A MAN AND HIS MONEY
FREDERIC S. ISHAM
Under the Rose, Half a Chance, The Social Bucaneer, Etc.
MAX J. SPERO
A MAN AND HIS MONEY
THE COACH OF CONCORD
"Well? What can I do for you?"
The speaker—a scrubby little man—wheeled in the rickety office chair to regard some one hesitating on his threshold. The tones were not agreeable; the proprietor of the diminutive, run-down establishment, "The St. Cecilia Music Emporium," was not, for certain well defined reasons, in an amiable mood that morning. He had been about to reach down for a little brown jug which reposed on the spot usually allotted to the waste paper basket when the shadow of the new-comer fell obtrusively, not to say offensively, upon him.
It was not a reassuring shadow; it seemed to spring from an indeterminate personality. Mr. Kerry Mackintosh repeated his question more bruskly; the shadow (obviously not a customer,—no one ever sought Mr. Mackintosh's wares!) started; his face showed signs of a vacillating purpose.
"A mistake! Beg pardon!" he murmured with exquisite politeness and began to back out, when a somewhat brutal command on the other's part to "shut that d—— door d—— quick, and not let any more d—— hot air out" arrested the visitor's purpose. Instead of retreating, he advanced.
"I beg pardon, were you addressing me?" he asked. The half apologetic look had quite vanished.
The other considered, muttered at length in an aggrieved tone something about hot air escaping and coal six dollars a ton, and ended with: "What do you want?"
"Work." The visitor's tone relapsed; it was now conspicuous for its want of "success waves"; it seemed to imply a definite cognizance of personal uselessness. He who had brightened a moment before now spoke like an automaton. Mr. Mackintosh looked at him and his shabby garments. He had a contempt for shabby garments—on others!
"Good day!" he said curtly.
But instead of going, the person coolly sat down. The proprietor of the little shop glanced toward the door and half started from his chair. Whereupon the visitor smiled; he had a charming smile in these moments of calm equipoise, it gave one an impression of potential possibilities. Mr. Mackintosh sank back into his chair.
"Too great a waste of energy!" he murmured, and having thus defined his attitude, turned to a "proof" of new rag-time. This he surveyed discontentedly; struck out a note here, jabbed in another there. The stranger watched him at first casually. By sundry signs the caller's fine resolution and assurance seemed slowly oozing from him; perhaps he began to have doubts as to the correctness of his position, thus to storm a man in his own castle, or office—even if it were such a disreputable-appearing office!
He shifted his feet thoughtfully; a thin lock of dark hair drooped more uncertainly over his brow; he got up. The composer dashed a blithe flourish to the tail of a note.
"Hold on," he said. "What's your hurry?" Sarcastically.
"Didn't know I was in a hurry!" There was no attempted levity in his tone,—he spoke rather listlessly, as one who had found the world, or its problems, slightly wearisome. The composer-publisher now arose; a new thought had suddenly assailed him.
"You say you are looking for work. Why did you drift in here?"
"The place looked small. Those big places have no end of applicants—"
"Shouldn't think that would phase you. With your nerve!"
The visitor flushed. "I seem to have made rather a mess of it," he confessed. "I usually do. Good day."
"A moment!" said Mr. Mackintosh. "One of my men"—he emphasized "one," as if their number were legion—"disappointed me this morning. I expect he's in the lockup by this time. Have you got a voice?"
"Can you sing?"
"I really don't know; haven't ever tried, since"—a wonderful retrospection in his tones—"since I was a little chap in church and wore white robes."
"Huh!" ejaculated the proprietor of the Saint Cecilia shop. "Mama's angel boy! That must have been a long time ago." The visitor did not answer; he pushed back uncertainly the uncertain lock of dark hair and seemed almost to have forgotten the object of his visit.
"Now see here"—Mr. Mackintosh's voice became purposeful, energetic; he seated himself before a piano that looked as if it had led a hard nomadic existence. "Now see here!" Striking a few chords. "Suppose you try this stunt! What's the Matter with Mother? My own composition! Kerry Mackintosh at his best! Now twitter away, if you've any of that angel voice left!"
The piano rattled; the new-comer, with a certain faint whimsical smile as if he appreciated the humor of his position, did "twitter away"; loud sounds filled the place. Quality might be lacking but of quantity there was a-plenty.
"Bully!" cried Mr. Mackintosh enthusiastically. "That'll start the tears rolling. What's the Matter with Mother? Nothing's the matter with mother. And if any one says there is—Will it go? With that voice?" He clapped his hand on the other's shoulder. "Why, man, they could hear you across Madison Square. You've a voice like an organ. Is it a 'go'?" he demanded.
"I don't think I quite understand," said the new-comer patiently.
"You don't, eh? Look there!"
A covered wagon had at that moment stopped before the door. It was drawn by a horse whose appearance, like that of the piano, spoke more eloquently of services in the past than of hopeful promises for the future. On the side of the vehicle appeared in large letters: "What's the Matter with Mother? Latest Melodic Triumph by America's Greatest Composer, Mr. Kerry Mackintosh." A little to the left of this announcement was painted a harp, probably a reminder of the one Saint Cecilia was supposed to have played. This sentimental symbol was obviously intended to lend dignity and respectability to the otherwise disreputable vehicle of concord and its steed without wings, waiting patiently to be off—or to lie down and pay the debt of nature!
"Shall we try it again, angel voice?" asked Mr. Mackintosh, playing the piano, or "biffing the ivories," as he called it.
"Drop it," returned the visitor, "that 'angel' dope."
"Oh, all right! Anything to oblige."
Before this vaguely apologetic reply, the new-comer once more relapsed into thoughtfulness. His eye passed dubiously over the vehicle of harmony; he began to take an interest in the front door as if again inclined to "back out." Perhaps a wish that the horse might lie down and die at this moment (no doubt he would be glad to!) percolated through the current of his thoughts. That would offer an easy solution to the proposal he imagined would soon be forthcoming—that was forthcoming—and accepted. Of course! What alternative remained? Needs must when an empty pocket drives. Had he not learned the lesson—beggars must not be choosers?
"And now," said Mr. Mackintosh with the air of a man who had cast from his shoulders a distinct problem, "that does away with the necessity of bailing the other chap out. What's your name?"
The visitor hesitated. "Horatio Heatherbloom."
The other looked at him keenly. "The right one," he said softly.
"You've got the only one you'll get," replied the caller, after an interval.
Mr. Mackintosh bestowed upon him a knowing wink. "Sounds like a nom de plume," he chuckled. "What was your line?"
"I don't understand."
"What did you serve time for? Shoplifting?"
"Oh, no," said the other calmly.
"Burglarizing?" With more respect in his tones.
"What do you think?" queried the caller in the same mild voice.
"Not ferocious-looking enough for that lay, I should have thought. However, you can't always tell by appearances. Now, I wonder—"
"What?" observed Mr. Heatherbloom, after an interval of silence.
"Yes! By Jove!" Mr. Mackintosh was speaking to himself. "It might work—it might add interest—" Mr. Heatherbloom waited patiently. "Would you have any objections," earnestly, "to my making a little addenda to the sign on the chariot of cadence? What's the Matter with Mother? 'The touching lyric, as interpreted by Horatio Heatherbloom, the reformed burglar'?"
"I should object," observed the caller.
"My boy—my boy! Don't be hasty. Take time to think. I'll go further; I'll paint a few iron bars in front of the harp. Suggestive of a prisoner in jail thinking of mother. Say 'yes'."
"Too bad!" murmured Mr. Mackintosh in disappointed but not altogether convinced tones. "You could use another alias, you know. If you're afraid the police might pipe your game and nab—"
"Drop it, or—"
"All right, Mr. Heatherbloom, or any other blooming name!" Recovering his jocular manner. "It's not for me to inquire the 'why,' or care a rap for the 'wherefore.' Ethics hasn't anything to do with the realm of art."
As he spoke he reached under the desk and took out the jug. "Have some?" extending the tumbler.
The thin lips of the other moved, his hand quickly extended but was drawn as suddenly back. "Thanks, but I'm on the water wagon, old chap."
"Well, I'm not. Do you know you said that just like a gentleman—to the manner born."
"A gentleman? A moment ago I was a reformed burglar."
"You might be both."
Mr. Heatherbloom looked into space; Mr. Mackintosh did not notice a subtle change of expression. That latter gentleman's rapt gaze was wholly absorbed by the half-tumblerful he held in mid air. But only for a moment; the next, he was smacking his lips. "We'll have a bite to eat and then go," he now said more cheerfully. "Ready for luncheon?"
"I could eat"
"Had anything to-day?"
"And maybe, not!" Half jeeringly. "Why don't you say you've been training down, taking the go-without-breakfast cure? Say, it must be hell looking for a job when you've just 'got out'!"
"How do you know I just 'got out'?"
"You look it, and—there's a lot of reasons. Come on."
Half an hour or so later the covered wagon drove along Fourteenth street. Near the curb, not far from the corner of Broadway, it separated itself from the concourse of vehicles and stopped. Close by, nickel palaces of amusement exhibited their yawning entrances, and into these gilded maws floated, from the human current on the sidewalk, a stream of men, women and children. Encamped at the edge of this eddy, Mr. Mackintosh sounded on the nomadic piano, now ensconced within the coach of concord, the first triumphal strains of the maternal tribute in rag-time.
He and the conspiring instrument were concealed in the depths of the vehicle from the gaze of the multitude, but Mr. Heatherbloom at the back faced them on the little step which served as concert stage. There were no limelights or stereopticon pictures to add to the illusion,—only the disconcerting faces and the light of day. He never before knew how bright the day could be but he continued to stand there, in spite of the ludicrous and trying position. He sang, a certain daredevil light in his eye now, a suspicion of a covert smile on his face. It might be rather tragic—his position—but it was also a little funny.
His voice didn't sound any better out of doors than it did in; the "angel" quality of the white-robed choir days had departed with the soul of the boy. Perhaps Mr. Heatherbloom didn't really feel the pathos of the selection; at any rate, those tears Mr. Mackintosh had prophesied would be rolling down the cheeks of the listening multitude weren't forthcoming. One or two onlookers even laughed.
"Pigs! Swine!" murmured the composer, now passing through the crowd with copies of the song. He sold a few, not many; on the back step Mr. Heatherbloom watched with faint sardonic interest.
"Have I earned my luncheon yet?" he asked the composer when that aggrieved gentleman, jingling a few dimes, returned to the equipage of melody.
"Haven't counted up," was the gruff reply. "Give 'em another verse! They ain't accustomed to it yet. Once they git to know it, every boot-black in town will be whistling that song. Don't I know? Didn't I write it? Ain't they all had mothers?"
"Maybe they're all Topsies and 'just growed'," suggested Mr. Heatherbloom.
"Patience!" muttered the other. "The public may be a little coy at first, but once they git started they'll be fighting for copies. So encore, my boy; hammer it into them. We'll get them; you see!"
But the person addressed didn't see, at least with Mr. Mackintosh's clairvoyant vision. Mr. Heatherbloom's gaze wandering quizzically from the little pool of mask-like faces had rested on a great shining motor-car approaching—slowly, on account of the press of traffic. In this wide luxurious vehicle reposed a young girl, slender, exquisite; at her side sat a big, dark, distinguished-appearing man, with a closely cropped black beard; a foreigner—most likely Russian.
The girl was as beautiful as the dainty orchids with which the superb car was adorned, and which she, also, wore in her gown—yellow orchids, tenderly fashioned but very insistent and bright. Upon this patrician vision Mr. Heatherbloom had inadvertently looked, and the pathetic plaint regarding "Mother" died on the wings of nothingness. With unfilial respect he literally abandoned her and cast her to the winds. His eyes gleamed as they rested on the girl; he seemed to lose himself in reverie.
Did she, the vision in orchids, notice him? Perhaps! The chauffeur at that moment increased the speed of the big car; but as it dashed past, the crimson mouth of the beautiful girl tightened and hardened into a straight line and those wonderful starlike eyes shone suddenly with a light as hard as steel. Disdainful, contemptuous; albeit, perhaps, passionate! Then she, orchids, shining car and all were whirled on.
Rattle! bang! went the iron-rimmed wheels of other rougher vehicles. Bing! bang! sounded the piano like a soul in torment.
Horatio Heatherbloom stood motionless; then his figure swayed slightly. He lifted the music, as if to shield his features from the others—his many auditors; but they didn't mind that brief interruption; it afforded a moment for that rough and ready dialogue which a gathering of this kind finds to its liking.
"Give him a trokee! Anybody got a cough drop?"
"It's soothing syrup he wants."
"No; it's us wants that."
"What the devil—" Mr. Mackintosh looked out of the wagon.
Mr. Heatherbloom suddenly laughed, a forced reckless laugh. "Guess it was the dampness. I'm like some artists—have to be careful where I sing."
"Have a tablet, feller, do!" said a man in the audience.
Horatio looked him in the eye. "Maybe it's you want something."
The facetious one began to back away; he had seen that look before, the steely glint that goes before battle.
"The chord now, if you please!" said Mr. Heatherbloom to the composer in a still quiet voice.
Mr. Mackintosh hit viciously; Mr. Heatherbloom sang again; he did more than that. He outdid himself; he employed bombast,—some thought it pathos. He threw a tremolo into his voice; it passed for emotion. He "caught 'em", in Mr. Mackintosh's parlance, and "caught 'em hard". Some more people bought copies. The alert Mr. Mackintosh managed to gather in about a dollar, and saw, in consequence, great fortune "coming his way" at last; the clouds had a golden lining.
"Say, you're the pard I've been a-looking for!" he jubilantly told Mr. Heatherbloom as they prepared to move on. "We'll make a beautiful team. Isn't it a peach?"
"That song. It made them look like a rainy day. Git up!" And Mr. Mackintosh prodded the bony ribs of their steed.
Mr. Heatherbloom absent-mindedly gazed in the direction the big shining motor had vanished.
Mr. Heatherbloom's new-found employment proved but ephemeral. The next day the sheriff took possession of the music emporium and all it contained, including the nomadic piano and the now empty jug. The contents of the last the composer-publisher took care to put beyond reach of his many creditors whom he, in consequence, faced with a seemingly care-free, if artificial, jocularity. Mr. Heatherbloom walked soberly forth from the shop of concord.
He had but turned the corner of the street when into the now dissonant "hole in the wall", amid the scene of wreck and disaster, stepped a tall dark man, with a closely cropped beard, who spoke English with an accent and who regarded the erstwhile proprietor and the minions of the law with ill-concealed arrogance and disfavor.
"You have," he began in halting tones, "a young man here who sings on the street like the minstrels of old, the—what you call them?—troubadours."
"We had," corrected Mr. Mackintosh. "He has just 'jumped the coup,' or rather been 'shooed out'."
The new-comer fastened his gaze upon the other; he had superb, almost mesmeric eyes. "Will you kindly speak the language as I understand it?" he said. And the other did, for there was that in the caller's manner which compelled immediate compliance. Immovably he listened to the composer-publisher's explanation.
"Eh bien!" he said, his handsome, rather barbaric head high when Mr. Mackintosh had concluded. "He is gone; it is well; I have fulfilled my mission." And walking out, the imposing stranger hailed a taxi and disappeared from the neighborhood.
Meanwhile Mr. Horatio Heatherbloom had walked slowly on; he was now some distance from the one-time "emporium." Where should he go? His fortunes had not been enhanced materially by his brief excursion into the realms of melody; he had thirty cents in cash and a "dollar-and-a-half appetite." An untidy place where they displayed a bargain assortment of creature comforts attracted his gaze. He thought of meals in the past—of caviar, a la Russe, three dollars and a half a portion; peaches Melba, three francs each at the Cafe de Paris; truffled capon from Normandy; duck after the manner of the incomparable Frederic. About half a dozen peaches Melba would have appealed to him now; he looked, instead, with the eyes of longing at a codfish ball. Oh, glorious appetite, mocking recollections of hours of satiety!
Should he yield to temptation? He stopped; then prudence prevailed. The day was yet too young to give way recklessly to casual gastronomic allurements, so he stepped on again quickly, averting his head from shop windows. Lest his caution and conservatism might give way, he started to turn into a side street—but didn't.
Instead, he laughed slightly to himself. What! flee from an outpost of time-worn celery? beat an inglorious retreat before a phalanx of machine-made pies? He would look them (figuratively) in the eye. Having, as it were, fairly stared out of countenance the bland pies and beamed with stern contempt upon the "droopy," Preraphaelite celery, he went, better satisfied, on his way. It is these little victories that count; at that moment Mr. Heatherbloom marched on like a knight of old for steadfastness of purpose. His lips veiled a covert smile, as if behind the hard mask of life he saw something a little odd and whimsical, appealing to some secret sense of humor that even hunger could not wholly annihilate. The lock of hair seemed to droop rather pathetically at that moment; his sensitive features were slightly pinched; his face was pale. It would probably be paler before the day was over; n'importe! The future had to be met—for better, or worse. Multitudes passed this way and that; an elevated went crashing by; devastating influences seemed to surround him. His slender form stiffened.
When next he stopped it was to linger, not in front of an eating establishment, but before a bulletin-board upon which was pasted a page of newspaper "want ads" for "trained" men, in all walks of life. "Trained" men? Hateful word! How often had he encountered it! Ah, here was one advertisement without the "trained"; he devoured it eagerly. The item, like an oasis in the desert of his general incapacity and uselessness, exercised an odd fascination for him in spite of the absolute impossibility of his professing to possess a fractional part of those moral attributes demanded by the fair advertiser. She—a Miss Van Rolsen—was seeking a paragon, not a person. Nevertheless, he resolved to assail the apparently unassailable, and repaired to a certain ultrafashionable neighborhood of the town.
Before a brownstone front that bore the number he sought, he paused a moment, drew a deep breath and started to walk up the front steps. But with a short laugh he came suddenly to a halt half-way up; looked over the stone balustrade down at the other entrance below—the tradesmen's—the butchers', the bakers', the candlestick makers'—and, yes, the servants'—their way in!—his?
He went down the steps and walked on and away as a matter of course, but once more stopped. He had done a good deal of going this way and that, and then stopping, during the last few months. Things had to be worked out, and sometimes his brain didn't seem to move very quickly.
To be worked out! He now surveyed the butchers' and the bakers' (and yes, the servants') entrance with casual or philosophic interest from the vantage point of the other side of the street. It wasn't different from any other of the entrances of the kind but it held his gaze. Then he walked across the street again and went in—or down. It didn't really seem now such a bad kind of entrance when you came to investigate it, in a high impersonal way; not half so bad as the subway, and people didn't mind that.
Still Mr. Heatherbloom experienced a peculiar thrill when he put up his thumb, pressed a button, and wondered what next would happen. Who answered doors down here,—the maid—the cook—the laundress? He felt himself to be very indistinct and vague standing there in the shadow, and tried to assume a nonchalant bearing. He wondered just what bearing was proper under the circumstances; he cherished indistinct recollections of having heard or read that the butcher's boy is usually favored with a broadly defying and independent visage; that he comes in whistling and goes forth swaggering. A cat-meat man he had once looked upon from the upper lodge of front steps somewhere in the dim long ago, had possessed a melancholy manner and countenance.
How should he comport himself; what should he say—when the inevitable happened; when the time came to say something? How lead the conversation by natural and easy stages to the purport of his visit? He rehearsed a few sentences, then straightway forgot them. Why did they keep him waiting so long? Did they always keep people as long as that—down here? He put his thumb again—
"Well, what do you want?" The door had opened and a buxom female, arms akimbo, regarded him. Mr. Heatherbloom repaid her gaze with interest; it was the cook, then, who acted as door tender of these regions subterranean. He feared by her expression that he had interrupted her in the preparation of some esculent delicacy, and with the fear was born a parenthetical inquiry; he wondered what that delicacy might be? But forbearing to inquire he stated his business.
"You'll be the thirteenth that's been 'turned down' to-day for that job!" observed cook blandly. With which cheering assurance she consigned him to some one else—a maid with a tipped-up nose—and presently he found himself being "shown up"; that was the expression used.
The room into which he was ushered was a parlor. Absently he seated himself. The maid tittered. He looked at her—or rather the tipped-up nose, an attractive bit of anatomy. Saucy, provocative! Mr. Heatherbloom's head tilted a little; he surveyed the detail with the look of a connoisseur. She colored, went; but remained in the hall to peer. There were many articles of virtu lying around—on tables or in cabinets—and the caller's appearance was against him. He would bear watching; he had the impudence—Just fancy his sitting there in a chair! He was leaning back now as if he enjoyed that atmosphere of luxury; surveying, too, the paintings and the bronzes with interest. But for no good reason, thought the maid; then gave a start of surprise. The hand of the suspicious-looking caller had lifted involuntarily to his breast pocket; a mechanical movement such as a young gentleman might make who was reaching for a cigarette case. Did he intend—actually intend to—but the caller's hand fell; he sat forward suddenly on the edge of his chair and seemed for the first time aware that his attitude partook of the anomalous; for gathering up his shabby hat from the gorgeous rug, he abruptly rose.
Just in time to confront, or be confronted by, an austere lady in stiff satin or brocade and with bristling iron-gray hair! He noticed, however, that unlike the maid, she had a very prominent nose—that now sniffed!
"Good heavens! What a frightful odor of gasolene. Jane, where are my salts?"
Jane rushed in; at the same time four or five dogs that had followed in the lady's wake began to bark as if they, too, were echoing the plaint: "What a frightful odor! Salts, Jane, salts!" And as they barked in many keys, but always fortissimo, they ran frantically this way and that as though chased by somebody, or something (perhaps the odor of gasolene), or chasing one another in a mad outburst of canine exuberance.
"Sardanapolis! Beauty! Curly! Naughty!" the lady called out.
But in vain. Sardanapolis continued to cut capers; Beauty's conduct was not beautiful; while as for Naughty (all yellow bows and black curls) he seemed endeavoring to live up to the fullest realization of his name.
"Dear me! What shall I do?"
"Just let 'em alone, ma'am," ventured Jane, "and they'll soon tire themselves out."
Fortunately, by this time, the be-ribboned pets showed signs of reaching that state of ennui.
"Dear me!" said now the lady anxiously. "How wet the poor dears' tongues are!"
"Nature of the b—poor dears, ma'am!" commented Jane.
The lady looked at her. "You don't like dogs," she said. "You can go." And then to Mr. Heatherbloom: "What brought you here? Don't answer at once. Stand farther back."
Mr. Heatherbloom, who seemed to have been rather enjoying this little impromptu entertainment, straightened with a start; he retired a few paces, observing in a mild explanatory tone something about spots on his garments and the necessity for having them removed at a certain little Greek shop, before doing himself the honor of calling and—
"You're another answer to the advertisement then, I suppose?" the lady's voice unceremoniously interrupted.
He confessed himself Another Answer, and in that capacity proceeded now to reply as best he might to a merciless and rapid fire of questions. She would have made an excellent cross-examiner for the prosecution; Mr. Heatherbloom did not seem to enjoy the grilling. A number of queries he answered frankly; others he evaded. He seemed—ominous circumstance!—especially secretive regarding certain details of his past. He did not care to say where he was born, or who his parents were. What had he done? What occupations had he followed?
Well—he seemed to hesitate a good deal—he had once tried washing dishes; but—dreamily—they had discharged him; the man said something about there being a debit balance on account of damaged crockery. He had essayed the role of waiter but had lasted only through the first courses; down to the entrees, he thought; certainly not much past the pottage. He believed he bumped into another waiter; a few guests within range had seemed put out; afterward, he himself was put out. And then—well, he had somehow drifted, more or less.
"Drifted!" said the lady ominously.
"Oh, yes! Tried his hand at this and that," he added rather blithely. He once worked for a moving-picture firm; fell from a six-story window for them. That is, he started to fall; something—a net or a platform—was supposed to catch him at the fifth, and then a dummy completed the descent and got smashed on the sidewalk. He was a little doubtful about their intercepting him at the fifth and that he, instead of the dummy—But he didn't seem to mind taking the risk—reflectively. They said he was a great success falling through the air, and they had him, in consequence, fall from all kinds of places,—through drawbridges into the water, for example. That's where he contracted a bad cold, and when he had recovered, another man had been found for the heavier-than-air role—
"What are you talking about?" The lady's back was stiffer than a poker.
"If ever you go to a moving-picture palace of amusement, Madam, and see a streak in the air, you might reasonably conclude you are"—he bowed—"beholding me. I went once; it seemed funny. I hardly recognized myself in the part. I certainly seemed to be 'going some'," he murmured seriously. "Is there anything else, Madam, you would care to question me about?"
"I think," she said significantly, "what I have learned is quite sufficient. If the occupations you have told me about are so disreputable—what were those you have kept so carefully concealed? For example, where were you and what were you doing four—five—six—years ago? You have already refused to answer. You relate only a few inconsequential and outre trifles. To cover up—What? What?" she repeated.
Then she transfixed him with her eye; the dogs transfixed him with their eyes. Accusingly? Not all of them. Naughty's glance expressed approval; his tail underwent a friendly agitation.
"Naughty!" said the lady sharply. Naughty gamboled around Horatio.
"How odd!" murmured the mistress, more to herself than the other. "How very extraordinary!"
"What, Madam?" he ventured.
"That Naughty, who so seldom takes to strangers, should—" she found herself saying.
"Perhaps it's the scent of the gasolene," he suggested.
"It's in spite of the gasolene," she retorted sharply.
And for some moments ruminated. It was not until afterward Mr. Heatherbloom learned that her confidence in Naughty's instinct amounted to a hobby. Only once had she thought him at fault in his likes or dislikes of people; when he had showed a predilection for the assistant rector's shapely calves. But after that gentleman's elopement with a lady of the choir and his desertion of wife and children, Naughty's erstwhile disrespect for the cloth, which Miss Van Rolsen had grieved over, became illumined with force and significance. Thereafter she had never doubted him; he had barked at all twelve of Mr. Heatherbloom's predecessors—the dozen other answers to the advertisement; but here he was sedulous for fondlings from Horatio. Extraordinary truly! The lady hesitated.
"I suppose we shall all be murdered in our beds," she said half to herself, "but," with sudden decision, "I've concluded to engage you."
"And my duties?" ventured Mr. Heatherbloom. "The advertisement did not say."
"You are to exercise the darlings every day in the park."
"Ah!" Horatio's exclamation was noncommittal. What he might have added was interrupted by a light footstep in the hall and the voice of some one who stopped in passing before the door.
"I am going now, Aunt," said a voice.
Mr. Heatherbloom started; his hand tightened on the back of a chair; from where he stood he could see but the rim of a wonderful hat. He gazed at a few waving roses, fitting notes of color as it were, for the lovely face behind, concealed from him by the curtain.
The elderly lady answered; Mr. Heatherbloom heard a Prince Someone's name mentioned; then the roses were whisked back; the voice—musical as silver bells—receded, and the front door closed. Mr. Heatherbloom gazed around him—at the furnishings in the room—she who stood before him. He seemed bewildered.
"And now as to your wages," said a voice—not silver bells!—sharply.
"I hardly think I should prove suitable—" he began in somewhat panic-stricken tones, when—
"Nonsense!" The word, or the energy imparted to it, appeared to crush for the moment further opposition on his part; his faculties became concentrated on a sound without, of a big car gathering headway in front of the door. Mr. Heatherbloom listened; perhaps he would have liked to retreat then and there from that house; but it was too late! Fate had precipitated him here. A mad tragic jest! He did not catch the amount of his proposed stipend that was mentioned; he even forgot for the moment he was hungry. He could no longer hear the car. It had gone; but, it would return. Return! And then—? His head whirled at the thought.
Mr. Heatherbloom, a few days later, sat one morning in Central Park. His canine charges were tied to the bench and while they chafed at restraint and tried vainly to get away and chase squirrels, he scrutinized one of the pages of a newspaper some person had left there. What the young man read seemed to give him no great pleasure. He put down the paper; then picked it up again and regarded a snap-shot illustration occupying a conspicuous position on the society page.
"Prince Boris Strogareff, riding in the park," the picture was labeled. The newspaper photographer had caught for his sensational sheet an excellent likeness of a foreign visitor in whom New York was at the time greatly interested. A picturesque personality—the prince—half distinguished gentleman, half bold brigand in appearance, was depicted on a superb bay, and looked every inch a horseman. Mr. Heatherbloom continued to stare at the likeness; the features, dark, rather wild-looking, as if a trace of his ancient Tartar ancestry had survived the cultivating touch of time. Then the young man on the bench once more turned his attention to the text accompanying the cut.
"Reported engagement of Miss Elizabeth Dalrymple to Prince Boris Strogareff ... the prince has vast estates in Russia and Russia-Asia ... his forbears were prominent in the days when Crakow was building and the Cossacks and the Poles were engaged in constant strife on the steppe ... Miss Dalrymple, with whom this stalwart romantic personage is said to be deeply enamored, is niece and heiress of the eccentric Miss Van Rolsen, the third richest woman in New York, and, probably, in the world ... Miss Dalrymple is the only surviving daughter of Charles Dalrymple of San Francisco, who made his fortune with Martin Ferguson of the same place, at the time—"
The paper fell from Mr. Heatherbloom's hand; for several moments he sat motionless; then he got up, unloosened his charges and moved on. They naturally became once more wild with joy, but he heeded not their exuberances; even Naughty's demonstrations brought no answering touch of his hand, that now lifted to his breast and took something from his pocket—an article wrapped in a pink tissue-paper. Mr. Heatherbloom unfolded the warm-tinted covering with light sedulous fingers and looked steadily and earnestly at a miniature. But only for a brief interval; by this time Curly et al. had become an incomprehensible tangle of dog and leading strings about Mr. Heatherbloom's legs. So much so, indeed, that in the effort to extricate himself he dropped the tiny picture; with a sudden passionate exclamation he stooped for it. The anger that transformed his usually mild visage seemed about to vent itself on his charges but almost at once subsided.
Carefully brushing the picture on his coat, he replaced it in his pocket and quietly started to disentangle his charges from himself. This was at length accomplished; he knew, however, that the unraveling would have to be done all over again ere long; it constituted an important part of his duties. The promenade was punctuated by about so many "mix-ups"; Mr. Heatherbloom accepted them philosophically, or absent-mindedly. At any rate, while untying knots or disengaging things, he usually exhibited much patience.
It might have been noticed some time later that Mr. Heatherbloom, retracing his footsteps to Miss Van Rolsen's, betrayed a rather vacillating and uncertain manner, as if he were somewhat reluctant to go into, or to approach too near the old-fashioned stiff and stately house. For fear of meeting some one, or a dread of some sudden encounter? With Miss Van Rolsen's niece? So far he had not seen her since that first day. Perhaps he congratulated himself on his good fortune in this respect. If so, he reckoned without his host.
It is possible for two people to frequent the same house for quite a while without meeting when one of them lives on the avenue side and flits back and forth via the front steps, while the other comes and goes only by the subterranean route; but, sooner or later, though belonging to widely different worlds, these two are bound to come face to face, even in spite of the determination of one of the persons to avert such a contingency!
Mr. Heatherbloom always peered carefully about before venturing from the house with his pampered charges; he was no less watchfully alert when he returned. He could not, however, having only five senses, tell when the front door might be suddenly opened at an inopportune moment. It was opened, this very morning, on the third day of his probation at such a moment. And he had been planning, after reading the newspaper article in the park, to tender his resignation that very afternoon!
It availed him nothing now to regret indecision, his being partly coerced by the masterful mistress of the house into remaining as long as he had remained; or to lament that other sentiment, conspiring to this end—the desire or determination, not to flee from what he most feared. Empty bravado! If he could but flee now! But there was no fleeing, turning, retreating, or evading. The issue had to be met.
Miss Dalrymple, gowned in a filmy material which lent an evanescent charm to her slender figure, came down the front steps as he was about to enter the area way below. The girl looked at him and her eyes suddenly widened; she stopped. Mr. Heatherbloom, quite pale, bowed and would have gone on, when something in her look, or the first word that fell from her lips, held him.
"You!" she said, as if she did not at all comprehend.
He repaid her regard with less steady look; he had to say something and he didn't wish to. Why couldn't people just meet and pass on, the way dumb creatures do? The gift of speech has its disadvantages—on occasions; it forces one to insufficient answer or superfluous explanation. "Yes," he said, "your—Miss Van Rolsen engaged me. I didn't really want to stay, but it came about. Some things do, you know. You see," he added, "I didn't know she was your aunt when I answered the advertisement."
She bent her gaze down upon him as if she hardly heard; beneath the bright adornment of tints, the lovely face—it was a very proud face—had become icy cold; the violet eyes were hard as shining crystal. To Mr. Heatherbloom that slender figure, tensely poised, seemed at once overwhelmingly near and inexpressibly remote. He started to lean on an iron picket but changed his mind and stood rather too stiffly, without support. Before his eyes the flowers in her hat waved and waved; he tried to keep his eyes on them.
"I had been intending," he observed in tones he endeavored to make light, "to tell Miss Van Rolsen she must find some one else to take my place. It would not be very difficult. It is not a position that requires a trained man."
"Difficult?" She seemed to have difficulty in speaking the word; her cold eyes suddenly lighted with unutterable scorn. If any one in this world ever experienced thorough disdain for any one else, her expression implied it was she that experienced it for him. "Valet for dogs!"
Mr. Heatherbloom flushed. "They are very nice dogs," he murmured. "Indeed, they are exceptional."
She gave an abrupt, frozen little laugh; then bent down her face slightly. "And do you wash and curl and perfume them?" she asked, her small white teeth setting tightly after she spoke.
"Well, I don't perfume them," answered Mr. Heatherbloom. "Miss Van Rolsen attends to that herself. She knows the particular essences better than I." A slightly strained smile struggled about his lips. "You see Beauty has one kind, and Naughty another. At least, I think so. While Sardanapolis isn't given any at all."
Can violet eyes shine fiercely? Hers certainly seemed to. "How," she said, examining him as one would study something very remote and impersonal, "did my aunt happen to employ—you? I know she is very particular—about recommendations. What ones did you have? Were they forged ones," suddenly, "or stolen ones?" The red lips like rosebuds had become straightly drawn now.
"No," answered Mr. Heatherbloom. "I didn't have any. I just came, and—"
"Saw and conquered!" said the girl. But there was no levity in her tone. She continued to gaze at him and yet through him; at something beyond—afar—"I don't understand why she should have taken you—"
"Shall I explain?"
"And I don't care why she did!" Not noticing his interruption. "The principal thing is, why did you want this position? What ulterior motive lay behind?" She was speaking now almost automatically, as if he were not present. "For, of course, there was some other motive."
"The truth is," observed Mr. Heatherbloom lightly, but passing an uncertain hand over his brow, "I had reached that point—I should qualify by saying I have long been at the point where one is willing to take any 'honest work of any kind'. I suppose you have heard the phrase before; it's a common one. But believe me, it was quite by accident I came here; quite!"
"'Believe you'," said the girl, as one would address an inferior for the purpose of putting him into the category where he belongs. "'Honest work'! When have you been particular as to that; whether or not"—with mocking irony in the pitiless violet eyes—"it was 'honest'?"
Mr. Heatherbloom started; his gaze met hers unwaveringly. "You don't think, then, that I—"
"Think?" said the girl. "I know."
"Would you mind—explaining?" he asked quietly. He didn't need any support now, but stood with head well back, a steady gleam in his look. "What you—know?"
"I know—you are a thief!" She spoke the Words fiercely.
His face twitched. "How do you know?"
"By the kind of evidence I can believe."
"And that?" he said in the same quiet voice.
"The evidence of my own eyes!"
He was still, as if thinking. He looked down; then away.
"Why don't you protest?" she demanded.
"Protest," he repeated.
"Or ask me to explain further—"
"Well, explain further," he said patiently.
"Put your mind back three weeks ago—at about eleven o'clock in the morning. Where were you? what were you doing? what was happening?"
Mr. Heatherbloom looked very thoughtful.
"At the corner of"—she mentioned the streets—"not far from Riverside Drive. We passed at that time in the car. Need I say more?"
His head was downbent. "I think I understand." His hand stroked tentatively his chin.
The silence grew; Beauty barked, but neither seemed to notice.
"Of course you can't deny?" she observed.
"Of course not," he said, without moving.
"You won't defend yourself; plead palliating causes?" ironically.
He picked at the ground with the toe of a shoe. "If I told you, on my honor, I am not—what you have called me just now, would you believe me?" he asked gravely.
"On your honor," said the girl with a cruel smile. "Yours? No!"
"Then," he spoke as if to himself, "I don't suppose there's any use in denying. Your mind is made up."
"My mind!" she answered. "Can I not see; hear? Can you not hear—those voices? Do they not follow you?"
He seemed striving for an answer but could not find it. Once he looked into the violet eyes questioningly, deeply, as if seeking there to read what he should say, but they flashed only the hard rays of diamonds at him, and he turned his head slowly away.
"I see," she remarked, "you remember; but you do not care."
"I—you reconcile the idea of my being that very easily with—"
"It fits perfectly," said the girl, "with the rest of the picture; what one has already pieced together; it is just another odd-shaped black bit that goes in snugly. You appreciate the comparison?"
"I think I do," answered Mr. Heatherbloom. "You are alluding to picture puzzles. Is there anything more?" He started as if to go.
"One moment—of course, you can't stay here," said the girl.
"I had intended to go at once, as I told you," observed Mr. Heatherbloom.
"You had? You mean you will?"
"No; I won't go now. That is," he added, "of my own volition."
"You do well to qualify. Would you not prefer to go of your own volition than to have me inform my aunt who you are—what you are?"
He shook his head. "I won't resign now," he said.
"And so show yourself a fool as well as—" She did not speak the word, but it trembled on the sweet passionate lips.
He did not answer.
"Suppose," she went on, "I offer you the chance and do not speak, if you will go—immediately?"
"I can't," he answered.
Her brows bent; her little hand seemed to clench. But he stood without looking at her, appearing absorbed in a tiny bit of cloud in the sky.
"Very well!" she said, a dangerous glint in her eyes.
He looked quite insignificant at the moment; she was far above him; his clothes were threadbare, the way thieves' clothes, or pickpockets', usually are.
"If you expect any mercy from me—" she began.
But she did not finish; a figure, approaching, caught her eye—the handsome stalwart figure of a man; whose features lighted at sight of her.
"Ah, Miss Dalrymple!"
Her face changed. "An unexpected pleasure, Prince," she said with almost an excess of gaiety.
He answered in kind; she came down the steps quickly, offering him her hand. And as he gallantly raised the small perfumed fingers to his lips, Mr. Heatherbloom seemed to fade away into the dark subterranean entrance.
FATE AT THE DOOR
Although Mr. Heatherbloom waited expectantly that day for his dismissal, it did not come. This surprised him somewhat; then he reflected that Miss Elizabeth Dalrymple was probably so absorbed in the prince—remembering her rather effusive greeting of that fortunate individual—she had forgotten such a small matter as having the dog valet ejected from the premises. She would remember on the morrow, of course.
But she didn't! The hours passed, and he was suffered to go about the even, or uneven, tenor of his way. This he did mechanically; he scrubbed and combed Beauty beautifully. With a dire sense of fate knocking at the door, he passed her on to Miss Van Rolsen, to be freshly be-ribboned by that lady's own particular hand. The thin bony finger he thought would be pointed accusingly at him, busied itself solely with the knots and bows of a new ribbon; after which the grim lady dismissed him—from her presence, not the house—curtly.
Several days went by; still no one accused him; he was still suffered to remain. Why? He could not understand. At the end of a long—seemingly interminable week—he put himself deliberately in the way of finding out. Coming to, or going from the house, he lingered around the area entrance, purposely to encounter her whom he had heretofore, above all others, wished to avoid. A feverish desire possessed him to meet the worst, and then go about his way, no matter where it might lead him. He was past solicitude in that regard. He did at length manage to meet her—not as before in the full daylight but toward dusk, as she returned, this time on foot, to the house.
"Miss Dalrymple, may I speak to you?" he said to the indistinctly seen, slender figure that started lightly up the front steps.
She did not even stop, although she must have heard him; a moment he saw her like a shadow; then the front door opened. He heard a crisp metallic click; the door closed. Slowly with head a little downbent he walked out, up the way she had come; then around the corner a short distance to the stables over which he had his room.
It was a nice room, he had at first thought, probably because he liked horses. They—four or five thoroughbreds—whinnied as he opened the door. He had started up the dark narrow stairs to his chamber, but stopped at that sound and groped about from stall to stall passing around the expected lumps of sugar. After which all seemed well as far as he and they were concerned.
Only that other problem!—he could not shake it from him. To resign now?—under fire? How he wished he might! But to remain?—his situation was intolerable. He went up to his room feeling like a ghost; his mind was full of dark presences, as if he had lived a thousand times before and had been surrounded only by hostile influences that now came back in the still watches of the night to haunt him.
He dreaded going to the house the next day, but he went. Perhaps, he reflected, she was only allowing him to retain his present position under a kind of espionage; to trap him and put him beyond the pale of respectable society. He remembered the cruel lips, the passionate dislike—contempt—even hatred—in her eyes. Yes; that might be it—the reason for her temporary silence; the house was full of valuable things; sooner or later—
"Are you quite satisfied, Madam, with my services?" said Mr. Heatherbloom that afternoon to Miss Van Rolsen.
"You seem to do well enough," she answered shortly.
He brightened. "Perhaps some one else would do better."
"Perhaps," she returned dryly. "But I'm not going to try."
"But," he said desperately, "I—I don't think they—the dogs, like me quite so much as they did. Naughty, in particular," he added quickly. "I—I thought yesterday he would have liked to—growl and nip at me."
"Did he," she asked, studying him with disconcerting keenness, "actually do that?"
"Do I understand you wish to give me notice?" she interrupted sharply.
"Not at all." In an alarmed tone. "I couldn't—I mean I wouldn't do that. Only I thought you might have felt dissatisfied—people usually do with me," he added impressively. "So if you would like to give me—"
She made a gesture. "That will do. I am very busy this morning. The begging list, though smaller than usual—only three hundred and seventy-six letters—has to be attended to."
Thus the matter of Mr. Heatherbloom's staying or going continued, much to that person's discomfiture, in statu quo. It is true he found, later, a compromising course; a way out of the difficulty—as he thought, little knowing the extraordinary new web he was weaving!—but before that time came, several things happened. In the first place he discovered that Miss Dalrymple was not entirely pleased at the publication of the story of her engagement to the prince; her position—her family's and that of Miss Van Rolsen, was such that newspaper advertising or notoriety could not but be distasteful.
"I hope people won't think I keep a social secretary," Mr. Heatherbloom heard her say.
Yes, heard her. He was in the dogs' "boudoir"; the conservatory adjoined. He could not help being where he was; he belonged there at the time. Nor could he help hearing; he didn't try to listen; he certainly didn't wish to, though she had a very sweet voice—that soothed one to a species of lotus dream—forgetfulness of soap-suds, or the odor of canine disinfectant permeating the white foam—
"Why should they think you have a social secretary?" the voice of a man—the prince—inquired.
He had deep fine tones; truly Russian tones, with a subtle vibration in them.
"Because when such things are published about people their secretaries usually put them in," returned the girl.
He was silent a moment; Mr. Heatherbloom thought he heard the breaking of the stem of a flower.
"You were very much irritated—angry?" observed the prince at length, quietly.
"Weren't you?" she asked.
"I? No. It is a bourgeois confession, perhaps."
Mr. Heatherbloom sat up straighter; the water dripped from his fingers.
"I was pleased," went on the sonorous low voice. "I wished—it were so!"
There was a sudden movement in the conservatory; a rustling of leaves, or of a gown; then—Mr. Heatherbloom relaxed in surprise—a peal of merry laughter filled the air.
"How apropos! How well you said that!"
"Miss Dalrymple!" There was a slightly rising inflection in the man's tones. "You doubt my sincerity?"
"The sincerity of a Russian prince? No, indeed!" she returned gaily.
"I am in earnest," he said simply.
"Don't be!" Mr. Heatherbloom could, in fancy, see the flash of a white hand amid red flowers; eyes dancing like violets in the wind. He could perceive, also, as plainly as if he were in that other room, the deep ardent eyes of the prince downbent upon the blither ones, the commanding figure of the man near that other slender, almost illusive presence. A flower to be grasped only by a bold wooer, like the prince!
"Don't be," she repeated. "You are so much more charming when you are not. I think I heard that line in a play once. One of the Robertson kind; it was given by a stock company in San Francisco. That's where I came from, you know. Have you ever been there?"
"No," said the prince slowly.
Dark eyes trying to beat down the merriment in the blue ones! Mr. Heatherbloom could, in imagination, "fill in" all the stage details. If it only were "stage" dialogue; "stage" talk; not "playing with love", in earnest!
"Playing with love!" He had read a book of that name once; somewhere. In Italy?—yes. It sounded like an Italian title. Something very disagreeable happened to the heroine. A woman, or a girl, can not lightly "play with love" with a Sicilian. But, of course, the prince wasn't a Sicilian.
"No," he was saying now with admirable poise, in answer to her question, "I haven't visited your wonderful Golden Gate, but I hope to go there some day—with you!" he added. His words were simple; the accent alone made them sound formidable; it seemed to convey an impregnable purpose, one not to be shaken or disturbed.
Mr. Heatherbloom felt vaguely disturbed; his heart pounded oddly. He half started to get up, then sank back. He waited for another peal of laughter; it didn't come. Why?
"Of course I should have no objection to your being one of a train party," said Miss Dalrymple at length.
"That isn't just what I mean," returned the prince in his courtliest tones. But it wasn't hard to picture him now with a glitter in his gaze,—immovable, sure of himself.
There was a rather long pause; broken once more by Miss Dalrymple: "Shall we not return to the music room?"
That interval? What had it meant? Mute acquiescence on her part, a down-turning of the imperious lashes before the steadfastness of the other's look?—tacit assent? The casting off of barriers, the opening of the gates of the divine inner citadel? Mr. Heatherbloom was on his feet now. He took a step toward the door, but paused. Of course! Something clammy had fallen from his hand; lay damp and dripping on the rag. He stared at it—a bar of soap.
What had he been about to do—he!—to step in there—into the conservatory, with his bar of soap?—grotesque anomaly! His face wore a strange expression; he was laughing inwardly. Oh, how he was laughing at himself! Fortunately he had a saving sense of humor.
What had next been said in the conservatory? What was now being said there? He heard words but they had no meaning for him. "I will send you the second volume of The Fire and Sword trilogy," went on the prince. "One of my ancestors figures in it. The hero—who is not exactly a hero, perhaps, in the heroine's mind, for a time—does what he must do; he has what he must have. He claims what nature made for him; he knows no other law than that of his imperishable inner self. I, too, must rise to those heights my eyes are set on. It must be; it is written. We are fatalists, we Russians near the Tartar line! And you and I"—fervently—"were predestined for each other."
Mr. Heatherbloom had but dimly heard the prince's words and failed to grasp them; he didn't want to; his head was humming. Her light answer sounded as if she might be very happy. Yes; naturally. She was made to be happy, to dance about like sunshine. He liked to think of the picture. The prince, too, was necessary to complete it; necessary, reaffirmed Mr. Heatherbloom to himself, pulling with damp fingers at the inconsequential lock of hair over his brow. Of course, if the prince could be eliminated from that mental picture of her felicity?—but he was a part of the composition; big, barbaric, romantic looking! In fact, it wouldn't have been an adequate composition at all without him; no, indeed!
And something rose in Mr. Heatherbloom's throat; one of his eyes—or was it both of them?—seemed a little misty. That confounded soap! It was strong; a bit of it in the corner of the eyes made one blink.
The two in the conservatory said something more; but the young man in the "boudoir" didn't catch it at all well. By some intense mental process, or the sound of the scrubber on the edge of the tub, he found he could shut a definite cognizance of words almost entirely from his sense of hearing. The prince's voice seemed slightly louder; that, in a general way, was patent; no doubt the occasion warranted more fervor on his part. Mr. Heatherbloom tried to imagine what she would look like in—so to say, a very complaisant mood; not with flaming glance full of aversion and scorn!
Violet eyes replete only with love lights! Mr. Heatherbloom bent lower over the tub; his four-footed charge Beauty, contentedly immersed to the neck in nice comfortably warm water, licked him. He did not feel the touch; the fragrance of orchids seemed to come to him above that other more healthful, less agreeable odor of special cleansing preparation.
Her accents were heard once more. Those final words sounded like a soft command. Naturally! She could command the prince—now! Mr. Heatherbloom heard a door close—a replica of the harsh click he had listened to when she had shut the front door so unceremoniously on him a short time before. Then he heard nothing more. He gazed around him as he sat with his hands tightly closed. Had it been only a dream? Naughty whined; Sardanapolis edged toward him and mechanically he began to brush him down until he shone as sleek and shining as his Assyrian namesake.
More days passed and Mr. Heatherbloom continued to linger in his last position. It promised to be a record-making situation from the standpoint of longevity; he had never "lasted" at any one task so long before. Miss Van Rolsen, to his consternation, seemed to unbend somewhat before him, as if she were beginning—actually!—to be more prepossessed in his favor. These evidences that he was rising in the stern lady's good graces filled Mr. Heatherbloom with new dismay; destiny certainly seemed to be making a mock of him.
A week went by; two weeks—three, and still twice a day he continued to march to and from the park with his charges. The faces of all the nurse-maids and others who frequented the big parallelogram of green became familiar to him; he learned to know by sight the people who rode in the park and had a distant acquaintance with the squirrels.
He became, for the first time, aware one day, from the perusal of a certain newspaper he always purchased now, that the prince had returned to Russia. Although Miss Dalrymple refused to be interviewed, or to confirm or deny any statement, it was generally understood (convenient phrase!) that the wedding would take place in the fall at the old Van Rolsen home. The prince had left America in his yacht—the Nevski—for St. Petersburg, announced the society editor. After a special interview with the czar and a few necessary business arrangements, the nobleman would return at once for his bride. And, perhaps, he—Mr. Heatherbloom—would still be at his post of duty at the Van Rolsen house!
Since the day the prince had been with Miss Dalrymple in the conservatory, Mr. Heatherbloom had not seen, or rather heard, that gentleman at the house. But then he—Mr. Heatherbloom—belonged in the rear, and, no doubt, the prince had continued to be a daily, or twice, or three-times-a-day visitor to Miss Van Rolsen's elegant, if somewhat stiff, reception rooms. Now, however, he would come no more until he came finally to "take with him the bride—"
The thought was in Horatio's mind when for a third time he encountered her, face to face, on a landing, near a stair, or somewhere in the house, he couldn't afterward just exactly recall where, only that she looked through him, without recognition, speech or movement of an eyelash, as if he had been a thing of thin air! But a thing that became suddenly imbued with real life; inspired with purpose! She had permitted him to remain in the house, knowing his professed helplessness in the matter—she must have divined that—playing with him as a tigress with a victim (yes; a tigress! Mr. Heatherbloom wildly, on the spur of the moment, compared her in his mind to that fierce beautiful creature). He would force her to tell him to go; she would certainly not suffer him to remain there another day if he told her—
"Miss Dalrymple, there is something I ought to say. I could not help overhearing you and the prince, one day, several weeks ago, in the conservatory."
After he said it, he asked himself what excuse he had for saying it. If he had stopped to analyze the impulse, he would have seen how absurd, unreasonable and uncalled for his words were. But he had no time to analyze; like a diver who plunges suddenly, on some mad impulse, into a whirlpool, he had cast himself into the vortex.
She looked at him and there was nothing in nubibus to her about his presence now. The violet eyes saw a substance—such as it was; recognized a reality—of its kind! Before the clouds gathering in their depths, Mr. Heatherbloom felt inclined to excuse himself and go on; but instead, he waited. There was even a furtive smile on his lips that belied a quick throbbing in his breast; he thrust one hand as debonairly as possible into his trousers pocket. His attitude might have been interpreted to express indifference, recklessness, or one or more of the synonymous feelings. She thought so badly of him already that she couldn't think much worse, and—
"So,"—had she been paler than her wont, or had excess of passion sent the color from her face?—"you are a spy as well!"
His head shot back a little at the accent on the "well", but he thrust his hand yet deeper into the pocket and strove not to lose that assumed expression of ease.
"I—a spy? I did not intend to—you—" He paused; if he wished to set himself right in her eyes, why should he have spoken at all? Mr. Heatherbloom saw he had not quite argued out this matter as he should have done; his bearing became less assured.
"Is there"—her voice low and tense—"anything despicable, mean, paltry enough that you are not?"
Mr. Heatherbloom moistened his lips; he strove to think of a reply, sufficiently comprehensive to cover all the features of the case, but not finding one at once apologetic and yet not so, remained silent. He made, however, a little gesture with his hand—the one that wasn't in the pocket. That seemed to imply something; he didn't quite know what.
She came slightly closer and his heart began to pound harder. A breath of perfume seemed to ascend between them; the arrows in her eyes darted into his. "How much—what did you hear?" she demanded.
"I—am really not sure—" Was it the orchids which perfumed the air? He had always heard they were odorless. The question intruded; his brain seemed capable of a dual capacity, or of a general incapacity of simultaneous considerations. He might possibly have stepped back a little now but there was a wall, the broad blank wall behind him. He wished he were that void she had first seemed to see—or not to see—in him. "I didn't hear very much—the first part, I imagine—"
"The first part?" Roses of anger burned on her cheek. "And afterward?—spy!" Her little hands were tight against her side.
He hesitated; her foot moved; all that was passionate, vibrant in her nature seemed concentrated on him.
"I don't think I caught much; but I heard him say something about fate, or destiny, and men coming into their own—that old Greek kind of talk, don't you know—" He spoke lightly. Why not? There was no need of being melodramatic. What had to be must be. He couldn't alter her, or what she would think. "Then—then I was too busy to catch more—that is, if I had wanted to—which I didn't!" He was forced to add the last; it burst from his lips with sudden passion; then they curved a little as if to ask excuse for a superfluity.
She continued to look at him, and he looked at her now, squarely; a strange calm descended upon him.
"And that," he said, "is all I heard, or knew, until this morning, when I saw in the paper," dreamily, "he was coming back in the fall for—"
The color concentrated with sudden swift brightness in her cheeks. "You saw that—any one—every one saw—Oh—"
She started to speak further, then bit her lip, while the lace stirred beneath the white throat. Mr. Heatherbloom had not followed what she said, was cognizant only of her anger. Her eyes were fastened on something beyond him, but returned soon, very soon.
"Oh," she said, "I might have known—if I let you stay, through pity, you would—"
"Pity!" said Mr. Heatherbloom.
"Because I did not want to turn you out into the street—"
She spoke the words fiercely. Mr. Heatherbloom seemed now quite impervious to stab or thrust.
"I permitted you to remain for"—she stopped—"remembering what you once were; who your people were! What"—flinging the words at him—"you might have been. Instead—of what you are!"
Mr. Heatherbloom gazed now without wincing; an unnatural absence of feeling seemed to have passed over his features, making them almost mask-like. It was as if he stood in some new pellucid atmosphere of his own.
"Of course," he said, as half speaking to himself, "I must have earned my salary, or Miss Van Rolsen wouldn't have retained me. So I am not a recipient of charity. Therefore,"—did the word suggest far-away school-boy lessons on syllogisms and sophistries—"I have no right to feel offended in that you let me remain, you say, 'through pity', when as a matter of fact it was impossible for me to tender my resignation, in view of—" He finished the rest of a rather involved logical conclusion to himself, taking his hand out of his pocket now and passing it lightly, in a somewhat dragging fashion, over his eyes. Then he gazed momentarily beyond, as if he saw something appertaining to the "auld lang syne", but recalled himself with a start to the beautiful face, the threads of gold, the violet eyes.
"You will see to it now, of course"—his manner became brisk, almost businesslike—"that I, as a factor, am eliminated here? That, I may conclude, is your intention?"
"Perhaps," said the girl, a sibyl for intentness now, "you would prefer to go? To be asked to! You would find the streets"—with swift discerning contempt—"more profitable for your purpose than here, where you are known."
"Perhaps," assented Mr. Heatherbloom. He spoke quite airily; then suddenly stiffened.
At his words, the sight of him as he uttered them, she came abruptly yet nearer; her breath swept and seemed to scorch his cheek.
"I should think," she said, "you would be ashamed to live!"
"Ashamed?" he began; then stopped. There was no need of speaking further for she had gone.
PLOT AND COUNTER-PLOT
Mr. Heatherbloom drifted; not "looking for a way", one was forced upon him. It came to him unexpectedly; chance served him. He would have thrust it from him but could not. During his more or less eccentric peregrinations in Central Park he had formed visual acquaintances with sundry folk; pictures of some of them were very dimly impressed on his consciousness, others—and the major part—on his subconsciousness.
Flat faces, big faces, red faces, pale faces! One countenance in the last class made itself a trifle more insistent than the others. Its possessor had watched with interest his progress, interrupted with entanglements, and had listened to the music of his march, the canine fantasia, staccato, affettuoso! Mr. Heatherbloom's halting footsteps in the park generally led him to the heights; it wasn't a very high point, but it was the highest he could find, and he could look off on something—a lake, or reservoir of water, he didn't know just which, and a jagged sky-line.
The person that exhibited casual curiosity in his movements and his coming thither was a woman. She seemed slight and sinuous, sitting there against the stone parapet, and deep dark eyes accentuated the pallor of her face. He did not think it strange she should always be at this spot when he came; in fact, it was quite a while before he noticed the almost daily coincidence of their mutual presence at the same place, at about the same time. After her first half-sly, half-sedulous regard of him, she would look away; her face then wore a soft and melancholy expression; she appeared very sad.
It took quite a while for this fact to be communicated to Mr. Heatherbloom. Though she shifted her figure often, as if to call attention to the pale profile of her face against a leaden sky, his thoughts remained introspective. Only the sky-line seemed to interest him. But one day something white came dancing in the breeze to his feet. Absorbed in deep neutral tones afar, he did not see it; his four-footed charges, however, were quick to perceive the object.
"Oh!" said the lady.
Mr. Heatherbloom looked. "Is—is it yours?" he asked.
"It—was," she remarked with a slight accent on the last word.
He got up; there seemed little use endeavoring to rescue the handkerchief now.
"I'm afraid I've been rather slow," he remarked. "Quite stupid, I'm sure."
She may have had her own opinion but maintained a discreet silence. Mr. Heatherbloom stooped and gathered in the remnants. "You will permit me," he observed, "to replace it, of course."
"But it was not your fault."
"It was that of my charges, then."
"No; the wind. Let's blame it on the wind." She laughed, her dark eyes full on his, though Mr. Heatherbloom seemed hardly to see them.
After that when they met on this little elevation, she bowed to him and sometimes ventured a remark or two. He did not seem over-anxious to talk but he met her troubled face with calm and unvarying, though somewhat absent-minded courtesy. He replied to her questions perfunctorily, told her whom he served, betraying, however, in turn, no inquisitiveness concerning her. For him she was just some one who came and went, and incidentally interfered with his study of the sky-line.
By degrees she confided in him; as one so alone she was glad of almost any one to confide in. She wanted, indeed, needed badly, a situation as lady's maid or second maid. She had tried and tried for a position; unfortunately her recommendations were mostly foreign—from Milan, Moscow, Paris. People either scrutinized them suspiciously, or mon Dieu! couldn't read them. It was hard on her; she had had such a time! She, a Viennese, with all her experience in France, Italy, Russia, found herself at her wits' end in this golden America. Wasn't it odd, tres drole? She had laughed and laughed when she hadn't cried about it.
She had even tried singing in a little music-hall, a horribly common place, but her voice had failed her. Perhaps there was a vacancy at Miss Van—what was her name? There was a place vacant; the maid with the saucy nose, Mr. Heatherbloom indifferently vouchsafed, had just left to marry out of service.
"How fortunate!" the fair questioner cried; then sighed. Miss Van Rolsen, being a maiden lady, would probably be most particular about recommendations; that they should be of the home-made, intelligible brand, from people you could call up by telephone and interrogate. Had she been very particular in his case? Mr. Heatherbloom said "no"—not joyfully, and explained. Though she drew words from him, he talked to the sky-line. She listened; seemed thinking deeply.
"You are not pleased to be there?" Keenly.
"I?—Oh, of course!" Quickly.
She did not appear to note his changed manner. "This Miss Van Rolsen,—isn't she the one whose niece—Miss Elizabeth Dalrymple—recently refused the hand and heart of a Russian prince?" she said musingly.
"Refused?" he cried suddenly. "You mean—" He stopped; the words had been surprised from him.
"Accepted?" She looked at him closer. "Of course; I remember now seeing it in the paper; I was thinking of some one else. One of the other lords, dukes, or noblemen the town is so full of just now."
He got up rather suddenly, bowed and went. With narrowing eyes she watched him walk away, but when he had gone all melancholy disappeared from her face; she stretched herself and laughed. "Voila! Sonia Turgeinov, comedienne!"
Mr. Heatherbloom did not repair to the point of elevation the next day, nor the day after; but she met him the third day near the Seventy-second Street entrance. More than that, she insinuated herself at his side; at first rather to his discomfort. Later he forgot the constraint her presence occasioned him, when something she said caused him to look upon her with new favor. Beauty had momentarily escaped his vigilance and enjoyed a mad romp after a squirrel before she was captured.
What, his companion laughingly suggested, would have happened if Beauty had really escaped, and he, Mr. Heatherbloom, had been forced to return to the house without her? What? Mr. Heatherbloom started. He might lose his position, n'est-cepas? He did not answer.
The idea was born; why not lose Beauty? No, better still, Naughty; the prime favorite, Naughty. He looked into Naughty's eyes, and they seemed full of liquid reproach. Naughty had been his friend—supposititiously, and to abandon him now to the world, a cold place devoid of French lamb chops? A hard place for homeless dogs and men, alike! About to waive the temptation, Mr. Heatherbloom paused; the idea was capable of modification or expansion. Most ideas are.
But he shortly afterward dismissed the entire matter from his mind; it would, at best, be but a compromise, an evasion of the pact he had made with himself. It was not to be thought of. At this moment his companion swayed and Mr. Heatherbloom had just time to put out his arm; then helped her to a bench.
She partly recovered; it was nothing, she remarked bravely. One gets sometimes a little faint when—it was the old, old story of privation and want that now fell with seeming reluctance from her lips. Mr. Heatherbloom had become all attention. More than that he seemed greatly distressed. A woman actually in need, starving—no use mincing words!—in Central Park, the playground of the most opulent metropolis of the world. It was monstrous; he tendered her his purse, with several weeks' pay in it. Her reply had a spirited ring; he felt abashed and returned the money to his pocket. She sat back with eyes half-closed; he saw now that her face looked drawn and paler than usual.
He, thought and thought; had he not himself found out how difficult it was to get a position, to procure employment without friends and helpers? He, a man, had walked in search of it, day after day and felt the griping pangs of hunger; had wished for night, and, later, wished for the morn, only to find both equally barren.
Suddenly he spoke—slowly, like a man stating a proposition he has argued carefully in his own mind. She listened, approved, while hope already transfigured her face. She would have thanked him profusely but he did not remain to hear her. In fact, he seemed hardly to see her now; his features had become once more reserved and introspective.
He reappeared at the Van Rolsen house that day without Naughty. Miss Van Rolsen, when she heard the news, burst into tears; then became furious. She was sure he had sold Naughty, winner of three blue ribbons, and "out of the contest" no end of times because superior to all competition!
A broken leash! Fiddlesticks! She penned advertisements wildly and summoned her niece. That young lady responded to protestations and questions with a slightly indifferent expression on her proud languid features. What did she think of it? She didn't really know; her manner said she really didn't care.
Mr. Heatherbloom, standing with the light of the window falling pensively upon him, she didn't seem to see at all; he had once more become a nullity. He rather preferred that role, however; perhaps he felt it was easier to impersonate annihilation, in the inception, than to have it, or a wish for it, thrust later too strongly upon him.
"I adhere to my opinion that he sold Naughty. I should never have employed this man," asserted Miss Van Rolsen, fastening her fiery eyes on Mr. Heatherbloom. "Why don't you speak, my dear, and give me your opinion?" To her niece.
"I haven't any, Aunt."
"You are discerning; you have judgment." Miss Van Rolsen spoke almost hysterically. "Remember he"—pointing a finger—"came without our knowing anything about him."
Miss Dalrymple did not stir; a bunch of bizarre-looking orchids on her gown moved to her even rhythmical breathing. "What was he? Who was he? Maybe, nothing more than—" She paused for want of breath, not of words, to characterize her opinion of Mr. Heatherbloom.
He readjusted his posture. It was very bright outdoors; people went by briskly, full of life and importance; children whirled along on roller skates.
"When I asked your opinion, my dear, as to the wisdom of having employed this person in the first place, under the circumstances, why did you keep silent?" Was Miss Van Rolsen still talking, or rambling on to the impervious beautiful girl? "You should have called me foolish, eccentric; yes, that's what I was, to have taken him in as I did."
Miss Dalrymple raised her brows and moved to a piano to adjust the flowers in a vase; she smiled at them with soft enigmatic lips.
"If I may venture an opinion, Madam," observed Mr. Heatherbloom in a far-away voice, "I should say Naughty will surely return, or be returned."
"You venture an opinion!" said Miss Van Rolsen. "You!"
Miss Dalrymple breathed the fragrance of the flowers; she apparently liked it.
"You are discharged!" said Miss Van Rolsen violently to Mr. Heatherbloom. "I give you the two-weeks' notice agreed upon."
"I'll waive the notice," suggested the young man at the window quickly.
"You'll do nothing of the sort." Sharply. "It'll take me that time to find another incompetent keeper for them. And, meanwhile, you may be sure," grimly, "you will be very well watched."
"Under the circumstances, I should prefer—since you have discharged me—to leave at once."
"Your preferences are a matter of utter indifference. You were employed with a definite understanding in this regard."
Mr. Heatherbloom gazed rather wildly out of the window; two weeks.—that much longer! He was about to say he would not be well watched; he would take himself off—that she couldn't keep him; but paused. A contract was a contract, though orally made; she could hold him yet a little. But why did she wish to? He had not calculated upon this; he tried to think but could not. He looked from the elder to the younger woman. The latter did not look at him.
Miss Dalrymple had seated herself at the piano; her fingers—light as spirit touches—now swept the keys; a Debussey fantasy, almost as pianissimo as one could play it, vibrated around them. Outside the whir! whir! of the skates went on. A little girl tumbled. Mr. Heatherbloom regarded her; ribbons awry; fat legs in the air. The music continued.
"You may go," said a severe voice.
He aroused himself to belated action, but at the door he looked back. "I'm sure it will be all right," he repeated to Miss Van Rolsen. "On my word"—more impetuously.
At the piano some one laughed, and Mr. Heatherbloom went.
"Why on earth, Aunt, did you want to keep him two weeks longer?" he heard the girl's now passionate tones ask as he walked away.
"For a number of reasons, my dear," came the response. "One, because he wanted to leave me in the lurch. Another—it will be easier to keep an eye on him until Naughty is returned, or"—her voice had the vindictive ring of a Roman matron's—"this person's culpability is proven. Naughty is a valuable dog and—"
Mr. Heatherbloom's footsteps hastened; he had caught quite enough, but as he disappeared to the rear, the dream chords on the piano, now louder, continued to follow him.
That night, as if his rest were not already sufficiently disturbed, a disconcerting possibility occurred abruptly to Mr. Heatherbloom. It was born in the darkness of the hour; he could not dispel it. What if the person in whom he had confided in the park were not all she seemed? He hated the insinuating suggestion but it insisted on creeping into his brain. He had once, not so long ago, in his search for cheap lodgings, stumbled upon a roomful of alleged cripples and maimed disreputables who made mendicancy a profession; their jibes and jests on the credulity of the public yet rang in his ears. What if she—his casual acquaintance of the day before—belonged to that yet greater class of dissemblers who ply their arts and simulations with more individualism and intelligence?
Mr. Heatherbloom sat up in bed. Naughty might be worth five or even ten thousand dollars. He remembered having read at some previous time about a certain canine whose proud mistress and owner was alleged to have refused twenty thousand for him. The perspiration broke out on Mr. Heatherbloom's face. Was Naughty of this category? He looked very "classy," as if there couldn't be another beast quite like him in the world. What had been the twenty-thousand-dollar mistress' name; not Van—impossible!
But the more he told himself "impossible", the more positive grew a certain perverse inner asseveration that it was quite possible. And what if the person in the park had known it? He reviewed the circumstances of their different meetings; details that had not impressed themselves upon him at the time—that had almost escaped his notice, now stood out clearer—too clear, in his mind. He remembered how she had brightened astonishingly after the brief fainting spell when he had made his ill-advised proposal. It had been as elixir to her. He recalled how she had met him every day. Had it been mere chance? Or—disconcerting suspicion!—had she deliberately planned—
For Mr. Heatherbloom there was no sleep that night. At the first signs of dawn he was up and out, directing his steps toward the park, as a criminal returns to the haunts of his crime. No faces of any kind now greeted him there; only trees confronted him, gaunt, ghostlike in the early morning mists. Even the squirrels were yet abed in their miniature Swiss chalets in the air. The sun rose at last, red and threatening. He now met a policeman who looked at him questioningly. Mr. Heatherbloom greeted him with a blitheness at variance with his mood. Officialdom only growled and gazed after the young man as if to say: "We'll gather you in, yet."
It was past nine o'clock before Mr. Heatherbloom ventured to approach the house; as he did so, the front door closed; some one had been admitted. He himself went in through the area way; from above came joyous barks, a woman's voice; pandemonium. Mr. Heatherbloom listened. Later he learned what had happened; a young woman had brought back Naughty; a very honest young woman who refused all reward.
"Sure," said the cook, who had the story from the butler, "and she spoke loike a quane. 'I can take nothing for returning what doesn't belong to me, ma'am. I am but doing my jooty. But if ye plaze, would ye be lookin' over these recommends av mine—they're from furriners—and if yez be havin' ony friends who be wanting a maid and yez might be so good as to recommind me, I'd be thankin' of yez, for it's wurrk I wants.' Think av that now. Only wurrk! Who says there arn't honest servin' gurrls, nowadays? The mistress was that pleased with her morals an' her manners—so loidy-loike!—she gave her the job that shlip av a Jane had; wid an advance av salary on the sphot."
"You mean Miss Van Rolsen has actually engaged her?" Mr. Heatherbloom, face abeam, repeated.
"Phawt have I been saying just now?" Scornfully. "Sure, an' is it ears you have on your head?"
Mr. Heatherbloom, a weight lifted from his shoulders, departed from the kitchen. He had wronged her—this poor girl, or young woman, who, in her dire distress, had appealed to him. How he despised now the uncharitable dark thoughts of the night! How he could congratulate himself he had obeyed impulse, and not stopped to reason too closely, or to question too suspiciously, when he had decided to act the day before!
All is well that ends well. All he had to do now was to complete as unostentatiously as possible his term of service—But perhaps he would be released at once?
No; not at once! Those anxious to supersede him began to dribble in, it is true; but they faded away, one by one, after interviews with Miss Van Rolsen, and returned no more. They were a mournful lot, these would-be, ten-dollar-a-week custodians; Mr. Heatherbloom wondered if his own physiognomy in a general way would merge nicely in a composite photograph of them?
His duties he performed now as quietly as he could. Two weeks more, ten days, nine, eight! Then? Ah, then!
He did not see Miss Van Rolsen again nor Miss Dalrymple. He encountered the fair unknown, though, his acquaintance of the park, occasionally, as she in demure cap and white ruffled apron glided softly her allotted way. Sometimes he nodded to her in distant fashion, sometimes she got by before he actually realized he had passed her. She seemed to move so quickly and with such little ado; or, it may be, he was not very observant. He didn't feel very keen on mere minor details these days; he experienced principally the sensation of one who was now merely "marking time", as it were—figuratively performing a variety of goose-step, the way the German soldiers do.
But one day she—Marie, they called her—stopped him.
"I understand from one of the servants that it cost you your position to—do what you did. You know what I mean—"
He looked alarmed. "Don't worry about that."
"But shouldn't I?" Steady dark eyes upon him.
"On the contrary!" Vigorously.
"I don't understand—unless.—"
"The salary—it is nothing here"—Mr. Heatherbloom gestured airily. "I should do much better—one of my ability, you understand!—elsewhere."
"Could you?" She regarded him doubtfully. "But, perhaps, they—It was not very pleasant for you here, anyway. Miss Van Rolsen—her niece, Miss Dalrymple—does not like you." He started. "It was easy to see that; when I mentioned regretfully that the good fortune that brought me where there is plenty; to eat should have been the cause of your being in disfavor, she stopped me short." Mr. Heatherbloom studied the distance. "'The person you speak of intended leaving anyhow,' she said, and her voice was—mon Dieu!—ice."
The listener swallowed. "Quite so," he said jauntily. "Miss Dalrymple is absolutely correct."
She regarded him an instant with sudden, very mature gaze. "I can't quite make you out."
"No one ever can. Don't try. It isn't worth while. Which reminds me"—he rattled on—"I did you an injury; an injustice—"
"Ah?" she said quickly.
"In my mind! You will excuse me, but do you know that night after I had consigned him to your care in the park, I afterward felt quite anxious—"
"For what?" She came closer.
"Wondering if you—Ha! ha!" Mr. Heatherbloom stopped; in his confusion, his endeavor to turn the conversation from himself and Miss Dalrymple, he seemed to be getting into deep waters.
"You wondered what?" In a low tone.
Since he now felt obliged to speak, he did, coolly enough. "If you had some ulterior motive!" he said with a quiet smile.
She it was who now started back, and her face paled slightly. "Why?—what ulterior motive? What do you mean?"
He told her in plain words. She breathed more evenly; then smiled sweetly. She had a strange face sometimes. "Thank you," she said. "You are very frank, mon ami. I like you none the less for it. Though you did so injure me—in your thoughts!" Her eyes had an enigmatic light. "Well, I must go now to Miss Dalrymple. She is beginning to be so fond of me." She drawled the last words as if she liked to linger on them. "You see I, too, have a little Russian blood in me." Mr. Heatherbloom looked down. "And I think she loves to hear me tell of that wonderful country—the white nights of St. Petersburg—the splendid steppes—the grandeur of our Venice of the north. Of course, she is immensely interested in Russia now." Significantly. "Its ostentation, its splendor, its barbaric picturesqueness! But tell me, what is her prince like? He is very handsome, naturally! Or she would not so dote on him!"
Mr. Heatherbloom's features had hardened; he did not answer directly. "She likes to talk about Russia?" he said, half to himself.
Marie shrugged. "Is it not to be her country some day?"
"No, it isn't!" The words seemed forced from his lips; he spoke almost fiercely. "She may live there with him, but it will never be her country. This is her country. She is its product; an American to her finger-tips. And all the grand dukes and princes of the Winter Palace can't change her. She belongs to old California; she grew up among the orange trees and the flowers, and her heart will ever yearn for them in your frozen land of tyranny!"
"Oh! oh! oh!" said Mademoiselle Marie. "How eloquent monsieur can be! Quite an orator! One would say he, too, has known this land of orange trees and flowers!"
"I?" Mr. Heatherbloom bit his lip.
But she only shook a finger. "Oh! oh!" Altogether like a different person from his casual acquaintance of the park! He gazed at her closer; how quickly the marks of trouble, anxiety, had faded from her face; as if they had never existed.
"What do you mean?" he asked, looking into eyes now full of a new and peculiar understanding.
"Nothing," she said and vanished.
He gazed where she had been; he could not account for a sudden strange emotion, as if some one had trailed a shadow over him. A premonition of something going to happen; that could not be foreseen, or averted! Something worse than anything that had gone before! What nonsense! He pressed his lips tightly and went about his duties like an automaton.
Eight days—seven days—six days more!—only six—
The blow fell, a thunderbolt from the clear sky. It dazed certain people at first; it was difficult to realize what had happened, or if anything had really happened. For might not what seemed a deep and dire mystery turn out to be nothing so very mysterious after all? A message would soon come; everything would then be "cleared up" and those most concerned would laugh at their apprehensions. But the hours went by, and the affair remained inexplicable; no word was heard concerning Miss Dalrymple's whereabouts; she seemed to have disappeared as completely as if she had vanished on the Persian magic carpet. What could it mean? The circumstances briefly were:
Miss Dalrymple, four or five days before Mr. Heatherbloom's term of service came to an end, had expressed a desire to revisit her old home and friends in the West. One of a party made up mostly of other Californians—now residents of New York city—the girl had failed to appear on the private car at the appointed time, and the train had pulled out, leaving her behind. At the first important stop a telegram had been handed to a gentleman of the party from Miss Dalrymple; it expressed her regret at having reached the station too late owing to circumstances she would explain later, and announced her intention of coming on, with her maid, in a few days. They were not to wait anywhere for her but to go right along.