"How do you do, Mr. Herman," she said, with eager warmth. "Is Mrs. Herman with you?"
She moved half around him as she spoke, as if compelled by the shifting of the crowd to change her position; and while she shook hands managed to bring herself almost face to the picture, so that his back was toward it.
"No," he answered, "she never comes to these things if she can possibly help it. I hear your husband has outdone himself on this exhibition."
Edith looked about despairingly for Arthur. She felt herself unequal to the emergency, and longed for his clever wits to contrive some means of escape from the cruel dilemma in which his act had placed her and his friend. Indignation, shame, and sorrow filled her heart. She recognized that Arthur had not told her the truth in regard to Ninitta. The dread and the suspicion which she had felt on the night of the dinner returned to her with tenfold force. But the greatest triumph of modern civilization is the power it has bestowed upon women of concealing their feelings. The pressing need of the moment was to show to Herman a smiling and untroubled face, and to avoid arousing his suspicion that anything was wrong.
"The truth is," she returned, "that I haven't seen the exhibition. It's impossible to see pictures in such a crowd, don't you think? I know Arthur has worked very hard. I've hardly seen him this week."
"He has a most tremendous power of accomplishing what he undertakes," Herman said heartily. "But tell me about yourself. You're looking tired."
"It is the time of year to look tired. I believe I am feeling a little anxious that spring should arrive."
She was struggling in her thoughts for a means of preventing the discovery, which it seemed to her must be inevitable the moment she ceased to engage Herman in conversation and he turned away. Over his shoulder she could see the beautiful, sensuous Fatima lying with long sleek limbs amid bright-hued cushions. Now that she knew the truth, she could see Ninitta in every line, and her whole soul rose in indignant protest. It was her friend, the wife of this man she honored, who was delivered up on the wall yonder to the curious eyes of all these people. The stinging blush of shame burned in Edith's cheeks, and, as at this instant she turned to find her husband beside her, the glance which darted from her eyes to his was one of righteous scorn and indignation.
His wife's burning look showed Arthur that she knew; and, reflecting quickly, he decided that Herman did not. It was characteristic of him that he instantly chose the boldest policy.
"Come," he said to Herman as soon as they had greeted each other, "I know you haven't seen my Fatima. The boys say its the best thing I've done, but I couldn't get a decent model, and had to depend so much on old studies, that, for the life of me, I can't tell whether it's good or not."
Like two blows at once came to Edith a sense of shame that she could even involuntarily have wished for her husband's aid, and an overwhelming consciousness of the readiness and boldness of his falsity. She saw the face of Grant Herman, nobly instinct with truth in every line, and, as he turned at her husband's word, everything blurred before her vision. She believed she was going to faint, and she rallied all her self-command to hold herself steady. The lights danced, and the sound of voices faded as into the distance. Then, with a supreme effort of will, she rallied, and the voices rolled back upon her ear with a noise like the roar of an incoming wave.
A sphere of silence seemed to envelop Herman and Arthur and herself in the very midst of the crowd, as for an instant which seemed to her cruelly long she stood waiting for what the sculptor should say.
"Your friends are right, Fenton," Herman said, at length, in a voice so changed from its previous cordiality that it was idle to suppose the likeness had escaped him. "You have never painted anything better."
"Thank you," Fenton responded, brightly. "I am awfully glad you like it. I fancy," he added, with a laugh, "that the tabby-cats will be shocked."
His companion made no reply, and the approach of Rangely afforded Arthur a chance to change the conversation.
"I say, Fred," he demanded, "have you congratulated Thayer Kent yet?"
"Congratulated him?" echoed Rangely.
"Yes. Didn't you know his engagement is out?"
Rangely might have been said to take a page out of Fenton's own book, as he answered,—
"But what's the etiquette of precedence?" "Of precedence?" echoed Arthur, in his turn.
"Yes," Rangely returned. "Which of us should congratulate the other first? Only," he added, hitting to his own delight upon a position which might save him from some awkwardness in the future, "of course my engagement can't be announced until Miss Merrivale gets home to her mother."
"Well," Arthur said, "marriage is that ceremony by which man lays aside the pleasures of life and takes up its duties. I congratulate you on your determination to do anything so virtuous."
"Sardonic, as usual," retorted Fred, laughing; and then he went to find Miss Merrivale, convinced that under the circumstances the sooner he proposed to her the better.
HEART-BURNING HEAT OF DUTY. Love's Labor's Lost; i.—1.
All the world feels the pathos of helplessness hurt and wounded; but only some recognize how this applies to a great and noble nature attacked by unscrupulousness. In an encounter with dishonesty, nobility of soul may be, in its effect for the moment, utter weakness. Assailed by deceit or treachery the great heart has often no resource but endurance; and while endurance may save, it cannot defend.
The moment Grant Herman's eyes fell upon the Fatima, he understood fully why Fenton had so volubly remarked that he had painted the picture from old studies. He tried to fight with his conviction that what the artist said was false, although even as he did so he could not crush down the feeling of having been wounded by the hand of a friend. It seemed to him incredible that Fenton, even though the painter's defection from the Pagans had caused something of a breach between them, could have been guilty of this outrage. He choked with an intolerable sense of shame for himself, for the artist, and for Ninitta. A terrible anguish wrung his heart as he looked across the crowded gallery gay with lights, with the rich dresses, with laughter, and with the beauty of women, to where hung the picture of the mother of his boy, an image of sensuous enticement. The fact that Fenton had substituted another face for that of Ninitta did not, for the moment, console him. To his sculptor's eye, form was the important thing, and the fact that he recognized the model bore down all else. He remembered how marked had been Ninitta's unwillingness to accompany him to the exhibition, and the possible connection between this and the picture forced itself upon his mind.
With all the instinctive generosity of his soul, however, Herman strove to believe that the Fatima had been painted, as Fenton said, from old studies, and that his wife had not been guilty of the painful indecorum of posing. He compelled himself to answer the artist calmly, although he could not make his manner cordial. And as he spoke, his eye, searching the picture for confirmation of his hope or of his fear, recognized among the draperies a Turkish shawl he had himself given his wife after their marriage.
He made his way out of the gallery and out of the club house. He felt that he must get away from the innumerable eyes by which he was surrounded. He started toward home, but before he had gone a block, he stopped, hesitated a moment, and struck off into a side street. He was not ready to go home. He had said to himself too often, reiterating it in his mind constantly for six years, that in dealing with his wife his must be the wisdom, the patience, and the forbearance of both. He remembered a night long ago, when he had gone to Ninitta's room, in a mood of contrition, to renew the troth of his youth, and had fallen instead into a fit of bitter anger. With no evident reason, came back to him to-night the beautiful weeping figure of the Italian as she had cast herself at his feet and implored his forgiveness. He would not go to her now until he was calmer, and until he had considered carefully all the points of the situation.
In that whirl which comes in desperate circumstances before the startled and bewildered thoughts can be reduced to order, Herman wandered on, not thinking where he was going, until he found himself leaning against a railing and looking over the waters of the Charles River. It was a beautiful starlight night with a wavering wind that came in uncertain gusts only to die away again. The water was like a flood of ink, across which streamed thin tremulous lines of brightness, and over which were strewn the flickering reflections of the stars. The gas jets of the city across the flood, the rows of lamps which marked the bridges, the distant horse cars which rumbled between Cambridge and Boston with their colored lights, the green and red lanterns that glowed from the railroad tracks farther down the river, all suggested the busy life of men with its passions, its greed, and its heartlessness; but the darkness held all remote, as if the world of men were a dream. And overhead the immovable stars, like the unpitying gods, hung above the city and were reflected in the water, and wounded the soul of the lonely man with the terrible sense of power inimitably removed, of passionless strength which served to humanity but as a measure of its own weakness and triviality. The misfortunes of life might be endured; its disappointments, its anguish, even its inviolable loneliness might be supported, but a sense of the awful futility of existence crushes man to the depths of impotent despair.
A review of the past is usually a protest against fate, and manly as Herman was it was inevitable that into his reverie should come a sense that the wrong and suffering of his life had been thrust upon him undeserved. He could not be blind to the fact that it had been through his virtues that he had been wounded. A sense of injustice comes with the consciousness of having suffered through merit. Many a man is too noble basely to avoid the consequences of his acts, but few can wholly rid themselves of the feeling that the uncomplaining acceptance of painful results should serve as expiation for the deeds which caused them. The nobility of his nature, the purity of his intentions had made of a boyish folly the curse of a lifetime. With whatever tenderness the sculptor regarded Ninitta as the mother of his son, it was vain for him to attempt to deceive himself in regard to his love for her. A man with whom cordiality was instinctive, who was born for the most frank and intimate domestic relations, he found in his wife small sympathy and less comprehension. He had married her, believing that she had a right to claim happiness at his hands because he had taught her to love him. He had long since been obliged to own to himself that he had done this at the expense of his own peace, and he now questioned whether the experiment had succeeded better in her case than in his. If she had not been able to comprehend his aims and to enter into his scheme of life, it was equally true that she must have found in him little response to the calls of her own nature. The bitterness of the sigh which wrung his bosom, as he stood with his hand upon the railing and looked over the water with the lights reflected on its blackness, was as much for her as for himself.
Yet he would not have been human had he not felt thrills of anger when he thought of the Fatima. No faintest suspicion crossed his mind of any darker shame which might lie behind the fact that his wife had posed for Fenton. This he could not doubt that she had done. This explained her frequent absences from home in the morning, to which he had before given no thought. He remembered, too, that for weeks a furtive restlessness, poorly concealed, had been evident in Ninitta's manner. He had attributed it to her intense opposition to Nino's being sent to school; but now he read it differently. He could not but be angry, yet his pity was greater than his wrath; and he resolved not only to be forbearing with his wife, but hereafter to use greater endeavors to enrich her colorless life. He was too thoroughly an artist himself not to feel and appreciate how much the old love of posing, the longing for the air of a studio, and the art instinct might have had to do with Ninitta's fault.
But in regard to Fenton his heart burned with that rage which is largely grief. It was like the anger, which is half astonishment, of a child who is unexpectedly struck by its playmate. The fact that he was incapable of comprehending how it was possible to betray a friend made him confused in thinking of the artist's share in the transaction; and the fact that he could vent upon Fenton his righteous indignation enabled him to free his feelings toward Ninitta of almost all animosity. When at last he turned to go home, it was with a profound pity that he thought of his wife.
It was a little after eleven when he reached his house. The gas was burning in his chamber and Ninitta lay apparently sleeping. The wretched woman feigned a slumber which she had in vain courted. She was convinced that her husband could not see the Fatima without discovering her secret, and the guilty knowledge in her heart filled her with growing fears as the moments went on.
When at last she heard Herman's step, she had started up in bed like a wild creature, her heart fluttering, her ears strained as if to catch from the sound some clue to his mood. But instantly she had lain down again, and, with an instinct like that of the timorous animals whose nature it is to feign death when they cannot flee, had composed herself into the appearance of slumber.
Herman paused a moment, just inside the chamber door, and looked at his wife. Something in her pose suggested to him so vividly the Fatima that, despite his self-conquest on the bridge, a flood of anger swelled within him. The masculine instinct, nourished through a thousand generations, that no palliation gives the wife a right to claim forgiveness from her husband for the shame she has put upon him by a violation of modesty, surged up within him. He drew in a deep inspiration and started forward with an inarticulate sound as if he could throw himself upon this woman and tighten his fingers on her throat.
Ninitta raised herself in bed with an exclamation of fear. Her black hair streamed loose, and her dark eyes shone. Her swarthy passionate face was an image of terror. She was not far enough away from her peasant ancestors not to be moved by the size and strength of her husband's large and vigorous frame. Many generations and much subtlety of refinement must lie between herself and savagery before a woman can learn instinctively to fear the soul of a man rather than his muscles in a crisis like this. Husband and wife confronted each other as he walked quickly across the chamber. Her cowering attitude, the fear which was written in every line of her face, fed his anger, until, in his blind rage, all pity and self-restraint seemed to be swept away.
But just as he neared the bed, when in his burning look Ninitta seemed already to feel his hands clutching her with cruel force, his foot struck against something which lay on the floor. It was one of Nino's wooden soldiers. The father stopped, and his look changed. He remembered how Nino had come in from the nursery while he was dressing that night, bringing his arms full of more or less shattered figures which he had appealed to his father to put to rights for a grand battle which was to be fought in the morning. Herman looked down at the toy and forgot his anger. He looked up at his wife and she saw with wonder the change in his face. It had been full of indignation against the wife who had deceived him; on it now was written reproachful anguish, and pity for the mother of his son.
"Ninitta," he said. "How could you do it?"
She cowered down in the bed, burying her face in her hands. She could not answer, and there came over him a painful sense of the uselessness of words.
"Everybody must recognize Fenton's picture," he said. "If you did not remember me, Ninitta, how could you forget Nino? How will he feel when he is old enough to realize what you have done?"
The frightened woman burst into convulsive sobs mixed with moans like those of a hurt animal. In the last hours she had been thinking no less than her husband; but where he had considered her, she had thought chiefly of her boy. Mingled with the fear of her husband's anger had been the nobler feeling, that she was no longer worthy to be with her son. The very passion of the love she bore him moved her now with the determination to leave him. It was always Ninitta's instinct to run away in trouble, and now, added to the impulse to escape from her husband was the determination forming itself with awful stress of anguish in her soul, to go away from Nino; to take away from her son whom she loved better than life itself, this woman who had no right in his pure presence. She did not look upon it as an expiation of her fault; it was only that maternal love gathered up whatever was noble in her nature, in this supreme sacrifice for her son.
To Herman, looking down upon the cowering figure of his wife, with a heartbreaking sense of the impossibility of effecting anything by words, she was simply a cowardly woman who took refuge in tears from the reproaches which her conduct deserved. Could he have known what was passing in her heart, it would have moved him to a deeper respect and a keener pity than he had ever felt for her. No more than a dumb animal had she any language in which she could have made him understand her feelings had she tried; and at last he turned away with a choking in his throat.
A BOND OF AIR. Troilus and Cressida; i.—3.
The stock of the Princeton Platinum Company was issued in ten-dollar shares, it being the conviction of Erastus Snaffle, deduced from a more or less extensive experience, that the gullible portion of the public is more likely to buy stock of a low par value. On the morning after the exhibition at the St. Filipe Club, the shares were quoted at two dollars and an eighth.
Arthur Fenton read the stock reports at breakfast. He laid the paper down calmly, drank his coffee in silence, and absently played with his fork, while his wife attended to Caldwell's breakfast and her own. He said nothing until the boy, whose mind was intent upon some new toy or other, having hastily finished his meal, asked to be excused.
"Don't be in a hurry, Caldwell," his mother said, gently. "I want you to learn to wait for older people."
"Let him go, Edith," his father interposed. "I want to talk to you."
The boy jumped down quickly and ran to give his father a hasty kiss. He had learned to look to Fenton to help him in evading his mother's attempts at discipline, and Edith noted with pain, as she had too often noticed before, the knowing smile which came into the child's face at her husband's words. Caldwell evidently regarded his father's remark merely as a convenient excuse, and it hurt Edith to see how in subtile ways her son was learning to distrust the honesty of his father.
On this occasion, however, Arthur had meant what he said. When the door had closed behind the little fellow, he looked up to observe in the most matter-of-fact tone,—
"I suppose it is only fair, Edith, that I should tell you that we are ruined."
She looked at him with a puzzled face.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"I mean," he returned, "that I have been getting into no end of a mess, and that some stock I bought to help myself out of it, has gone down and made things ten times worse."
She folded her hands in her lap and regarded him wistfully. She had been so often repressed when she had tried to gain his confidence in regard to business matters that she hesitated to speak now.
"Should I understand if you told me about it?" she asked.
"Oh, very likely not," he returned, coolly; "but I don't in the least mind telling you, if it's any satisfaction to you. It isn't any great matter, only that I live so near the ragged edge that a dollar or two either way makes all the difference between poverty and independence." Edith breathed more freely. Her husband's self-possessed manner, and the fact that she knew him to be so given to exaggeration, made her feel that things were not so hopeless as his words had at first implied.
"I have three thousand shares of Princeton Platinum stock," Fenton went on, with the condescending air of one who elaborately explains details which he knows will not be understood. "I bought at two and seven- eighths, with money that should go to pay notes due on Saturday. The stock was worth two and an eighth last night and very likely by to- night won't be worth anything."
"Then why didn't you sell yesterday?" Edith asked.
Arthur smiled at the feminine turn of her words.
"Because, my shrewd financier, I don't want to sell at a loss, and Mr. Irons assures me that there will be a rise before the final collapse."
He did not add, as he might have done, the substance of the talk between himself and Irons. That wily financier had said to him one day,—
"Fenton, you were almighty toploftical about those railroad shares, and I'll give you another chance. I've had four thousand shares of Princeton Platinum turned over to me on an assignment. It cost me two, and you may have it at that figure, though it's worth two and a half in the market to-day."
"You are too generous, by half," Fenton had answered.
"Well, the fact is," Irons had responded, "I hate infernally to be under obligations. Princeton Platinum is wild-cat fast enough, but it will touch four before they let the bottom drop out. That I happen to know. This will give you a chance to make a neat thing out of it, and it will square off the obligation our syndicate's under to you."
"Thank you," was Fenton's answer; "but the obligation, such as it is, I prefer to have stand, and I haven't any money to put into stock of any kind now."
"Well, think it over. Don't let your sentiments interfere too much with business. I'll hold the stock for you for three days. If you're fool enough to miss your opportunity after that I'm not responsible."
Naturally, this portion of the conversation Fenton did not impart to his wife.
Edith's look became more perplexed as her talk with her husband continued; and the matter-of-fact way in which he spoke of approaching disaster was to her unintelligible.
"What is going to collapse?" she asked at length. "The stock?"
"Certainly, my dear. There isn't anything behind it. I doubt if there ever was any Princeton Platinum mine, but I did think the men who were managing it were clever enough to get it to four or four and a half before they let go."
"But how could they get it to four or four and a half, if there isn't any mine?"
"By gulling fools like me, my dear; that's the way these things are always done."
A troubled look came over Mrs. Fenton's face, and her lips closed a little more tightly.
"Well," demanded her husband impatiently, "what is it? Moral scruples?"
"It doesn't seem to me to be very honest stock to be dealing in," Edith replied, timidly.
"To discuss the morality of stock speculation," he replied, with coolly elaborate courtesy, "is much like eating a fig. You may be biting the seeds all day without being sure you've finished them."
She was silenced, and cast down her eyes waiting for what he might choose to say next.
"The situation," he continued, after a pause, "is merely this. I haven't the cleverness properly to manage being in debt. I don't know how those notes are to be paid Saturday, and have been given to understand that there are reasons, doubtless judicious, but extremely inconvenient, why they will not be renewed."
His manner was as calm as ever, but there was a growing hardness in his tone and a cruel tightening of his lips. His restraint had much of the calmness of despair. His was a nature which always outran actualities with imagined possibilities, and thus found in even the fullest joy a sense of loss and failure; while in misfortune, it magnified all evils until it was overwhelmed with the burden of their weight. He suffered the more acutely because he endured not only the sting of the present evil, but of all those which he foresaw might follow in its wake. He felt at this moment a growing necessity to find some one against whom he might logically turn his anger; and while he was firmly determined not to vent his displeasure upon his wife, his attitude toward her became constantly more stern.
"If Uncle Peter were at home," Edith began, after a pause, "he might"—
"He might not," interrupted Arthur, roughly. "In any case he has taken the light of his countenance abroad, so he's out of the question."
"But some of your friends, Arthur, might lend you the money you want."
"My dear Edith, do you fancy that within the past month I have failed to go over the list of my friends, backward and forward? Don't say those tiresome, obvious things. I'll fail and have an auction, and give up the house, and lose caste, and have a pleasant tea-party generally. That's the only thing there is to do."
Edith rose from her seat, and went around to where he was sitting. Standing behind his chair she laid her hands on his shoulders, and, bending forward, kissed his cheek.
"I dare say, Arthur," she said, "that we should be quite as happy if we gave up trying to live in a way that we can't afford; but meanwhile there is godmamma."
"Yes. You know she has left me five thousand dollars in her will; and she told me once that if the time came that I needed the money desperately I should have it for the asking."
"That is kind of her," was her husband's comment, "but it would be kinder to let you get it at once in the natural way. The comfort about a bequest is that you don't have to feel grateful to any live man for it."
His words were brutal enough, but there was a new lightness in his tone. He caught instantly at this hope of relief, and he showed his appreciation of his wife's cleverness in devising this scheme by caressing the hand which lay upon his shoulder.
"You can go to New York to-night," remarked Edith thoughtfully, ignoring his words, "and be back by Saturday morning. If you didn't so much dislike going to New York in the day time, you might get there in time to see godmamma to-night."
"To-morrow will be time enough," he answered. "You are a brick, Edith, to help me out of this scrape, and the magnitude of the moral reforms I'll institute in honor of my deliverance will astonish you."
He sprang up as light-heartedly as a boy. The means of escaping the annoyance of the present moment had been found, and his buoyant spirits lifted him above the doubts and troubles of the future.
They discussed together the details of his coming interview with Mrs. Glendower, and the terms of the letter which Edith should write to her. There was something most touching in the tender eagerness with which Edith prolonged the talk and clung to the occasion which had brought her and her husband, for the moment, together. She even forgot to deplore the misfortune which had given rise to this confidence, and, in her desire to be helpful to Arthur, she did not even remember that once her pride would have risen in rebellion at the bare suggestion of taking advantage of Mrs. Glendower's offer. All day long she went about with a happier smile on her lips than had been there for many a long day. The danger of impending ruin seemed to have brought her consolation instead of grief; and in the prayers which she murmured in her heart as she stood with her arms clasped about Caldwell, when Fenton drove away that night, there was not a little thanksgiving mingled with her supplications.
WHAT TIME SHE CHANTED. Hamlet; iv.—7.
The stock report which caused Fenton such unpleasant sensations was read that same morning by Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson with keen satisfaction of a sort seldom known to the truly virtuous. Mrs. Sampson was engaged in financial transactions of which the very magnitude caused her naive satisfaction, while the possible results made her bosom glow with unwonted emotion. Mrs. Sampson's affection for Alfred Irons was neither deep nor tender in its nature, and in settling the bill for services rendered in the railroad case there was no sentiment likely to restrain her from making the best possible bargain. The bargain she made was of a nature to send her about her flat singing songs of triumph such as Deborah sang over the slaughter of the unfortunate Sisera.
The wily but impressible Erastus Snaffle, cheered by the widow's wine, warmed by her smile, and smitten by her amiable conversation, had bestowed upon her, merely as a tribute which mammon might pay to the ever-womanly, three thousand shares of Princeton Platinum stock. He had done this at a time when it seemed doubtful whether even his adroitness could make the scheme a success; and it somewhat mars the lustre of his generosity to record that he afterward regretted his impulsive open- handedness. He had been able to prevent Mrs. Sampson from realizing on her stock, very reasonably feeling that he was making philanthropic endeavors to benefit an ungrateful world rather against its will, and he did not mean that she should make a stumbling-block for him of his own generosity by putting this gift on the market when he wished to supply all buyers himself.
When it was quoted at three, the high-water mark so far, he had beguiled the widow with a cock-and-bull story about the formalities of transferrence on the books of the company of stocks which had been given away; and by the time Mrs. Sampson had cleared her mind from the entanglements of this ingenious fiction the bottom had dropped out of the market.
In the midst of her disappointment in seeing what to her would have been almost a fortune melting into thin air, the fertile brain of Mrs. Sampson had given birth to what was nothing less than an inspiration, She had gone to see Alfred Irons, and delicately but firmly insinuated that it was high time she received substantial tokens of the gratitude of the Wachusett Syndicate, for her efforts in their behalf with the Hon. Thomas Greenfield. Mr. Irons had answered, as she had expected him to, that she had presented no bill. To this her reply was ready. She was prepared to state what would satisfy her. She explained that she felt the delicacy of her position, since, if any consideration passed to her directly from the corporation, it was sure to be known, and unpleasant comment made. She had in her possession, she continued, certain stock, of which the market value was somewhere between two and two and a half, which, it struck her, might serve admirably to veil the generosity which had been promised her. Her proposition, in brief, was that Irons should take her three thousand shares of stock at four dollars, the difference between this and the market value, of course, being refunded to him by the company.
"By Gad! you're a cheeky one!" had been Iron's comment, more expressive than elegant, when the widow had laid her scheme wholly before him.
The railroad matter had, however, been settled to the satisfaction of the syndicate. Mr. Greenfield's support of the Wachusett scheme at the hearing had been of the utmost importance, especially as Mrs. Sampson had been able to persuade "Honest Tom" that a perfectly fair proposition made to him by Mr. Staggchase was in the nature of a high- handed bribe. This proposition had been presented in a somewhat scandalous light, and in the face of it Hubbard had induced his associates to throw up the whole Feltonville scheme. The Railroad Commissioners had issued the coveted certificate for the Wachusett route, and the rest was easy. Irons was therefore grateful to the widow, and he at length agreed to consult his associates, and he did not deny Mrs. Sampson's observation that it was as much for the benefit of the corporation as of herself that money passing between them should be covered by some such disguise as that of this stock operation.
The widow had returned home not over sanguine, and her astonishment was scarcely less than her pleasure when, on Wednesday afternoon, she received a note from Irons, assenting to her proposition with the modification that the purchasing figure should be three dollars instead of four. It was a fact as far beyond the limits of the widow's knowledge as it was beyond that of his colleagues, that Irons meant to make this transaction the means of increasing a revenge which he already had in train. That gentleman had never forgiven Fenton for burning the order for railroad bonds, and when accident threw the Princeton Platinum stock into his hands he determined to make it the means of the artist's discomfiture. It was only the day after he had offered Fenton his four thousand shares that Mrs. Sampson appeared with her offer of three thousand more. He had no doubt of his ability to entrap Fenton into buying, the one weak spot in his plan being the fact, of which he was in complete ignorance, that Fenton already held stock and had nothing whatever with which to buy more. He was willing to let the widow's bribe pass to her under so plausible a disguise, and he said to himself with a chuckle that he had far rather sell Fenton the seven thousand shares than four.
If he were unable to sell to Fenton it appeared to Irons as on the whole highly probable that he could dispose of the stock for the corporation at a price which would materially lessen the amount of their bonus to the widow; or if the market should chance to look promising, he might find it worth while to buy it from his colleagues with a view to realizing something on it himself.
Perhaps it was because he was doing business with a woman, perhaps it was the consciousness of the bribe which the bargain covered and a desire to leave as little record of it as possible, perhaps it was only the carelessness of extreme haste, that caused Irons to send to the widow so ambiguous and dangerous a note as the following,—
"DEAR MRS. SAMPSON,—I am suddenly called to New York, and leave to- night. I will take all your Princeton Platinum stock at three dollars. Please deliver it at my office to-morrow with this note as a voucher." Yours truly, "ALFRED IRONS."
It was the misfortune of Alfred Irons that Mrs. Sampson took an extra cup of coffee that evening and could not sleep; and in the watches of the night, either the devil or her own soul—the inspirations of the two being too similar for one rashly to venture to discriminate between them—said to her, "Amanda! Now is your chance." Thereafter, no fumes of coffee were necessary to keep the widow awake for the remainder of the night; and on Thursday morning before she presented herself at Irons's office she had an interesting interview with no less a personage than Mr. Erastus Snaffle himself.
Mrs. Sampson began by declaring that she wished to purchase a certain amount of Princeton Platinum stock, but before long the need she felt of having her feminine guile supported by masculine intelligence had led her to make a clean breast of the situation. She showed Mr. Snaffle Mr. Irons's note, calling his attention particularly to the ill-chosen word "all" which seemed to her to afford the means of unloading indefinitely at the expense of the absent financier. Her enthusiasm received a cruel shock when Snaffle retorted with a burst of ill-bred laughter,—
"Oh Lord! You must think Irons is a dog-goned fool!"
"But," the widow persisted, "it says 'all' the stock, doesn't it?"
"Do you think you could make his firm buy up all the Princeton on that flimsy dodge?" retorted Snaffle contemptuously.
"We'll see," Amanda declared, nodding her head determinedly. "The question is how much do you think they will stand? A man ought to know that better than a woman."
A new look of cunning came into the fat face of the speculator, and his numerous superfluous chins began to be agitated as if with excitement.
"Well," he said, "if you can stick them for any I don't see why you can't for a lot. I've just four thousand shares left, and you might as well run them all in on the old man."
The widow laughed with malicious glee.
"I don't know," she replied, "how this will turn out, but if I wasn't going to get a cent from it, I'd try it just for the sake of getting even with Al Irons."
"Oh, its your opportunity," he said, with agile change of base, "and as for getting ahead of him, I'm blessed if I wouldn't bet on you every time. Seven thousand shares isn't much for a house like theirs. We put the stock at ten dollars on purpose so folks could handle a lot of it and talk big without having much money in. Come, you just clear out the whole thing for me, and I'll let you have it at two and a half, just for your good looks."
"Thank you for nothing," was the reply of the redoubtable widow. "I took the trouble to find out the market price on my way down here and anybody can buy plenty of it for two and an eighth, without being good looking at all."
Erastus chuckled, rubbing his fat hands together in delighted appreciation of his companion's wit.
"Come," he pleaded, "when you get to making eyes at that clerk, he'll buy anything you offer, no matter what Irons told him. I wouldn't give much for the man that would let a little memorandum stand in the way of obliging a lady."
Amanda did not have good blood in her veins without appreciating the coarse vulgarity of Snaffle; but neither had she associated for years with his kind without having the edge of her distaste worn away. She was, besides, a woman and a vain one, and the undisguised admiration with which he regarded her put her in excellent humor. It confirmed the verdict of her mirror that the care with which she had arrayed herself for this expedition had not been wasted. She smiled as she answered him, tapping her chin with her well-gloved forefinger.
"But, of course," she observed, dispassionately, "if I bought of you at all I should buy conditionally. I'll give you two for the stock, and take it if I can sell it to Irons."
"Oh, don't rob yourself," Snaffle returned, with good-natured sarcasm. "What's to hinder my selling it for two and an eighth myself?"
"Two and an eighth asked and no buyers is what they told me!" retorted the widow imperturbably. "I don't know much about stocks, but I know that if you could have sold for almost any price you'd have done it long ago."
"Right you are," admitted Snaffle, good-naturedly, "if I'd nobody to consider but myself; but just the same, I sha'n't kick the bottom out of the market before it falls out of itself."
"Then I understand," said the widow, with an air, gathering herself together as if to depart, "that you won't take my offer."
"Oh, come now," protested Snaffle, "why don't you ask me to give it to you as I did the other?"
"So delicate of him," murmured the widow, confidentially to the universe at large, "to fling that at me."
"I ain't flinging it at you," Snaffle returned, unabashed. "But, come now, let's talk business. If I give you an option on this, so long as you are going to sell it at three dollars, of course you ought to pay me more than the market price. I'll be d'ed if I let you have it less than two and a half."
"One doesn't know which to admire most, Mr. Snaffle, your politeness to ladies or your generosity."
"Oh, don't mention it," was the speculator's grinning reply. "Come, now, don't be a pig. Twenty per cent profit ought to satisfy anybody."
"I'll give you two," said Mrs. Sampson, with feminine persistency.
Snaffle turned on his heel with a word seldom spoken in the presence of ladies.
"Well, you might as well get out of this, then," he remarked, brusquely. "You're a beauty, but you don't know anything about business."
Amanda regarded him with an inscrutable glance for an instant, evidently making up her mind that he meant what he said.
"Well," she observed; "if you want to rob me, I'm only a woman with nobody to take my part, and I shall have to give you what you ask."
"Gad!" he ejaculated. "If one man in ten was as well able to take his own part as you are, things 'd be some different from what they are now."
And the smile of Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson indicated that even so high- flavored a compliment as this was not wholly displeasing to her. The certificates of stock were produced and duly endorsed, and, tucking them into her handbag, the widow went on her way attended by wishes for her success which were probably the more genuine because the transaction was only conditional.
"Well," Snaffle communed with himself after she had departed; "there ain't no flies on the widow, and I guess she'll manage that clerk. She's a clever one, but if she'd been a little cleverer, so as to appreciate that I couldn't put that amount of stock on the market without sending the price down to bed rock, she might have had the lot at her own figure. I'd have been glad to take one fifty for it."
Meanwhile the widow had pursued her scheming way toward State Street. The moral support of Snaffle's testimony to her ability and his admiration for her personal appearance probably upheld her during her interview with Mr. Iron's clerk. That young man, an exquisite creature, who had the appearance of giving his mind largely to his collars, was overwhelmed by the amount of stock which Mrs. Sampson produced. He explained with some confusion that in the hurry incident upon Mr. Iron's unexpected departure, he had neglected to make a memorandum, but that he understood that he was to receive three thousand shares of Princeton Platinum with Mr. Iron's letter as a voucher.
"I may have been mistaken," he observed, apologetically. "Mr. Irons was called away in a great hurry, and I did get some of his directions confused. It's singular that he didn't name the amount in the letter."
"I'm very sorry he didn't," returned the widow, with an engaging air of appealing to the other's generosity. "It puts me in a very awkward position, just as if I were trying to impose on you. Mr. Irons knew just what I had and said he'd take it all."
"Oh, I didn't mean for an instant," the clerk protested, blushing with confusion, "that you were trying to impose on us."
The clerk was young and susceptible, the widow was mature and adroit; he was confused and uncertain, she was definite and determined. Mr. Irons had, moreover, given the young man to understand that the transaction was a confidential and personal one, which involved more than appeared on the surface. Confronted by the phraseology of Mr. Iron's note, backed by Mrs. Sampson's insinuating manner and unblushing statements, the clerk laid aside his discretion, and in the end allowed himself to fall a victim to the wiles of the astute widow, who walked away considerably richer than she came, besides being able to bring joy to the heart of Erastus Snaffle by a neat sum of ready cash, which she delivered after another prolonged discussion over the price she should pay him for the stock.
And on the following morning when she read in the stock reports that Princeton Platinum had fallen to one and a half, she remembered her stroke of yesterday with a conscience which if not wholly clear was thoroughly satisfied.
HEARTSICK WITH THOUGHT. Two Gentlemen of Verona; i.—1.
Fenton's forenoon at his studio was broken by a visit from Ninitta. His mind full of his trip to New York, and of speculations concerning his interview with Mrs. Glendower, he had let the whole question of the Fatima and his entanglement with its model slip from his mind, and when he opened the door to find Mrs. Herman standing there, the shock of his surprise was a most painful one. Ninitta's eyes were swollen with weeping, and the sleepless night had made her plain face haggard and ugly. With a quick, irritated gesture, the artist put his hand upon her arm and drew her impatiently into the studio. Closing the door, he stood confronting her a moment, studying her expression, as if to discover the cause of her disturbance.
"Well," at length he said, harshly, "have you betrayed me?"
Ninitta answered his look with one of helpless and confused despair. The anguish of the long hours during which she had been making up her mind what to do in the emergency that had arisen, had stupefied her so that she could not think clearly. She still suffered, and Fenton's brutal manner brought tears to her eyes, but she was benumbed and dazed, and could neither think nor feel clearly.
"Grant found out himself," she said, "that I posed."
"Well?" Fenton demanded, with an intensity that made his smooth voice hoarse.
"That's all," Ninitta responded dully. "I'm going away."
"Going away?" echoed Fenton, the words arousing again his fears that the worst might have been discovered. "Then Herman does know?"
"He only knows that I posed," repeated Ninitta; "but he says Nino would be ashamed, and I am going away."
"But where are you going?"
"Home; to Capri."
The artist looked at her with an impatient feeling that it was idle to reason with her, and that she had somehow passed beyond his control. He moved away a few steps, and sat down in an old carved monkish chair, while his visitor leaned, as if for support, against the casing of the door. He looked at her curiously, wondering what her mental processes were like, and saying to himself, with mingled chagrin and philosophy, that it was impossible to deal with a creature so irrational, but that fortunately he was not responsible for her movements His glance wandered about the studio, noting with artistic appreciation the pleasant coloring of a heap of cushions thrown carelessly on the divan. He wondered if it would have been better had he arranged that blue one in a fuller light, as a background for the beautiful shoulder of his Fatima, yet reflected that on the whole the value he had chosen better brought out the quality of the flesh-tones. What a splendid picture the Fatima was. It was worth some inconvenience to have achieved such a success, and, after all, he would not be so foolish as to begrudge the price he must pay for his triumph.
And yet, and yet—He turned back with a movement of impatience toward that sad, silent figure standing just inside his door. A wave of anger rose within him. He felt that he had a right to consider himself aggrieved by her persistent presence. Why must his will, his happiness, his artistic powers be hampered and thwarted by this woman who was only fit to serve his art and be laid aside, like his mahl-stick and palette.
"It seems to me," he burst out, more harshly than ever, "that you might have had the sense to keep away from here, at least until Herman gets over his anger."
"But I am going away," she said, "and I came to you for some money."
He stared at her in fresh amazement an instant; then he burst into derisive laughter.
"Well," he said, "I like that. Why, I'm going to New York myself to- night, to try to beg enough to keep me out of the poor-house."
"But I can't ask Mr. Herman," Ninitta said, beseechingly.
"In Heaven's name, Ninitta," exclaimed Fenton, "don't be an idiot. There's no sense in running away. Besides, what are you afraid of?"
"But it might hurt Nino if I stayed," returned poor Ninitta.
Through the bitter watches of the night, she had been saying that over and over to herself. With all her weakness and her sin, her mother-love stood the supreme test. As she had been able to give up her Italian friends when the boy was born, because, as she said, Nino was born a gentleman and must not associate with them; now, when she was convinced that he would be better without her, she was able to give him up, although with a breaking heart. Many times she had been forced to confess to herself that Nino's mother was not a lady like Mrs. Fenton or Helen Greyson, or others of her husband's friends; and although she had always comforted herself with the reflection that at least no boy had a mother who loved him more than she did her son, the thought that her child might be better without her had more than once forced itself upon her mind. It was idle for Fenton to argue; Ninitta's decision had passed beyond argument, and perhaps her understanding was, for the time being, too benumbed by suffering clearly to follow her companion's reasoning.
"At least," she said at last, utterly ignoring his earnest endeavor to shake her resolution, "if you cannot let me have any money, you will write a note for me to tell Mr. Herman that I am gone, and to say good- by to the bambino."
"Good God, Ninitta! Are you mad?" Fenton cried, jumping up and coming to confront her. "Why should you mix me up in this business? He knows my writing, and think what he might suspect if I wrote such a note."
His voice insensibly softened as he spoke. He could not but be touched by the utter helplessness, the anguish, the baffled weakness so evident in her face and manner. He was cruel only from selfishness and the instinct of self-defence, and his pity was sharply aroused by Ninitta's suffering and her miserable condition.
"Come," he said gently, laying his hand on her arm, "you are tired and frightened. There is no need for you to go away and, besides, you could not live without the bambino. Think, you would have no letters; you would never even hear from him."
A spasm of pain contracted Ninitta's features. She pressed her hands upon her bosom with interlaced fingers working convulsively.
"Oh, Mother of God!" she moaned, in a voice of intensest agony, which thrilled Fenton with a keen pang that yet did not prevent his remembering how like was the cry to that of a great tragic actress as he had heard it in Phedre.
"Don't, Ninitta," he pleaded, unlocking her hands and taking them in his. "I"—
"You will write me?" she interrupted eagerly. "You will tell me about Nino? I shall find somebody to read it to me. Oh, you are good. That is the best kindness you could do me."
She pressed his hands eagerly, a divine yearning, a gleam of passionate hope shone in her dark eyes. Fenton tried to smile, but despite himself his lip trembled. He had hard work to control himself, but he reflected that with him lay the responsibility of dissuading Ninitta from her mad project.
"But it will be better still," he urged, "to be with him. What can a boy do without his mother?"
She bent her head forward, gazing into his eyes as if she were trying to read his very soul; then she threw it backward with a sharp moan, shaking his hands from hers with a tragic gesture.
"He would be ashamed," she said. "Now he is too young to know that he is better without his mother."
She looked around the familiar studio with a sweeping, panting glance; then she turned again to Fenton, clasping both his hands with one of hers.
"Think of what I have done for you," she said; "and write me about him. I shall die if you do not."
And there shot through Fenton's mind a sense of the terrible tragedy which lay in such an appeal for such an end.
When she was gone, Fenton consoled himself with the reflection that the lack of money would prevent Ninitta from carrying out her wild whim. He, of course, could not know that soon after Nino's birth Herman had started a fund for him in a savings bank, and to the mother's intense gratification had the deposits made in her name as trustee. He had taught Ninitta to sign her name; and great had been her pleasure in watching the little fund grow. It indicated the desperateness of her resolve, that now she broke into this cherished fund, drawing barely enough money to take her back to Capri. She was going away for Nino's sake she argued with herself, and that justified even this.
All through the day she busied herself with preparations for departure. She would take nothing but the barest necessities; only that the hand- satchel into which she compressed her few belongings held Nino's first baby socks, a lock of his hair, his picture, a broken toy, and other dear trifles, each of which she packed wet with tears and covered with kisses.
Late in the afternoon she took Nino into her chamber alone to bid him good-by. Her limbs failed her as the door closed and he stood looking at her in innocent wonder. She sank into a chair, faint and trembling, soul and body rent with an intolerable anguish so great that for a moment she wondered if she were not dying.
"What is the matter, mamma?" Nino cried out in his musical Italian, running across the room to stand by her knee.
He took one of her hands in his, stroking it softly and looking up into her face with pity and wonder.
"I am going away, Nino," she said, speaking with a mighty effort. "You must be a good boy and always mind and love papa. And, oh!" she cried, her self-control breaking down, "love me too, Nino; love me, love me."
She clasped her arms convulsively about his neck, but she choked the first sob that rose in her throat. She did not dare give way. She instinctively knew that she needed all her strength to carry her through what she had undertaken. She kissed the startled child with burning fervor. She drew him into her lap and held him close to her. Her very lips were white.
"Nino," she said, "can you remember something to say to papa?"
"Oh, yes," he answered. "I am quite old enough for that. Don't you remember how I repeated",—
"'Questo domanda del pan; Questo dise, no ghe n'e; Questo dise come faremo; Quell' altro dise; rubaremo; Il mignolo dise; chi ruba 'mpicca, 'mpicca!'"
It was a folk rhyme she had taught him to say, telling off his chubby fingers one by one; and she remembered how proud the boy had been when he had repeated it to his father. Her mouth twitched convulsively, but she went on steadily.
"You remembered it beautifully, Nino," she said, "and you are to say to papa, 'Mamma has gone away to Italy for my sake, and she leaves you her love.' Say it over, Nino."
"'Mamma has gone away to Italy for my sake,'" repeated the child. "But, mamma," he broke in, "I don't want you to go."
She embraced him as if in her death struggle the waters of the sea were closing over her.
"Say it, Nino," she repeated. "Say it all."
The child did as she bade him. She knew she could not prolong this interview, and still have strength to carry out her resolution. She embraced and kissed her child so frantically that he became frightened and began to cry. Then she soothed him and led him to the chamber door. She put her hand on the latch. She looked at him, her Nino, her baby. She tottered as she stood. But the force of character which had given her strength to fight her way for ten years and across half the world to seek Nino's father gave her power now. She opened the door and put the boy out gently. She could not trust herself to kiss him again, or even again to say good-by.
But when the door was closed, she rolled upon the floor in agony, stifling her moans lest they should be heard outside, beating her breast and biting her arms like a mad creature.
When Herman came home to dinner that night his wife was gone, and Nino gave him her message.
FAREWELL AT ONCE, FOR ONCE, FOR ALL AND EVER. Richard II.; ii.—2.
Fenton's reflections as he sat in the train that evening, bound for New York, were varied rather than pleasing. There are crises in a man's life when it is perhaps quite as wise that he should not attempt to reason; he cannot do better than to keep his attention occupied with indifferent subjects, trusting to that instinct or higher self, or whatever it may be within us which works independently of our outer consciousness, to settle all perplexities. Some idea of this sort was in Arthur's mind as he sped along towards the Sound steamer. He could not prevent himself from thinking more or less of the situation of his affairs, but he made no attempt to consider them reasonably or in order.
"It would have saved me an awkward interview," he reflected, "if Mrs. Glendower could have taken herself opportunely out of the world. If we may trust the usual form of mortuary resolutions, Divine Providence is habitually pleased with the removal of mortals from this sublunary sphere; and in this case I should share the sentiment."
His musings took on a darker tone as time went on. He thought with bitterness of the failure of his past, and he loathed himself for what he was. The hateful mystery of life tormented him with its poisonous uncertainty. He groaned inwardly at the curse that one day should still follow another. Then the phrasing of his thought pleased him, and with veering fancy he went on stringing epigrams in his brain.
"After all," he thought, "what we call a fool in this world is a man who has his own way at the expense of the wise. There's Candish, now; I call him a fool and he goes ahead and is damned virtuous and stupid and exasperating, and gets through life beautifully; while I, who wouldn't be such an idiot for any money, am always in some confounded scrape or other. I wonder, by the way, what's the connection between sanctity and a waistcoat put on hind side before. Candish and Edith wouldn't make a bad pair. She wouldn't mind his ugly mug in the least, and his idiocies of temperament would be rather pleasing to her. Heaven knows it was an ill day for her when she fell into my clutches. I can't say that it seems to have been any great advantage to any woman to be fond of me. Helen was awfully cut up when I went back on the Pagans, and as for Ninitta, I've played the very dickens with her. Upon my word I have my doubts if I could be really respectable without cutting my own acquaintance."
Fenton retired to his stateroom almost as soon as he went on board the steamer. He was tired with the strain of the last weeks, he hated the vulgar crowd one met in travelling, so that to sleep and avoid his companions seemed the only course desirable under the circumstances.
He was dimly conscious of the progress of the boat, the bustle in the saloon, which gradually subsided as the evening wore on; and then his slumber grew deeper. Even the frequent whistling which the ever- increasing fog made necessary only caused him, now and then, to turn uneasily in his berth. His stateroom was well aft, and in his drowsy, half-waking moments, he was conscious that the sea was running heavily. He remembered that the wind had been east all day, and that he had seen the danger-signal floating that afternoon.
Toward morning he grew more wakeful. The whistling of the fog-signal, which had now become almost constant, vanquished at length his inclination toward slumber. He found his watch, but it was too dark to tell the time. He raised himself up in his berth, and, pulling open the window blind, was able with difficulty to make out that it was almost four o'clock. Outside, he saw a bank of fog, as impenetrable to the eye as a wall. He pulled the blind to, with an impatient sigh.
"This confounded fog," he thought, "will make us late, and I sha'n't have time to see those pictures at the Academy."
He lay back in his berth, broad awake, with an objurgation at the whistle, which was shrieking furiously, and which, he suddenly became aware, was being answered by the dull bellow of a fog horn blown near at hand. At that moment the engines of the boat stopped, with that cessation of the quivering jar which is so terrifying. Fenton could feel the steamer losing its headway, and being more heavily tossed about by the waves as it did so. He sat up in his berth with a startled consciousness of danger, and at the same instant something struck the steamer with a terrific crash which seemed powerful enough to rend every timber apart. A tumult of sound broke forth, amid which a piercing human shriek rang out with awful sharpness. Fenton was thrown from his berth by the shock, and landed on the floor, bruised and half- stunned, but otherwise unhurt. His valise was dashed against him, but after the first concussion there was no further violent movement, and, as soon as he was able to recover himself, he had no difficulty in getting to his feet. The terrible cries which continued, reinforced by a babel of screams and confused noises, seemed to him to come from some stateroom near at hand. It was evident that some one had been seriously hurt in the collision which must have occurred. The trampling of feet, the voices of men and women and children, the sound of the wind and of the water, and those formless noises which are the more terrifying because it is impossible to tell whence they arise, filled the air on every side, and told Fenton that some serious calamity had befallen the steamer.
He felt about in the darkness for his clothing, then pulled open the shutter hastily, and dressed himself in the dim light as well as he was able. He was excited but not panic-stricken, yet the time seemed long, although in reality it was but a few moments before he was ready to open his door into the saloon. As he came out he had a startled impression of finding himself in an unexpected place, and then he realized that the side of the boat had been broken in clean through the range of staterooms, and that he was looking out into the heavy wall of fog through a hole made by the collision. He could see dimly the shape of a ship's prow, and the broken end of a bowsprit was not yet wholly disentangled from the rent in the side of the steamer. The two vessels, locked together like a pair of sea-monsters that had perished in the death grapple of a desperate encounter, tossed up and down on the long swell, swayed by the wind which seemed to be increasing in fury every moment.
On the floor of the saloon just before him, Fenton saw a wounded man, ghastly with blood, and moaning terribly. Half-dressed people hovered about him in utter bewilderment, while others continually hurried up simply to hasten away again in frantic confusion. The wounded man was in his night clothes, and a half-dressed old woman, her gray hair straggling about her face, seemed to be attempting to stanch the blood which was flowing freely. She was evidently a stranger, since from time to time she appealed to those around to take her place, and let her go and look after her own folk, but the kindly old creature plainly could not bring herself, even in that hour of peril, to desert one hurt and helpless.
On every side were the evidences of panic. Stateroom doors were open, people in all stages of disarray were hurrying wildly along, or clinging frantically to each other. The hysterical sobs of women, piercing cries from the thin voices of children, deep-toned curses and wild ejaculations from men sounded on every hand. People were donning life-preservers, some putting on two or three in their eagerness and fear; and here and there fighting for the possession of an extra one in a mad fury. The whole saloon was filled with a wild and terrifying tumult. It was a frenzied scene of fear and awful bewilderment.
However great his mental pluck, Fenton was physically a coward, and he knew it. The New England climate and life have given to most of her children, of any degree of cultivation, a nervous organization too acutely sensitive to pain for them to be physically brave; but to this disposition the New England training, the inherited manliness of sturdy ancestors, has added a splendid moral energy to overcome this weakness.
In the first terrible shock of fear which followed his discovery that the steamer had been run down, Fenton's body trembled with terror. He felt a wild and dizzy impulse to rush somewhere madly; but in a moment his will reasserted itself. He was intensely frightened, but he beat down his fear with the lash of self-scorn, as he would have whipped a hound that refused to do his bidding. He steadied himself for a moment against the doorway with tense muscles, setting his teeth together. He drew a deep breath, turned back into his stateroom, and put on a cork jacket. He was cool enough. Before he buckled it he transferred his wallet and papers from the pocket of his coat to that on the inside of his waistcoat. Then he hurried out through the saloon on to the afterdeck. The place was crowded, and the confusion was indescribable. Fenton's first impulse was to put his hands over his ears, to shut out the horrible din. The officers were shouting orders and getting the boats manned, for even in this short time the steamer was settling. The hissing swash of the waves beating into the breach, the prayers, the imprecations, the hysterical sobs, the agonized cries of the struggling passengers, the darkness, the terror, the yawning abyss of death beneath them,—combined to sweep away all human feelings save the instinct of self-preservation. The brute side of human nature revealed itself with a hideousness more horrible than the terror of the night and the sea. Unprotected women were crushed and trampled, and as the boats were lowered a fierce hand-to-hand conflict ensued, men fighting like wild cats to force their way into them. The officers beat them back, and made way for the women as well as they could, struggling at the same time with the difficult task of maintaining discipline among the crew.
Shrill amid the uproar, a child's cry smote Fenton's ear as he came out upon the deck. Directly before him a man was trying to pull a life- preserver off from a boy, while a woman fought with him in a desperate endeavor to shield her child. The lad was about the size of Caldwell and in the confused light not wholly unlike him. With a sob and a curse, Fenton struck the man full in the face with all his force, sending the brute reeling backward into the crowd which was too dense to allow of his falling. The mother hurriedly pulled the child into the dense stream of people crowding toward the boats, and Fenton saw the pair disappear over the side of the steamer, helped by one of the officers.
There ran through his mind a momentary speculation of their chances of escape, and the thought brought him back to the consideration of his own situation. A sudden unreasonable disgust of the conditions which made his salvation so improbable seized upon him. He reflected that he might still baffle fate by taking his own life, and for an instant the idea of thus escaping from all the vexations which surrounded him presented itself to his mind in alluring colors. The idea of self- destruction was one with which he had played so often that he entertained it without a shock; and he realized now, almost with a conviction that the fact forced him to suicide for the sake of consistency, that his death under these circumstances would surely be attributed to accident. He even began to fumble with the buckles of his life-preserver; then with a smile of bitter scorn he looked down at his hands, of which the fingers were trembling with nervous fear.
"Bah," he said to himself, "why should I pose to myself? Fate is too much for me; if a gentle and beneficent Providence intends to make away with me, so be it. I haven't the nerve to anticipate it."
He started toward the boats, and at that instant he caught sight of the face of Ninitta. She was standing perfectly quiet, with her arm around one of the small pillars supporting the covering to the deck. She was fully dressed, though her head was uncovered and the rings of hair clung about her face. Fenton forgot everything else at sight of her. In a moment of supreme egotism there flashed through his mind the consequences of Ninitta's being here. The consciousness of all that lay between them made him keenly alive to the evil construction which might be placed upon her having fled from home on the same boat which carried him. He realized, with a profound feeling of impotence, that if they were lost together he should be forever unable to explain or to dispel the suspicion to which her presence might give rise; he felt with keen bitterness how useless would be all his cleverness, and his heart swelled with rage at the thought that his adroitness would be wasted for lack of opportunity.
He forgot the danger, the terror of the wreck, the shrieking of the women, the brutality of the men, and, for the moment, felt with the keen desperation of enormous vanity the danger to his reputation. He forced his way madly across the deck and confronted her in the ghastly light of the swinging lantern and the gray foregleams of the coming dawn.
"You followed me!" he cried with bitter harshness.
She looked at him in a calm, stunned way, as if she were past suffering and almost past feeling. The recognition in her eyes came slowly, as if she were dazed or as if some powerful mental stress held her attention.
"Now," he began, "your boy"—He was going to add, "will grow up to believe you ran away with me;" but his manliness asserted itself and he could not continue. It was like striking a woman, and the brutal words died on his lip.
At the mention of her boy a sudden passion flamed in her eyes. She loosed her hold upon the pillar and a sudden lurch of the sinking ship threw her into Fenton's arms. She clung to him frantically.
"My boy!" she moaned. "My boy!"
Like quickly shifting pictures, there ran through Fenton's mind the images of Nino, of the boy whose life-preserver he had saved, and of his own son, asleep in safety in his nursery at home. With a quick revulsion of feeling came the desire to save Ninitta, and with instinctive quickness he hit upon a possible means of escape. As he came through the saloon he had seen a man, a dim shape in the fog, clambering through the shattered staterooms to climb over the broken bowsprit into the vessel that had run them down. Hastily drawing Ninitta along, he forced his way back into the saloon. The body of the man who had been hurt in the collision lay dead and deserted on the floor. He lifted his companion over it and made his way to the side of the steamer. Others had discovered this road to safety and he had to fight for his foothold amid the waves that now washed over his feet. The men on the stranger vessel were sawing off the broken spar which was entangled under the steamer's upper deck, lest their craft should be dragged down by the sinking boat. He urged Ninitta forward, swinging her by main force up into the tangled rigging.
"No, no," she cried, endeavoring to throw herself back. "I do not want to go. It will be better for Nino."
The sublimity of her self-sacrifice smote him like a lash. He could not stop to argue, but he forced her forward, and one of the men above, feeling himself in safety, caught her by the arm to drag her up. But at that instant the spar, cut nearly through, broke with a sharp crack like the sound of a gun. The end fell, and with it the wretched woman was carried down. She shrieked as she went, the water cutting short her cry of mortal anguish. Fenton saw her face an instant, and then in the fog and the darkness the lapping water closed over her.
An awful sickening shudder ran through him, a fear too great to be resisted. There rose from his heart a despairing prayer; and the unbeliever has sounded the depth of agony when he calls upon God.
At that instant a beam loosened from the upper deck, dragged downward by the ropes of the falling bowsprit, fell with a crash, dashing him downward into the gulf below. He felt the awful stinging pain of the blow, like the thrust of a spear; a mighty wave seemed to mount upward to meet and to engulf him. Then he lost all perception of what he was doing or of what happened to him; and it might to his consciousness have been either moments or hours before he found himself struggling in the icy water. He swam instinctively, and he even remembered to try to increase his distance from the steamer, that he might not be caught in the eddy when it went down. He heard still the cries and shrieks, but the noise of the sea at his ears was like a mighty uproar confusing all. He could not tell in which direction lay the vessel; a mighty pressure crushed his chest, and innumerable lights twinkling against a background of intensest black seemed to shine before his eyes. He was past thinking clearly. His memory was like a broken mirror whose shattered fragments reflected a thousand bits from his past life, confused, detached, and meaningless.
Then with a last supreme effort his strong will asserted itself in a command upon his consciousness. For one intense instant, briefer than the flash of the tiniest spark, he realized everything, save that the blow or the nearness of death seemed to have dulled all sense of fear. The most vivid thought of all was the reflection that he might have been saved but for his efforts to help Ninitta. The grim humor of the situation tickled his fancy, and in the very flood of death he faintly smiled at the irony of fate which thus balanced accounts. And this flash of cynical amusement was the last gleam of his earthly consciousness.
A SYMPATHY OF WOE. Titus Andronicus; iii.—1.
Fortunately Ninitta had made no secret of her departure except to conceal it from her husband. She had been to see some Italian friends of former days to ask about people she had known in Italy, and from them her husband learned pretty nearly what her plans had been. Fenton might have spared himself his fears lest she be suspected of going with him. Such a thought did not for an instant enter into Herman's mind. The sculptor found himself appreciating better than ever before the strength of his wife's character. The knowledge of Ninitta's faults died with her, and her memory was transmitted to her son enriched with the halo of a martyr who has died in the path of supreme self- sacrifice. Nine's father understood fairly well the train of reasoning which had led his wife to the tragic resolve to leave their boy. Ignorant of her fault, he blamed himself for the reproach by which he feared he had forced her to believe that it were better for her son to be freed from her presence.
His generous nature forgot, too, all anger against Fenton. To the noble soul, death, by a reasoning which is above logic, seems to settle all accounts. He remembered the artist's brightness, his quick sympathy, his keen imagination, and his ready adaptability. The flippancy that had often shocked him, the treachery to principles which he held sacred that had wounded him, his kind memory put out of sight, as one wipes the stains from a crystal; and in the mind of the man he had wronged, the remembrance of Arthur Fenton remained fair and gracious, and nobler than the nature whose monument it was.
He went to see Mrs. Fenton, but when he met her he at first could say nothing. He stammered brokenly, tears choking his voice, holding her hand in his, and vainly striving to put into words the sympathy he felt. Then he stooped suddenly and kissed her hand.
"Our boys,"—he said, with awkward phrasing, but with an instinct which reached to the ground of their deepest sympathy. "It might comfort them a little to play together."
The widow clung with both her small hands to the large strong one which had clasped hers; and bending down over it she burst into convulsive sobs. He stood silent a moment, his lip trembling then with grave kindness, he said,—
"I know how hard it is; but you have the comfort of being able to tell the boy that his father was a genius and a noble man. Do you know that a woman who was rescued says that your husband saved her boy, a little lad like Caldwell. Arthur knocked down the man that was trying to rob him of his life-preserver. The Captain told her afterward who it was."
He was perfectly sincere in what he said. It was difficult for him to think evil of the living; of the dead it was impossible.
After he had gone, Edith took Caldwell on her knee and told him the story. It was the brightest ray of comfort in all that sad time to be able thus to glorify his father in the eyes of her son. The incident dwelt in her mind, and her loving fancy added to it a hundred details and drew from it numberless deductions with which to enrich the memory of her dead. It came in time to be the most prominent thing in her remembrance of her husband. It was the fact which she could recall with the most unmixed satisfaction, which needed no evasions, no mental reservations, no warpings of belief, to appear wholly noble. In the light of this deed, the impulse of a moment, Fenton stood in her memory as a hero; and in viewing him thus, she was able to lose sight of everything which she must forgive, of everything which she wished to forget.
Edith was happily spared the harassing complications of financial difficulty which it had seemed must inevitably result from the condition in which her husband's affairs were left.
On Mr. Irons's return from New York, he had been astounded and enraged to find that he had been outwitted by the combined cleverness of Mrs. Sampson and the stupidity of his clerk, and that he was in possession of eleven thousand shares of Princeton Platinum stock. For seven thousand shares he had paid at the rate of three dollars, and the stock was now quoted at one and three eighths asked, with no particular reason for supposing that the putting of even half his shares on the market would not reduce it to zero. Irons blasphemed prodigiously and emphatically, discharged his clerk, and went to call on Mrs. Sampson, whom he threatened with all sorts of condign punishments if she did not disgorge her ill-gotten gains. The widow received him affably, and laughed in his face at this proposal, a course of action which won his respect more fully than any other which she could have chosen. There was evidently nothing left but to do what he could with the market, and by methods best known to himself he succeeded in bulling the stock so that he was able to unload at three dollars and a half.
The brokers in whose hands Fenton had left his stock had been watching their opportunity, and closed it out at the top of the market, a consummation for which Fenton had so devoutly longed that it seemed cruel he could not have lived to see it. The returns from this and from her husband's life insurance secured to Edith and her son a small income, which was considerably increased by the sale of Fenton's pictures which was soon after organized by the artists of the St. Filipe Club.
It was about a month after Ninitta's death that Grant Herman went to visit Helen. He had chosen to see her at her studio rather than at her home. Poignant memories of the past were less likely to be aroused by the unfamiliar appearance of this room which he had never before entered. It was late in the afternoon, and Helen was standing by the figure of a child upon which she had been working. She gave him her hand impulsively, forgetting that the fingers were stained with clay.
"I beg your pardon," she said.
"It is no matter," he returned, and the commonplace phrases bridged the awkwardness which belongs to the meeting of two people whose minds are full of intense feeling which they are not prepared to speak. Helen led him toward another modelling stand.
"I want you to see this bust," she remarked. "It's quite in the manner which you used to say was my best."
He stood watching her with a swelling heart as she removed the damp wrappings which kept the clay moist. Keen in the minds of both was the knowledge that now there were no barriers between them; that the time had come at last when they were free to love each other and to unite their lives. The closeness of Ninitta's death kept this wholly from their words, but it could not banish the exultation, so sharp as to be almost pain, which would arise from the mere fact of their being together. Both understood that however great the sorrow at her death which he was too noble-hearted not to feel, he must rejoice in the right to follow the dictates of his love at last.
He forced himself to examine the bust critically, and to speak of it calmly; but he soon turned away from it, and stood looking at her a moment, as if trying to find speech in which to phrase what he had come to say. She waited for him to speak, meeting his glance frankly. Her head was thrown backward a little, and he noted with pitying eagerness that she was paler than of old, and that there were dark circles beneath her eyes. He thought of the years in which their lives had been separated, and sorrow for her suffering made his heart swell.
"Helen," he said, "I have come to ask a favor. I want you to look after Nino a little. He has been given up to servants too much, and I am perfectly helpless when it comes to managing his nurse. Is there any way in which you can do anything for him?"
"Of course there is," she answered. "I will come in and see him every day and find out how things go with him; then, if anything is wrong, I can let you know."
"Thank you," he returned simply. "I was sure you would help me. But do you think," he added, hesitating, "that it will be in any way awkward for you?"
She smiled on him and she could not keep out of her eyes the joy she felt at being able to serve him.
"Do you think," was her reply, "that I am likely to let that consideration stand in my way? It is rather late in life for me to begin to let conventionality interfere with what I think it right to do. Besides," she continued, dropping her eyes, though without a shade of self-consciousness, "I shall go when you are at the studio."
"And it will not be too much trouble?"
"I shall love to do what I can for Nino."
"I thank you," he said again.
Then without more words he held out his hand.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night," she repeated.