She slowly raised one hand, laying it fearlessly in both of his.
"He is all I have left," she said. "You know that."
"I know, child."
"Then—thank you, Captain Selwyn."
"No; I thank you for giving me this charge. It means that a man must raise his own standard of living before he can accept such responsibility. . . . You endow me with all that a man ought to be; and my task is doubled; for it is not only Gerald but I myself who require surveillance."
He looked up, smilingly serious: "Such women as you alone can fit your brother and me for an endless guard duty over the white standard you have planted on the outer walls of the world."
"You say things to me—sometimes—" she faltered, "that almost hurt with the pleasure they give."
"Did that give you pleasure?"
"Y-yes; the surprise of it was almost too—too keen. I wish you would not—but I am glad you did. . . . You see"—dropping into a great velvet chair—"having been of no serious consequence to anybody for so many years—to be told, suddenly, that I—that I count so vitally with men—a man like you—"
She sank back, drew one small hand across her eyes, and rested a moment; then leaning forward, she set her elbow on one knee and bracketed her chin between forefinger and thumb.
"You don't know," she said, smiling faintly, "but, oh, the exalted dreams young girls indulge in! And one and all centre around some power-inspired attitude of our own when a great crisis comes. And most of all we dream of counting heavily; and more than all we clothe ourselves in the celestial authority which dares to forgive. . . . Is it not pathetically amusing—the mental process of a young girl?—and the paramount theme of her dream is power!—such power as will permit the renunciation of vengeance; such power as will justify the happiness of forgiving? . . . And every dream of hers is a dream of power; and, often, the happiness of forbearing to wield it. All dreams lead to it, all mean it; for instance, half-awake, then faintly conscious in slumber, I lie dreaming of power—always power; the triumph of attainment, of desire for wisdom and knowledge satisfied. I dream of friendships—wonderful intimacies exquisitely satisfying; I dream of troubles, and my moral power to sweep them out of existence; I dream of self-sacrifice, and of the spiritual power to endure it; I dream—I dream—sometimes—of more material power—of splendours and imposing estates, of a paradise all my own. And when I have been selfishly happy long enough, I dream of a vast material power fitting me to wipe poverty from the world; I plan it out in splendid generalities, sometimes in minute detail. . . . Of men, we naturally dream; but vaguely, in a curious and confused way. . . . Once, when I was fourteen, I saw a volunteer regiment passing; and it halted for a while in front of our house; and a brilliant being on a black horse turned lazily in his saddle and glanced up at our window. . . . Captain Selwyn, it is quite useless for you to imagine what fairy scenes, what wondrous perils, what happy adventures that gilt-corded adjutant and I went through in my dreams. Marry him? Indeed I did, scores of times. Rescue him? Regularly. He was wounded, he was attacked by fevers unnumbered, he fled in peril of his life, he vegetated in countless prisons, he was misunderstood, he was a martyr to suspicion, he was falsely accused, falsely condemned. And then, just before the worst occurred, I appear!—the inevitable I."
She dropped back into the chair, laughing. Her colour was high, her eyes brilliant; she laid her arms along the velvet arms of the chair and looked at him.
"I've not had you to talk to for a whole week," she said; "and you'll let me; won't you? I can't help it, anyway, because as soon as I see you—crack! a million thoughts wake up in me and clipper-clapper goes my tongue. . . . You are very good for me. You are so thoroughly satisfactory—except when your eyes narrow in that dreadful far-away gaze—which I've forbidden, you understand. . . . What have you done to your moustache?"
"Oh, I don't like it too short. Can you get hold of it to pull it? It's the only thing that helps you in perplexity to solve problems. You'd be utterly helpless, mentally, without your moustache. . . . When are we to take up our Etruscan symbols again?—or was it Evans's monograph we were laboriously dissecting? Certainly it was; don't you remember the Hittite hieroglyph of Jerabis?—and how you and I fought over those wretched floral symbols? You don't? And it was only a week ago? . . . And listen! Down at Silverside I've been reading the most delicious thing—the Mimes of Herodas!—oh, so charmingly quaint, so perfectly human, that it seems impossible that they were written two thousand years ago. There's a maid, in one scene, Threissa, who is precisely like anybody's maid—and an old lady, Gyllis—perfectly human, and not Greek, but Yankee of to-day! Shall we reread it together?—when you come down to stay with us at Silverside?"
"Indeed we shall," he said, smiling; "which also reminds me—"
He drew from his breast-pocket a thin, flat box, turned it round and round, glanced at her, balancing it teasingly in the palm of his hand.
"Is it for me? Really? Oh, please don't be provoking! Is it really for me? Then give it to me this instant!"
He dropped the box into the pink hollow of her supplicating palms. For a moment she was very busy with the tissue-paper; then:
"Oh! it is perfectly sweet of you!" turning the small book bound in heavy Etruscan gold; "whatever can it be?" and, rising, she opened it, stepping to the window so that she could see.
Within, the pages were closely covered with the minute, careful handwriting of her father; it was the first note-book he ever kept; and Selwyn had had it bound for her in gold.
For an instant she gazed, breathless, lips parted; then slowly she placed the yellowed pages against her lips and, turning, looked straight at Selwyn, the splendour of her young eyes starred with tears.
ERRANDS AND LETTERS
Alixe Ruthven had not yet dared tell Selwyn that her visit to his rooms was known to her husband. Sooner or later she meant to tell him; it was only fair to him that he should be prepared for anything that might happen; but as yet, though her first instinct, born of sheer fright, urged her to seek instant council with Selwyn, fear of him was greater than the alarm caused her by her husband's knowledge.
She was now afraid of her husband's malice, afraid of Selwyn's opinion, afraid of herself most of all, for she understood herself well enough to realise that, if conditions became intolerable, the first and easiest course out of it would be the course she'd take—wherever it led, whatever it cost, or whoever was involved.
In addition to her dread and excitement, she was deeply chagrined and unhappy; and, although Jack Ruthven did not again refer to the matter—indeed appeared to have forgotten it—her alarm and humiliation remained complete, for Gerald now came and played and went as he chose; and in her disconcerted cowardice she dared not do more than plead with Gerald in secret, until she began to find the emotion consequent upon such intimacy unwise for them both.
Neergard, too, was becoming a familiar figure in her drawing-room; and, though at first she detested him, his patience and unfailing good spirits, and his unconcealed admiration for her softened her manner toward him to the point of toleration.
And Neergard, from his equivocal footing in the house of Ruthven, obtained another no less precarious in the house of Fane—all in the beginning on a purely gaming basis. However, Gerald had already proposed him for the Stuyvesant and Proscenium clubs; and, furthermore, a stormy discussion was now in progress among the members of the famous Siowitha over an amazing proposition from their treasurer, Jack Ruthven.
This proposal was nothing less than to admit Neergard to membership in that wealthy and exclusive country club, as a choice of the lesser evil; for it appeared, according to Ruthven, that Neergard, if admitted, was willing to restore to the club, free of rent, the thousands of acres vitally necessary to the club's existence as a game preserve, merely retaining the title to these lands for himself.
Draymore was incensed at the proposal, Harmon, Orchil, and Fane were disgustedly non-committal, but Phoenix Mottly was perhaps the angriest man on Long Island.
"In the name of decency, Jack," he said, "what are you dreaming of? Is it not enough that this man, Neergard, holds us up once? Do I understand that he has the impudence to do it again with your connivance? Are you going to let him sandbag us into electing him? Is that the sort of hold-up you stand for? Well, then, I tell you I'll never vote for him. I'd rather see these lakes and streams of ours dry up; I'd rather see the last pheasant snared and the last covey leave for the other end of the island, than buy off that Dutchman with a certificate of membership in the Siowitha!"
"In that case," retorted Ruthven, "we'd better wind up our affairs and make arrangements for an auctioneer."
"All right; wind up and be damned!" said Mottly; "there'll be at least sufficient self-respect left in the treasury to go round."
Which was all very fine, and Mottly meant it at the time; but, outside of the asset of self-respect, there was too much money invested in the lands, plant, and buildings, in the streams, lakes, hatcheries, and forests of the Siowitha. The enormously wealthy seldom stand long upon dignity if that dignity is going to be very expensive. Only the poor can afford disastrous self-respect.
So the chances were that Neergard would become a member—which was why he had acquired the tract—and the price he would have to pay was not only in taxes upon the acreage, but, secretly, a solid sum in addition to little Mr. Ruthven whom he was binding to him by every tie he could pay for.
Neergard did not regret the expense. He had long since discounted the cost; and he also continued to lose money at the card-table to those who could do him the most good.
Away somewhere in the back of his round, squat, busy head he had an inkling that some day he would even matters with some people. Meanwhile he was patient, good-humoured, amusing when given a chance, and, as the few people he knew found out, inventive and resourceful in suggesting new methods of time-killing to any wealthy and fashionable victim of a vacant mind.
And as this faculty has always been the real key to the inner Temple of the Ten Thousand Disenchantments, the entrance of Mr. Neergard appeared to be only a matter of time and opportunity, and his ultimate welcome at the naked altar a conclusion foregone.
In the interim, however, he suffered Gerald and little Ruthven to pilot him; he remained cheerfully oblivious to the snubs and indifference accorded him by Mrs. Ruthven, Mrs. Fane, and others of their entourage whom he encountered over the card-tables or at card-suppers. And all the while he was attending to his business with an energy and activity that ought to have shamed Gerald, and did, at times, particularly when he arrived at the office utterly unfit for the work before him.
But Neergard continued astonishingly tolerant and kind, lending him money, advancing him what he required, taking up or renewing notes for him, until the boy, heavily in his debt, plunged more heavily still in sheer desperation, only to flounder the deeper at every struggle to extricate himself.
Alixe Ruthven suspected something of this, but it was useless as well as perilous in other ways for her to argue with Gerald, for the boy had come to a point where even his devotion to her could not stop him. He must go on. He did not say so to Alixe; he merely laughed, assuring her that he was all right; that he knew how much he could afford to lose, and that he would stop when his limit was in sight. Alas, he had passed his limit long since; and already it was so far behind him that he dared not look back—dared no longer even look forward.
Meanwhile the Ruthvens were living almost lavishly, and keeping four more horses; but Eileen Erroll's bank balance had now dwindled to three figures; and Gerald had not only acted offensively toward Selwyn, but had quarrelled so violently with Austin that the latter, thoroughly incensed and disgusted, threatened to forbid him the house.
"The little fool!" he said to Selwyn, "came here last night, stinking of wine, and attempted to lay down the law to me!—tried to dragoon me into a compromise with him over the investments I have made for him. By God, Phil, he shall not control one cent until the trust conditions are fulfilled, though it was left to my discretion, too. And I told him so flatly; I told him he wasn't fit to be trusted with the coupons of a repudiated South American bond—"
"Hold on, Austin. That isn't the way to tackle a boy like that!"
"Isn't it? Well, why not? Do you expect me to dicker with him?"
"No; but, Austin, you've always been a little brusque with him. Don't you think—"
"No, I don't. It's discipline he needs, and he'll get it good and plenty every time he comes here."
"I—I'm afraid he may cease coming here. That's the worst of it. For his sister's sake I think we ought to try to put up with—"
"Put up! Put up! I've been doing nothing else since he came of age. He's turned out a fool of a puppy, I tell you; he's idle, lazy, dissipated, impudent, conceited, insufferable—"
"But not vicious, Austin, and not untruthful. Where his affections are centred he is always generous; where they should be centred he is merely thoughtless, not deliberately selfish—"
"See here, Phil, how much good has your molly-coddling done him? You warned him to be cautious in his intimacy with Neergard, and he was actually insulting to you—"
"I know; but I understood. He probably had some vague idea of loyalty to a man whom he had known longer than he knew me. That was all; that was what I feared, too. But it had to be done—I was determined to venture it; and it seems I accomplished nothing. But don't think that Gerald's attitude toward me makes any difference, Austin. It doesn't; I'm just as devoted to the boy, just as sorry for him, just as ready to step in when the chance comes, as it surely will, Austin. He's only running a bit wilder than the usual colt; it takes longer to catch and bridle him—"
"Somebody'll rope him pretty roughly before you run him down," said Gerard.
"I hope not. Of course it's a chance he takes, and we can't help it; but I'm trying to believe he'll tire out in time and come back to us for his salt. And, Austin, we've simply got to believe in him, you know—on Eileen's account."
Austin grew angrier and redder:
"Eileen's account? Do you mean her bank account? It's easy enough to believe in him if you inspect his sister's bank account. Believe in him? Oh, certainly I do; I believe he's pup enough to come sneaking to his sister to pay for all the damfooleries he's engaged in. . . . And I've positively forbidden her to draw another check to his order—"
"It's that little bangled whelp, Ruthven," said Selwyn between his teeth. "I warned Gerald most solemnly of that man, but—" He shrugged his shoulders and glanced about him at the linen-covered furniture and bare floors. After a moment he looked up: "The game there is of course notorious. I—if matters did not stand as they do"—he flushed painfully—"I'd go straight to Ruthven and find out whether or not this business could be stopped."
"Stopped? No, it can't be. How are you going to stop a man from playing cards in his own house? They all do it—that sort. Fane's rather notorious himself; they call his house the house of ill-Fane, you know. If you or I or any of our family were on any kind of terms with the Ruthvens, they might exclude Gerald to oblige us. We are not, however; and, anyway, if Gerald means to make a gambler and a souse of himself at twenty-one, he'll do it. But it's pretty rough on us."
"It's rougher on him, Austin; and it's roughest on his sister. Well"—he held out his hand—"good-bye. No, thanks, I won't stop to see Nina and Eileen; I'm going to try to think up some way out of this. And—if Gerald comes to you again—try another tack—just try it. You know, old fellow, that, between ourselves, you and I are sometimes short of temper and long of admonition. Let's try reversing the combination with Gerald."
But Austin only growled from the depths of his linen-shrouded arm-chair, and Selwyn turned away, wondering what in the world he could do in a matter already far beyond the jurisdiction of either Austin or himself.
If Alixe had done her best to keep Gerald away, she appeared to be quite powerless in the matter; and it was therefore useless to go to her. Besides, he had every inclination to avoid her. He had learned his lesson.
To whom then could he go? Through whom could he reach Gerald? Through Nina? Useless. And Gerald had already defied Austin. Through Neergard, then? But he was on no terms with Neergard; how could he go to him? Through Rosamund Fane? At the thought he made a wry face. Any advances from him she would wilfully misinterpret. And Ruthven? How on earth could he bring himself to approach him?
And the problem therefore remained as it was; the only chance of any solution apparently depending upon these friends of Gerald's, not one of whom was a friend of Selwyn; indeed some among them were indifferent to the verge of open enmity.
And yet he had promised Eileen to do what he could. What merit lay in performing an easy obligation? What courage was required to keep a promise easily kept? If he cared anything for her—if he really cared for Gerald, he owed them more than effortless fulfilment. And here there could be no fulfilment without effort, without the discarding from self of the last rags of pride. And even then, what hope was there—after the sacrifice of self and the disregard of almost certain humiliation?
It was horribly hard for him; there seemed to be no chance in sight. But forlorn hope was slowly rousing the soldier in him—the grim, dogged, desperate necessity of doing his duty to the full and of leaving consequences to that Destiny, which some call by a name more reverent.
So first of all, when at length he had decided, he nerved himself to strike straight at the centre; and within the hour he found Gerald at the Stuyvesant Club.
The boy descended to the visitors' rooms, Selwyn's card in his hand and distrust written on every feature. And at Selwyn's first frank and friendly words he reddened to the temples and checked him.
"I won't listen," he said. "They—Austin and—and everybody have been putting you up to this until I'm tired of it. Do they think I'm a baby? Do they suppose I don't know enough to take care of myself? Are they trying to make me ridiculous? I tell you they'd better let me alone. My friends are my friends, and I won't listen to any criticism of them, and that settles it."
"Oh, I know perfectly well that you dislike Neergard. I don't, and that's the difference."
"I'm not speaking of Mr. Neergard, Gerald; I'm only trying to tell you what this man Ruthven really is doing—"
"What do I care what he is doing!" cried Gerald angrily. "And, anyway, it isn't likely I'd come to you to find out anything about Mrs. Ruthven's second husband!"
Selwyn rose, very white and still. After a moment he drew a quiet breath, his clinched hands relaxed, and he picked up his hat and gloves.
"They are my friends," muttered Gerald, as pale as he. "You drove me into speaking that way."
"Perhaps I did, my boy. . . . I don't judge you. . . . If you ever find you need help, come to me; and if you can't come, and still need me, send for me. I'll do what I can—always. I know you better than you know yourself. Good-bye."
He turned to the door; and Gerald burst out: "Why can't you let my friends alone? I liked you before you began this sort of thing!"
"I will let them alone if you will," said Selwyn, halting. "I can't stand by and see you exploited and used and perverted. Will you give me one chance to talk it over, Gerald?"
"No, I wont!" returned Gerald hotly; "I'll stand for my friends every time! There's no treachery in me!"
"You are not standing by me very fast," said the elder man gently.
"I said I was standing by my friends!" repeated the boy.
"Very well, Gerald; but it's at the expense of your own people, I'm afraid."
"That's my business, and you're not one of 'em!" retorted the boy, infuriated; "and you won't be, either, if I can prevent it, no matter whether people say that you're engaged to her—"
"What!" whispered Selwyn, wheeling like a flash. The last vestige of colour had fled from his face; and Gerald caught his breath, almost blinded by the blaze of fury in the elder man's eyes.
Neither spoke again; and after a moment Selwyn's eyes fell, he turned heavily on his heel and walked away, head bent, gray eyes narrowing to slits.
Yet, through the brain's chaos and the heart's loud tumult and the clamour of pulses run wild at the insult flung into his very face, the grim instinct to go on persisted. And he went on, and on, for her sake—on—he knew not how—until he came to Neergard's apartment in one of the vast West-Side constructions, bearing the name of a sovereign state; and here, after an interval, he followed his card to Neergard's splendid suite, where a man-servant received him and left him seated by a sunny window overlooking the blossoming foliage of the Park.
When Neergard came in, and stood on the farther side of a big oak table, Selwyn rose, returning the cool, curt nod.
"Mr. Neergard," he said, "it is not easy for me to come here after what I said to you when I severed my connection with your firm. You have every reason to be unfriendly toward me; but I came on the chance that whatever resentment you may feel will not prevent you from hearing me out."
"Personal resentment," said Neergard slowly, "never interferes with my business. I take it, of course, that you have called upon a business matter. Will you sit down?"
"Thank you; I have only a moment. And what I am here for is to ask you, as Mr. Erroll's friend, to use your influence on Mr. Erroll—every atom of your influence—to prevent him from ruining himself financially through his excesses. I ask you, for his family's sake, to discountenance any more gambling; to hold him strictly to his duties in your office, to overlook no more shortcomings of his, but to demand from him what any trained business man demands of his associates as well as of his employees. I ask this for the boy's sake."
Neergard's close-set eyes focussed a trifle closer to Selwyn's, yet did not meet them.
"Mr. Selwyn," he said, "have you come here to criticise the conduct of my business?"
"Criticise! No, I have not. I merely ask you—"
"You are merely asking me," cut in Neergard, "to run my office, my clerks, and my associate in business after some theory of your own."
Selwyn looked at the man and knew he had lost; yet he forced himself to go on:
"The boy regards you as his friend. Could you not, as his friend, discourage his increasing tendency toward dissipation—"
"I am not aware that he is dissipated."
"I say that I am not aware that Gerald requires any interference from me—or from you, either," said Neergard coolly. "And as far as that goes, I and my business require no interference either. And I believe that settles it."
He touched a button; the man-servant appeared to usher Selwyn out.
The latter set his teeth in his under lip and looked straight and hard at Neergard, but Neergard thrust both hands in his pockets, turned squarely on his heel, and sauntered out of the room, yawning as he went.
It bid fair to become a hard day for Selwyn; he foresaw it, for there was more for him to do, and the day was far from ended, and his self-restraint was nearly exhausted!
An hour later he sent his card in to Rosamund Fane; and Rosamund came down, presently, mystified, flattered, yet shrewdly alert and prepared for anything since the miracle of his coming justified such preparation.
"Why in the world," she said with a flushed gaiety perfectly genuine, "did you ever come to see me? Will you please sit here, rather near me?—or I shall not dare believe that you are that same Captain Selwyn who once was so deliciously rude to me at the Minster's dance."
"Was there not a little malice—just a very little—on your part to begin it?" he asked, smiling.
"Malice? Why? Just because I wanted to see how you and Alixe Ruthven would behave when thrust into each other's arms? Oh, Captain Selwyn—what a harmless little jest of mine to evoke all that bitterness you so smilingly poured out on me! . . . But I forgave you; I'll forgive you more than that—if you ask me. Do you know"—and she laid her small head on one side and smiled at him out of her pretty doll's eyes—"do you know that there are very few things I might not be persuaded to pardon you? Perhaps"—with laughing audacity—"there are not any at all. Try, if you please."
"Then you surely will forgive me for what I have come to ask you," he said lightly. "Won't you?"
"Yes," she said, her pink-and-white prettiness challenging him from every delicate feature—"yes—I will pardon you—on one condition."
"And what is that, Mrs. Fane?"
"That you are going to ask me something quite unpardonable!" she said with a daring little laugh. "For if it's anything less improper than an impropriety I won't forgive you. Besides, there'd be nothing to forgive. So please begin, Captain Selwyn."
"It's only this," he said: "I am wondering whether you would do anything for me?"
"Anything! Merci! Isn't that extremely general, Captain Selwyn? But you never can tell; ask me."
So he bent forward, his clasped hands between his knees, and told her very earnestly of his fears about Gerald, asking her to use her undoubted influence with the boy to shame him from the card-tables, explaining how utterly disastrous to him and his family his present course was.
"He is very fond of you, Mrs. Fane—and you know how easy it is for a boy to be laughed out of excesses by a pretty woman of experience. You see I am desperately put to it or I would never have ventured to trouble you—"
"I see," she said, looking at him out of eyes bright with disappointment.
"Could you help us, then?" he asked pleasantly.
"Help us, Captain Selwyn? Who is the 'us,' please?"
"Why, Gerald and me—and his family," he added, meeting her eyes. The eyes began to dance with malice.
"His family," repeated Rosamund; "that is to say, his sister, Miss Erroll. His family, I believe, ends there; does it not?"
"Yes, Mrs. Fane."
"I see. . . . Miss Erroll is naturally worried over him. But I wonder why she did not come to me herself instead of sending you as her errant ambassador?"
"Miss Erroll did not send me," he said, flushing up. And, looking steadily into the smiling doll's face confronting him, he knew again that he had failed.
"I am not inclined to be very much flattered after all," said Rosamund. "You should have come on your own errand, Captain Selwyn, if you expected a woman to listen to you. Did you not know that?"
"It is not a question of errands or of flattery," he said wearily; "I thought you might care to influence a boy who is headed for serious trouble—that is all, Mrs. Fane."
She smiled: "Come to me on your own errand—for Gerald's sake, for anybody's sake—for your own, preferably, and I'll listen. But don't come to me on another woman's errands, for I won't listen—even to you."
"I have come on my own errand!" he repeated coldly. "Miss Erroll knew nothing about it, and shall not hear of it from me. Can you not help me, Mrs. Fane?"
But Rosamund's rose-china features had hardened into a polished smile; and Selwyn stood up, wearily, to make his adieux.
But, as he entered his hansom before the door, he knew the end was not yet; and once more he set his face toward the impossible; and once more the hansom rolled away over the asphalt, and once more it stopped—this time before the house of Ruthven.
Every step he took now was taken through sheer force of will—and in her service; because, had it been, now, only for Gerald's sake, he knew he must have weakened—and properly, perhaps, for a man owes something to himself. But what he was now doing was for a young girl who trusted him with all the fervour and faith of her heart and soul; and he could spare himself in nowise if, in his turn, he responded heart and soul to the solemn appeal.
Mr. Ruthven, it appeared, was at home and would receive Captain Selwyn in his own apartment.
Which he did—after Selwyn had been seated for twenty minutes—strolling in clad only in silken lounging clothes, and belting about his waist, as he entered, the sash of a kimona, stiff with gold.
His greeting was a pallid stare; but, as Selwyn made no motion to rise, he lounged over to a couch and, half reclining among the cushions, shot an insolent glance at Selwyn, then yawned and examined the bangles on his wrist.
After a moment Selwyn said: "Mr. Ruthven, you are no doubt surprised that I am here—"
"I'm not surprised if it's my wife you've come to see," drawled Ruthven. "If I'm the object of your visit, I confess to some surprise—as much as the visit is worth, and no more."
The vulgarity of the insult under the man's own roof scarcely moved Selwyn to any deeper contempt, and certainly not to anger.
"I did not come here to ask a favour of you," he said coolly—"for that is out of the question, Mr. Ruthven. But I came to tell you that Mr. Erroll's family has forbidden him to continue his gambling in this house and in your company anywhere or at any time."
"Most extraordinary," murmured Ruthven, passing his ringed fingers over his minutely shaven face—that strange face of a boy hardened by the depravity of ages.
"So I must request you," continued Selwyn, "to refuse him the opportunity of gambling here. Will you do it—voluntarily?"
"Then I shall use my judgment in the matter."
"And what may your judgment in the matter be?"
"I have not yet decided; for one thing I might enter a complaint with the police that a boy is being morally and materially ruined in your private gambling establishment."
"Is that a threat?"
"No. I will act, not threaten."
"Ah," drawled Ruthven, "I may do the same the next time my wife spends the evening in your apartment."
"You lie," said Selwyn in a voice made low by surprise.
"Oh, no, I don't. Very chivalrous of you—quite proper for you to deny it like a gentleman—but useless, quite useless. So the less said about invoking the law, the better for—some people. You'll agree with me, I dare say. . . . And now, concerning your friend, Gerald Erroll—I have not the slightest desire to see him play cards. Whether or not he plays is a matter perfectly indifferent to me, and you had better understand it. But if you come here demanding that I arrange my guest-lists to suit you, you are losing time."
Selwyn, almost stunned at Ruthven's knowledge of the episode in his rooms, had risen as he gave the man the lie direct.
For an instant, now, as he stared at him, there was murder in his eye. Then the utter hopeless helplessness of his position overwhelmed him, as Ruthven, with danger written all over him, stood up, his soft smooth thumbs hooked in the glittering sash of his kimona.
"Scowl if you like," he said, backing away instinctively, but still nervously impertinent; "and keep your distance! If you've anything further to say to me, write it." Then, growing bolder as Selwyn made no offensive move, "Write to me," he repeated with a venomous smirk; "it's safer for you to figure as my correspondent than as my wife's co-respondent—L-let go of me! W-what the devil are you d-d-doing—"
For Selwyn had him fast—one sinewy hand twisted in his silken collar, holding him squirming at arm's length.
"M-murder!" stammered Mr. Ruthven.
"No," said Selwyn, "not this time. But be very, very careful after this."
And he let him go with an involuntary shudder, and wiped his hands on his handkerchief.
Ruthven stood quite still; and after a moment the livid terror died out in his face and a rushing flush spread over it—a strange, dreadful shade, curiously opaque; and he half turned, dizzily, hands outstretched for self-support.
Selwyn coolly watched him as he sank on to the couch and sat huddled together and leaning forward, his soft, ringed fingers covering his impurpled face.
Then Selwyn went away with a shrug of utter loathing; but after he had gone, and Ruthven's servants had discovered him and summoned a physician, their master lay heavily amid his painted draperies and cushions, his congested features set, his eyes partly open and possessing sight, but the whites of them had disappeared and the eyes themselves, save for the pupils, were like two dark slits filled with blood.
There was no doubt about it; the doctors, one and all, knew their business when they had so often cautioned Mr. Ruthven to avoid sudden and excessive emotions.
That night Selwyn wrote briefly to Mrs. Ruthven:
"I saw your husband this afternoon. He is at liberty to inform you of what passed. But in case he does not, there is one detail which you ought to know: your husband believes that you once paid a visit to my apartments. It is unlikely that he will repeat the accusation and I think there is no occasion for you to worry. However, it is only proper that you should know this—which is my only excuse for writing you a letter that requires no acknowledgment. Very truly yours,
To this letter she wrote an excited and somewhat incoherent reply; and rereading it in troubled surprise, he began to recognise in it something of the strange, illogical, impulsive attitude which had confronted him in the first weeks of his wedded life.
Here was the same minor undertone of unrest sounding ominously through every line; the same illogical, unhappy attitude which implied so much and said so little, leaving him uneasy and disconcerted, conscious of the vague recklessness and veiled reproach—dragging him back from the present through the dead years to confront once more the old pain, the old bewilderment at the hopeless misunderstanding between them.
He wrote in answer:
"For the first time in my life I am going to write you some unpleasant truths. I cannot comprehend what you have written; I cannot interpret what you evidently imagine I must divine in these pages—yet, as I read, striving to understand, all the old familiar pain returns—the hopeless attempt to realise wherein I failed in what you expected of me.
"But how can I, now, be held responsible for your unhappiness and unrest—for the malicious attitude, as you call it, of the world toward you? Years ago you felt that there existed some occult coalition against you, and that I was either privy to it or indifferent. I was not indifferent, but I did not believe there existed any reason for your suspicions. This was the beginning of my failure to understand you; I was sensible enough that we were unhappy, yet could not see any reason for it—could see no reason for the increasing restlessness and discontent which came over you like successive waves following some brief happy interval when your gaiety and beauty and wit fairly dazzled me and everybody who came near you. And then, always hateful and irresistible, followed the days of depression, of incomprehensible impulses, of that strange unreasoning resentment toward me.
"What could I do? I don't for a moment say that there was nothing I might have done. Certainly there must have been something; but I did not know what. And often in my confusion and bewilderment I was quick-tempered, impatient to the point of exasperation—so utterly unable was I to understand wherein I was failing to make you contented.
"Of course I could not shirk or avoid field duty or any of the details which so constantly took me away from you. Also I began to understand your impatience of garrison life, of the monotony of the place, of the climate, of the people. But all this, which I could not help, did not account for those dreadful days together when I could see that every minute was widening the breach between us.
"Alixe—your letter has brought it all back, vivid, distressing, exasperating; and this time I know that I could have done nothing to render you unhappy, because the time when I was responsible for such matters is past.
"And this—forgive me if I say it—arouses a doubt in me—the first honest doubt I have had of my own unshared culpability. Perhaps after all a little more was due from you than what you brought to our partnership—a little more patience, a little more appreciation of my own inexperience and of my efforts to make you happy. You were, perhaps, unwittingly exacting—even a little bit selfish. And those sudden, impulsive caprices for a change of environment—an escape from the familiar—were they not rather hard on me who could do nothing—who had no choice in the matter of obedience to my superiors?
"Again and again I asked you to go to some decent climate and wait for me until I could get leave. I stood ready and willing to make any arrangement for you, and you made no decision.
"Then when Barnard's command moved out we had our last distressing interview. And, if that night I spoke of your present husband and asked you to be a little wiser and use a little more discretion to avoid malicious comment—it was not because I dreamed of distrusting you—it was merely for your own guidance and because you had so often complained of other people's gossip about you.
"To say I was stunned, crushed, when I learned of what had happened in my absence, is to repeat a trite phrase. What it cost me is of no consequence now; what it is now costing you I cannot help.
"Yet, your letter, in every line, seems to imply some strange responsibility on my part for what you speak of as the degrading position you now occupy.
"Degradation or not—let us leave that aside; you cannot now avoid being his wife. But as for any hostile attitude of society in your regard—any league or coalition to discredit you—that is not apparent to me. Nor can it occur if your personal attitude toward the world is correct. Discretion and circumspection, a happy, confident confronting of life—these, and a wise recognition of conditions, constitute sufficient safeguard for a woman in your delicately balanced position.
"And now, one thing more. You ask me to meet you at Sherry's for a conference. I don't care to, Alixe. There is nothing to be said except what can be written on letter-paper. And I can see neither the necessity nor the wisdom of our writing any more letters."
For a few days no reply came; then he received such a strange, unhappy, and desperate letter, that, astonished, alarmed, and apprehensive, he went straight to his sister, who had run up to town for the day from Silverside, and who had telephoned him to take her somewhere for luncheon.
Nina appeared very gay and happy and youthful in her spring plumage, but she exclaimed impatiently at his tired and careworn pallor; and when a little later they were seated tete-a-tete in the rococo dining-room of a popular French restaurant, she began to urge him to return with her, insisting that a week-end at Silverside was what he needed to avert physical disintegration.
"What is there to keep you in town?" she demanded, breaking bits from the stick of crisp bread. "The children have been clamouring for you day and night, and Eileen has been expecting a letter—You promised to write her, Phil—!"
"I'm going to write to her," he said impatiently; "wait a moment, Nina—don't speak of anything pleasant or—or intimate just now—because—because I've got to bring up another matter—something not very pleasant to me or to you. May I begin?"
"What is it, Phil?" she asked, her quick, curious eyes intent on his troubled face.
"It is about—Alixe."
"What about her?" returned his sister calmly.
"You knew her in school—years ago. You have always known her—"
"You—did you ever visit her?—stay at the Varians' house?"
"In—in her own home in Westchester?"
There was a silence; his eyes shifted to his plate; remained fixed as he said:
"Then you knew her—father?"
"Yes, Phil," she said quietly, "I knew Mr. Varian."
"Was there anything—anything unusual—about him—in those days?"
"Have you heard that for the first time?" asked his sister.
He looked up: "Yes. What was it, Nina?"
She became busy with her plate for a while; he sat rigid, patient, one hand resting on his claret-glass. And presently she said without meeting his eyes:
"It was even farther back—her grandparents—one of them—" She lifted her head slowly—"That is why it so deeply concerned us, Phil, when we heard of your marriage."
"What concerned you?"
"The chance of inheritance—the risk of the taint—of transmitting it. Her father's erratic brilliancy became more than eccentricity before I knew him. I would have told you that had I dreamed that you ever could have thought of marrying Alixe Varian. But how could I know you would meet her out there in the Orient! It was—your cable to us was like a thunderbolt. . . . And when she—she left you so suddenly—Phil, dear—I feared the true reason—the only possible reason that could be responsible for such an insane act."
"What was the truth about her father?" he said doggedly. "He was eccentric; was he ever worse than that?"
"The truth was that he became mentally irresponsible before his death."
"You know this?"
"Alixe told me when we were schoolgirls. And for days she was haunted with the fear of what might one day be her inheritance. That is all I know, Phil."
He nodded and for a while made some pretence of eating, but presently leaned back and looked at his sister out of dazed eyes.
"Do you suppose," he said heavily, "that she was not entirely responsible when—when she went away?"
"I have wondered," said Nina simply. "Austin believes it."
"But—but—how in God's name could that be possible? She was so brilliant—so witty, so charmingly and capriciously normal—"
"Her father was brilliant and popular—when he was young. Austin knew him, Phil. I have often, often wondered whether Alixe realises what she is about. Her restless impulses, her intervals of curious resentment—so many things which I remember and which, now, I cannot believe were entirely normal. . . . It is a dreadful surmise to make about anybody so youthful, so pretty, so lovable—and yet, it is the kindest way to account for her strange treatment of you—"
"I can't believe it," he said, staring at vacancy. "I refuse to." And, thinking of her last frightened and excited letter imploring an interview with him and giving the startling reason: "What a scoundrel that fellow Ruthven is," he said with a shudder.
"Why, what has he—"
"Nothing. I can't discuss it, Nina—"
"Please tell me, Phil!"
"There is nothing to tell."
She said deliberately: "I hope there is not, Phil. Nor do I credit any mischievous gossip which ventures to link my brother's name with the name of Mrs. Ruthven."
He paid no heed to what she hinted, and he was still thinking of Ruthven when he said: "The most contemptible and cowardly thing a man can do is to fail a person dependent on him—when that person is in prospective danger. The dependence, the threatened helplessness must appeal to any man! How can he, then, fail to stand by a person in trouble—a person linked to him by every tie, every obligation. Why—why to fail at such a time is dastardly—and to—to make a possible threatened infirmity a reason for abandoning a woman is monstrous—!"
"Phil! I never for a moment supposed that even if you suspected Alixe to be not perfectly responsible you would have abandoned her—"
"I? Abandon her!" He laughed bitterly. "I was not speaking of myself," he said. . . . And to himself he wondered: "Was it that—after all? Is that the key to my dreadful inability to understand? I cannot—I cannot accept it. I know her; it was not that; it—it must not be!"
And that night he wrote to her:
"If he threatens you with divorce on such a ground he himself is likely to be adjudged mentally unsound. It was a brutal, stupid threat, nothing more; and his insult to your father's memory was more brutal still. Don't be stampeded by such threats. Disprove them by your calm self-control under provocation; disprove them by your discretion and self-confidence. Give nobody a single possible reason for gossip. And above all, Alixe, don't become worried and morbid over anything you might dread as inheritance, for you are as sound to-day as you were when I first met you; and you shall not doubt that you could ever be anything else. Be the woman you can be! Show the pluck and courage to make the very best out of life. I have slowly learned to attempt it; and it is not difficult if you convince yourself that it can be done."
To this she answered the next day:
"I will do my best. There is danger and treachery everywhere; and if it becomes unendurable I shall put an end to it in one way or another. As for his threat—incident on my admitting that I did go to your room, and defying him to dare believe evil of me for doing it—I can laugh at it now—though, when I wrote you, I was terrified—remembering how mentally broken my father was when he died.
"But, as you say, I am sound, body and mind. I know it; I don't doubt it for one moment—except—at long intervals when, apropos of nothing, a faint sensation of dread comes creeping.
"But I am sound! I know it so absolutely that I sometimes wonder at my own perfect sanity and understanding; and so clearly, so faultlessly, so precisely does my mind work that—and this I never told you—I am often and often able to detect mental inadequacy in many people around me—the slightest deviation from the normal, the least degree of mental instability. Phil, so sensitive to extraneous impression is my mind that you would be astonished to know how instantly perceptible to me is mental degeneration in other people. And it would amaze you, too, if I should tell you how many, many people you know are, in some degree, more or less insane.
"But there is no use in going into such matters; all I meant to convey to you was that I am not frightened now at any threat of that sort from him.
"I don't know what passed between you and him; he won't tell me; but I do know from the servants that he has been quite ill—I was in Westchester that night—and that something happened to his eyes—they were dreadful for a while. I imagine it has something to do with veins and arteries; and it's understood that he's to avoid sudden excitement.
"However, he's only serenely disagreeable to me now, and we see almost nothing of one another except over the card-tables. Gerald has been winning rather heavily, I am glad to say—glad, as long as I cannot prevent him from playing. And yet I may be able to accomplish that yet—in a roundabout way—because the apple-visaged and hawk-beaked Mr. Neergard has apparently become my slavish creature; quite infatuated. And as soon as I've fastened on his collar, and made sure that Rosamund can't unhook it, I'll try to make him shut down on Gerald's playing. This for your sake, Phil—because you ask me. And because you must always stand for all that is upright and good and manly in my eyes. Ah, Phil! what a fool I was! And all, all my own fault, too.
This ended the sudden eruption of correspondence; for he did not reply to this letter, though in it he read enough to make him gravely uneasy; and he fell, once more, into the habit of brooding, from which both Boots Lansing and Eileen had almost weaned him.
Also he began to take long solitary walks in the Park when not occupied in conferences with the representatives of the Lawn Nitro-Powder Works—a company which had recently approached him in behalf of his unperfected explosive, Chaosite.
This hermit life might have continued in town indefinitely had he not, one morning, been surprised by a note from Eileen—the first he had ever had from her.
It was only a very brief missive—piquant, amusing, innocently audacious in closing—a mere reminder that he had promised to write to her; and she ended it by asking him very plainly whether he had not missed her, in terms so frank, so sweet, so confident of his inevitable answer, that all the enchantment of their delightful intimacy surged back in one quick tremor of happiness, washing from his heart and soul the clinging, sordid, evil things which were creeping closer, closer to torment and overwhelm him.
And all that day he went about his business quite happily, her letter in his pocket; and that night, taking a new pen and pen holder, he laid out his very best letter-paper, and began the first letter he had ever written to Eileen Erroll.
"DEAR EILEEN: I have your charming little note from Silverside reminding me that I had promised to write you. But I needed no reminder; you know that. Then why have I not written? I couldn't, off-hand. And every day and evening except to-day and this evening I have been in conference with Edgerton Lawn and other representatives of the Lawn Nitro-Powder Company; and have come to a sort of semi-agreement with them concerning a high explosive called Chaosite, which they desire to control the sale of as soon as I can control its tendency to misbehave. This I expect to do this summer; and Austin has very kindly offered me a tiny cottage out on the moors too far from anybody or anything to worry people.
"I know you will be glad to hear that I have such attractive business prospects in view. I dare say I shall scarcely know what to do with my enormous profits a year or two hence. Have you any suggestions?
"Meanwhile, however, your letter and its questions await answers; and here they are:
"Yes, I saw Gerald once at his club and had a short talk with him. He was apparently well. You should not feel so anxious about him. He is very young, yet, but he comes from good stock. Sooner or later he is bound to find himself; you must not doubt that. Also he knows that he can always come to me when he wishes.
"No, I have not ridden in the Park since you and Nina and the children went to Silverside. I walked there Sunday, and it was most beautiful, especially through the Ramble. In his later years my father was fond of walking there with me. That is one reason I go there; he seems to be very near me when I stand under the familiar trees or move along the flowering walks he loved so well. I wish you had known him. It is curious how often this wish recurs to me; and so persistent was it in the Park that lovely Sunday that, at moments, it seemed as though we three were walking there together—he and you and I—quite happy in the silence of companionship which seemed not of yesterday but of years.
"It is rather a comforting faculty I have—this unconscious companionship with the absent. Once I told you that you had been with me while you supposed yourself to be at Silverside. Do you remember? Now, here in the city, I walk with you constantly; and we often keep pace together through crowded streets and avenues; and in the quiet hours you are very often, seated not far from where I sit. . . . If I turned around now—so real has been your presence in my room to-night—that it seems as though I could not help but surprise you here—just yonder on the edges of the lamp glow—
"But I know you had rather remain at Silverside, so I won't turn around and surprise you here in Manhattan town.
"And now your next question: Yes, Boots is well, and I will give him Drina's love, and I will try my best to bring him to Silverside when I come. Boots is still crazed with admiration for his house. He has two cats, a housekeeper, and a jungle of shrubs and vines in the back yard, which he plays the hose on; and he has also acquired some really beautiful old rugs—a Herez which has all the tints of a living sapphire, and a charming antique Shiraz, rose, gold, and that rare old Persian blue. To mention symbols for a moment, apropos of our archaeological readings together, Boots has an antique Asia Minor rug in which I discovered not only the Swastika, but also a fire-altar, a Rhodian lily border, and a Mongolian motif which appears to resemble the cloud-band. It was quite an Anatshair jumble in fact, very characteristic. We must capture Nina some day and she and you and I will pay a visit to Boots's rugs and study these old dyes and mystic symbols of the East. Shall we?
"And now your last question. And I answer: Yes, I do miss you—so badly that I often take refuge in summoning you in spirit. The other day I had occasion to see Austin; and we sat in the library where all the curtains are in linen bags and all the furniture in overalls, and where the rugs are rolled in tarred paper and the pictures are muffled in cheese-cloth.
"And after our conference had ended and I was on my way to the hall below, suddenly on my ear, faint but clear, I heard your voice, sweet as the odour of blossoms in an empty room. No—it neither deceived nor startled me; I have often heard it before, when you were nowhere near. And, that I may answer your question more completely, I answer it again: Yes, I miss you; so that I hear your voice through every silence; all voids are gay with it; there are no lonely places where my steps pass, because you are always near; no stillness through which your voice does not sound; no unhappiness, no sordid cares which the memory of you does not make easier to endure.
"Have I answered? And now, good-night. Gerald has just come in; I hear him passing through the hall to his own apartments. So I'll drop in for a smoke with him before I start to search for you in dreamland. Good-night, Eileen. PHILIP SELWYN."
When he had finished, sealed, and stamped his letter he leaned back in his chair, smiling to himself, still under the spell which the thought of her so often now cast over him. Life and the world were younger, cleaner, fresher; the charming energy of her physical vigour and youth and beauty tinted all things with the splendid hue of inspiration. But most of all it was the exquisite fastidiousness of her thoughts that had begun to inthral him—that crystal clear intelligence, so direct, so generous—the splendid wholesome attitude toward life—and her dauntless faith in the goodness of it.
Breathing deeply, he drew in the fragrance of her memory, and the bitterness of things was dulled with every quiet respiration.
He smiled again, too; how utterly had his sister mistaken their frank companionship! How stupidly superfluous was it to pretend to detect, in their comradeship, the commonplaces of sentiment—as though such a girl as Eileen Erroll were of the common self-conscious mould—as though in their cordial understanding there was anything less simple than community of taste and the mutual attraction of intelligence!
Then, the memory of what his sister had said drove the smile from his face and he straightened up impatiently. Love! What unfortunate hallucination had obsessed Nina to divine what did not exist?—what need not exist? How could a woman like his sister fall into such obvious error; how could she mistake such transparent innocence, such visible freedom from motive in this young girl's pure friendship for himself?
And, as for him, he had never thought of Eileen—he could not bring himself to think of her so materially or sentimentally. For, although he now understood that he had never known what love, might be—its coarser mask, infatuation, he had learned to see through; and, as that is all he had ever known concerning love, the very hint of it had astonished and repelled him, as though the mere suggestion had been a rudeness offered to this delicate and delicious friendship blossoming into his life—a life he had lately thought so barren and laid waste.
No, his sister was mistaken; but her mistake must not disturb the blossoming of this unstained flower. Sufficient that Eileen and he disdainfully ignore the trite interpretation those outside might offer them unasked; sufficient that their confidence in one another remain without motive other than the happiness of unembarrassed people who find a pleasure in sharing an intelligent curiosity concerning men and things and the world about them.
Thinking of these matters, lying back there in his desk chair, he suddenly remembered that Gerald had come in. They had scarcely seen one another since that unhappy meeting in the Stuyvesant Club; and now, remembering what he had written to Eileen, he emerged with a start from his contented dreaming, sobered by the prospect of seeking Gerald.
For a moment or two he hesitated; but he had said in his letter that he was going to do it; and now he rose, looked around for his pipe, found it, filled and lighted it, and, throwing on his dressing-gown, went out into the corridor, tying the tasselled cords around his waist as he walked.
His first knock remaining unanswered, he knocked more sharply. Then he heard from within the muffled creak of a bed, heavy steps across the floor. The door opened with a jerk; Gerald stood there, eyes swollen, hair in disorder, his collar crushed, and the white evening tie unknotted and dangling over his soiled shirt-front.
"Hello," said Selwyn simply; "may I come in?"
The boy passed his hand across his eyes as though confused by the light; then he turned and walked back toward the bed, still rubbing his eyes, and sat down on the edge.
Selwyn closed the door and seated himself, apparently not noticing Gerald's dishevelment.
"Thought I'd drop in for a good-night pipe," he said quietly. "By the way, Gerald, I'm going down to Silverside next week. Nina has asked Boots, too. Couldn't you fix it to come along with us?"
"I don't know," said the boy in a low voice; "I'd like to."
"Good business! That will be fine! What you and I need is a good stiff tramp across the moors, or a gallop, if you like. It's great for mental cobwebs, and my brain is disgracefully unswept. By the way, somebody said that you'd joined the Siowitha Club."
"Yes," said the boy listlessly.
"Well, you'll get some lively trout fishing there now. It's only thirty miles from Silverside, you know—you can run over in the motor very easily."
Gerald nodded, sitting silent, his handsome head supported in both hands, his eyes on the floor.
That something was very wrong with him appeared plainly enough; but Selwyn, touched to the heart and miserably apprehensive, dared not question him, unasked.
And so they sat there for a while, Selwyn making what conversation he could; and at length Gerald turned and dragged himself across the bed, dropping his head back on the disordered pillows.
"Go on," he said; "I'm listening."
So Selwyn continued his pleasant, inconsequential observations, and Gerald lay with closed eyes, quite motionless, until, watching him, Selwyn saw his hand was trembling where it lay clinched beside him. And presently the boy turned his face to the wall.
Toward midnight Selwyn rose quietly, removed his unlighted pipe from between his teeth, knocked the ashes from it, and pocketed it. Then he walked to the bed and seated himself on the edge.
"What's the trouble, old man?" he asked coolly.
There was no answer. He placed his hand over Gerald's; the boy's hand lay inert, then quivered and closed on Selwyn's convulsively.
"That's right," said the elder man; "that's what I'm here for—to stand by when you hoist signals. Go on."
The boy shook his head and buried it deeper in the pillow.
"Bad as that?" commented Selwyn quietly. "Well, what of it? I'm standing by, I tell you. . . . That's right"—as Gerald broke down, his body quivering under the spasm of soundless grief—"that's the safety-valve working. Good business. Take your time."
It took a long time; and Selwyn sat silent and motionless, his whole arm numb from its position and Gerald's crushing grasp. And at last, seeing that was the moment to speak:
"Now let's fix up this matter, Gerald. Come on!"
"Good heavens! h-how can it be f-fixed—"
"I'll tell you when you tell me. It's a money difficulty, I suppose; isn't it?"
"Oh, a note? Case of honour? Where is this I.O.U. that you gave?"
"It's worse than that. The—the note is paid. Good God—I can't tell you—"
"You must. That's why I'm here, Gerald."
"Well, then, I—I drew a check—knowing that I had no funds. If it—if they return it, marked—"
"I see. . . . What are the figures?"
The boy stammered them out; Selwyn's grave face grew graver still.
"That is bad," he said slowly—"very bad. Have you—but of course you couldn't have seen Austin—"
"I'd kill myself first!" said Gerald fiercely.
"No, you wouldn't do that. You're not that kind. . . . Keep perfectly cool, Gerald; because it is going to be fixed. The method only remains to be decided upon—"
"I can't take your money!" stammered the boy; "I can't take a cent from you—after what I've said—the beastly things I've said—"
"It isn't the things you say to me, Gerald, that matter. . . . Let me think a bit—and don't worry. Just lie quietly, and understand that I'll do the worrying. And while I'm amusing myself with a little quiet reflection as to ways and means, just take your own bearings from this reef; and set a true course once more, Gerald. That is all the reproach, all the criticism you are going to get from me. Deal with yourself and your God in silence."
And in silence and heavy dismay Selwyn confronted the sacrifice he must make to save the honour of the house of Erroll.
It meant more than temporary inconvenience to himself; it meant that he must go into the market and sell securities which were partly his capital, and from which came the modest income that enabled him to live as he did.
There was no other way, unless he went to Austin. But he dared not do that—dared not think what Austin's action in the matter might be. And he knew that if Gerald were ever driven into hopeless exile with Austin's knowledge of his disgrace rankling, the boy's utter ruin must result inevitably.
Yet—yet—how could he afford to do this—unoccupied, earning nothing, bereft of his profession, with only the chance in view that his Chaosite might turn out stable enough to be marketable? How could he dare so strip himself? Yet, there was no other way; it had to be done; and done at once—the very first thing in the morning before it became too late.
And at first, in the bitter resentment of the necessity, his impulse was to turn on Gerald and bind him to good conduct by every pledge the boy could give. At least there would be compensation. Yet, with the thought came the clear conviction of its futility. The boy had brushed too close to dishonour not to recognise it. And if this were not a lifelong lesson to him, no promises forced from him in his dire need and distress, no oaths, no pledges could bind him; no blame, no admonition, no scorn, no contempt, no reproach could help him to see more clearly the pit of destruction than he could see now.
"You need sleep, Gerald," he said quietly. "Don't worry; I'll see that your check is not dishonoured; all you have to see to is yourself. Good-night, my boy."
But Gerald could not speak; and so Selwyn left him and walked slowly back to his own room, where he seated himself at his desk, grave, absent-eyed, his unfilled pipe between his teeth.
And he sat there until he had bitten clean through the amber mouthpiece, so that the brier bowl fell clattering to the floor. By that time it was full daylight; but Gerald was still asleep. He slept late into the afternoon; but that evening, when Selwyn and Lansing came in to persuade him to go with them to Silverside, Gerald was gone.
They waited another day for him; he did not appear. And that night they left for Silverside without him.
During that week-end at Silverside Boots behaved like a school-lad run wild. With Drina's hand in his, half a dozen dogs as advanced guard, and heavily flanked by the Gerard battalion, he scoured the moorlands from Surf Point to the Hither Woods; from Wonder Head to Sky Pond.
Ever hopeful of rabbit and fox, Billy urged on his cheerful waddling pack and the sea wind rang with the crack of his whip and the treble note of his whistle. Drina, lately inoculated with the virus of nature-study, carried a green gauze butterfly net, while Boots's pockets bulged with various lethal bottles and perforated tin boxes for the reception of caterpillars. The other children, like the puppies of Billy's pack, ran haphazard, tireless and eager little opportunists, eternal prisoners of hope, tripped flat by creepers, scratched and soiled in thicket and bog, but always up and forward again, ranging out, nose in the wind, dauntless, expectant, wonder-eyed.
Nina, Eileen, and Selwyn formed a lagging and leisurely rear-guard, though always within signalling distance of Boots and the main body; and, when necessary, the two ex-army men wig-wagged to each other across the uplands to the endless excitement and gratification of the children.
It was a perfect week-end; the sky, pale as a robin's egg at morn and even, deepened to royal blue under the noon-day sun; and all the world—Long Island—seemed but a gigantic gold-green boat stemming the running purple of the sea and Sound.
The air, when still, quivered in that deep, rich silence instinct with the perpetual monotone of the sea; stiller for the accentless call of some lone moorland bird, or the gauzy clatter of a dragon-fly in reedy reaches. But when the moon rose and the breeze awakened, and the sedges stirred, and the cat's-paws raced across the moonlit ponds, and the far surf off Wonder Head intoned the hymn of the four winds, the trinity, earth and sky and water, became one thunderous symphony—a harmony of sound and colour silvered to a monochrome by the moon.
Then, through the tinted mystery the wild ducks, low flying, drove like a flight of witches through the dusk; and unseen herons called from their heronry, fainter, fainter till their goblin yelps died out in the swelling murmur of a million wind-whipped leaves.
Then was the moorland waste bewitching in its alternation of softly checkered gray and shade, where acres of feathery grasses flowed in wind-blown furrows; where in the purple obscurity of hollows the strange and aged little forests grew restless and full of echoes; where shadowy reeds like elfin swords clattered and thrust and parried across the darkling pools of haunted waters unstirred save for the swirl of a startled fish or the smoothly spreading wake of some furry creature swimming without a sound.
Into this magic borderland, dimmer for moonlit glimpses in ghostly contrast to the shadow shape of wood and glade, Eileen conducted Selwyn; and they heard the whirr of painted wood-ducks passing in obscurity, and the hymn of the four winds off Wonder Head; and they heard the herons, noisy in their heronry, and a young fox yapping on a moon-struck dune.
But Selwyn cared more for the sun and the infinite blue above, and the vast cloud-forms piled up in argent splendour behind a sea of amethyst.
"The darker, vaguer phases of beauty," he said to Eileen, smiling, "attract and fascinate those young in experience. Tragedy is always better appreciated and better rendered by those who have never lived it. The anatomy of sadness, the subtler fascination of life brooding in shadow, appeals most keenly to those who can study and reflect, then dismiss it all and return again to the brightness of existence which has not yet for them been tarnished."
He had never before, even by slightest implication, referred to his own experience with life. She was not perfectly certain that he did so now.
They were standing on one of the treeless hills—a riotous tangle of grasses and wild flowers—looking out to sea across Sky Pond. He had a rod; and as he stood he idly switched the gaily coloured flies backward and forward.
"My tastes," he said, still smiling, "incline me to the garishly sunlit side of this planet." And, to tease her and arouse her to combat: "I prefer a farandole to a nocturne; I'd rather have a painting than an etching; Mr. Whistler bores me with his monochromatic mud; I don't like dull colours, dull sounds, dull intellects; and anything called 'an arrangement' on canvas, or anything called 'a human document' or 'an appreciation' in literature, or anything 'precious' in art, or any author who 'weaves' instead of writes his stories—all these irritate me when they do not first bore me to the verge of anaesthesia."
He switched his trout-flies defiantly, hopeful of an indignant retort from her; but she only laughed and glanced at him, and shook her pretty head.
"There's just enough truth in what you say to make a dispute quite profitless. Besides, I don't feel like single combat; I'm too glad to have you here."
Standing there—fairly swimming—in the delicious upper-air currents, she looked blissfully across the rolling moors, while the sunlight drenched her and the salt wind winnowed the ruddy glory of her hair, and from the tangle of tender blossoming green things a perfume mounted, saturating her senses as she breathed it deeper in the happiness of desire fulfilled and content quite absolute.
"After all," she said, "what more is there than this? Earth and sea and sky and sun, and a friend to show them to. . . . Because, as I wrote you, the friend is quite necessary in the scheme of things—to round out the symmetry of it all. . . . I suppose you're dying to dangle those flies in Brier Water to see whether there are any trout there. Well, there are; Austin stocked it years ago, and he never fishes, so no doubt it's full of fish. . . . What is that black thing moving along the edge of the Golden Marsh?"
"A mink," he said, looking.
She seated herself cross-legged on the hill-top to watch the mink at her leisure. But the lithe furry creature took to the water, dived, and vanished, and she turned her attention to the landscape.
"Do you see that lighthouse far to the south?" she asked; "that is Frigate Light. West of it lies Surf Point, and the bay between is Surf Bay. That's where I nearly froze solid in my first ocean bath of the year. A little later we can bathe in that cove to the north—the Bay of Shoals. You see it, don't you?—there, lying tucked in between Wonder Head and the Hither Woods; but I forgot! Of course you've been here before; and you know all this; don't you?"
"Yes," he said quietly, "my brother and I came here as boys."
"Have you not been here since?"
"Once." He turned and looked down at the sea-battered wharf jutting into the Bay of Shoals. "Once, since I was a boy," he repeated; "but I came alone. The transports landed at that wharf after the Spanish war. The hospital camp was yonder. . . . My brother died there."
She lifted her clear eyes to his; he was staring at the outline of the Hither Woods fringing the ochre-tinted heights.
"There was no companion like him," he said; "there is no one to take his place. Still, time helps—in a measure."
But he looked out across the sea with a grief for ever new.
She, too, had been helped by time; she was very young when the distant and fabled seas took father and mother; and it was not entirely their memory, but more the wistful lack of ability to remember that left her so hopelessly alone.
Sharper his sorrow; but there was the comfort of recollection in it; and she looked at him and, for an instant, envied him his keener grief. Then leaning a little toward him where he reclined, the weight of his body propped up on one arm, she laid her hand across his hand half buried in the grass.
"It's only another tie between us," she said—"the memory of your dead and mine. . . . Will you tell me about him?"
And leaning there, eyes on the sea, and her smooth, young hand covering his, he told her of the youth who had died there in the first flush of manhood and achievement.
His voice, steady and grave, came to her through hushed intervals when the noise of the surf died out as the wind veered seaward. And she listened, heart intent, until he spoke no more; and the sea-wind rose again filling her ears with the ceaseless menace of the surf.
After a while he picked up his rod, and sat erect and cross-legged as she sat, and flicked the flies, absently, across the grass, aiming at wind-blown butterflies.
"All these changes!" he exclaimed with a sweep of the rod-butt toward Widgeon Bay. "When I was here as a boy there were no fine estates, no great houses, no country clubs, no game preserves—only a few fishermen's hovels along the Bay of Shoals, and Frigate Light yonder. . . . Then Austin built Silverside out of a much simpler, grand-paternal bungalow; then came Sanxon Orchil and erected Hitherwood House on the foundations of his maternal great-grandfather's cabin; and then the others came; the Minsters built gorgeous Brookminster—you can just make out their big summer palace—that white spot beyond Surf Point!—and then the Lawns came and built Southlawn; and, beyond, the Siowitha people arrived on scout, land-hungry and rich; and the tiny hamlet of Wyossett grew rapidly into the town it now is. Truly this island with its hundred miles of length has become but a formal garden of the wealthy. Alas! I knew it as a stretch of woods, dunes, and old-time villages where life had slumbered for two hundred years!"
He fell silent, but she nodded him to go on.
"Brooklyn was a quiet tree-shaded town," he continued thoughtfully, "unvexed by dreams of traffic; Flatbush an old Dutch village buried in the scented bloom of lilac, locust, and syringa, asleep under its ancient gables, hip-roofs, and spreading trees. Bath, Utrecht, Canarsie, Gravesend were little more than cross-road taverns dreaming in the sun; and that vile and noise-cursed island beyond the Narrows was a stretch of unpolluted beauty in an untainted sea—nothing but whitest sand and dunes and fragrant bayberry and a blaze of wild flowers. Why"—and he turned impatiently to the girl beside him—"why, I have seen the wild geese settle in Sheepshead Bay, and the wild duck circling over it; and I am not very aged. Think of it! Think of what this was but a few years ago, and think of what 'progress' has done to lay it waste! What will it be to-morrow?"
"Oh—oh!" she protested, laughing; "I did not suppose you were that kind of a Jeremiah!"
"Well, I am. I see no progress in prostrate forests, in soft-coal smoke, in noise! I see nothing gained in trimming and cutting and ploughing and macadamising a heavenly wilderness into mincing little gardens for the rich." He was smiling at his own vehemence, but she knew that he was more than half serious.
She liked him so; she always denied and disputed when he became declamatory, though usually, in her heart, she agreed with him.
"Oh—oh!" she protested, shaking her head; "your philosophy is that of all reactionaries—emotional arguments which never can be justified. Why, if the labouring man delights in the harmless hurdy-gurdy and finds his pleasure mounted on a wooden horse, should you say that the island of his delight is 'vile'? All fulfilment of harmless happiness is progress, my poor friend—"
"But my harmless happiness lay in seeing the wild-fowl splashing where nothing splashes now except beer and the bathing rabble. If progress is happiness—where is mine? Gone with the curlew and the wild duck! Therefore, there is no progress. Quod erat, my illogical friend."
"But your happiness in such things was an exception—"
"Exceptions prove anything!"
"Yes—but—no, they don't, either! What nonsense you can talk when you try to. . . . As for me I'm going down to the Brier Water to look into it. If there are any trout there foolish enough to bite at those gaudy-feathered hooks I'll call you—"
"I'm going with you," he said, rising to his feet. She smilingly ignored his offered hands and sprang erect unaided.
The Brier Water, a cold, deep, leisurely stream, deserved its name. Rising from a small spring-pond almost at the foot of Silverside lawn, it wound away through tangles of bull-brier and wild-rose, under arches of weed and grass and clustered thickets of mint, north through one of the strange little forests where it became a thread edged with a duck-haunted bog, then emerging as a clear deep stream once more it curved sharply south, recurved north again, and flowed into Shell Pond which, in turn, had an outlet into the Sound a mile east of Wonder Head.
If anybody ever haunted it with hostile designs upon its fishy denizens, Austin at least never did. Belted kingfisher, heron, mink, and perhaps a furtive small boy with pole and sinker and barnyard worm—these were the only foes the trout might dread. As for a man and a fly-rod, they knew him not, nor was there much chance for casting a line, because the water everywhere flowed under weeds, arched thickets of brier and grass, and leafy branches criss-crossed above.
"This place is impossible," said Selwyn scornfully. "What is Austin about to let it all grow up and run wild—"
"You said," observed Eileen, "that you preferred an untrimmed wilderness; didn't you?"
He laughed and reeled in his line until only six inches of the gossamer leader remained free. From this dangled a single silver-bodied fly, glittering in the wind.
"There's a likely pool hidden under those briers," he said; "I'm going to poke the tip of my rod under—this way—Hah!" as a heavy splash sounded from depths unseen and the reel screamed as he struck.
Up and down, under banks and over shallows rushed the invisible fish; and Selwyn could do nothing for a while but let him go when he insisted, and check and recover when the fish permitted.
Eileen, a spray of green mint between her vivid lips, watched the performance with growing interest; but when at length a big, fat, struggling speckled trout was cautiously but successfully lifted out into the grass, she turned her back until the gallant fighter had departed this life under a merciful whack from a stick.
"That," she said faintly, "is the part I don't care for. . . . Is he out of all pain? . . . What? Didn't feel any? Oh, are you quite sure?"
She walked over to him and looked down at the beautiful victim of craft.
"Oh, well," she sighed, "you are very clever, of course, and I suppose I'll eat him; but I wish he were alive again, down there in those cool, sweet depths."
"Killing frogs and insects and his smaller brother fish?"
"Did he do that?"
"No doubt of it. And if I hadn't landed him, a heron or a mink would have done it sooner or later. That's what a trout is for: to kill and be killed."
She smiled, then sighed. The taking of life and the giving of it were mysteries to her. She had never wittingly killed anything.
"Do you say that it doesn't hurt the trout?" she asked.
"There are no nerves in the jaw muscles of a trout—Hah!" as his rod twitched and swerved under water and his reel sang again.
And again she watched the performance, and once more turned her back.
"Let me try," she said, when the coup-de-grace had been administered to a lusty, brilliant-tinted bulltrout. And, rod in hand, she bent breathless and intent over the bushes, cautiously thrusting the tip through a thicket of mint.
She lost two fish, then hooked a third—a small one; but when she lifted it gasping into the sunlight, she shivered and called to Selwyn:
"Unhook it and throw it back! I—I simply can't stand that!"
Splash! went the astonished trout; and she sighed her relief.
"There's no doubt about it," she said, "you and I certainly do belong to different species of the same genus; men and women are separate species. Do you deny it?"
"I should hate to lose you that way," he returned teasingly.
"Well, you can't avoid it. I gladly admit that woman is not too closely related to man. We don't like to kill things; it's an ingrained distaste, not merely a matter of ethical philosophy. You like to kill; and it's a trait common also to children and other predatory animals. Which fact," she added airily, "convinces me of woman's higher civilisation."
"It would convince me, too," he said, "if woman didn't eat the things that man kills for her."
"I know; isn't it horrid! Oh, dear, we're neither of us very high in the scale yet—particularly you."
"Well, I've advanced some since the good old days when a man went wooing with a club," he suggested.
"You may have. But, anyway, you don't go wooing. As for man collectively, he has not progressed so very far," she added demurely. "As an example, that dreadful Draymore man actually hurt my wrist."
Selwyn looked up quickly, a shade of frank annoyance on his face and a vision of the fat sybarite before his eyes. He turned again to his fishing, but his shrug was more of a shudder than appeared to be complimentary to Percy Draymore.
She had divined, somehow, that it annoyed Selwyn to know that men had importuned her. She had told him of her experience as innocently as she had told Nina, and with even less embarrassment. But that had been long ago; and now, without any specific reason, she was not certain that she had acted wisely, although it always amused her to see Selwyn's undisguised impatience whenever mention was made of such incidents.
So, to torment him, she said: "Of course it is somewhat exciting to be asked to marry people—rather agreeable than otherwise—"
Waist deep in bay-bushes he turned toward her where she sat on the trunk of an oak which had fallen across the stream. Her arms balanced her body; her ankles were interlocked. She swung her slim russet-shod feet above the brook and looked at him with a touch of gaminerie new to her and to him.
"Of course it's amusing to be told you are the only woman in the world," she said, "particularly when a girl has a secret fear that men don't consider her quite grown up."
"You once said," he began impatiently, "that the idiotic importunities of those men annoyed you."
"Why do you call them idiotic?"—with pretence of hurt surprise. "A girl is honoured—"
"I beg your pardon," he said sulkily; and fumbled with his reel.
She surveyed him, head a trifle on one side—the very incarnation of youthful malice in process of satisfying a desire for tormenting. Never before had she experienced that desire so keenly, so unreasoningly; never before had she found such a curious pleasure in punishing without cause. A perfectly inexplicable exhilaration possessed her—a gaiety quite reasonless, until every pulse in her seemed singing with laughter and quickening with the desire for his torment.
"When I pretended I was annoyed by what men said to me, I was only a yearling," she observed. "Now I'm a two-year, Captain Selwyn. . . . Who can tell what may happen in my second season?"
"You said that you were not the—the marrying sort," he insisted.
"Nonsense. All girls are. Once I sat in a high chair and wore a bib and banqueted on cambric-tea and prunes. I don't do it now; I've advanced. It's probably part of that progress which you are so opposed to."
He did not answer, but stood, head bent, looping on a new leader.
"All progress is admirable," she suggested.
So, to goad him:
"There are men," she said dreamily, "who might hope for a kinder reception next winter—"
"Oh, no," he said coolly, "there are no such gentlemen. If there were you wouldn't say so."
"Yes, I would. And there are!"
"How many?" jeeringly, and now quite reassured.
"You can't frighten me"—with a shade less confidence. "You wouldn't tell if there was."
"I'd tell you."
"Me?"—with a sudden slump in his remaining stock of reassurance.
"Certainly. I tell you and Nina things of that sort. And when I have fully decided to marry I shall, of course, tell you both before I inform other people."
How the blood in her young veins was racing and singing with laughter! How thoroughly she was enjoying something to which she could give neither reason nor name! But how satisfying it all was—whatever it was that amused her in this man's uncertainty, and in the faint traces of an irritation as unreasoning as the source of it!
"Really, Captain Selwyn," she said, "you are not one of those old-fashioned literary landmarks who objects through several chapters to a girl's marrying—are you?"
"Yes," he said, "I am."
"You are quite serious?"
"You won't let me?"
"No, I won't."
"I want you myself," he said, smiling at last.
"That is flattering but horridly selfish. In other words you won't marry me and you won't let anybody else do it."
"That is the situation," he admitted, freeing his line and trying to catch the crinkled silvery snell of the new leader. It persistently avoided him; he lowered the rod toward Miss Erroll; she gingerly imprisoned the feathered fly between pink-tipped thumb and forefinger and looked questioningly at him.
"Am I to sit here holding this?" she inquired.
"Only a moment; I'll have to soak that leader. Is the water visible under that log you're sitting on?"
So he made his way through the brush toward her, mounted the log, and, seating himself beside her, legs dangling, thrust the rod tip and leader straight down into the stream below.
Glancing around at her he caught her eyes, bright with mischief.
"You're capable of anything to-day," he said. "Were you considering the advisability of starting me overboard?" And he nodded toward the water beneath their feet.
"But you say that you won't let me throw you overboard, Captain Selwyn!"
"I mean it, too," he returned.
"And I'm not to marry that nice young man?"—mockingly sweet. "No? What!—not anybody at all—ever and ever?"
"Me," he suggested, "if you're as thoroughly demoralised as that."
"Oh! Must a girl be pretty thoroughly demoralised to marry you?"
"I don't suppose she'd do it if she wasn't," he admitted, laughing.
She considered him, head on one side:
"You are ornamental, anyway," she concluded.
"Well, then," he said, lifting the leader from the water to inspect it, "will you have me?"
"Oh, but is there nothing to recommend you except your fatal beauty?"
"My moustache," he ventured; "it's considered very useful when I'm mentally perplexed."
"It's clipped too close; I have told you again and again that I don't care for it clipped like that. Your mind would be a perfect blank if you couldn't get hold of it."
"And to become imbecile," he said, "I've only to shave it."
She threw back her head and her clear laughter thrilled the silence. He laughed, too, and sat with elbows on his thighs, dabbling the crinkled leader to and fro in the pool below.
"So you won't have me?" he said.
"You haven't asked me—have you?"
"Well, I do now."
She mused, the smile resting lightly on lips and eyes.
"Wouldn't such a thing astonish Nina!" she said.
He did not answer; a slight colour tinged the new sunburn on his cheeks.
She laughed to herself, clasped her hands, crossed her slender feet, and bent her eyes on the pool below.
"Marriage," she said, pursuing her thoughts aloud, "is curiously unnecessary to happiness. Take our pleasure in each other, for example. It has, from the beginning, been perfectly free from silliness and sentiment."
"Naturally," he said. "I'm old enough to be safe."
"You are not!" she retorted. "What a ridiculous thing to say!"
"Well, then," he said, "I'm dreadfully unsafe, but yet you've managed to escape. Is that it?"
"Perhaps. You are attractive to women! I've heard that often enough to be convinced. Why, even I can see what attracts them"—she turned to look at him—"the way your head and shoulders set—and—well, the—rest. . . . It's rather superior of me to have escaped sentiment, don't you think so?"
"Indeed I do. Few—few escape where many meet to worship at my frisky feet, and this I say without conceit is due to my mustachios. Tangled in those like web-tied flies, imprisoned hearts complain in sighs—in fact, the situation vies with moments in Boccaccio."
Her running comment was her laughter, ringing deliciously amid the trees until a wild bird, restlessly attentive, ventured a long, sweet response from the tangled green above them.
After their laughter the soberness of reaction left them silent for a while. The wild bird sang and sang, dropping fearlessly nearer from branch to branch, until in his melody she found the key to her dreamy thoughts.
"Because," she said, "you are so unconscious of your own value, I like you best, I think. I never before quite realised just what it was in you."