"I was in field uniform, and I unbuttoned my holster and laid the revolver on the table before him. He looked at it with an empty smile. 'It is loaded,' I said, and left him."
"But I wondered. It seemed to me that there was a tension in the affairs of Bertin and his wife which could not endure, that the moment was at hand when the breaking-point would be reached. And it was this idea that carried me the same evening to visit Madame Bertin. The night about me was still, yet overhead there was wind, for great clouds marched in procession across the moon, trailing their shadows over the sand. Bertin inhabited a little house at the fringe of the village; it looked out at the emptiness of the desert. I was yet ten paces from the door when it opened and Madame Bertin came forth. She was wrapped in her bernouse, and she closed the door behind her quickly and stepped forward to meet me. She gave me greeting in her cool even tones, the pallor of her face shining forth from the hood of her garment."
"'Since you are so good as to come and see me,' she said, 'let us walk here for a while. Captain Bertin is occupied; and we can watch the clouds on the sand.'"
"We walked to and fro before the house. 'I saw your husband to-day,' I told her."
"'He said so,' she answered. 'It was pleasant for him to talk with an old comrade.'"
"One window in the house was lighted, with a curtain drawn across it. As we paused, I saw the shadow of a man on the curtain—a man who lurched and pressed both hands to his head. I could not tell whether Madame Bertin saw it also; she continued to walk, looking straight before her; her face was calm."
"'Doubtless he has his occupations here?' I ventured presently. 'There are matters in which he interests himself—non?'"
"'That is so,' she replied. 'And this evening he tells me he has a letter to write, concerning some matters of importance. I have promised him that for an hour he shall not be interrupted. What wonderful color there is yonder?'"
"The shadow of a great cloud, blue-black like a moonlit sea, was racing past us; it seemed to break like surf on a line of sandhills. But while I watched it awe was creeping upon me. She was erect and grave, with lips a little parted, staring before her; the heavy folds of the bernouse were like the marble robe of a statue. I glanced behind me at the lighted window, and the shadow of an arm moved upon it, an arm that gesticulated and conveyed to me a sense of agony, of appeal. I remembered the revolver; I felt a weakness overcome me."
"'Madame!' I cried. 'I fear—I doubt that it is safe to leave him for an hour to-night.'"
"She turned to me with a faint movement of surprise. The moon showed her to me clearly. Before the deliberate strength of her eyes, my gaze faltered."
"'But I assure you,' she answered; 'nothing can be safer.'"
"I made one more effort. 'But if I might see him for an instant,' I pleaded."
"She smiled and shook her head. I might have been an importunate child. 'I promised him an hour,' she said. Her voice was indulgent, friendly, commonplace; it made me powerless. I had it on my lips to cry out, 'He is in there alone, working himself up to the point of suicide!' But I could not utter it. I could no more say it than I could have smitten her in the face. She was impregnable behind; that barrier of manners which she upheld so skillfully. She continued to look at me for some seconds and to smile—so gently, so mildly. I think I groaned."
"She began to talk again of the clouds, but I could not follow what she said. That was my hour of impotence. Madame, I have seen battles and slaughter and found no meaning in them. But that isolated tragedy boxed up in the little house between the squalid town and the lugubrious desert—it sucked the strength from my bones. She continued to speak; the cultivated sweetness of her voice came and went in my ears like a maddening distraction from some grave matter in hand. I think I was on the point of breaking in, violently, hysterically, when I cast a look at the lighted window again. I cried out to her."
"'Look! Look!' I cried."
"She did not turn. 'I have seen the sea like that at Naples,' she was saying, gazing out to the desert, with her back to the house. 'With the moon shining over Capri——'"
"'For the love of God!' I said, and made one step toward the house. But it was too late. The shadowed hand—and what it held—rose; the shadowed head bent to meet it."
"Even at the sound of the shot she did not turn. 'What was that?' she said tranquilly."
"For the moment I could not speak. I had to gulp and breathe to recover myself."
"'Let us go and see,' I said then. 'The hour is past, and the letter of importance is finished.'"
"She nodded. 'By all means,' she agreed carelessly, and I followed her into the house."
"Once again I will spare Madame la Comtesse the details. Bertin had evaded arrest. At the end of all his laborings and groanings, the instant of resolution had come to him and he had made use of it. On the table were paper and writing-things; one note was finished."
"'It is not for me,' said Madame Bertin, as she leaned upon the table and read it. I was laying a sheet upon the body; when I rose she handed it to me. It bore neither name nor address; the poor futile life had blundered out without even this thing completed. It was short, and to some woman. 'Tres-chere amie,' it said; 'once I made a mistake. I have paid for it. You laughed at me once; You would not laugh now. If you could see——'"
The Colonel stopped; the Comtesse was holding out both hands as though supplicating him. Elsie Gray rose and bent over her. The Comtesse put her gently aside.
"You have that letter?" she asked.
The little Colonel passed a hand into a breast pocket and extracted a dainty Russia-leather letter-case. From it he drew a faded writing and handed it to the Comtesse.
"Madame la Comtesse is welcome to the letter," he said. "Pray keep it."
The Comtesse did not read it. She folded it in her thin smooth hands and sighed.
"And then?" she asked.
"This is the end of my tale," said the Colonel. "I took the letter and placed it in my pocket. Madame Bertin watched me imperturbably."
"'I may leave the formalities to you?' she asked me suddenly; 'the notification of death and so on?'"
"I bowed; I had still a difficulty in speaking."
"'Then I will thank you for all your friendship,' she said."
"I put up my hand. 'At least do not thank me,' I cried. I could not face her serene eyes, and that little lifting of the brows with which she answered my words. Awe, dread, passion—these were at war within me, and the dead man lay on the floor at my feet, I pushed the door open and fled."
Colonel Saval sat up in his chair and uncrossed his legs.
"I saw her no more," he said. "Madame la Comtesse knows how she returned to Algiers and presently died there? Yes."
The Comtesse bowed. "I thank you, Monsieur," she said. "You have done me a great service."
"I am honored," he replied, as he rose. "I wish you a good-night. Mademoiselle, good-night."
He was gone. The white doors closed behind him. The Comtesse raised her face and kissed the tall, gentle girl.
"Leave me now," she said. "I must read my letter alone."
And Elsie went. The story was finished at last.
Rubies ripped from altar cloths Leered a-down her rich attire; Her mad shoes were scarlet moths In a rose of fire.
A. T. Quiller-Couch.
From the briskness of the street, with its lamps aglitter in the lingering May evening, O'Neill entered to the sober gloom and the restless echoes of the great studio. He had come to hate the place of late. The high poise of its walls, like the sides of a well, the pale shine of the north light in the roof, the lumber of naked marble and formal armor and the rest, peopling its shadows, were like a tainted atmosphere to him; they embarrassed the lungs of his mind. Only the name of friendship exacted these visits from him; Regnault, dying where he had worked, was secure against desertion.
Buscarlet opened the door to him, his eyes wide and bewildered behind his spectacles.
"How is he?" asked O'Neill curtly, entering the great room.
"Ill," answered the other. "Very ill, so that one cannot tell whether he sleeps or wakes. There should be a nun here to nurse him, only—"
O'Neill nodded. The sick man's bed was set in the centre of the great room, shielded from the draughts of the door by a tall screen of gilt leather. From behind this screen, a shaded lamp by the bedside made an island of soft radiance in the darkness.
They went together past the screen and stopped to look at Regnault. He was lying on his back, with closed eyes, and his keen aquiline face upturned to the pallor of the "light" in the roof. The white hair tumbled on the pillow, and the long, beautiful hands that lay on the coverlet were oddly pathetic in contrast to the potency of the unconscious face. Even in sleep it preserved its cast of high assurance, its note of ideals outworn and discounted. It was the face of a man who had found a bitter answer for most of life's questions. By the bed sat Truelove, his servant, ex-corporal of dragoons. He rose noiselessly as O'Neill approached.
"No change, sir," he reported. "Talked a bit, an hour ago. Mr. Buscarlet was then 'ere."
"Any attacks?" asked O'Neill.
"One, sir, but I 'ad the amyl under 'is nose at the first gasp, an' 'e came round all right."
"Good," said O'Neill. "You go and get some supper now, Truelove. I'll attend to everything till you get back."
The corporal bowed and went forthwith. O'Neill set the capsules out on the table to be easily accessible, and joined Buscarlet by the great fireplace at the end of the room, whence he could keep watch on the still profile that showed against the gold of the screen. From without there came the blurred noises of the Paris street, mingled and blended in a single hum, as though life were laying siege to that quiet chamber.
Buscarlet was eager to talk. He was a speciously amiable little man, blonde and plump, a creature of easy emotions, prone to panic and tears.
"Ah, he talked indeed!" he said, as soon as O'Neill was seated. "At first I thought: 'This is delirium. He is returning to the age of his innocence.' But his eyes, as he looked at me, were wise and serious. My friend, it gave me a shock."
"What did he talk about?" asked O'Neill.
Buscarlet coughed. "Of his wife," he answered. "Fancy it!"
"His wife? Why, is he married?" demanded O'Neill in astonishment.
Buscarlet nodded two or three times. "Yes," he replied; "that is one of the things that has happened to him. One might have guessed it, hein?—a life like that! Ah, my friend, there is one who has put out his hours at usury. What memories he must have!"
O'Neill grunted, with his eyes on the bed. "He's had a beastly life, if that's what you mean," he said, "Who was the woman?'
"One might almost have guessed that, too," said Buscarlet. He rose. "Come and see," he said.
There was a recess beside the great mantelpiece, and in it hung Regnault's famous picture, "The Dancer," all scarlet frock and white flesh against an amber background.
"That?" exclaimed O'Neill. "Lola?"
Buscarlet nodded; he had forced a good effect.
"That is she," he answered.
The picture was familiar to O'Neill; to him, as to many another young painter of that time, it was an upstanding landmark on the road of art. He looked at it now, in the sparse light from the bedside lamp, with a fresh interest in its significance. He saw with new understanding the conventionalism of the pose—hip thrust out, arm akimbo, shoulder cocked—contrasted against the dark vivacity of the face and all the pulsing opulence of the flesh. It was an epic, an epic of the savage triumphant against civilization, of the spirit victorious against the forms of art.
He stared at it, Buscarlet smiling mildly at his elbow; then he turned away and went back to his seat. The face on the bed was unchanged.
"So Regnault married Lola!" he said slowly. "When?"
"Ah, who knows?" Buscarlet shrugged graphically. "Many years ago, of course. It is twenty years since she danced."
"And what was he saying about her?" asked O'Neill.
"Nothing to any purpose," replied Buscarlet. "I think he had been dreaming of her. You know the manner he has of waking up—coming back to consciousness with eyes wide open and his mind alert, with no interval of drowsiness and reluctance? Yes? Well, he woke like that before I knew he had ceased to sleep. 'I should like to see her now,' he said. 'Whom?' I asked, and he smiled. 'Lola,' he answered, and he went on to say that she was the one woman he had never understood. 'That was her advantage,' he said, smiling still; 'for she understood me; yes, she knew me as if she had made me.' After a while, he smiled again, and said, 'Yes, I should like to see her now.'"
O'Neill frowned thoughtfully. "Well, she ought to be here if she's his wife," he said. "Is she in Paris, d'you know? We might send for her."
"I do not know," replied Buscarlet. "Nobody knows, but I have heard she retired upon religion."
Their talk dwindled a little then. O'Neill found himself dwelling in thought upon that long-ago marriage of the great artist with Lola, the dancer. To him she was but a name; her sun had set in his boyhood, and there remained only the spoken fame of her wonderful dancing and a tale here and there of the fervor with which she had lived. It was an old chronicle of passion and undiscipline, of a vehement personality naming through the capitals of Europe, its trail marked by scandals and violences, ending in the quick oblivion which comes to compensate for such lives. On the whole, he thought, such a marriage was what one would have looked for in Regnault; as Buscarlet said, one might almost have guessed. He, with his genius and his restlessness, his great fame and his infamy, the high achievement of his art and the baseness of his relaxations, he was just such another as Lola.
Friendship, or even the mere forms of friendship, are the touchstone of a man. O'Neill was credited in his world with the friendship of Regnault. It had even been to him a matter of some social profit; there were many who deferred willingly to the great man's intimate. O'Neill saw no reason to set them right, but he knew himself that he had come by a loss in his close acquaintance with the Master. To know him at a distance, to be sure of just enough to interpret his work by the clue of his personality, was a thing to be glad of. But if one went further, incurred a part of his confidence, and ascertained his real flavor, then, as O'Neill once said, it was like visiting one's kitchen; it killed one's appetite.
While he pondered, he was none the less watchful; he saw the change on the still face as soon as it showed. With a quick exclamation he crossed to the bed. Regnault's jaw had set; his eyes were wide and rigid. On the instant his forehead shone with sweat. Deftly and swiftly O'Neill laid his hands on a capsule, crushed it in his palm, and held it to the sick man's face. The volatile drug performed its due miracle.
The face that had been a livid shell slackened again; the fixed glare sank down; and Regnault shuddered and sighed. Buscarlet, trembling but officious, wiped his brow and babbled commiserations.
"Ah!" said Regnault, putting up a thin hand to stop him. "It takes one by the throat, this affair."
Though he spoke quietly, his voice had yet the conscious fullness, the deliberate inflection, of a man accustomed to speak to an audience.
"Yes," said O'Neill. "Were you sleeping?"
The sick man smiled. "A peu pres," he answered.
"I was remembering certain matters—dreaming, in effect."
He shifted his head on his pillow, and his eyes traveled to and fro about the great room.
"If this goes on," he said, "I shall have to ask a favor of somebody." His quick look, with its suggestion of mockery, rested on O'Neill. "And that would be dreadful," he concluded.
"If it's anything I can do, I'll do it, of course," said O'Neill awkwardly.
He aided Buscarlet to set the bed to rights and change the pillow- cover, conscious that Regnault was watching him all the time with a smile.
"One should have a nun here," remarked Buscarlet. "They come for so much a day, and do everything."
"Yes," said Regnault;—"everything. Who could stand that!"
He shifted in his bed cautiously, for he knew that any movement might provoke another spasm.
"Now, tell me, O'Neill," he said, in the tone of commonplace conversation. "That doctor—the one that walked like a duck—he was impressive, eh?"
O'Neill sat down on the foot of the bed.
"He's the best man in Paris," he answered. "He did his best to be impressive. He thought we weren't taking your illness seriously enough."
"Well," said Regnault, his fingers fidgeting on the coverlet, "I can be serious when I like. I'm serious now, foi de gentilhomme. Did he say when I should die!"
"Yes," replied O'Neill. "He said you'd break like the stem of a pipe at the first strain."
Regnault's eyes were half closed. "Metaphor, eh?" he suggested dreamily.
"He said," continued O'Neill, "that you were not to move sharply, not to laugh or cry, not to be much amused or surprised—in fact, you were to keep absolutely quiet. He suggested, too, that you'd had your share of emotions, and would be better without them now."
Regnault smiled again. "Wonderful," he said softly. "They teach them all that in the hospitals. Then, in effect, I hold this appointment during good Conduct?"
"That's the idea," said O'Neill gravely.
There was a long pause; Regnault seemed to be thinking deeply. The amyl had brought color back to his face; except for the disorder of his long white hair he seemed to be his normal self.
"It will not be amusing," he said at length. "For you, I mean."
"Oh, I shall be all right," answered O'Neill, but the same thought had occurred to him.
"No, it will not be amusing to you," repeated Regnault. "For this good Buscarlet it is another thing. I shall keep him busy. You like that, don'it you, Emile?"
Poor Buscarlet choked and gurgled. Regnault laughed softly.
"Take the lamp, Emile," he said, "and carry it to 'The Dancer.' I want to see it."
Buscarlet was eager to do his bidding. O'Neill frowned as he picked up the lamp.
"Careful," he said, in a low voice to Regnault.
"Oh," said Regnault, "this is not an emotion." He laughed again.
Across the room Buscarlet lifted the shade from the lamp and held it up. Again there came into view the white and scarlet of the picture, the high light on the bare shoulder, the warm tint of the naked arm, the cheap diablerie of the posture, the splendid rebellion of the face. Regnault turned and stared at it under drawn brows.
"Thank you, Emile," he said at last, and lay back on his pillow. For an instant of forgetfulness his delicate face was ingenuous and expressive; he caught himself back to control as he met O'Neill's eyes.
"Il est un age dans la vie Ou chaque reve doit finir, Un age ou l'ame recueillie A besoin de se souvenir,"
he quoted softly. Buscarlet was fitting the shade on the lamp again.
"I think," Regnault went on, "that I have come to that, after all. He told you, eh? Buscarlet told you that she—Lola—is my wife?"
"Yes," answered O'Neill. "Would you like me to send for her?"
"She would not come for that," said Regnault. He was studying the young man's face with bright eyes. "Ah," he sighed; "you don't know these things. We parted—of course; but not in weariness, not in the grey staleness of fatigue and boredom. No; but in a splendid wreck of wrath and jealousy and hatred. We did not run aground tamely; we split in vehemence on the very rock of discord. She would not come for a letter."
"Is she in Paris?" asked O'Neill.
"No, in Spain," answered Regnault. "At Ronda, in a great house on the edge of the hill, a house of small windows and strong doors. She is religious, Lola is; she fears hell. Let me see; she must be near to fifty now. It is twenty years and more since I saw her."
"But if I wrote," began O'Neill again.
"She would not come for a letter," persisted Regnault. "What would you write? 'He is dying,' you would say, 'Poof!' she would answer, 'he has been dead this twenty years to me.'"
"Well, then, what do you suggest?"
Regnault opened his eyes and looked up sharply. He stretched out one long slender hand in a sudden gesture of urgency. His face, upon the moment, recovered its wonted vivacity.
"Go to her," he said. "Go to her, O'Neill; you are young and long- legged; you have the face of one to whom adventures are due. She will receive you. Speak to her; tell her—tell her of this gloomy room and its booming echoes and the little white bed in the middle of it. Make your voice warm, O'Neill, and tell her of all of it. Then, perhaps, she will come."
There was no mistaking his earnestness. O'Neill stared at him in astonishment. Regnault moistened his lips, breathing hard.
"Really," said O'Neill, "I don't quite know how to answer you, Regnault."
Regnault put the empty phrase from him with a movement of impatience.
"Go to her," he said again, and his brows creased in effort. "Is it because she is religious that you hesitate! You think I am an offence to her religion? O'Neill, I will offer it no offence. I have myself an instinct that way now. It is true. I have."
"Wait," said O'Neill. He was thinking confusedly. "You know you're like a spoiled child, Regnault. You'd die for a thing so long as some one denied it you. Now, what strikes me is this. Your wife ought to be with you, as a matter of decent usage and—and all that. But if you want her here just so that you can flog up the thrill of one of your old beastly adventures, I'll not lift a finger to help you. D'you see!"
Regnault nodded. Buscarlet, standing behind the bed, was trembling like a man in an ague.
"I'll go to Ronda, and do what I can," said O'Neill, "so long as you're playing fair. But I've got to be sure of that, Regnault."
Regnault nodded again. "I see," he answered. "What shall I say to you? Will you not trust me, O'Neill, in a question of taste? Morals— I don't say. But taste—come now!"
"You mean, you want to see your wife in ordinary affection and—well, and because she is your wife?" demanded O'Neill.
"You put it very well," replied Regnault placidly. "Give me some paper and I will write you her name and address. And, O'Neill, I have an idea! I will give you, for your own, 'The Dancer.' It shall be my last joke. After this, I am earnest."
He wrote painfully on the paper which they gave him.
"There," he said, when he had done. "And now I will compose myself."
Buscarlet saw O'Neill forth of the door, for he was to leave for Spain in the morning. On the threshold he tapped O'Neill on the arm.
"It is worth a hundred thousand francs," he whispered, with startled eyes. "And besides, what a souvenir!"
The little room in which they bade O'Neill wait for the Senora opened upon the patio of the house, where a sword of vivid sunlight sliced across the shadows on the warm brick flooring, and a little industrious fountain dribbled through a veil of ferns. There was a shrine in the room; its elaboration of gilt and rosy wax faced the open door, and from a window beside it one could see, below the abrupt hill of Ronda, the panorama of the sun-steeped countryside.
The cool of the room was grateful to O'Neill after the heat of the road. He set his hat on the small table and took a seat, marking the utter stillness that reigned in that great Moorish house. Save for the purr of the fountain no sounds reached him in all that nest of cool chambers. The thought of it awoke in him new speculation as to the woman he had come to see, who had buried the ashes of her fiery youth in this serene retreat. He had thought about her with growing curiosity throughout the journey from Paris, endeavoring to reduce to terms of his own understanding the spirit that had flamed and faded and guttered out in such a manner. The shrine at his elbow recalled to him that she was "religious." It explained nothing.
He was staring at it in perplexity, when the doorway darkened, and he was conscious that he was not alone. He started to his feet and bowed confusedly to the woman on the threshold.
"Mr. O'Neill?" she inquired. Her pronunciation had the faultless precision of the English-speaking Spaniard. He bowed again, and drew out a chair for her.
It seemed that she hesitated a moment ere she came forward and accepted it. When she stood in the door, with the slanting sun at her back, O'Neill could see little of her save the trim outline of her figure, wrought to plain severity by the relentless black dress she wore. Now, when she was seated, he regarded her with all an artist's quick curiosity. As Regnault had said, she was not much less than fifty years old, but they were years that had trodden lightly. There was nothing of age in the strong brows and the tempestuous eyes that were dark under them; the mouth was yet full and impetuous. Some discipline seemed to have laid a constraint on her; there was a somber seriousness in her regard; but O'Neill recognized without difficulty the proud, hardy, unquelled countenance that stared from the canvas in Regnault's studio.
She had his visiting-card in her fingers. Lest he should be denied admittance he had penciled on it, below his name, "with a message from M. Regnault, who is very ill."
She was looking at him steadily, aware of his scrutiny.
"I will hear your message," she said. "Please sit down."
O'Neill took a chair where he could continue to see her face.
"Senora," he said, "I must tell you, first of all, that M. Regnault is ill beyond anything you can picture to yourself. He sends this message, in truth, from his last bed, the bed he is to die on. And that may be at any moment. His is a disease that touches the heart; any emotion or quick movement—anything at all, Senora, may cut off the very source of his life. I ask you to have this in mind while you hear me."
Her dark face was intent upon him while he spoke.
"What do you call this disease?" she asked.
"The doctors call it angina pectoris," he answered. She nodded slowly. Her interest encouraged him to speak with more liberty.
"I could tell you a great deal about it," he went on; "but it might be aside from the point. Still—" he pondered a moment, studying her. "Still, imagine to yourself how such a malady sits upon a man like Regnault. It is a fetter upon the most sluggish; for him, with all his vivacity of temperament, his ardor, his quickness, it is a rack upon which he is stretched. You do not know the studio he has now, Senora! It is a great room, with walls of black panels and a wide window in the slope of the roof. Here and there are statues in marble, suits of armor—the wreck and debris of dead ages. And in one corner hangs a picture which the world values, Senora. It is called 'The Dancer.'"
A spark, a quick gleam in her eyes, rewarded him. Her hands, crossed in her lap, trembled a little.
"It is all of a dark and somber splendor," O'Neill continued. "A great, splendid room, Senora, uncanny with echoes. And in the middle of it, like a little white island, there is a narrow bed where he lies through the days and nights, camping on the borders of the grave. There are some of us that share the watches by his bedside, to be ready with the drug that holds him to life; and I can tell you that it is sad there, in the hush and the shadows, with the noises of Paris rising about one from without."
He ceased. She was frowning as she listened to him, with her resemblance to the pictured face in Paris strangely accentuated by the emotions that warred within her. For a minute neither of them spoke.
"I can see what you would have me see," she said at last, raising her head. "It belongs to that world in which I have now no part, Senior. No part at all. And it brings us no nearer to the message with which you are charged."
"Your pardon," said O'Neill. "It is a part of my message. And the rest is quickly told. It is Regnault's request, his prayer to you, that you will come to him, to your husband."
"Ah!" The constraint upon her features broke like ice under a quick sun. "I guessed it. I—to come to him! You should be his friend indeed, to be the bearer of such a message to me."
Her dark eyes, suddenly splendid, flashed at him with strong anger. The whole woman was transformed; she sat up in her chair, and her breast swelled. O'Neill saw before him the Lola of twenty years before.
He held up one hand to stay her.
"I should be his friend, as you say," he told her. "But he knows that it is not so. I came for two reasons: because now is not the time to be discriminating in my service to him, and also because I am glad to help him to do right. I will take back what answer you please, Senora, for I came here with no great hopes; but still I am glad I came, for the second reason."
"Help him to do right!" She repeated the words in a manner of perplexity. "What is it you mean to do right?"
O'Neill had a moment's clear insight into the aspects of his task which made him unfit for it. "Eight" was a term that puzzled his auditor.
"Senora," he answered gravely, "his passions are burned out. He is too sick a man to do evil. It is late, no doubt, and very late; but his mood is not to die as he has lived. He asks, not for those who would come at a word, but for his wife. And I am glad to be the bearer of that message even if I carry back a curse for an answer."
It was not in O'Neill to know how well and deftly Regnault had chosen his messenger. His lean, brown face and his earnestness were having their effect.
The Senora bent her keen gaze on him again.
"Ah," she cried, with a sort of bitterness, "he regrets, eh? He repents?" She laughed shortly.
"I do not think so," answered O'Neill.
"No?" She considered him anew. "Tell me,"—she leaned forward in a sudden eagerness—"why does he ask for me? If he is sober and composed for death, why—why does he ask for me?"
O'Neill made a gesture of helplessness. "Senora," he said, "you should know; you have the key to him."
Gone was all the discipline to which her nature had deferred. Twenty years of quiet and atonement were stripped from her like a flimsy garment. The fire was alight in all her vivid face again as she brooded upon his answer.
"Ah!" she cried of a sudden. "Everything is stale for a stale soul. Does he count on that? Senor, you speak well; you have made me a picture of him. He has heard that I have made religion the pillow of my conscience, eh? He folds his hands, eh?—thin, waxen hands, clasping in piety upon his counterpane, eh? He will wear the air of a thin saint and bless me in a beautiful voice? Am I right? Am I right?"
She forced her questions into his face, leaning forward in a quick violence.
"Goodness knows!" said O'Neill. "I shouldn't wonder."
She nodded at him with tight lips. "I know," she said. "I know. I have him by heart." She rose from her seat and stood thinking. Suddenly she laughed, and strode to the middle of the room. Her gait had the impatience and lightness of a dancer's. Quickly she wheeled and faced O'Neill, laughing again.
"Now, by his salvation and mine," she cried, "I will do what he asks. I will go to him. He thinks his heart is dry to me. I will show him! I will show him!" She opened her arms with a sweep. "Tell me," she cried, "am I old? Am I the nun you looked for?" Her voice pealed scornfully. "Scarlet," she said; "I will go to him in scarlet, as he pictured me when I posed for 'The Dancer!' His pulses shall welcome me; his soul was in its grave when I was in my cradle."
O'Neill had risen too. "Senora," he protested, "you must consider— he is a dying man!"
He spoke to her back. Laughing again, she had turned from him to the gilt shrine and plucked a flower from it. She was fixing it in her hair when she faced him.
"To-night," she said, "we travel north. You are"—she paused, smiling—"you are my impresario, and Lola—Lola makes her curtsy again!"
She caught her black skirt in her hand and curtsied to him with an extravagant grace.
That was a strange journey to Paris that O'Neill made with the Senora. He had seen her humor change swiftly in response to his appeal; what was surprising was that that new humor should maintain its nervous height. It was soon enough apparent that the Lola of twenty years before lived yet, her flamboyant energy, her unstable caprice, her full-blooded force conserved and undiminished. It was like the bursting of one of those squalls that come up with a breathless loom of cloud, hang still and brooding, and then flash without warning into tempest. She faced him at the station with an electric vivacity; her voice was harsh and imperious to her servants who put her into the train and disposed of her luggage. It occurred to O'Neill that she traveled well equipped; there were boxes and baskets in full ampleness. When at last the train tooted its little horn and started, she flung herself down in the seat facing him and broke into shrill laughter.
"It is the second advent of Lola," she cried. "There should be a special train for me."
Her dress was still of black, but it had suffered some change O'Neill did not trouble to define. He saw that it no longer had the formal plainness of the gown she had worn earlier. It achieved an effect. But the main change was in the woman herself. It was impossible to think of her and her years in the same breath. She had cast the long restraint from her completely; all her sad days of quiet were obliterated. She was once again the stormy, uneasy thing that had dominated her loose world, a vital and indomitable personality untempered by reason or any conscience. Even when she sat still and seemingly deep in thought, one felt and deferred to the magnetism and power that were expressed in every feature of that dark and alert face.
O'Neill deemed himself fortunate that she did not speak of Regnault till Paris lay but a few hours away. The whirlwind of her mood was a thing that did not touch him, but it would have been mere torment to battle on with that one topic. When she did speak of him it was with the suddenness with which she approached everything. She had been silent for nearly an hour, gazing through the window at the scurrying landscape.
"Then," she said, as though resuming some conversation—"then he is, in truth, sick to death?"
"You mean—Regnault!" asked O'Neill, caught unawares. "Yes, Senora. He is sick to death."
Her steady gaze from under the level brows embarrassed him like an assault.
"And he is frightened?" she demanded.
"I don't think he is in the least frightened," replied O'Neill.
She nodded to him, with the shape of a smile on her full lips.
"I tell you, then, that he is frightened," she said. "I know. There is nothing in all that man I do not know. He is frightened."
She paused, still staring at him.
"People like us are always frightened in the end," she went on. She lifted her forefinger like one who teaches a little child. "You see, with us, we guess. We guess at what comes after. We are sure—certain and very sure—that we, at least, deserve to suffer. And that is why I have lived under my confessor for ten lifetimes. You gee!"
O'Neill nodded. It was not hard to understand that the splendid animal in the Senora could never conceive the idea, of its utter extinction. Death—to Lola and her kind—is not the end, it is the beginning of bondage.
There was another interval of silence while she twisted her fingers in her lap.
"Ah," she said. "I know. He will be beautiful in his bed, dying like an abbot. He is frightened—yes. But he thinks himself safe from me. He imagines me sour, decorous, with a skinny neck. Because he thinks me all but a nun, he will be all but a priest. We shall see, Senor O'Neill. We shall see!"
Soon after that she left him to retire to the compartment in which her maid traveled alone.
"We arrive at eight, do we not?" she asked him. "Then I must make my toilet." She smiled down on him as she spoke, and gave him a little significant nod.
The train was already running into the station when she returned. O'Neill, nervous and apprehensive, gave her a quick glance. She was covered in a long cloak of black silk that hid her figure entirely; the hood of it rose over her hair and made a frame to her face. Under the hood he could distinguish the soft brightness of a red rose stuck ever one ear.
"Senora," he said, "I take the liberty to remind you that we are going to the bedside of a dying man."
She turned on him with slow scorn. "Yes," she replied. "It is, as you say, a liberty."
The long robe rose and fell over her breast with her breathing; her eyes traveled over him from head to feet and back again deliberately.
O'Neill took his temper into custody. "Still," he urged, "if you have it in mind to compass any surprising effect, remember—it may be his death."
She laughed slowly. "What is a death?" she answered. And then, with a hissing vehemence: "He sent for me, and I am here. Should I wear a veil, then—Lola?"
He put further remonstrances by, with a feeling of sickness in the throat. Again realization surged upon him that he had no words with which to speak to people like this. They lived on another plane, and saw by other lights. He was like a child wandering on a field of battle.
He found a carriage, and got into it beside her, and sat in silence while they drove through the throng of the streets. He saw, through the window, the brisk tides of the pavement, the lights and the cafes; they seemed remote from him, inaccessible. Inside the carriage, he could hear the steady, full breathing of the woman at his side.
"You will at least allow me to go first," he said, as they drew up at last. He was prepared to carry this point if he had to lock her out of the house. But she made no demur.
"As you will," she murmured.
He found her a place to wait, an alcove on the stairs. As he guided her to it, a touch on the arm showed him she was trembling.
"I will be a very little while," he promised, and ran up the stairs.
It was Buscarlet who opened the door to him, with Truelove standing behind his shoulder.
"Welcome, welcome!" babbled Buscarlet. "Oh, but we have been eager for you! Tell me, will she—will she come?"
"She is waiting on the stairs, in the alcove," answered O'Neill.
Buscarlet's mild eyes opened in amaze. "You have brought her with you?" he cried.
"Thank God!" ejaculated Truelove.
"How is he?" asked O'Neill. "Still—er—living, eh?"
It was Truelove that replied. "Still keeping on, sir," he answered. "But changed, as you might say. Softened would be the word, sir."
"What d'ye mean?" demanded O'Neill.
"Well, sir," said the ex-corporal of dragoons, with a touch of hesitation, "it isn't for me to judge, but I should say he's—he's got religion. Or a taste of it, anyway."
O'Neill stared at the pair of them in open dismay. "Let me see him," he said shortly, and they followed him through the little anteroom to the great studio.
Behind the screen, the narrow bed was white, and on it Regnault lay in stillness, looking up.
He started slightly as O'Neill appeared at the foot of his bed, and the faint flush rose in his face. "Hush!" he said, with a forefinger uplifted, and poised for a few seconds on the brink of a spasm.
"Ah!" he said when he was safe. "That was a near thing, O'Neill. I am glad to see you back, my friend."
He was tranquil; even that undertone of mockery, so familiar in his voice, was gone. A rosary sprawled on his breast; O'Neill recognized it for a splendid piece of Renaissance work that had lain about the room for months.
"I have found my happiness in meditation," Regnault was saying, in a still, silken voice. "But tell me, O'Neill—will she come?"
"Yes," said O'Neill, wearily, "she will come." Regnault made a gentle gesture of thanks and closed his eyes. His long fingers slid on the ivory beads and his lips moved. O'Neill gazed down on him with a weakness of bewilderment; his landmarks were shifting.
He was standing thus, looking in mere absence of mind, when a footfall beyond the screen reached his ear.
"Oh Lord!" he cried.
It was she. As his eyes fell upon her she was letting fall her long cloak. It lay on the floor about her feet, and she towered over it, in superb scarlet. Against her background of shadow her neck and arms and the abundance of her breast shone like silver. Ere he could go to her she waved him away with a sweep of a naked arm. A hand was on her hip, and she moved towards the bed with the sliding gait of the Spanish dancer.
It was an affair of an instant. Buscarlet and Truelove hastened upon his exclamation, and Buscarlet, stumbling, brushed against the screen. He caught at it to save it from falling, and the bed was bare to the room. Regnault and his wife looked into each other's face. She, undisturbed by the suddenness of it all, held yet her posture of the stage, glowing in her silk with something dangerous and ominous about her, something blatant and yet potent, like a knife in a stocking. It was as though she wrought in violence for the admiration of the man on the bed. He, on his elbow, turned to her a thin face with lips parted and trembling; for an intolerable instant they hung, mute and motionless. Then, slowly, she turned with one foot sliding, and the light of the lamp was full on her face.
It seemed to break the tense spell; Regnault's face was writhing; of a sudden he burst into shrill, hideous laughter, and his right hand flung out and pointed at her. None moved; none could. His laugh rang and broke, and rang again, outrageous and uncontrollable, merry and hearty and hateful. The woman, at the first peal of it, started and stood as though stricken to stone; they could see her shrivel under the blast of it, shrivel and shrink and age.
Then, as though it had been overdue and long awaited, the laugh checked and choked. It freed them from the thrall that held them. Regnault's head fell back.
"The amyl!" cried O'Neill, and they were all about him. "The amyl— where is it?"
Regnault's face was a mask of paralyzed pain; but the silver patch- box that held the capsules was not on the table. It took a minute to find it on the floor. O'Neill smashed a couple, and thrust his hand into the waxen face—and waited. Buscarlet was breathing like a man in a nightmare. Truelove stood to attention. But Regnault did not return to the shape of life.
O'Neill let his hand drop, and turned to Truelove. "He's got it," he said; "But fetch a doctor."
His eyes fell on the dancer in her shimmering scarlet, where she knelt at the bedside, with her head bowed to the counterpane and her hands clasped over it.
He sighed. He did not understand.
THE POOR IN HEART
It was his habit of an evening to play the flute; and he was playing it faithfully, with the score propped up against a pile of books on his table, when the noises from the street reached him, and interrupted his music. With the silver-dotted flute in his hand he moved to the window and put aside the curtains to look out.
The flute is the instrument of mild men; and Robert Lucas had mildness for a chief quality. At the age of thirty-five, in the high noon of his manhood, he showed to the world a friendly, unenterprising face, neatly bearded, and generally a little vacant. The accident that gave him a Russian mother was his main qualification for the post he now held—that of representative of a firm of leather manufacturers in the Russian town of Tambov. He spoke Russian, he knew leather, and he could ignore the smells of a tanyard; these facts entitled him to a livelihood.
To right and left, as he looked forth, the cobbled street was dark; but opposite, in the silversmith's shop, there were lights, and, below, a small crowd had gathered. He watched wonderingly. He knew the silversmith well enough to nod as he passed his door—a young, laborious man with a rapt, uncertain face and a tumbled mane of black hair. There were also a little, grave wife and a fat, grave baby; and these, when they were visible, received separate and distinctive nods, and always returned them. The hide-sellers and tanners were, for the most part, crude and sportive persons with whom he could have nothing in common; they lived, apparently, on drink and uproar; and he had come to regard the silversmith and his family as vague friends. He pressed his face closer to the glass of the double casement to see more certainly.
The little shop seemed to be full of lights and people, and outside its door there was a press of folk. The murmur of voices was audible, though he could distinguish nothing that was said. But now and again there was laughter. It was the laughter that held him gazing and apprehensive; it had a harsher note than mirth. It seemed to him, too, that some of the men in the doorway were in uniform; he could see them only in outline, mere black silhouettes against the interior lights; but there was about them the ominous cut of the official, that Russian bird of ill-omen. And then, while yet he doubted, there sounded the very keynote of disaster. From somewhere within the silversmith's shop a woman screamed, sudden and startling.
"Now, now!" said Robert Lucas, at his window, grasping his flute nervously. And, as though in answer to his remonstrance, there was again that guttural, animal laughter. He frowned.
"I must see into this," he told himself very seriously.
He turned from the window. His pleasant room, with the bright lamp on the table and the music leaning beside it, seemed to advise him to proceed with caution. He and his life were not devised for situations in which women screamed on that tense note of anguish and terror; he had never done a violent thing in all his days. There was no clear purpose in his mind as he pulled open his door to go out—merely an ill-ease that forced him to go nearer to the cause of those screams. He had descended the stairs and was fumbling at the latch of the street-door before he realized that he was still holding the flute.
"Oh, bother!" he exclaimed, in extreme exasperation when the instrument proved too long for his pocket, and went out carrying it like some remarkable and ornate baton.
The small crowd before the silversmith's shop numbered, perhaps, a hundred people, and even before his eyes were acclimatized to the darkness he smelt sheepskin coats and tan-bark. He touched one big man on the arm and asked a question. The lights in the shop lit up the fellow's hairy face and loose grin as he turned to answer.
"Eh?" said the man. "Why, it's a Jew that the police are clearing out. Did you hear the Jewess squeal?"
"Yes, I heard," said Lucas, and moved away.
He was cut off from the door of the shop by the backs of the crowd, and passed along the street to get round them. Inside the lighted house the baby had begun to cry, but there was no more screaming. He had a sense that unless he hurried he might be too late for what was in preparation. The crowd seemed to be waiting for some culminating scene, with more than screams in it. A touch of nervous excitement came to fortify him, and he thrust in between two huge slaughterers, whose clothes reeked of the killing sheds.
"Make way!" he said breathlessly, as they turned on him.
One of them swore and would have shoved him back, and others looked round at the sound of strife. Lucas put up an uncertain hand to guard the blow. It, was the hand that held the flute, whose silver keys flashed in the lights from the shop.
"Ha!" grunted the slaughterer, arrested by that sight. He looked at Lucas doubtfully, his neat clothes, his general aspect of a superior. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"Make way!" repeated Lucas.
It seemed to confirm the slaughterer in his suspicion that this was a personage to be deferred to.
"Hi, there!" he bellowed helpfully. "Give room for his Excellency. Let his Excellency come through! Don't you see what he's got in his hand? Make way, will you?"
He bent his huge, unclean shoulder to the business of clearing a path, and drove through like a snow-plough. Lucas followed along the lane that he made, and came to the pavement close by the shop.
It was fortunate that events marched sharply from that point, and forced him to act without thinking. He had some vague notion of finding the officer in charge of the police and speaking to him. But before he could move to do so there was a fresh activity of the people within the bright windows; he saw something that had the look of a struggle. Voices babbled, and the crowd pressed closer; and suddenly, from the open doorway, two figures reeled forth, clutching and thrusting. One was in uniform, the other was a woman. For a couple of seconds they wrenched and fought, staged before the crowd on the lighted doorstep; and then the woman broke away and ran blindly towards the spot where Lucas stood. She had, he saw suddenly, a child in her arms that cried unceasingly.
The uniformed man who had tried to hold her came plunging after her; his face was creased in clownish and cruel smiles. Lucas saw the thing stupidly; his mind prompted him to nothing; he stood where he was, empty of resource. He was directly in the flying woman's path, and she rushed at him as to a refuge. He was the sole thing in that narrow arena of dread which she did not recognize as a figure of oppression; and she floundered to her knees at his-feet and held forth the terrified child to him in an agony of appeal. Her tormented and fearful face was upturned to him; he knew her for the Jewess, the wife of the silversmith.
"Father!" she breathed, in the pitiful idiom of that land of orphans.
"Ye-es," said Robert Lucas vaguely, and put a hand on her head.
Never before, in all the orderly level of his life, had a human being chosen him for champion and savior. He was aware of something within him that surged, some spate of force and potency in his blood; he stood upright with a start to confront the policeman who was on the woman's heels. The man was grinning still, fatuously and consciously, like a buffoon who knows he will be applauded; Lucas fronted his smiling security with a still fury that wiped the mirth from his face and left him gaping.
"Get back!" said Lucas. He spoke in a low tone, and the crowd jostled nearer to hear.
The policeman stared at him, amazed and uncomprehending.
"Sir," he stammered; "Excellency—this Jewess she——"
He stopped. Lucas was pointing at him with the flute across the bowed head of the woman, who crouched over her child at his feet.
"You shall report the matter to the Governor," said Lucas, in the same tone of icy anger. "And I will report it to the Minister."
He touched the woman. "Get up," he said. "Come with me."
He had to repeat it before she understood; she was numb with terror. She rose with difficulty to her feet, clasping the child, whose wail was now weak with exhaustion. The peering crowd made a ring of brute faces about them, full of menace and mystery, but the new power in him moved them to right and left at his gesture, and they gave him passage, with the woman behind him, across the road. The stupefied policeman watched them go, and then ran off to place the matter in the hands of his superior.
Lucas was at his door when the officer whom the policeman had fetched touched him on the elbow. He was a young man; if he had been older Lucas's difficulties might have been increased. He peered in the darkness, and was visible as a narrow, black-moustached face, with heavy eyebrows and a brutal mouth. The one thing that deterred him from brisk action was the fact that Lucas was a foreigner, whose rights and liabilities were therefore uncertain.
"This woman," he said, "is arrested."
Lucas was unlocking the door. He turned with his hand on the key, and the woman touched his arm. Perhaps that touch aided him to use big words. As a resident in Tambov he knew the officer by sight, and had always been a little daunted by his manner of power. In Russia one comes easily to fear the police. But now he was free of fear.
"You be careful," he said. "I saw what was being done."
With his left hand he pushed the door, and it swung open. He motioned the woman to enter, and nodded as he saw her cross the threshold.
The officer vented a click of impatience.
"I tell you——" he began, and moved forward a step. Lucas extended an arm and the hand that held the flute across his chest.
"Back!" he said. "You mustn't enter this house—you know that! You can go to the Governor, if you like, and I will go over his head. But you shall not touch that woman."
"She is arrested," said the officer obstinately, still studying his antagonist. "If you wish to aid her, you must go to the Bureau; but you cannot take her away like this."
"Eh?" Lucas swung round on him; the time was fertile in inspirations. "Can't I?!" he demanded threateningly. "But I have taken her, man. If you seize her now you must arrest me, too, and then—we shall see!"
"I must do my duty," persisted the other.
"Do it, then," said Lucas, standing square across the door. "Do it, and see if you can explain afterwards how you did it. I am not a woman who can be insulted with safety; my arrest will have to be explained to St. Petersburg, and you will have to pay for it. I saw how she was being handled, and how your duty was being done. I tell you, you're in danger. Be careful!"
"So?" replied the officer slowly. He turned to the folk who were the absorbed audience of this conference. "Move away, there," he commanded harshly. "This is none of your business. Off with you!"
They shifted back reluctantly, and he waited till he could speak unheard by them. Then he turned to Lucas again with a touch of the confidential in his manner.
"What do you want with her?" he asked.
"Want with her?" repeated Lucas, not immediately comprehending. Then, as the man's meaning reached him he trembled. "I don't want her," he cried. "I don't want her. You want her, not I; and you shan't have her. Do you understand? You shan't have her!"
"Shan't I?" retorted the officer, but there was indecision in his voice.
"No!" said Lucas.
There was a pause. Neither of them was sure of himself. The officer found himself in face of a situation which he could not gauge; and it would never do for a provincial police official to attract notice in remote St. Petersburg. For all he knew, this flimsy little man, who had snatched his Jewess from him, might be able to set in motion those mills which grind erring servants of the State into disgrace and ruin. He certainly had a large and authoritative way with him.
"Will you come to the Bureau, then, and speak with the chief?" he suggested. "You see, your action causes a difficulty."
"No, I won't," said Lucas flatly.
He also was in doubt. It seemed to him that he stood in a considerable peril, and he was aware that his mood of high temper was failing him. It needed an effort to maintain an assured and uncompromising front. Behind him, on the unlighted stairs, the woman breathed heavily. He summoned what he had of stubbornness to uphold him. The affair so far had gone valiantly; he meant that it should continue on the same plane.
He saw the officer hesitate frowningly, and quaked. In a moment the man might make up his mind and seize him; there was an urgent necessity for some action that should quell him. Like all weak men, he saw a resource in violence, and as the officer opened his lips to speak again he interrupted.
"No more!" he shouted. "You have heard what I had to say; that is enough. Now go!"
He pointed frantically with his flute, and the officer, at the sudden lifting of his arm, made a surprised movement, which Lucas misunderstood.
With a cry that was half terror and half ecstasy he smote, and the flute beat the officer's cap down over his eyes.
"Yei Bohu!" ejaculated the officer, falling back,
Lucas did not wait for him to thrust the cap away and recover himself. He had done his utmost, and the next step must rest with Providence. It was but two paces to the doorway. The officer was not quick enough to see his panic-stricken retirement. He recovered his sight only to see the slam of the door, which seemed to close in his face with a contemptuous and defiant emphasis. It was like a final fist shaken at him to drive home a warning. He shook his head despondently.
On the other side of the door Lucas, fighting with his loud breath, heard his slow footsteps on the cobbles as he departed. He waited, hardly daring to relax his mind to hope, till he heard the party of them drawing off. He was weak with unaccustomed emotions.
What struck him as marvelous was that the woman, whose face he had last seen as a writhen mask of fear, should appear in the light of his room with her calm restored, with nothing but some disorder of her hair and dress to betoken her troubles. Even the child in her arms, worn out with weeping perhaps, had fallen asleep. He stared at the pair of them vacantly. His lamp, his music, all the apparatus of his gentle and decorous existence were as he had left them; their familiar and prosaic quality made his adventure appear by contrast monstrous.
The Jewess was watching him. In her dark, serious way she had a certain striking beauty. Her grave eyes waited for him to look at her.
"What is it?" he said at last.
"If I might put the child down," she suggested timidly.
Lucas pointed to the double-doors of his bedroom. "My bed is in there," he answered. She lowered her head, as though in obedience to a command he had given, and carried the child out. Lucas watched her go, and then crossed the room to a cupboard which contained, among other things, a bottle of brandy.
While he was drinking she returned, pausing in the door to look back at the child. He noticed that she left the door partly open to hear it if it should wake, and somehow this struck him as particularly moving.
She came across the room to him, with her steadfast eyes on his face, and, without speaking, fell on her knees before him and put the edge of his coat to her lips.
Lucas stood while she did it; he hardly dared to move and interrupt that reverent and symbolic act of gratitude. But once again, as when on the pavement she had held the child to him in frantic appeal, the simple soul within him flamed into splendor, and he was in touch with great passions and mighty emotions. It is the mood of martyrs and heroes. He looked down to her dark eyes, bright with swimming tears, and helped her to her feet.
"You shall be safe here," he told her. "Nobody shall touch you here."
She believed it utterly; he was a champion sent straight from God; she had seen him conquering and irresistible. To fear now would be a blasphemy.
"I am quite safe," she agreed. "I am not afraid. To-morrow some of my people will come for me."
He nodded. "There is some food in the cupboard there," he told her. "Milk, too, if the child wants it. And nobody can come up the stairs without meeting me; and if they try, God help them!"
She half smiled at the idea. "They would never dare," she agreed confidently.
He would have been glad of his overcoat, but that was in his bedroom, and he dreaded the indelicacy of going there while she was present. So in the event he bade her a brief good-night, and found himself on the dark and chilly stairs without so much as a pillow or a blanket to make sleep possible. For lack of anything else in the shape of a weapon, he had brought his silver-keyed flute with him; if he were invaded in the small hours it might serve him again; it seemed to have a virtue for quelling police officials.
About three o'clock in the morning he awoke from an uneasy doze, chilled to the marrow, and was prompted to try if the flute would still make music. It would not. It is too much to ask of any instrument that has been used as an instrument of war. It had saved a Jewess and her child, magnified its owner into a man of action, and was thenceforth silent for ever.
"I must have hit that officer pretty hard," was the reflection of Robert Lucas.
The episode closed shortly before noon next day, when two elderly men of affairs came to fetch his guests away. They entered the room while he was entertaining the baby with a whistled selection from his repertoire of flute music, and he broke off short as they regarded him from the doorway. The Jewess looked up alertly as they entered.
They bowed to Lucas with a manner of servility in which there was an ironic suggestion, while their eyes examined him shrewdly. They were bearded, aquiline persons, soft-spoken and withal formidable. He had a notion that they found him amusing, but suppressed their amusement.
"Then it is you we have to thank," said the elder of them, when formal greetings had been exchanged, "for the safety of this girl and her child."
"I don't want any thanks," protested Lucas.
He could not tell them how the thanks he had already received transcended any words they could speak.
"It was a villainous thing," he went on. "I'm glad I could help. Er— is the silversmith all, right?"
"Money was paid," answered the grey-haired Jew; "he is safe, therefore. But he spent the night in chains, while his wife was here with you."
He spoke with a pregnant gravity. The Jewess started up and addressed him in a tongue Lucas could not understand. He saw that she pointed to him and to the bedroom and to the stairs, and that she spoke with heat. The old Jew heard her intently.
"So!" he said, in his deep voice. "Then we have more to thank you for than we thought. You gave up your rooms, it seems?"
"It is nothing," said Lucas. "You see, a lady—well, I could hardly—"
"Yes, I see," agreed the old Jew. "I have to do with a noble spirit. And you do not want any thanks? So? But we Jews, we have more things to give than thanks, and better things."
"I don't want anything," Lucas answered him. "I'm glad everything's all right."
"You are very good," said the old man, "very good and generous. But some day, perhaps, you will have a need—and then you will find that our people do not forget."
The Jewess had nothing to take with her but her child. She bowed her head and murmured something as she passed out, and the baby laughed at him.
"Our people do not forget," repeated the old Jew, as he bowed himself forth.
"Well," said Lucas, half aloud, when he was once more alone in his room, "that's finished, anyhow."
It was the knell of his greater self, of the man he had contrived to be for a few hours. He sat in his chair, dimly realizing it, with vague and wordless regrets. Then, upon the table, he saw the flute, and rose to put it in the cupboard. It would never be useful again, but he did not want to throw it away.
The old dramas, which somehow came so close to reality with so little art—or because of so little art—had a way of straddling time like life itself. "Twenty years elapse between Acts II and III," the playbills said unblushingly, and the fact is that what most men sow at twenty they reap at forty; the twenty years do elapse between the acts. The curtain that goes down on Robert Lucas in his room at Tambov rises on Robert H. Lucas in New York, with the passage of time marked on him as clearly as on a clock. With grey in his beard and patches on his boots, and quarters in a boarding-house in Long Island City, he is still concerned with leather, but no longer prosperous. His work involves much calling on dealers and manufacturers, and their manner of receiving him has done nothing to harden his manner of diffidence and incompetence. His linen strives to be inconspicuous; his clothes do not inspire respect; the total effect of him is that of a man who has been at great pains to plant himself in a wrong environment. Tambov now is no more than a memory; it is less than an experience, for it has left the man unchanged. It is a thing he has seen—not a thing he has lived.
The accident that gave his name and the address of his boarding-house a place in the papers has no part in his story; he was an unimportant witness in the trial of a man whom he had seen in the street cutting blood-spots out of his clothing. He had bought a paper which mentioned him to read on the ferry as he returned home, and had been mildly thrilled to find that an artist had sketched him and immortalized him in his columns. And next morning came the letter.
"Guelder and Zorn" was the name engraved across the head of it, in a slender Italian script; it conveyed nothing to him. The body of the communication was typewritten, and stated that if Mr. Robert H. Lucas would present himself at the above address, the firm would be glad to serve him. Nothing more.
"Mean to say you haven't heard of Guelder and Zorn?" demanded the young man whose place at breakfast in the boarding-house was opposite to him, when he asked a question. "Say—d'you know what money is? Hard, round flat stuff—money? You do know that, eh? Well, Guelder and Zorn is the same thing."
Somebody laughed. Lucas looked round rather helplessly.
"They say," he explained, referring to the letter, "that they'll be glad to serve me."
"Then you might lend me a couple of million," suggested the young man opposite, with entire disbelief. "Them Jews would never miss it."
Lucas had the sense to drop the matter there. He put the letter in his pocket and went on with his breakfast, and listened with incredulous interest to the talk that went on about the wealth, the greatness, the magnificence and power of the financial house which professed itself anxious to be of use to him. He was sorry to have to leave the table before it came to an end.
It is characteristic of him that the letter aroused no wild hopes, nor even an acute curiosity. He came, in the course of the morning, to the offices of Messrs. Guelder and Zorn in much the same frame of mind he brought to his business efforts. They were near, but not in, Wall Street—a fact of some symbolic quality which he, of course, could not appreciate. He stood on the edge of the side-walk for some moments, looking up at the solid, responsible block of building which anchored their fortunes to earth, till some one jostled him into the gutter. Then he recollected himself and prepared to enter the money- mill.
A hall porter like a comic German heard his inquiry, scrutinized him with a withering glare, and jerked a thumb towards a door. He found himself in such an office as may have seen the first Rothschild make his first profits—a room austere as a chapel, rigidly confined to the needs of business. A screen, pierced by pigeon-holes, cut it in half. Experience has proved that no sum of money is too large to pass through a pigeon-hole.
A whiskered, spectacled face, framed in the central pigeon-hole, with eyes magnified by the spectacles, regarded him sharply.
"Oh!" He recalled himself to his concerns with a jerk, and fumbled in his pockets. "I had a letter," he explained.
"Vere is de letter?"
He found it, after an exciting search, and passed it over. The whiskered face developed a hand to receive it.
"I don't know what it's about," explained Lucas.
"Perhaps your people have made a mistake in the name, or something."
"Our beoble," said the face in the pigeon-hole, with malignant emphasis, "do nod make mistagues!"
There was an interval while the letter was read, and Lucas stood and fidgeted, with a sense that he was intrusive and petty and undesired. "Yes," said the owner of the spectacles, at length. "You vait. I vill enguire."
He left his pigeon-hole unshuttered, and to Lucas, while he waited, it seemed that several men came to it and glanced at him forbiddingly. None spoke; they just looked as though in righteous indignation at his presence, with seventy-five cents in his pocket, in that high temple of finance. Then the whiskered and spectacled face fitted itself again into the aperture.
"So you are Mr. Robert H. Lugas, are you?" it inquired. "Den vere vas you in de year 1886?"
"Where was I?" repeated Lucas vaguely. "Let me see! 1886—yes! I was in Russia then—in Tambov."
"Yes." The other's regard was keen. "An' now tell me aboud de man dat lived obbosite to you in Tambov?"
"Do you mean the silversmith?" said Lucas. The other nodded. "Oh, him! He was a Jew. They expelled him."
"And his vife?"
"His wife! They expelled her too," he answered. "I never heard of her again."
"Vot vas de last you heard of her?"
Lucas was staring at him vacantly. It did not occur to him that, by not answering promptly, he might give ground for doubt and suspicion. The question had re-illuminated in his mind—perhaps for the first time since the event which it touched—that night of twenty years before. He flavored again the heady and effervescent vintage of strong action, of crowded happenings and poignant emotions.
"Veil?" demanded the other.
"There was a police officer," began Lucas obediently; "his name was Semianoff;" and in bald, halting words he told the story. He told it absently, languidly, for no words within his reach could convey the thing as it dwelt in his memory, the warmth and color of it, its uplifting and transfiguring quality.
The man behind the pigeon-hole heard him intently.
"Yes," he said again, as Lucas finished. "You are de man. Ve do not reguire further broof, Mr. Lugas."
He produced a slip of paper and a pen which he laid on the ledge before his pigeon-hole.
"I am instrugted to say dat if you vill fill in and sign dis cheque, ve vill cash it."
"Eh?" Lucas was slow to understand.
"Ve vill cash it," repeated the other. "You fill it in—and sign it— and I vill cash it now."
"But"—Lucas took the pen from him in mere obedience to his gesture— "but—what for?"
"My instrugtions are to cash it—no more!"
Lucas stared at the tight-lipped, elderly face, like the face of a wise and distrustful gnome, and held the pen uncertainly above the cheque form.
"How much am I to write?" he asked.
"I haf no instrugtions about de amount," was the reply.
"But," cried Lucas, "I might write fifty thousand dollars!"
"My instrugtions are to cash de cheque ven you haf written it."
"Oh!" said Lucas.
He stared incredulously at the face for some moments and then wrote a cheque for the sum he had named—fifty thousand dollars. He was about to add his signature when something occurred to him.
"Is it because I went across the road to that little woman in Tambov?" he asked suddenly.
The whiskered face answered composedly: "No. It is because you went out of your rooms and slept on de stairs."
"Because"—he seemed puzzled—"but that is a thing—why, any gentleman would do it."
"Dose are my instrugtions," said the man behind the pigeon-hole.
Lucas stood upright, the uncompleted cheque in his fingers. All surprise and excitement had vanished from his regard; he seemed taller and stronger than he had been a minute before. He had yet many calls to make, and, in the nature of things, many rebuffs to receive, before he went home to supper; and the money in his pocket totaled seventy-five cents. He needed new boots, new clothes, leisure, consideration, and a sight of his native land; in short, he needed fifty thousand dollars.
"You will cash this because I didn't fail to respect a helpless woman?" he asked, in level tones.
The whiskered cashier replied: "Yes. Because you gave up your room and kept watch on de stairs."
Lucas laughed gently. "That is not the way to deal with a gentleman," he said. "I will make your firm a present of fifty thousand dollars."
He showed the cheque he had written, with the figures clear and large. And then, with leisurely motions, he tore it across and again across.
"Much obliged," said Robert H. Lucas, and made for the door.
THE MAN WHO KNEW
Bearded, bowed, with hard blue eyes that questioned always, so we knew David Uys as children; an old, remotely quiet man, who was to be passed on the other side of the street and in silence. I have wondered sometimes if the old man ever noticed the hush that, ran before him and the clamor that grew up behind, the games that held breath, while he went by, and the children that judged him with wide eyes. He alone, of all the people in the little dorp, made his own world and possessed it in solitude; about him, the folk held all interest in community and measured life by a trivial common standard. At his doorstep, though, lay the frontier of little things; he was something beyond us all, and therefore greater or less than we. The mere pictorial value of his tall figure, the dignity of his long, forked beard, and the expectancy of his patient eyes, must have settled it that he was greater. I was a child when he died, and remember only what I saw, but the rest was talk, and so, perhaps, grew the more upon me.
One day he died. For years he had walked forth in the morning and back to his house at noon, a purple spot on the raw color of the town. He had always been still and somewhat ominous, and conveyed to all who saw him a sense of looking for something. But on this day he went back briskly, walking well and striding long, with the gait of one that has good news, and he smiled at those he passed and nodded to them, unheeding or not seeing their strong surprise nor the alarm he wrought to the children. He went straight to his little house, that overlooks a crowded garden and a pool of the dorp spruit, entered, and was seen no more alive. His servant, a sullen Kafir, found him in his bed when supper-time came, called him, looked, made sure, and ran off to spread the news that David Uys was dead. He was lying, I have learned, as one would lie who wished to die formally, with a smile on his face and his arms duly crossed. This is copiously confirmed by many women who crowded, after the manner of Boers, to see the corpse; and of all connected with him, I think, his end and the studied manner of it, implying an ultimate deference to the conventions, have most to do with the awe in which his memory is preserved.
Now, a death so well conceived, so aptly preluded, must, in the nature of things, crown and complete a life of singular and strong quality. A murder without a good motive is mere folly; properly actuated, it is tragedy, and therefore of worth. So with a death one seldom dies well, in the technical sense, without having lived well, in the artistic sense; and a man who will furnish forth a good death- bed scene seldom goes naked of an excellent tradition. I have been at some pains to discover the story of David Uys; and though some or the greater part of it may throw no further back than to the vrouws of the dorp, it seems to me that they have done their part at least as well as David Uys did his, and this is the tale I gleaned.
When David was a young man the Boers were not yet scattered abroad all over the veldt, and the farms lay in to the dorps, and men saw one another every day. There was still trouble with the Kafirs at times, little risings and occasional murders, with the sacking and burning of homesteads, and it was well to have the men within a couple of days' ride of the field-cornet, for purposes of defense and retaliation. But when David married all this weighed little with him.
"What need of neighbors?" he said to his young wife. "We have more need of land—good land and much of it. We will trek."
"It shall be as you will, David," answered Christina. "I have no wish but yours, and neighbors are nothing to me."
There was a pair of them, you see—both Boers of the best, caring more for a good fire of their own than to see the smoke from another's chimney soiling the sky. Within a week of their agreement the wagons were creaking towards the rising sun, and the whips were saluting the morning. David and Christina fronted a new world together, and sought virgin soil. For a full month they journeyed out, and out-spanned at last, on a mellow evening, on their home.
"Could you live here, do you think, Christina?" asked David, smiling, and she smiled back at him and made no other answer.
There was no need for one, indeed, for no Boer could pass such a place. It was a rise, a little rand, flowing out from a tall kopje, grass and bush to its crown, and at its skirts ran a wide spruit of clear water. The veldt waved like a sea—not nakedly and forlorn, but dotted with grey mimosa and big green dropsical aloes, that here and there showed a scarlet plume like a flame. The country was thigh-deep in grass and spoke of game; as they looked, a springbok got up and fled. So here they stayed.
David and his Kafirs built the house, such a house as you see only when the man who is to make his home in it puts his hand to the building. David knew but one architecture, that of the great hills and the sky, and when all was done, the house and its background clove together like a picture in a fit frame, the one enhancing the other, the two being one in perfection. It was thatched, with deep eaves, and these made a cool stoep and cast shadows on the windows; while the door was red, and took the eye at once, as do the plumes of the aloes. It was not well devised—to say so would be to lend David a credit not due to him; but it occurred excellently.
The next thing that occurred was a child, a son, and this set the pinnacle on their happiness. His arrival was the one great event in many years, for the multiplication of David's flocks and herds was so well graduated, the growth of his prosperity so steady and of so even a process, that it tended rather to content than to joy. It was like having money rather than like getting it. In the same barefoot quiet their youth left them, and the constant passing of days marked them, tenderly at first and then more deeply. Their boy, Frikkie, was a man, and thinking of marrying, when the consciousness of the leak in their lives, stood up before them.
They were sitting of an evening on the stoep, watching the sun go down and pull his ribbons after him, when Christina spoke.
"David," she said, "yesterday was twenty-five years since our marriage. We—we are growing old, David."
She spoke with a falter, believing what she said. For though the blood is running strong and warm, and the eye is as clear as the heart is loyal, twenty-five years is a weary while to count back to one's youth.
David turned and looked at her. He saw for a moment with her eyes— saw that the tenseness of her girlhood had vanished, and he was astonished. But he knew he was strong and hale, well set-up and a good man to be friends with, and as he gripped his knees, he felt the tough muscle under his fingers, and it restored him.
"Christina," he said, seeing she was troubled, "it is the same with both of us. You are not afraid to grow old with me, little cousin?"
She came closer to him but said nothing. It was soon after that, and a wonderful thing in its way, such as David had never heard of before, that there came to them another boy, a wee rascal that shattered all the cobwebs of twenty-five years, and gave Christina something better to think of than the footsteps of time.
Frikkie had been glorious enough in his time, and was glorious enough still, for the matter of that; but this was a creature with exceptional points, which neither David nor Christina—nor, to do him justice, Frikkie—could possibly overlook. Frikkie had a voice like a bell, and whiskers like the father of a family, and stood six foot two in his naked feet, and lacked no excellence that a sturdy bachelor should possess. But the other, who was born to the name of Paul, lamented his arrival with a vociferous note of disappointment in the world that was indescribably endearing; had a head clothed in down like the intimate garments of an ostrich chick, and was small enough for David to put in his pocket. He brought a new horizon with him and imposed it on his parents; he was, in brief, a thing to make a deacon of a Jew peddler.
Thereafter, life for David and Christina was no longer a single phenomenon, but a series of developments. It was like sailing in agreeably rough water. No pensive mood could survive the sight of mighty Frikkie gambolling like a young bull in the company of Paul; nor could quiet hours impart a melancholy while the welkin rang with the voice of the kleintje bullying the adoring Kafirs. Where before life had glided, now it steeplechased, taking its days bull-headed, and Paul grew to the age of four as a bamboo grows, in leaps.
Then Frikkie, the huge, the hairy, the heavy-footed, the man who prided himself on his ability to make circumstances, discovered, in a revealing flash, that he was, after all, a poor creature, and that the brightest being on earth was Katje Voss, whose people had settled about thirty miles off—next door, as it were. Katje held views not entirely dissimilar, but she consented to marry him, and the big youth walked on air. Katje was a dumpy Boer girl, with a face all cream and roses, and a figure that gave promise of much fat hereafter. Christina had imagined other things, but the ideal is a rickety structure, and she yielded; while David had never considered such an emergency, and consented heartily. Behind Frikkie's back he talked of grandchildren, and was exceedingly happy.
Then his dream-fabric tumbled about his ears.
Frikkie had ridden off to worship his beloved, and David and Christina, as was their wont, sat on the stoep. They' watched the figure of their son out of sight, and talked a while, and then lapsed into the silence of perfect companionship. The veldt was all about them, as silent and friendly as they, and the distance was mellow with a haze of heat. From the kraals came at intervals the voice of little Paul in fluent Kafir; David smiled over his pipe and nodded to his wife once when the boy's voice was raised in a shout. Christina was sewing; her thoughts were on Katje, and were still vaguely hostile.
Of a sudden she heard David's pipe clatter on the ground, and looked sharply round at him. He was staring intently into the void sky; his brows were knitted and his face was drawn; even as she turned he gave a hoarse cry.
She rose quickly, but he rose too, and spoke to her in an unfamiliar voice.
"Go in," he said. "Have all ready, for our son has met with a mishap. He has fallen from his horse."
She gasped, and stared at him, but could not speak.
"Go and do it," he said again, looking at her with hard eyes; and suddenly she saw, as by an inward light, that here was not madness, but truth. It spurred her.
"I will do it," she said swiftly. "But you will go and bring him in?"
"At once," he replied, and was away to the shed for the cart. The Kafirs came running to inspan the horses, and shrank from him as they worked. He was white through his tan, and he breathed loud. Little Paul saw him, and sat down on the ground and cried quietly.
Before David went his wife touched him on the arm, and he turned. She was white to the lips.
"David," she said, and struggled with her speech. "David."
"Well?" he answered, with a pregnant calm.
"David, he is not—not dead?"
"Not yet," he answered; "but I cannot say how it will be when I get there." A tenderness overwhelmed him, and he caught a great sob and put his arm about her. "All must be ready, little cousin. Time enough to grieve afterwards—all our lives, Christina, all our lives!"
She put her hand on his breast.
"All shall be ready, David," she answered. "Trust me, David."
He drove off, and she watched him lash the horses down the hill and force them at the drift—he, the man who loved horses, and knew them as he knew his children. His children! She fled into the house to do her office, and to drink to the bottom of the cup the bitterness of motherhood. A cool bed, linen, cold water and hot water, brandy and milk, all the insignia of the valley of the shadow did she put to hand, and con over and adjust and think upon, and then there was the waiting. She waited on the stoep, burning and tortured, boring at the horizon with dry eyes, and praying and hoping. A lifetime went in those hours, and the sun was slanting down before the road yielded, far and far away, a speck that grew into a cart going slowly. By and by she was able to see her husband driving, but nobody with him—only a rag or a garment that fluttered from the side. Her mind snatched at it; was it—God! what was it?
David drove into the yard soberly; she was at the stoep.
"All is ready," she said, in a low voice. "Will you bring him in?"
"Yes," he said; and she went inside with her heart thrashing like a kicking horse.
David carried in his son in his arms; he was not yet past that. On the white bed inside they laid him, and where his fair head touched the pillow it dyed it red. Frikkie's face was white and blue, and his jaw hung oddly; but once he was within the door, some reinforcement of association came to Christina, and she went about her ministry purposefully and swiftly, a little comforted. At the back of her brain dwelt some idea such as this: here was her house, her home, there David, there Frikkie, here she, and where these were together Death could never make the fourth. The same thought sends a stricken child to its mother. David leant on the foot of the bed, his burning eyes on the face of his son, and his brows tortured with anxiety. Christina brought some drink in a cup and held it to the still lips of the young man.
"Drink. Frikkie," she pleaded softly. "Drink, my kleintje. Only a drop, Frikkie, and the pain will fly away."
She spoke as though he were yet a child, for a mother knows nothing of manhood when her son lies helpless. The arts that made him a man shall keep him a man; so she coaxed the closed eyes and the dumb mouth.
But Frikkie would not drink, heard nothing, gave no sign. Christina laid drenched cloths to his forehead, deftly cleansed and bandaged the gaping rent in the base of the skull whence the life whistled forth, and talked to her boy all the while in the low crooning mother voice. David never moved from the foot of the bed, and never loosed his drawn brows. In came little Paul silently and took his hand, but he never looked down, and the father and the child remained there throughout the languid afternoon.
Evening cool was growing up when Frikkie opened his eyes. Christina was wetting towels for bandages, and her back was towards him, but she knew instantly, and came swiftly to his side. David leaned forward breathlessly, and little Paul cried out with the grip of his hand. They saw a waver of recognition in Frikkie's eyes, a fond light, and it seemed that his lips moved. Christina laid her ear to them.
"And—a—shod—horse!" murmured Frikkie. Nothing more. An hour after he was cold, and David was alone on the stoep, questioning pitiless skies and groping for God, while Christina knelt beside the bed within and wept blood from her soul.
They buried Frikkie in a little kraal on the hillside, and David made the coffin. When he nailed down the lid he was an old man; when the first red clod rang on it, he felt that life had emptied itself. When they were back in the house again, Christina turned to him.
"You knew," she said, in a strange voice—"you knew, but you could not save him." And she laughed aloud. David covered his face with his hands and groaned, but the next instant Christina's arms were about him.
Yet of their old life, before the deluge of grief, too much was happy to be all swamped. Time softened the ruggedness of their wound somewhat, and a day came when all the world was no longer black. Little Paul helped them much, for what had once been Frikkie's was now his; and as he grew before their eyes, his young strength and beauty were a balm to them. David was much abroad in the lands now, for he was growing mealies and rapidly becoming a rich man; and as he rode oft in the morning and rode in at sundown, his new gravity of mind and mien broke up to the youngster who jumped at the stirrup with shouts and laughter, and demanded to ride on the saddle-bow. At intervals, also, Paul laid claim to a gun, to spurs, to a watch, to all the things that go in procession across a child's horizon, and Christina was not proof against the impulse to smile at him.
It is not to be thought, of course, that the shock of foreknowledge, of omnipotent vision, had left David scathless. Though the other details of the tragedy shared his memory, and elbowed the terrifying sense of revelation, he would find himself now and again peering at the future, straining to foresee, as a sailor bores at a fog-bank. Then he would catch himself, and start back shuddering to the instant matters about him. Eventualities he could meet, but in their season and hand to hand; afar off they mastered him. Christina, too, dwelt on it at seasons; but, by some process of her woman's mind, it was less dreadful to her than to David: she, too, could dream at times.
One day she was at work within the house, and Paul ran in and out. She spoke to him once about introducing an evil-smelling water- tortoise; he went forth to exploit it in the yard. From time to time his shrill voice reached her; then the frayed edges of David's black trousers of ceremony engaged her, to the exclusion of all else. Between the scissors and the needle, at last, there stole on her ear a faint tap, tap—such a sound as water dropping on to a board makes. It left her unconscious for a while, and then grew a little louder, with a note of vehemence. At last she looked up and listened. Tap, tap, it went, and she sprang from her chair and went to the stoep and looked out along the road. Far off on the hillside was a horse, ridden furiously on the downward road, and though dwarfed by the miles, she could see the rider flogging and his urgent crouch over the horse's withers. It was a picture of mad speed, of terror and violence, and struck her with a chill. Were the Kafirs risen? she queried. Was there war abroad? Was this mad rider her husband?
The last question struck her sharply, and she glanced about. Little Paul was sitting on a stone, plaguing the water-tortoise with a stick, and speaking to himself and it. The sight reassured her, and she viewed the rider again with equanimity. But now she was able to place him: it was David, and the horse was his big roan. The pace at which he rode was winding up the distance, and the hoofs no longer tap-tapped, but rang insistently. There was war, then; it could be nothing else. Her category of calamities was brief, and war and the death of her dear ones nearly exhausted it.