"I wondered," she said. "I thought, perhaps."
"We are just talking" Waters reassured her. "Him and me's old friends."
He endeavored to be convincing; but it happened that she had seen as she approached the motion with which he had turned on the sergeant a moment before, and she still waited.
"Perhaps," she suggested then in her pleasant voice, "if you could spare the time, you'd walk along a little way with me?"
He smiled. It was protection she was offering him, the shield of her company, dropping it from above like a gentle gift, like a flower let fall from a balcony. She saw the white gleam of his smile in his shadowed face and made a small, quick movement as though she shrank. Waters made haste to accept.
"With you, Miss Pilgrim? Why, sure I will," he replied warmly, and strode across the gutter to her side.
To the sergeant, watching dumbly this pairing and departure, he said nothing; he did not even turn to enjoy his face.
It was strange to pass along that familiar street with her, to glance down at her and see her forward bent face in profile against the dark doorways leading to interiors whose secrets he knew. The drinking dens were noisy at their feet; the tall houses were dark and sinister above them. He heard her breath as she walked at his elbow in the vicious chill of the evening and out upon the water, visible between the sheds as a low green and a high white light sliding, slowly across the night, an outgoing steamer wailed like a hoarse banshee. Once upon a time he had seen the Black Hundred come roaring and staggering along that street under the eyes of the ships, and had backed into one of the doorways past which they now walked to fight for his life. The memory of it came curiously to him now, as the girl at his side led him on, hurrying to bring him to safety.
They turned a corner ere she spoke to him again, and advanced along a street which showed a vista of receding darkness, beaded by the dull house-lamps set over the courtyard gates. Not till then did she slacken the hurry of her gait. She lifted her face towards him.
"But there was something, wasn't there?" she asked. "Between you and that policeman, I mean. You weren't really just chatting?"
Waters shrugged the policeman into the void.
"It's nothin' that you'd need to worry about, Miss Pilgrim," he answered. "He don't amount to anything."
She was still looking at him. She had on a big muffling coat and her face lifted out of the high collar of it.
"But" she paused. "I was watching, you for a minute; I saw you go back to talk to him," she said. "That's why I stopped. You see, that day in the office, I was ever so sorry."
"Oh, that!" Waters was vaguely embarrassed; he was not used to sympathy so openly expressed. "You mean Selby an' all that? That didn't hurt me."
But she would not be denied. "It hurt me," she answered. "To see you go out like that, so quietly, after asking for help and nobody to say a word for you! I've been hoping ever since that I'd see you so that I'd be able to tell you. Of course," she added, in the tone of one who makes reasonable allowances, "of course, Mr. Selby's in a difficult position; he has to consider the authorities. Naturally, being our consul, he'd like to do his best for all Americans; but he has to be careful. You can understand that, can't you?"
"Why, sure!" agreed Waters warmly. "It's mighty good of you to feel like that about me, Miss Pilgrim; and I ain't blamin' Selby any. He was born like that, I guess sort o' poor white trash and his folks didn't find it out in time to smother him. But I wish I was consul here for a time and he'd come to me to have me fix somethin' for him. I'd cert'nly like to have him know how it feels."
"Ah, but I know," she said earnestly. "I can guess like having no home or friends or even a country of your own to belong to. Like finding out suddenly that Uncle Sam wasn't your uncle after all! Tell me, was it what they did to you, I mean was it very bad?"
He smiled a little wryly, looking down into her serious face.
"Well, it wasn't very good," he answered. "It wasn't meant to be. It ain't often these people get a white man to practice on, an' they sure made the most o' the chance. But it didn't kill me; and, anyway, there ain't any reason why it should trouble you, Miss Pilgrim."
He had a feeling that he preferred her to be immune from the knowledge and understanding of such things, to be and remain a mere eyeful of delicate and stimulating feminine effect. But upon his words she half halted, turning to him; she drew a hand from her muff and her fingers touched his sleeve.
"No reason?" she repeated. "Ah, but there is! There is a reason. I haven't got any official position or anything to lose at all. I don't have to consider anybody. So next time if there is a next time I want you to come straight away to me."
He stared at her, not understanding her sudden excitement. "To you, Miss Pilgrim? You mean come round to Selby's again?"
"No, no!" She shook her head impatiently. "You know it's no use to go there. But I live close by here; I'm taking you there now; and I want you to come to me. Then I'll see the Chief of Police for you; I know him quite well."
"So do I," said Waters. "He's a crook. But say, Miss Pilgrim, I don't just see."
She interrupted him. "I'll explain what I mean and then you'll see that it's all right. But now I want you to come home and have a glass of tea and see where I live. It's Number Thirteen only two houses more. You will come, won't you?"
"I'll be glad to," answered he.
The house to which she brought him had a cavernous courtyard arch like a tunnel, outside whose gates the swaddled dvornik huddled upon the sheltered side of the arch. Of all his body, only his eyes moved as they approached, pivoting under his great hood to scan them and follow them through the gate. Within, the small court was a pit of gloom roofed by the windy sky; a glass-paneled door let them in to a winding stone stair with an iron handrail that was greasy to the touch. It was upon the second floor that Miss Pilgrim halted and put a key into a door.
There was a hall within, a narrow passage cumbered with big furniture, wardrobes and the like, which had obviously overflowed from the rooms. At the far end of it, a door was ajar, letting out a slit of bright light and a smell of cabbage. Miss Pilgrim opened a nearer door, reached for the switch and turned to summon Waters where he waited in the entry, browsing with those eager eyes of his upon this new pasture.
"Here's where you'll come when you want me," she said.
He entered the room, walked as far as the middle of it and looked about him. To his sensitive apprehension, whetted to fineness in the years of his wandering and gazing, it was as though a chill and dead air filled the place, a suggestion as of funerals. Opposite the door, two tall windows, like sepulchral portals, framed oblongs of the outer darkness; and the white-tiled stove in the corner was like a mausoleum. The cheap parquet of the floor had a clammy gleam; a tiny icon, roosting high in a corner, showed a tawdry shine of gilding; the whole room, square and lofty, with its sparse furniture grouped stiffly about its emptiness, was gaunt and forbidding. Of a personality that should be at home within it and leave the impress of its life upon the place, there was not a sign; it was the corpse of a room. Waters turned from his scrutiny of it towards Miss Pilgrim, standing yet by the door and clear to see at last in the light. She smiled at him with her pale, quiet face, and he marked how, when she ceased to smile, her mouth drooped and her face returned to shadow. "That's Selby," he told himself hotly. "Selby done that to her!"
There was another door in the corner, near the white stove. It stood a few inches open, revealing nothing. But as he glanced towards it, it seemed to him that he detected in the lifeless air a nuance of fragrance, something elusive as a shade that emanated from the farther room, and had in its very slightness and delicacy a suggestion of femininity. He knew that it must be her bedroom that lay beyond the door, and he found himself wondering what that was like.
Presently he was seated by the little sham mahogany table, upon which the big brass samovar steamed and whispered, listening to her and watching her. She gave him his glass of the pale-yellow Russian tea that neither cheers nor inebriates, but merely distends and irrigates, and sat over against him, sipping at her glass and returning his gaze with her steady eyes.
"I've only had this room a little time," she remarked. "I've had just a bedroom before. But I had to have somewhere for people to come the people who can't go to Mr. Selby, I mean. You know what they call me at the Police Bureau? Mr. Selby's the vice-consul and I'm the vice-vice. So this," her gaze traveled round the barren room with gentle complacency "this is my Vice-vice Consulate."
"Oh!" Waters looked up at her over the rim of his glass with a changed interest. "The vice-vice? That's a pretty good name. Then you've been doin' this for fellers already?"
He marked a faintness of pink that dawned for a moment in her face at the question. She smiled involuntarily and a little ruefully.
"Well," she hesitated; "I've tried, but I'm afraid I haven't actually done anything for anybody. I haven't had a real chance yet. But, anyhow, there's this room all ready and there's me; and any American who can't go to Mr. Selby for help can come here."
"It was really from you I got the idea," she went on; "when you went out of the Consulate like that and there was nowhere you could go. And later on, there was a sailor from one of the ships, and afterwards a man who said he was a Mormon missionary; and Mr. Selby wouldn't couldn't see his way to do anything for them. The sailor was brought in by two policemen, though he was only a boy! He couldn't speak a word of Russian, of course, and it made me so sorry to think of him all alone with those people, having things done to him and not understanding anything. So, after hours, I went round to see the Chief of Police."
Waters moved a little on his chair. Her face had a mild glow of enthusiasm which touched it with sober beauty. He shook his head.
"He's no good," he said. "You hadn't oughter gone to him by yourself."
"But," Miss Pilgrim protested, "lots of people have said that, and it's all wrong. It was he that nicknamed me the 'vice-vice,' and now all the police in the streets salute me when they see me. Even that first time, before I knew him or anything, he was just as nice as he could be. He was in his office, writing at a table under a lamp, and he just looked up at me, hard and well, taking stock of me, you know, while I told him who I was and what I'd come for. And then he gave me a chair and sat and listened to everything I'd got to say, leaning on his elbow and watching me close. I suppose a Chief of Police gets used to watching people like that."
"I, I wouldn't wonder," answered Waters vaguely. He was seeing, in a swift vision, that interview, with the black-browed man in uniform under the lamp, listening and staring.
"I told him how I felt about it," Miss Pilgrim continued, "and how, since there wasn't anybody else to speak for the boy, I'd come along to see if I could do anything. And when I'd finished he let me go on till I hadn't another word to say that I could think of! he just bowed and said he'd have been delighted to oblige me, but the sailor's captain had been in and paid his fine and taken him away three hours before. Then he sent for glasses of tea and we sat and had a talk, and I got him to say I could always come again when I wanted to. But, you see, if it hadn't been for the captain."
"Sure," agreed Waters. "They'd have turned the kid loose for you. And the Mormon? Seems to me I seen that Mormon, unless there's a couple of them strayin' around. How did you fix it for him?"
Again, at the query, that ghost of pink showed on her cheeks.
"Oh, he—he wasn't very nice," she answered. "He was a big stout man, with a curly black beard like fur growing close to his face all round and shiny round knobs of cheek bulging out of it. I never did get to hear just what the trouble was with him, because when he was telling Mr. Selby, he looked round at me first and then bent over the desk and whispered. Whatever it was, it made Mr. Selby very angry; he simply bounced out of his chair and shouted the man right out of the room. And the man, I couldn't help being sorry for him, just went walking backwards, fending Mr. Selby off with his hands, with his mouth open and his eyes staring, looking as helpless and aghast as could be. And when he got to the door, he burst out crying like a little child."
Waters smacked his knee. "That's him," he cried. "That's the feller! He was up the river same time as me, an' gettin' plenty to cry for, too. But what in what made you try to do anything for one o' them?"
"He said he was an American citizen," answered Miss Pilgrim; "and Mr. Selby wouldn't help him; so he was qualified. What made it difficult in his case was that somehow I never found out what he'd done; and the Chief of Police was queer about him too. I remember once that he told me that if he were to let the man go, he'd be afraid to sleep at nights, for fear he'd hear children's voices weeping in the dark. I couldn't get anything else out of him. And the next time I went, they'd found out that the Mormon wasn't an American at all; he'd just been in the States for a couple of years and then come back to Russia. So there wasn't any more I could do."
Waters put his empty glass upon the square iron tray by the samovar. He reached under his chair for his cap.
"That's so," he agreed. "You couldn't do nothin' for that feller. Maybe you'll land with the next one."
He smiled at her across the little table. He understood now why the gaunt room reflected nothing of her. It was a city of refuge she had built and the refugees had failed to come; it was a makeshift temple of her patriotism and her pity. He caught her small answering smile, noting with what a docility of response her lips shaped themselves to it. No doubt she had smiled just as obediently at the "Mormon."
"It's a great idea, too," he went on. "Maybe Selby's all right as far as he goes, but he certainly don't go very far. This here" he gathered the room into his gesture "starts off where he stops. It's great!"
It was good to see her brighten under the brief praise.
"Then you see now what I meant when I told you to come here to me?" she asked. "Because I'll do everything I can, and the Chief of Police will always listen to me. And you will come, won't you, if you should happen ever to need help or or anything?"
"Why, you bet I will," he promised heartily. "I reckon I got a right to. You're my vice-vice and we don't want to waste a room like this."
Watching her while he spoke, he had to hold down a smile which threatened to show. She needed somebody in trouble and she was relying on him.
She left open the door for him while he went down the winding staircase, that he might have light to see his way. When he was at the bottom, he looked up, to see her head across the handrail, silhouetted above him and still oddly recognizable and suggestive of her. Her voice came down to him, echoing in the well of the stairway.
"Good night," it said. "You won't, you won't forget?"
He was smiling as he went forth through the long hollow of the arch to the dim street; the huddled dvornik with his swiveling eyes saw him, his face lifted to the light of the numbered house-lamp, still with the shape of a smile inhabiting his lips. The night wind, bitter from the water, met him as he went, driving through the meagerness of his clothes, and still he smiled, cherished his mood like a treasure. And below his mirth, cordial as a testimony of friendship, there endured the memory of the barren and lifeless room, waiting for its fulfillment.
In the lodging which he discovered for himself, he lay that night upon his crackling mattress, hands under his head, smoking a final cigarette and staring up at the map of stains upon the ceiling. It had been a day tapestried with sensations; there was much for the thoughtful mind of a connoisseur of life to dwell upon; but, as he lay, in that hour of his leisure, the memory that persisted in him was of the inner door in the dull room where he had drunk tea and talked with the girl, and all the suggestion and enticement of it. He wished that for a moment he could have looked beyond it and viewed just once the delicate and fragrant privacy which it screened. The outer room had a purpose as plain as a kitchen; the girl in it had shown him of herself only that purpose; the rest of her was shut from him.
He pitched the end of his cigarette from him, turning his head to watch it roll to safety in the middle of the bare floor.
"I'll go after a job in the morning," he said half aloud to the emptiness of the mean chamber, and turned to sleep upon the resolution.
It was nearing noon of the next day when, following the trail of that redeeming job, he went towards the Mathieson yards. While he was yet afar off he could see between the roofs the cathedral-like scaffolding clustering around the shape of a ship in the building; the rapid-fire of the hammers and riveting guns at work upon her, plates was loud above the noises of the street. But he went slowly; he had already been some hours upon his quest, and there was a touch of worry and uncertainty in his face. It seemed that the world he had known so well had changed its heart. The gatekeeper at the wharves where he formerly had driven a winch had refused to admit him, and at the Russian foundry he had been curtly ordered away. Policemen had hailed him familiarly and publicly, and twice passing istvostchiks had swerved their little clattering vehicles to the curb to jeer down into his face as they rumbled by. The smudged impress of a rubber-stamp upon his passport and three lines of sprawling Russian handwriting recording his conviction and punishment had marked him with the local equivalent of the brand of Cain; henceforward he was set apart from other men. He pondered it as he went in an indignant bewilderment; it was strange that others should find him so different when he knew himself to be the same as ever.
The Scottish foreman-shipwright in the yard office looked up from his standing-desk, lifting, to the light of the open door a red monkey-face comically fringed with coppery whiskers, and stared at him ferociously with little stone-blue eyes. He listened in fierce stillness while Waters put forward his request to be taken on.
"It's you, is it?" he said then. "I know ye. When did they let ye out?"
"Yesterday," answered Waters wearily. "Say, boss, it was only for beatin' up an istvostchik, and I got to have a job."
The fiery monkey-face, pursed in sourest disapproval, did not relax a line. "Yesterday an' now ye come here! Well, we're no' wantin' hands just now, d'ye see? An' if we was, we'd no' want you. So now ye know!"
The angry mask of a face continued to lower at him unwaveringly; it was almost bitter and righteous enough to be funny. Waters surveyed it for a space of moments with a faint interest in its mere grotesqueness; it did not change nor shift under his scrutiny, but continued to glare inhumanly like a baleful lamp. He humped a thin shoulder in resignation and turned away. When he was halfway to the gate, he heard behind him the foreman ordering the gatekeeper not to admit him in future.
Passing again along the cobbled street, he halted suddenly and gazed about him like a man seeking. Everything was as it had been before, from the folk moving in it to the pale sky over it. The little shops, showing idealized pictures of their wares on painted boards beside their doors for the benefit of a public that could not read; the cluster of small gold domes on a church at the corner; the great bearded laboring men in their filthy sheepskins; the Jews, sleek and furtive; the cabman who doffed his hat and crossed himself as he drove by a shrine there was not a house nor a man that he could not identify and classify. He had come back to them from the pain and labor of his imprisonment confident of what he should find; and it was as if a home had become hostile and unwelcoming.
"Guess I'll have to be movin' outta this town," he told himself. "Seems as if I'd stopped here long enough!"
He had time to confirm this judgment in the days that followed. The approach of winter was bringing its inevitable slackness to all work carried on in the open air, and the big works could afford to be scrupulous about the characters of the men they engaged; and the little tradesmen feared the ban of the police. His slender store of money came to an end, and but for occasional jobs of wood-splitting as the supplies of winter fuel came in, it would have been difficult merely to live. As it was, he dragged his belt tighter about the waist of the old linen blouse and showed to the daylight a face whose whimsicality and vagueness were darkened with a touch of the saturnine. He showed it likewise to Miss Pilgrim when one day she passed him at the noon hour, hurrying past the corner on which he stood, wrapped to the eyes in her greatcoat.
She recognized him suddenly and stopped.
"Good morning," she said. "It's, it's a cold day, isn't it?"
Waters had his back to the wall for shelter, and though he stood thus out of the wind, the air drenched him with its chill like water. He smiled slowly with stiff lips at the brisk outdoor pink in her cheeks.
"This ain't cold," he answered. "You won't call this cold when you've been through a winter here."
"No," she agreed. "I suppose I won't." She shifted diffidently, looking at him with her frank eyes. "Are you getting along all right," she asked.
He smiled again; in her meaning there was only one kind of "all right" and "all wrong." "Why, yes," he replied. "I'm all right, Miss Pilgrim; an' if I wasn't, I'd know where to come."
She nodded eagerly. "Yes; I don't want you to forget. I I'll always be glad to do everything I can."
"Sure; I know that," he replied. "An' you? You makin' out all right too, Miss Pilgrim? That Vice-vice-Consulate o' yours keepin' you pretty busy?"
The brisk pink flooded across her face in a quick flush, and her mouth drooped. But her eyes, as always, were steady against his.
"There hasn't been anybody yet," she answered, with a look that deprecated his smile.
He hastened to be sympathetic. "Too bad!" he said. "With a room like that all ready an' waitin' too. But maybe it's only that things is kind o' slack just now; somebody'll be cuttin' loose pretty soon and you'll get your turn all right."
She made to move on, but paused again to answer.
"The room will always be there if you if anybody wants it," she said. "Even if nobody ever comes, it shall always be ready, at least. That's all I can do."
She bade him farewell, with the little nod she had, and passed on, muffling her chin down into her great cloth collar. Waters looked after her with a frown of consideration. He was forgetting for the moment that he was cold, that he had fed inadequately upon gruel of barley, that he was all but penniless in an expensive and hostile world. There was astir in his being, as he watched the slight overcoated figure of the girl, that same protective instinct which had galvanized even Selby into generosity; it never fails to make one feel man enough to cope with any array of ills. There crossed and tangled in his mind a moving web of schemes for aiding and consoling her.
Each of them had for a character vagueness of method and utter completeness of result, but none amounted to a programme. Waters, for all his brisk record, was not a man of action; he was rather a mechanism jolted abruptly into action by the impulses of a detached and ardent mind. It was chance, the ironic chance whose marionettes are men and women, and not any design of his, which turned his feet that evening towards the room that was always to be waiting and ready.
He was returning towards his lodging after an afternoon of looking for work, tired, wearing a humor in tune with the early dark and the empty monotony of the streets by which he went. The few folk who were abroad in them went by like shy ghosts; the high fronts of the houses were like barricades between him and all the comfort and security in the world. There was mud in the roads and his boots were no longer weather-proof. Life tasted stale and sour.
An empty droschky, going the same way as himself, came bumping along the gutter behind him, the driver singing hoarse and broken snatches of song. He moved from the edge of the pavement to be clear of mud-splashes as it passed him, and heard, without further concern, the vehicle draw up level with him and the whistle and slap of the whip as the istvostchik light-heartedly tortured his feeble horse.
"Her eyes are cornflowers," proclaimed the istvostchik melodiously; "her lips are-" He was abreast of Waters as he broke off. Five feet of uneven and slimy sidewalk separated them. Waters looked up; a house-lamp was above, dull and steady as a foggy star; and it showed him, upon the box of the droschky, his enemy, the mainspring of all his troubles. He halted short.
The istvostchik had recognized him likewise. He was something short of drunk, but his liquor was lively in him, and he wrenched his poor specter of a horse to a standstill. Upon his seat, padded hugely in his gown, he had a sort of throned look, a travesty of majesty; his whip was held like a scepter.
They stared at one another for a space of three or four breaths. Waters was frankly aghast; this, upon the top of his other troubles, was overwhelming. The istvostchik ruptured the moment with a brassy yell.
"Wow!" he howled. "My Amerikanetz, the Foreigner, the jail-bird! Look at him, brothers!" He waved his whip as though the darkness were thronged with auditors. "Look at the jail-bird!"
From the gate below the dull lamp a dvornik poked his head forth. Waters had a sense that every door and window in the street was similarly fertile in heads.
"Stop that!" he called to the istvostchik. "That's enough, now."
The man upon the little cab rolled on his seat in a strident ecstasy of eloquence, brandishing arm and whip abroad above the back of the drooping horse.
"He tried to fight me, and first I beat him terribly oh, terribly! and then I made a protocol and sent him to prison. See him?" he bellowed. "See the jail-bird? See the dog?"
Waters swore helplessly. A month before, upon a quarter of such provocation, he would have flashed into fight; but cold, hunger and friendlessness had damped the tinder in him. He made to go on and get away from it all; he started quickly.
"Come back, jail-bird!" howled the istvostchik.
"I haven't done with you, my golubchik, my little prison-rat. Come back here to me when I bid you. What, you won't? Get on, you!"
The last was to the horse, accompanied by a rending slash with the whip. The wretched animal jerked forward, and Waters backed to the wall as his enemy clattered down upon him again.
"That'll do you," he warned as the cabman dragged his horse to a standstill once more. "I'm not lookin' for trouble. You be on your way!"
The immense ragged-edged voice of the istvostchik descended upon him, drowning his protest.
"He runs away from me, this Amerikanetz! He runs away, because when I find him I beat him I beat him whenever I find him. See now, brothers, I am beating him!"
And out of the tangle of his gesticulations, the whip-lash swooped across the sidewalk and cut Waters heavily across the neck.
In the mere surprise of it and the instance of the pain, Waters made a noise like a yelp, a little spurt of involuntary sound. And then the tinder lighted.
"Beating him!" intoned the istvostchik, mighty in his moment. "Beat."
It was the last coherent syllable which he uttered in the affair. With a rush Waters cleared the sidewalk and was upon him, had him by the pulp of clothes which enveloped him and tore him across the wheel to the ground. They went down together across the curb, legs in the gutter among the wheels, a convulsive bundle of battle that tore apart and whirled together again as the American, with all the long-compressed springs of his being suddenly released and vibrant, poured his resentment and soul-soreness into his fists and found balm for them in the mere spite of hitting somebody.
It was a short fight. The istvostchik, even under his padding, was a biggish man and vicious with liquor; he grappled at his antagonist earnestly enough, to drag him down and bite and worry and kick in the manner of his kind. But the breast of the worn linen blouse ripped in his clutch and a pair of man-stopping punches on the mouth and the eye drove him backwards towards the wall. It was then he began to squeal.
There were spectators by now, dvorniks who came running and passers-by upon the other side who appeared from nowhere as though suddenly materialized. There was a sparse circle of them about the fight when it ceased, with the istvostchik down and flattened in the angle of the wall and the pavement, making small timid noises like a complaining kitten. Waters, with the mist of battle clearing, from his eyes, saw them all about him, dark, well-wrapped figures, watching him silently or whispering together. He sensed their profound disapproval of him and his proceedings.
"That'll keep you quiet for a while," he spoke down to the wreck of the istvostchik.
Only moans answered him; he grunted and turned to go. From the nearest group of spectators a single figure detached itself and moved towards him, blocking his path. It revealed itself at close quarters as a stout, middle-aged man, prosperously fur-coated, with a spike of dark beard the inevitable public-spirited citizen of the provinces.
"You must explain this disturbance," he said to Waters importantly. "You must wait here and explain yes, and show your papers. You cannot walk away like this!"
His companions pressed nearer interestedly. Waters could not know the figure he cut, with his torn blouse which even in the gloom showed stains of the mud and blood of the combat.
"Get out of my way!" was all his answer.
"Your papers," persisted the stout man. "I," he puffed his chest, "I am in the Administration; I require to see your papers. Produce them!"
The pale oblong of his fat face wagged at Waters peremptorily; he quite obviously felt himself a spokesman for order and decency and the divinely ordained institution of "papers."
"I said get out o' my way," said Waters clearly. He put the flat of his hand against the stout man's fur-coated chest, shoved, and sent him staggering back on his heels among his supporters. Without looking towards him again, he passed through them and continued his way. He heard the chorus of their indignation break out behind him.
It followed him, a cackle of outraged respectability, with here and there an epithet distinguishable like a plum in a pudding. "Ruffian," they called him, "assassin," "robber," and so forth, the innocuous amateur abuse of men who have learned their bad language from their newspapers. It was not till he had gone a hundred yards, and the noise of their lamentation had a little died down, that there emerged out of the blur of it a voice that was quite clear.
"Hi, you there!" It rang with the note of practiced authority. "Halt, d'you hear? Halt!"
The tones were enough, without the fashion of the words, to tell him that a policeman had arrived on the scene. He looked back and saw that the group of citizens was flowing along the sidewalk towards him, a black moving blot. He could not distinguish the policeman, but he knew that the others must be escorting him, coming with him to see the finish.
There was a corner some thirty or forty yards farther on. Waters jammed his cap tighter on his head, picked up his heels and sprinted for it.
"Halt, there!" shouted the policeman. "Halt-I'll shoot!"
Waters was at the corner when the shot sounded, detonating, like a cannon in the channel of the street. Where the bullet went he did not guess; he was round the corner, running in the middle of the street for the next turning, with eyes alert for any entrance in which he might find a refuge. But the firing had had its intended effect of bringing every dvornik to his gate, and there was nothing for it but to run on. He heard the chase round the corner behind him and the policeman's 'repeated shout; the skin of his back crawled in momentary expectation of another shot that might not go wild; and then, with the next corner yet twenty yards away, came the idea.
The mere felicity of it tickled him like a jest in the midst of all his stress; he spent hoarded breath in a gasp of laughter.
Around the corner that lay just ahead of him, for which he was racing, was the street in which Miss Pilgrim lived, with her outer room that was always ready and waiting. Without design or purpose he had run towards it; an inscrutable fate, whimsical as his own humor, had herded him thither. Well, he would go there! The matter was slight, after all; she would explain the whole matter to her Chief of Police, how the istvostchik had been the assailant and so forth; he would be released, and her self-appointed function of "vice-vice" would shine forth justified and vindicated. It all fell out as dexterously as a conjuring trick.
"Halt!" yelled the policeman. "I know you, halt!"
But he did not shoot again; those southern policemen lack the fiber that will loose bullet after bullet along a dark street; and Waters had yet a good lead as he rounded the next corner and came into cover. The house he sought was near by; as he cleared the angle, he dropped into a swift walk that the new row of dvorniks might not mark him at once for a fugitive, and strode along sharply under the wall where it was darkest. He passed Number Seventeen without a sign from its dvornik, and in the gate of Number Fifteen two dvorniks were gossiping and did not turn their heads as he passed. The arch of Number Thirteen, the house he sought, was close at hand when the pursuit came stamping round the corner behind him; he heard their cries as he slipped in through the half-open gate of the arch. The chance that had brought him hither was true to him yet, for there was no dvornik on watch; the man had chosen that moment of all others to step over to gossip with his neighbor of Number Fifteen.
He paused in the blackness of the courtyard to listen whether the pursuit would pass by, and heard it arrive outside the gate, jangling with voices. It had gathered up the dvornik on its way. Waters, with a hand upon the door that opened to the staircase, heard the brisk voice of the policeman questioning him in curt spurts of speech, and the dvornik's answers. "Of course, he might have gone in. There is an Amerikanka here, from the Consulate, and he might have gone to her." Then the policeman, cutting the knot: "We'll soon see about that!" He waited no longer, but entered and darted up the stair; he must at all costs not be caught before he got to Miss Pilgrim.
It was the thought of her and the expectation of her welcome to the barren room that made him smile as he climbed. Muddy, penniless and hunted, he knew himself for one that brought gifts; he was going to make her rich with the sense of power and benevolence. He was half-way up the second flight, at the head of which she lived, when he heard the policeman and his following of citizens enter below him and the stamp of their firm ascending feet on the lower steps. He took the remaining stairs three at a time. Upon the landing, the door of the flat stood ajar.
Gently, with precautions not to be heard below, he pushed it open, uncovering the remembered view of the furniture-cluttered passage, with the doors of rooms opening from it and the kitchen door at the end. The kitchen door was closed now; there was no sound anywhere within the place. Nearest to him, on the left of the passage, the door of the room in which he had drunk tea was open and dark.
He tapped nervously with his nails upon the door, hearing from below the approaching footsteps of the hunters.
"Miss Pilgrim," he called in a loud whisper along the passage. "Miss Pilgrim!"
The bell-push was a button somewhere in the woodwork and he could not find it. He tapped and whispered again. The others were at the foot of the second flight now; in a couple of seconds the turn of the staircase would let them see him, and he would be captured and dragged away from her very threshold. He had a last agony of hesitation, an impulse swiftly tasted and rejected, to try a rush down the stairs and a fight to get through and away; and then he stepped into the flat and eased the door to behind him. Its patent lock latched itself with a small click unheard by the party whose feet clattered on the stone steps.
There was a clock somewhere in the dwelling that ticked pompously and monotonously, and no other sound. Standing inside the door, in that hush of the house, he was oppressed by a sense of shameful trespass; he glanced with trepidation towards the kitchen, dreading to see someone come forth and shriek at the sight of him. Supposing Miss Pilgrim were out! Then from the landing came a smart insistent knock upon the door, and within the flat a bell woke and shrilled vociferously. He turned; the room that was always to be ready was at his side, and he fled on tiptoe into its darkness.
He got himself clear of the door, moving with extended hands across its creaking parquet till he touched the cold smoothness of the tiled stove, and freezing to immobility as he heard the kitchen door open. Quick footsteps advanced along the passage; to him, checking, his breath in the dark, listening with every nerve taut, it was as though he saw her, the serene poise of her body as she walked, the pathetic confidence of her high-held head, so distinctive and personal was even the noise of her tread on the boards. Presently, when she had sent the policeman away, he would see her and make her the gift of his request and watch her face as she received it from him.
The latch clicked back under her hand, and she was standing in the entry, confronting the policeman and his backing of citizens.
"Yes?" he heard her say, with a note of surprise at the sight of them. "Yes? What is it?"
The policeman's voice, with the official rasp in it, answered, spitting facts as brief as curses. "Man evading arrest aggravated assault believed to be a certain American apparently escaped this direction." It was like a telegram talking. Then, from his escort, a corroborating gabble.
He could imagine her look of rather puzzled eagerness. "An American?" she exclaimed. Then, as she realized it and its possibilities possibly also the fact that already when an American was sought for it was to her door that they came "oh!"
"Require you to produce him," injected the policeman, "if here! He is here yes?"
"No," she answered; "nobody has come here yet."
There seemed to be a check at that; the effect of her, standing in the doorway, made insistence difficult. The loud clock ticked on, and, at the background of the whole affair, the citizens on the landing maintained a subdued and unremarked murmur among themselves.
"He came this way," observed the policeman tenaciously. "He was seen to pass the next house." And a voice chimed in, melancholy, plaintive, evidently the voice of the dvornik who had been discovered absent from his post: "Yes, I saw him."
"Well," Miss Pilgrim seemed a little at a loss. "He's not here." She paused. "I have two rooms here," she added; "this" she must be pointing to the dark open door beside her "and my bedroom. You can look in this room, if that is what you want."
Waters heard the answering yap of the policeman and the shuffle of feet. He turned in panic; there was no time to reason with events. A step, and his groping hands were against that inner door, which yielded to their touch. Even in the chaos of his wits, he was aware of that subtle odor he had perceived before, that elusive fragrance which seemed a very emanation of chaste girlhood and virgin delicacy. He was inside, leaving the door an inch ajar, as the switch clicked in the outer room and a narrow jet of light stabbed through the opening.
"You see, there is nobody," Miss Pilgrim was saying.
The citizens, faithful to the trial, had crowded in. The policeman grunted doubtfully.
Waters, easing his breath noiselessly, let his eyes wander. The streak of light lay across the floor and up over the counterpane of a narrow wooden bed, then climbed the wall across the face of a picture to the ceiling. Beyond its illumination, there were dim shapes of a dressing-table and a wash-hand-stand, and there were dresses hanging on the wall beside him behind a sheet draped from a shelf. A window, high and double-paned, gave on the courtyard. Through it he could see the lights shining in curtained windows opposite.
"That?" It was Miss Pilgrim answering some question. "That is my bedroom. No; you must not go in there!"
There was a hush and a citizen said "Ah!" loudly and knowingly. Waters, listening intently, frowned.
"I must look," said the policeman curtly.
"But" her voice came from near the door, as though she were standing before it, barring the way to them, "you certainly shall not look. It is my bedroom, and even if your man had come here" she broke off abruptly. "You see he is not here," she added.
"I must look," repeated the policeman in exactly the same tone as before. "It is necessary."
"No," she said. "You must take my word. If you do not, I shall complain tomorrow morning to the consul and to the Chief of Police and you shall be punished."
"H'm!" The policeman was in doubt; she had spoken with a plain effect of meaning what she said, and a policeman's head upon a charger is a small sacrifice for a courteous Chief to offer to a lady friend. He tried to be reasonable with her.
"It was because he was seen to come this way," he argued. "He passed the next house and the dvornik this man here! saw him. He had committed an assault, an aggravated assault, on an istvostchik and evaded arrest. And he came this way."
"He is not here, though," replied Miss Pilgrim steadily. "Nobody at all has been here this evening. I give you my word."
The Russian phrase she used was "chestnoe slovo," "upon my honorable word." Waters caught his breath and listened anxiously.
"I give you my honorable word that he is not here," she affirmed deliberately.
"Now what do you know about that?" exclaimed Waters helplessly.
From the rear of the room somebody piped up acutely: "Then why may the policeman not look, since nobody is there?" Murmurs of agreement supported the questioner.
Miss Pilgrim did not answer. It was to Waters as though she and the policeman stood, estimating each other, measuring strength and capacity. The policeman grunted.
"Well," he said, "since you say, upon your honorable word but I must report the matter, you understand." He paused and there followed the rustle of paper as he produced and opened his notebook.
"Your names?" he demanded.
"Certainly," agreed Miss Pilgrim, in a voice of extreme formality. But she moved to the bedroom door and drew it conclusively shut before she replied.
Waters drew deep breaths and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. From the farther room he could hear now no more than confused and inarticulate murmurings; but he was not curious about the rest. He knew just what was going on the fatuous interrogatory as to name, surname, age, birthplace, nationality, father, mother, trade, married or single, civil status, and all the rest of the rigmarole involved in every contact with the Russian police. He had seen it many times and endured it himself often enough. Just now he had another matter to think of.
"Honorable word!" he repeated. "It's a wonder she couldn't find something different to say. Now I got to fool her. I got to, I."
The window showed him the pit of the courtyard; its frame was not yet caulked with cotton-wool and sealed with brown paper for the winter. He got it open and leaned out, feeling to either side for a spout, a pipe, anything that would give him handhold to climb down by. There was nothing of the kind; but directly below him he could make out the mass of the great square stack of furnace-wood built against the wall. From the sill to the top of the stack was a drop of full twenty feet.
He measured it with his eyes as best he could in the darkness. It was a chance, a not impossible one, but ugly enough. At any rate, it was the only one, if he were to get out and leave that "honorable word" untarnished. It never occurred to him that she might take it less seriously than he.
Waters, who dreamed, who stood by and gazed when life became turbulent and vivid, did not hesitate now. There was time for nothing but action, if he was to substitute a worthy sacrifice for his spoiled gift.
Seated upon the sill, he managed to draw the inner window shut and to latch it through the ventilating pane; the outer one he had to leave swinging and trust that she might find or not demand an explanation for it. This done, he was left, with his back to the house, seated upon the sill, a ledge perhaps a foot wide, with his legs swinging above the twenty-foot drop. In order to make it with a chance for safety, he had so to change his posture that he could hang by his hands from the sill, thus reducing the sheer fall by some six feet.
The dull windows of the courtyard watched him like stagnant eyes as, leaning aside, he labored to turn and lower himself. His experience at sea and upon the gantries in the yards should have helped him; but the past days, with their chill and insufficient food, had done their work on nerve and muscle, and he was still straining to turn and get his weight on to his hands when he slipped.
In the outer room, the catechism was running, or crawling, its ritual course.
"Father's nationality?" the policeman was inquiring, with his notebook upheld to the light and! a stub of flat pencil poised for the answer. A noise from the courtyard reached him. "What's that?" he inquired.
"Sounds like wood slipping off the stack," volunteered a citizen, and the dvornik, whose business it had been to pile it, and who had trouble enough on his hands already, sighed and drooped.
"American, of course," replied Miss Pilgrim patiently.
Below in the courtyard, Waters sat up and raised a hand to where something wet and warm was running down his cheek from under his hair, and found that it hurt his wrist when he did so. He rose stiffly, cursing to himself at the pain it caused him. Above him, the windows of the room that was always to be ready and waiting were broad and bright and heads were visible against them. He felt himself carefully and discovered that he could walk.
"Huh! Me for the roads goin' south outta this," he soliloquized, as he hobbled towards the gate; "an' startin' right now!"
He paused at the entry to the arch and looked back at the windows again.
"Honorable word!" he repeated bitterly, nursing his injured wrist. "Wouldn't that jar you?"
He moved out through the gale slowly and painfully.
The office of the machine-tool agency, where Mr. Baruch sat bowed and intent over his desk, was still as a chapel upon that afternoon of early autumn; the pale South Russian sun, shining full upon its windows, did no more than touch with color the sober shadows of the place. From the single room of the American Vice-Consulate, across the narrow staircase-landing without, there came to Mr. Baruch the hum of indistinguishable voices that touched his consciousness without troubling it. Then, suddenly, with a swell-organ effect, as though a door had been flung open between him and the speakers, he heard a single voice that babbled and faltered in noisy shrill anger.
"Out o' this! Out o' this!" It was the unmistakable voice of Selby, the vice-consul, whose routine day was incomplete without a quarrel. "Call yourself an American you? Coming in here."
The voice ceased abruptly. Mr. Baruch, at his desk, moved slightly like one who disposes of a trivial interruption, and bent again to the matter before him. Between his large, white hands, each decorated with a single ring, he held a small oblong box, the size of a cigar-case, of that blue lacquer of which Russian craftsmen once alone possessed the secret. Battered now by base uses, tarnished and abraded here and there, it preserved yet, for such eyes as those of Mr. Baruch, clues to its ancient delicacy of surface and the glory of its sky-rivaling blue. He had found it an hour before upon a tobacconist's counter, containing matches, and had bought it for a few kopeks; and now, alone in his office, amid his catalogues of lathes and punches, he was poring over it, reading it as another man might read poetry, inhaling from it all that the artist, its maker, had breathed into it.
There was a telephone at work in the Vice-Consulate now a voice speaking in staccato bursts, pausing between each for the answer. Mr. Baruch sighed gently, lifting the box for the light to slide upon its surface. He was a large man, nearing his fiftieth year, and a quiet self-security a quality of being at home in the world was the chief of his effects. Upon the wide spaces of his face, the little and neat features were grouped concisely, a nose boldly curved but small and well modeled, a mouth at once sensuous and fastidious, and eyes steadfast and benign. A dozen races between the Caspian and the Vistula had fused to produce this machine-tool agent, and over the union of them there was spread, like a preservative varnish, the smoothness of an imperturbable placidity.
Footsteps crossed the landing, and there was a loud knock on his door. Before Mr. Baruch, deliberate always, could reply, it was pushed open and Selby, the vice-consul, his hair awry, his glasses askew on the high, thin bridge of his nose, and with all his general air of a maddened bird, stood upon the threshold.
"Ah, Selby, it is you, my friend!" remarked Mr. Baruch pleasantly. "And you wish to see me yes?"
Selby advanced into the room, saving his eyeglasses by a sudden clutch.
"Say, Baruch," he shrilled, "here's the devil of a thing! This place gets worse every day. Feller comes into my office, kind of a peddler, selling rugs and carpets and shows a sort of passport; Armenian, I guess, or a Persian, or something; and when I tell him to clear out, if he doesn't go and throw a kind of a fit right on my floor!"
"Ah!" said Mr. Baruch sympathetically. "A fit yes? You have telephoned for the gorodski pomosh the town ambulance?"
"Yes," said Selby; "at least, I had Miss Pilgrim do that, my clerk, you know."
"Yes," said Mr. Baruch; "I know Miss Pilgrim. Well, I will come and see your peddler man." He rose. "But first see what I have been buying for myself, Selby." He held out the little battered box upon his large, firm palm. "You like it? I gave forty kopeks for it to a man who would have taken twenty. It is nice yes?"
Selby gazed vaguely. "Very nice," he said perfunctorily. "I used to buy 'em, too, when I came here first."
Mr. Baruch smiled that quiet, friendly smile of his, and put the box carefully into a drawer of his desk.
The American Vice-Consulate at Nikolaief was housed in a single great room lighted by a large window at one end overlooking the port and the wharves, so that, entering from the gloom of the little landing, one looked along the length of it as towards the mouth of a cave. Desks, tables, a copying-press and a typewriter were all its gear; it was a place as avidly specialized for its purpose as an iron foundry, but now, for the moment, it was redeemed from its everyday barrenness by the two figures upon the floor near the entrance.
The peddler lay at full length, a bundle of strange travel-wrecked clothes, suggesting a lay figure in his limp inertness and the loose sprawl of his limbs. Beside him on the boards, trim in white blouse and tweed skirt, kneeled the vice-consul's clerk, Miss Pilgrim. She had one arm under the man's head, and with the other was drawing towards her his fallen bundle of rugs to serve as a pillow. As she bent, her gentle face, luminously fair, was over the swart, clenched countenance of the unconscious man, whose stagnant eyes seemed set on her in an unwinking stare.
Mr. Baruch bent to help her place the bundle in position. She lifted her face to him in recognition. Selby, fretting to and fro, snorted.
"Blamed if I'd have touched him," he said. "Most likely he never saw soap in his life. A hobo that's what he is just a hobo."
Miss Pilgrim gave a little deprecating smile and stood up. She was a slight girl, serious and gentle, and half her waking life was spent in counteracting the effects of Selby 's indigestion and ill-temper. Mr. Baruch was still stooping to the bundle of rugs.
"Oh, that'll be all right, Mr. Baruch," she assured him. "He's quite comfortable now."
Mr. Baruch, still stooping, looked up at her.
"I am seeing the kind of rugs he has," he answered. "I am interested in rugs. You do not know rugs no?"
"No," replied Miss Pilgrim.
"Ah! This, now, is out of Persia, I think," said Mr. Baruch, edging one loose from the disordered bundle. "Think!" he said. "This poor fellow, lying here he is Armenian. How many years has he walked, carrying his carpets and rugs, all the way down into Persia, selling and changing his goods in bazaars and caravanserais, and then back over the Caucasus and through the middle of the Don Cossacks all across the Black Lands carrying the rugs till he comes to throw his fit on Mr. Selby's floor! It is a strange way to live, Miss Pilgrim, yes?"
"Ye-es," breathed Miss Pilgrim. "Ye-es."
He smiled at her. He had a corner of the rug unfolded now and draped over his bent knee. His hand stroked it delicately; the blank light from the window let its coloring show in its just values. Mr. Baruch, with the dregs of his smile yet curving his lips, scanned it without too much appearance of interest. He was known for a "collector," a man who gathered things that others disregarded, and both Miss Pilgrim and Selby watched him with the respect of the laity for the initiate. But they could not discern or share the mounting ecstasy of the connoisseur, of the spirit which is to the artist what the wife is to the husband, as he realized the truth and power of the coloring, its stained-glass glow, the justice and strength of the patterning and the authentic silk-and-steel of the texture.
"Is it any good?" asked Selby suddenly. "I've heard of 'em being worth a lot sometimes thousands of dollars!"
"Sometimes," agreed Mr. Baruch. "Those you can see in museums. This one, now I would offer him twenty rubles for it, and I would give perhaps thirty if he bargained too hard. That is because I have a place for it in my house."
"And he'd probably make a hundred per cent, on it at that," said Selby. "These fellows."
The loud feet of the ambulance men on the stairs interrupted him. Mr. Baruch, dragging the partly unfolded rugs with him, moved away as the white clad doctor and his retinue of stretcher-bearers came in at the door, with exactly the manner of the mere spectator who makes room for people more directly concerned. He saw the doctor kneel beside the prostrate man and Miss Pilgrim hand him one of the office tea-glasses; then, while all crowded round to watch the process of luring back the strayed soul of the peddler, he had leisure to assure himself again of the quality of his find. The tea-glass clinked against clenched teeth. "A spoon, somebody!" snapped the doctor. The cramped throat gurgled painfully; but Mr. Baruch, slave to the delight of the eye, was unheeding. A joy akin to love, pervading and rejoicing his every faculty, had possession of him. The carpet was all he had deemed it and more, the perfect expression in its medium of a fine and pure will to beauty.
The peddler on the floor behind him groaned painfully and tatters of speech formed on his lips.
"That's better," said the doctor encouragingly.
Mr. Baruch dropped the rug and moved quietly towards the group.
The man was conscious again; a stretcher-bearer, kneeling behind him, was holding him in a half sitting posture, and Mr. Baruch watched with interest how the tide of returning intelligence mounted in the thin mask of his face. He was an Armenian by every evidence, an effect of weather-beaten pallor appearing through dense masses of coal-black beard and hair one of those timid and servile off-scourings of civilization whose wandering lives are daily epics of horrid peril and adventure. His pale eyes roved here and there as he lay against the stretcher-bearer's knee.
"Well," said the doctor, rising and dusting his hands one against the other, "we won't need the stretcher. Two of you take him under his arms and help him up."
The burly Russian ambulance men hoisted him easily enough and stood supporting him while he hung between them weakly. Still his eyes wandered, seeking dumbly in the big room. The doctor turned to speak to the vice-consul, and Miss Pilgrim moved forward to the sick man.
"Yes?" she questioned, in her uncertain Russian. "Yes? What is it?"
He made feeble sounds, but Mr. Baruch heard no shaped word. Miss Pilgrim, however, seemed to understand.
"Oh, your rugs!" she answered. "They're all here, quite safe." She pointed to the bundle, lying where it had been thrust aside. "Quite safe, you see."
Mr. Baruch said no word. The silken carpet that he had removed was out of sight upon the farther side of the big central table of the office. The peddler groaned again and murmured; Miss Pilgrim bent forward to give ear. Mr. Baruch, quietly and deliberately as always, moved to join the conference of the doctor and Selby. He was making a third to their conversation when Miss Pilgrim turned.
"One more?" she was saying. "Is there one more? Mr. Baruch, did you— Oh, there it is!"
She moved across to fetch it. The peddler's eyes followed her slavishly. Mr. Baruch smiled.
"Yes?" he said. "Oh, that carpet! He wants to sell it yes?"
"He isn't fit to do any bargaining yet," replied Miss Pilgrim, and Mr. Baruch nodded agreeably.
The doctor and Selby finished their talk, and the former came back into the group.
"Well, take him down to the ambulance," he bade the men.
They moved to obey, but the sick man, mouthing strange sounds, seemed to try to hang back, making gestures with his head towards the disregarded bundle that was the whole of his earthly wealth.
"What's the matter with him?" cried the doctor impatiently. "Those rugs? Oh, we can't take a hotbed of microbes like that to the hospital! Move him along there!"
"And I'm not going to have 'em here," barked Selby. The peddler, limp between the big stretcher bearers, moaned and seemed to shiver in a vain effort to free himself.
"Wait, please!" Miss Pilgrim came forward. She had been folding the silken rug of Mr. Baruch's choice, and was now carrying it before her. It was as though she wore an apron of dawn gold and sunset red.
The pitiful man rolled meek imploring eyes upon her. She cast down the rug she carried upon the others in their bundle and stood over them.
"I'll take care of them," she said. "They will be safe with me. Do you understand? Me!" She touched herself upon her white-clad bosom with one hand, pointing with the other to the rugs.
The man gazed at her mournfully, resignedly. Martyrdom was the daily bread of his race; oppression had been his apprenticeship to life. It was in the order of things as he knew it that those who had power over him should plunder him; but, facing the earnest girl, with her frank and kindly eyes, some glimmer of hope lighted in his abjectness. He sighed and let his head fall forward in a feeble motion of acquiescence, and the big men who held him took him out and down the stairs to the waiting ambulance.
"Well!" said Selby, as the door closed behind the doctor. "Who wouldn't sell a farm and be a consul. We'd ought to have the place disinfected. What do you reckon to do with that junk, Miss Pilgrim?"
Miss Pilgrim was readjusting the thong that had bound the rugs together.
"Oh, I'll take them home in a droschky, Mr. Selby," she said. "I've got a cupboard in my rooms where they can stay till the poor man gets out of hospital."
"All right," snarled Selby. "It's your troubles." He turned away, but stopped upon a sudden thought. "What about letting Baruch take that rug now?" he asked. "He's offered a price and he can pay it to you."
"Certainly," agreed Mr. Baruch. "I can pay the cash to Miss Pilgrim and she can pay it to the poor man. He will perhaps be glad to have some cash at once when he comes out."
Miss Pilgrim, kneeling beside the pack of rugs, looked doubtfully from one to the other. Mr. Baruch returned her gaze benignly. Selby, as always, had the affronted air of one who is prepared to be refused the most just and moderate demand.
"Why," she began hesitatingly, "I suppose-" Then Selby had to strike in.
"Aren't worrying because you said you'd look after the stuff yourself, are you?" he jeered.
Mr. Baruch's expression did not alter by so much as a twitch; there was no outward index of his impulse to smite the blundering man across the mouth.
The hesitancy upon Miss Pilgrim's face dissolved in an instant and she positively brightened.
"Of course," she said happily. "What can I have been thinking of? When the poor man comes out Mr. Baruch can make his own bargain with him; but till then I promised!"
Selby, with slipping glasses awry on his' nose, gaped at her.
"Promised!" he repeated. "That that hobo."
Mr. Baruch intervened.
"But, Selby, my friend, Miss Pilgrim is quite right. She promised; and it is only two or three days to wait, and also it is not the only rug in the world. Though," he added generously, "it is a nice rug yes?"
Miss Pilgrim smiled at him gratefully; Selby shrugged, and just caught his glasses as the shrug shook them loose.
"Fix it to suit yourselves," he snarled, and moved away toward his untidy desk by the window.
The pale autumn sun had dissolved in watery splendors as Mr. Baruch, with the wide astrakhan collar of his overcoat turned up about his ears, walked easily homeward in the brisk evening chill. There were lights along the wharves, and the broad waters of the port, along which his road lay, were freckled with the spark-like lanterns on the ships, each with its little shimmer of radiance reflected from the stream. Commonly, as he strolled, he saw it all with gladness; the world and the fullness thereof were ministers of his pleasure; but upon this night he saw it absently, with eyes that dwelt beyond it all. Outwardly, he was the usual Mr. Baruch; his slightly sluggish benevolence of demeanor was unchanged as he returned the salute of a policeman upon a corner, but inwardly he was like a man uplifted by good news. The sense of pure beauty, buried in his being, stirred like a rebellious slave. Those arabesques, that coloring, that texture thrilled him like a gospel.
It was in the same mood of abstraction that he let himself into his flat in the great German-built apartment-house that overlooked the "boulevard" and the thronged river. He laid aside his overcoat in the little hall, conventional with its waxed wood and its mirror, clicked an electric-light switch and passed through a portiere into the salon, which was the chief room of his abode. A large room, oblong and high-ceilinged, designed by a man with palace architecture that obsession of the Russian architect on the brain. He advanced to it, still with that vagueness of sense, and stopped, looking round him.
It was part of the effect which Mr. Baruch made upon those who came into contact with him that few suspected him of a home, a domesticity of his own; he was so complete, so compactly self-contained, without appanages of that kind. Here, however, was the frame of his real existence, which contained it as a frame contains a picture and threw it into relief. The great room, under the strong lights, showed the conventional desert of polished parquet floor, with sparse furniture grouped about it. There was an ivory-inlaid stand with a Benares brass tray; a Circassian bridal linen-chest stood against a wall; the tiles of the stove in the corner illustrated the life and martyrdom of Saint Tikhon. Upon another wall was a trophy of old Cossack swords. Before the linen-chest there stood a trunk of the kind that every Russian housemaid takes with her to her employment a thing of bent birchwood, fantastically painted in strong reds and blues. One buys such things for the price of a cocktail.
Mr. Baruch stood, looking round him at the room. Everything in it was of his choosing, the trophy of some moment or some hour of delight. He had selected his own background.
He turned, deliberate always. Between the portieres that screened the opposite doorway there stood the supreme "find" of his collection. Somewhere or other, between the processes of becoming an emperor in the machine-tool trade of southern Russia and an American citizen, Mr. Baruch so complete in himself, so perfect an entity had added to himself a wife. The taste that manifested itself alike on battered blue lacquer and worn prayer-rugs from Persia had not failed him then; he had found a thing perfect of its kind. From the uneasy Caucasus, where the harem-furnishers of Circassia jostle the woman-merchants of Georgia, he had brought back a prize. The woman who stood in the doorway, one strong bare arm uplifted to hold back the stamped leather curtain, was large a great white creature like a moving statue, with a still, blank face framed in banks of shining jet hair. The strong, lights of the chamber shone on her; she stood, still as an image, with large, incurious eyes, looking at him. All the Orient was immanent in her; she had the quiet, the resignation, the un-hope of the odalisque.
"Samuel," she said again.
"Ah, Adina!" And then, in the Circassian idiom, "Grace go before you!"
Her white arm sank and the curtains swelled together behind her. Mr. Baruch took the chief of his treasures into his arms and kissed her.
The room in which presently they dined was tiny, like a cabinet particulier; they sat at food like lovers, with shutters closed upon the windows to defend their privacy. Mr. Baruch ate largely, and his great wife watched him across the table with still satisfaction. The linen of the table had been woven by the nuns of the Lavra at Kiev; the soup-bowls were from Cracow; there was nothing in the place that had not its quality and distinction. And Mr. Baruch fitted it as a snail fits its shell. It was his shell, for, like a snail, he had exuded it from his being and it was part of him.
"I saw a carpet to-day," he said abruptly. There was Black Sea salmon on his plate, and he spoke above a laden fork.
"Yes?" The big, quiet woman did not so much inquire as invite him to continue. Mr. Baruch ate some salmon. "A carpet yes," he said presently. "Real like Diamonds, like you, Adina, I no mistake."
At the compliment, she lowered her head and raised it again in a motion like a very slow nod. Mr. Baruch finished his salmon without further words.
"And?" Upon her unfinished question he looked up.
"Yes," he said; "surely! In a few days I shall bring it home."
Her large eyes, the docile eyes of the slave-wife, acclaimed him. For her there were no doubts, no judgments; the husband was the master, the god of the house. Mr. Baruch continued his meal to its end.
"And now," he said presently, when he had finished, "you will go to bed."
She stood up forthwith, revealing again her majestic stature and pose. Mr. Baruch sat at his end of the table with his tiny cup of coffee and his thimble-like glass before him. He lifted his eyes and gazed at her appreciatively, and, for a moment, there lighted in his face a reflection of what Selby and Miss Pilgrim might have seen in it, had they known how to look, when first he realized the silken glories of the carpet. The woman, returning his gaze, maintained her pale, submissive calm.
"Blessings upon you!" he said, dismissing her.
She lowered her splendid head in instant obedience.
"Blessings," she replied, "and again blessings! Have sweet sleep, lord and husband!"
He sat above his coffee and his liqueur and watched her superb body pass forth from the little room. She did not turn to look back; they are not trained to coquetry, those chattel-women of the Caucasus. Mr. Baruch smiled while he let the sweetish and violently strong liqueur roll over his tongue and the assertively fragrant coffee possess his senses. His wife was a "find," a thing perfect of its sort, that satisfied his exigent taste; and now again he was to thrill with the joy of acquisition. There were rugs in the room where he sat one draped over a settee, another hanging upon the wall opposite him, one underfoot each fine and singular in its manner He passed an eye over them and then ceased to sec them. His benevolent face, with all its suggestive reserve and its quiet shrewdness, fell vague with reverie. It was in absence of mind rather than in presence of appetite that he helped himself for the fourth time to the high-explosive liqueur from the old Vilna decanter; and there flashed into sight before him, the clearer for the spur with which the potent drink rowelled his consciousness, the vision of the silk carpet, its glow, as though fire were mixed with the dyes of it, the faultless Tightness and art of its pattern, the soul-ensnaring perfection of the whole.
It was some hours later that he looked into his wife's room on his way to his own. She was asleep, her quiet head cushioned upon the waves of her hair. Mr. Baruch, half-burned cigar between his teeth, stood and gazed at her. Her face, wiped clean of its powder, was white as paper, with that deathlike whiteness which counts as beauty in Circassia; only the shadows of her eyelids and the broad red of her lips stained her pallor. Across her breast the red and blue hem of the quilt lay like a scarf.
Mr. Baruch looked at the arrangement critically. He was a connoisseur in perfection, and something was lacking. It eluded him for a moment or two and then, suddenly, like an inspiration, he perceived it. The rug the thing delicate as silk, with its sheen, its flush of hues, with the white slumbering face above it! The picture, the perfect thing he saw it!
The woman in the bed stirred and murmured.
"Blessings upon you," said Mr. Baruch, and smiled as he turned away.
"Bl-essings," she murmured sleepily, without opening her eyes, and sighed and lay still once more.
The heart of man is a battle-ground where might is always right and victory is always to the strongest of the warring passions. And even a saint's passion to holiness is hardly stronger, more selfless, more disregardful of conditions and obstacles than the passion of the lover of the beautiful, the connoisseur, toward acquisition. In the days that followed, Mr. Baruch, walking his quiet ways about the city, working in the stillness of his office, acquired the sense that the carpet, by the mere force of his desire, was somehow due to him a thing only momentarily out of his hands, like one's brief loan to a friend. Presently it would come his way and be his; and it belongs to his sense of security in his right that not once, not even when he remembered it most avidly, did he think of the expedient of buying it from the sick peddler by paying him the value of it.
Another man would probably have gone forthwith to Selby, told him the secret, and enlisted his aid; but Mr. Baruch did not work like that. He allowed chance a week in which to show its reasonableness; and not till then, nothing having happened, did he furnish himself, one afternoon, with an excuse, in the form of a disputed customs charge, and cross the narrow landing to the American Vice-Consulate.
Selby was there alone at his disorderly desk by the window, fussing feebly among the chaos of his tumbled papers, and making a noise of desperation with his lips like a singing kettle.
"Ah, Selby, my friend!" Mr. Baruch went smilingly forward. "You work always too much. And now come I with a little other thing for you. It is too bad yes?"
"Hallo, Baruch!" returned Selby. "You're right about the working. Here I keep a girl to keep my papers in some kind of a sort of order and I been hunting and digging for an hour to find one of 'em. It gets me what she thinks I pay her for! Hoboes an' that kind o' trash, that's her style."
Mr. Baruch had still his agreeable, mild smile, which was as much a part of his daily wear as his trousers. He could not have steered the talk to better purpose.
"Hoboes?" he said vaguely. "Trash?"
Selby exploded in weak, sputtering fury, and, as always, his glasses canted on the high, thin bridge of his nose and waggled in time to each jerk of words.
"It's that hobo, you saw him, Baruch, that pranced in here and threw a fit and a lot of old carpets all over my floor. Armenian or some such thing! Well, they took him to the hospital and this afternoon he hadn't got more sense than to send a message over here."
Mr. Baruch nodded.
"Ah, to Miss Pilgrim, yes? because of her very kind treatment."
Selby caught his glasses as they fell.
"Huh!" he sneered malevolently. "You'd have to be a hobo before you'd get kindness from her. Hard-luck stories is the only kind she believes. 'I'll have to go, Mr. Selby,' she says. And she goes—and here's me hunting and pawing around—"
"Yes," agreed Mr. Baruch; "it is inconvenient. So I will come back tomorrow with my matter, when you shall have more time. Then the poor man, he is worse or better?"
"You don't suppose I been inquiring after him, do you?" squealed Selby.
"No," replied Mr. Baruch equably, "I do not suppose that, Selby, my friend."
The street in which Miss Pilgrim had her rooms was one of the long gullies of high-fronted architecture running at right angles to the river, and thither portly, handsomely overcoated, with the deliberateness of a balanced and ordered mind in every tread of his measured gait went Mr. Baruch. He had no plan; his resource and personality would not fail him in an emergency, and it was time he brought them to bear. One thing he was sure of he would take the carpet home that night.
At the head of two flights of iron-railed stone stairs, he reached the door of the flat which he sought. Two or three attempts upon the bell-push brought no response, and he could hear no sound of life through the door. He waited composedly. It did not enter his head that all the occupants might be out; and he was right, for presently, after he had thumped on the door with his gloved fist, there was a slip-slap of feet within and a sloven of a woman opened to him.
Mr. Baruch gave her his smile.
"The American lady is in? I wish to speak to her." The woman stood aside hastily to let him enter. "Say Gaspodin Baruch is here," he directed blandly.
It was a narrow corridor, flanked with doors, in which he stood. The woman knocked at the nearest of these, opened it, and spoke his name. Immediately from within he heard the glad, gentle voice of the consul's clerk.
"Surely!" it answered the servant in Russian; then called in English, "Come in, Mr. Baruch, please!"
He removed his hat and entered. An unshaded electric-light bulb filled the room with crude light, stripping its poverty and tawdriness naked to the eye its bamboo furniture, its imitation parquet, and the cheap distemper of its walls. But of these Mr. Baruch was only faintly aware, for in the middle of the floor, with brown paper and string beside her, Miss Pilgrim knelt amid a kaleidoscope of tumbled rugs, and in her hand, half folded already, was the rug.
She was smiling up at him with her mild, serene face, while under her thin, pale hands lay the treasure.
"Now this is nice of you, Mr. Baruch," she was saying. "I suppose Mr. Selby told you I'd had to go out."
Mr. Baruch nodded. He had let his eyes rest on the rug for a space of seconds, and then averted them.
"Yes," he said. "He said it was some message about the poor man who was ill, and I think he was angry."
"Angry?" Miss Pilgrim's smile faded. "I'm, I'm sorry for that."
"So," continued Mr. Baruch, "as I have to go by this way, I think I will call to see if I can help. It was some paper Mr. Selby cannot find, I think."
"Some paper?" Miss Pilgrim pondered. "You don't know which it was?"
Mr. Baruch shook his head regretfully. Between them the rug lay and glowed up at him.
"You see," continued Miss Pilgrim, "it's this way, Mr. Baruch. That poor man in the hospital doesn't seem to be getting any better yet, and he's evidently fretting about his rugs. They're probably all he's got in the world. So this afternoon they telephoned up from the hospital to say he wanted me to send down one in particular, the thinnest one of them all. That's this one!"
She showed it to him, her fingers feeling its edge. There was wonder in his mind that the mere contact of it did not tell her of its worth.
"I'm afraid it's the one you wanted to buy," she said. "The one you said was worth thirty rubles. Well, of course, it's his, and since he wanted it I had to get it for him. I couldn't do anything else, could I, Mr. Baruch?"
Mr. Baruch agreed.
"It is very kind treatment," he approved. "So now you pack it in a parcel and take it to the hospital before you go back to find Mr. Selby's paper yes? Mr. Selby will be glad."
A pucker of worry appeared between the girl's frank brows and she fell swiftly to folding and packing the rug.
"If if only he hasn't left the office before I got there!" she doubted.
Mr. Baruch picked up the string and prepared to assist with the packing.
"Perhaps he will not be gone," he said consolingly. "He was so angry I think the paper would be important, and he would stay to find it yes?" Miss Pilgrim did not seem cheered by this supposition. "Well," said Mr. Baruch then, "if it should be a help to you and the poor man, I can take this parcel for you and leave it in the gate of the hospital when I go past this evening."
He had a momentary tremor as he made the proposal, but it was not doubt that it would be accepted or fear lest his purpose should show through it. He felt neither of these; it was the thrill of victory that he had to keep out of his tone and his smile.
For it was victory. Miss Pilgrim beamed at him thankfully.
"Oh, Mr. Baruch, you are kind!" she cried. "I didn't like to ask you, but you must be a thought reader. If you'd just hand it in for Doctor Semianoff, he'll know all about it, and I can get back to Mr. Selby at once. And thank you ever so much, Mr. Baruch!"
"But," protested Mr. Baruch, "it is a little thing—it is nothing. And it is much pleasure to me to do this for you and the poor man. Tonight he will have it, and tomorrow perhaps he will be better."
They went down the stairs together and bade each other a friendly good night in the gateway.
"And I'm ever so much obliged to you, Mr. Baruch," said Miss Pilgrim again, her pale face shining in the dusk.
Mr. Baruch put a fatherly hand on her sleeve.
"Hush! You must not say it," he said. "It is I that am happy."
Half an hour later, he found what he sought in a large furniture store on the Pushkinskaia, an imitation Persian rug, manufactured at Frankfurt, and priced seventeen rubles. With a little bargaining the salesman was no match for Mr. Baruch, at that he got it for fifteen and a half. He himself directed the packing of it, to see that no store-label was included in the parcel; and a quarter of an hour later he delivered it by cab to the dvornik at the hospital gate for Doctor Semianoff. Then he drove homeward; he could not spare the time to walk while the bundle he held in his arms was yet unopened nor its treasure housed in his home.
His stratagem was perfect. Even if the Armenian were to make an outcry, who would lend him an ear?
It would appear it could easily be made to appear that he was endeavoring to extort money from Miss Pilgrim upon a flimsy pretext that a worthless rug had been substituted for a valuable one, and the police would know how to deal with him. Mr. Baruch put the matter behind him contentedly.
The majestic woman in his home watched him impassively as he unpacked his parcel and spread the rug loosely across a couple of chairs in the salon. In actual words he said only: "This is the carpet, Adina, for your bed. Look at it well!" She looked obediently, glancing from it to his face, her own still with its unchanging calm, and wondered dully in her sex-specialized brain at the light of rapture in his countenance. He pored upon it, devouring its rareness of beauty, the sum and the detail of its perfection, with a joy as pure, an appreciation as generous, as if he had not stolen it from under the hands of a sick pauper and a Good Samaritan.
That night he stood at the door of his wife's room. "Blessings upon you!" he said, and smiled at her in acknowledgment of the blessings she returned. A brass-and-glass lantern contained the electric light in the chamber; it shone softly on all the apparatus of toilet and slumber, and upon the picture that was Mr. Baruch's chief work of art the marble-white face thrown into high relief by the unbound black hair and the colors, like a tangle of softened and subdued rainbows, that flowed from her bosom to the foot of the bed. He crossed the floor and bent and kissed her where she lay.
"Wonderful!" he said to her. "You are a question, an eternal question. And here" his hand moved on the surface of the rug like a caress "is the answer to you. Two perfect things two perfect things!"
"Blessings!" she murmured.
"I have them," he said; "two of them," and he laughed and left her.
He did not see Miss Pilgrim the following day or the next; that was easy for him to contrive, for much of his business was done outside his office. It was not that he had any fear of meeting her; but it was more agreeable to his feelings not to be reminded of her part in the acquisition of the carpet. Upon the third day, he was late in arriving, for his wife had complained at breakfast of headache and sickness, and he had stayed to comfort her and see her back to bed for a twenty-four hours' holiday from life. On his way he had stopped at a florist's to send her back some flowers.'
He was barely seated at his desk when there was a knock upon his door and Miss Pilgrim entered.
He smiled his usual pleasant welcome at her.
"Ah, Miss Pilgrim, good morning, I am glad to see you. You will sit down yes?"
He was rising to give her a chair he was not in the least afraid of her when something about her arrested him, a trouble, a note of sorrow.
"Mr. Baruch" she began.
He knew the value of the deft interruption that breaks the thread of thought.
"There is something not right?" he suggested. "I hope not." With a manner of sudden concern, he added: "The poor man, he is worse no?"
Miss Pilgrim showed him a stricken face and eyes brimming with tears.
"He's, he's dead!" she quavered.
"See, now!" said Mr. Baruch, shocked. "What a sad thing and after all your kind treatment! I am sorry, Miss Pilgrim; but it is to remember that the poor man has come here through much hardship yes? And at the least, you have given him back his rug to comfort him."
"But" Miss Pilgrim stayed his drift of easy, grave speech with a sort of cry "that's the cause of all the trouble and danger and you only did it to help me. You must come with me to the town clinic at once. Mr. Selby's gone already. There'll be no danger if you come at once."
"Danger?" repeated Mr. Baruch. "I have not understood." But though in all truth he did not understand, a foreboding of knowledge was chill upon him. He cleared his throat. "What did he die of?"
Miss Pilgrim's tears had overflowed. She had a difficulty in speaking. But her stammered words came as clearly to his ears as though they were being shouted.
He sat down heavily in the chair whence he had risen to receive her, and Miss Pilgrim through her tears saw him shrivel in a gust of utter terror. All his mask of complacency, of kindly power, of reticence of spirit fell from him; he gulped, and his mouth sagged slack. She moved a pace nearer to him.
"But it'll be all right, Mr. Baruch, if you'll just come to the clinic at once and be vaccinated. It's only because we touched him and the rugs. There isn't any need to be so frightened."
She could not divine the vision that stood before his strained eyes the white face of a woman, weary with her ailment, and the beautiful thing that blanketed her, beautiful and venomous like a snake. His senses swam. But from his shaking lips two words formed themselves:
"Oh, come along, Mr. Baruch!" cried Miss Pilgrim. "Your wife hasn't touched the rugs. She'll be perfectly all right!"
He gave her a look that began abjectly but strengthened as it continued to something like a strange sneer. For he was a connoisseur; he knew. And he was certain that Fate would never leave a drama unfinished like that.
THE DAY OF OMENS
The velvet-footed, rat-faced valet moved noiselessly in the bedroom, placing matters in order for his master's toilet. He had drawn the curtains to admit the day and closed the window to bar out its morning freshness, and it was while he was clearing the pockets of the dress clothes that he became aware that from the alcove at his back, in which the bed stood, eyes were watching him. Without hurry, he deposited a little pile of coins on the edge of the dressing-table and laid the trousers aside; then, with his long thief's hands hanging open in obvious innocence, he turned and saw that his master had waked in his usual uncanny fashion, returning from slumber to full consciousness with no interval of drowsiness and half-wakefulness. It was as if he would take the fortunes of the day by surprise. His wonderful white hair, which made him noticeable without ever making him venerable, was tumbled on his head; he looked from his pillow with the immobility and inexpressiveness of a wax figure.