Back of Court-house Hill another street, starting parallel to Court Street, rapidly loses its sense of direction and its original character of a business street, wavers to right and left, past a scatter of discouraged looking houses, and finally slants off in the general direction of the woods at the edge of the town, and the abortive, sparsely wooded hill known to generations of picnickers—not the elite of the town, but humbler, more rowdy picnickers—as Mountain Rock.
The street never reaches it, but loses itself in a grubby tangle of smaller streets, thickly set with small houses, densely and untidily populated, the section known at first derisively and later in good faith as Paddy Lane. Through the intricate geography of this quarter Colonel Everard's only openly declared enemy might have been seen making a hasty and expert way ten minutes later; quickly and directly as it permitted him to, he approached the base of the hill.
Disregarding more public and usual ways of ascent, he struck straight across a stubbly field that lay behind a row of peculiarly forlorn and tumbledown houses into a path so narrow that it was hard to see until you were actually looking down it, between the twin birches that marked the entrance. He followed it to the base of the cliff itself. The belt of stunted birches and dusty-looking alders that skirted the cliff was broken by an occasional scraggly pine. The boy stopped under one of them, leaned against the decaying trunk, produced a letter, and read it.
It was only a pencilled scrawl of a letter, on the roughest of copy paper, and so crumpled that he must have been quite familiar with it, but he read it intently.
"Neil," it ran, "I'll meet you Saturday, on top of Mountain Rock, same time and place. I shan't see you till then. I don't want to. You frightened me last night. I don't like you lately. Be nice to me Saturday. JUDITH."
Only a pencilled scrawl, but he knew every word of it by heart, and of the burst of excited speech in the Judge's office nothing remained in his mind but the general impression that he had made a fool of himself there. Perhaps he was too familiar with Judith's letter, for the sting he had found there at first was gone from the words. He looked at them dully.
"I can't stand much more," he said aloud.
He said it lifelessly, and with no defiance in his eyes, stating only a wearisome fact. He had seen the Colonel's face through a kind of red mist in the Judge's office, and felt reckless and strong. He did not feel like a hero now. He was tired.
He would hardly have cared just now if you had told him that back in Judge Saxon's office two men who had not moved from their chairs since he left them, and who would not move until several vital points were settled, were discussing something he would not have believed them capable of discussing at such length and with so much feeling—the fortunes of the Donovan family.
He did not care just now for the little sights and sounds of spring that were all around him, the cluster of arbutus leaves at his feet, the faint, nestling bird noises, sweeter than song, and the stir and rustle of tiny, unclassified sounds that were signs of the pulse of spring beating everywhere, of change and growth going on whether human beings perceived or denied it.
"I can't stand any more," said the boy.
Up the cliff to his right, strewn with pine needles that were brown-gold in the sun, a steep and tiny trail led the way to the top of the hill and his rendezvous. Now the boy crushed Judith's letter into his pocket, turned to the trail with a sigh, and began to climb.
"They won't like it, Judith," said Mrs. Randall for the last time, as she slipped into her evening coat.
"They? If you mean the Colonel——"
Judith, looking up at her mother from the chaise-longue, could not have seen the radiant vision that she had adored as a child, when the spring and the Everards and the habit of evening dress all returned at once to Green River. Mrs. Randall's blue gown was the creation of a Wells dressmaker, but lacked the charm of earlier evening frocks, anxiously contrived with the help of a local seamstress, when the clear blue that was still her favourite colour had been her best colour, when there was a touch more pink in the warm white of her complexion, and before the tiny, worried line in her broad, low forehead was there to stay. But there was no reflection of these changes in her daughter's big, watching eyes.
"It will do him good not to like it," said Judith sweetly.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing, Mamma. Is that the carriage? Don't be late."
Minna Randall looked down at her daughter in puzzled silence a moment, with the little line in her forehead deepening, then slipped to her knees beside her with a disregard for her new gown which was unusual, and put a caressing hand on her forehead, a demonstration which was more unusual still.
"Your head does feel hot," she said, "but to stay away from a dance at your age, just for a headache——"
"I went to one last night."
"A high school dance!"
"There won't be any more of them. You needn't grudge it to me." Judith buried her face in the cushions, and lay very still.
"But the Colonel really arranged this for you. Dancing bores him. He said you ought to be amused."
"He didn't say so to me."
"Are you laughing? I thought you were crying a minute ago." Judith gave no further signs of either laughing or crying. "Judith, what does he say to you? When you went with him to look at that night-blooming flower with the queer name, last week, and were gone so long, what did he talk to you about? You heard me. Please answer."
"He's a stupid old thing."
"What did he talk about?"
"I don't remember."
"Judith," Judith's mother stood plucking ineffectively at her long gloves, and looking at the motionless white figure, very slender and childish against the chintz of the cushions, soft, tumbled hair, and hidden face, with a growing trouble in her eyes, "I ought to talk to you—I ought to tell you—you're old enough now—old enough——"
Judith turned with a soft, nestling movement, and opened her eyes again, deep, watchful eyes that asked endless questions, and made it impossible to answer them, eyes that knew no language but their own, the secret and alien language of youth. Her mother sighed.
"You're the strangest child. Sometimes you seem a hundred years old, and sometimes—you don't feel too badly to stay alone? Mollie would have stayed in with you, or Norah."
"No. I would have gone, if I'd known you cared so much, but it won't do any good to make yourself late, Mamma. Father's calling," said Judith gravely. Still grave and unrelaxed, she returned her mother's rare good-night kiss, and watched her sweep out of the room, turning the rose-shaded night lamp low as she passed.
There was a hurry of preparation downstairs, her mother's low, fretful voice and her father's high and strained one joined in a heated argument, and they started still deep in it, for her father did not call a good-night to Judith. The street door shut, and she was alone in the house. Carriage wheels creaked out of the yard and there was no returning sound of them in search of some forgotten thing; a long enough interval passed so that it was safe to infer that there would not be, but Judith lay as her mother had left her, as still as if her headache were really authentic, her questioning eyes on the rose-shaded light.
There was much that might have increased her mother's concern for her in her face, if you could interpret it fully; sometimes the eyes suggested a fair proportion of the hundred years her mother had credited her with, sometimes there was dawning fear in them, and sometimes an inconsequent, gipsy light; sometimes her soft lips trembled pitifully, and sometimes they smiled. Always it was a lovely face, rose flushed and eager in the rosy light, and always something was evident which was enough to account for her mother's concern and for more concern than her mother was capable of feeling; Miss Judith Devereux Randall was growing up.
Whatever questions occupied her answered themselves in a satisfactory way at last, even an amusing way, for her smile had come to stay and her eyes were dancing, when she jumped up from the chaise-longue at last, turned on more lights, opened closets and bureau drawers all at once, dropped various hastily chosen and ill-assorted articles on the immaculate counterpane of her bed, and began to dress.
She dressed without a glance into the mirror, and without need of it, it appeared, when she stood before it at last, pulling a left-over winter tam over rebellious curls which she had made no attempt to subdue. She had buttoned herself hastily into the dress she had taken off last, a tumbled organdy, and thrown a disreputable polo coat over it, white like the cap, but of more prehistoric date, but on her slender person these incongruous garments had acquired a harmony of their own, and become a costume somehow. It might not have withstood a long or critical inspection, but it was not subjected to one. Youth, in its divinely suited garb of white, regarded itself with grave eyes for one breathless minute, flushed and coquetted with itself for another, and then was gone from the mirror. Judith turned off the lights and stole out of the room, and downstairs.
There was nothing in the dark and empty house to frighten her. It must have been fear of whatever was before her that made her slip so softly across the hall, and tremble and stand still when the door chain rattled. The door was open at last. With a soft, inarticulate gasp of excitement, she stepped out into the May night.
Colonel Everard had an ideal night for the little dance in his garden, warm, but with a quiver of new life in the air. The May moon was in its last quarter, but lanterns were to supplement it. But the Colonel's guest of honour, pausing at the corner of Main Street and looking sharply to left and right, and then turning quickly off it, found very little light on the narrow and tree-fringed cross-street through which she was hurrying now but the moon.
It hung slender and pale and low above the ragged row of little houses, and seemed to go with her through the dark, but she took no notice of its companionship. The street was deserted, and the tap of her little heels sounded disconcertingly loud in the emptiness of it as she hurried on, turning from the narrow street into a narrower one.
This street had only one real end; pending the appropriation needed to carry it straight through, witheld by agencies which could only be connected by guess with Colonel Everard, it led feebly past a few houses which were nearly all untenanted and looked peculiarly so to-night, to a clump of alders at the edge of an unpenetrated wood lot, where it had paused. Just in front of it the girl paused, too.
Her small, white-coated figure was only dimly to be seen in the dark of the street; the group in the shadow of the trees was harder to see, but it moved; a horse pawed the ground impatiently, the boy in the buggy leaned forward and spoke to him. Then Judith started uncertainly toward him, and spoke softly, in the arrogant phrasing of lovers, to whom there is only one "you" in the world:
"Is that you?"
"Is it you?" the boy's voice came hoarse through the dark. "I thought you weren't coming. I waited an hour for you yesterday on the Rock."
"I couldn't help it. I oughn't to be here now, and I almost didn't come, but I thought we'd have to-night. Neil, you hurt my hand. Be nice to me."
She was standing close beside him now, and they could see each other's faces, white and strange in the dark, but the boy's looked whiter, and his breath came oddly, in irregular gasps. He held both her hands in his, but he did not bend down to her, nor kiss her.
"What makes you look so queer? I don't like you. Be nice to me." There was something terribly wrong with the smug little phrases, or with any words at all just then, there in the heart of the silent dark, and facing the strangeness of the boy's eyes; words failed her suddenly, and she pulled her hands away, and hid her face in them. "I won't go with you—I'll go home, if you aren't nice to me—if——"
"You can't go home now." There was something in the boy's voice that was like the fierce clasp of his hands, something from which it was not so easy to escape. "It might be better if you hadn't come, better for both of us, but you can't go back now. It's too late. Yes, we'll have to-night. Get in, Judith."
"Get in, Judith."
"I won't go. You can't make me."
The boy did not answer or move. Boy and buggy and horse—Charlie Brady's ancient chestnut mare, not such a dignified creature by daylight, but high shouldered and mysterious now against the dark of the grove—might all have been part of the surrounding dark, they were so still, and Judith's little white figure was motionless, too.
Judith stood looking up at the boy for one long, silent minute. Such minutes are really longer than other minutes, if you measure them by heartbeats, and how else are you to measure them? Strange, breathless minutes, that settle grave questions irrevocably by the mere fact of their passing, whether you watch them pass with open eyes or are helpless and young and vaguely afraid before them; helpless, but full of the untaught strength of youth, which works miracles without knowing how or why.
"Get in," said the boy, very softly this time, so that his voice just made itself heard through the dark; it was like part of the dark, caressing and hushed and secret, and not to be denied. With a soft little laugh that was attuned to it, Judith yielded suddenly, and slipped into the carriage beside him, drawing the robe tight round her, and settling into her corner, all with one quick, nestling motion, like a bird perching.
"Where are we going?" she said rather breathlessly, "Hurry. Let's go a long, long way."
"All right. Don't be frightened, Judith."
He did not answer. Charlie's horse, debarred from its destined career by bad driving, that broke its wind in its first race, but of sporting ancestry and unable to forget it, especially when Charlie's adventures in the Green River under-world cheated it of exercise too long, was remembering it now, and bolting down the hilly little street, settled at last into a jerky and tentative gait with the air of accepting their guidance until it could arrange further plans, but remembering its ancestry still.
"Splendid," Judith breathed. "Keep off Main Street."
The ancient vehicle, well oiled, but rattling faintly still, swung alarmingly close to one street corner lamp-post and then another. Judith nestled almost out of sight in her corner. Neil leaned forward, gripping the reins with an ungloved hand that whitened at the knuckles, his dark eyes looking straight ahead. His brooding eyes and quiet mouth, and even the whiteness of his face had something unfamiliar about them, something that did not all come from the unhealthy light of the street lamps, something strange but unaccountably charming, too. Judith had no eyes for it just then.
"This is silly. I ought not to have come. Who's that?"
"Nobody. Just a tree. Sit still. We'll go under the railroad bridge and out over Grant's Hill. There won't be any more lights."
"It looked like some one."
"What do you care?"
"It looked like your cousin Maggie."
"She's at home in bed. She was tired to-night."
"Oh. Well, it looked like her. It was silly to come. I never shall come again."
As if this were not a new threat, or had for some reason lost it terrors to-night, the boy did not contradict her. They had left track and railroad bridge behind now, darker blots against the surrounding dark, with the lights of the station showing faintly far down the track. They were passing the last of the houses that straggled along the unfashionable quarter above the railroad track. Most of the houses here were dark now. In the Nashs' windows the last light puffed suddenly out as they went by.
Down in the town behind them other sleepy little lights were burning faintly, or going out, but ahead of them the faintly moonlit road looked wide-awake. It was an alluring road. It dipped into wooded hollows, it broke suddenly into arbitrary curves and windings but found its way out again, and kept on somehow, and gradually lifted itself higher and higher toward the crest of the hill five miles away that you reached without ever seeming to climb it, to be confronted all at once with the only real view between Wells and Green River.
"I used to think Grant's Hill was the end of the world," said Judith softly. "Maybe it is. It's funny I can say things like that to you, when you only laugh and won't answer. Listen. Isn't it still, so still it almost makes a noise."
It was very still. You could feel the pulse of the night here. There was a whisper and stir of life in the rustling trees when the road crossed some belt of woods; there was a look of blind, creeping life about the clustering shadows in stretches of moonlight, and the low-hanging moon above the dark fields they passed was a living thing, too, the most alive of all. Judith stirred in her corner, and turned and looked at it.
"It's sweet," she said. "And it's ours. It's still May. But we can't wish on the moon now; it's too late. And I don't want to wish, I'm so comfortable. Aren't you? Well, you needn't answer, then, and you needn't hold my hand." She had felt for a hand that avoided hers. With a sleepy, satisfied laugh, like a petted kitten purring, she settled herself again, with her head against an unresponsive shoulder, and pulled an unresponsive arm round her waist.
"You aren't as soft as the cushions—not nearly. You're pretty hard, but I like you. I was afraid to come, but now——"
"There's nothing to be afraid of. I'm so happy. There's nobody in the world but you and me. Neil, I'm going to sleep."
"All right. Shut your eyes, then, and don't keep staring at me. What makes your eyes so bright?"
"Shut your eyes."
"All right. Nobody but you and me."
They were really alone in the world now, alone in the heart of the night. Their little murmur of talk, so low that they could just hear it themselves, had been such a tiny trickle of sound that it did not quite break the silence, and now it had died away. Asleep or awake, the girl was quite still, with her cheek pressed against the boy's shoulder, and her long-lashed eyes tight shut. The horse carried them over the moonlit road at a rate of speed that did not seem possible from its strange, loping gait. The effect of it was uncanny.
Boy and girl and queer, high-shouldered horse, darkly silhouetted in the moonlight, lost to sight in the shadows of tall trees that looked taller in the dark, and then coming silently into view again, were like dim, flitting shadows in the night; like peculiarly helpless and insignificant shadows, restless and purposeless. The moon, soft and far away and still, seemed more alive than they did, and more competent to adjust their affairs.
They required adjusting. That was in the watching brightness of the girl's eyes, fluttering open once or twice, only to close quickly again, in the tenseness of the boy's arm around her, in the set of his shoulders and lift of his stubborn young chin, in the very air that he breathed uneasily, the soft, disturbing air of the May night. It was not a boy and girl quarrel that was before them: it was something more. It was the strangest hour that had come to them in their secret treasury of strange hours that were touched with the glamour of black magic and swayed by laws they did not know. It might be the darkest hour. It was the test hour.
There is no sure and easy way through such hours. If they faced theirs unprepared and afraid, so must the rest of the world, the part that is older and counted wiser. But this could have been no comfort just then to the boy and girl in the antiquated buggy, under the untroubled gaze of the wishing moon.
They were almost on the crest of the hill now. One long, upward slant of road led straight to it, bare of trees, and silvery in the moonlight. At the foot, and just at the edge of a thick belt of woods, the boy pulled up as if to rest his horse for the gradual ascent. At his left, hardly visible at all to-night unless you stopped your horse to look for it, a narrow and overgrown road led off through the trees. Tightening the arm that held her cautiously, the boy looked down at the face against his shoulder, the faint, half-smile on the lips, and the lightly closed eyes.
The girl did not move. Her cap had slipped off, and one small, bare hand clutched the fuzzy white thing tight, as a sleeping child's hand might have closed on some favourite toy. Her hair showed silvery blond and soft against his dark coat. With a quick, hungry motion, the boy dropped his head and kissed it lightly. Then, gripping the reins with a firmness that no present activity of the animal called for, he left Green River's only noteworthy view without a backward glance, and turned his horse into the road through the woods.
For the next few minutes he had no attention to spare for Judith, suspiciously quiet in his arms. He could not see her face. It was black dark under the trees, dark as if it had never been light. The track was wider than it looked, but also rougher. The trees grew close. Branches that he brushed aside sprinkled dew into his face. The buggy creaked out vain protests and useless warnings. Finally moonlight showed at the end of the black tunnel, and the horse, which had been encountering its difficulties in resourceful silence, made a faint, snorting comment which sounded relieved, and presently, with unexpected jauntiness, swung into the road again.
It was technically a road, and it was the wreck of a very good road, but it was not in much better shape than the track they had reached it by. Aspiring amateurs had sketched it and camera fiends haunted it in their day. It was Colonel Everard's favourite bridle path, which naturally prevented repairs upon it. But before the railroad went through it had been Green River's only link with a wider world. Now a better built but more circuitous road had replaced it, designed for motoring. No motors ever penetrated here, and few carriages. It was left to the ghosts of ancient traffic, if they ventured here. The glancing moonlight under the close-growing trees might have been full of them to-night.
But the boy was not looking for ghosts or interested in the history of the road or its charm, as he hurried his high-shouldered horse along it, still responding jauntily. He squared his chin more stubbornly than ever, and muttered encouragingly to the horse, and reached for his battered whip. Round this corner, beyond this milestone, the stage drivers used to make up time when the mail was late. A generous mile of almost level road curved ahead of Neil into the moonlight, a fairly clean bit of going even now. Judith and Neil were on the old coaching road to Wells.
Neil reached for his whip, but did not take it out of the socket. A small hand closed over his. The head on his shoulder did not move, but dark eyes, watchful and deliberate, opened and looked up at him quietly.
"Now," said a cool little voice, "you can take me home."
"I waited to see where you were going, and what you were going to do," explained Judith simply. They were covering the banner stretch of road at a rate the old stage drivers had never emulated. Judith pushed Neil's arm away, and sat straight and looked at him. Her cheeks were gloriously flushed with the quick motion, and her soft, tumbled hair had broken into baby curls round her forehead, but her eyes were a woman's dark, unforgiving eyes. Neil gave her one furtive glance, and looked away.
"I told you to take me home," she said.
He made a muttered reply, inarticulate, so that it would have been hard to tell whether it was really addressed to Judith or the horse, and bent forward over the reins.
The colour deepened in Judith's cheeks, her soft lips tightened into a straight line that was like her mother's mouth. Her cool, unhurried voice was like her mother's, too: "I knew when we started out I'd have trouble with you. Now I don't intend to have any more. I don't want to have to tell you again. Take me home."
She had adopted the tone which Green River's self-made gentlewomen like Mrs. Theodore Burr mistakenly believed to be effective with servants. The boy beside her gave no sign that it was effective with him. He spoke softly to the horse again, and flicked at it coaxingly with the whip.
"Neil, I am sorry for you," Judith stated presently, with no sympathy whatever in her judicial young voice. "I have been awfully good to you."
"Yes, good. I—had to be. Because I knew we didn't have much time. I knew—this—would have to stop some day. I knew it and you knew it, too. You always knew it. Well, I've been trying to tell you for a long time that it had got to stop. I tried, but you wouldn't let me. We're both getting older, too old for this, and I'm going away next year. And some things have happened to me, just lately—last week—that made me think. I've got to be careful. I've got to take care of myself. This has got to stop now—to-night. I wanted to tell you so. That's why I came; because——"
"I know why you came."
"Don't be cross. Be good, and turn round now, and take me home. Neil, I'm not sorry, you know, for—anything. Ever since that first night at the dance you've been so sweet to me. I'm not sorry. Are you?"
"How funny your voice sounds. Why don't you turn round?"
He had no explanation to offer. The buggy plunged faster through the dark, and Judith braced herself in her corner.
"Neil, turn round. Don't you hear me?"
He gave no sign of hearing. The horse swung gallantly into a bit of road where the stage drivers had never been in the habit of hurrying, a tricky bit of road, with overhanging rocks jutting out just where you might graze them at sudden turns, and with abrupt dips into precipitous hollows. One stretched dark ahead of them now. Judith caught her breath as they plunged into it, and clutched Neil's arm. He laughed shortly, and did not shake off her hand. She pulled at his wrist and shook it.
"Upset us if you want to. We'd go together," he urged, with a logic not to be questioned. "Together, and that suits me, Judy."
"Neil, turn round. Neil!" Judith's voice was shrill with sudden terror repressed too long, but she struggled to make it steady and cold again, in one last effort at control.
"Who do you think you are, Neil Donovan? I tell you to take me home."
He did not even turn to look at her. He was getting the horse down the rocky slant of dimly lit road with a patience and concentration which there was nobody to appreciate just then. Judith collapsed into her corner. There was a faint sound of helpless crying from her, then silence as she choked back the tears; silence, and an erect, stubborn figure showing oppressively big and dark between Judith and the moon.
"Neil, I'm sorry.... Neil, I can't stand this," came a muffled voice. "Please speak to me."
They were on level ground again, and the horse was disposed to make the most of it. The boy pulled her into a jolting walk which was not the most successful of her gaits, but represented a triumph for him just now, and then he turned abruptly to Judith, gathering both her hands into his free hand and gripping them tight.
"I'll talk to you now," he said. "It's time I told you. Judith, you and I are not going back."
"What do you mean?"
"We're not going back," he repeated deliberately.
"We are!" flashed Judith.
"We're not going back. We're never going back."
Judith drew back and stared at him, her hands still in his, and the boy stared back with a look that matched her own in his big, deeply lit, dark eyes. White faces, with angry, dark eyes, were all that they could see clearly, though they were crossing a patch of road where a ragged gap in the trees let some of the moonlight through; white faces like strangers' faces.
They were only a boy and girl jolting through the woods in the night in a rattletrap buggy behind a caricature of a horse, but what looked out of their angry eyes and spoke in their tense young voices was greater than the immediate issue of their quarrel, and older and wiser than they were; as old as the world. Ancient enemies were at war once more. A man and a woman were making their age-old fight for mastery over themselves and each other.
"Where are we going, then?"
"What difference does it make?"
"To Wells. We can make it by morning. I've got the mortgage money with me."
"Yes. What difference does that make? That, or anything? We'd go if we hadn't any money at all. We'd have to. Oh, Judith——"
"You don't know what you're saying. Take me home. What are you laughing at?"
"You. You sounded just like them, then, giving me orders—just like your whole rotten crowd, but you're through with them now, and you're through ordering me about and making a fool of me. I've been afraid to say my soul was my own. It wasn't, I guess. But we're all through with that. We're through, Judith."
"Yes, of course. Of course we're through. It's all right. Everything's all right, Neil dear."
"Everything's all wrong, and I know whose fault it is now: it's your fault. Maybe I only had one chance in a hundred to get on, but one chance is enough, and I was taking it. You made me ashamed to take it. I was ashamed to do the work that was all I could get to do, and I had my head so full of you I couldn't do any work. Maggie's better than I am. She don't sit around with her hands folded and wait for Everard to get tired of her. And the whole town don't laugh at her. The whole town don't know——"
"Neil, I said I was sorry. Please don't."
"You've got the smooth ways of them all, but it's too late for that between us, Judy. Smooth, lying ways."
"We can't go to Wells, Neil dear. What could we do there? Think."
"I'm sick of thinking. I'd get work maybe. I don't know. I don't care. Judith——"
"We can't. Not to-night, Neil. Wait."
"I'm sick of waiting. I've got nothing to gain by it. I've done all the waiting I could. I've stood all I could. You're the only thing I want in the world, and I couldn't wait for you any longer if I could get you that way—and I wouldn't get you. I'd lose you."
"Not to-night. To-morrow, if you really want me to go. To-morrow, truly."
"You're lying to me, and I'm tired of it."
"No, Neil—Neil dear."
"How dare you say that! I hate you!"
"That's right. We'll talk straight now. It's time."
"I hate you. Don't touch me. You're going to take me home—you must—and I'm never going to speak to you again. I think you're crazy. But I'm not afraid of you—I'm not afraid."
The low-keyed, hurrying voices broke off abruptly. There was no sound in the buggy but Judith's rapid breathing, more and more like sobs, but no tears came. The two faces that confronted each other were alike in the gloom, white and angry and very young; alike as the faces of enemies are when they measure each other's strength in silence. It was a cruel, tense little silence, but the sound that broke it was more cruel. It was dry and hard and had nothing to do with his own conquering laugh, that the girl knew, but it came from the boy.
"How dare you laugh at me. I hate you!" Judith's voice came hoarse and unrecognizable.
A hand caught blindly at the reins; another hand closed over it. Then there was silence again in the buggy, broken by panting sounds and little sobs. At the end of it Judith, forced back into her corner and held there, was really crying now, with hysterical sobs that hurt, and hot tears that hurt, too.
"Let me go," she panted. "I hate you! You've got to let me go."
"I'm going home. I'm going to get out and walk home."
"I'd walk a hundred miles to get away from you."
"You'd have to walk farther to do that." The dry little laugh cut through the dark again, and Judith struck furiously at the arm that held her.
"I hate you!" she sobbed.
"Oh, I do—I do——"
"I don't care." The boy's voice sounded light and dry, like his laugh. "I don't care. Kiss me."
"I won't! I won't! I'll never speak to you again. I'll never forgive you."
"Lying to me—fooling me; taking me up and dropping me like Everard does to women.... You're no better than he is. You're one of his crowd, but you're through with them.... Lying to me, when you do care. You do."
"I hate you!"
"Ah, no, you don't."
Little bursts of confused speech, all they had breath for and more, disconnected, not always understood, not always articulate, but always angry, came from them, with intervals of silent, panting struggle between. The two young creatures in the buggy were struggling in earnest now. The struggle was clumsy, like most really significant ones; sudden and clumsy and blind. The two figures swayed aimlessly back and forth. The boy and girl were both on their feet now. The boy had dropped the reins. Both arms held the girl. Her pinioned arms fought to free themselves.
"Judith, you don't hate me. Say it—say it."
The two shadowy figures were like one now, but the girl's arms were free, pushing the boy away, striking at him impotently.
"You needn't say it. I know. You had to come to-night. You couldn't stay away. You don't hate me. You never will. You couldn't. I'm crazy about you. You're the only thing that matters, if we should die the next minute. Everything's all wrong, and it's not my fault or yours. Everything's wrong, and this is wrong, too, but I don't care and you don't. Do you? Do you?"
"Neil, let me go. I can't breathe."
"I love you."
"Let me go."
The shadow figures swayed and then were still. The girl's arms dropped. The little, one-sided struggle was over. There was a long, tired sigh, and then silence; silence, and one shadow face bending hungrily over the other shadow face. "Judith," the boy whispered breathlessly, "do you hate me now?"
"Do you want me to let you go? Do you want me to take you home?"
"Yes," came the same answering whisper, the faintest and most uncertain of whispers, but two arms, gently freeing themselves, found their way to his shoulders, two hands locked behind his head and drew it gently down, until the two shadow faces were close once more, and lips that were not shadow lips met and clung together; not shadow lips, but hungry and warm and alive—untaught but unafraid young lips, ready for kisses that are no two alike and can never come again—wonderful kisses that blot everything out of the changing world but themselves.
"Judith"—the boy lifted his head at last, and looked down at the face against his shoulder, pale and small, but with all the colour and light and life that night had taken from the world and hidden, burning undimmed in the awakening eyes—"you don't want me to take you home? You don't—care what happens?"
He could hardly hear her low whisper, but her face was answer enough, even for a boy who could not know what had touched it with new beauty, but had to guess, as his own heart and the night might teach him.
"No, I don't care. I don't care."
"Judith, you do love me?"
"Yes. Oh, yes."
"You're so sweet," he whispered, "I feel as if I'd never kissed you before—or seen you before. I love you, Judith."
"I love you and I don't want to hurt you. You know that, don't you?"
"But nothing's going to take you away from me now."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"I tell you, I don't care what happens. I—don't—care."
Once more her hands drew him close; shy hands, groping uncertainly in the dark, and shy lips kissed him. It was the coolest and lightest of kisses, but it was worth all the others, if the boy knew how much it promised—more than all her broken speech had promised, more than any spoken words.
Judith herself did not know, but some instinct older than she was made her whisper: "Be good to me. Will you be good to me?"
The boy answered her small, shaken whisper solemnly, as if he were taking a formal and irrevocable vow, but there was no one to listen to it here, and bear witness to it as irrevocable. The girl did not answer him. Suddenly shy, breathing quickly, and trying to laugh, she slipped out of his arms.
The boy let her go. Some time before the trailing reins had been caught up and twisted twice round the whip socket. He had done this instinctively, he could not have told just when. He bent down and untwisted them now, rather slowly and awkwardly, not looking at Judith. Then he sat down stiffly beside her.
"You're tired," he said, with new gentleness in his voice. He put an arm loosely round her waist in the manner of an affectionate but inexperienced parent, and her head dropped on his shoulder. "Very tired?"
"Judith, I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry. How could I be so horrid? What made me? Did I hurt you, dear, with my hands?"
"You couldn't hurt me."
"Neil, you know what you said just now?"
"Never mind what I said."
"You said you didn't want anything to take me away from you. Well, if it did, if anything did take me away from you—now, I'd——"
"I'd never forgive you. I couldn't. I'd despise you." This warning came in a low, uncertain voice, wasted, as countless warnings have been wasted on wiser masculine ears than the boy's. "Look at our moon up there. It's glad, I guess—glad about you and me. Why don't you listen to me?"
"I'm thinking, Judith. I've got to think."
"You look very nice when you think. Your eyes look so big and still. You look—beautiful. I could really sleep now, I guess."
"All right, dear."
"But I don't want to. I'm too happy. How late is it?"
"I don't know."
"Well, it's late. We couldn't get home now before awfully late—two or something. And the road's so narrow here, we couldn't turn round. We couldn't go home if we wanted to. Could we?"
"Not very well, dear."
"I'm glad.... Neil."
"Are you thinking now?"
"You do look beautiful. I don't know just why. I never saw you look just like this before; kind, but years older than I am, and miles away. Neil——"
"Neil, don't think any more. Just love me.... I love you."
Colonel Everard's little party was quite successful enough without the guest of honour. At least, it would have seemed so to Judith, if she could have looked in upon it just before midnight. A distinguished guest of the Colonel's had made an ungrateful criticism of the inner circle, on parade for his benefit only the week before at Camp Hiawatha, which was elaborately rebuilt now, and rechristened Camp Everard. He complained that the Colonel's parties were too successful.
"Too many pretty women," he said, "or they work too hard at it—dress too well, or talk too well—don't dare to let down. You need more background, more men like Grant. You need to be bored. You can't have cream without milk. You can't take the essentials of a society and make a whole society out of them without adulterating them. It won't last. That's why Adam and Eve didn't stay in the garden. They couldn't—too much tension there. They needed casual acquaintances, and you need background. You can't get on without it."
"We do," said his host.
The distinguished critic was far away from the Colonel's town to-night, but the Colonel's party was all that he had complained of; the thing he had felt and tried to account for and explain was here, as it was at all the Colonel's parties, though a discreet selection of outsiders had been admitted to-night; the same sense of effort and tension, of working too hard, of a gayety brilliant but forced—artificial, but justifying the elaborate processes that created it by its charm, like some rare hothouse flower.
You saw it in quick glimpses of passing faces thrown into strong relief by the light of the swinging lanterns, and then dancing out of sight; you heard it in strained, sweet laughter, and felt it in the beat of the music, and in the whole picture the party made of itself in the garden, the restless, changing picture, but this was not all—it was in the air. You could close your eyes and breathe it and feel it. It was unusually keen to-night, real, like a thing you could actually touch and see.
You lost the keen sense of it if you looked too closely for signs of it. If you overheard bits of talk, they were not always clever at all, or even entirely gay. Worried lines showed under elaborate makeup in the women's faces, as if Cinderella had put on white gloves to hide smutty fingers; indeed, though they were trained to forget it and make you forget it, they were only so many Cinderellas, after all. Seen too closely, there was a look of strain about some of the men's faces.
There was a reason for this look to-night, besides the set of reasons which the gentlemen of the Colonel's circle always had for looking worried; living beyond their incomes, living in uncertainty of any income at all, and other private reasons, different in each case, but all quite compelling; there was a reason, and the Colonel's guest of the week before was connected with it. Others would follow him soon, secret conferences would take place unrecorded, the Colonel's private telephone wire would be busy, and the telegrams he received would be frequent and not intelligible to the casual reader. These were the months before election, when the things that were going to happen began to happen. Their beginnings were obscure. The man in the street talked politics, but the man with his hands in the game kept still. Even when they slipped away to the smoking-room, or gathered at the edge of the lawn in groups of two and three that scattered as their host approached, the Colonel's guests were not discussing politics to-night.
No tired lines were permitted to show in Mrs. Randall's face. Her fresh, cool prettiness was of the valuable kind that shows off best at the height of the evening, when other women look tired. If she was aware of the fact and made the most of it, overworking her charming smile and wide-open, tranquil eyes, you could not blame her. It was not the time or place to overlook any weapons you might have. Whatever duties or privileges belonged to the Colonel's inner circle, you had to take care of yourself if you were part of it, and you learned to; that was evident from her manner. It seemed easy for her to-night. Just now she was sharing a bench and an evening cloak with Mrs. Burr, smooth, dark head close to her fluffy, blond one, and smiling into her face confidingly, as if all that lady's purring, disconnected remarks were equally agreeable to her.
"We miss Judy so much," she said sweetly.
"I can see just how much, dear," said Judith's mother more sweetly still.
"And it's so long since she's been here."
"She has her school work to do. She's just a child. She's not well to-night."
"But I got the idea he meant this to be her evening."
"There he is." The third person singular, unqualified, could mean only one gentleman to the ladies of the Colonel's circle, and that gentleman was passing close to them now, though he seemed unconscious of the fact. He was guiding Mrs. Kent through an old-fashioned waltz with elaborate precision. His concentration upon the performance increased as he passed them, and he did not look away from his partner's face, though it was not absorbingly attractive just now. The piquant profile had a blurred look, and the cheeks were flushed under the daintily calculated touch of rouge. Mrs. Burr turned to her friend with a faint but relentless light of amusement in her narrowed eyes.
"Edie's had just one cocktail too many."
"Yes." They ignored the more obvious fact that the Colonel had. The evening had reached the stage when he always had.
"He hasn't danced with you many times, Minna dear."
"I'm tired of dancing, but don't let me keep you here, Lil."
"I haven't seen him dance with you at all."
"He hasn't yet."
"No?" said Mrs. Burr, very casually.
"No. Lil, I think Ranny wants you. He's wandering about, looking vague."
"Don't you want me, dear? Well, Ranny always wants me."
Mr. Randolph Sebastian, discovering her suddenly, gave exaggerated proof of this as he carried her off. If the Colonel's secretary had really been recruited from a dance hall, he had profited by what he saw there, and showed it in every quick, graceful turn he made. His partner was the type of woman that dancing might have been invented to show off; it gave her lazy, graciously built body a reason for being, and put a flicker of meaning into her shallow eyes so that she was not floridly pretty any longer, but beautiful. This was peculiarly apparent when she danced with Mr. Sebastian. She seemed to have been created for the purpose of dancing with him; it could not have been more apparent if their elaborate game of devotion to each other had been real, and they were really lovers.
Mrs. Clifford Kent, suddenly appearing alone, slipped into Mrs. Burr's empty place. Her dance with the Colonel was over. "My Lord's in fine form to-night," she confided without preliminary. "We're going to play blind-man's buff after the duchess goes home." The duchess was Mrs. Grant, the Honourable Joe's wife, still the first lady of Green River, but the younger women were beginning to make fun of her discreetly behind her back. "He told me the tiger story." This represented a triumph. Getting the Colonel's smoking-room stories at first hand instead of second hand, from their husbands, was the only form of rivalry about which these ladies were frank with each other. "I got it out of Cliff first, anyway. He said he couldn't tell me, but he did. I made him. Where was Harry last night?"
"What do you mean?"
"Cliff had a crowd of men locked into his den until two, talking. Didn't Harry know about it?"
"What were they doing?"
"Just talking. The Colonel and I don't know who else. I heard two strange voices, and I didn't hear Harry's voice. Didn't Harry know?"
"I suppose so. What did they talk about?"
"Campaign stuff—prohibition or something. Cliff wouldn't tell me."
"Was Teddy Burr there?"
"I didn't hear him. What do you care?"
"I don't care."
"If Harry didn't know, I ought not to have told you, but I can't help it now."
"Edith, don't go. Wait."
"I can't. I have this next with my Lord, too. I'm going to sit it out in the library and meet him inside. The duchess is getting jealous. Besides, there comes the dragon." Judge Saxon, looking shabby and old and tired, was making a circuitous way toward them. "Let me go. Oh, darling—" she put her small, flushed face suddenly close to her friend's to ask the question, and after it, fluttered away without waiting for the answer, leaving the echo of her pretty, empty laugh behind—"why didn't Judith come? What's the real reason? Has anybody been making trouble for her here? Never mind. You needn't tell me. Good-bye."
Mrs. Randall closed her eyes and pressed two fingers against her temples for a moment, and then looked up with almost her usual welcoming smile at Judge Saxon, who had come close to her, and stood looking down at her keenly with his kind, near-sighted, blue eyes.
"Hiding?" he said. "Tired?"
"Not hiding from you. Take care of me."
"Minna," he decided, "you little girls aren't so nice to me unless you're in wrong somehow and feel sorry for yourselves. What's the matter? Where's Harry?"
"Inside somewhere. Don't ask me any more questions. I've answered all I can to-night."
"All right. I'll just sit here and enjoy the view and keep the other boys away."
The view was hardly one to promote unmixed enjoyment. The two settled into a friendly silence in their corner, broken by an occasional quiet word in the Judge's intimate, drawling voice. Around them the temper of the party was changing, and a series of little signs marked the general change. More men crowded into the smoking-room between dances, and they stayed longer. Mrs. Grant left first according to her established privilege, and a scattering of other guests followed her. Nobody seemed to miss them or to be conspicuously happier without them. There was a heavy, dull look about the passing faces, a heaviness and staleness now about the whole atmosphere of the party, and this, like the unnatural excitement which it followed, and like the light, endless fire of inconsequent, malicious chatter, always the same, whether it meant nothing or meant real trouble brewing, was an essential part of all the Colonel's parties, too.
The Judge regarded the change with faraway eyes, as he talked on in the wistful voice that goes with talking your own private language openly to people who cannot answer you in it.
"Don't need the moon, do we, with those lanterns? But it was here first, and will be a long time after, and it's a good moon, too; quite decorative for a moon."
"I hate it," said Mrs. Randall, with a personal vindictiveness not usually directed against natural phenomena. The Judge took no immediate notice of it. More guests had gone. In a cleared circle in the heart of the lanternlight Mrs. Kent was performing one of the more expurgated and perfunctory of her dances for the benefit of the select audience that remained, to scattered, perfunctory applause. The motif of it was faintly Spanish.
"Paper doll," commented the Judge, "that's all that girl is. You and Harry are the best of them, Minna. They're a faky lot, all of them—about as real as a house of cards. It looks big, but it will all tumble down if you pull one card out—only one card. The devil of it is to know which card to take hold of, and who's to pull it out if you haven't got the nerve? I haven't. I'm too old. But it's a comfort to think of it. Don't you agree with me?"
"I didn't really hear you."
"Minna, I've known you since you were two. Can't you tell me what's the matter? You're frightened."
She looked at him for a minute as if she could, turning a paling face to him, with the mask off and the eyes miserable, then she tried to laugh.
"Nothing's the matter. Nothing new."
"Well, there's enough wrong here without anything new," said the Judge, rebuffed but still gentle. "I won't trouble you any longer, my dear. There comes Harry."
Mrs. Randall's husband, an unmistakable figure even with the garden and the broad, unlighted lawn between, stood in the rectangle of light that one of the veranda windows made, slender and boyish still in spite of the slight stoop of his shoulders, and then started across the lawn toward the garden.
His wife got rather stiffly to her feet and waited, looking away from the lighted enclosure, over the low hedge, at the lawn. Her eyes were dizzy from the flickering lights. She could not see him clearly, and the figure that followed him across the lawn was harder to see.
It was a man's figure, slightly taller than her husband's. The man had not come from the veranda windows, or from the house at all, he had slipped round one corner of the house, stood still in the shelter of it, seeming to hesitate there, and then plunged suddenly across the lawn at a queer little staggering run. Twice she saw him stand still, so still that she lost sight of him under the trees, as if he had slipped away through the dark.
In the garden Mrs. Kent's performance was over, and the game of blind-man's buff was beginning. It was a novelty, and acclaimed even at this stage of the evening. Lillian Burr's shrill laugh and Edith Kent's pretty, childish one could be heard through the other sounds. They were trying to blindfold the Colonel, who struggled but laughed, too, looking somehow vacuous and old, with his longish, white hair straggling across his forehead. No one in the garden but Minna Randall had attention to spare for an arriving guest, expected or unexpected.
Which was he? He was out of sight again, but this time she had seen him reach the edge of the lighted enclosure. Was he gone, or waiting outside, or had he stepped under the trellis of the rose arbour, to appear suddenly at the end of it and among them? Instinctively she kept her eyes upon it, though her husband had already passed through. She was watching for the figure that it might frame next.
"Harry," she said to her husband, who had seen her and elbowed his way to her, and stood beside her, looking pale and tired like herself in the lanternlight and not boyish at all, "who was that man? Who was it following you?"
He paid no attention to her question. He did not seem to hear it. He put a hand on her arm, and she could feel that it trembled.
"Oh, Harry, what is it?" she said. "I've had such a horrible evening. I'm so afraid."
"Don't be afraid, Minna," he said very gently, "but you must come to the telephone. Norah's calling you. She's just come home. She wants to tell you something about Judith."
"Judith?" Mrs. Randall took her husband's news quietly, with something that was almost relief in her face, the relief that comes when a gathering storm breaks at last, and you learn what it is you have been afraid of, though you must go on being afraid. "What is it? Is she ill, Harry?"
"Come and talk to Norah."
"No, we'll go straight home."
"But she's not there, Minna. That's all Norah'll say to me, but she's got some idea where she is, and says she'll tell you. Judith isn't there."
"It must be nearly morning."
"It was after nine when we started."
"Minna, didn't you hear what I said?"
Mrs. Randall's face had not changed as she heard; it looked unchangeable, like some fixed but charming mask that she wore. The lips still smiled though they had stiffened slightly, and she watched the two women's attempts to blindfold the Colonel—unaided now, but hilariously applauded by the circle around her—with the same mild, interested eyes, wide-set and Madonna calm.
"I tell you, Judith's not there. What does Norah know? Why don't you do something? Where is she?... My God, look at them. What are they doing now? Look at Everard."
Mrs. Burr had drawn the knot suddenly tight in the white scarf she was manipulating, and slipped out of the Colonel's arms and out of reach. He followed, and then swung round and stumbled awkwardly after Edith Kent, who had brushed past him, leaving a light, challenging kiss on his forehead, and was further guiding him with her pretty, empty laugh. The game of blind-man's buff was under way.
Crowding the garden enclosure, swaying this way and that and threatening to overflow it, a pushing, struggling mass of people kept rather laboriously out of one another's way and the Colonel's, not so much amused by the effort as they were pretending to be; people with heavy and stupid faces who had never looked more irrevocably removed from childhood than now that they were playing a children's game.
In the heart of the crowd, now plunging ahead of it, now lost in it, the first gentleman of Green River disported himself. His white head was easy to follow through the crowd, and the thing that made you follow it was evident even now—much of his old dignity, and the charm that was peculiarly his; you saw it in an occasional stubborn shake of his beautifully shaped head, in the grace of the hand that caught at some flying skirt and missed it. He was the first gentleman of Green River still, but he was something else.
His white hair straggled across his forehead moist and dishevelled, and his face showed flushed and perspiring against the white of the scarf. The trailing ends of the scarf flapped grotesquely about his head, and the high, splendidly modelled forehead was obscured and the keen eyes were hidden. The beauty of the face was lost, and the mouth showed thin lipped and sensual. The Colonel was really a stumbling, red-faced old man.
"Look at him. That's what she's seen. This was Judith's party. That's what we've hung on in this town for till it's too late to break loose. We never can get away now. We can't——"
"Keep still, Harry. Do you want to be heard? Did any one hear you at the telephone? Keep still and come home."
"You're right. You're wonderful. You don't lose your nerve."
"I can't afford to, and neither can you. Come—— Oh, Harry, look. I saw him following you. What does he want? What's the matter? What is he going to do?"
Mrs. Randall had adjusted her cloak deliberately, and turned to pilot her husband out of the garden, slipping a firm little hand through his arm. Now she clung to him and stood still, silent after her little fire of excited questions. The entrance to the garden was blocked. An uninvited and unexpected guest was standing there.
His entrance had been unheralded, and his welcome was slow to come. The crowd had closed in round the Colonel, with Edith Kent caught suddenly in his arms, and giving a creditable imitation of attempting to escape. Interested silence and bursts of laughter indicated the progress of it clearly, though the two were entirely out of sight. Nobody saw the newcomer except the Randalls.
He stood in the entrance to the rose arbour, clutching at the trellis with one unsteady hand, and managing to keep fairly erect, a slightly built, swaying figure, black-haired and hatless. He kept one hand behind him, awkwardly, as a shy boy guards a favourite plaything. He was staring into the crowd in the garden as if he could see through into the heart of it, but had not the intellect just then to understand what he saw there.
It was the man Mrs. Randall had seen lurking in the shadow of the trees, but he was no mysterious stranger, though here in the light of the lanterns she hardly recognized him as she looked at his pale, excited face; it showed an excitement quite unaccounted for by the perfectly obvious fact that he was drunk, and entirely unconnected with that fact. Here and there on the outskirts of the crowd some one turned and saw him, too, and stared at him. They all knew him. He was Neil Donovan's cousin, the discredited young lawyer, Charlie Brady.
He did not speak or move. He only stood still and looked at them with vague, puzzled eyes, and lips that twitched as if he wanted to speak, but standing so, he had the centre of the stage. He could not command it, he had pushed his way into it doggedly, uncertain what to do first, but he was there. One by one his audience had become conscious of it, and were confronting him startled and uncertain, too. Young Chester Gaynor elbowed his way to the front, but stopped there, grinning at the invader, restrained perhaps by a lady's voice, which was to be heard admonishing him excitedly.
"Don't you get hurt, dear."
"How did he get here? Why can't somebody get him out?" other excited ladies inquired.
"Get Judge Saxon," directed Mr. J. Cleveland Kent's calm and authoritative voice.
"Get Sebastian. Where is the fellow? Is he afraid?" demanded the Honourable Joe from the extreme rear. Some one laughed hysterically. It was Mrs. Burr. The laugh was quickly hushed, but the new guest had heard it, though no other sound seemed to have impressed him. He laughed, too, a dry, broken ghost of a laugh, as cracked and strange as his voice, which he now found abruptly.
"Lillie," he called. "Hello, Lillie dear."
Mrs. Burr was not heard to reply to this affectionate greeting, but he hardly paused for a reply. His light, high, curiously detached sounding voice talked on with a kind of uncanny fluency.
"Lillie," he urged cordially, "I heard you. I know you're there. Come out and let's have a look at you. I don't see anything of you lately. You're too grand for me. I don't care. I'm in love with a prettier girl. But you used to treat me all right, Lillie dear, and I treated you right, too. I never told. A gentleman don't tell. And you were straight with me. You never double-crossed me, like you and the dago Sebastian do to Everard. Everard! That's who I want to talk to. Where is he?"
At the mention of the name his wavering gaze had steadied and concentrated suddenly on the centre of the group in the garden, and now, while he looked, the crowd parted. Pushing his way through, the Colonel faced his uninvited guest.
The great man was not at his best. His most ardent admirer could hardly have claimed it. He had pulled the muffling scarf down from his eyes, but was still tearing at the knot impatiently. Mrs. Kent had come fluttering ineffectively after him, catching at his arm. He struck her hands away, and pushed her back, addressing her with a lack of ceremony which outsiders were not often permitted to hear him employ toward a member of his favoured circle.
"Keep out of this, Edith, and you keep quiet, Lil. You girls make me sick," he snapped. "Half the trouble in this town comes because you can't learn to hold your tongues. You'd better learn. You're going to pay for it if you don't, and don't you lose sight of that. Well, Brady, what does this mean? What can I do for you?"
The ring of authority was in his voice again, as if he had called it back by sheer will power. He had stepped forward alone, and stood looking up at his guest, still framed in the sheltering trellis, and his blurred eyes cleared and grew keen as he looked, regarding him indifferently, like some refractory but mildly amusing animal. His guest's defiant eyes avoided his, and the ineffective, swaying figure seemed to shrink and droop and grow smaller, but it was a dignified figure still and a dangerous one. There was the snarling menace of impotent but inevitable rebellion about it, of men who fight on with their backs against the wall; a menace that was not new born to-night, but the gradual growth of years, just the number of years that the Colonel had spent in Green River.
"I'm sorry, sir," stammered his guest.
"Then apologize and get out."
"I think you'll find you can, Brady."
"I can't. I've got to ask you a few questions."
They seemed to be slow in framing themselves. There was a little pause, the kind of pause that for no apparent reason deprives you for the moment of any desire to move or speak. The unassuming figure of the young man under the trellis stood still, swaying only slightly from side to side. A deprecating smile appeared on his lips, as if his errand were distasteful to him and he wished to apologize for it. Gradually the smile faded and the eyes grew steady again and unnaturally bright. He held himself stiffly erect where he stood for a moment, took a few lurching steps forward, paused, and then plunged suddenly across the garden toward Colonel Everard.
It would have been hard to tell which came first, the little, stumbling run forward, the Colonel's instinctive move to check it, the stampede of the devotees of the time-honoured game of blind-man's buff, acting now with a promptness and spontaneity which they had not displayed in that game, Lillian Burr's hysterical scream, the snarling words from the Colonel that silenced it, or the quick flash of metal. It had all happened at once. But now, in an amphitheatre of scared faces, as far behind as the limits of the garden enclosure would allow, Mr. Brady and his host stood facing each other alone, and the Colonel, now entirely himself, with the high colour fading out of his cheeks, was looking with cool and unwavering eyes straight into the barrel of Mr. Brady's revolver.
It was a clumsy, old-fashioned little weapon. Brady's thin hand grasped it firmly, as if some stronger hand than his own were steadying his. He laughed an ineffective laugh, like a boastful boy's, but there was a threat in it, too.
"What have you got to say for yourself? I'll give you a chance to say it," he stated magnanimously, "but you shan't say a word against her. She was always a good girl. She is a good girl. What have you done with her? Where is she?"
"You don't make yourself altogether clear, Brady," said the Colonel smoothly.
"Maggie?" The Colonel's eyes swept the circle of his guests deliberately, as if to assure himself that no lady of that name was among them.
"Maggie. You know the name well enough." The sound of it seemed to give the lady's champion new courage; it flamed in his eyes, hot, and quick to burn itself out, but while it lasted, even a gentleman who had learned to face drawn revolvers as indifferently as the Colonel might do well to be afraid of him. "Maggie's missing. I'm going to find her. That's all I want of you. I won't ask you who's worked on her and made a fool of her. I won't ask you how far she's been going. But I want her back before the whole town knows. I want to find her and find her quick. She's a good girl and a decent girl. She's going to keep her good name. She's coming home."
"Commendable," said the Colonel, not quite smoothly enough. His guest was past listening to him.
"Maggie. That's all I want. You're getting off easy. Luck's with you. I've stood a lot from you, the same as the town has. It will stand a lot more, and I will. Get Maggie back. Get her back and give her to me and leave her alone, and I'll eat out of your hand and starve when you don't feed me, the same as the rest"—he came two wavering steps nearer, and dropped his voice to a dry quaver meant to be confidential, a grotesque and sinister parody of a confidence—"the rest, that don't know what I know."
"What do you mean?"
"I won't tell. Don't be afraid. A gentleman don't tell, and there's nobody that can but me. Young Neil don't know. The luck's with you, sir, just the same as it always was."
"I've had enough of this. Get home, Brady," cried the Colonel, in a voice that was suddenly wavering and high, like an old man's, but his guest only smiled and nodded wisely, beginning to sway as he stood, but still gripping the clumsy revolver tight.
"Just the same as it was when old Neil Donovan died."
"Get home," shrilled the Colonel again, but his guest pursued the tenor of his thoughts untroubled, still with the look of an amiably disposed fellow-conspirator on his weak face, a maddening look, even if his words conveyed no sting of their own.
"Neil Donovan," he crooned, "my father's own half-brother, and a good uncle to me, and a gentleman, too. He sold rum over a counter, but he was a gentleman, for he didn't talk too much. A gentleman don't tell."
But the catalogue of his uncle's perfections, whether in place here or not, was to proceed no further. The audience pressed closer, as eager to look on at a fight as it was to keep out of one. There was a new and surprising development in this one. The two men had closed with each other, and it was not the half-crazed boy who had made the attack, but the Colonel himself.
It was a sudden and awkward attack, and there was something stranger about it still. The Colonel was angry. He had tried to knock the weapon out of the boy's hand, failed, and tried instinctively, still, to get possession of it, but he was not making an adequate and necessary attempt to disarm him, he was no longer adequate or calm. He was angry, suddenly angry with the poor specimen of humanity that was making its futile attempt at protest and rebellion, as if it were an equal and an enemy. His face was distorted and his eyes were dull and unseeing. His breath came in panting gasps, and he made inarticulate little sounds in his throat. He struck furious and badly directed blows.
It was a curious thing to see, in the heart of the great man's admiring circle, at the climax of his most successful party of the year. It did not last long. The two struggling figures broke away from each other, and the boy staggered backward and stood with the revolver still in his hand. He was a little sobered by the struggle, and a little weakened by it, pale and dangerous, with a fanatic light in his eyes. Some one who had an eye for danger signals, if the Colonel had not, had made his unobtrusive way forward, and joined him now. He was not the most formidable looking of allies, but he stood beside them as if he had a right to be there, and the Colonel turned to him as if he recognized it.
"Hugh, you heard what he said?" he appealed; "you heard?"
"Judge, you keep out of this," Brady called, "keep out, sir."
Judge Saxon, keeping a casual hand on his most prominent client's arm, stood regarding Mr. Brady with mild and friendly blue eyes. He had quite his usual air of being detached from his surroundings, but benevolently interested in them.
"Charlie," he said, as if he were recognizing Mr. Brady for the first time at this critical moment, and deriving pleasure from it. "Why, Charlie," his voice became gently reproachful, but remained friendly, too. "Everard, this boy don't mean a word he says," he went on, with conviction, "he's excited and you're excited, too. This is a pretty poor time for you to get excited, Everard."
"You're right, Hugh," muttered the Judge's most prominent client thickly; "you're right. Get him away. Get him home."
"He's a good boy," pronounced the Judge.
It was not the obvious description of Mr. Brady just at that moment. There was only friendly amusement in the Judge's drawling voice and shrewd eyes, but back of it, unmistakably there, was something that made every careless word worth listening to. Mr. Brady was resisting it. His face worked pitifully.
"Judge, I told you to keep out. I don't want to hurt you."
"Every word I say is God's truth, Judge."
The Judge did not contradict this sweeping statement. He was studying Mr. Brady's weapon with some interest. "Your uncle's," he commented, pleased. "Why, I didn't know you still owned that thing, Charlie."
"I want Maggie. I want——"
"I'll tell you what you want," offered the Judge, amicably, "you want to hand that thing to me, and go home."
Mr. Brady received this suggestion in silence, a silence which left his audience uncertain how deeply he resented it. Indeed, they were painfully uncertain, and showed it. Bits of advice reached the Judge's ears, contradictory, though much of it sound, but he took no notice of it. He only smiled his patient and wistful smile and waited, like a man who knew what would happen next.
"Hand it to me," he repeated gently.
"I won't, Judge." Mr. Brady's weapon wavered, and then steadied itself. His thin body trembled. The fanatic light in his eyes blazed bright. The excitement which had gripped him, too keen to last long, reached its climax now in one last burst of hysterical speech.
"He's a liar and a thief," he asserted, uncontradicted. He was not to be contradicted. There was a dignity of its own about the hysterical indictment, grotesque as it was, an unforgettable suggestion of truth. "He's a thief and a murderer, too. I don't have to tell what I know. Everybody knows. You all know, all of you, and you don't dare to tell. He's murdering the town."
The high, screaming voice broke off abruptly. Mr. Brady, still with the echo of his big words in his ears and apparently dazed by it, stood looking blankly into the Judge's steady and friendly eyes.
"I can't—I won't——" he stammered.
"Hand it to me," said the Judge, as if no interruption had occurred. For a moment the boy before him looked too dull and dazed to obey or to hear. Then, as suddenly as if some unseen hand had struck it out of his, the revolver dropped to the ground, and he collapsed, sobbing heartbrokenly, into the Judge's arms.
He was a heroic figure no longer. The alien forces that made him one had deserted him abruptly, and he looked unworthy of their support already, only an inconsiderable creature of jangled nerves and hysterical speech, which would be discredited if you looked at him, even if it still echoed in your ears. The Judge, holding him and quieting him, looked allied with him, humble and discredited, too. The relieved audience hung back for a moment, taking in the full force of the picture, before it broke ranks to crowd round the Colonel and offer him belated support. The Colonel said a few inaudible words to Judge Saxon, and then turned from him and his protege with the air of washing his hands of the whole affair. He looked surprisingly unruffled by it, even stimulated by it. The interruption to his party was over.
* * * * *
It ended as it had begun, the most successful party of the year. Mr. Brady's invasion was not the first unscheduled event which had enlivened a party at the Birches. There was more open and general speculation about the fact that the Randalls left immediately after, did not linger over their good-nights, and were obviously not permitted by their host to do so.
Mrs. Randall, leaning back in her corner with her hand tight in Harry's, and her long-lashed eyes, that were like Judith's, tightly shut, showed the full strain of the evening in her pale face. She was a woman who did not look tired easily, but she was also a woman who could not afford to look tired.
There was no appeal or charm about her pale face now, only a naked look of hardness and strain. Her husband, staring straight ahead of him with troubled eyes, and his weak, boyish mouth set in a hard, worried line, spoke rapidly and disconnectedly not of Judith, or the Colonel's ominous coldness to him, but of Mr. Brady.
"Maggie's a bad lot," he was explaining for approximately the fifth time as they whirled into the drive and under their own dark windows. "She always was. Everard isn't making away with the belle of Paddy Lane. Not yet. He's not that far down. But that dope about old Neil Donovan——"
"Oh, Harry, hush," his wife said, "here we are. What do you care about Brady?"
"Nothing," he whispered, his arm tightening round her as he lifted her down. "I don't care about anything in the world but Judith."
"Neither do I. Not really," she said in a hurried, shaken voice that was not like her own, "you believe that, don't you, Harry?"
He did not answer. Gathering up her skirts, she followed him silently to the front of the house, single file along the narrow boardwalk, not yet taken up for the summer, creaking loudly under their feet.
"Look," she whispered, catching at his arm. The front of the house was dark except for two lights, a flickering lamp that was being carried nearer to them through the hall, and a soft, shaded light that showed at a bedroom window. The window was Judith's. He fumbled for his key, but the door opened before them. Norah, her forbidding face more militant than ever in the flickering light of the kerosene hand-lamp she held, her white pompadour belligerently erect, and her brown eyes maliciously alight, peered at them across the door chain, and then gingerly admitted them.
"It's a sweet time of night to be coming home to the only child you've got," she commented, "why do you take the trouble to come home at all?"
It was a characteristic greeting from her. If it had not been, Mrs. Randall would not have resented it now. She clutched at the old woman's unresponsive shoulder.
"Where is she?" she demanded breathlessly.
"Judith is it you mean?"
"How should I know how she spends her evenings? At some of the girls' to-night. Rena Drew's maybe. I don't know. It's a new thing for you to care. She was late in, and it's no wonder I was worried. She's like my own to me. But she needs her sleep now. You'd better go softly upstairs."
"Do you mean she's here?"
"What is it to you?" Norah, one bony hand clutching the newel post as if it were a negotiable weapon of defense, and her brown eyes flashing as if she were capable of using any weapon for Judith, barred the way up the stairs.
"I tell you, she needs her sleep, poor lamb—poor lamb," she said, "and you're not to go near her to-night. You're to promise me that. But she's here fast enough. My lamb is safe at home in her own bed."
On an afternoon in June a year later than the interrupted party at the Everards' a young man sat at Mr. Theodore Burr's desk in Judge Saxon's outer office. It was still technically Mr. Burr's desk, but the young man looked entirely at home there. A litter of papers which that fastidious gentleman would never have permitted himself now covered it, and the air was faintly scented with the smoke of a cigarette widely popular in Green River, but not with devotees of twenty-five-cent cigars, like Mr. Burr. The bulky volume open on the desk was thumbed and used as Mr. Burr had never used any book that looked or was so heavy. The book was Thayer on Constitutional Law, and the young man dividing his attention between it and Main Street under his window flooded with June sunshine was Neil Donovan.
He divided his attention unequally, as Main Street late on that sunny afternoon might persuade the most studious of young men to do. The square was crowded—crowded, it is true, much as a busy street on the stage is crowded, where the same overworked set of supers pass and repass. The group of bareheaded girls now pacing slowly by arm in arm under the window were returning from what was approximately their fourth visit that afternoon to the post-office, the ice-cream parlours, the new gift shop and tea-room, or some kindred attraction. The Nashes' new touring car, driven by the prettiest girl in Willard's June house party, under the devoted instruction of Willard himself, was whirling through the shopping district for at least the third time.
However, it was an imposing pageant enough, though the boy at the window did not appear to find it so, regarding it with approving but grave eyes, and returning Mr. Nash's flourishing salute unsmilingly—a brave pageant of gay and flimsy gowns, of youth returning to the town, and movement and colour, and June fairly begun.
June so far was like other Junes in Green River. Colonel Everard and the season of social and political intrigues were here. Rallies in the town hall would soon begin. Men with big names in state politics would make speeches there, while the Colonel presided with his usual self-effacing charm, which did not advertise the known fact that he was a bigger power in the state than any of them. The good old question of prohibition was the chief issue, as usual; discreet representatives of the people would, according to a catch phrase at the capital, vote for prohibition, and then go round to the best hotel and get drunk; and discreet politicians, like the Colonel, would make money out of both these facts in their own way.
Behind the closed door of Judge Saxon's office low-keyed, monotonous voices were talking, and a secret conference was going on. Troubled times were here again for those deep in the Colonel's councils. They were never sure of a permanent place there, but always on the watch for one of his sudden changes of front, which threatened not only his enemies but his friends. But he had recovered and held their confidence before, and he could this year.
All scandals of the year before were decently hidden. Maggie Brady was missing and continued to be missing. By this time it was the general verdict that she had always been bound to come to a bad end, and Charlie Brady to drink himself to death. Nobody interrupted his attempts to do so. His drunken outburst of speech had echoed a growing sentiment in the town, but it grew slowly, for under its thin veneer of sophistication Green River was only a New England town still, conservative and slow to change.
Green River had not changed much in a year, but Neil Donovan's fortunes had. Nobody knew the full history of the change except Neil, but others could have thrown sidelights upon it, among them Mrs. Randall's second maid, Mollie. On the morning after that same party of the Colonel's, which Mr. Brady attended so unexpectedly, and Judith did not attend, Mollie opened the Randalls' door to an early caller.
Even in curl papers, she was usually too much for the young man now on the doorstep. He was in the habit of looking at his boots and addressing them instead of her, and Mollie quite understood that, for they were shabby boots. They looked shabbier than ever to-day, and so did his shiny coat, but his eyes were steady and clear, and there was clear colour in his cheeks, as if he had had the only restful and well-earned sleep in Green River.
"Miss Judith," he said.
"Not at home," said Mollie, in a manner successfully copied from French maids in the ten, twenty, thirties.
"Nonsense. Her curtains aren't up," replied the young man who was usually made speechless by it.
"She's asleep," conceded Mollie, in a manner more colloquial but also more forbidding. "She don't want to see you."
Mollie was incapable of interpreting Judith's wishes, but the young man was not; his smile conveyed this, though it was friendly enough. "When Miss Judith gets up, tell her——"
"I tell you she don't want to see you," snapped Mollie in a tone any French maid would have deplored. "She don't want to see anybody."
"Tell her that I'll call again at three this afternoon," directed the young man calmly, and completed his disturbing effect upon Mollie by turning and walking briskly away without a backward glance, and without his usual air of self-consciousness when her eyes were upon him. He carried his shabby coat with an air, and held his head high, and swung out of sight down the sleepy little street as if he were the only wide-awake thing in the whole sunny, sleepy town.
It was a disconcerting moment for Mollie or any lady properly conscious of her power, and sorry to see a sign of it disappear, even the humblest of signs. It would still have been disconcerting, if she could have foreseen that Judith would not receive this young man alone, either at three that afternoon, or for many afternoons. The young man was not overawed by Mollie. That was established once and for all. He would never be overawed by her again. She slammed the door rather viciously.
"Keep quiet there," said Norah, appearing inopportunely, as her habit was, with a heavily laden breakfast tray. "She needs her rest. But she's awake. She rang. You can take this up and leave it outside her door. Who was talking to you?"
"Well, I don't know what's come to him," Mollie complained. "Who does he think he is? Did anybody leave him a fortune over night? It was the Donovan boy."
A few minutes after Neil's encounter with Mollie, when Mr. Theodore Burr admitted him listlessly after his third knock at Judge Saxon's door, he could see no evidence that any one had left the Donovan boy a fortune over night, but did note a change in him. There was something appealingly grave and sedate about his face, as if a part of its youth, the freakish, unconquerable laughter of it, that had defied and antagonized Mr. Burr, were gone forever, burned away, somehow, in a night. It was a look Mr. Burr was to grow well used to in the next few months. Perhaps the unaccountable affection he was to feel for the boy in the course of them was born then and there.
Neil emerged from the Judge's private office after a briefer talk than usual, and the Judge did not escort him to the door in his accustomed, friendly fashion. Mr. Burr did, and made him clumsy and unwonted confidences there.
"The old man's not quite fit to-day," he said. "I ought to have told you. It's a poor time to get anything out of him. Been shut up there by himself doping out something. Won't say two words to me."
"Then he must be in a bad way, Theodore," said the boy, with the ghost of his old, mocking smile, which Mr. Burr somehow did not find annoying at all.
"Look here, Neil," he surprised himself by saying, "I like you. I always did. You deserve a square deal. You're too good for the Brady gang. You're too good for the town. If there was anything I could do for you——"
"Maybe there is, Theodore," the boy turned in the corridor to say. "Cheer up. You'll have a chance to see. I'm coming to work for the Judge, I start in next week."
"But the Judge turned you down." Mr. Burr's brain struggled with the problem, thinking out loud for the sake of greater clearness, but too evidently not achieving it. "The Judge likes you, too, but he couldn't take you in if he wanted to. He talked of it, but gave it up. He'd be afraid to. Everard——"
"I start in next week," repeated Mr. Donovan.
"But what did you say to him?" demanded Mr. Burr. "What did he say to you? How did you dare to ask him again?"
"I didn't ask him. Don't worry, Theodore. I haven't been trying any black magic on the Judge. I don't know any. Maybe I'll learn some. I'm going to learn a good deal. I've got to. Nobody knows how much. Even the Judge don't know. I'm coming to work for the Judge, that's all, but I didn't ask him." Mr. Burr, listening incredulously, did not know that this was a faithful if condensed account of his talk with the Judge and more, the key to much that was to happen to this pale and determined young man, the secret of all his success. He gave it away openly, and without pride:
"I just told him so."
Neil started in the next week. If Mr. Burr watched his young associate somewhat jealously at first in the natural belief that a boy who had changed the course of his life in a five-minute interview would do something equally spectacular next, and if the Judge, who had said to him at last, "Well, it's my bad morning, son, and your good morning, so you get your way, but you're climbing on a sinking ship, and remember I told you so. And I'll tell you something else. It will be poor pickings here for all of us, and I'm sorry, but I'm the sorriest for you," was inclined to follow him furtively over the top of his spectacles with a look that held all the pathetic apology of age to youth in his kind, near-sighted eyes, this was only at first.
Colonel Everard, returning a few weeks later from one of his sudden, unexplained absences from town, and making an early morning visit to his attorney, was admitted by a young man whom he recognized, but pretended not to.
"Who are you?" he inquired, "the office boy?"
"Just about that, sir," the young man admitted, as if he had no higher ambition, but the Judge, entering the room with more evidence of beginning the day with the strength that the day required, than he had been showing lately in his carriage and look, put a casual hand on the boy's shoulder, and kept it there.
"The last time we discussed enlarging my office force, you didn't advocate it, Everard," he said rather formally.
"So you aren't discussing it with me now?"
"Do you think you'd better discuss it?"
"I think you are in no position to discuss it. You've been recently furnished with much more important material to discuss. I haven't seen you since your garden party, have I?"
"No." Both men seemed to have forgotten the boy's existence, but now the Colonel recalled it, and apparently without annoyance, and flashed a disarming smile at him, giving up gracefully, as he always did if he was forced to give up at all. "Well, you're right, Hugh. You're always right. Do as you please. But this boy's got a temper of his own and—quite a flow of speech. Runs in his family, evidently. Properly handled, these are assets, but——"
"I'm sorry, sir," Neil found himself stammering. "I shouldn't have spoken to you as I did that day. I'm sorry."
"Next time be sure of your facts." The voice was friendly, almost paternal, but it held an insidious challenge, too, and for one betraying moment all the native antagonism that was really there flashed in the Colonel's eyes. Few enemies of his had been permitted to see it so clearly. It was a triumph for Neil, if a barren one. "Be very sure."