"Whoa, Delia! whoa! What's the matter? Steady, old girl! steady!" There was a flash of the quick, penetrating eyes around the circle made by the arc-light. "Why, hello, Rosie! 'Pon my soul! Look scared as a stray kitten. Where you going?"
Rosie could only reply that she wasn't going anywhere. She was just—out.
"Well, it's a fine night. Everybody seems to be out. Just met Claude."
The girl was unable to repress a startled "Oh!" though she bit her tongue at the self-betrayal.
Uncle Sim laughed merrily. "Don't wonder you're frightened—pretty girl like you. Devil of a fellow, Claude thinks he is. Suppose you don't know him. Ah, well, that wouldn't make any difference to him, if he was to run across you. I'll tell you what! You come along with me." Chuckling to himself, he slipped from Delia's back, preparing to lead the mare and accompany the girl on foot. "We'll go round by the Old Village and up Schoolhouse Lane. The walk'll do you good. You'll sleep better after it. Come along now, and tell me about your mother as we go. Did my nephew, Thor, come to see her? What did he give her? Did she take it? Did it make her sleep?"
But Rosie shrank away from him with the eyes of a terrified animal. "Oh no, Dr. Masterman! Please! I don't want to take that long walk. I'll go back up the path—the way I came. I just ran out to—to—"
He looked at her with suspicious kindliness. "Will you promise me you'll go back the way you came?"
"Yes, yes; I will."
"Then that's all right. It's an awful dangerous road, Rosie. Tramps—and everything. But if you'll go straight back up the path I'll be easy in my mind about you." He watched her while she retreated. "Good night!" he called.
"Good night," came her voice from half-way up the garden.
She was obliged to wait in the shadow of an outlying hothouse till the sound of Delia's hoofs, clattering off toward the Old Village, died away on the night. She crept back again, cautiously. Cautiously, too, she stole across the boulevard and into the wood. Once there, she flew up the path with the frantic eagerness of a hare. She was afraid Claude might have come and gone. She was afraid of the incident with old Sim. What did he mean? Did he mean anything? If he betrayed Claude at home, would it keep the latter from meeting her? She had no great confidence in Claude's ability to withstand authority. She had no great confidence in anything, not even in his love, or in her own. The love was true enough; it was ardently, desperately true; but would it bear the strain that could so easily be put upon it? She felt herself swept by an immense longing to be sure.
She had so many subjects to think of and to dread that she forgot to be frightened as she sped up the bluff. It was only on reaching the summit and discovering that Claude wasn't there that she was seized by fear. There was a bench beside her—a round bench circling the trunk of an oak-tree—and she sank upon it.
* * * * *
The crunching of footsteps told her some one was coming up the slope. In all probability it was Claude; but it might be a stranger, or even an animal. The crunching continued, measured, slow. She would have fled if there had been any way of fleeing without encountering the object of her alarm. The regular beat of the footsteps growing heavier and nearer through the darkness rendered her almost hysterical. When at last Claude's figure emerged into the moonlight, his erect slenderness defined against the sky, she threw herself, sobbing, into his arms.
It was not the least of Claude's attractions that he was so tender with women swept by crises of emotion. Where Thor would have stood helpless, or prescribed a mild sedative, Claude pressed the agitated creature to his breast and let her weep.
When her sobs had subsided to a convulsive clinging to him without tears, he explained his delay in arriving by his meeting with Uncle Sim. They were seated on the bench by this time, his arms about her, her face close to his.
"Awful nuisance, he is. Regular Paul Pry. Can't keep anything from him. Scours the country night and day like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Never know when you'll meet him."
"I met him, too," Rosie said, getting some control of her voice.
"The deuce you did! Did he speak to you? Did he say anything about me?"
"He said he'd seen you."
"Is that all?"
She weighed the possible disadvantages of saying too much, coming to the conclusion that she had better tell him more. "No, it isn't quite all. He seemed to—warn me against you."
"Oh, the devil!" In his start he loosened his embrace, but grasped her to him again. "What's he up to now?"
"Do you think he's up to anything?"
"What else did he say? Tell me all you can think of."
She narrated the brief incident.
"Will it make any difference to us?" she ventured to ask.
"It'll make a difference to us if he blabs to father. Of course!"
"What sort of difference, Claude?"
"The sort of difference it makes when there's the devil to pay."
She clasped him to her the more closely. "Does that mean that we shouldn't be able to see each other any more?"
The question being beyond him, Claude smothered it under a selection of those fond epithets in which his vocabulary was large. In the very process of enjoying them Rosie was rallying her strength. She was still clasping him as she withdrew her head slightly, looking up at him through the moonlight.
"Claude, I want to ask you something."
With his hand on the knot of her hair, he pressed her face once more against his. "Yes, yes, darling. Ask me anything. Yes, yes, yes, yes."
She broke in on his purring with the words, "Are we engaged?"
The purring ceased. Without relaxing his embrace he remained passive, like a man listening. "What makes you ask me that?"
"It's what people generally are when they're—when they're like us, isn't it?"
Brushing his lips over the velvet of her cheeks, he began to purr again. "No one was ever like us, darling. No one ever will be. Don't worry your little head with what doesn't matter."
"But it does matter to me, Claude. I want to know where I am."
"Where you are, dearie. You're here with me. Isn't that enough?"
"It's enough for now, Claude, but—"
"And isn't what's enough for now all we've got to think of?"
"No, Claude dearest. A girl isn't like a man—"
"Oh yes, she is, when she loves. And you love me, don't you, dearie? You love me just a little. Say you love me—just a little—a very little—"
"Oh, Claude, my darling, my darling, you know I love you. You're all I've got in the world—"
"And you're all I've got, my little Rosie. Nothing else counts when I'm with you—"
"But when you're not with me, Claude? What then? What am I to think when you're away from me? What am I to be?"
"Be just as you are. Be just as you've always been since the day I first saw you—"
"Yes, yes, Claude; but you don't understand. If any one were to find out that I came here to meet you like this—"
"No one must find out, dear. We must keep that mum."
"But if they did, Claude, it wouldn't matter to you at all—"
"Oh, wouldn't it, though? Father'd make it matter, I can tell you."
"Yes, but you wouldn't be disgraced. I should be. Don't you see? No one would ever believe—"
"Oh, what does it matter what any one believes. Let them all go hang."
"We can't let them all go hang. You can't let your father go hang, and I can't let mine. Do you know what my father would do to me if he knew where I am now? He'd kill me."
"Oh, rot, Rosie!"
"No, no, Claude; I'm telling you the truth. He's that sort. You wouldn't think it, but he is. He's one of those mild, dreamy men who, when they're enraged—which isn't often—don't know where to stop. If he thought I'd done wrong he'd put a knife into me, just like that." She struck her clenched hand against his heart. "When Matt was arrested—"
He tore himself from her suddenly. The sensitive part of him had been touched. "Oh, Lord, Rosie, don't let's go into that. I hate that business. I try to forget it."
"No one can forget it who remembers me."
"Oh yes, they can. I can—when you don't drag it up. What's the use, Rosie? Why not be happy for the few hours every now and then that we can get together? What's got into you?" He changed his tone. "You hurt me, Rosie, you hurt me. You talk as if you didn't trust me. You seem to have suspicions, to be making schemes—"
"Oh, Claude! For God's sake!" Rosie, too, was touched on the quick, perhaps by some truth in the accusation.
He kissed her ardently. "I know, dear; I know. I know it's all right—that you don't mean anything. Kiss me. Tell me you won't do it any more—that you won't hurt the man who adores you. What does anything else matter? You and I are everything there is in the world. Don't let us talk. When we've got each other—"
Rosie gave it up, for the present at any rate. She began to perceive dimly that they had different conceptions of love. For her, love was engagement and marriage, with the material concomitants the two states implied. But for Claude love was something else. It was something she didn't understand, except that it was indifferent to the orderly procession by which her own ambitions climbed. He loved her; of that she was sure. But he loved her for her face, her mouth, her eyes, her hair, the color of her skin, her roughened little hands, her lithe little body. Of nothing else in her was he able to take cognizance. Her hard life and her heart-breaking struggles were conditions he hadn't the eyes to see. He was aware of them, of course, but he could detach her from them. He could detach her from them for the minutes she spent with him, but he could see her go back to them and make no attempt to follow her in sympathy.
But he loved her beauty. There was that palliating fact. After all, Rosie was a woman, and here was the supreme tribute to her womanhood. It was not everything, and yet it was the thing enchanting. It was the kind of tribute any woman in the world would have put before social rescue or moral elevation, and Rosie was like the rest. She could be lulled by Claude's endearments as a child is lulled by a cradle-song. With this music in her ears doubts were stilled and misgivings quieted and ambitions overruled. Return to the world of care and calculation followed only on Claude's words uttered just as they were parting.
"And you'd better be on your guard against Thor. So long as he's going to your house you mustn't give anything away."
Dressed for going out, Mrs. Willoughby was buttoning her gloves as she stood in the square hall hung with tapestries of a late Gobelins period and adorned with a cabinet in the style of Buhl flanked by two decorative Regency chairs. Her gaze followed the action of her fingers or wandered now and then inquiringly up the stairway.
Her broad, low figure, wide about the hips, tapered toward the feet in lines suggestive of a spinning-top. She was proud of her feet, which were small and shapely, and approved of a fashion in skirts that permitted them to be displayed. Being less proud of her eyes, she also approved of a style of hat which allowed the low, sloping brim, worn slantwise across the brows, to conceal one of them.
"You're surely not going in that rag!"
The protest was called forth by Lois's appearance in a walking-costume on the stairs.
"But, mamma, I'm not going at all. I told you so."
"Told me so! What's the good of telling me so? There'll be loads of men there—simply loads. Goodness me! Lois, if you're ever going to know any men at all—"
"I know all the men I want to know."
"You don't know all the men you want to know, and if you do I should be ashamed to say it. A girl who's had all your advantages and doesn't make more show! What on earth are you doing that you don't want to come?"
Lois hesitated, but she was too frank for concealments. "I'm going to see a girl Thor Masterman wants me to look after. He thinks I may be able to help her."
The mother subsided. "Oh, well—if it's that!" She added, so as not to seem to hint too much: "I always like you to do what you can toward uplift. I'll take you as far as the Old Village, if you're going that way."
There had been a time when such concessions at the mention of Thor Masterman would have irritated Lois more than any violence of opposition; but that time was passing. She could hardly complain if others saw what was daily becoming more patent to herself. She could complain of it the less since she found it difficult to conceal her happiness. It was a happiness that softened the pangs of care and removed to a distance the conditions incidental to her father's habits and impending financial ruin.
Nevertheless, the conditions were there, and had to be confronted. She made, in fact, a timid effort to confront them as she sat beside her mother in the admirably fitted limousine.
"Mother, what are we going to do about papa?"
Mrs. Willoughby's indignant rising to the occasion could be felt like an electric wave. "Do about him? Do about what?"
"About the way he is."
"The way he is? What on earth are you talking about?"
"I mean the way he comes home."
"He comes home very tired, if that's what you're trying to say. Any man who works as they work him at that office—"
"Do you think it's work?"
"No, I don't think it's work. I call it slavery. It's enough to put a man in his grave. I've seen him come home so that he could hardly speak; and if you've done the same you may know that he's simply tired enough to die."
Lois tried to come indirectly to her point by saying, "Thor Masterman has been bringing him home lately."
"Oh, well; I suppose Thor knows he doesn't lose anything by that move."
Lois ignored the remark to say, "Thor seems worried."
The mother's alertness was that of a ruffled, bellicose bird defending its mate. "If Thor's worried about your father, he can spare himself the trouble. He can leave that to me. I'll take care of him. What he needs is rest. When everything is settled I mean to take him away. Of course we can't go this winter. If we could we should go to Egypt—he and I. But we can't. We know that. We make the sacrifice."
These discreet allusions, too, Lois thought it best to let pass in silence. "It wasn't altogether about papa that Thor was worried. He seems anxious about money."
Bessie tossed her head. "That may easily be. If your father takes our money out of the firm, as he threatens to do, the Mastermans will be—well, I don't know where."
The girl felt it right to go a step further. "He seemed to hint—he didn't say it in so many words—that perhaps papa wouldn't have so very much to take out."
This was dismissed lightly. "Then he doesn't know what's he talking about. Archie's frightfully close in those things, I must say. He's never let either of the boys know anything about the business. He won't even let me. But your father knows. If Thor thinks for a minute the money isn't nearly all ours he may come in for a rude awakening."
Reassured by this firmness of tone, Lois began to take heart. Getting out at the Old Village, she continued her way on foot, and found Rosie among the azaleas and poinsettias.
* * * * *
Thor Masterman met her an hour later, as she returned homeward. He knew where she had been as soon as he saw her turn the corner at which the road descends the hill, recognizing with a curious pang her promptness in carrying out his errand. The pang was a surprise to him—the beginning of a series of revelations on the subject of himself.
Her desire to please him had never before this instant caused him anything but satisfaction. It had been but the response to his desire to please her. He had not been blind to the goal to which this mutual good-will would lead them, but he had quite made up his mind that she would make him as good a wife as any one. As a preliminary to marriage he had weighed the possibility of falling ardently in love, coming at last to the conclusion that he was not susceptible to that passion.
His long-standing intention to marry Lois Willoughby was based on the fact that besides being sympathetic to him she was plain and lonely. If the motive hadn't taken full possession of his heart it was because the state of being plain and lonely had never seemed to him the worst of calamities, by any means. The worst of calamities, that for which no patience was sufficient, that for which there was no excuse, that which kings, presidents, emperors, parliaments, congresses, embassies, and armies should combine their energies to prevent, was to be poor. He was entirely of Mrs. Fay's opinion, that with money ill-health and unhappiness were details. You could bear them both. You could bear being lonely; you could bear being plain. Consequently, the menace that now threatened Lois Willoughby's fortunes strengthened her claim on him; but all at once he felt, as he saw her descend the hill, that the claim might make complications.
Was it because she was plain? Curious that he had never attached importance to that fact before! But it blinded him now to her graceful carriage as well as to the way she had of holding her head with a noble, independent poise that made her a woman of distinction.
She was smiling with an air at once intimate and triumphant. "I think I've won in the first encounter, at any rate."
In his wincing there was the surprise of a man who in a moment of expansion has made a sacred confidence only to find it crop up lightly in subsequent conversation. He was obliged to employ some self-control in order to say, with a manner sufficiently offhand, "What happened?"
She told of making her approaches under the plea of buying potted plants. A cold reception had given way before her persistent friendliness, while there had been complete capitulation on the tender of an invitation to County Street to tea. The visit had been difficult to manage, but amusing, and a little pitiful.
To the details that were difficult or pitiful he could listen with calm, but he was inwardly indignant that Lois should find anything in her meeting with Rosie that lent itself to humor. He knew that humor. The superior were fond of indulging in it at the expense of the less fortunate. Even Lois Willoughby had not escaped that taint of class. Fearing to wound her by some impatient word, he made zeal in his round of duties the excuse for an abrupt good-by.
But zeal in his round of duties changed to zeal of another kind as with set face and long, swinging stride he hurried up the hill. The plans he had been maturing for the psychological treatment of Mrs. Fay melted into eagerness to know how the poor little thing had taken Lois's advances. He was disappointed, therefore, that Rosie should receive him coldly.
Within twenty-four hours his imagination had created between them something with the flavor of a friendship. He had been thinking of her so incessantly that it was disconcerting to perceive that apparently she had not been thinking of him at all. He was the doctor to her, and no more. She continued to direct Antonio, the Italian, who was opening a crate of closely packed azalea-plants, while she discussed the effect of his sedative on her mother. Her manner was dry and business-like; her replies to his questions brief and to the point.
But professional duty being done, he endeavored to raise the personal issue. "What did you mean yesterday when you said that you couldn't play fair, but that you'd play as fair as you could?"
She turned from her contemplation of the stooping Antonio's back. "Did I say that?"
He hardly heeded the question in the pleasure he got from this glimpse of her green eyes. "You said that—or something very much like it."
His uncertainty gave her the chance to correct that which, in the light of Claude's warning, might prove to have been an indiscretion. "I'm sure I can't imagine. You must have—misunderstood me."
He pursued the topic not because he cared, but in order to make her look at him again. "Oh no, I didn't. Don't you remember? It was after you said that there was one thing that might happen—"
She was sure of her indiscretion now. He might even be setting a snare for her. Dr. Sim Masterman might have withdrawn from her mother's case in order to put the one brother on the other's tracks. If Claude was right in his suspicions, there was reasonable ground for alarm. She said, with assumed indifference: "Oh, that! That was nothing. Just a fancy."
He still talked for the sake of talking, attaching no importance to her replies. "Was it a fancy when you said that I would be one of the people opposed to it—if it happened?"
"Well, yes. But you'd only be one among a lot." She shifted to firmer ground. "I wasn't thinking of you in particular—or of any one in particular."
"Were you thinking of any thing in particular?"
The question threw her back on straight denial. "N-no; not exactly; just a fancy."
"But I shouldn't be opposed to it, whatever it is—if it was to your advantage."
His persistence deepened her distrust. A man whom she had seen only once before would hardly display such an interest in her and her affairs unless he had a motive, especially when that man was a Masterman. She took refuge in her task with the azaleas. "No, not there, Antonio. Put them there—like this—I'll show you."
The necessity for giving Antonio practical demonstration taking her to the other side of the hothouse, Thor felt himself obliged to go. He went with the greater regret since he had been unable to sound her on the subject of Lois Willoughby's advances, though her skill in eluding him heightened his respect. His disdain for the small arts of coquetry being as sincere as his scorn of snobbery, he counted it to her credit that she eluded him at all. There would be plenty of opportunities for speech with her. During them he hoped to win her confidence by degrees.
In the bedroom up-stairs, where the mother was again seated in her upholstered arm-chair with the quilt across her knees, he endeavored to put into practice his idea of mental therapeutics. He began by speaking of Matt, using the terms that would most effectively challenge her attention. "When he comes back, you know, we must make him forget that he's ever worn stripes."
She eyed him sternly. "What'd be the good of his forgetting it? He'll have done it, just the same."
"Some of us have done worse than that, and yet—"
"And yet we didn't get into Colcord for them. But that's what counts. You can do what you like as long as you ain't put in jail. Look at your father—"
"So when he comes home—" he interrupted, craftily.
She leaned forward, throwing the quilt from her knees. "See here," she asked, confidentially, "how would you feel if you saw your son coming up out of hell?"
"How should I feel? I should be glad he was coming up instead of going down. You would, too, wouldn't you? And now that he's coming up we must keep him up. That's the point. So many poor chaps that have been in his position feel that because they've once been down they've got to stay down. We must make him see that he's come back among friends—and you must tell us what to do. You must give your mind to it and think it out. He's your boy—so it's your duty to take the lead."
Her cold eye rested on him as if she were giving his words consideration. "Why don't you ask your father to take the lead? He sent him to Colcord."
Thor got no further than this during the hour he spent with her, seeing that Uncle Sim had been right in describing the case as one for ingenuity—and something more. Questioning himself as to what this something more could be, he brought up the subject tentatively with Jasper Fay, whom he met on leaving the house. Thor himself stood on the door-step, while Fay, who wore gardening overalls, confronted him from the withered grass-plot that ended in a leafless hedge of bridal-veil.
"She's never been a religious woman at all, has she?"
Fay answered with a distant smile. "She did go in for religion at one time, sir; but I guess she found it slim diet. It got to seem to her like Thomas Carlyle's hungry lion invited to a feast of chickenweed. After that she quit."
"I had an idea that you belonged to the First Church and were Dr. Hilary's parishioners."
Fay explained. "Dr. Hilary married us, but we haven't troubled the church much since. I never took any interest in the Christian religion to begin with; and when I looked into it I found it even more fallacious than I supposed." To account for this advanced position on the part of a simple market-gardener he added, "I've been a good deal of a reader."
Thor spoke slowly and after meditation. "It isn't so much a question of its being fallacious as of its capacity for producing results."
Fay turned partially round toward the south, where a haze hung above the city. His tone was infused with a mild bitterness. "Don't we see the results it can produce—over there?"
"That's right, too." Thor was so much in sympathy with this point of view that he hardly knew how to go on. "And yet some of us doctors are beginning to suspect that there may be a power in Christianity—a purely psychological power, you understand—that hasn't been used for what it's worth."
Fay nodded. He had been following this current of contemporary thought. "Yes, Dr. Thor. So I hear. Just as, I dare say, you haven't found out all the uses of opium."
"Well, opium is good in its place, you know."
"I suppose so." He lifted his starry eyes with their mystic, visionary rapture fully on the young physician. "And yet I remember how George Eliot prayed that when her troubles came she might get along without being drugged by that stuff—meaning the Christian religion, sir—and I guess I'd kind o' like that me and mine should do the same."
Thor dropped the subject and went his way. As far as he had opinions of his own, they would have been similar to Fay's had he not within a year or two heard of sufficiently authenticated cases in which sick spirits or disordered nerves had yielded to spiritual counsels after the doctor had had no success. He had been so little impressed with these instances that he might not have allowed his speculations with regard to Mrs. Fay to go beyond the fleeting thought, only for the fact that on passing through the Square he met Reuben Hilary. In general he was content to touch his hat to the old gentleman and go on; but to-day, urged by an impulse too vague to take accurate account of, he stopped with respectful greetings.
"I've just been to see an old parishioner of yours, sir," he said, when the preliminaries of neighborly conversation had received their due.
"Have you, now?" was the non-committal response, delivered with a North-of-Ireland intonation.
"Mrs. Fay—wife of Fay, the gardener. I can't say she's ill," Thor went on, feeling his way, "but she's mentally upset." He decided to plunge into the subject boldly, smiling with that mingling of frankness and perplexity which people found appealing because of its conscientiousness. "And I've been wondering, Dr. Hilary, if you couldn't help her."
"Have you, now? And what would you be wanting me to do?"
Thor reflected as to the exact line to take, while the kindly eyes covered him with their shrewd, humorous twinkle. "You see," Thor tried to explain, "that if she could get the idea that there's any other stand to take toward trouble than that of kicking against it, she might be in a fair way to get better. At present she's like a prisoner who dashes his head against a stone wall, not seeing that there's a window by which he might make his escape."
There was renewed twinkling in the merry eyes. "But if there's a window, why don't you point it out to her?"
Thor grinned. "Because, sir, I don't see it myself."
"T't, t't! Don't you, then? And how do you know it's there?"
Thor continued to grin. "To be frank with you, sir, I don't believe it is there. But if you can make her believe it is—"
"That is, you want me to deceive the poor creature."
"Oh no, sir," Thor protested. "You wouldn't be deceiving her because you do believe it."
"So that I'd only be deceiving her to the extent that I'm deceived myself."
"You're too many for me," Thor laughed again, preparing to move on. "I didn't know but that if you gave her what are called the consolations of religion—that's the right phrase, isn't it—"
"There is such a phrase. But you can't give people the consolations of religion; they've got to find them for themselves. If they won't do that, there's no power in heaven or earth that can force consolation upon them."
"But religion undertakes to do something, doesn't it?"
The old man shook his head. "Nothing whatever—no more than air undertakes that you shall breathe it, or water that you shall drink it, or fire that you shall warm yourself at its blaze."
Thor mused. When he spoke it was as if summing up the preceding remarks. "So that you can't do anything, sir, for my friend, Mrs. Fay?"
"Nothing whatever, me dear Thor—but help her to do something for herself."
"Very well, sir. Will you try that?"
"Sure, I'll try it. I'm too proud of the Word of God to thrust it where it isn't wanted—margaritas ante porcos, if you've Latin enough for that—but when any one asks for it as earnestly as you, me dear Thor—"
Having won what he asked, Thor shook the old man's hand and thanked him, after which he hurried off to the garage to take out his runabout and bring Lois's father home from town.
As November and December passed and the new year came in, small happenings began to remind Thorley Masterman that he was soon to inherit money. It was a fact which he himself could scarcely credit. Perhaps because he was not imaginative the condition of being thirty years of age continued to seem remote even when he was within six weeks of that goal.
He was first impressed with the rapidity of his approach to it on a morning when he came late to breakfast, finding at his plate a long envelope, bearing in its upper left-hand corner the request that in the event of non-delivery it should be returned to the office of Darling & Darling, at 27, Commonwealth Row. A glance, which he couldn't help reading, passed round the table as he took it up. It was not new to him that among the other members of the household, closely as they were united, there was a sense of vague injustice because he was coming into money and they were not.
The communication was brief, stating no more than the fact that in view of the transfer of the estate which would take place a few weeks later, Mr. William Darling, the sole trustee, would be glad to see the heir on a day in the near future, to submit to him the list of investments and other properties that were to make up his inheritance. Thor saw his grandfather's money, so long a fairy prospect, as likely to become a matter of solid cash. The change in his position would be considerable.
As yet, however, his position remained that of a son in his father's family, and, in obedience to what he knew was expected of him, he read the note aloud. Though there was an absence of comment, his stepmother, in passing him his coffee, murmured, caressingly, "Dear old Thor."
"Dear old Thor," Claude mimicked, "will soon be able to do everything he pleases."
Mrs. Masterman smiled. It was her mission to conciliate. "And what will that be?"
"I know what it won't be," Claude said, scornfully. "It won't be anything that has to do with a pretty girl."
Thor flushed. It was one of the minutes at which Claude's taunts gave him all he could do to contain himself. As far as his younger brother was concerned, he meant well by him. It had always been his intention that his first use of Grandpa Thorley's money should be in supplementing Claude's meager personal resources and helping him to keep on his feet. He could be patient with him, too—patient under all sorts of stinging gibes and double-edged compliments—patient for weeks, for months—patient right up to the minute when something touched him too keenly on the quick, and his wrath broke out with a fury he knew to be dangerous. It was so dangerous as to make him afraid—afraid for Claude, and more afraid for himself. There had been youthful quarrels between them from which he had come away pale with terror, not at what he had done, but at what he might have done had he not maintained some measure of self-control.
The memory of such occasions kept him quiet now, though the irony of Claude's speech cut so much deeper than any one could suspect. "Won't be anything that has to do with a pretty girl!" Good God! When he was beginning to feel his soul rent in the struggle between love and honor! It was like something sprung on him—that had caught him unawares. There were days when the suffering was so keen that he wondered if there was no way of lawfully giving in. After all, he had never asked Lois Willoughby to marry him. There had never been more between them than an unspoken intention in his mind which had somehow communicated itself to hers. But that was not a pledge. If he were to marry some one else, she couldn't reproach him by so much as a syllable.
It was not often that he was tempted to reason thus, but Claude's sarcasm brought up the question more squarely than it had ever raised itself before. It was exactly the sort of subject on which, had it concerned any one else, Thor would have turned for light to Lois herself. In being debarred from her counsels, he felt strangely at a loss. While he said to himself that after all these years there was but one thing for him to do, he was curious as to the view other people might take of such a situation. It was because of this need, and with Claude's sneer ringing in his heart, that later in the day he sprang the question on Dearlove. Dearlove was the derelict English butler whom Thor had picked out of the gutter and put in charge of his office so that he might have another chance. He had been summoned into his master's presence to explain the subsidence in the contents of a bottle of cognac that Thor kept at the office for emergency cases and had neglected to put under lock and key.
"That was a full bottle a month ago," Thor declared, holding the accusing object up to the light.
"Was it, sir?" Dearlove asked, dismally. He stood in his habitual attitude, his arms crossed on his stomach, his hands thrust, monklike, into his sleeves.
"And I've only taken one glass out of it—the day that young fellow fell off his bicycle."
Dearlove eyed the bottle piteously. "'Aven't you, sir? Perhaps you took more out that day than you thought."
But Thor broke in with what was really on his mind. "Look here, Dearlove! What would you say to a man who was in love with one woman if he married another?"
Dearlove was so astonished as to be for a minute at a loss for speech. "What'd I say to him, sir? I'd say, what did he do it for? If it was—"
"Yes, Dearlove?" Thor encouraged. "If it was for—what?"
"Well, sir, if he'd got money with her, like—well, that'd be one thing."
"But if he didn't? If it was a case in which money didn't matter?"
Dearlove shook his head. "I never 'eard of no such case as that, sir."
Thor grew interested in the sheerly human aspects of the subject. Romance was so novel to him that he wondered if every one came under its spell at some time—if there was no exception, not even Dearlove. He leaned across the desk, his hands clasped upon it.
"Now, Dearlove, suppose it was your own case, and—"
"Oh, me, sir! I'm no example to no one—not with Brightstone 'anging on to me the way she does. I can't look friendly at so much as a kitten without Brightstone—"
"Now here's the situation, Dearlove," Thor interrupted, while the ex-butler listened, his head judicially inclined to one side: "Suppose a man—a patient of mine, let us say—meant to marry one young lady, and let her see it. And suppose, later, he fell very much in love with another young lady—"
"He'd 'ave to ease the first one off a bit, wouldn't he, sir?"
"You think he ought to."
"I think he'd 'ave to, sir, unless he wanted to be sued for breach."
"It's the question of duty I'm thinking of, Dearlove."
"Ain't it his dooty to marry the one he's in love with, sir? Doesn't the Good Book say as 'ow fallin' in love"—Dearlove blushed becomingly—"as 'ow fallin' in love is the way God A'mighty means to fertilize the earth with people? Doesn't the Good Book say that, sir?"
"Perhaps it does. I believe it's the kind of primitive subject it's likely to take up."
"So that there's that to be thought of, sir. They say the children not born o' love matches ain't always strong." He added, as he shuffled toward the door, "We never had no little ones, Brightstone and me—only a very small one that died a few hours after it was born."
Thor was not convinced by this reasoning, but he was happier than before. Such expressions of opinion, which would probably be indorsed by nine people out of ten, assured him that he might follow the urging of his heart and yet not be a dastard.
* * * * *
He felt on stronger ground, therefore, when he talked with Fay one afternoon in the week following. "Suppose my father doesn't renew the lease—what would happen to you?"
Fay raised himself from the act of doing something to a head of lettuce which was unfolding its petals like a great green rose. His eyes had the visionary look that marked his inability to come down to the practical. "Well, sir, I don't rightly know."
"But you've thought of it, haven't you?"
"Not exactly thought of it. He's said he wouldn't two or three times already, and then changed his mind."
"Would it do you any good if he did? Aren't you fighting a losing battle, anyhow?"
"That's not wholly the way I judge, Dr. Thor. Neither the losing battle nor the winning one can be told from the balance-sheet. The success or failure of a man's work is chiefly in himself."
Thor studied this, gazing down the level of soft verdure to the end of the greenhouse in which they stood. "I can see how that might be in one way, but—"
"It's the way I mostly think of, sir. Every man has his own habit of mind, hasn't he? I agree with the great prophet Thomas Carlyle when he says"—he brought out the words with a mild pomposity—"when he says that a certain inarticulate self-consciousness dwells in us which only our works can render articulate. He speaks of the folly of the precept 'Know thyself' till we've made it 'Know what thou canst work at.' I can work at this, Dr. Thor; I couldn't work at anything else. I know that making both ends meet is an important part of it, of course—"
"But to you it isn't the most important part of it."
Fay's eyes wandered to the other greenhouse in which lettuce grew, to the hothouse full of flowers, and out over the forcing-beds of violets. "No, Dr. Thor; not the most important part of it—to me. I've created all this. I love it. It's my life. It's myself. And if—"
"And if my father doesn't renew the lease—?"
"Then I shall be done for. It won't be just going bankrupt in the money sense; it'll be everything else—blasted." He subjoined, dreamily: "I don't know what would happen to me after that. I'd be—I'd be equal to committing crimes."
Thor couldn't remember ever having seen tears on an elderly man's cheeks before. He took a turn down half the length of the greenhouse and back again. "Look here, Fay," he said, in the tone of one making a resolution, "supposing my father would give me a lease of the place?"
"You, Dr. Thor?"
"Yes, me. Would you work it for me?"
Fay reflected long, while Thor watched the play of light and shadow over the mild, mobile face. "It wouldn't be my own place any more, would it, sir?"
"No, I suppose it wouldn't—not strictly. But it would be the next best thing. It would be better than—"
"It would be better than being turned out." He reflected further. "Was you thinking of taking it over as an investment, sir?"
Not having considered this side of his idea, Thor sought for a natural, spontaneous answer, and was not long in finding one. "I want to be identified with the village industries, because I'm going into politics."
"Oh, are you, sir? I didn't know you was that way inclined."
"I'm not," Thor explained, when they had moved from the greenhouse into the yard. "I only feel that we people of the old stock hang out of politics too much and that I ought to pitch in and make one more. So you get my idea, Fay. It'll give me standing to hold a bit of property like this, even if it's only on lease."
There was no need for further explanations. Fay consented, not cheerfully, but with a certain saddened and yet grateful resignation, of which the expression was cut short by a cheery, ringing voice from the gateway:
"Hello, Mr. Fay! Hello, Dr. Thor! Whoa, Maud, whoa! Stand, will you? What you thinking of?"
The response to this greeting came from both men simultaneously, each making it according to his capacity for heartiness. "Hello, Jim!" They emphasized the welcome by unconsciously advancing to meet the tall, stalwart young Irishman of the third generation on American soil who came toward them with the long, loose limbs and swinging stride inherited from an ancestry bred to tramping the hills of Connemara. A pair of twinkling eyes and a mouth that was always on the point of breaking into a smile when it was not actually smiling tempered the peasant shrewdness of a face that got further softening, and a touch of superiority, from a carefully tended young mustache.
Thor and Jim Breen had been on friendly terms ever since they were boys; but the case was not exceptional, since the latter was on similar terms with every one in the village. From childhood upward he had been a local character, chiefly because of a breezy self-respect that was as free from self-consciousness as from self-importance. There was no one to whom he wasn't polite, but there had never been any one of whom he was afraid. "Hello, Mr. Masterman!" "Hello, Dr. Hilary!" "Hello, Father Ryan!" "Hello Dr. Sim!" had been his form of greeting ever since he had begun swaggering around the village, with head up and face alert, at the age of five. No one had ever been found to resent this cheerful familiarity, not even Archie Masterman.
As a man in whom friendliness was a primary instinct, Jim Breen never entered a trolley-car nor turned a street corner without speaking or nodding to every one he knew. Never did he visit a neighboring town without calling on, or calling up, every one he could claim as an acquaintance. He was always on hand for fires, for fights, for fallen horses, for first-aid in accidents, for ball-games, for the outings of Boy Scouts, and for village theatricals and dances. There were rumors that he was sometimes "wild," but the wildness being confined to his incursions into the city—which generally took place after dark—it was not sufficiently in evidence to shock the home community. It was a matter of common knowledge that he used, in village phrase, "to go with" Rosie Fay—the breaking of the friendship being attributed by some of the well-informed to his reported wildness, and by others to differences in religion. As Thor had been absent in Europe during this episode, and was without the native suspicion that would have connected the two names, he took Jim's arrival pleasantly.
Having finished his bit of business, which concerned an order for azaleas too large for his father to meet, and in which Mr. Fay might find it to his advantage to combine, Jim turned blithely toward Thor. "Hear about the town meeting, Dr. Thor?—what old Billy Taylor said about the new bridge? What do you think of that for nerve? Tell you what, there's some things in this town needs clearing up."
The statement bringing out Thor's own intention to run as a candidate for office at the next election, Jim expressed his interest in the vernacular of the hour, "What do you know about that?" Further discussion of politics ending in Jim's pledging his support to his boyhood's friend, Thor shook hands with an encouraging sense of being embarked on a public career, and went forward to visit his patient in the house.
His steps were arrested, however, by hearing Jim say with casual light-heartedness, "Rosie anywheres about, Mr. Fay?"
The old man having nodded in the direction of the hothouse, Jim advanced almost to the door, where Thor, on looking over his shoulder, saw him pause.
It was a curious pause for one so self-confident as the young Irishman—a pause like that of a man grown suddenly doubtful, timid, distrustful. His hand was actually on the latch when, to Thor's surprise, he wheeled away, returning to his "team" with head bent and stride slackened thoughtfully. By the time he had mounted the wagon, however, and begun to tug at Maud he was whistling the popular air of the moment with no more than a subdued note in his gaiety.
But Thor was pleased with the idea that his father could scarcely refuse him the lease. He would in fact make it worth his while not to do so. Rosie Fay and those who belonged to her might, therefore, feel solid ground beneath their feet, and go on working and, if need were, suffering, without the intolerable dread of eviction. It would be a satisfaction to him to accomplish this much, whatever the dictates of honor might oblige him to forego.
He felt, too, that he was getting his reward when, after Jim's departure, Rosie nodded through the glass of the hothouse, giving him what might almost be taken for a smile. He forbore to go to her at once, keeping that pleasure for the end of his visit. After seeing his patient, there were generally small directions to give the daughter which afforded pretexts for lingering in her company. His patient was getting better, not through ministrations of his own, but through some mysterious influence exerted by Reuben Hilary. As a man of science and a skeptic, Thor was slightly impatient of this aid, even though he himself had invoked it.
He was half-way up the stairs on his way to the bedroom in the mansard roof when, on hearing a man's voice, he paused. The voice was saying, with that inflection in which there was no more than a hint of the brogue:
"Now there's what we were talking of the last time I was here: 'Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye believe in God; believe also in me.' There's the two great plagues of human existence—fear and trouble—staggered for you at a blow. And you do believe in God, now, don't you?"
Thor had turned to tiptoe down again when he heard the words, spoken in the rebellious tones with which he was familiar, modulated now to an odd submissiveness: "I don't know whether I do or not. Isn't there something in the Bible about, 'Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief'?"
"There is, and it's a good way to begin."
Thor was out in the yard before he could hear more. Standing for a minute in the windy sunshine, he wondered at the curious phenomenon presented by men in evident possession of their faculties who relied for the dispersion of human care on means invisible and mystic. The fact that in this case he himself had appealed to the illusion rendered the working of it none the less astonishing. His own method for the dispersion of human care—and the project was dear to him—was by dollars and cents. It was, moreover, a method as to which there was no trouble in proving the efficiency.
He took up the subject of her mother with Rosie, who, with the help of Antonio, was rearranging the masses of azaleas, carnations, and poinsettias after the depletion of the Christmas sales. "She's really better, isn't she?"
Rosie pushed a white azalea to the place on the stand that would best display its domelike regularity. "She seems to be."
"What do you think has helped her?"
She gave him a queer little sidelong smile. "You're the doctor. I should think you'd know."
He adored those smiles—constrained, unwilling, distrustful smiles that varied the occasional earnest looks that he got from her green eyes. "But I don't know. It isn't anything I do for her."
She banked two or three azaleas together, so that their shades of pink and pomegranate-red might blend. "I suppose it's Dr. Hilary."
"I know it's Dr. Hilary. But he isn't working by magic. If she's getting back her nerve it isn't because he wishes it on her, as the boys say."
Suspecting all his approaches, she confined herself to saying, "I'm sure I don't know," speaking like a guilty witness under cross-examination. The assiduity of his visits, the persistency with which he tried to make her talk, kept her the more carefully on her guard against betraying anything unwarily.
But to him the reserve was an added charm. He called it shyness or coyness or maidenly timidity, according to the circumstance that called it forth; but whatever it was, this apathy to his passionate dumb-show piqued him to a frenzy infused with an element of homage. Any other girl in her situation would have come half-way at least toward a man in his. His training having rendered him analytical of the physical side of things, he endeavored, more or less unsuccessfully, to account for the extraordinary transformation in himself, whereby every nerve in his body yearned and strained toward this hard, proud little creature who, too evidently—as yet, at any rate—refused to take him into account. She made him feel like a man signaling in the dark or speaking across a vacuum through which his voice couldn't carry, while he was conscious at the same time of searchings of heart at making the attempts to do either.
He was beset by these scruples when, after taking his runabout from the garage, in order to go to town, he met Lois Willoughby in the Square. On the instant he remembered Dearlove's counsel of a few days earlier—"He'd 'ave to ease the first one off a bit." Whatever was to be his ultimate decision, the wisdom of this course was incontestable. As she paused, smiling, expecting him to stop, he lifted his hat and drove onward. Perhaps it was only his imagination that caught in her great, velvety brown eyes an expression of surprise and pain; but whether his sight was accurate or not, the memory of the moment smote him. The process of "easing the first one off" would probably prove difficult. "I shall have to explain to her that I was in a hurry," he said, to comfort himself, as he flew onward to the town.
* * * * *
The explanation would have been not untrue, since he was already overdue at his appointment with Mr. William Darling, his grandfather's executor.
It was the second of the meetings arranged for giving him a general idea of the estate he was coming into. At the first he had gone over the lists of stocks, mortgages, and bonds. To-day, with a map of the city and the surrounding country spread out, partially on the desk and partially over Mr. Darling's knees as he tilted back in a revolving-chair, Thor learned the location of certain bits of landed property which his grandfather, twenty or thirty years before, had considered good investments. The astuteness of this ancestral foresight was illustrated by the fact that Thor was a richer man than he had supposed. While he would possess no enormous wealth, according to the newer standards of the day, he would have something between thirty and forty thousand dollars of yearly income.
"And that," Mr. Darling explained with pride, "at a very conservative rate of investment. You could easily have more; but if you take my advice you'll not be in a hurry to look for more till you need it. I don't want to hurt any one's feelings. You surely understand that."
Thor was not sure that he did understand it. He was not sure; and yet he hesitated to ask for the elucidation of what was intended perhaps to remain cryptic. In a small chair drawn up beside Mr. Darling's revolving seat of authority, his elbow on his knee, his chin supported by his fist, he studied the map.
"I don't want to hurt any one's feelings," the lawyer declared again, "either before or after the fact."
This time an intention of some sort was so evident that Thor felt obliged to say, "Do you mean any one in particular, sir?"
The trustee threw the map from off his knees, and, rising, walked to the window. He was a small, neat, sharp-eyed man of fresh, frosty complexion, his exquisite clothes making him something of a dandy, while his manner of turning his head, with quick little jerks and perks, reminded one of a bird. At the window he stood with his hands behind his back, looking over the jumble of nineteenth-century roofs—out of which an occasional "skyscraper" shot like a tower—to where a fringe of masts and funnels edged the bay. He spoke without turning round.
"I don't mean any one in particular unless there should be any one in particular to mean."
With this oracular explanation Thor was forced to be content, and, as the purpose of the meeting seemed to have been accomplished, he rose to take his leave.
Mr. Darling was quick in showing himself not only faithful as a trustee, but cordial as a man of the world. "My wife would like you to come and see her," he said, in shaking hands. "She asked me to say, too, that she hopes you and your brother will come to the dance she's going to give for Elsie in the course of a month or two. You'll get your cards in time."
Warmly expressing the pleasure this entertainment would give him, while knowing in his heart that he wouldn't attend it, the young man took his departure.
* * * * *
But no later than that evening he began to perceive why the oracle had spoken. Claude having excused himself from dressing for dinner on the ground of another mysterious engagement with Billy Cheever, and Mrs. Masterman having retired up-stairs, Thor was alone in the library with his father.
It was a mellow room, in which the bindings of long rows of books, mostly purchased by Grandpa Thorley in "sets," an admirable white-marble chimney=piece in a Georgian style, and a few English eighteenth-century prints added by Archie Masterman himself, disguised the heavy architectural taste of the sixties. Grandpa Thorley had built the house at the close of the Civil War, the end of that struggle having found him—for reasons he was never eager to explain—a far richer man than its beginning. He had built the house, not on his own old farm, which was already being absorbed into the suburban portion of the city, but on a ten-acre plot in County Street, which, with its rich bordering fields, its overarching elms, and its lofty sites, was revealing itself even then as the predestined quarter of the wealthy. So long as there had been no wealthy, County Street had been only a village highway; but the social developments following on the Civil War had required a Faubourg St.-Germain.
In this house Miss Louisa Thorley had grown up and been wooed by Archie Masterman. It had been the wooing of a very plain girl by a good-looking lad, and had received a shock when Grandpa Thorley suspected other motives than love to account for the young man's ardor. Her suitor being forbidden the house, Miss Thorley had no resource but to meet him in the city on the 7th of March, 1880, and go with him to a convenient parsonage. Thor was born on the 10th of February of the year following. Two days later the young mother died.
Grandpa Thorley himself held out for another ten years, when his will revealed the fact that he had taken every precaution to keep Archie Masterman from profiting by a penny of the Thorley money. So strict were the provisions of this document that on the father was thrown the entire cost of bringing up and educating Louisa Thorley's son.
But Archie Masterman was patient. He took a lease of the Thorley house when Darling & Darling as executors put it in the market, and paid all the rent it was worth. Moreover, there had never been a moment in Thor's life when he had been made to feel that his maintenance was a burden unjustly thrown on one who could ill afford to bear it. For this consideration the son had been grateful ever since he knew its character, and was now eager to make due return.
For the minute he was moving restlessly about the room, not knowing what to say. From the way in which his father, who was comfortably stretched in an arm-chair before the fire, dropped the evening paper to the floor, while he puffed silently at his cigar, Thor knew that he was expected to give some account of the interview between himself and the trustee that afternoon. Any father might reasonably look for such a confidence, while the conditions of affectionate intimacy in which the Masterman family lived made it a matter of course.
The son was still marching up and down the room, smoking cigarettes rapidly and throwing the butts into the fire, when he had completed his summary of the information received in his two meetings with the executor.
The father had neither interrupted nor asked questions, but he spoke at last. "What did you say was the approximate value of the whole estate?"
Thor told him.
"And of the income?"
Thor repeated that also.
Thor stopped dead for an instant, but resumed his march. He had stopped in surprise, but he went on again so as to give the impression of not having heard the last observation.
"It's criminal," the father explained, with repressed indignation, "that money should bring in so trifling a return."
"He said it was very conservatively invested."
"It's damned idiotically invested. Such incompetence deserves an even stronger term. If my own money didn't earn more for me than that—well, I'm afraid you wouldn't have seen Vienna and Berlin."
The remark gave Thor an opening he was glad to seize. "I know that, father. I know how much you've spent for me, and how generous you've always been, with Claude to provide for, too; and now that I'm to have enough of my own I want to repay you every—"
"Don't hurt me, my boy. You surely don't think I'd take compensation for bringing up my own son. It's not in the least what I'm driving at. I simply mean that now that the whole thing is coming into your own hands you'll probably want to do better with it than has been done heretofore."
Thor said nothing. There was a long silence before his father went on:
"Even if you didn't want me to have anything to do with it, I could put you in touch with people who'd give you excellent advice."
Thor paced softly, as if afraid to make his footfalls heard. Something within him seemed frozen, paralyzed. He was incapable of a response.
"Of course," the father continued, gently, with his engaging lisp, "I can quite understand that you shouldn't want me to have anything to do with it. The new generation is often distrustful of the old."
Thor beat his brains for something to say that would meet the courtesies of the occasion without committing him; but his whole being had grown dumb. He would have been less humiliated if his father had pleaded with him outright.
"And yet I haven't done so badly," Masterman continued, with pathos in his voice. "I had very little to begin with. When I first went into old Toogood's office I had nothing at all. I made my way by thrift, foresight, and integrity. I think I can say as much as that. Your grandfather Thorley was unjust to me; but I've never resented it, not by a syllable."
It was a relief to Thor to be able to say with some heartiness, "I know that, father."
"Not that I didn't have some difficult situations to face on account of it. When the Toogood executors withdrew the old man's money it would have gone hard with me if I hadn't been able to—to"—Thor paused in his walk, waiting for what was coming—"if I hadn't been able to command confidence in other directions," the father finished, quietly.
Thor hastened to divert the conversation from his own affairs. "Mr. Willoughby put his money in then, didn't he?"
"That was one thing," Masterman admitted, coldly.
Thor could speak the more daringly because his march up and down kept him behind his father's back. "And now, I understand, you think of dropping him."
"I shouldn't be dropping him. That's not the way to put it. He drops himself—automatically." The clock on the mantelpiece ticked a few times before he added, "I can't go on supporting him."
"Do you mean that he's used up all the capital he put in?"
"That's what it comes to. He's spent enormous sums. At times it's been near to crippling me. But I can't keep it up. He's got to go. Besides, the big, drunken oaf is a disgrace to me. I can't afford to be associated with him any longer."
Thor came round to the fireplace, where he stood on the hearth-rug, his arm on the mantelpiece. "But, father, what'll he do?"
"Surely that's his own lookout. Bessie's got money still. I didn't get all of it, by any means."
"No; but if you've got most of it—"
Masterman shot out of his seat. "Take care, Thor. I object to your way of expressing yourself. It's offensive."
"I only mean, father, that if Mr. Willoughby saved the business—"
"He didn't do anything of the kind," Masterman said, sharply. "No one knows better than he that I never wanted him at all."
But Thor ventured to speak up. "Didn't you tell mother one night in Paris, when we were there in 1892, that his money might as well come to you as go to the deuce? Mother said she hated business and didn't want to have anything to do with it. She hoped you'd let the Willoughbys and their money alone. Didn't that happen, father?"
If Thor was expecting his father to blanch and betray a guilty mind, he was both disappointed and relieved. "Possibly. I've no recollection. I was looking for some one to enter the business. He wasn't my ideal, the Lord knows; and yet I might have said something about it—carelessly. Why do you ask?"
The son tried to infuse his words with a special intensity as, looking straight into his father's eyes, he said, "Because I—I remember the way things happened at the time."
"Indeed? And may I ask what your memories lead you to infer? They've clearly led you to infer something."
During the seconds in which father and son scrutinized each other Thor felt himself backing down with a sort of spiritual cowardice. He didn't want to accuse his father. He shrank from the knowledge that would have justified him in doing so. To express himself with as little stress as possible, he said, "They lead me to infer that we've some moral responsibility toward Mr. Willoughby."
"Really? That's very interesting. Now, I should have said that if I'd ever had any I'd richly worked it off." It was perhaps to glide away from the points already raised that he asked: "Aren't you a little hasty in looking for moral responsibility? Let me see! Who was it the last time? Old Fay, wasn't it?"
Thor flushed, but he accepted the diversion. He even welcomed it. Such glimpses as he got of his father's mind appalled him. For the present, at any rate, he would force no issue that would verify his suspicions and compel him to act upon them. Better the doubt. Better to believe that Willoughby had been a spendthrift. He would have no difficulty as to that, had it not been for those dogging memories of the little hotel in the rue de Rivoli.
Besides, as he said to himself, he had his own ax to grind. He endeavored, therefore, to take the reference to Fay jocosely. "That reminds me," he smiled, though the smile might have been a trifle nervous, "that if you don't want to renew Fay's lease when it falls in, I wish you'd make it over to me." Disconcerted by the look of amazement his words called up, he hastened to add: "I'd take it on any terms you please. You've only got to name them."
Masterman backed away to the large oblong library table strewn with papers and magazines. He seemed to need it for support. His tones were those of a man amazed to the point of awe. "What in the name of Heaven do you want that for?"
Thor steadied his nerve by lighting a cigarette. "To give me a footing in the village. I'm going into politics."
Thor hurried on. "Yes, I know how you feel. But to me it seems a duty."
The son felt obliged to be apologetic. "You see, father, so few men of the old American stock are going into politics nowadays—"
"Well, why should they?"
"The country has to be governed."
"Lots of fools to do that who are no good for anything else. Why should you dirty your hands with it?"
"That isn't the way I look at it."
"It's the way you will look at it when you know a little more about it than you evidently do now. Of course, with your money you'll have a right to fritter away your time in anything you please; but as your father I feel that I ought to give you a word of warning. You wouldn't be a Masterman if you didn't need it—on that score?"
"The score of being caught by every humbugging socialistic scheme—"
"I'm not a socialist, father."
"Well, what are you? I thought you were."
"I'm not now. I've passed that phase."
"That's something to the good, at any rate."
"With politics in this country as they are—and so many alien peoples to be licked into shape—it's no use looking for the state to undertake anything progressive for another two hundred years."
"Ah! Want something more rapid-firing."
"Want something immediate."
"And you've found it?"
"Only in the conviction that whatever's to be done must be done by the individual. I've no theories any longer. I've finished with them all. I'm driven back on the conclusion that if anything is to be accomplished in the way of social betterment it must be by the man-to-man process in one's own small sphere. If we could get that put into practice on a considerable scale we should do more than the state will be able to carry out for centuries to come."
"Put what into practice?"
"The principle that no man shall let a friend or a neighbor suffer without relief when he can relieve him."
"Thor, you should have been God."
"I don't know anything about God, father. But if I were to create a God, I should make that his first commandment."
Masterman squared himself in front of his son. "So that's behind this scheme of yours for taking over Fay's lease. You're trying to trick me into doing what you know I won't do of my own accord. What could you do with the lease but make a present of it to old Fay? Politics be hanged! Come, now. Be frank with me."
Thor threw back his head. "I can't be wholly frank with you, father; but I'll be as frank as I can. I do want to help the poor old chap; you'd be sorry for him if you'd been seeing him as I have; but that was only one of my motives. Leaving politics out of the question, I have others. But I don't want to speak of them—yet. Probably I shall never need to speak of them at all."
Thor was willing that his father should say, "It's the girl!" but he contented himself with the curt statement: "I'm sorry, Thor; but you can't have the lease. I'm going to sell the place."
"But, father," the young man cried, "what's to become of Fay?"
"Isn't that what you asked me just now about Len Willoughby? Who do you think I am, Thor? Am I in this world to carry every lame dog on my back?"
"It isn't a question of every lame dog, but of an old tenant and an old friend."
"Toward whom I have what you're pleased to call a moral responsibility. Is that it?"
"That's it, father—put mildly."
"Well, I don't admit your moral responsibility; and, what's more, I'm not going to bear it. Do you understand?"
Thor felt himself growing white, with the whiteness that attended one of his surging waves of wrath. He clenched his fists. He drew away. But he couldn't keep himself from saying, quietly, with a voice that shook because of his very effort to keep it firm: "All right, father. If you don't bear it, I will."
He was moving toward the door when Archie called after him, "Thor, for God's sake, don't be a fool!"
He answered from the threshold, over his shoulder, "It's no use asking me not to do as I've said, father, because I can't help it." He was in the hall when he added, "And if I could, I shouldn't try."
By the time his anger had cooled down, Thor regretted the words with which he had left his father's presence, and continued to regret them. They were braggart and useless. Whatever he might feel impelled to do, for either Leonard Willoughby or Jasper Fay, he could do better without announcing his intentions beforehand. He experienced a sense of guilt when, on the next day, and for many days afterward, his father showed by his manner that he had been wounded.
Lois Willoughby showed that she, too, had been wounded. The process of "easing the first one off," besides affording him side-lights on a woman's heart, involved him in an erratic course of blowing hot and cold that defeated his own ends. When he blew cold the chill was such that he blew hotter than ever to disperse it. He could see for himself that this seeming capriciousness made it difficult for Lois to preserve the equal tenor of her bearing, though she did her best.
He had kept away from her for a week or more, and would have continued to do so longer had he not been haunted by the look his imagination conjured up in her eyes. He knew its trouble, its bewilderment, its reflected heartache. "I'm a damned cad," he said to himself; and whenever he worked himself up to that point remorse couldn't send him quickly enough to pay her a visit of atonement.
He knew she was at home because he met one or two of the County Street ladies coming away from the house. With knowing looks they told him he should find her. They did not, however, tell him that she had another visitor, whose voice he recognized while depositing his hat and overcoat on one of the Regency chairs in the tapestried square hall.
"Oh, don't go yet," Lois was saying. "Here's Dr. Thor Masterman. He'll want to see you."
But Rosie insisted on taking her departure, making polite excuses for the length of her call.
She was deliciously pretty; he saw that at once on entering. Wearing the new winter suit for which she had pinched and saved, and a hat of the moment's fashion, she easily dazzled Thor, though Lois could perceive, in details of material, the "cheapness" that in American eyes is the most damning of all qualities. Rosie's face was bright with the flush of social triumph, for the County Street ladies had been kind to her, and she had had tea with all the ceremony of which she read in the accredited annals of good society. If she had not been wondering whether or not the County Street ladies knew her brother was in jail, she could have suppressed all other causes for anxiety and given herself freely to the hour's bliss.
But she would not be persuaded to remain, taking her leave with a full command of graceful niceties. Thor could hardly believe she was his fairy of the hothouse. She was a princess, a marvel. "Beats them all," he said, gleefully, to himself, referring to the ladies of County Street, and almost including Lois Willoughby.
He did not quite include her. He perceived that he couldn't do so when, after having bowed Rosie to the door, he returned to take his seat in the drawing-room. There was a distinction about Lois, he admitted to himself, that neither prettiness nor fine clothes nor graceful niceties could rival. He wondered if she wasn't even more distinguished since this new something had come into her life—was it joy or grief?—which he himself had brought there.
Her greeting to him was of precisely the same shade as all her greetings during the past two months. It was like something rehearsed and executed to perfection. When she had given him his tea and poured another cup for herself, they talked of Rosie.
"Do you know," she said, in a musing tone, "I think the poor little thing has really enjoyed being here this afternoon?"
"Why shouldn't she?"
"Yes, but why should she? Apart from the very slight novelty of the thing—which to an American girl is no real novelty, after all—I don't understand what it is she cares so much about?"
He weighed the question seriously. "She finds a world of certain—what shall I say?—of certain amenities to which she's equal—any one can see that!—and which she hasn't got. That's something in itself—to a girl with imagination."
"I think she's in love," Lois said, suddenly.
Thor was startled. "Oh no, she isn't. She can't be. Who on earth could she be in love with?"
"Oh, it's not with you. Don't be alarmed," Lois smiled. It was so like Thor to be shy of a pretty girl. He had been so ever since she could remember him.
"That's good," he managed to say. He regained control of himself, though he tingled all over. "It would have to be with me or Dr. Hilary. We're the only two men, except the Italians, who ever appear on the place."
"Oh, you don't know," Lois said, pensively. "Girls like that often have what they call, rather picturesquely, a fellow."
"Oh, don't!" His cry was instantly followed by a nervous laugh. He felt obliged to explain. "It's so funny to hear you talk like that. It doesn't go with your style."
She took this pleasantly and they spoke of other things; but Thor was eager to get away. A real visit of atonement had become impossible. That must be put off for another day—perhaps for ever. He wasn't sure. He couldn't tell. For the minute his head was in a whirl. He hardly knew what he was saying, except that his rejoinders to Lois's remarks were more or less at random. Vital questions were pounding through his brain and demanding an answer. Who knew but that with regard to Rosie she was right—and yet wrong? Women, with their remarkable powers of divination, didn't always hit the nail directly on the head. It might be the case with Lois now. She might be right in her surmise that Rosie was in love, and mistaken in those light and cruel words: "Oh, not with you!" He didn't suppose it was with him. And yet ... and yet...!
* * * * *
He got away at last, and tore through the winter twilight toward the old apple-orchard above the pond. He knew what he would say. "Rosie, are you in love with any one? If so, for God's sake, tell me." What he would do when she answered him was matter outside his present capacity for thought.
It had begun to snow. By the time he reached the house on the hill his shoulders were white. The necessity for shaking himself in the little entry gave the first prosaic chill to his ardor.
Rosie had returned and was preparing supper. The princess and marvel had resolved herself again into the fairy of the hothouse. Not that Thor minded that. What disconcerted him was her dry little manner of surprise. She had not expected him. There was nothing in her mother's condition to demand his call. She herself was busy. She had come from the kitchen to answer the door. A smell of cooking filled the house.
No one of these details could have kept him from carrying out his purpose; but together they were unromantic. How could he adjure her to tell him for God's sake whether or not she was in love with any one when he saw she was afraid that something was burning on the stove? He could only stammer out excuses for having come. Inventing on the spot new and incoherent directions for the treatment of Mrs. Fay, he took himself away again, not without humiliation.
Being in a savage mood as he stalked down the hill, he was working himself into a rage when an unexpected occurrence gave him other things to think of.
At the foot of the hill, just below the slope of the Square, was the terminus of the electric tram-line from the city. In summer it was a pretty spot, well shaded by ornamental trees, with a small Gothic church and its parsonage in the center of a trimly kept lawn. It was prettier still as Thor Masterman approached it, at the close of a winter's day, with the great soft flakes, heaping their beauty on roof and shrub and roadway, the whole lit up with plenty of cheerful electricity, and no eye to behold it but his own.
Because of this purity and solitude a black spot was the more conspicuous; and because it was a moving black spot it caught the onlooker's glance at once. It was a moving black spot, though it remained in one place—on the cement seat that circled a copper-beech-tree for the convenience of villagers waiting for the cars. It was extraordinary that any one should choose this uninviting, snow-covered resting-place, unless he couldn't do otherwise.
The doctor in Thor was instantly alert, but before advancing many paces he had made his guess. Patients were beginning to take his time, rendering his afternoons less free; and so what might have been expected had happened. Mr. Willoughby had managed to come homeward by the electric car, but was unable to go any farther.
Nevertheless, Thor was startled as he crossed the roadway to hear a great choking sob. The big creature was huddled somehow on the seat, but with face and arms turned to the trunk of the tree, against whose cold bark he wept. He wept shamelessly aloud, with broken exclamations of which "O my God! O my God!" was all that Thor could hear distinctly.
"It's delirium this time, for sure," he said to himself, as he laid his hand on the great snow-heaped shoulder.
He changed his mind on that score as soon as Mr. Willoughby was able to speak coherently. "I'm heart-broken, Thor. Haven't touched a thing to-day—scarcely. But I'm all in."
More sobs followed. It was with difficulty that Thor could get the lumbering body on its feet. "You mustn't stay here, Mr. Willoughby. You'll catch cold. Come along home with me."
"I do' wan' to go home, Thor. Got no home now. Ruined—tha's what I am. Ruined. Your father's kicked me out. All my money gone. No' a cent left in the world."
Thor dragged him onward. "But you must come home just the same, Mr. Willoughby. You can't stay out here. The next car will be along in a minute, and every one will see you."
"I do' care who sees me, Thor. I'm ruined. Father says I'll have to go. Got all the papers ready. O my God! what'll Bessie say?"
As they stumbled forward through the snow Thor tried to learn what had happened.
"Got all my money and then kicked me out," was the only explanation. "Not a cent in the world. What'll Bessie say? Oh, what'll Bessie say? All her money. Hasn't got a hundred thousand dollars left out of tha' grea' big estate. Make away with myself. Tha's what I'll do. O my God! my God!"
On arriving in front of the house Thor saw lights in the drawing-room. Lois was probably still there. It was no more than a half-hour since he had left her, and other callers might have succeeded him. He tried to steer his charge round the corner toward the side entrance in Willoughby's Lane.
But Len grew querulous. "I do' want to go in the side door. Go in the front door, hang it all! Father can't turn me out of my own house, the infernal hound."
The door opened, and Lois stood in the oblong of light. "Oh, what is it?" she cried, peering outward. "Is it you, Thor? What's the matter?"
"Treat me like a servant," Willoughby complained, as, with Thor supporting him, he stumbled up the steps. "I do' want to go in the side door. Front door good enough for me. No confounded kitchen-boy, if I am ruined. Look here, Lois," he rambled on, when he had got into the hall and Thor was helping him to take off his overcoat—"look here, Lois; we haven't got a cent in the world. Tha's wha' we haven't got—not a cent in the world. Archie Masterman's got my money, and your money, and your mother's money, and the whole damned money of all of us. Kicked me out now. No good to him any more."
With some difficulty Thor got him to his room, where he undressed him and put him to bed. On his return to the hall he found Lois seated in one of the arm-chairs, her face pale.
"Oh, Thor, is this what you meant a few weeks ago?"
He did his best to explain the situation to her gently. "I don't know just what's happened, but I'm afraid there's trouble ahead."
She nodded. "Yes; I've been expecting it, and now I suppose it's come."
"I shouldn't wonder if it had. But you must be brave, Lois, and not think matters worse than they are."
"Oh, I sha'n't do that," she said, with a hint of haughtiness at his solicitude. "Don't worry about me. I'm quite capable of bearing whatever's to be borne. Please go on."
"If anything has happened," he said, speaking from where he stood in the middle of the floor, "it's that father wants to dissolve the partnership."
"I've been looking for that. So has mamma."
"And if they do dissolve the partnership, I'm afraid—I'm afraid there'll be very little money coming to Mr. Willoughby."
"Whose fault would that be?"
"Frankly, Lois, I don't know. It might be that of my father or of yours—"
"And I shouldn't think you'd want to find out."
He looked down at her curiously. "Why do you say that? Shouldn't you?"
She seemed to shiver. "Why should I? If the money's gone, it's gone. Whether my father has squandered it or your father has—" She rose and crossed the hall to the stairs, where, with a foot on the lowest of the steps, she leaned on the pilaster of the balustrade. "I don't want to know," she said, with energy. "If the money's gone, they've shuffled it away between them; and I don't see that it would help either you or me to find out who's to blame."
It was a minute at which Thor could easily have brought out the words which for so many years he had supposed he would one day speak to her. His pity was such that it would have been a luxury to tell her to throw all the material part of her care on him. If he could have said that much without saying more he would have had no hesitation. But there was still a chance of the miracle happening with regard to Rosie Fay. Love was love—and sweet. It was first love, and, in its way, it was young love. It was springtide love. The dew of the morning was on it, and the freshness of sunrise. It was hard to renounce it, even to go to the aid of one whose need of him was so desperate that to hide it she turned her face away. Instead of the words of cheer and rescue that were almost gushing to his lips, he said, soberly:
"Has your mother any idea of what's going on?"
She began pacing restlessly up and down. "Oh, she's been worried for the last few weeks. She couldn't help knowing something. Papa's been dropping so many hints that she's been meaning to see your father."
"I suppose it will be very hard for her."
She paused, confronting him. "It will be at first. But she'll rise to it. She does that kind of thing. You don't know mother. Very few people do. She simply adores papa. It's pathetic. All this time that he's been so—so—she won't recognize it. She won't admit for a second—or let me admit it—that he's anything but tired or ill. It's splendid—and yet there's something about it that almost breaks my heart. Mamma has lots of pluck, you know. You mightn't think it—"
"Oh, I know it."
"I'm glad you do. People in general see only one side of her, but it's not the only side. She has her weaknesses. I see that well enough. She's terribly a woman; and she can't grow old. But that's not criminal, is it? There's a great deal in her that's never been called on, and perhaps this trouble will bring it out."
He spoke admiringly. "It will bring out a great deal in you."
She began again to pace up and down. "Oh, me! I'm so useless. I've never been of any help to any one. Do you know, at times, latterly, I've envied that little Rosie Fay?"
"Because she's got duties and responsibilities and struggles. She's got something more to do than dress and play tennis and make calls. There are people who depend on her—"
"She's splendid, isn't she?"
She paused in her restless pacing. "She might be. She is—very nearly."
Though he had taken the opportunity to get further away from the appeal of her distress, he felt a pang of humiliation in the promptness with which she followed his lead.
But he couldn't go on with the discussion. It was too sickening. Every inflection of her voice implied that with her own need he had no longer anything to do—that it was all over—that she recognized the fact—that she was trying her utmost to let him off easily. That she should suspect the truth, or connect the change with Rosie Fay, he knew was out of the question. It was not the way in which her mind would work. If she accounted for the situation at all it would probably be on the ground that when it came to the point he had found that he didn't care for her. The promises he had tacitly made and she had tacitly understood she was ready to give back.
He was quite alive to the fact that her generosity made his impotence the more pitiable. That he should stand tongue-tied and helpless before the woman whom he had allowed to think that she could count on him was galling not only to his manhood, but to all those primary instincts that sent him to the aid of weakness. There was a minute in which it seemed to him that if he did not on the instant redeem his self-respect it would be lost to him for ever. After all, he did care for her—in a way. There was no woman in the world toward whom he felt an equal degree of reverence. More than that, there was no woman in the world whom he could admit so naturally to share his life, whose life he himself could so naturally share. If Rosie were to marry him, the whole process would be different. In that case there would be no sharing; there would be nothing but a wild, gipsy joy. His delight would be to heap happiness upon her, content with her acceptance and the very little which was all he could expect her to give him in return. With Lois Willoughby it would be equality, partnership, companionship, and a life of mutual comprehension and respect. That would be much, of course; it was what a few months ago he would have thought enough; it was plainly that with which he must manage to be satisfied.
He was about to plunge in—to plunge in with one last backward look to the more exquisite joys he must leave behind—and tell her that his strength and loyalty were hers to dispose of as she would when she herself unwittingly balked the impulse.
It was still to hold open to him the way of escape that she continued to speak of Rosie. "If she were to marry some nice fellow, like Jim Breen, for instance—"
Thor bounded. "Like—who?"
She was too deeply preoccupied with her own emotions to notice his. "He was attentive to her for a long time once."
He cried out, incredulously: "Oh no; it couldn't be. She's too—too superior."
"I'm afraid the superiority is just the trouble—though I don't know anything about it, beyond the gossip one hears in the village. Any one who goes to so many of the working people's houses as I do hears it all."
He was still incredulous. "And you've heard—that?"
"I've heard that poor Jim wanted to marry her—and she wouldn't look at him. It's a pity, I think. She'd be a great deal happier in marrying a man with the same kind of ways as herself than she'd be with some one—I can only put it," she added, with a rueful smile, "in a way you don't like, Thor—than she'd be with some one of another station in life."
His heart pounded so that he could hardly trust himself to speak with the necessary coolness. "Is there any question of—of any one of another station in life?"
"N-no; only that if she is in love—and of course I'm only guessing at it—I think it's very likely to be with some one of that kind."
The statement which was thrown out with gentle indifference affected him so profoundly that had she again declared that it was not with him he could have taken it with equanimity. With whom else could it be? It wasn't with Antonio, and it wasn't with Dr. Hilary. There was the choice. Were there any other rival, he couldn't help knowing it. He had sometimes suspected—no, it was hardly enough for suspicion!—he had sometimes hoped—but it had been hardly enough for hope!—and yet sometimes, when she gave him that dim, sidelong smile or turned to him with the earnest, wide-open look in her greenish eyes, he had thought that possibly—just possibly....
He didn't know what answers he made to her further remarks. A faint memory remained with him of talking incoherently against reason, against sentiment, against time, as, with her velvety regard resting upon him sadly, he swung on his overcoat and hurried to take his leave.
He hurried because inwardly he was running away from the figure he had cut. Never had he supposed that in any one's time of need—to say nothing of hers!—he could have proved so worthless. And he hurried because he knew a decision one way or the other had become imperative. And he hurried because his failure convinced him that so long as there was a possibility that Rosie cared for him secretly he would never do anything for Lois Willoughby. Whatever his sentiment toward the woman-friend of his youth, he was tied and bound by the stress of a love of which the call was primitive. He might be over-abrupt; he might startle her; but at the worst he should escape from this unbearable state of inactivity.
So he hurried. It had stopped snowing; the evening was now fair and cold. As it was nearly six o'clock, his father would probably have come home. He would make him first an offer of new terms, and he would see Rosie afterward. His excitement was such that he knew he could neither eat nor sleep till the questions in his heart were answered.
But on reaching his own gate he was surprised to see Mrs. Willoughby's motor turn in at the driveway and roll up to the door. It was not that there was anything strange in her paying his mother a call, but to-day the circumstances were unusual. Anything might happen. Anything might have happened already. On reaching the door he let himself in with misgiving.
He recognized the visitor's voice at once, but there was a note in it he had never heard before. It was a plaintive note, and rather childlike:
"Oh, Ena, what's become of my money?"
His mother's inflections were as childlike as the other's, and as full of distress. "How do I know, Bessie? Why don't you ask Archie?"
"I have asked him. I've just come from there. I can't make out anything he says. He's been trying to tell me that we've spent it—when I know we haven't spent it."
There were tears in Ena's voice as she said: "Well, I can't explain it, Bessie. I don't know anything about business."
From where he stood, with his hand on the knob, as he closed the door behind him, Thor could see into the huge, old-fashioned, gilt-framed mirror over the chimney-piece in the drawing-room. The two women were standing, separated by a small table which supported an azalea in bloom. His stepmother, in a soft, trailing house-gown, her hands behind her back, seemed taller and slenderer than ever in contrast to Mrs. Willoughby's dumpiness, dwarfed as it was by an enormous muff and encumbering furs.
The latter drew herself up indignantly. Her tone changed. "You do know something about business, Ena. You knew enough about it to drag Len and me into what we never would have thought of doing, if you and Archie hadn't—"
"I? Why, Bessie, you must be crazy."
"I'm not crazy; though God knows it's enough to make me so. I remember everything as if it had happened this afternoon."
There was a faint scintillation in the diamonds in Ena's brooch and ear-rings as she tossed her head. "If you do that you must recall that I was afraid of it from the first."
Bessie was quick to detect the admission. "Why?" she demanded. "If you were afraid of it, why were you afraid? You weren't afraid without seeing something to be afraid of."
Mrs. Masterman nearly wept. "I don't know anything about business at all, Bessie."
"Oh, don't tell me that," Bessie broke in, fiercely. "You knew enough about it to see that Archie wanted our money in 1892."
"But I hadn't anything to do with it."
"Hadn't anything to do with it? Then who had? Who was it suggested to me that Len should go into business?—one evening?—in the Hotel de Marsan?—after dinner? Who was that?"
"If I said anything at all it was that I hated business and everything that had to do with it."
"Oh, I can understand that well enough," Bessie exclaimed, scornfully. "You hated it because you saw already that your husband was going to ruin us. Come now, Ena! Didn't you?"
Mrs. Masterman protested tearfully. "I didn't know anything about it. I only wished that Archie would let you and your money alone—and I wish it still."
"Very well, then!" Bessie cried, flinging her hands outward dramatically. "Isn't that what I'm saying? You knew something. You knew it and you let us go ahead. You not only let us go ahead, but you led us on. You could see already that Archie was spinning his web like a spider, and that he'd catch us as flies. Now didn't you? Tell the truth, Ena. Wasn't it in your mind from the first? Long before it was in his? I'll say that for Archie, that I don't suppose he really meant to ruin us, while you knew he would. That's the difference between a man and his wife. The man only drifts, but the wife sees years ahead what he's drifting to. You saw it, Ena—"
When his stepmother bowed her head to sob into her handkerchief Thor ventured to enter the room. Neither of the women noticed him.
"I must say, Ena," Bessie continued, "that seems to me frightful. I don't know what you can be made of that you've lived cheerfully through these last eighteen years when you knew what was coming. If it had been coming to yourself—well, that might be borne. But to stand by and watch for it to overtake some one else—some one who'd always been your friend—some one you liked, for I do believe you've liked me, in your way and my way—that, I must say, is the limit—cela passe les bornes. Now, doesn't it?"
Mrs. Masterman struggled to speak, but her sobs prevented her.
"In a way it's funny," Bessie continued, philosophically, "how bad a good woman can be. You're a good woman, Ena, of a kind. That is, you're good in as far as you're not bad; and I suppose that for a woman that's a very fair average. But I can tell you that there are sinners whom the world has scourged to the bone who haven't begun to do what you've been doing these past eighteen years—who wouldn't have had the nerve for it. No, Ena," she continued, with another sweeping gesture. "'Pon my soul, I don't know what you're made of. I almost think I admire you. I couldn't have done it; I'll be hanged if I could. There are women who've committed murder and who haven't been as cool as you. They've committed murder in a frantic fit of passion that went as quick as it came, and they've swung for it, or done time for it. But they'd never have had the pluck to sit and smile and wait for this minute as you've waited for it—when you saw it from such a long way off."
It was the crushed attitude in which his stepmother sank weeping into a chair that broke the spell by which Thor had been held paralyzed; but before he could speak Bessie turned and saw him.
"Oh, so it's you, Thor. Well, I wish you could have come a minute ago to hear what I've been saying."
"I've heard it, Mrs. Willoughby—"
"Then I am sure you must agree with me. Or rather, you would if you knew how things had been managed in Paris eighteen years ago. I've been trying to tell your dear stepmother that we've been mistaken in her. We haven't done her justice. We've thought of her as just a sweet and gentle ladylike person, when all the while she's been a heroine. She's been colossal—as Clytemnestra was colossal, and Lady Macbeth. She beats them both; for I don't believe either of them could have watched the sword of Damocles taking eighteen years to fall on a friend and not have had nervous prostration—while she's as fresh as ever."
He laid his hand on her arm. "You'll come away now, won't you, Mrs. Willoughby?" he begged.
She adjusted her furs hurriedly. "All right, Thor. I'll come. I only want to say one thing more—"
"No, no; please!"
"I will say it," she insisted, as he led her from the room, "because it'll do Ena good. It's just this," she threw back over her shoulder, "that I forgive you, Ena. You're so magnificent that I can't nurse a grudge against you. When a woman has done what you've done she may be punished by her own conscience—but not by me. I'm lost in admiration for the scale on which she carries out her crimes."
By the time they were in the porch, with the door closed behind them, Bessie's excitement subsided suddenly. Her voice became plaintive and childlike again, as she said, wistfully:
"Oh, Thor, do you think it's all gone?—that we sha'n't get any of it back? I know we haven't spent it. We can't have spent it."