She shuddered: "Why, the mere bringing of such a suit means her social ruin no matter what verdict is brought in! Her only salvation has been in remaining inconspicuous; and a sane girl would have realised it. But"—and she made a gesture of despair—"you see what she has done. . . . And Phil—you know what she has done to you—what a mad risk she took in going to your rooms that night—"
"Who said she had ever been in my rooms?" he demanded, flushing darkly in his surprise.
"Did you suppose I didn't know it?" she asked quietly. "Oh, but I did; and it kept me awake nights, worrying. Yet I knew it must have been all right—knowing you as I do. But do you suppose other people would hold you as innocent as I do? Even Eileen—the sweetest, whitest, most loyal little soul in the world—was troubled when Rosamund hinted at some scandal touching you and Alixe. She told me—but she did not tell me what Rosamund had said—the mischief maker!"
His face had become quite colourless; he raised an unsteady hand to his mouth, touching his moustache; and his gray eyes narrowed menacingly.
"Rosamund—spoke of scandal to—Eileen?" he repeated. "Is that possible?"
"How long do you suppose a girl can live and not hear scandal of some sort?" said Nina. "It's bound to rain some time or other, but I prepared my little duck's back to shed some things."
"You say," insisted Selwyn, "that Rosamund spoke of me—in that way—to Eileen?"
"Yes. It only made the child angry, Phil; so don't worry."
"No; I won't worry. No, I—I won't. You are quite right, Nina. But the pity of it; that tight, hard-shelled woman of the world—to do such a thing—to a young girl."
"Rosamund is Rosamund," said Nina with a shrug; "the antidote to her species is obvious."
"Right, thank God!" said Selwyn between his teeth; "Mens sana in corpore sano! bless her little heart! I'm glad you told me this, Nina."
He rose and laughed a little—a curious sort of laugh; and Nina watched him, perplexed.
"Where are you going, Phil?" she asked.
"I don't know. I—where is Eileen?"
"She's lying down—a headache; probably too much sun and salt water. Shall I send for her?"
"No; I'll go up and inquire how she is. Susanne is there, isn't she?"
And he entered the house and ascended the stairs.
The little Alsatian maid was seated in a corner of the upper hall, sewing; and she informed Selwyn that mademoiselle "had bad in ze h'ead."
But at the sound of conversation in the corridor Eileen's gay voice came to them from her room, asking who it was; and she evidently knew, for there was a hint of laughter in her tone.
"It is I. Are you better?" said Selwyn.
"Yes. D-did you wish to see me?"
"I always do."
"Thank you. . . . I mean, do you wish to see me now? Because I'm very much occupied in trying to go to sleep."
"Yes, I wish to see you at once."
"Oh, if it's as serious as that, you alarm me. I'm afraid to come."
"I'm afraid to have you. But please come."
He heard her laugh to herself; then her clear, amused voice: "What are you going to say to me if I come out?"
"Something dreadful! Hurry!"
"Oh, if that's the case I'll hurry," she returned, and a moment later the door opened and she emerged in a breezy flutter of silvery ribbons and loosened ruddy hair.
She was dressed in some sort of delicate misty stuff that alternately clung and floated, outlining or clouding her glorious young figure as she moved with leisurely free-limbed grace across the hall to meet him.
The pretty greeting she always reserved for him, even if their separation had been for a few minutes only, she now offered, hand extended; a cool, fragrant hand which lay for a second in his, closed, and withdrew, leaving her eyes very friendly.
"Come out on the west veranda," she said; "I know what you wish to say to me. Besides, I have something to confide to you, too. And I'm very impatient to do it."
He followed her to the veranda; she seated herself in the broad swing, and moved so that her invitation to him was unmistakable. Then when he had taken the place beside her she turned toward him very frankly, and he looked up to encounter her beautiful direct gaze.
"What is disturbing our friendship?" she asked. "Do you know? I don't. I went to my room after luncheon and lay down on my bed and quietly deliberated. And do you know what conclusion I have reached?"
"What?" he asked.
"That there is nothing at all to disturb our friendship. And that what I said to you on the beach was foolish. I don't know why I said it; I'm not the sort of girl who says such stupid things—though I was apparently, for that one moment. And what I said about Gladys was childish; I am not jealous of her, Captain Selwyn. Don't think me silly or perverse or sentimental, will you?"
"No, I won't."
She smiled at him with a trifle less courage—a trifle more self-consciousness: "And—and as for what I called you—"
"You mean when you called me by my first name, and I teased you?"
"Y-es. I was silly to do it; sillier to be ashamed of doing it. There's a great deal of the callow schoolgirl in me yet, you see. The wise, amused smile of a man can sometimes stampede my self-possession and leave me blushing like any ninny in dire confusion. . . . It was very, very mean of you—for the blood across your face did shock me. . . . And, by myself, and in my very private thoughts, I do sometimes call you—by your first name. . . . And that explains it. . . . Now, what have you to say to me?"
"I wish to ask you something."
"With pleasure," she said; "go ahead." And she settled back, fearlessly expectant.
"Very well, then," he said, striving to speak coolly. "It is this: Will you marry me, Eileen?"
She turned perfectly white and stared at him, stunned. And he repeated his question, speaking slowly, but unsteadily.
"N-no," she said; "I cannot. Why—why, you know that, don't you?"
"Will you tell me why, Eileen?"
"I—I don't know why. I think—I suppose that it is because I do not love you—that way."
"Yes," he said, "that, of course, is the reason. I wonder—do you suppose that—in time—perhaps—you might care for me—that way?"
"I don't know." She glanced up at him fearfully, fascinated, yet repelled. "I don't know," she repeated pitifully. "Is it—can't you help thinking of me in that way? Can't you be as you were?"
"No, I can no longer help it. I don't want to help it, Eileen."
"But—I wish you to," she said in a low voice. "It is that which is coming between us. Oh, don't you see it is? Don't you feel it—feel what it is doing to us? Don't you understand how it is driving me back into myself? Whom am I to go to if not to you? What am I to do if your affection turns into this—this different attitude toward me? You were so perfectly sweet and reasonable—so good, so patient; and now—and now I am losing confidence in you—in myself—in our friendship. I'm no longer frank with you; I'm afraid at times—afraid and self-conscious—conscious of you, too—afraid of what seemed once the most natural of intimacies. I—I loved you so dearly—so fearlessly—"
Tears blinded her; she bent her head, and they fell on the soft delicate stuff of her gown, flashing downward in the sunlight.
"Dear," he said gently, "nothing is altered between us. I love you in that way, too."
"D-do you—really?" she stammered, shrinking away from him.
"Truly. Nothing is altered; nothing of the bond between us is weakened. On the contrary, it is strengthened. You cannot understand that now. But what you are to believe and always understand is that our friendship must endure. Will you believe it?"
"Y-yes—" She buried her face in her handkerchief and sat very still for a long time. He had risen and walked to the farther end of the veranda; and for a minute he stood there, his narrowed eyes following the sky flight of the white gulls off Wonder Head.
When at length he returned to her she was sitting low in the swing, both arms extended along the back of the seat. Evidently she had been waiting for him; and her face was very grave and sorrowful.
"I want to ask you something," she said—"merely to prove that you are a little bit illogical. May I?"
He nodded, smiling.
"Could you and I care for each other more than we now do, if we were married?"
"I think so," he said.
"Why?" she demanded, astonished. Evidently she had expected another answer.
He made no reply; and she lay back among the cushions considering what he had said, the flush of surprise still lingering in her cheeks.
"How can I marry you," she asked, "when I would—would not care to endure a—a caress from any man—even from you? It—such things—would spoil it all. I don't love you—that way. . . . Oh! Don't look at me that way! Have I hurt you?—dear Captain Selwyn? . . . I did not mean to. . . . Oh, what has become of our happiness! What has become of it!" And she turned, full length in the swing, and hid her face in the silken pillows.
For a long while she lay there, the western sun turning her crown of hair to fire above the white nape of her slender neck; and he saw her hands clasping, unclasping, or crushing the tiny handkerchief deep into one palm.
There was a chair near; he drew it toward her, and sat down, steadying the swing with one hand on the chain.
"Dearest," he said under his breath, "I am very selfish to have done this; but I—I thought—perhaps—you might have cared enough to—to venture—"
"I do care; you are very cruel to me." The voice was childishly broken and muffled. He looked down at her, slowly realising that it was a child he still was dealing with—a child with a child's innocence, repelled by the graver phase of love, unresponsive to the deeper emotions, bewildered by the glimpse of the mature role his attitude had compelled her to accept. That she already had reached that mile-stone and, for a moment, had turned involuntarily to look back and find her childhood already behind her, frightened her.
Thinking, perhaps, of his own years, and of what lay behind him, he sighed and looked out over the waste of moorland where the Atlantic was battering the sands of Surf Point. Then his patient gaze shifted to the east, and he saw the surface of Sky Pond, blue as the eyes of the girl who lay crouching in the cushioned corner of the swinging seat, small hands clinched over the handkerchief—a limp bit of stuff damp with her tears.
"There is one thing," he said, "that we mustn't do—cry about it—must we, Eileen?"
"Certainly not. Because there is nothing to make either of us unhappy; is there?"
"Exactly. So we're not going to be unhappy; not one bit. First because we love each other, anyway; don't we?"
"Of course we do. And now, just because I happen to love you in that way and also in a different sort of way, in addition to that way, why, it's nothing for anybody to cry about it; is it, Eileen?"
"No. . . . No, it is not. . . . But I c-can't help it."
"Oh, but you're going to help it, aren't you?"
"I—I hope so."
He was silent; and presently she said: "I—the reason of it—my crying—is b-b-because I don't wish you to be unhappy."
"But, dear, dear little girl, I am not!"
"No, indeed! Why should I be? You do love me; don't you?"
"You know I do."
"But not in that way."
"N-no; not in that way. . . . I w-wish I did."
A thrill passed through him; after a moment he relaxed and leaned forward, his chin resting on his clinched hands: "Then let us go back to the old footing, Eileen."
"Yes, we can; and we will—back to the old footing—when nothing of deeper sentiment disturbed us. . . . It was my fault, little girl. Some day you will understand that it was not a wholly selfish fault—because I believed—perhaps only dreamed—that I could make you happier by loving you in—both ways. That is all; it is your happiness—our happiness that we must consider; and if it is to last and endure, we must be very, very careful that nothing really disturbs it again. And that means that the love, which is sometimes called friendship, must be recognised as sufficient. . . . You know how it is; a man who is locked up in Paradise is never satisfied until he can climb the wall and look over! Now I have climbed and looked; and now I climb back into the garden of your dear friendship, very glad to be there again with you—very, very thankful, dear. . . . Will you welcome me back?"
She lay quite still a minute, then sat up straight, stretching out both hands to him, her beautiful, fearless eyes brilliant as rain-washed stars.
"Don't go away," she said—"don't ever go away from our garden again."
"Is it a promise . . . Philip?"
Her voice fell exquisitely low.
"Yes, a promise. Do you take me back, Eileen?"
"Yes; I take you. . . . Take me back, too, Philip." Her hands tightened in his; she looked up at him, faltered, waited; then in a fainter voice: "And—and be of g-good courage. . . . I—I am not very old yet."
She withdrew her hands and bent her head, sitting there, still as a white-browed novice, listlessly considering the lengthening shadows at her feet. But, as he rose and looked out across the waste with enchanted eyes that saw nothing, his heart suddenly leaped up quivering, as though his very soul had been drenched in immortal sunshine.
An hour later, when Nina discovered them there together, Eileen, curled up among the cushions in the swinging seat, was reading aloud "Evidences of Asiatic Influence on the Symbolism of Ancient Yucatan"; and Selwyn, astride a chair, chin on his folded arms, was listening with evident rapture.
"Heavens!" exclaimed Nina, "the blue-stocking and the fogy!—and yours are pale blue, Eileen!—you're about as self-conscious as Drina—slumping there with your hair tumbling a la Merode! Oh, it's very picturesque, of course, but a straight spine and good grooming is better. Get up, little blue-stockings and we'll have our hair done—if you expect to appear at Hitherwood House with me!"
Eileen laughed, calmly smoothing out her skirt over her slim ankles; then she closed the book, sat up, and looked happily at Selwyn.
"Fogy and Bas-bleu," she repeated. "But it is fascinating, isn't it?—even if my hair is across my ears and you sit that chair like a polo player! Nina, dearest, what is your mature opinion concerning the tomoya and the Buddhist cross?"
"I know more about a tomboy-a than a tomoya, my saucy friend," observed Nina, surveying her with disapproval—"and I can be as cross about it as any Buddhist, too. You are, to express it as pleasantly as possible, a sight! Child, what on earth have you been doing? There are two smears on your cheeks!"
"I've been crying," said the girl, with an amused sidelong flutter of her lids toward Selwyn.
"Crying!" repeated Nina incredulously. Then, disarmed by the serene frankness of the girl, she added: "A blue-stocking is bad enough, but a grimy one is impossible. Allons! Vite!" she insisted, driving Eileen before her; "the country is demoralising you. Philip, we're dining early, so please make your arrangements to conform. Come, Eileen; have you never before seen Philip Selwyn?"
"I am not sure that I ever have," she replied, with a curious little smile at Selwyn. Nina had her by the hand, but she dragged back like a mischievously reluctant child hustled bedward:
"Good-bye," she said, stretching out her hand to Selwyn—"good-bye, my unfortunate fellow fogy! I go, slumpy, besmudged, but happy; I return, superficially immaculate—but my stockings will still be blue! . . . Nina, dear, if you don't stop dragging me I'll pick you up in my arms!—indeed I will—"
There was a laugh, a smothered cry of protest; and Selwyn was the amused spectator of his sister suddenly seized and lifted into a pair of vigorous young arms, and carried into the house by this tall, laughing girl who, an hour before, had lain there among the cushions, frightened, unconvinced, clinging instinctively to the last gay rags and tatters of the childhood which she feared were to be stripped from her for ever.
It was clear starlight when they were ready to depart. Austin had arrived unexpectedly, and he, Nina, Eileen, and Selwyn were to drive to Hitherwood House, Lansing and Gerald going in the motor-boat.
There was a brief scene between Drina and Boots—the former fiercely pointing out the impropriety of a boy like Gerald being invited where she, Drina, was ignored. But there was no use in Boots offering to remain and comfort her as Drina had to go to bed, anyway; so she kissed him good-bye very tearfully, and generously forgave Gerald; and comforted herself before she retired by putting on one of her mother's gowns and pinning up her hair and parading before a pier-glass until her nurse announced that her bath was waiting.
* * * * *
The drive to Hitherwood House was a dream of loveliness; under the stars the Bay of Shoals sparkled in the blue darkness set with the gemmed ruby and sapphire and emerald of ships' lanterns glowing from unseen yachts at anchor.
The great flash-light on Wonder Head broke out in brilliancy, faded, died to a cinder, grew perceptible again, and again blazed blindingly in its endless monotonous routine; far lights twinkled on the Sound, and farther away still, at sea. Then the majestic velvety shadow of the Hither Woods fell over them; and they passed in among the trees, the lamps of the depot wagon shining golden in the forest gloom.
Selwyn turned instinctively to the young girl beside him. Her face was in shadow, but she responded with the slightest movement toward him:
"This dusk is satisfying—like sleep—this wide, quiet shadow over the world. Once—and not so very long ago—I thought it a pity that the sun should ever set. . . . I wonder if I am growing old—because I feel the least bit tired to-night. For the first time that I can remember a day has been a little too long for me."
She evidently did not ascribe her slight sense of fatigue to the scene on the veranda; perhaps she was too innocent to surmise that any physical effect could follow that temporary stress of emotion. A quiet sense of relief in relaxation from effort came over her as she leaned back, conscious that there was happiness in rest and silence and the soft envelopment of darkness.
"If it would only last," she murmured lazily.
"This heavenly darkness—and our drive, together. . . . You are quite right not to talk to me; I won't, either. . . . Only I'll drone on and on from time to time—so that you won't forget that I am here beside you."
She lay so still for a while that at last Nina leaned forward to look at her; then laughed.
"She's asleep," she said to Austin.
"No, I'm not," murmured the girl, unclosing her eyes; "Captain Selwyn knows; don't you? . . . What is that sparkling—a fire-fly?"
But it was the first paper lantern glimmering through the Hitherwood trees from the distant lawn.
"Oh, dear," sighed Eileen, sitting up with an effort, and looking sleepily at Selwyn. "J'ai sommeil—besoin—dormir—"
But a few minutes later they were in the great hall of Hitherwood House, opened from end to end to the soft sea wind, and crowded with the gayest, noisiest throng that had gathered there in a twelvemonth.
Everywhere the younger set were in evidence; slim, fresh, girlish figures passed and gathered and crowded the stairs and galleries with a flirt and flutter of winnowing skirts, delicate and light as powder-puffs.
Mrs. Sanxon Orchil, a hard, highly coloured, tight-lipped little woman with electric-blue eyes, was receiving with her slim brunette daughter, Gladys.
"A tight little craft," was Austin's invariable comment on the matron; and she looked it, always trim and trig and smooth of surface like a converted yacht cleared for action.
Near her wandered her husband, orientally bland, invariably affable, and from time to time squinting sideways, as usual, in the ever-renewed expectation that he might catch a glimpse of his stiff, retrousse moustache.
The Lawns were there, the Minsters, the Craigs from Wyossett, the Grays of Shadow Lake, the Draymores, Fanes, Mottlys, Cardwells—in fact, it seemed as though all Long Island had been drained from Cedarhurst to Islip and from Oyster Bay to Wyossett, to pour a stream of garrulous and animated youth and beauty into the halls and over the verandas and terraces and lawns of Hitherwood House.
It was to be a lantern frolic and a lantern dance and supper, all most formally and impressively sans facon. And it began with a candle-race for a big silver gilt cup—won by Sandon Craig and his partner, Evelyn Cardwell, who triumphantly bore their lighted taper safely among the throngs of hostile contestants, through the wilderness of flitting lights, and across the lawn to the goal where they planted it, unextinguished, in the big red paper lantern.
Selwyn and Eileen came up breathless and laughing with the others, she holding aloft their candle, which somebody had succeeded in blowing out; and everybody cheered the winners, significantly, for it was expected that Miss Cardwell's engagement to young Craig would be announced before very long.
Then rockets began to rush aloft, starring the black void with iridescent fire; and everybody went to the lawn's edge where, below on the bay, a dozen motor-boats, dressed fore and aft with necklaces of electric lights, crossed the line at the crack of a cannon in a race for another trophy.
Bets flew as the excitement grew, Eileen confining hers to gloves and bonbons, and Selwyn loyally taking any offers of any kind as he uncompromisingly backed Gerald and Boots in the new motor-boat—the Blue Streak—Austin's contribution to the Silverside navy.
And sure enough, at last a blue rocket soared aloft, bursting into azure magnificence in the zenith; and Gerald and Boots came climbing up to the lawn to receive prize and compliments, and hasten away to change their oilskins for attire more suitable.
Eileen, turning to Selwyn, held up her booking list in laughing dismay: "I've won about a ton of bonbons," she said, "and too many pairs of gloves to feel quite comfortable."
"You needn't wear them all at once, you know," he assured her.
"Nonsense! I mean that I don't care to win things. Oh!"—and she laid her hand impulsively on his arm as a huge sheaf of rockets roared skyward, apparently from the water.
Then, suddenly, Neergard's yacht sprang into view, outlined in electricity from stem to stern, every spar and funnel and contour of hull and superstructure twinkling in jewelled brilliancy.
On a great improvised open pavilion set up in the Hither Woods, garlanded and hung thick with multi-coloured paper lanterns, dancing had already begun; but Selwyn and Eileen lingered on the lawn for a while, fascinated by the beauty of the fireworks pouring skyward from the Niobrara.
"They seem to be very gay aboard her," murmured the girl. "Once you said that you did not like Mr. Neergard. Do you remember saying it?"
He replied simply, "I don't like him; and I remember saying so."
"It is strange," she said, "that Gerald does."
Selwyn looked at the illuminated yacht. . . . "I wonder whether any of Neergard's crowd is expected ashore here. Do you happen to know?"
She did not know. A moment later, to his annoyance, Edgerton Lawn came up and asked her to dance; and she went with a smile and a whispered: "Wait for me—if you don't mind. I'll come back to you."
It was all very well to wait for her—and even to dance with her after that; but there appeared to be no peace for him in prospect, for Scott Innis came and took her away, and Gladys Orchil offered herself to him very prettily, and took him away; and after that, to his perplexity and consternation, a perfect furor for him seemed to set in and grow among the younger set, and the Minster twins had him, and Hilda Innis appropriated him, and Evelyn Cardwell, and even Mrs. Delmour-Carnes took a hand in the badgering.
At intervals he caught glimpses of Eileen through the gay crush around him; he danced with Nina, and suggested to her it was time to leave, but that young matron had tasted just enough to want more; and Eileen, too, was evidently having a most delightful time. So he settled into the harness of pleasure and was good to the pink-and-white ones; and they told each other what a "dear" he was, and adored him more inconveniently than ever.
Truly enough, as he had often said, these younger ones were the charmingly wholesome and refreshing antidote to the occasional misbehaviour of the mature. They were, as he also asserted, the hope and promise of the social fabric of a nation—this younger set—always a little better, a little higher-minded than their predecessors as the wheel of the years slowly turned them out in gay, eager, fearless throngs to teach a cynical generation the rudiments of that wisdom which blossoms most perfectly in the hearts of the unawakened.
Yes, he had frequently told himself all this; told it to others, too. But, now, the younger set, en masse and in detail, had become a little bit cramponne—a trifle too all-pervading. And it was because his regard for them, in the abstract, had become centred in a single concrete example that he began to find the younger set a nuisance. But others, it seemed, were quite as mad about Eileen Erroll as he was; and there seemed to be small chance for him to possess himself of her, unless he were prepared to make the matter of possession a pointed episode. This he knew he had no right to do; she had conferred no such privilege upon him; and he was obliged to be careful of what he did and said lest half a thousand bright unwinking eyes wink too knowingly—lest frivolous tongues go clip-clap, and idle brains infer that which, alas! did not exist except in his vision of desire.
The Hither Woods had been hung with myriads of lanterns. From every branch they swung in clusters or stretched away into perspective, turning the wooded aisles to brilliant vistas. Under them the more romantic and the dance-worn strolled in animated groups or quieter twos; an army of servants flitted hither and thither, serving the acre or so of small tables over each of which an electric cluster shed yellow light.
Supper, and then the Woodland cotillon was the programme; and almost all the tables were filled before Selwyn had an opportunity to collect Nina and Austin and capture Eileen from a very rosy-cheeked and indignant boy who had quite lost his head and heart and appeared to be on the verge of a headlong declaration.
"It's only Percy Draymore's kid brother," she explained, passing her arm through his with a little sigh of satisfaction. "Where have you been all the while?—and with whom have you danced, please?—and who is the pretty girl you paid court to during that last dance? What? Didn't pay court to her? Do you expect me to believe that? . . . Oh, here comes Nina and Austin. . . . How pretty the tables look, all lighted up among the trees! And such an uproar!"—as they came into the jolly tumult and passed in among a labyrinth of tables, greeted laughingly from every side.
Under a vigorous young oak-tree thickly festooned with lanterns Austin found an unoccupied table. There was a great deal of racket and laughter from the groups surrounding them, but this seemed to be the only available spot; besides, Austin was hungry, and he said so.
Nina, with Selwyn on her left, looked around for Gerald and Lansing. When the latter came sauntering up, Austin questioned him, but he replied carelessly that Gerald had gone to join some people whom he, Lansing, did not know very well.
"Why, there he is now!" exclaimed Eileen, catching sight of her brother seated among a very noisy group on the outer edge of the illuminated zone. "Who are those people, Nina? Oh! Rosamund Fane is there, too; and—and—"
She ceased speaking so abruptly that Selwyn turned around; and Nina bit her lip in vexation and glanced at her husband. For, among the overanimated and almost boisterous group which was attracting the attention of everybody in the vicinity sat Mrs. Jack Ruthven. And Selwyn saw her.
For a moment he looked at her—looked at Gerald beside her, and Neergard on the other side, and Rosamund opposite; and at the others, whom he had never before seen. Then quietly, but with heightened colour, he turned his attention to the glass which the servant had just filled for him, and, resting his hand on the stem, stared at the bubbles crowding upward through it to the foamy brim.
Nina and Boots had begun, ostentatiously, an exceedingly animated conversation; and they became almost aggressive, appealing to Austin, who sat back with a frown on his heavy face—and to Eileen, who was sipping her mineral water and staring thoughtfully at a big, round, orange-tinted lantern which hung like the harvest moon behind Gerald, throwing his curly head into silhouette.
What conversation there was to carry, Boots and Nina carried. Austin silently satisfied his hunger, eating and drinking with a sullen determination to make no pretence of ignoring a situation that plainly angered him deeply. And from minute to minute he raised his head to glare across at Gerald, who evidently was unconscious of the presence of his own party.
When Nina spoke to Eileen, the girl answered briefly but with perfect composure. Selwyn, too, added a quiet word at intervals, speaking in a voice that sounded a little tired and strained.
It was that note of fatigue in his voice which aroused Eileen to effort—the instinctive move to protect—to sustain him. Conscious of Austin's suppressed but increasing anger at her brother, amazed and distressed at what Gerald had done—for the boy's very presence there was an affront to them all—she was still more sensitive to Selwyn's voice; and in her heart she responded passionately.
Nina looked up, surprised at the sudden transformation in the girl, who had turned on Boots with a sudden flow of spirits and the gayest of challenges; and their laughter and badinage became so genuine and so persistent that, combining with Nina, they fairly swept Austin from his surly abstraction into their toils; and Selwyn's subdued laugh, if forced, sounded pleasantly, now, and his drawn face seemed to relax a little for the time being.
Once she turned, under cover of the general conversation which she had set going, and looked straight into Selwyn's eyes, flashing to him a message of purest loyalty; and his silent gaze in response sent the colour flying to her cheeks.
It was all very well for a while—a brave, sweet effort; but ears could not remain deaf to the increasing noise and laughter—to familiar voices, half-caught phrases, indiscreet even in the fragments understood. Besides, Gerald had seen them, and the boy's face had become almost ghastly.
Alixe, unusually flushed, was conducting herself without restraint; Neergard's snickering laugh grew more significant and persistent; even Rosamund spoke too loudly at moments; and once she looked around at Nina and Selwyn while her pretty, accentless laughter, rippling with its undertone of malice, became more frequent in the increasing tumult.
There was no use in making a pretence of further gaiety. Austin had begun to scowl again; Nina, with one shocked glance at Alixe, leaned over toward her brother:
"It is incredible!" she murmured; "she must be perfectly mad to make such an exhibition of herself. Can't anybody stop her? Can't anybody send her home?"
Austin said sullenly but distinctly: "The thing for us to do is to get out. . . . Nina—if you are ready—"
"But—but what about Gerald?" faltered Eileen, turning piteously to Selwyn. "We can't leave him—there!"
The man straightened up and turned his drawn face toward her:
"Do you wish me to get him?"
"Y-you can't do that—can you?"
"Yes, I can; if you wish it. Do you think there is anything in the world I can't do, if you wish it?"
As he rose she laid her hand on his arm:
"I—I don't ask it—" she began.
"You do not have to ask it," he said with a smile almost genuine. "Austin, I'm going to get Gerald—and Nina will explain to you that he's to be left to me if any sermon is required. I'll go back with him in the motor-boat. Boots, you'll drive home in my place."
As he turned, still smiling and self-possessed, Eileen whispered rapidly: "Don't go. I care for you too much to ask it."
He said under his breath: "Dearest, you cannot understand."
"Yes—I do! Don't go. Philip—don't go near—her—"
"If you do—if you go—h-how can you c-care for me as you say you do?—when I ask you not to—when I cannot endure—to—"
She turned swiftly and stared across at Alixe; and Alixe, unsteady in the flushed brilliancy of her youthful beauty, half rose in her seat and stared back.
Instinctively the young girl's hand tightened on Selwyn's arm: "She—she is beautiful!" she faltered; but he turned and led her from the table, following Austin, his sister, and Lansing; and she clung to him almost convulsively when he halted on the edge of the lawn.
"I must go back," he whispered—"dearest—dearest—I must."
"T-to Gerald? Or—her?"
But he only muttered: "They don't know what they're doing. Let me go, Eileen"—gently detaching her fingers, which left her hands lying in both of his.
She said, looking up at him: "If you go—if you go—whatever time you return—no matter what hour—knock at my door. Do you promise? I shall be awake. Do you promise?"
"Yes," he said with a trace of impatience—the only hint of his anger at the prospect of the duty before him.
So she went away with Nina and Austin and Boots; and Selwyn turned back, sauntering quietly toward the table where already the occupants had apparently forgotten him and the episode in the riotous gaiety increasing with the accession of half a dozen more men.
When Selwyn approached, Neergard saw him first, stared at him, and snickered; but he greeted everybody with smiling composure, nodding to those he knew—a trifle more formally to Mrs. Ruthven—and, coolly pulling up a chair, seated himself beside Gerald.
"Boots has driven home with the others," he said in a low voice; "I'm going back in the motor-boat with you. Don't worry about Austin. Are you ready?"
The boy had evidently let the wine alone, or else fright had sobered him, for he looked terribly white and tired: "Yes," he said, "I'll go when you wish. I suppose they'll never forgive me for this. Come on."
"One moment, then," nodded Selwyn; "I want to speak to Mrs. Ruthven." And, quietly turning to Alixe, and dropping his voice to a tone too low for Neergard to hear—for he was plainly attempting to listen:
"You are making a mistake; do you understand? Whoever is your hostess—wherever you are staying—find her and go there before it is too late."
She inclined her pretty head thoughtfully, eyes on the wine-glass which she was turning round and round between her slender fingers. "What do you mean by 'too late'?" she asked. "Don't you know that everything is too late for me now?"
"What do you mean, Alixe?" he returned, watching her intently.
"What I say. I have not seen Jack Ruthven for two months. Do you know what that means? I have not heard from him for two months. Do you know what that means? No? Well, I'll tell you, Philip; it means that when I do hear from him it will be through his attorneys."
He turned slightly paler: "Why"?"
"Divorce," she said with a reckless little laugh—"and the end of things for me."
"On what grounds?" he demanded doggedly. "Does he threaten you?"
She made no movement or reply, reclining there, one hand on her wine-glass, the smile still curving her lips. And he repeated his question in a low, distinct voice—too low for Neergard to hear; and he was still listening.
"Grounds? Oh, he thinks I've misbehaved with—never mind who. It is not true—but he cares nothing about that, either. You see"—and she bent nearer, confidentially, with a mysterious little nod of her pretty head—"you see, Jack Ruthven is a little insane. . . . You are surprised? Pooh! I've suspected it for months."
He stared at her; then: "Where are you stopping?"
"Aboard the Niobrara."
"Is Mrs. Fane a guest there, too?"
He spoke loud enough for Rosamund to hear; and she answered for herself with a smile at him, brimful of malice:
"Delighted to have you come aboard, Captain Selwyn. Is that what you are asking permission to do?"
"Thanks," he returned dryly; and to Alixe: "If you are ready, Gerald and I will take you over to the Niobrara in the motor-boat—"
"Oh, no, you won't!" broke in Neergard with a sneer—"you'll mind your own business, my intrusive friend, and I'll take care of my guests without your assistance."
Selwyn appeared not to hear him: "Come on, Gerald," he said pleasantly; "Mrs. Ruthven is going over to the Niobrara—"
"For God's sake," whispered Gerald, white as a sheet, "don't force me into trouble with Neergard."
Selwyn turned on him an astonished gaze: "Are you afraid of that whelp?"
"Yes," muttered the boy—"I—I'll explain later. But don't force things now, I beg you."
Mrs. Ruthven coolly leaned over and spoke to Gerald in a low voice; then, to Selwyn, she said with a smile: "Rosamund and I are going to Brookminster, anyway, so you and Gerald need not wait. . . . And thank you for coming over. It was rather nice of you"—she glanced insolently at Neergard—"considering the crowd we're with. Good-night, Captain Selwyn! Good-night, Gerald. So very jolly to have seen you again!" And, under her breath to Selwyn: "You need not worry; I am going in a moment. Good-bye and—thank you, Phil. It is good to see somebody of one's own caste again."
A few moments later, Selwyn and Gerald in their oilskins were dashing eastward along the coast in the swiftest motor-boat south of the Narrows.
* * * * *
The boy seemed deathly tired as they crossed the dim lawn at Silverside. Once, on the veranda steps he stumbled, and Selwyn's arm sustained him; but the older man forbore to question him, and Gerald, tight-lipped and haggard, offered no confidence until, at the door of his bedroom, he turned and laid an unsteady hand on Selwyn's shoulder: "I want to talk with you—to-morrow. May I?"
"You know you may, Gerald. I am always ready to stand your friend."
"I know. . . . I must have been crazy to doubt it. You are very good to me. I—I am in a very bad fix. I've got to tell you."
"Then we'll get you out of it, old fellow," said Selwyn cheerfully. "That's what friends are for, too."
The boy shivered—looked at the floor, then, without raising his eyes, said good-night, and, entering his bedroom, closed the door.
As Selwyn passed back along the corridor, the door of his sister's room opened, and Austin and Nina confronted him.
"Has that damfool boy come in?" demanded his brother-in-law, anxiety making his voice tremulous under its tone of contempt.
"Yes. Leave him to me, please. Good-night"—submitting to a tender embrace from his sister—"I suppose Eileen has retired, hasn't she? It's an ungodly hour—almost sunrise."
"I don't know whether Eileen is asleep," said Nina; "she expected a word with you, I understand. But don't sit up—don't let her sit up late. We'll be a company of dreadful wrecks at breakfast, anyway."
And his sister gently closed the door while he continued on to the end of the corridor and halted before Eileen's room. A light came through the transom; he waited a moment, then knocked very softly.
"Is it you?" she asked in a low voice.
"Yes. I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No. Is Gerald here?"
"Yes, in his own room. . . . Did you wish to speak to me about anything?"
He heard her coming to the door; it opened a very little. "Good-night," she whispered, stretching toward him her hand—"that was all I wanted—to—to touch you before I closed my eyes to-night."
He bent and looked at the hand lying within his own—the little hand with its fresh fragrant palm upturned and the white fingers relaxed, drooping inward above it—at the delicate bluish vein in the smooth wrist.
Then he released the hand, untouched by his lips; and she withdrew it and closed the door; and he heard her laugh softly, and lean against it, whispering:
"Now that I am safely locked in—I merely wish to say that—in the old days—a lady's hand was sometimes—kissed. . . . Oh, but you are too late, my poor friend! I can't come out; and I wouldn't if I could—not after what I dared to say to you. . . . In fact, I shall probably remain locked up here for days and days. . . . Besides, what I said is out of fashion—has no significance nowadays—or, perhaps, too much. . . . No, I won't dress and come out—even for you. Je me deshabille—je fais ma toilette de nuit, monsieur—et je vais maintenant m'agenouiller et faire ma priere. Donc—bon soir—et bonne nuit—"
And, too low for him to hear even the faintest breathing whisper of her voice—"Good-night. I love you with all my heart—with all my heart—in my own fashion."
* * * * *
He had been asleep an hour, perhaps more, when something awakened him, and he found himself sitting bolt upright in bed, dawn already whitening his windows.
Somebody was knocking. He swung out of bed, stepped into his bath-slippers, and, passing swiftly to the door, opened it. Gerald stood there, fully dressed.
"I'm going to town on the early train," began the boy—"I thought I'd tell you—"
"Nonsense! Gerald, go back to bed!"
"I can't sleep, Philip—"
"Can't sleep? Oh, that's the trouble, is it? Well, then, sit here and talk to me." He gave a mighty yawn—"I'm not sleepy, either; I can go days without it. Here!—here's a comfortable chair to sprawl in. . . . It's daylight already; doesn't the morning air smell sweet? I've a jug of milk and some grapes and peaches in my ice-cupboard if you feel inclined. No? All right; stretch out, sight for a thousand yards, and fire at will."
Gerald strove to smile; for a while he lay loosely in the arm-chair, his listless eyes intent on the strange, dim light which fell across the waste of sea fog. Only the water along the shore's edge remained visible; all else was a blank wall behind which, stretching to the horizon, lay the unseen ocean. Already a few restless gulls were on the wing, sheering inland; and their raucous, treble cries accented the pallid stillness.
But the dawn was no paler than the boy's face—no more desolate. Trouble was his, the same old trouble that has dogged the trail of folly since time began; and Selwyn knew it and waited.
At last the boy broke out: "This is a cowardly trick—this slinking in to you with all my troubles after what you've done for me—after the rotten way I've treated you—"
"Look here, my boy!" said Selwyn coolly, crossing one knee over the other and dropping both hands into the pockets of his pajamas—"I asked you to come to me, didn't I? Well, then; don't criticise my judgment in doing it. It isn't likely I'd ask you to do a cowardly thing."
"You don't understand what a wretched scrape I'm in—"
"I don't yet; but you're going to tell me—"
"Philip, I can't—I simply cannot. It's so contemptible—and you warned me—and I owe you already so much—"
"You owe me a little money," observed Selwyn with a careless smile, "and you've a lifetime to pay it in. What is the trouble now; do you need more? I haven't an awful lot, old fellow—worse luck!—but what I have is at your call—as you know perfectly well. Is that all that is worrying you?"
"No—not all. I—Neergard has lent me money—done things—placed me under obligations. . . . I liked him, you know; I trusted him. . . . People he desired to know I made him known to. He was a—a trifle peremptory at times—as though my obligations to him left me no choice but to take him to such people as he desired to meet. . . . We—we had trouble—recently."
"Personal. I felt—began to feel—the pressure on me. There was, at moments, something almost of menace in his requests and suggestions—an importunity I did not exactly understand. . . . And then he said something to me—"
"Go on; what?"
"He'd been hinting at it before; and even when I found him jolliest and most amusing and companionable I never thought of him as a—a social possibility—I mean among those who really count—like my own people—"
"Oh! he asked you to introduce him into your own family circle?"
"Yes—I didn't understand it at first—until somehow I began to feel the pressure of it—the vague but constant importunity. . . . He was a good fellow—at least I thought so; I hated to hurt him—to assume any attitude that might wound him. But, good heavens!—he couldn't seem to understand that nobody in our family would receive him—although he had a certain footing with the Fanes and Harmons and a few others—like the Siowitha people—or at least the men of those families. Don't you see, Philip?"
"Yes, my boy, I see. Go on! When did he ask to be presented to—your sister?"
"W-who told you that?" asked the boy with an angry flush.
"You did—almost. You were going to, anyway. So that was it, was it? That was when you realised a few things—understood one or two things; was it not? . . . And how did you reply? Arrogantly, I suppose."
"With—a—some little show of—a—contempt?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Exactly. And Neergard—was put out—slightly?"
"Yes," said the boy, losing some of his colour. "I—a moment afterward I was sorry I had spoken so plainly; but I need not have been. . . . He was very ugly about it."
"Threats of calling loans?" asked Selwyn, smiling.
"Hints; not exactly threats. I was in a bad way, too—" The boy winced and swallowed hard; then, with sudden white desperation stamped on his drawn face: "Oh, Philip—it—it is disgraceful enough—but how am I going to tell you the rest?—how can I speak of this matter to you—"
"A—about—about Mrs. Ruthven—"
"What matter?" repeated Selwyn. His voice rang a little, but the colour had fled from his face.
"She was—Jack Ruthven charged her with—and me—charged me with—"
"Well—it was a lie, wasn't it?" Selwyn's ashy lips scarcely moved, but his eyes were narrowing to a glimmer. "It was a lie, wasn't it?" he repeated.
"Yes—a lie. I'd say it, anyway, you understand—but it really was a lie."
Selwyn quietly leaned back in his chair; a little colour returned to his cheeks.
"All right—old fellow"—his voice scarcely quivered—"all right; go on. I knew, of course, that Ruthven lied, but it was part of the story to hear you say so. Go on. What did Ruthven do?"
"There has been a separation," said the boy in a low voice. "He behaved like a dirty cad—she had no resources—no means of support—" He hesitated, moistening his dry lips with his tongue. "Mrs. Ruthven has been very, very kind to me. I was—I am fond of her; oh, I know well enough I never had any business to meet her; I behaved abominably toward you—and the family. But it was done; I knew her, and liked her tremendously. She was the only one who was decent to me—who tried to keep me from acting like a fool about cards—"
Did she try?"
"Yes—indeed, yes! . . . and, Phil—she—I don't know how to say it—but she—when she spoke of—of you—begged me to try to be like you. . . . And it is a lie what people say about her!—what gossip says. I know; I have known her so well—and—I was like other men—charmed and fascinated by her; but the women of that set are a pack of cats, and the men—well, none of them ever ventured to say anything to me! . . . And that is all, Philip. I was horribly in debt to Neergard; then Ruthven turned on me—and on her; and I borrowed more from Neergard and went to her bank and deposited it to the credit of her account—but she doesn't know it was from me—she supposes Jack Ruthven did it out of ordinary decency, for she said so to me. And that is how matters stand; Neergard is ugly, and grows more threatening about those loans—and I haven't any money, and Mrs. Ruthven will require more very soon—"
"Is that all?" demanded Selwyn sharply.
"Yes—all. . . . I know I have behaved shamefully—"
"I've seen," observed Selwyn in a dry, hard voice, "worse behaviour than yours. . . . Have you a pencil, Gerald? Get a sheet of paper from that desk. Now, write out a list of the loans made you by Neergard. . . . Every cent, if you please. . . . And the exact amount you placed to Mrs. Ruthven's credit. . . . Have you written that? Let me see it."
The boy handed him the paper. He studied it without the slightest change of expression—knowing all the while what it meant to him; knowing that this burden must be assumed by himself because Austin would never assume it.
And he sat there staring at space over the top of the pencilled sheet of paper, striving to find some help in the matter. But he knew Austin; he knew what would happen to Gerald if, after the late reconciliation with his ex-guardian, he came once more to him with such a confession of debt and disgrace.
No; Austin must be left out; there were three things to do: One of them was to pay Neergard; another to sever Gerald's connection with him for ever; and the third thing to be done was something which did not concern Gerald or Austin—perhaps, not even Ruthven. It was to be done, no matter what the cost. But the thought of the cost sent a shiver over him, and left his careworn face gray.
His head sank; he fixed his narrowing eyes on the floor and held them there, silent, unmoved, while within the tempests of terror, temptation, and doubt assailed him, dragging at the soul of him, where it clung blindly to its anchorage. And it held fast—raging, despairing in the bitterness of renunciation, but still held on through the most dreadful tempest that ever swept him. Courage, duty, reparation—the words drummed in his brain, stupefying him with their dull clamour; but he understood and listened, knowing the end—knowing that the end must always be the same for him. It was the revolt of instinct against drilled and ingrained training, inherited and re-schooled—the insurgent clamour of desire opposed to that stern self-repression characteristic of generations of Selwyns, who had held duty important enough to follow, even when their bodies died in its wake.
And it were easier for him, perhaps, if his body died.
He rose and walked to the window. Over the Bay of Shoals the fog was lifting; and he saw the long gray pier jutting northward—the pier where the troopships landed their dead and dying when the Spanish war was ended.
And he looked at the hill where the field hospital had once been. His brother died there—in the wake of that same duty which no Selwyn could ignore.
After a moment he turned to Gerald, a smile on his colourless face:
"It will be all right, my boy. You are not to worry—do you understand me? Go to bed, now; you need the sleep. Go to bed, I tell you—I'll stand by you. You must begin all over again, Gerald—and so must I; and so must I."
LEX NON SCRIPTA
Selwyn had gone to New York with Gerald, "for a few days," as he expressed it; but it was now the first week in October, and he had not yet returned to Silverside.
A brief note to Nina thanking her for having had him at Silverside, and speaking vaguely of some business matters which might detain him indefinitely—a briefer note to Eileen regretting his inability to return for the present—were all the communication they had from him except news brought by Austin, who came down from town every Friday.
A long letter to him from Nina still remained unanswered; Austin had seen him only once in town; Lansing, now back in New York, wrote a postscript in a letter to Drina, asking for Selwyn's new address—the first intimation anybody had that he had given up his lodgings on Lexington Avenue.
"I was perfectly astonished to find he had gone, leaving no address," wrote Boots; "and nobody knows anything about him at his clubs. I have an idea that he may have gone to Washington to see about the Chaosite affair; but if you have any address except his clubs, please send it to me."
Eileen had not written him; his sudden leave-taking nearly a month ago had so astounded her that she could not believe he meant to be gone more than a day or two. Then came his note, written at the Patroons' Club—very brief, curiously stilted and formal, with a strange tone of finality through it, as though he were taking perfunctory leave of people who had come temporarily into his life, and as though the chances were agreeably even of his ever seeing them again.
The girl was not hurt, as yet; she remained merely confused, incredulous, unreconciled. That there was to be some further explanation of his silence she never dreamed of doubting; and there seemed to be nothing to do in the interval but await it. As for writing him, some instinct forbade it, even when Nina suggested that she write, adding laughingly that nothing else seemed likely to stir her brother.
For the first few days the children clamoured intermittently for him; but children forget, and Billy continued to cast out his pack in undying hope of a fox or bunny, and the younger children brought their butterfly-nets and sand-shovels to Austin and Nina for repairs; and Drina, when Boots deserted her for his Air Line Company, struck up a wholesome and lively friendship with a dozen subfreshmen and the younger Orchil girls, and began to play golf like a little fiend.
It was possible, now, to ride cross-country; and Nina, who was always in terror of an added ounce to her perfect figure, rode every day with Eileen; and Austin, on a big hunter, joined them two days in the week.
There were dances, too, and Nina went to some of them. So did Eileen, who had created a furor among the younger brothers and undergraduates; and the girl was busy enough with sailing and motoring and dashing through the Sound in all sorts of power boats.
Once, under Austin's and young Craig's supervision, she tried shore-bird shooting; but the first broken wing from the gun on her left settled the thing for ever for her, and the horror of the blood-sprinkled, kicking mass of feathers haunted her dreams for a week.
Youths, however, continued to hover numerously about her. They sat in soulful rows upon the veranda at Silverside; they played guitars at her in canoes, accompanying the stringy thrumming with the peculiarly exasperating vocal noises made only by very young undergraduates; they rode with her and Nina; they pervaded her vicinity with a tireless constancy amounting to obsession.
She liked it well enough; she was as interested in everything as usual; as active at the nets, playing superbly, and with all her heart in the game—while it lasted; she swung her slim brassy with all the old-time fire and satisfaction in the clean, sharp whack, as the ball flew through the sunshine, rising beautifully in a long, low trajectory against the velvet fair-green.
It was unalloyed happiness for her to sit her saddle, feeling under her the grand stride of her powerful hunter on a headlong cross-country gallop; it was purest pleasure for her to lean forward in her oilskins, her eyes almost blinded with salt spray, while the low motor-boat rushed on and on through cataracts of foam, and the heaving, green sea-miles fled away, away, in the hissing furrow of the wake.
Truly, for her, the world was still green, the sun bright, the high sky blue; but she had not forgotten that the earth had been greener, the sun brighter, the azure above her more splendid—once upon a time—like the first phrase of a tale that is told. And if she were at times listless, absent-eyed, subdued—a trifle graver, or unusually silent, seeking the still paths of the garden as though in need of youthful meditation and the quiet of the sunset hour, she never doubted that that tale would be retold for her again. Only—alas!—the fair days were passing, and the russet rustle of October sounded already among the curling leaves in the garden; and he had been away a long time—a very long time. And she could not understand.
On one of Austin's week-end visits, the hour for conjugal confab having arrived and husband and wife locked in the seclusion of their bedroom—being old-fashioned enough to occupy the same—he said, with a trace of irritation in his voice:
"I don't know where Phil is, or what he's about. I'm wondering—he's got the Selwyn conscience, you know—what he's up to—and if it's any kind of dam-foolishness. Haven't you heard a word from him, Nina?"
Nina, in her pretty night attire, had emerged from her dressing-room, locked out Kit-Ki and her maid, and had curled up in a big, soft armchair, cradling her bare ankles in her hand.
"I haven't heard from him," she said. "Rosamund saw him in Washington—passed him on the street. He was looking horridly thin and worn, she wrote. He did not see her."
"Now what in the name of common sense is he doing in Washington!" exclaimed Austin wrathfully. "Probably breaking his heart because nobody cares to examine his Chaosite. I told him, as long as he insisted on bothering the Government with it instead of making a deal with the Lawn people, that I'd furnish him with a key to the lobby. I told him I knew the right people, could get him the right lawyers, and start the thing properly. Why didn't he come to me about it? There's only one way to push such things, and he's as ignorant of it as a boatswain in the marine cavalry."
Nina said thoughtfully: "You always were impatient of people, dear. Perhaps Phil may get them to try his Chaosite without any wire-pulling. . . . I do wish he'd write. I can't understand his continued silence. Hasn't Boots heard from him? Hasn't Gerald?"
"Not a word. And by the way, Nina, Gerald has done rather an unexpected thing. I saw him last night; he came to the house and told me that he had just severed his connection with Julius Neergard's company."
"I'm glad of it!" exclaimed Nina; "I'm glad he showed the good sense to do it!"
"Well—yes. As a matter of fact, Neergard is going to be a very rich man some day; and Gerald might have—But I am not displeased. What appeals to me is the spectacle of the boy acting with conviction on his own initiative. Whether or not he is making a mistake has nothing to do with the main thing, and that is that Gerald, for the first time in his rather colourless career, seems to have developed the rudiments of a backbone out of the tail which I saw so frequently either flourishing defiance at me or tucked sullenly between his hind legs. I had quite a talk with him last night; he behaved very decently, and with a certain modesty which may, one day, develop into something approaching dignity. We spoke of his own affairs—in which, for the first time, he appeared to take an intelligent interest. Besides that, he seemed willing enough to ask my judgment in several matters—a radical departure from his cub days."
"What are you going to do for him, dear?" asked his wife, rather bewildered at the unexpected news. "Of course he must go into some sort of business again—"
"Certainly. And, to my astonishment, he actually came and solicited my advice. I—I was so amazed, Nina, that I could scarcely credit my own senses. I managed to say that I'd think it over. Of course he can, if he chooses, begin everything again and come in with me. Or—if I am satisfied that he has any ability—he can set up some sort of a real-estate office on his own hook. I could throw a certain amount of business in his way—but it's all in the air, yet. I'll see him Monday, and we'll have another talk. By gad! Nina," he added, with a flush of half-shy satisfaction on his ruddy face, "it's—it's almost like having a grown-up son coming bothering me with his affairs; ah—rather agreeable than otherwise. There's certainly something in that boy. I—perhaps I have been, at moments, a trifle impatient. But I did not mean to be. You know that, dear, don't you?"
His wife looked up at her big husband in quiet amusement. "Oh, yes! I know a little about you," she said, "and a little about Gerald, too. He is only a masculine edition of Eileen—the irresponsible freedom of life brought out all his faults at once, like a horrid rash; it's due to the masculine notion of masculine education. His sister's education was essentially the contrary: humours were eradicated before first symptoms became manifest. The moral, mental, and physical drilling and schooling was undertaken and accepted without the slightest hope—and later without the slightest desire—for any relaxation of the rigour when she became of age and mistress of herself. That's the difference: a boy looks forward to the moment when he can flourish his heels and wag his ears and bray; a girl has no such prospect. Gerald has brayed; Eileen never will flourish her heels unless she becomes fashionable after marriage—which isn't very likely—"
Nina hesitated, another idea intruding.
"By the way, Austin; the Orchil boy—the one in Harvard—proposed to Eileen—the little idiot! She told me—thank goodness! she still does tell me things. Also the younger and chubbier Draymore youth has offered himself—after a killingly proper interview with me. I thought it might amuse you to hear of it."
"It might amuse me more if Eileen would get busy and bring Philip into camp," observed her husband. "And why the devil they don't make up their minds to it is beyond me. That brother of yours is the limit sometimes. I'm fond of him—you know it—but he certainly can be the limit sometimes."
"Do you know," said Nina, "that I believe he is in love with her?"
"Then, why doesn't—"
"I don't know. I was sure—I am sure now—that the girl cares more for him than for anybody. And yet—and yet I don't believe she is actually in love with him. Several times I supposed she was—or near it, anyway. . . . But they are a curious pair, Austin—so quaint about it; so slow and old-fashioned. . . . And the child is the most innocent being—in some ways. . . . Which is all right unless she becomes one of those pokey, earnest, knowledge-absorbing young things with the very germ of vitality dried up and withered in her before she awakens. . . . I don't know—I really don't. For a girl must have something of the human about her to attract a man, and be attracted. . . . Not that she need know anything about love—or even suspect it. But there must be some response in her, some—some—"
"Deviltry?" suggested Austin.
His pretty wife laughed and dropped one knee over the other, leaning back to watch him finish his good-night cigarette. After a moment her face grew grave, and she bent forward.
"Speaking of Rosamund a moment ago reminds me of something else she wrote—it's about Alixe. Have you heard anything?"
"Not a word," said Austin, with a frank scowl, "and don't want to."
"It's only this—that Alixe is ill. Nobody seems to know what the matter is; nobody has seen her. But she's at Clifton, with a couple of nurses, and Rosamund heard rumours that she is very ill indeed. . . . People go to Clifton for shattered nerves, you know."
"Yes; for bridge-fidgets, neurosis, pip, and the various jumps that originate in the simpler social circles. What's the particular matter with her? Too many cocktails? Or a dearth of grand slams?"
"You are brutal, Austin. Besides, I don't know. She's had a perfectly dreary life with her husband. . . . I—I can't forget how fond I was of her in spite of what she did to Phil. . . . Besides, I'm beginning to be certain that it was not entirely her fault."
"What? Do you think Phil—"
"No, no, no! Don't be an utter idiot. All I mean to say is that Alixe was always nervous and high-strung; odd at times; eccentric—more than merely eccentric—"
"You mean dippy?"
"Oh, Austin, you're horrid. I mean that there is mental trouble in that family. You have heard of it as well as I; you know her father died of it—"
"The usual defence in criminal cases," observed Austin, flicking his cigarette-end into the grate. "I'm sorry, dear, that Alixe has the jumps; hope she'll get over 'em. But as for pretending I've any use for her, I can't and don't and won't. She spoiled life for the best man I know; she kicked his reputation into a cocked hat, and he, with his chivalrous Selwyn conscience, let her do it. I did like her once; I don't like her now, and that's natural and it winds up the matter. Dear friend, shall we, perhaps, to bed presently our way wend—yess?"
"Yes, dear; but you are not very charitable about Alixe. And I tell you I've my own ideas about her illness—especially as she is at Clifton. . . . I wonder where her little beast of a husband is?"
But Austin only yawned and looked at the toes of his slippers, and then longingly at the pillows.
* * * * *
Had Nina known it, the husband of Mrs. Ruthven, whom she had characterised so vividly, was at that very moment seated in a private card-room at the Stuyvesant Club with Sanxon Orchil, George Fane, and Bradley Harmon; and the game had been bridge, as usual, and had gone very heavily against him.
Several things had gone against Mr. Ruthven recently; for one thing, he was beginning to realise that he had made a vast mistake in mixing himself up in any transactions with Neergard.
When he, at Neergard's cynical suggestion, had consented to exploit his own club—the Siowitha—and had consented to resign from it to do so, he had every reason to believe that Neergard meant to either mulct them heavily or buy them out. In either case, having been useful to Neergard, his profits from the transaction would have been considerable.
But, even while he was absorbed in figuring them up—and he needed the money, as usual—Neergard coolly informed him of his election to the club, and Ruthven, thunder-struck, began to perceive the depth of the underground mole tunnels which Neergard had dug to undermine and capture the stronghold which had now surrendered to him.
Rage made him ill for a week; but there was nothing to do about it. He had been treacherous to his club and to his own caste, and Neergard knew it—and knew perfectly well that Ruthven dared not protest—dared not even whimper.
Then Neergard began to use Ruthven when he needed him; and he began to permit himself to win at cards in Ruthven's house—a thing he had not dared to do before. He also permitted himself more ease and freedom in that house—a sort of intimacy sans facon—even a certain jocularity. He also gave himself the privilege of inviting the Ruthvens on board the Niobrara; and Ruthven went, furious at being forced to stamp with his open approval an episode which made Neergard a social probability.
How it happened that Rosamund divined something of the situation is not quite clear; but she always had a delicate nose for anything not intended for her, and the thing amused her immensely, particularly because what viciousness had been so long suppressed in Neergard was now tentatively making itself apparent in his leering ease among women he so recently feared.
This, also, was gall and wormwood to Ruthven, so long the official lap-dog of the very small set he kennelled with; and the women of that set were perverse enough to find Neergard amusing, and his fertility in contriving new extravagances for them interested these people, whose only interest had always been centred in themselves.
Meanwhile, Neergard had almost finished with Gerald—he had only one further use for him; and as his social success became more pronounced with the people he had crowded in among, he became bolder and more insolent, no longer at pains to mole-tunnel toward the object desired, no longer overcareful about his mask. And one day he asked the boy very plainly why he had never invited him to meet his sister. And he got an answer that he never forgot.
And all the while Ruthven squirmed under the light but steadily inflexible pressure of the curb which Neergard had slipped on him so deftly; he had viewed with indifference Gerald's boyish devotion to his wife, which was even too open and naive to be of interest to those who witnessed it. But he had not counted on Neergard's sudden hatred of Gerald; and the first token of that hatred fell upon the boy like a thunderbolt when Neergard whispered to Ruthven, one night at the Stuyvesant Club, and Ruthven, exasperated, had gone straight home, to find his wife in tears, and the boy clumsily attempting to comfort her, both her hands in his.
"Perhaps," said Ruthven coldly, "you have some plausible explanation for this sort of thing. If you haven't, you'd better trump up one together, and I'll send you my attorney to hear it. In that event," he added, "you'd better leave your joint address when you find a more convenient house than mine."
As a matter of fact, he had really meant nothing more than the threat and the insult, the situation permitting him a heavier hold upon his wife and a new grip on Gerald in case he ever needed him; but threat and insult were very real to the boy, and he knocked Mr. Ruthven flat on his back—the one thing required to change that gentleman's pretence to deadly earnest.
Ruthven scrambled to his feet; Gerald did it again; and, after that, Mr. Ruthven prudently remained prone during the delivery of a terse but concise opinion of him expressed by Gerald.
After Gerald had gone, Ruthven opened first one eye, then the other, then his mouth, and finally sat up; and his wife, who had been curiously observing him, smiled.
"It is strange," she said serenely, "that I never thought of that method. I wonder why I never thought of it," lazily stretching her firm young arms and glancing casually at their symmetry and smooth-skinned strength. "Go into your own quarters," she added, as he rose, shaking with fury: "I've endured the last brutality I shall ever suffer from you."
She dropped her folded hands into her lap, gazing coolly at him; but there was a glitter in her eyes which arrested his first step toward her.
"I think," she said, "that you mean my ruin. Well, we began it long ago, and I doubt if I have anything of infamy to learn, thanks to my thorough schooling as your wife. . . . But knowledge is not necessarily practice, and it happens that I have not cared to commit the particular indiscretion so fashionable among the friends you have surrounded me with. I merely mention this for your information, not because I am particularly proud of it. It is not anything to be proud of, in my case—it merely happened so; a matter, perhaps of personal taste, perhaps because of lack of opportunity; and there is a remote possibility that belated loyalty to a friend I once betrayed may have kept me personally chaste in this rotting circus circle you have driven me around in, harnessed to your vicious caprice, dragging the weight of your corruption—"
She laughed. "I had no idea that I could be so eloquent, Jack. But my mind has become curiously clear during the last year—strangely and unusually limpid and precise. Why, my poor friend, every plot of yours and of your friends—every underhand attempt to discredit and injure me has been perfectly apparent to me. You supposed that my headaches, my outbursts of anger, my wretched nights, passed in tears—and the long, long days spent kneeling in the ashes of dead memories—all these you supposed had weakened—perhaps unsettled—my mind. . . . You lie if you deny it, for you have had doctors watching me for months. . . . You didn't know I was aware of it, did you? But I was, and I am. . . . And you told them that my father died of—of brain trouble, you coward!"
Still he stood there, jaw loose, gazing at her as though fascinated; and she smiled and settled deeper in her chair, framing the gilded foliations of the back with her beautiful arms.
"We might as well understand one another now," she said languidly. "If you mean to get rid of me, there is no use in attempting to couple my name with that of any man; first, because it is untrue, and you not only know it, but you know you can't prove it. There remains the cowardly method you have been nerving yourself to attempt, never dreaming that I was aware of your purpose."
A soft, triumphant little laugh escaped her. There was something almost childish in her delight at outwitting him, and, very slowly, into his worn and faded eyes a new expression began to dawn—the flickering stare of suspicion. And in it the purely personal impression of rage and necessity of vengeance subsided; he eyed her intently, curiously, and with a cool persistence which finally began to irritate her.
"What a credulous fool you are," she said, "to build your hopes of a separation on any possible mental disability of mine."
He stood a moment without answering, then quietly seated himself. The suspicious glimmer in his faded eyes had become the concentration of a curiosity almost apprehensive.
"Go on," he said; "what else?"
"What do you mean?"
"You have been saying several things—about doctors whom I have set to watch you—for a year or more."
"Do you deny it?" she retorted angrily.
"No—no, I do not deny anything. But—who are these doctors—whom you have noticed?"
"I don't know who they are," she replied impatiently. "I've seen them often enough—following me on the street, or in public places—watching me. They are everywhere—you have them well paid, evidently; I suppose you can afford it. But you are wasting your time."
"You think so?"
"Yes!" she cried in a sudden violence that startled him, "you are wasting your time! And so am I—talking to you—enduring your personal affronts and brutal sneers. Sufficient for you that I know my enemies, and that I am saner, thank God, than any of them!" She flashed a look of sudden fury at him, and rose from her chair. He also rose with a promptness that bordered on precipitation.
"For the remainder of the spring and summer," she said, "I shall make my plans regardless of you. I shall not go to Newport; you are at liberty to use the house there as you choose. And as for this incident with Gerald, you had better not pursue it any further. Do you understand?"
He nodded, dropping his hands into his coat-pockets.
"Now you may go," she said coolly.
He went—not, however, to his room, but straight to the house of the fashionable physician who ministered to wealth with an unction and success that had permitted him, in summer time, to occupy his own villa at Newport and dispense further ministrations when requested.
* * * * *
On the night of the conjugal conference between Nina Gerard and her husband—and almost at the same hour—Jack Ruthven, hard hit in the card-room of the Stuyvesant Club, sat huddled over the table, figuring up what sort of checks he was to draw to the credit of George Fane and Sanxon Orchil.
Matters had been going steadily against him for some time—almost everything, in fact, except the opinions of several physicians in a matter concerning his wife. For, in that scene between them in early spring, his wife had put that into his head which had never before been there—suspicion of her mental soundness.
And now, as he sat there, pencil in hand, adding up the score-cards, he remembered that he was to interview his attorney that evening at his own house—a late appointment, but necessary to insure the presence of one or two physicians at a consultation to definitely decide what course of action might be taken.
He had not laid eyes on his wife that summer, but for the first time he had really had her watched during her absence. What she lived on—how she managed—he had not the least idea, and less concern. All he knew was that he had contributed nothing, and he was quite certain that her balance at her own bank had been nonexistent for months.
But any possible additional grounds for putting her away from him that might arise in a question as to her sources of support no longer interested him. That line of attack was unnecessary; besides, he had no suspicion concerning her personal chastity. But Alixe, that evening in early spring, had unwittingly suggested to him the use of a weapon the existence of which he had never dreamed of. And he no longer entertained any doubts of its efficiency as a means of finally ridding him of a wife whom he had never been able to fully subdue or wholly corrupt, and who, as a mate for him in his schemes for the pecuniary maintenance of his household, had proven useless and almost ruinous.
He had not seen her during the summer. In the autumn he had heard of her conduct at Hitherwood House. And, a week later, to his astonishment, he learned of her serious illness, and that she had been taken to Clifton. It was the only satisfactory news he had had of her in months.
So now he sat there at the bridge-table in the private card-room of the Stuyvesant Club, deftly adding up the score that had gone against him, but consoled somewhat at the remembrance of his appointment, and of the probability of an early release from the woman who had been to him only a source of social mistakes, domestic unhappiness, and financial disappointment.
When he had finished his figuring he fished out a check-book, detached a tiny gold fountain-pen from the bunch of seals and knick-knacks on his watch-chain, and, filling in the checks, passed them over without comment.
Fane rose, stretching his long neck, gazed about through his spectacles, like a benevolent saurian, and finally fixed his mild, protruding eyes upon Orchil.
"There'll be a small game at the Fountain Club," he said, with a grin which creased his cheeks until his retreating chin almost disappeared under the thick lower lip.
Orchil twiddled his long, crinkly, pointed moustache and glanced interrogatively at Harmon; then he yawned, stretched his arms, and rose, pocketing the check, which Ruthven passed to him, with a careless nod of thanks.
As they filed out of the card-room into the dim passageway, Orchil leading, a tall, shadowy figure in evening dress stepped back from the door of the card-room against the wall to give them right of way, and Orchil, peering at him without recognition in the dull light, bowed suavely as he passed, as did Fane, craning his curved neck, and Harmon also, who followed in his wake.
But when Ruthven came abreast of the figure in the passage and bowed his way past, a low voice from the courteous unknown, pronouncing his name, halted him short.
"I want a word with you, Mr. Ruthven," added Selwyn; "that card-room will suit me, if you please."
But Ruthven, recovering from the shock of Selwyn's voice, started to pass him without a word.
"I said that I wanted to speak to you!" repeated Selwyn.
Ruthven, deigning no reply, attempted to shove by him; and Selwyn, placing one hand flat against the other's shoulder, pushed him violently back into the card-room he had just left, and, stepping in behind him, closed and locked the door.
"W-what the devil do you mean!" gasped Ruthven, his hard, minutely shaven face turning a deep red.
"What I say," replied Selwyn; "that I want a word or two with you."
He stood still for a moment, in the centre of the little room, tall, gaunt of feature, and very pale. The close, smoky atmosphere of the place evidently annoyed him; he glanced about at the scattered cards, the empty oval bottles in their silver stands, the half-burned remains of cigars on the green-topped table. Then he stepped over and opened the only window.
"Sit down," he said, turning on Ruthven; and he seated himself and crossed one leg over the other. Ruthven remained standing.
"This—this thing," began Ruthven in a voice made husky and indistinct through fury, "this ruffianly behaviour amounts to assault."
"As you choose," nodded Selwyn, almost listlessly, "but be quiet; I've something to think of besides your convenience."
For a few moments he sat silent, thoughtful, narrowing eyes considering the patterns on the rug at his feet; and Ruthven, weak with rage and apprehension, was forced to stand there awaiting the pleasure of a man of whom he had suddenly become horribly afraid.
And at last Selwyn, emerging from his pallid reverie, straightened out, shaking his broad shoulders as though to free him of that black spectre perching there.
"Ruthven," he said, "a few years ago you persuaded my wife to leave me; and I have never punished you. There were two reasons why I did not: the first was because I did not wish to punish her, and any blow at you would have reached her heavily. The second reason, subordinate to the first, is obvious: decent men, in these days, have tacitly agreed to suspend a violent appeal to the unwritten law as a concession to civilisation. This second reason, however, depends entirely upon the first, as you see."
He leaned back in his chair thoughtfully, and recrossed his legs.
"I did not ask you into this room," he said, with a slight smile, "to complain of the wrong you have committed against me, or to retail to you the consequences of your act as they may or may not have affected me and my career; I have—ah—invited you here to explain to you the present condition of your own domestic affairs"—he looked at Ruthven full in the face—"to explain them to you, and to lay down for you the course of conduct which you are to follow."
"By God!—" began Ruthven, stepping back, one hand reaching for the door-knob; but Selwyn's voice rang out clean and sharp:
And, as Ruthven glared at him out of his little eyes:
"You'd better sit down, I think," said Selwyn softly.
Ruthven turned, took two unsteady steps forward, and laid his heavily ringed hand on the back of a chair. Selwyn smiled, and Ruthven sat down.
"Now," continued Selwyn, "for certain rules of conduct to govern you during the remainder of your wife's lifetime. . . . And your wife is ill, Mr. Ruthven—sick of a sickness which may last for a great many years, or may be terminated in as many days. Did you know it?"
"Yes, of course you knew it, or you suspected it. Your wife is in a sanitarium, as you have discovered. She is mentally ill—rational at times—violent at moments, and for long periods quite docile, gentle, harmless—content to be talked to, read to, advised, persuaded. But during the last week a change of a certain nature has occurred which—which, I am told by competent physicians, not only renders her case beyond all hope of ultimate recovery, but threatens an earlier termination than was at first looked for. It is this: your wife has become like a child again—occupied contentedly and quite happily with childish things. She has forgotten much; her memory is quite gone. How much she does remember it is impossible to say."
His head fell; his brooding eyes were fixed again on the rug at his feet. After a while he looked up.
"It is pitiful, Mr. Ruthven—she is so young—with all her physical charm and attraction quite unimpaired. But the mind is gone—quite gone, sir. Some sudden strain—and the tension has been great for years—some abrupt overdraft upon her mental resource, perhaps; God knows how it came—from sorrow, from some unkindness too long endured—"
Again he relapsed into his study of the rug; and slowly, warily, Ruthven lifted his little, inflamed eyes to look at him, then moistened his dry lips with a thick-coated tongue, and stole a glance at the locked door.
"I understand," said Selwyn, looking up suddenly, "that you are contemplating proceedings against your wife. Are you?"
Ruthven made no reply.
"Are you?" repeated Selwyn. His face had altered; a dim glimmer played in his eyes like the reflection of heat lightning at dusk.
"Yes, I am," said Ruthven.
"On the grounds of her mental incapacity?"
"Then, as I understand it, the woman whom you persuaded to break every law, human and divine, for your sake, you now propose to abandon. Is that it?"
Ruthven made no reply.
"You propose to publish her pitiable plight to the world by beginning proceedings; you intend to notify the public of your wife's infirmity by divorcing her."
"Sane or insane," burst out Ruthven, "she was riding for a fall—and she's going to get it! What the devil are you talking about? I'm not accountable to you. I'll do what I please; I'll manage my own affairs—"
"No," said Selwyn, "I'll manage this particular affair. And now I'll tell you how I'm going to do it. I have in my lodgings—or rather in the small hall bedroom which I now occupy—an army service revolver, in fairly good condition. The cylinder was a little stiff this morning when I looked at it, but I've oiled it with No. 27—an excellent rust solvent and lubricant, Mr. Ruthven—and now the cylinder spins around in a manner perfectly trustworthy. So, as I was saying, I have this very excellent and serviceable weapon, and shall give myself the pleasure of using it on you if you ever commence any such action for divorce or separation against your wife. This is final."
Ruthven stared at him as though hypnotised.
"Don't mistake me," added Selwyn, a trifle wearily. "I am not compelling you to decency for the purpose of punishing you; men never trouble themselves to punish vermin—they simply exterminate them, or they retreat and avoid them. I merely mean that you shall never again bring publicity and shame upon your wife—even though now, mercifully enough, she has not the faintest idea that you are what a complacent law calls her husband."
A slow blaze lighted up his eyes, and he got up from his chair.
"You decadent little beast!" he said slowly, "do you suppose that the dirty accident of your intrusion into an honest man's life could dissolve the divine compact of wedlock? Soil it—yes; besmirch it, render it superficially unclean, unfit, nauseous—yes. But neither you nor your vile code nor the imbecile law you invoked to legalise the situation really ever deprived me of my irrevocable status and responsibility. . . . I—even I—was once—for a while—persuaded that it did; that the laws of the land could do this—could free me from a faithless wife, and regularise her position in your household. The laws of the land say so, and I—I said so at last—persuaded because I desired to be persuaded. . . . It was a lie. My wife, shamed or unshamed, humbled or unhumbled, true to her marriage vows or false to them, now legally the wife of another, has never ceased to be my wife. And it is a higher law that corroborates me—higher than you can understand—a law unwritten because axiomatic; a law governing the very foundation of the social fabric, and on which that fabric is absolutely dependent for its existence intact. But"—with a contemptuous shrug—"you won't understand; all you can understand is the gratification of your senses and the fear of something interfering with that gratification—like death, for instance. Therefore I am satisfied that you understand enough of what I said to discontinue any legal proceedings which would tend to discredit, expose, or cast odium on a young wife very sorely stricken—very, very ill—whom God, in his mercy, has blinded to the infamy where you have dragged her—under the law of the land."
He turned on his heel, paced the little room once or twice, then swung round again:
"Keep your filthy money—wrung from women and boys over card-tables. Even if some blind, wormlike process of instinct stirred the shame in you, and you ventured to offer belated aid to the woman who bears your name, I forbid it—I do not permit you the privilege. Except that she retains your name—and the moment you attempt to rob her of that I shall destroy you!—except for that, you have no further relations with her—nothing to do or undo; no voice as to the disposal of what remains of her; no power, no will, no influence in her fate. I supplant you; I take my own again; I reassume a responsibility temporarily taken from me. And now, I think, you understand!"
He gave him one level and deadly stare; then his pallid features relaxed, he slowly walked past Ruthven, grave, preoccupied; unlocked the door, and passed out.
* * * * *
His lodgings were not imposing in their furnishings or dimensions—a very small bedroom in the neighbourhood of Sixth Avenue and Washington Square—but the heavy and increasing drain on his resources permitted nothing better now; and what with settling Gerald's complications and providing two nurses and a private suite at Clifton for Alixe Ruthven, he had been obliged to sell a number of securities, which reduced his income to a figure too absurd to worry over.
However, the Government had at last signified its intention of testing his invention—Chaosite—and there was that chance for better things in prospect. Also, in time, Gerald would probably be able to return something of the loans made. But these things did not alleviate present stringent conditions, nor were they likely to for a long while; and Selwyn, tired and perplexed, mounted the stairs of his lodging-house and laid his overcoat on the iron bed, and, divesting himself of the garments of ceremony as a matter of economy, pulled on an old tweed shooting-jacket and trousers.
Then, lighting his pipe—cigars being now on the expensive and forbidden list—he drew a chair to his table and sat down, resting his worn face between both hands. Truly the world was not going very well with him in these days.
For some time, now, it had been his custom to face his difficulties here in the silence of his little bedroom, seated alone at his table, pipe gripped between his firm teeth, his strong hands framing his face. Here he would sit for hours, the long day ended, staring steadily at the blank wall, the gas-jet flickering overhead; and here, slowly, painfully, with doubt and hesitation, out of the moral confusion in his weary mind he evolved the theory of personal responsibility.
With narrowing eyes, from which slowly doubt faded, he gazed at duty with all the calm courage of his race, not at first recognising it as duty in its new and dreadful guise.
But night after night, patiently perplexed, he retraced his errant pathway through life, back to the source of doubt and pain; and, once arrived there, he remained, gazing with impartial eyes upon the ruin two young souls had wrought of their twin lives; and always, always somehow, confronting him among the debris, rose the spectre of their deathless responsibility to one another; and the inexorable life-sentence sounded ceaselessly in his ears: "For better or for worse—for better or for worse—till death do us part—till death—till death!"
Dreadful his duty—for man already had dared to sunder them, and he had acquiesced to save her in the eyes of the world! Dreadful, indeed—because he knew that he had never loved her, never could love her! Dreadful—doubly dreadful—for he now knew what love might be; and it was not what he had believed it when he executed the contract which must bind him while life endured.
Once, and not long since, he thought that, freed from the sad disgrace of the shadowy past, he had begun life anew. They told him—and he told himself—that a man had that right; that a man was no man who stood stunned and hopeless, confronting the future in fetters of conscience. And by that token he had accepted the argument as truth—because he desired to believe it—and he had risen erect and shaken himself free of the past—as he supposed; as though the past, which becomes part of us, can be shaken from tired shoulders with the first shudder of revolt!
No; he understood now that the past was part of him—as his limbs and head and body and mind were part of him. It had to be reckoned with—what he had done to himself, to the young girl united to him in bonds indissoluble except in death.
That she had strayed—under man-made laws held guiltless—could not shatter the tie. That he, blinded by hope, had hoped to remake a life already made, and had dared to masquerade before his own soul as a man free to come, to go, and free to love, could not alter what had been done. Back, far back of it all lay the deathless pact—for better or for worse. And nothing man might wish or say or do could change it. Always, always he must remain bound by that, no matter what others did or thought; always, always he was under obligations to the end.