"Father"—Dorothea's voice came again, this time with a distinct note of anxiety—"father, you don't look well. Your eyes are bloodshot."
"I'm quite well, thank you," was the curt reply, this time perfectly audible to Diane's ears. "Simmons, you fool, don't leave those steamer rugs down here!"
Diane had never heard him speak so to a servant, and she knew that something had gone amiss. Perhaps he was annoyed that she had not come to greet him. Perhaps it was one of the duties of her position to receive him at the door. She had known him to give way occasionally to bursts of anger, in which a word from herself had soothed him. Leaving her place in the corner, she was hurrying to the hall, when again Dorothea's voice arrested her.
"Aren't you going in to see Diane?"
From where she stood, just within the door, Diane knew that he had flung the word over his shoulder as he went up the hail toward the stairway. He was going to his room without speaking to her. For an instant she stood still from consternation, but it was in emergencies like this that her spirit rose. Without further hesitation she passed out into the hall, just as Derek Pruyn turned at the bend in the staircase, on his way upward. For a brief second, as, standing below, she lifted her eyes to his in questioning, their glances met; but, on his part, it was without recognition.
Half an hour after Derek's return Diane was summoned into his presence in the little room where she had arranged his letters in the afternoon. The door was standing open, and she went in slowly, her head high. She was dressed as when she had parted from him; and the whiteness of her neck and shoulders, free from jewels, collar, or chain, was the more brilliant from contrast with the severe line of black. In her pale face all expression was focussed into the pained inquiry of her eyes.
She entered so silently that he did not hear her, or lift his head from the hand on which it leaned wearily, as he rested his elbow on the desk. Pausing in the middle of the room, she had time to notice that he had opened a few of the letters lying before him, but had thrust them impatiently from him, evidently unread. The cablegram she had laid where his glance would immediately fall upon it was between his fingers, but the envelope was unbroken. His attitude was so much that of a man tired and dispirited that her heart went out to him.
It was perhaps the involuntary sigh that broke from her lips that caused him to look up. When he did so his eyes fixed themselves on her with a dazed stare, as though he wondered whence and for what she had come. In the eager attention with which she regarded him she noted subconsciously that he was unshaven and ill-kempt, and that his eyes, as Dorothea had said, were bloodshot.
He dragged himself to his feet, and with forced courtesy asked her to sit down. She allowed herself to sink mechanically to the edge of the divan where, only an hour ago, Dorothea and she had exchanged happy confidences. In the minutes of silence that followed, when he had resumed his own seat, she felt as if she were in some queer nightmare, where nothing could be explained.
"Did you ever hear of a young French explorer named Persigny?"
She nodded, without speaking. The irrelevancy of the question was in keeping with the odd horror of the dream.
"Did you know he was exploring in Brazil?"
"I think I may have heard so."
"He came up from Rio with me—on the same steamer."
She listened, with eyes fixed fast upon him, wondering what he meant.
"He wasn't alone," Derek went on, speaking in a lifeless monotone. "There were others of his party with him. There was one, especially, with whom I became on terms that were almost—intimate."
For the first time it occurred to her that he was trying to see through her thoughts; but in her bewilderment at his words, she met his gaze steadily.
"There was something about this young man that attracted me," he continued, in the same dull voice, "and I listened to his troubles. In particular he told me why he had fled from Paris to hide himself in the forests of the Amazon. Shall I tell you the reason?"
"If you like."
"It was an old story; in some respects a vulgar story. He had got into the toils of an unscrupulous woman."
Her sudden perception of what he was leading up to forced her into a little involuntary movement.
"I see you understand," he said, quickly, with the glimmer of a smile. "I thought you would; for, as a matter of fact, much of what he said brought back our conversation on the night before I sailed. There was not a little in it that was mystery to me at the time, which he—illumined."
She sat with lips parted and bosom heaving, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. If she was conscious of any sensation, it was of terrible curiosity to know how the tale was to be turned.
"What you said to me then," he pursued, in the same cruel quietness of tone—"what you said to me then, as to the influence of a bad woman in a man's life, seemed to me—what shall I say?—not precisely exaggerated, but somewhat overwrought. I didn't know it could be so true to the actual facts of experience. My friend's words at times were almost an echo of your own. He had been the lover of a woman—"
Once more she started, raising her hand in silent protest against the words.
"He—had—been—the—lover—of—a—woman," he repeated, with slow emphasis, "who, after having ruined her husband's life, was preparing to ruin his. She would have ruined his as she had ruined the lives of other men before him. When he endeavored to elude her, she set on her husband to call him out. There was a duel—or the semblance of a duel. My friend fired into the air. The poor devil of a husband shot himself. It appears that he had every reason for doing so."
"My husband didn't shoot himself."
"Your husband?" he asked, with an ironical lifting of the eyebrows. "What makes you think I've been speaking of him?"
"The man whom you call your friend is the Marquis de Bienville—"
"He didn't mention your name; but I see you're able to tell me his. It's what I was afraid of. I've repeated only a very little of what he said; but since you recognize its truth already, it isn't necessary to continue."
She passed her hand over her forehead, with the gesture of one trying desperately to see aright.
"I must ask you to tell me plainly: Was I the—the unscrupulous woman into whose toils Monsieur de Bienville fell?"
"He didn't say so."
"Then why—why have you spoken of this to me?"
"Because what I heard from him fitted in so exactly with what I had heard from you that it made an entire story. It was like the two parts of a puzzle. The one without the other is incomplete and perplexing; but having both, you can see the perfect whole. I will be frank enough to tell you that many of your sayings were dark to me until I had his to lend them light."
"Would it be of any use to say that what he told you wasn't true?"
"I don't know that it would be of any use to say it, unless it could be proved."
"Did you ask him to give you proof?"
"No; because you had already provided me with that.
"Surely you must remember telling me that you had ruined one rich man, and might ruin another: that no man could cope with a woman such as you were two or three years ago. There were these things—there were other things—many other things—"
"And that's what you understood from them?"
"I understood nothing whatever. If I thought of such words at all, it was to attribute them to a morbid sensibility. It wasn't until I got their interpretation that they came back to me. It wasn't until I had met some one who knew you before I did, and better than I did—"
"It wasn't till then that you thought of me what no man ever thinks of a woman until he is ready to trample her in the mire, under his feet."
Straightening himself up, as a man who defends his position, he took an argumentative tone.
"What motive would Bienville have for lying?—to a stranger?—and about a stranger? There are moments when you know a man is telling you the truth, as if he were in the confessional. He wasn't speaking of you, but of himself. Not only were no names mentioned, but he had no reason to think I had ever heard of the woman he talked to me about, nor has he yet. If it hadn't been for your own half-hints, your own half-confessions, I doubt if I should ever have had more than a suspicion of—of—the truth."
"I could have explained everything," she said, with a break in her voice. "I've never concealed from you the fact that there was a time in my life when I was very indiscreet. I lived like the women of fashion around me. I was inconsiderate of other people. I did things that were wrong. But before I knew you I had repented of them."
"Quite so; but, unfortunately, what is conventionally known as a repentant woman is not the sort of person I would have chosen to be near my child."
She rose, wearily, dragging herself toward the desk. "Now that I've heard your opinion of me," she said, quietly, "I suppose you have no reason for detaining me any longer."
"Are you going away?" he asked, sharply.
"What else is there for me to do?"
"Have you nothing to say in your own defence?"
"You haven't asked me to say anything. You've tried and condemned me unheard. Since you adopt that method of justice I'm forced to abide by it. I'm not like a person who has rights or who can claim protection from any outside authority. You're not only judge and jury to me, but my final court of appeal. I must take what you mete out to me—and bear it."
"I don't want to be hard on you," he groaned.
"No; I can believe that. I dare say the situation is just as cruel for you as for me. When circumstances become so entangled that you can't explain them, everybody has to suffer."
"I'm glad you can do me that justice. My life for the past week—ever since Bienville began to talk to me—has been hell."
"I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry to have brought it on you. I'm afraid, too, that the future may be harder for you still; for no man can do a woman such wrong as you're doing me, and not pay for it."
"Wrong? Can you honestly say I'm doing you wrong, Diane? Isn't it true—you'll pardon me if I put my questions bluntly, the circumstances don't permit of sparing either your feelings or my own—isn't it true that for two or three years before your husband's death your name in Paris was nothing short of a byword?"
"I'm not sure of what you mean by a byword. I acknowledge that I braved public opinion, and that much ill was said of me—often, more than I deserved."
"Isn't it true that your name was connected with that of a man called Lalanne, and that he was killed in a duel on your account?"
"It's true that Monsieur Lalanne made love to me; it's also true that he was killed in a duel; but it's not true that it was on my account. The instance is an excellent illustration of the degree to which the true and the false are mixed in Parisian gossip—perhaps in all gossip—and a woman's reputation blasted. Unhappily for me, I felt myself young and strong enough to be indifferent to reputation. I treated it with the neglect one often bestows upon one's health—not thinking that there would come a day of reckoning."
"If there had been only one such case it might have been allowed to pass; but what do you say of De Cretteville? what of De Melcourt? what of Lord Wendover?"
"I have nothing to say but this: that for such scandal I've a rule, from which I have no intention of departing even now: I neither tell it, nor listen to it, nor contradict it. If it pleases the Marquis de Bienville to repeat it, and you to give it credence, I can't stoop to correct it, even in my own defence."
"God knows I'm not delving into scandal, Diane. If I bring up these miserable names, it's only that you may have the opportunity to right yourself."
"It's an opportunity impossible for me to use. If I were to attempt to unravel the strand of truth from the web of falsehood, it would end in your condemning me the more. The canons of conduct in France are so different from those in America that what is permissible in one country is heinous in the other. In the same way that your young girls shock our conceptions of propriety, our married women shock yours. It would be useless to defend myself in your eyes, because I should be appealing to a standard to which I was never taught to conform."
"I thought I had taken that into consideration. I'm not entirely ignorant of the conditions under which you've lived, and I meant to have allowed for them. But isn't it true that you exceeded the very wide latitude recognized by public opinion, even in a place like Paris?"
"I didn't take public opinion into account. I was reckless of its injustice, as I was careless of its applause. I see now, however, that indifference to either brings its punishment."
"Those are abstract ideas, and I'm trying to deal with concrete facts. Isn't it true that George Eveleth was a rich man when you married him, and that your extravagance ruined him?"
"It helped to ruin him. I plead guilty to that. I had no knowledge of the value of money; but I don't offer that as an excuse."
"Isn't it true that the Marquis de Bienville was your lover, and that you were thinking of deserting your husband to go with him?"
"It's true that the Marquis de Bienville asked me to do so, and that I was rash enough to turn him into ridicule. I shouldn't have done it if I had known that there was a man in the world capable of taking such a revenge upon a woman as he took on me."
"The revenge you're executing at this minute. He said—what very few men, thank God, will say of a woman, even when it's true, and what it takes a dastard to say when it's not true. Even in the case of the fallen woman there's a chivalrous human pity that protects her; while there's something more than that due to the most foolish of our sex who has not fallen. I took it for granted that, at the worst, I could count on that, until I met your friend. His cup of vengeance will be full when he learns that he has given you the power to insult me."
"I don't mean to insult you," he said, in a dogged voice, "but I mean, if possible, to know the truth."
"I'm not concealing it. I'm ready to tell you anything."
"Then, tell me this: isn't it the case that when George Eveleth discovered your relations with Bienville, he challenged him?"
"It's the case that he challenged him, not because of what he discovered, but of what Monsieur de Bienville said."
"At their encounter, didn't Bienville fire into the air—?"
"I've never heard so."
"And didn't George Eveleth fall from a self-inflicted shot?"
"No. He died at the hand of the Marquis de Bienville."
"So you told me once before, though you didn't tell me the man's name. But, Diane, aren't you convinced in your heart that George Eveleth knew that which made his life no longer worth the living?"
"Do you mean that he knew something—about me?"
"That's the most cruel charge Monsieur de Bienville has invented yet."
"Suppose he didn't invent it? Suppose it was a fact?"
"Have you any purpose in subjecting me to this needless torture?"
"I have a purpose, and I'm sorry if it involves torture; but I assure you it isn't needless. I must get to the bottom of this thing. I've asked you to marry me; and I must know if my future wife—"
"But I'm not—your future wife."
"That remains to be seen. I can come to no decision—"
"But I can."
"That must wait. The point before us is this: Did, or did not, George Eveleth kill himself?"
"He did not."
"You must understand that it would prove nothing if he did."
"It would prove, or go far to prove, what you said just now—that I had made his life not worth the living."
"His money troubles may have counted for something in that. What it would do is this: it would help to corroborate Bienville's word against—yours."
"Fortunately there are means of proving that I'm right. I can't tell you exactly what they are; but I know that, in France, when people die the registers tell just what they died of."
"I've already sent for the necessary information. I've done even more than that. I couldn't wait for the slow process of the mails. I cabled this morning to Grimston, one of my Paris partners, to wire me the cause of George Eveleth's death, as officially registered. This is his reply."
He held up the envelope Diane had placed on the desk earlier in the evening.
"Why don't you open it?" she asked, in a whisper of suspense.
"I've been afraid to. I've been afraid that it would prove him right in the one detail in which I'm able to put his word to the test. I've been hoping against hope that you would clear yourself; but if this is in his favor—"
"Open it," she pleaded.
With the silver dagger she had laid ready to his hand he ripped up the envelope, and drew out the paper.
"Read it," he said, passing it to her, without unfolding it.
Though it contained but one word, Diane took a long time to decipher it. For minutes she stared at it, as though the power of comprehension had forsaken her. Again and again she lifted her eyes to his, in sheer bewilderment, only to drop them then once more on the all but blank sheet in her hand. At last it seemed as if her fingers had no more strength to hold it, and she let it flutter to the floor.
"He was right?"
The question came in a hoarse undertone, but Diane had no voice in which to reply. She could only nod her head in dumb assent.
It grew late, and Derek Pruyn still sat in the position in which Diane had left him. His hands rested clinched on the desk before him, while his eyes stared vacantly at the cluster of electric lights overhead. He was living through the conversations with Bienville on shipboard. He began with the first time he had noticed the tall, brown-eyed, black-bearded young Frenchman on the day when they sailed out of the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. He passed on to their first interchange of casual remarks, leaning together over the deck-rail, and watching the lights of Para recede into the darkness. It was in the hot, still evenings in the Caribbean Sea that, smoking in neighboring deck-chairs, they had first drifted into intimate talk, and the young man had begun to unburden himself. They had been distinctly interesting to Derek, these glimpses of a joyous, idle, light-o'-love life, with a tragic element never very far below its surface, so different from his own gray career of business. They not only beguiled the tedious nights, but they opened up vistas of romance to an imagination growing dull before its time, in the seriousness of large practical affairs. In proportion as the young Frenchman showed himself willing to narrate, Derek became a sympathetic listener. As Bienville told of his pursuit, now of this fair face, and now of that, Derek received the impression of a chase, in which the hunted engages not of necessity, but, like Atalanta, in sheer glee of excitement. Like Atalanta, too, she was apt to over-estimate her speed, and to end in being caught.
It was not till after he had recounted a number of petites histoires, more or less amusing, that Bienville came to what he called "l'affaire la plus serieuse de ma vie," while Derek drank in the tale with all the avidity the jealous heart brings to the augmentation of its pain. To the idealizing purity of his conception of Diane any earthly failing on her part became the extremity of sin. He had placed her so high that when she fell it was to no middle flight of guilt; as to the fallen angel, there was no choice for her, in his estimation, between heaven and the nether hell.
Outwardly he was an ordinary passenger, smoking quietly in a deck-chair, in order to pass the time between dinner and the hour for "turning in." His voice, as he plied Bienville with questions, betrayed his emotions no more than the darkened surface of the sea gave evidence of the raging life within its depths. To Bienville himself, during these idle, balmy nights, there was a threefold inspiration, which in no case called for strict exactitude of detail. There was, first, the pleasure of talking about himself; there was, next, the desire to give his career the advantage of a romantic light; and there was, thirdly, the story-teller's natural instinct to hold his hearer spellbound. The little more or the little less could not matter to a man whom he didn't know, in talking about a woman whose name he hadn't given; while, on the other hand, there was the satisfaction, to which the Latin is so sensitive, of showing himself a lion among ladies.
Moreover, he had boasted of his achievements so often that he had come to believe in them long before giving Derek the detailed account of his victory on the gleaming Caribbean seas. On his part, Derek had found no difficulty in crediting that which was related with apparent fidelity to fact, and which filled up, in so remarkable a manner, the empty spaces between the mysterious, broken hints Diane had at various times given him of her own inner life. The one story helped to tell the other as accurately as the fragments of an ancient stele, when put together, make up the whole inscription. The very independence of the sources from which he drew his knowledge negatived the possibility of doubt. There was but one way in which Diane could have put herself right with him: she could have swept the charge aside, with a serene contemptuousness of denial. Had she done so, her assertion would have found his own eagerness to believe in her ready to meet it half-way. As it was, alas! her admissions had been damning. Where she acknowledged the smoke, there surely must have been the fire! Where she owned to so much culpability, there surely must have been the entire measure of guilt!
For the time being, he forgot Bienville, in order to review the conversation of the last half-hour. Diane had not carried herself like a woman who had nothing with which to reproach herself; and that a woman should be obliged to reproach herself at all was a humiliation to her womanhood. In the midst of this gross world, where the man's soul naturally became stained and coarsened, hers should retain the celestial beauty with which it came forth from God. That, in his opinion, was her duty; that was her instinct; that was the object with which she had been placed on earth. A woman who was no better than a man was an error on the part of nature; and Diane—oh, the pity of it!—had put herself down on the man's level with a naivete which showed her unconscious of ever having been higher up. She had confessed to weaknesses, as though she were of no finer clay than himself, and spoke of being penitent, when the tragedy lay in the fact that a woman should have anything to repent of.
The minutes went by, but he sat rigid, with hands clinched before him, and eyes fixed in a kind of hypnotic stare on the cluster of lights, taking no account of time or place. Throughout the house there was the stillness of midnight, broken only by the rumble of a carriage or the clatter of a motor in the street. The silence was the more ghostly owing to the circumstance that throughout the empty rooms lights were still flaring uselessly, welcoming his return. Presently there came a sound—faint, soft, swift, like the rustle of wings, or a weird spirit footfall. Though it was scarcely audible, it was certain that something was astir.
With a start Derek came back from the contemplation of his intolerable pain to the world of common happenings. He must see what could be moving at this unaccustomed hour; but he had barely risen in his place when he was disturbed by still another sound, this time louder and heavier, and characterized by a certain brusque finality. It was the closing of a door; it was the closing of the large, ponderous street-door. Some one had left the house.
In a dozen strides he was out in the hail and on the stairway. There, on the landing, where an hour or two ago he had turned to look down upon Diane, stood Dorothea in her night-dress—a little white figure, scared and trembling.
"Oh, father, Diane has gone away!"
For some seconds he stared at her blankly, like a man who puzzles over something in a strange language. When he spoke, at last, his voice came with a forced harshness, from which the girl shrank back, more terrified than before:
"She was quite right to go. You run back to bed."
From the shelter of the little French hostelry in University Place, Diane wrote, on the following morning, to Miss Lucilla van Tromp, telling her as briefly and discreetly as possible what had occurred. While withholding names and suppressing the detail which dealt with the manner of her husband's death, she spoke with her characteristic frankness, stating her case plainly. Though she denied the main charge, she repeated the admissions Derek had found so fatal, and accepted her share of all responsibility.
"Mr. Pruyn is not to blame," she wrote. "From many points of view he is as much the victim of circumstances as I am. I have to acknowledge myself in fault; and yet, if I were more so, my problem would be easier to solve. There are conditions in which it is scarcely less difficult to discern the false from the true than it is to separate the foul current from the pure, after their streams have run together; and I cannot reproach Mr. Pruyn if, looking only on the mingled tides, he does not see that they flow from dissimilar sources. Though I left his house abruptly, it was not because he drove me forth; it was rather because I feel that, until I have regained some measure of his respect, I cannot be worthy in his eyes—nor in my own—to be under one roof with his daughter."
* * * * *
To Miss Lucilla, in her ignorance of the world, it seemed, as she read on, as if the foundations of the great deep had been broken up and the windows of heaven opened. That such things happened in romances, she had read; that they were not unknown in real life, even in New York, she had heard it whispered; but that they should crop up in her own immediate circle was not less wonderful than if the night-blooming cereus had suddenly burst into flower in her strip of garden. Miss Lucilla owned to being shocked, to being grieved, to being puzzled, to being stunned; but she could not deny the thrill of excitement at being caught up into the whirl of a real love-affair.
When the first of the morning's duties in the sickroom were over she waylaid Mrs. Eveleth in a convenient spot and told her tale. She did not read the letter aloud, finding its phraseology at times too blunt; but, with those softening circumlocutions of which good women have the secret, she conveyed the facts. There was but one short passage which she quoted just as Diane had written it:
"'I am sure my mother-in-law will stand by me, and bear me out. She alone knows the sort of life I led with her son, and I am convinced that she will see justice done me.'"
Mrs. Eveleth listened silently, with the still look of pain that belongs to those growing old in the expectation of misfortune.
"I've been afraid something would happen," was her only comment.
"But surely, dear Mrs. Eveleth, you don't think any of it can be true!"
The elder woman began moving toward the door.
"So many things have been true, dear, that I hoped were not!"
This answer, given from the threshold, left Miss Lucilla not more aghast than disappointed. It brought into the romance features which no single woman can afford to contemplate. She would have entered into the affairs of a wronged heroine with enthusiastic interest; but what was to be done with those of a possibly guilty one? She was so ready for the unexpected that as she stood at a back window, looking into the garden, it was almost a surprise not to find the night-blooming cereus really lifting its exotic head among the stout spring shoots of the peonies. With the vague feeling that the Park might prove more fruitful ground for the phenomenon, she moved to a front window, where she was not long unrewarded. If it was not the night-blooming cereus that drove up in the handsome, open automobile, turning into the Park, it was something equally portentous; for Mrs. Bayford had already played a part in Diane's drama, and was now, presumably, about to enter on the scene again. Miss Lucilla drew back, so as to be out of sight, while keeping her visitors in view. For a minute she hoped that Marion Grimston herself might be minded to make her a call, for she liked the handsome girl, whose outspoken protests against the shams of her life agreed with her own more gentle horror of pretension. Marion, wreathed in veils, was, however, at the steering-wheel, and, as she guided the huge machine to the curbstone, showed no symptoms of wishing to alight. Beside her was Reggie Bradford, a large, fat youth, whose big, good-natured laugh almost called back echoes from the surrounding houses. As the car stopped he lumbered down from his perch, and helped Mrs. Bayford to descend. When he had clambered back to his place again the great vehicle rolled on. It was plain now to Miss Lucilla that a new act of the piece was about to begin, and she hurried back to the library in order to be in her place before the rising of the curtain. For Miss Lucilla's callers there was always an immediate subject of conversation which had to be exhausted before any other topic could be touched upon; and Mrs. Bayford tackled it at once, asking the questions and answering them herself, so as to get it out of the way.
"Well, how is Regina? Very much the same, of course. I don't suppose you'll see any change in her now, until it's for the worse. Poor thing! one could almost wish, in her own interests, that our Heavenly Father would think fit to take her to Himself. Now, I want to talk to you about something serious."
Mrs. Bayford made herself comfortable in a deep, low chair, with her feet on a footstool.
"I suppose you've never guessed," she asked, at last, "why Marion has been with me all this time?"
"I did guess," Miss Lucilla admitted, with a faint blush, "but I don't know that I guessed right."
"I expect you did. No one could see as much of her as you've done without knowing she had a love-affair."
"That's what I thought."
"It's been a great trial," Mrs. Bayford sighed, "and it isn't over yet. In fact, I don't know but what it's only just beginning."
"Oh yes; very much so, and is so still. It wasn't that. He was all that any one could wish—old family, position, title, good looks, everything."
"But if Marion liked him, and he liked her—?"
"I could explain it to you better if you knew more about men."
"I do know a—a little," Miss Lucilla ventured to assert, shyly.
"There is a case in which a little is not enough. You've got to understand a man's capacity for loving one woman and being fascinated by another. I think they call it double consciousness."
"I don't think it's very honorable," Miss Lucilla declared, in disapproval.
"A man doesn't stop to think of honor, my dear, when he's in a grand passion. Bienville has honor written in his very countenance, but this was an occasion when he couldn't get it into play. It was perfectly tragic. He had already spoken to Robert Grimston in the manliest way—told all about himself—found out how much Marion would have as her dot—and got permission to pay her his addresses—when all came to nothing because of another woman."
With this as an introduction it was natural that Mrs. Bayford should go on to repeat the oft-told tale in its entirety, lending it a light that no one had given to it yet. With the information she already possessed from Diane's letter it was impossible for Lucilla not to recognize all the characters as readily as Derek Pruyn had done, while she had the advantage over him of knowing Marion Grimston's place in the action. It was a dreadful story, and if Miss Lucilla was not more profoundly shocked it was because Mrs. Bayford, by overshooting the mark, rendered it incredible. None the less she agreed with Mrs. Bayford on the main point she had come to urge, that Diane, on one side, and Marion and Bienville, on the other, should be kept, if possible, from meeting.
"Not that I think," Mrs. Bayford went on, "that Raoul—that's his name—would ever take up with her again. Still, you never can tell; I've seen such cases. A fire will often blaze up when you think it's out. And now that everything is going so smoothly it would be a thousand pities to throw any obstacle in the way."
"Everything is going smoothly, then? I'm glad of that, for Marion's sake."
"Yes; it's practically a settled thing. When it seemed likely that he would return to France by way of New York, Robert Grimston wrote me to say that if anything happened it would have his full consent. Things move rapidly in Paris, and the whole episode is as much a part of the past as last year's styles. Then, too, everybody there knows now that Raoul didn't kill George Eveleth; and, of course, that removes a certain unpleasant thought that some people might have about him."
"Have you seen him yet?"
"I heard from him this morning. He asked if he could call on Marion and me this afternoon. You can guess what was my reply."
The nature of this having been made clear, Mrs. Bayford went on to express her fears as to the complications which might arise from the chance meeting of Bienville and Derek on the steamer, of which the former had given her information in his note. Nothing would be more natural now than for Derek to invite Marion and Bienville to dinner; and there would be Diane!
"I think I can relieve your mind on that point," Miss Lucilla said, trying to choose her words cautiously. "There would be no danger of their meeting Mrs. Eveleth just now, as she has left Dorothea for the present."
There was so much satisfaction to Mrs. Bayford in knowing that, as far as Diane was concerned, the coast was comparatively clear, that she gathered up her skirts and departed. After she had gone, Miss Lucilla's sense of being the pivot of a romantic plot was heightened by the appearance of Diane. She came in with her usual air of confidence in her ability to meet the world, and if her pale face showed traces of tears and sleeplessness, its expression was, if anything, more courageous. Had it not been for this brave show Miss Lucilla would have wanted to embrace her and hold her hands, but, as it was, she could only retire shyly into herself, as in the presence of one too strong to need the support of friends.
"No; don't call my mother-in-law yet," Diane pleaded, as Miss Lucilla was about to touch a bell. "I want to talk to you first, and tell you things I couldn't say in writing."
Then the story was told again, and from still another point of view. Once more Diane acknowledged the weaknesses of conduct she had confessed already, but Miss Lucilla was a woman and understood her speech.
"I knew you'd believe in me," Diane said, half sobbing, as she ended her tale. "I knew you'd understand that one can be a foolish woman without having been a wicked one. Mr. Pruyn would not have been so hard on me if he had thought of that."
"Shall I go and tell him?"
"No; it's too late. The wrong that's been done needs a more radical remedy than you or I could bring to it. Bienville has lied, and I must force him to retract. Nothing else can help me."
To poor Miss Lucilla this was a new and alarming feature in the situation. If it was so, then Marion Grimston ought not to be allowed to marry him. If Diane was right—and she must be right—Mrs. Bayford was mistakenly urging on a match that would bring unhappiness to her niece. This complication was almost more than Miss Lucilla's quietly working intellect could seize, and she followed Diane's succeeding words with but a wandering attention. She understood, however, that, next to being justified by Bienville, Diane attached importance to the aid she expected from Mrs. Eveleth. Hers was the only living voice that could testify to the happy relations always existing between her son and his wife. She could tell, and would tell, that George had fallen as the champion of Diane's honor, and not as the victim of her baseness. If he died it was because he believed in her, not because he was seeking the readiest refuge from their common life. Diane would explain all to Mrs. Eveleth, to whose loyalty she could trust, and on whose love she could depend.
"I'll go and find her," Miss Lucilla said, rising. "You'd like to see her alone?"
"No; I'd rather you were present. My troubles have got beyond the stage of privacy. It's best that those who care for me should hear what can be said in my defence."
Miss Lucilla went, and returned. A few minutes later Mrs. Eveleth could be heard coming slowly down the stairs. But before she had time to enter the room Derek Pruyn, using the privilege of a relative, walked in without announcement.
If the morning had brought surprises to Miss Lucilla van Tromp, it had not denied them to the Marquis de Bienville. They were all the more astonishing in that they came out of a sky that was relatively clear. As he stood in his dressing-gown, with a cigarette between his fingers, at one of the upper windows of his tall, towerlike hotel, he would have said that his life at the moment resembled the blue dome above him, from which, after a cloudy dawn and dull early morning, the last fleecy drifts were being blown away.
There were many circumstances that combined just now to make him glad of being Raoul de Laval, Marquis de Bienville. The mere material comfort of modern hotel luxury had a certain joyous novelty after nearly two years spent amid the unprofitable splendors of the tropical forest. True, New York was not Paris; but it was an excellent distributing centre for Parisian commodities and news, and would do very well for the work he had immediately in hand. So far, all promised hopefully. His valet had joined him from France, with whatever he could wish in the way of wardrobe; and Mrs. Bayford's reply to his note contained much information beyond what was actually written down in words. Moreover, the statement he had found awaiting him from the Credit Lyonnais revealed the fact that, owing to the two years in which he had little or no need to spend money, he could now live with handsome extravagance until after he married Miss Grimston. He might even pay the more pressing of his debts, though that possibility presented itself in the light of a work of supererogation, seeing that in so short a time he should be able to pay them all.
Then would begin a new era in his life. On that point he was quite determined. At thirty-two years of age it was high time to think of being something better in the world than a mere man-beauty. His experience with Persigny had shown that he was capable of something worthier than dalliance, as his fathers had been before him.
He did not precisely blame himself for shortcomings in the past, since, according to French ideas, he had not enough money on which to be useful, while his social position precluded work. He could not serve his country for fear of serving the republic, nor live on his estates, because Bienville was too expensive to keep up. However well-meaning his nature, there had been almost nothing open to him but the career of the idle, handsome, high-born youth, with money enough to pay for the luxuries of life, while his name secured credit for its necessities.
With his looks and his address it would have been easy to find a wife who, by meeting his financial need, would have facilitated his path in virtue; but on this point he was fastidious. Rather, perhaps, he was typical of that modern, transitional phase of the French social mind which, while still acknowledging the supremacy of the family in matrimonial affairs, insists on some freedom of personal selection. That his future wife should have enough money to make her a worthy chatelaine of Bienville, as well as to meet the subsidiary expenses the position implied, was a foregone conclusion; but it was equally a matter beyond dispute that she should be some one whom he could love. He had not found this combination of essentials until he met Marion Grimston, and the hand he was thereupon prepared to offer her was not wholly empty of his heart.
In her he saw for the first time in his life the intrepid maiden who seems to dare a man to come and master her. That she should be the daughter of Robert Grimston, with his commercial primness, and Mrs. Grimston, with her pretentious snobbery, was a mystery he made no attempt to solve. It was enough for him that this proud creature was in the world, especially as her bearing toward him inspired the hope that he might win her. It was a pity that he should have turned aside from such high endeavor in a foolish dash to make himself the Hippomenes of Diane Eveleth's Atalanta. Putting little heart into the latter contest, he would have suffered little mortification from defeat, had it not been that the high spirits of the pursued lady invited the world to come and laugh with her at his expense.
Then it was that the Marquis de Bienville, in an uncontrollable access of wounded vanity, had thrown his traditions of honor to the winds, and lied. It was not such a lie as could be told—and forgotten; for there were too many people eager to believe and repeat it. Within twenty-four hours he found himself famous, all the way from the Parc Monceau to the rue de Varennes. After his conscience had given him a sleepless night he got up to see that any modification of his statement meant retraction. Retraction was out of the question, in that it involved the loss of his reputation among men. He was caught in a trap. He must lie and maintain his place, or he must confess and go out of society. It must not be supposed that he took his predicament lightly, or that he made his choice without pangs of self-pity at the cruel necessity. It was his honor, or hers! and if only the one or the other could be saved, it must be his. So he saved it—according to his lights. He saved it by being very bold in his statements by day, and heaping ignominy on himself during the black hours of sleeplessness. He found, however, that the process paid; for boldness engendered a sort of fictitious belief which paralyzed the tendency to self-upbraiding until it ceased.
The special quality of his courage was shown on that gray dawn when he stood up before George Eveleth in a corner of the Pre Catalan. He had not the moral force to confess himself a perjurer in the sight of Paris, but he could stand ready to take the bullets in his breast. In going to the encounter he had no intention of doing otherwise. He would not atone to an injured woman by setting her right in the eyes of men, but he would make her the offering of his life.
It was a satisfaction now to know, as he was assured by letters, that the incident was practically forgotten, and that Diane Eveleth had disappeared. He himself found it easier than it used to be to dismiss the subject from his mind; and if he recalled it at times, it was generally—as it had been on shipboard—when at the end of his store of confidential anecdotes. He was thinking, however, of dropping the story from his repertoire, for he had more than remarked that its effect was slightly sinister upon himself. He noticed, too, that, during the first twenty-four hours on the steamer, Derek Pruyn avoided him, while he on his part had felt a curious impulse to slink out of sight, which could only be explained by the supposition that, as often happens on long voyages, they had seen too much of each other.
Finding that he had let his cigarette go out, he threw it away, and turned from the window to complete his toilet. As he did so his valet entered with a card, stating that the gentleman who had sent it in was waiting in the hail outside.
"Ask him to come in," he said, briefly, when he had read the name. He was scarcely surprised, for Pruyn had spoken more than once of showing him some civilities when they reached New York, and putting him up at one or two convenient dubs.
"My dear sir," he cried, going forward with outstretched hand; but the words died on his lips as Derek pushed his way in brusquely, without greeting.
Again the young man attempted the ceremonious by apologizing for the informality of his surroundings and the state of his dress; but again he faltered before the haggard glare in Derek's eyes.
"I want to talk to you," Pruyn said, abruptly. Bienville made a gesture of mingled politeness and astonishment.
"Certainly; but shall we not sit down while we do it? Will you smoke? Here are cigarettes, but you probably prefer a cigar."
Educated in England, like many young Frenchmen of the upper classes, Bienville spoke English fluently and with little accent.
"I want to talk to you," Derek said again. He took no notice of the proffered seat, and they remained standing, as they were, with the round table, bestrewn with letters, between them. "You remember," Derek continued, speaking with difficulty—"you remember the story you told me on the voyage—about a woman?"
Bienville nodded. He had a sudden presentiment of what was coming.
"I must tell you that on the night before I sailed for South America, three months ago, I asked that woman to be my wife."
"In that case," Bienville said, promptly, and with a tranquillity he did not feel, "I withdraw my statements."
"Withdrawal isn't enough. You must tell me they were not true."
Bienville remained silent for a minute. He was beginning to realize the firmness of the ground he stood on. His instinct for self-preservation was strong, and he had confidence in his dexterous use of the necessary weapons.
"You must give me time to reflect on that," he said, after a pause.
"Why do you need time? If the thing isn't true, you've only got to say so."
"It's not quite so easy as that. You can't cut every difficulty with a sword, as they did the Gordian knot. One may go far in defence of a woman's honor, but there are boundaries which even a gallant man cannot pass; and, before I speak, I must see where they lie."
"I want the truth. I want no defence of a woman's honor—"
"Ah, but I do. That's the difference."
"Damn your difference! You didn't think much of a woman's honor when you began your infernal tales."
"Did you, when you let me go on?"
"No. That's where I share your crime. That's all that keeps me from striking you now."
"I let that pass. I know how you feel. I know just how hard it is for you. I've been in something like your situation myself. No man can have much to do with a woman without being put there in one way if not another. It's because I do understand you that I share your pain—and support your insults."
The tremor in his voice, coupled with the dignity of his bearing, carried a certain degree of conviction, so that when Derek spoke again it was less fiercely.
"Then I understand you to confirm what you told me on board ship?"
"On the contrary; you understand me to take it back. Why shouldn't that be enough for you—without asking further questions?"
"Because I'm not here to go through formalities, but to seek for facts."
"Precisely; and yet, wouldn't it be wise, under the circumstances, not to be too exacting? If I do my best for you—"
"It isn't a question of doing your best, but of telling me the truth."
"I can quite see that it might strike you in that way; but you'll pardon me, I know, if I see it from another point of view. No man in my situation would consider it a matter of telling you the truth, so much as of coming to the aid of a lady whose good name he had unwittingly imperilled. My supreme duty is there; and I'm willing to do it to the utmost of my power. I am willing to withdraw everything I have ever uttered that could tell against her. Can you ask me to do more?"
"Yes; I can ask you to deny it."
"Isn't that already a form of denial?"
"No; it's a form of affirmation."
"That's because you choose to take it so. It's because you prefer to go behind my words, and ascribe to me motives which, for all you know, I do not possess."
"I've nothing to do with your motives; my aim is to get at the truth."
"Since you have nothing to do with my motives," Bienville said, with a slight lifting of the brows, "you'll permit me, I am sure, to be equally indifferent to your aims. I tell you what I am prepared to do; but what is it to me whether you are satisfied or not? I am sorry to—to—inconvenience the lady; but as for you—!"
With a snap of the fingers he turned and strolled to the window, where he stood, looking out, with his back toward his guest. It was significant of their tension of feeling and concentration of mind that both gesture and attitude went unnoted by both. Derek remained silent and motionless, his slower mind trying to catch up with the Frenchman's nimble adroitness. He had not yet done so when Bienville turned and spoke again.
"Why should we quarrel? What should we gain by doing that? You and I are two men of the world, to whom human nature is as an open book. What do you expect me to do? What do you expect me to say? What more did you think to call forth from me when you came here this morning? Do me justice. Am I not going as far as a man can go when I say that I blot out of my memory the cursed evenings you and I spent together in cursed talk? That doesn't cover the ground, you think; but would any other form of words cover it any better? Would you believe me the more, whatever set of speeches I might adopt? Would you not always have in the back of your mind your expressive English phrase, that I was lying like a gentleman? You know best what you can do, as I know best what I can do; but is it not true that we have arrived at a point where the less that is spoken in words on either side, the better it will be for us all?"
When he had finished, Bienville turned again toward the window, leaning his head wearily against the frame. Derek stood a minute longer watching him. Then, as if accepting the assertion that there was nothing more that could be said, he went quietly, with bent head, from the room.
* * * * *
He was down in the street before he became fully conscious that, among the confused, strangled cries of pain within him, that which was loudest and most imploring was a wailing self-reproach. It was a self-reproach with a strain of pleading in it, akin to that with which a mother blames herself for the failings of her son, seizing on any one else's wrong to palliate the guilt of the accused. He had injured Diane himself! He had pried into her past, and laid bare her sins, and stripped her life of that covering of secrecy which no human existence could do without, least of all his own.
He walked on with bowed head, his eyes blind to the May sunshine, his ears deaf to the city's joyous, energetic uproar, his mind closed to the fact that important business affairs were awaiting his attention. His feet strayed toward Gramercy Park, directed not so much by volition as by the primary man-instinct to be near some sweet, sympathetic woman in the hour of pain. Lucilla and he had, grown up in one family as boy and girl together, and there were moments when he found near her the peace he could get nowhere else in the world.
He pushed by the footman who admitted him and walked straight to the room where Lucilla was generally to be found. Though he could scarcely be surprised to see Diane sitting by her, he stopped on the threshold, with signs of embarrassment, and made as though he would withdraw. Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of such a moment, Miss Lucilla looked appealingly at Diane, who rose.
"Don't go, Mr. Pruyn," she said, forcing herself to show firmness. "You arrive very opportunely. I have just asked my mother-in-law to come to my aid in some of the things we discussed last night. Won't you do me the justice to hear her?"
She crossed the room to where Mrs. Eveleth appeared on the threshold, and, taking her by the hand, led her to the chair which Pruyn placed for her.
"I'd better go, Diane dear," Miss Lucilla whispered, tremblingly.
"Please don't," Diane insisted. "I'd much rather have you stay. I've no secrets from Miss Lucilla," she added, speaking to Derek. "I need a woman friend; and I've found one."
"You couldn't find a better," Pruyn murmured, while Miss Lucilla slipped her arm around Diane's waist, rather to steady herself than to support her friend.
"Miss Lucilla knows everything that you know, petite mere," Diane continued, turning to where her mother-in-law sat, slightly bowed, her extended hand resting on her cane, like some graceful Sibyl. "She knows everything that you know, and she knows one thing more. She knows what some cruel people say was the way in which—George died."
Diane uttered the last two words in a kind of sob, and Mrs. Eveleth looked up, startled.
"George—died?" she questioned, slowly, with a look of wonder.
Diane nodded, unable, for the minute, to speak.
"But we know how—he died."
"Mr. Pruyn tells me that we don't."
"I beg you not to put it in that way," Derek said, hurriedly. "I repeated only what was told me, and what was afterward verified. Do you not think we can spare Mrs. Eveleth what must be so painful?"
"There's no need to spare me, Mr. Pruyn. I think I've reached the point to which old people often come—where they can't feel any more."
"Oh, mother, don't say that," Diane wailed, with a curiously childlike cry. She had never before called Mrs. Eveleth mother, and the word sounded strangely in this room which had not heard it since Miss Lucilla was a little girl. "My mother would rather know," she declared, almost proudly, speaking again to Pruyn, "than be kept in ignorance of something in which she could help me so much."
"What is it?" Mrs. Eveleth asked, eagerly.
Then Diane told her. It had been stated, so she said, that George had not fallen in her defence, but by his own hand—to escape her; and there was no one in the world but his own mother to give this monstrous calumny the lie. During the recital Mrs. Eveleth sat with clasped hands, but with head sinking lower at each word. Once she murmured something which only Miss Lucilla was near enough to hear:
"Then that's why they wouldn't let me look at him in his coffin."
"He did love me, didn't he?" Diane cried. "He was happy with me, wasn't he, mother dear? He understood me, and upheld me, and defended me, whatever I did. He didn't want to leave me. He knew I should never have cared for the loss of the money—that we could have faced that together. Tell them so, mother; tell them."
For the first time since he had known her Derek saw Diane forget her reserve in eager pleading. She stepped forward from Miss Lucilla's embrace, standing before Mrs. Eveleth with palms opened outward, in an attitude of petition. The older woman did not raise her head nor speak.
"He was happy with me," Diane insisted. "I made him happy. I wasn't the best wife he could have had, but he was satisfied with me as I was, in spite of my imperfections. He was worried sometimes, especially toward—toward the last; but he wasn't worried about me, was he, mother dear?"
Still the mother did not speak nor raise her head. Diane took a step nearer and began again.
"I didn't know we were living beyond our means. I didn't know what was going on around me. I reproach myself for that. A wiser woman would have known; but I was young, and foolish, and very, very happy. I didn't know I was ruining George, though I'm ready to take all the responsibility for it now. But he never blamed me, did he, mother? never, by a word, never by a look. Oh, speak, and tell them!"
Her voice came out with a sharp note of anxiety, in which there was an inflection almost of fear; but when she ceased there was silence.
"Petite mere," she cried, "aren't you going to say anything?"
The bowed head remained bowed; the only sign came from the trembling of the extended hand, resting on the top of the stick.
"If you don't speak," Diane cried again, "they'll think it's because you don't want to."
If there was a response to this, it was when the head bent lower.
"Mother," Diane cried, in alarm, "I've no one in the world to speak a word for me but you. If you don't do it, they'll believe I drove George to his death—they'll say I was such a woman that he killed himself rather than live with me any longer."
Suddenly Mrs. Eveleth raised her head and looked round upon them all. Then she staggered to her feet.
"Take me away!" she said, in a dead voice, to Lucilla van Tromp. "Help me! Take me away! I can't bear any more!" Leaning on Miss Lucilla's arm, she advanced a step and paused before Diane, who stood wide-eyed, and awe-struck rather than amazed, at the magnitude of this desertion. "May God forgive you, Diane," she said, quietly, passing on again. "I try to do so; but it's hard."
While Derek's eyes were riveted on Diane, she stood staring vacantly at the empty doorway through which Mrs. Eveleth and Miss Lucilla had passed on their way up-stairs. This abandonment was so far outside the range of what she had considered possible that there seemed to be no avenues to her intelligence through which the conviction of it could be brought home. She gazed as though her own vision were at fault, as though her powers of comprehension had failed her.
Derek, on his part, watched her, with the fascination with which we watch a man performing some strange feat of skill—from whom first one support, and then another, and then another, falls away, until he is left with nothing to uphold him, perilously, frightfully alone.
When at length the knowledge of what had occurred came over her, Diane looked round the familiar room, as though to bring her senses back out of the realm of the incredible. When her eyes rested on him it was simply to include him among the common facts of earth after this excursion into the impossible. She said nothing, and her face was blank; but the little gesture of the hands—the little limp French gesture: the sudden lift, the sudden drop, the soft, tired sound, as the arms fell against the sides—implied fatality, finality, inexplicability, and an infinite weariness of created things.
"Do you think he did—shoot himself?"
They continued to stand staring into each other's eyes—the width of the room between them. A red azalea on the long mahogany table, strewn with books, separated them by its fierce splash of color. The apathy of Diane's voice was not that of worn-out emotion, but of emotion which finds no adequate tones. The very way in which her inquiry ignored all other subjects between them had its poignancy.
"What do you think?"
"Oh, I suppose he did. Every one says so; then why shouldn't it be true? If it were, it would only be of a piece with all the rest."
"I reminded you last night that he had other troubles besides—besides—"
"Besides those I may have caused him."
"If you like to put it so. He might have been driven to a desperate act by loss of fortune."
"Leaving me to face poverty alone. No; I can't think so ill of him as that. If you suggest it by way of offering me consolation, you're making a mistake. Of the two, I'd rather think of him as seeking death from horror—horror of me—than from simple cowardice."
"It would be no new thing in the history of money troubles; and it would relieve you of the blame."
"To fasten it on him. I see what you mean; but I prefer not to accept that kind of absolution. If there's any consolation left to me, it's in the pride of having been the wife of an honorable man. Don't take it away from me as long as there's any other explanation possible. I see you're puzzled; but you'd have to be a wife to understand me. Accuse me of any crime you like; take it for granted that I've been guilty of it; only don't say that he deserted me in that way. Let me keep at least the comfort of his memory."
"I want you to keep all the comfort you can get, Diane. God forbid that I should take from you anything in which you find support. So far am I from that, that I come to offer you—what I have to offer."
There was a minute's silence before she replied:
"I don't know what that is."
There was another minute's silence, during which she looked at him hardly.
"I should think you'd see."
"I don't. Will you be good enough to explain?"
"Is that necessary? Is this a minute in which to bandy words?"
"It's a minute in which I may be permitted to ask the meaning of your—generosity."
"It isn't generosity. I'm saying nothing new. I've come only for an answer to the question I asked you before going to South America, three months ago."
"Oh, but I thought that question had answered itself."
"Then perhaps it has—in that, whatever reply you might have given me under other conditions, now you must accept me."
"You mean, I must accept—your name."
"My name, and all that goes with it."
"How could you expect me to do that, after what happened last night?"
"What happened last night shall be—as though it had not happened."
"Could you ever forget it?"
"I didn't say I should forget it. I suppose I couldn't do that any more than you. I said it should be as though it hadn't been."
"And what about Dorothea?"
"That must be as it may."
"You mean that Dorothea would have to take her chance."
"She needn't know anything about it—yet."
"You couldn't keep it from her forever."
"No. But she'll probably marry soon. After that she'll understand things better."
"That is, she'll understand the position in which you've been placed—that you could hardly have acted otherwise."
"I don't want to go into definitions. There are times in life when words become as dangerous as explosives. Let us do what we see to be our obvious duty, without saying too much about it."
"Isn't it your first duty to protect your child?"
"My first duty, as I see it now, is to protect you."
"I don't see much to be gained by shielding one person when you expose another. What happens to me is a small matter compared with the consequences to her."
"Your influence hasn't hurt her in the past; why should it do so now?"
"You forget that there are other things besides my influence. Her whole position, her whole life, would be changed, if she had for a mother—if you had for a wife—a notorious woman like me."
"There are situations where the child must follow the parent."
"But there are none, as far as I know, in which the parent must sacrifice the child."
"I don't agree with you. There are moments in which we must act in a certain definite manner, no matter what may be the outcome. Don't let us talk of it any more, Diane. You must know as well as I that there is but one thing for us to do."
"You mean, of course, that I must marry you."
"You must give me the right to take care of you."
"Because it's a duty that no one else would assume. That's what it comes to, isn't it?"
"I repeat that I don't want to discuss it—"
"You must let me point out that some amount of discussion is needed. If we didn't have it before marriage, we should have it afterward, when it would be worse. You won't think I'm boasting if I say that I think my vision is a little keener than yours, and that I see what you'd be doing more clearly than you do yourself. You know me—or you think you know me—as a guilty woman, homeless, penniless, and without a friend in the world. You don't want to leave me to my fate, and there's no way of helping me but one. That way you're prepared to take, cost what it will. I admire you for it; I thank you for it; I know you would do it like a man. But it's just because you would do it like a man—because you are doing it like a man—that your kindness is far more cruel than scorn. No woman, not the weakest, not the worst, among us, would consent to be taken as you're offering to take me. A man might bring himself to accept that kind of pity; but a woman—never! You said just now that you had come to offer me—what you had to offer; but surely I'm not fallen so low as to have to take it."
"I said I offered you my name and all that goes with it. I would try to tell you what it is, only that I find something in our relative positions transcending words. But since you need words—since apparently you prefer plainness of speech—I'll tell you something: I saw Bienville this morning."
She looked up with a new expression, verging on that of curiosity.
"Since then," he continued, "I've become even more deeply conscious than I was before of the ineradicable nature of what I feel for you."
"I've come to see that, whatever may have happened, whatever you may be, I want you as my wife."
"Do you mean that you would overlook wrongdoing on my part, and—and—care for me, just the same?"
"I mean that life isn't a conceivable thing to me without you; I mean that no considerations in the world have any force as against my desire to get you. Whatever your life has been, I subscribe to it. Listen! When I saw Bienville this morning he withdrew what he said on shipboard—as nearly as possible, without giving himself the lie, he denied it—and yet, Diane, and yet I knew his first story was—the truth. No, don't shrink. Don't cry out. Let me go on. I swear to God that it makes no difference. I see the whole thing from another point of view. I'll not only take you as you are, but I want you as you are. I give you my honor, which is dearer than my life—I give you my child, who is more precious than my honor. Everything—everything is cheap, so long as I can win you. Don't shrink from me, Diane. Don't look at me like that—"
"How can I help shrinking from anything so base?"
Her voice rose scarcely above a whisper, but it checked the movement with which, after the minutes of almost motionless confrontation, he came toward her with eager arms.
"Base?" he echoed, offended.
"Yes—base. That a man should care for a woman whom he thinks to be bad is comprehensible; that he should wish to make her his wife is credible; that he should hope to lift her out of her condition is admirable; but that he should descend from his own high plane to stay on hers is despicably weak; while to drag down with him a girl in the very flower of her purity is a crime without a name."
The dark flush showed how quickly his haughty spirit responded to the flicker of the lash.
"If you choose to put that interpretation of my words—" he began, indignantly.
"I don't; but it's the interpretation they deserve. There's almost no indignity that can be uttered which you haven't heaped upon me; and of them all this last is the hardest to be borne. I bear it; I forgive it; because it convinces me of what I've been afraid of all along—that I'm a woman who throws some sort of evil influence over men. Even you are not exempt from it—even you! Oh, Derek, go away from me! If you won't do it for your own sake, do it for Dorothea's. I won't do battle with Bienville's accusations now. Perhaps I may never do battle with them at all. What does it matter whether he tells the truth or lies? The pressing thing just now is that you should be saved—"
"Thank you; I can take care of myself. Let's have no more fine splitting of moral hairs. Let us settle the thing, and be done with it. There's one big fact before us, and only one. You can't do without me; I can't do without you. It's a crisis at which we've the right to think only of ourselves and thrust every one else outside."
"Wait!" she cried, as he advanced once more upon her. "Wait! Let me tell you something. You mustn't be hard on me for saying it. You asked just now for my answer to your question of three months ago. My answer is—"
"Diane!" he said, lifting his hand in warning. "Be careful. Don't speak in a hurry. I'm not in a mood to plead or argue any longer. What you say now will be—the irrevocable word."
"I know it. It will not only be the irrevocable word, but the last word. Derek, I see you as you are, a strong, simple, honest man. I admire you; I esteem you; I honor you; I'm grateful to you as a woman is rarely grateful to a man. And yet I'd rather be all you think me; I'd rather earn my bread as desperate women do earn it than be your wife."
They looked at each other long and steadily. When he spoke, his words were those she had invited, but they made her gasp as one gasps at that which suddenly takes one's breath.
"As you will," he said, briefly.
As the pivot of events, Miss Lucilla van Tromp was beginning to feel the responsibilities of her position. Only a woman with an inexhaustible heart could have met as she did the demands for sympathy, of various shades, made by the chief participants in the drama; while there was one phase of the action which called for a heroic display of conscience.
It was impossible now to contemplate Marion Grimston's peril without a grave sense of the duties imposed by friendship. Some people might stand by and see a girl wreck her happiness by giving her heart to an unworthy suitor, but Miss van Tromp was not among that number. It was, in fact, one of those junctures at which all her good instincts prompted her to say, "I ought to go and tell her." As a patriotic spinster, she held decided views on the question of marriage between American heiresses and impecunious foreign noblemen—and, in her eyes, all foreign noblemen were impecunious—in any case; but to see Marion Grimston become the victim of her parents' vulgar ambition gave to the subject a personal bearing which made her duty urgent. If ever there was a moment when a goddess in a machine could feel justified in descending, for active intervention, it was now. She had the less hesitation in doing so, owing to the fact that she had known Marion since her cradle; and between the two there had always existed the subtle tie which not seldom binds the widely diverse but essentially like-minded together. Accordingly, on a bright May morning, within a few days of the last meeting between Derek Pruyn and Diane Eveleth, she sallied forth to the fashionable quarter where Mrs. Bayford dwelt, coming home, some two hours later, with a considerably extended knowledge of the possibilities inherent in human nature.
The tale Miss Lucilla told was that which had already been many times repeated, each narrator lending to it the color imparted by his own views of life. As now set forth, it became the story of a girl sought in marriage by a man who has inflicted mortal wrong upon an innocent young woman. With unconscious art Miss Lucilla placed Marion Grimston herself in the centre of the piece, making the subsidiary characters revolve around her. This situation brought with it a double duty: the one explicit in righting the oppressed, the other implicit—for Miss Lucilla balked at putting it too plainly into words—in punishing a wicked marquis.
The girl sat with head slightly bowed and rich color deepening. If she showed emotion at all, it was in her haughty stillness, as though she voluntarily put all expression out of her face until the recital was ended. The effect on Miss Lucilla, as they sat side by side on a sofa, was slightly disconcerting, so that she came to her conclusion lamely.
"Of course, my dear, I don't know his side of the story, or what he may have to say in self-defence. I'm only telling you what I've heard, and just as I heard it."
"I dare say it's quite right."
The brevity and suggested cynicism of this reply produced in Miss Lucilla a little shock.
"Oh! Then, you think—?"
"There would be nothing surprising in it. It's the sort of thing that's always happening in Paris. It's one of the peculiarities of that society that you can never believe half the evil you hear of any one—not even if it's told you by the man himself. I might go so far as to say that, when it's told you by himself you're least of all inclined to credit it."
"But how dreadful!"
"Things are dreadful or not, according to the degree in which you're used to them. I've grown up in that atmosphere, and so I can endure it. In fact, any other atmosphere seems to me to lack some of the necessary ingredients of air; just as to some people—to Napoleon, for instance—a woman who isn't rouged isn't wholly dressed."
"I know that's only your way of talking, dear. Oh, you can't shock me."
"At any rate, the way of talking shows you what I mean. I can quite understand how Monsieur de Bienville might have said that of Mrs. Eveleth."
Lucilla's look of pain induced Miss Grimston promptly to qualify her statement.
"I said I could understand it; I didn't say I respected it. It's only what's been said of hundreds of thousands of women in Paris by hundreds of thousands of men, and in the place where they've said it it's taken with the traditional grain of salt. If all had gone as it was going at the time—if the Eveleths hadn't lost their money—if Mr. Eveleth hadn't shot himself—if Mrs. Eveleth had kept her place in French society—the story wouldn't have done her any harm. People would have shrugged their shoulders at it, and forgotten it. It's the transferring of the scene here, among you, that makes it grave. All your ideas are so different that what's bad becomes worse, by being carried out of its milieu. Monsieur de Bienville must be made to understand that, and repair the wrong."
"You seem to think there's no question but that—there is a wrong?"
"Oh, I suppose there isn't. There are so many cases of the kind. Mrs. Eveleth is probably neither more nor less than one of the many Frenchwomen of her rank in life who like to skate out on the thin edge of excitement without any intention of going through. There are always women like my aunt Bayford to think the worst of people of that sort, and to say it."
"And yet I don't see how that justifies Monsieur de Bienville."
"It doesn't justify; it only explains. Responsibility presses less heavily on the individual when it's shared."
"But wouldn't the person—you'll forgive me, dear, won't you, if I'm going too far?—wouldn't the person who has to take his part in that kind of responsibility be a doubtful keeper of one's happiness?"
Miss Grimston, half lowering her eyes, looked at her visitor with slumberous suspension of expression, and made no reply.
"If a man isn't good—" Miss Lucilla began again, tremblingly.
"No man is perfect."
"True, dear; and yet are there not certain qualities which we ought to consider as essentials—?"
"Monsieur de Bienville has those qualities for me."
"But surely, dear, you can't mean—?"
"Yes, I do mean."
The avowal was made quietly, with the still bearing of one who gives a few drops of confession out of deep oceans of reserve. Miss Lucilla gazed at her in astonishment. That her parents should sacrifice her was not surprising; but that she should be willing to sacrifice herself went beyond the limits of thought. The revelation that Marion could actually love the man was so startling that it shocked her out of her timidity, loosening the strings of her eloquence and unsealing the sources of her maternal tenderness. There was nothing original in Miss Lucilla's subsequent line of argument. It was the old, oft-uttered, futile appeal to the head, when the heart has already spoken. It premised the possibility of placing one's affections where one cannot give one's respect, regardless of the fact that the thing is done a thousand times a day. It reasoned, it predicted, it implored, with an effect no more disintegrating on the girl's decision than moonbeams make upon a mountain. Through it all, she sat and listened with the veiled eyes and mysterious impassivity which gave to her personality a curiously incalculable quality, as of a force presenting none of the ordinary phenomena by which to measure or compute it.
It was not till Miss Lucilla touched on the subject of honor that she obtained any sign of the effect she was producing. It was no more, on Marion's part, than an uneasy movement, but it betrayed its cause. Miss Lucilla pressed her point with renewed insistence, and presently two big tears hung on the long, black lashes and rolled down.
"I should like to see Mrs. Eveleth."
Like the hasty raising and dropping of a curtain on some jealously guarded view, the words gave to Miss Lucilla but a fleeting glimpse of what was passing in the obscure recesses of the girl's heart; but she determined to make the most of it by fixing, there and then, the day and hour when, without apparently forcing the event, the two might come face to face on the neutral ground of Gramercy Park.
It was a meeting that, when it took place, would have been attended with embarrassment had not both young women been practised in the ways of their little world. Progress in mutual understanding was made the easier by the existence, on both sides, of the European view of life, with its fusion of interests, its softness of outline, its give and take of toleration, in contradistinction to the sharp, clear, insistent American demands for a certain line of conduct and no other. Five minutes had not gone by in talk before each found in the other's presence that sense of repose which comes from similar habits of thought and a common native idiom. Whatever grounds for difference they might find, they were, at least, ranged on the same side in that battle which the two hemispheres half unconsciously wage upon each other as to the main purposes of life. Thus they were able to approach their subject without that first preliminary shock which makes it difficult for races to agree; and thus, too, Marion Grimston found herself, before she was aware of it, pouring out to Diane Eveleth that heart which, in response to Miss Lucilla's tender pleading, had been dumb.
They sat in the big, sombre library where, only a few days before, Diane had seen Derek Pruyn turn his back on her, without even a gesture of farewell. On the long mahogany table the red azalea was in almost passionate luxuriance of blossom; while through the open window faint odors of lilac came from Miss Lucilla's bit of garden.
"I don't want you to think him worse than you're obliged to," Marion said, as though in defence of the stand her heart had taken. "I've been told that very few men possess the two kinds of courage—the moral and the physical. Savonarola had the one and Nelson had the other; but neither of them had both. And of the two, for me, the physical is the essential. I can't help it. If I had to choose between a soldier and a saint, I'd take the soldier. When the worst is said of Monsieur de Bienville, it must be admitted that he's brave."
"I've always understood that he was a good rider and a good shot," Diane admitted. "I've no doubt that in battle he would conduct himself like a hero."
The girl's head went up proudly, and from the languorous eyes there came one splendid flash before the lids fell over them again.
"I know he would; and when a man has that sort of courage he's worth saving."
"You admit, then, that he needs to be—saved?" Again the heavy lids were lifted for one brief, search-light glance.
"Yes; I admit that. I believe he has wronged you. I can't tell you how I know it; but I do. It's to tell you so that I've asked you to come here. I hoped to make you see, as I do, that he's capable of doing it without appreciating the nature of his crime. If we could get him to see that—"
"He'd make you reparation."
"Are you so sure?"
"I'm very sure. If he didn't—" The consequences of that possibility being difficult of expression, she hung upon her words.
"I should be sorry to have you brought to so momentous a decision on my account."
"It wouldn't be on your account; it would be on my own. I understand myself well enough to see that I could love a dishonorable man; but I couldn't marry him."
"You have, of course, your own idea as to what makes a man dishonorable."
"What makes a man dishonorable is to persist in dishonor after he has become aware of it. Any one may speak thoughtlessly, or boastfully, or foolishly, and be forgiven for it. But he can't be forgiven if he keeps it up, especially when by his doing so a woman has to suffer."
The movement with which Diane pushed back her chair and rose betrayed a troubled rather than an impatient spirit.
"Miss Grimston," she said, standing before the girl and looking down upon her, "I should almost prefer not to have you take my affairs into your consideration. I doubt if they're worth it. I can't deny that I shrink from becoming a factor in your life, as well as from feeling that you must make your decisions, or unmake them, with reference to me."
"I'm not making my decisions, or unmaking them, with reference to you; it's with reference to Monsieur de Bienville. He has my father's consent to his asking me to be his wife. I understand that, according to the formal French fashion, he's going to do it to-morrow. Before I give him an answer I must know that he is such a man as I could marry."
"You would have thought him so if you hadn't heard this about me."
"Even so, it's better for me to have heard it. Any prudent person would tell you that. What I'm going to ask you to do now will not be for your sake; it will be for mine."
"You're going to ask me to do something?"
"Yes; to see Monsieur de Bienville."
Diane recoiled with an expression of dismay.
"I know it will be hard for you," Miss Grimston pursued, "and I wouldn't ask you to do it if it were not the straightest way out of a perplexing situation. I've confidence enough in him to believe that when he has seen you and heard your story, he'll act according to the dictates of a nature which I know to be essentially honorable, even if it's weak. You can see what that will mean to us all. It will not only clear you and rehabilitate him, but it will bring happiness to me."
There was something in the way in which these brief statements were made that gave them the nature of an appeal. The very difficulty of the reserved heart in speaking out, the shame-flushed cheek—the subdued voice—the halting breath—had on Diane a more potent effect than eloquence. What was left of her own hope, too, at once put forth its claim at the possibility of getting justice. It was a matter of taking her courage in both hands, in one tremendous effort, but the fact that this girl believed in her was a stimulus to making the attempt. Before they parted—with stammering expressions of mutual sympathy—she had given her word to do it.
In the degree to which masculine good looks and elegance are accessories to impressing a maid's heart, the Marquis de Bienville had reason to be sure of the effect he was producing, as he bent and kissed Miss Marion Grimston's hand, in her aunt's drawing-room, on the following afternoon. He was not surprised to detect the thrill that shot through her being at his act of homage, and communicated itself back to him; for he was tolerably certain of her love. That had been, to all intents and purposes, confessed more than two years ago; while, during the intervening time, he had not lacked signs that the gift once bestowed had never been withdrawn. He had stood for a few seconds at the threshold on entering the room, just to rejoice consciously at his great good-fortune. She had risen, but not advanced, to meet him, her tall figure, sheathed in some close-fitting, soft stuff, thrown into relief by the dark-blue velvet portiere behind her. He was not unaware of his unworthiness in the presence of this superb young creature, and as he crossed the room it was with the humility of a worshipper before a shrine.
"Mademoiselle," he said, simply, when he had raised himself, "I come to tell you that I love you."
The glance, slightly oblique, of suspended expression with which she received the words encouraged him to continue.
"I know how far what I have to give is beneath the honor of your acceptance; and yet when men love they are impelled to offer all the little that they have. My one hope lies in the fact that a woman like you doesn't love a man for what he is—but for what she can make him."
The words were admirably chosen, reaching her heart with a force greater than he knew.
"A woman," she answered, with a certain stately uplifting of the head, "can only make a man that which he has already the power to become. She may be able to point out the way; but it's for him to follow it."
"I don't think you'd see me hesitate at that."
"I'm glad you say so; because the road I should have to ask you to take would be a hard one."
"The harder the better, if it's anything by which I can prove my love."
"It is; but it's not only that; it's something by which you could prove mine."
His face brightened.
"In that case, Mademoiselle—speak."
She took an instant to assemble her forces, standing before him with a calmness she did not feel.
"You must forgive me," she said, trying to keep her voice steady, "if I take the initiative, as no girl is often called upon to do. Perhaps I should hesitate more if you hadn't told me, two years ago, what I know you've come to repeat to-day. The fact that I've waited those two years to hear you say it gives me a right that otherwise I shouldn't claim."
"There are no rights that a woman can have over a man which you, Mademoiselle, do not possess over me."
"Before telling me again," she continued, speaking with difficulty, "what you've told me already, I want to say that I can only listen to it on one condition."
"That your own conscience is at peace with itself."
There was a sudden startled toss of the head, but he answered, bravely:
"Is one's conscience ever at peace with itself? A woman's, perhaps; but a man's—!"
He shook his head with that wistful smile of contrition which is already a plea for pardon.
"I'm not speaking of life in general, but of something in particular. I want you to understand, before you ask me—what you've come to ask, that you couldn't make one woman happy while you're doing another a great wrong."
He was sure now of what was in store for him, and braced himself for his part. He was one of those men who need but to see peril to see also the way of meeting it. He stood for a minute, very straight and erect, like a soldier before a court-martial—a culprit whose guilt is half excused by his very manliness.
"I have wronged women. They've wronged me, too. All I can do to show I'm sorry for it is—not to give them the same sort of offence again."
"I'm thinking of one woman—one woman in particular."
He threw back his head with fine confidence.
"I don't know her."
"It's Diane Eveleth. She says—"
"I can imagine what she says. If I were you, I wouldn't pay it more attention than it deserves."
"It deserves a good deal—if it's true."
"Not from you, Mademoiselle. It belongs to a region into which your thought shouldn't enter."
"My thought does enter it, I'm afraid. In fact, I think of it so much that I've invited Mrs. Eveleth to come here this afternoon. I hope you don't mind meeting her?"
"Certainly not. Why should I?" he demanded, with an air of conscious rectitude.
Miss Grimston touched a bell.
"Ask Mrs. Eveleth to come in," she said to the footman who answered it.
As Diane entered she greeted Bienville with a slight inclination of the head, which he returned, bowing ceremoniously.
"I've begged Mrs. Eveleth to meet us," Marion hastened to explain, "for a very special reason."
"Then perhaps she will be good enough to tell me what it is," Bienville said, with a look of courteous inquiry.
"Miss Grimston thought—you might be able—to help me."
There was a catch in Diane's voice as she spoke, but she mastered it, keeping her eyes on his, in the effort to be courageous.
"If there's anything I can do—" he began, allowing the rest of his sentence to be inferred.
He concealed his nervousness by placing a small gilded chair for Diane to sit on. He himself took a chair a few feet away, seating himself sidewise, with his elbow supported on the back, in an easy attitude of attention. Marion Grimston withdrew to the more distant part of the room, where, with her hands behind her, she stood leaning against the grand piano, with the bearing of one only indirectly, and yet intensely, concerned. Bienville left the task of beginning to Diane. In spite of his determination to be self-possessed, a trace of compunction was visible in his face as he contrasted the subdued little woman before him with the sparkling, insouciant creature to whom, two or three years ago, he had paid his inglorious court.
"I shall have to speak to you quite simply and frankly," Diane began, with some hesitation, still keeping her eyes on his, "otherwise you wouldn't understand me."
"Quite so," Bienville assented, politely.
"You may not have heard that since—my—my husband's death, I have my own living to earn?"
"Yes; I did hear something of the kind."
"I've had what people in my position call a good situation; but I have lost it."
"Ah? I'm sorry."
"I thought you would be. That's why Miss Grimston asked me to tell you the reason. She was sure you wouldn't injure me—knowingly."
"Naturally. I'm very much surprised that any one should think I've injured you at all. To the best of my knowledge your name has not passed my lips for two years, at the least. If it had it would only have been spoken—with respect."
"I'm sure of that. I'm not pretending when I say that I'm absolutely convinced you're a man of sensitive honor. If you weren't you couldn't be a Frenchman and a Bienville. I want you to understand that I've never attributed—the—things that have happened—to anything but folly and imprudence—for which I want to take my full share of the blame."
"I've never ventured to express to you my own regret," Bienville said, in a tone not free from emotion, "but I assure you it's very deep."
"I know. All our life was so wrong! It's because I feel sure you must see that as well as I do that I hoped you'd help me now."
He said nothing in reply, letting some seconds pass in silence, waiting for her to come to her point.
"On the way up from South America," she began again, with visible difficulty, "you were on the same ship with my—my—employer. From certain things you said then—"
"But I've withdrawn them," he interrupted, quickly. "He should have told you that. Mademoiselle," he added, rising, and turning toward Marion Grimston, "wouldn't it spare you if we continued this conversation alone?"
"No; I'd rather stay," Miss Grimston said, with an inflection of request. "Please sit down again."
"He should have told you that," Bienville repeated, taking his seat once more, and speaking with some animation. "I did my best to straighten things out for him."
"Then he didn't understand you. He told me you had taken back what you had said, but only in a way that reaffirmed it."
"That's nothing but a tortuous construction put on straightforward words."
"Quite so; but for that very reason I thought that perhaps you'd go to him again and explain what you meant more clearly."
He took a minute to consider this before speaking.
"I don't see how I can," he said, slowly. "I've already used the plainest words of which I have command."
"Words aren't everything. It's the way they're spoken that often counts most. I'm sure you could convince him if you went the right way to work about it."
"I doubt that. I'm afraid I don't know how to force conviction on any one against his will."
"I mean—you'll excuse me; I speak quite bluntly—I mean that he seemed very willing to believe anything that could tell against you, but less eager to credit what was said in your defence."
"You think so because you don't understand him. As a matter of fact—"
"Oh, I dare say. I don't pretend to understand the gentleman in question. But for that very reason it would be useless for me to try to enlighten him further. It would only make matters worse."
"It wouldn't if you'd put things before him just as they happened. I don't want any excuses made for me. My best defence would be—the truth."
There was a perceptible pause, during which his eyes shifted uneasily toward Marion Grimston.
"I should think you could tell him that yourself," he suggested, at last.
"It wouldn't be the same thing. You're the only person who could speak with authority. He'd accept your word, if you gave it—in a certain way."
"I'm afraid I don't know what that way is."
"Oh yes, you do, Bienville!" she exclaimed, pleadingly, leaning forward slightly, with her hands clasped in her lap. "Don't force me to speak more plainly than I need. You must know what I refer to."
He shook his head slowly, with a look of mystification.
"What you may not know," she continued, "is all it means to me. I won't put the matter on any ground but that of my need for earning money. Because Mr. Pruyn has—misunderstood you, I've had to give up my—my—place"—she forced the last word with a little difficulty—"and until something like a good name is restored to me I shall find it hard to get another. You can have no idea of what that means. I had none, until I had to face it. There's only one kind of work I'm fitted for—the kind I've been doing; but it's just the kind I can't have without the—the reputation you could give back to me."
That this appeal was not without its effect was evident from the way in which his expressive brown eyes clouded, while he stroked his black beard nervously. The fact that his pity was largely for himself—that with instincts naturally chivalrous he should be driven to these miserable verbal shifts—being unknown to Diane, she was encouraged to proceed.
"You see," she went on, eagerly, "it wouldn't only bring me happiness, but it would add to your own. You're at the beginning of a new life, just like me—or, rather, just as I could be if you'd give me the chance. Think what it would be for you to enter on it, I won't say with a clear conscience, but with the knowledge that in rising yourself you had helped an unhappy woman up, instead of thrusting her further down! It isn't as if it would be so hard for you, Bienville. I'd make it easy for you. Miss Grimston would help me. Wouldn't you?" she added, turning toward Marion. "It could all be done quite simply and confidentially between ourselves—and Mr. Pruyn."
"Oh no, it couldn't," he said, coldly. "If I were to admit what you imply, secrecy wouldn't be of any use to me."
"Does that mean," she asked, fixing her earnest eyes upon him, "that you don't admit it?"
"It means," he said, rising quietly and standing behind his chair, "that this conversation is extremely painful to me, and I must ask to be excused from taking any further part in it. I know only vaguely what you mean, Madame; and if I don't inquire more in detail, it's because I want to spare you distressing explanations. I think you must agree with me, Mademoiselle," he continued, looking toward Miss Grimston, "that we should all be well advised in letting the subject drop."
Marion came slowly forward, advancing to the side of Diane, over whose shoulder, as she remained seated, she allowed her hand to fall, in a pose suggestive of protection.
"Of course, Monsieur," she agreed, "we must let the subject drop, if you have nothing more to say."
He stood silent a minute, looking at her steadily. "I'm afraid I haven't," he said, then.
"Nor I," Miss Grimston returned, significantly.
Again there was a minute or two of silence, during which Bienville seemed to probe for the meaning of the two laconic words. If anything could be read from his countenance, it was doubt as to whether to relinquish the prize with dignity or to pay its price in humiliation. There was an instant in which he appeared to be bracing himself to do the latter; but when he spoke his interrogation threw the responsibility for decision on Miss Grimston.
"Have I received—my answer?"
She waited, finding it hard to give him his reply. It was as if forced to it against her will that her head bent slowly in assent.
"Then," he said, in a tone of dignified regret, "there's nothing for me but to wish Mademoiselle good-by."
He bowed separately to Miss Grimston and to Diane, and, with the self-possession of a man accustomed to the various turns of drawing-room drama, he left the room.
During the summer that followed these events Derek Pruyn set himself the task of stamping the memory and influence of Diane Eveleth out of his life. His sense of duty combined with his feelings of self-respect in making the attempt. In reflecting on his last interview with her, he saw the weakness of the stand he had taken in it, recoiling from so unworthy a position with natural reaction. To have been in love at all at his age struck him as humiliation enough; but to have been in love with that sort of woman came very near mental malady. He said "that sort of woman," because the vagueness of the term gave scope to the bitterness of resentment with which he tried to overwhelm her. It enabled him to create some such paradise of pain as that into which the souls of Othello and Desdemona might have gone together. Had he been a Moor of Venice he would doubtless have smothered her with a pillow; but being a New York banker he could only try to slay the image, whose eyes and voice had never haunted him so persistently as now. In his rage of suffering he was as little able to take a reasoned view of the situation as the maddened bull in the arena to appraise the skill of his tormentors.