A Soldier of the Legion
BOOKS BY THE SAME AUTHORS
CAR OF DESTINY
GUESTS OF HERCULES
IT HAPPENED IN EGYPT
LADY BETTY ACROSS THE WATER
LORD LOVELAND DISCOVERS AMERICA
MY FRIEND THE CHAUFFEUR
PORT OF ADVENTURE
ROSEMARY IN SEARCH OF A FATHER
SET IN SILVER
A Soldier of the Legion
BY C.N. & A.M. Williamson
GARDEN CITY NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & CO. 1914
Copyright, 1914, by
C.N. & A.M. WILLIAMSON
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
TO THE LEGION
I. The Telegram 3
II. The Blow 15
III. The Last Act of "Girls' Love" 34
IV. The Upper Berth 45
V. The Night of Storms 58
VI. The News 71
VII. Sir Knight 80
VIII. On the Station Platform 95
IX. The Colonel of the Legion 106
X. The Voice of the Legion 117
XI. Four Eyes 132
XII. No. 1033 143
XIII. The Agha's Rose 148
XIV. Two on the Roof 163
XV. The Secret Link 173
XVI. The Beetle 189
XVII. The Mission 203
XVIII. Gone 223
XIX. What Happened at Dawn 228
XX. The Beauty Doctor 242
XXI. The Eleventh Hour 254
XXII. The Heart of Max 263
XXIII. "Where the Strange Roads Go Down" 278
XXIV. The Mad Music 285
XXV. Corporal St. George, Deserter 294
XXVI. Sanda's Wedding Night 302
XXVII. The Only Friend 317
XXVIII. Sanda Speaks 332
XXIX. Out of the Dream, a Plan 346
XXX. The Play of Cross Purposes 351
XXXI. The Gift 368
A Soldier of the Legion
It was the great ball of the season at Fort Ellsworth. For a special reason it had begun unusually late; but, though the eighth dance was on, the great event of the evening had not happened yet. Until that should happen, the rest, charming though it might be, was a mere curtain-raiser to keep men amused before the first act of the play.
The band of the —th was playing the "Merry Widow" waltz, still a favourite at the fort, and only one of the officers was not dancing. All the others—young, middle-aged, and even elderly—were gliding more or less gracefully, more or less happily, over the waxed floor of the big, white-walled, flag-draped hall where Fort Ellsworth had its concerts, theatricals, small hops, and big balls. Encircled by their uniformed arms were the wives and sisters of brother officers, ladies whom they saw every day, or girls from the adjacent town of Omallaha, whom they could see nearly every day if they took the trouble. Some of the girls were pretty and pleasant. They all danced well, and wore their newest frocks from Chicago, New York, and even, in certain brilliant cases, from Paris. But—there was a heart-breaking "but". Each army woman, each visiting girl from Omallaha knew that at any minute her star might be eclipsed, put out, as the stars at dawn are extinguished by the rising sun. Each one knew, too, that the sun must be at the brink of the horizon, because it was half-past eleven, and it took more than twenty minutes to motor to Ellsworth from Omallaha. Besides, Max Doran, who used to love the "Merry Widow" waltz, was not dancing. He stood near the door pretending to talk to an old man who had chaperoned a daughter from town to the ball; but in reality he was lying in wait, ready to pounce.
It was a wonder that he hadn't gone to meet her; but perhaps she had refused his escort. A more effective entrance might be made by a dazzling vision alone (the "stage aunt" did not count) than with a man, even the show young man of the garrison.
The show young man talked jerkily about the weather, with his eyes on the door. They were laughing eyes of a brilliant blue, and accounted for a good deal where girls were concerned; but not all. There were other things—other advantages he had, which made it seem quite remarkable that a rather dull Western fort like Ellsworth should possess him. His family was high up in the "Four Hundred" in New York. He had as much money as, with all his boyish extravagances and wild generosity, he knew what to do with. He was exceedingly good to look at, in the dark, thin, curiously Latin style to which he seemed to have no right. He was a rather popular hero in the —th, for his polo, a sport which he had introduced and made possible at Fort Ellsworth, and for his boxing, his fencing, and his marksmanship. He had been graduated fourth in his class at West Point three years before, so that he might have chosen the engineers or artillery; but the cavalry was what he preferred; and here he was at old Fort Ellsworth, enjoying life hugely and so well helping others to enjoy life that every one liked him, no one was jealous or grudged him what he had.
There he stood, this "show young man," well-groomed and smart in his full-dress uniform of second lieutenant of cavalry, the stripes and splashes of yellow suiting his dark skin: a slim, erect figure, not very tall, but a soldier every inch of him, though the wide-apart blue eyes gave the square-chinned face a boyish air of wistfulness, even when he smiled his delightfully childlike, charming smile. Girls glanced at him as they swung past in their partners' arms, noticing how tense was the look on the brown face, and how the straight eyebrows—even blacker than the smooth dark hair—were drawn together in expectant concentration.
Suddenly the door opened. The curtain-raiser was over. The drama of the evening was about to begin.
It seemed wonderful that the band could keep presence of mind to go on playing the "Merry Widow," instead of stopping short with a gasp and crash of instruments, to start again with the "Tango Trance," her dance in "Girls' Love."
She flashed into the ballroom like a dazzling fairy thing, all white and gold and glitter. Because she knew that—so to speak—the curtain would ring up for her entrance, and not an instant before, in the fondness of her heart for young officers she had not even delayed long enough to change the dress she wore as the Contessa Gaeta in the third act of "Girls' Love." The musical comedy had been written for her. In it she had made her first almost startling success two years ago in London, where, according to the newspapers, all young men worth their salt, from dukes down to draymen, had fallen in love with her. She had captured New York, too, and now she and her company were rousing enthusiasm and coining money on their tour of the larger Western cities.
The Gaeta dress looked as if it were made of a million dewdrops turned to diamonds and sprinkled over a lacy spider-web; the web swathing the tall and wandlike figure of Miss Billie Brookton in a way to show that she had all the delicate perfections of a Tanagra statuette.
Despite the distraction of her entrance, followed by that of the little gray lady engaged as her aunt, the musicians had the self-control to go on with their "Merry Widowing," irrelevant as it now seemed. The dancers went on dancing, also, though the dreaded dimness of extinction had fallen upon even the brightest, prettiest girls, who tried to look particularly rapturous in order to prove that nothing had happened. They felt their partners' interest suddenly withdrawn from them and focussed upon the radiance at the door. No use ignoring that Radiance, even if one had in self-defence to pretend that it didn't matter much, and wasn't so marvellously dazzling after all!
"There goes Mr. Doran to welcome her—of course!" said an Omallaha girl lately back from New York. "I wonder if they really are engaged?"
"Why shouldn't they be?" her partner generously wanted to know. (He was married.)
"Well, for one thing, she doesn't seem the sort of woman who'd care to give up her career. She's so self-conscious that she must be selfish, and then—she's older than he is."
"Good heavens, no! She doesn't look nineteen!"
"On the stage."
"Or off, either."
"Anyhow, some people in New York who know her awfully well told me that she'd never see twenty-nine again. An actress of twenty-nine who can't look nineteen had better go into a convent! Though, when you notice, her mouth and eyes are hard, aren't they? What would Max Doran's wonderful mother say if her son married Billie Brookton?"
"Miss Brookton's father was a clergyman in Virginia. She told me so herself," said the married partner.
"She would—— Oh, I don't mean to be catty. But she must have a background that's a contrast—like that aunt of hers. I don't believe she'd want to marry for years yet—a man who'd make her leave the stage. She has the air of expecting the limelight to follow her everywhere through life, and I'm sure Max Doran's gorgeous mother wouldn't let her daughter-in-law go on acting, even if Max didn't mind."
"Max would mind. He'd never stand it," Max's brother officer informed the girl who had been to New York. "Though he's so simple in his manner, he's proud, I guess. But whether she's nineteen or twenty-nine, I don't see how Billie could do better than take Max Doran, unless she could snap up an English duke. And they say there aren't any unmarried ones going at present. She'd be an addition to this post as a bride, wouldn't she?"
"Ye-es," answered the girl, giving wonderful dramatic value to her pause.
Just then the reign of the "Merry Widow" came to an end, and as soon after as could be, the "Tango Trance" began. The band had practised it in Miss Brookton's honour; and it had been ordered as the first dance after her arrival. The aunt sat down, and Billie Brookton began "tangoing" with Max Doran. They were a beautiful couple to watch; but of course people had to keep up the farce of dancing, too. This was not, after all, a theatre. One was supposed to have come for something else than to stare at Billie Brookton without paying for a place.
"Your pearls," she whispered, as she and Doran danced the tango together, taking graceful steps which she had taught him during the fortnight they had known each other. "How do they look?"
"Glorious on you!" he answered. "And the ring has come. I telegraphed, you know. It's what you wanted. I was able to get it, I'm happy to say. Oh, Billie, can it be possible that I shall have you for mine—all mine? It seems too wonderful to be true."
"I've promised, haven't I?" She laughed half under her breath, a pretty, tinkling laugh. "Honour bright, Max dear, you're the first man I ever said 'yes' to. I hope I shan't be sorry!"
"I won't let you be sorry," whispered Max. "I'll do everything to make you so happy you'll forget the theatre."
"If anything or anybody could make me do that, it would be you," she answered, under cover of the music. "I believe you must be very fascinating, or else I—but never mind—— Now let's stop dancing and you'll show me the ring. I'm engaged for the next—and I can't wait till you and I have another together."
Max took her to sit down at an end of the room uninfested by chaperons. No one at all was there. He had the ring in some pocket, and, by dint of sitting with his "back to the audience," hoped to go through the sacred ceremony without being spied upon. The ring Billie had asked for was a famous blue diamond, of almost as deep a violet as a star-sapphire, and full of strange, rainbow gleams. It had belonged to a celebrated actress who had married an Englishman of title, and on her death it had been advertised for sale. Billie Brookton, who "adored" jewels, and whose birthstone conveniently was the diamond, had been "dying for it." "She was not superstitious," she said, "about dead people's things." Now the blue diamond, with a square emerald on either side, and set in a band of platinum, was hers. She took it between thumb and finger to watch the sparks that came and went, deep under the sea-like surface of blue. As she looked at the ring, Doran looked at her eyelashes.
Never, he thought, could any other woman since the world began have had such eyelashes. They were extraordinarily long and thick, golden brown, and black at the tips. The Omallaha girl who had been to New York thought that Billie Brookton herself had had more to do than heaven in the painting of those curled-up tips. But such a suggestion would have been received with contempt by Max Doran, who at the threshold of twenty-five considered himself a judge of eyelashes. (He was not; nor of a woman's complexion; but believing in himself and in Billie, he was happy.) Miss Brookton had a complexion nearly as white, and it seemed to him—more luminous, more ethereal, than the string of pearls he had given her a month in advance of her birthday. She said it would be her twenty-third, and Max had been incredulous in the nicest way. He would have supposed her to be nineteen at the most, if she had not been so frank.
"Now, if you've looked at the ring enough off your finger, will you let me put it on?" he begged. "I'll make a wish—a good wish: that you shall never grow tired of your bargain. For it is a bargain, isn't it? From the minute this ring is on your finger you're engaged to me."
"What will your beautiful mother say?" asked Billie, hanging back daintily, and doing charming things with her eyelashes.
"Oh, she'll be surprised at first," Max had to admit. "You see, she's so young herself and such a great beauty, it must be hard for her to realize she's got a son who has grown up to be a man. I used to think she was the most exquisite creature on earth, but now——"
His words broke off, and he looked up from the gleaming line of gold-and-black lashes. An orderly had come quickly and almost noiselessly to him. "For you, Lieutenant," the man announced with a salute, holding out a telegram.
"May I?" murmured Doran, and perfunctorily opened the envelope.
Billie went on gazing at the ring. She was faintly annoyed at the delay, for she was anxious to see how the blue diamond would look on her finger, and Max had asked to wish it on. The lights in the stone were so fascinating, however, that for an instant she forgot the interruption. Then, sensitive to all that was dramatic, something in the quality of Max Doran's silence struck her. She felt suddenly surrounded by a chilling atmosphere which seemed to shut her and Max away from the dancers, away from music and life, as if a thick glass case had been let down over them both. She glanced up quickly. No wonder she had felt so cold. Doran's face looked frozen. His eyes were still fixed on the telegram, though there had been time for him to read it over and over again. He was so lost in the news it had brought that he had forgotten even her—forgotten her in the moment when she had been consenting to a formal engagement, she, the illusive, the vainly desired one, run after just to the foot of her unclimbable mountain by the nimblest, the richest, everywhere!
Her small soul was stirred to resentment. She wanted to punish Max Doran for daring to neglect her at such a time, even for a few seconds; but a half-angry, half-frightened study of the dark, absorbed face changed her mood. No man could look like that unless something awful had happened.
What, that was awful, could happen to Max Doran? Why, he could lose all his money!
Billie's heart leaped, and then seemed to fall back heavily in the lovely bosom sheathed like a lily with a film of sparkling dew. Would he ever speak? She could not wait. Besides, it was right to be sympathetic. "Max, what is it—dear Max?" she whispered in the honey-sweet voice of Gaeta in "Girls' Love."
He started, and waked up. "It's my mother. She's been hurt," he said. "My God, I must go at once!"
Almost, Billie sighed out her intense relief in words; but she had just presence of mind and self-control enough to hold them back. Gently she took the telegram from him, and he let her do it. Meanwhile, however, she had slipped the ring on to her own finger—but not the engaged finger. Evidently this was no time for an announcement, or congratulations and sensations. But it was just as well to have the blue diamond safe on one's hand, even if it were the right hand instead of the left.
* * * * *
"'Your mother dangerously injured in motor accident,'" she read. "'Asking to see you. Come without delay. Reeves.'"
* * * * *
"Oh, how very sad!" breathed Billie. "How awful if she should be disfigured! But I do hope not."
Doran did not remember to thank his love for her solicitude. He got up, not frozen now, but a little dazed. It occurred to Billie that he had never looked so handsome, so much a man. She felt that he was gathering himself together. "I'll telephone to Omallaha for a special train to connect with the limited at Chicago," he said. "By the time I can see the Colonel and get off it ought to be ready. Yes, I ought to catch the limited that way. It's awful to leave you like this, but I must. I'll take you to your aunt, and—who's got the next dance with you?"
"Major Naylor," she answered, slightly injured, for not ten minutes ago he had been looking at her card. He ought to have remembered every name on it and in the right order.
"Well, he'll come to you in a minute. Trust him not to lose a second! And—you'll write to me?"
"Of course; you'll wire as soon as you can, how your mother is—and everything? On Monday I shall be back in Chicago."
"I'll wire the moment I can," Max assured her. "You know the address in New York?"
"Oh, yes, everybody knows the beautiful Mrs. Doran's address. I'll write or telegraph every day. My heart will be with you."
He squeezed her hand so desperately that she could have screamed with pain from the pressure of the blue diamond. But with touching self-control she only smiled a strained, sympathetic little smile. And Max had forgotten all about the ring!
"Thank you, my beautiful one, my angel," he said. And Billie's large brown eyes (so effective with her delicate dark brows and rippling yellow hair) gave him a lovely look. She had been called many things by many adoring men, but perhaps never before an "angel." Max Doran was very young, in some ways even younger than his years. "Good-bye," she murmured. "But no—not 'good-bye.' That's a terrible word. Au revoir. You'll come to me when you can, I know. I shall be in Chicago a fortnight. But if you can't leave Mrs. Doran, why, in six weeks I shall be in New York."
"Don't speak of six weeks!" he exclaimed. "It's like six years. I must see you before that. But—my mother is before everything just now."
They bade each other farewell with their eyes. Then he took her to Mrs. Liddell, the small gray aunt, and hardly was Billie seated when Major Naylor dashed up to claim her for Gaeta's waltz in the first act of "Girls' Love."
After that, things happened quickly with Max Doran. He seemed to dream them, and was still in the dream, tearing toward Chicago in a special train whose wheels rushed through the night in tune with that first-act music from "Girls' Love."
The name that signed the telegram was that of Mrs. Doran's lawyer and man of business. It was that also of Max Doran's old-time chum, Grant Reeves, Edwin Reeves' son. And when Max stepped out of the limited in the Grand Central Station of New York, among the first faces he saw were those of the two Reeveses, who had come to meet him. He shook hands with both, warmly and gratefully with Grant. He had never been able really to like his friend's father. But it was to him he turned with the question: "How is she?"
The elder, tall, thin, clean-shaven, with carrot-red hair turning gray, had prominent red eyebrows over pale, intelligent eyes that winked often, owing to some weakness of the lids, which had lost most of their lashes. This disfigurement he concealed as well as he could with rimless pince-nez, which some people said were not necessary as an aid to eyesight. They were an aid to vanity, however; and the care Edwin Reeves bestowed on his clothes suggested that he was a vain as well as a clever man.
The son was a young and notably good-looking copy of his father, whose partner in business he had lately become. They were singularly alike except in colouring, for Grant was brown-haired and brown-eyed, with plenty of curled-back lashes which gave him an alert look.
Both men started forward at the sight of Max, Grant striding ahead of Edwin and grasping Max's hand, "I had to come, old chap," he said, with a pleasant though slightly affected accent meant to be English. "I wanted just to shake hands and tell you how I felt."
"Thank you, Grant," said Max. "Is she—is there hope?"
"Oh, there's always hope, you know; isn't there, governor?"
Grant Reeves appealed to his father, who had joined them. "Who can tell? She's wonderful."
Edwin Reeves took the hand Max held out, and then did nothing with it, in the aloof, impersonal way that had always irritated Max, and made him want to fling away the unresponsive fingers. Now, however, for the first time in his life he did not notice. He was lost in his desire for and fear of the verdict.
"It would only be cruel to raise his hopes," the father answered the son. "The doctors (there are four) say it's a miracle she's kept alive till now. Sheer will-power. She's living to see you."
Max was dumb, his throat constricted. And then, there was nothing to say. Something deep down in him—something he could not bear to hear—was asking why she should suddenly care so much? She had never cared before, never really cared, though in his intense admiration of her, almost amounting to worship, he had fought to make himself believe that she did love him as other mothers loved their sons. Yet his heart knew the truth: that she had become more and more indifferent as he grew up from a small boy into a young man. Since he went to West Point they had spent very little time together, though they were always on affectionate terms. She had never spoken a disagreeable word to him, never given him a cross look. Only—there had been nothing of the mother about her. She had treated him like a nice visiting boy who must be entertained, even fascinated, and then gently got rid of when he began to be a bore. In his first term at West Point she had sailed for Europe, and stopped there for two years. When he was graduated she had gone again, and stayed another year. They had met only once since he had been stationed at Fort Ellsworth: last Christmas, when he had run on to New York and surprised her. She had been in great beauty, looking not a day over thirty. And now—Max could not make it seem true. But, at least, she wanted him. Max clutched at the thought with passion, and scarcely heard Grant saying that he must hurry on to the office; he had come only for a word and a handshake: it was better that the governor alone should go with dear old Max to the house.
Mrs. Doran's town automobile was waiting with a solemn chauffeur and footman who bent their eyes reverently, not to look the stricken young soldier in the face. Max had a sick thrill as he saw the smart blue monster, with its row of glittering glass eyes; it had been his Christmas present to his mother by request. When the telegram told him briefly that she had been hurt in a motor accident, he had thought with agony that it might have been in the car he had given. He was thankful that it had not been so. That would have seemed too horrible—as if he had killed her. Now he would hear how it had really happened. Every nerve was tense as if he were awaiting an operation without anesthetics.
There were not many blocks to go from the Grand Central to the Fifth Avenue home of the Dorans, an old house which had been remodelled and made magnificent by Max's father to receive his bride. In less than ten minutes the blue automobile had slipped through all the traffic and reached its destination; but many questions can be asked and answered in eight minutes. Between the moment of starting, and the moment when Max's one hastily packed suitcase was being carried up to the door, he had heard the whole story. The fated car had been a friend's car. There had been a collision. The two automobiles had turned over. For half an hour she had lain crushed under the weight of the motor before she could be got out. Her back was broken, and she had been horribly burnt. Even if she could have lived—which was impossible—she would have been shockingly disfigured. Edwin Reeves had been with her once, for a few minutes: she had wanted to speak to him about certain things, matters of business, and the doctors, who never left her, had stopped giving her opiates on purpose. From the first she had said that she must be kept alive till Max could come, and that no matter what she had to suffer her mind must be clear for a talk with him. After that, nothing mattered. She wanted to die and be out of her misery. When Mr. Reeves had been taken into her room her face had been covered with a white veil, and Max must prepare himself to be received in the same way. It was better that he should know this beforehand and be spared a shock.
Never to see that beautiful face again in this world! Max felt like one dead and galvanized as he walked into the house and was received by a doctor—some great specialist whose name he had heard, but whom he had never chanced to meet. Not once did his thoughts rush back to Billie Brookton, and the night when he had meant to put on her finger the blue diamond in the platinum ring. Billie was in another world, a world a million miles away, as following the doctor Max walked softly into his mother's room.
There he had once more that insistent feeling of unreality. The gay room with its shell-pink melting into yellow and orange looked so unsuited to any condition but joy that it was impossible to believe tragedy had stalked in uninvited. Even with the morning light shut out by the drawn yellow curtains, and the electricity turned on in the flower or gauze-shaded lamps, it looked a place dedicated to the joy of life and beauty. But when, with a physical effort, Max turned his eyes to the bed, copied from one where Marie Antoinette had slept, he saw that which seemed to throw a pall of crape over the fantastic golden harmonies. A figure lay there, very straight, very flat and long under the coverlet pulled high over the breast. Even the hands were hidden: and over the face was spread a white veil of chiffon, folded double, so that no gleam of eye, no feature could even be guessed at.
Until that moment, Max had kept his self-control. But at sight of that piteous form, and remembering the radiant face framed with great bunches of red-gold hair, which he had kissed good-bye, in this very bed not three months ago, the dam which had held back the flood of anguish broke. It was as if his heart had turned to water. Tears sprang from his eyes, and the strength went out of his knees. It was all he could do not to fall at the side of the bed and to sob out his mother's name, telling her that he would give his life a hundred times for hers if that could be, or that he would go out of the world with her rather than she should go alone. But something came to his help and kept him outwardly calm save for a slight choking in the throat as he said softly, standing by the bedside, "Dearest, I am here."
"At last," came a faint murmur from under the double veil.
Max thought, with a sharp stab of pain, that he would not have recognized the voice if he had not known that it was his mother's. It sounded like the voice of a little, frail, very old woman; whereas Rose Doran had been a creature of glorious physique, looking and feeling at least fifteen years younger than her age.
"I started the minute I had the telegram," Max said, wanting to make sure that she realized his love, his frantic haste to reach her. "It has seemed a hundred years! Darling, if I could bear this for you. If——"
"Please, don't," the little whining voice under the veil fretfully cut him short. "I can't see very well. Has the doctor gone out?"
"Yes, dearest. We're alone."
"I'm glad. There isn't much time, and I've got a story to tell you. I ought to call it a confession."
That swept Max's forced calmness away. "A confession from you to me!" he cried out, horrified. "Never! Darling One, whatever it is I don't want to hear it—I don't need to hear it, I know—— Rest. Be at peace. Just let us love each other."
"You don't know what you are talking about." The veiled voice grew shrill. "You only do harm trying to stop me. You'll kill me if you do."
"Forgive me, dear." Max controlled himself again. "I'll not say another word. I——"
"Then don't—don't! I want to go on—to the end. I'd rather you sat down. I can see you standing there. It's like a black shadow between me and the light, accusing—no, don't speak! It needn't accuse. You wouldn't have had the life you've had, if—but I mustn't begin like that. Where are you now? Are you near enough to hear all I say? I can't raise my voice."
"I'm sitting down, close by the bed. I can hear the least whisper," Max assured her. He sat with his head bowed, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. This seemed unbearable, to spend the last minutes of her life hearing some confession! It was not right, from a mother to a son. But he must yield.
"I don't know how long I can stand it—the pain, I mean," she moaned. "So I can't try and break things gently to you, for fear—I have to stop in the midst. I'm not your mother, Max, and Jack wasn't your father. But he thought he was. He never knew. And he loved you. I didn't. I never could. You see—I did know. You must have wondered sometimes. I saw you wondered; I suppose you never guessed, even though I always told you to call me Rose, or anything you liked, except mother?"
She was waiting for him to answer; and he did answer, though it was as if she had thrown him over a precipice, and he were hanging by some branch which would let him crash down in an instant to the bottom of an unknown abyss.
"No, I never guessed." Queer how quiet, how utterly expressionless his voice was! He heard it in faraway surprise.
"I used to be afraid at first that Jack would guess, you were so unlike either of us, so dark, so—so Latin. But he said you were a throw-back to his Celtic ancestors. There were French and Irish ones hundreds of years ago, you know. He never suspected. Everything happened just as I hoped it would—just as I wanted it to. But I didn't realize how I should feel about it if I were going to die. The minute I came to myself after—the accident, it rushed over me. Not the very first thought. That was about myself. I wanted to know if my looks were gone. When they had to say yes, I was glad—thankful—I could die. I'd have poisoned or starved myself rather than live on. But no need of that. I think I could let myself slip away any minute now. I'm just—holding on. For something told me—I have a feeling that Jack himself came, and has been here ever since, knowing all I had done and willing me to tell the truth. I struggled a little against it, for why shouldn't you go on being happy? Nothing was your fault. But it was borne in on me that I must give you the chance to choose for yourself, and—another. That's why Jack has come, perhaps. She is his daughter."
"There was a girl, our child. But—you can't understand unless I tell you the story. I shall have strength. I feel I shall now—to get through with it. Perhaps Jack will help. He was the one human being I ever loved better than myself. That was real love! What I did was partly for his sake, I'm honestly sure of that. He wouldn't have let me do it. But it made him happy, not knowing——
"You've been told over and over how you were born in France, when Jack and I had the Chateau de la Tour, on the Loire. That was true—the one true thing. But you weren't born in the chateau. It wasn't for nothing that you learned French almost as easily as you breathed—and Latin, too. I suppose things like that are in people's blood. You are French. If I had left you where you were, you would have grown up Maxime Delatour. Delatour was your real father's name; he came originally of the de la Tours, but his branch of the family had gone down, somehow. Even the name was spelled differently, in the common way. But they lived in the same neighbourhood—that is how it all came about."
She paused, and gave a sigh like a faint moan. But Max was silent. He could spare her nothing. She must go on to the end—if the end were death. For there was somebody else, somewhere, who had to be put in his place—the place he had thought was his.
"It was really because I loved Jack—too much," the veiled woman still fretfully excused herself. "I should have been nobody, except for my looks. He married me for my looks, because I was strong and tall and fine, as a girl should be. He thought I could give him a splendid heir. You know how things are arranged in this family. The property goes from father to son, or a daughter, if there's no son. But they all pray for sons. The Dorans want to carry on the name they're so proud of—just as you have been proud! The wife of a Doran's important only if she's beautiful, or if she has a son. I wanted to be important for both reasons. Oh, how I wanted it!
"Jack took me to England for our honeymoon, and then to France. We hadn't been in Paris long before I knew I was going to have a child. Jack was so happy! He was sure it would be a boy—the most gorgeous boy ever born. How I remember the day I told him, and he said that! But all the time I had the presentiment it would be a girl. I felt guilty, miserable, when Jack talked about the baby.... The doctors said it would be safer for me not to have a sea voyage, so we decided to stop in France till after the child came. We stayed in Paris at first, and Jack and I used to go to the Louvre to see beautiful pictures and statues—for the 'sake of the boy.'
"When the Salon opened we went there, and I saw a painting every one was talking about—by a new artist. It was called 'Bella Donna,' just a woman's head and shoulders. Max, she was like me! But she was horrible, wicked—somehow deformed, though you couldn't see how. You only felt it. And besides being like me, she was like a lynx. There was one in the Zoo in London, with just her expression. Jack and I saw it together, and he laughed, and said now he knew who my first ancestress was. He didn't say anything about my looking like 'Bella Donna,' but I knew he must have thought it. He got me away from the picture as soon as he could, but I couldn't forget. The lynx-face, with the yellow eyes and red hair like mine, haunted me. I began to dream of my child being born like that—a girl, deformed in the horrid, mysterious way that you could only feel. I could never go to sleep again on a night after the dream. I suppose I looked pale; and he worried, and the doctors advised the country. We had some friends who'd just come back from the Loire, and they told us about a wonderful chateau there that was to be rented furnished. It belonged to an old family named de la Tour, who had lost their money. They had a romantic, tragic sort of history that interested us, especially Jack, so we went to see the place. There were vineyards badly cultivated, and a forest, and some shooting, too; and we took it for a few months. But we hadn't been there many weeks when a telegram came to Jack from Edwin Reeves. Edwin acted for him even then. It was important, on account of some business, for Jack to go home. He would have answered that it was impossible, but I said, why not go? I was safe, and he could be back in a month or five weeks. I had old Anne Wickham with me, and she'd been my nurse when I was a little girl, you know, and my maid afterward, till she died. You can remember her."
Max could. As a very tiny boy he had been almost afraid of old Anne Wickham, because his nurse was afraid of her: also because she had glared at him critically, mercilessly, with her great eyes in dark hollows, never smiling kindly, as other people did, but seeming to search for some fault in him. Now, suddenly, he understood this gloomy riddle of his childhood.
Rose Doran, beneath her veil, did not wait for any answer, or wish for one. She hurried on, only stopping now and then to sigh out her restlessness and pain, making Max bite his lip and quiver as if under the lash.
"We had a Paris doctor engaged, and a trained nurse," she said. "They were to come weeks before I expected my baby. I don't know how much Jack was to pay for the doctor—thousands of dollars; and Jack thought to be back in a month before, at latest. But one day I caught my foot going downstairs, and fell. We had to send for the village doctor in a hurry, and Anne had to remember all she knew about nursing. The child was a seven months' baby—a girl. And she had a face like mine, and like 'Bella Donna,' and like a lynx. There was just that look of deformity I had dreamed—mysterious and dreadful. I hated the creature. I couldn't feel she was mine and Jack's. She was like some changeling in an old witch tale. I couldn't bear it! I knew that I'd rather die than have Jack see that wicked elf after all his hopes. I told the doctor so. I threatened to kill myself. I don't know if I meant it. But he thought I did. He was a young man. I frightened him. While he was trying to comfort me an idea flashed into my head. It seemed to shoot in, like an arrow. I begged the doctor to find me a boy baby whose mother would take the girl and a lot of money. I said I would give him ten thousand dollars for himself, too, if he could manage it secretly, so no one but he and Anne Wickham and I need ever know. At first he kept exclaiming, and wouldn't listen. But I cried, and partly by working on his feelings and partly with the bribe that was a fortune to such a man, I persuaded him. Anne helped. She would have done anything for me. And she knew the Dorans. She knew Jack could never feel the same to me, as the mother of that impish girl.
"The doctor knew about a young woman who had just had a child—a boy. He'd helped bring it into the world a night or two before. She was the wife of a private soldier who'd been ordered off to Algeria somewhere. They'd been married secretly. If she had money she would have followed him. But they were very poor. The man was mixed up with the romance of the de la Tours; he belonged to the branch of the family that had gone down. They were called Delatour, but every one knew their history. The doctor thought the girl would do anything for the money I'd offer—and to get to Algeria. He managed the whole thing for me, and certified that my child was a boy. He even went to Paris and sold my pearls and a diamond tiara and necklace, and lots of other things, worth ever so many thousands more than I'd promised to pay him and Madame Delatour. You see, I hadn't any great sums of money by me, so I was forced to sell things. And afterward I had to pretend that my jewels were stolen from a train while we were in the dining-car; otherwise Jack would have wondered why I never wore them. I was thankful the night you were brought to me. I hadn't any remorse then, about sending the other baby away. I told you she didn't seem mine. She seemed hardly human. But I was frightened because you were so dark. You had quantities of black hair. I didn't even try to love you. Only I felt you were very valuable. So did Anne. And when Jack came hurrying back to me on the doctor's telegram, he was pleased with you. He called you in joke his 'little Frenchman.' He didn't dream it was all truth! And he didn't mind your being called Max. You'd already been baptized Maxime, after the soldier; and his wife made just that one condition: that the name should be kept.
"I told Jack I'd always loved the name of Max, so he loved it, too; and though you had other names given to you—the ones we planned beforehand—nothing fitted the 'little Frenchman' so well as Max. That's all the story. At first Anne and I used to be afraid of blackmail, either from the Delatour woman (who went off at once, before she was really strong enough to travel) or from the doctor, who hurried her away as much for his sake as for hers, lest it should be found out by some neighbour that her boy had been changed for a girl. Luckily for us, though, people avoided her. They didn't believe she was really married. But the doctor said she was. And he turned out to be honest. He never tried to get more money out of me. Neither did the woman. His name was Paul Lefebre, and the village was Latour. I've never heard anything from them or about them since Jack and I and you and Anne left the Chateau de la Tour, when you were six weeks old. I didn't wish to hear. I wanted to forget, as if it had all been a bad dream. Only Anne's eyes wouldn't let me. They seemed to know too much. I couldn't help being glad when she was dead, though she'd been so faithful. But when Jack died in that dreadful, sudden way, then for the first time I felt remorse—horrible remorse, for a while.... I thought he was taken from me by God as a punishment—the one human being I'd ever loved dearly! And I got insomnia, because his spirit seemed to be near, looking at me, knowing everything. But the feeling passed. I suppose I'm not deep enough to feel anything for long. I lived down the remorse. And it was fortunate for me I had a child; otherwise all but a little money would have gone to the Reynold Dorans. You've been good to me, Max, and I've liked you very well. I've tried not to think about the past. But when I did think, I said to myself that you had nothing to complain of. What a different life it would have been for you, with your own people. And even as it is, you needn't give up anything unless you choose. If Jack were alive I'd never have told, even dying. But he's gone, and I shall be—soon. So far as I'm concerned I don't care which way you choose: whether you write to Doctor Lefebre or not. Only for the sake of the name—Jack's name—don't let there be a scandal if you decide to try and find the girl. Maybe you can't find her. She may be dead. Then it needn't go against your conscience to let things stay as they are. The Reynold Dorans have heaps of money."
"That isn't the question exactly," said Max. "Whatever happens, I haven't the right—but never mind.... I don't want to trouble you, God knows. I can see partly how you must have felt about the baby, and about fath—I mean, about the whole thing. It isn't for me to blame—I—thank you for telling me. Somehow I must manage—to make things straight, without injuring fath—without injuring the name." His voice broke a little. John Doran had died under an operation when Max was ten, but he had adored his father, and still adored his memory. There had been great love between the big, quiet sportsman and the mercurial, hot-headed, enthusiastic little boy whom Jack Doran had spoiled and called "Frenchy" for a pet name. After more than fourteen years, he could hear the kind voice now, clearly as ever. "Hullo, Frenchy! how are things with you to-day?" used to be the morning greeting.
How were things with him to-day?...
Max had heard the story with a stolidity which seemed to himself extraordinary; for excepting the shiver of physical pain which shook him at each sigh of suffering from under the veil, he had felt nothing, absolutely nothing, until the voice of dead Jack Doran seemed to call to him out of darkness.
"He wasn't my father," came the stabbing reminder; but the love which had been could never be taken away. "I must do what you would want me to do," Max answered the call. In his heart he knew what that thing was. He must give everything up. He ought to look for the girl and for his own parents, if they lived. The daughter of John Doran must have what was hers.
As he thought this, Rose spoke again, more slowly now, since the story was told, and there was no longer any haste. "Remember, nobody knows yet but you and me, Max," she said. "Not even Edwin Reeves. All he knows is that I had something to say to you. If he tried to guess what it was, he must have guessed something very different from this. Why not find out where she is, if you can, and somehow contrive to give her money or send it anonymously—enough to make her rich; and let the rest go as it is? I told you just now that I didn't care much either way, and I don't, for myself, because I shall be out of it all, and because I know you loved Jack too well not to be careful for his sake, what you do. But I care more for your sake than I thought I cared at first. You're so quiet, I know I've struck you hard. Almost—I wish I hadn't told."
"I don't," answered Max with an effort. "And you mustn't. It was the only thing."
And yet, even as he spoke, he was conscious of wishing that she had not told. Some women, having done what she had done for the love of a man and for their own vanity, would have gone out of the world in silence—still for the love of the man, and for their own vanity. Vanity had been the ruling passion of Rose Doran's life. Max had realized it before. Yet something in the end had been stronger than vanity, and had beaten it down. He wondered dimly what the thing was. Perhaps fear, lest soon, on the other side of the dark valley, she should have to meet reproach in the only eyes she had ever loved. And she needed help in crossing—Jack Doran's help. Maybe this was her way of reaching out for it. She had told the truth; and she seemed to think that was enough. She advised Max to leave things as they were, after all. And he was tempted to obey.
No longer was he stunned by the blow that had fallen. He felt the pain of it now, and faced the future consequences. He stood to lose everything: his career, for Max had his vanity, too; and without the Doran name and the Doran money he could not remain in the army.
If he resolved to hand over all that was his to the girl, he must go away, must leave the country.
He would have to think of some scheme by which the girl could get her rights, and the world could be left in ignorance of Rose Doran's fraud. To accomplish this, he must sacrifice himself utterly. He must disappear and be forgotten by his friends—a penniless man, without a country. And Billie Brookton would be lost to him.
Strange, this was his first conscious thought of her since he had stepped out of the train, almost his first since leaving her at Fort Ellsworth. He was half shocked at his forgetfulness of such a jewel, so nearly his, the jewel so many other men wanted. He wanted her, too, desperately, now that the clouds had parted for an instant to remind him of the bright world where she lived—the world of his past.
"You're so deadly still!" Rose murmured. "Are you thinking hard things of me?"
"No, never that," Max said.
"How are you going to decide? Shall you take my advice, keep your place in this world, and give her money, if you find her? And most likely you never can. It's such a long time ago." Rose's voice dragged. It was very small and weak, very tired.
"It's your advice for me to do that?" Max asked, almost incredulously. "And yet—she's your own child, his child."
"Not the child of our souls. You'll see what I mean, if you ever see her. Think it over—a few minutes, and then tell me. I feel—somehow I should like to know, before going. Wake me—in ten minutes. I think I could sleep—till then. Such a rest, since I told you! No pain."
"Oughtn't I to call the doctor?" Max half rose from his chair by the bedside.
"No, no. I want nothing—except to sleep—for ten minutes. Can you decide—in ten minutes?"
"You promise to wake me then?"
"Yes," Max said again.
For ten minutes there was silence in the room, save for a little sound of crackling wood in the open fire that Rose had always loved.
Max had decided, and the time had come to keep his promise. He must speak, to wake the sleeper. But he did not know what to call her. She said that she had never loved him as a son. She must always have felt irritated when he dared to address her as "Dearest"—he, the little French bourgeois. She would hate it now.
"Rose!" he whispered. Then a little louder, "Rose!"
She did not answer.
He would not have to tell her his decision. But perhaps she knew.
THE LAST ACT OF "GIRLS' LOVE"
The wail of grief that echoed through New York for Rose Doran, suddenly snatched from life in the prime of her beauty, sounded in the ears of Max a warning note. Her memory must not be smirched. And then again came the temptation. As she lay dying he had decided what to do. But now that she was dead, now that letters and telegrams by the hundred, and visits of sympathy, and columns in the newspapers, were making him realize more and more her place in the world she had left, and the height of the pedestal on which the Doran family stood, the question repeated itself insistently: Why not reconsider?
Max had thought from time to time that he knew what temptation was; but now he saw that he had never known. His safeguard used to be in calling up his father's image to stand by him, in listening for the tones of a beloved voice which had the power to calm his hot temper, or hold him back from some impetuous act of which he would have been ashamed later. He had seemed to hear the voice as Rose slept her last sleep, under her white veil, but later it was silent. It left him to himself, and sometimes he was even persuaded that it joined with the voice of Rose, whispering that siren word, "Reconsider."
Jack Doran had loved Rose. Perhaps on the other side of the valley he had forgiven her, and wished above all other things that her memory should remain bright. If Max reconsidered, it would all be easy. No one would be surprised if he took long leave and went abroad. No one would think it strange or suspicious if a girl "Cousin" should later appear on the scene: a Miss Doran of whom no one had ever heard, who had been educated abroad, and who, because she had lost her parents, was to take up life in America. Or maybe it needn't even come to that, in case he found the girl. She might be married. She might prefer to remain where she was, with plenty of money from her distant relations, the Dorans, of whose existence she would be informed for the first time. There would be no difficulty in arranging this. The one real difficulty was that Max's soul would be in prison. The bars would be of gold, and he would have in his cell everything to make him and his friends think it a palace. But it would be a prison cell, all the same, for ever and ever; and at night when he and his soul were alone together, looking into each other's eyes, he would know that from behind the door he had locked upon himself there was no escape.
There were moments, and whole hours together, when he said with a kind of sudden rage against the responsibility thrown on him, "I'll take Rose's advice—the last words she ever spoke." But then, in some still depth far under the turmoil of his tempted spirit, he knew that his first decision was the only one possible for honour or even for happiness. And the day after the funeral he made it irrevocable by telling Edwin Reeves a wild story that had come to him in a strange moment of something like exaltation. It had come as he stood bareheaded by the grave where Rose had just been laid to sleep beside Jack Doran; and in that moment a lie for their sakes seemed nobler than the truth that would hurt them. More and more, as he thought of it on his way back to the house which had once been "home," and as the possibilities developed in his mind, with elaborations of the tale, this lie appealed to his chivalry. Everybody might hear it without fear that Jack or Rose would be blamed. That was the great advantage. There need be no whisperings and mysteries. And once the tale was told, there would be no going back from it.
The story which fixed his imagination and inspired him to martyrdom might have made a plot for some old-fashioned melodrama, but Max began to realize that there was nothing in fiction so incredible as the things which happen in life: things one reads about any day in newspapers, yet which in a novel would be laughed at by critics. He would say to Edwin Reeves that, shortly before her death, Rose had learned through the dying confession of a Frenchwoman who had nursed her in childbirth that her girl baby had been changed for a boy, born about the same time to a relative of the nurse; that hearing this story she had intended to write Max, and ask him to go to France to prove or disprove its truth, but that she had been struck down before summoning courage to break the news. Edwin Reeves would then understand Rose's anxiety to see Max; and he would keep the secret, at least until the girl was found. As for what ought to be done in the case of not finding her, or learning without doubt that she was dead, Max thought he might take the lawyer's advice as a friend of the Dorans, as a legal man, and as a man of the world. Perhaps, if in Edwin Reeves's judgment silence would in that event be justified, Max might accept this verdict.
There was that one grain of hope for the future—if it could be called hope. But there was another person besides Edwin Reeves and Edwin Reeves's son (Max's best friend of old days) who must be told at once how little claim he had to the Doran name and fortune. That person was Billie Brookton.
Max had dimly expected opposition from Edwin Reeves, whose advice might be what Rose Doran's had been: to give money, and let everything remain as it had been. It was somewhat to his surprise that the lawyer, after listening in silence, agreed that there was just one thing to do, if the girl still lived. Grant (who was with him in their private office by Max's wish), though more demonstrative, more openly sympathetic, held the same opinion.
Max ought to have been glad of this encouragement, but somehow, shaming himself for it, he felt a dull sense of injury, especially where Grant was concerned. Grant exclaimed that it was horribly hard lines, and that old Max was the splendid fellow everybody had always believed him to be. Lots of chaps would have been mean, and stuck to the name and money, though of course no honourable man could do that. Grant quite saw how Max felt, and would have to act in the same way himself, no matter what it cost. If the truth had to come out, every one would say he'd behaved like a hero—that was one comfort; but, as Edwin Reeves reminded them both, Max might be rewarded for his noble resolve by learning that there was no need to make the sensational story public. If the girl had died or could not be found, it would be—in Mr. Reeves's opinion—foolishly quixotic to rouse sleeping dogs, and ruin himself, to put money in the pockets of the Reynold Dorans, who had more than they wanted already.
"You'll feel like getting leave to run over to France, I suppose," said the lawyer, "though of course the search might be made for you if you prefer."
"I prefer to go myself," Max decided quietly.
"Why not let me go with you?" Grant suggested, with a certain eagerness which it seemed to Max he tried to suppress, rather than to show as a proof of friendship. "The governor could spare me for a while, I expect, and it wouldn't be quite such a gloomy errand as if you were alone. I'd be glad to do it for you, dear old boy, honestly I would."
Yes, he would be glad. Max saw that. And instead of feeling drawn nearer to Grant Reeves, he felt suddenly miles away. They had drifted apart since Max had joined his regiment in the West and Grant had become a partner with his father. Now Max told himself that he had never known Grant: that as men they were so far from one another he could really never know him; and he wondered at the impulse which had made him wish Grant to hear the story with Edwin.
"But suppose it's all true and you find the girl over on the other side somewhere?" Grant went on, when Max had answered that the search might be long, and it would be better for him to make it alone. "What will you do? Hadn't my mother better fetch her? Mother's over in Paris now, you know, so it would be less trouble. You mightn't want to bring her back yourself, unless, of course——"
"Unless—what?" Max wanted to know.
"Well, you're not related to the girl, and you're about the same age. She'll naturally look upon you as a hero, a deliverer, and all that, if she's a normal woman. If it were in a book instead of real life, the end would be——"
"Different from what it will be with us," Max cut him short. "Don't let's speak or think of anything like that."
"It only occurred to me," Grant excused himself mildly, "that if—nothing like that did happen, you mightn't want to come back to this country yourself, for a while. It's a queer sort of case. And you see you went through West Point and got your lieutenancy as Max Doran. If you weren't Max Doran, but somebody else, I wonder what they would do about——"
"I shouldn't give them the trouble of doing anything," said Max quietly. "I'd resign from the army. But there'll be other doors open, I hope. I don't mean to fade out of existence because I'm not a Doran or a fellow with money. I'll try and make something out of another name."
"And you'll succeed, of course," Edwin Reeves assured him. "I suppose it was in Grant's mind that if this extraordinary story proved to be true, and you should give up your name and your fortune to John and Rose Doran's daughter, why you would in a way be giving up your country, too. You say that the confession Mrs. Doran received was from a Frenchwoman: that this person took the child of a relative, and exchanged it for the Doran baby. If we are to believe that, it makes you of French blood as well as French birth. Grant supposed, perhaps, that this fact might change your point of view."
Max had not thought of it, and resented the suggestion which the two seemed to be making: that he would no longer have the right to consider himself an American. "But I don't feel French," he exclaimed. "I don't see how I ever can."
"Yet you speak French almost like a Frenchman," said Grant. "We used to tease you about it in school. Do you remember?"
Did he remember? And Jack Doran had called him "Frenchy." Always, it seemed, he had been marching blindly toward this moment.
Nothing was settled at the end of the talk, except that the secret was to be kept for the present. And Max learned that Rose had made an informal will, leaving him all her jewellery, with the request that it should be valued by experts and sold, he taking the money to "use as he thought fit." She had made this will years ago, it seemed, directly after Jack Doran's death, while her conscience was awake. Max guessed what had been in her mind. She had wanted him to have something of his own, in case he ever lost his supposed heritage. He was grateful to her because, not loving him, she had nevertheless thought of his welfare and tried to provide for it. Mr. Reeves knew something about the value of Rose's jewels. She had not had many, he reminded Max. Once, soon after her marriage, and while she was still abroad, all her wedding presents and gifts from her husband had been stolen in a train journey. Since then, she seemed to have picked up the idea that a beautiful woman ought not to let herself be outshone by her own jewels. She had cared for dress more than for jewellery, and, with the exception of a rope of pearls, her ornaments had not been worth a great deal. Still, they ought to sell for at least twelve or fifteen thousand dollars, counting everything, and two or three rather particularly fine rings which Jack had given her.
"I think she must have meant me to except those from the things to be sold," said Max. "She would have known I'd never let them go."
His first impulse after that interview with the Reeveses was to dash out West and see Billie, to tell her that something had happened which might make a great difference in his circumstances, and to give her back her freedom. But when he had stopped to think, he said to himself that it wouldn't be fair to go. Face to face, it would be hard for Billie to take him at his word, and he did not want to make it hard. Instead, he wrote, telling her that he was getting leave to go abroad on important business—business on which the whole future would depend. Perhaps (owing to circumstances which couldn't be explained yet, till he learned more about them himself) he might be a poor man instead of a rich one. Meanwhile, she mustn't consider herself bound. Later, when he knew what awaited him, if things righted themselves he would come to her again, and ask what he had asked before. In any case, he would explain.
It was rather a good letter, the version which Max finally let stand, after having torn up half a dozen partly covered sheets of paper. His love was there for the girl to see, and he could not help feeling that, possibly—just possibly—she might write or even telegraph, saying, "I refuse to be set free."
While he waited, he engaged his passage to Cherbourg on a ship that was to sail at the end of the week. That would give Billie's answer time to come. Or—just madly supposing she cared enough to have an understudy play her part for a few days—it would allow time for a wonderful surprise, and the greatest proof of love a girl could give a man.
There was no telegram, but the day before he was to sail an envelope with Billie Brookton's pretty scrawl on it was put into his hand. He opened it carefully, because it seemed sacrilege to tear what she had touched, or break the purple seal, with the two bees on it, which she used instead of initials or a monogram. The perfume which came from the paper was her own special perfume, named in honour of her success and popularity—"Girls' Love." Max remembered Billie's telling him once that it cost "outsiders" five dollars an ounce, because there were amber and lots of wonderful, mysterious things in it; but she got it for nothing.
"How good, how noble you are!" were her first words; and Max's heart leaped. This divine creature, who could have her pick of men, was going to say ... but as his eyes travelled fast from line to line, the beating of his heart slowed down.
* * * * *
"Come back to me when this horrible business trouble is over, and ask me again, as you say you will. You'll find me waiting, oh, so impatiently! for I do love you. Whatever happens, Max—dear, handsome Max—you will be the one great romance of my life. I can never forget you, or those blue eyes of yours, the day you told me you cared. They will haunt me always. Oh, how I wish I were rich enough for both of us, so that we might be happy, even in case of the worst, and you lose your money! But I don't know how to keep the wretched stuff when I have it. And though I make a lot now, I'm not strong, and who knows how long my vogue may last? We poor actress girls, who depend on our health and the fickle public, have to think of these sordid things. It is, oh, so sad for us! No woman who hasn't known the struggle herself can realize. Do hurry back, with good news for both, and save me from a dreadful man who is persecuting me to marry him. I met him in such an odd way the last time I was here in Chicago, but I didn't tell you the story of the adventure, because it would only have worried you. Besides, you made me forget every one and everything—you did truly, Max! But he frightens me now, he is so fearfully rich, and so strong and insisting; and somehow he's got round auntie. She's so silly; she thinks you oughtn't to have left me as you did, though of course you had to. I understood, if she doesn't. She's only a foolish old lady, but she does fuss so about this man! If you don't rescue me, he may be my fate. I feel it. Dear Max, I wait for you. I want you.
"P.S. Please wire when you know."
As he read the letter through for the second time, he could hear through the open window of his room a woman's voice singing one of Gaeta's songs, the one most popular: "Forever—never! Who knows?"
The words mingled themselves with the words of the letter: "Come back. Bring good news. Forever—never! Who knows?" And the song was from the last act of "Girls' Love."
THE UPPER BERTH
When he had learned at the village of La Tour that Doctor Lefebre had left the place long ago, to practise in Paris, Max went there, and found Lefebre without difficulty. He was now, at fifty, a well-known man, still young looking, but with a somewhat melancholy face, and the long eyelids that mean Jewish ancestry. When he had listened to Max's story he said, with a thoughtful smile: "Do you see, it is to you I owe my success? I have never repented what I did for Madame. Still less do I repent now, having met you. I gained advantages for myself that I could not otherwise have had; and to-day proves that I gave them to one who Has known how to profit by every gift. The other—the girl—would not have known how. There was something strange about the child, something not right, not normal. I have often wondered what she has become. But it is better for you not to think of her. Fate has shut a door between you two. Don't open it. That is the advice, Monsieur, of the man who brought you into this very extraordinary world."
Max thanked him, but answered that, for good or ill, he had made up his mind. Doctor Lefebre shrugged his shoulders with an air of resigned regret, and told what little he knew of the Delatours since he had sent the young woman off to Algeria with the baby. The first thing he had heard was four or five years after, when he paid a visit to La Tour, and was told that Maxime Delatour had left the army and settled permanently in Algeria. Then, no more news for several years, until one day a letter had been forwarded to him in Paris from his old address at La Tour. It was from Madame Delatour, dated "Hotel Pension Delatour, Alger," asking guardedly if he would tell her where she might write to the American lady whose child had been born at the chateau. "The lady who had been kind to her and her baby." She would like to send news of little Josephine, in whom the lady might still take an interest. Madame Delatour had added in a postscript that she and her husband were keeping a small hotel in Algiers, which they had taken with "some money that had come to them," but were not doing as well as they could wish. Doctor Lefebre, feeling sure that she meant to make trouble, had not answered the letter; but even had he answered, he could only have said that Mrs. Doran lived in New York. He knew no more himself, and had never tried to find out. Since then he had heard nothing of the Delatour family.
That same night Max left Paris for Marseilles, and the next morning he was on board the General Morel starting for Algiers. For the first time in his life he had to think of economy: for though Rose's legacy had amounted to something over fifteen thousand dollars, already it was nearly disposed of. He determined never again to touch a Doran dollar for his own personal use, unless he discovered that the rightful owner was dead. He had left Fort Ellsworth owing a good deal here and there; for tradesmen were slow about sending bills to such a valuable customer. Now, however, he felt that he must pay his debts with the money that was his own; and settling them would make an immense hole in his small inheritance. There, for instance, were the pearls and the ring he had bought for Billie Brookton. Their cost alone was nine thousand dollars, and even if Billie should offer to give them back, he meant to ask her to keep them for remembrance. But she would not offer. He would never have admitted to himself that he knew she would not; yet, since receiving her letter, he had known. If he had by and by to tell Billie that he was to be a poor man, she would make some charming excuse for not sending back his presents. Or else she would not refer to them at all. Whatever the future might bring, it seemed to Max that he had lost youth's bright vision of romance. There was no such girl in the world as the girl he had dreamed. The letter had shown him that—the one letter he had ever had from Billie Brookton.
After his talk with Doctor Lefebre the change in his life became for Max more intimately real than it had been before. The fact that he was travelling second-class, though an insignificant thing in itself, brought it home to him in a curious, irritating way. He felt that he must be a weak, spoiled creature, not worthy to call himself a soldier, because little, unfamiliar shabbinesses and inconveniences disgusted him. He remembered how he had revelled in his one trip abroad with Rose and some friends of theirs the year before he went to West Point. They had motored from Paris to the Riviera, and stayed in Nice. Then they had come back to Marseilles, and had taken the best cabins on board a great liner, for Egypt. What fun he and the other boy of the party had had! He felt now that, however things turned out, the fun of life was over.
If the girl, Josephine Delatour, lived, he would have to leave the army; that was clear. Grant Reeves had shown him why. And it would be hard, for he loved soldiering. He could think willingly of no other profession or even business. Yet somewhere, somehow, he would have to begin at the bottom and work up. Besides, there were his real parents to be thought of, if they were still alive. Max felt that perhaps he was hard—or worse still, snobbish—not to feel any instinctive affection for them. His mother had sold him, in order that she might have money to go to her husband, whom she loved so much better than her child. Well, at least she had a heart! That was something. And if the pair still kept a little hotel, what of that? Was he such a mean wretch as to be ashamed because he was the son of a small hotel-keeper? Max began spying out in himself his faults and weaknesses, which, while he was happy and fortunate, he had never suspected. And now and then he caught the words running through his mind: "If only she is dead, the whole thing will be no more than a bad dream." What a cad he was! he thought. And even if she were dead, nothing could ever be as it had been. Jack Doran was not his father, and he would have no right to anything that had been Jack's, not even his love. If he kept the money it would not make him happy. He could never be happy again.
It was in this mood that he went on board the General Morel, the oldest and worst-built ship of her line. She was carrying a crowd of second-class passengers for Algiers, and the worried stewards had no time to attend to him. He found his own cabin, by the number on his ticket, groping through a long, dark corridor, which smelt of food and bilge water. The stateroom was as gloomy as the passage leading to it, and he congratulated himself that at least he had the lower berth.
His roommate, however, had been in before him, and either through ignorance or impudence had annexed Max's bunk for himself. On the roughly laundered coverlet was a miniature brown kitbag, conspicuously new looking. It had been carelessly left open, or had sprung open of itself, being too tightly packed, and as Max prepared to change its place, muttering, "Cheek of the fellow!" he could not help seeing two photographs in silver frames lying on top of the bag's other contents. Both portraits were of men. One was an officer in the uniform of the French army, with the typical soldier look which gives likeness and kin to fighting men in all races of the world. The other photograph Max recognized at a glance as that of Richard Stanton, the explorer.
Queer, Max thought, as he lifted the bag, open as it was, to the upper berth. Queer, that some little bourgeois Frenchman, journeying second-class from Marseilles to Algiers, should have as a treasure in his hand-baggage the portrait of a celebrated and extremely pugnacious Englishman who had got the newspapers down on him two or three years ago for a wild interview he had given against the entente cordiale. Max remembered it and the talk about it in the officers' mess at Fort Ellsworth, just after he joined his regiment. However, the Frenchman's photographs were his own business; and Max relented not at all toward the cheeky brute because he had a portrait of the great Richard Stanton in his bag. This was the sort of thing one had to expect when one travelled second-class! A few weeks before he would have thought it impossible as well as disgusting to bunk with a stranger whom he had never seen; but as he said to himself, with a shrug of the shoulders which tried to be Spartan, "Misfortune makes strange bedfellows." Max was disciplining himself to put up with hardships of all sorts which would probably become a part of everyday life. His own hand-luggage, a suitcase with his name marked on it, had been dumped down by some steward in the corridor, and he carried it into the stateroom himself, pushing it far under the lower berth with a rather vicious kick. As rain was falling in torrents, and a bitter wind blowing, he kept on his heavy overcoat, and went out of the cabin leaving no trace of his ownership there except the hidden suitcase. Perhaps on that kick which had sent it out of sight the shaping of Max Doran's whole future life depended.
On the damp deck and in the dingy "salle" of the second-class Max wondered, with stifled repulsion, which among the fat Germans, hook-nosed Algerian Jews, dignified Arab merchants, and common-looking Frenchmen, was to share his ridiculously small cabin. Most of them appeared to be half sick already, in fearful anticipation of the rocking they were doomed to get in the ancient tub once she steamed out of the harbour and into the face of the gale. In the "gang," as he called it, there was visible but one person in what Max Doran had been accustomed to think of as his own "rank." That person was a girl, and despite the gloom which shut him into himself, he glanced at her now and then with curiosity. It seemed unaccountable that such a girl should be travelling apparently alone, and especially second-class.
The first thing that caught his attention was the colour of her hair as she stood with her back to him, on deck. She was wrapped in a long, dark blue coat, with well-cut lines which showed the youthfulness of her tall, slim figure, as tall and slim as Billie Brookton's, but more alertly erect, more boyish. On her head was a small, close-fitting toque of the same dark blue as her coat; and between this cap and the turned-up collar bunched out a thick roll of yellow hair. It was not as yellow as Billie's, yet at first glance it reminded him of hers, with a sick longing for lost beauty and romance. Seeing the delicate figure, cloaked in the same blue which Billie affected for travelling, he thought what it would be like to have the girl with the yellow hair turn, to show Billie's face radiant with love for him, to hear her flutey voice cry: "Max, I couldn't bear it without you! Forget what I said in that horrid letter. I didn't mean a word of it. I've given up everything to be your wife. Take me!"
Soon the girl did turn from the rain blowing into her face, and that face was of an entirely different type from Billie's. Seeing it, after that attack upon his imagination, was a sharp relief to Max. Still he did not lose interest. The girl's hair was not so yellow where it grew on her head and framed the rather thin oval of her face, as in the thick-rolled mass behind, golden still with childhood's gold. Except for her tall slenderness she was not in the least like Billie Brookton; and she would have no great pretension to beauty had it not been for a pair of long, gray, thick-lashed eyes which looked out softly and sweetly on the world. Her nose was too small and her mouth too large, but the delicate cutting of the nostrils and the bow of the coral-pink upper lip had fascination and a sensitiveness that was somehow pathetic. She held her head high, on a long and lovely throat, which gave her a look of courage, but a forced courage, not the christening gift of godmother nature. That sort of girl, Max reflected, was meant to be cherished and taken care of. And why was she not taken care of? He wondered if she had run away from home, in her dainty prettiness, to be jostled by this unappreciative, second-class crowd? She was brave enough, though, despite her look of flower-delicacy, to stop on deck long after the ship had steamed out from the comparatively quiet, rock-bound harbour, and plunged into the tossing sea. At last a big wave drove the girl away, and Max did not see her again until dinner time. He came late and reluctantly into the close-smelling dining-saloon, and found her already seated at the long table. Her place was nearly opposite his, and as he sat down she looked up with a quick, interested look which had girlish curiosity in it, and a complete lack of self-consciousness that was perhaps characteristic. Evidently, as he had separated her in his mind from the rabble, wondering about her, so she had separated him and wondered also. She was too far away for Max to speak, even if he had dared; but a moment later a big man who squeezed himself in between table and revolving chair, next to the girl, made an excuse to ask for the salt, and begin a conversation. He did this in a matter-of-fact, bourgeois way, however, which not even a prude or a snob could think offensive. And apparently the girl was far from being a prude or a snob. She answered with a soft, girlish charm of manner which gave the impression that she was generously kind of heart. Then something that the man said made her flush up and start with surprise.
From that moment on the two were absorbed in each other. Could it be, Max asked himself, that the big, rough fellow and the daintily bred girl had found an acquaintance in common? There seemed to be a gulf between them as wide as the world, yet evidently they had hit upon some subject which interested them both. Through the clatter of dishes Max caught words, or fragments of sentences, all spoken in French. The man had a common accent, but the girl's was charming. She had a peculiarly sweet, soft voice, that somehow matched the sweetness and softness of the long, straight-lashed eyes under the low, level brows, so delicately yet clearly pencilled. Max guessed at first that she was English; then from some slight inflection of tone, wondered if she were Irish instead. It was a name which sounded like "Sidi-bel-Abbes" that made the girl start and blush, and turn to her neighbour with sudden interest. Again and again they mentioned "Sidi-bel-Abbes," which meant nothing for Max until he heard the girl say "La Legion Etrangere." Immediately the recollection of a book he had read flashed into Max's brain. Why, yes, of course, Sidi-bel-Abbes was a place in Algeria, the headquarters of the Foreign Legion, that mysterious band of men without a country, in whom men of all countries are interested. What was there in the subject of the Foreign Legion to attract such a girl? Could she be going alone to Sidi-bel-Abbes, hoping to find some lost relative—a brother, perhaps? She asked the man eager questions, which Max could not hear, but the big fellow shook his bullet-shaped head. Evidently he had little information to give on the subject which specially appealed to her; but there were others on which he held forth volubly; and though the girl's attention flagged sometimes, she could have been no more gracious in her manner to the common fellow if he had been an exiled king. "La Boxe" were the words which Max began to hear repeated, and a boxer was what the man looked like: a second or third rate professional. Max wished that he could catch what was being said, for boxing was one of his own accomplishments. He boxed so well that once, before he was twenty-one, he had knocked out his master, an ex-lightweight champion, in three rounds. Since then he had kept up his practice, and the sporting set among the officers at Fort Ellsworth had been proud of their Max Doran.
Every moment the weather grew worse, and one after another the few second-class passengers who had dared to risk dining faded away. At last, about halfway through the badly served meal, the girl got up with a wan little smile for her talkative neighbour, and went out, keeping her balance by catching at the back of a chair now and then. The bullet-headed man soon followed, charging at the open door like a bull, as a wave dropped the floor under his feet. But Max, priding himself on his qualities as a sailor, managed to sit through the meagre dessert.
The girl was not visible on the rain-swept deck, or in the gloomy reading-room, where Max glanced over old French papers until his optic nerves sent imperative messages of protest to his brain. Then he strayed on deck again, finding excuse after excuse to keep out of his cabin, where no doubt a seasick roommate was by this time wallowing and guzzling. At last, however, his swimming head begged for a pillow, no matter how hard, and in desperation he went below. He found the cabin door on the hook, and the faded curtain of cretonne drawn across. There was one comfort, at least: the wretch liked air. Max hoped the fellow had gone to sleep, in which case there might be some chance of rest. Gently he unhooked the door and fastened it again in the same manner. A little light flittered through the thin curtain, enabling Max to grope his way about the tiny stateroom, and he determined not to rouse his companion by switching on the electricity.
It had occurred to him, on his way to the cabin, that he might find his berth usurped by a prostrate form, as in the afternoon by a bag. But his first peering glance through the dimness reassured him on this point. The owner of the bag had taken the hint, and stowed himself in his own bunk. Max could just make out a huddled shape under bedclothes which had been drawn high for warmth. Then he knelt down to grope for the suitcase which he had pushed far under his own berth. Seeking it in the semi-darkness, a wave sent him sprawling. He heard from somewhere a shrill crash of glass, a sudden babble of excited voices, and decided it would not be worth while to undress unless the storm should abate. He scrambled up, and thankfully flung himself, just as he was, on to his bunk. In the wild confusion of squeaking, straining planks, the thump of waves against the porthole, the demon-shrieks of infuriated wind, and the shouts and running to and fro of sailors overhead, it seemed impossible that any human being could sleep. Yet the creature overhead was mercifully quiet; and suddenly slumber fell upon Max, shutting out thought and sound. For a while he slept heavily; but by and by dreams came and lifted the curtain of unconsciousness, stirring him to restlessness. It seemed that he had lived through years since New York, and that everything had long ago been decided for him, one way or the other, though his dulled brain kept the secret. He knew only that he was at Sidi-bel-Abbes—Sidi-bel-Abbes. How he had got there, and what he was doing, he could not tell. It ought to be a town, but it was not. There were no houses nor buildings of any kind in this strange Sidi-bel-Abbes. He could see only waves of yellow sand, billowing and moving all around him like sea waves; and it was sea as well as desert. Suddenly one of the waves rolled away, to show a small white tent, almost like a covered boat. A voice was calling to him from it, and he struggled to get near, falling and stumbling among the yellow waves. Then abruptly he started back. It was Billie Brookton's voice. Instead of being glad to hear it, he was bitterly, bleakly disappointed, and felt chilled to the heart with cold. Surprised at his own despair, he waked up, with a great start, just in time to brace his feet against the bottom of the berth and save himself from being thrown out by a shuddering bound of the ship. From overhead he heard a sigh of pain or weariness, and the top berth creaked with some movement of its occupant. "The beast's awake!" thought Max, resentfully. "Now for ructions! No more hope of sleep for me, I suppose."
But all was still again, except for a faint rustling as if the pillow were being turned over. At the same instant something long and supple, like a thick, silky rope, slid down from above. He could see it in the dim light as it fell and brushed his hand protruding, palm uppermost, over the edge of the bunk. Quite mechanically he shut his fingers on the thing, to prevent its dropping to the floor, and, to his amazement, it felt to the touch like a woman's hair. His hand was full of it—a great, satin-soft curl it seemed to be. Only, it couldn't be that, of course! Maybe he was half dreaming still. He opened his fingers and let the stuff go. But instead of falling to the floor, the long rope swayed gently back and forth with the rocking of the ship. It was hair! A wonderful plait of hair, attached to a woman's head. A woman was lying there in the upper berth.
THE NIGHT OF STORMS
A Woman! But how was it possible that there should be a woman in his cabin? There must have been some unthinkable mistake, and he felt confident that it was not he who had made it. He had looked carefully at the number over the door, comparing it with the number on his ticket. But, after all, what did it matter? It was too late now to apportion blame. She was there. And what hair she had! When she stood up it must fall far below her knees.