward for a whisper, a compliment, a jest—all this swept by him, around him, enveloping him with its brightness, its gaiety, its fragrance, and left him more absolutely alone than he had ever been in all his life.
He tried to find Leila, and gave it up. He saw Quarrier talking to Agatha, but the former saluted him so coldly that he turned away.
After a while he found Marion, but she hadn't a dance left for him; neither had Rena Bonnesdel, whom he encountered while she was adroitly avoiding one of the ever-faithful twins. The twin caught up with her in consequence, and she snubbed Plank for his share in the disaster, which depressed him, and he started for the smoking-room, wherever that haven might be found. He got into the ball-room, however, by mistake, and adorned the wall, during the cotillon, as closely as his girth permitted, until an old lady sent for him; and he went and talked about bishops for nearly an hour to her, until his condition bordered on frenzy, the old lady being deaf and peevish.
Later, Alderdene used him to get rid of an angular, old harridan who seemed to be one solid diamond-mine, and who drove him into a corner and talked indelicacies until Plank's broad face flamed like the setting sun. Then Captain Voucher unloaded a frightened debutante on him who tried to talk about horses and couldn't; and they hated each other for a while, until, looking around her in desperation, she found he had vanished—which was quick work for a man of his size.
Kathryn Tassel employed him for supper, and kept him busy while she herself was immersed in a dawning affair with Fleetwood. She did everything to him except to tip him; and her insolence was the last straw.
Then, unexpectedly in the throng, two wonderful sea-blue eyes encountered his, deepening to violet with pleasure, and the trailing sweetness of a voice he knew was repeating his name, and a slim, white-gloved hand lay in his own.
Her escort, Ferrall, nodded to him pleasantly. She leaned forward from Ferrall's arm, saying, under her breath, "I have saved a dance for you. Please ask me at once. Quick! do you want me?"
"I—I do," stammered Plank.
Ferrall, suspicious, stepped forward to exchange civilities, then turning to the girl beside him: "See here, Sylvia, you've dragged me all over this house on one pretext or another. Do you want any supper, or don't you? If you don't, it's our dance."
"No, I don't. No, it isn't. Kemp, you annoy me!"
"That's a nice thing to say! Is it your delicately inimitable way of giving me my conge?"
"Yes, thank you," nodded Miss Landis coolly; "you may go now."
"You're spoiled, that's what's the matter," retorted Ferrall wrathfully. "I thought I was to have this dance. You said—"
"I said 'perhaps,' because I didn't see Mr. Plank coming to claim it. Thank you, Kemp, for finding him."
Her nod and smile took the edge from her malice. Ferrall, who really adored dancing, glared about for anybody, and presently cornered the frightened and neglected debutante who had hated Plank.
Sylvia, standing beside Plank, looked up at him with her confident and friendly smile.
"You don't care to dance, do you? Would you mind if we sat out this dance?"
"If you'd rather," he said, so wistfully that she hesitated; then with a little shrug laid one hand on his arm, and they swung out across the floor together, into the scented whirl.
Plank, like many heavy men, danced beautifully; and Sylvia, who still loved dancing with all the ardour of a schoolgirl, permitted a moment or two of keen delight to sweep her dreamily from her purpose. But that purpose must have been a strong one, for she returned to it in a few minutes, and, looking up at Plank, said very gently that she cared to dance no more.
Her hand resting lightly on his arm, it did not seem possible that any pressure of hers was directing them to the conservatory; yet he did not know where he was going, and she was familiar with the house, and they soon entered the conservatory, where, in the shadow of various palms various youths looked up impatiently as they passed, and various maidens sat up very straight in their chairs.
Threading their dim way into the farther recesses they found seats among thickets of forced lilacs over-hung by early wistaria. A spring-like odour hung in the air; somewhere a tiny fountain grew musical in the semi-darkness.
"Marion told me you had been asked," she said. "We have been so friendly; you've always asked me to dance whenever we have met; so I thought I'd save you one. Are you flattered, Mr. Plank?"
He said he was, very pleasantly, perfectly undeceived, and convinced of her purpose—a purpose never even tacitly admitted between them; and the old loneliness came over him again—not resentment, for he was willing that she should use him. Why not? Others used him; everybody used him; and if they found no use for him they let him alone. Mortimer, Fleetwood, Belwether—all, all had something to exact from him. It was for that he was tolerated—he knew it; he had slowly and unwillingly learned it. His intrusion among these people, of whom he was not one, would be endured only while he might be turned to some account. The hospital used him, the clergy found plenty for him to do for them, the museum had room for other pictures of his. Who among them all had ever sought him without a motive? Who among them all had ever found unselfish pleasure in him? Not one.
Something in the dull sadness of his face, as he sat there, checked the first elaborately careless question her lips were already framing. Leaning a little nearer in the dim light she looked at him inquiringly and he returned her gaze in silence.
"What is it, Mr. Plank," she said; "is anything wrong?"
He knew that she did not mean to ask if anything was amiss with him. She did not care. Nobody cared. So, recognising his cue, he answered: "No, nothing is wrong that I have heard of."
"You wear a very solemn countenance."
"Gaiety affects me solemnly, sometimes. It is a reaction from frivolity. I suppose that I am over-enjoying life; that is all."
She laughed, using her fan, although the place was cool enough and they had not danced long. To and fro flitted the silken vanes of her fan, now closing impatiently, now opening again like the wings of a nervous moth in the moonlight.
He wished she would come to her point, but he dared not lead her to it too brusquely, because her purpose and her point were supposed to be absolutely hidden from his thick and credulous understanding. It had taken him some time to make this clear to himself; passing from suspicion, through chagrin and overwounded feeling, to dull certainty that she, too, was using him, harmlessly enough from her standpoint, but how bitterly from his, he alone could know.
The quickened flutter of her fan meant impatience to learn from him what she had come to him to learn, and then, satisfied, to leave him alone again amid the peopled solitude of clustered lights.
He wished she would speak; he was tired of the sadness of it all. Whenever in his isolation, in his utter destitution of friendship, he turned guilelessly to meet a new advance, always, sooner or later, the friendly mask was lifted enough for him to divine the cool, fixed gaze of self-interest inspecting him through the damask slits.
Sylvia was speaking now, and the plumy fan was under savant control, waving graceful accompaniment to her soft voice, punctuating her sentences at times, at times making an emphasis or outlining a gesture.
It was the familiar sequence; topics that led to themes which adroitly skirted the salient point; returned capriciously, just avoiding it—a subtly charming pattern of words which required so little in reply that his smile and nod were almost enough to keep her aria and his accompaniment afloat.
It began to fascinate him to watch the delicacy of her strategy, the coquetting with her purpose; her naive advance to the very edges of it, the airy retreat, the innocent detour, the elaborate and circuitous return. And at last she drifted into it so naturally that it seemed impossible that fatuous man could have the most primitive suspicion of her premeditation.
And Plank, now recognising his cue, answered her: "No, I have not heard that he is in town. I stopped to see him the other day, but nobody there knew how soon he intended to return from the country."
"I didn't know he had gone to the country," she said without apparent interest.
And Plank was either too kind to terminate the subject, or too anxious to serve his turn and release her; for he went on: "I thought I told you at Mrs. Ferrall's that Mr. Siward had gone to the country."
"Perhaps you did. No doubt I've forgotten."
"I'm quite sure I did, because I remember saying that he looked very ill, and you said, rather sharply, that he had no business to be ill. Do you remember?"
"Yes," she said slowly. "Is he better?"
"I hope so."
"You hope so?"—with the controlled emphasis of impatience.
"Yes. Don't you, Miss Landis? When I saw him at his home, he was lame—on crutches—and he looked rather ghastly; and all he said was that he expected to leave for the country. I asked him to shoot next year at Black Fells, and he seemed bothered about business, and said it might keep him from taking any vacation."
"He spoke about his business?"
"What is the trouble with his business? Is it anything about Amalgamated and Inter-County?"
"I think so."
"Is he worried?"
Plank said deliberately: "I should be, if my interests were locked up in Amalgamated Electric."
"Could you tell me why that would worry you?" she asked, smiling persuasively across at him.
"No," he said, "I can't tell you."
"Because I wouldn't understand?"
"Because I myself don't understand."
She thought awhile, brushing the rose velvet of her mouth with the fan's edge, then, looking up confidently:
"Mr. Siward is such a boy. I'm so glad he has you to advise him in such matters."
"What matters?" asked Plank bluntly.
"Why, in—in financial matters."
"But I don't advise him."
"Because he hasn't asked me to, Miss Landis."
"He ought to ask you. ... He must ask you. ... Don't wait for him, Mr. Plank. He is only a boy in such things."
And, as Plank was silent:
"You will, won't you?"
"Do what—make his business my business, without an invitation?" asked Plank, so quietly that she flushed with annoyance.
"If you pretend to be his friend is it not your duty to advise him?" she asked impatiently.
"No; that is for his business associates to do. Friendship comes to grief when it crosses the frontiers of business."
"That is a narrow view to take, Mr. Plank."
"Yes, straight and narrow. The boundaries of friendship are straight and narrow. It is best to keep to the trodden path; best not to walk on the grass or trample the flowers."
"I think you are sacrificing friendship for an epigram," she said, careless of the undertone of contempt in her voice.
"I have never sacrificed friendship." He turned, and looked at her pleasantly. "I never made an epigram consciously, and I have never required of a friend more than I had to offer in return. Have you?"
The flush of hot displeasure stained her cheeks.
"Are you really questioning me, Mr. Plank?"
"Yes. You have been questioning me rather seriously—have you not?"
"I did not comprehend your definition of friendship. I did not agree with it. I questioned it, not you! That is all."
Plank rested his head on one big hand and stared at the clusters of dim blossoms behind her; and after a while he said, as though thinking aloud:
"Many have taken my friendship for granted, and have never offered their own in return. I do not know about Mr. Siward. There is nothing I can do for him, nothing he can do for me. If there is to be friendship between us it will be disinterested; and I would rather have that than anything in the world, I think."
There was a pause; but when Sylvia would have broken it his gesture committed her to silence with the dignity one might use in checking a persistent child.
"You question my definition of friendship, Miss Landis. I should have let your question pass, however keenly it touched me, had it not also touched him. Now I am going to say some things which lie within the straight and narrow bounds I spoke of. I never knew a man I cared for as much as I care for Mr. Siward. I know why, too. He is disinterested. I do not believe he wastes very many thoughts on me. Perhaps he will. I want him to like me, if it's possible. But one thing you and I may be sure of: if he does not care to return the friendship I offer him he will never accept anything else from me, though he might give at my request; and that is the sort of a man he is; and that is why he is every inch a man; and so I like him, Miss Landis. Do you wonder?"
She did not reply.
"Do you wonder?" he repeated sharply.
"No," she said.
"Then—" He straightened up, and the silent significance of his waiting attitude was plain enough to her.
But she shook her head impatiently, saying: "I don't know whose dance it is, and I don't care. Please go on. It is—is pleasant. I like Mr. Siward; I like to hear men speak of him as you do. I like you for doing it. If you should ever come to care for my friendship that is the best passport to it—your loyalty to Mr. Siward."
"No man can truthfully speak otherwise than I have spoken," he said gravely.
"No, not of these things. But—you know w-what is—is usually said when his name comes up among men."
"Do you mean about his habits?" he asked simply.
"Yes. Is it not an outrage to drag in that sort of thing? It angers me intensely, Mr. Plank. Why do they do it? Is there a single one among them qualified to criticise Mr. Siward? And besides, it is not true any more! ... is it?—what was once said of him with—with some truth? Is it?"
The dull red blood mantled Plank's heavy visage. The silence grew grim as he did his slow, laborious thinking, the while his eyes, expressionless and almost opaque in the dim light, never left her's, until, under the unchanging, merciless inspection, the mask dropped for an instant from her anxious face, and he saw what he saw.
He was no fool. What he had come to believe she at last had only confirmed; and now the question became simple: was she worth enlightening? And by what title did she demand his confidence?
"You ask me if it is true any more. You mean about his habits. If I answer you it is because I cannot be indifferent to what concerns him. But before I answer I ask you this: Would your interest in his fortunes matter to him?"
She waited, head bent; then:
"I don't know, Mr. Plank," very low.
"Did your interest in his fortunes ever concern him?"
He looked at her sternly, his jaw squaring until his heavy under lip projected. "Within my definition of friendship, is he your friend?"
"You mean he—"
"No, I mean you! I can answer for him. How is it with you? Do you return what he gives—if there is really friendship between you? Or do you take what he offers, offering nothing in return?"
She had turned rather white under the direct impact of the questions. The jarring repetition of his voice itself was like the dull echo of distant blows. Yet it never occurred to her to resent it, nor his attitude, nor his self-assumed privilege. She did not care; she no longer cared what he said to her or thought about her; nor did she care that her mask had fallen at last. It was not what he was saying, but what her own heart repeated so heavily that drove the colour from her face. Not he, but she herself had become the pitiless attorney for the prosecution; not his voice, but the clamouring conscience within her demanded by what right she used the name of friendship to characterise the late relations between her and the man to whom she had denied herself.
Then a bitter impatience swept her, and a dawning fear, too; for she had set her foot on the fallen mask, and the impulse rendered her reckless.
"Why don't you speak?" she said. "Yes, I have a right to know. I care for him as much as you do. Why don't you answer me? I tell you I care for him!"
"Do you?" he said in a dull voice. "Then help me out, if you can, for I don't know what to do; and if I did, I haven't the authority of friendship as my warrant. He is in New York. He did go to the country; and, at his home, the servants suppose he is still away. But he isn't; he is here, alone, and sick—sick of his old sickness. I saw him, and"—Plank rested his head on his hand, dropping his eyes—"and he didn't know me. I—I do not think he will remember that he met me, or that I spoke. And—I could do nothing, absolutely nothing. And I don't know where he is. He will go home after a while. I call—every day—to see—see what can be done. But if he were there I would not know what to do. When he does go home I won't know what to say—what to try to do. ... And that is an answer to your question, Miss Landis. I give it, because you say you care for him as I do. Will you advise me what to do?—you, who are more entitled than I am to know the truth, because he has given you the friendship which he has as yet not accorded to me."
But Sylvia, dry-eyed, dry-lipped, could find no voice to answer; and after a little while they rose and moved through the fragrant gloom toward the sparkling lights beyond.
Her voice came back as they entered the brilliant rooms: "I should like to find Grace Ferrall," she said very distinctly. "Please keep the others off, Mr. Plank."
Her small hand on his arm lay with a weight out of all proportion to its size. Fair head averted, she no longer guided him with that impalpable control; it was he who had become the pilot now, and he steered his own way through the billowy ocean of silk and lace, master of the course he had set, heavily bland to the interrupter and the importunate from whom she turned a deaf ear and dumb lips, and lowered eyes that saw nothing.
Fleetwood had missed his dance with her, but she scarcely heard his eager complaints. Quarrier, coldly inquiring, confronted them; was passed almost without recognition, and left behind, motionless, looking after them out of his narrowing, black-fringed eyes of a woman.
Then Ferrall came, and hearing his voice, she raised her colourless face.
"Will you take me home with you, Kemp, when you take Grace?" she asked.
"Of course. I don't know where Grace is. Are you in a hurry to go? It's only four o'clock."
They were at the entrance to the supper-room. Plank drew up a chair for her, and she sank down, dropping her elbows on the small table, and resting her face between her fingers.
"Pegged out, Sylvia?" exclaimed Ferrall incredulously. "You? What's the younger set coming to?" and he motioned a servant to fill her glass. But she pushed it aside with a shiver, and gave Plank a strange look which he scarcely understood at the moment.
"More caprices; all sorts of 'em on the programme," muttered Ferrall, looking down at her from where he stood beside Plank. "O tempora! O Sylvia! ... Plank, would you mind hunting up my wife? I'll stay and see that this infant doesn't fall asleep."
But Sylvia shook her head, saying: "Please go, Kemp. I'm a little tired, that's all. When Grace is ready, I'll leave with her." And at her gesture Plank seated himself, while Ferrall, shrugging his square shoulders, sauntered off in quest of his wife, stopping a moment at a neighbouring table to speak to Agatha Caithness, who sat there with Captain Voucher, the gemmed collar on her slender throat a pale blaze of splendour.
Plank was hungry, and he said so in his direct fashion. Sylvia nodded, and exchanged a smile with Agatha, who turned at the sound of Plank's voice. For a while, as he ate and drank largely, she made the effort to keep up a desultory conversation, particularly when anybody to whom she owed an explanation hove darkly in sight on the horizon. But Plank's appetite was in proportion to the generous lines on which nature had fashioned him, and she paid less and less attention to convention and a trifle more to the beauty of Agatha's jewels, until the silence at the small table in the corner remained unbroken except by the faint tinkle of silver and crystal and the bubbling hiss of a glass refilled.
Major Belwether, his white, fluffy, chop-whiskers brushed rabbit fashion, peeped in at the door, started to tiptoe out again, caught sight of them, and came trotting back, beaming rosy effusion. He leaned roguishly over the table, his moist eyes a-twinkle with suppressed mirth; then, bestowing a sprightly glance on Plank, which said very plainly, "I'm up to one of my irrepressible jokes again!" he held up a smooth, white, and over-manicured forefinger:
"I was in Tiffany's yesterday," he said, "and I saw a young man in there who didn't see me, and I peeped over his shoulder, and what do you think he was doing?"
She lifted her eyes a little wearily:
"I don't know," she said.
"I do," he chuckled. "He was choosing a collar of blue diamonds and aqua marines!—Te-he!—probably to wear himself!—Te-he! Or perhaps he was going to be married!—He-he-he!—next winter—ahem!—next November—Ha-ha! I don't know, I'm sure, what he meant to do with that collar. I only—"
Something in Sylvia's eyes stopped him, and, following their direction, he turned around to find Quarrier standing at his elbow, icy and expressionless.
"Oh," said the aged jester, a little disconcerted, "I'm caught talking out in church, I see! It was only a harmless little fun, Howard."
"Do you mean you saw me?" asked Quarrier, pale as a sheet. "You are in error. I have not been in Tiffany's in months."
Belwether, crestfallen under the white menace of Quarrier's face, nodded, and essayed a chuckle without success.
Sylvia, at first listless and uninterested, looked inquiringly from the major to Quarrier, surprised at the suppressed feeling exhibited over so trivial a gaucherie. If Quarrier had chosen a collar like Agatha's for her, what of it? But as he had not, on his own statement, what did it matter? Why should he look that way at the foolish major, to whose garrulous gossip he was accustomed, and whose inability to refrain from prying was notorious enough.
Turning disdainfully, she caught a glimpse of Plank's shocked and altered face. It relapsed instantly into the usual inert expression; and a queer, uncomfortable perplexity began to invade her. What had happened to stir up these three men? Of what importance was an indiscretion of an old gentleman whose fatuous vanity and consequent blunders everybody was familiar with? And, after all, Howard had not bought anything at Tiffany's; he said so himself. ... But it was evident that Agatha had chanced on the collar that Belwether thought he saw somebody else examining.
She turned, and looked at the dead-white neck of the girl. The collar was wonderful—a miracle of pale fire. And Sylvia, musing, let her thoughts run on, dreamy eyes brooding. She was glad that Agatha's means permitted her now to have such things. It had been understood, for some years, that the Caithness fortune was in rather an alarming condition. Howard had been able recently to do a favour or two for old Peter Caithness. She had heard the major bragging about it. Evidently Mr. Caithness must have improved the chance, if he was able to present such gems to his daughter. And now somebody would marry her; perhaps Captain Voucher; perhaps even Alderdene; perhaps, as rumour had it now and then, Plank might venture into the arena. ... Poor Plank! More of a man than people understood. She understood. She—
And her thoughts swung back like the returning tide to Siward, and her heart began heavily again, and the slightly faint sensation returned. She passed her ungloved, unsteady fingers across her eyelids and forehead, looking up and around. The major and Howard had disappeared; Plank, beside her, sat staring stupidly into his empty wine-glass.
"Isn't Mrs. Ferrall coming?" she said wearily.
Plank gathered his cumbersome bulk and stood up, trying to see through the entrance into the ball-room. After a moment he said: "They're in there, talking to Marion. It's a good chance to make our adieux."
As they passed out of the supper-room Sylvia paused behind Agatha's chair and bent over her. "The collar is beautiful," she said, "and so are you, Agatha"; and with a little impulsive caress for the jewels she passed on, unconscious of the delicate flush that spread from Agatha's shoulders to her hair. And Agatha, turning, encountered only the stupid gaze of Plank, moving ponderously past on Sylvia's heels.
"If you'll find Leila, I'm ready at any time," she said carelessly, and resumed her tete-a-tete with Voucher, who had plainly been annoyed at the interruption.
Plank went on, a new trouble dawning on his thickening mental horizon. He had completely forgotten Leila. Even with all the demands made upon him; even with all the time he had given to those whose use of him he understood, how could he have forgotten Leila and the recent scene between them, and the new attitude and new relations with her that he must so carefully consider and ponder over before he presented himself at the house of Mortimer again!
Ferrall and his wife and Sylvia were making their adieux to Marion and her mother when he came up; and he, too, took that opportunity.
Later, on his quest for Leila, Sylvia, passing through the great hall, shrouded in silk and ermine, turned to offer him her hand, saying in a low voice: "I am at home to you; do you understand? Always," she added nervously.
He looked after her with an unconscious sigh, unaware that anything in himself had claimed her respect. And after a moment he swung on his broad heels to continue his search for Mrs. Mortimer.
CHAPTER X THE SEAMY SIDE
About four o'clock on the following afternoon Mrs. Mortimer's maid, who had almost finished drying and dressing her mistress' hair, was called to the door by a persistent knocking, which at first she had been bidden to disregard.
It was Mortimer's man, desiring to know whether Mrs. Mortimer could receive Mr. Mortimer at once on matters of importance.
"No," said Leila petulantly. "Tell Mullins to say that I can not see anybody," and catching a glimpse of the shadowy Mullins dodging about the dusky corridor: "What is the matter? Is Mr. Mortimer ill?"
But Mullins could not say what the matter might be, and he went away, only to return in a few moments bearing a scratchy note from his master, badly blotted and still wet; and Leila, with a shrug of resignation, took the blotched scrawl daintily between thumb and forefinger and unfolded it. Behind her, the maid, twisting up the masses of dark, fragrant hair, read the note very easily over her mistress' shoulder. It ran, without preliminaries:
"I'm going to talk to you, whether you like it or not. Do you understand that? If you want to know what's the matter with me you'll find out fast enough. Fire that French girl out before I arrive."
She closed the note thoughtfully, folding and double-folding it into a thick wad. The ink had come off, discolouring her finger-tips; she dropped the soiled paper on the floor, and held out her hands, plump fingers spread. And when the maid had finished removing the stains and had repolished the pretty hands, her mistress sipped her chocolate thoughtfully, nibbled a bit of dry toast, then motioned the maid to take the tray and her departure, leaving her the cup.
A few minutes later Mortimer came in, stood a moment blinking around the room, then dropped into a seat, sullen, inert, the folds of his chin crowded out on his collar, his heavy abdomen cradled on his short, thick legs. He had been freshly shaved; linen and clothing were spotless, yet the man looked unclean.
Save for the network of purple veins in his face, there was no colour there, none in his lips; even his flabby hands were the hue of clay.