"Ah, but this isn't philandery. It is truth." Suddenly the mockery had died out of his voice and his eyes. "Carissima, I have waited a very long time for you—too long. Life has been an arid waste without you, but, Allah be praised, you are here at last. You are going to love me—ah, my Tony—how you are going to love me!" The last words were spoken very low for the girl's ears alone, though more than one person at the table seeing him bend over her, understood, that Alan Massey, that professional master-lover was "off" again.
"Don't, Mr. Massey. I don't care for that kind of jest."
"Jest! Good God! Tony Holiday, don't you know that I mean it, that this, is the real thing at last for me—and for you? Don't fight it, Mademoiselle Beautiful. It will do no good. I love you and you are going to love me—divinely."
"I don't even like you," denied Tony hotly.
"What of that? What do I care for your liking? That is for others. But your loving—that shall be mine—all mine. You will see."
"I am afraid you are very much mistaken if you do mean all you are saying. Please talk to Miss Irvine now. You haven't said a word to her since you sat down. I hate rudeness."
Again Tony turned a cold shoulder upon her amazing dinner companion but she did not do it so easily or so calmly this time. She was not unused to the strange ways of men. Not for nothing had she spent so much of her life at army posts where love-making is as familiar as brass buttons. Sudden gusts of passion were no novelty to her, nor was it a new thing to hear that a man thought he loved her. But Alan Massey was different. She disliked him intensely, she resented the arrogance of his assumptions with all her might, but he interested her amazingly. And, incredible as it might seem and not to be admitted out loud, he was speaking the truth, just now. He did love her. In her heart Tony knew that she had felt his love before he had ever spoken a word to her when their eyes had met as he stood on the threshold and she knew too instinctively, that his love—if it was that—was not a thing to be treated like the little summer day loves of the others. It was big, rather fearful, not to be flouted or played with. One did not play with a meteor when it crossed one's path. One fled from it or stayed and let it destroy one if it would.
She roused herself to think of other people, to forget Alan Massey and his wonderful voice which had said such perturbing things. Over across the table, Carlotta was talking vivaciously to a pasty-visaged, narrow-chested, stoop-shouldered youth who scarcely opened his mouth except to consume food, but whose eyes drank in every movement of Carlotta's. One saw at a glance he was another of that spoiled little coquette's many victims. Tony asked Hal who he was. He seemed scarcely worth so many of Carlotta's sparkles, she thought.
"Herb Lathrop—father is the big tea and coffee man—all rolled up in millions. Carlotta's people are putting all the bets on him, apparently, though for the life of me I can't see why. Don't see why people with money are always expected to match up with somebody with a whole caboodle of the same junk. Ought to be evened up I think, and a bit of eugenics slipped in, instead of so much cash, for good measure. You can see what a poor fish he is. In my opinion she had much better marry your neighbor up there on the Hill. He is worth a gross of Herb Lathrops and she knows it. Carlotta is no fool."
"You mean Phil Lambert?" Tony was surprised.
"That's the chap. Only man I ever knew that could keep Carlotta in order."
"But Carlotta hasn't the slightest idea of marrying Phil," objected Tony.
"Maybe not. I only say he is the man she ought to marry. I say, Tony, does she seem happy to you?"
"Carlotta! Why, yes. I hadn't thought. She seems gayer than usual, if anything." Tony's eyes sought her friend's face. Was there something a little forced about that gaiety of hers? For the first time it struck her that there was a restlessness in the lovely violet eyes which was unfamiliar. Was Carlotta unhappy? Evidently Hal thought so. "You have sharp eyes, Hal," she commented. "I hadn't noticed."
"Oh, I'm one of the singed moths you know. I know Carlotta pretty well and I know she is fighting some kind of a fight—maybe with herself. I rather think it is. Tell Phil Lambert to come down here and marry her out of hand. I tell you Lambert's the man."
"You think Carlotta loves Phil?"
"I don't think. 'Tisn't my business prying into a girl's fancies. I'm simply telling you Phil Lambert is the man that ought to marry her, and if he doesn't get on to the job almighty quick that pop-eyed simpleton over there will be prancing down the aisle to Lohengrin with Carlotta before Christmas, and the jig will be up. You tell him what I say. And study the thing a bit yourself while you are here, Tony. See if you can get to the bottom of it. I hate to have her mess things up for herself that way."
Whereupon Hal once more proceeded to do his duty to the mermaid, leaving Tony to her other partner.
"Well," the latter murmured, seeing her free. "I have done the heavy polite act, discussed D'Annunzio, polo and psycho-analysis and finished all three subjects neatly. Do I get my reward?"
"What do you ask?"
"The first dance and then the garden and the moon and you—all to myself."
Tony shook her head. She was on guard.
"I shall want more than one dance and more than one partner. I am afraid I shan't have time for the moon and the garden to-night. I adore dancing. I never stop until the music does."
A flash of exultancy leaped into his eyes.
"So? I might have known you would adore dancing. You shall have your fill. You shall have many dances, but only one partner. I shall suffice. I am one of the best dancers in the world."
"And evidently one of the vainest men," coolly.
"What of it? Vanity is good when it is not misplaced. But I was not boasting. I am one of the best dancers in the world. Why should I not be? My mother was Lucia Vannini. She danced before princes." He might have added, "She was a prince's mistress." It had been the truth.
"Oh!" cried Tony. She had heard of Lucia Vannini—a famous Italian beauty and dancer of three decades ago. So Alan Massey was her son. No wonder he was foreign, different, in ways and looks. One could forgive his extravagances when one knew.
"Ah, you like that, my beauty? You will like it even better when you have danced with me. It is then that you will know what it is to dance. We shall dance and dance and—love. I shall make you mine dancing, Toinetta mia."
Tony shrank back from his ardent eyes and his veiled threat. She was a passionate devotee of her own freedom. She did not want to be made his or any man's—certainly not his. She decided not to dance with him at all. But later, when the violins began to play and Alan Massey came and stood before her, uttering no word but commanding her to him with his eyes and his out-stretched, nervous, slender, strong, artist hands, she yielded—could scarcely have refused if she had wanted to. But she did not want to, though she told herself it was with Lucia Vannini's son rather than with Alan Massey that she desired to dance.
After that she thought not at all, gave herself up to the very ecstasy of emotion. She had danced all her life, but, even as he had predicted, she learned for the first time in this man's arms what dancing really was. It was like nothing she had ever even dreamed of—pure poetry of motion, a curious, rather alarming weaving into one of two vividly alive persons in a kind of pagan harmony, a rhythmic rapture so intense it almost hurt. It seemed as if she could have gone on thus forever.
But suddenly she perceived that she and her partner had the floor alone, the others had stopped to watch, though the musicians still played on frenziedly, faster and faster. Flushed, embarrassed at finding herself thus conspicuous, she drew herself away from Alan Massey.
"We must stop," she murmured. "They are all looking at us."
"What of it?" He bent over her, his passionate eyes a caress. "Did I not tell you, carissima Was it not very heaven?"
Tony shook her head.
"I am afraid there was nothing heavenly about it. But it was wonderful. I forgive you your boasting. You are the best dancer in the world. I am sure of it."
"And you will dance with me again and again, my wonder-girl. You must. You want to."
"I want to," admitted Tony. "But I am not going to—at least not again to-night. Take me to a seat."
He did so and she sank down with a fluttering sigh beside Miss Lottie Cressy, Carlotta's aunt. The latter stared at her, a little oddly she thought, and then looked up at Alan Massey.
"You don't change, do you, Alan?" observed Miss Cressy.
"Oh yes, I change a great deal. I have been very different ever since I met Miss Tony." His eyes fell on the girl, made no secret of his emotions concerning her and her beauty.
Miss Cressy laughed a little sardonically.
"No doubt. You were always different after each new sweetheart, I recall. So were they—some of them."
"You do me too much honor," he retorted suavely. "Shall we not go out, Miss Holiday? The garden is very beautiful by moonlight."
She bowed assent, and together they passed out of the room through the French window. Miss Cressy stared after them, the bitter little smile still lingering on her lips.
"Youth for Alan always," she said to herself. "Ah, well, I was young, too, those days in Paris. I must tell Carlotta to warn Tony. It would be a pity for the child to be tarnished so soon by touching his kind too close. She is so young and so lovely."
Alan and Tony strayed to a remote corner of the spacious gardens and came to a pause beside the fountain which leaped and splashed and caught the moonlight in its falling splendor. For a moment neither spoke. Tony bent to dip her fingers in the cool water. She had an odd feeling of needing lustration from something. The man's eyes were upon her. She was very young, very lovely, as Miss Cressy had said. There was something strangely moving to Alan Massey about her virginal freshness, her moonshine beauty. He was unaccustomed to compunction, but for a fleeting second, as he studied Tony Holiday standing there with bowed head, laving her hands in the sparkling purity of the water, he had an impulse to go away and leave her, lest he cast a shadow upon her by his lingering near her.
It was only for a moment. He was far too selfish to follow the brief urge to renunciation. The girl stirred his passion too deeply, roused his will to conquer too irresistibly to permit him to forego the privilege of the place and hour.
She looked up at him and he smiled down at her, once more the master-lover.
"I was right, was I not, Toinetta mia? I did make you a little bit mine, did I not? Be honest. Tell me." He laid a hand on each of her bare white shoulders, looked deep, deep into her brown eyes as if he would read secret things in their depths.
Tony drew away from his hands, dropped her gaze once more to the rippling white of the water, which was less disconcerting than Alan Massey's too ardent green eyes.
"You danced with me divinely. I shall also make you love me divinely even as I promised. You know it dear one. You cannot deny it," the magically beautiful voice which pulled so oddly at her heart strings went on softly, almost in a sort of chant. "You love me already, my white moonshine girl," he whispered. "Tell me you do."
"Ah but I don't," denied Tony. "I—I won't. I don't want to love anybody."
"You cannot help it, dear heart. Nature made you for loving and being loved. And it is I that you are going to love. Mine that you shall be. Tell me, did you ever feel before as you felt in there when we were dancing?"
"No," said Tony, her eyes still downcast.
"I knew it. You are mine, belovedest. I knew it the moment I saw you. It is Kismet. Kiss me."
"No." The girl pulled herself away from him, her face aflame.
"No? Then so." He drew her back to him, and lifted her face gently with his two hands. He bent over her, his lips close to hers.
"If you kiss me I'll never dance with you again as long as I live!" she flashed.
He laughed a little mockingly, but he lowered his hands, made no effort to gainsay her will.
"What a horrible threat, you cruel little moonbeam! But you wouldn't keep it. You couldn't. You love to dance with me too well."
"I would," she protested, the more sharply because she suspected he was right, that she would dance with him again, no matter what he did. "Any way I shall not dance with you again to-night. And I shall not stay out here with you any longer." She turned to flee, but he put out his hand and held her back.
"Not so fast, my Tony. They have eyes and ears in there. If you run away from me and go back with those glorious fires lit in your cheeks and in your eyes they will believe I did kiss you-."
"Oh!" gasped Tony, indignant but lingering, recognizing the probable truth of his prediction.
"We shall go together after a minute with sedateness, as if we had been studying the stars. I am wise, my Tony. Trust me."
"Very well," assented Tony. "How many stars are there in the Pleiades, anyway?" she asked with sudden imps of mirth in her eyes.
Again she felt on safe ground, sure that she had conquered and put a too presuming male in his place. She had no idea that the laurels had been chiefly not hers at all but Alan Massey's, who was quite as wise as he boasted.
But she kept her word and danced no more with Alan Massey that night. She did not dare. She hated Alan Massey, disapproved of him heartily and knew it would be the easiest thing in the world to fall in love with him, especially if she let herself dance often with him as they had danced to-night.
And so, her very first night at Crest House, Antoinette Holiday discovered that, there was such a thing as love after all, and that it had to be reckoned with whether you desired or not to welcome it at your door.
THINGS THAT WERE NOT ALL ON THE CARD
After that first night in the garden Alan Massey did not try to make open love to Tony again, but his eyes, following her wherever she moved, made no secret of his adoration. He was nearly always by her side, driving off other devotees when he chose with a cool high-handedness which sometimes amused, sometimes infuriated Tony. She found the man a baffling and fascinating combination of qualities, all petty selfishness and colossal egotisms one minute, abounding in endless charms and graces and small endearing chivalries the next; outrageously outspoken at times, at other times, reticent to the point of secretiveness; now reaching the most extravagant pitch of high spirits, and then, almost without warning, submerged in moods of Stygian gloom from which nothing could rouse him.
Tony came to know something of his romantic and rather mottled career from Carlotta and others, even from Alan himself. She knew perfectly well he was not the kind of man Larry or her uncle would approve or tolerate. She disapproved of him rather heartily herself in many ways. At times she disliked him passionately, made up her mind she would have no more to do with him. At other times she was all but in love with him, and suspected she would have found the world an intolerably dull place with Alan Massey suddenly removed from it. When they danced together she was dangerously near being what he had claimed she was or would be—all his. She knew this, was afraid of it, yet she kept on dancing with him night after night. It seemed as if she had to, as if she would have danced with him even if she knew the next moment would send them both hurtling through space, like Lucifer, down to damnation.
It was not until Dick Carson came down for a week end, some time later, that Tony discovered the resemblance in Alan to some one she knew of which Carlotta had spoken. Incredibly and inexplicably Dick and Alan possessed a shadowy sort of similarity. In most respects they were as different in appearance as they were in personality. Dick's hair was brown and straight; Alan's, black and wavy. Dick's eyes were steady gray-blue; Alan's, shifty gray-green. Yet the resemblance was there, elusive, though it was. Perhaps it lay in the curve of the sensitive nostrils, perhaps in the firm contour of chin, perhaps in the arch of the brow. Perhaps it was nothing so tangible, just a fleeting trick of expression. Tony did not know, but she caught the thing just as Carlotta had and it puzzled and interested her.
She spoke of it to Alan the next morning after Dick's arrival, as they idled together, stretched out on the sand, waiting for the others to come out of the surf.
To her surprise he was instantly highly annoyed and resentful.
"For Heaven's sake, Tony, don't get the resemblance mania. It's a disgusting habit. I knew a woman once who was always chasing likenesses in people and prattling about them—got her in trouble once and served her right. She told a young lieutenant that he looked extraordinarily like a certain famous general of her acquaintance. It proved later that the young man had been born at the post where the general was stationed while the presumptive father was absent on a year's cruise. It had been quite a prominent scandal at the time."
"That isn't a nice story, Alan. Moreover it is entirely irrelevant. But you and Dick do look alike. I am not the only or the first person who saw it, either."
Alan started and frowned.
"Good Lord! Who else?" he demanded.
"The devil she did!" Alan's eyes were vindictive. Then he laughed. "Commend me to a girl's imagination! This Dick chap seems to be head over heels in love with you," he added.
"What nonsense!" denied Tony crisply, fashioning a miniature sand mountain as she spoke.
"No nonsense at all, my dear. Perfectly obvious fact. Don't you suppose I know how a man looks when he is in love? I ought to. I've been in love often enough."
Tony demolished her mountain with a wrathful sweep of her hand.
"And registered all the appropriate emotions before the mirror, I suppose. You make me sick, Alan. You are all pose. I don't believe there is a single sincere thing about you."
"Oh, yes, there is—are—two."
"What are they?"
"One is my sincere devotion to yourself, my beautiful. The other—an equally sincere devotion to—myself."
"I grant you the second, at least."
"Don't pose, yourself, my darling. You know I love you. You pretend you don't believe it, but you do. And way down deep in your heart you love my love. It makes your heart beat fast just to think of it. See! Did I not tell you?" He had suddenly put out his hand and laid it over her heart.
"Poor little wild bird! How its wings flutter!"
Tony got up swiftly from the sand, her face scarlet. She was indignant, self-conscious, betrayed. For her heart had been beating at a fearful clip and she knew it.
"How dare you touch me like that, Alan Massey? I detest you. I don't see why I ever listen to you at all, or let you come near me."
Alan Massey, still lounging at her feet, looked up at her as she stood above him, slim, supple, softly rounded, adorably pretty and feminine in her black satin bathing suit and vivid, emerald hued cap.
"I know why," he said and rose, too, slowly, with the indolent grace of a leopard. "So do you, my Tony," he added. "We both know. Will you dance with me a great deal to-night?"
"How many times?"
"Not at all."
"Indeed! And does his Dick Highmightiness object to your dancing with me?"
"Dick! Of course not. He hasn't anything to do with it. I am not going to dance with you because you are behaving abominably to-day, and you did yesterday and the day before that. I think you are nearly always abominable, in fact."
"Still, I am one of the best dancers in the world. It is a temptation, is it not, my own?"
He smiled his slow, tantalizing smile and, in spite of herself, Tony smiled back.
"It is," she admitted. "You are a heavenly dancer, Alan. There is no denying it. If you were Mephisto himself I think I would dance with you—occasionally."
"Once," relented Tony. "There come the others at last." And she ran off down the yellow sands like a modern Atalanta.
"My, but Tony is pretty to-night!" murmured Carlotta to Alan, who chanced to be standing near her as her friend fluttered by with Dick. "She looks like a regular flame in that scarlet chiffon. It is awfully daring, but she is wonderful in it."
"She is always wonderful," muttered Alan moodily, watching the slender, graceful figure whirl and trip and flash down the floor like a gay poppy petal caught in the wind.
Carlotta turned. Something in Alan's tone arrested her attention.
"Alan, I believe, it is real with you at last," she said. Up to that moment she had considered his affair with Tony as merely another of his many adventures in romance, albeit possibly a slightly more extravagant one than usual.
"Of course it is real—real as Hell," he retorted. "I'm mad over her, Carla. I am going to marry her if I have to kill every man in the path to get to her," savagely.
"I am sorry, Alan. You must see Tony is not for the like of you. You can't get to her. I wish you wouldn't try."
Dick and Tony passed close to them again. Tony was smiling up at her partner and he was looking down at her with a gaze that betrayed his caring. Neither saw Alan and Carlotta. The savage light gleamed brighter in Alan's green eyes.
"Carlotta, is there anything between them?" he demanded fiercely.
"Nothing definite. He adores her, of course, and she is very fond of him. She feels as if he sort of belonged to her, I think. You know the story?"
Briefly Carlotta outlined the tale of how Dick had taken refuge in the Holiday barn when he had run away from the circus, and how Tony had found him, sick and exhausted from fatigue, hunger and abuse; how the Holidays had taken him in and set him on his feet, and Tony had given him her own middle name of Carson since he had none of his own.
Alan listened intently.
"Did he ever get any clue as to his identity?" he asked as Carlotta paused.
"Has he asked Tony to marry him?"
"I don't think so. I doubt if he ever does, so long as he doesn't know who he is. He is very proud and sensitive, and has an almost superstitious veneration for the Holiday tradition. Being a Holiday in New England is a little like being of royal blood, you know. I don't believe you will ever have to make a corpse of poor Dick, Alan."
"I don't mind making corpses. I rather think I should enjoy making one of him. I detest the long, lean animal."
Had Alan known it, Dick had taken quite as thorough a dislike to his magnificent self. At that very moment indeed, as he and Tony strolled in the garden, Dick had remarked that he wished Tony wouldn't dance with "that Massey."
"And why not?" she demanded, always quick to resent dictatorial airs.
"Because he makes you—well—conspicuous. He hasn't any business to dance with you the way he does. You aren't a professional but he makes you look like one."
"Thanks. A left-hand compliment but still a compliment!"
"It wasn't meant for one," said Dick soberly. "I hate it. Of course you dance wonderfully yourself. It isn't just dancing with you. It is poetry, stuff of dreams and all the rest of it. I can see that, and I know it must be a temptation to have a chance at a partner like that. Lord! Tony! No man in every day life has a right to dance the way he can. He out-classes Castle. I hate that kind of a man—half woman."
"There isn't anything of a woman about Alan, Dick. He is the most virulently male man I ever knew."
Dick fell silent at that. Presently he began again.
"Tony, please don't be offended at what I am going to say. I know it is none of my business, but I wish you wouldn't keep on with this affair with Massey."
"Why not?" There was an aggressive sparkle in Tony's eyes.
"People are talking. I heard them last night when you were dancing with him. It hurts. Alan Massey isn't the kind of a man for a girl like you to flirt with."
"Stuff and nonsense, Dicky! Any kind of a man is the kind for a girl to flirt with, if she keeps her head."
"But Tony, honestly, this Massey hasn't a good reputation."
"How do you know?"
"Newspaper men know a great deal. They have to. Besides, Alan Massey is a celebrity. He is written up in our files."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that if he should die to-morrow all we would have to do would be to put in the last flip. The biographical data is all on the card ready to shoot."
"Dear me. That's rather gruesome, isn't it?" shivered Tony. "I'm glad I'm not a celebrity. I'd hate to be stuck down on your old flies. Will I get on Alan's card if I keep on flirting with him?"
"Good Lord! I should hope not."
"I suppose I wouldn't be in very good company. I don't mean Alan. I mean—his ladies."
"Tony! Then you know?"
"About Alan's ladies? Oh, yes. He told me himself."
Dick looked blank. What was a man to do in a case like this, finding his big bugaboo no bugaboo at all?
"I know a whole lot about Alan Massey, maybe more than is on your old card. I know his mother was Lucia Vannini, so beautiful and so gifted that she danced in every court in Europe and was loved by a prince. I know how Cyril Massey, an American artist, painted her portrait and loved her and married her. I know how she worshiped him and was absolutely faithful to him to the day he died, when the very light of life went out for her."
"She managed to live rather cheerfully afterward, even without light, if all the stories about her are true," observed Dick, with, for him, unusual cynicism.
"You don't understand. She had to live."
"There are other ways of living than those she chose."
"Not for her. She knew only two things—love and dancing. She was thrown from a horse the next year after her husband died. Dancing was over for her. There was only—her beauty left. Her husband's people wouldn't have anything to do with her because she had been a dancer and because of the prince. Old John Massey, Cyril's uncle, turned her and her baby from his door, and his cousin John and his wife refused even to see her. She said she would make them hear of her before she died. She did."
"They heard all right. She, and her son too, must have been a thorn in the flesh of the Masseys. They were all rigid Puritans I understand, especially old John."
"Serve him right," sniffed Tony. "They were rolling in wealth. They might have helped her kept her from the other thing they condemned so. She wanted money only for Alan, especially after he began to show that he had more than his father's gifts. She earned it in the only way she knew. I don't blame her."
"I can't help it if I am shocking you, Dick. I can understand why she did it. She didn't care anything about the lovers. She never cared for anyone after Cyril died. She gave herself for Alan. Can't you see that there was something rather fine about it? I can."
Dick grunted. He remembered hearing something about a woman whose sins were forgiven her because she loved much. But he couldn't reconcile himself to hearing such stories from Tony Holiday's lips. They were remote from the clean, sweet, wholesome atmosphere in which she belonged.
"Anyway, Alan was a wonderful success. He studied in Paris and he had pictures on exhibition in salons over there before he was twenty. He was feted and courted and flattered and—loved, until he thought the world was his and everything in it—including the ladies." Tony made a little face at this. She did not care very-much for that part of Alan's story, herself. "His mother was afraid he was going to have his head completely turned and would lose all she had gained so hard for him, so she made him come back to America and settle down. He did. He made a great name for himself before he was twenty-five as a portrait painter and he and his mother lived so happily together. She didn't need any more lovers then. Alan was all she needed. And then she died, and he went nearly crazy with grief, went all to pieces, every way. I suppose that part of his career is what makes you say he isn't fit for me to flirt with."
Dick nodded miserably.
"It isn't very pleasant for me to think of, either," admitted Tony. "I don't like it any better than you do. But he isn't like that any more. When old John Massey died without leaving any will Alan got all the money, because his cousin John and his stuck-up wife had died, too, and there was nobody else. Alan pulled up stakes and traveled all over the world, was gone two years and, when he came back, he wasn't dissipated any more. I don't say he is a saint now. He isn't, I know. But he got absolutely out of the pit he was in after his mother's death."
"Lucky for him they never found the baby John Massey, who was stolen," Dick remarked. "He would have been the heir if he could have appeared to claim the money instead of Alan Massey, who was only a grand nephew."
"There wasn't any baby," she exclaimed.
"Oh yes, there was. John Massey, Junior, had a son John who was kidnapped when he was asleep in the park and deserted by his nurse who had gone to flirt with a policeman. There was a great fuss made about it at the time. The Masseys offered fabulous sums of money for the return of the child, but he never turned up. I had to dig up the story a few years ago when old John died, which is why I know so much about it."
"I don't believe Alan knew about the baby. He didn't tell me anything about it."
"I'll wager he knew, all right. It would be mighty unpleasant for him if the other Massey turned up now."
"Dick, I believe you would be glad if Alan lost the money," reproached Tony.
"Why no, Tony. It's nothing to me, but I've always been sorry for that other Massey kid, though he doesn't know what he missed and is probably a jail-bird or a janitor by this time, not knowing he is heir to one of the biggest properties in America."
"Sorry to disturb your theories, Mr.—er Carson," remarked Alan Massey, suddenly appearing on the scene. "My cousin John happens to be neither a jail-bird nor a janitor, but merely comfortably dead. Lucky John!"
"But Dick said he wasn't dead—at least that nobody knew whether he was or not," objected Tony.
"Unfortunately your friend is in error. John Massey is entirely dead, I assure you. And now, if he is quite through with me and my affairs, perhaps Mr. Carson will excuse you. Come, dear."
Alan laid a hand on Tony's arm with a proprietorial air which made Dick writhe far more than his insulting manner to himself had done. Tony looked quickly from one to the other. She hated the way Alan was behaving, but she did not want to precipitate a scene and yielded, leaving Dick, with a deprecatory glance, to go with Alan.
"I don't like your manner," she told the latter. "You were abominably rude just now."
"Forgive me, sweetheart. I apologize. That young man of yours sets my teeth on edge. I can't abide a predestined parson. I'll wager anything he has been preaching at you." He smiled ironically as he saw the girl flush. "So he did preach,—and against me, I suppose."
"He did, and quite right, too. You are not at all a proper person for me to flirt with, just as he said. Even Miss Lottie told me that and when Miss Lottie objects to a man it means—"
"That she has failed to hold him herself," said Alan cynically. "Stop, Tony. I want to say something to you before we go in. I am not a proper person. I told you that myself. There have been other women in my life—a good many of them. I told you that, too. But that has absolutely nothing to do with you and me. I love you. You are the only woman I ever have loved in the big sense, at least the only one I have ever wanted to marry. I am like my mother. She had many lesser loves. She had only one great one. She married him. And I shall marry you."
"Alan, don't. It is foolish—worse than foolish to talk like that. My people would never let me marry you, even if I wanted to. Dick was speaking for them just now when he warned me against you."
"He was speaking for himself. Damn him!"
"I beg your pardon, Tony. I'm a brute to-night. I am sorry. I won't trouble you any more. I won't even keep you to your promise to dance once with me if you wish to be let off."
The music floated out to them, called insistently to Tony's rhythm-mad feet and warm young blood.
"Ah, but I do want to dance with you," she sighed. "I don't want to be let off. Come."
He bent over her, a flash of triumph in his eyes.
"My own!" he exulted. "You are my own. Kiss me, belovedest."
But Tony pulled away from him and he followed her. A moment later the scarlet flame was in his arms whirling down the hall to the music of the violins, and Dick, standing apart by the window watching, tasted the dregs of the bitterest brew life had yet offered him. Better, far better than Tony Holiday he knew where the scarlet flame was blowing.
His dance with Tony over, Alan retired to the library where he used the telephone to transmit a wire to Boston, a message addressed to one James Roberts, a retired circus performer.
AND THERE IS A FLAME
When Alan Massey strayed into the breakfast room, one of the latest arrivals at that very informal meal, he found a telegram awaiting him. It was rather an odd message and ran thus, without capitalization or punctuation. "Town named correct what is up let sleeping dogs lie sick." Alan frowned as he thrust the yellow envelope into his pocket.
"Does the fool mean he is sick, I wonder," he cogitated. "Lord, I wish I could let well enough alone. But this sword of Damocles business is beginning to get on my nerves. I have half a mind to take a run into town this afternoon and see the old reprobate. I'll bet he doesn't know as much as he claims to, but I'd like to be sure before he dies."
Just then Tony Holiday entered, clad in a rose hued linen and looking like a new blown rose herself.
"You are the latest ever," greeted Carlotta.
"On the contrary I have been up since the crack of dawn," denied Tony, slipping into a seat beside her friend.
Carlotta opened her eyes wide. Then she understood.
"You got up to see Dick off," she announced.
"I did. Please give me some strawberries, Hal, if you don't mean to eat the whole pyramid yourself. I not only got up, but I went to the station; not only went to the station, but I walked the whole mile and a half. Can anybody beat that for a morning record?" Tony challenged as she deluged her berries with cream.
Alan Massey uttered a kind of a snarling sound such as a lion disturbed from a nap might have emitted. He had thought he was through with Carson when the latter had made his farewells the night before, saying goodnight to Tony before them all. But Tony had gotten up at some ridiculously early hour to escort him to the station, and did not mind everybody's knowing it. He subsided into a dense mood of gloom. The morning had begun badly.
Later he discovered Tony in the rose garden with a big basket on her arm and a charming drooping sun hat shading her even more charming face. She waved him away as he approached.
"Go away," she ordered. "I'm busy."
"You mean you have made up your mind to be disagreeable to me," he retorted, lighting a cigarette and looking as if he meant to fight it out along that line if it took all summer.
Tony snipped off a rose with her big shears and dropped it into her basket. It rather looked as if she were meaning to snip off Alan Massey figuratively in much the same ruthless manner.
"Put it that way, if you like. Only stay away. I mean it."
"Why?" he persisted.
Thus pressed she turned and faced him.
"It is a lovely morning—all blue and gold and clean-washed after last night's storm—a good morning. I'm feeling good, too. The clean morning has got inside of me. And when you come near me I feel a pricking in my thumbs. You don't fit into my present, mood. Please go, Alan. I am perfectly serious. I don't want to talk to you."
"What have I done? I am no different from what I was yesterday."
"I know. It isn't anything you have done. It isn't you at all. It is I who am different—or want to be." Tony spoke earnestly. She was perfectly sincere. She did want to be different. She had not slept well the night before. She had thought a great deal about Holiday Hill and Uncle Phil and her brothers and—well, yes—about Dick Carson. They all armed her against Alan Massey.
Alan threw away his cigarette with an angry gesture.
"You can't play fast and loose with me, Tony Holiday. You have been leading me on, playing the devil with me for days. You know you have. Now you are scared, and want to get back to shallow water. It is too late. You are in deep seas and you've got to stay there—with me."
"I haven't got to do anything, Alan. You are claiming more than you have any right to claim."
But he came nearer, towered above her, almost menacingly.
"Because that nameless fool of a reporter with his sanctimonious airs and impeccable morals, has put you against me you want to sack me. You can't do it. Last night you were ready to go any lengths with me. You know it. Do you think I am going to be balked by a miserable circus brat—a mere nobody? Not so long as I am Alan Massey. Count on that."
Tony's dark eyes were ablaze with anger.
"Stop there, Alan. You are saying things that are not true. And I forbid you ever to speak of Dick like that again to me."
"Indeed! And how are you going to prevent my saying what I please about your precious protege?" sneered Alan.
"I shall tell Carlotta I won't stay under the same roof with anybody who insults my friends. You won't have to restrain yourself long in any case. I am leaving Saturday—perhaps sooner."
"Tony!" The sneer died away from Alan's face, which had suddenly grown white. "You mustn't go. I can't live without you, my darling. If you knew how I worshiped you, how I cannot sleep of nights for wanting you, you wouldn't talk of going away from me. I was brutal just now. I admit it. It is because I love you so. The thought of your turning from me, deserting me, maddened me. I am not responsible for what I said. You must forgive me. But, oh my belovedest, you are mine! Don't try to deny it. We have belonged to each other for always. You know it. You feel it. I have seen the knowledge in your eyes, felt it flutter in your heart. Will you marry me, Tony Holiday? You shall be loved as no woman was ever loved. You shall be my queen. I will be true to you forever and ever, your slave, your mate. Tony, Tony, say yes. You must!"
But Tony drew back from him, frightened, repulsed, shocked, by the storm of his passion which shook him as mighty trees are shaken by tempests. She shrank from the hungry fires in his eyes, from the abandon and fierceness of his wooing. It was an alien, disturbing, dreadful thing to her.
"Don't," she implored. "You mustn't love me like that, Alan. You must not."
"How can I help it, sweetheart? I am no iceberg. I am a man and you are the one woman in the world for me. I love you—love you. I want you. I'm going to have you—make you mine—marry you, bell and book, what you will, so long as you are mine—mine—mine."
Tony set down her basket, clasped her hands behind her and stood looking straight up into his face.
"Listen, Alan. I cannot marry you. I couldn't, even if I loved you, and I don't think I do love you, though you fascinate me and, when we are dancing, I forget all the other things in you that I hate. I have been very foolish and maybe unkind to let it go on so far. I didn't quite know what I was doing. Girls don't know. That is why they play with men as they do. They don't mean to be cruel. They just don't know."
"But you know now, my Tony?" His dark, stormy face was very close to hers. Tony felt her heart leap but she did not flinch nor pull away this time.
"Yes, Alan, I know, in a way, at least. We mustn't go on like this. It is bad for us both. I'll tell Carlotta I am going home to-morrow."
"You want—to go away from me?" The haunting music of his voice, more moving in its hurt than in its mastery of mood, stirred Tony Holiday profoundly, but she steadied herself by a strong effort of will. She must not let him sweep her away from her moorings. She must not. She must remember Holiday Hill very hard.
"I have to, Alan," she said. "I am very sorry if I have hurt you, am hurting you. But I can't marry you. That is final. The sooner we end things the better."
"By God! It isn't final. It never will be so long as you and I are both alive. You will come to me of your own accord. You will love me. You do love me now. But you are letting the world come in between where it has no right to come. I tell you you are mine—mine!"
"No, no!" denied Tony.
"And I say yes, my love. You are my love. I have set my seal upon you. You can go away, back to your Hill, but you will not be happy without me. You will never forget me for a waking moment. You cannot. You are a part of me, forever."
There was something solemn, inexorable in Alan's tones. A strange fear clutched at Tony's heart. Was he right? Could she never forget him? Would he always be a part of her—forever? No, that was nonsense! How could it be true? How could he have set his seal upon her when he had never even kissed her? She would not let him hypnotize her into believing his prophecy.
She stooped mechanically to pick up her roses and remembered the story of Persephone gathering lilies in the vale of Enna and suddenly borne off by the coal black horses of Dis to the dark kingdom of the lower world. Was she Persephone? Had she eaten of the pomegranate seeds while she danced night after night in Alan Massey's arms? No, she would not believe it. She was free. She would exile Alan Massey from her heart and life. She must.
This resolve was in her eyes as she lifted them to Alan's. The fire had died out of his now, and his face was gray and drawn in the sunshine. His mood had changed as his moods so often did swiftly.
"Forgive me, Tony," he said humbly. "I have troubled you, frightened you. I am sorry. You needn't go away. I will go. I don't want to spoil one moment of happiness for you. I never shall, except when the devil is in me. Please try to remember that. Say always, 'Alan loves me. No matter what he does or says, he loves me. His love is real, if nothing else about him is.' You do believe that, don't you, dearest?" he pleaded.
"I do, Alan. I have always believed it, I think, ever since that first night, though I have tried not to. I am very sorry though. Love—your kind of love is a fearful thing. I am afraid of it."
"It is fearful, but beautiful too—very beautiful—like fire. Did you ever think what a strange dual element fire is? It consumes—is a force of destruction. But it also purifies, burns out dross. Love is like that, my Tony. Mine for you may damn me forever, or it may take me to the very gate of Heaven. I don't know myself which it will be."
As he spoke there was a strange kind of illumination on his face, a look almost of spiritual exaltation. It awed Tony, bereft her of words. This was a new Alan Massey—an Alan Massey she had never seen before, and she found herself looking up instead of down at him.
He stooped and kissed her hand reverently, as a devotee might pay homage at the shrine of a saint.
"I shall not see you again until to-night, Tony. I am going into town. But I shall be back—for one more dance with you, heart's dearest. And then I promise I will go away and leave you tomorrow. You will dance with me, Tony—once? We shall have that one perfect thing to remember?"
Tony bowed assent. And in a moment she was alone with her roses.
That afternoon she shut herself in her room to write letters to the home people whom she had neglected badly of late. Every moment had been so full since she had come to Carlotta's. There had been so little time to write and when she had written it had given little of what she was really living and feeling—just the mere externals and not all of them, as she was very well aware. They would never understand her relation with Alan. They would disapprove, just as Dick had disapproved. Perhaps she did not understand, herself, why she had let herself get so deeply entangled in something which could not go on, something, which was the profoundest folly, if nothing worse.
The morning had crystallized her fear of the growing complication of the situation. She was glad Alan was going away, glad she had had the strength of will to deny him his will, glad that she could now—after to-night—come back into undisputed possession of the kingdom of herself. But in her heart she was gladder that there was to-night and that one last dance with Alan Massey before life became simple and sane and tame again, and Alan and his wild love passed out of it forever.
She finished her letters, which were not very satisfactory after all. How could one write real letters when one's pen was writing one thing and one's thoughts were darting hither and thither about very different business? She threw herself in the chaise longue, not yet ready to dress and go down to join the others. There was nobody there she cared to talk to, somehow. Alan was not there. Nobody else mattered. It had come to that.
Idly she picked up a volume of verse that lay beside her on the table and fluttered its pages, seeking something to meet her restless mood. Presently in her vagrant seeking she chanced upon a little poem—a poem she read and reread, twice, three times.
"For there is a flame that has blown too near, And there is a name that has grown too dear, And there is a fear. And to the still hills and cool earth and far sky I make moan. The heart in my bosom is not my own! Oh, would I were free as the wind on wing! Love is a terrible thing!"
Tony laid the book face down upon the table, still open at the little verse. The shadows were growing long out there in the dusk. The late afternoon sun was pale honey color. A soft little breeze stirred the branches of a weeping willow tree and set them to swaying languorously. Unseen birds twittered happily among the shrubbery. A golden butterfly poised for a moment above the white holly hocks and then drifted off over the flaming scarlet poppies and was lost to sight.
It was all so beautiful, so serene. She felt that it should have come like a benediction, cooling the fever of her tired mind, but it did not. It could not even drive the words of the poem out of her head.
Oh, would I were free as the wind on wing! Love is a terrible thing!
From the North Station in Boston Alan Massey directed his course to a small cigar store on Atlantic Avenue. A black eyed Italian lad in attendance behind the counter looked up as he entered and surveyed him with grave scrutiny.
"I am Mr. Massey," announced Alan. "Mr. Roberts is expecting me. I wired."
"Jim's sick," said the boy briefly.
"I am sorry. I hope he is not too sick to see me."
"Naw, he'll see you. He wants to." The speaker motioned Alan to follow him to the rear of the store. Together they mounted some narrow stairs, passed through a hallway and into a bedroom, a disorderly, dingy, obviously man-kept affair. On the bed lay a large framed, exceedingly ugly looking man. His flesh was yellow and sagged loosely away from his big bones. The impression he gave was one of huge animal bulk, shriveling away in an unlovely manner, getting ready to disintegrate entirely. The man was sick undoubtedly. Possibly dying. He looked it.
The door shut with a soft click. The two men were alone.
"Hello, Jim." Alan approached the bed. "Bad as this? I am sorry." He spoke with the careless, easy friendliness he could assume when it suited him.
The man grinned, faintly, ironically. The grin did not lessen the ugliness of his face, rather accentuated it.
"It's not so bad," he drawled. "Nothing but death and what's that? I don't suffer much—not now. It's cancer, keeps gnawing away like a rat in the wall. By and by it will get up to my heart and then it's good-by Jim. I shan't care. What's life good for that a chap should cling to it like a barnacle on a rock?"
"We do though," said Alan Massey.
"Oh, yes, we do. It's the way we're made. We are always clinging to something, good or bad. Life, love, home, drink, power, money! Always something we are ready to sell our souls to get or keep. With you and me it was money. You sold your soul to me to keep money and I took it to get money."
He laughed raucously and Alan winced at the sound and cursed the morbid curiosity that had brought him to the bedside of this man who for three years past had held his own future in his dirty hand, or claimed to hold it. Alan Massey had paid, paid high for the privilege of not knowing things he did not wish to know.
"What kind of a trail had you struck when you wired me, Massey? I didn't know you were anxious for details about young John Massey's career I thought you preferred ignorance. It was what you bought of me."
"I know it was," groaned Alan, dropping into a creaking rocker beside the bed. "I am a fool. I admit it. But sometimes it seems to me I can't stand not knowing. I want to squeeze what you know out of you as you would squeeze a lemon until there was nothing left but bitter pulp. It is driving me mad."
The sick man eyed the speaker with a leer of malicious satisfaction. It was meat to his soul to see this lordly young aristocrat racked with misery and dread, to hold him in his power as a cat holds a mouse, which it can crush and crunch at any moment if it will. Alan Massey's mood filled Jim Roberts with exquisite enjoyment, enjoyment such as a gourmand feels on setting his teeth in some rare morsel of food.
"I know," he nodded. "It works like that often. They say a murderer can't keep away from the scene of his crime if he is left at large. There is an irresistible fascination to him about the spot where he damned his immortal soul."
"I'm not a criminal," snarled Alan. "Don't talk to me like that or you will never see another cent of my money."
"Money!" sneered the sick man. "What's that to me now? I've lost my taste for money. It is no good to me any more. I've got enough laid by to bury me and I can't take the rest with me. Your money is nothing to me, Alan Massey. But you'll pay still, in a different way. I am glad you came. It is doing me good."
Alan made a gesture of disgust and got to his feet, pacing to and fro, his face dark, his soul torn, between conflicting emotions.
"I'll be dead soon," went on the malicious, purring voice from the bed. "Don't begrudge me my last fling. When I am in my grave you will be safe. Nobody in the living world but me knows young John Massey's alive. You can keep your money then with perfect ease of mind until you get to where I am now and then,—maybe you will find out the money will comfort you no longer, that nothing but having a soul can get you over the river."
The younger man's march came to a halt by the bedside.
"You shan't die until you tell me what you know about John Massey," he said fiercely.
"You're a fool," said James Roberts. "What you don't know you are not responsible for—you can forget in a way. If you insist on hearing the whole story you will never be able to get away from it to your dying day. John Massey as an abstraction is one thing. John Massey as a live human being, whom you have cheated out of a name and a fortune, is another."
"I never cheated him of a name. You did that."
The man grunted.
"Right. That is on my bill. Lord knows, I wish it wasn't. Little enough did I ever get out of that particular piece of deviltry. I over-reached myself, was a darned little bit too smart. I held on to the boy, thinking I'd get more out of it later, and he slid out of my hands like an eel and I had nothing to show for it, until you came along and I saw a chance to make a new deal at your expense. You fell for it like a lamb to the slaughter. I'll never forget your face when I told you John Massey was alive and that I could produce him in a minute for the courts. If I had, your name would have been Dutch, young man. You'd never have gotten a look in on the money. You had the sense to see that. Old John died without a will. His grandson and not his grand-nephew was his heir provided anybody could dig up the fellow, and I was the boy that could do that. I proved that to you, Alan Massey."
"You proved nothing. You scared me into handing you over a whole lot of money, you blackmailing rascal, I admit that. But you didn't prove anything. You showed me the baby clothes you said John Massey wore when he was stolen. The name might easily enough have been stamped on the linen later. You showed me a silver rattle marked 'John Massey.' The inscription might also easily enough have been added later at a crook's convenience. You showed me some letters purporting to have been written by the woman who stole the child and was too much frightened by her crime to get the gains she planned to win from it. The letters, too, might easily have been forgery. The whole thing might have been a cock and bull story, fabricated by a rotten, clever mind like yours, to apply the money screw to me."
"True," chuckled Jim Roberts. "Quite true. I wondered at your credulity at the time."
"You rat! So it was all a fake, a trap?"
"You would like to believe that, wouldn't you? You would like to have a dying man's oath that there was nothing but a pack of lies to the whole thing, blackmail of the crudest, most unsupportable variety?"
Alan bent over the man, shook his fist in the evil, withered old face.
"Damn you, Jim Roberts! Was it a lie or was it not?"
"Keep your hands off me, Alan Massey. It was the truth. Sarah Nelson did steal the child just as I told you. She gave the child to me when she was dying a few months later. I'll give my oath on that if you like."
Alan brushed his hand across his forehead, and sat down again limply in the creaking rocker.
"Oh, you are willing to believe that again now, are you?" mocked Roberts.
"I've got to, I suppose. Go on. Tell me the rest. I've got to know. Did you really make a circus brat of John Massey and did he really run away from you? That is all you told me before, you remember."
"It was all you wanted to know. Besides," the man smiled his diabolical grin again, "there was a reason for going light on the details. At the time I held you up I hadn't any more idea than you had where John Massey was, nor whether he was even alive. It was the weak spot in my armor. But you were so panic stricken at the thought of having to give up your gentleman's fortune that you never looked at the hollowness of the thing. You could have bowled over my whole scheme in a minute by being honest and telling me to bring on your cousin, John Massey. But you didn't. You were only too afraid I would bring him on before you could buy me off. I knew I could count on your being blind and rotten. I knew my man."
"Then you don't know now whether John Massey is alive or not?" Alan asked after a pause during which he let the full irony of the man's confession sink into his heart and turn there like a knife in a wound.
"That is where you're dead wrong. I do know. I made it my business to find out. It was too important to have an invulnerable shield not to patch up the discrepancy as early as possible. It took me a year to get my facts and it cost a good chink of the filthy, but I got them. I not only know that John Massey is alive but I know where he is and what he is doing. I could send for him to-morrow, and cook your goose for you forever, young man."
He pulled himself up on one elbow to peer into Alan's gloomy face.
"I may do it yet," he added. "You needn't offer me hush money. It's no good to me, as I told you. I don't want money. I only want to pass the time until the reaper comes along. You'll grant that it would be amusing to me to watch the see-saw tip once more, to see you go down and your cousin John come up."
Alan was on his feet again now, striding nervously from door to window and back again. He had wanted to know. Now he knew. He had knowledge bitter as wormwood. The man had lied before. He was not lying now.
"What made you send that wire? Were you on the track, too, trying to find out on your own where your cousin is?"
"Not exactly. Lord knows I didn't want to know. But I had a queer hunch. Some coincidences bobbed up under my nose that I didn't like the looks of. I met a young man a few days ago that was about the age John would have been, a chap with a past, who had run away from a circus. The thing stuck in my crop, especially as there was a kind of shadowy resemblance between us that people noticed."
"That is interesting. And his name?"
"He goes under the name of Carson—Richard Carson."
"The same. Good boy. You have succeeded in finding your cousin. Congratulations!" he cackled maliciously.
"Then it really is he?"
"Not a doubt of it. He was taken up by a family named Holiday in Dunbury, Massachusetts. They gave him a home, saw that he got some schooling, started him on a country newspaper. He was smart, took to books, got ahead, was promoted from one paper to another. He is on a New York daily now, making good still, I'm told. Does it tally?"
Alan bowed assent. It tallied all too well. The lad he had insulted, jeered at, hated with instinctive hate, was his cousin, John Massey, the third, whom he had told the other was quite dead. John Massey was very much alive and was the rightful heir to the fortune which Alan Massey was spending as the heavens had spent rain yesterday.
It was worse than that. If the other was no longer nameless, had the right to the same fine, old name that Alan himself bore, and had too often disgraced, the barrier between him and Tony Holiday was swept away. That was the bitterest drop in the cup. No wonder he hated Dick—hated him now with a cumulative, almost murderous intensity. He had mocked at the other, but how should he stand against him in fair field? It was he—Alan Massey—that was the outcast, his mother a woman of doubtful fame, himself a follower of false fires, his life ignoble, wayward, erratic, unclean? Would it not be John rather than Alan Massey Tony Holiday would choose, if she knew all? This ugly, venomous, sin-scarred old rascal held his fate in the hollow of his evil old hand.
The other was watching him narrowly, evidently striving to follow his thoughts.
"Well?" he asked. "Going to beat me at my own game, give your cousin his due?"
"Queer," mused the man. "A month ago I would have understood it. It would have seemed sensible enough to hold on to the cold cash at any risk. Now it looks different. Money is filthy stuff, man. It is what they put on dead eye-lids to keep them down. Sometimes we put it on our own living lids to keep us from seeing straight. You are sure the money's worth so much to you, Alan Massey?"
The man's eyes burned livid, like coals. It was a strange and rather sickening thing, Alan Massey thought, to hear him talk like this after having lived the rottenest kind of a life, sunk in slime for years.
"The money is nothing to me," he flung back. "Not now. I thought it was worth considerable when I drove that devilish bargain with you to keep it. It has been worse than nothing, if you care to know. It killed my art—the only decent thing about me—the only thing I had a right to take honest pride in. John Massey might have every penny of it to-morrow for all I care if that were all there were to it."
"What else is there?" probed the old man.
"None of your business," snarled Alan. Not for worlds would he have spoken Tony Holiday's name in this spot, under the baleful gleam of those dying eyes.
The man chuckled maliciously.
"You don't need to tell me, I know. There's always a woman in it when a man takes the path to Hell. Does she want money? Is that why you must hang on to the filthy stuff?"
"She doesn't want anything except what I can't give her, thanks to you and myself—the love of a decent man."
"I see. When we meet the woman we wish we'd sowed fewer wild oats. I went through that myself once. She was a white lily sort of girl and I—well, I'd gone the pace long before I met her. I wasn't fit to touch her and I knew it. I went down fast after that—nothing to keep me back. Old Shakespeare says something somewhere about our pleasant vices beings whips to goad us with. You and I can understand that, Alan Massey. We've both felt the lash."
Alan made an impatient gesture. He did not care to be lumped with this rotten piece of flesh lying there before him.
"I suppose you are wondering what my next move is," went on Roberts.
"I don't care."
"Oh yes, you do. You care a good deal. I can break you, Alan Massey, and you know it."
"Go ahead and break and be damned if you choose," raged Alan.
"Exactly. As I choose. And I can keep you dancing on some mighty hot gridirons before I shuffle off. Don't forget that, Alan Massey. And there will be several months to dance yet, if the doctors aren't off their count."
"Suit yourself. Don't hurry about dying on my account," said Alan with ironical courtesy.
A few moments later he was on his way back to the station. His universe reeled. All he was sure was that he loved Tony Holiday and would fight to the last ditch to win and keep her and that she would be in his arms to-night for perhaps the last time. The rest was a hideous blur.
The evening was a specially gala occasion, with a dinner dance on, the last big party before Tony went home to her Hill. The great ball room at Crest House had been decorated with a network of greenery and crimson rambler roses. A ruinous-priced, de luxe orchestra had been brought down from the city. The girls had saved their prettiest gowns and looked their rainbow loveliest for the crowning event.
Tony was wearing an exquisite white chiffon and silver creation, with silver slippers and a silver fillet binding her dark hair. Alan had sent her some wonderful orchids tied with silver ribbon, and these she wore; but no jewelry whatever, not even a ring. There was something particularly radiant about her young loveliness that night. The young men hovered about her like honey bees about a rose and at every dance they cut in and cut in until her white and silver seemed to be drifting from one pair of arms to another.
Tony was very gay and bountiful and impartial in her smiles and favors, but all the time she waited, knowing that presently would come the one dance to which there would be no cutting in, the dance that would make the others seem nothing but shadows.
By and by the hour struck. She saw Alan leave his place by the window where he had been moodily lounging, saw him come toward her, taller than any man in the room, distinguished—a king among the rest, it seemed to Tony, waiting, longing for his coming? yet half dreading it, too. For the sooner he came, the sooner it must all end. She was with Hal at the moment, waiting for the music to begin, but as Alan approached she turned to her companion with a quick appeal in her eyes and a warm flush on her cheeks.
"I am sorry, Hal," she said, low in his ear. "But this is Alan's. He is going away to-morrow. Forgive me."
Hal turned, stared at Alan Massey, turned back to Tony, bowed and moved away.
"Hanged if there isn't something magnificent about the fellow," he thought. "No matter how you detest him there is something about him that gets you. I wonder how far he has gone with Tony. Gee! It's a rotten combination. But Lordy! How they can dance—those two!"
Never as long as she lived was Tony Holiday to forget that dance with Alan Massey. As a musician pours himself into his violin, as a poet puts his soul into his sonnet, as a sculptor chisels his dream in marble, so her companion flung his passion and despair and imploring into his dancing. They forgot the others, forgot everything but themselves. They might have been dancing alone on the top of Olympus for all either knew or cared for the rest of the world.
It was Alan, not Tony, who brought it to an end, however. He whispered something in the girl's ear and their feet paused. In a moment he was holding open the French window for her to pass out into the night. The white and silver vanished like a cloud. Alan Massey followed. The window swung shut again. The music stopped abruptly as if now its inspiration had come to an end. A single note of a violin quivered off into silence after the others, like the breath of beauty itself passing.
Carlotta and her aunt happened to be standing near each other. The girl's eyes were troubled. She wished Alan had not come back at all from the city. She hoped he really intended to go away to-morrow as he had told her. More than all she hoped she was right in believing that Tony had refused to marry him. Like Dick, Carlotta had reverence for the Holiday tradition. She could not bear to think of Tony's marrying Alan. She felt woefully responsible for having brought the two together.
"Did you say he was going to-morrow?" asked her aunt.
"He won't go," prophesied Miss Cressy.
"Oh, yes. I think he will. I don't know for certain but I have an idea she refused him this morning."
"Ah, but that was this morning. Things look very different by star light. That child ought not to be out there with him. She is losing her head."
"Aunt Lottie! Alan is a gentleman," demurred Carlotta.
Miss Lottie smiled satirically. Her smile repeated Ted Holiday's verdict that some gentlemen were rotters.
"You forget, my dear, that I knew Alan Massey when you and Tony were in short petticoats and pigtails. You can't trust too much to his gentlemanliness."
"Of course, I know he isn't a saint," admitted Carlotta. "But you don't understand. It is real with Alan this time. He really cares. It isn't just—just the one thing."
"It is always the one thing with Alan Massey's kind. I know what I am talking about, Carlotta. He was a little in love with me once. I dare say we both thought it was different at the time. It wasn't. It was pretty much the same thing. Don't cherish any romantic notions about love, Carlotta. There isn't any love as you mean it."
"Oh yes, there is," denied Carlotta suddenly, a little fiercely. "There is love, but most of us aren't—aren't worthy of it. It is too big for us. That is why we get the cheap little stuff. It is all we are fit for."
Miss Carlotta stared at her niece. But before she could speak Hal Underwood had claimed the latter for a dance.
"H—m!" she mused looking after the two. "So even Carlotta isn't immune. I wonder who he was."
Meanwhile, out in the garden Tony and Alan had strayed over to the fountain, just as they had that first evening after that first dance.
"Tony, belovedest, let me speak. Listen to me just once more. You do love me. Don't lie to me with your lips when your eyes told me the truth in there. You are mine, mine, my beautiful, my love—all mine."
He drew her into his arms, not passionately but gently. It was his gentleness that conquered. A storm of unrestrained emotion would have driven her away from him, but his sudden quiet strength and tenderness melted her last reservation. She gave her lips unresisting to his kiss. And with that kiss, desire of freedom and all fear left her. For the moment, at least, love was all and enough.
"Tony, my belovedest," he whispered. "Say it just once. Tell me you love me." It was the old, old plea, but in Tony's ears it was immortally new.
"I love you, Alan. I didn't want to. I have fought it all along as you know. But it was no use. I do love you."
"My darling! And I love you. You don't know how I love you. It is like suddenly coming out into sunshine after having lived in a cave all my life. Will you marry me to-morrow, carissima?"
But she drew away from his arms at that.
"Alan, I can't marry you ever. I can only love you."
"Why not? You must, Tony!" The old masterfulness leaped into his voice.
"I cannot, Alan. You know why."
She lifted her eyes to his and in their clear depths he saw reflected his own willful, stained, undisciplined past. He bowed his head in real shame and remorse. Nothing stood between himself and Antoinette Holiday but himself. He had sown the wind. He reaped the whirlwind.
After a moment he looked up again. He made no pretence of misunderstanding her meaning.
"You couldn't forgive?" he pleaded brokenly. Gone was the royal-willed Alan Massey. Only a beggar in the dust remained.
"Yes, Alan. I could forgive. I do now. I think I can understand how such things can be in a man's life though it would break my heart to think Ted or Larry were like that. But you never had a chance. Nobody ever helped you to keep your eyes on the stars."
"They are there now," he groaned. "You are my star, Tony, and stars are very, very far away from the like of me," he echoed Carlotta's phrase.
For almost the first time in his life humility possessed him. Had he known it, it lifted him higher in Tony's eyes than all his arrogance and conceit of power had ever done.
Gently she slid her hand into his.
"I don't feel far away, Alan. I feel very near. But I can't marry you—not now anyway. You will have to prove to them all—to me, too—that you are a man a Holiday might be proud to marry. I could forget the past. I think I could persuade Uncle Phil and the rest to forget it, too. They are none of them self-righteous Puritans. They could understand, just as I understand, that a man might fall in battle and carry scars of defeat, but not be really conquered. Alan, tell me something. It isn't easy to ask but I must. Are the things I have to forget far back in the past or—nearer? I know they go back to Paris days, the days Miss Lottie belongs to. Oh, yes," as he started at that. "I guessed that. You mustn't blame her. She was merely trying to warn me. She meant it for my good, not to be spiteful and not because she still cares, though I think she does. And I know there are things that belong to the time after your mother died, and you didn't care what you did because you were so unhappy. But are they still nearer? How close are they, Alan?"
He shook his head despairingly.
"I wish I could lie to you, Tony. I can't. They are too close to be pleasant to remember. But they never will be again. I swear it. Can you believe it?"
"I shall have to believe it—be convinced of it before I could marry you. I can't marry you, not being certain of you, just because my heart beats fast when you come near me, because I love your voice and your kisses and would rather dance with you than to be sure of going to Heaven. Marriage is a world without end business. I can't rush into it blindfold. I won't."
"You don't love me as I love you or you couldn't reason so coldly about it," he reproached. "You would go blindfold anywhere—to Hell itself even, with me."
"I don't know, Alan. I could let myself go. While we were dancing in there I am afraid I would have been willing to go even as far as you say with you. But out here in the star-light I am back being myself. I want to make my life into something clean and sweet and fine. I don't want to let myself be driven to follow weak, selfish, rash impulses and do things that will hurt other people and myself. I don't want to make my people sorry. They are dearer than any happiness of my own. They would not let me marry you now, even if I wished it. If I did what you want and what maybe something in me wants too—run off and marry you tomorrow without their consent—it would break their hearts and mine, afterward when I had waked up to what I had done. Don't ask me, dear. I couldn't do it."
"But what will you do, Tony? Won't you marry me ever?" Alan's tone was helpless, desolate. He had run up against a power stronger than any he had ever wielded, a force which left him baffled.
"I don't know. It will depend upon you. A year from now, if you still want me and I am still free, if you can come to me and tell me you have lived for twelve months as a man who loves a woman ought to live, I will marry you if I love you enough; and I think—I am sure, I shall, for I love you very much this minute."
"A year! Tony, I can't wait a year for you. I want you now." Alan's tone was sharp with dismay. He was not used to waiting for what he desired. He had taken it on the instant, as a rule, and as a rule, his takings had been dust and ashes as soon as they were in his hands.
"You cannot have me, Alan. You can never have me unless you earn the right to win me—straight. Understand that once for all. I will not marry a weakling. I will marry—a conquerer—perhaps."
"You mean that, Tony?"
"Then, by God, I'll be a conquerer!" he boasted.
"I hope you will. Oh, my dear, my dear! It will break my heart if you fail. I love you." And suddenly Tony was clinging to him, just a woman who cared, who wanted her lover, even as he wanted her. But in a breath she pulled herself away. "Take me in, Alan, now," she said. "Kiss me once before we go. I shall not see you in the morning. This is really good-by."
Later, Carlotta, coming in to say goodnight to Tony, found the latter sitting in front of the mirror brushing out her abundant red-brown hair and noticed how very scarlet her friend's cheeks were and what a tell-tale shining glory there was in her eyes.
"It was a lovely party," announced Tony casually, unaware how much Carlotta had seen over her shoulder in the mirror.
"Tony, are you in love with Alan Massey?" demanded Carlotta.
Tony whirled around on the stool, her cheeks flying deeper crimson banners at this unexpected challenge.
"I am afraid I am, Carlotta," she admitted. "It is rather a mess, isn't it?"
Carlotta groaned and dropping into a chaise lounge encircled her knees with her arms, staring with troubled eyes at her guest.
"A mess? I should say it was—worse than a mess—a catastrophe. You know what Alan is—isn't—" She floundered off into silence.
"Oh, yes," said Tony, the more tranquil of the two. "I know what he is and isn't, better than most people, I think. I ought to. But I love him. I just discovered it to-night, or rather it is the first time I ever let myself look straight at the fact. I think I have known it from the beginning."
"But Tony! You won't marry him. You can't. Your people will never let you. They oughtn't to let you."
Tony shook back her wavy mane of hair, sent it billowing over her rose-colored satin kimono.
"It don't matter if the whole world won't let me. If I decide to marry Alan I shall do it."
There was shocked consternation in Carlotta's tone and Tony relenting burst into a low, tremulous little laugh.
"Don't worry, Carlotta. I'm not so mad as I sound. I told Alan he would have to wait a year. He has to prove to me he is—worth loving."
"But you are engaged?" Carlotta was relieved, but not satisfied.
Tony shook her head.
"Absolutely not. We are both free as air—technically. If you were in love yourself you would know how much that amounts to by way of freedom."
Carlotta's golden head was bowed. She did not answer her friend's implication that she could not be expected to comprehend the delicate, invisible, omnipotent shackles of love.
"Don't tell anyone, Carlotta, please. It is our secret—Alan's and mine. Maybe it will always he a secret unless he—measures up."
"You are not going to tell your uncle?"
"There is nothing to tell yet."
"And I suppose this is the end of poor Dick."
"Don't be silly, Carlotta. Dick never said a word of love to me in his life."
"That doesn't mean he doesn't think 'em. You have convenient eyes, Tony darling. You see only what you wish to see."
"I didn't want to see Alan's love. I tried dreadfully hard not to. But it set up a fire in my own house and blazed and smoked until I had to do something about it. See here, Carlotta. I'd like to ask you a question or two. You are not really going to marry Herbert Lathrop, are you?"
A queer little shadow, almost like a veil, passed over Carlotta's face at this counter charge.
"Why not?" she parried.
"You know why not. He is exactly what Hal Underwood calls him, a poor fish. He is as close to being a nonentity as anything I ever saw."
"Precisely why I selected him," drawled Carlotta. "I've got to marry somebody and poor Herbert hasn't a vice except his excess of virtue. We can't have another old maid in the family. Aunt Lottie is a shining example of what to avoid. I am not going to be 'Lottie the second' I have decided on that."
"As if you could," protested Tony indignantly.
"Oh, I could. You look at Aunt Lottie's pictures of fifteen years ago. She was just as pretty as I am. She had loads of lovers but somehow they all slipped through her fingers. She has been sex-starved. She ought to have married and had children. I don't want to be a hungry spinster. They are infernally miserable."
"Carlotta!" Tony was a little shocked at her friend's bluntness, a little puzzled as to what lay behind her arguments. "You don't have to be a hungry spinster. There are other men besides Herbert that want to marry you."
"Certainly. Some of them want to marry my money. Some of them want to marry my body. I grant you Herbert is a poor fish in some ways, but at least he wants to marry me, myself, which is more than the others do."
"That isn't true. Hal Underwood wants to marry you, yourself."
"Oh, Hal!" conceded Carlotta. "I forgot him for a moment. You are right. He is real—too real. I should hurt him marrying him and not caring enough. That is why a nonentity is preferable. It doesn't know what it is missing. Hal would know."
"But there is no reason why you shouldn't wait until you find somebody you could care for," persisted Tony.
"That is all you know about it, my dear. There is the best reason in the world. I found him—and lost him."
"Carlotta—is it Phil?"
Carlotta sprang up and went over to the window. She took the rose she had been wearing, in her hands and deliberately pulled it apart letting the petals drift one by one out into the night. Then she turned back to Tony.
"Don't ask questions, Tony. I am not going to talk." But she lingered a moment beside her friend. "You and I, Tony darling, don't seem to have very much luck in love," she murmured. "I hope you will be happy with Alan, if you do marry him. But happiness isn't exactly necessary. There are other things—" She broke off and began again. "There are other things in a man's life besides love. Somebody said that to me once and I believe it is true. But there isn't so much besides that matters much to a woman. I wish there were. I hate love." And pressing a rare kiss on her friend's cheek Carlotta vanished for the night.
Meanwhile Alan Massey smoked and thought and cursed the past that had him in its hateful toils. Like the guilty king in Hamlet, his soul, "struggling to be free" was "but the more engaged." He honestly desired to be worthy of Tony Holiday, to stand clear in her eyes, but he did not want it badly enough, to the "teeth and forehead of his faults to give in evidence." He did not want to bare the one worst plague spot of all and run the risk not only of losing Tony himself but perhaps also of clearing the way to her for his cousin, John Massey. Small wonder he smoked gall and wormwood in his cigarettes that night.
And far away in the heat and grime and din of the great city, Dick Carson the nameless, who was really John Massey and heir to a great fortune, sat dreaming over a girl's picture, telling himself that Tony must care a little to have gotten up in the silver gray of the morning to see him off so kindly. Happily for the dreamer's peace of mind he had no means of knowing that that very night, in the starlit garden by the sea, Tony Holiday had taken upon herself the mad and sad and glad bondage of love.
ON THE EDGE OF THE PRECIPICE
Tony, getting off the train at Dunbury on Saturday, found her brothers waiting for her with the car, and the kiddies on the back seat, "for ballast" as Ted said. With one quick apprizing glance the girl took in the two young men.
Ted was brown and healthy looking, clear-eyed, steady-nerved, for once, without the inevitable cigarette in his mouth. He was oddly improved somehow, his sister thought, considering how short a time she had been away from the Hill. She noticed also that he drove the car much less recklessly than was his wont, took no chances on curves, slid by no vehicles at hair-breadth space, speeded not at all, and though he kept up a running fire of merry nonsense, had his eye on the road as he drove. So far so good. That spill out on the Florence road wasn't all loss, it seemed.
Larry was more baffling. He was always quiet. He was quieter than ever to-day. There was something in his gray eyes which spelled trouble, Tony thought. What was it? Was he worried about a case? Was Granny worse? Was Ted in some scrape? Something there certainly was on his mind. Tony was sure of that, though she could not conjecture what.
The Holidays had an almost uncanny way of understanding things about each other, things which sometimes never rose to the surface at all. Perhaps it was that they were so close together in sympathy that a kind of small telepathic signal registered automatically when anything was wrong with any of them. So far as her brothers were concerned Tony's intuition was all but infallible.
She found the family gift a shade disconcerting, a little later, when after her uncle kissed her he held her off at arm's length and studied her face. Tony's eyes fell beneath his questioning gaze. For almost the first time in her life she had a secret to keep from him if she could.
"What have they been doing to my little girl?" he asked. "They have taken away her sunshininess."
"Oh, no, they haven't," denied Tony quickly. "It is just that I am tired. We have been on the go all the time and kept scandalously late hours. I'll be all right as soon as I have caught up. I feel as if I could sleep for a century and any prince who has the effrontery to wake me up will fare badly."
She laughed, but even in her own ears the laughter did not sound quite natural and she was sure Uncle Phil thought the same, though he asked no more questions.
"It is like living in a palace being at Crest House," she went on. "I've played princess to my heart's content—been waited on and feted and flirted with until I'm tired to death of it all and want to be just plain Tony again."
She slid into her uncle's arms with a weary little sigh. It was good—oh so good—to have him again! She hadn't known she had missed him so until she felt the comfort of his presence. In his arms Alan Massey and all he stood for seemed very far away.
"Got letters for you this morning," announced Ted. "I forgot to give them to you." He fished the aforesaid letters out of his pocket and examined them before handing them over. "One is from Dick—the other"—he held the large square envelope off and squinted at it teasingly. "Some scrawl!" he commented. "Reckless display of ink and flourishes, I call it. Who's the party?"