Claude resented the attitude; he resented the smile; he resented the use of his Christian name; but he was resolved to be diplomatic. He went forward a few steps farther still, but in spite of himself his voice trembled when he spoke. "Mr. Fay 'round?"
Jim answered nonchalantly. "No; gone to town. Want a good fern-tree, Claude? Two or three corkers here. Look at that one, now. Get it cheap, too. Dandy in the corner of a big room."
Sickeningly aware of his feebleness in contrast with this easy, honest vigor, Claude made an effort to be manly and matter-of-fact. "Mr. Fay selling off?"
"Not exactly selling off. Fixed things up with father. Father's taken the stock, and Mr. Fay's going in with him. Didn't want this old place any longer," Jim continued, loftily. "Kind o' clung to it because he'd put money into it, like. Money-eater; that's what it was. Make more in a year with father than he would in this old rockery in ten. Hadley B. Hobson's bought the place. Know that, don't you? Come to think of it, it was your old man who owned it. Well, it's Hadley B. Hobson's now—or will be the day after to-morrow. Have a swell residence here. Good enough for that, but too small for a plant like Mr. Fay's."
Claude did his best to digest such details in this information as were new to him while he nerved himself to say, "Is Miss Fay a-about?"
Jim nodded toward the blank windows of the house. "Moved. Better take a fern-tree, Claude. Won't get a bargain like this, not if every florist in the town goes bankrupt. This one's a peach, and yet you'll call it a scream compared to the one I've got inside. Bring it out so as you can get a squint at it. Can't wait, can't you? Well, so long! Got to finish my job. Back, Maud, back! Any time you do want a fern-tree, Claude—"
Claude was obliged to speak peremptorily in order to detain him. "I want to know where the Fays have moved to."
"To town," was the ready answer. "Well, so long! If I don't get on with my job—"
"What part of town?"
Jim turned at the hothouse door. "Oh, a very nice part."
"But that's not telling me."
"No," the young Irishman threw back, with his peculiar smile, "and if you take my advice you won't ask anybody else. If old man Fay was to see you within a mile of the place—"
Claude decided to be confidential. "Old man Fay has no reason to be afraid any longer, Jim—not as far as I'm concerned."
"Oh, it isn't as far as you're concerned; it's as far as he is. The boot's on that foot now."
Claude loathed this discussion with a man so inferior to himself, but he was obliged to get his information somehow. "If he thinks—"
"It's not what he thinks, but what he knows. That's what's the matter with old man Fay. If I was you I'd give him a darned wide berth—from now on."
"Yes, but Jim, you don't understand—"
"I understand what I'm telling you, Claude. If you don't clear out of this village for the next six months—"
Claude was beside himself with exasperation. "But, good God, man, I've come back to marry Rosie! Now don't you see?"
Jim stalked forward from the hothouse door, standing over the smaller, slighter man with a tolerant kindliness which persisted in his sunny, steely smile. "No, I don't see. You clear out. Take a friend's advice. Whether you've come back to marry Rosie or whether you haven't won't make a cent's worth of difference to old man Fay. Clear out, all the same."
In his excitement Claude screamed, shrilly, "Like hell, I will!"
"Like hell, you'll have to. Mind you, Claude, I'm telling you as a friend. And as for marrying Rosie—well, you can't."
Claude became aggressive. "If that's because you think you can—"
"Gee! Me! What do you know about that! It's all I can do to get her to look at the same side of the road I'm on—so far. But if I can't, still less can you, and for a very good reason."
"What reason?" Claude demanded, with his best attempt to be stern.
The other became solemn and dramatic. "The reason that—that she's dead."
Claude jumped. "Dead! What in thunder are you talking about? She wasn't dead this afternoon."
"Oh yes, she was, Claude—that Rosie. She—she drowned herself. When I dived in after her it was another Rosie altogether that I brought up. Do you get me?"
Claude broke in with smothered objurgations, but Jim, feeling the value of the vein he had started, persisted in going on with it. He did so not bitterly or reproachfully, but with a playful, Celtic sadness in which a misty blinking of the eyes struggled with the smile that continued to hover on his lips.
"The Rosie you knew, Claude, was all limp and white as I held her in my arms while Robbie Willert rowed us ashore. She was gone. The soul was out of her. She was as much in heaven as if she'd been dead a week. Her eyes were shut and her eyelashes wet, just as you might see the fringe of a flower hung with dewdrops of a morning. And her mouth! You know the kind of mouth she's got—a little open when she looks at you, as if you'd taken her by surprise, like. Well, that's the way it was then—a wee little bit open—as if she was going to speak—but more as if she was going to cry—and her lips that white!—and not a beat to her heart no matter how tight you held her! When Dr. Hill brought the breath into her again it was a different Rosie that came back entirely."
Claude wheeled away in order to hide the spasm that shot across his face. "Ah, shut up, damn you!" was all he had the strength to say, but the tone moved Jim to compunction.
The Irishman in him came out as he tried to make things easier for Claude, without at the same time desisting from his object. "Sure you couldn't tell that that was the way she'd take it. You couldn't tell that at all. If you'd known it beforehand you'd have acted quite different. We all know that. Any one else might have done the same thing that was—that was"—he sought a consolatory phrase—"that was like you." He plunged still further. "I might have done it myself if I hadn't—hadn't been built the other way 'round. Only that won't matter to old man Fay—nor to Matt, neither."
Claude turned so suddenly pale at the mention of the brother that Jim followed up his advantage. "The old fellow has to be out of this by to-morrow night, and Matt gets his walking-ticket from Colcord the next morning." He laid his strong, earthy hand on the neat summer black-and-white check of Claude's shoulder with the lightest hint of turning him in the direction of the gate. "Now if you'll make yourself scarce for a spell I'll be able to manage them both and coax them back to their senses."
Though he felt himself irresistibly impelled toward the road, Claude made an effort to recover his dignity. "If you think I'm going to run away—"
Jim slipped his arm through his companion's, helping him along. "Sure you're not going to run away. Lay low for a spell, that's all you'll be doing. Old man Fay is crazy—stark, staring, roaring crazy. It isn't you, and it isn't Rosie; it's having to get out of here. It was bluff what I said a minute ago about the place being too small for his plant. He's dotty on these three old hothouses. My Lord! you'd think no one ever had hothouses before and never would again. You'd think it was the end of the world, to hear him talk. You'd die laughing. The fellow he'd like to put it over on is your old man! Gives me a mouthful about him three or four times a day—and it'd be a barr'l full of buckshot in the back if he could get at him. Lucky he's in Europe. But I'll calm him down, don't you fret; and I'll calm down Matt, once I get at him. Let me have two months—let me have a month!—and I'll have 'em coming to you like a gray squirrel comes for nuts."
Out in the roadway Claude made a last effort to react against his humiliation, doing it almost tearfully. "But, look here, Jim, I've got to marry Rosie—I've got to."
The Irishman in the young man was still in the ascendant as he wagged his head sympathetically. "Sure you've got to—if she wants it."
"Well, she does want it, doesn't she? She must have told you so, or you wouldn't know so much about it."
"She's told me all about it from seeding to sale, and it's God's truth I'm handing out to you—no bluff at all. This Rosie's another proposition."
"I'll marry her, whatever she is," Claude declared, bravely; "and I've got to see her, too."
Jim looked thoughtful. "It isn't so easy to see her because—Well, now, I'll tell you straight, Claude—because it makes her kind o' sick to think of you. Oh, that's nothing!" he hastened to add, on seeing a second convulsion pass across Claude's face. "Sure she'd feel the same about any one who'd done the like o' that to her, now wouldn't she? It isn't you at all—not any more than it 'd be me or anybody else."
"If I could see her," Claude said, weakly, "I'd—I'd explain."
"Ah, but you couldn't explain quick enough. That's where the trouble about that'd be. She'd be down on the floor in a faint before you'd be able to say knife. You couldn't get near her at all at all—not this Rosie—not if it was to explain away the ground beneath her feet."
"She'd get over that—" Claude began to plead.
"She'd get over it if it didn't kill her first; but it's my belief it would. If you could have seen her the night she told me about you! It was like cutting out her own heart and picking it to pieces. She's never mentioned you before nor since—and I don't think ever will again. No, Claude," he continued, in a reasoning tone, "there's no two ways about it, but you've got to get out—for a spell, at any rate. If you don't, old man Fay'll be after you with a gun, and what Matt Fay'll do may be worse. I can handle them if you'll keep from hanging yourself out like a red rag to a bull, like; but if you don't—then the Lord only knows what'll happen."
"What'll happen," Claude cried, with a final up-leaping of resistance, "is that you'll marry Rosie."
"I'll marry her if she'll have me. Don't you fret about that. But I won't try to marry her—not if I see that she's got the least little bit of a wish to marry you, Claude. I'll play fair. If she changes her mind from the way she is now, and gets so as to be able to think of you again, and wants you—wants you of her own free will—then I'll put up the banns for you myself—and that's honest to God."
He offered his hand on the compact, but Claude didn't take it. He didn't take it because he didn't see it, and he didn't see it because he looked over it and beyond it, as over and beyond the young Irishman himself. It was not that he had any doubt as to Jim's word being honest to God, or that he questioned Rosie's state of mind as Jim had sketched it. It was rather that he was seeing the Claude who was a gentleman and a hero and a devil-of-a-fellow recede into the ether, while he was left eternally with the Claude who remained behind.
Jim felt no resentment for the neglect of his proffered hand, but the long stare of those sick, unseeing eyes made him uneasy. "Well, I guess I must beat it back to my job," he said, beginning to move away. "So long, Claude, and good luck to you!" He added, in order to return to a colloquial tone, "If you ever want a fern-tree, don't forget that we've got some daisies."
But Claude was still staring at the great blue blank which the fading of his ideal had left behind it.
Twenty-four hours after Claude turned to take the way of humiliation down the hill, undeceived by Jim Breen's friendly tone and the hope of future possibilities held out to him, Thor Masterman found himself almost within sight of home. On arriving in the city late in the afternoon he went to a hotel, where he took a room and dined. When he had devised the means of letting Lois know that he was camping outside her gates she might be sufficiently touched to throw them open. She might never love him again; she might never have really loved him at all; but he would content himself with a benevolent toleration. Like her, he was afraid of love. The word meant too much or too little, he was not sure which. It was too explosive. Its dynamic force was at too high a pressure for the calm routine of married life. If Lois could find a substitute for love, he was willing to accept it, giving her his own substitute in return. All he asked was the privilege of seeing her, of being with her, of proving his devotion, of having her once more to share his life.
It was not to force this issue, but to play lovingly with the hope in it, that when dusk had deepened into evening he took the open electric car that would carry him to the village. He had no intention beyond that of enjoying the cool night air and loitering for a few minutes in sight of the house that sheltered her. She might be on the balcony outside her room, or beneath the portico of the garden door, so that he should catch the flutter of her dress. That would be enough for him—to-night. He might make it enough for the next night and the next. After absence and distance, it seemed much.
County Street was as he had known it on every warm summer night since he was a boy, and yet conveyed that impression which every summer night conveys, of being the first and only one of its kind. The sky was majestically high and clear and spangled, with the Scorpion and the red light of Antares well above the city's amber glow. Along the streets and lanes dim trees rustled faintly, casting gigantic trembling shadows in the circles of the electric lights. The breeze being from the east and south, the tang of sea-salt mingled with the strong, dry scent of new-mown hay and the blended perfumes of a countryside of gardens. All doors were open as he passed along, and so were all windows. On all verandas and porches and steps faint figures could be discerned, low-voiced for the most part, but sending out an occasional laugh or snatch of song. Thor knew who the people were; many of them were friends; to some of them he was related; there were few with whom he hadn't ties antedating birth. It was soothing to him, as he slipped along in the heavy shadow of the elms, to know that they were near.
* * * * *
On approaching his father's house, which he expected to find dark, he was astonished to see a light. It was a light like a blurred star, on one of the upper floors. From what window it shone he found it difficult to say, the mass of the house being lost in the general obscurity. The strange thing was that it should be there.
He passed slowly within the gate and along the few yards of the driveway, pausing from time to time in order to place the quiet beacon in this room or in that, according to the angle from which it seemed to burn. He was not alarmed; he was only curious. It was no furtive light. Though the curtains were closed, it displayed itself boldly in the eyes of the neighbors and of the two or three ornamental constables who made their infrequent rounds in County Street. He could only attribute it to old Maggs, who lived in the coachman's cottage at the far end of the property, though as to what old Maggs could be doing in the house at this hour in the evening, at a time when the parents were abroad and Claude away on a holiday, he was obliged to be frankly inquisitive. An investigating spirit was further aroused by the fact that in one of his pauses, as he alternately advanced and halted, he was sure he heard a footstep. If it was not a footstep, it was a stirring in the shrubbery, as if something had either moved away or settled into hiding.
He was still unalarmed. Night-crimes were rare in the village, and relatively harmless even when they were committed. The sound he had heard might have been made by some roving dog, or by a cat or a startled bird. Had it not been for the light he would scarcely have noticed it. Taken in conjunction with the light, it suggested some one who had been watching and had slunk away; but even that thought was slightly melodramatic in so well-ordered a community. He went on till he was at the foot of the steps, at a point where he could no longer descry the glow in the upper window, but could perceive through the fanlight over the inner door that, though the lower hall was dark, the electrics were burning somewhere in the interior of the house.
He verified this on mounting the steps and peering into the vestibule through the strip of window at the sides of the outer door. Turning the knob tentatively, he was surprised to find it yield. On entering, he stood in the porch and listened, but no sound reached him from within. Taking his bunch of keys from his pocket, he detached his latch-key softly, and as softly inserted it in the lock. The door opened noiselessly, showing a light down the stairway from the hall above. He could now hear some one moving, probably on the topmost floor, with an opening and shutting of doors that might have been those of closets, followed by a swishing sound like that of the folding or packing of clothes. He entered and closed the door with a distinctly audible bang.
Listening again, he found that the sounds ceased suspiciously. Whoever was there was listening, too. It was easy, by the light streaming from above, to find the button and turn on the electricity in the lower hall, whereupon the movement up-stairs began again. Some one came out of a room and peered downward. He himself went to the foot of the stairs, looking up. When the watcher on the third floor spoke at last it was in a voice he didn't instantly recognize. He would have taken it for Claude's, only that it was so frightened and shrill.
"Who are you?" Thor demanded, in tones that rolled and echoed through the house.
There was a long, hesitating silence. Straining his eyes upward, Thor could dimly make out a white face leaning over the highest banister. When the question came at last it was as if reluctantly and shrinkingly.
"Is that you, Thor?"
Thor retreated from the stairs, backing away to the library, of which the door was the nearest open one. He distinctly recorded the words that passed through his mind. He might have uttered them audibly, so indelible was the impression with which they cut themselves in.
"By God! I've got him."
Out of the confused suffering of two months earlier he heard himself saying: "I swear to God that if I ever see Claude again I'll kill him."
He hadn't meant on that occasion deliberately to register a great oath; the oath had registered itself. It was there in the archives of his mind, signed and sealed and waiting for the moment of putting it into execution. He had hardly thought of it since then; and now it urged itself for fulfilment like a vow. It was a vow to cover not merely one offense, but many—all the long years of nameless, unrecorded irritations, ignored but never allayed, culminating in the act by which this man had robbed him; robbed him uselessly, robbed him not to enjoy the spoil, but to fling it away.
It was a moment of seeing red similar to many others in his life. For the instant he could more easily have killed Claude than refrained from doing it. That he should so refrain was a matter of course. Naturally! He still kept a hold on common sense. He would not only refrain, but be civil. If Claude were in need of anything or were short of cash he would probably write him a check. It was the irony of this kind of rage that it was so impotent. It was impotent and absurd. It might shake him to the foundations of his being, but it would come to nothing in the end. It both relieved and embittered him to foresee this result.
From the threshold of the library he called up to Claude, "Come down!" The tone was imperious; it was even threatening. That degree of menace at least he was unable to suppress.
Claude's steps could be heard on the stairs. They were slow and clanking because the carpets were up and the house full of echoes. To Thor's fevered imagination it seemed as if Claude dragged his feet like a man wearing chains, going haltingly and clumsily before some ominous tribunal. The sensation—it was more that than anything else—caused the elder brother to withdraw into the depths of the library, where he turned on a light.
The room, with its bare floors, its shrouded furniture, its screened book cases, its blank pictures swaddled in linen bags, its long, gaunt shadows, and its deadened air, suggested itself horribly and ridiculously as a fitting scene for a crime. He might kill Claude with a blow, and if he turned out the lights and shut the door and stole back to his hotel no one would ever suspect him as the murderer. The idea would have been no more than grotesque had it not acquired a certain terror from the mingling of affection and anger and pity in his heart at the sound of Claude's shrinking, clanking advance. In proportion as Claude seemed to be afraid of him, he was the more aware that he was a man to be afraid of. The consciousness caused him to get deeper into the dimly lighted room, taking his stand at the remotest possible spot, with his back to the empty fireplace.
But when Claude appeared coatless in the doorway, his head was thrown up defiantly in apparent effort to treat Thor's entrance as unwarranted. "What the devil are you doing here?"
Because of the semi-obscurity his face was white with a whiteness that quickened Thor's sympathy into self-reproach.
"What are you doing here?"
"That's my business." In making this reply Claude seemed to take it for granted that they met on terms of hostility, though he added, less aggressively: "If you want to know, I'm packing up. Taking the train for New York at one o'clock to-night."
Thor endeavored to speak with casual fraternal interest. "What brought you back?"
Claude took time to light a cigarette, saying, as he blew out the match, "You."
"Me? I thought it might be—might be some one else."
"Then you thought wrong." He walked to a metal ash-tray which helped to keep the covering that protected one of the low bookcases in its place, and deposited the burnt match. He threw off with seeming carelessness as he did so, "I know only one traitor, to make me keep returning on my tracks."
Because the impulse to violence was so terrific, Thor braced himself against it, standing with his feet planted apart and his hands clenched behind him till the nails dug into the flesh. He could not, however, restrain a scornful little grunt which was meant for laughter. "You talk of traitors! I'd keep quiet about them, Claude, if I were you. You make it too easy for an opponent."
"Oh, well," Claude returned, airily, "I'm used to doing that. I made it infernally easy for an opponent—last winter. But, then, sneaking's always easy to a snake, till you get your heel on him."
"And snarling's easy to a puppy, till you've throttled him."
"And bluster's easy to a fool, till you let him see you hold him in contempt."
"As to holding in contempt, two can play at that game, Claude; and you might find the competition dangerous."
Claude came nearer, the lighted cigarette between his fingers. "Not on your life! That's one thing in which I'm not afraid to bet on myself." He came nearer still, planting himself within a few paces of his brother. His smile, his mirthless, dead-man's smile, held Thor's eyes as it had held Lois's a day or two before. He made an effort to speak jauntily. "Why, Thor, a volcano can't belch fire as fast as I can spit contempt on you. There! Take that!"
With a rapid twist of the hand he threw the lighted cigarette into Thor's face, where it struck with a little smarting burn below the eye. Thor held himself in check by clenching his fists more tightly and standing with bowed head. It was a minute or more before he was sufficiently master of himself to loosen the grip with which his fingers dug into one another, and put up his hand to brush the spot of ash from his cheek. Being in so great fear of his passions, he felt the necessity for speaking peaceably.
"What did you do that for, Claude? It's beastly silly."
"Oh no, it isn't—not the way I mean it."
"But why should you mean it that way? What have I ever done to you?"
"Good Lord! what haven't you done? You've—you've ruined me."
The charge was so unexpected that Thor looked more amazed than indignant. "Ruined you?"
"Yes, ruined me. What else did you set out to do when you began your confounded interference?"
"I didn't mean to interfere—"
Claude might have posed for some symbolical figure of accusation as, with hands in his trousers pockets and classic profile turned in a three-quarter light, he flung his words and directed his glances obliquely and disdainfully at the brother who glowered with bent head. "When you don't mean to go into a thing you keep out. That was your place—out. Do you get that?—out. But you're never satisfied till you've made as vile a mess of every one else's affairs as you've made of your own."
Feeling some justice in the charge, Thor began to excuse himself. "If I've made a mess of my own, Claude, it's because—"
"Because you can't help it. Oh, I know that. No one can be anything but a damn fool if he's born one. All the more reason, then, why you should keep away from where you're not wanted."
By a great effort Thor managed to speak meekly. "How could I keep away when—?"
"When you're a rubber-neck bred in the bone. No, I suppose you couldn't. But you hate a spy and a liar even when he can't be anything else; and the worst of it is—"
"Oh, is there anything worse than that?"
"There's this that's worse, that your spying and your lying weren't bad enough till you got me into a fix where I have to look like a cad, when"—the protest in his soul against the role he was compelled to play expressed itself in a little gasp—"when I'm—when I'm not one."
The elder brother found himself unable to resist the opportunity. "If you look like a cad, I suppose it's because you've acted like a cad. It's the usual reason."
"Oh, there's cad and cad. There's a fellow who gets snarled up in the barbed wire because he runs into it, and there's another who deliberately lays the trap for him. The one can afford to crawl away with a grin on his face, while the other lies scratched and bleeding."
It seemed to Thor that there was an opening here for a timorous attempt to cry quits. "If it comes to the question of suffering, Claude, it isn't all on one side. You may be scratched and bleeding, as you say, and yet you can get over it; whereas I'm lamed for life."
"Ah, don't come the hypocrite! If you're lamed for life, as I hope to God you are, it's because you've got a bullet in the leg—which is what any one hands out to a poacher."
The relatively gentle tone was again the effect of a surprise stimulated to curiosity. "When was I ever a poacher?"
"You were a poacher when you went making love to a woman who belonged to another man, while you belonged to another woman."
"Very well," Thor said, quietly, after a minute's thinking. "I accept the explanation. But I never did it."
"Then you did something so infernally like it that to deny it is mere quibbling with words."
"All the same, I insist on making the denial."
Claude shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not surprised at that. It's exactly what your type of cur would do. Unfortunately for you, I've the proof."
"The proof of what?"
"Of your torturing a poor girl into saying she was willing to marry you—and then throwing the words in her teeth."
It was from the flame in Thor's eyes that Claude leaped back a half-pace, though he steadied himself against a small table covered up from the accumulation of summer's dust by a piece of common calico. Giving himself time enough to have deliberately counted twenty, Thor subdued the impulse of the muscles as well as that of speech. "Who told you that?" he asked, at last, in the tone he might have used of some matter of no importance.
"Who do you think?"
"There's only one person who could have told you—"
"Oh, you admit as much as that, do you? There is a person who could have told me?"
"Yes, I admit as much as that—but you must have misunderstood her."
Thor's dignity and self-restraint were not without an effect that might eventually have made for peace had not the brother's conscience been screaming for a scapegoat on which to lay a portion of his sins. For him alone the entire weight had become intolerable. Thor had been known to accept such vicarious burdens before now. In the hope that he would do so again, Claude answered, tauntingly:
"I didn't misunderstand her when she said you were making me a cat's-paw to do what you wouldn't do yourself. What kind of stuff are you made of, Thor? You go flaunting your money before a poor little girl who you know can't resist it, and then, when you get her willing to do God knows what, you push her off on me and want to pay me for the job of relieving you of your dirty work. After you've dragged her in the dust she's still considered good enough for me—"
The roar of the monosyllable echoed through the empty house, while Thor strode forward, the devil in him loose. With the skill of a toreador in throwing his cloak into the eyes of an infuriated bull, Claude snatched the calico strip from the table beside which he stood and flung it in Thor's face. The result was to check the latter in his advance, giving Claude time to dart nimbly to the other side of the room. As Thor stared about him, dazed by his rage, he bore out still further the resemblance to a maddened animal in the bull-ring.
Fear struggled in Claude's heart with the lust for retaliation. Like Thor himself, he knew the minute to be one in which he could work off a thousand unpaid scores that had been heaping themselves up since childhood. For the time being it seemed as if he could not only make the scapegoat bear his sins, but stab him to the heart while he did it.
"Stop?" he laughed, shrilly. "Like hell, I'll stop. Did you stop when you went sneaking after Rosie Fay till you got her in a state where she wanted to kill herself?" The red glare in Thor's eyes was an incentive to going on. "Did you stop when you tried to father your beastly actions off on me, and juggle me into marrying the girl you'd had enough of? Did you stop when you fooled Lois Willoughby into thinking you a saint, and breaking her heart when she found you out? Look at her now—"
With a smothered oath Thor charged as a wounded rhinoceros might charge—in a lunge that would have borne his brother down by sheer force of weight had not Claude eluded him lightly. Once more Thor shook himself, stupefied by his passion, blinded by the blood in his eyes. He needed an instant to place his victim, who, with white face and wild, terrified glances, had found temporary shelter behind the barricade of the heavy library table.
But before renewing his rush Thor marched to the door that led to the hall, the only door to the room, locking it and pocketing the key. The muttered, "By God, I'll have you now!" reached Claude's ears, bringing to his lips a protest which had not burst into words before the huge figure charged again. Behind his fortification Claude was alert, dancing now this way and now that, as Thor brought his strength to bear on the table to wrench it aside. But by the time that was done Claude was already elsewhere, overturning tables and chairs in his flight.
Behind a sofa Claude intrenched himself again, a small chair raised above his head as a weapon of defense. Thor sprang on the sofa, only to receive the weight of the chair in his chest, staggering him backward while Claude bounded off to another refuge. Both were cursing inarticulately; both were panting in broken grunts and sobs; from both the perspiration in that airless room and in the heat of the July night was streaming as rain. The pursuit was like that of a leopard by a lion—the one lithe, agile, and desperate; the other heavy, tremendous, and sure.
In darting from point to point Claude found himself near a window, where he fumbled with the fastening in the hope of throwing up the sash, though wooden shutters defended the outside. Driven from this attempt, he made for the locked door, pulling at it vainly on the chance that it would yield. Seeing Thor bearing down on him with redoubled fury, he obeyed the impulse of the moment and switched off the electricity as he crept swiftly along the wall. In the darkness he stumbled to a corner, where his labored breathing could not but betray his hiding-place. While he crouched in the corner, making himself small, he knew Thor was stalking him by the sound.
He was stalking him, and yet in the inky blackness of the room accurate hunting down was difficult. It was like a duel between blind men. Thor was moving uncertainly, pausing from second to second to fix the object of his search.
In the mad hope of reaching the fireplace and creeping into the chimney, Claude wriggled from his corner along the floor, keeping close to the wainscot. As he did so he touched the legs of a footstool which suggested its use at once. Controlling the thumping of his heart and the pumping of his lungs as best he could, he got noiselessly to his feet. Inch by inch, slinging the footstool by a leg, he moved toward the spot from which Thor's panting breath seemed to proceed. If he could but batter in that long skull he would be acquitted of responsibility on the ground of self-defense. But he was afraid of anything that approached the hand-to-hand. When it seemed to him that he could vaguely make out the swaying of a figure in the darkness, he hurled the missile with all his might—only to hear it crash into one of the covered pictures.
Claude was disappointed, and yet in the din of the shattering glass he was able to escape again. He had lost all sense of direction. Even his touch on the furniture didn't help him, since everything was now displaced. Nevertheless, he continued to duck and dodge, to wriggle and creep and elude. Once Thor's clutch was actually upon him, but he managed to tear himself free with nothing worse than a long rent in his shirt-sleeve. Again Thor seized him, but only to tear his collar from the stud. A third time Thor's strong fingers were closing round his throat, and yet after a momentary choking groan he had been able to slip away. Never before had Claude supposed himself so strong. There was a minute when he had felt Thor's hot breath snorting in his face, and still was able to pick up a small, round table on which his mother sometimes placed her tea-tray, sending it hurtling toward his pursuer, checking him again. With a splutter of stifled oaths, Thor grasped the piece of furniture, throwing it violently back. Claude rejoiced as it crashed into a window and loosened the shutters outside. If he only knew which of the windows it was, there might be a chance of his getting out by it.
With this possibility before him he took heart again. The sound of the breaking of the window enabling him to fix his whereabouts, he began feeling his way toward the unexpected hope of exit. It became the more urgent to reach it as he guessed by the fumbling of Thor's hands along the wall that the latter was trying to find the electric button so as to turn on the light. He groped, therefore, between the tables and overturned chairs, getting as far from his enemy as possible. If only his heart wouldn't pound as though about to burst from his body! If only his breath wouldn't wheeze itself out with the gurgle of water through a bottle-neck! He couldn't last much longer. He was so nearly spent that if Thor kept up the attack he must wear him out. In the end he must let those powerful hands close round his throat, as he had felt them close a few minutes before, while he strangled without further resistance. He felt oddly convinced that it would be by means of strangling that Thor's quiet, awful tenacity of revenge would wreak itself.
* * * * *
During these horrible minutes Thor had the same conviction. All the force of his excited nerves had seemed to be centering in his hands. If he could only tear out that tongue which had hardly ever addressed him except with a sneer since it had begun to lisp! Now that the amazing opportunity was at hand, he wondered how he could have put it off so long. That he should do the thing he was bent on might have been written like a fate. It was like something he had always known, like something toward which he had been always working. The tenderness with which he had yearned over Claude ever since the days when they were children seemed never to have had any other end in view.
So he stalked his prey while the minutes passed—five minutes—ten minutes—perhaps more, perhaps less—he had lost all count of time. So he stalked him—through the darkness, round and round, over tables and chairs, into corners and out of them. The room was sealed; the house was empty; the grounds were large. They might have been in some subterranean vault. When the right moment came he would find the button by which to turn on the light, and then....
Revulsion came from the fact that he had accidentally put his hand on the button and lit up the spectacle of the room. At sight of it he could have laughed. Nothing but the big library table and one of the heavy arm-chairs stood on its legs. One of the windows had a gash like a grin on its prim countenance, and one of the pictures sagged drunkenly from its hook, a mere bag of gilded wood and glass. Cowering in a corner, Claude was again arming himself with a chair. It was not his weapon, but his whiteness, that stirred Thor to a pity almost hysterical. One of his arms was bare where the shirt-sleeve had been torn from it; one side of his collar sprang loose where it had been wrested from the stud; his lips were parted in terror, his eyes starting from his head. The thing Thor could have done more easily than anything else would have been to fling himself down and weep.
As it was, he could only hold out his hands with a kind of shamed, broken-hearted appeal, saving, "Claude, come here."
Though his trembling hands dropped the raised chair, Claude shrank more desperately into his corner. When, to reassure him, Thor took a step forward, Claude moved along the wall, with his back to that protection, ready to spring and dodge again. If he understood Thor's advances, he either mistrusted or rejected them.
"Don't be afraid," Thor tried to say, encouragingly, but after the attacks of the past few minutes his voice sounded hollow and unconvincing to himself.
In proportion as he went nearer Claude sidled away, always keeping his back to the wall, with gasps that were like groans. He spoke but once. "Open that door!" It was all he could articulate, but it implied a test of the brother's sincerity.
Thor accepted it, striding to the threshold, turning the key energetically, and flinging the door wide open. The quiet light burning in the quiet hall produced something in the nature of a shock. He stepped into the hall to wipe his brow and curse himself. He could never win his own pardon for the madness of the past quarter of an hour. Neither, probably, could he ever win Claude's, though he must go back and make the attempt.
What happened as he turned again into the library he could never clearly explain, for the reason that he never clearly knew. The minute remained in his consciousness as one unrelated to the rest of life, with nothing to lead up to it and nothing to follow after. Even the savagery of their mutual onslaught had been no adequate preparation for what now took place so rapidly that the mind was unable to record it. As he re-entered the room Claude was standing by one of the low bookcases. So much remained in the elder brother's memory as fact. The vision of Claude raising his arm in a quick, vicious movement was a vision and no more, since on Thor's part it was blurred and then effaced in a sharp, sudden pain accompanied by a blinding light. Of his own act, which must have followed so promptly as to be nearly simultaneous, Thor had no recollection at all. By the time he was able to piece ideas together Claude was senseless on the floor, while he was bending over him with blood streaming down his face.
For the instant the brother was merged in the physician. To bring Claude back to life after the blow that had stunned and felled him was obviously the first thing to be done. Thor worked at the task madly, tearing open the shirt, chafing the hands and the brow, feeling the pulse, listening at the heart. Whether or not there was a response there he couldn't tell; his own emotion was too overpowering. His fingers on Claude's wrist shook as with a palsy; his ear at Claude's heart was deafened by the pounding of his own. Meanwhile Claude lay limp and still, dead-white, with eyes closed and mouth a little open. Thor had seen many a man in a state of syncope, but never one who looked so much like death. Was he dead? Could he be dead? Had the great oath been fulfilled? He worked frantically. Never till that instant had he known what terror was. Never had he beheld so clearly what was in his own soul. As he worked he seemed to be looking in a mirror from which the passion-ridden fratricide whom he had always recognized dimly within himself was staring out. The physician disappeared again in the brother. "O God! O God!" He could hear himself breathing the words. But of what use were they? As he knelt and chafed and rubbed and listened they came out because he couldn't keep them back. And he was accomplishing nothing! Claude was as still and limp as ever. Not a breath!—not a sign!—not a throb at the pulse!—and the minutes going by!
He dropped the poor arm that fell lifeless to the side, and threw back his head with a groan. "O God—if you're anywhere!—give him back to me!"
The broken utterance was the first prayer he had ever uttered in his life, but, having said it, he went on with his work again. He went on with new vigor and perhaps a little hope. He fancied he saw a change. It was not much of a change—a little warmth, a little color, but no more than might have been created by a fancy.
He ran for water to the nearest tap. In returning to the library his foot struck something on the floor. It was the metal ash-tray which had helped to keep the covering in place on one of the bookcases, and into which Claude had thrown a match. The picture of a few minutes earlier reformed itself—Claude standing just there, with the ash-tray under his hand—the rapid motion of the arm—the paralyzing pain—the dazzling light—and then the blow with which he must have hurled himself on Claude, striking him to the floor. There was no time to coordinate these memories now or to attend to the wound in his own forehead. The explanation came of its own accord as he touched the ash-tray with his foot while dashing back to Claude's side.
The change continued. There were positive signs of life. The mouth had closed; there was the faintest possible quiver of the lids. When he threw a little water into Claude's face there was a twitching of the muscles and a slight protesting movement of the hand.
He couldn't note the involuntary expression of his gratitude, which had nevertheless been audible. Claude had need of air. Taking him in his arms, he lifted him like a baby and staggered to his feet. The body hung loosely over his shoulder as he crossed the room and laid it on the sofa. The broken window served its purpose now, for a little air was coming in by it through the spot where the wooden shutter had given way. Thor succeeded in forcing the shutter altogether, letting the light summer breeze play into the marble face.
If he only had a little brandy! He summed up hurriedly the possibilities in the house, coming to the conclusion that nothing of the sort would have been left within reach. Even the telephone had been disconnected for the summer. It would be, however, an easy thing to run to his office. It would be easier still to run to his house, which was nearer. Claude was breathing freely now. He could be safely left for the few minutes which was all he needed to be away. With a simple restorative the boy would soon be on his feet again.
He pushed the sofa closer to the open window, kneeling once more beside it. Yes, the danger was past. "Thank God! Thank God!" The words were audible again. It was deliverance. It was salvation. There was a positive tinge of color in the cheeks; the eyes opened wearily and closed again. Thor seized the two cold hands in his own and spoke:
"It's all right, old chap. Just lie still for a minute, till I go and get you a taste of brandy. Be back like a shot. Don't move. You'll be all right. Fit as a fiddle when you've had something to brace you up."
No answer came, but Thor sought for none. The worst was past; the danger was averted. With the two cold hands still pressed in his own, he bent forward and kissed the pale lips with a life-giving kiss such as Elijah gave to the Shunamite woman's son. Under the warmth of the imprint Claude stirred again as if making a response.
He ran pantingly like a spent dog—but he ran. He had no idea what time it was. It might have been midnight; it might have been near morning. He was amazed to hear the village clock strike ten. Only ten! and he had lived a lifetime since nine.
He rejoiced to see a light in the house. Lois would be up. As he drew near he saw it was the light streaming from her room to the upper balcony outside it. When nearer still he caught the faint glimmer of a white dress. She was sitting there in the cool of the night, as they had so often sat together in the spring.
He called out as soon as he thought he could make her hear him. "Lois, come down!"
The white figure remained motionless, so that as he ran he called again, "Lois, come down!"
He could see her rise and peer outward. Still running, he called the third time: "Lois, come down! I want something!"
There was a hurried "Oh, Thor, is it you?" after which the figure disappeared in the light from the open window.
She met him at the door as he ran up the steps. There was no greeting between them. He had just breath enough to speak. "It's Claude. He's down there in the house. He's hurt. I want some brandy."
He was in the hall by this time, while she followed. His own appearance, now that he was in the light, drew a cry from her. "But, Thor, you're all cut—and bleeding."
He was now in the dining-room, fumbling at a drawer of the sideboard. "Never mind that now. It doesn't hurt. I'll attend to it by and by. I must get back to Claude. Is it here?"
"No; here." She produced the bottle of cognac from a cupboard, thrusting it into his hands. "Now come. I'm going with you."
They stopped for no further explanation. That could wait. Thor was out of the house, tearing down the empty street, while she followed scarcely less swiftly. At that time of night they were almost sure to have the roadway to themselves.
She lost sight of him as he turned in at the avenue, but continued to press on. That there had been a struggle between the brothers she could guess, though she let the matter pass without further mental comment. The fact that filled her consciousness was that in some strange way Thor was back—wild-eyed and bleeding. Whatever had happened, he would probably need her now, accepting the substitute for love.
Half-way up the avenue she saw that both the inner and outer doors of the house were open and that the electricity from the hall lit up the porch and steps. Thor was still running, but at the foot of the steps he surprised her by coming to a halt instead of leaping up them, two or three at a time. Stopping abruptly, silhouetted in the spot of light, he threw his hands above his head as if he had been shot and were staggering backward. He hadn't been shot, because there was no sound. He hadn't even been wounded, because as she sped toward him she could see him stoop—spring away—return—and stoop again. She was about to call out, "Oh, Thor, what is it?" when, on hearing her footsteps, he bounded to his feet and ran in her direction. "Go back!" he cried, hoarsely. "Go back! Go back, Lois, go back!"
But she hurried on. If there was trouble or danger she must be by his side.
He wheeled around again to that over which he had been stooping, but with a repetition of the movement of flinging up the hands. After that he seemed to crawl away—to crawl away till he reached the steps, where, pulling himself half-way up, he lay with his face hidden. The thing he had seen was something fatal and final, leaving no more to be done. The thought came to her that if there was no more for him to do, it was probable that her work was just beginning and that she must keep herself calm and strong.
She came to him at last and bent over his long, prostrate form. It was racked and heaving. The sobbing was of a kind she had never heard before—the violent, convulsive sobbing of a man.
Raising herself, she looked about for the cause of this grief, for a second or two seeing nothing. The respite enabled her to renew her sense of the necessity laid upon her to be helpful. Whatever was there, she must neither flinch nor cry out. She must take up the task where he had been forced to lay it down.
It was a bare arm from which the shirt-sleeve had been torn away that caught her attention first—a bare arm with a spatter of blood on it. It lay extended along the grass just beside the driveway. She was obliged to take a step or two toward it before seeing that it was Claude's arm, and that he himself was lying on the sward of the lawn, with a little trickle of blood from his heart.
She was not frightened. She was not even appalled. She understood as readily what she ought to do as if the accident had been part of every day's routine. But as her glance went first to the dead brother and then to the living one she knew that her substitute for love had been found.
When Jasper Fay was tried for the murder of Claude Masterman, and acquitted of the charge, it was generally felt that the ends of justice had been served. No human being, whatever his secret opinion, could have desired the further punishment of that little old man whose sufferings might have expiated any possible crime in advance. The jury having found it improbable that at his age, and with his infirmities, he should have been lurking in the village at ten o'clock at night and waiting in the neighborhood of Colcord jail at dawn of the next morning, the verdict was accepted with relief not only in the little court-house of the county town, but by the outside public. To none was this absolution more nearly of the nature of a joy than to the unfortunate young man's family.
* * * * *
That was in the winter of 1912, and in the mean while Lois had been led so successfully by her substitute for love as to be at times unaware of her lack of the divine original. For she was busy, so it seemed to her, every day of every week and every minute of every day. The first dreadful necessities on that night of the 9th of July having been attended to, her thought flew at once to the father and mother of the dead boy.
"Thor dear, I know exactly what I'm going to do about them, if you'll let me."
It was early morning by the time she said that, and all that was immediately pressing was over. Claude was lying in one of the spare rooms that had been prepared for him, and Dr. Noonan, together with the four or five grave, burly men, Irish-Americans as far as she could judge, who had been in and about the house all night hunting for traces of the crime, had gone away. Those who were still beating the shrubbery and the grounds were not in view from the library windows. Maggs and his wife were in the house, as well as Dearlove and Brightstone, getting it ready for re-occupation, since it was but seemly that the dread guest who had come under its roof should be decently lodged.
Thor, having spent some hours before the stupefied village authorities, was surprised and obscurely disappointed not to be put under arrest. Public disgrace would have appeased in a measure the clamor of self-accusation. To be treated with respect and taken at his word in his account of what had happened between himself and Claude was like an insult to a martyr's memory. When dismissed to his home he found it hard to go.
Having dragged himself back through the gray morning light, it was to discover strange wonders wrought in the immediate surroundings. Lois and her four assistants had whisked the coverings from the furniture and restored something like an air of life. Even the library, having been sufficiently noted and described, had been set in what was approximately order, the broken picture taken from its nail and the broken window hidden by a curtain.
On the threshold of the room Thor paused, shrinking from a spot which henceforth he must regard as cursed. But Lois insisted. "Come in, Thor dear; come in." She felt it imperative that he should overcome on the instant anything in the way of terrible association. He must counteract remorse; he must not let himself be haunted. She herself sat still, therefore, with the restrained demeanor of one who has seen nothing in the circumstances with which she has not been able to cope. Pale, with dark rings under the eyes betraying the inner effect of the night of stress, she nevertheless carried herself as if equal to confronting developments graver still. The strength she inspired came from rising to the facts as to some tremendous matter of course.
Now that there was a lull in the excitement she had been quietly discussing the conditions with Uncle Sim and Dr. Hilary. The latter went forward as Thor, tall, gaunt, red-eyed, the wound in his forehead stanched with plaster, advanced into the room.
"You're face to face with a great moral test, me dear Thor," he said, laying his hands on the young man's shoulders, "but you'll rise to it."
Thor started back, less in indignation than in horror. "Rise? Me?"
"Yes, you, me dear Thor. You'll climb up on it and get it under your feet. The best use we can make of mistake and calamity is to stand on them and be that much higher up. I don't care what your sin has been or what your self-reproach. Now that they're there, you'll utilize them for your spiritual growth. Neither do I say God help you! for I'm convinced in me soul that He's doing it."
Thor moved uneasily from under the weight of the benedictory hands. It was as part of his rejection of mercy that he muttered, "I don't know anything about Him."
"Don't you, now? Well, that's not so important. He knows all about you. It's not what we know about God, but what God knows about us that tells most in the long run."
He passed on into the hall, where he picked up his hat and went out. Uncle Sim, who, with more of Don Quixote in his face than ever, had been pacing up and down the room, threw over his shoulder, "Always said you were on the side of the angels, Thor—and you are."
Thor found his way wearily to the chimney-piece, where he stood with his face buried in his hands and his back to his two companions. He groaned impatiently. "Ah, don't talk about angels!"
Uncle Sim continued his pacing. "But I will. Now's the time. What, after all, are they but the forces in life that make for the best, and who's ever been on their side more than you?"
Thor groaned again. "What good does that do me now?"
"This good, that when you've been with them they'll be with you, and don't you forget it! Life doesn't forsake the children who've been trying to serve it, not even when they lose control of themselves for a few minutes and do—do what they're sorry for afterward."
Thor writhed. "I killed Claude."
"Oh no, you didn't, Thor dear," Lois said, quietly. "It's wrong for you to keep saying so. We can see perfectly well what has happened, can't we, Uncle Sim? If Claude revived while you were away and went out to get more air, and some one, as you think, was lurking in the shrubbery—"
"But if it hadn't been for me—"
"As far as that goes I might as well say, If it hadn't been for me. I've told you how he came to me two days ago and how I discouraged him. We're all involved—you no more than the rest of us."
"If he is involved more than the rest of us," Uncle Sim declared, "it's all the more reason why the good forces by which he's stood should now stand by him. It's a matter of common experience to all who've ever made the test that they do." He turned more directly to Thor. "There's a verse in one of those old songs I'm fond of quoting at you—I'll never trouble you with another," he promised, hurriedly, in answer to a movement of protest on his nephew's part, "if you'll only listen to this. It's right to the point, and runs this way: 'The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.' They're camping round about you now, Thor, as I've always told you they would."
Thor raised his head just enough to say savagely over his shoulder, "But when I never have feared Him, in the way you mean—and don't."
"Oh, but you have—and do. There's two types for that sort of thing, both sketched in graphic style by the Master. There's the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, of whom one said to his father, 'I go, sir,' and went not. The other said, 'I will not,' but went. 'Whether of them twain,' the Master asks, 'did the will of his father?' I leave it to yourself, Thor."
Unable to escape from this ingenious pardon that caught and blessed him whether he would or no, Thor remained silent, while the uncle addressed himself to the niece. "I'll be off now, Lois, but I'll come back before long and bring Amy. We'll stay here. The house'll need to have people in it, to make it look as if it was lived in, till Archie and Ena can be got at and brought home."
Thor turned and looked from the one to the other distressfully. "Poor father and mother! What about them?"
It was then that Lois showed that the matter had already received her attention. "Thor, dear, I know exactly what I'm going to do, if you'll let me."
She had been so efficient throughout the night that both men listened expectantly while she sketched her plan. She would cable the facts as succinctly as she could put them to her own father and mother, who were in their petit trou pas cher on the north coast of France. They would then cross to England and break the news to Mr. and Mrs. Masterman. The very fact of the breach between her parents on the one side and the bereaved couple on the other was an additional reason for charging the former with the errand of mercy. Where so much had been taken it was the more necessary to rally what remained.
Having expressed his approval of these suggestions, Uncle Sim took his departure.
"Where is he?" Thor asked at once.
Though she rose, she lingered to say, with a manner purposely kept down to the simplest and most matter-of-fact plane: "You'll come up to the house and have breakfast, won't you, Thor? It will be ready about eight." As he began to demur on the ground that he couldn't eat, she insisted. "Oh, but you must. You know that yourself. You'll feel better, too, when you've had a bath. You can't take one here, because Mrs. Maggs hasn't put the towels out. Cousin Amy will attend to that when she comes down."
These and similar maternal counsels having been given and received, she led the way into the hall, only to pause again at the foot of the stairs. "I shall go out now to send my cablegram to mamma. The sooner I get it off the better it will be, so that they can cross from Havre to Southampton to-night. I've got it all thought out and condensed, and I shall write it in French so as to keep it from the people in our own office here. I suppose that everything will be in the papers by the afternoon, and we shall have to accept the publicity." Seeing the pain in his face, she took the opportunity to say: "Oh, we can do that well enough, Thor dear. We mustn't be afraid of it. We mustn't flinch at anything. Whatever has to come out will get its significance only from the way we bear it; and we can bear it well."
Having advanced a few steps up the stairs, she turned again on the first landing, speaking down toward him as he mounted. "If possible, I should like to tell Rosie myself. It will be a shock to her, of course; but I want to be with her when she has to meet it. Don't you think I ought to be?" On his expressing some form of mute agreement, she continued: "Then, if you approve, I shall telephone to Jim Breen, asking him to bring her to see me. Rosie will guess, by my sending for her, that something strange has happened. I shall word my message to her in that way."
Her last appeal was made to him as she stood with one hand on the knob of the door beyond which Claude was lying. "Thor dear, I hope you get at the truth of the things Uncle Sim and Dr. Hilary have been saying. There's a great message to you there. You are on the side of the good things, you know. You always have been, and always will be."
He shook his head. "It's too late to say that to me now."
"Oh no, it isn't! And what's also not too late to say is that you mustn't let yourself be ridden by remorse." His haggard eyes seeming to ask her how he could help it, she continued: "Remorse is one of the most futile things we know anything about. It can't undo the past, while it destroys the present and poisons the future."
He was almost indignant. "But when you've—?"
"When you've given way as you say you gave way last night? You brace yourself against doing it again. You make it a new starting-point. Isn't that it?"
"Yes, but if you're like me!"
With her free hand she brushed back the shock of dark hair from his forehead. It was the first touch of personal contact between them since his sudden reappearance. "If one is like you, Thor, of course it's harder. You're a terrific creature. I begin to see that now. I never took it in before, because in general you're so restrained. I know it's the people who are most restrained who can be swept most terribly by passion—but I hadn't expected it of you. Even so, it's the sort of thing which only goes with something big in the soul—"
He put up a hand protestingly. "Don't!"
"But I must. It ought to be said. You should understand it. Fundamentally—I see it quite plainly now—you're the big primitive creature that's only partially tamed by the tenderest of tender hearts. Do you know what you remind me of?—of a great St. Bernard dog that asks nothing better than to love every one and save life, but which when it's roused...! You see what I mean," she went on, with a kind of soothing, serious cajolery. "Thor dear, I was never so afraid of you as I've been this night, and I never"—loved was what she was going to say, but, as on the day in the winter woods, she suppressed the word for another—"I never admired you so much. I'm going to make a confession. What you say you felt toward Claude is what I've often felt myself in—in glimpses. God knows I don't say that to malign him. I shouldn't say it at all if it were not to point out that you wouldn't have done him any more harm—not when it came to the act—than I myself. Would you, now?"
He hung his head, murmuring, brokenly, "No."
"What we've got to see is that you're very human, isn't it? and that's what they mean—Uncle Sim and Dr. Hilary—when they say that you're face to face with a great moral test. They mean that after you've used what—what's happened within the last few hours—as you can use it—as you can use it, Thor dear—you'll be a far stronger man than you were before—and you were a strong man already."
With eyes downcast he murmured words to the effect that it was difficult to see the way.
"Won't the way be to take each new thing as it comes—and there are some very hard things still to come, you know!—as a step to climb by, to get it under our feet as something that holds us up instead of over our heads as something that crushes us down? Won't that be the way? It may be like climbing a Calvary, but all the same we shall be there—up instead of down—and," she added, with a smile so faint that it was in her eyes rather than on her lips, "and you know, Thor darling, that no one is ever on a Calvary alone."
With these words she turned the handle of the door, leading him into a room from which the morning light was only partially excluded, and about which vases and bowls of roses had already been set.
Claude was lying naturally, wearing a suit of his own pajamas, white with a little pink stripe, his face turned slightly and, as it were, expectantly toward the two who approached. Having entered the room first, Lois kept to the background, leaving Thor to go to the bedside alone.
The difference between the dead Claude and the sleeping one was in the expression. In the sleeping Claude the features were always as if chiseled in marble, and, like marble, cold. The dead Claude's face, on the contrary, radiated that which might have passed for warmth and life. The look was one he would have worn if mystified and pleased by something he was trying to understand. In any other case Thor would have explained away this phenomenon on grounds purely physiological; but since it was Claude he found himself swept by an invading wonder. He knew what people more credulous than himself would say. They would say that on the instant of the great change toward which he had been so suddenly impelled even poor Claude, with his narrow earthly vision, had been dowered with an increase of perception that bewildered and perhaps rejoiced him. Thor couldn't say this himself; but he could wonder. Was it possible that Claude, with this pleasing, puzzled dawn upon his face, could have entered into phases of life more vivid than any he had left behind? Thor found the question surging within his soul; but before he could silence it with any of his customary answers he heard the counsel of wise old Hervieu of the Institut Pasteur: "Ne niez jamais rien."
But his need was emotional and not philosophical. Stooping, he kissed once more the lips on which there was this quiver of a new life that almost made them move, and sank on his knees beside the bed. Lois, who knew that beyond any subsequent moment this would be the one of last farewell, slipped softly from the room and closed the door behind her. She remembered as she did so that apart from her timid touch on his hair there had been no greeting between her husband and herself since his cry to her as she sat on the balcony in the darkness; but perhaps the substitute for love didn't call for it.
She went down-stairs to carry out her intentions of ringing up Jim Breen and sending her cablegram to France. Since the necessity for doing the former would take her to her own house, she would have the chance of changing her dress before the relative publicity of the telegraph-office in the Square. She would need also to explain the circumstances to her servants, who by this hour would be moving about the house and might be alarmed on finding that her room had not been occupied. The door to the garden portico being that which would probably be unlocked, she turned into Willoughby's Lane, where her attention was caught by the sight of two men coming down the hill.
What she saw was a young man helping an older one. The old man leaned heavily on his companion, hobbling with the weariness of one who can barely drag himself along.
Lois was seized by sudden faintness; but a saving thought restored her. It was no more than the prompting to give this spent wayfarer a cup of coffee as he passed her door, but it met the instant's need. By a deliberate effort of the will she banished every suggestion beyond this kindly impulse. If there were graver arguments to urge themselves, they were for others rather than for her.
* * * * *
That she was not the only person within eight or ten hours to be startled by the sight of that little old man was abundantly evidenced later. John Stanchfield, Elias Palmer, Harold Ormthwaite, and Nathan Ridge, all farmers or market-gardeners of the Colcord district, testified to frights and "spooky feelings" on being accosted by a dim gray figure plodding along the Colcord road in the lonely interval between midnight and morning. The dim gray figure seemed to have recognized the different "teams" by the section of the road through which they jolted or by their flickering lamps.
"That you, 'Lias?"
"Why, yes! Who be you? Darned if it ain't Jasper Fay! What under the everlastin' canopy be you a-doin' this way so late at night?—so early in the mornin', as you might say."
"My poor boy! To be let out at five!"
Grunts of sympathy and inquiries concerning the nature of the "truck" being taken to market made up the rest of the conversation, which ended in a mutual, "So long!"
With John Stanchfield and Harold Ormthwaite the exchange of salutations had been on similar lines. No one but old Nathan Ridge had had the curiosity to ask: "What you trampin' the eight mile for? Could have took the train at Marchfield, and got out at the jail door."
"We-ell, the trains didn't just suit. Marchfield's three mile from my place, and if it comes to trampin' three mile you might as well make it eight."
"Guess you're pretty nigh tuckered out, ain't you?"
"We-ell, I'm some tired. Been takin' it easy, though. Left home about eight o'clock last night and just strolled along. Fact is, Nathan, I had to be out o' my little place last night root and branch, and it's kind of eased my mind like to be footin' it through the dark."
"Guess you feel pretty bad, don't you?"
"Well, I did. Don't so much now."
"Got used to it?"
"No, it ain't that so much. It's just that if I've suffered, others will—" But according to Mr. Ridge further explanation was withheld, the speaker going on disappointingly to say: "Guess I'll be keepin' along. Hope you'll get your price on them pease. Awful sight of them in the market after this last dry spell."
So Jasper Fay trudged on. He trudged on patiently, with the ease of a man accustomed all his life to plodding through the soil, though now and then he paused. He paused for breath or for a minute's repose, and sometimes to listen. He listened most frequently to sounds behind him as if expecting pursuit; he listened to the barking of dogs, the gallop of grazing horses across the dark pastures, or to the occasional bray of a motorist's horn. When nothing happened, he went on again, though with each renewal of the effort his footsteps lagged more wearily.
Dawn was gray by the time he had come face to face with the long, grim house of sorrow. It was grim unintentionally, grim in spite of well-meant efforts to cheer it up and make it alluring, at least to the passer-by. For him ampelopsis had been allowed to clamber over the red-brick walls; for him a fine piece of lawn was kept neatly cut; for him the national flag floated during daylight over a grotesque pinnacle; for him a fountain plashed on feast-days. Neither fountain nor flag nor sward nor vine was visible except to the outsider, but it was for him the effect was planned. For him, too, a little common had been set apart on the other side of the roadway and garnished with a wooden bench under a noble, fan-shaped elm. Jasper Fay sat down on the bench as he had sat down on it many a time before, hunched and weary.
For the three years, or nearly, in which Matt had been shut up here the father had spent with him as many as possible of the minutes allowed for intercourse, prolonging the sense of communion by sitting and staring at the walls. In times past he had stared in patient longing for the moment of the boy's release; but this morning he only stared. Behind the staring, thought was too inactive for either retrospect or forecast; and thought was inactive because both past and future now contained elements too big for the overtaxed mind to deal with. He could only sit wearily and expectantly on the bench, watching, at the end of one of the long wings, a small gray door on which he had been told to keep his eyes.
After the first flicker of light the day came slowly. The lowlands around the prison were shrouded in a thin gray mist, through which Lombardy poplars and warders' cottages and prison walls loomed ghostly. When, a few minutes after the clock in the pinnacle had struck five, the gray door opened soundlessly and a shadowy form slipped out, the effect was like that of a departed spirit materializing within human ken.
The shadowy form shook hands with some one who remained unseen, and after it had taken a step or two forward the soundless door shut it out. It looked timorous and lone in the wide, ghostly landscape, advancing a few paces, stopping, searching, advancing again, but uncertainly. As it emerged more fully into view it disclosed a bundle in the hand, a light gray suit, and a common round straw hat. It moved as though testing ground that might give way beneath it or as trying the conditions of some new and awesome sphere of existence into which it had suddenly been thrust.
With all his remaining forces concentrated into one sharp, eager look, Jasper Fay crept forward. The ground-mist blurring his outlines, the two dim figures were face to face before the son perceived his father's presence or approach. On doing so he started back.
"Why, father! What's the matter? You look"—his voice dropped to faintness—"you look—terrible."
But the father's faculties were already too exhausted to catch the movement and note of dismay. He was drained even of emotion. All he could do was to extend his hand with the casual greeting: "Well, Matt! How are you? Come to meet you."
He explained, however, the immediate program, which was to go by the five-thirty train to Marchfield, whence by taking the short cut through Willoughby's Lane and County Street they could reach home for breakfast by seven. Home, it had to be told, was no longer the little place on the north bank of the pond, but a three-family house on the Thorley estate, with a "back piazza" for yard and nothing at all in the way of garden. A home without a garden to an old man who had lived in gardens all his life was more of an irony than a home without a rooftree, but even this evoked from the sufferer only a mild statement of the fact. Mildness, resigned and apparently satisfied, marked all the turnings of the narrative unfolded as they plodded to the station, while the son took the opportunity to scan at his leisure those changes in the sunken face that had shocked him at the moment of encounter.
It was no new tale that Matt heard, but it pieced together the isolated facts made known to him in the few letters he had received and the scattered bits of family news he had been able to pick up on visiting-days. For all of it he was prepared. He would have been prepared for it even if he had received no hint in advance, since it was nothing but what the weak must expect from the strong and the poor from the rich. "We'll change all that," was his only comment; but he made it whenever he found an opening.
Only once did he permit himself to go beyond the dogged repetition of this phrase. "Got in with some fellows there"—he jerked his head backward in the direction from which they had come—"who've thought the whole business out. Could always get together—us trusties. Internationals them fellows were—the I. I. A—heard of 'em, haven't you? No bread and treacle in their program. Been handing that out too long."
The difference between the face Matt Fay had looked forward to seeing and the one which was now turned up to him was that between a mirror and a pane of glass. In a mirror there would have been reflection and responsiveness. Here there was nothing but a blank, shiny stare, vitreous and unintelligent. Jasper Fay, it seemed to his son, had passed into some pitiful and premature stage of dotage.
To the released prisoner the change was but one more determining factor in his own state of mind. He was prepared to find his mother in worse case than his father, and Rosie in worse case still. Poor little Rosie! She was the traditional victim of the rich man's son. So be it. Since it was for him to see that she was avenged, he asked nothing better. The more wrongs there were besides his own, the more he was justified in joining the campaign of blood and fire, of eloquence and dynamite, to which he felt a call.
He thought sullenly over these things as the train jogged through the rich fields and market-gardens on the way to Marchfield, and the quiet little man with the glassy stare and the gentle, satisfied, senile smile sat silent in the seat beside him. Matt Fay was glad of the silence. It left him the more free to gaze at the meadows and pastures, at the turnips and carrots and cabbages, of which the dewy glimpses fled by in successive visions of wonder. It was difficult not to believe that the sky had grown bluer, the earth greener, and the whole round of nature more productive during the years in which he had been "put away." His surprise in this recognition of the beauty of the world gave a poignant, unexpected blend to his wrath at having been compelled to forfeit it.
He got the same effect from every bird and bee and butterfly that crossed his path between Marchfield and the village. No yellowing spray of goldenrod, no blue-eyed ragged-robin, but symbolized the blessings of which he had been cheated. In proportion as the sun broke through the bank of cloud, burning away the mist and drawing jeweled rays from the dewdrops, the new recruit in revolution found his zeal more eager to begin. The very flagging and stumbling of the steps that tottered beside his own intensified his ardor.
"It was more strange than I dare tell you, mother dear," Lois added to the letter of details which she wrote at odd minutes during the day, "that that poor old man should have broken down just at our door. There was a kind of fatality in it, as if he had come to throw himself at our feet. The son would have gone on if his father had been able to drag himself another yard; but he wasn't. It was all we could do to get him up the portico steps and into the nearest seat.
"I wonder if you remember him—old Mr. Fay? If so, you wouldn't know him now. I can only compare him to a tree that's been attacked at the roots and shrivels and dries in a season. He seems to have passed from sixty to ninety in the course of a few months, as if the very principle of life had failed him. It would be pitiful if it wasn't worse. I mean that we're afraid it may be worse, though that is a matter which as yet I mustn't write about.
"The son puzzles me—or rather he would if there were not something in him like all the other Fays, desperate and yet attractive, appealing and yet hostile. He looks like his sister, which means that he's handsome, with those extraordinary eyes of the shade of the paler kinds of jade, and a "finish" to the features quite unusual in a man. The prison shows in his pallor, in his cropped hair, and in something furtive in the glance which, Thor says, will probably pass as he gets used again to freedom. I remember that Dr. Hilary once said of him that he's the stuff out of which they make revolutionaries and anarchists. In that case I should think he might be a valuable addition to the cause, for, as with Rosie, there's a quality in him that wins you at the very moment when you're most repelled. He makes you sorry for him. We're sorry for them all. Even now, with poor Claude lying there, we've no other feeling than that. We've had enough of retaliations and revenges. Nothing could prove their uselessness more thoroughly than what happened here last night. If we could let everything rest where it is, leaving the crime to be its own punishment, God knows we would do it gladly."
Later in the day she continued: "I wish you could have seen the meeting between Thor and that poor fellow who has just come out of jail. Thor was superb—so gentle and kind and tender, and all with an air that tragic sorrow has made noble. There are things I cannot tell you about him—that Thor must tell to his father if they're ever told at all—but this I can say even now, that if any good is to come out of all this it will be through Thor more than any one. He doesn't see his way as yet, but he'll find it. He'll find it by the same impulse that made him march up to Matt Fay, putting his hand on his shoulder and looking him in the eyes with a simple, man-to-man sympathy which no one could resist. The very fact that Thor feels so deeply that he's been to blame—very, very much to blame—gives intensity now to his kindness. As for Matt Fay, he colored and stammered and shuffled, and though he tried to maintain his bravado, it was without much success. He was still more embarrassed when, after the old man had finished his coffee and was able to move again, Thor ordered Sims to bring round the car and drive the two of them home. We said nothing to them about Claude. I couldn't have borne its being mentioned to them here—or to have been obliged to watch the effect. It would be like having to look on at a vivisection. There are things I don't want to see or to know. All that is really imperative is that, whatever the outcome, they should consider us their friends."
The letter was not finished till she was alone that night. She wrote carefully at first, choosing just the right words. "Thor is sleeping at the other house, and may continue to do so for some time. He seems to want to be there—as you can understand. Not only does he make it more bearable for Uncle Sim and Cousin Amy, but he gets a kind of assuagement to his grief in being near Claude. You needn't be surprised, therefore, if he remains a little longer—perhaps longer than you might expect."
Up to this point she had been cautious, but for a minute something less controlled escaped her. "Oh, mother darling, I want to be a good wife to Thor, as you've been a good wife to papa. He needs me, and yet in his inmost heart he's bearing this great trial alone. Don't misunderstand me. I haven't broken down. Perhaps if I could have broken down a little it would have brought me nearer to him. But I'm not near to him. There's the truth. I'm infinitely far away from him. In a sense I'm infinitely below him; for though I've been right in certain matters in which he has been wrong, I feel strangely his inferior. He has things on his conscience for which I know he finds it hard to see the way of repentance—and I have nothing on mine—nothing, that is, but a vague discomfort and a sense of not being wholly right—and yet I feel that he's—how shall I put it?—that he's the nearer to God of us two. He needs me, and I ought to help him; but it's like helping some one who's on a tower while I stay on the ground. Oh, mother darling, why can't I be to him what you've been to papa? What is it that men get from women which saves them? Thor needs saving just as much as other men, though you mightn't suppose so. I know you think him perfect, and I used to think the same; but he's not. He has faults—grave ones. I even know that he's weak where I'm strong, and that the thing he needs is the thing I can supply—only I don't supply it. Mother dear, you've given it to papa or he wouldn't be recovering as he is. Why can't I give it, too? He's there in that house, and I'm here in this. His heart is aching for grief, and mine because I don't know how to comfort him—and all because the glimmer of light that leads me on isn't strong enough. It's better than nothing; I don't deny that. I can grope my way by it when I might expect to be utterly bewildered—but, oh, mother dear, it's not love."
But having read this page in the morning, she suppressed and destroyed it. After the night's rest she was more sure of herself. Since she had any clue at all she felt it wise to possess her soul in patience and see to what issue it would lead her. For the passages she withdrew she substituted, therefore, such an account of Rosie as would put her mother in touch with that portion of Claude's life.
"It's hard to know how the little thing feels just now," she went on, when the main facts had been given, "because she's so stunned by dread. It's the same dread that oppresses us all, but which is so much more terrible for them. For poor little Rosie the things that have happened are secondary now to what may happen still. That almost blots Claude out of her mind. Luckily she has a great deal of pluck—of what in our old-fashioned New England phrase was called grit. That she'll win in the end, and come out at last to a kind of happiness, I haven't the least doubt, especially as she has that fine fellow, Jim Breen, to turn to. You remember him, don't you? It's touching to see his tenderness to Rosie, now that she has such a need of him. It's the more touching because she doesn't give him anything but the most indirect encouragement. He knows perfectly well that whatever he gets from her now will be only her second best, but he's grateful even for that.
"She came to me yesterday morning of her own accord, before I could get word to her. William Sweetapple had heard the news and told her as he passed the house where they have just gone to live in Susan Street. Rosie had been early to the door to take in the milk, and Sweetapple was going by. She flew here at once. I had expected her to be crushed—but she wasn't. As I've just said, she seemed to be looking forward rather than looking back. She was looking forward to what I've hinted at and dare not say, and setting her face as a flint. That is how I can best describe her—and yet it was as a flint with a wonderful shine on it, as if something had come to her in the way of inner illumination that used not to be in her at all. Jim Breen is fond of saying that this is not the Rosie of a year or two ago, and it isn't. It's not even the Rosie of the episode with Claude. Her face is now like a lighted lamp as compared with the time when it was blank. I'm not enough in her confidence to know exactly what has wrought the change, so that I can only guess. It seems to me the same thing that has given the mother a new view of life, only that Rosie has probably come to it by another way. They're strangely alike, those two—each so tense, so strong, so demanding, each broken on the wheel, and each with that something firm and fine in the grain to which the wheel can do no more than impart a higher patina of polishing. They seem to me to bring down into our rather sugary life some of the old, narrow, splendidly austere New England qualities that have almost passed away and to make them bloom—bloom, that is, as the portulacca blooms, in a parched soil where any other plant would bake, and yet with an almost painfully vivid brilliancy. Doesn't George Meredith say in one of his books—is it The Egoist?—that the light of the soul should burn upward? Well, that's what it seems to do in them—to burn upward with a persistent glow, in spite of conditions that might reasonably put it out."
"The old man is a mystery to me," she wrote later, "chiefly because it is so impossible to connect him with any of the things we fear. He seemed so small and shrunken and harmless as he sat on the portico yesterday morning, drinking his coffee and munching a slice of toast, that he appealed to me only as something to be taken care of. That sinister element which I've seen in him of late had gone altogether, leaving nothing but his old, faded, dreamy mildness, contented and appeased. That is the really uncanny thing, that he seems satisfied. He showed no fear of us at all, nor the slightest nervousness, not even when Thor came. Thor was startled to see him there at first, but I managed to whisper a word or two in French, so that he went straight up to Fay and shook hands. I was glad of that. It put us in the right attitude—that of not trying to find a victim or looking for revenge."