And now, alone, abandoned, helplessly sick, utterly dependent upon the decency, the charity, the mercy of her legal paramour, the young girl who had once been his wife had not turned to him in vain.
Before the light of her shaken mind had gone out she had written him, incoherently, practically in extremis; and if he had hitherto doubted where his duty lay, from that moment he had no longer any doubt. And very quietly, hopelessly, and irrevocably he had crushed out of his soul the hope and promise of the new life dawning for him above the dead ashes of the past.
* * * * *
It was not easy to do; he had not ended it yet. He did not know how. There were ties to be severed, friendships to be gently broken, old scenes to be forgotten, memories to kill. There was also love—to be disposed of. And he did not know how.
First of all, paramount in his hopeless trouble, the desire to save others from pain persisted.
For that reason he had been careful that Gerald should not know where and how he was now obliged to live—lest the boy suspect and understand how much of Selwyn's little fortune it had taken to settle his debts of "honour" and free him from the sinister pressure of Neergard's importunities.
For that reason, too, he dreaded to have Austin know, because, if the truth were exposed, nothing in the world could prevent a violent and final separation between him and the foolish boy who now, at last, was beginning to show the first glimmering traces of character and common sense.
So he let it be understood that his address was his club for the present; for he also desired no scene with Boots, whom he knew would attempt to force him to live with him in his cherished and brand-new house. And even if he cared to accept and permit Boots to place him under such obligations, it would only hamper him in his duties.
Because now, what remained of his income must be devoted to Alixe.
Even before her case had taken the more hopeless turn, he had understood that she could not remain at Clifton. Such cases were neither desired nor treated there; he understood that. And so he had taken, for her, a pretty little villa at Edgewater, with two trained nurses to care for her, and a phaeton for her to drive.
And now she was installed there, properly cared for, surrounded by every comfort, contented—except in the black and violent crises which still swept her in recurrent storms—indeed, tranquil and happy; for through the troubled glimmer of departing reason, her eyes were already opening in the calm, unearthly dawn of second childhood.
Pain, sadness, the desolate awakening to dishonour had been forgotten; to her, the dead now lived; to her, the living who had been children with her were children again, and she a child among them. Outside of that dead garden of the past, peopled by laughing phantoms of her youth, but one single extraneous memory persisted—the memory of Selwyn—curiously twisted and readjusted to the comprehension of a child's mind—vague at times, at times wistfully elusive and incoherent—but it remained always a memory, and always a happy one.
He was obliged to go to her every three or four days. In the interim she seemed quite satisfied and happy, busy with the simple and pretty things she now cared for; but toward the third day of his absence she usually became restless, asking for him, and why he did not come. And then they telegraphed him, and he left everything and went, white-faced, stern of lip, to endure the most dreadful ordeal a man may face—to force the smile to his lips and gaiety into the shrinking soul of him, and sit with her in the pretty, sunny room, listening to her prattle, answering the childish questions, watching her, seated in her rocking-chair, singing contentedly to herself, and playing with her dolls and ribbons—dressing them, undressing, mending, arranging—until the heart within him quivered under the misery of it, and he turned to the curtained window, hands clinching convulsively, and teeth set to force back the strangling agony in his throat.
And the dreadful part of it all was that her appearance had remained unchanged—unless, perhaps, she was prettier, lovelier of face and figure than ever before; but in her beautiful dark eyes only the direct intelligence of a child answered his gaze of inquiry; and her voice, too, had become soft and hesitating, and the infantile falsetto sounded in it at times, sweet, futile, immature.
* * * * *
Thinking of these things now, he leaned heavily forward, elbows on the little table. And, suddenly unbidden, before his haunted eyes rose the white portico of Silverside, and the greensward glimmered, drenched in sunshine, and a slim figure in white stood there, arms bare, tennis-bat swinging in one tanned little hand.
Voices were sounding in his ears—Drina's laughter, Lansing's protest; Billy shouting to his eager pack; his sister's calm tones, admonishing the young—and through it all, her voice, clear, hauntingly sweet, pronouncing his name.
And he set his lean jaws tight and took a new grip on his pipe-stem, and stared, with pain-dulled eyes, at the white wall opposite.
But on the blank expanse the faintest tinge of colour appeared, growing clearer, taking shape as he stared; and slowly, slowly, under the soft splendour of her hair, two clear eyes of darkest blue opened under the languid lids and looked at him, and looked and looked until he closed his own, unable to endure the agony.
But even through his sealed lids he saw her; and her clear gaze pierced him, blinded as he was, leaning there, both hands pressed across his eyes.
Sooner or later—sooner or later he must write to her and tell what must be told. How to do it, when to do it, he did not know. What to say he did not know; but that there was something due her from him—something to say, something to confess—to ask her pardon for—he understood.
Happily for her—happily for him, alas!—love, in its full miracle, had remained beyond her comprehension. That she cared for him with all her young heart he knew; that she had not come to love him he knew, too. So that crowning misery of happiness was spared him.
Yet he knew, too, that there had been a chance for him; that her awakening had not been wholly impossible. Loyal in his soul to the dread duty before him, he must abandon hope; loyal in his heart to her, he must abandon her, lest, by chance, in the calm, still happiness of their intimacy the divine moment, unheralded, flash out through the veil, dazzling, blinding them with the splendour of its truth and beauty.
And now, leaning there, his face buried in his hands, hours that he spent with her came crowding back upon him, and in his ears her voice echoed and echoed, and his hands trembled with the scented memory of her touch, and his soul quivered and cried out for her.
Storm after storm swept him; and in the tempest he abandoned reason, blinded, stunned, crouching there with head lowered and his clenched hands across his face.
But storms, given right of way, pass on and over, and tempests sweep hearts cleaner; and after a long while he lifted his bowed head and sat up, squaring his shoulders.
Presently he picked up his pipe again, held it a moment, then laid it aside. Then he leaned forward, breathing deeply but quietly, and picked up a pen and a sheet of paper. For the time had come for his letter to her, and he was ready.
The letter he wrote was one of those gay, cheerful, inconsequential letters which, from the very beginning of their occasional correspondence, had always been to her most welcome and delightful.
Ignoring that maturity in her with which he had lately dared to reckon, he reverted to the tone which he had taken and maintained with her before the sweetness and seriousness of their relations had deepened to an intimacy which had committed him to an avowal.
News of all sorts humorously retailed—an amusing sketch of his recent journey to Washington and its doubtful results—matters that they both were interested in, details known only to them, a little harmless gossip—these things formed the body of his letter. There was never a hint of sorrow or discouragement—nothing to intimate that life had so utterly and absolutely changed for him—only a jolly, friendly badinage—an easy, light-hearted narrative, ending in messages to all and a frank regret that the pursuit of business and happiness appeared incompatible at the present moment.
His address, he wrote, was his club; he sent her, he said, under separate cover, a rather interesting pamphlet—a monograph on the symbolism displayed by the designs in Samarcand rugs and textiles of the Ming dynasty. And he ended, closing with a gentle jest concerning blue-stockings and rebellious locks of ruddy hair.
And signed his name.
* * * * *
Nina and Eileen, in travelling gowns and veils, stood on the porch at Silverside, waiting for the depot wagon, when Selwyn's letter was handed to Eileen.
The girl flushed up, then, avoiding Nina's eyes, turned and entered the house. Once out of sight, she swiftly mounted to her own room and dropped, breathless, on the bed, tearing the envelope from end to end. And from end to end, and back again and over again, she read the letter—at first in expectancy, lips parted, colour brilliant, then with the smile still curving her cheeks—but less genuine now—almost mechanical—until the smile stamped on her stiffening lips faded, and the soft contours relaxed, and she lifted her eyes, staring into space with a wistful, questioning lift of the pure brows.
What more had she expected? What more had she desired? Nothing, surely, of that emotion which she declined to recognise; surely not that sentiment of which she had admitted her ignorance to him. Again her eyes sought the pages, following the inked writing from end to end. What was she seeking there that he had left unwritten? What was she searching for, of which there was not one hint in all these pages?
And now Nina was calling her from the hall below; and she answered gaily and, hiding the letter in her long glove, came down the stairs.
"I'll tell you all about the letter in the train," she said; "he is perfectly well, and evidently quite happy; and Nina—"
"I want to send him a telegram. May I?"
"A dozen, if you wish," said Mrs. Gerard, "only, if you don't climb into that vehicle, we'll miss the train."
So on the way to Wyossette station Eileen sat very still, gloved hands folded in her lap, composing her telegram to Selwyn. And, once in the station, having it by heart already, she wrote it rapidly:
"Nina and I are on our way to the Berkshires for a week. House-party at the Craigs'. We stay overnight in town. E.E."
But the telegram went to his club, and waited for him there; and meanwhile another telegram arrived at his lodgings, signed by a trained nurse; and while Miss Erroll, in the big, dismantled house, lay in a holland-covered armchair, waiting for him, while Nina and Austin, reading their evening papers, exchanged significant glances from time to time, the man she awaited sat in the living-room in a little villa at Edgewater. And a slim young nurse stood beside him, cool and composed in her immaculate uniform, watching the play of light and shadow on a woman who lay asleep on the couch, fresh, young face flushed and upturned, a child's doll cradled between arm and breast.
* * * * *
"How long has she been asleep?" asked Selwyn under his breath.
"An hour. She fretted a good deal because you had not come. This afternoon she said she wished to drive, and I had the phaeton brought around; but when she saw it she changed her mind. I was rather afraid of an outburst—they come sometimes from less cause than that—so I did not urge her to go out. She played on the piano for a long while, and sang some songs—those curious native songs she learned in Manila. It seemed to soothe her; she played with her little trifles quite contentedly for a time, but soon began fretting again, and asking why you had not come. She had a bad hour later—she is quite exhausted now. Could you stay to-night, Captain Selwyn?"
"Y-es, if you think it better. . . . Wait a moment; I think she has awakened."
Alixe had turned her head, her lovely eyes wide open.
"Phil!" she cried, "is it you?"
He went forward and took the uplifted hands, smiling down at her.
"Such a horrid dream!" she said pettishly, "about a soft, plump man with ever so many rings on his hands. . . . Oh, I am glad you came. . . . Look at this child of mine!" cuddling the staring wax doll closer; "she's not undressed yet, and it's long, long after bedtime. Hand me her night-clothes, Phil."
The slim young nurse bent and disentangled a bit of lace and cambric from a heap on the floor, offering it to Selwyn. He laid it in the hand Alixe held out, and she began to undress the doll in her arms, prattling softly all the while:
"Late—oh, so very, very late! I must be more careful of her, Phil; because, if you and I grow up, some day we may marry, and we ought to know all about children. It would be great fun, wouldn't it?"
He nodded, forcing a smile.
"Don't you think so?" she persisted.
"Yes—yes, indeed," he said gently.
She laughed, contented with his answer, and laid her lips against the painted face of the doll.
"When we grow up, years from now—then we'll understand, won't we, Phil? . . . I am tired with playing. . . . And Phil—let me whisper something. Is that person gone?"
He turned and signed to the nurse, who quietly withdrew.
"Is she gone?" repeated Alixe.
"Then listen, Phil. Do you know what she and the other one are about all day? I know; I pretend not to, but I know. They are watching me every moment—always watching me, because they want to make you believe that I am forgetting you. But I am not. That is why I made them send for you so I could tell you myself that I could never, never forget you. . . . I think of you always while I am playing—always—always I am thinking of you. You will believe it, won't you?"
"Yes," he said.
Contented, she turned to her doll again, undressing it deftly, tenderly.
"At moments," she said, "I have an odd idea that it is real. I am not quite sure even now. Do you believe it is alive, Phil? Perhaps, at night, when I am asleep, it becomes alive. . . . This morning I awoke, laughing, laughing in delight—thinking I heard you laughing, too—as once—in the dusk where there were many roses and many stars—big stars, and very, very bright—I saw you—saw you—and the roses—"
She paused with a pained, puzzled look of appeal.
"Where was it, Phil?"
"In Manila town."
"Yes; and there were roses. But I was never there."
"You came out on the veranda and pelted me with roses. There were others there—officers and their wives. Everybody was laughing."
"Yes—but I was not there, Phil. . . . Who—who was the tall, thin bugler who sounded taps?"
"And—the little, girl-shaped, brown men?"
"I can't recollect," she said listlessly, laying the doll against her breast. "I think, Phil, that you had better be a little quiet now—she may wish to sleep. And I am sleepy, too," lifting her slender hand as a sign for him to take his leave.
As he went out the nurse said: "If you wish to return to town, you may, I think. She will forget about you for two or three days, as usual. Shall I telegraph if she becomes restless?"
"Yes. What does the doctor say to-day?"
The slim nurse looked at him under level brows.
"There is no change," she said.
"No hope." It was not even a question.
"No hope, Captain Selwyn."
He stood silent, tapping his leg with the stiff brim of his hat; then, wearily: "Is there anything more I can do for her?"
He turned away, bidding her good-night in a low voice.
* * * * *
He arrived in town about midnight, but did not go to any of his clubs. At one of them a telegram was awaiting him; and in a dismantled and summer-shrouded house a young girl was still expecting him, lying with closed eyes in a big holland-covered arm-chair, listening to the rare footfalls in the street outside.
But of these things he knew nothing; and he went wearily to his lodgings and climbed the musty stairs, and sat down in his old attitude before the table and the blank wall behind it, waiting for the magic frescoes to appear in all the vague loveliness of their hues and dyes, painting for him upon his chamber-walls the tinted paradise now lost to him for ever.
HIS OWN WAY
The winter promised to be a busy one for Selwyn. If at first he had had any dread of enforced idleness, that worry, at least, vanished before the first snow flew. For there came to him a secret communication from the Government suggesting, among other things, that he report, three times a week, at the proving grounds on Sandy Hook; that experiments with Chaosite as a bursting charge might begin as soon as he was ready with his argon primer; that officers connected with the bureau of ordnance and the marine laboratory had recommended the advisability of certain preliminary tests, and that the general staff seemed inclined to consider the matter seriously.
This meant work—hard, constant, patient work. But it did not mean money to help him support the heavy burdens he had assumed. If there were to be any returns, all that part of it lay in the future, and the future could not help him now.
Yet, unless still heavier burdens were laid upon him, he could hold on for the present; his bedroom cost him next to nothing; breakfast he cooked for himself, luncheon he dispensed with, and he dined at random—anywhere that appeared to promise seclusion, cheapness, and immunity from anybody he had ever known.
A minute and rather finicky care of his wardrobe had been second nature to him—the habits of a soldier systematised the routine—and he was satisfied that his clothes would outlast winter demands, although laundry expenses appalled him.
As for his clubs, he hung on to them, knowing the importance of appearances in a town which is made up of them. But this expense was all he could carry, for the demands of the establishment at Edgewater were steadily increasing with the early coming of winter; he was sent for oftener, and a physician was now in practically continual attendance.
Also, three times a week he boarded the Sandy Hook boat, returning always at night because he dared not remain at the reservation lest an imperative telegram from Edgewater find him unable to respond.
So, when in November the first few hurrying snow-flakes whirled in among the city's canons of masonry and iron, Selwyn had already systematised his winter schedule; and when Nina opened her house, returning from Lenox with Eileen to do so, she found that Selwyn had made his own arrangements for the winter, and that, according to the programme, neither she nor anybody else was likely to see him oftener than one evening in a week.
To Boots she complained bitterly, having had visions of Selwyn and Gerald as permanent fixtures of family support during the season now imminent.
"I cannot understand," she said, "why Philip is acting this way. He need not work like that; there is no necessity, because he has a comfortable income. If he is determined to maintain a stuffy apartment somewhere, of course I won't insist on his coming to us as he ought to, but to abandon us in this manner makes me almost indignant. Besides, it's having anything but a salutary effect on Eileen."
"What effect is it having on Eileen?" inquired Boots curiously.
"Oh, I don't know," said Nina, coming perilously close to a pout; "but I see symptoms—indeed I do, Boots!—symptoms of shirking the winter's routine. It's to be a gay season, too, and it's only her second. The idea of a child of that age informing me that she's had enough of the purely social phases of this planet! Did you ever hear anything like it? One season, if you please—and she finds it futile, stale, and unprofitable to fulfil the duties expected of her!"
Boots began to laugh, but it was no laughing matter to Nina, and she said so vigorously.
"It's Philip's fault. If he'd stand by us this winter she'd go anywhere—and enjoy it, too. Besides, he's the only man able to satisfy the blue-stocking in her between dances. But he's got this obstinate mania for seclusion, and he seldom comes near us, and it's driving Eileen into herself, Boots—and every day I catch her hair slumping over her ears—and once I discovered a lead-pencil behind 'em!—and a monograph on the Ming dynasty in her lap, all marked up with notes! Oh, Boots! Boots! I've given up all hopes of that brother of mine for her—but she could marry anybody, if she chose—anybody!—and she could twist the entire social circus into a court of her own and dominate everything. Everybody knows it; everybody says it! . . . And look at her!—indifferent, listless, scarcely civil any longer to her own sort, but galvanised into animation the moment some impossible professor or artist or hairy scientist flutters batlike into a drawing-room where he doesn't belong unless he's hired to be amusing! And that sounds horridly snobbish, I know; I am a snob about Eileen, but not about myself because it doesn't harm me to make round wonder-eyes at a Herr Professor or gaze intensely into the eyes of an artist when he's ornamental; it doesn't make my hair come down over my ears to do that sort of thing, and it doesn't corrupt me into slinking off to museum lectures or spending mornings prowling about the Society Library or the Chinese jades in the Metropolitan—"
Boots's continuous and unfeigned laughter checked the pretty, excited little matron, and after a moment she laughed, too.
"Dear Boots," she said, "can't you help me a little? I really am serious. I don't know what to do with the girl. Philip never comes near us—once a week for an hour or two, which is nothing—and the child misses him. There—the murder is out! Eileen misses him. Oh, she doesn't say so—she doesn't hint it, or look it; but I know her; I know. She misses him; she's lonely. And what to do about it I don't know, Boots, I don't know."
Lansing had ceased laughing. He had been indulging in tea—a shy vice of his which led him to haunt houses where that out-of-fashion beverage might still be had. And now he sat, cup suspended, saucer held meekly against his chest, gazing out at the pelting snow-flakes.
"Boots, dear," said Nina, who adored him, "tell me what to do. Tell me what has gone amiss between my brother and Eileen. Something has. And whatever it is, it began last autumn—that day when—you remember the incident?"
"Well, it seemed to upset everybody, somehow. Philip left the next day; do you remember? And Eileen has never been quite the same. Of course, I don't ascribe it to that unpleasant episode—even a young girl gets over a shock in a day. But the—the change—or whatever it is—dated from that night. . . . They—Philip and Eileen—had been inseparable. It was good for them—for her, too. And as for Phil—why, he looked about twenty-one! . . . Boots, I—I had hoped—expected—and I was right! They were on the verge of it!"
"I think so, too," he said.
She looked up curiously.
"Did Philip ever say—"
"No; he never says, you know."
"I thought that men—close friends—sometimes did."
"Sometimes—in romantic fiction. Phil wouldn't; nor," he added smilingly, "would I."
"How do you know, Boots?" she asked, leaning back to watch him out of mischievous eyes. "How do you know what you'd do if you were in love—with Gladys, for example?"
"I know perfectly well," he said, "because I am."
"In love!" incredulously.
"Oh—you mean Drina."
"Who else?" he asked lightly.
"I thought you were speaking seriously. I"—all her latent instinct for such meddling aroused—"I thought perhaps you meant Gladys."
"Gladys who?" he asked blandly.
"Gladys Orchil, silly! People said—"
"Oh, Lord!" he exclaimed; "if people 'said,' then it's all over. Nina! do I look like a man on a still hunt for a million?"
"Gladys is a beauty!" retorted Nina indignantly.
"With the intellect of a Persian kitten," he nodded. "I—that was not a nice thing to say. I'm sorry. I'm ashamed. But, do you know, I have come to regard my agreement with Drina so seriously that I take absolutely no interest in anybody else."
"Try to be serious, Boots," said Nina. "There are dozens of nice girls you ought to be agreeable to. Austin and I were saying only last night what a pity it is that you don't find either of the Minster twins interesting—"
"I might find them compoundly interesting," he admitted, "but unfortunately there's no chance in this country for multiple domesticity and the simpler pleasures of a compound life. It's no use, Nina; I'm not going to marry any girl for ever so long—anyway, not until Drina releases me on her eighteenth birthday. Hello!—somebody's coming—and I'm off!"
"I'm not at home; don't go!" said Nina, laying one hand on his arm to detain him as a card was brought up. "Oh, it's only Rosamund Fane! I did promise to go to the Craigs' with her. . . . Do you mind if she comes up?"
"Not if you don't," said Boots blandly. He could not endure Rosamund and she detested him; and Nina, who was perfectly aware of this, had just enough of perversity in her to enjoy their meeting.
Rosamund came in breezily, sables powdered with tiny flecks of snow, cheeks like damask roses, eyes of turquoise.
"How d'ye do!" she nodded, greeting Boots askance as she closed with Nina. "I came, you see, but do you want to be jammed and mauled and trodden on at the Craigs'? No? That's perfect!—neither do I. Where is the adorable Eileen? Nobody sees her any more."
"She was at the Delmour-Carnes's yesterday."
"Was she? Curious I didn't see her. Tea? With gratitude, dear, if it's Scotch."
She sat erect, the furs sliding to the back of the chair, revealing the rather accented details of her perfectly turned figure; and rolling up her gloves she laid her pretty head on one side and considered Boots with very bright and malicious eyes.
"They say," she said, smiling, "that some very heavy play goes on in that cunning little new house of yours, Mr. Lansing."
"Really?" he asked blandly.
"Yes; and I'm wondering if it is true."
"I shouldn't think you'd care, Mrs. Fane, as long as it makes a good story."
Rosamund flushed. Then, always alive to humour, laughed frankly.
"What a nasty thing to say to a woman!" she observed; "it fairly reeks impertinence. Mr. Lansing, you don't like me very well, do you?"
"I dare not," he said, "because you are married. If you were only free a vinculo matrimonii—"
Rosamund laughed again, and sat stroking her muff and smiling. "Curious, isn't it?" she said to Nina—"the inborn antipathy of two agreeable human bipeds for one another. Similis simili gaudet—as my learned friend will admit. But with us it's the old, old case of that eminent practitioner, the late Dr. Fell. Esto perpetua! Oh, well! We can't help it, can we, Mr. Lansing?" And again to Nina: "Dear, have you heard anything about Alixe Ruthven? I think it is the strangest thing that nobody seems to know where she is. And all anybody can get out of Jack is that she's in a nerve factory—or some such retreat—and a perfect wreck. She might as well be dead, you know."
"In that case," observed Lansing, "it might be best to shift the centre of gossip. De mortuis nil nisi bonum—which is simple enough for anybody to comprehend."
"That is rude, Mr. Lansing," flashed out Rosamund; and to his astonishment he saw the tears start to her eyes.
"I beg your pardon," he said sulkily.
"You do well to. I care more for Alixe Ruthven than—than you give me credit for caring about anybody. People are never wholly worthless, Mr. Lansing—only the very young think that. Give me credit for one wholly genuine affection, and you will not be too credulous; and perhaps in future you and I may better be able to endure one another when Fate lands us at the same tea-table."
Boots said respectfully: "I am sorry for what I said, Mrs. Pane. I hope that your friend Mrs. Ruthven will soon recover."
Rosamund looked at Nina, the tears still rimming her lids. "I miss her frightfully," she said. "If somebody would only tell me where she is—I—I know it could do no harm for me to see her. I can be as gentle and loyal as anybody—when I really care for a person. . . . Do you know where she might be, Nina?"
"I? No, I do not. I'd tell you if I did, Rosamund."
"Don't you know?"
"Why, no," said Nina, surprised at her persistence.
"Because," continued Rosamund, "your brother does."
Nina straightened up, flushed and astonished.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
"Because he does know. He sent her to Clifton. The maid who accompanied her is in my service now. It's a low way of finding out things, but we all do it."
"He—sent Alixe to—to Clifton!" repeated Nina incredulously. "Your maid told you that?"
Rosamund finished the contents of her slim glass and rose. "Yes; and it was a brave and generous and loyal thing for him to do. I supposed you knew it. Jack has been too beastly to her; she was on the verge of breaking down when I saw her on the Niobrara, and she told me then that her husband had practically repudiated her. . . . Then she suddenly disappeared; and her maid, later, came to me seeking a place. That's how I knew, and that's all I know. And I care for Alixe; and I honour your brother for what he did."
She stood with pretty golden head bent, absently arranging the sables around her neck and shoulders.
"I have been very horrid to Captain Selwyn," she said quietly. "Tell him I am sorry; that he has my respect. . . . And—if he cares to tell me where Alixe is I shall be grateful and do no harm."
She turned toward the door, stopped short, came back, and made her adieux, then started again toward the door, not noticing Lansing.
"With your permission," said Boots at her shoulder in a very low voice.
She looked up, surprised, her eyes still wet. Then comprehending the compliment of his attendance, acknowledged it with a faint smile.
"Good-night," he said to Nina. Then he took Rosamund down to her brougham with a silent formality that touched her present sentimental mood.
She leaned from her carriage-window, looking at him where he stood, hat in hand, in the thickly falling snow.
"Please—without ceremony, Mr. Lansing." And, as he covered himself, "May I not drop you at your destination?"
"Thank you"—in refusal.
"I thank you for being nice to me. . . . Please believe there is often less malice than perversity in me. I—I have a heart, Mr. Lansing—such as it is. And often those I torment most I care for most. It was so with Alixe. Good-bye."
Boots's salute was admirably formal; then he went on through the thickening snow, swung vigorously across the Avenue to the Park-wall, and, turning south, continued on parallel to it under the naked trees.
It must have been thick weather on the river and along the docks, for the deep fog-horns sounded persistently over the city, and the haunted warning of the sirens filled the leaden sky lowering through the white veil descending in flakes that melted where they fell.
And, as Lansing strode on, hands deep in his overcoat, more than one mystery was unravelling before his keen eyes that blinked and winked as the clinging snow blotted his vision.
Now he began to understand something of the strange effacement of his friend Selwyn; he began to comprehend the curious economies practised, the continued absence from club and coterie, the choice of the sordid lodging whither Boots, one night, seeing him on the street by chance, had shamelessly tracked him—with no excuse for the intrusion save his affection for this man and his secret doubts of the man's ability to take care of himself and his occult affairs.
Now he was going there, exactly what to do he did not yet know, but with the vague determination to do something.
On the wet pavements and reeking iron overhead structure along Sixth Avenue the street lights glimmered, lending to the filthy avenue under its rusty tunnel a mystery almost picturesque.
Into it he turned, swung aboard a car as it shot groaning and clanking around the curve from Fifty-ninth Street, and settled down to brood and ponder and consider until it was time for him to swing off the car into the slimy street once more.
Silvery pools of light inlaid the dim expanse of Washington Square. He turned east, then south, then east again, and doubled into a dim street, where old-time houses with toppling dormers crowded huddling together as though in the cowering contact there was safety from the destroyer who must one day come, bringing steel girders and cement to mark their graves with sky-scraping monuments of stone.
Into the doorway of one of these houses Lansing turned. When the town was young a Lansing had lived there in pomp and circumstance—his own great-grandfather—and he smiled grimly, amused at the irony of things terrestrial.
A slattern at the door halted him:
"Nobody ain't let up them stairs without my knowin' why," she mumbled.
"I want to see Captain Selwyn," he explained.
"Hey? I'm a little deef!" screeched the old crone. "Is it Cap'n Selwyn you want?"
Above, Selwyn, hearing his name screamed through the shadows of the ancient house, came to the stairwell and looked down into the blackness.
"What is it, Mrs. Glodden?" he said sharply; then, catching sight of a dim figure springing up the stairs:
"Here! this way. Is it for me?" and as Boots came into the light from his open door: "Oh!" he whispered, deadly pale under the reaction; "I thought it was a telegram. Come in."
Boots shook the snow from his hat and coat into the passageway and took the single chair; Selwyn, tall and gaunt in his shabby dressing-gown, stood looking at him and plucking nervously at the frayed and tasselled cord around his waist.
"I don't know how you came to stumble in here," he said at length, "but I'm glad to see you."
"Thanks," replied Boots, gazing shamelessly and inquisitively about. There was nothing to see except a few books, a pipe or two, toilet articles, and a shaky gas-jet. The flat military trunk was under the iron bed.
"I—it's not much of a place," observed Selwyn, forcing a smile. "However, you see I'm so seldom in town; I'm busy at the Hook, you know. So I don't require anything elaborate."
"Yes, I know," said Boots solemnly. A silence.
"H—have a pipe?" inquired Selwyn uneasily. He had nothing else to offer.
Boots leaned back in his stiff chair, crossed his legs, and filled a pipe. When he had lighted it he said:
"How are things, Phil?"
"All right. First rate, thank you."
Boots removed the pipe from his lips and swore at him; and Selwyn listened with head obstinately lowered and lean hands plucking at his frayed girdle. And when Boots had ended his observations with an emphatic question, Selwyn shook his head:
"No, Boots. You're very good to ask me to stop with you, but I can't. I'd be hampered; there are matters—affairs that concern me—that need instant attention at times—at certain times. I must be free to go, free to come. I couldn't be in your house. Don't ask me. But I'm—I thank you for offering—"
"Are you broke?"
"Ah—a little"—with a smile.
"Will you take what you require from me?"
"Oh—very well. I was horribly afraid you would."
Selwyn laughed and leaned back, indenting his meagre pillow.
"Come, Boots," he said, "you and I have often had worse quarters than this. To tell you the truth I rather like it than otherwise."
"Oh, damn!" said Boots, disgusted; "the same old conscience in the same old mule! Who likes squalidity? I don't. You don't! What if Fate has hit you a nasty swipe! Suppose Fortune has landed you a few in the slats! It's only temporary and you know it. All business in the world is conducted on borrowed capital. It's your business to live in decent quarters, and I'm here to lend you the means of conducting that business. Oh, come on, Phil, for Heaven's sake! If there were really any reason—any logical reason for this genius-in-the-garret business, I'd not say a word. But there isn't; you're going to make money—"
"Oh, yes, I've got to," said Selwyn simply.
"Well, then! In the meanwhile—"
"No. Listen, Boots; I couldn't be free in your house. I—they—there are telegrams—unexpected ones—at all hours."
"What of it?"
"You don't understand."
"Wait a bit! How do you know I don't? Do the telegrams come from Sandy Hook?"
Boots looked him calmly in the eye. "Then I do understand, old man. Come on out of this, in Heaven's name! Come, now! Get your dressing-gown off and your coat on! Don't you think I understand? I tell you I do! Yes, the whole blessed, illogical, chivalrous business. . . . Never mind how I know—for I won't tell you! Oh, I'm not trying to interfere with you; I know enough to shun buzz-saws. All I want is for you to come and take that big back room and help a fellow live in a lonely house—help a man to make it cheerful. I can't stand it alone any longer; and it will be four years before Drina is eighteen."
"Drina!" repeated Selwyn blankly—then he laughed. It was genuine laughter, too; and Boots grinned and puffed at his pipe, and recrossed his legs, watching Selwyn out of eyes brightening with expectancy.
"Then it's settled," he said.
"What? Your ultimate career with Drina?"
"Oh, yes; that also. But I referred to your coming to live with me."
"Oh, fizz! Come on. I don't like the way you act, Phil."
Selwyn said slowly: "Do you make it a personal matter—"
"Yes, I do; dam'f I don't! You'll be perfectly free there. I don't care what you do or where you go or what hours you keep. You can run up and down Broadway all night, if you want to, or you can stop at home and play with the cats. I've three fine ones"—he made a cup of his hands and breathed into them, for the room was horribly cold—"three fine tabbies, and a good fire for 'em to blink at when they start purring."
He looked kindly but anxiously at Selwyn, waiting for a word; and as none came he said:
"Old fellow, you can't fool me with your talk about needing nothing better because you're out of town all the time. You know what you and I used to talk about in the old days—our longing for a home and an open fire and a brace of cats and bedroom slippers. Now I've got 'em, and I make Ardois signals at you. If your shelter-tent got afire or blew away, wouldn't you crawl into mine? And are you going to turn down an old tent-mate because his shack happens to be built of bricks?"
"Do you put it that way?"
"Yes, I do. Why, in Heaven's name, do you want to stay in a vile hole like this—unless you're smitten with Mrs. Glodden? Phil, I want you to come. Will you?"
"Then—I'll accept a corner of your blanket—for a day or two," said Selwyn wearily. . . . "You'll let me go when I want to?"
"I'll do more; I'll make you go when I want you to. Come on; pay Mrs. Glodden and have your trunk sent."
Selwyn forced a laugh, then sat up on the bed's edge and looked around at the unpapered walls.
"Boots—you won't say to—to anybody what sort of a place I've been living in—"
"No; but I will if you try to come back here."
So Selwyn stood up and began to remove his dressing-gown, and Lansing dragged out the little flat trunk and began to pack it.
An hour later they went away together through the falling snow.
* * * * *
For a week Boots let him alone. He had a big, comfortable room, dressing-closet, and bath adjoining the suite occupied by his host; he was absolutely free to go and come, and for a week or ten days Boots scarcely laid eyes on him, except at breakfast, for Selwyn's visits to Sandy Hook became a daily routine except when a telegram arrived from Edgewater calling him there.
But matters at Edgewater were beginning to be easier in one way for him. Alixe appeared to forget him for days at a time; she was less irritable, less restless and exacting. A sweet-tempered and childish docility made the care of her a simpler matter for the nurses and for him; her discontent had disappeared; she made fewer demands. She did ask for a sleigh to replace the phaeton, and Selwyn managed to get one for her; and Miss Casson, one of the nurses, wrote him how delighted Alixe had been, and how much good the sleighing was doing her.
"Yesterday," continued the nurse in her letter, "there was a consultation here between Drs. Vail, Wesson, and Morrison—as you requested. They have not changed their opinions—indeed, they are convinced that there is no possible chance of the recovery you hoped for when you talked with Dr. Morrison. They all agree that Mrs. Ruthven is in excellent physical condition—young, strong, vigorous—and may live for years; may outlive us all. But there is nothing else to expect."
The letter ran on:
"I am enclosing the bills you desired to have sent you. Fuel is very expensive, as you will see. The items for fruits, too, seems unreasonably large, but grapes are two dollars a pound and fresh vegetables dreadfully expensive.
"Mrs. Ruthven is comfortable and happy in the luxury provided. She is very sweet and docile with us all—and we are careful not to irritate her or to have anything intrude which might excite or cause the slightest shock to her.
"Yesterday, standing at the window, she caught sight of a passing negro, and she turned to me like a flash and said:
"'The Tenth Cavalry were there!'
"She seemed rather excited for a moment—not unpleasantly—but when I ventured to ask her a question, she had quite forgotten it all.
"I meant to thank you for sending me the revolver and cartridges. It seemed a silly request, but we are in a rather lonely place, and I think Miss Bond and I feel a little safer knowing that, in case of necessity, we have something to frighten away any roaming intruder who might take it into his head to visit us.
"One thing we must be careful about: yesterday Mrs. Ruthven had a doll on my bed, and I sat sewing by the window, not noticing what she was doing until I heard her pretty, pathetic little laugh.
"And what do you think she had done? She had discovered your revolver under my pillow, and she had tied her handkerchief around it, and was using it as a doll!
"I got it away with a little persuasion, but at times she still asks for her 'army' doll—saying that a boy she knew, named Philip, had sent it to her from Manila, where he was living.
"This, Captain Selwyn, is all the news. I do not think she will begin to fret for you again for some time. At first, you remember, it was every other day, then every three or four days. It has now been a week since she asked for you. When she does I will, as usual, telegraph you.
"With many thanks for your kindness to us all, "Very respectfully yours,
Selwyn read this letter sitting before the fire in the living-room, feet on the fender, pipe between his teeth. It was the first day of absolute rest he had had in a long while.
The day before he had been at the Hook until almost dark, watching the firing of a big gun, and the results had been so satisfactory that he was venturing to give himself a holiday—unless wanted at Edgewater.
But the morning had brought this letter; Alixe was contented and comfortable. So when Boots, after breakfast, went off to his Air Line office, Selwyn permitted himself the luxury of smoking-jacket and slippers, and settled down before the fire to reread the letter and examine the enclosed bills, and ponder and worry over them at his ease. To have leisure to worry over perplexities was something; to worry in such luxury as this seemed something so very near to happiness that as he refolded the last bill for household expenses he smiled faintly to himself.
Boots's three tabby-cats were disposed comfortably before the blaze, fore paws folded under, purring and blinking lazily at the grate. All around were evidences of Boots's personal taste in pretty wall-paper and hangings, a few handsome Shiraz rugs underfoot, deep, comfortable chairs, low, open bookcases full of promising literature—the more promising because not contemporary.
Selwyn loved such a room as this—where all was comfort, and nothing in the quiet, but cheerful, ensemble disturbed the peaceful homeliness.
Once—and not very long since—he had persuaded himself that there had been a chance for him to have such a home, and live in it—not alone. That chance had gone—had never really existed, he knew now. For sooner or later he must have awakened from the pleasant dreams of self-persuasion to the reality of his relentless responsibility. No, there had never been such a chance; and he thanked God that he had learned before it was too late that for him there could be no earthly paradise, no fireside a deux, no home, no hope of it.
As long as Alixe lived his spiritual responsibility must endure. And they had just told him that she might easily outlive them all.
He turned heavily in his chair and stared at the fire. Perhaps he saw infernal visions in the flames; perhaps the blaze meant nothing more to him than an example of chemical reaction, for his face was set and colourless and vacant, and his hands lay loosely along the padded arms of his easy-chair.
The hardest lesson he had to learn in these days was to avoid thinking. Or, if he must surrender to the throbbing, unbidden memories which came crowding in hordes to carry him by the suddenness of their assault, that he learn to curb and subdue and direct them in pity toward that hopeless, helpless, stricken creature who was so utterly dependent upon him in her dreadful isolation.
And he could not so direct them.
Loyal in act and deed, his thoughts betrayed him. Memories, insurgent, turned on him to stab him; and he shrank from them, cowering among his pillows at midnight. But memory is merciless, and what has been is without pity; and so remembrance rose at midnight from its cerements, like a spectre, floating before his covered eyes, wearing the shape of youth and love, crowned with the splendour of her hair, looking at him out of those clear, sweet eyes whose gaze was purity and truth eternal.
And truth is truth, though he might lie with hands clinched across his brow to shut out the wraith of it that haunted him; though he might set his course by the faith that was in him, and put away the hope of the world—whose hope is love—the truth was there, staring, staring at him out of Eileen Erroll's dark-blue eyes.
* * * * *
He had seen her seldom that winter. When he had seen her their relations appeared to be as happy, as friendly as before; there was no apparent constraint, nothing from her to indicate that she noticed an absence for which his continual business with the Government seemed sufficient excuse.
Besides, her days were full days, consequent upon Nina's goading and indefatigable activity; and Eileen danced and received, and she bridged and lunched, and she heard opera Wednesdays and was good to the poor on Fridays; and there were balls, and theatres, and classes for intellectual improvement, and routine duties incident to obligations born with those inhabitants of Manhattan who are numbered among the thousand caryatides that support upon their jewelled necks and naked shoulders the social structure of the metropolis.
But Selwyn, unable longer to fulfil his social obligations, was being quietly eliminated from the social scheme of things. Passed over here, dropped there, counted out as one more man not to be depended upon, it was not a question of loss of caste; he simply stayed away, and his absence was accepted by people who, in the breathless pleasure chase, have no leisure to inquire why a man has lagged behind.
There were rumours, however, that he had merely temporarily donned overalls for the purpose of making a gigantic fortune; and many an envious young fellow asked his pretty partner in the dance if it was true, and many a young girl frankly hoped it was, and that the fortune would be quick in the making. For Selwyn was well liked in the younger set, and that he was in process of becoming eligible interested everybody except Gladys and the Minster twins, who considered him sufficiently eligible without the material additions required by their cynical seniors, and would rather have had him penniless and present than absent and opulent.
But they were young and foolish, and after a while they forgot to miss him, particularly Gladys, whose mother had asked her not to dance quite so often with Gerald, and to favour him a trifle less frequently in cotillon. Which prevoyance had been coped with successfully by Nina, who, noticing it, at first took merely a perverse pleasure in foiling Mrs. Orchil; but afterward, as the affair became noticeable, animated by the instinct of the truly clever opportunist, she gave Gerald every fighting chance. Whatever came of it—and, no doubt, the Orchils had more ambitious views for Gladys—it was well to have Gerald mentioned in such a fashionable episode, whether anything came of it or not.
Gerald, in the early days of his affair with Gladys, and before even it had assumed the proportions of an affair, had shyly come to Selwyn, not for confession but with the crafty purpose of introducing her name into the conversation so that he might have the luxury of talking about her to somebody who would neither quiz him nor suspect him.
Selwyn, of course, ultimately suspected him; but as he never quizzed him, Gerald continued his elaborate system of subterfuges to make her personality and doings a topic for him to expand upon and Selwyn to listen to.
It had amused Selwyn; he thought of it now—a gay memory like a ray of light flung for a moment across the sombre background of his own sadness. Fortunate or unfortunate, Gerald was still lucky in his freedom to hazard it with chance and fate.
Freedom to love! That alone was blessed, though that love be unreturned. Without that right—the right to love—a man was no man. Lansing had been correct: such a man was a spectre in a living world—the ghost of what he had been. But there was no help for it, and there Lansing had been in the wrong. No hope, no help, nothing for it but to set a true course and hang to it.
And Selwyn's dull eyes rested upon the ashes of the fire, and he saw his dead youth among them; and, in the flames, his maturity burning to embers.
If he outlived Alixe, his life would lie as the ashes lay at his feet. If she outlived him—and they had told him there was every chance of it—at least he would have something to busy himself with in life if he was to leave her provided for when he was no longer there to stand between her and charity.
That meant work—the hard, incessant, blinding, stupefying work which stuns thought and makes such a life endurable.
Not that he had ever desired death as a refuge or as a solution of despair; there was too much of the soldier in him. Besides, it is so impossible for youth to believe in death, to learn to apply the word to themselves. He had not learned to, and he had seen death, and watched it; but for himself he had not learned to believe in it. When one turns forty it is easier to credit it.
Thinking of death, impersonally, he sat watching the flames playing above the heavy log; and as he lay there in his chair, the unlighted pipe drooping in his hands, the telephone on the desk rang, and he rose and unhooked the receiver.
Drina's voice sounded afar, and: "Hello, sweetheart!" he said gaily; "is there anything I can do for your youthful highness?"
"I've been talking over the 'phone to Boots," she said. "You know, whenever I have nothing to do I call up Boots at his office and talk to him."
"That must please him," suggested Selwyn gravely.
"It does. Boots says you are not going to business to-day. So I thought I'd call you up."
"Thank you," said Selwyn.
"You are welcome. What are you doing over there in Boots's house?"
"Looking at the fire, Drina, and listening to the purring of three fat tabby-cats."
"Oh! Mother and Eileen have gone somewhere. I haven't anything to do for an hour. Can't you come around?"
"Why, yes, if you want me."
"Yes, I do. Of course I can't have Boots, and I prefer you next. The children are fox-hunting, and it bores me. Will you come?"
"Now. And would you mind bringing me a box of mint-paste? Mother won't object. Besides, I'll tell her, anyway, after I've eaten them."
"All right!" said Selwyn, laughing and hanging up the receiver.
On his way to the Gerards' he bought a box of the confection dear to Drina. But as he dropped the packet into his overcoat-pocket, the memory of the past rose up suddenly, halting him. He could not bear to go to the house without some little gift for Eileen, and it was violets now as it was in the days that could never dawn again—a great, fragrant bunch of them, which he would leave for her after his brief play-hour with Drina was ended.
The child was glad to see him, and expressed herself so, coming across to the chair where he sat and leaning against him, one arm on his shoulder.
"Do you know," she said, "that I miss you ever so much? Do you know, also, that I am nearly fourteen, and that there is nobody in this house near enough my age to be very companionable? I have asked them to send me to school, and mother is considering it."
She leaned against his shoulder, curly head bent, thoughtfully studying the turquoise ring on her slim finger. It was her first ring. Nina had let Boots give it to her.
"What a tall girl you are growing into!" he said, encircling her waist with one arm. "Your mother was like you at fourteen. . . . Did she ever tell you how she first met your father? Well, I'll tell you then. Your father was a schoolboy of fifteen, and one day he saw the most wonderful little girl riding a polo pony out of the Park. Her mother was riding with her. And he lost his head, and ran after her until she rode into the Academy stables. And in he went, headlong, after her, and found her dismounted and standing with her mother; and he took off his hat, and he said to her mother: 'I've run quite a long way to tell you who I am: I am Colonel Gerard's son, Austin. Would you care to know me?'
"And he looked at the little girl, who had curls precisely like yours, and the same little nose and mouth. And that little girl, who is now your mother, said very simply: 'Won't you come home to luncheon with us? May he, mother? He has run a very long way to be polite to us.'
"And your mother's mother looked at the boy for a moment, smiling, for he was the image of his father, who had been at school with her. Then she said: 'Come to luncheon and tell me about your father. Your father once came a thousand miles to see me, but I had started the day before on my wedding-trip.'
* * * * *
"And that is how your father first met your mother, when she was a little girl."
Drina laughed: "What a funny boy father was to run after a strange girl on a polo pony! . . . Suppose—suppose he had not seen her, and had not run after her. . . . Where would I be now, Uncle Philip? . . . Could you please tell me?"
"Still aloft among the cherubim, sweetheart."
"But—whose uncle would you be? And who would Boots have found for a comrade like me? . . . It's a good thing that father ran after that polo pony. . . . Probably God arranged it. Do you think so?"
"There is no harm in thinking it," he said, smiling.
"No; no harm. I've known for a long while that He was taking care of Boots for me until I grow up. Meanwhile, I know some very nice Harvard freshmen and two boys from St. Paul and five from Groton. That helps, you know."
"Helps what?" asked Selwyn, vastly amused.
"To pass the time until I am eighteen," said the child serenely, helping herself to another soft, pale-green chunk of the aromatic paste. "Uncle Philip, mother has forbidden me—and I'll tell her and take my punishment—but would you mind telling me how you first met my Aunt Alixe?"
Selwyn's arm around her relaxed, then tightened.
"Why do you ask, dear?" he said very quietly.
"Because I was just wondering whether God arranged that, too."
Selwyn looked at her a moment. "Yes," he said grimly; "nothing happens by chance."
"Then, when God arranges such things, He does not always consider our happiness."
"He gives us our chance, Drina."
"Oh! Did you have a chance? I heard mother say to Eileen that you had never had a chance for happiness. I thought it was very sad. I had gone into the clothes-press to play with my dolls—you know I still do play with them—that is, I go into some secret place and look at them at times when the children are not around. So I was in there, sitting on the cedar-chest, and I couldn't help hearing what they said."
She extracted another bonbon, bit into it, and shook her head:
"And mother said to Eileen: 'Dearest, can't you learn to care for him?' And Eileen—"
"Drina!" he interrupted sharply, "you must not repeat things you overhear."
"Oh, I didn't hear anything more," said the child, "because I remembered that I shouldn't listen, and I came out of the closet. Mother was standing by the bed, and Eileen was lying on the bed with her hands over her eyes; and I didn't know she had been crying until I said: 'Please excuse me for listening,' and she sat up very quickly, and I saw her face was flushed and her eyes wet. . . . Isn't it possible for you to marry anybody, Uncle Philip?"
"Not even if Eileen would marry you?"
"You could not understand, dear. Even your mother cannot quite understand. So we won't ever speak of it again, Drina."
The child balanced a bonbon between thumb and forefinger, considering it very gravely.
"I know something that mother does not," she said. And as he betrayed no curiosity:
"Eileen is in love. I heard her say so."
He straightened up sharply, turning to look at her.
"I was sleeping with her. I was still awake, and I heard her say: 'I do love you—I do love you.' She said it very softly, and I cuddled up, supposing she meant me. But she was asleep."
"She certainly meant you," said Selwyn, forcing his stiffened lips into a smile.
The child shook her head, looking down at the ring which she was turning on her finger:
"No; she did not mean me."
"H-how do you know?"
"Because she said a man's name."
The silence lengthened; he sat, tilted a little forward, blank gaze focussed on the snowy window; Drina, standing, leaned back into the hollow of his arm, absently studying her ring.
A few moments later her music-teacher arrived, and Drina was obliged to leave him.
"If you don't wait until I have finished my music," she said, "you won't see mother and Eileen. They are coming to take me to the riding-school at four o'clock."
He said that he couldn't stay that day; and when she had gone away to the schoolroom he walked slowly to the window and looked out across the snowy Park, where hundreds of children were floundering about with gaily painted sleds. It was a pretty scene in the sunshine; crimson sweaters and toboggan caps made vivid spots of colour on the white expanse. Beyond, through the naked trees, he could see the drive, and the sleighs with their brilliant scarlet plumes and running-gear flashing in the sun. Overhead was the splendid winter blue of the New York sky, in which, at a vast height, sea-birds circled.
Meaning to go—for the house and its associations made him restless—he picked up the box of violets and turned to ring for a maid to take charge of them—and found himself confronting Eileen, who, in her furs and gloves, was just entering the room.
"I came up," she said; "they told me you were here, calling very formally upon Drina, if you please. What with her monopoly of you and Boots, there seems to be no chance for Nina and me."
They shook hands pleasantly; he offered her the box of violets, and she thanked him and opened it, and, lifting the heavy, perfumed bunch, bent her fresh young face to it. For a moment she stood inhaling the scent, then stretched out her arm, offering their fragrance to him.
"The first night I ever knew you, you sent me about a wagon-load of violets," she said carelessly.
He nodded pleasantly; she tossed her muff on to the library table, stripped off her gloves, and began to unhook her fur coat, declining his aid with a quick shake of her head.
"It is easy—you see!"—as the sleeves slid from her arms and the soft mass of fur fell into a chair. "And, by the way, Drina said that you couldn't wait to see Nina," she continued, turning to face a mirror and beginning to withdraw the jewelled pins from her hat, "so you won't for a moment consider it necessary to remain just because I wandered in—will you?"
He made no reply; she was still busy with her veil and hat and her bright, glossy hair, the ends of which curled up at the temples—a burnished frame for her cheeks which the cold had delicately flushed to a wild-rost tint. Then, brushing back the upcurled tendrils of her hair, she turned to confront him, faintly smiling, brows lifted in silent repetition of her question.
"I will stay until Nina comes, if I may," he said slowly.
She seated herself. "You may," she said mockingly; "we don't allow you in the house very often, so when you do come you may remain until the entire family can congregate to inspect you." She leaned back, looking at him; then look and manner changed, and she bent impulsively forward:
"You don't look very well, Captain Selwyn; are you?"
"Perfectly. I"—he laughed—"I am growing old; that is all."
"Do you say that to annoy me?" she asked, with a disdainful shrug, "or to further impress me?"
He shook his head and touched the hair at his temples significantly.
"Pooh!" she retorted. "It is becoming—is that what you mean?"
"I hope it is. There's no reason why a man should not grow old gracefully—"
"Captain Selwyn! But of course you only say it to bring out that latent temper of mine. It's about the only thing that does it, too. . . . And please don't plague me—if you've only a few moments to stay. . . . It may amuse you to know that I, too, am exhibiting signs of increasing infirmity; my temper, if you please, is not what it once was."
"Worse than ever?" he asked in pretended astonishment.
"Far worse. It is vicious. Kit-Ki took a nap on a new dinner-gown of mine, and I slapped her. And the other day Drina hid in a clothes-press while Nina was discussing my private affairs, and when the little imp emerged I could have shaken her. Oh, I am certainly becoming infirm; so if you are, too, comfort yourself with the knowledge that I am keeping pace with you through the winter of our discontent."
At the mention of the incident of which Drina had already spoken to him, Selwyn raised his head and looked at the girl curiously. Then he laughed.
"I am wondering," he said in a bantering voice, "what secrets Drina heard. I think I'd better ask her—"
"You had better not! Besides, I said nothing at all."
"But Nina did."
She nodded, lying there, arms raised, hands clasping the upholstered wings of the big chair, and gazing at him out of indolent, amused eyes.
"Would you like to know what Nina was saying to me?" she asked.
"I'd rather hear what you said to her."
"I told you that I said nothing."
"Not a word?" he insisted.
"Not a word."
"Not even a sound?"
"N—well—I won't answer that."
"Oho!" he laughed. "So you did make some sort of inarticulate reply! Were you laughing or weeping?"
"Perhaps I was yawning. How do you know?" she smiled.
After a moment he said, still curious: "Why were you crying, Eileen?"
"Crying! I didn't say I was crying."
"I assume it."
"To prove or disprove that assumption," she said coolly, amused, "let us hunt up a motive for a possible display of tears. What, Captain Selwyn, have I to cry about? Is there anything in the world that I lack? Anything that I desire and cannot have?"
"Is there?" he repeated.
"I asked you, Captain Selwyn."
"And, unable to reply," he said, "I ask you."
"And I," she retorted, "refuse to answer."
"Oho! So there is, then, something you lack? There is a motive for possible tears?"
"You have not proven it," she said.
"You have not denied it."
She tipped back her head, linked her fingers under her chin, and looked at him across the smooth curve of her cheeks.
"Well—yes," she admitted, "I was crying—if you insist on knowing. Now that you have so cleverly driven me to admit that, can you also force me to tell you why I was so tearful?"
"Certainly," he said promptly; "it was something Nina said that made you cry."
They both laughed.
"Oh, what a come-down!" she said teasingly. "You knew that before. But can you force me to confess to you what Nina was saying? If you can you are the cleverest cross-examiner in the world, for I'd rather perish than tell you—"
"Oh," he said instantly, "then it was something about love!"
He had not meant to say it; he had spoken too quickly, and the flush of surprise on the girl's face was matched by the colour rising to his own temples. And, to retrieve the situation, he spoke too quickly again—and too lightly.
"A girl would rather perish than admit that she is in love?" he said, forcing a laugh. "That is rather a clever deduction, I think. Unfortunately, however, I happen to know to the contrary, so all my cleverness comes to nothing."
The surprise had faded from her face, but the colour remained; and with it something else—something in the blue eyes which he had never before encountered there—the faintest trace of recoil, of shrinking away from him.
And she herself did not know it was there—did not quite realise that she had been hurt. Surprise that he had chanced so abruptly, so unerringly upon the truth had startled and confused her; but that he had made free of the truth so lightly, so carelessly, laughingly amused, left her without an answering smile.
That it had been an accident—a chance surmise which perhaps he himself did not credit—which he could not believe—made it no easier for her. For the first time in his life he had said something which left her unresponsive, with a sense of bruised delicacy and of privacy invaded. A tinge of fear of him crept in, too. She did not misconstrue what he had said under privilege of a jest, but after what had once passed between them she had not considered that love, even in the abstract, might serve as a mocking text for any humour or jesting sermon from a man who had asked her what he once asked—the man she had loved enough to weep for when she had refused him only because she lacked what he asked for. Knowing that she loved him in her own innocent fashion, scarcely credulous that he ever could be dearer to her, yet shyly wistful for whatever more the years might add to her knowledge of a love so far immune from stress or doubt or the mounting thrill of a deeper emotion, she had remained confidently passive, warmly loyal, reverencing the mystery of the love he offered, though she could not understand it or respond.
And now—now a chance turn; of a word—a trend to an idle train of thought, jestingly followed!—and, without warning, they had stumbled on a treasured memory, too frail, too delicately fragile, to endure the shock.
And now fear crept in—fear that he had forgotten, had changed. Else how could he have spoken so? . . . And the tempered restraint of her quivered at the thought—all the serenity, the confidence in life and in him began to waver. And her first doubt crept in upon her.
She turned her expressionless face from him and, resting her cheek against the velvet back of the chair, looked out into the late afternoon sunshine.
All the long autumn without him, all her long, lonely, leisure hours in the golden weather, his silence, his withdrawal into himself, and his work, hitherto she had not misconstrued, though often she confused herself in explaining it. Impatience of his absence, too, had stimulated her to understand the temporary state of things—to know that time away from him meant for her only existence in suspense.
Very, very slowly, by degrees imperceptible, alone with memories of him and of their summer's happiness already behind her, she had learned that time added things to what she had once considered her full capacity for affection.
Alone with her memories of him, at odd moments during the day—often in the gay clamour and crush of the social routine—or driving with Nina, or lying, wide-eyed, on her pillow at night, she became conscious that time, little by little, very gradually but very surely, was adding to her regard for him frail, new, elusive elements that stole in to awake an unquiet pulse or stir her heart into a sudden thrill, leaving it fluttering, and a faint glow gradually spreading through her every vein.
She was beginning to love him no longer in her own sweet fashion, but in his; and she was vaguely aware of it, yet curiously passive and content to put no question to herself whether it was true or false. And how it might be with him she evaded asking herself, too; only the quickening of breath and pulse questioned the pure thoughts unvoiced; only the increasing impatience of her suspense confirmed the answer which now, perhaps, she might give him one day while the blessed world was young.
At the thought she moved uneasily, shifting her position in the chair. Sunset, and the swift winter twilight, had tinted, then dimmed, the light in the room. On the oak-beamed ceiling, across the ivory rosettes, a single bar of red sunlight lay, broken by rafter and plaster foliation. She watched it turn to rose, to ashes. And, closing her eyes, she lay very still and motionless in the gray shadows closing over all.
He had not yet spoken when again she lifted her eyes and saw him sitting in the dusk, one arm resting across his knee, his body bent slightly forward, his gaze vacant.
Into himself again!—silently companioned by the shadows of old thoughts; far from her—farther than he had ever been. For a while she lay there, watching him, scarcely breathing; then a faint shiver of utter loneliness came over her—of desire for his attention, his voice, his friendship, and the expression of it. But he never moved; his eyes seemed dull and unseeing; his face strangely gaunt to her, unfamiliar, hard. In the dim light he seemed but the ghost of what she had known, of what she had thought him—a phantom, growing vaguer, more unreal, slipping away from her through the fading light. And the impulse to arouse herself and him from the dim danger—to arrest the spell, to break it, and seize what was their own in life overwhelmed her; and she sat up, grasping the great arms of her chair, slender, straight, white-faced in the gloom.
But he did not stir. Then unreasoning, instinctive fear confused her, and she heard her own voice, sounding strangely in the twilight:
"What has come between us, Captain Selwyn? What has happened to us? Something is all wrong, and I—I ask you what it is, because I don't know. Tell me."
He had lifted his head at her first word, hesitatingly, as though dazed.
"Could you tell me?" she asked faintly.
"Tell you what, child?"
"Why you are so silent with me; what has crept in between us? I"—the innocent courage sustaining her—"I have not changed—except a little in—in the way you wished. Have you?"
"No," he said in an altered voice.
"Then—what is it? I have been—you have left me so much alone this winter—and I supposed I understood—"
"My work," he said; but she scarcely knew the voice for his.
"I know; you have had no time. I know that; I ought to know it by this time, for I have told myself often enough. And yet—when we are together, it is—it has been—different. Can you tell me why? Do you think me changed?"
"You must not change," he said.
"No," she breathed, wondering, "I could not—except—a little, as I told you."
"You must not change—not even that way!" he repeated in a voice so low she could scarcely hear him—and believed she had misunderstood him.
"I did not hear you," she said faintly. "What did you say to me?"
"I cannot say it again."
She slowly shook her head, not comprehending, and for a while sat silent, struggling with her own thoughts. Then, suddenly instinct with the subtle fear which had driven her into speech:
"When I said—said that to you—last summer; when I cried in the swinging seat there—because I could not answer you—as I wished to—did that change you, Captain Selwyn?"
"Then y-you are unchanged?"
The first thrill of deep emotion struck through and through her.
"Then—then that is not it," she faltered. "I was afraid—I have sometimes wondered if it was. . . . I am very glad, Captain Selwyn. . . . Will you wait a—a little longer—for me to—to change?"
He stood up suddenly in the darkness, and she sprang to her feet, breathless; for she had caught the low exclamation, and the strange sound that stifled it in his throat.
"Tell me," she stammered, "w-what has happened. D-don't turn away to the window; don't leave me all alone to endure this—this something I have known was drawing you away—I don't know where! What is it? Could you not tell me, Captain Selwyn? I—I have been very frank with you; I have been truthful—and loyal. I gave you, from the moment I knew you, all of me there was to give. And—and if there is more to give—now—it was yours when it came to me.
"Do you think I am too young to know what I am saying? Solitude is a teacher. I—I am still a scholar, perhaps, but I think that you could teach me what my drill-master, Solitude, could not . . . if it—it is true you love me."
The mounting sea of passion swept him; he turned on her, unsteadily, his hands clenched, not daring to touch her. Shame, contrition, horror that the damage was already done, all were forgotten; only the deadly grim duty of the moment held him back.
"Dear," he said, "because I am unchanged—because I—I love you so—help me!—and God help us both."
"Tell me," she said steadily, but it was fear that stilled her voice. She laid one slim hand on the table, bearing down on the points of her fingers until the nails whitened, but her head was high and her eyes met his, straight, unwavering.
"I—I knew it," she said; "I understood there was something. If it is trouble—and I see it is—bring it to me. If I am the woman you took me for, give me my part in this. It is the quickest way to my heart, Captain Selwyn."
But he had grown afraid, horribly afraid. All the cowardice in him was in the ascendant. But that passed; watching his worn face, she saw it passing. Fear clutched at her; for the first time in her life she desired to go to him, hold fast to him, seeking in contact the reassurance of his strength; but she only stood straighter, a little paler, already half divining in the clairvoyance of her young soul what lay still hidden.
"Do you ask a part in this?" he said at last.
"I ask it."
Her eyes wavered, then returned his gaze:
"For love of you," she said, as white as death.
He caught his breath sharply and straightened out, passing one hand across his eyes. When she saw his face again in the dim light it was ghastly.
"There was a woman," he said, "for whom I was once responsible." He spoke wearily, head bent, resting the weight of one arm on the table against which she leaned. "Do you understand?" he asked.
"Yes. You mean—Mrs. Ruthven."
"I mean—her. Afterward—when matters had altered—I came—home."
He raised his head and looked about him in the darkness.
"Came home," he repeated, "no longer a man; the shadow of a man, with no hope, no outlook, no right to hope."
He leaned heavily on the table, his arm rigid, looking down at the floor as he spoke.
"No right to hope. Others told me that I still possessed that right. I knew they were wrong; I do not mean that they persuaded me—I persuaded myself that, after all, perhaps my right to hope remained to me. I persuaded myself that I might be, after all, the substance, not the shadow."
He looked up at her:
"And so I dared to love you."
She gazed at him, scarcely breathing.
"Then," he said, "came the awakening. My dream had ended."
She waited, the lace on her breast scarce stirring, so still she stood, so pitifully still.
"Such responsibility cannot die while those live who undertook it. I believed it until I desired to believe it no longer. But a man's self-persuasion cannot alter such laws—nor can human laws confirm or nullify them, nor can a great religion do more than admit their truth, basing its creed upon such laws. . . . No man can put asunder, no laws of man undo the burden. . . . And, to my shame and disgrace, I have had to relearn this after offering you a love I had no right to offer—a life which is not my own to give."
He took one step toward her, and his voice fell so low that she could just hear him:
"She has lost her mind, and the case is hopeless. Those to whom the laws of the land have given care of her turned on her, threatened her with disgrace. And when one friend of hers halted this miserable conspiracy, her malady came swiftly upon her, and suddenly she found herself helpless, penniless, abandoned, her mind already clouded, and clouding faster! . . . Eileen, was there then the shadow of a doubt as to the responsibility? Because a man's son was named in the parable, does the lesson end there—and are there no others as prodigal—no other bonds that hold as inexorably as the bond of love?
"Men—a lawyer or two—a referee—decided to remove a burden; but a higher court has replaced it."
He came and stood directly before her:
"I dare not utter one word of love to you; I dare not touch you. What chance is there for such a man as I?"
"No chance—for us," she whispered. "Go!"
For a second he stood motionless, then, swaying slightly, turned on his heel.
And long after he had left the house she still stood there, eyes closed, colourless lips set, her slender body quivering, racked with the first fierce grief of a woman's love for a man.
Neergard had already begun to make mistakes. The first was in thinking that, among those whose only distinction was their wealth, his own wealth permitted him the same insolence and ruthlessness that so frequently characterised them.
Clever, vindictively patient, circumspect, and commercially competent as he had been, his intelligence was not of a high order. The intelligent never wilfully make enemies; Neergard made them gratuitously, cynically kicking from under him the props he used in mounting the breach, and which he fancied he no longer needed as a scaffolding now that he had obtained a foothold on the outer wall. Thus he had sneeringly dispensed with Gerald; thus he had shouldered Fane and Harmon out of his way when they objected to the purchase of Neergard's acreage adjoining the Siowitha preserve, and its incorporation as an integral portion of the club tract; thus he was preparing to rid himself of Ruthven for another reason. But he was not yet quite ready to spurn Ruthven, because he wanted a little more out of him—just enough to place himself on a secure footing among those of the younger set where Ruthven, as hack cotillon leader, was regarded by the young with wide-eyed awe.
Why Neergard, who had forced himself into the Siowitha, ever came to commit so gross a blunder as to dragoon, or even permit, the club to acquire the acreage, the exploiting of which had threatened their existence, is not very clear.
Once within the club he may have supposed himself perpetually safe, not only because of his hold on Ruthven, but also because, back of his unflagging persistence, back of his determination to shoulder and push deep into the gilded, perfumed crush where purse-strings and morals were loosened with every heave and twist in the panting struggle around the raw gold altar—back of the sordid past, back of all the resentment, and the sinister memory of wrongs and grievances, still unbalanced, lay an enormous vanity.
It was the vanity in him—even in the bitter days—that throbbed with the agony of the bright world's insolence; it was vanity which sustained him in better days where he sat nursing in his crooked mind the crooked thoughts that swarmed there. His desire for position and power was that; even his yearning for corruption was but the desire for the satiation of a vanity as monstrous as it was passionless. His to have what was shared by those he envied—the power to pick and choose, to ignore, to punish. His to receive, not to seek; to dispense, not to stand waiting for his portion; his the freedom of the forbidden, of everything beyond him, of all withheld, denied by this bright, loose-robed, wanton-eyed goddess from whose invisible altar he had caught a whiff of sacrificial odours, standing there through the wintry years in the squalor and reek of things.
Now he had arrived among those outlying camps where camp-followers and masters mingled. Certain card-rooms were open to him, certain drawing-rooms, certain clubs. Through them he shouldered, thrilled as he advanced deeper into the throng, fired with the contact of the crush around him.
Already the familiarity of his appearance and his name seemed to sanction his presence; two minor clubs, but good ones—in need of dues—had strained at this social camel and swallowed him. Card-rooms welcomed him—not the rooms once flung open contemptuously for his plucking—but rooms where play was fiercer, and where those who faced him expected battle to the limit.
And they got it, for he no longer felt obliged to lose. And that again was a mistake: he could not yet afford to win.
Thick in the chance and circumstance of the outer camp, heavily involved financially and already a crushing financial force, meshed in, or spinning in his turn the strands and counter-strands of intrigue, with a dozen men already mortally offended and a woman or two alarmed or half-contemptuously on guard, flattered, covetous, or afraid, the limit of Neergard's intelligence was reached; his present horizon ended the world for him because he could not imagine anything beyond it; and that smirking vanity which had 'squired him so far, hat in hand, now plucked off its mask and leered boldly about in the wake of its close-eyed master.
George Fane, unpleasantly involved in Block Copper, angry, but not very much frightened, turned in casual good faith to Neergard to ease matters until he could cover. And Neergard locked him in the tighter and shouldered his way through Rosamund's drawing-room to the sill of Sanxon Orchil's outer office, treading brutally on Harmon's heels.
Harmon in disgust, wrath, and fear went to Craig; Craig to Maxwell Hunt; Hunt wired Mottly; Mottly, cold and sleek in his contempt, came from Palm Beach.
The cohesive power of caste is an unknown element to the outsider.
That he had unwittingly and prematurely aroused some unsuspected force on which he had not counted and of which he had no definite knowledge was revealed to Neergard when he desired Rosamund to obtain for him an invitation to the Orchils' ball.
It appeared that she could not do so—that even the threatened tendency of Block Copper could not sharpen her wits to devise a way for him. Very innocently she told him that Jack Ruthven was leading the Chinese Cotillon with Mrs. Delmour-Carnes from one end, Gerald Erroll with Gladys from the other—a hint that a card ought to be easy enough to obtain in spite of the strangely forgetful Orchils.
Long since he had fixed upon Gladys Orchil as the most suitable silent partner for the unbuilt house of Neergard, unconcerned that rumour was already sending her abroad for the double purpose of getting rid of Gerald and of giving deserving aristocracy a look-in at the fresh youth of her and her selling price.
Nothing, so far, had checked his progress; why should rumour? Elbow and money had shoved him on and on, shoulder-deep where his thin nose pointed, crowding aside and out of his way whatever was made to be crowded out; and going around, hat off, whatever remained arrogantly immovable.
So he had come, on various occasions, close to the unruffled skirts of this young girl—not yet, however, in her own house. But Sanxon Orchil had recently condescended to turn around in his office chair and leave his amusing railroad combinations long enough to divide with Neergard a quarter of a million copper profits; and there was another turn to be expected when Neergard gave the word.
Therefore, it puzzled and confused Neergard to be overlooked where the gay world had been summoned with an accompanying blast from the public press; therefore he had gone to Rosamund with the curtest of hints; but he had remained, standing before her, checked, not condescending to irritation, but mentally alert to a new element of resistance which he had not expected—a new force, palpable, unlooked for, unclassified as yet in his schedule for his life's itinerary. That force was the cohesive power of abstract caste in the presence of a foreign irritant threatening its atomic disintegration. That foreign and irritating substance was himself. But he had forgotten in his vanity that which in his rawer shrewdness he should have remembered. Eternal vigilance was the price; not the cancelled vouchers of the servitude of dead years and the half-servile challenge of the strange new days when his vanity had dared him to live.
* * * * *
Rosamund, smoothly groomed, golden-headed, and smiling, rose as Neergard moved slowly forward to take his leave.
"So stupid of them to have overlooked you," she said; "and I should have thought Gladys would have remembered—unless—"
His close-set eyes focussed so near her own that she stopped, involuntarily occupied with the unusual phenomenon.
"Unless what?" he asked.
She was all laughing polished surface again. "Unless Gladys's intellect, which has only room for one idea at a time, is already fully occupied."
"With what?" he demanded.
"Oh, with that Gerald boy "—she shrugged indulgently—"perhaps with her pretty American Grace and the outlook for the Insular invasion."
Neergard's apple face was dull and mottled, and on the thin bridge of his nose the sweat glistened. He did not know what she meant; and she knew he did not.
As he turned to go she paced him a step or two across the rose-and-gold reception-room, hands linked behind her back, bending forward slightly as she moved beside him.
"Gerald, poor lad, is to be disciplined," she observed. "The prettiest of American duchesses takes her over next spring; and Heaven knows the household cavalry needs green forage . . . Besides, even Jack Ruthven may stand the chance they say he stands if it is true he has made up his mind to sue for his divorce."
Neergard wheeled on her; the sweat on his nose had become a bright bead.
"Where did you hear that?" he asked.
"What? About Jack Ruthven?" Her smooth shoulders fluttered her answer.
"You mean it's talked about?" he insisted.
"In some sets," she said with an indifference which coolly excluded the probability that he could have been in any position to hear what was discussed in those sets.
Again he felt the check of something intangible but real; and the vanity in him, flicked on the raw, peered out at her from his close-set eyes. For a moment he measured her from the edge of her skirt to her golden head, insolently.
"You might remind your husband," he said, "that I'd rather like to have a card to the Orchil affair."
"There is no use in speaking to George," she replied regretfully, shaking her head.
"Try it," returned Neergard with the hint of a snarl; and he took his leave, and his hat from the man in waiting, who looked after him with the slightest twitching of his shaven upper lip. For the lifting of an eyebrow in the drawing-rooms becomes warrant for a tip that runs very swiftly below stairs.
That afternoon, alone in his office, Neergard remembered Gerald. And for the first time he understood the mistake of making an enemy out of what he had known only as a friendly fool.
But it was a detail, after all—merely a slight error in assuming too early an arrogance he could have afforded to wait for. He had waited a long, long while for some things.
As for Fane, he had him locked up with his short account. No doubt he'd hear from the Orchils through the Fanes. However, to clinch the matter, he thought he might as well stop in to see Ruthven. A plain word or two to Ruthven indicating his own wishes—perhaps outlining his policy concerning the future house of Neergard—might as well be delivered now as later.
So that afternoon he took a hansom at Broad and Wall streets and rolled smoothly uptown, not seriously concerned, but willing to have a brief understanding with Ruthven on one or two subjects.
As his cab drove up to the intricately ornamental little house of gray stone, a big touring limousine wheeled out from the curb, and he caught sight of Sanxon Orchil and Phoenix Mottly inside, evidently just leaving Ruthven.
His smiling and very cordial bow was returned coolly by Orchil, and apparently not observed at all by Mottly. He sat a second in his cab, motionless, the obsequious smile still stencilled on his flushed face; then the flush darkened; he got out of his cab and, bidding the man wait, rang at the house of Ruthven.
Admitted, it was a long while before he was asked to mount the carved stairway of stone. And when he did, on every step, hand on the bronze rail, he had the same curious sense of occult resistance to his physical progress; the same instinct of a new element arising into the scheme of things the properties of which he felt a sudden fierce desire to test and comprehend.
Ruthven in a lounging suit of lilac silk, sashed in with flexible silver, stood with his back to the door as Neergard was announced; and even after he was announced Ruthven took his time to turn and stare and nod with a deliberate negligence that accented the affront.
Neergard sat down; Ruthven gazed out of the window, then, soft thumbs hooked in his sash, turned leisurely in impudent interrogation.