Since Thor was Thor, there was only one thing for him to say. He needed no time to reflect or form resolutions. Whatever the cost to him, in whatever way, he could say nothing else. "You'll get it all back, Mrs. Willoughby. Don't worry about it any more. Just leave it to me."
But Bessie was not convinced. "I don't see how that's going to be. If your father says the money is gone, it is gone—whether we've spent it or not. Trust him!" Nevertheless, she kissed him, saying: "But I don't blame you, Thor. If there were two like you in the world it would be too good a place to live in, and Len and Lois think the same."
He got her into the motor and closed the door upon her. Standing on the door-step, he watched it crawl down the avenue, like a great black beetle on the snow. As it passed the gateway his father appeared, coming on foot from the electric car.
On re-entering the house, Thor waited for his father in the hall. Finding the drawing-room empty, and inferring that his mother had gone up-stairs, he decided to say nothing of the scene between her and Mrs. Willoughby. For the time being his own needs demanded right of way. Nothing else could be attended to till they had received consideration.
With that reflection something surged in him—surged and exulted. He was to be allowed to speak of his love at last! He was to be forced to confess it! If he was never to name it again, he would do so this once, getting some outlet for his passion! He both glowed and trembled. He both strained forward and recoiled. Already he felt drunk with a wine that roused the holier emotions as ardently as it fired the senses. He could scarcely take in the purport of his father's words as the latter stamped the snow from his boots in the entry and said:
"Has that poor woman been here? Sorry for her, Thor; sorry for her from the bottom of my heart."
The young man had no response to make. He was in a realm in which the reference had no meaning. Archie continued, while hanging his overcoat and hat in the closet at the foot of the stairs:
"Impossible to make her understand. Women like that can never see why they shouldn't eat their cake and have it, too. Books open for her inspection. But what's one to do?"
When he emerged from the closet Thor saw that his face was gray. He looked mortally tired and sad. He had been sad for some weeks past—sad and detached—ever since the night when he had made his ineffectual bid for the care of Thor's prospective money. He had betrayed no hint of resentment toward his son—nothing but this dignified lassitude, this reserved, high-bred, speechless expression of failure that smote Thor to the heart. But this evening he looked worn as well, worn and old, though brave and patient and able to command a weary, flickering smile.
"But I'm glad it's come. It will be a relief to have it over. Seen it coming so long that it's been like a nightmare. Rather have come to grief myself—assure you I would."
"Father, could I speak to you for a few minutes?"
"No, not about this; about something else—something rather important."
There was a sudden gleam in the father's eyes which gave Thor a second pang. He had seen it once or twice already during these weeks of partial estrangement. It was the gleam of hope—of hope that Thor might have grown repentant. It had the sparkle of fire in it when, seated in a business attitude at the desk which held the center of the library, he looked up expectantly at his son. "Well, my boy?"
Thor remained standing. "It's about that property of Fay's, father."
"Oh, again?" The light in the eyes went out with the suddenness of an electric lamp.
"I only want to say this, father," Thor hurried on, so as to get the interview over, "that if you want to sell the place, I'll take it. I'll take it on your own terms. You can make them what you like."
Archie leaned on the desk, passing his hand over his brow. "I'm sorry, Thor. I can't."
Thor had the curious reminiscent sensation of being once more a little boy, with some pleasure forbidden him. "Oh, father, why? I want it awfully."
"So I see. I don't see why you should, but—"
"Well, I'll tell you. I want to protect Fay, because—"
Masterman interrupted without looking up. "And that's just what I don't want to do. I want to get rid of the lot."
Rid of the lot! The expression was alarming. In his father's mind the issue, then, was personal. It was not only personal, but it was inclusive. It included Rosie. She was rated in—the lot. Clearly the minute had come at which to speak plainly.
"If you want to get rid of them on my account, father, I may as well tell you—"
"No; it's got nothing to do with you." He was still resting his forehead on his hand, looking downward at the blotting-paper on his desk. "It's Claude."
Thor started back. "Claude? What's he got to do with it?"
"I hadn't made up my mind whether to tell you or not; but—"
"He doesn't even know them. Of course he knows who they are. Fay was Grandpa Thorley's—"
Masterman continued to speak wearily. "He may not know them all. It's motive enough for my action that he knows—the girl."
"Oh no, he doesn't."
"You'd better ask him."
"I have asked him."
"Then you'd better ask him again."
"But, father, she couldn't know him without my seeing it. I'm at the house nearly every day. The mother, you know."
"Apparently your eyes aren't sharp enough. You should take a lesson from your uncle Sim."
"But, father, I don't understand—"
"Then I'll tell you. It seems that Claude has known this girl for the past four or five months—"
"Oh no, no! That's all wrong. It isn't three months since I talked to Claude about her. Claude didn't even remember they had a girl. He'd forgotten it."
"I know what I'm talking about, Thor. Don't contradict. Seems your uncle Sim has had his eye on them all along."
Thor smote his side with his clenched fist. "There's some mistake, father. It can't be."
"I wish there was a mistake, Thor. But there isn't. If I could afford it I should send Claude abroad. Send him round the world. But I can't just now, with this mix-up in the business. There's no doubt but that the girl is bad—"
If Masterman had been looking up he would have seen the convulsion of pain on his son's face, and got some inkling of his state of mind.
"As bad as they make 'em—" he went on, tranquilly.
"No, no, father. You mustn't say that."
"I can't help saying it, Thor. I know how you feel about Claude. You feel as I do myself. But you and I must take hold of him and save him. We must get rid of this girl—"
"But she's not bad, father—"
Masterman raised himself and leaned back in his chair. He saw that Thor was white, with curious black streaks and shadows in his long, gaunt face. "Oh, I know how you feel," he said, again. "It does seem monstrous that the thing should have happened to Claude; but, after all, he's young, and with a little tact we can pull him out. I've said nothing to your mother, and don't mean to. No use alarming her needlessly. I've not said anything to Claude, either. Only known the thing for four or five days. Don't want to make him restive, or drive him to take the bit between his teeth. High-spirited young fellow, Claude is. Needs to be dealt with tactfully. Thing will be, to cut away the ground beneath his feet without his knowing it—by getting rid of the girl."
"But I know Rosie Fay, father, and she's not—"
"Now, my dear Thor, what is a girl but bad when she's willing to meet a man clandestinely night after night—?"
"Oh, but she hasn't done it."
"And I tell you she has done it. Ever since last summer. Night after night."
"Where?" Thor demanded, hoarsely.
"In the woods above Duck Rock. Look here," the father suggested, struck with a good idea, "the next time Claude says he has an engagement to go out with Billy Cheever, why don't you follow him—?"
There was both outrage and authority in Thor's abrupt cry, "Father!"
"Oh, I know how you feel. You'd rather trust him. Well, I would myself. It's the plan I'm going on. We mustn't be too hard on him, must we? Sympathetic steering is what he wants. Fortunately we're both men of the world and can accept the situation with no Puritanical hypocrisies. He's not the first young fellow who's got into the clutches of a hussy—"
It was to keep himself from striking his father down that Thor got out of the room. For an instant he had seen red; and across the red the word parricide flashed in letters of fire. It might have been a vision. It was frightening.
Outside it was a night of dim, spirit-like radiance. The white of the earth and the violet of the sky were both spangled with lights. Low on the horizon the full moon was a glorious golden disk.
The air was sweet and cold. As he struck down the avenue, of which the snow was broken only by his own and his father's footsteps and the wheels of Bessie's car, he bared his head to cool his forehead and the hot masses of his hair. He breathed hard; he was aching; his distress was like that of being roused from a weird, appalling dream. He had not yet got control of his faculties. He scarcely knew why he had come out, except that he couldn't stay within.
On nearing the street the buzzing of an electric car reminded him that Claude was probably coming home. Instinctively he turned his steps away from meeting him, tramping up the long, white, empty stretch of County Street.
At Willoughby's Lane he turned up the hill, not for any particular purpose, but because the tramping there would be a little harder. He needed exertion. It eased the dull ache of confused inward pain. In the Willoughby house there was no light except in the hall and in Bessie's bedroom. Mother and daughter had doubtless taken refuge in the latter spot to discuss the disastrous turn of their fortunes. Ah, well! There would probably be nothing to keep him from going to their rescue now.
Probably! He clung to the faint chance offered by the word. He didn't know the real circumstances—yet. Probably his father had been accurate in his statements, even though wrong in what he had inferred. Probably Claude and Rosie had met—night after night—secretly—in the woods—in the dark. Probably! He stopped dead in his walk; he threw back his head and groaned to the violet sky; he pulled with both hands at his collar as though choking. Secretly—in the woods—in the dark! It was awful—and yet it was entrancing. If Rosie had only come to meet him like that!—in that mystery!—in that seclusion!—with that trust!—with that surrender of herself!
"How can I blame Claude?"
It was his first formulated thought. He tramped on again. How could he blame Claude? Poor Claude! He had his difficulties. No one knew that better than Thor. And if Rosie loved the boy ...
* * * * *
Below the ridge of the long, wooded hill there was a road running parallel to County Street. He turned into that. But he began to perceive to what goal he was tending. He had taken this direction aimlessly; and yet it was as if his feet had acted of their own accord, without the guiding impulse of the mind. From a long, straight stem a banner of smoke floated heavy and luminous against the softer luminosity of the sky. He knew now where he was going and what he had to do.
But he paused at the gate, when he got there, uncertain as to where at this hour he should find her. There was a faint light in the mother's room, but none elsewhere in the house. The moon was by this time high enough to throw a band of radiance across Thorley's Pond and strike pale gleams from the glass of the hothouse roofs.
It required some gazing to detect in Rosie's greenhouse the blurred glow of a lamp. He remembered that there was a desk near this spot at which she sometimes wrote. She was writing there now—perhaps to Claude.
But she was not writing to Claude; she was making out bills. As bookkeeper to the establishment, as well as utility woman in general, it was the one hour in the day when she had leisure for the task. She raised her head to peer down the long, dim aisle of flowers on hearing him open the door.
"It's I, Rosie," he called to her, as he passed between banks of carnations. "Don't be afraid."
She was not afraid, but she was excited. As a matter of fact, she was saying to herself, "He's found out." It was what she had been expecting. She had long ago begun to see that his almost daily visits were not on her mother's account. He had been coming less as a doctor than as a detective. Very well! If his detecting had been successful, so much the better. Since the battle had to be fought some time, it couldn't begin too soon.
She remained seated, her right hand holding the pen, her left lying on the open pages of the ledger. He spoke before he had fully emerged into the glow of the lamp.
"Oh, Rosie! What's this about you and Claude?"
Her little face grew hard and defiant. She was not to be deceived by this wounded, unhappy tone. "Well—what?" she asked, guardedly, looking up at him.
He stooped. His face was curiously convulsed. It frightened her. "Do you love him?"
Instinctively she took an attitude of defense, rising and pushing back her chair, to shield herself behind it. "And what if I do?"
"Then, Rosie, you should have told me."
Again the heart=broken cry seemed to her a bit of trickery to get her confidence. "Told you? How could I tell you? What should I tell you for?"
"How long have you loved him?"
Her face was set. The shifting opal lights in her eyes were the fires of her will. She would speak. She would hide nothing. Let the responsibility be on Claude. Her avowal was like that of a calamity or a crime. "I've loved him ever since I knew him."
"And how long is that?"
"It will be five months the day after to-morrow."
"Tell me, Rosie. How did it come about?"
She was still defiant. She put it briefly. "I was in the wood above Duck Rock. He came by. He spoke to me."
"And you loved him from the first?"
She nodded, with the desperate little air he had long ago learned to recognize.
"Oh, Rosie, tell me this. Do you love him—much?"
She was quite ready with her answer. It was as well the Mastermans should know. "I'd die for him."
"Would you, Rosie? And what about him?"
Her lip quivered. "Oh, men are not so ready to die for love as women are."
He leaned toward her, supporting himself with his hands on the desk. "And you are ready, Rosie! You really—would?"
She thought he looked wild. He terrified her. She shrank back into the dimness of a mass of foliage. "Oh, what do you mean? What are you asking me for? Why do you come here? Go away."
"I'll go presently, Rosie. You won't be sorry I've come. I only want you to tell me all about it. There are reasons why I want to know."
"Then why don't you ask him?" she demanded, passionately. "He's your brother."
"Because I want you to tell me the story first."
There was such tenderness in his voice that she grew reassured in spite of her alarm. "What do you want me to say?"
"I want you to say first of all that you know I'm your friend."
"You can't be my friend," she said, suspiciously, "unless you're Claude's friend, too; and Claude wouldn't own to a friend who tried to part us."
"I don't want to part you, Rosie. I want to bring you together."
The assertion was too much for credence. She was thrown back on the hypothesis of trickery. "You?"
"Yes, Rosie. Has Claude never told you that he's more to me than any one in the world, except—" He paused; he panted; he tried to keep it back, but it forced itself out in spite of his efforts—"except you." Once having said it, he repeated it: "Except you, Rosie; except—you."
Though he was still leaning toward her across the desk, his head sank. There was silence between them. It was long before Rosie, the light in her eyes concentrated to two brilliant, penetrating points, crept forward from the sheltering mass of foliage. She could hardly speak above a whisper.
He lifted his head. She noticed subconsciously that his face was no longer wild, but haggard. He spoke gently: "Except you, Rosie. You're most to me in the world."
As she bent toward him her mouth and eyes betrayed her horror at the irony of this discovery. She would rather never have known it than know it now. It was all she could do to gasp the one word, "Me?"
"I shouldn't have told you," he hurried on, apologetically, "but I couldn't help it. Besides, I want you to understand how utterly I'm your friend. I ask nothing more than to be allowed to help you and Claude in every way—"
She cried out. The thing was preposterous. "You're going to do that—now?"
"I'm your big brother, Rosie—the big brother to both of you. That's what I shall be in future. And what I've said will be a dead secret between us, won't it? I shouldn't have told you, but I couldn't help it. It was stronger than me, Rosie. Those things sometimes are. But it's a secret now, dead and buried. It's as if it hadn't been said, isn't it? And if I should marry some one else—"
This was too much. It was like the world slipping from her at the minute she had it within her grasp. The horror was not only in her eyes and mouth, but in her voice. "Are you going to marry some one else?"
"I might have to, Rosie—for a lot of reasons. It might be my duty. And now that I can't marry you—"
She uttered a sort of wail. "Oh!"
"Don't be sorry for me, Rosie dear. I can't stand it. I can stand it better if you're not sorry—"
"But I am," she cried, desperately.
"Then I must thank you—only don't be. It will make me grieve the more for saying what I never should have said. But that's a secret between us, as I said before, isn't it? And if I do marry—she'll never find it out, will she? That wouldn't do, would it, Rosie?"
His words struck her as passing all the bounds of practical common sense. They were so mad that she felt herself compelled to ask for more assurance. "Are you—in love—with—with me?" If the last syllable had been louder it would have been a scream.
"Oh, Rosie, forgive me! I shouldn't have told you. It was weak. It was wrong. I only did it to show you how you could trust me. But I should have showed you that some other way. You'd already told me how it was between you and Claude, and so it was treachery to him. But I never dreamed of trying to come between you. Believe me, I didn't. I swear to you I only want—"
She broke in, panting. She wouldn't have spoken crudely or abruptly if there had been any other way. But the chance was there. In another minute it might be too late. "Yes; but when I said that about Claude—"
She didn't know how to go on. He encouraged her. "Yes, Rosie?"
She wrung her hands. "Oh, don't you see? When I said that about Claude—I didn't—I didn't know—"
He hastened to relieve her distress. "You didn't know I cared for you?"
"No!" The word came out with another long wail.
He looked at her curiously. "But what's that got to do with it?"
Her eyes implored him piteously, while she beat the palm of one hand against the back of the other. It was terrible that he couldn't see what she meant—and the moments slipping away!
"It wouldn't have made you love Claude any the less, would it?"
She had to say something. If she didn't he would never understand. "Not love, perhaps; but—"
The sudden coldness in his voice terrified her again—but differently. "But what, Rosie?"
She cried out, as if the words rent her. "But Claude has no—money."
"And I have. Is that it?"
It was no use to deny it. She nodded dumbly. Besides, she counted on his possession of common sense, though his use of it was slow.
He raised himself from his attitude of leaning on the desk. It was his turn to take shelter amid the dark foliage behind him. He couldn't bear to let the lamplight fall too fully on his face. "Is it this, Rosie," he asked, with an air of bewilderment, "that you'd marry me because I have—the money?"
It seemed to Rosie that the question gave her reasonable cause for exasperation. She was almost sobbing as she said: "Well, I can't marry Claude without money. He can't marry me." A ray was thrown into her little soul when she gasped in addition, "And there's father and mother and Matt!"
Thor's expression lost some of its bewilderment because it deepened to sternness. "But Claude means to marry you, doesn't he?"
She cried out again, with that strange effect of the words rending her. "I don't—know."
He had a moment of wild fear lest his father had been right, after all. "You don't know? Then—what's your relation to each other?"
"I don't know that, either. Claude won't tell me." She crossed her hands on her bosom as she said, desperately, "I sometimes think he doesn't mean anything at all."
The terror of the instant passed. "Oh yes, he does, Rosie. I'll see to that."
"Do you mean that you'll make him marry me?"
He smiled pitifully. "There'll be no making, Rosie. You leave it to me."
He turned from her not merely because the last word had been spoken, but through fear lest something might be breaking within himself. On regaining the white roadway he thought he saw Jasper Fay in the shadow of the house, but he was too deeply stricken to speak to him. He went up the hill and farther from the village. It was not yet eight o'clock, but time had ceased to have measurement. He went up the hill to be alone in that solitude which was all that for the moment he could endure. He climbed higher than the houses and the snow-covered gardens; his back was toward the moon and the glow above the city. The prospect of reaching the summit gave something for his strong body to strain forward to.
The ridge, when he got to it, was treeless, wind-swept, and moon-swept. It was a great white altar, victimless and bare. He felt devastated, weak. It was a relief, bodily and mental, to sink to his knees—to fall—to lie at his length. He pressed his hot face into the cool, consoling whiteness, as a man might let himself weep on a pillow. His arms were outstretched beyond his head. His fingers pierced beneath the snow till they touched the tender, nestling mosses. All round him there was silveriness and silence, and overhead the moon.
Descending the hill, Thor saw a light in his uncle Sim's stable, and knew that Delia was being settled for the night. Uncle Sim still lived in the ramshackle house to which his father—old Dr. Masterman, as elderly people in the village called him—had taken his young wife, who had been Miss Lucy Dawes. In this house both Sim and Archie Masterman were born. It was the plainest of dwellings, painted by wind and weather to a dovelike silver-gray. Here lived Uncle Sim, cared for in the domestic sense by a lady somewhat older and more eccentric than himself, known to the younger Mastermans as Cousin Amy Dawes.
Thor avoided the house and Cousin Amy Dawes, going directly to the stable. By the time he had reached the door Uncle Sim was shutting it. In the light of a lantern standing in the snow the naked elms round about loomed weirdly. The greetings were brief.
"Hello, Uncle Sim!"
Thor made an effort to reduce the emotional tremor of his voice to the required minimum. "Father's been telling me about Claude and Rosie Fay."
Uncle Sim turned the key in the lock with a loud grating. "Father had to do it, did he? Thought you might have caught on to that by yourself. One of the reasons I sent you into the Fay family."
"Did you know it then?—already?"
"Didn't know it. Couldn't help putting two and two together."
"You see everything, Uncle Sim."
Uncle Sim stooped to pick up the lantern. "See everything that's under my nose. Thought you could, too."
"This hasn't been under my nose."
"Oh, well! There are noses and noses. A donkey has one kind and a dog has another."
Thor was not a finished actor, but he was doing his best to play a part. "Well, what do you think now?"
"What do I think now? I don't think anything—about other people's business."
"I think we ought to do something," Thor declared, with energy.
"All right. Every one to his mind. Only it's great fun to let other people settle their own affairs."
"Settle their own affairs—and suffer."
"Yes, and suffer. Suffering doesn't hurt any one."
"Do you mean to say, Uncle Sim, that I should sit still and do nothing while the people I care for most in the world are in all sorts of trouble that I could get them out of?"
"That little baggage, Rosie Fay, isn't one of the people you care for most in the world, I presume?"
Thor knew that with Uncle Sim's perspicacity this might be a leading question, but he made the answer he considered the most diplomatic in the circumstances. "She is if—if Claude is in love with her. But—but why do you call her that, Uncle Sim?"
"Because she's a little witch. Most determined little piece I know. Hard working; lots of pluck; industrious as the devil. Whole soul set on attaining her ends."
Thor considered it prudent to return to the point from which he had been diverted. "Well, if the people I care for most are in trouble that I can get them out of—"
"Oh, if you can get them out of it—"
"Well, I can."
"Then that's all right. Only the case must be rather rare. Haven't often seen the attempt made except with one result—not that of getting people out of trouble, but of getting oneself in. But every one to his taste, Thor. Wouldn't stop you for the world. Only advise you not to be in a hurry."
"There's no question of being in a hurry when things have to be done now."
"All right, Thor. You know better than I. I'm one of those slowpokes who look on the fancy for taking a hand in other people's affairs as I do on the taste for committing suicide—there's always time. If you don't do it to-day, you can to-morrow—which is a reason for putting it off, ain't it?"
There was more than impatience in Thor's protest as he cried, "But how can you put it off when there's some one—some one who's—who's unhappy?"
"I see. Comes back to that. But I don't mind some one's being unhappy. Don't care a tuppenny damn. Do 'em good. I've seen more people unhappy than I could tell you about in a year; and nine out of ten were made men and women by it who before that had been only rags."
"I'm afraid I can't accept that cheerful doctrine, Uncle Sim—"
"All right, Thor. Don't want you to. Wouldn't interfere with you any more than with any one else. Free country. Got your own row to hoe. If you make yourself miserable in the process, why, it'll do you as much good as it does all the rest. Nothing like it. Wouldn't save you from it for anything. But there's a verse of an old song that you might turn over in your mind—old song written about two or three thousand years ago: 'Oh, tarry thou the Lord's leisure—'"
Thor tossed his head impatiently. "Oh, pshaw!"
"But it goes on: 'And be strong.' You can be awful strong when you're tarrying the Lord's leisure, Thor, because then you know you're not making any damn-fool mistakes."
Thor spoke up proudly: "I'd rather make mistakes—than do nothing."
"That's all right, Thor; splendid spirit. Don't disapprove of it a mite. Go ahead. Make mistakes. It'll be live and learn. Not the least afraid. I've often noticed that when young fellows of your sort prefer their own haste to the Lord's leisure there's a Lord's haste that hurries on before 'em, so as to be all ready to meet 'em when they come a cropper in the ditch."
Thor turned away sharply. "I guess I'll beat it, Uncle Sim."
The old man, swinging his lantern, shambled along by his nephew's side, as the latter made for the road again. "Oh, I ain't trying to hold you back, Thor. Now, am I? On the contrary, I say, go ahead. Rush in where angels fear to tread; and if you don't do anything else you'll carry the angels along with you. You may make an awful fool of yourself, Thor—but you'll be on the side of the angels and the angels'll be on yours."
* * * * *
Though dinner was over by the time Thor reached home, his stepmother sat with him while he ate it. It was a new departure for her. Thor could not remember that she had ever done anything of the sort before. She sat with him and served him, asking no questions as to why he was late. She seemed to divine a trouble on his part beyond her power to console, and for which the only sympathy she dared to express was that of small kindly acts. He understood this and was grateful.
He found her society soothing. This, too, surprised him. He felt so battered and sore that the mere presence of one who approached him from an affectionate impulse had the effect on him of a gentle hand. Never before in his life had he been conscious of woman's genius for comforting, possibly because never before in his life had he needed comfort to the same degree.
No reference was made by his stepmother or himself to the scene with Mrs. Willoughby in the afternoon, but it was not hard for him to perceive that in some strange way it was stirring the victim of it to newness of life. It was not that she admitted the application of Bessie's charges to herself; they only startled her to the knowledge that there were heights and depths in human existence such as her imagination had never plumbed. Her nature was making a feeble effort to expand, as the petals of a bud that has been kept hard and compact by a backward spring may unfold to the heat of summer.
When he had finished his hasty meal, Thor rose and kissed her, saying, "Thank you, mumphy," using the pet name that had not been on his lips since childhood. She drew his face downward with a sudden sob, a sob quite inexplicable except on the ground that her poor, withered, strangled little soul was at last trying to live.
* * * * *
Having gone up-stairs to his room, Thor shut the door and bolted it in his desire for solitude. He changed his coat and kicked off his boots. When he had lighted a pipe he threw himself on the old sofa which had done duty as couch at the foot of his bed ever since he was a boy. It was the attitude in which he had always been best able to "think things out."
Now that he had eaten a sufficient dinner, he felt physically less bruised, though mentally there was more to torture him. He regretted having seen Uncle Sim. He hated the alternative of letting things alone. There was a sense in which action would have been an anodyne to suffering, and had it not been for Uncle Sim he would have had no scruple in making use of it.
It was all very well to talk of letting people settle their own affairs; but how could they settle them, in these particular cases, without his intervention? As far as power went he was like a fairy prince who had only to wave a wand to see the whole scene transfigured. If he hadn't asked Uncle Sim's advice he would be already waving it, instead of lolling on his back, with his right foot poised over his left knee and dangling a heelless slipper in the air. He felt shame at the very attitude of idleness.
True, there were the two distinct lines of action—that of making a number of people happy now, and that of holding back that they might fight their own battles. By fighting their own battles they might emerge from the conflict the stronger—after forty or fifty years! Those who were unlikely to live so long—Len and Bessie Willoughby, for example—would probably go down rebelling and protesting to their graves. But Claude and Rosie and Lois might all grow morally the stronger. There was that possibility. It was plain. Claude and Rosie might marry on the former's fifteen hundred dollars a year, have children, and bring them up in poverty as model citizens; but whatever the high triumph of their middle age, Thor shrank from the thought of the interval for both. And Lois, too, might live down grief, disappointment, small means, and loneliness; might become hardened and toughened and beaten to endurance, and grow to be the best and bravest and kindest old maid in the world. Uncle Sim would probably consider that in these noble achievements the game would be worth the candle; but he, Thor Masterman, didn't. The more he developed the possibilities of this future for every one concerned, himself included, the more he loathed it.
It was past eleven before he reached the point of loathing at which he was convinced that action should begin; but once he reached it, he bounded to his feet. He felt wonderfully free and vigorous. If certain details could be settled there and then—he couldn't wait till the morrow—he thought that, in spite of everything, he should sleep.
He had heard Claude go to his room, which was on the same floor as his own, an hour earlier. Claude was probably by this time in bed and asleep, but the elder brother couldn't hesitate for that. Within less than a minute he had crossed the passage, entered Claude's bedroom, and turned on the electric light.
Claude's profile sunk into the middle of the pillow might have been carved in ivory. His dark wavy hair fell back picturesquely from temple and brow. Under the coverings his slim form made a light, graceful line.
The room was at once dainty and severe. A striped paper, brightened by a design of garlands, knots, and flowers a la Marie Antoinette, made a background for white furniture in the style of Louis XVI., modern and inexpensive, but carefully selected by Mrs. Masterman. The walls were further lightened by colored reprints of old French scenes, discreetly amorous, collected by Claude himself.
Thor stood for some seconds in front of the bed before the brother opened his eyes. More seconds passed while the younger gazed up at the elder. "What the dev—!" Claude began, sleepily.
But Thor broke in, promptly, "Claude, why didn't you ever tell me you knew Rosie Fay?"
Claude closed his eyes again. The expected had happened. Like Rosie, he resolved to meet the moment cautiously, creating no more opposition than he could help. "Why should I?" he parried, without hostility.
"Because I asked you, for one thing."
He opened his eyes. "When did you ever ask me?"
"At the bank; one day when I found you there. It must have been two months ago."
Claude stirred slightly under the bedclothes. "Oh, then."
"Yes, then. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't see how I could. What good would it have done, anyhow?"
It was on Thor's tongue to say, "It would have done the good of not telling lies," but he suppressed that. One of his objects was to be conciliating. He had other objects, which he believed would be best served by taking a small chair and sitting on it astride, close to Claude's bed. An easy, fraternal air was maintained by the effect of the pipe still hanging by its curved stem from the corner of his mouth. He began to think highly of himself as a comedian.
"I wish you had told me," he said, quietly, "because I could have helped you."
Claude lay still. His eyes grew brilliant. "Helped me—how?"
"Helped you in whatever it is you're trying to do." He added, with significance, "You are trying to do something, aren't you?"
Claude endeavored to gain time by saying, "Trying to do what?"
"You're—" Thor hesitated, but dashed in. "You're in love with her?"
It was still to gain time that Claude replied, "What do you think?"
Thor's heart bounded with a great hope. Perhaps Claude was not in love with her. He had not been noticeably moved as yet. In that case it might be possible—barely possible—that after Rosie had outlived her disappointment there might be a chance that he.... But he dared not speculate. Mustering everything that was histrionic within him, he said, with the art that conceals art, "I think you are—decidedly."
Claude rolled partly over in bed. "That's about it."
The confession was as full as one brother could expect from another. Thor's heart sank again. He managed, however, to keep on the high plane of art as he brought out the words, "And what about her?"
Again Claude's avowal was as ardent as the actual conditions called for. "Oh, I guess she's all right."
Claude rolled back toward his brother, raising his head slightly from the pillow. "Well—what now?"
"You're going to be married, I suppose?"
Claude lifted himself on his elbow. "Married on fifteen hundred a year?" He went on, before Thor could say anything, "If there was nothing else to consider!"
Thor felt stirrings of hope again. "Then, if you're not going to be married, what do you mean?"
"What do I mean? What can I mean?"
"Oh, come, Claude! You're not a boy any longer. You know perfectly well that a man of honor—with your traditions—can't trifle with a girl like that—or break her heart—or—or ruin her."
"I'm not doing any of the three. She knows I'm not. She knows I'm only in the same box she's in herself."
"That is, you're both in love, without seeing how you're going to—"
Claude lurched forward in the bed. "Look here, Thor; if you want to know, it's this. I've tried to leave the girl alone—and I can't. I'm worse than a damn fool; I'm every sort of a hound. I can't marry her, and I can't give her up. When I haven't seen her for a week, I'm frantic; and when I do see her I swear to God I'll never see her again. So now you know."
Claude threw himself back again on the pillows, but Thor went on, quietly: "Why do you swear to God you'll never see her again?"
"Because I'm killing her. That is, I should be killing her if she wasn't the bravest little brick on earth. You don't know her, Thor. You've seen her, and you know she's pretty; but you don't know that she's as plucky as they make 'em—pluckier."
Thor answered, wearily, "I've rather guessed that, which is one of the reasons why I feel you should be true to her."
"I am true to her—truer than I ought to be. If I was less true it would be better for us both. She'd get over it—"
Again Thor was aware of an up-leaping hope. "And you, too?"
"Oh, I suppose so—in time."
"Yes, but you'd suffer."
Claude gave another lurch forward in the bed. "I couldn't suffer worse than I'm suffering now, knowing I'm an infernal cad—and not seeing how to be anything else."
"But you wouldn't be an infernal cad if you married her."
The young man flung himself about the bed impatiently. "Oh, what's the use of talking?"
"If she had money you could marry her all right."
"Ah, go to the devil, Thor!" The tone was one of utter exasperation.
Thor persisted. "If she had, let us say, four or five thousand dollars a year of her own—"
Claude stretched his person half-way out of bed. "I said—go to the devil!"
"Well, she has."
"Four or five thousand dollars a year of her own. That is, she will have it, if you and she get married."
"Say, Thor, have you got the jimjams?"
"I'm speaking quite seriously, Claude. I've always intended to do something to help you out when I got hold of Grandpa Thorley's money; and, if you like, I'll do it that way."
"Do it what way?"
"The way I say. If you and Rosie get married, she shall have five thousand a year of her own."
The younger brother looked at the elder curiously. It was a long minute before he spoke. "If it's to help me out, why don't I have it? I'm your brother. I should think I'd be the one."
"Because I'd rather do it that way. It would be a means of evening things up. It would make her more like your equal. You know as well as I do that father and mother will kick like blazes; but if Rosie has money—"
"If Rosie has money they'll know she gets it from somewhere. They won't think it comes down to her out of heaven."
"They can think what they like. They needn't know that I have anything to do with it. They know you haven't got five thousand a year, and if she has—why, there'll be the solid cash to convince them. The whole thing will be a pill for them; but if it's gilded—"
Claude's knees were drawn up in the bed, his hands clasped about them. Thor noticed the strangeness of his expression, but he was unprepared for his words when they came out. "Say, Thor, you're not in love with her yourself, are you?"
Owing to what he believed to be the perfection of his acting, it was the question Thor had least expected to be called on to answer. He knew he was turning white or green, and that his smile when he forced it was nothing but a ghastly movement of the mouth. It was his turn to gain time, but he could think of nothing more forcible than, "What makes you ask me that?"
"Because it looks so funny—so damned funny."
"There's nothing funny in my trying to give a lift to my own brother, is there?"
"N-no; perhaps not. But, see here, Thor—" He leaned forward. "You're not in love with her, are you?"
Thor knew the supreme moment of his life had come, that he should never reach another like it. It was within his power to seize the cup and drain it—or thrust it aside. Of all temptations he had ever had to meet none had been so strong as this. It was the stronger for his knowing that if it was conquered now it would probably never return. He would have put himself beyond reach of its returning. That in itself appalled him. There was some joy in feeling the temptation there, as a thing to be dallied with. He dallied with it now. He dallied with it to the extent of saying, with a smile he tried to temper to playfulness:
"Well, what if I was in love with her?"
Something about Claude leaped into flame. "Then I wouldn't touch a cent of your money. I wouldn't let her touch it. I wouldn't let her look at it. I'd marry her on my own—I'll be hanged if I wouldn't. I'd marry her to-morrow. I'd get out of bed and marry her to-night. I'd—"
Thor forced his smile to a tenderer playfulness, sitting calmly astride of his chair, his left arm along the back, his right hand holding his pipe by the bowl. "So you wouldn't let me have her?"
Claude lashed across the bed. "I'd see you hanged first. I'd see you damned. I'd see you damned to hell. She's mine, I tell you. I'm not going to give her up to any one—and to you least of all. Do you get that? Now you know."
"All right, Claude. Now I know."
"Yes, but I don't know." Claude wriggled to the side of the bed, drawing as near to his brother as he could without getting out. "I don't know. I've asked you a question, and you haven't answered it. And, by God! you've got to answer it. Sooner than let any one else get her, I'll marry her and starve. Now speak."
Thor got up heavily. He had the feeling with which the ancients submitted when they stood soberly and affirmed that it was useless to struggle against Fate. Fate was upon him. He saw it now. He had tried to elude her, but she had got him where he couldn't move. She asserted herself again when Claude, hanging half out of bed, his mouth feverish, his eyes burning, insisted, imperiously, "Say, you—speak!"
Thor spoke. He spoke from the middle of the floor, his pipe still in his hand. He spoke without premeditation, as though but uttering the words that Destiny had put into his mouth from all eternity.
"It's all right, Claude. Calm down. I'm—I'm going to be married to Lois Willoughby."
But Claude was not yet convinced. "When?"
"Just as soon as we can fix things up after the tenth of next month—after I get the money."
"How long has that been settled?" Claude demanded, with lingering suspicion.
"It's been settled for years, as far as I'm concerned. I can hardly remember the time when I didn't intend—just what I'm going to do."
Claude let himself drop back again among the pillows.
"So now it's all right, isn't it?" Thor continued, making a move toward the door. "It'll be Lois and I—and you and Rosie. And the money will go to Rosie. I insist on that. It'll even things up. Five thousand a year. Perhaps more. We'll see."
He looked back from the door, but Claude, after his excitement, was lying white and silent, his eyes closed, his profile upturned. Thor was swept by compunction. It had always been part of the family tradition to respect Claude's high-strung nerves. Nothing did him more harm than to be thwarted or stirred up. With a murmured good-night Thor turned out the light, opening and closing the door softly.
But in the passage he heard the pad of bare feet behind him. Claude stood there in his pajamas.
"Say, Thor," he whispered, hoarsely, "you're top-hole—'pon my soul you are." He caught his brother's hand, pulling it rather than shaking it, like a boy tugging at a bell-rope. "You're a top-hole brother, Thor," he repeated, nervously, "and I'm a beast. I know you don't care anything about Rosie. Of course you don't. But I've got the jumps. I've been through such a lot during the months I've been meeting her that I'm on springs. But with you to back me up—"
"I'll back you up all right, Claude. Just wade in and get married—and I guess our team will hold its own against all comers. Lois will be with us. She's fond of Rosie—"
With another tug at his brother's arm, and more inarticulate thanks, Claude darted back to his room again.
Thor closed his own door and locked it behind him. He was too far spent for more emotion. He had hardly the energy to throw off his clothes and turn out the light. Within five minutes of his final assurance to Claude he was sleeping profoundly.
Having slept soundly till after eight in the morning, Thor woke with an odd sense of pleasure. On regaining his faculties he was able to analyze it as the pleasure he had experienced in having Claude tugging at his arm. It meant that Claude was happy, and, Claude being happy, Rosie would be happy. Claude and Rosie were taken care of.
Consequently Lois would be taken care of. Thor turned the idiom over with a vast content. It was the tune to which he bathed and dressed. They would all three be taken care of. Those who were taken care of were as folded sheep. His mind could be at rest concerning them. It was something to have the mind at rest even at the cost of heartache.
There was, of course, one intention that before all others must be carried out. He would have to clinch the statement he had made, for the sake of appeasing and convincing Claude, concerning Lois Willoughby. It was something to be signed and sealed before Claude could see her or betray the daring assertion to his parents. Fortunately, the younger brother's duties at the bank would deprive him of any such opportunity earlier than nightfall, so that Thor himself was free for the regular tasks of the day. He kept, therefore, his office hours during the forenoon, and visited his few patients after a hasty luncheon. There was one patient whom he omitted—whom he would leave henceforth to Dr. Hilary.
It was but little after four when he arrived at the house at the corner of Willoughby's Lane and County Street. Mrs. Willoughby met him in the hall, across which she happened to be bustling. She wore an apron, and struck him as curiously business-like. As he had never before seen her share in household tasks, her present aspect seemed to denote a change of heart.
"Oh, come in, Thor," she said, briskly. "I'm glad you've come. Go up and see poor Len. He's so depressed. You'll cheer him."
If there was a forced note in her bravery he did not perceive it. "I'm glad to see you're not depressed," he observed as he took off his overcoat.
She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm going to die game."
"That there's fight in me yet."
"Fight?" His brows went up anxiously.
"Oh, not with your father. You needn't be afraid of that. Besides, I see well enough it would be no use. If he says we've spent our money, he's got everything fixed to make it look so, whether we've spent it or not. No, I'm not going to spare him because he's your father. I'm going to say what I think, and if you don't like it you can lump it. I sha'n't go to law. I'd get the worst of it if I did. But neither shall I be bottled up. So there!"
"It doesn't matter what you say to me—" Thor began, with significant stress on the ultimate word.
"It may not matter what I say to you, but I can tell you it will matter what I say to other people."
Thor took no notice of that. "And if you're not going to law, would it be indiscreet to ask what you are going to do?"
Bessie forced the note of bravery again, with a flash in her little eyes. "I'm going to live on my income; that's what I'm going to do. Thank the Lord I've some money left. I didn't let Archie Masterman get his hands on all of it—not me. I've got some money left, and we've got this house. I'm going to let it. I'm going to let it to-morrow if I get the chance. I'm getting it ready now. And then we're going abroad. Oh, I know lots of places where we can live—petits trous pas chers; dear little places, too—where Len'll have a chance to—to get better."
Thor made a big resolution. "If you're going to let the house, why not let it to me?"
She knew what was coming, but it made her feel faint. Backing to one of the Regency chairs, she sank into it. It was in mere pretense that she said, "What do you want it for?"
"I want it because I want to marry Lois." He added, with an anxiety that sprang of his declaration to Claude, "Do you think she'll take me?"
Bessie spoke with conviction. "She'll take you unless she's more of a fool than I think. Of course she'll take you. Any woman in her senses would jump at you. I know I would." She dashed away a tear. "But look here, Thor," she hurried on, "if you marry Lois you won't have the whole family on your back, you know. You won't be marrying Len and me. I tell you right now because you're the sort that'll think he ought to do it. Well, you won't have to. I mean what I say when I tell you we're going to live on our income—what's left of it. We can, and we will, and we're going to."
"Couldn't we talk about all that when—?"
"When you're married to Lois and have more of a right to speak? No. We'll talk about it now—and never any more. Len and I are going to have plenty—plenty. If you think I can't manage—well, you'll see."
"Oh, I know you've got lots of pluck, Mrs. Willoughby—"
She sprang to her feet. With her hands thrust jauntily into the pockets of her apron, she looked like some poor little soubrette, grown middle-aged, stout, and rather grotesque, in a Marivaux play. She acted her part well. "Pluck? Oh, I've got more than that. I've got some ability. If you never knew it before, you'll see it now. I've spent a lot; but then I've had a lot—or thought I had; and now that I'm going to have little—well, I'll show you I can cut my coat according to my cloth as well as the next one."
"I don't doubt that in the least, and yet—"
"And yet you want us to have all our money back. Oh, I know what you meant yesterday afternoon. I didn't see it at the time—I had so many things to think of; but I caught on to it as soon as I got home. We should get it back, because you'd give it to us. Well, you won't. You can marry Lois, if she'll marry you—and I hope to the Lord she won't be such a goose as to refuse you!—and you can take the house off our hands; but more than that you won't be able to do, not if you were Thor Masterman ten times over."
He smiled. "I shouldn't like to be that. Once is bad enough."
Her little eyes shone tearily. "All the same, I like you for it. I do believe that if you hadn't said it I should have gone to law. I certainly meant to; but when I saw how nice you were—" Dashing away another tear, she changed her tone suddenly. "Tell me. What did your mother say after I left yesterday?"
Thor informed her that to the best of his knowledge she hadn't said anything.
Bessie chuckled. "I didn't leave her much to say, did I? Well, I'm glad to have had the opportunity of talking it out with her."
"You certainly talked it out—if that's the word."
"Yes, didn't I? And now, I suppose, she's mad."
Thor was unable to affirm as much as this. In fact, the conversation, since Mrs. Willoughby liked to apply that term to the encounter, had induced in his stepmother, as far as he could see, a somewhat superior frame of mind.
"Well, I hope it'll do her as much good as it did me," Bessie sighed, devoutly; "and now that I've let off steam I'll go 'round and make it up. Now go and see Len. He'll want to talk to you."
Thor intimated that he would be glad of a minute with Lois, to which Mrs. Willoughby replied that Lois was having one of her fits of bird-craze. She was in the kitchen at that minute getting suet with which to go up into the woods and feed the chickadees. Good Lord! there had been chickadees since the world began, and they had lived through the winter somehow. Bessie had no patience with what she called "nature-fads," but it was as easy to talk sense into a chickadee itself as to keep Lois from going into the woods with two or three pounds of suet after every snow-storm. She undertook, however, to delay her daughter's departure on this errand till warning had been given to Thor.
Up-stairs Thor found Len sitting in his big arm-chair, clad in a gorgeous dressing-gown. He was idle, stupefied, and woebegone. With his bushy, snow-white hair and beard, his puffy cheeks, his sagging mouth, and his clumsy bulk he produced an effect half spectral and half fleshly, but quite pathetically ludicrous. His hand trembled violently as he held it toward his visitor.
"Not well to-day, Thor," he complained. "Ought to be back in bed. Any other man wouldn't have got up. Always had too much energy. Awful blow, Thor, awful blow. Never could have believed it of your father. But I'm not downed yet. Go to work and make another fortune. That's what I'll do."
Thor sympathized with his friend's intentions, and, having slipped down-stairs again, found Lois in the hall, a basket containing a varied assortment of bird-foods on her arm.
When she had given him permission to accompany her, they took their way up Willoughby's Lane, whence it was possible to pass into the woodland stretches of the hillside. The day was clear and cold, with just enough wind to wake the aeolian harp of the forest into sound. Once in the woods, they advanced warily. "Listen to the red-polls," Lois whispered.
She paused, leaning forward, her face alight. There was nothing visible; but a low, continuous warble, interspersed with a sort of liquid rattle, struck the ear. Taking a bunch of millet stalks from her basket, she directed Thor while he tied them to the bough of a birch that trailed its lower branches to the snow. When they had gone forward they perceived, on looking around, that some dozen or twenty of the crimson-headed birds had found their food.
So they went on, scattering seeds or crumbs in sheltered spots, and fixing masses of suet in conspicuous places, to an approving chirrup of dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee, from friendly little throats. The basket was almost emptied by the time they reached the outskirts of the wood and neared the top of the hill.
Lois was fastening the last bunch of millet stalks to a branch hanging just above her head. Thor stood behind her, holding the basket, and noticing, as he had often noticed before, the slim shapeliness of her hands. In spite of the cold, they were bare, the fur of the cuffs falling back sufficiently to display the exquisitely formed wrists.
"Lois, when can we be married?"
She gave no sign of having heard him, unless it was that her hands stopped for an instant in the deft rapidity of their task. Within a few seconds they had resumed their work, though, it seemed to him, with less sureness in the supple movement of the fingers. Beyond the upturned collar of her coat he saw the stealing of a warm, slow flush.
He was moved, he hardly knew how. He hardly knew how, except that it was with an emotion different from that which Rosie Fay had always roused in him. In that case the impulse was primarily physical. He couldn't have said what it was primarily in this. It was perhaps mental, or spiritual, or only sympathetic. But it was an emotion. He was sure of that, though he was less sure that it had the nature of love. As for love, since yesterday the word sickened him. Its association had become, for the present, at any rate, both sacred and appalling. He couldn't have used it, even if he had been more positive concerning the blends that made up his present sentiment.
It was to postpone as long as possible the moment for turning around that Lois worked unnecessarily at the fastening of her millet stalks. They were not yet secured to her satisfaction when, urged by a sudden impulse, he bent forward and kissed her wrist. She allowed him to do this without protest, while she knotted the ends of her string; but she was obliged to turn at last.
"I didn't know you wanted to be married," she said, with shy frankness.
He responded as simply as she. "But now that you do know it—how soon can it be?"
"Why are you asking me?" Before he had time to reply she went on, "Is it because papa has got into trouble?"
He was ready with his answer. "It's because he's got into trouble that I'm asking you to-day; but I've been meaning to ask you for years and years."
She uttered something like a little cry. "Oh, Thor, is that true?"
The fact that he must make so many reservations impelled him to be the more ardent in what he could affirm without putting a strain on his conscience. "I can swear it to you, Lois, if you want me to. It began as long ago as when I was a youngster and you were a little girl."
She clasped her hands tightly. "Oh, Thor!"
"Since that time there hasn't been a—" He was going to say a day, but he made a rapid correction—"there hasn't been a year when I haven't looked forward to your being my wife." He allowed a few seconds to pass before adding, "I should think you'd have seen it."
She answered as well as a joyous distress would let her. "I did see it, Thor—or thought I did—for a while. Only latterly—"
"You mustn't judge by—latterly," he broke in, hastily. "Latterly I've had a good deal to go through."
"Oh, you poor Thor! Tell me about it."
Nothing would have eased his heart more effectively than to have poured out to her the whole flood of his confidence. It was what he was accustomed to doing when in her company. He could talk to her with more open heart than he had ever been able to talk to any one. It would have been a relief to tell her the whole story of Rosie Fay; and if he refrained from taking this course, it was only because he reminded himself that it wouldn't "do." It obviously wouldn't "do." He was unable to say why it wouldn't "do" except on the general ground that there were things a man had better keep to himself. He curbed, therefore, his impulse toward frankness to say:
"I can't—because there are things I shall never be able to talk about. If I could speak of them to any one it would be to you."
She looked at him anxiously. "It's nothing that I have to do with, is it?"
"Only in as far as you have to do with everything that concerns me."
Tears in her eyes could not keep her face from growing radiant. "Oh, Thor, how can I believe it?"
"It's true, Lois. I can hardly go back to the time when, in my own mind, it hasn't been true."
"But I'm not worthy of it," she said, half tearfully.
"I hope it isn't a question of worthiness on the one side or the other. It's just a matter of—of our belonging together."
It was not in doubt, but with imploring looks of happiness, that she said, "Oh, are you sure we do?"
He was glad she could accept his formula. It not only simplified matters, but enabled him to be sincere. The fact that in his own way he was quite sincere rendered him the more grateful to her for not forcing him, or trying to force him, to express himself insincerely. It was almost as if she divined his state of mind.
"Words aren't of much use between us," he declared, in his appreciation of this attitude on her part. "We're more or less independent of them, don't you think?"
She nodded her approval of this sentiment as her eyes followed the action of her fingers in buttoning her gloves.
"But I'll tell you what I feel as exactly as I can put it," he went on. "It's that you're essential to me, and I'm essential to you. At least," he subjoined, humbly, "I hope I'm essential to you."
She nodded again, her face averted, her eyes still following the movements of her fingers at her wrist.
"I can't express it in language very different from that," he stammered, "because—well, because I'm not—not very happy; and the chief thing I feel about you is that you're a kind of—of shelter."
He had found the word that explained his state of mind. It was as a shelter that he was seeking her. If there were points of view from which his object was to protect her, there were others from which he needed protection for himself. In desiring her as his wife he was, as it were, fleeing to a refuge. He did desire her as his wife, even though but yesterday he had more violently desired Rosie Fay. The violence was perhaps the secret of his reaction—not that it was reaction so much as the turning of his footsteps toward home. He was homing to her. He was homing to her by an instinct beyond his skill to analyze, though he knew it to be as straight and sure as that of the pigeon to the cote.
There was a silence following his use of the word shelter—a silence in which she seemed to envelop him with her deep, luminous regard. The still, remote beauty of the winter woods, the notes of friendly birds, the sweet, wild music of the wind in the tree-tops, accompanied that look, as mystery and incense and organ harmonies go with benedictions.
"Oh, Thor, you're wonderful!" was all she could say, when words came to her. "You make me feel as if I could be of some use in the world. What's more wonderful still, you make me feel as if I had been of use all these years when I've felt so useless."
It was in the stress of the sensation of having wandered into far, exotic regions in which his feet could only stray that he said, simply, "You're home to me."
She was so near to bursting into tears that she turned from him sharply and walked up the hill. He followed slowly, swinging the empty basket. Her buoyant step on the snow, over which the frost had drawn the thinnest of shining crusts, gave a nymphlike smoothness to her motion.
Having reached the treeless ridge, she emerged on that high altar on which, not twenty-four hours earlier, he had sunk face downward in the snow. The snow had drifted again over his footprints and the mark of his form. It was drifting still, in little powdery whirls, across a surface that caught tints of crimson and glints of fire from an angry sunset. It was windy here. As she stood above him, facing the north, her figure poised against a glowering sky, her garments blew backward. Even when he reached her and was standing by her side, she continued to gaze outward across the undulating, snow-covered country, in the folds of which an occasional farm-house lamp shone like a pale twilight star.
"You see, it's this way," he pursued, as though there had been no interruption. "When I'm with you I seem to get back to my natural conditions—the conditions in which I can live and work. That's what I mean by your being home to me. Other places"—he ventured this much of the confession he had at heart—"other places have their temptations; but it's only at home that one lives."
He took courage to go on from the way in which her gloved hand stole into his. "I dare say you think I talk too much about work; but, after all, we can't forget that we live in a country in the making, can we? In a way, it's a world in the making. There's everything to do—and I want to be doing some of it, Lois," he declared, with a little outburst. "I can't help it. I know some people think I'm an enthusiast, and others put me down as a prig—but I can't help it."
"I know you can't, Thor, and I can't tell you how much I—I"—she felt for the right word—"I admire it."
He turned to her eagerly. "You're the only one, Lois, who knows what I mean—who can speak my language. You want to be useful, too."
"And I never have been."
"Nor I. I've known that things were to be done; but I haven't known how to set about them, or where to begin. Don't you think we may be able to find the way together?"
She seemed suddenly to cling to him. "Oh, Thor, if you'd only make me half as good as you are!"
Perhaps the ardor with which he seized her was the unspent force of the longing roused in him by Rosie. Perhaps it blazed up in him merely because she was a woman. For two or three days now his need of the feminine had been acute. Did she minister to that? or did she bring him something that could be offered by but one woman in the world? He couldn't tell. He only knew that he had her in his arms, with his lips on hers, and that he was content. He was content, with a sense of fulfilment and appeasement. It was as if he had been straining for a great prize and won the second—but at a moment when he had expected none at all. There was happiness in it, even if it was a quieter, staider happiness than that of which he now knew himself to be capable.
"You're home to me, Lois," he murmured as he held her. "You're home to me."
He meant that though there were strange, entrancing Edens on which he had not been allowed to enter, there was, nevertheless, a vast peace of mind to be found at the restful, friendly fireside.
"And you're the whole wide world to me, Thor," she whispered, clasping her arms about his neck and drawing his face nearer.
On leaving Lois and returning homeward, Thor met his brother at the entrance to the avenue. They had not spoken since the preceding night. On purpose to avoid a meeting, Claude had breakfasted early and escaped to town before Thor had come down-stairs. In the glimpse Thor had caught of his younger brother as the latter left the house he saw that he looked white and worried.
He looked white and worried still under the glare of street electricity. As they walked up the driveway together Thor took the opportunity to put himself right in the matter that lay most urgently on his mind. "Lois and I are to be married on one of the last days of February," he said, with his best attempt to speak casually. "She wants to work it in before Lent, which begins on the first day of March. Have scruples about marrying in Lent in their church. Quiet affair. No one but the two families."
Claude asked the question as to which he felt most curiosity. "Going to tell father?"
"To-night. No use shilly-shallying about things of that sort. Father mayn't like it; but he can't kick."
Claude spoke moodily: "He can't kick in your case."
"We're grown men, Claude. We're the only judges of what's right for us. I don't mean any disrespect to father; but we've got to be free. Best way, as far as I see, is to be open and aboveboard and firm. Then everybody knows where you are."
Claude made no response till they reached the door-step, where he lingered. "Look here, Thor," he said then, "I've got to put this thing through in my own way, you know."
Thor didn't need to be told what this thing was. "That's all right, Claude. I've got nothing to do with it."
"You've got something to do with it when you put up the money. And what I feel," he added, complainingly, "is that my taking it makes me look as if I was bought."
"Oh, rot, Claude!" Thor made a great effort. "Hang it all! when a fellow's in—in love, and going to be married himself, you don't suppose he can ignore his own brother who's in the same sort of box, and can't be married for the sake of a few hundred dollars? That wouldn't be human."
It was not difficult for Claude to take this point of view, but he repeated, tenaciously, "I've got to do it in my own way."
"Good Lord! old chap, I don't care how you do it," Thor declared, airily, "so long as it's done. Just buck up and be a man, and you'll pull it off magnificently. It's the sort of thing you've got to pull off magnificently—or slump."
"That's what I think," Claude agreed, "and so I'm"—he hesitated before announcing so bold a program—"and so I'm going to take her abroad."
"Oh!" Thor gave a little gasp. He had not expected to have Rosie pass out of his ken. He had supposed that he should remain near her, watch over her, know what she was doing and what was being done to her. He was busy trying to readjust his mind while Claude stammered out suggestions for the payment of Rosie's proposed dowry. It was clear without his saying so that he hated doing it; but he did say so, adding that it made him feel as if he was bought.
Thor was irritated by the repetition. "Let's drop that, Claude, if you don't mind. Be satisfied once for all that if you and Rosie accept the money it will be as a favor to me. I'm so built that I can't be happy in my own marriage without knowing that you and—and she have the chance to be happy in yours. With all the money that's coming to me, and that I've never done any more to deserve than you have, what I'm setting aside will be a trifle. As to the payments, I'll do just as you say. The first quarter will be paid to Rosie on the day you're married—when there'll be a little check for you, for good luck. So go ahead and make your plans. Go abroad, if you want to. Dare say it's the best thing you can do."
To escape his brother's shamefaced thanks Thor passed into the porch. "I'm not going to tell any one about it till I'm ready," Claude warned as he followed.
Thor turned. "Of course you know that father's on to the whole business."
"The deuce he is!"
"Father told me. How did you suppose I knew anything about it?"
"So that's it! Been wondering all day who could have given me away. That's Uncle Sim's tricks. Knew the old fool had his eye—"
"It was bound to come out somehow, you know, in a little village like this. Natural enough that Uncle Sim should want to put father wise to a matter that concerns the whole family. I thought I'd tell you so that you can take your line."
"Take what line?"
"How do I know? That's up to you. The line that will best protect Rosie, I suppose. Remember that that's your first consideration now. I only want you to understand that you can't keep father in the dark. I should say it was more dignified, and perhaps better policy, not to try."
* * * * *
An hour later Mrs. Masterman was commenting at the dinner-table on the pleasing circumstance that invitations to Miss Elsie Darling's party had come for the entire family. There were cards not only for the two young men, but for the father and mother also. Since both the older and the younger members of society were included, it was clear that the function was to pass the limitations of a dance and become a ball.
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Masterman was superior to this form of entertainment. It was the one above all others that reminded them that they belonged to society in the higher sense. They dined out with tolerable frequency; with tolerable frequency their friends dined with them. As for the afternoon teas to which they were bidden in the course of a season, Mrs. Masterman could scarcely keep count of them. But balls came only once or twice in a winter, and not always so often as that. A ball was a community event. It was an occasion on which to display the fact that the neighborhood could unite in a gathering more socially significant than the mere frolicking of boys and girls. Moreover, it was an opportunity for proving that the higher circles of the village stood on equal terms with those of the city, with the solidarity of true aristocracies all over the world.
On Mrs. Masterman's murmuring something to the effect that Claude would go to the ball, of course, the young man mumbled words that sounded like, "Not for mine." The mother understood the response to be a negative, and replied with a protest.
"Oh, but you must, Claudie dear. It'll be so nice for you to meet Elsie. She's a charming girl, they say, after her years abroad." She concluded, with a wrinkling of her pretty brow, "It seems to me you don't know many really nice girls."
She had been moved by no more than a mother's solicitude, but Claude kept his eyes on his plate. He knew that his father was probably looking at him, and that Thor was saying, "Now's your chance to speak up and declare that you know the nicest girl in the world." Poor Claude was sensible of the opportunity, and yet felt himself paralyzed with regard to making use of it. In reply he could only say, vaguely, that if he had to go he would have to go, and not long afterward Mrs. Masterman rose.
The sons followed their parents into the library, pausing to light their cigarettes on the way. By the time they had crossed the hall the head of the house had settled himself with the evening paper in his favorite arm-chair before the slumbering wood fire. Mrs. Masterman stooped over the long table strewn with periodicals, turning the pages of a new magazine. Thor advanced to a discreet distance behind his father's chair, where he paused and said, quietly:
"Father, I want to tell you and mother that I'm engaged to Lois Willoughby. We're to be married almost at once—toward the end of next month."
There was dead silence. As far as could be observed, Masterman continued to study his paper, while his wife still stooped over the pages of her magazine. It was long before the father said, with the seeming indifference meant to be more bitter than gall:
"That, I presume, is your answer to my move with regard to the father. Very well, Thor. You're your own master. I've nothing to say."
Before Thor could explain that it was only the carrying out of a long-planned intention, his stepmother looked up and spoke. "I have something to say, Thor dear. I hope you're going to be very happy. I'm sure you will be. She's a noble girl."
Her newly germinating vitality having asserted itself to this extent, she stood aghast till Thor strode up and kissed her, saying: "Thank you, mumphy. She is a noble girl—one of the best."
The example had its effect on Claude, who had stood hesitating in the doorway, and now came toward his father's chair, though timidly. "Father, I'm going to be married, too."
His mother uttered a smothered cry. Masterman turned sharply.
The implied scorn in the tone put Claude on his mettle. "Yes, father," he tried to say with dignity. It was in search of further support for this dignity that he added, in a manner that he tried to make formal, but which became only faltering, "To—to—to Miss Rosanna Fay."
Masterman shrugged his shoulders and returned to his newspaper. There were full three minutes in which each of the spectators waited for another word. "Have you nothing to say to me, father?" Claude pleaded, in a tone curiously piteous.
The father barely glanced around over his shoulder. "What do you expect me to say?—to call you a damn fool? The words would be wasted."
"I'm a grown man, father—" Claude began to protest.
"Are you? It's the first intimation I've had of it. But I'm willing to take your word. If so, you must assume a grown man's responsibilities—from now on."
Claude's throat was dry and husky. "What do you mean by—from now on?"
"I mean from the minute when you've irrevocably chosen between this woman and us. You haven't irrevocably chosen as yet. You've still time—to reconsider."
"But if I don't reconsider, father?—if I can't?"
"The choice is between her and—us."
He returned to his paper; but again his wife's nascent will to live asserted itself, to no one's astonishment more than to her own. "It's not between her and me, Claude," she cried, casting as she did so a frightened glance at the back of her husband's head. "I'm your mother. I shall stand by you, whoever fails." Her words terrified her so utterly that before she dared to cross the floor to her son she looked again beseechingly at the iron-gray top of her husband's head as it appeared above the back of the arm-chair. Nevertheless, she stole swiftly to her boy and put her hands on his shoulders. "I'm your mother, dear," she sobbed, tremblingly; "and if she's a good girl, and loves you, I'll—I'll accept her."
Masterman turned his newspaper inside out, as though pretending not to hear.
Thor waited till Claude and his mother, clinging to each other, had crept out of the room, before saying, "I'm responsible for this, father."
There was no change in the father's attitude. "So I supposed."
"The girl is a good girl, and I couldn't let Claude break her heart."
"You found it easier to break mine."
"I don't mean that, father—"
"Then I can only say that you're as successful in what you don't mean as in what you do."
"I don't understand."
"No, perhaps not. But it would be futile for me to try to explain to you. Good night."
Thor remained where he was. "It isn't futile for me to try to explain to you, father. I know Rosie Fay, and you don't. She's a beautiful girl, with that strong character which Claude needs to give him backbone. He is in love with her, and he's made her fall in love with him. It wouldn't be decent on his part or honorable on ours—"
The father interrupted wearily. "You'll spare me the sentimentalities. The facts are bad enough. When I want instructions in decency and honor I'll come to you and get them. In the mean time I've said—good night."
"But, father, we must talk about it—"
Masterman raised himself in his chair and turned. "Thor," he said, sternly, his words getting increased effect from his childlike lisp, "if you knew how painful your presence is to me—you'd go."
Thor flushed. There was nothing left for him but to turn. And yet he had not gone many steps beyond the library door before he heard his father fling the paper to the floor, uttering a low groan.
The young man stood still, shifting between two minds. Should he go away and leave his father to the mortifying sense that his sons were setting him at defiance? or should he return and insist on full explanations? He would have done the latter had it not been for the words, "If you knew how painful your presence is to me!" He still heard them. They cut him across the face—across the heart. He went on up-stairs.
As he passed the open door of Mrs. Masterman's room he heard Claude saying: "Oh, mother darling, if you knew her, you'd feel about her just as I do. When she's dressed up as a lady she'll put every other girl in the shade. You'll see she will. After she's had a year or two in Paris—"
Thor entered the room while the mother was crying out: "Paris! Why, Claudie dear, what are you talking about? How are you going to live?—let alone Paris!"
"That's all right, mother. Don't fret. I can get money. I'm not a fool. Look here," he added, in a confidential tone, winking at Thor over her shoulder, "I'll tell you something. It's a secret, mind you. Not a word to father! I'm all right for money now."
She could only repeat, in a tone of mystification, "All right for money now?"
Claude made an inarticulate sound of assent. "Got it all fixed."
"Oh, but how?"
"I said it was a secret." He winked at his brother again. "I shouldn't tell even you, only you've been such a spanking good mother to back me up that I want to ease your mind."
She threw an imploring look at her stepson, though she addressed her son. "Oh, Claude, you haven't done anything wrong, have you?—forged?—or embezzled?—or whatever it is they do in banks."
"No, mother; it's all on the square." Because of Thor's presence he added: "If it will make you any the more cheerful I'll tell you this, too. It's not going to be my money; it' be Rosie's. Strictly speaking, I sha'n't have anything to do with it. She'll have—about five thousand dollars a year! When it's all over—and we're married—you can put father wise to that; but not before, mind you."
"But, Claudie darling, I don't understand a bit. How can she have five thousand dollars a year, when they're as poor as poor? And she hasn't a relation who could possibly—"
He, too, threw a glance at Thor. "She may not have a relation, but she might have a—a friend. Now, mother, this is just between you and me. If you hadn't been such a spanking good mother I shouldn't have told you a word of it."
"Yes, but, Claude! Think! What sort of a friend could it possibly be who'd give a girl all that money? Why, it's ridiculous!"
"It isn't ridiculous. Is it, Thor? You leave it to me, mumphy."
"But it is ridiculous, Claudie dear. You'll see if it isn't. No man in the world would settle five thousand dollars a year on a girl like that—without a penny—unless he had a reason, and a very good reason, too. Would he, Thor?" she demanded of her stepson, whom she had not hitherto included. She continued to address him: "I don't care who he is or what he is. Don't you agree with me? Wouldn't anybody agree with me who had his senses?"
Thor's heart jumped. This was a view of his intentions that he had not foreseen. Fortunately he could disarm his stepmother by revealing himself as the god from the machine, for she would consider it no more than just that he should use part of his inheritance for Claude's benefit. He might have made the attempt there and then had not Claude done it for himself.
"Now you leave it to me, mumphy dear. I know exactly what I'm about. I can't explain. But I'll tell you this much more—it'll make your mind quite easy—that it's all on my account that Rosie's to have the money." He gave his brother another look. "If she didn't marry me she wouldn't get it. At least," he added, more doubtfully, "I don't think she would. See?"
Mrs. Masterman confessed that she didn't see—quite; but her tone made it clear that she was influenced by Claude's assurances, while Thor felt it prudent to go on his way up the second stairway.
There were both amazement and terror in Rosie's face when, at dusk next day, Claude strolled down the flowery path of the hothouse. Since Thor had turned from her, on almost the same spot, forty-eight hours previously, no hint from either of the brothers had come her way. Through the intervening time she had lived in an anguish of wonder. What was happening? What was to happen still? Would anything happen at all? Had Claude discovered the astounding fact that the elder brother was in love with her? If he had, what would he do? Would he go wild with jealousy? Or would he never have anything to do with her again? Either case was possible, and the latter more than possible if he had received a hint of the degree in which she had betrayed herself to Thor.
As to that, she didn't know whether she was glad or sorry. She knew how crude had been her self-revelation, and how shocking; but the memory of it gave her a measure of relief. It was like a general confession, like the open declaration of what had been too long kept buried in the heart. It had been a shameful thing to own that, loving one man, she would have married another man for money; but a worse shame lay in being driven to that pass. For this she felt herself but partly responsible, if responsible at all. What did she, Rosie Fay, care for money in itself? Put succinctly, her first need was of bread, of bread for herself and for those who were virtually dependent on her. After bread she wanted love and pleasure and action and admiration and whatever else made up life—but only after it. She was craving for them, she was stifling for lack of them, but they were all secondary. The very best of them was secondary. Only one thing stood first—and that was bread.
Undoubtedly her frankness had revolted Thor Masterman. But what did he know of an existence which left the barest possible margin for absolute necessity? What would life have meant to him had he never had a day since he first began to think when he had been entirely free from anxiety as to the prime essentials? Rosie couldn't remember a time when the mere getting of their pinched daily food hadn't been a matter of contrivance, with some doubt as to its success. She couldn't remember a time when she had ever been able to have a new dress or a pair of boots without long calculation beforehand. On the other hand, she remembered many a time when the pinched food couldn't be paid for, and the new dress or the pair of boots had come almost within reach only to be whisked aside that the money might be used for something still more needful. In a world of freedom and light and flowers and abundance her little soul had been kept in a prison where the very dole of bread and water was stinted.
She had never been young. Even in childhood she had known that. She had known it, and been patient with the fact, hoping for a chance to be young when she was older. If money came in then, money for boots and bread, for warm clothes in winter and thin clothes in summer, for fuel and rent and taxes and light, and the pay of the men, and the innumerable details which, owing to her father's dreaminess, she was obliged to keep on her mind—if money were ever to come in for these things, she could be young with the best. She could be young with the intenser happiness that would come from spirits long thwarted. It might never now be a light-hearted happiness, but it would be happiness for all that. It would be the deeper, and the more satisfying, and the more aware of itself for its years of suppression.
To her long experience in denial Rosie could only oppose a heart more imperiously exacting in its demands. Her tense little spirit didn't know how to do otherwise. From lines of ancestry that had never done anything but toil with patient relentlessness to wring from the soil whatever it was capable of yielding, she had inherited no habit of compromise. In them it had been called grit; but a softer generation having let that word fall into disuse, Rosie could only account for herself by saying she "wasn't a quitter." She meant that she could neither forego what she asked for, nor be content with anything short of what she conceived to be the best. Could she have done that, she might have enjoyed the meager "good time" of other girls in the village; she might have listened to the advances of young Breen the gardener, or of Matt's colleague in the grocery-store. But she had never presented such possibilities for her own consideration. She was like an ant, that sees but one object to the errand on which it has set out, disdaining diversion.
And if it had all summed itself up into what looked like a hard, unlovely avariciousness, it was because poor Rosie had nothing to tell her the values and co-relations of the different ingredients in life. For the element that suffuses good-fortune and ill-fortune alike with corrective significance she had imbibed from her mother one kind of scorn, and from her father another. She knew no more of it than did Thor Masterman. Like him, she could only work for a material blessing with material hands, though without his advantages for molding things to his will. He had his advantages through money. Since all things material are measured by that, by that Rosie measured them. The matter and the measure were all she knew. They meant safety for herself and for her parents, and protection for Matt when he came out of jail. How could she do other than spend her heart upon them? What choice had she when the alternative lay between Claude and love on the one side and on the other Thor, with his hands full of daily bread for them all? With Claude and his love there went nothing besides, while with Thor and his daily bread there would be peace and security for life. She asked it of herself; she asked it, in imagination, of him. What else could she do but sell herself when the price on her poor little body had been set so high?
She had spent two burning, rebellious days. All the while she was cooking meals, or setting tables, or washing dishes, or making beds, or selling flowers, or pruning, or watering, or addressing envelopes for the monthly bills, her soul had been raging against the unjust code by which she would have to be judged. Thor would judge her; Claude would judge her, if he knew; any one who knew would judge her, and women most fiercely of all. But what did they know about it? What did they know of twenty-odd years of going around in a cage? What did they know of the terror of seeing the cage itself demolished, and being without a protection? Did they suppose she wouldn't suffer in giving up her love? Of course she would suffer! The very extremity of her suffering would prove the extremity of her need. Passionately Rosie defended herself against her imaginary accusers, because unconsciously she accused herself.