"It's lovely down there, I know. Bertram—your son—has told me so much about it!" broke in Kate.
"We'd like to see you, too," said Mr. Chester. Then, catching the implication, embarrassed by it, he retreated to his room and came back in an incredibly short time with his valise. He had turned toward the door when Mrs. Tiffany said:
"I think Bertram is well enough so that you might see him again."
"Oh, sure," replied Mr. Chester, as recalling a neglected trifle. He dropped his valise and strode back to the sick-room for a short stay.
All that day, Eleanor harbored a dread, which turned toward night to a relief—dread of the first interview, relief that Bertram had not sent for her. Kate, waiting her chance, slipped secretly into the room after Mr. Chester had gone. Bertram was awake. He smiled in a measured imitation of his old smile when she entered, and extended his uninjured hand. She did not take it; instead, she patted it with her cool, long fingers, made to soothe. And considering that the nurse was watching, she looked a long time into his eyes.
"They sure smashed me up some," he said. "But I'm a-knitting. How did it happen that they swore you in?"
"I wanted to help!"
"That was being pretty good to little Bertie!" He withdrew his hand to drop it above hers, and he looked long into her face. "Pretty good to little Bertie," he repeated, "and now I want you to be better, and not ask any questions about it. Is Miss Gray—Eleanor—about the house?"
"I thought she might have gone to the ranch. Well, just about to-morrow, will you get her in here—alone?"
"Are you ready—to be agitated?"
"Now you don't know what I want—or you wouldn't be asking questions. Will you?"
"You mustn't talk any more," spoke the nurse from the corner. And Kate withdrew.
When, next morning, the two girls met in the hall before breakfast, Kate repeated the message simply, carelessly. Eleanor found herself struggling to keep face and color. In spite of her long inner preparation, the emergency came to her with a sense of surprise. How should she carry off this interview? Though her respite had been long, though she had thought much, she had no prepared plan of campaign. Must she lie for the sake of his bodily health, assume the part which she had been playing when he went out of life? Even the question how to get rid of the nurse was a tiny embarrassment.
She mustered her voice to say:
"I think I'll look in now. Invalids are likely to be awake at this hour of the day."
"Yes, you must be eager!" dabbed Kate.
The nurse was no obstacle. She looked up toward the figure in the door, said: "A young lady to see you, Mr. Chester," and withdrew. Eleanor stood alone by the foot of the bed, looking into the eyes of her problem.
He made no motion. He did not even put out his hand. He regarded her with the frown which usually broke into a smile. Now, it continued a frown.
"Well, things happened, didn't they?" he said. His voice burst out of him with almost its normal force.
"Yes, Bertram. A great deal."
"And I thank you. It was bully work. I don't see how you stood it, holding me up the way you did—it ought to have killed off a man, let alone a girl. Didn't hurt you anywhere, did it?"
"No—who told you?" Her voice was hard and constrained.
Now Bertram smiled. It was different, this smile, from the old illumination of his features. She could not tell, in the moment she had to think, whether it was his illness that changed it so, or whether it really held a bitterness which, superficially, she read into it.
"That's the answer," he said enigmatically. "You didn't know I was onto everything, did you? I never went out but once—just after the crash when the car turned over. I began to know things while they were carrying me up the bank. From that time, I was just like a man with his wind knocked out. It didn't hurt much, but I couldn't move a finger or a toe. I didn't want to move if I could. I was too busy just keeping alive. I couldn't open my eyes, but I heard everything. You just bet I heard everything!"
This descent of the conversation into reminiscence and apparent commonplace gave Eleanor an opening into which she leaped. It was wonderful; she had read of such cases. Had he heard that child crying in the corner, and had it bothered him? Had he been conscious that it was Mark Heath and none other who was asking so many questions? Mark Heath had done so much for them—she would tell him about it some other time. But Bertram still lay there with his frown of a petulant boy on his face, and her voice ran down into nothing for lack of sympathy in her listener.
"Do you remember all you said?" he asked when she was quite silent.
"I think so—why?" The question had brought a little, warm jump of her nerves.
"Everything? Something you said to me?"
"I think so, Bertram."
"Did I dream it, then?"
She made no answer to this, but her knees failed under her so that she sat down on the bed. Had she—had she said it aloud?
"Something like this: 'Bertram, we don't belong to each other'?" He laughed a little on this; even a certain blitheness came into his laugh, as though he should say, "the joke is on you."
A sense of the shock she might give him moved her to temporize.
"Let us not talk of it now, Bertram. Let it be as it was until you're better."
"I'll be a blame sight better after I get this off my system. You see—well I couldn't think just then, but now, when my think tank has resumed business, I savvey a heap of things. One is that you weren't telling me any news."
"What makes you say that?" Eleanor bent her grave grey eyes on him.
"I had the signal already. I mightn't have seen it fully if this smash hadn't come, but just the same I caught it away ahead of you. That afternoon up on the Las Olivas trail when we came together. When I kissed you."
Had she ever let him kiss her?
He made an incurved gesture of his free hand, as though joining two wires.
"It didn't connect. That's all. I was acting on a hunch when I told you to keep it dark. Told anyone?"
Not until afterward did she think to be offended by this question. At the time, she answered with a simple negative.
"That's good. It is just between us now. I suppose the matter with me was that I wanted to fly high, and you were about the highest thing in sight—"
"Don't, Bertram. I'm not high. Am I hurting you? Oh, am I unkind when you are ill?"
"Oh, if you think it's hurting me, you're off. This is a swell way to talk, isn't it, considering that I'm here—" his eyes swept the aristocratic comforts of the Tiffany spare room.
"We mustn't think of that. It's too big to think of that!"
"I guess you're right. Now that is finished, going to forgive me because I walked over to Northrup?"
"I've nothing of any kind to forgive. It's you, I think, that must forgive."
"Oh, it's all square, everything's all square. I want to be good friends with you if you'll let me. I hope," his voice was almost tender, "you connect with the right man. He won't have any too much blood in his neck, but he'll have a lot of general culture in his system."
Here she realized that she had something to forgive. She repeated, mentally, her act of renunciation as she said:
"You're a great, strong, generous man. I can't tell you how much I thank you for the course you've taken to-day. You're going to succeed and—some woman—is going to be proud of you." She had avoided by a thread naming the woman. "I shall be glad I knew you, and I shall be your friend as long as you'll let me."
He smiled his old smile and his uninjured hand went out.
"Shake!" he said.
Yet it was a relief that the nurse came back and said quietly, "You've talked enough." As she walked to the door, Eleanor found that her will was focused on the operation of her feet, commanding them to move with decent slowness. Had she obeyed her impulse, she should have run. She forced herself to turn at the door and smile back, forced herself to bridle her emotions and go quietly to breakfast and to her ordeal with the lightning thrusts of Kate Waddington.
* * * * *
Two days later, Eleanor followed Judge Tiffany to the ranch. A perplexing fruit season brought her fair excuse. The year before, the Japanese, adventurers in minor labors, had begun to flood the Santa Lucia tract. They drove out the Chinese; when that spring brought picking contracts, no Oriental was to be had save a Japanese. In the first rush of that season, the Japanese pickers on the Tiffany ranch, in concert with all the other Japanese of Santa Lucia, had thrown down their baskets, repudiated their agreements, and struck. It needed more than Judge Tiffany's failing strength, more than Olsen's methodical plodding, to conquer this situation.
She must be a post now, not a rail, Eleanor told Mrs. Tiffany. And Kate would help until Mr. Chester could be moved. At further acceptance of Kate, Mrs. Tiffany rebelled. Kate had foisted herself on them. Goodness knew, Mrs. Tiffany couldn't tell why they had ever accepted that situation. It didn't seem to her even decent.
"You'll perplex me greatly, dear Aunt Mattie, if you don't let her remain now!" said Eleanor, looking up from her packing.
This remark, cryptic though it was, came as a fresh shower to Mrs. Tiffany's curiosity. Never before had Eleanor so nearly committed herself on the subject which lay like lead on her aunt's responsibilities. It prompted Mrs. Tiffany to try for a wider opening.
"Would you like it, dear, if we brought Mr. Chester down to the ranch to recuperate when he is better? I'm sure Edward wouldn't object. After all, he's ready to forgive the Northrup affair."
Eleanor looked up significantly.
"If you're consulting my wishes, certainly not!" she said.
The sigh which Mrs. Tiffany drew expressed deep relief. Thereafter, they proceeded straight ahead with the arrangement. Eleanor went on to the ranch. Kate, remaining, made herself so useful in a hundred ways that Mrs. Tiffany's irritation wore itself away.
The old combination of Eleanor and an attractive though undesirable young man had moved her to a perilous sympathy. Now that it was over, now that she had no more responsibility in the matter, she transferred some of that vivid and friendly interest to the new arrangement. She caught herself resisting a temptation to spy on their conversations; she watched Kate's face for tell-tale expression whenever Bertram's name came up in their luncheon-time chats.
Kate usurped all the finer prerogatives of the nurse. Hers it was to arrange the sick-room, to put finishing touches on bed and table, to feed him at his meals. Her tawny hair made sunshine in the chamber, her cool hands, in their ministration, had the caress of breezes. He was getting to be an impatient invalid; he bore the confinement harder than he did the ache of knitting bones. Kate's part it was to laugh away these irritations, so that she always left him smiling.
He went on mending until they could get him out of bed; until, on an afternoon when the sun was bright and the wind was low, they could take him into the garden for a breath of air and view. He made the journey out-of-doors with Kate supporting him unnecessarily by the armpit. She set out a Morris chair for him by the lattice, so that he could overlook the Bay, she tucked the robes about him, she parted the vines that he might have better view.
For a moment he swept the bay with his eyes and opened his lungs to the out-door room and air. Then his gaze returned to Kate's strong, vigorous yet feminine back, as she stood, arms outstretched, hooking vines on the trellis. The misty sunshine was making jewels in her hair.
"Say!" He spoke so suddenly and with such meaning in the monosyllable that Kate blushed as she turned. "Say! is that fellow still writing to you—the one with the Eastern education and the money?"
Kate dropped her eyes.
"No," she said softly. "I told him—I have broken it off—lately."
Bertram laughed—his old, fresh laugh of a boy.
"You saved me trouble then. I was just about to serve notice on him that henceforth no one but little Bertie was going to be allowed on this ranch."
Kate did not speak. She continued to look down at the gravel walk.
"Now don't you go pretending you don't know what I mean," Bertram went on. "Just for that, I won't tell you what I mean. But you know."
"What about Eleanor?" murmured Kate.
"You little devil!" answered Bertram. "Come over here."
Kate sank down on the edge of his chair, and dropped one arm about his neck.
Mrs. Tiffany, viewing the morning from the window of her room, saw them so. At first, she smiled; then a heavier expression drew down all the lines of her face. She crossed to her dresser, where a long frame of many divisions held the photographs of all whom she had loved. The first in order was of a woman who had a face like Eleanor's; a more beautiful Eleanor, perhaps, but with no such grave light of the spirit in her eyes. This she touched with her finger tips. But her look was bent upon the second, the portrait of a young man whose attitude, defying the conventional pose of old-fashioned photography, showed how blithe and merry and full of life he must have been.
"Ah, Billy Gray!" she whispered, "Billy Gray, you know, you, how sincerely Eleanor and I ought to thank God!"