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The Brass Bowl
by Louis Joseph Vance
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"A thief?" she supplied as he hesitated.

"A thief," he assented gravely.

"But I—I am," with a break in her voice.

"But you are not," he asserted almost fiercely. And, "Dear," he said boldly, "don't you suppose I know?"

"I ... what do you know?"

"That you brought back the jewels, for one minor thing. I found them almost as soon as you had left. And then I knew ... knew that you cared enough to get them from this fellow Anisty and bring them back to me, knew that I cared enough to search the world from end to end until I found you, that you might wear them—if you would."

But she had drawn away, had averted her face; and he might not see it; and she shivered slightly, staring out of the window at the passing lights. He saw, and perforce paused.

"You—you don't understand," she told him in a rush. "You give me credit beyond my due. I didn't break into your flat again, to-night, in order to return the jewels—at least, not for that alone."

"But you did bring back the jewels?"

She nodded.

"Then doesn't that prove what I claim, prove that you've cleared yourself—?"

"No," she told him firmly, with the firmness of despair; "it does not. Because I did not come for that only. I came with another purpose,—to steal, as well as to make restitution. And I ... I stole."

There was a moment's silence, on his part incredulous. "I don't know what you mean. What did you steal? Where is it?"

"I have lost it—"

"Was it in your hand-bag?"

"You found that?"

"You dropped it in the trunk-closet. I found it there. There is something of mine in it?"

Dumb with misery, she nodded; and after a little, "You didn't look, of course."

"I had no right," he said shortly.

"Other men wo-would have thought they had the right. I th-think you had, the circumstances considered. At all events," steadying her voice, "I say you have, now. I give you that right. Please go and investigate that hand-bag, Mr. Maitland. I wish you to."

He turned and stared at her curiously. "I don't know what to think," he said. "I can not believe—"

"You mu-must believe. I have no right to profit by your disbelief.... Dear Mr. Maitland, you have been kind to me, very kind to me; do me this last kindness, if you will."

The young face turned to him was gravely and perilously sweet; very nearly he forgot all else. But that she would not have.

"Do this for me.... What you will find will explain everything. You will understand. Perhaps"—timidly—"perhaps you may even find it in your heart to forgive, when you understand.... If you should, my card-case is in the bag, and ...." She faltered, biting her lip cruelly to steady a voice quivering with restrained sobs. "Please, please go at once, and—and see for yourself!" she implored him passionately.

Of a sudden he found himself resolved. Indeed, he fancied that it were dangerous to oppose her; she was overwrought, on the verge of losing her command of self. She wished this thing, and though with all his soul he hated it, he would do as she desired.

"Very well," he assented quietly. "Shall I stop the cab now?"

"Please."

He tapped on the roof of the hansom and told the cabby to draw in at the next corner. Thus he was put down not far from his home,—below the Thirty-third Street grade.

Neither spoke as he alighted, and she believed that he was leaving her in displeasure and abhorrence; but he had only stepped behind the cab for a moment to speak to the driver. In a moment he was back, standing by the step with one hand on the apron and staring in very earnestly and soberly at the shadowed sweetness of her pallid face, that gleamed in the gloom there like some pale, shy, sad flower.

Could there be evil combined with such sheer loveliness, with features that in every line bodied forth the purity of the spirit that abode within? In the soul of him he could not believe that a thief's nature fed canker-like at the heart of a woman so divinely, naively dear and desirable. And ... he would not.

"Won't you let me go?"

"Just a minute. I ... I should like to.... If I find that you have done nothing so very dreadful." he laughed uneasily, "do you wish to know?"

"You know I do." She could not help saying that, letting him see that far into her heart. "You spoke of my calling, I believe. That means to-morrow afternoon, at the earliest. May I not call you up on the telephone?"

"The number is in the book," she said in a tremulous voice.

"And your name in the card-case?"

"Yes."

"And if I should call in half an hour—?"

"O, I shall not sleep until I know!... Good night!"

"Good night!... Drive on, cabby."

He stood, smiling queerly, until the hansom, climbing the Park Avenue hill, vanished over its shoulder. Then swung about and with an eager step retraced his way to his rooms, very confident that God was in His Heaven and all well with the world.

III

The cab stopped. The girl rose and descended to the walk. The driver touched his hat and reined the horse away. "Goodnight, ma'am," he bade her cheerfully. And she told him "Good night" in her turn.

For a moment she seemed a bit hesitant and fearful, left thus alone. The house in front of which she stood, like its neighbors, reared a high facade to the tender, star-lit sky, its windows, with drawn shades and no lights, wearing a singular look of blind patience. It had a high stoop and a sunken area. There was a dull glow in one of the basement windows.

It was very late,—or extremely early. The moon was down, though its place was in some way filled by the golden disk of the clock in the Grand Central Station's tower. The air was impregnated with the sweet and fragrant breath of the new-born day. In the tunnel beneath the street a trolley-car rumbled and whined and clanked lonesomely. A stray cat wandered out of a cross-street with the air of a seasoned debauchee; stopped, scratched itself with inimitable abandon, and suddenly, mysteriously alarmed at nothing, turned itself into a streak of shadow that fled across the street and vanished. And, as if affected by its terror, the grey girl slipped silently into the area and tapped at the lighted window.

Almost immediately the gate was cautiously opened. A woman's head looked out, with suspicion. "Oh, thank Heavens!" it said with abrupt fervor. "I was afraid it mightn't be you, Miss Sylvia. I'm so glad you're back. There ain't—hasn't been a minute these past two nights that I haven't been in a fidget."

The girl laughed quietly and passed through the gateway (which was closed behind her) into the basement hall, where she lingered a brief moment.

"My father, Annie?" she inquired.

"He ain't—hasn't stirred since you went out, Miss Sylvia. He's sleepin' peaceful as a lamb."

"Everything is all right, then?"

"Now that you're home, it is, praises be!" The servant secured the inner door and turned up the gas. "Not if I was to be given notice to-morrow mornin'," she announced firmly, "will I ever consent to be a party to such goin's-on another night."

"There will be no occasion, Annie," said the girl. "Thank you, and—good night."

A resigned sigh,—"Good night, Miss Sylvia,"—followed her up the stairs.

She went very cautiously, careful to brush against no article of movable furniture in the halls, at pains to make no noise on the stairs. At the door of her father's room on the second floor she stopped and listened for a full moment; but he was sleeping as quietly, as soundly, as the servant had declared. Then on, more hurriedly, up another flight, to her own room, where she turned on the electric bulb in panic haste. For it had just occurred to her that the telephone bell might ring before she could change her clothing and get down-stairs and shut herself into the library, whose closed door would prevent the bell from being audible through the house.

In less than ten minutes she was stealing silently down to the drawing-room floor again, quiet as a spirit of the night. The library door shut without a sound: for the first time she breathed freely. Then, pressing the button on the wall, she switched on the light in the drop-lamp on the center-table. The telephone stood beside it.

She drew up a chair and sat down near the instrument, ready to lift the receiver off its hook the instant the bell began to sound; and waited, the soft light burning in the loosened tresses of her hair, enhancing the soft color that pulsed in her cheeks, fading before the joy that lived in her eyes when she hoped....

For she dared hope—at times; and at times could not but fear. So greatly had she dared, who greatly loved, so heavy upon her untarnished heart was the burden of the sin that she had put upon it, because she loved.... Perhaps he would not call; perhaps the world was to turn cold and be for ever grey to her eyes. He was even then deciding; at that very moment her happiness hung in the scales of his mercy. If he could forgive....

There was a click. And her face flamed scarlet, as hastily she lifted the receiver to her ear. The armature buzzed sharply. Then Central's voice cut the stillness.

"Hello! Nine-o-five-one?"

"Yes...."

"Wait a minute."

She waited, breathless, in a quiver. The silence sang upon the wire, the silence of the night through which he was groping toward her....

"Hello! Is this Nine-o—"

"Yes, yes!"

"Is this the residence of Alexander C. Graeme?"

"Yes." The syllable almost choked her.

"Is this Miss Graeme at the 'phone?"

"It is."

"Miss Sylvia Graeme?"

"Yes."

"This is Daniel Maitland ... Sylvia!"

"As if I did not know your voice!" she cried involuntarily.

There followed a little pause; and in her throat the pulses tightened and drummed.

"I have opened the bag, Sylvia...."

"Please go on."

"And I've sounded the depths of your hideous infamy!"

"Oh!" He was laughing.

"I've done more. I've made a burnt offering, within the last five minutes. Can you guess what it is?"

"I—I—don't want to guess! I want to be told."

"A burnt offering on the altar of your happiness, dear. The papers in the case of the Dougherty Investment Company no longer exist."

"Dan!"

"Sylvia.... Does it please you?"

"Don't you know?... How can it do anything but please me? If you knew how I have suffered because my father suffered, fearing the.... No, but you must listen! Dan, it was wearing him down to his grave, and I thought—"

"You thought that if you could get the papers and give them to him—"

"Yes. I could see no harm, because he was as innocent as you—"

"Of course. But why didn't you ask me?"

"He did, and you refused."

"But how could I tell, Sylvia, that you were his daughter, and that I should—"

"Hush! Central will hear!"

"Central's got other things to do, besides listening to early morning confabulations. I love you."

"Dan...."

"Yes?"

"I love—to hear you say so, dear."

"Please say that last word over again. I didn't get it."

"Dear...."

"And that means that you'll marry me?"

A pause.

"I say, that means—"

"I heard you, Dan." "But it does, doesn't it?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"Whenever you please."

"I'll come up now."

"Don't be a silly."

"Well, when then? To-day?"

"Yes—no!"

"But when?"

"To-morrow—I mean next week—I mean next month."

"No; to-day at four. I'll call for you."

"But, Dan...."

"Sweetheart!"

"But you mustn't!... How can I—"

"Easily enough. There's the Little-Church-Around-the-Corner—"

"But I've nothing to wear!"

"Oh!"

Another pause.

"Dan.... You don't wish it—truly?"

"I do wish it, truly. To-day, at four. The Church of the Transfiguration. Yes, I'll scare up a best man if you'll find bridesmaids. Now you will, won't you?"

"I—if you wish it, dear."

"I'll have to ask you to repeat that."

"I shan't. There!"

"Very well," meekly. "But will you tell me one thing, please?"

"What is it?"

"Where on earth did you get hold of that kit of tools?"

She laughed softly. "My big Brother caught a burglar once, and kept the kit for a remembrance. I borrowed them."

"Give me your big brother's address and I'll send 'em back with my thanks—No, by George! I won't, either. I've as much right to keep 'em as he has on that principle."

And again she laughed, very gently and happily. Dear God, that such happiness could come to one!

"Sylvia?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Do you love me?"

"I think you may believe it, when I sit here at four o'clock in the morning, listening to a silly boy talk nonsense over a telephone wire."

"But I want to hear you say so!"

"But Central—"

"I tell you Central has other things to do!"

At this juncture the voice of Central, jaded and acidulated, broke in curtly:

"Are you through?"

THE END

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