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The Wild Olive
by Basil King
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"Then isn't that all the more reason why we should help him?"

"Help him? How?"

"By trying to win his case for him."

He looked at her with eyes twinkling while his fingers concealed the smile behind his colorless mustache.

"And how would you propose to set about that?"

"I don't know, but I suppose you do. There must be ways. He's leaving as soon as he can for South America. He thinks it may be months before he gets back. I thought that—perhaps—in the mean time—while he won't be able to do anything for himself—you might see—"

"Yes, yes; go on," he said, as she hesitated.

"You might see if there is any evidence that could be found—that wasn't found before—isn't that the way they do it?—and have it ready—for him when he came back."

"For a wedding present."

"It would be a wedding present—to all of us. It would be for Evie's sake. You know how I love her. She's the dearest thing to me in the world. If I could only secure her happiness like that—"

"You mean, if I could secure it."

"You'd be doing it actively, but I should want to co-operate."

"In what way?"

She sat very still. She was sure he understood her by the sudden rigidity of his pose, while his eyes stopped twinkling, and his fingers ceased to travel along the line of his mustache. Her eyes fell before the scrutiny in his, but she lifted them again for one of her quick, wild glances.

"In any way you like."

She tried to make her utterance distinct, matter of fact, not too significant, but she failed. In spite of herself, her words conveyed all their meaning. The brief pause that followed was not less eloquent, nor did it break the spell when Conquest gave a short little laugh that might have been nervous and, changing his posture, leaned forward on his desk and scribbled on the blotting-pad. While he would never have admitted it, it was a relief to him, too, not to be obliged to face her.

He was not shocked, neither was he quite surprised. He was accustomed to the thought that a woman's love was a thing to purchase. One man bought it from her father for a couple of oxen, another from herself for an establishment and a diamond tiara. It was the same principle in both cases. He had never considered Miriam Strange as being without a price; his difficulty had been in knowing what it was. The establishment and the diamond tiara having proved as indifferent to her as the yoke of oxen, he was thrown back upon the alternative of heroic deeds. He had more than once suspected that these might win her if they had only been in his line. There being few opportunities for that kind of endeavor as the head of a large and lucrative legal practice, the suggestion only left him cynical. In the bottom of his heart he had long wished to dazzle, by some act of prowess, the eyes that saw him only as a respectable man of middle age, but the desire had merely mocked him with the kind of derision which impotence gets from youth. It seemed now a stroke of luck which almost merited being termed an act of Providence that there should have come a call for exactly his variety of "derringdo" from the very quarter in which he could make it tell.

"We've never gone in for any criminal business here," he said, after long reflection, while he continued to scribble aimlessly, "but, of course, we're in touch with the people who take it up."

"I thought you might be."

"But it's only fair to tell you that if your motive is to save time for our friend in question—"

"That is my motive—the only one."

"Then you could get in touch with them, too."

"But I don't want to."

"Still I think you should consider it. The best legal advice in the world can be—bought—for money."

"I know that."

Lifting his eyes in a sharp look, he saw her head lilted back with her own special air of deliberate temerity.

"Oh, very well, then," he said, quietly, resuming his scribbling again. After this warning he felt justified in taking her at her word.

With that as a beginning she knew she had gained her first great point. In answer to his questions she told the story over again, displaying, as he remembered afterward—but long afterward—a surprising familiarity with its details. She made suggestions which he noted as marked by some acumen, and laid stress on the value of the aid they might expect privately from Philip Wayne. The beauty and eagerness in her face fired the almost atrophied enthusiasm in his own heart, while he could not but see that this entirely altruistic interest had brought them in half an hour nearer together than they had ever been before. It was what they had never had till now—a bond in common. In spite of the persistency of his efforts and his assertions, he had never hitherto got nearer her than a statue on a pedestal gets to its neighbor in a similar situation but now at last they were down on the same earth together. This was more than reason enough for his taking up the cause of Norrie Ford, consecrating to it all his resources, mental and material, and winning it.

In the course of an hour or two their understanding was complete, but he did not refer again to the conditions of their tacit compact. It was she who felt that sufficient had not been said—that the sincerity with which she subscribed to it had not been duly emphasized. She was at the door on the point of going away when she braced herself to look at him and say:

"You can't realize what all this means to me. If we succeed—that is, if you succeed—I hardly dare to tell you of the extent to which I shall be grateful."

He felt already some of the hero's magnanimity as to claiming his reward.

"You needn't think about that," he smiled. "I sha'n't. If by making Evie happy I can serve you, I shall not ask for gratitude."

She looked down at her muff and smoothed its fur, then glanced up swiftly. "No; but I shall want to give it."

With that she was gone—lighter of heart than a few hours ago it had seemed to her possible ever to be again. Her joy was the joy of the captain who feels that he has saved his ship, though his own wound is fatal.



Part IV

Conquest



XX



Among the three or four qualities Conquest most approved of in himself, not the least was a certain capacity for the patient acquisition of the world's more enviable properties. He had the gift of knowing what he wanted, recognizing it when he saw it, and waiting for it till it came within his reach. From his youth upward he had been a connoisseur of quality rather than a lover of abundance, while he owned to a talent for seeing the value of things which other people overlooked, and throwing them into relief when the objects became his. As far back as the time when the modest paternal heritage had been divided between his brothers and sisters and himself, he had been astute enough to leave the bulk of it to them, contenting himself with one or two bits of ancestral furniture and a few old books, which were now known by all to have been the only things worth having. Throughout his life he had followed this principle of acquiring unobtrusively but getting exactly what he wanted. It was so that he bought his first horse, so that he bought his first motor, so that he purchased the land where he afterward built his house—in a distant, desolate stretch of Fifth Avenue which his acquaintances told him would be hopelessly out of reach, but where, not many years after, most of them were too late to join him.

In building his house, too, he took his time, allowing his friends to make their experiments around him, while he studied the great art of "how not to do it." One of his neighbors erected a Flemish chActeau, another a Florentine palazzo, and a third a FranASec.ois Premier hA'tel; but his plot of ground remained an unkempt tangle of mullein and blue succory. In the end he put up a sober, handsome development on a style which the humbler passers-by often called, with approval, "good, plain American," but whose point of departure was Georgian. He had the instinct for that which springs out of the soil. For this reason he did not shrink from an Early Victorian note—the first note of the modern, prosperous New York—in decoration; and the same taste impelled him toward the American in art. While Neighbor Smith displayed his Gainsboroughs, and Neighbor Jones his Rousseaus or Daubignys, Conquest quietly picked up a thing here and there—always under excellent advice—which no picture-dealer had been able to dispose of, because it came from some studio in Twenty-third Street. Hung on his walls, it produced that much-sought-for effect of "having been always there." He was not a Chauvinist, nor had he any sympathy with the intolerantly patriotic. He was merely a lover of the indigenous.

In much the same way he had sought for—and waited for—a wife. He had been rashly put down as "not a marrying man," when he was only taking his time. He had seen plainly of excellent possibilities—fine women, handsome women, clever women, good women—any of whom presumably he could have had for the asking; but none was, in his own phraseology, "just the right thing." He wanted something unusual, and yet not exotic—something obvious, which no one else had observed—something cultivated, and yet native—something as exquisite as any hothouse orchid, but with the keen, fresh scent of the American woods and waters on its bloom. It was not a thing to be picked up every day, and so he kept on the lookout for it, and waited. Even when he found it, he was not certain, on the spur of the moment, that it would prove exactly what he had in mind. So he waited longer. He watched the effect of time and experience upon it, until he was quite sure. He knew the risk he was running that some one else might snatch it up; but his principle had always been to let everything, no matter how coveted, go, rather than buy in haste.

Lest such an attitude toward Miriam Strange should seem cold-blooded, it should be said in his defence that he considered the aggregate of his sentiments to be—love. She was to be more than "something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse," more than the living, responsive soul among his chattels. There was that in her which appealed to his desire, and to something more deeply seated in him still. After satisfying ear, eye, and intelligence, there was in her nature a whole undiscovered region, undivined, undefined, wakening the imagination, and stirring the speculative faculties, like the subconscious elements in personality. In her wild, non-Aryan glances he saw the flame of eyes that flashed on him out of a past unknown to history; in the liquid cadences of her voice he heard the echo of the speech that had sounded in the land before Plymouth was a stockade or Manhattan was a farm; in her presence he found a claim that antedated everything sprung of Hudson, Cabot, or Columbus. The slender thread that attached her to the ages of nomadic mystery made her for him the indigenous spirit, reborn in a woman of the world.

Knowing himself too old to be dominated by a passion, and too experienced to be snared by wiles, he estimated his feelings as being those of love, as he understood the word. He conceded the fact that love, like every other desire, must work to win, and proceeded to set about his task according to his usual methods of persistent, unobtrusive siege. It was long before Miriam became aware of what he was doing, and her surprise as she drew back was not quite so great as his to see her do it. He was so accustomed to success—after taking the trouble to insure it—that he was astonished, and a little angry, to find his usual tactics fail. He did not believe that she was beyond his grasp; he perceived only that he had taken the wrong way to get her. That there was a right way there could be no question; and he knew that by patient, unremitting search he should find it.

He had, therefore, several sources of satisfaction in espousing the cause of Norrie Ford. The amplitude of his legal knowledge would be to him as gay feathers to the cock; while the contemplation of the prize added to his self-approval in never doubting that it could be won.

* * * * *

It was early March when Ford sailed away, leaving his affairs in Conquest's charge, at the latter's own request. He in his turn placed them in the hands of Kilcup and Warren, who made a specialty of that branch of the law. The reward was immediate, in that frequent talks with Miriam became a matter of course.

His trained mind was prompt to seize the fact that these interviews took place on a basis different from that of their meetings in the past. Where he had been seeking to gain an end he was now on probation. He had been told—or practically told—that what he had been asking would be granted, as soon as certain conditions were fulfilled. It became to him, therefore, a matter of honor, in some degree one of professional etiquette, to fulfil the conditions before referring to the reward. Instead of a suitor pressing his suit, he became the man of business recounting the points scored, or still to be scored, in a common enterprise. In keeping her informed of each new step that Kilcup and Warren were taking, he maintained an attitude of distant respect, of which she could have nothing to complain.

Expecting an equal reserve on her part, it was with some surprise that he saw her assume the initiative in cordiality. He called it cordiality, because he dared not make it a stronger word. Her manner went back to the spontaneous friendliness that had marked their intercourse before she began to see what he was aiming at, while into it she threw an infusion of something that had not hitherto been there. When he came with the information that a fresh bit of evidence had been discovered, or a new light thrown on an old one, she listened with interest—just the right kind of interest—and made pretexts to detain him, sometimes with Wayne as a third, sometimes without, for the pleasure of his own company. Now and then, as spring came on, they would all three, at her suggestion, cross the street, and stroll in the park together. Leaving Wayne on some convenient seat, they would prolong their own walk, talking with the unguarded confidence of mutual trust. It was she who furnished the topics—books, music, politics, people, anything that chanced to be uppermost. When he decided to purchase an automobile a whole new world of consultation was opened up. They visited establishments together, and drove with Wayne into the country to test machines. Returning Conquest would dine informally, in morning dress, with them; or else, from time to time he would invite them to a restaurant. By-and-by he took to organizing little dinners at his own house, ostensibly to cheer up Wayne, but really to see Miriam at his table.

In all this there was nothing remarkable, as between old friends, except the contrast with her bearing toward him during the past year. He had expected that when Norrie Ford went finally free she would fulfil her contract, and fulfil it well; but he had not expected this instalment of graciousness in advance. It set him to pondering, to looking in the mirror, to refining on that careful dressing which he had already made an art. After all, a man in the fifties was young as long as he looked young, and according as one took the point of view.

Except when Ford's affairs came directly under discussion he occupied, seemingly, a secondary place in their thoughts. Miriam rarely spoke of him at all, and if Conquest brought up his name more frequently it was because his professional interest in the numerous "nice points" of the case was becoming keen. He talked them over with her, partly because of his pleasure in the intelligence with which she grasped them, and partly because their intimacy deepened in proportion as the hope strengthened that Ford's innocence would be proved.

It was June before Miriam heard from South America. Two or three letters to Evie had already come, guardedly written, telling little more than the incidents of Ford's voyage and arrival. It was to Miriam he wrote what he actually had at heart.

* * * * *

"The great moment has come and gone," she read to Conquest. "I have seen Mr. Jarrott, and made a clean breast of everything. It was harder than I expected, though I expected it would be pretty hard. I think I felt sorrier for him than for myself, which is saying a good deal. He not only takes it to heart, but feels it as a cut to his pride. I can see that that thought is uppermost. What he feels is not so much the fact that I deceived him as that I deceived him. I can understand it, too. In a country where there is such a lot of this sort of thing, he has never been touched by it before. It has been a kind of boast that his men were always the genuine article. If one of them is called Smith, it is because he is a Smith, and not a Vere de Vere in hiding. But that isn't all. He took me into his family—into his very heart. He showed that, when I told him. He tried not to, but he couldn't help it. I tell you it hurt—me. I won't try to write about it. I'll tell you everything face to face, when I get up to the mark, if I ever do. Apparently my letters hadn't prepared him for the thing at all. He thought it was to be something to do with Evie, though he might have known I wouldn't have chucked up everything for that. The worst of it is, he's no good at seeing things all round. He can't take my point of view a bit. It is impossible to explain the fix I was put in, because he can see nothing but the one fact that I pulled the wool over his eyes—his eyes, that had never suffered sacrilege before. I sympathize with him in that, and yet I think he might try to see that there's something to be said on my side. He doesn't, and he never will—which only hurts me the more.

"As for Evie, he wouldn't let me mention her name. I didn't insist, because it was too painful—I mean, too painful to see how he took it. He said, in about ten words, that Evie had not been any more engaged than if she had given her word to a man of air, and that there was no reason why she should be spoken of. We left it there. I couldn't deny that, and it was no use saying any more. The only reply to him must be given by Evie herself. He is writing to her, and so am I. I wish you would help her to see that she must consider herself quite free, and that she isn't to undertake what she may not have the strength to carry out. I realize more and more that I was asking her to do the impossible."

* * * * *

It was an hour or two after reading this, when Conquest had gone away, that Evie herself—as dainty as spring, in flowered muslin and a Leghorn hat crowned with a wreath of roses—came fluttering in.

"I've had the queerest letter from Uncle Jarrott," she began, breathlessly. "The poor old dear—well, something must be the matter with him. I can't for the life of me imagine what Herbert can have told him, but he doesn't understand a bit."

Miriam locked her own letter in her desk, saying as she did so:

"How does he show it?—that he doesn't understand."

"Why, he simply talks wild—that's how he shows it. He says I am not to consider myself engaged to Herbert—that I was never engaged to him at all. I wonder what he calls it, if it isn't engaged, when I have a ring—and everything."

"It is rather mystifying." Miriam tried to smile. "I suppose he means that having given your word to Herbert Strange, you're not to consider yourself bound to Norrie Ford, unless you want to."

"Pff! I don't care anything about that. I never liked the name of Herbert—or Strange, either. I told you that before. All the same, I wish Uncle Jarrott would have a little sense."

"Suppose—I mean, just suppose, dear—he felt it his duty to forbid your engagement altogether. What would you do then?"

"It wouldn't be very nice of him, I must say. He was as pleased as Punch over it when I was down there. If he's so capricious, I don't see how he can blame me."

"Blame you, for what, dear?"

"For staying engaged—if it's all right."

"But if he thought it wasn't all right?"

"You do, don't you?"

Evie, who had been prancing about the room, turned sharply on Miriam, who was still at her desk.

"That isn't the question—"

"No, but it's a question. I presume you don't mind my asking it?"

"You may ask me anything, darling—of course. But this is your uncle Jarrott's affair, and yours. It wouldn't do for me—"

"Oh, that's so like you Miriam. You'd exasperate a saint—the way you won't give your opinion when you've got one. I wish I could ask Billy. He'd know. But of course I couldn't, when he thinks I'm still engaged to him."

"What do you want to ask him, Evie, dear?"

"Well, he's a lawyer. He could tell me all about what it's all about. I'm sure I don't know. I didn't think it was anything—and yet here's Uncle Jarrott writing as if it was something awful. He's written to Aunt Queenie, too. Of course I must stand by Herbert, whatever happens—if it isn't very bad; but you can see yourself that I don't want to be mixed up in a—a—in a scandal."

"It would hardly be a scandal, dear; but there would be some—some publicity about it."

"I don't mind publicity. I'm used to that, with my name in the paper every other day. It was in this morning. Did you see it?—the Gresley's dance. Only I do wish they would call me Evelyn, and not Evie. It sounds so familiar."

"I'm afraid they'd put more in about you than just that."

"Would they? What?" Her eyes danced already, in anticipation.

"I can't tell you exactly what; but it would be things you wouldn't like."

Evie twitched about the room, making little clicking sounds with her lips, as signs of meditation.

"Well, I mean to be true to him—a while longer," she said, at last, as if coming to a conclusion. "I'm not going to let Uncle Jarrott think I'm just a puppet to be jerked on a string. The idea! When he was as pleased as Punch about it himself. And Aunt Helen said she'd give me my trousseau. I suppose I sha'n't get that now. But there's the money you offered me for the pearl necklace. Only I'd much rather have the pearl—Well, I'll be true to him, do you see? We're leaving for Newport the day after to-morrow. They say there hasn't been such a brilliant summer for a long time as they expect this year. Thank goodness, there's something to take my mind off all this care and worry and responsiblity, otherwise I think I should pass away. But I shall show Uncle Jarrott that he can't do just as he likes with me, anyhow."

Evie and Miss Jarrott went to Newport, and it was the beginning of July before Miriam heard from Ford again. Once more she read to Conquest such portions of the letter as she thought he would find of interest.

* * * * *

"It is all over now," Ford wrote, "between Stephens and Jarrott and me. I'm out of the concern for good. It was something of a wrench, and I'm glad it is past. I didn't see the old man again. I wanted to thank him and say good-bye, but he dodged me. Perhaps it is just as well. Even if I were to meet him now, I shouldn't make the attempt again. I confess to feeling a little hurt, but I thoroughly understand him. He is one of those men—you meet them now and again—survivals from the old school—with a sense of rectitude so exact that they can only see in a straight line. It is all right. Don't think that I complain. It is almost as much for his sake as for my own that I wish he could have taken what I call a more comprehensive view of me. I know he suffers—and I shall never be able to tell him how sorry I am till we get into the kingdom of heaven. In fact, I can't explain anything to any one, except you, which must be an excuse for my long letters. I try to keep you posted in what I'm going through, so that you may convey as much or as little of it as you think fit to Evie. I can't tell her much, and I see from the little notes she writes me that she doesn't yet understand.

"The cat seems to be quite out of the bag in the office, though I haven't said a word to any one, and I know Mr. Jarrott wouldn't. Pride and sore feeling will keep him from ever speaking of me again, except when he can't help it. I don't mean to say that the men know exactly what it is, but they know enough to set them guessing. They are jolly nice about it, too, even the fellows who were hardly decent to me in the old days. Little Green—the chap from Boston who succeeded me at Rosario; I must have told you about him—and his wife can't do enough for me, and I know they mean it."

There was a silence of some weeks before he wrote again.

"I shall not get away from here as soon as I expected, as my private affairs are not easily settled up. This city grows so fast that I have had a good part of my savings in real estate. I am getting rid of it by degrees, but it takes time to sell to advantage. I may say that I am doing very well, for which I am not sorry, as I shall need the money for my trial. I hope you don't mind my referring to it, because I look forward to it with something you might almost call glee. To get back where I started will be like waking from a bad dream. I can't believe that Justice will make the same mistake twice—and even if she does I would rather she had the chance. I am much encouraged by the last reports from Kilcup and Warren. I've long felt that it was Jacob Gramm who did for my poor uncle, though I didn't like to accuse him of it when the proofs seemed all the other way. He certainly had more reason to do the trick than I had, for my uncle had been a brute to him for thirty years, while he had only worried me for two. He wasn't half a bad old chap, either—old Gramm—and it was one of the mysteries of the place to me that he could have stood it so long. The only explanation I could find was that he had a kind of affection for the old man, such as a dog will sometimes have for a master who beats him, or a woman for a drunken husband. I believe the moment came when he simply found himself at the end of his tether of endurance—and he just did for him. His grief, when it was all over, was real enough. Nobody could doubt that. In fact, it was so evidently genuine that the theory I am putting forward now only came to me of late years. I think there is something in it, and I believe the further they go the more they will find to support it. Now that the old chap is dead I should have less scruple in following it up—especially if the old lady is gone too. She was a bit of a vixen, but the husband was a good old sort. I liked him."

Some weeks later he wrote:

"I wander about this place a good deal like a ghost in its old haunts. Everything here is so temporary, so changing—much more so than in New York—that one's footprints are very quickly washed away. Outside the office almost no one remembers me. It is curious to think that I was once so happy here—and so hopeful. There was always a kind of hell in my heart, but I kept it banked down, as we do the earth's internal fires, beneath a tolerably solid crust. Yesterday, finding myself at the Hipodromo, I stood for a while on the spot where I first saw Evie. It used to seem to me a bit of enchanted ground, but I feel now as if I ought to erect a gravestone there. Poor little Evie! How right you were about it all. It was madness on my part to think she could ever climb up my Calvary. My excuse is that I didn't imagine it was going to be so steep. I even hoped she would never see that there was a Calvary at all. Her notes are still pitifully ignorant of the real state of things.

"And speaking of gravestones, I went out the other day to the Recoleta Cemetery, and looked at the grave of my poor old friend, Monsieur Durand. Everything neat, and in good order. It gives me a peculiar satisfaction to see that the decorum he loved reigns where he 'sleeps.' I never knew his secret—except that rumor put him down for an unfrocked priest.

"I doubt if I shall get away from here till the beginning of October; but when I do, everything will be in trim for what I sometimes think of as my resurrection."

* * * * *

These letters, and others like them, Miriam shared conscientiously with Conquest. It was part of the loyalty she had vowed to him in her heart that she should keep nothing from him, except what was sanctified and sealed forever, as her own private history. In the impulse to give her life as a ransom for Norrie Ford's she was eager to do it without reserves, or repinings, or backward looks—without even a wish that it had been possible to make any other use of it. If she was not entirely successful in the last feat, she was fairly equal to the rest, so that in allowing himself to be misled Conquest could scarcely be charged with fatuity. With his combined advantages, personal and otherwise, it was not astonishing that a woman should be in love with him; and if that woman proved to be Miriam Strange, one could only say that the unexpected had happened, as it often does. If, in view of all the circumstances, he dressed better than ever, and gave his little dinners more frequently, while happiness toned down the sharpness of his handsome profile to a softer line, he had little in common with Malvolio.

And what he had began to drop away from him. Insensibly he came to see that the display of his legal knowledge, of his carefully chosen ties, of his splendid equipment in house, horses, and automobiles, had something of the major-domo's strut in parti-colored hose. The day came when he understood that the effort to charm her by the parade of these things was like the appeal to divine grace by means of grinding on a prayer-mill. It was a long step to take, both in thought and emotion, leading him to see love, marriage, women's hearts, and all kindred subjects, from a different point of view. Love in particular began to appear to him as more than the sum total of approbation bestowed on an object to be acquired. Though he was not prepared to give it a new definition, it was clear that the old one was no longer sufficient for his needs. The mere fact that this woman, whom he had vainly tempted with gifts—whom he was still hoping to capture by prowess—could come to him of her own accord, had a transforming effect on himself. If he ever got her—by purchase, conquest, or any other form of acquisition—he had expected to be proud; he had never dreamed of this curious happiness, that almost made him humble.

It was a new conception of life to think that there were things in it that might be given, but which could not be bought; as it was a new revelation of himself to perceive that there were treasures in his dry heart which had never before been drawn on. This discovery was made almost accidentally. He stumbled on it, as men have stumbled on Koh-i-noors and Cullinanes lying in the sand.

"What I really came to tell you," he said to her, on one occasion, as they strolled side by side in the Park, "is that I am going away to-morrow—to the West—to Omaha."

"Isn't that rather sudden?"

"Rather. I've thought for the last few days I might do it. The fact is, they've found Amalia Gramm."

She stopped with a sudden start of interrogation, moving on again at once. It was a hot September evening, at the hour when twilight merges into night. They had left Wayne on a favorite seat, and having finished their own walk northward, were returning to pick him up and take him home. It was just dark enough for the thin crescent of the harvest moon to be pendulous above the city, while a rim of lighted windows in high faASec.ades framed the tree-tops The peace of the quiet path in which they rambled seemed the more sylvan because of the clang and rumble of the streets, as a room will appear more secluded and secure when there is a storm outside.

"They've found her living with some nieces out there," he went on to explain. "She appears to have been half over the world since old Gramm died—home to Germany—back to America—to Denver—to Chicago—to Milwaukee—to the Lord knows where—and now she has fetched up in Omaha. She strikes me in the light of an unquiet spirit. It seems she has nephews and nieces all over the lot—and as she has the ten thousand dollars old Chris Ford left them—"

"Are they going to bring her here?"

"They can't—bedridden—paralyzed, or something. They've got to take her testimony on the spot. I want to be there when they do it. There are certain questions which it is most important to have asked. In a way, it is not my business; but I'm going to make it mine. I've mulled over the thing so long that I think I see the psychology of the whole drama."

"I can never thank you enough for the interest you've shown," she said, after a brief silence.

He gave his short, nervous laugh.

"Nor I you for giving me the chance to show it. That's where the kindness comes in. It's made a different world for me, and me a different man in it. If anybody had told me last winter that I should spend the whole summer in town working on a criminal case—"

"You shouldn't have done that. I wanted you to go away as usual."

"And leave you here?"

"I shouldn't have minded—as long as Mr. Wayne preferred to stay. It's so hard for him to get about, anywhere but in the place he's accustomed to. New York in summer isn't as bad as people made me think."

"I too have found that true. To me it has been a very happy time. But perhaps my reasons were different from yours."

She reflected a minute before uttering her next words, but decided to say them.

"I fancy our reasons were the same."

The low voice, the simplicity of the sentence, the meanings in it and behind it, made him tremble. It was then, perhaps, that he began to see most clearly the true nature of love, both as given and received.

"I don't think they can be," he ventured, hoping to draw her on to say something more; but she did not respond.

After all, he reflected, as they continued their walk more or less in silence, too many words would only spoil the minute's bliss. There was, too, a pleasure in standing afar off to view the promised land almost equal to that of marching into it—especially when, as now, he was given to understand that its milk and honey were awaiting him.



XXI



It was the middle of October when Evie wrote from Lenox to say she would come to town to meet Ford on his arrival, begging Miriam to give her shelter for a night or two. The Grants remaining abroad, Miss Jarrott had taken the house in Seventy-second Street for another winter, but as Evie would run up to New York alone she preferred for the minute to be Miriam's guest.

"The fact is, I'm worried to death," she wrote, confidentially "and you must help me to see daylight through this tangled mass of everybody saying different things. Aunt Queenie has gone completely back on Herbert, just because Uncle Jarrott has. That doesn't strike me as very loyal, I must say. I shouldn't think it right to desert anybody, unless I wanted to. I wouldn't do it because some one else told me to—not if he was my brother ten times over. I mean to be just as true to Herbert as I can Not that he makes it very easy for me, because he has broken altogether with Uncle Jarrott—and that seems to me the maddest thing. I certainly sha'n't get my trousseau from Aunt Helen now. I don't see what we're all coming to. Everybody is so queer, and they keep hinting things they won't say out, as if there was some mystery. I do wish I could talk to Billy about it. Of course I can't—the way matters stand. And speaking of Billy, that rich Mr. Bird—you remember I told you about him last winter—has asked me to marry him. Just think! I forget how much he has a year, but it's something awful. Of course I told him I couldn't give him a definite answer yet—but that if he insisted on it I should have to make it No. He said he didn't insist—that he'd rather wait till I had time to make up my mind, if I didn't keep him dangling. I told him I wouldn't keep him doing anything whatever, and that if he dangled at all it would be entirely of his own accord. I think he liked my spirit, so he said he'd wait. We left it there, which was the wisest way—though I must say I didn't like his presuming on his money to think I would make a difference between him and the others. Money doesn't mean anything to me, though dear mamma hoped she would live to see me well established. She didn't, poor darling, but that's no reason why I shouldn't try to carry out her wishes. All the same, I mean to be true to Herbert just as long as possible; and so you may expect me on the twenty-ninth."

* * * * *

If there was much in this letter that Miriam found disturbing, it was not the thought that Evie might be false to Ford, or that Ford might suffer, which alarmed her most. There was something in her that cried out in fear before the possibility that Norrie Ford might be free again. Her strength having sprung so largely from the hope of restoring the plans she had marred, the destruction of the motive left her weak; but worse than that was the knowledge that, though she had tried to empty her heart completely of its cravings, only its surface had been drained. It was to get assurance rather than to give information that she read fragments of Evie's letter to Conquest, on the evening of his return from Omaha. He had come to give her the news of his success. That it was good news was evident in his face when he entered the room; and, almost afraid to hear it, she had broached the subject of her anxiety about Evie first.

"She's going to give him the sack; that's what she's going to give him," Conquest said, conclusively, while Miriam folded the dashingly scribbled sheets. "You needn't be worried about her in the least. Miss Evie knows her way about as cleverly as a homing bee. She'll do well for herself whatever else she may not do. Come now!"

"I'm not thinking of that so much as that she should do her duty."

"Duty! Pooh! That sort of little creature has no duty—the word doesn't apply to it. Evie is the most skilful mixture of irresponsible impulse and shrewd calculation you'll find in New York. She'll use both her gifts with perfect heartlessness, and yet in such a way that even her guardian angel won't know just where to find fault with her."

"But she must marry Mr. Ford—now."

He was too busy with his own side of the subject to notice that her assertion had the intensity of a cry. He had a man's lack of interest in another man's love-affairs while he was blissfully absorbed in his own.

"You might as well tell a swallow that it must migrate—now," he laughed. "Poor Ford will feel it, I've no doubt; but we shall make up to him for a good deal of it. We're going to pull him through."

For the instant her anxiety was diverted into another channel. "Does that mean that Amalia Gramm has told you anything?"

"She's told us everything. I thought she would. I don't feel at liberty to give you the details before they come out at the proper time and place; but there's no harm in saying that my analysis of the old woman's psychological state was not so very far wrong. There's no question about it any longer. We'll pull him through. And, by George, he's worth it!"

The concluding exclamation, uttered with so much sincerity, took her by surprise, transmuting the pressure about her heart into a mist of sudden tears. Tears came to her rarely, hardly, and seldom with relief. She was especially unwilling that Conquest should notice them now; but the attempt to dash them away only caused them to fall faster. She could see him watching her in a kind of sympathetic curiosity, slightly surprised in his turn at the unexpected emotion, and trying to divine its cause. Unable to bear his gaze any longer, she got up brusquely from her chair, retreating into the bay-window, where—the curtains being undrawn—she stood looking down on the sea of lights, as beings above the firmament might look down on stars. He waited a minute, and came near her only when he judged that he might do so discreetly.

"You're unnerved," he said, with tender kindliness. "That's why you're upset. You've had too much on your mind. You're too willing to take all the care on your own shoulders, and not let other people hustle for themselves."

She was pressing her handkerchief against her lips, so she made no reply. The moment seemed to him one at which he might go forward a little more boldly. All the circumstances warranted an advance from his position of reserve.

"You need me," he ventured to say, with that quiet assurance which in a lover means much. "I understand you as no one else does in the world."

Her brimming eyes gave him a look which was only pathetic, but which he took to be one of assent.

"I've always told you I could help you," he went on, with tranquil earnestness, "and I could. You've too many burdens to carry alone—burdens that don't belong to you, but which, I know, you'll never lay down. Well, I'll share them. There's Wayne, now. He's too much for you, by yourself—I don't mean from the material point of view, but—the whole thing. It wears on you. It's bound to. Wayne is my friend just as much as yours. He's my responsibility—so long as you take it in that light. I've been thinking of him a lot lately—and I see how, in my house—could put him up—ideally."

Still pressing her handkerchief against her lips with her right hand, she put out her left in a gesture of deprecation. He understood it as one of encouragement, and went on.

"You must come and look at my house. You've never really seen it, and I think you'd like it. I think you'd like—everything I've got everything to make you happy; and if you'll only let me do it, you'll make me happy, too."

She felt able to speak at last. Her eyes were still brimming as she turned toward him, but brimming only as pools are when the rain is over.

"I want you to be happy. You're so good ... and kind ... and you've done so much for me ... you deserve it."

She turned away from him again. With her arm on the woodwork of the window, she rested her forehead rather wearily on her hand. He understood so little of what was passing within her that she found it a relief to suspend for the minute her comedy of spontaneous happiness, letting her heart ache unrestrainedly. Her left hand hanging limp and free, she made no effort to withdraw it when she felt him clasp it in his own. Since she had subscribed to the treaty months ago, since she had insisted on doing it rightly or wrongly, it made little difference when and how she carried the conditions out. So they stood hand in hand together, tacitly, but, as each knew, quite effectually, plighted. In her silence, her resignation, her evident consent he read the proof of that love which, to his mind, no longer needed words.

* * * * *

Late that night, after he had gone away, she wrote to Evie, beseeching her to be true to Ford. The letter was so passionate, so little like herself, that she was afraid of destroying it if she waited till morning, so she posted it without delay. The answer came within forty-eight hours, in the shape of a telegram from Evie. She was coming to town at once, though it wanted still three or four days to Ford's arrival.

It was a white little Evie, with drawn face, who threw herself into Miriam's arms at the station, clutching at her with a convulsive sob.

"Miriam, I can't do it," she whispered, in a kind of terror. "They say he's going to be put in—jail!"

Her voice rose on the last word, so that one or two people paused in their rush past to glance at the pitifully tragic little face.

"Hush, darling," Miriam whispered back. "You'll tell me about it as we go home."

But in the motor Evie could only cry, clinging to Miriam as she used to do in troubled moments in childhood. Arrived at the apartment, Wayne had to be faced with some measure of self-control, and then came dinner. At table Evie, outwardly mistress of herself by this time, talked feverish nonsense about their common friends in Lenox, after which she made an excuse for retiring early. It was only in the bedroom, when they were secure from interruption that Miriam heard what Evie had to tell. She was tearless now, and rather indignant.

"I've had the strangest letter from Herbert," she declared excitedly, as soon as Miriam entered the room. "I couldn't have believed he wrote it in his senses if Aunt Queenie hadn't heard the Same thing from Uncle Jarrott. He says he's got to go to—jail."

There was the same rising inflexion on the last word, suggestive of a shriek of horror, that Miriam had noticed in the station. In her white peignoir, her golden hair streaming over her shoulders, and her hands flung wide apart with an appealing dramatic gesture, Evie was not unlike some vision of a youthful Christian martyr, in spite of the hair-brush in her hand. Miriam sat down sidewise on the edge of the couch, looking up at the child in pity. She felt that it was useless to let her remain in darkness any longer.

"Of course he has to," she said, trying to make her tone as matter of fact as might be. "Didn't you know it?"

"Know it! Did you?"

Evie stepped forward, bending over Miriam as if she meant to strike her.

"I knew it in a general way, darling. I suppose, when he gives himself to the police—"

"The police!" Evie screamed. "Am I to be engaged to a man who—gives himself up to the police?"

"It will only be for a little while, dear—"

"I don't care whether it's for a little while or foreverit can't be. What is he thinking of? What are you thinking of? Don't you see? How can I face the world—with all my invitations—when the man I'm engaged to is—in jail?"

Evie's hands flew up in a still more eloquent gesture, while the blue eyes, usually so soft and veiled, were wide with flaming interrogation.

"I knew that—in some ways—it might be hard for you—"

Evie laughed, a little silvery mirthless ripple of scorn.

"I must say, Miriam, you choose your words skilfully. But you're wrong, do you see? There's no way in which it can be hard for me, because there's no way in which it's possible."

"Oh yes, there is, dear—if you love him."

"That has nothing to do with it. Of course I love him. Haven't I said so? But that doesn't make any difference. Can't I love him without being engaged to—to—to a man who has to go to jail?"

"Certainly; but you can't love him if you don't feel that you must—that you simply must—stand by his side."

"There you go again, Miriam, with your queer ideas. It's exactly what any one would expect you to say."

"I hope so."

"Oh, you needn't hope so, because they would—any one who knew you. But I have to do what's right. I know what I feel in my conscience—and I have to follow it. And besides, I couldn't—I couldn't"—her voice began to rise again—"I couldn't face it—I couldn't bear it—not if I loved him a great deal better than I do."

"That's something you must think about very seriously, dear—"

"I don't have to!" she cried, with a stamp of her foot. "I know it already. It wouldn't make any difference if I thought about it a thousand years. I couldn't be engaged to a man who was in jail, not if I worshipped the ground he trod on."

"But when he's innocent, darling—"

"It's jail, just the same. I can't be engaged to people just because they're innocent. It isn't right to expect it of me. And, anyhow," she added, passionately, "I can't do it. It would kill me. I should never lift my head again. I can't—I can't. It's hateful of any one to say I ought to. I'm surprised at you, Miriam, when you know how dear mamma would have forbidden it. It's all very well for you to give advice, when you have no family—and no one to think about—and hardly any invitations— Well, I can't, and there's an end of it. If that's your idea of love, then, I must say, my conception is a little different. I've always had high ideals, and I feel obliged to hold to them, however you may condemn me."

She ended with a catch in her breath something like a sob.

"But I'm not condemning you, Evie dear. If you feel what you say, there's nothing for it but to see Mr. Ford and tell him so."

At this suggestion Evie sobered. She was a long time silent before she observed, in a voice that had become suddenly calm and significantly casual, "That's easy for you to say."

"If you speak to him as decidedly as to me, I should think it would be easy for you to do."

"And still easier for you."

Evie spoke in that tone of unintentional intention which is most pointed. It was not lost on Miriam, who recoiled from the mere thought. It seemed to her better to ignore the hint, but Evie, with feverish eagerness, refused to let it pass.

"Did you hear what I said?" she persisted, sharply.

"I heard it, dear; but it didn't seem to me to mean anything."

"That would depend on whether you heard it only with the ear or in the heart."

"You know that everything that has to do with you is in my heart."

"Well, then?"

"But if you mean by that that I should tell Mr. Ford you're not going to marry him—why, it's out of the question."

"Then who's to tell him? I can't. It's not to be expected."

"But, darling, you must. This is awful."

Miriam got up and went toward her, but Evie, who was nervously brushing her hair, edged away.

"Of course it's awful, but I don't see the use of making it worse than it need be. He'll feel it a great deal more if he sees me, and so shall I."

"And what shall I feel?" Miriam spoke unguardedly, but Evie was too preoccupied to notice the bitterness of the tone.

"I don't see why you should feel anything at all. It's nothing to you—or very little. It wouldn't be your fault; not any more than it's the postman's if he has to bring you a letter with bad news."

Miriam went back to her place on the edge of the couch, where with her forehead bowed for a minute on her hand she sat reflecting. An overwhelming desire for confidence, for sympathy perhaps, for the clearing up of mysteries in any case, was impelling her to tell Evie all that had ever happened between Ford and herself. It had been necessary to maintain so many reserves that possibly this new light would enable Evie to see her own duty more straightforwardly.

"Darling," she began, "I want to tell you something—"

But before she could proceed Evie flung the hair-brush on the floor and uttered a great swelling sob. With her hands hanging at her sidess and her golden head thrown back, she wept with the abandonment of a child, while suggesting the seraphic suffering of a grieving angel by some old master.

In an instant Miriam had her in her arms. It was the appeal she had never been able to resist.

"There, there, my pet," she said, soothingly, drawing her to the couch. "Come to Miriam, who loves you. There, there."

Evie clung to her piteously, with flower-like face tilted outward and upward for the greater convenience of weeping.

"Oh, I'm so lonely!" she sobbed. "I'm so lonely ... I I wish dear mamma ... hadn't died."

Miriam pressed her the more closely.

"I'm so lonely ... and everything's so strange ... and I don't know what to do ... and he's going to be put in jail ... and you're so unkind to me.... Oh, dear! ... I can't tell him ... I can't tell him ... I can't ... I can't ..."

She pillowed her head on Miriam's shoulder, like a child that would force a caress from the hand that has just been striking it. The action filled Miriam with that kind of self-reproach which the weak creature inspires so easily in the strong. In spite of her knowledge to the contrary, she had the feeling of having acted selfishly.

"No, darling," she said, at last, as Evie's sobs subdued into convulsive tremblings, "you needn't tell him. I'll see him. He'll understand how hard it's been for you. It's been hard for every one—and especially for you, darling. I'll do my best. You know I will. And I'm sure he'll understand. There, there," she comforted, as Evie's tears broke out afresh. "Have your cry out, dear. It will do you good. There, there."

* * * * *

So Evie went back next day to Lenox, while Miriam waited for Ford.



XXII



A few days later she read his name, in a morning paper, in the Asiatic's list of passengers the steamer having arrived at quarantine the night before: Mr. John Norrie Ford. Though flung carelessly into a paragraph printed in small type, it seemed to blaze in fire on the page! It was as if all America must rise at it. As she looked from the window it was with something like surprise that she saw the stream of traffic roaring onward, heedless of the fact that this dread name was being hawked in the streets and sold at the news-stands. She sent out for the evening papers that appear at midday, being relieved and astonished to find that as yet it had created no sensation.

She was not deceived by his ease of manner when he appeared at the apartment in the afternoon. Though he carried his head loftily, and smiled with his habitual air of confidence, she could see that the deep waters of the proud had gone over his soul. Their ebb had streaked his hair and beard with white, and deepened the wrinkles that meant concentrated will into the furrows that come of suffering. She was more or less prepared for that. It was the outward manifestation of what she had read between the lines of the letters he had written her. As he crossed the room, with hand outstretched, her one conscious thought was of the chance to be a woman and a helpmeet Evie had flung away. She had noticed how, on the very threshold, he had glanced twice about the room, expecting to find her there.

They did not speak of her at once. They talked of commonplace introductory things—the voyage, the arrival, the hotel at which he was staying—anything that would help her, and perhaps him, to control the preliminary nervousness. There was no sign of it, however, on his part, while she felt her own spirit rising, as it always did, to meet emergencies. Presently she mentioned her fears regarding his use of his true name.

"No; it isn't dangerous," he assured her, "because I'm out of danger now. Thank the Lord, that's all over. I don't have to live with a great hulking terror behind me any longer. I'm a man like any other. You can't imagine what it means to be yourself, and not to care who knows it. I'm afraid I parade my name just like a boy with a new watch, who wants to tell every one the time. So far no one has paid any particular attention; but I dare say that will come. Is Evie here?"

"She's not here—to-day."

"Why not?" he asked, sharply. "She said she would be. She said she'd come to town—"

"She did come to town, but she thought she'd better not—stay."

"Not stay? Why shouldn't she stay? Is anything up? You don't mean that Miss Jarrott—?"

"No; Miss Jarrott had nothing to do with it. I know her brother has written to her, in the way you must be prepared for. But she couldn't have kept Evie from waiting for you, if Evie herself—"

"Had wanted to," he finished, as she seemed to hesitate at the words.

Since she said nothing to modify this assertion, she hoped he would comprehend its gravity. Indeed, he seemed to be trying to attenuate that when he spoke next.

"I suppose she had engagements—or something."

"She did have engagements—but she could have put them off."

"Only she didn't care to. I see."

She allowed him time to accept this fact before going on.

"Her return to Lenox," she said then, "wasn't because of her engagements."

"Then it must have been because of me. Didn't she want to see me?"

"She didn't want to tell you what she felt she would have to say."

"Oh! So that was it."

He continued to sit looking at her with an expression of interrogation, though it was evident from his eyes that his questions had been answered. They sat in the same relative positions as on the night of their last long talk together, he in his big arm-chair, she in her low one. It struck her as strange—while he stared at her with that gaze of inquiry from which the inquiry was gone—that she, who meant so little to his inner life, should be called on again to live through with him minutes that must forever remain memorable in his existence.

"Poor little thing! So she funked telling me."

The comment was made musingly, to himself, but she took it as if addressed to her.

"She wasn't equal to it."

"But you are. You're equal to anything. Aren't you?" He smiled with that peculiar twisted smile which she had noticed at other times, when he was concealing pain.

"One is generally equal to what one has to do. All the same," she added, with an impulse she could not repress, "I'm sorry to be always associated in your mind with things that must be hard for you."

"You're associated in my mind with everything that's high and noble. That's the only memory I shall ever have of you. You've been with me through some of the dark spots of my life; but if it hadn't been for you I shouldn't have found the way."

"Thank you. I'm glad you can say that. I should be even more sorry than I am to give you this news to-day, if it were not that perhaps I can explain things a little better than Evie could."

"I don't imagine that they require much explanation. I've seen from Evie's letters that—"

"That she was afraid of—the situation. She hasn't changed toward you."

"Do you mean by that that she still—cares anything about me?"

"She says she does."

"But you don't believe her."

"I'm not entitled to an opinion. It's something you and she must work out together. All I can do is to tell you what may give you a little hope."

She watched for the brightening effect of these words upon him, but he sat looking absently at the floor, as if he had not heard them.

"Evie is afraid," she continued, "but I think it's only fair to remember that the circumstances might well frighten any young girl of her sort."

He showed that he followed her by nodding assent, though he neither lifted his head nor spoke.

"She wanted me to tell you that while the—the trial—and other things—are going on, she couldn't be engaged to you—I'm using her own expression, but she didn't say that, when it was all over and you were free, she wouldn't marry you. I noticed that."

He looked up quickly.

"I'm not sure that I catch your drift."

"I mean that when it's all over, and everything has ended as you hope it will, it may be quite possible for you to win her back."

He stared at her, with an incredulous lifting of the eyebrows

"Would you advise me to try?"

"It isn't a matter I could give advice about. I'm showing you what might be possible, but—"

"No, no. That sort of thing doesn't work. There was just a chance that Evie might have stuck to me spontaneously but since she didn't—"

"Since she didn't—what?"

"She was quite right not to. I admit that. It's in the order of things. She followed her instinct rather than her heart—I'm ready to believe that—but there are times in life when instinct is a pretty good guide."

"Am I to understand that you're not—hurt?—or disappointed? Because in that case—"

"I don't know whether I am or not. That's frank. I'm feeling so many things all at once that I can hardly distinguish one emotion from another, or tell which is strongest. I only know—it's become quite plain to me—that a little creature like Evie couldn't find a happy home in my life, any more than a humming-bird, as you once called her, could make its nest among crags."

"Do you mean by that," she asked, slowly, "that you're—definitely—letting her go?"

"I mean that, Evie being what she is, and I being what life has made me—Isn't it perfectly evident? Can you fancy us tied together—now?"

"I never could fancy it. I haven't concealed that from you at any time. But since you loved her, and she loved you—"

"That was true enough—in its way. In its way, it's still true. Evie still loves the man I was, perhaps, and the man I was loves her. The difference is that the man I was isn't sitting here in front of you."

"One changes with years, of course. I didn't suppose one could change in a few months, like that."

"One changes with experience—above all, with that kind of experience which people generally call—suffering. That's the great Alchemist; and he often transmutes our silver into gold. In my case, Evie was silver; but I've found there's something else that stands for—"

"So that," she interposed, quickly, "you're not sorry that Evie—?"

He got up, restlessly, and stood with his back to the empty fireplace.

"It isn't a case for sorrow," he replied, after a minute's thinking, "as it isn't one for joy. It's one purely for acceptance. When I first knew Evie I was still something of a kid. It was so all the more because the kid element in me had never had full play. I was arrogant, and cock-sure and certain of my ability to manipulate the world to suit myself. That was all Evie saw, and she liked it. In as far as she had it in her to fall in love with anything, she fell in love with it."

He took a turn or two across the room, coming back to his stand on the hearth-rug.

"I've travelled far since then," he continued; "I've had to travel far. Evie hasn't been able to come with me; and that's all there is to the story. It isn't her fault; because when I asked her, I had no intention of taking this particular way."

"It was I who drove you into that," she said, with a hint of remorse.

"Yes—you—and conscience—and whatever else I honor most. I give you the credit first of all, because, if it hadn't been for you, I shouldn't have had the moral energy to assert my true self against the false one. Isn't it curious that, after having made me Herbert Strange, it should be you who turned me into Norrie Ford again? It means that you exercise supreme power over me—a kind of creative power. You can make of me what you care to. It's no wonder that I've come to see——" He paused, in doubt as to how to express himself, while her eyes were fixed on him in troubled questioning. "It's no wonder," he went on again, "that I've come to see everything in a truer light—Evie as well as all the rest of it."

With a renewed impulse to move about, he strode toward the bay-window, where he stood for a few seconds, looking out and trying to co-ordinate his thoughts. Wheeling round again, he drew up a small chair close to hers, seating himself sidewise, with his arm resting on the back. He looked like a man anxious to explain himself.

"You're blaming me, I think, because I don't take Evie's defection more to heart. Isn't that so?"

"I'm not blaming you. I may be a little surprised at it."

"You wouldn't be surprised at it, if you knew all I've been through. It's difficult to explain to you—"

"There's no reason why you should try."

"But I want to try. I want you to know. You see," he pursued, speaking slowly, as if searching for the right words—"you see, it's largely a question of progress—of growth. Trouble has two stages. In the first, you think it hard luck that you should have to meet it. In the second, you see that, having met it, and gone through it, you come out into a region of big experience, where everything is larger and nobler than you thought it was before. Now, you'd probably think me blatant if I said that I feel myself emerging into—that."

"No, I shouldn't. As a matter of fact, I know you're doing it."

"Well, then, having got there—out into that new kind of world"—he sketched the vision with one of his Latin gestures—"I discover that—for one reason or another—poor little Evie has stayed on the far side of it. She couldn't pass the first gate with me, or the second, or the third, to say nothing of those I have still to go through. You know I'm not criticising, or finding fault with her, don't you?"

She assured him of that.

"And yet, I must go on, you see. There's no waiting or turning back for me, any more than for a dying man. No matter who goes or who stays, I must press forward. If Evie can't make the journey with me, I can only feel relieved that she's able to slip out of it—but I must still go on. I can't look back; I can't even be sorry—because I'm coming into the new, big land. You see what I mean?"

She signified again that she followed him.

"But the finding of a new land doesn't take anything from the old one. It only enlarges the world. Europe didn't become different because they discovered America. The only change was in their getting to know a country where the mountains were higher, and the rivers broader, and the sunshine brighter, and where there was a chance for the race to expand. Evie remains what she was. The only difference is that my eyes have been opened to—a new ideal."

It was impossible for her not to guess at what he meant. Independently of words, his earnest eyes told their tale, while he bent toward her like a man not quite able to restrain himself. In the ensuing seconds of silence she had time to be aware of three distinct phases of emotion within her consciousness, following each other so rapidly as to seem simultaneous. A throb of reckless joy in the perception that he loved her was succeeded by the knowledge that loyalty to Conquest must make rejoicing vain, while it flashed on her that, having duped herself once in regard to him, she must not risk the humiliating experience a second time. It was this last reflection that prevailed, keeping her still and unresponsive. After all, his new ideal might be something—or some one—quite different from what her fond imagining was so ready to believe.

"I suppose," she said, vaguely, for the sake of saying something, "that trial is the first essential to maturity. We need it for our ripening, as the flowers and fruit need wind and rain."

"And there are things in life," he returned, quickly, "that no immature creature can see. That's the point I want you to notice. It explains me. In a way, it's an excuse for me."

"I don't need excuses for you," she hastened to say, "any more than I require to have anything explained."

"No; of course not. You don't care anything about it. It's only I who do. But I care so much that I want you to understand why it was that—that—I didn't care before."

She felt the prompting to stop him, to silence him, but once more she held herself back. There was still a possibility that she was mistaking him, and her pride was on its guard.

"It was because I didn't know any better," he burst out, in naA-ve self-reproach. "It was because I couldn't recognize the high, the fine thing when I saw it. I've had that experience in other ways, and with just the same result. It was like that when I first began to hear good music. I couldn't make it out—it was nothing but a crash of sounds. I preferred the ditties and dances of a musical comedy; and it was only by degrees that I began to find them flat. Then my ear caught something of the wonderful things in the symphonies that used to bore me. You see, I'm slow—I'm stupid—"

"Not at all," she smiled. "It's quite a common experience."

"But I'm like that all through, with everything. I've been like that—with women. I used to be attracted by quite an ordinary sort. It's taken me years—all these years, till I'm thirty-three—to see that there's a perfect expression of the human type, just as there's a perfect expression of any kind of art. And I've found it."

He bent farther forward, nearer to her. There was a light in his face that seemed to her to denote enthusiasm quite as much as love. To her wider experience in emotions this discovery of himself, which was involved in his discovery of her, was rather youthful, provoking a faint smile.

"You're to be congratulated, then," she said, with an air of distant friendliness. "It isn't every one who's so fortunate."

"That's true. There's only one man in the world who's more fortunate than I. That's Conquest."

"Oh!"

In the brusqueness with which she started she pushed her chair slightly back from him. It was to conceal her agitation that she rose, steadying herself on the back of the chair in which she had been seated.

"Conquest saw what I didn't—till it was too late."

He was on his feet now, facing her, with the chair between them.

"I wish you wouldn't say any more," she begged, though without overemphasis of pleading. She was anxious, for her own sake as well as for his, to keep to the tone of the colloquial.

"I don't see why I shouldn't. I'm not going to say anything to shock you. I know you're going to marry Conquest. You told me so before I went away, and——"

"I should like to remind you that Mr. Conquest is the best friend you have. When you hear what he's done for you, you will see that you owe him more than you do any man in the world."

"I know that. I'm the last to forget it. But it can't do any harm to tell the woman—who's going to be his wife—that I owe her even more than I do him."

"It can't do any harm, perhaps; but when I ask you not to——"

"I can't obey you. I shouldn't be a man if I went through life without some expression of my—gratitude; and now's the only time to make it. There are things which I wasn't free to say before, because I was bound to Evie—and which it will soon be too late for you to listen to, because you'll be bound to him. You're not bound to him yet——"

"I am bound to him," she said, in a tone in which there were all the regrets he had no reason to divine. "I don't know what you think of saying; but whatever it is, I implore you not to say it."

"It's precisely because you don't know that I feel the necessity of telling you. It's something I owe you. It's like a debt. It isn't as if we were just any man and any woman. We're a man and a woman in a very special relation to each other. No matter what happens, nothing can change that. And it isn't as if we were going to live in the same world, in the same way. You will be Conquest's wife—a great lady in New York. I shall be—well, Heaven only knows what I shall be, but nothing that's likely to cross your path again. All the same, it won't hurt you, it wouldn't hurt any woman, however good, to hear what I'm going to tell you. It wouldn't hurt any man—not even Conquest—that it should be said to his wife—in the way that I shall say it. If it could, I wouldn't——"

"Wait a minute," she said, suddenly. "Let me ask you something." She took a step toward him, though her hand rested still on the back of the chair. "If I know it already," she continued, looking him in the eyes, "there would be no necessity for you to speak?"

He took the time to consider this in all its bearings.

"I'd rather tell you in my own words," he said, at last; "but if you assure me that you know, I shall be satisfied."

She took a step nearer to him still. Only the tips of her fingers now rested on the back of the chair, to which she held, as to a bulwark. Before she spoke she glanced round the room, as though afraid lest the doors and walls might mistake her words for a confession.

"Then I do know," she said, quietly.



XXIII



"The old lady was willing enough to talk," Conquest assured Ford, in his narrative of the taking of Amalia Gramm's testimony. "There's nothing more loquacious than remorse. I figured on that before going out to Omaha."

"But if she had no hand in the crime, I don't see where the remorse comes in."

"It comes in vicariously. She feels it for Jacob, since Jacob didn't live to feel it for himself. It involves a subtle element of wifely devotion which I guess you're too young, or too inexperienced, to understand. She was glad old Jacob was gone, so that she could make his confession with impunity. She was willing to make any atonement within her power, since it was too late to call him to account."

"Isn't that a bit far-fetched?"

"Possibly—except to a priest, or a lawyer, or a woman herself. It isn't often that a woman's heroism works in a straight line, like a soldier's, or a fireman's. It generally pops at you round some queer corner, where it takes you by surprise. Before leaving Omaha I'd come to see that Amalia Gramm was by no means the least valiant of her sex."

Conquest's smoking-room, with its space and height, its deep leather arm-chairs, its shaded lamps, its cheerful fire, suggested a club rather than a private dwelling, and invited the most taciturn guest to confidence. Ford stretched himself before the blaze with an enjoyment rendered keener by the thought that it might be long before he had occasion to don a dinner-jacket again, or taste such a good Havana. Though it was only the evening of his arrival, he was eager to give himself up. Now that he had "squared himself," as he expressed it, with Miriam Strange, he felt he had put the last touch to his preparations. Kilcup and Warren were holding him back for a day or two, but his own promptings were for haste.

"I admit," Conquest continued to explain, as he fidgeted about the room, moving a chair here, or an ash-tray there, with the fussiness of an old bachelor of housekeeping tastes—"I admit that I thought the old woman was trying it on at first. But I came to the conclusion that she had told a true story from the start. When she gave her evidence at your trial she thought you were—the man."

"There's nothing surprising in that. They almost made me think so, too."

"It did look fishy, my friend. You won't mind my saying that much. Clearer heads than your jury of village store-keepers and Adirondack farmers might have given the same verdict. But old lady Gramm's responsibility hadn't begun then. It was a matter of two or three years before she came to see—as women do see things about the men they live with—that the hand which did the job was Jacob's. By that time you had disappeared into space, and she didn't feel bound to give the old chap away. She says she would have done it if it could have saved you; but since you had saved yourself, she confined her attentions to shielding Jacob. You may credit as much or as little of that as you please; but I believe the bulk of it. In any case, since it does the trick for us we have no reason to complain. Come now!"

"I'm not going to complain of anything. It's been a rum experience all through, but I can't say that, in certain aspects, I haven't enjoyed it. I have enjoyed it. If it weren't for the necessity of deceiving people who are decent to you, I'd go through it all again."

"That's game," Conquest said, approvingly, as he worked round to the hearth-rug, where he stood cutting the end of a cigar, with Ford's long figure stretched out obliquely before him.

"I would," Ford assured him. "I'd go through it all again, like a shot. It's been a lark from—I won't say from start to finish—but certainly from the minute—let me see just when!—certainly from the minute when Miss Strange beckoned to me, over old Wayne's shoulder."

An odd look came by degrees into Conquest's face—the look of pitying amusement with which one listens to queer things said by some one in delirium. He kept the cutter fixed in the end of the cigar, too much astonished to complete his task.

"Since Miss Strange did—what?"

Ford was too deeply absorbed in his own meditations to notice the tone.

"I mean, since she pulled me through."

Conquest's face broke into a broad smile.

"Are you dreaming, old chap? Or have you 'got 'em again'?"

"I'm going back in the story," Ford explained, with a hint of impatience. "I'm talking about the night when Miss Strange saved me."

"Miss Strange saved you? How?"

Ford raised himself slowly in his chair, his long legs stretched out straight before him, and his body bent stiffly forward, as he stared up at Conquest, in puzzled interrogation.

"Do you mean to say," he asked, incredulously, "that she hasn't told you—that?"

"Perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me yourself. I'll be hanged if I know what you're talking about."

There was suppressed irritation in the way in which he tore off the end of the cigar and struck a match. Ford let himself sink back into the chair again.

"So she never told you! By George, that's like her! It's just what I might have expected."

"Look here," Conquest said, sharply, "did you know Miss Strange before you came up here from South America?" He stood with his cigar unlighted, for he had let the match burn down to his fingers before attempting to apply it. "Was your taking the name of Strange," he demanded with sudden inspiration, "merely an accident, as I've supposed it was—or had it anything to do with her?"

"It wasn't an accident, and it did have something to do with her."

"Just so! And you kept it dark!"

Something in Conquest's intonation caused Ford to look up. He saw a man with face suddenly growing gray, as though a light had gone out of it. He was disturbed only to the point of feeling that he had spoken tactlessly, and proceeded to repair the error.

"I kept it dark for obvious reasons. If Miss Strange didn't tell you about it, it's because she isn't the kind of person to talk of an incident in which her own part was so noble. I'll give you the whole story now."

"I should be obliged to you," Conquest said, dryly.

He sat down on the very edge of one of the big arm-chairs, leaning forward, and fingering his still unlighted cigar nervously, as he watched Ford puff out successive rings of smoke before beginning. He was less on his guard to screen the intenseness with which he listened, because Ford spoke at first in a dreamy way, without looking in his direction.

With more insight into the circumstances surrounding him Ford would have told his tale with greater reticence. As it was he spoke with enthusiasm, an enthusiasm born of an honest desire that Conquest should see the woman he was about to marry in the full beauty of her character. In regard to this he himself had made the discovery so slowly and so recently that he was animated by something like a convert's zeal. Beginning his narrative quietly, in a reminiscent vein, with intervals in which he lapsed altogether into meditation, he was presently fired with all the animation in a story-teller when he perceives he is holding his hearer spellbound. As a matter of fact, he was moved not so much by the desire of convincing Conquest of Miriam Strange's nobility, as by the impulse to do her justice, once in his life at least, in language of his own.

It was a naA-ve bit of eloquence, of which no detail was lost on the experienced man of the world, who sat twirling his cigar with nervous fingers, his eyes growing keener in proportion as his face became more gray. It was part of his professional acquirement to be able to draw his deductions from some snatch of human drama as he listened to its unfolding. His quickness and accuracy of judgment had, indeed, been a large element in his success; so that the habit of years enabled him to preserve a certain calmness of comprehension now. It lost nothing in being a studied calmness, since the forcing of his faculties within restraint concentrated their acumen.

Ford concluded with what for him was an almost lyric outburst.

"By George! Conquest, I didn't know there were such women in the world. She's been a revelation to me—as art and religion are revelations to other people. She came to me as the angel came to Peter in the prison; but, like Peter, I didn't know it was an angel. There's a sort of glory about her—a glory which it takes a higher sense than any I've got to see and understand. After all she's done for me—after all this time—I'm only now beginning to get glimpses of it; but it's merely as we get glimpses of an infinite beyond, because we see the stars. She's a mystery to me, in the same way that genius is a mystery, or holiness. I didn't appreciate her because I hadn't the soul, and yet it's in seeing that I hadn't the soul that I begin to get it. That's curious, isn't it? She's like some heavenly spirit that's passed by me, and touched me into newness of life."

His ardor was so sincere, his hymn of praise so spontaneous that he expected some sort of echo back. It seemed to him that even if Conquest did not join in this chant in honor of the woman who presumably loved him, whom more presumably still he loved, it would be but natural for him to applaud it. Ford knew that if any one else had sung of Miriam Strange as he had just been singing, he would have leaped to his feet and wrung the man's hand till it ached. It surprised him, therefore, it disappointed him, that Conquest should sit unmoved, unless the spark-like twinkle of his little eyes could be taken as emotion.

It was a relief to Conquest to get up, scratch another match, and light his cigar at last, turning his back so that it should not be seen that his fingers trembled. When he was sure of himself he faced about again, taking his seat.

"It's the most amazing story I ever heard," was his only comment, in response to Ford's look of expectation.

"I hoped it might strike you as something more than—amazing," Ford ventured, after a minute's waiting for a more appreciative word.

"Perhaps it will when I get my breath. You must give me time for that. Do you actually tell me that she kept you in her studio for weeks——?"

"Three weeks and four days, to be exact."

"And that she furnished you with food and clothing——?"

"And money—but I paid that back."

"And got you away in that ingenious fashion——?"

"Just as I've told you."

"Amazing! Simply amazing! And," he added, with some bitterness, "you came back here—and you and she together—took us all in."

Ford drew his cigar from his lips, and, turning in his chair, faced Conquest in an attitude and with a look which could not be misinterpreted.

"I came back here, and took you all in—if you like. Miss Strange had nothing to do with it. She didn't even expect me."

The last sentence gave Conquest the opening he was looking for, but now that he had it, he hesitated to make use of it. In his memory were the very words Miriam Strange had stammered out to him in the sort of confession no woman ever makes willingly: "Things happened ... such as don't generally happen ... and even if he never comes ... I'd rather go on waiting for him ... uselessly." It was all growing clear to him, and yet not so clear but that there was time even now to let the matter drop into the limbo of things it is best not to know too much about. It was against his better judgment, then—his better judgment as a barrister-at-law—that he found himself saying:

"She didn't expect you at that day and date, perhaps: but she probably looked for you some time."

"Possibly; but if so, I know little or nothing about it."

The reply, delivered with a certain dignified force of intention, recalled Conquest to a sense of his own interests. He had too often counselled his clients to let sleeping dogs lie, not to be aware of the advantage of doing it himself; and so, restraining his jealous curiosity, he turned the conversation back to the evidence of Amalia Gramm.

During the next half-hour he manifested that talent—partly native and partly born of practice—which he had often commended in himself, of talking about one thing and thinking of another. His exposition of the line to be adopted in Ford's defence was perfectly lucid, when all the while he was saying to himself that this was the man whom Miriam Strange had waited for through eight romantic years.

The fact leaped at him, but it was part of his profession not to be afraid of facts. If they possessed adverse qualities one recognized them boldly, in the practise of law, chiefly with a view of circumventing them. The matter presented itself first of all, not as one involving emotional or moral issues, but as an annoying arrangement of circumstances which might cheat him out of what he had honestly acquired. He had no intention of being cheated by any one whatever; and as he made a rapid summary of the points of the case he saw that the balance of probabilities was in his favor. It was to make that clear to Ford that he led the conversation back again to the subject of his adventures, tempting him to repeat at least a portion of his hymn of praise. By the time he had finished it Conquest was able to resume the friendly, confidential tone with which they had begun the evening.

"It's very satisfactory to me, old man," he said, between quiet puffs at his cigar, "to know that you think so highly of Miss Strange, because—I don't know whether you have heard it—she and I are to be married before long."

He looked to see Ford disconcerted by this announcement and was surprised to see him take it coolly.

"Yes; I knew that. I've meant to congratulate you when the time came. I should say it had come now."

There was a candor about him that Conquest could scarcely discredit, though he was unwilling to trust it too far.

"Thanks, old man. I scarcely expected you to be so well posted. May I ask how—?"

"Oh, I've known it a long time. Miss Strange told me before I went to South America last spring."

This evidence of a confidential relation between the two gave him a second shock, but he postponed its consideration, contenting himself for the moment with making it plain to Ford that "Hands off!" must be the first rule of the game. His next move was meant to carry the play into the opponent's quarters.

"As a matter of fact, I've never congratulated you," he said, with apparent tranquillity. "I've known about you and Evie for some time past, but—"

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