The heart attacks which had been painted as such sure death had been a greater threat to the girl than to the man whose heart was physically involved. There had been two of them and both had been survived. William Williams was a man who was always dying, but who never died. Yet these seizures served their purpose since they kept the daughter freshly reminded that a sword of Damocles hung over her—and that her father must not be crossed. It became a thought with which she lived, with which she slept, until it carried her to more and more absurd lengths of self-effacement and ate out the heart of her independence. Of Eben Tollman she no longer thought as a man old enough to be her father and as impersonal as the Sphinx.
If he lacked the fire and buoyancy which had made association with Stuart Farquaharson a thing of light and color and sparkle, so did her whole life lack that fire in these gray days. So did she herself lack it, she told herself wistfully. At all events he came nearer being fides Achates than any one else. Stuart was a memory and she was trying very hard to make him even less than that—only the gnawing ache in her heart wouldn't let her.
Yet when Tollman shifted her abstract acceptance of what he meant to her to a question of a concrete application, she felt the sudden sinking of despair.
All afternoon her father had been petulant and reminiscent. He had seemed perversely bent on committing a righteous suicide by forcing her to make him angry. He had cast into damnation all the "fads" and "isms" of an ungodly present and, since he judged the time had come to point a moral, he had buried Stuart Farquaharson at the bottom of the heap.
Even now Conscience winced under these tirades. The truth was that she was heart-broken; that the image of Stuart, despite his feet of clay, was still shrined in her life. But she was fighting that and she did not know that the fight was hopeless.
So to-night, as she sat with a sewing basket in her lap and Tollman sat across from her in the chair he had so often occupied of late, the surprise came.
"Conscience," he said, and something in the tone of his voice caused her to look suddenly up, "I've tried to be your friend because I've known that it was only that way I could be anything."
Suddenly his voice leaped with a fierceness of which she had never thought it capable. To her he had always been sort of extinct volcano, and now he broke into eruption. "Must it always be only that? Is there no hope for me?"
The piece of sewing in her hand dropped suddenly to her lap with the needle thrust half through. She sat as if in tableau—a picture of arrested motion.
She should have foreseen that the comfortable and platonic relation could not last—but she had not foreseen it. It came with a shock and in the wake of the shock came crowding pictures of all the rest of life, painted in these dun tints of New England lethargy from which she had prayed to be delivered. Then slowly and welling with disquiet, her eyes rose to his and she found them full of suspense.
"I suppose," she answered in a bewildered tone, "I ought to have known. But it's been so satisfying just as it was—that I didn't pause—to analyze."
"Couldn't it still be satisfying, dear?" He took an eager step forward. "Am I too much of a fossil?" He paused and then added with a note of hurt. "I have felt young, since I've been in love with you."
The middle-aged lover stood bending forward, his face impatiently eager and his attitude as stiffly alert as that of a bird dog when the quail scent strikes into its nostrils.
"I've accepted all you had to give," she said with the manner of one in the confessional, "and I never stopped to think that you might want something more than I was giving." Still he waited and she hurriedly talked on. "I must be honest with you. I owe you many debts, but that comes first of all. I've tried to forget—tried with every particle of resolution in me—but I can't. I still love him. I think I'll always love him."
Tollman bowed. He made no impassioned protest and offered no reminder that the man who still held her affection had proven himself an apostate, but he said quietly. "I had hoped the scar was healed, Conscience, for your own sake as well as mine. So long as I knew it hurt you, I didn't speak."
For the first time in months tears started to her eyes and she felt that she was wounding one who had practiced great self-sacrifice. He spoke no more of his hopes until some time after the news came of Stuart's participation in scandal.
At first Conscience instinctively refused that news credence, but in many subtle and convincing ways corroboration drifted in and her father, with his prosecutor's spirit, pieced the fragments together into an unbroken pattern. Until this moment there had lurked in Conscience's heart a faint ghost of hope that somehow the breach would be healed, that Stuart would return. Now even the ghost was dead. She was sick, unspeakably sick: with the heart-nausea of broken hope and broken faith.
Much of what she heard might be untrue, but it seemed established beyond doubt that from her and from his early ideals—like the oath of Arthur's knights—he had gone to careless living. He had played lightly with a woman's honor and his own, and had not come out of the matter unsoiled. Now nothing mattered much and if Tollman claimed the reward of his faithfulness and her father would died happier for it why should she refuse to consider them?
In these days the old man's urgency of Tollman's suit was rarely silenced, but one afternoon he pitched it to a new key, and the girl's habitual expression of weariness gave way to one of startled amazement.
"Of one phase of the matter," he said, "I have never spoken. I refrained because Eben was unwilling that you should know, but justice is justice—you should honor your benefactor."
"Honor my benefactor? I don't understand."
The old man shook his lion-like head and, out of the parchment of his bony face, his eyes burned grimly.
"This house—this farm—all of it—we have only by the sufferance of Eben's generosity, and yet I've heard men call him close."
Conscience thought that she had lost the possibility of being stunned, but now she sat speechless as her father continued.
"I never was a competent business man and I put affairs in Eben's hands too late. He concealed from me how dire my straits were—and our income continued—but it was coming out of his resources—not mine. If Tollman had chosen to demand payment, we would have been wiped out."
"How long have you known this?"
"Since shortly after my affliction came upon me."
Conscience moved over and stood by the window. She pressed her temples with her finger tips and spoke in a dead quiet. "You have known—all that time—and you never told me. You have urged his suit and you never let me guess that my suitor had already—bought me and paid for me."
With a low and bitter laugh—or the fragment of a laugh, she turned and left the room.
After weeks of patient silence, Tollman asked once more, "Conscience, is there still no hope for me?" To his surprise she met his questioning gaze very directly and answered,
"That depends on your terms."
"I make no terms," he hastened to declare. "I only petition."
"If you ask a wife who can be a real wife to you—who can give you all her love and life—then the answer must still be no," she went on steadily with something like a doggedness of resignation. "I can't lie to you. I have only a broken heart. Beyond friendship and gratitude, I have nothing to offer you. I can't even promise that I will ever stop loving—him. But—" her words came with the flatness of unending soul-fag—"I suppose I can give you the lesser things; fidelity, respect; all the petty allegiance that can go on without fire or spirit."
"I will take what you can give me," he declared, and at the sudden ring of autumnal ardor in his voice and the avid light in his eyes, she found herself shivering with fastidious distaste. She did not read the eyes with full understanding, yet instinctively she shrank, for they held the animal craving of a long-suppressed desire—the physical love of a man past his youth which can satisfy itself with mere possession. "I will take what you can give me, and I shall win your love in the end. I have no fear; no doubts. I lack the lighter charms of a youthful cavalier, but I believe I have still the strength and virility of a man." He swelled a little with the strutting spirit of the mating male. "You will learn that my heart is still the heart of a boy where you are conceded and that our life won't be a shadowed thing."
"I must have time to think," she said faintly. "I don't—don't know yet."
Driven by wanderlust and an unappeasable discontent, Stuart Farquaharson had been in many remote places. Around those towns which were Meccas for tourists he made wide detours. His family had jealously kept its honor untarnished heretofore and though he bore himself with a stiffer outward pride than ever, he inwardly felt that fingers of scandal were pointing him out, through no misdeed of his own. Now he was back in Cairo from the Sudan and the upper Nile, almost as brown and hard of tissue as the Bedouins with whose caravans he had traveled and for the first time in many weeks he could regain touch with his mail. That was a matter of minor importance, but his novel had come from the press on the day he sailed out of New York harbor and perhaps there awaited him at Shepheard's some report from his publisher. That gentleman had predicted success with an abundant optimism. Stuart himself had been sceptical. Now he would know.
He sent his luggage ahead and drifted on foot with the tide. What a place this would be, he reflected, to idle time away with the companionship of love. His eyes narrowed painfully with a memory of how Conscience and he had once talked of spending a honeymoon in Egypt. That seemed as long ago as the age of Egypt itself and yet not long enough to have lost its sting. Grunting and lurching along the asphalt, with bells tinkling from their trappings, went a row of camels and camel-riders. They threaded their unhurried way on cushioned hoofs through a traffic of purring roadsters and limousines. Drawn by undersized stallions, an official carriage clattered by. Its fez-crowned occupant gazed superciliously out as the gaudily uniformed members of his kavasse ran alongside yelling to the crowds to make way for the Pasha! Fakirs led their baboons, magicians carried cobras in wicker trays, and peddlers hawked their scarabs and souvenirs. Against the speckless overhead blue, rose the graceful domes and minarets of mosques and the fringed tops of palms.
Farquaharson lightly crossed the terrace at Shepheard's Hotel and traversed the length of the hall to the office at its back where mail is distributed. For him there was a great budget and he carried it out to one of the tables on the awninged terrace which overlooks the street.
Yes, here was the publisher's note. He tore the envelope. "You have become famous," began his enthusiastic sponsor. "The thing has been a knockout—the presses are groaning."
He read that letter and turned to others. A dramatist wished to convert his book into a play ... several magazines wanted to know when his next story would be complete ... two or three clipping bureaus wished to supply him with the comments of the press ... many of the missives bore the marks of much forwarding. Some had followed him half way around the world. Then at the bottom of the pile he found a small but thickly filled envelope. As it peeped out at him from under others his heart leaped wildly and he seized it. It was addressed in the hand of Conscience Williams. She had written to him! Why should she write except to tell him he might come back? Cairo was a wonderful place! The entire world was a wonderful place! A street fakir thrust a tray of scarabs up from the sidewalk and grinned. Farquaharson grinned back and tossed him backsheesh. Then he opened his missive. A young British army officer looked on idly from the next table, amused at the boyish enthusiasm of the American. As the American read the officer saw the delight die out of his eyes and the face turn by stages to the seeming of a mummy.
Conscience had written a letter in which she suggested that, now at least, they might say farewell in all friendliness. She was going to marry Tollman, to whose great kindness she paid a generous tribute. The date was not set but it would be some time that winter.
"I've had a great deal of time to think and little else to do, Stuart," she wrote, and at this point the penmanship had suffered somewhat in its steadiness. "We have both had some troublesome times, but isn't there a great deal we can remember of each other with pleasure? Can't it be a memory which we need not avoid? I was bitterly rebellious and heart-broken when you ignored the note in which I asked you, as humbly as I could, to come back, but that is over now—"
A note which asked him to come back! The letter fell from Farquaharson's fingers. His hands themselves fell limp to the table. He sat stupefied—staring and licking his lips.
The English officer rose and came over, dropping a kindly hand on his shoulder.
"I beg pardon, sir," he said, "but are you ill? Can't I get a nip of brandy?"
Stuart turned his head stupidly and looked up. Then slowly he pulled himself together, with a shamed realization that the eyes of a hundred pleasure-seekers had witnessed his collapse. He straightened and set his jaw. "No, thank you. I'm all right," he declared. "I've been in the desert, you see, and—" But the Englishman had nodded and gone back to his table.
Ten minutes later, scornful of over-sea tolls, Farquaharson was filing a cablegram. The letter had said she would be married "some time in the winter." It was now past mid-winter. Would there be time? His hand trembled with his haste as if the saving of a few seconds could avail.
"Received no note from you. Wrote to you that night begging a chance," he scribbled, as his head swam with the effort and frenzy of his suspense. "Horrible mistake has occurred. Matter of life and death and thousand times more than that that you take no step till I see you. Am sailing by first boat. Wait."
That afternoon he dashed across the gangplank of a P. and O. steamer at Alexandria just as the last whistle blew. While the propellers churned the Mediterranean waters into a restless wake at the stern, Stuart walked the decks like a man demented. Would there be time? His fingers itched for his watch, because his obsession was the flight of hours. But on the second day out a wireless message came, relaying from Cairo. The man did not dare open it on deck. He took it to his cabin and there with the slowness of deep fear, he unfolded the paper.
Against the stupor of Stuart Farquaharson's brain, as he sat in the small stateroom of the P. and O. steamer, beat the fear of what he might read.
Subconsciously his senses recorded small and actual things as the vessel lurched through a heavy sea: the monotonous rat-tat of the brass door-hook against the woodwork, and the alternating scraps of sky and water as the circle of his port hole rose and fell across the line of the horizon.
He was thinking of the letter that had come to Cairo—and lain there so long unopened, but he was spared a knowledge of the suspense with which Conscience had awaited an answer.
She had written it early in the fall and had mailed it endorsed "please forward" in the care of his New York publishers, so that it had played tag with him, never catching him, over the length of Europe and, after that, had zig-zagged along the cities of the Levant and the fringes of Africa.
Meanwhile, the man to whom it was addressed was wandering from the upper Nile to Victoria Nyanza and beyond—where mail routes run out and end. Acknowledging in her thoughts, from the first frost on Cape Cod to the middle of winter, that temporizing only spelled weakness, Conscience had none the less temporized. She said to herself: "Nothing he wrote now would alter matters." Still with a somewhat leaky logic she added: "But I'll give him a month to answer before I fix the date." When the month had passed without result she granted herself other continuances, facing alike, with a gentle obduracy, the pleas of her elderly lover and the importunities of a father who threatened to murder himself with the self-inflicted tortures of impatience.
At length she capitulated to the combined forces of entreaty, cajolery and insistence. The fight was lost.
Through the preparations for that wedding she went without even the simulation of joy or glamour. At least she would be honest of attitude, but days which filled the house with wedding guests brought to her manner a transformation. Her decision was made and if she was to do the thing at all she meant to do it gallantly and with at least the outward seeming of full confidence. She meant to betray to these visitors no lurking misery of spirit; no note of struggle; no vestige of doubt. The eyes which burned apprehensive and terror-stricken, throughout the darkness of interminable nights, were none the less serene and regally assured by day. The groom, too, seemed rejuvenated by such a spirit as sometimes brings to autumn a summer quality more ardent than summer's own. At the end of his fiancee's doubtings, he fatuously told himself, had come conviction. She knew at last how much stauncher a thing was his own dependable strength and ripened manhood than the frothy charm of a half-fledged gallant who had crumpled under the test.
Among the guests who for several days filled both the manse and Tollman's house, were two who were not entirely beguiled by Conscience's gracious and buoyant demeanor. One pair of these observant eyes was violet blue and full of starry freshness. Intimate letters from Conscience, in the old days, had invested Stuart Farquaharson with a romantic guise for their possessor and Eben Tollman scarcely measured up to that standard.
The other pair of eyes was neither young nor feminine, but elderly and penetrating. Though Doctor Ebbett's temples were whitely frosted, he and Eben Tollman had been classmates at Harvard. Now he was to be best man at his friend's belated marriage. The work in which he had made his name distinguished had to do with the human brain—its vagaries as well as its normalities—and his thought was enough in advance of the general to be frequently misunderstood and sometimes a target for lay ridicule.
On the evening after his arrival he sat in Eben Tollman's study with two other men who were also classmates. Tollman himself was still at the manse, and his guests were beguiling themselves with cigars which he had furnished, and whiskey which he had not—and upon which he would have frowned.
Over his glass Carton, the corporation lawyer, irrelevantly suggested:
"Eben seems a boy again. It makes us chaps whose children are almost grown, feel relegated to an elder generation."
"Miss Williams," observed Henry Standing, "has a pretty wit and a prettier face. I wanted to say to her: 'Now, my dear child, if I were twenty years younger—' and then I caught myself up short. I chanced to remember that Eben isn't twenty years younger himself."
Carton nodded thoughtfully. "I can't help feeling that a thing like that is always a bit chancy. Eben was a sober-sided kid in his cradle and the girl is all fire and bloom. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have occurred to her that there's any disparity." He paused, then demanded: "Ebbett, you're a psychologist. What do you think?"
Dr. Ebbett took his cigar from his lips and studied it with deliberation. When he spoke his words were laconic.
"I think it's as dangerous as hell."
"But a young wife will rejuvenate him and keep him young, won't she?"
"It's rarely been done before," retorted the doctor drily. "Moreover, it's not a question of making him young again. A man of our friend's type is born old."
"Oh, come now," protested Carton. "What's the matter with his type?"
Dr. Ebbett paused, listening to the blizzard's shrieking outside, then he replied evenly:
"He's too intensely a New Englander. The somber and narrow man represses one-half of his being and straightway sets up a Mr. Hyde in ambush to make war on his Dr. Jekyl. Our lunatic asylums are full of patients whose repressions have driven them mad. The whole Puritan code is a religion of repression—and it's viciously dangerous."
Dr. Ebbett paused and sent a cloud of cigar smoke outward. His voice abandoned the lecture-room professionalism into which it had fallen.
"But, as you say, that is all academic. Perhaps the bride has youth and humor enough to leaven the whole lump."
Much less abstruse were the thoughts of Eleanor Kent: she of the violet eyes, as she listened to Mary Barrascale's eulogy of Eben Tollman on the day before the wedding. Eleanor could not forget moments which had seemingly escaped Mary's observation: moments when Conscience, believing herself unnoticed, allowed a look of fright to come to her eyes and a line to circle her lips.
"When you told me in your letter that he was so much older than you," declared Mary, her enthusiasm bubbling as the three engaged themselves over the last details of packing, "I simply couldn't bear it,—but he isn't old at all. He's simply charming, and he has such a rare distinction of manner. I feel as if I were talking to a Prime Minister whenever we have a chat."
"Thank you, dear," said Conscience, quietly, and the happy serenity of her eyes seemed genuine—except to Eleanor.
"Of course, at one time," Mary rushed on, "we all thought that you had decided to marry Mr. Farquaharson—and he sounded well worth while from what you told us. It only shows what an easy thing it is to make mistakes. How did you find out yourself, dear?"
Eleanor Kent thought she saw Conscience wince and close her eyes for an instant as though in a paroxysm of pain, but her question came gravely: "How did I find out what?"
"Why, that he was the sort of man that—well, that his mixing up in that Holbury scandal indicated."
The girl who was to be married rose from the trunk over which she had been bending and averted her face, but her voice was evenly calm as she answered:
"I fancy the reports we had of that were exaggerated."
A sudden fire snapped in the violet eyes of Eleanor Kent and her cheeks burned under a rosy gust of anger.
"Mary," she announced with spirit, "Mr. Farquaharson was a friend of Conscience's and I have no doubt he still is. I don't think either of us knows anything about him that gives us the right to criticize him. Have you read his book?"
"Why, no. Of course, I didn't mean to say anything—"
"Well, I advise you to read that book." Stuart's champion tossed her head with the positiveness of conviction. "It's not the kind of novel that a rake could write. It's straight and clean minded, and if what a man chooses to write, indicates what he thinks, he's that sort himself."
At this defense from an unexpected quarter, a light of gratitude kindled in the face of the bride-to-be.
When the day set for the wedding had worn to dusk, Conscience escaped from the guests and made her way slowly to her unlighted room. Her knees were weak and she told herself that this was the natural stage-fright of the altar—but she knew that it was more than that.
As she reached for matches the sound of voices beyond the door arrested her, and the challenge of her own name held her attention.
"She's perfectly lovely," declared Mary Barrascale, whose speech ran to superlatives, "and she's radiantly happy, too. To think that she's being married and we're still in college."
Conscience straightened where she stood near the window. She raised her palms to her temples and stepped back unsteadily until she could lean against the wall. Before her eyes rose a vision of the college campus—another of the care-free dormitory, then the picture dissolved into another and she found herself trembling. Memory was playing tricks and very softly a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, as it had actually whispered long ago in response to these same regrets, "Does it hurt as much as that, dearest?"
She became vaguely conscious of Eleanor's voice again, low pitched and tense.
"I should think, Mary, you would see the truth. You chatter about how happy she is—and she's almost going mad before your eyes. It's ghastly—positively ghastly."
"What in heaven's name do you mean?" Mary's question broke from her in amazement.
"I mean that anyone who wasn't deliberately trying to be deceived ought to see what all this radiant happiness is worth. She's sick with doubt and misgiving. If you ask me I believe it's because she still loves Stuart Farquaharson—and besides I don't believe he was ever given a fair chance." The girl halted and then broke into silent tears. "She's letting them make a sacrifice of her—and I'm utterly ill with the thought of it."
Conscience leaning weakly against the wall, let both hands drop nervelessly at her sides. "I don't believe ... he was ever given a fair chance." Her lips shaped the words she had just heard in a soundless echo.
Was that true? she asked herself, accusingly, and her brain was too confused for a just answer. An avalanche of new doubts rushed down upon her, crushing her reason. She saw in this ceremony a horrible travesty from which she must escape at all costs.... But how? She had no longer the strength to repudiate boldly her settled decision. Her courage was at ebb and she was caught in the grip of unreasoning panic. She would abandon everything and everybody ... she would slip away ... she would be true to herself first and then try afresh to be true to others. In short she was for the time distracted.
She slipped over noiselessly and closed her door. She selected a small traveling bag from the other pieces of luggage packed for her wedding trip.
Then, overcome by sheer emotional exhaustion, she threw herself on her bed where she sobbed quietly in the flickering of the candles. It was so that the bridesmaids found her when they came in their capacity of tire maidens to remind her that she must soon begin dressing for the ceremony.
At once Eleanor had her arms about her friend, while Mary stood by gasping and ineffectual.
Slowly Conscience raised her face and looked miserably from one to the other. Her voice was dead and colorless.
"I heard what you said, Eleanor," she declared. "It's all true.... I can't go through with it."
"But it's too late now, dear!" began Mary Barrascale's horrified voice which Miss Kent silenced with a glance of contempt.
"Thank God, it's not too late—yet," she said calmly. "It's never too late while it's still now. But the bag, dear—what was that?"
Conscience rose and stood unsteadily with a trace of panic lingering in her eyes. She spoke faintly.
"I guess I was quite mad.... I had the impulse to—to run away."
"You can't do that, you know." Eleanor Kent was one of those diminutive and very feminine persons, who in moments of crisis can none the less assume command with the quiet assurance of an admiral on his bridge.
"You have still a perfectly good right to change your mind, but it mustn't be just on impulse. We're going to leave you now for thirty minutes. When the time is up I'll be back and if you want to begin dressing—all right." She paused a moment and then with a defiant stiffening of her slender figure she announced crisply. "And if you don't want to, I'll go downstairs and tell them that you've decided not to be married."
"What will they think of you?" Mary Barrascale had reached a condition from which her contributions to the talk emerged in appalled gasps.
Eleanor wheeled on her. "They can think what they jolly well like," she announced with a fine abandon of recklessness.
Feeling like watchers beside a jury-room door, the two bridesmaids kept vigil, harboring contrary hopes.
Left alone in her room, the girl stood for a while gazing about her as if her wild eyes were seeking for some secret panel that might open in the walls and give her escape. She must think! There was little enough time at best to bring order out of this panic-ridden confusion of her thoughts. But her mind was like a stream in freshet. It could only race and swirl along one channel, and that was the spillway of memories.
Stuart Farquaharson the boy; Stuart the man, coming to her at Chatham; Stuart standing self-governed as her father scourged him with abuse; Stuart the lover; all those semblances passed before her until her world seemed peopled with them, and her old love grew clamorous in resurrection—and insurrection.
In a little while she would be—unless she halted here—holding up her hand for Eben's ring, and at the thought a sickness swept over her. It was impossible. Instead of victory it was, after all, an abject and hideous surrender. She could not face it and all that must come after it.
Then she heard a feeble rap on her door. At the threshold stood the wheelchair to which her father was confined like a slave chained to his seat in the galley. She caught a brief impression of a pair of eyes beyond him: the eyes of Eleanor Kent, full of the message of strength; eyes that seemed to be saying, "Stand firm. Be sure!" But nearer at hand was the face with skin drawn like parchment over its bony angles, deeply lined with suffering, and crowned with a great shock of snowy hair.
The features, though, were only details of setting for the spirit of the keen eyes that had always burned with an eagle fierceness and an unyielding aggressiveness. Now they were different, and as the guests who had brought the chair and its occupant up the stairs and into the room withdrew in silent respect, the daughter's gaze was held by them with a mesmeric force.
It was a face transfigured; a face in which the hardness of fight had died into the serenity of peace.
Angles and wrinkles had become only lines of emphasis for this new tranquillity of the eyes; eyes that might have seen a vision of divine accolade and were at peace.
"My daughter," he said, as soon as they were alone together, and his voice held the music of a benediction, "you are standing at the threshold of your life—and I am near the end of mine, but for the first time in many years, I am content and all my sorrows are paid for."
"Father!" she exclaimed brokenly, but he went on.
"I can now go, knowing that your life is secure on the rock of a stable marriage: all your dangers over. You are making of my poor life a success after all—and its end is a thing of peace. Eben is not as young as you, but his heart is great and his character sincere. In the shadow of his strength you will 'be secure and at peace beside still waters' and I can leave you without fear. In his blood is the steadfastness of Plymouth Rock—ay, and the Rock of Ages and the honor of our forefathers."
The old man broke off, and raised his thin hand to his lean face with a gesture of appealing physical weakness. His enthusiasm had tired him and now a smile came to his lips of unaccustomed sweetness and tenderness. When he spoke again it was in a different tone.
"But you know all that. My life has been one of stress, and you've not known a mother. What I came to tell you, my dear, is that I realize you may have missed that tenderness, and that whatever I may have seemed, I have always felt it."
She was kneeling by his chair now with her hands gently stroking his white mane.
"I know, Dad," she declared, and he reached up and took her fingers between his two palms.
"You are making me happy, my daughter, unspeakably happy," he said. "And I, who have long been old, feel young again. The Bible tells us that marriage means leaving father and mother and cleaving only to the one—but thank God, Eben insists that I shall spend my remaining days with you both, and I am very happy."
At last he was rolled out again, leaving behind him a memory of that exalted peace of countenance, and with a stifled groan the bride-to-be turned back to her room—her period of reflection almost consumed.
"It would kill him!" she moaned. "It would be murder. And that look! That happiness! I guess that will have to be my compensation."
When the bridesmaids entered it was a pale but firm face that greeted them. "It was panic," said Conscience slowly. "If I hadn't decided freely and fully and finally, I wouldn't have come this far. No one has forced me.... He, Eben, is worth a dozen of me.... Please believe me, never speak of this to anyone. It was sheer nerves and panic."
Of the wedding itself, Conscience had always a memory as confused and unreal as that of a dream in which logical events go mad. Through many faces, which at the moment seemed to be floating against black and leering at her, she had the sense of moving without the action of her muscles.... She saw the lion-like mane of her father's head and the ecstasy of his eyes and a voice in her but not of her whispered: "Well, I hope you're satisfied."... She was conscious of the heavy scent of flowers which reminded her of a funeral.... One face stood out distinct and seemed to be boring into her, reading secrets which, she felt through a great dizziness, she ought not to let him fathom. It was the face of Dr. Ebbett.... Then she heard a voice which sounded to her unduly loud saying: "I do," and realized that it was her own. Later she was reliably informed that she had appeared splendidly collected and regally happy. This blurred focus of realization left her only when she found herself in her own room and heard Mary Barrascale's voice speaking.
"I've never seen a bride who was lovelier, or a groom who was happier," announced Mary exuberantly as she began lifting the white veil from the dark hair. Then she added in afterthought:
"Oh, by the way, I guess this is a message of congratulation or something. One of the servants handed it to me a few minutes ago." She drew from the bosom of her gown an envelope bearing the imprint of a cable office.
As Conscience took the missive a sudden intuition hinted the contents and the waxy white of her cheeks became a dead pallor. Very slowly she tore the envelope and read Stuart's message frantically penned in Cairo on the way to the Alexandria train.
"Received no note from you. Wrote to you that night begging a chance. Horrible mistake has occurred. Matter of life and death and thousand times more than that, that you take no step till I see you. Am sailing by first boat. Wait. Stuart."
The bride's heart stopped dead, then pounded madly. Stuart had received no note from her! Then he had not abandoned her. He still loved her and from that instant, whenever she told herself she did not love him, she must lie. Now she was Tollman's wife. It had almost come in time. Perhaps it had come in time.
Conscience turned to the bridesmaid with a queer and unnatural ring in her voice.
"Mary," she asked, "just exactly when did this message arrive?"
"It must have been immediately before the ceremony," the girl answered with a puckered brow, striving for exactness. "One of the servants handed it to me just as we started down the steps—of course, I couldn't give it to you then."
"No," Conscience spoke as if her words came from a long distance and again she caught her lower lip between her teeth. She had to do that to keep from screaming or breaking into a bitter laugh. "No, of course, you couldn't give it to me then, and yet—" She broke off and Eleanor Kent's arms encircled her.
"Conscience, dear," she demanded, "was it anything you should have known?"
Conscience straightened slowly and shook her head. She even forced a stiff smile. "No," she lied with an effort of fulfilment for her first wifely duty. "It was just what Mary thought. A message about my marriage. I must write an answer."
Farquaharson, sitting in his stateroom, unfolded his cablegram with the feeling of a defendant who sees the door of the jury-room swing open.
With a stunned sense of despair he read:
"Don't hurry home to explain. It's too late for that. We will be glad to see you when your trip ends. "CONSCIENCE TOLLMAN."
Conscience Tollman! There was no longer a Conscience Williams then. He could only realize that some hideous mistake had made absolute a life-wrecking edict which—had he only known before—might, perhaps have been set aside. Now it was irrevocable and his own blindness and a stubbornness masquerading as pride were to blame.
Now she was the wife of Eben Tollman, the bigot whose narrowness would cramp her life into a dreary torture. His imagination eddied in bewildered wretchedness about that whirlpool of thought, bringing transient impulses of madness and self-destruction.
The thought of her as the wife of any man except himself must have meant to him a withering agony—but the idea of marital intimacy between Conscience and Eben Tollman, seemed an unthinkable desecration at which his flesh crawled. He vainly argued with himself that this was no sudden loss which had struck his life barren, but one to which he had already shaped his resignation. All that self-schooling had been swept away as fiercely as fragments of drift in the freshet of news that came with her letter. She had not exiled him but had asked him to return. She had spoken of a bitterness born of disappointment, which she had conquered: a bitterness for which he was responsible. Stark pictures shaped themselves across his brooding: pictures of the gray life to which his desertion had condemned her ... the gradually crushing tyranny of weakness ... the final surrender. It had been a surrender after years of siege, not because her courage had failed, but because she had waited in vain for the reinforcement of his loyalty. This was what he had done with his life and hers. For him there was an empty future: for her marriage with a coldly selfish sensualist who called his greed piety. Stuart Farquaharson sat in a chilled inertia of despair while the ship's bells recorded the passing of hours. From the decks above drifted little fragments of human talk and human laughter, but to him they were meaningless. Late in the evening he rose with an effort and went on deck where he sought out an unoccupied place. Phosphorescent gleams broke luminously in the wake. Clusters of great stars and the bright dust of star-spray sprinkled the sky, but whether he looked up or down Stuart Farquaharson could see only the light of victorious surrender in the eyes of the woman he loved, declaring her love for him. Now she was in the arms of another man—a man who had cunningly and patiently subordinated every lesser thing to his determination of possessing her.
The voice of impulse pleaded with him fiercely to go back and tax that man, panoplied though he was in the sanction of society and the church, with having won foully. Tollman would never kindle the fire that burned deep and blue-flamed in his wife's nature. Her life with him would be thirst and hunger. But Stuart's fever turned to chill again as he remembered. He had forfeited his rights and stood foresworn. His vows had been brave and his performance craven. He acknowledged with self-scorn that his eagerness to break through Tollman's force of possession went back to a motive more selfish than exalted. He was driven by a personal craving to hold another man's wife in his arms. He was tempted by the sense of insurmountable power which he knew he held upon her thoughts, her love and her imagination.
This must be the persuasiveness of some devil's advocate which whispered to him: "Go now! Despite all her stern allegiance to duty you can make her come into your arms. This marriage is all a hideous mistake. The bigots have trapped her with a bait of false martyrdom. Go while she is still sickened with the first bitterness of this profanation of youth in the custody of age." Then into this hot-blooded counsel crept the old, cold voice of logic, like a calm speaker quieting the incendiary passion of a mob.
It was her right to make the test unhampered, since—through his own delinquency—it was too late to avoid the test.
Two courses lay open to him now that the past was sealed. He might return to his own country, excusing himself on the shallow pretense that he meant only to "stand by" in case she needed rescue from the unendurable, or he might turn his face east and put between himself and temptation as much of space as lies between Cape Cod and the Ganges.
The two alternatives were, roughly, those of passion and reason, yet each was led by so many tributary problems that it was not easy to disentangle the threads of their elements.
Stuart Farquaharson's inheritance of fighting blood brought a red blindness which at times made the voice of reason seem contemptible and pallid with cowardice.
Could Eben Tollman, whom he had always distrusted, have engineered the thing?
Stuart, pacing the deck, halted at the thought and his fevered temples turned abruptly cold. His face set itself into malignant lines of vengeance. If such a thing could be proven—as there was a God in Heaven—Tollman was his to kill and he should die! He stood for a while, his chest heaving with the agitation of his resolve—and then he smiled grimly to himself. The calmer voice denounced him for a fool running amuck with passion. These were thoughts suited to a homicidal half-wit.
How could Eben have achieved such an end? It was absurd to seek such a reason for the fatality of his own senseless course. He had himself to blame.
Buffeted between the two influences, fighting a desperate duel with himself, Farquaharson paced the deck all night.
At times his face burned and his eyes smoldered with a fever only half sane. At times cold sweat stood on his temples and he trembled, with every muscle lax and inert. As dawn began to lighten the eastern sky-line no man could say—and least of all himself—which counsel would in the end prevail.
When the purser appeared on deck he gazed perplexedly at the haggard and distracted face which confronted him and the nervous pitch of the voice that put rapid questions. It was obvious that this solitary passenger had not been in his berth.
"What is our first port of call, and when do we reach it?" demanded Farquaharson.
"From Brindisi what are the most immediate connections respectively—for the States and—for India."
The officer replied with a directness that rose superior to personal curiosity.
"For the States the quickest course is to leave this vessel at Gibraltar. I can't tell you precisely what connection you could make there—but I dare say the delay would be only the matter of a day or two."
"And for the east?"
"You mean back-tracking over the route we've come?"
"We should anchor at Brindisi at two o'clock to-morrow afternoon. At two-thirty the Mogul weighs anchor for Port Said ... and the Indian Ocean."
Upon the forehead of the passenger who stood in the freshness of the morning air were beads of sweat. His face was pale and drawn with the stress of one called upon for swift decision and terrifically shaken by irresolution. Knowing only that this seemed a stricken man, the purser pitied him.
Farquaharson let his eyes roam west and a momentary light of eagerness leaped in them. Then he wheeled eastward and the light paled into the deadness of despair. After a moment he straightened himself and braced his shoulders. At the end he spoke with a quiet decisiveness.
"Be good enough to send a wireless to Brindisi for me. Please do what you can to have the Mogul held in the event of our being delayed. It's a matter of the utmost importance."
The purser nodded. "Very good, sir," was his ready reply. "It may be a near thing, but I fancy you'll make it."
* * * * *
Stuart Farquaharson's acknowledgment of the cablegram was brief. For the same reason which had made him so urgent in entreating Conscience to take no step until he arrived, it seemed better now that he should remain absent. He added assurances that he had never received any letter from her and mentioned the one he had written at the time of their parting. He wished her every conceivable happiness. As for himself, he would be indefinitely in the Orient where life was colorful enough to be diverting.
Of course, Conscience did not receive that letter until her return from the wedding trip, made brief because of her father's condition. The trip itself had seemed in many ways as unreal and distorted an experience as the ceremony had been. She had constantly reminded herself of how much she owed to the generous devotion of her husband, but no self-reproach could stir into life the more fiery sentiments of her heart. For his virtues she had the admiration of a daughter, a friend or a sister—but not the bright enthusiasm of a bride.
Tollman himself, the observer would have said, had left nothing to ask. Seemingly his one wish was to treat his life as a slate upon which every unacceptable word and line should be sponged out and rewritten.
The wife sat in the study of her husband's house a day or two after their return, when Tollman entered with a face full of apprehension. He had just suffered a fright which had made his heart miss a beat or two and had set his brain swirling with a fevered vision of all future happiness wrecked on a shoal of damnable folly. When he had presented his wife with the keys of his house he had not laid upon her any Bluebeard injunction that one door she must never open. Bluebeard lived in a more rudimentary age, and his needs included a secret chamber. The things which Eben Tollman earnestly desired to conceal from his wife's view could be adequately stored in the small safe of his study, since they were less cumbersome than the mortal remains of prior wives done to death. They were in fact only documents—but for him pregnant with peril—and what had stamped his face suddenly with terror was the realization that now for the only time in all his meticulously careful life—he had left them open to other eyes than his own.
The old minister had been moved bag, baggage and creed over to Tollman's larger house, and in these days of reaccommodated regime, the road between the two places was one busy with errand-running. On one of these missions Eben had been driving with the slow sedateness which was his wont, when upon pleasant reflections, like shrapnel disturbing a picnic, burst the sense of danger, and the realization of his folly. It struck the self-congratulation from his face as abruptly as a broken circuit quenches a lighting system.
He saw the table in his study as he had left it: the strongbox open—the safe, too, from which he had taken it, agape: papers lying in unprotected confusion. Among them were the two purloined letters which had made his marriage possible, and which if discovered would end it in the volcanic flames of his wife's wrath. There were also certain memoranda concerning the affairs of William Williams which might have raised an ugly implication of an estate wrecked at the hands of a trusted friend. His fear-inflamed imagination went a step further until it saw also his wife's figure halting in her task of tidying up the study and her eyes first widening in bewilderment, then blazing into an unspeakable fury—and scorn. How could he have done such a thing—he the martinet of business caution? It seemed to himself inconceivable and not to be accounted for merely by the explanation of a new husband's abstraction.
He remembered now. These particular papers had formerly been kept in a separate box—safe from confusion with others. In sorting things out prior to his wedding trip he had made several changes of arrangement—and had until this moment forgotten that change.
A sudden sweat broke out on his forehead and, snatching the whip from its stalk on the dashboard, he belabored his aged and infirm mare into a rickety effort at speed.
Ira Forman, standing by the green doors of his barn, watched the rich man go by with this unaccustomed excitement. Ira's small resources had, on occasion, felt the weight of Eben's hand and as he gazed, his observation was made without friendliness. "In a manner of speakin' Eben 'pears to be busier than the devil in a gale of wind. I wonder who he cal'lates to rob at the present time."
Eben had occasion to be busy. He had often told himself that it was the part of prudence to burn those documents, yet some jackdaw quality of setting store by weird trinkets had always saved them from destruction. In a fashion they were trophies of triumph. With indefinable certainty he felt that some time—somehow—their possession would be of incalculable value. They constituted his birth certificate in this new life.
While a frenzy of haste drove him, the realization of what he might find when he arrived made him wish that he dared postpone the issue, and the hand which fitted a key to his own front door trembled with trepidation. Once he had seen his wife's face he would know. Her anger would not burn slowly, in such a case, but in the conflagration of tinder laid to powder. Yet when he stole quietly to the study door and looked in, anxiety made his breath uneven. She was sitting there, within arm's length of the table—which, thank God, seemed to the casual glance, just as he had left it,—but in her fingers she held what appeared to be a letter, and as he watched, unobserved, she crumpled it and tossed it into the flames that cast bright flecks of color on her cheeks. Her face looked somewhat miserable and distraught—but that hardly comported with what should be expected had she learned the truth—unless possibly it was the exhaustion of wretchedness following the violence of a swiftly sweeping and cyclonic storm. On the whole, her attitude was reassuring, he thought, and in any event a bold course was best. So he entered the room, smiling.
"You are looking very serious, dearest," he declared in a tone of assumed lightness, marred by a cumbersome quality which made it grotesque. As his voice broke on her reverie, his wife started, then sat gazing at him with a sphinx-like expression in her eyes, which he found it hard to endure. But he went boldly on: "Very serious indeed for a bride of a month's standing."
Still she did not answer and under the steadiness of her silent gaze, his momentary reassurance wilted. He had foreseen the possibility of encountering a woman turned Valkyrie, but was unaccoutred to face this enigmatical calm.
Standing here now with those cool eyes upon him, a new and cumulative apprehension tortured him. What if, with a swift determination, his wife had decided upon yet another course: that of simulating until her own chosen moment ignorance of what she knew: of drawing him more deeply into the snare before she confronted him with her discovery?
But as he was weighing these possibilities, Conscience broke the silence. She even smiled in a mirthless fashion—and the man began to hope again.
"I was serious," she said. "I was reproaching myself."
"Reproaching yourself—" the husband arched his brows—"for what?"
She responded slowly as if weighing her words.
"For many things. You have devoted years of your life to my father and myself—and asked nothing. After a long while I consented to marry you—though I couldn't give myself freely or without reserve."
He bent over a little and spoke with a grave dignity.
"You have given me everything," he said quietly, "except the admission that you love me. I told you before we were married that I had no fear and no misgiving on that point. I shall win your love, and meanwhile I can be patient."
She let the implied boast of word and manner pass without debate and went on self-accusingly:
"You've treated yourself very much like an old house being torn to pieces and done over to satisfy the whims and eccentricities of a new tenant."
Tollman affected a manner meant to be debonair, but his thought was divided and uncontrollable impulse drew his glance shiftily to the table.
"Well, suppose that I have tried to change myself, why shouldn't I? I love you. I'm eager to demonstrate that I'm not too old a dog to learn new tricks."
She only shook her head, and, finding words more tolerable than silence, he proceeded:
"I've discovered the fountain which Ponce de Leon missed. Henceforth I mean to go on growing younger."
"And yet, Eben—" She was still looking at him with that directness which hinted at some thought foreign to her words—something as yet unmentioned which had left her unstrung. "It's not really a congenial role to you—this one of reshaping your life. At heart you hate it.... This house proves that. So does this room—and its contents."
The pause which separated the final words brought a sinking sensation at the pit of his stomach, and the discomfort of a fencer, dueling in the dark—a swordsman who recognizes that his cleverness is outmatched. His question came with a staccato abruptness.
"How is that?"
Conscience rose from her chair and for a moment stood letting her eyes travel about the walls, the furniture, the pictures. As they wandered, the husband's gaze followed them, and when they rested for an instant on the open strong box and the untidy papers, his alarm gained a brief mastery so that he stepped hurriedly forward, placing himself between her and the danger.
"What were you saying?" he questioned nervously.
"I was calling your attention to this room. Look at it. If you didn't, at heart, hate all change—all innovation, you couldn't have lived here this long without having altered it."
Conscience laughed. "Well, because it's all unspeakably depressing, for one thing. Outside of prisons, I doubt if there is anything drearier in the world than Landseer engravings in black frames and fantastically grained pine trying to be oak—unless it's hair-cloth sofas and portraits that have turned black."
The lord of the manor spoke in a crestfallen manner, touched with perplexity. To what was all this a preamble?
"That portrait is of an ancestor of mine," he said and his wife once more laughed, though this time his anxiety fancied there was irony in it. "All right," she said, "but wouldn't it have been quite as respectful and much more cheerful to send him on a visit to some painter who takes in dingy ancestors and does them over?"
"I hadn't thought of it," he acknowledged, but the idea did not seem to delight him.
"No." They were still standing, she facing the table and he facing her, making of his shoulders as wide a screen as possible.
Now she moved and stood with the fingers of one hand resting lightly on the spot where lay a profusion of scattered sheets and envelopes. These were papers which, should she see and recognize them—granting that she had not already done so—would spell divorce or separation. Tollman drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. At the price of any concession he must get her out of that room for five minutes!
"No," she went on. "It hadn't occurred to you, because you really dislike all change. You are a reactionary ... and I'm afraid I'm what you'd call a radical."
"But, dear—" he spoke eagerly, ready to sacrifice without combat even his cherished reverence for the unchanging order of his fathers: even his aversion to the wasting of money—"I haven't told you before because I wanted to surprise you. I've let all that wait until you should be here to direct it. I wanted the renovated house, like the renovated man, to bear the stamp of your designing."
The wife's eyes flashed with surprise and apparent pleasure. "Do you really mean it?" she exclaimed. "Do you really mean that I may do what I like with the place?"
"Yes, yes—" he hastened to assure her. "You are in supreme command here. You have carte blanche."
For a while she did not speak, but when she did her voice was very soft. "Eben," she said almost falteringly, "you give me everything—and I give you so little."
A few minutes later, with vast relief, he watched her go through the door, then collapsed, a limp creature, into the chair by the table, his arms going out and sweeping the papers into a pile close to his body. His face, relaxed from the strain of dissembling, looked old and his jaw sagged.
But before he had sufficiently recovered to investigate the documents he heard a rustle and looked around. Conscience was standing in the door—and he feared that even the slouch of his shoulders, seen from behind, might have been dangerously revealing. His wife's level tone as she spoke, no less than her words, intensified his conviction of defeat.
"The note that I asked you to mail to Stuart Farquaharson—that night when he left—never reached him."
So she had, after all, been playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse! She had left the room, only to return and confront him when he was unmanned. Something of cornered desperation came into his eyes, but with a final instinct of precaution he managed to assume a remnant of poise.
"Never reached him? That seems hardly possible."
She nodded. "Yes; doesn't it? I asked you at the time if you were certain you had mailed it. Do you remember?"
"Perfectly. I said I had never forgotten to mail a letter."
"Still, he never received it—and he wrote one to me—at the same time which I didn't get, either."
Eben Tollman licked his lips. It seemed useless to carry the fight further. He stood with one foot over the brink and momentum at his back. Then when another moment would have ended his campaign of dissimulation his wife spoke again, and the man's brain reeled—but this time with an incredulous reversal of emotion. Some miracle had saved him!
"I've just had a note from him. He's in India."
Eben Tollman straightened up, and shook from his shoulders the weight of a decade or two.
He had been dying the multiple deaths of the coward because he had let his imagination bolt and run away. The menace had passed, and straightway came a transformation. Once more he was full-panoplied in his assurance of self-righteousness. His voice was unctuously calculated, persuasively considerate.
"That is a very extraordinary story, but you aren't letting things that happened so long ago trouble you, are you, my dear?"
"A thing—which has caused bitterness between friends—even long ago, must trouble one."
"Yes, I quite concur in that sentiment." He nodded understandingly. It was the same gentleness of manner to which he had owed so much in the past. "And yet—I don't like to speak critically of a man who was once a rival—yet unhappily there are other things to be remembered. His experiences in New York seemed to prove him wanting of much that your friendship must demand."
Conscience did not answer, but she felt the justice of the criticism.
When his wife had again left him alone he lost no time in bending over memoranda and running through papers with fingers that trembled.
Then he straightened up again. All was as he had left it. The two intercepted letters were tied safely together and the dust which had gathered upon their wrapper was undisturbed.
For some minutes he abandoned himself to the satisfaction of a man whose escape has been narrow—but complete. Eventually, however, his brows drew together with an annoyance which had strayed into his thoughts and poisoned them. He had handled the situation ineptly and expensively.
He had given his young wife carte blanche to do what she chose with his old house. She would waste money more lavishly even than he had wasted it when he had employed the services of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau. What, after all, were these cushion-footed sleuths but blackmailers of a legalized sort? He dismissed lightly the circumstance that such enterprises fatten upon the support of gentlemen who have work to do which more open methods fail to favor. This process of thought permitted his armor of self-righteousness to be worn in accord with thrift and the accomplishment of his wishes and to remain the while undented by self-accusation.
* * * * *
The first days of her wedding trip had been marked, for Conscience, by a numbed vagueness, which brought a kindly blunting of all her emotions. In that coma-like condition she could be outwardly normal while inwardly she was living a life of unrealities. She had fought that dangerous comfort as a surrender to phantasy until in a measure she had conquered it.
She had fought steadfastly against all the insurgent influences in her heart aroused by the belated telegram, as one fights the influence of a drug. It was not Eben Tollman's fault—ran her logic—that this message from Egypt had drawn Stuart Farquaharson dangerously close to his wife's inmost thoughts at a time when, she had told herself, he must henceforth be kept in the far background.
But there was no escaping the reality that the cablegram and the letter had brought definite results. They had lifted Stuart out of his place in the past and drawn him into the present. He had not been guilty of desertion, but was, like herself, the victim of a hideous and inexplicable mistake.
It had hurt when Tollman referred to Farquaharson's unfavorable record, even with the consideration of tone he had employed. But Conscience told herself that her duty lay less in defense of the man whom she had once loved and who had fallen from his pedestal than in the square facing of present facts.
Her husband had alluded to Stuart with neither rancor nor resentment but in kindliness and fair judgment. Now, at all events, she argued wildly, seeking to coerce her heart, it was to Eben and not to Stuart that she owed loyalty. So, while her husband sat in his study regretting that he had conceded too much to his fears of unmasking, she wrestled in her room with rebellious heart fires, kindled by the letter from the exile.
She shivered, though the room was warm. Assuredly, she told herself, she must keep burning before her mental vision the memory that, however much Stuart had been the victim of a mistake at the time of their parting, he had since forfeited all claims upon her love.
* * * * *
Stuart Farquaharson, the writer of best sellers, reflected that Life does not divide its chapters by the measure of the calendar, nor does it observe that rule of literary craftsmanship which seeks to distribute the drama of a narrative into a structural unity of form with the ascending stages of climax.
At this bruised cynicism an older man would have smiled, but to Stuart it was poignantly real.
He had lost the prize which to him seemed the only guerdon worth striving for, while every other recognition had come easily—almost without effort.
The success of his novel had been so extraordinary that Farquaharson fell to reviewing his literary experience with a somewhat impersonal amusement. He had not poured his soul into his work with a bitter sweat of midnight endeavor as the genius is said to do. He had wooed the muse about as reverently as a battered tramp might fondle an equally battered dog, seeking, without illusion, a substitute for better companionship.
One afternoon he sat alone in a Yokohama tea-house, reading the latest collection of newspaper reviews which had come to his hand.
"We have here a book," observed one commentator, "which irritates with a sense of undeveloped power while it delights with a too-facile charm. It would seem to come from a pen more gifted than sincere."
As Stuart slipped the collection of clippings into his pocket a hand fell on his shoulder and he rose to encounter a ruddy-faced young man in the undress uniform of the United States Navy.
"Why so solitary?" demanded the newcomer. "Surely a famous novelist needn't sit alone in the shadow of Fuji Yama. The place teems with charming Americans."
Farquaharson's face lighted with genuine pleasure as he grasped the outstretched hand in a grip of cramping heartiness.
"Jimmy Hancock!" he exclaimed. "Why, man, I haven't seen you since—" He paused, and Jimmy, seating himself, grinned back as he took up the unfinished sentence: "'Since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary—' I'll have Scotch and soda, thank you."
Farquaharson laughed. This was the same breezy Jimmy and the two had met rarely since the first academy days. That was a time which carried them both back almost to Conscience's visit in the Valley of Virginia.
A torrent of questions, many of them intrinsically inconsequential yet important to the exile, had to be put by the officer and answered by the author. Finally came one which Stuart had apprehended.
"When did you see Conscience Williams last? An unspeakably ancient letter from home mentioned your spending a summer up there on Cape Cod? There were even rosy prophecies." Farquaharson winced a little.
"She is married," he said evenly, though with an effort. "She quite recently married a gentleman by the name of Eben Tollman."
"Oh, then I was misinformed. Give me her address if you know it and I'll send my overdue congratulations."
Farquaharson complied with that obedience to social necessity which made him conceal the fact that, for him, this reunion with an old friend had been robbed of its savor and turned into a series of unhappy memories.
"This evening you are coming aboard to dine with me," announced Hancock when he had finished his drink and risen, "and after dinner a handful of people will arrive for an informal dance on deck."
But Farquaharson gave an excuse. He felt weary and shrank from those inevitable confidences which must ensue. This evening he was leaving for Tokyo and would reach Yokohama on his return only in time to make his steamer for Honolulu. Jimmy Hancock was full of regret. His own cruiser, he said, would sail to-morrow for Nagasaki.
Stuart's return from Tokyo and Nikko put him in Yokohama just before his steamer's sailing time. So it happened that he went over the gang plank of the Nippon Maru as the whistle was warning visitors ashore.
Having no acquaintances among the figures that lined the deck rail behind a flutter of handkerchiefs, he went to the smoking-lounge where for two hours he busied himself with his author's routine of note books.
It was mid-afternoon when he emerged among those fellow passengers who had long ago claimed their steamer chairs and dedicated themselves to the idleness of the voyage.
Stuart began pacing the boat deck with the adequate companionship of his pipe. He was not lonely for the society of men and women. In his own mind he put a stress of emphasis on women. Two of them had touched his life closely enough to alter its currents. One, he had lost through his own folly and her inability to free herself from the sectionalism of an inherited code. The other had been foolish in the extreme and had drawn him into the whirlpool of her heedlessness.
In ways as far apart as east and west, each had been fascinating and each had been beautiful.
The orbit of his rounds carried him several times past a woman, who was standing unaccompanied at the rail astern. Her face and glance were turned outward where the propellers were churning up a lather of white spume and where little eddies of jade and lapis-lazuli raced among the bubbles.
He felt, at first, no curiosity for the averted face, but finally the length of time she had been standing there without change of posture, the unusual slenderness and grace of the figure, and the fact that he had not seen her features awakened a tepid interest.
But when, for the seventh time, he rounded the white walls of the after cabin and she turned with a smile of seeming welcome on her lips, Farquaharson stopped dead. For just a surprised instant he forgot the requirements of courtesy and glanced about as if instinctively seeking escape. His jaw stiffened, then with a sense of chagrin for this gracelessness he stepped forward with a belated cordiality.
But in the brief interval he saw the exquisitely fair coloring of the woman's cheeks flush pinker, and the lower lip catch between her teeth.
Her eyes, which in the afternoon sun were golden amber, clouded with a swift shadow of pain which as swiftly vanished.
"I was wondering, Stuart," said Marian Holbury slowly, "whether you meant to speak to me at all."
"I didn't know you were on this side of the world," he responded with recovered equanimity.
She leaned against the rail and, while the breeze whipped the sash of her sweater and her white skirt about her, studied him gravely until he said: "Meeting you here was such a coincidence that it astonished me ... don't you find it surprising, too?"
She shook her head.
"No," she said, "I don't. You see I did know that you were on this side of the globe. I even knew that you would be on board. Lieutenant Hancock told me."
Stuart Farquaharson's first impulse upon finding his surprise for the meeting unshared, was an astonishment at Marian herself. Unless some great urgency existed for an immediate return to the States he supposed that she would have avoided sailing with him.
"The circumstance that the one man I knew in Yokohama should also be an acquaintance of yours only heightens the effect of the coincidence," he hazarded, and his companion smiled as though amused at some unimpaired element of humor as she naively responded: "Yes—except that in a foreign town we would be apt to meet the same people."
However it had happened, thought Stuart, it was a deplorable accident: their being thrown together for ten days in the narrowed companionship of a sea-voyage. For her, even more than himself, it must bring back the painful notoriety of their last companionship.
It had all been so bootless and uncalled for! Marian Holbury might have divorced her husband had she wished, and remained unstigmatized. Yet she had, by yielding to an ungoverned impulse, reversed their positions of justification. Now the news of their names on the same sailing lists would come to ears at home and set tongues wagging afresh. There had been enough of that.
As she stood there regarding him quietly, with the thorough self-possession of her sex and her class, he reminded himself that there was no profit in a sulkiness of attitude.
"What are your sentiments," he inquired, "regarding a cup of tea?" And she laughed frankly and easily as she responded:
"They are of the friendliest." Together they turned and went toward the nearest white-jacketed deck steward.
As he made a pretense of sipping his tea Farquaharson admitted to himself that the lady whom he was meeting after a long interval had lost nothing of her charm.
The ten days of enforced companionship would at all events be relieved of tedium, but he was in a quandary as to what should be his attitude. Later in the seclusion of the smoking-room he shaped a tentative policy of such deferential courtesy as he would have tendered a new acquaintance. He fancied that she would appreciate a manner which neither bordered on intimacy nor presumed upon the past.
But as the days went on a variance developed between the excellence of his plan in theory and in practical application. For one thing, Marian herself seemed less grateful in her acceptance of it than he had anticipated. He sometimes felt, from a subtle hint of her manner, that her confidence in her own adroitness and savoir faire needed no such assistance from him.
There were moments, too, between their casual conversations when a wistful sort of weariness brought a droop to her lips, as though she would have welcomed a less constrained companionship.
Sometimes when off guard, he found himself slipping into the manner which seemed more natural, and then he wondered if his policy of aloofness might not savor of the priggish.
Not until they were nearing Honolulu did they refer to the past and then it was Marian and not Stuart who broached the subject.
"We were fortunate in being in Japan in cherry-blossom time," suggested Stuart in a matter of fact fashion, as they strolled on deck at sunset. "We saw it all at its best."
"Cherry-blossom time in Japan—" she echoed musingly. Then suddenly she broke out with an almost impassioned bitterness, "Yes, I suppose we were—fortunate! We are both still in our twenties. I am rich and you are better than that—you are along the way of being famous. And yet it occurs to me that neither of us is precisely happy. We are both outcasts from contentment—just Bedouins in the world's desert, after all."
His question came vaguely and uncomfortably, "What do you mean, Marian?"
She laughed, banishing the gravity from her face.
"Nothing—nothing at all, Stuart," she assured him. "It was just a woman's mood." But after a moment she went on in a voice of greater seriousness: "It seems as good a time as any to tell you that I've come to realize with a wretched guiltiness—how I pulled you into the mess I made of my own affairs. If there were any way of undoing it—"
He interrupted her quickly, "Please don't brood over that, Marian. It's all ended now. You were too confused just then by your own foreground wretchedness to be able to gauge the perspectives."
"One has a right," she declared with self-scorn, "to expect from an adult human being, a reasonable degree of intelligence. I didn't display it to any conspicuous extent."
"You gave way to a moment of panic."
"Yes—and you suffered for it. I didn't quite understand then that sealing the evidence in the divorce, while it was supposed to protect me, really left you no chance to clear yourself."
"Naturally not," he smilingly rejoined. "You weren't a lawyer, you know. But it must pain you to discuss these things and I'm not asking any explanation. Why shouldn't we let them rest in peace?"
Her face flushed a little and she seemed on the point of argument, but she only said: "Yes, I suppose that is better."
The evening before the Nippon Maru was due in the Hawaiian port there was no moon, but all the softly blazing stars of the tropics were kindled in the sky and the phosphor waters of the Pacific played in an exquisite echo of light. Marian Holbury, in her simplicity of white skirt and white blouse looked as young as a school girl and, Stuart thought, more beautiful than he had ever seen her. They sat together on the after-deck which, as it chanced, they held in monopoly and the woman said musingly:
"To-morrow we part company, don't we?"
"I'm afraid so," he answered. "My ticket reads to Honolulu."
"I suppose I should thank you," she continued in the same pensiveness of manner. "I guess your unbroken reserve was meant for considerateness."
"Under the circumstances," he replied, a shade piqued by her tone, "anything else might have been embarrassing—for you."
With eyes traveling seaward she spoke again and there was a ghost of quiet irony in her voice.
"That seems to be a thing a man's chivalry never leaves to a woman's own judgment; the determination of what she may find embarrassing."
"At least a man doesn't want to force the dilemma on her." Possibly he did not succeed in saying it entirely without stiffness.
"If I'd been afraid of your doing that," she reminded him, "I might have changed my sailing date."
"I was just a little surprised that you didn't," he admitted.
A strolling couple passed and Marian watched them turn out of sight before she spoke again.
"As a matter of fact, I did change it. I left the friends with whom I'd been traveling and took this earlier steamer home." She caught the expression of surprise in his face, but before he could put it into words she heightened it to amazement with the calm announcement: "I did that because Lieutenant Hancock told me that you were sailing by it."
"But I—I don't understand!"
"No. You wouldn't."
"I'm dense, I suppose," he acknowledged, "but I should have fancied the only result of that would be unpleasant gossip."
"Yes, Stuart, you are dense," she interrupted, and into her eyes leaped an insurgent flame of scorn. "Why should I care what gossips thought? Their verdict was rendered long since. I had a reason more important to myself than their opinions."
"Will you tell me what it was? If my attitude was silly, Marian, at least it was sincere."
"I was wondering whether I would tell you or not, Stuart. Most women would not; but I'm reported to be startlingly—perhaps shockingly candid—so perhaps I will."
Formerly he had thought her clever with a play of wit which made for fascination, but he had believed her processes of thought transparent to his own scrutiny. Of late he had discovered in her something baffling and subtle. This was not the same Marian but a Marian of whom his old acquaintance had been merely the matrix as iron is the beginning of tempered steel. The woman whose eyes dwelt on him now with a sort of inscrutable indulgence was one who reversed their positions. It was as if she read him easily in these days, while in herself she retained depths which he had no means of fathoming. But two things he could read in her eyes: courage and utter honesty—and these were qualities which he esteemed.
After a little she asked him with a direct reading of his thoughts which made him start uncomfortably, "You find me changed?"
Stuart drew a long breath. It broke suddenly upon him that if this woman had begun life under other auspices she might have developed into something rather magnificent.
"Not changed—" he answered promptly. "Transformed!"
"Thank you," she said, holding her voice steady. "It was the realization of the change that made me try the experiment."
"What experiment?" His bewilderment was growing.
"If I'm going to tell you—and one can talk frankly of things that belong unmistakably to the past—I must lay the foundation."
"Of course, you realize that everyone said I fled to you—because we had had an affair. Later when I was divorced and you saw nothing more of me, they laughed at me—they thought I had grabbed at the reflection and dropped my bone in the stream."
"But, Marian! You understood—"
She raised a hand. "Please let me finish in my own way. It's not too easy at best."
"To their eyes, my one chance of rehabilitating my life lay in marrying you. I mention this to forestall misunderstanding; because in what I've got to say next it might logically occur to you as a thing I'd contemplated myself."
"Surely," he exclaimed, "you don't think me so mean of mind as that."
With a somewhat rueful smile, she continued:
"When things became unendurable at home and I fled to your cottage, what did you think of me?"
His response was immediate: "That you were in a panic. It seemed to you a case of any port in a storm. I was geographically near and—"
"You really thought that?" A queer note came into her voice and she added almost in a whisper as if echoing it to herself: "Just because you were geographically near!"
"Why else?" he demanded. "Of course, in your indignation against that brute Holbury, you momentarily thought of me with contrasting emotion. I understood that, but I never exaggerated it into anything more important—or permanent."
"No. You just thought me a frivolous little idiot, and the estimate was annoyingly correct. I knew that—and yet I hadn't quite realized how meanly you did think of me—until now."
"If you thought," she went on, and in the starlight, he could not see how the color had left even her lips, "if you thought that—even in those circumstances—even driven by terror of my life—I would have fled to any other man in the world—" Abruptly she broke off.
Stuart Farquaharson's forgotten pipe had died to ashes. Now it fell with a tiny crash to the deck. The man leaned forward toward her and his eyes mirrored an astonishment genuine and absolute.
"Do you mean ... that you really fancied ... that you loved me?"
She turned her face away until he could see only the roundness of her check's contour and the curling softness of the hair on her neck. Her voice carried a burden of lethargic weariness. "No, I didn't fancy it ... I knew it ... I've known it ever since."
As Stuart Farquaharson remained silent in the amazement of these declarations, Marian turned her face again upon him. This time she spoke with a fiery impetuosity:
"I suppose I should be burning with shame at confessing that ... only somehow I've never been able to realize why people should blush so at the truth ... and, as I said a moment ago, since it's over, there's no reason why I shouldn't tell you, is there?"
"So now—it is over?" He spoke very softly yet with a sense of relief.
Marian's eyes held his own with their remarkably candid gaze, making no effort to mask their misery. Her finely shaped head carried itself high as if in disdain for all dissimulation, and once more she went on in a forced evenness:
"Yes, now it's over, but I'm not through talking. Please don't interrupt me. I've said too much to let it rest there and I've got to say the rest in my own fashion." She paused, then went resolutely forward. "You had spoken to me of Miss Williams, but—you know you were always reticent about the things you felt deeply—I didn't know enough to thoroughly understand. In the last year I've done a lot of thinking.... The point from which I always started was obvious. If you had cared at all about me, you would have looked me up—when the divorce was ended.... But later I heard of her marriage—Miss Williams'.... Perhaps, I told myself, things were different with you now. I heard of you from time to time ... and never as of one who was very happy."
She paused and Stuart laid a hand gently on hers, but she withdrew her own and began afresh:
"I don't care for the word 'chastened,' but I knew that I'd learned some things. I knew that I wasn't that same woman any more. The irresponsible lightness had been pretty well cured ... and I wasn't very happy, either.
"Marian," he declared feelingly, "you don't have to defend yourself to me. The man who won your love could feel nothing but pride."
"Thank you," she said briefly. "I'm not through yet.... I thought that if you met the new me ... you might revise your old opinion.... I thought at least that I could study you and that afterward there would be no uncertainty.... You spoke of the coincidence of our meeting. There was no coincidence about it. I was traveling more or less at random, but I knew you must come through Yokohama and I waylaid you. When Jimmy Hancock told me at the chance that you were taking this boat, I took it, too.... It meant ten days in which to study you—but I needed only ten seconds. I saw your face when we met on deck ... and that told me all there was to tell."
She came to a stop and sat looking out at the phosphorescent sea and the star-filled skies. Farquaharson leaned forward, his words coming brokenly and in a heavy misery of embarrassment.
"Marian, I have recognized the new you: I've seen the splendid development and fulfilment of you. It's only that ... that—" He broke off and began over impetuously. "I happened to fall in love with—Conscience before I met you. Of course, that's quite hopeless now ... but it seems permanent." He was struggling with a diffidence which, in such circumstances, a man must have been very callous to have escaped. On the lips of his characters, in fiction, words flowed with an ease of dialogue and broke often into epigram. Now they eluded him, leaving him in confusion. The situation was one for which he found himself unprepared. "I doubt if I shall ever feel otherwise—about her," he went on somewhat flounderingly. "You and she are women of almost opposite types in a way and yet—yet I've been realizing while you talked, that in many respects you are alike."
Marian's lips twisted themselves into a smile, stiff with tension of spirit, but a whimsical irony tinged her voice.
"The Colonel's lady and Rose O'Grady Are sisters under their skins,
I suppose we have that kinship, Stuart."
The man's hands closed into a tight grip on the arms of his steamer chair. In his eyes were regret and sincerity, but his words came with the firmness of resolve:
"I have, as you say, been dense," he declared, speaking now in even sentences that had ceased to break disjointedly. "I haven't even done you the justice of recognizing your more genuine self. You spoke of drawing me into the web of your troubles—but you didn't say the thing which you might have mentioned. I was also an adult of supposedly human intelligence. I should have foreseen the dangers of even so innocent an affair as was ours. I should have protected you."
"Against myself?" she inquired.
"Against ourselves," he responded quickly. "I should, for instance, have told you that I was so much in love with one woman, that to me all others must remain—just others. Now you have done me the honor to say you love me."
"Please, Stuart!" Marian's face was momentarily drawn in a paroxysm of pain. "Please don't make me pretty speeches. It isn't necessary—and it doesn't help."
"I'm not making pretty speeches," he declared. "My love is a hopeless one, but I can't deny its force without lying. I've helped you spoil your life and if I can help you mend it—" He broke off there and then abruptly he said: "Marian, will you marry me?"
She carried her hands to her face and covered her eyes. For a moment she sat in a stunned attitude and her words came faintly:
"I understand your motive, dear. It's gallant—but it wouldn't do."
"Why?" he demanded and again her head came up with the bearing of pride.
"I've already told you that it's not rehabilitation in the eyes of the world I seek. For you it would be sacrifice—and for me a failure. If you asked me because you loved me, and I believed I could make you happy I think you know what my answer would be. But to marry you without your loving me—well, that would be—" She paused and then finished: "It would be sheer Hell."
Stuart leaned over and picked up the pipe. His face was rigid and self-accusing, and the woman laid her hand on his arm.
"You have ridden with me in the hunting field, Stuart," she irrelevantly reminded him. "I hope you'll testify that I can take my croppers when they come. Please don't think I'm whimpering."
"One could hardly think that," he declared.
A sudden thought brought a fresh anxiety to her eyes, as she vehemently demanded: "Was she—was Miss Williams, influenced by what people said about you and me?"
"I suppose," he said, "the only version she had was the public one, and I fancy there were those about her who made use of it, but I don't believe it affected her decision."
Marian's voice was very low, almost tender now. "It would mean a good deal to you, wouldn't it, to have her know the truth?"