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The One Woman
by Thomas Dixon
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Gordon saw his wife approaching the bank, laughing. She was dressed in a sealskin cloak which reached to the ground. Its great rolling collar of ermine covered her full breast and stretched upward almost to her hat, rearing its snowy background about her heavy auburn hair, which seemed about to fall and envelop her form. She wore an enormous hat of white fur bent in graceful curves.

She was close to the building now, and her blue eyes were dancing and her cheeks flushed with laughter. The perfect grace and rhythm of movement could be seen even through the heavy seal cloak, whose sheen changed with each touch of her figure.

"Look at the idiots!" cried Overman, excitedly. "So busy stretching their necks to see a woman, there's five piled up on the ice. They're ringing for the ambulance. She's fractured one man's skull, broken another's leg, and, by the pale-faced moon, I believe she's killed one. And you're after me to meet another woman—great Scott, look, she's coming in here!"

"Well, she won't hurt you."

"I don't know!"

Overman made a break to reach his inner office when Gordon seized his arm.

"Stop, you fool," he thundered; "it's my wife. She's calling by for me, and you're going to meet her, if I have to knock you down and sit on you."

There was no help for it. He heard the rustle of the silk lining of her cloak and she was at the door.

She shook Overman's hand heartily, her violet eyes smiling in such a friendly candid way he was at once put at ease.

"I am so glad to see you," she said, earnestly. "I've heard Frank speak of you so often and laugh over your college ups and downs. I feel I've known you all my life. And then he says you're such a woman-hater—"

"He's a grand liar, Mrs. Gordon," he interrupted, suddenly colouring. "I never said anything of the kind in my life. I'm a great admirer of the fair sex!"

"Then you must prove it by coming to dinner with us to-night and admiring me the whole evening."

"Nothing could give me greater pleasure," he answered, bowing his big neck with an ease and grace Gordon noted with amazement.

When they left, Overman walked to the window and watched them thread their way through the crowd.

"Holy Moses and the angels—what a woman!" he said, softly whistling. "By the beard of the prophet, no wonder!"

Long after they disappeared he stood, looking without seeing, as if in a dream.



CHAPTER XXII

A SCARLET FLAME IN THE SKY



From the night Overman had taken dinner at the Gramercy Park house he became a constant visitor.

For six months he had usually spent two or three evenings each week in his friend's library, rehearsing their boyhood days, discussing new books, art and politics, Socialism and religion.

Overman's cynicism had piqued Kate's curiosity and opened new views of things she had accepted as moral finalities.

At these battles of wit she was always a charmed listener. She seemed never to tire watching the sparks fly in the rapier thrust of mind in these two men of steel and listening with a shiver to the deep growl of the animal behind their words. The one, so homely he was fascinating, with massive neck, and enormous mouth pursing and twisting under excitement into a sneer that pushed his big nose upward, the incarnation of a battle-scarred bulldog; the other, with his giant figure, hands and feet, his leonine face and locks, his deep voice, handsome and insolent in his conscious strength, the picture of a thoroughbred mastiff.

With the grace of a goddess she would sit and watch this battle to the death in the arena of thought.

Overman had keenly interested her from the first, and she stimulated him to unusual brilliancy. His remorseless logic, his thorough scholarship, his grasp of history, his savage common sense presented so sharp a contrast to the idealism of Gordon, she was shocked and startled.

He fell into the habit of calling on Sunday mornings and walking with them to the Opera House. They would leave Gordon at the stage entrance and sit together during the services.

He would comment softly to her on many of the little absurdities of the preacher's flights of sentiment, and often convulsed her with laughter by a single word or phrase which made ridiculous his mysticism. He did this with his single eye fixed on Gordon without the quiver of a nerve or the movement of a muscle to indicate ought but profound rapture in the speaker and his message.

Overman's business ability had been of great service in the Temple enterprise, which had involved difficulties with contractors, and Gordon had opened an account in Kate's name with his banking house. Her signature to legal documents had made her a frequent visitor to the bank, and she often took lunch with him.

Alone with her at these impromptu lunches, without the restraint of Gordon's presence, he had revealed to her a new phase of his character which had interested her still more deeply. It was here that she discovered the secret of his real attitude toward women, his deep hunger for love, tenderness and sympathy, and his terror lest his ugliness and the loss of his eye might entrap him into hopeless suffering.

She laughed at his fears.

"Ridiculous," she cried, closing her red lips. "You ought to have sense enough to know that a woman of character past the schoolgirl age is often fascinated by the ruggedness of such a man. Savage strength is sometimes resistless to women of rare beauty."

"You think so?" he asked, pathetically.

"Certainly; I know it," she answered, her lips twitching playfully.

Overman looked at her steadily.

"Sort of beauty-and-beast idea, I suppose. There may be something in it. It never struck me before."

"I'll put you in training for a handsome woman I know," she said, with a curious smile playing about her eyes.

"No, thank you," he quickly replied. "I'm just beginning to feel at home with you. I am content."

The opening of the Temple was an event which commanded the attention of the world. Leaders of Socialism from every quarter of the globe poured into New York.

The building was one of imposing grandeur. The auditorium filled the entire space of the first-four stories. It seated five thousand people within easy reach of the speaker's voice. The line of its ceiling was marked outside by the serried capitals of Greek columns springing from their massive bases on the ground. The grand stairway was of polished marble, its wainscoting and walls of onyx.

Resting on the capitals of the columns, the outer walls of rough marble rose twenty stories to the first offset. Dropping back fifty feet, another structure, crowned by Greek facades, sprang ten stories higher, forming the base of the central dome. From each corner rose a tower of bronze supporting the figures of Faith, Hope, Love and Truth, while scores of minarets flamed upward, flying the flags of every nation.

From the centre of this pile of marble, the huge dome, finished in gold, solemnly loomed among the clouds, higher than its model in Washington, dominating the city from every point of the compass. The magnificent sweep of Jefferson Avenue, stretching through miles of palatial homes, terminating at its base, seemed a tiny pathway leading through its grand arched and pillared entrance.

The dome was crowned by a statue of Liberty holding aloft a steel staff, from which flew the solid red battle-flag of Socialism, flinging into the heavens its challenge to civilisation, rising, falling, waving, fluttering, quivering, rippling in the wind, a scarlet blaze sweeping a hundred feet across the sky far above the cross on the Cathedral spire.

The cost of the building had exceeded the estimate, and it had been finished by a loan of two million dollars secured by a mortgage held by the banking house of Overman & Company. It could have commanded a larger loan, as the entire structure, except the two stories below ground and the auditorium, was devoted to business offices occupied by the best class of tenants. The auditorium was for rent at a nominal sum during the week, and was designed to be the forum of free thought for the nation.

The dedication programme began on Monday, lasting through an entire week, day and night, and culminated on Sunday with Gordon's address at eleven o'clock. The elaborate ceremonials and speeches had worn out Kate's body by Saturday, and the praise of pygmies had long before worn out her soul.

Ruth had read with interest the accounts of these meetings, and Morris King tried in vain to dissuade her from attending the Sunday exercises at which Gordon was to speak.

"It's useless to talk, Morris," she said, firmly. "I am going. I'd as well tell you I've been slipping into the gallery of the Opera House the past six months. I've tried to keep away, but I had to go. I am going to-day. I've heard him talk and dream and plan so much of this, it seems my own."

"Well, I'm going with you. You shall not enter that den of Anarchists alone again."

She hesitated.

"You may go if you'll agree to sit behind a pillar in the gallery where we will not be seen."

When they were seated he whispered to Ruth: "But for you, I wouldn't be caught dead in this place. I'll soon be the Governor, and it will be my duty to see that some of these gentlemen are carefully packed in quicklime at Sing Sing."

She started suddenly, her brow clouded, and she placed a trembling hand on his arm.

"Hush, Morris."

"It'll be so, mark my word."

"Hush!" she repeated, with such a shudder of pain he hastened to whisper.

"I beg your pardon, Ruth. You know I was joking."

Gordon rose and gazed for a moment over the sea of faces. His quick sympathies and brilliant imagination were stirred to their depths.

When the beautifully modulated voice first filled the room, Ruth felt with quick sympathy, beneath the tremor of his tones, the storm of suppressed feeling. Her eyes filled, and she bent forward, following him breathlessly.

He held the crowd spellbound.

Even the foreign Socialists, unable to understand a word of English, hung on every gesture, held by the magnetism of his powerful personality.

As he reached an impassioned climax, Ruth was startled to hear a note of suppressed laughter from a woman sitting in the same row behind the next pillar.

She looked quickly, and saw Overman's massive head cocked to one side, his face an immovable mask, and his single gleaming eye fixed on Gordon, with Kate beside him.

Overman stayed to dinner and congratulated his friend on his effort.

"Frank, you surpassed yourself," he said. "You made the grandest defense of an indefensible absurdity I ever heard."

"H'm, that's saying a good deal for you."

Overman pulled his moustache thoughtfully.

"But I couldn't help wishing I were an orator to jaw back at you. A preacher has such an easy thing, with no back talk except the sonorous echo of his own voice."

"Think you could have talked back to-day?"

There was a moment's silence. Overman leaned back and locked his hands behind his massive neck.

"If you hit a man with a brick, he may hurt you. Drop a millstone on him, he'll not even reply. If I could have gotten at you to-day, your wife would have lost her insurance policy, because there wouldn't have been anything to identify."

"Nothing like a good opinion of oneself," Gordon replied, good-naturedly.

Overman nodded.

"I never heard you explain so beautifully that 'Back to Nature' idea. I went West once and lived a year with some red folks who have been so fortunate as to never get away from Nature. They have been doing business at the same stand for several thousand years. Their women are old hags at your wife's age, and their men die at mine—forty-five. Their social institutions are an exact reflection of their personal attainments."

"But we propose," Gordon flashed, "to make institutions an advance on man's attainments and so lead him onward and upward."

"Exactly," he answered, dryly. "Make human nature divine by writing it on paper that it is so, pile water into a pyramid upside down, and repeal the law of gravitation by the vote of a mob. I don't like the law of gravitation myself, but I haven't time to repeal it."

"You are a hopeless materialist."

"Yet you, who preach the Spirit, propose to build a heaven here out of mud."

"Socialism may be the great delusion, but it's coming. It sweeps the imagination of the world," Gordon cried, with enthusiasm.

"There you go! Every time I pin you down, you sail off into space with prophecy or poetry. If it does conquer the world, the world will not be worth conquering. The one thing worth while is character, and your Socialistic pig-pen cannot produce it. In this herd of swine to which you hope to reduce society an Edison or a Darwin is rewarded with the pay of a hod-carrier. The hod-carrier gets all he's worth now. This instinct for the herd, which you call Solidarity and Brotherhood, is not a prophecy of progress; it is a memory—a memory of the dirt out of which humanity has slowly grown."

Gordon grunted contemptuously.

"Yet only a brute can be content with the cruelty and infamy of our present society."

"All our ills can be met by careful legislation. You propose to pull the tree up by the roots because you see bugs crawling on a limb."

Kate rose and left the room, saying she would return in a moment, and Overman leaned back in his chair again, gazing at the ceiling.

Suddenly straightening himself, he drew his brow down close over his eye, half closing its lid, bent toward Gordon, and in a low tone slowly asked:

"But I would like to know, Frank, what in the devil you really meant by that 'Freedom and Fellowship' in marriage?"

"Just what I said."

"Bah! You don't mean to apply such tommyrot to your own wife now that she's yours?"

"Certainly."

"It's beyond belief that you're such a fool. You say to your wife and to the world, 'This peerless woman is my comrade, but she is free; take her if you can.'"

Gordon laughed.

"Yes; but, Mark, old boy, God has not yet made the man who can take her from me."

The one eye dreamily closed, the banker whistled softly, and said:

"I see."



CHAPTER XXIII

THE NEW HEAVEN



Overman had appeared on the scene of Kate's life in a peculiar crisis. Married two years, she had passed through the period of love's ecstacy which woman finds first in self-surrender. She had just reached the point of sex growth when a revolt against man's dominion became inevitable.

This mood of revolt was made stronger by Gordon's fret over her social gatherings. In the dim light of the pulpit, preaching with mystic elation, he had seemed to her a god. Now, in the full blaze of physical possession, the divine glow had paled about his brow. She had found him only a man, self-conscious, egotistic and domineering. He had many personal habits she did not like. He was overfastidious in his dress, and critical and fussy about her lack of order in housekeeping. He was finicky about his food. He hated tea, declaring the odour made him sick. She felt this a covert thrust at her five-o'clocks.

To his criticisms she at last coolly replied:

"I claim the perfect freedom you preach. I will do as I please. You can do the same."

He laughed in a weak sort of way and declared he liked her independence.

At this moment of reaction, satiety, and the beginning of friction he had introduced her to Overman. His candour, his brutal realism, his defiance and scorn for poetic theories, presented to her the sharp contrast which made him doubly fascinating. Just at the moment Gordon was growing peevishly dogmatic in the reiteration of his ideals, she had suffered a physical disillusioning and begun to tire of poetry.

The sheer brute power of the other man, the incarnation of the thing that is, with a cynic's contempt for dreams and dreamers, had given voice to her own rebellion and drawn her resistlessly.

The boyish tenderness underlying Overman's nature, which she discovered later, had made his ugliness and brute strength added charms.

He had a pathetic way of looking at her with a doglike worship, as though conscious of his defects, which pleased and nattered her own sense of the perfection of beauty.

They were seated in his box at the Metropolitan Opera House while Gordon was at the farewell banquet to his foreign delegates.

"I feel," he said, bitterly, "every time I see this play of 'Faust,' and hear Edouard De Reszke's deep bass speak for His Majesty the Devil, that His Majesty really made this world. I'd know it but for the paradox of such divine perfection before my eyes in the living reality of a woman like you."

His voice throbbed with earnestness.

"I'm growing to love the world. It's a beautiful old place," she answered, with a lazy smile.

"Well, it's the only one I'm likely to travel in, so I'm going to make the best of it, work with its mighty forces, dare and defy the fools who cross my purposes. If the future has for me only pain, I'll not complain. I'll grin and bear it, but I'll confess to you I get a little lonely sometimes."

Her eyes lifted with surprise.

"I never heard you admit that before."

"No; and what's more, no one else ever did or ever will."

He looked at her pathetically, and a deeper colour flooded her cheeks.

When they reached home Gordon had just returned from the banquet and was bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"Mark, we have had a grand time to-night—organised a movement that will put out a sign 'To Let' on every den of thieves in Wall Street."

"What? Founded another church already?"

"A new Brotherhood within the Church Universal."

Overman shrugged his shoulders.

"Talk plain English. What will be its name at Police Headquarters?"

Gordon smilingly and proudly replied, "The Federated Democracy of the World."

"H'm; what are you going to do? Federate the hobos of all tongues and demand better straw in empty freight cars and shorter stops at sidings for express trains to pass?"

"Our purpose will be to inaugurate the Cooperative Commonwealth of Man. The movement will bring into harmonious action the insurgent forces of the world. Within ten years an earthquake will shake the social fabric. Within twenty years profound political and social revolutions will lift the human race over centuries of plodding into a new world of real liberty, equality, and fraternity."

Overman growled cynically.

"That has a French accent. I hear there are fifty thousand active Socialists in France divided into exactly fifty thousand factions. Which division of this grand army will lead the movement in Gaul?"

Gordon ignored his interruption, and his voice thrilled with passionate eloquence.

"We have abolished crowns and scepters. It is a moral and physical absurdity that, in a democracy, a whiskered babe, whose labour value to society is just ten dollars a week, should inherit millions of dollars that give him the power over men more terrible, absolute and irresponsible than a Caesar ever wielded over the empire of the world. No wonder our papers shiver when these babes sneeze, and report their daily life with servile pride."

"And would the oil of anointment of your new king, the walking delegate, be strong enough to temper the onion in his breath? I'd like to know that before drawing too near the throne." The banker's mouth twisted into a sneer with the last word.

"This new Democracy will itself be the highest nobility, an ethical aristocracy, and when it comes the Kingdom of Heaven will be at hand."

The one eye glanced quickly at the speaker and blinked.

"Let me know before it gets here," said Overman, a reminiscent look overspreading his rugged face, while Kate leaned closer with eager interest.

"Why?"

"Because I'm going somewhere. When I was a boy I had to go to church. Our old preacher faithfully urged us for hours at a time to get ready for heaven, a glorious place away up in space where all wore crowns and there wasn't a Democrat in town, everybody played psalms on big gold harps, and every day was Sunday. I early learned to hate heaven and look on hell as my only home. Now you come along, rub hell off the map, and threaten me with a heaven here on earth worse than the old one. Hell would be a summer resort to this thing you've conjured up. If it comes, I'll get off the earth."

"Get your flying machine ready."

"Oh, ten cents' worth of 'rough on rats' will do me."

Gordon shook his head thoughtfully.

"It's a strange thing to me you conservatives are blind to the coming of this revolution. It will be the grimmest joke Fate ever played on the pride of man. Within the generation now living a Cooperative Commonwealth will supplant the whole system of slave wages."

The banker suddenly straightened his massive neck and his eye flashed.

"You mean establish a system of universal slavery. Suppose under your maudlin cry of brotherhood you set up your fool's paradise, where would reside the authority of your Commonwealth?"

"In the State, of course."

"And who would be the State? You talk about the State as though it were some mysterious Ark of the Covenant of God, let down out of heaven and enshrined in capitals of marble. The State is simply made out of common dirt called Tom, Dick and Harry, whom a lot of other plain Toms, Dicks and Harrys set up in power. Will not your pig-pen you call the Cooperative Commonwealth have men in charge with authority to call the pigs to dinner and drive them to the fields to root?"

"Certainly, there must be authority," Gordon snapped.

Overman mused a moment.

"Yet your patron saint, William Morris, proclaims a heaven here below without law, where man kills his fellow man and answers only to his own conscience; where we will tear up the railroads and walk, blow up our steamships and use rowboats, in our harvest fields the whetstone on the old hand-scythe will still the music of the McCormick reaper. With his delicate tastes he fears the hoof-beat of your herd. But you all agree that to go backward means to go forward, and that the way to save civilisation is to lapse into barbarism. Whether you call yourselves Socialist or Anarchist—that is, whether you long for the herd or the solitude of the forest, you mean the same thing and don't know it, that your mind has not been able to adjust itself to the speed of modern progress, and has broken down under the strain. You preach 'Fellowship,' herd-life, as the cure. You believe in law and authority."

"Yes," Gordon cried, with pride. "Our ideal is constructive in the largest and noblest sense."

"And if a man can work and will not work?"

"He will be made to work."

"Very well. Suppose your pig heaven established and the herd duly penned. The Labour Master of your local pen would naturally be a man after the heart of the herd. He would be a greasy Labour agitator. No other man could be elected. Suppose he should become interested in the extraordinary beauty of your wife. Suppose you were presumptuous enough to resent this, and, in revenge for your insolence, your Master transferred you, the scholar, idealist and orator, to the task of cleaning the spittoons in the City Hall, and ordered your wife to scrub the floor of his office. You both refuse, you who walk with your head among the stars, What then? The dirty-fingered one, your Labour Master, sends you to prison for the first offense. For the second, you would be stripped, placed in the public stocks and flogged, man and woman alike in this kingdom of equality. For, mark you, enforced labour is the only possible foundation of such a society."

Gordon listened with dreamy disgust.

"You've set up a man of straw. In this new world each would choose his work and labour would be a joy," he answered, with lofty scorn.

The banker chuckled.

"No doubt they would all choose joyous jobs. But there would be a surplus of joyous labourers hunting for joyful tasks, and a dearth of fools looking for disagreeable work. In your pig paradise everything must be fixed. There could be no uncertainty about the future—no worry, or fret, or anxiety—hence no hopes or fears. Man would be guaranteed food, clothes, shelter and children, just as the chattel slave. There could be no inducement to work unless compelled to, and no man except an idiot would do a disagreeable task unless forced to do it. You must remember there could be no lawyers or bankers, preachers or orators. The chief occupation of your Labour Master would be the assignment of people he didn't like to the hard, dirty jobs, and the granting of favourite tasks to such people as made themselves agreeable to His Majesty. Witness the master of the Russian Commune, who is notoriously the lord of all the wives of the village."

Overman was still a moment, and then growled from the depths of his being:

"I call this the lowest, the most degrading, the most bestial nightmare the human mind ever dreamed!"

Gordon waved him off with an eloquent gesture.

"You have assumed that a free commonwealth of godlike men and women would choose their worst units for their leaders."

"Nothing of the sort," he snapped. "I've supposed they would do the inevitable—choose the strongest man who looks like the majority and smells like the majority."

"A bad man would be removed," the dreamer quickly replied.

"What difference if your master be changed by an election now and then? All the worse. If I am to be a slave, I prefer the old chattel system with a master whose favour I could win and hold for life by faithful service. The old slaves often loved their masters. Could you love the Executive Officer of a Bureau for the Enforcement of Labour? Do convicts become infatuated with their keepers? To assassinate such a man would become a positive joy. How many years of such life would it take to crush out of the human soul the last spark of hope and aspiration and reduce man to a beast?"

"But we affirm the inherent divinity of man. You assume him to be a child of the devil."

There was another silence, and then the banker's brow wrinkled.

"Affirm. Yes, you fellows are all orators. You must affirm else the crowd will leave you. You never have doubts and fears. You always know. Only affirm a thing enough and never try to prove it, and thousands of fools will accept it at last as the word of God. That is the secret of the power of all demagogues and emotional orators. The slickest horse-thief that ever operated in the West was a revivalist who migrated there with a tent. While he held the crowd spellbound with his eloquence, his confederates loosed the horses in the woods and got them to a safe place. Oratory is one of the cheapest tricks ever played on man, but an everlastingly effective one, because it is based on affirmation. Any man who is too hard-headed and honest to affirm a thing he don't know and can't know never leads a mob. They will only follow a man who speaks with the sublime authority of knowledge he does not possess."

While Overman was talking Gordon's brow clouded as he watched Kate's face flash with interest and a smile now and then play between her eyes and lips.

"We seem to be developing another orator," he slowly answered.

Overman pursed his lips.

"I haven't wasted so much breath in a long time. Your French programme stirred me. I wonder if you recalled the decline of the French nation in modern times, and its causes, in arranging for your conquest of France? A little while ago the Anglo-Saxon race numbered but a few millions, and the Latin ruled the world. Now the flag of the Anglo-Saxon flies over one-fourth the inhabitants of the globe, his army can withstand the combined armies of the world, his navy rules the sea, and his wealth is so great he could buy the entire possessions of the rest of mankind. Why? Because he developed the most powerful individual man in history, while other races have sought refuge in the herd idea of communal interests. I noticed you never preach now from the old text, 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his life?' Why save the world if you destroy man?"

But Gordon had ceased to listen to Overman. With his great blue-veined fist clenched on his chin and a new gleam of light in his steel-gray eyes he was watching his wife's face.



CHAPTER XXIV

COURTIER AND QUEEN



Overman was quick to detect the hostility of his friend's unusual silence, and hastily rose.

"Excuse me, old boy," he said, apologetically, "if I've hit too hard. I think the world of you in spite of your fool theories. You know that."

"Don't worry, Mark," he answered, carelessly. "I haven't been listening to you at all. I've been thinking of something else. Life's too short to pay any attention to your big Philistine jaw."

The banker smiled.

"Well, you have the instrument handy with which Samson slew the Philistine."

"Yes, if you would only loan it to me. Goodnight."

When he had gone, Kate leaned back on the lounge and said with evident amusement:

"You forgot something in parting with your old schoolmate."

"Yes, I thought it quite unnecessary to tell him to drop in any time, unless you wish to let the front room."

A tremor of catlike fun slyly played about her mouth.

"And yet women have been called fickle. Mr. Overman was no college chum of mine."

"No; but he is evidently trying to make up for it now."

A low musical laugh seemed to come from the depth of Kate's spirit.

"And I thought I was pleasing you by neglecting my Bohemians and cultivating your powerful friend."

"Still it is not necessary to hang on his words with such melting interest," he said, with quiet emphasis.

She looked up sharply and a gleam of cruelty flashed from her blue eyes and struck the steel-gray in his. Beneath the quiet words of the man and woman there was raging the mortal struggle of will and personality, the woman in fierce rebellion, his iron egotism demanding submission.

"'Oh, I see," she purred, softly. "There is to be but one man-god, arrayed and beautiful, if I may quote your formula. There may be many women-gods in paradise. I saw Ruth in the Temple the first Sunday you spoke, hanging on your words as the voice of the Lord."

Gordon flushed and turned uneasily in his chair.

"I'd as well be frank with you, Kate. Overman is coming to this house too often. I was shocked beyond measure when I failed to find you in your accastomed seat on the Sunday of the dedication of the Temple. I was told you were in the gallery with him."

She straightened herself up suddenly.

"You took the pains to find that out?"

"Yes."

She fixed on him a look of scorn.

"And stooped to ask an usher instead of asking me? You, who boldly say to the world that I am your free comrade, the mate and equal of man?"

"An odd way you took to show comradeship in such an hour," he answered, doggedly.

"Am I a slave, to sit in solemn rapture at your feet and await your nod?"

"You seemed to eagerly await the nod of another man to-night."

She laughed.

"Am I not your serene-browed Grecian goddess whose untamed eyes of primeval womanhood proclaim the end of slave marriage?"

Gorden winced, scowled and was silent.

"I like the beautiful ceremony you invented. I've memorised every word of it," she said, teasingly.

He sat for several minutes sullenly looking at her with a strange fire in his eyes, now and then moistening his lips as though they burned.

At length he said: "It will be necessary for you to go to his office to-morrow to sign papers in the transfer of the deed of the Temple to me. The lawyers informed me to-day that everything was in readiness for your signature. After this event there will be no business requiring your further attendance at his bank."

She closed her eyes lazily.

"I am not going to sign any such deed," came the firm answer.

Gordon turned pale, nervously fumbled at his watch-chain and stammered:

"Kate, you don't mean this?"

"I do."

The man hesitated, as though stunned.

"After your announcement to the world, and all that has passed between us, would you humiliate me by the withdrawal of your gift?"

She lifted her beautiful brows.

"Humiliate you? Surely I have honoured you with the richest gift woman can bestow on man: myself. The ownership of property can have no meaning after this. I claim my rights as your equal. Your eloquence and genius give you power. This money is scarcely its equivalent. You have your Temple, and I still have my fortune. Its investment in this building has enhanced its value. What more can you ask?"

"The fulfilment of your word of honour to the cause of truth," he firmly answered.

She smiled.

"Nonsense! You were my cause, my truth—the god I worshiped. I desired you. Now at closer range the aureole has slightly faded, though you are as handsome as ever, Frank, dear. What is money between us? We are equals. I will take the worry of financial details off your shoulders and leave you free for your inspiring work."

Gordon's eyes grew soft; he went over to the lounge on which she was resting, sat down and slipped his arm about her.

The full lips smiled with conscious cruelty.

He bent and kissed her passionately.

"You are my priceless treasure, my dear. I am honoured in your beauty and love. Money is nothing to me, so long as you are mine."

She drew his head down and kissed him in a sudden burst of intensity.

"You know I love you, Frank!"

"And we must not quarrel," he said, wistfully, slipping to his knees with one arm still encircling her waist. "You and I have gone through too much for harsh words or thoughts to ever shadow our life. But you must give me more of your time, and other men less. A growing uneasiness and the loss of the sense of finality in life are robbing me of my capacity for thought and work."

"Not so bad as that surely," she cried, with teasing laughter. "You're not afraid of losing me?"

"No; but you will promise?" he asked, tenderly.

She placed one of her arms about his neck, a soft warm hand under his chin, and, still laughing, slowly kissed him and murmured:

"I'll do just what I please, and you may do the same."



CHAPTER XXV

THE IRONY OF FATE



Morris King had ended a brilliant campaign for the Governorship of New York with victory. The entire ticket was elected by large pluralities.

The campaign had given scope to his ability, and he more than fulfilled the hopes of his friends. From the moment of his election, he became the leader of the party in the nation, and began at once the work of strengthening his position as a Presidential possibility.

Yet in the din and clash of this battle in which his personal fortunes, his future career, and perhaps the destiny of a great national party hung, he had not forgotten Ruth.

He made it a point every day, wherever he was, or whatever the task or excitement of the hour, to write her a love letter. Sometimes it was only a few lines hastily scrawled while on the train between stations where he addressed the crowds at each stop. Sometimes he sent a dainty box of flowers.

She never replied to his letters or little gifts. But it made no difference. He kept steadily on the course he had mapped out, dogged, purposeful, persistent.

The night of the election, when he received the first assurance of his success, before he spoke to any of his lieutenants or received a single congratulation, he closed his door, locked it, and called Ruth over his telephone, which he had connected with her house by special secret arrangement that afternoon.

He recognised her soft contralto voice, and his hand trembled with the joy of the triumph which he felt brought him nearer to his heart's desire.

He was so excited he could not speak for a moment, and again the low soft voice called,

"What is it? Who is it?"

"This is Morris, Ruth. My door is locked, and this is a private wire connected with your house; I am alone with you and God. I am the Governor-elect of New York. I have spoken to no one until I tell you. One word from you I will prize more than all the shouts of the world with which the streets will ring in a moment."

There was a movement of the phone at the other end.

"With all my heart I congratulate you, Morris. You are a great man. I can never tell you how deeply I feel the delicate honour you pay me."

The man sighed and his voice was husky with emotion.

"Ah! Ruth, if you only meant that conventional phrase, 'with all my heart,' I'd be the happiest man in the world to-night. But I must go; the boys are trying to beat the door down. My success I lay at your feet, my love. When you hear the shouts of hosts and see the sky red to-night with illuminations, remember that it is all for you. I am yours.—Good-by."

She sat at her window long past the hour of midnight and watched the blaze of rockets from end to end of Manhattan, over Brooklyn, and from the farthest sand-beaches of Coney Island, dreaming with open eyes, soft with tears, of the mystery of love and life.

The unterrified Democracy of the great city had gone mad with joy over their daring young leader's success. She could hear the distant murmur of the tumult of thousands of shouting, screaming men packed around Tammany Hall, filling Fourteenth Street in solid mass, jamming Union Square and Madison Square and surging round the Madison Square Garden, where a jollification meeting of twenty thousand cheering, excited men was in progress. It sounded like the boom and roar of some far-off sea breaking on the rocks and echoing among the cliffs. All Harlem was ablaze with bonfires now, and the tumult of horns and shouting boys filled the streets on Washington Heights.

She sighed and rested her dimpled chin in her hand.

"Surely, I must be a foolish woman to cling to Frank and reject the glory and strength of this old sweetheart's chivalrous love! I cannot help it. He is my husband. I love him. Perhaps he may need me some dark night in life. Who knows? If he calls, I will be ready."

The year had proved a trying one to Ruth. The sensation of the completion of the Temple and the stir made by its dedication had increased Gordon's fame, and the story of her sorrow had been repeated again and again. A hundred petty details, utterly false, had been added as the story had passed from paper to paper, until she was afraid to look in a public print lest she find her own name staring her in the face. From the Socialist point of view, she was attacked as a blatant scold who had made her husband's life intolerable, until he had been rescued by the beautiful woman who was now his wife. By the conservative press, she was timidly defended, damned by faint praise and humiliated by pity.

The children, growing rapidly, were beginning to feel the mother's position. In the public schools, the story of her life and desertion by her husband had tipped the tongues of the spiteful with poison, and Lucy had come home more than once trying to conceal from her mother the hurt of her sensitive child's soul.

Morris King, now the distinguished Governor-elect, hastened to press his suit.

Her faithful knight, he was now laying lovingly at her feet the tribute of a powerful man's life.

To every worldly view of her position and future his suit was a temptation well nigh resistless. His love had stood the test of years. He would worship her as his wife as he had worshiped her as his ideal. She knew this by an intuition as unerring as that by which she knew she could never love him as she loved Gordon. And yet she felt a singular dependence on him, and a tender gratitude for the protection he had given her life.

He knew his position was strong, and pressed it with quiet intensity. He was careful that his attentions should not become the subject of public comment, and the tongue of gossip cause her pain. Not for one moment did he doubt that he would win.

The Sunday before his inauguration he spent with her, and, much to his disgust, she insisted on going to the Pilgrim Church.

"Of all churches, Ruth, for heaven's sake don't go there," he pleaded, with impatience.

"Yes," she quietly answered. "I've tried the others. I don't seem at home. I've ceased to mind what any one there thinks. The congregation has changed completely in the past two years, Deacon Van Meter tells me. He called to see us the other day to ask after the children and my financial welfare, offering to help me in any way his experience could serve me. He has aged very much lately, and the death of his wife seems to have completely broken the old man's heart. He has withdrawn from business entirely. My sorrow seems to have touched him in a very tender spot. He begged me in such an earnest way to come back to the church and join in its work, I've made up my mind to go."

King rubbed his hand over his head hopelessly.

"Well, if you've made up your mind, you will go. Ruth, you are the hardest-headed woman to have such a beautiful spirit I ever knew."

The dark eyes smiled into his face.

"You may go with me, Morris."

He took up his cane and coat.

"I'll grudge the minutes I can't talk, but I'll sit and look at you. You are growing more beautiful every day, Ruth. I am grateful for the honour you are going to do me in attending the inauguration. I'll agree to anything you say to-day."

They slipped into a seat under the gallery unobserved. The new usher did not recognise either Ruth or her distinguished escort.

The services moved her with a strange power. In every hymn she heard the deep rich voice of Gordon as she had seen him so often stand in that pulpit. The swell of the organ's full notes throbbed with his memory. The man she heard was no longer the new pastor, but her beloved, and she was living over again the sweet days of the past when he was her own and she had filled his life.

The preacher was reading the most beautiful psalm in the language of man: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul."

A strange peace came over her as the music of these grand old sentences, throbbing with the passionate faith of centuries, swept her heart.

He was reading from the old Bible that rested on the same golden lectern pulpit Gordon had hurled behind him that awful day in their history. The same crimson cloth he had twisted into a shapeless mass and thrown aside once more hung from its front. She could see a ragged break in the gold of the cross where his enormous hand had crushed it that day.

The thought of God's eternal life and unchanging purpose, binding all time within His mighty plan, soothed her spirit. Men might come and go behind that pulpit and from its pews, but the Church of God, symbol of the eternal, would go on forever. In the deep rhythm of the psalm to which she listened she felt the heart-beat of its continuous unbroken life stretching back to creation's dawn and on until Time shall roll into the ocean of Eternity.

Suddenly the red blood leaped from her heart with a thought, "What God hath joined together man cannot put asunder!"

King's face grew somber as he saw her elation.

He knew that some mysterious spirit had suddenly dropped a veil between them.

When they returned home she was very quiet and her dark eyes shone with unusual brilliance.

"Ruth, you are thinking of that man," he said, with a scowl.

She nodded gently.

King trembled and his fists clenched.

"I could kill him, the great egotistical brute! How strange the madness that binds a woman to the man to whom she first surrenders! I sometimes think it is the most blind, pathetic and tragic instinct that ever shadowed the soul of a human being. It is degrading. You are a woman of character and intelligence. You must shake off this peasant's mania."

She shook her head with a yearning, mystic look.

"I believe God had a great purpose when He made a woman's heart like that. I love him. My very soul and body have become in some mysterious way one with him."

King's eyes blazed.

"Yet he flaunts his love for another woman in your face."

She flinched as from a blow, but answered tenderly.

"Yes; he is mad now. The flesh has mastered the spirit in its struggle for the moment. She holds his body"—a pause and a smile—"but his soul is mine. He may not know it now. He will some day. I know it, and I abide God's time."

"How long can you hold such a delusion, I wonder?" he asked, with angry amazement.

"Forever." she softly whispered.

He drew himself up with grim force.

"I am going to win you, Ruth," he said, slowly lingering with his lips over her name as though he could taste its sweetness.

He looked at her beautiful face and figure tenderly and with an intensity that gave to his eyes a strange glitter.

She turned from him with a sigh and gazed on Gordon's portrait hanging over the mantel.

"No, Morris. I have made up my mind to play my part in harmony with Love's eternal law. If the world is full of discord, I will still make the sweetest music my soul can sing. I will not try to drown the din, but in my own way sing in perfect time with the beat of God's heart. Perhaps some soul beside me on life's way will catch the note, and it will not be in vain. This may be a blind instinct, but it is not degrading. He who counts the beat of a sparrow's wing, teaches the stork her appointed time, and whispers his call to the swallow in the autumn wind, will not lead me astray."

The man shaded his eyes with his hand as though to hide their misery.

"You are throwing your sweet life away," he said, reproachfully.

"But I shall find it again. When I see the fury of murder in your eyes, and gaze into the gulf of fierce passions into which Frank has descended, I cannot seek my own happiness. The sense of motherhood, the feeling of kinship to all women, brings to me again the certainty that I am right, that one great love unto death can alone give the soul peace and strength, and give to man and the world happiness."

He bent forward quickly.

"But if he were dead you might love me?"

"Not as I love him."

"He is dead a thousand times to you and your life," he cried, bitterly. "He is your wilful murderer. You will see this by and by, and I will win you. I will be content with such love as you can give me. Mine will be so full, so tender, so warm it will be resistless."

She shook his hand kindly and bade him good-by.

"I will send a carriage for you and the children to-morrow. You will go to the capital with me in my private car."

"I'd rather not, Morris, but I have promised you, and it shall be so."

The ceremony of the inauguration was the most elaborate seen at Albany in years.

Tammany came to the capital thirty thousand strong, and thirty thousand strong they marched through the streets, with their shining silk hats glistening in the sun and their lusty throats shouting for their leader. They had voted the ticket faithfully, and sometimes too often the same day, unkind critics had said, in the years of the past, but for the first time in generations they had placed a full-fledged Grand Sachem of their own Great Wigwam in the Governor's chair, and they made the welkin ring. In the joy of their faces, the steady hoof-beat of their big feet on the pavement and the stalwart pride with which they marched, one saw the secret of their victory. They were in dead earnest. Politics was the breath they breathed and the blood that fed their hearts.

King felt the contagion of their loyalty and enthusiasm, and his inaugural address was inspired and inspiring.

He placed Ruth and the children in choice seats near the speaker's stand, and in every movement of his body, every word and accent, from the moment he appeared till the last shout of his victorious henchmen died away, he was conscious of her presence.

She could feel the intensity of his powerful will pressing upon her in this triumph he was deliberately laying at her feet.

When the ceremonies were over, and his address was being flashed over a thousand wires, he sent the children for a drive, and showed Ruth over the stately executive mansion. He knew the hour was propitious, and he had planned to make a desperate attempt to win some sort of promise from her for their future.

"Now, Ruth," he said, softly, "sit here on this sofa by the open fire. We will be alone for awhile. I've something to show you."

His face was still aglow from the excitement of his triumph. He drew from his inner pocket an official envelope tied with a piece of ribbon.

She leaned over with interest, thinking he was going to read to her some scheme of legislation on which he had been at work.

Instead he drew out a package of her old letters and a lot of faded flowers—every scrap of paper and trinket she had ever given him in her life. He showed her each one, and gave the history of every flower, when she had given it to him, and what she had said.

Ruth buried her face in her hands, and he silently watched her.

"This one," he cried, with a tremor in his voice and a tightening about his eyes, "you gave me the night I took you to that ball at the Hygeia. How soft and delicate your hand felt as you placed it in the lapel of my coat! I could see myself, as in a mirror, in your great dark laughing eyes. I never saw that picture again, Ruth, and the laughter went out of them forever. They were always full of storm and shadows for me after that night."

Her lips were trembling as she turned these leaves from the story of the sunlit days of her girlhood.

The man went on steadily and passionately. "I could show you messages to-day from scores of national leaders offering me their support for the Presidency. This token I am going to show you now has no value to the world or at a bank, but there is not money enough on this earth to buy it."

He drew from his pocketbook a little pink-covered tintype of a boy and girl.

The tapering fingers shook as she held it.

"This is the one priceless treasure I own—this little old tintype we had taken together in fun one day in the tent of the strolling photograph man. You remember he guessed we were sweethearts, and grouped us by the old rules he knew so well. You see, he placed me solemnly in his single chair, with my legs crossed, and made you stand close beside and put your beautiful hand with its slender fingers on my shoulder. You laughed and took it down. He scowled, and put it back, and told you to behave. It was your birthday. You were just seventeen. I was not half as proud to-day, when those thousands who love me shouted and hailed me as their chief, as I was that moment with your dear soft hand on my shoulder. I have felt it there every hour since. You see, I have kissed it until I've worn your face almost away, but the smile is still there."

He took her hand gently.

"Ruth, dear, let me bring the smile back to your living face. These great rooms will be empty and lonely. I wish to hear the patter of your children's feet in them, and the echo of your soft footsteps behind them. You are just thirty-five, in the full glory of perfect womanhood, far more beautiful than this girl of seventeen. Promise me that at the end of a year you will be mine, and let me make your life as glorious to the world as the beauty of your soul and body is to me—you, the forsaken, whom fools pity or blame."

Looking away through her tears, she gently withdrew her hand, bent low and burst into sobs.

"No, no, no! I love him. He is my husband!"



CHAPTER XXVI

AT CLOSE QUARTERS



Ruth had been deeply shaken by the events of the inauguration. She returned to New York in the Governor's private car in a dazed stupor, from which she did not recover for several days.

Morris King's appeal had stirred elements of her character she had long ignored or suppressed. The old pride of blood from races who had been the conquerors and rulers of the world began to beat its wings against the bars of love.

The special swept along the banks of the majestic Hudson, roaring through cities where she saw crowded express trains held on the side tracks for her to pass.

She drew herself up proudly, and a wave of fierce resentment against the man who had deserted her came like a blast of icy wind from the snow-tipped mountains beyond the western shore of the river.

The splendour of the stately mansion on the hill, the enthusiasm of the people for her old lover, his tenderness and deathless loyalty, and the memories that linked him to her in a cloudless girlhood, began to draw her with terrible fascination.

There was something so old-fashioned and chival-rous about King and his love, she felt a strange melting within her heart. This element of romance she knew he had inherited from her own medieval, home-loving South which she loved. It appealed to her now with a peculiar force—this old-fashioned people and their ways, and a sense of alienation and hostility to Gordon and his radicalism swept once more the storm-clouds across her dark eyes.

She began to question her position and the sanity of her course. She felt the stirrings of social instincts from the high-bred women of old Virginia, the Mother of Presidents and the home of the great constructive minds which had created the Republic. She knew instinctively that she could preside over the White House at Washington with the ease and distinction of the proudest woman who had ever graced it.

Her old lover seemed certain to be the nominee of his party, and his chance of election was one in two. Whatever the outcome, he was young and already a figure of national importance. He was sure to play a greater role in the future than he had ever played in the past.

The idea that she ruled his life and made him what he was, and might be, brought a smile to her lips and the red blood to her cheeks. His fame as a man of cold and selfish ambitions made her knowledge of the secret of his inner life the more sacred and charming.

For two months this battle of pride and blood with the one great passion silently raged in her soul, until she became afraid to hear the ring of her doorbell lest it should be the Governor.

She determined to go to Florida for two weeks on a visit to an old schoolmate in Tampa. There, amid the sunshine and the soft breezes from the gulf, she hoped to see her life and duty in clearer outline.

It was the first week in March which found her seated in the centre of a Pullman car of the Florida Limited of the Atlantic Coast Line.

The train had passed Richmond and was sweeping through the desolate broom-sedge fields still furrowed by those mortal trenches around Petersburg.

Her father had been killed in one of those trenches, a gallant colonel cheering a ragged handful of half-starved men in gray, unmindful of the order of retreat until engulfed by the grand army that swept over them like a tidal wave.

She took the children into the dining-car and found every table full except one, and two seats at that one already reserved. Lucy was placed next to the window, Frank next to the aisle, and the mother crowded between them with an arm encircling each.

She had given the order to the waiter, and was pointing out to Lucy the lines of the battle-field on which her father had died.

"There, dear, it is," she said, with a tremor in her voice, pointing to an angle in the trench on the crest of a ridge. "There is where grandfather was killed."

While Lucy looked and Frank climbed into her lap and was peering out the window, the conductor placed a beautiful woman and tall, distinguished-looking man in the reserved seats at the same table, opposite.

The boy turned, still on his knees, in his mother's lap, and faced the newcomers, whom Ruth had not been able to see for the child's movements.

He stared for a moment at the man with wide-dilated eyes, his body suddenly stiffened, and with a half sob, half cry, he sprang to the floor.

"Look! Mama, dear—look! It's Papa!"

He threw himself on Gordon, and his little arms held his neck convulsively.

The man blushed like a girl as his great trembling fingers smoothed the boy's hair.

Kate's face was scarlet, Ruth turned pink and white, and Lucy, trembling and sobbing, began to scramble across her mother's lap.

The boy's hands tenderly framed his father's crimson cheeks, he kissed him, and again and again his arms clung in passionate clasp about his neck.

"Oh, Papa, we've got you at last! Why didn't you come? We've been praying, Lucy and me, every night for you, and we thought you'd never come back. Mama said you'd gone a long, long way—"

Ruth was choking with emotion, and yet she smiled through her tears. She knew those tiny hands were deep down in the man's soul sweeping his heart-strings with wild, sweet music.

The brunette looked across the table into the trembling face of the fair one. The dark eyes were now tranquil, whatever the storm within. A faint sinile suffused her face with mantling blushes.

Lucy pulled the boy's arms from around her father's neck and slipped her own softer, slender ones there. She kissed him, and laid her brown curls on his breast. Her little hands patted his broad shoulder, and she murmured:

"Papa, dear, I love you!"

Kate attempted to rise, bit her lip, and fairly hissed in Gordon's ear:

"End this scene! Find another table!"

Gordon drew Lucy's arm from his neck and whispered:

"They are all filled, my dear."

The blue eyes blazed with fury as she cried under her breath:

"Get up and let me out!"

Gordon gently drew the children's arms away, placed them back in their seats, rose, still blushing, and accompanied Kate back into their car.

At first the boy was too astonished to speak or protest. When he found his voice he whispered in wonder:

"Mama, who is she?"

Ruth placed a finger on her trembling lips and shook her head.

"Will she let him come back?" he asked, anxiously.

"Hush, dear," the mother said, softly.

The boy put his arms on the table and burst into tears.

Lucy sat very quiet, glancing into her mother's face wistfully. And then she felt under the table, found one of her hands and began to stroke it gently.

When Gordon returned to his car, immediately behind the one in which Ruth was riding, Kate sat for half an hour in furious silence, refusing to speak or answer a question. He had never seen her so beside herself with anger.

She turned on him in a sudden flash and asked with frowning emphasis:

"I wonder why you dragged me off on this idiotic trip?"

"I was worn out and needed the rest," he answered, quietly.

She looked at him with defiance.

"I don't believe a word of it," she said, indignantly. "You wish to get me out of New York. You were too much of a coward to tell Overman your suspicions that he was trying to win your wife."

Gordon looked out of the window in silence.

"We will stop at the next station and go back. I don't care for any more free vaudeville shows in the dining-car."

"Don't be absurd, my dear; you need not meet again."

Gordon smiled in spite of himself.

Tears of vexation filled the violet eyes. "For all of your loud talk of freedom, I believe you still love that first wife of yours! And I am beginning to despise you."

"Come, Kate, this is too absurd. How could I help the accident of such a meeting? I had not seen the children since our separation. She has always taught them to love me. How could I prevent it if I wished?"

"Yes; and you love her, too," she insisted stubbornly, and the full red lips trembled and parted, and then softened into a—smile.

"But don't flatter yourself I care, or am jealous, because this scene has humiliated and angered me. You're not worth a moment's jealousy, you great hulking baby!"

Gordon pressed the button and ordered a lunch served in their seat, and smilingly refused to continue the quarrel.

When the train crossed the North Carolina line it ran into the belt of the advancing spring rains from the South. At Wilson, it was pouring in torrents and had been raining steadily for two days. At Fayetteville, the train was an hour late, delayed by a washout.

Lucy had gone to sleep with her arm around her mother's neck and one hand resting softly on her cheek. Ruth's heart had been deeply touched by this gentle and silent sympathy of the dawning sex consciousness of her daughter's soul. The quick little eyes had seen the tragedy, and a voice within whispered its soft words of new, mysterious kinship.

Soon after the train pulled out of Fayetteville it struck the long, straight run of the South Carolina low country. For thirty miles the track is as straight as an arrow, and before the gleaming headlight of the engine shows on the track the watchers at the stations can see the trembling light in the distant sky beyond the sixteen-mile line of the horizon.

The dark eyes were dozing in fitful sleep with the old spell of love once more enveloping the soul. She was dreaming of him, laughing at some boyish prank.

Over the straight track, down grade, the Limited was sweeping at full speed through the black storm.

Suddenly Ruth was awakened by a sickening crash as though the earth had collided with a star and been crushed as an egg-shell. The car seemed to leap a hundred feet into the air, plunge through space, and strike the ground with a dull smash that sent dust and splinters flying through every inch of space.

She instinctively seized the children, trembling and dazed, and hugged them close. Merciful God, would it never stop! Now the car was plowing through the earth—now falling end over end, straining, grinding, roaring, smashing into death and eternity!

At last—it had seemed an hour—it stopped with a shivering crash.

And then the blackness of night, the swash of gusts of rain overhead, and the moan of the wind. Not another sound. Not a groan or a cry or a human voice.

Was she dead or alive? Ruth felt she must scream this awful question or faint. The children began to sob and she gasped in gratitude:

"Thank God, they are not dead!"

She attempted to get out of her berth and found she must climb. The car was lying on its side. She looked out into the aisle through her curtains and everything was dark. The air choked her with dust, and she caught the odour of burning wool. Deep down below somewhere she could hear, in the lull of the wind, the roar of waters, and feel the car sway as though it were hanging on the edge of an embankment or trestle and about to topple into a torrent.

She pulled the children out into the aisle and tried to crawl toward the end of the car, only to find it crushed into a shapeless mass and the way piled with debris.

A light suddenly flashed up and the steady crackle of flames began. From the debris below came the scream of a woman for help.

She drew back her slender fist and tried to smash the double plate glass windows and only bruised her tapering fingers.

She found a step-ladder and broke the windows out.

Lifting herself on the seat, and peering through, she saw by the glare of the buring wreck the swirling waters of the river twenty feet below.

She rushed back to her berth, on the lower side, smashed the windows, and found the car resting on another sleeper. The blow had broken through both sets of windows.

She lightly sprang through and drew the children after her. A stifled groan, as from one straining the last muscle in some desperate effort, came from a berth. Rushing forward, still dragging the children, she found Kate pinned on her back, with the flames leaping closer each moment.

The violet eyes turned pitifully on Ruth, staring wide with the set agony of speechless fear and searched her face for the verdict of life.

A faint cry came from the full lips, white at the thought of death:

"Help me, for God's sake; I'll be burning in a moment!"

Did the dark eyes waver with an instant's hesitation as she thought of her children imperiled by the delay and of the shame this woman's life meant to her? If so, she who cried did not see it. Swiftly the lithe form sprang to the rescue. She ran her hands over Kate's magnificent figure and tore her robe loose where it was pinioned between the timbers, loosed the wealth of auburn hair caught in the snap of the folding rack of the berth, and she was free.

She took Ruth's hand and kissed it impulsively.

"Thank you. You are an angel."

"Come, we will be burned to death if we don't get out of here in a minute," Ruth cried, excitedly.

She found the berth ladder she had thrown through the window and broke the windows out on the lower side of the car, and called:

"Is any one down there?"

Only the roar of the water and crackling flames answered.

She looked and saw a strip of ground on the bank of the river some eight feet below. They might slide down the trestle if no one could help.

The black eyes flashed into the blue for a moment and the little brunette face went white.

"Where is Frank?" she gasped.

Kate shivered and glanced at the flames.

"I don't know. He was in the berth in front of mine. I hope he is gone for help."

Ruth handed her the children and leaped back to the berth. It was smashed upward and a great hole torn through the roof.

She hurried back and again peered down through the broken window at the narrow strip of ground on the river's brink lit by the rising flames.

And then she gave a cry of joy at the sound of a voice somewhere amid the mass beneath,

"Ruth! Ruth! Is that you and the children in that car?"

"Yes, Frank," came back the steady answer.

"Are you hurt?" he cried, with breathless intensity.

"I think not," she replied, cheerfully.

"Thank God!" she heard his deep voice burst out with trembling fervour.

"Have you seen Kate?" he called.

"Yes; she is here."

"Come, get out of there quick. You will be burned to death!" he shouted. "Hand the children to me and then swing down—I can catch you, one at a time."

She held the boy's hands and dropped him in his father's arms, then swung Lucy through and saw her clasp his neck and kiss him. She helped Kate hold and swing down into his arms. And when she felt him tremble at the touch of her own petite figure her arms tightened about his neck, she kissed him and whispered:

"My own dear love!"

They climbed up the river bank and walked around in the pouring rain, barefoot and treading on broken glass at every step.

Neither the conductor of the train or Pullman cars were anywhere to be seen. Only one porter appeared to have survived, and he sat moaning on a piece of debris.

The great engine, like a huge living monster that had seen with its single eye the abyss of the broken bridge in time, had leaped the chasm and gone plunging and faring over the ties and rails a half mile beyond the wreck, with the engineer and fireman clinging to it.

The lighter portion of the train had struck the embankment of the narrow river. The day cars were piled across the track beyond; the threes Pullmans, smashed and heaped on top of one another, hung on the edge of the broken bridge.

Gordon, with the two women and children, finally found a man who had some sense—a fat drummer seated on his sample-cases calmly putting on his shoes by the light of the burning cars.

He was talking to a younger drummer sitting near, who fidgeted and kept looking about nervously.

"Take it easy, sonny. Put on your shoes," he said, soothingly.

"This is awful!" the young one sighed.

"Well, we're all right, top side up, marked 'with care.' Don't worry. Put on your shoes. You can't walk in this glass barefoot."

When he saw Gordon and his party he stopped tying his shoes and laughed.

"Well, partner, you look like a patriarch who's lost his way. Ain't none of your family got shoes?"

He looked at Gordon's bleeding feet and at Kate and Ruth shivering behind him in the rain.

Gordon smiled and shook his head.

The fat man hastily pulled off his own shoes, snatched off those of the younger man beside him and offered them to the ladies.

"They won't be what you might call a stylish fit, madam," he said gallantly to Ruth, "but they'll beat broken glass for comfort."

Paying no attention to their protests, he made them sit down on the sample-cases and put them on.

Turning to Gordon and his companion, he called cheerfully:

"Come, men, that Pullman's full of blankets; we must get them out for the women and children before it's too late. It's too dark to find our umbrellas. I believe that fool conductor's got mine anyhow and gone home with it. I haven't seen him anywhere."

In a few minutes, he had blankets for all the passengers who had lost their clothes. By daybreak he had found the conductor, counted his tickets, and discovered that out of fifty passengers on the train twenty had been wounded, none fatally, and that thirty had escaped without a scratch. The train had dropped most of its passengers during the day and had only an average of ten people to a coach, and they were seated and sleeping near the centres of each car. By what seemed a miracle, none were killed.

Just as the sun rose, the drummer formed the passengers in line, with the conductor bringing up the rear, and marched them to a cabin where he saw smoke curling up from the edge of a field.

The relief train from Florence, four miles away, arrived at eight, just four hours from the time the accident occurred, bringing the surgeons and new officers to take charge, and the drummer resigned his command.

The new conductor took the name and address of each passenger as they sat in grim array swathed in blankets in the cabin.

Gordon gave the name of "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Gordon, New York," for himself and Kate, who sat beside him. Ruth, not hearing him, with an absent look gave the address, "Mrs. Frank Gordon, New York."

The conductor looked from one to the other, puzzled, and the drummer grinned.

"A Mormon Elder, by the Lord—and he lives in Gotham!" he whispered to the youngster he had in tow.

Lucy lay in her mother's lap suffering from an ugly gash across her forehead. Gordon had bathed her forehead as soon as he had discovered it, and carried her to the cabin, with her soft arms clinging around his neck.

He was watching her lips twitch.

She had grown in the three years out of all resemblance to the child he had left. Her eyes now looked at him with the timid light of a maiden.

As she had clung to him while he carried her to the house, he had felt her lips soft and warm with the dawn of sex when she kissed him and murmured:

"Papa, dear, it's so good to have you carry me. I love you."

For the first time there came into his soul the sweet and terrible realisation that his own flesh and blood had become one with Ruth's in the greatest miracle of earth, the heart of a woman—a woman who could live and suffer and whose heart could break even as her mother's! Her eyes were all his, her hair a perfect mixture of the pigments with which theirs had been coloured. The strength of the man trembled with tender pride and wonder as he looked at her—his living marriage vow, written out before his eyes in a beautiful poem of flesh and blood. In the gentle beauty of her face he saw reflected himself blended with the young vision of Ruth as he had first met her a laughing girl—the little stranger a growing woman, himself and his first love dream in one. Her face held him fascinated.

Kate watched him furtively.

The doctor examined and dressed Lucy's wound, and told Ruth it must be sewed up at once if the child were saved from an ugly scar that would disfigure her for life. He pronounced the heart action too weak from the shock to use an anesthetic.

"It can only be done, madam," he gravely said to her, "if you can get her consent to endure the pain."

"Will you bear it, dear?" the mother asked.

She raised herself up and beckoned to her father.

Gordon had heard the doctor's remark, came at once and bent over her.

"I can if Papa will hold me in his arms and you take one hand and he the other," she said, eagerly.

Gordon took her and told the surgeon to take the stitches without delay.

The first one she bore bravely. But when the steel needle cut the flesh the second time, and the sharp pain sent its chill to her heart, the little face went white and she gasped:

"Kiss me, Papa—Mama, quick—"

They both bent at once, and the blond locks of the man mingled with the dark hair of the woman as their lips touched her face.

The doctor paused, and Lucy smiled faintly.

"I'm better now. I can stand it."

Gordon felt a strange thrill to the last depths of his soul as he sat there holding one of his daughter's hands while Ruth held the other. A sense of mysterious unity with their life came over him.

The little woman saw his emotion and knew its meaning.

She bent close and, while a smile played around her eyes, whispered softly and triumphantly:

"Frank, I'd go through another wreck for this."

And the man was silent.

At Florence, clothes were brought to the train, and those who had none were rigged out after a fashion for the return home.

Not a passenger on the train wished to continue his journey except the fat drummer. He went on to the next station where he had intended to stop, as though nothing worth talking about had happened, and sold a bill of goods before dinner.

Ruth and the children returned to New York on the first train, and Gordon and Kate followed on the next.

Kate had scarcely spoken a word since he had lifted her from the wreck. She was in a deep reverie, but from the occasional gleam of her eyes Gordon knew she was passing through some great crisis. He wondered what the effects of this hour face to face with death would be on her character.

He was amazed at the changes in Ruth since he had last seen her. She had blossomed into the perfect beauty of womanhood. Not a trace of anxiety was left on her face. Her great dark eyes were calm and soft. Her lips were fuller, and her complexion white and pink, wreathed in its raven hair. Her figure was now the perfection of the petite Spanish type, in full, voluptuous lines, yet erect, lithe, with small hands and feet and tiny wrists, her whole being breathing a spiritual charm. Grace, delicacy, and distinction were in every movement of her body, and over it all, an unconscious and winning dignity.

After several hours of silence, as they sped back toward New York, Kate looked at him curiously and laughed.

"You're not quite so handsome, Frank, in those trousers that stop at the top of your shoes and that coat that pauses just below your elbow."

He held up his long, powerful arms and said, meditatively:

"No. Gestures arrayed like that could hardly move an audience."

The shadows fell across the blue eyes again and they swept him with a critical expression.

"I didn't tell you that Ruth saved my life."

Gordon turned suddenly.

"Yes, and it was a shock to me I'll never get over. I don't know whether I could have done as much for her under similar circumstances, with two children clinging to me and life depending on a moment's time perhaps. But she did it, swiftly and beautifully. To tell you the truth, I've quite fallen in love with her. She is a wonderful little woman. I've been sitting here for hours wondering at the meanness of a man who could desert her. Those great soulful eyes of hers! When I looked up into them, crying like a poor coward for life—I, who had robbed her of what she held dearer than life—I saw only a tender mother's soul looking down at me. Frank, I fear your spell over me is broken. You're a poor piece of clay. The blaze in that car lit up some corners of my soul I never saw before. I think I'll despise all men and love all women after to-day. What fools and puppets we are!"

The man made no reply. He only looked out the window at the flying landscape and saw the sweet face of a little girl.



CHAPTER XXVII

VENUS VICTRIX



The flames of those burning cars, leaping into the skies above the tops of the storm-tossed trees, had lighted some dark places in Gordon's soul, and he was sobered by the revelation.

The clasp of Ruth's arms about his neck, the warm touch of her plump figure, the pressure of her lips on his, and the passionate murmur of the low contralto voice in his ears, "My own dear love!" thrilled him with tenderest memories.

He sat by Kate's side brooding over the days and nights of their married life. Baffled and puzzled, his mind would come back with everlasting persistence to the strange feeling that held him to Ruth—a subtle and sweet mystery, the most intimate relation the soul and body can ever bear on earth, the union in love in the morning of life and its tender blossoming into a living babe.

He began to ask himself had not their being mingled somehow in essence? Had they not been really united by that vital process which sometimes makes married people grow to look alike, and often to die on the same day?

Intimately he knew this little woman, to her deepest soul secrets, and yet she had still eluded him, and now revealed subtle spiritual and physical charms he had never seen nor felt before.

He was conscious at the same time of a new feeling of repulsion on Kate's part, and the thought filled him with nervous foreboding. Whatever change her disillusion had brought, his own physical infatuation for her was, if possible, deeper and more unreasonable.

She could not make him quarrel, but he would sit doggedly gloating over her beauty, his gray eyes flashing and gleaming with the fever for possession that is the soul of murder.

He was not long left in doubt as to the turn her thoughts had taken from the crisis through which she had passed. Her drawing-room was crowded. These receptions were protracted until long past midnight, and he had never seen her so gay or reckless in manner.

She dressed with a splendour never affected before, and received the attentions of Overman with a favour so marked it could not escape the eye of the most casual observer. She made not the slightest effort to conceal it, and her manner was so plain a challenge to Gordon he was stunned by its audacity.

Overman felt this challenge in her mood, and, alarmed, withdrew from the scene. He did not return to the house during the week, and on Saturday he received a dainty perfumed note from her by messenger. It was the first missive he had ever received from a woman.

He turned it over in his broad hand, touched it nervously, and opened it with his fingers trembling as he recognised her handwriting.

"My Dear Mr. Overman: I have been sorely disappointed in not seeing you again this week. I write to command your presence Sunday morning at ten o'clock to accompany me to the Temple, if I choose to go, and to dine with me. Sincerely, KATE RANSOM GORDON."

He wrote an answer accepting and then sat holding this note in his hand as though it were something alive. For an hour he paced back and forth in his office alone, screening his eye behind his bushy brows, wrinkling his forehead, twisting his mouth, and now and then thrusting his hand into his collar and tugging at it, as though he were choking.

Gordon's new study was in the dome of the Temple commanding a wonderful view of the great city, its rivers and bays, and the long dim line of the open sea beyond the towers of Coney Island. It was his habit to take an early breakfast on Sunday mornings and spend the three hours before his services there.

When Overman reached the house at ten o'clock, clouds had obscured the sun, The air was wet and penetrating, and charged with the premonition of storm. He felt nervous, excited and irritable.

The maid showed him into the spacious library, where a cheerful fire of red-hot coals glowed, and his spirits rose.

He stood before the fire without removing his top coat, and the maid said:

"Mrs. Gordon says to make yourself comfortable. The day is so raw she will not go out. She will be down in a moment."

He removed his coat, sank into an easy chair, and began to wonder what could be the meaning of that note. He knew intuitively that he was approaching a crisis in his life.

He felt a sense of anxiety and discomfort at the idea of spending the morning alone with his friend's wife. Yet he told himself he had no choice—it was fate. A woman had arranged it.

When Kate entered the room, he sprang to his feet with a cry of amazement at the vision of radiant beauty sweeping with sinuous step to meet him. He had never seen her so conscious of power or with better reason for it.

She was dressed in a gown of pink-and-white filmy stuff, which clung to her form, revealing its beautiful lines from the rounded shoulders to the tips of her dainty slippers. The sleeves were open to the elbow, showing the magnificent bare arms. From the shoulders, soft diaphanous draperies hung straight down the length of her figure, revealing by contrast more sharply the graceful curves of the body. The throat was bare, and her smooth ivory neck glowed in round fulness against the background of her hair falling in waves of fiery splendour.

Around her shapely waist hung a double cord of silver, knotted low in front and drawn below the knee by heavy tassels.

The effect of the dress was simplicity itself. There was not a superfluous ruffle or ribbon. Its sole design was not to attract attention to itself, but to reveal the superb charms of the woman who wore it, with every breath she breathed, every step, and every gesture.

The rhythmic music of her walk—quick, strong, luxurious—breathed an excess of vitality. The full lips were smiling and her cheeks aflame with pleasure at his admiration.

Her eyes spoke straight into his with a candour that was unmistakable. They knew what they desired and said so aloud. They had thrown scruples to the winds, and in untamed, primeval strength gazed on life with daring freedom.

Overman stammered and cleared his throat, bowed, and blushed.

She took both his hands cordially and smiled into his face.

"Why didn't you come back to see me this week?"

He hesitated, disconcerted.

"I know," she went on rapidly, leading him to a lounge by the fire.

"You saw the jealousy in Frank's big baby face and you stayed away—now, honestly!"

He pulled nervously at his moustache and his eye twinkled.

"That's about the size of it."

"Well, I'm not a child and you are not. We are both full grown. I am thirty-one years old. I am not Frank Gordon's slave, nor his property. I am a free woman by his own words. And I am going to be free."

Overman glanced at the door.

"Oh! You needn't try to run," she laughed. "I've got you to-day. You can't get away, and I'm going to tell you something. Can you guess what it is?"

The banker began to tremble.

Kate paused, leaned back in the easy chair she had drawn close in front of him, placed both of her dazzling arms behind her head, burying them in the mass of auburn hair, a picture of lazy tenderness and dreamy languor.

"Can't you guess?" she repeated.

"I'm not so bold as to dare," he answered, gravely.

"I will dare," she said, eagerly leaning forward and bending so close he caught the perfume of her hair.

The blood rushed in surging tumult to his face.

"When I found myself caught in that wreck," she began in slow, mellow tones, "it flashed over me that I had been leading a sham life. I, who profess freedom, had been living a slave to form. One desire, the most intense, the most passionate, the most wilful I had ever known was ungratified. Do you know the one thing I asked when the past and present and future flashed before me in a moment?"

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