E-text prepared by Al Haines
Soldier of Fortune
Author of "My Lady of the North," "My Lady of the South," "Keith of the Border," "When Wilderness Was King."
With Four Illustrations in Color by Alonzo Kimball
[Frontispiece: I clasped the straying hand and drew her to me.]
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ————— New York Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1912 Published October, 1912 Copyrighted in Great Britain
I THE FIRST STEP II THE CASE OF PHILIP HENLEY III I ACCEPT THE OFFER IV AN ESCAPE FROM ARREST V BEGINNING ACQUAINTANCE VI WE OPEN CONFIDENCES VII THE WOMAN'S STORY VIII FACING THE PROBLEM IX WE COMPLETE ARRANGEMENTS X AT THE PLANTATION XI A PLEASANT WELCOME XII THE DEAD MAN XIII I GET INTO THE GAME XIV THE CONFESSION XV THE DECISION XVI COMPELLING SPEECH XVII CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE XVIII BEGINNING EXPLORATION XIX A CHAMBER OF HORROR XX TAKEN PRISONER XXI ON BOARD THE SEA GULL XXII I CHANGE FRONT XXIII THE SECRET OF THE VOYAGE XXIV I JOIN THE SEA GULL XXV THE FREEDOM OF THE DECK XXVI THE NEW PERIL XXVII THE TABLES TURNED XXVIII THE CREOLE'S STORY XXIX UNDER WAY XXX WE MAKE THE EFFORT XXXI THE OPEN BOAT XXXII A TALK IN THE NIGHT XXXIII WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER XXXIV THE REVENUE CUTTER XXXV THE DECK OF THE SEA GULL XXXVI IN POSSESSION XXXVII A HOMEWARD VOYAGE
I clasped the straying hand and drew her to me . . Frontispiece
I read it over slowly, but it appeared innocent enough
He gasped a bit, rubbing his bruised wrist
"Give me back those papers"
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE
THE FIRST STEP
I had placed the lumber inside the yard as directed, and was already rehitching the traces, when the man crossed the street slowly, switching his light cane carelessly in the air. I had noticed him before standing there in the doorway of the drug store, my attention attracted by the fashionable cut of his clothes, and the manner in which he watched me work. Now, as he rounded the heads of the mules, I straightened up, observing him more closely. He was forty or forty-five, heavily built, with a rather pasty-white face, a large nose, eyes unusually deep set, and a closely clipped mustache beginning to gray. His dress was correct to a button, and there was a pleasant look to the mouth which served to mitigate the otherwise hard expression of countenance. As I faced him in some surprise he looked me fairly in the eyes.
"Been at this job long?" he asked easily.
"Three days," I replied unhesitatingly, drawing the reins through my hands.
"Well, I 've had worse and better," with a laugh. "I prefer this to my last one."
"What was that?"
"Ridin' blind baggage."
It was his turn to laugh, and he did so.
"I thought I was not mistaken," he said at last, sobering. "You are the same lad the train hands put off the Atlantic Express at Vernon a week ago."
I nodded, beginning to suspect him of being a fly-cop who had spotted me for a pull.
"I never noticed the name of the burg," I returned. "Why? were you there?"
"Yes, I came in on the same train. Just caught a glimpse of your face in the light of the brakeman's lantern. How did you get here?"
"Freight, two hours later."
"You 're not a bum, or you would n't be working."
I put one foot on the wheel, but he touched me on the sleeve with his cane.
"Wait a minute," and there was more animation in the tone. "I may have something better for you than this lumber wagon. I 'm right, ain't I, in guessing you 're no regular bum?"
"I 've bummed it most of the way from Frisco; I had to. I was homesick for the East, and lost my transportation."
"Transportation; I was discharged at the Presidio."
"Oh, I see," smiling again, and tapping the wheel with his stick; "the army—foreign service?"
"The Philippines three years; invalided home."
"By God, you don't look it," his eyes on me. "Never saw a more perfect animal. Fever?"
"No, bolo wound; got caught in the brush, and then lay out in a swamp all night, till our fellows got up."
He looked at his watch, and I climbed into my seat. "See here, I have n't time to talk now, but I believe you are the very fellow I am looking for. If you want an easier job than this," waving a gloved hand toward the pile of lumber, "come and see me and we 'll talk it over." He took a card out of a morocco case, and wrote a line on it. "Come to that address at nine o'clock tonight."
I took the bit of pasteboard as he handed it up.
"All right, sir, I 'll be there on time."
"Come to the side door," he added swiftly, lowering his voice, "the one on the south. Give three raps. By the way, what is your name?"
"Gordon Craig," I answered without pausing to think. His eyes twinkled shrewdly.
"Ever been known by any other?"
"I enlisted under another; I ran away from home, and was not of age."
"Oh, I see; well, that makes no difference to me. Don't forget, Craig, the side door at nine."
I glanced back as we turned the corner; he was still standing at the edge of the walk, tapping the concrete with his cane. Out of sight I looked curiously at the card. It was the advertisement of a clothing house, and on the back was written "P. B. Neale, 108 Chestnut Street."
The mules walked the half dozen blocks back to the lumber yard, while my mind reviewed this conversation. There was a bit of mystery to it which had fascination, because of a vague promise of adventure. Evidently this man Neale had need of a stranger to help him out in some scheme, and had picked me by chance as being the right party. Well, if the pay was good, and the purpose not criminal, I had no objections to the spice of danger. Indeed, that was what I loved in life, my heart throbbing eagerly in anticipation. I was young, full-blooded, strong, willing enough to take desperate chances for sufficient reward. There was a suspicion in my mind that all was not straight—Neale's questions, and the private signals to be given at a side door left that impression—yet I could only wait and learn, and besides, my conscience was not overly delicate. I had lived among a rough, reckless set, had experienced enough of the seamy side of life to be somewhat careless. I would take the chance, at least, in hope of escape from this routine.
All the rest of the day, for this meeting had occurred early in the afternoon, I labored quietly, loading and unloading lumber, my muscles aching from a species of toil to which I had not yet become accustomed, my mind active in imagination over the possibilities of this new employment. I was not obliged to live this sort of life, but the uneasy spirit of adventure held me. My father, from whom I had not heard a word in two years, was a prominent manufacturer in a New England village. The early death of my mother had left me to his care when I was but ten years old, and we failed to understand each other, drifting apart, until a final quarrel had sent me adrift. No doubt this was more my fault than his, although he was so deeply immersed in business that he failed utterly to understand the restless soul of a boy. I was in my junior year at Princeton, when the final break came, over an innocent youthful escapade, and, in my pride, I never even returned home to explain, but disappeared, drifting inevitably into the underworld, because of lack of training for anything better. This all occurred four years previous, three of which had been passed in the ranks, yet even now I was stubbornly resolved not to return unsuccessful. Perhaps in this new adventure I should discover the key with which to unlock the door of fortune.
I possessed a fairly decent suit of clothes, now pressed and cleaned after the rough trip from the coast, and dressed as carefully as possible in the dingy room of my boarding house. A glance into the cracked mirror convinced me, that, however I might have otherwise suffered from the years of hardship, I had not deteriorated physically. My face was bronzed by the sun, my muscles like iron, my eyes clear, every movement of my body evidencing strength, my features lean and clean cut under a head of closely trimmed hair. Satisfied with the inspection, confident of myself, I slipped the card in my pocket, and went out. It was still daylight, but there was a long walk before me. Chestnut Street was across the river, in the more aristocratic section. I had hauled lumber there the first day of my work, and recalled its characteristics—long rows of stone-front houses, with an occasional residence standing alone, set well back from the street. It was dark enough when I got there, and began seeking the number. I followed the block twice in uncertainty, so many of the houses were dark, but finally located the one I believed must be 108. It was slightly back from the street, a large stone mansion, surrounded by a low coping of brick and with no light showing anywhere. I was obliged to mount the front steps before I could assure myself this was the place. The street was deserted, except for two men talking under the electric light at the corner, and the only sound arose from the passing of a surface car a block away. The silence and loneliness got upon my nerves, but, without yielding, I followed the narrow cement walk around the corner of the house. Here it was dark in the shadow of the wall, yet one window on the first floor exhibited a faint glow at the edge of a closely drawn curtain. Encouraged slightly by this proof that the house was indeed occupied, I felt my way forward until I came to some stone steps, and a door. I rapped on the wood three times, my nerves tingling from excitement. There was a moment's delay, so that I lifted my hand again, and then the door opened silently. Within was like the black mouth of a cave, and I involuntarily took a step backward.
"This you, Craig?"
"Yes," I answered, half recognizing the cautious voice.
"All right then—come in. There is nothing to fear, the floor is level."
I stepped within, seeing nothing of the man, and the door was closed behind me. The sharp click of the latch convinced me it was secured by a spring lock.
"Turn on the light," said the voice at my side sharply. Instantly an electric bulb glowed dazzling overhead, and I blinked, about half blinded by the sudden change.
THE CASE OF PHILIP HENLEY
It was a rather narrow hallway and, with the exception of a thick carpet underfoot, unfurnished. Neale, appearing somewhat more slender in evening clothes, smiled at me genially, showing a gold-crowned tooth.
"Did not chance to hear your motor," he said easily, taking a cigarette case from his vest pocket. "You are a little late; what was it, tire trouble?"
"I came afoot," I answered, not overly-cordial. "It was farther across town than I supposed."
"Well, you 're here, and that is the main point. Have a cigarette. No?" as I shook my head. "All right, there are cigars in the room yonder—the second door to your left."
I entered where he indicated. It was a spacious apartment, evidently a library from the book-shelves along the walls, and the great writing table in the center. The high ceiling, and restful wall decorations were emphasized by all the furnishings, the soft rug, into which the feet sank noiselessly, the numerous leather-upholstered chairs, the luxurious couch, and the divan filling the bay-window. The only light was under a shaded globe on the central table, leaving the main apartment in shadows, but the windows had their heavy curtains closely drawn. The sole occupant was a man in evening dress, seated in a high-backed leather chair, facing the entrance, a small stand beside him, containing a half-filled glass, and an open box of cigars. Smoke circled above his head, his eyes upon me as I entered. With an indolent wave of one hand he seemingly invited me to take a vacant chair to the right, while Neale remained standing near the door.
This new position gave me a better view of his face, but I could not guess his age. His was one of those old-young faces, deeply lined, smooth-shaven, the hair clipped short, the flesh ashen-gray, the lips a mere straight slit, yielding a merciless expression; but the eyes, surveying me coldly, were the noticeable feature. They looked to be black, not large, but deep set, and with a most peculiar gleam, almost that of insanity, in their intense stare. Even as he lounged back amid the chair cushions I could see that he was tall, and a bit angular, his hand, holding a cigar, evidencing unusual strength. He must have stared at me a full minute, much as a jockey would examine a horse, before he resumed smoking.
"He will do very well, Neale," he decided, with a glance across at the other. "Possibly a trifle young."
"He has roughed it," returned the other reassuringly, "and that means more than years."
The first man laughed rather unpleasantly, and emptied his glass.
"So I have discovered. Have a cigar, or a drink, Craig?"
"I will smoke."
He passed me the box, watching me while I lighted the perfecto, Neale crossing to the divan.
"How old are you?"
"I thought about that. What part of the country do you hail from?" and I noticed now a faint Southern accent in the drawl of his voice.
"Ever been south?"
"Only as far as St. Louis. I was at Jefferson Barracks."
"Neale said you were in the army—full enlistment?"
"Yes; discharged as corporal."
"Ah; what regiment?"
His black eyes swept across toward Neale, his fingers drumming nervously on the leather arm of the chair.
"Exactly; then your service was in Oregon and the Philippines. Tramped some since, I understand—broke?"
"No," shortly, not greatly enjoying his style of questioning. "I 've got three dollars."
"A magnificent sum," chuckling. "However, the point is, you would be glad of a job that paid well, and would n't mind if there was a bit of excitement connected with it—hey?"
"What is your idea of paying well?"
"Expenses liberally figured," he replied slowly, "and ten thousand dollars for a year's work, if done right."
I half rose to my feet in surprise, believing he was making sport, but the fellow never moved or smiled.
"Sit down, man. This is no pipe dream, and I mean it. In fact, I am willing to hand you half of the money down. That 's all right, Neale," he added as the other made a gesture of dissent. "I know my business, and enough about men to judge Craig here for that amount. That we are in earnest we have got to assure him someway, and money talks best. See here, Craig," and he leaned forward, peering into my face, "you look to me like the right man for what we want done; you are young, strong, sufficiently intelligent, and a natural fighter. All right, I 'm sporting man enough to bet five thousand on your making good. If you fail it will be worse for you, that's all. I 'm not a good man to double-cross, see! All you have got to do to earn your money is obey orders strictly, and keep your tongue still. Do you get that?"
I nodded, waiting to learn more.
"It may require a year, but more likely much less time. That makes no difference—it will be ten thousand for you just the same," his voice had grown crisp and sharp. "What do you say?"
"That the proposition looks good, only I should like to know a little more clearly what I am expected to do."
"A bit squeamish, hey! got a troublesome conscience?"
"Not particularly—but there is a limit."
He slowly lit a fresh cigar, studying the expression of my face in the light, as though deciding upon a course of action. Neale moved uneasily, but made no attempt to break the silence. Finally, with a more noticeable drawl in his voice, the man in the armchair began his explanation.
"Very good; we 'll come down to facts. It will not take long. In the first place my name is Vail—Justus C. Vail. That may tell you who I am?"
I shook my head negatively.
"No; well, I am a lawyer of some reputation in this State, and my entire interest in this affair is that of legal adviser to Mr. Neale. With this in mind I will state briefly the peculiar circumstances wherein you are involved." He checked the points off carefully with one hand, occasionally glancing at a slip of paper lying on the table as though to refresh his memory. I listened intently, watching his face, and dimly conscious of Neale's restlessness. "Here is the case as submitted to me: Judge Philo Henley, formerly of the United States Circuit Court, retired at sixty-four and settled upon a large plantation near Carrollton, Alabama. His wife died soon after, and, a week or so ago, the Judge also departed this life, leaving an estate valued in excess of five hundred thousand dollars. Philo Henley and wife had but one child, now a young man of twenty-five years, named Philip. As a boy he was wild and unmanageable, and, finally, when about twenty years old, some prank occurred of so serious a nature that the lad ran away. He came North, and was unheard-of for some time, living under an assumed name. Later some slight correspondence ensued between father and son, and the boy was granted a regular allowance. The father was a very eccentric man, harsh and unforgiving, and, while giving the boy money, never extended an invitation to return home. Consequently Philip remained in the North, and led his own life. He became dissipated, and a rounder, and drifted into evil associations. Finally, about six months ago, he married a girl in this city, not of wealthy family, but of respectable antecedents. Her home, we understand, was in Spokane, and she had an engagement on the stage when she first met Henley. He married her under his assumed name and they began housekeeping in a flat on the north side."
He paused in his recital, took a drink, his eyes turning toward Neale; then resumed in the same level voice:
"The Judge learned of this marriage in some way, and began to insist that the son return home with his wife. Circumstances prevented, however, and the visit was deferred. Meanwhile, becoming more eccentric as he grew older, the father discharged all his old servants, and lived the life of a recluse. When he died suddenly, and almost alone, he left a will, probably drawn up soon after he learned of his son's wedding, leaving his property to Philip, providing the young man returned, with his wife, to live upon the estate within six months; otherwise the entire estate should be divided among certain named charities. Three administrators were named, of whom Neale here was one."
I glanced back at the man referred to; he was leaning forward, his elbow on his knees, and, catching my eyes, drew a legal-looking paper from his pocket.
"Here is a copy of the will," he said, "if Craig cares to examine it."
"Not now," I replied. "Let me hear the entire story first."
Vail leaned back in his chair, a cigar between his lips.
"The administrators," he went on, as though uninterrupted, and repeating a set speech, "endeavored to locate young Henley, but failed. Then Mr. Neale was sent here to make a personal search. He came to me for aid, and legal advice. Finally we found the flat where the young couple had lived. It was deserted, and we learned from neighbors that they had quarreled, and the wife left him. We have been unable to discover her whereabouts. She did not return to, or communicate with, her own people in the West, or with any former friends in this city. She simply disappeared, and we have some reason to believe committed suicide. The body of a young woman, fitting her general description, was taken from the river, and buried without identification."
"And young Henley?" I asked, as he paused.
"Henley," he continued gravely, "was at last located, under an assumed name, as a prisoner in the Indiana penitentiary at Michigan City, serving a sentence of fourteen years for forgery. He positively refuses to identify himself as Philip Henley, and all our efforts to gain him a pardon have failed."
"But what have I to do with all this?" I questioned, beginning to have a faint glimmer of the truth.
"Wait, and I will explain fully. Don't interrupt until I am done. Here was a peculiar situation. The administrators are all old personal friends of the testator, anxious to have the estate retained in the family. How could this be accomplished? Neale laid the case before me. I can see but one feasible method—illegal, to be sure, and yet justifiable under the circumstances. Someone must impersonate Philip Henley long enough to permit the settlement of the estate."
I rose to my feet indignantly.
"And you thought I would consent? would be a party to this fraud?"
"Now, wait, Craig," as calmly as ever. "This is nothing to be ashamed of, nor, so far as I can see, as a lawyer, does it involve danger. It will make a man of Henley, reunite him with his wife if she still lives, and give him standing in the world. Scattered about among charities the Lord knows who it would benefit—a lot of beggars likely. We are merely helping the boy to retain what is rightfully his. Don't throw this chance away, hastily—ten thousand dollars is pretty good pay for a couple of months' work."
I sank back into my chair undecided, yet caught by the glitter of the promise. Why not? Surely, it would do no harm, and, if the administrators were satisfied, what cause had I to object. They were responsible, and, if they thought this the best course, I might just as well take my profit. If not they would find someone else who would.
"But—but can that be done?" I asked hesitatingly.
Vail smiled, confident of my yielding.
"Easily," he assured. "Young Henley has been away five years; even before that he was absent at school so much as to be practically unknown except to the older servants. These have all been discharged, and scattered. The wife is entirely unknown there. Anyone, bearing ever so slight a resemblance, would pass muster. All you need do is read the father's letters over, post yourself on a few details and take possession. We will attend to all legal matters."
"Then you consider that I resemble Henley?"
"No," coolly, "not in any remarkable manner, but sufficient for our purpose—age, size, general appearance answers very well; nose, eyes and hair are alike, and general contour of the face is similar. There is not likely to be any close scrutiny. Here is young Henley's photograph."
He picked it up from among the papers, and handed it over to me. There was a resemblance, recognizable now that my attention had been called to it, certain features being remarkably similar, although the face in the picture wore a hard, dissipated look utterly at variance with my own. I glanced at the endorsement on the back.
"He was going to send this photograph to his father."
"Yes, but never did. Apparently there is no flaw in our plan."
I ACCEPT THE OFFER
I do not know how others might have looked upon such a proposition as this, but it never occurred to me at the time to doubt the honesty of Vail's statement, nor could I perceive any great wrong in the action so calmly proposed. This was Philip Henley's property; his father undoubtedly intended he should inherit it, and the poor devil was utterly unable to comply with the terms of the will. The very fact that he possessed sufficient pride to part with the inheritance rather than openly reveal his disgrace, appealed strongly. That sort of fellow must have a strain of manhood in him. If I could serve him, save the property for him, at almost no danger to myself, and make a tidy sum of money doing it, why shouldn't I consent? I saw no reason for refusal. To be sure the method was not lawful, yet was advised by a lawyer, and agreed to by the administrators. Besides, the keeping of a few promiscuous charities out of such a gift did not seem especially wrong—I knew nothing, cared nothing for their loss. They were but names of no significance. Vail, watching the expression of my face in the light, seemed to divine my thoughts.
"Evidently you are recovering your good sense," he remarked easily. "There is no use acting like a fool in a matter of this kind. You are lucky to fall into such a chance. You 'll act, I take it?"
"Yes," the word was out almost before I was aware of speaking.
"Sensible decision, my man," his face lighting up. "Now there is no need of our meeting again, or being seen together. The more quiet we can keep our plans, the better it will be for all concerned. Neale, hand Craig your copy of the articles of administration, and of the will."
I took these and read them over carefully, yet without fully comprehending the legal phraseology. They were apparently genuine, and I gathered from them that the facts were exactly as stated. Peter B. Neale, of Birmingham, was named one of the administrators. The two men watched me read, and when I laid the papers down Vail was ready with others.
"Here is a small packet of letters from Judge Henley to his son," he said, in a business-like way, "which you had better read, and so familiarize yourself with local names, and conditions. I have also drawn up, and had typed, a brief sketch of young Henley's life, which will aid you in playing the part. You will need a new outfit of clothes, I presume?"
"This is my best suit."
"I thought it probable. Now, if you will sign this paper, I will hand you a liberal advance."
I read it over slowly, but it appeared innocent enough. Of course they would require some guarantee that my work would be performed. Yet certain questions arose to my mind.
"As soon as the property is legally in my possession I am to deed it over to you?"
"Certainly; I represent the administrators, and the rightful heir."
"That will involve forgery on my part."
He waved his hand, as though brushing away an insect.
"Technically, yes; but under legal advice, my dear boy, and agreement of the officials interested in proper settlement of the estate. There is no danger whatever."
I was not assured as to this, and yet the man's easy manner, and smooth speech, served to ease my conscience.
"And the ten thousand dollars?" I asked.
"A thousand will be handed you tonight; the remainder may be retained at the final settlement, together with the compensation of the woman. You make your own terms with her; so you see you cannot lose. Sign here."
"I had forgotten the woman. Is she necessary?"
"It will be better to have one, as they know down there young Henley was lately married. Any good-looker, with an easy conscience, will do. You could coach her on the train."
"But I don't know a young woman in town," I admitted soberly, "except my landlady's daughter, and she 's the limit."
Vail and Neale both laughed.
"You 're slow, Craig," the former said good-humoredly. "I thought better of you than that. However, you will have all day tomorrow. Get on your new clothes, and look around. There 's plenty would jump at the chance."
I shook my head.
"That's altogether out of my line," I averred. "I 'd rather go alone."
"Well, we 'll not war over that. You can leave your wife North if you wish. I tell you what you do. Think it over, and call me up by 'phone about three o'clock tomorrow—here's the number. If you decide on taking a woman along I know one who will answer, and will have her at the train."
"I am to leave then tomorrow night?"
"Yes, over the Eastern Illinois, at 8:10."
There was a moment's silence; then he rustled the paper on the table, and held out a fountain pen.
I was not hypnotized, or unduly controlled; my mind seemed clear, but I yielded without a word and wrote my name at the bottom of the sheet. Vail blotted it carefully, folded the paper, and placed it in a drawer of the table. Then he handed me two bills.
"There is a thousand dollars there, Craig, and I will send you a typewritten memoranda of instructions, covering all points in the game. Where can I be sure of finding you at three o'clock tomorrow?"
"At 407 Green Street."
"All right; as soon as you read those instructions call me up by 'phone, and let me know what you have done regarding a woman, and ask any questions you may desire. That will be all now. Neale, you might show Craig the way out."
He put out his arm, and we shook hands, although he did not arise from the chair. It had all been accomplished so suddenly that I felt confused, uncertain as to what I had best do. Only the feel of those bills in my pocket seemed real, and made me fully aware that I was pledged to the service. Neale stepped into the hall, and I followed him. The entry way was in darkness, and the man went to the side door without switching on the light.
"Is this Mr. Vail's house?" I questioned, and he drew the latch.
"Yes, and, by the way, it will be as well for you to go out cautiously, and not be seen. We want to play safe, you know."
The door opened and closed, leaving me outside in the house shadow.
AN ESCAPE FROM ARREST
It was then that the power of thought returned to me. However glibly those two conspirators might gild over the affair it nevertheless was a criminal matter to which I had blindly committed myself. Neale's parting words of warning alone made that clearly evident. They understood the risk of discovery, and now I also comprehended it with equal clearness. Fraud and forgery were contemplated, had been coolly planned, and it occurred to me that I was the one selected for sacrifice in case of discovery. Vail and Neale were probably safe enough, as it would be easy for them to deny any participation, but they had me bound fast. However, I had no thought of withdrawal from the contract, for, while I saw the danger involved, and realized the illegality, yet I failed utterly to perceive any real evil. I did not doubt the truth of all that had been told me, and was willing to assume the risk. I fingered the crisp bills in my pocket, and the words "ten thousand dollars" kept repeating themselves over and over. Of course I would do it; I should be a fool not to. It would be "easy money," and my earning it could harm no one.
Not a glimmer of light appeared from within the house I had just left, and I drew my cap down over my eyes, and stared about, listening. The hour could not be far from midnight, the night dark, the air heavy with mist. Glancing out between the houses I caught a glimpse of asphalt pavement glistening with moisture, and the distant electric light above the street intersection appeared blurred and yellow. Here, in the heart of the residential district, the last belated cab had already drifted by, leaving the silence profound, the loneliness complete. Two blocks away a trolley-car swept past, an odd, violet light playing along the wire, grotesque shadows showing briefly amid the enveloping folds of vapor. The discordant clang of the gong died away into the far distance. Crouching there in the shade of the wall I felt like a criminal. Then, angry at myself, I advanced slowly forward, yet keeping well under cover.
The light fell slanting across the stone steps in front, and revealed a narrow opening through the brick coping beyond. I must pass that way in reaching the street, but hesitated to go forward boldly. I could see only a few feet in any direction, as the fog was thickening, driving along the soaked pavement in dense gray clouds, already beginning to blot from view the houses opposite. Another trolley-car, dismally clanging its gong, paused a moment at some near-by corner, and then passed noisily on. The way seemed clear, the street utterly deserted, and, nerving myself to the effort, I crept cautiously forward, until I crouched behind the brick coping. There was not a disturbing sound, and I straightened up, essaying the first quick step forth into the full gleam of the light. Like some confronting ghost, scarcely more real than a phantom of imagination, I came face to face with a woman.
She had turned swiftly into the narrow gateway leading through the brick coping, hurrying silently as if pursued, her foot barely planted upon the step when we met. I stopped, speechless, rigid, my outstretched hand gripping the rail, but the woman drew hastily back, her lips parted in a sudden sob of surprise, one hand flung out as if in self-protection. It was instantaneous, yet before either could move otherwise, or utter a word of explanation, a heavy footfall crunched along the walk, and a burly police officer, his star gleaming ominously in the dull light, rounded the corner a dozen feet away. Neither of us stirred, staring into each other's bewildered faces, and before either fully realized the situation, the strong, suspicious hand of the law had gripped my shoulder.
"Here, now, an' what the hell are ye oop too, me fine buck?" he questioned roughly, swinging me about into the light. "Give an account o' yer-self moighty quick, 'er I 'll run ye in."
Startled, recalling the money hidden in my pocket, the last injunction of Neale, I could think of no excuse, no explanation. The girl, still staring blankly at me, must have perceived how I instinctively shrank back, my lips moving in an impotent effort at speech. Some sudden impulse changed her fright into sympathy. However it was the officer who impatiently broke the silence, swinging his night stick menacingly:
"Come on now, me lad, hav' ye lost yer voice entoirely? Spake oop loively—whut ther hell are the two ov' yer oop to, onyhow?"
She started forward, just a step.
"Nothing in the least wrong, officer," her voice trembling slightly, yet sounding clearly distinct. "He—he was merely accompanying me home from a dance."
"Over—over there on 43rd Street."
"An' do yer live here?" the gruff tone still vibrant with suspicion. "Fer if ye do, yer 're sure a new gurl," and he peered at her shadowed face in the dim light. She drew in her breath sharply.
"No," her voice steadying, now she realized she must carry out the deception. "My place is three blocks yet, around the next corner."
"Thet 's a prutty thin story, Miss. Then whut wus the two ov' yer doin' in here?"
She clutched the brick coping with one hand, never glancing toward me, her eyes fixed imploringly on the glistening face of the questioning policeman. Yet she responded instantly with the quick wit of a clever woman.
"I had my foot on the step, tying my shoe," she explained simply. "You don't arrest people for that, do you?"
It was plain enough the officer was puzzled, yet he reluctantly released his grip on my arm, boring the end of his club into the brick wall.
"It's half Oi' belave yer stringin' me roight now," he announced doubtfully, "but Oi 'll give yer ther benefit ov' the doubt; only the two ov' yer better kape on a-goin' till yer git under cover. Don't let me run across yer along this beat agin ternight. Be gory av yer do, Oi 'll let yer explain to ther sargint over at ther station. Go on now!"
I felt her hand touch my sleeve timidly, and caught a swift glimpse of her eyes. We must carry out the deception now, and go away together. There was no other choice. The policeman stared after us through the mist, rolling his night stick in his hand. I heard him mutter to himself:
"It 's a rum go o' sum koind. Thet guy ain't dressed fer no dance. But, dom me, if she 's the koind o' female ter run in aither. Lord, but she 's got a foine pair o' eyes in the face ov' her."
Close together, without venturing to speak or glance around, we walked forward into the enveloping mist. Her fingers, for appearances' sake, barely touched the rough cloth of my sleeve. All this had occurred so swiftly, so suddenly, that I was yet bewildered, unable to decide on a course of action. The girl, I noticed, was breathing heavily from excitement, her eyes cast down upon the wet pavement. Once, beneath the glow of the lamp at the first corner, I ventured to glance slyly aside at her, in curiosity, mentally photographing the clear outline of her features, the strands of light brown hair straggling rebelliously from beneath the wide brim of the hat. I was of rather reckless nature, careless, and indifferent in my relationship with women. A bit of audacious speech trembled on my lips, but remained unuttered. My earlier conception that she was a woman of the street died within me. There was more than a mere hint of character about that resolute mouth, the white contour of cheek. She glanced furtively back across her shoulder—evidently the policeman had disappeared, for she released her slight grasp of my arm, although continuing to walk quietly enough by my side, her face partially averted. The night was deathly still, the sodden walk underfoot scarcely echoing our footfalls, the weird mist closing denser about us, as we advanced.
At the second street intersection she turned east, advancing toward where passing trolley-cars promised some life and activity even at that late hour. Helpless to do otherwise I moved along with her in the same direction, our grotesque shadows dimly discernible beneath the yellow mist of light. Impulsively she stopped, and faced me, her hands clasped.
"I—I—please—I will say good night, now," she said, endeavoring to speak firmly, yet with no uplifting of the eyes.
Hesitatingly I stood still, feeling strangely embarrassed by this sudden curt dismissal.
"Do—do you mean you wish me to leave you alone on the street at this hour?" I questioned uneasily. "At least permit me to see you home safely. I will not hurt you, or speak a word."
There was a tone of earnestness in my plea but she only shook her head decisively, lips pressed close together. The faint glow of the overhead light rested on the slightly uplifted face, and the sight of her features yielded me fresh confidence.
"You have no cause to feel afraid of me," I went on soberly, in the silence. "Can't you tell that by my face?" and I removed my cap, standing before her uncovered. She lifted her lashes, startled and curious, gazing at me for the first time. I met her glance fairly, and the slight resentment in her eyes faded, her clasped hands moving uneasily.
"I—I am not afraid of—of you," she returned at last doubtfully. "It is not that, but—but really I cannot permit you to accompany me farther."
"Only to the place where you said you lived," I urged eagerly. "I promise not even to take note of the number, and will never bother you any more."
Her fine eyes hardened; then sank slowly before mine.
"That—that was a lie also," she acknowledged, half defiantly. "I—I do not live about here."
I stared at her in sudden doubt, yet remained loyal to my first impression.
"All the greater reason then for not leaving you here alone."
She laughed, a faint tinge of bitterness in the sound.
"Surely you cannot imagine I would feel any safer in company with a burglar?" she asked sharply. My face flushed.
"Why accuse me of that?" I asked quickly. "Merely because I was in that yard?"
She drew back a step, one hand grasping her skirt.
"Not altogether. You were hiding there, and—and you were afraid of the policeman."
I could not explain; it would require too long, and she would in all probability refuse to believe the story. Besides, what difference could it make? She had as much to explain as I; no more reason to suspect me than I had her. Let us meet then on common ground.
"If I grant your hasty guess to be partially correct," I returned finally, my voice deepening with earnestness, "and confess I was avoiding observation—what then? Can you not also believe me a man capable of treating you honorably? Is it totally impossible for you to conceive of circumstances so compelling, as to cause one to avoid the police, and yet involve no real loss of manhood?"
She bowed her head slightly, lowering her eyes before mine. My earnestness, my apparent education, were clearly a surprise.
"Yes," she confessed reluctantly enough. "I—I believe I can. There was a time when I could not, but I can now."
"Then yield me the benefit of such charity of judgment," I went on. "At least do not altogether condemn me on mere circumstantial evidence, and before you learn what has led up to the events of the night. At least give me opportunity to exhibit my gratitude."
She remained silent, motionless.
"Why not? Is it because you have no confidence in me?" I insisted.
She put out one hand, grasping the iron rail of a fence, and I thought I could see her form tremble.
"Oh, no! it—it is not that exactly," she explained brokenly. "I believe I—-I might trust you, but—but of course I do not know. I think you—you mean well; your words sound honest, and your—your face inspires confidence. Only I have found so much deceit, so much cruelty and heartlessness in the world I have become afraid of everyone. But I—I simply cannot let you go with me—oh! please don't urge it!"
I leaned forward, my face full of sympathy, my voice low and earnest.
"And do you suppose I will consent to desert you after that confession?" I questioned, almost indignant. "I would be a brute to do so. You saved me from arrest just now; for me to have been taken to the station house and searched would have put me in a bad hole. It was your wit that saved me, and now I am going to stay and help you. I 'll not leave you alone here in the street at this hour of the night."
She looked at me, her eyes wide open, shining like stars, her face picturing perplexity, not unmixed with fear, one hand yet gripping the supporting rail, the other pressed against her forehead.
"Oh, but you must! indeed, you must!" the words scarcely more than sobs. "I—I have no place to go!"
I drew in my breath sharply, my lips set in a straight line. Already had I half-suspicioned this truth, and yet there was that about the girl—her manner, her words, even her dress—which would not permit me to class her among the homeless, the city outcasts.
"You mean that you are actually upon the streets, with—with no place to go?"
She did not answer, her head bowed, her face suddenly showing white and haggard. I stared at her with swift realization.
"My God, girl! and—and I actually believe you are hungry!"
Her eyes uplifted to my face dumb with agony, her hand grasp upon the rail tightening. Then she pitifully endeavored to smile.
"I—I am afraid I am, just a little." She acknowledged slowly, as though the words were wrung out of her.
I straightened up, with shoulders flung back. All that was strong, determined in my nature, came leaping to the surface. It was my time to act.
"Then that settles it. You are coming with me. No! don't shake your head; I shall have my way this time. There is a respectable all-night place over there on Desmet Street. I ate there once a week ago. We 'll go together."
She drew back, still clinging helplessly to the rail, her eyes on my face.
"Oh! you must not—I—"
My hand touched her arm.
"Yes, but I shall," I insisted, almost sternly. "Good Heavens, do you suppose I will leave you here on the street hungry? I 'd never rest easy another night as long as I lived. You are going with me."
Feeling my determination she made no further resistance, and I half supported her as we moved slowly forward through the mist, her face turned away, her arm trembling beneath the firm clasp of my fingers. As we advanced I became conscious that my own position was an awkward one. I had no money of my own with me—not a cent other than those two five-hundred dollar bills handed me by Vail. The uselessness of attempting to pass one of these was apparent; it would be better to plead lack of cash, and put up some security if the man in charge refused credit. At whatever cost the girl must have food.
It was much brighter on Desmet Street, numerous electric signs, advertising various places of business, even at this late hour, continuing to exhibit their rotating colors, while not a few of the shop windows remained brilliantly illuminated. Occasionally a belated pedestrian passed, while trolley-cars clanged their way through the fog, approaching and vanishing in a purple haze. Three doors around the corner was the all-night restaurant, through the glass front revealing a lunch counter, and a number of cloth-draped tables awaiting occupants. A few of these were in use, a single waiter catering to the guests; a woman was scrubbing the floor under the cigar stand, while a round-faced, rather genial-looking young fellow, stood, leaning negligently against the cashier's desk. Rather doubtfully I glanced uneasily up and down the deserted street, and then aside into the still averted face of my chance companion. I had no desire she should comprehend my dilemma.
"Would you mind waiting out here on the step a moment?" I questioned awkwardly, attempting to explain. "Only until I make sure who are inside. There are some fellows I am not friendly with, and I am not hunting a rough house with a girl to look after. You won't care for just a minute, will you?"
"No," wearily, "I won't mind."
"You 'll promise not to go away?"
She shook her head, her eyes staring dully into the mist.
"No; I won't go away. Where could I go?"
Scarcely satisfied, yet feeling obliged to take the chance, I stepped within, and advanced across the room toward the man at the cashier's desk. He glanced up curiously as I approached, and spoke low, so as not to attract the attention of others.
"Pardner, is my credit good for two meals?" I asked genially. "I guess you 've seen me in here before—I drive for the Wooster Lumber Company." A night cashier in that neighborhood becomes early habituated to tales of hard luck. It requires but a few lessons to render suspicion paramount. The round-faced man, all geniality vanished, stared directly into my face.
"Oh, yes, I 've seen you before, I reckon," he acknowledged noncommitally. "But that does n't necessarily mean we are ready to do a credit business. Been fired?"
"No; just happen to be short of cash, and need to eat. I 'll hand it to you tomorrow."
"I 've heard that song before. I reckon you 'll have to try your luck somewhere else, unless you 've got the price."
"That's the last word, is it?"
"Sure thing," indifferently. "Nothing doing."
Realizing the utter uselessness of argument, or of exhibiting my large bills, I reached inside my coat, unpinned, and held before him on the desk a bronze medal, fastened to a colored ribbon.
"Well, is this good for the price?" I questioned. "There 's two of us."
The round-faced cashier bent forward to look, his eyes widening with aroused interest. Then he glanced up inquiringly into my face.
"Yours?" he asked in open suspicion.
"Ought to be; cost me a Mauser bullet, a dozen bolo cuts, and eight weeks' hospital."
The cashier was visibly impressed, turning the medal over in his hands.
"So! Where was all this?"
"Down in a rice paddy; place called Baliancan."
The cashier's black eyes flashed, and he extended a cordial hand.
"Put her there, Amigo," he broke forth warmly. "Lord! but maybe I don't remember! Say, but you fellows were a husky lot o' bucks. Knew ye? I rather guess I did. I was bunkin' then with the First Nebraska. Sure, I 'll stand ye for the meal. Put back yer plaything, and bring in yer pardner—this spread is on the house. The Third Cavalry has divided chuck with me mor'n once, an' I ain't goin' back on one of the boys for the price of a meal."
Our hands met, clasped closely lying across the desk, our eyes glowing with suddenly aroused memories of comradeship in a foreign land. Then I repinned the medal to the front of my rough shirt, gulping a bit as I strove to speak calmly.
"It's a woman," I explained, nodding toward the door. "I found her out there hungry. Could we have that table yonder behind the screen?"
"Sure; and don't be afraid to order the best in the house. Damn me, but that was some fight we had at Baliancan, even if the history folks don't say much about it. I can see you Third Cavalry fellows goin' in now, up to yer waists in water, an' we wa'nt mor'n a hundred feet behind. Did you see them Filipino trenches after we took 'em?"
I shook my head.
"No; I was down and out long before then."
"Hell of a sight, believe me—jammed full o' little brown men, deader than door nails. They died a fighting, all right, an' they sure gave us a belly full that day. Lost sixteen out o' my company."
Our eyes lingered an instant on each other's faces; then I turned away, and walked to the door. She was waiting motionless, her back to the window, and, when I spoke, followed me in without a word. I led the way to the secluded table behind the screen, seated her, and took the chair opposite. Without questioning her wishes I ordered for both, the girl sitting in silence, her face bent low over the menu card, a red flush on either cheek. Still obsessed with vague suspicion of her character I could not forbear a suggestion.
"What will you have to drink?" I asked, as the waiter turned aside. "I 'd rather like a cocktail to drive the wet out of my system. Shall I make it two?"
She glanced up quickly from under shading lashes, her eyes, big and brown, meeting my own.
"I prefer coffee; that will be quite sufficient."
I ran my hand through my hair.
"Don't you ever drink anything stronger?" I asked, almost tempted to apologize. "You know lots of women do."
"I have never formed the habit."
"Cocktail for you, sir?" said the waiter briskly, flipping his towel on the table. "Martini, or Manhattan?"
I dropped my gaze from the girl's face to the menu card. It seemed to me her eyes had pleaded with me.
"No; make mine coffee too," I replied gravely, "and hurry the cook up, will you."
We sat there waiting without further speech, she nervously fingering the card, her eyes veiled by lowered lashes. I glanced cautiously across at her, conscious of my cheap clothing, and vaguely wondering why my usual off-hand address had so suddenly failed. I felt embarrassed, unable to break the silence by any sensible utterance. My eyes rested upon her hands, white, slender, ringless. They were hands of refinement, and my gaze, fascinated by the swiftly recurring memory of other days, arose slowly to a contemplation of her face. I had seen it heretofore merely in shadow, scarcely with intelligent observation, but now, beneath the full glare of electric light, its revealment awoke me to eager interest. It was a womanly face, strong, true, filled with character, not so apt, perhaps, to be considered pretty, as lovable—a face to awaken confidence, and trust; a low, broad forehead, shadowed still by the wide-brimmed hat, and the flossy brown hair; the skin clear, the cheeks rounded, and slightly flushed by excitement; the lips full and finely arched; the chin firm and smooth. Her greatest claim to beauty was the eyes, now securely veiled behind long, downcast lashes. Yet I recalled their depth and expression with a sudden surging of red, riotous blood through my veins. As I sat there, uncertain how I might break the embarrassing silence, she suddenly glanced up questioningly.
"You—you do not at all understand my position, do you?" she asked timidly. "I mean why I should be homeless, on the street, alone at—at such an hour?"
"No," I responded, surprised into frankness, "you do not seem like that kind."
A wave of color flooded her clear cheeks, the brown eyes darkening.
"And I am not that kind," she exclaimed proudly, her head flung back, revealing the round, white throat. "You must comprehend that fact at once."
WE OPEN CONFIDENCES
I bent my head, impressed by her earnestness, every instinct of a gentleman born, returning instantly.
"I do comprehend," I admitted seriously. "Believe me I have felt the truth of this ever since I first saw your face. You have ample reason for misjudging me, for believing me a criminal, but I possess no excuse for even questioning you. Shall we not permit the whole matter to rest there, and pretend at being friends for the moment? You have already acknowledged being both homeless and hungry. What more do I need know to be of assistance? The cause of such a condition is no business of mine, unless you choose to tell me voluntarily. You may not consider me a gentleman," and I glanced down at my cheap suit. "Yet surely you cannot regard me as a mere brute."
She continued to gaze at me, her eyes misty, yet full of wonderment. My language was not that of the slums, nor were my manners. To her I must have seemed as strange a character, as she appeared to me. We were both advancing blindly through the dark.
"You are also," she affirmed finally, as if half regretting the words. "You are just as penniless as I."
"Why should you say that?"
"Because I know," and by now her eyes were blinded by the tears clinging to her lashes. "You—you humiliated yourself to serve me; you—you were obliged to pawn something in security for this food. I—I saw you—your excuse for leaving me outside was just a sham. You had no money. I watched through the window, and—and I almost ran away, only my promise held me."
I laughed uneasily, yet sobered almost at once, leaning across the table, all earlier embarrassment vanished.
"Well, even at that, it would not be my first experience," I said swiftly. "Poverty is extremely unpleasant, but not a crime. Do not let that unfortunate condition of my exchequer spoil your appetite, my girl. I can assure you that is among the least of my troubles. In fact I have of late become hardened to that state of affairs. My life has been up and down; I 've ridden the top wave of prosperity, and have knocked against the rocks at the bottom. Lately I 've been on the rocks. But good luck, or bad, I am not the sort to desert a woman in distress."
"You are a man of some education?"
"Two years at the University."
I smiled grimly, determined to admit the worst.
"Little better than a tramp, I suppose, although I have held a job lately—driving for a lumber yard across the river."
A moment she sat in silence, her eyes lowered to the table.
"What—what was that you offered the man for security?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, nothing much. It had no intrinsic value, and the fellow would not even accept it. He was willing to trust me."
"Yes, but tell me what it was? Something you valued highly?"
I felt my cheeks reddening, yet there was no reason why I should not answer.
"It was a medal, an army medal."
"You were in the army then?"
"Yes, I served an enlistment in the Philippines, and was invalided home; discharged at the Presidio. Someway I have been up against tough luck ever since I got back. I think the climate over there must have locoed me; anyhow the liquor did. Tonight the pendulum is swinging the other way."
"Why do you think that?"
"I have met you, have I not?"
There was no brightening of her eyes, no acknowledgment of the words.
"To have the misery of another added to your own requires no congratulations," she said gravely. "But I am glad you told me. I know there are many who return home like that. I can understand why much better now than I could once. I have had experience also. It is so easy to drift wrong, when there is no one to help you go right. I used to believe this world was just a beautiful playground. I never dreamed what it really means to be hungry and homeless, to be alone among strangers. I had read of such things, but they never seemed real, or possible. But I know it all now; all the utter loneliness of a great city. Why it is easier to fall than to stand, and, oh! I was so desperate tonight. I—I actually believe I had come to the very end of the struggle. Whatever happens—whatever possibly can happen to me hereafter—I shall never again be the same thoughtless creature, never again become uncharitable to others in misery." Her eyes dropped before mine, yet only to uplift themselves again, shining with brave resolution. "Would you care to tell me what it is with you? What it is you fight?"
"I am afraid I do not fight, except physically," I confessed soberly. "Probably that is the whole trouble. If I have ever had a grip I 've lost it. However I 'm willing to tell my story, although it's a poor one, just the uninteresting recital of a fool. My home was in New England, my father a fairly successful manufacturer. My mother died while I was a child, and I grew up without restraining influence. I led an ordinary boy's life, but was always headstrong, and willful, excelling physically. My delight was hunting, and the out-of-doors. However I kept along with my studies after a fashion, and entered the University. Here I devoted most of my time to students' pranks, and athletics, but got through two years before being expelled. Interesting, is n't it?"
"Yes," she said. "It is what I wish to know."
"This expulsion resulted In a row at home," I went on, disgusted at myself. "And I took French leave. For six months I knocked about, doing a little of everything, having rather a tough time, but too obstinate to confess my mistake and return. Of course I naturally fell in with a hard set, and finally enlisted. My regiment was sent to the Philippines, where we had some fighting. I liked that, and was a good enough soldier to be promoted to a sergeantcy. I reckon I had better have remained in the service, for when I was sent back to Frisco, because of wounds, and then discharged, I went to hell."
"And your father does n't know?"
"Not from me. I had money at first, and transportation to Chicago where I enlisted. I blew in the cash, and lost the other. Then I started in to beat my passage east, working only when I had to. I was thrown off a train about twenty miles west of here, and came into this burg on foot. It was tough luck for a day or two until I caught on to a lumber yard job. I 've been working now for a couple of weeks. Nice record, is n't it?"
Her parted lips trembled, but those questioning brown eyes never deserted my face.
"It is not as bad as I feared, if—if you have told me all."
"I have confessed the worst anyhow. I 'm a rough, I suppose, and a bum, but I 'm not a criminal."
"Why were you at that house? and so afraid of the police?"
"Well, that is a long story," I replied hesitatingly. "I had been talking with some men inside, who had offered me work, and good pay. There was a reason why I did not wish to be seen coming out at that hour."
"Not—not anything criminal?"
"No; I 've confessed to being a good-for-nothing, but I 'm clear of crime."
She drew a long breath of relief.
"I do not quite believe," she said firmly. "You—you do not look like that."
I laughed in spite of my efforts.
"I am delighted to have you say so. No more do I feel like that now. Yet so the record reads, and you must accept me just as I am, or not at all. I have nothing else to offer."
She lowered her eyes, her fingers still nervously fumbling the menu card.
"Perhaps I have no more."
"I have asked no explanation of you."
"True; yet you cannot be devoid of curiosity. You meet me after midnight, wandering alone in the streets; you see me boldly, shamelessly, interfering to prevent the arrest of a strange man; you hear me deliberately falsify, again and again. What could you think of such a woman? Then I accept your invitation, and accompany you here, believing you a criminal. What possible respect could you, or any other man, entertain for a girl guilty of such indiscretion?"
"You ask my individual judgment, or that of the world?"
"Yours, of course; I know the other already."
I extended my hand across the table, and placed it over her own. A swift flush sprang to her cheeks, but she made no effort to draw away. The action was so natural, so unaffectedly sincere, as to awaken no resentment.
"I am a young man," I said earnestly, "but I have seen all kinds of life, both right and wrong, upper and lower. I can realize how easy it is to sit in a club window, and criticize the people passing along the street. That is an amusement of fools. The inclination to become one of that class left me long ago. Now I do not understand why you were upon the street tonight unattended; why you came to my assistance, or why you are here with me now. I have no desire to pry into your secret. I am content to remain grateful, to count this a red-letter day, because somehow, out of the mystery of the dark, we have thus been brought together. An old professor used to say all life hinges on little things, and I believe our chance meeting is going to change both our lives, and for the better. Without asking a question, or harboring a suspicion, I have faith in you—is that enough?"
"You mean, you accept me upon trust?"
"Certainly; even as you must accept me. I have no letters of recommendation."
She was again looking directly toward me, her brown eyes earnest and fearless.
"I—I confess I like your face," she admitted, "and I believe you have tried to tell me the truth about yourself, but our situation is so peculiar, so different from what I have been taught was proper." She smiled sadly, her eyes misting. "I am afraid you will not understand. You can scarcely appreciate how strictly I have been brought up, or what such an unconventional meeting as this means to me. I ought to be ashamed of myself."
"But are you?"
"Really I—I do not seem to be. It almost frightens me to realize I am not, I do not understand myself at all. Why should I talk thus frankly with you? Why feel confidence in you? It is not in accordance with the rules of my old life, nor of my nature. Such actions would shock those who know me; they ought to shock me. Am I in a dream, from which I am going to awaken presently? Is that the explanation?"
I shook my head.
"No, not in that sense, at least. Rather the other way around. You have been in a dream all your life—a dream that some social code somewhere constituted the real world. Under these petty regulations of conduct you were not yourself at all, only a make-believe. Something serious has occurred in your life, and changed all in an instant. You have been thrown against the real world. You find it not to be what you supposed. It is no cause for shame or regret; womanhood lies deeper than any pretense at gentility. Men seldom fail to recognize this fact—their lives of struggle compel them to, but a woman finds it hard to understand."
"To understand what?"
"How any man meeting her as I have you—in the street at night, under conditions society would frown at—can still feel for her a profound respect, and pay her the deference which a gentleman must always extend to one he deems worthy."
For a long moment she did not speak, but withdrew her hand from beneath mine, resting her chin in its palm.
"What is your name?" she asked finally.
The lashes drooped quickly, securely shadowing the brown depths, the flush deepening on her cheeks. In the momentary hush which followed the waiter came shuffling forward with our order.
THE WOMAN'S STORY
I had never supposed I lacked audacity, yet I found it strangely difficult to again pick up our conversation. This woman puzzled me; was becoming an enigma. She encouraged me, and yet something about her precluded all familiarity. I was haunted by the vague suspicion that she might be "stringing" me; that she was not as innocent as she pretended. Her eyes again glanced up, and met mine.
"It is a terrible experience being penniless, and alone," she said with a shudder. "I can never condemn some forms of evil as I once did, for now I have felt temptation myself. I—I have even learned to doubt my own strength of character. I walked past a great hotel last evening, and looked in through the windows, at the dining-room. It was brilliant with electric lights, in rose globes over the spotless tables, and hundreds of people were gathered about eating and drinking. I had been there myself more than once, yet then I was alone outside, in the misty street, penniless. I had no strength left, no virtue—I was in heart a criminal. Have you ever felt that?"
"Yes," I acknowledged, hopeful she would explain further. "I comprehend fully what you mean. Nature is stronger than any of us when it comes to the supreme trial."
"I had never known before. It is strange to confess such a thing, but it is true. I—I do not believe I am weak as compared with others. Never before have I had any occasion to question the supremacy of my will, yet I learned a lesson last night—that I am not a saint. I actually faced crime, and it did not even look horrible to me! it appeared justified. Even now, sitting here with you, I cannot believe I was wicked. You will not misconstrue my words, but—but life is not always the same, is it? How inexpressibly cruel a great city may be with glaring wealth flaunting itself in the pinched face of poverty. How can I help being rebellious now that I have seen all this through hungry eyes?"
Her hands were clasped above her plate, the slender fingers intertwined. I was looking at her so intently forgot to answer.
"I—I am glad I met you," she said frankly. "I—I think you have saved me from myself."
"You asked me my name," I broke in eagerly. "Would you mind telling me who you are?"
"I?" the clear cheeks reddening. "Why, I am only a fool."
"Then there is, at least, one tie between us. But, if we are to remain friends I must know how to address you."
Her red lips parted doubtfully, her brow wrinkling.
"Yes, and we cannot afford to be conventional, can we? I am Viola Bernard."
"I knew a girl once by that name; ages ago it seems now. A little thing in short skirts, but I thought her rather nice. I believe we are inclined to like names associated with pleasant memories. So I am glad your name is Viola."
"It was my mother's name," she said quietly, her eyes downcast, "and I am not sorry you like it." She stirred the coffee in her cup, watching the bubbles rise to the surface. "I feel more confidence in you than I did, because you have been so honest about yourself."
"I have told you the truth. I think I comprehend one trait, at least, of your character—you would never again trust one who had deliberately deceived you."
She did not remove her eyes from the cup, nor appear to note my interruption, but continued gravely:
"I must tell my story to someone; I can fight fate alone no longer. Perhaps I may not confess everything, for I do not know you well enough for that, but enough, at least, so you will no longer suspect that I—I am a bad woman."
"I could never really believe that."
"Oh, yes, you could. I have read in your face that my character puzzles you. You invited me to drink a cocktail to try me. Don't protest, for really I do not wonder at it, or blame you in the least. How could you think otherwise? My position was a strange one, bound to awaken suspicion; my conduct immodest. Yet you must accept my explanation, for I shall tell the truth. I was never guilty of such an act before—never! Perhaps because I was never tempted. There is a home I could return to, and a mother, but they are more than a thousand miles from here. But I cannot go, even if I possessed the means, because of my pride—my false pride possibly. I have chosen my course, and must abide by it to the end."
She drew a long breath, speaking very slowly.
"It is a hard story to tell, for the wound is still fresh, and hurts. I was upon the stage—not long, but with sufficient success so that I had become leading woman with one of the best stock companies. It was against my mother's wish I entered the profession, and she has never become reconciled to it, although our relationship remained pleasant. A few months ago, while playing in Omaha, I met Fred Bernard. I knew little of him, but he appeared gentlemanly and well-to-do, and was presented to me by one in whom I had confidence. He was pleasant, and apparently in love with me; I liked him, was flattered by his attentions, and discouraged in my ambition. When he asked me to marry him conditions were such that I accepted, even consented, under his urging, to an immediate ceremony. We came to this city, were quietly married here, and occupied a flat on the north side. My husband did no work, but received remittances from home, and apparently had plenty of means. He told me little about himself, or his condition, but promised to take me to his people in a little while. He said his father was wealthy, but eccentric; that he had told him of our marriage, but there had been a quarrel between them, and he could not take me there without an invitation. I was never shown the letters, but they bore Southern postmarks."
She paused, hesitating, her eyes full of pain.
"I—I was afraid to question, for—for he proved so different after our marriage. He was a drunkard, abusive and quarrelsome. I had never before been in intimate contact with anyone like that, and I was afraid of him. Whatever of love I might have felt died within me under abuse. He struck me the second day, and from that moment I dreaded his home-coming. For weeks I scarcely saw him sober, and his treatment of me was brutal."
Tears were in her eyes, but she held them back, forcing herself to go on.
"Then he was gone two days and nights leaving me alone. He reappeared the third evening in the worst condition I had ever seen him. He acted like a veritable savage, cursing and striking at me, and finally drove me from the house, flourishing a revolver in my face, and locking the door behind me. I—I sat there on the steps an hour, and endeavored to go back, but there was no response. I walked the streets, and then—having a little money with me—found a place to lodge. The next day I went back, but the flat was locked still, and neighbors said my husband had left with a traveling bag. I—I was actually thrown out upon the streets to starve."
Her voice lowered, so that I was compelled to lean closer to catch the rapidly spoken words.
"At first I—I was not altogether sorry. I thought it would be easy to find work. I was not afraid of that—but—but it was not easy. Oh! how hard I tried. I faced open insult; cowardly insinuation; brutal coarseness. I never dreamed before how men could treat women seeking honorable employment. Scarcely a courteous word greeted me. Refusal was blunt, imperative, or else, in those cases where vague encouragement was given, it was so worded as to cause my withdrawal in shame. If I had been skilled in any business line my reception might have been different; if I possessed recommendations, or could have frankly confessed the truth, perhaps I might have been given a chance. But as it was everywhere, suspicion was aroused by my reticence, my inability to explain, and the interview ended in curt dismissal, or suggestive innuendo."
She paused again, her bosom rising and falling, her cheeks flushed.
"Go on," I said, encouragingly. "Do not fear I shall misunderstand. I have been through the same mill."
She gave me a quick glance of gratitude, pressing back a straggling strand of hair.
"But you were not a woman," she insisted, "and could defend yourself from insult. I endeavored so hard to discover some opening; I even sought domestic service, and was examined as though I was a horse on sale. I walked the streets; I refused to despair, or permit myself to believe failure possible. I went home at night, tired out, to a little rented room in Forty-Ninth Street, prayed as I used to when a child, cried myself to sleep, only to wake up the next morning determined to continue. I was not weak then; I was as strong as any girl could be; I—I fought it out to the very last," her head suddenly drooping, "but—but the end came just the same. Perhaps I should never have hung on so long; perhaps it would have been better to have sent word to my mother, and asked help to go home. But—but I kept hoping to succeed, until it was too late. I spent all the little money I had, and pawned my rings. I had married against my mother's wish. I could not turn to her for help. Oh, I was tempted; I think you must know what I mean! You realize what temptation is; how it weakens, and conquers the soul?"
I closed my hand firmly over hers.
"Yes, I know."
Her sensitive face brightened; her eyes clearing of mist.
"It is a comfort to speak with a gentleman again. I—I had almost begun to believe there were none left in the world. You give me courage to go on, to acknowledge everything. Mr. Craig, I was a soul tottering on the brink when I met you out yonder; a desperate, disheartened girl, tempted to the point of surrender. I had lost hope, pride, all redeeming strength of womanhood. I scarcely cared whether death, or dishonor, claimed me. I do not know what fateful impulse moves me now, but I can look into your eyes without sense of shame, and confess this. I was, in all essential truth, a woman of the street—not yet lowered utterly to that level, not yet sacrificed, but with no moral strength left for resistance. No fear, no horror. Oh, God! it seems like some awful dream—yet it was true, true! I had ceased to struggle, to care; I had begun to drift; I had lost everything a woman prizes, even my faith in God. I know you cannot comprehend what this means—no man could. But I want you to try. Think what it would mean to your sister, to some pure friend in whom you have implicit trust. Oh, I know what the world would say—the well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, sneering world—but it is to you I appeal for some slight mercy. You have also suffered, and grown weak, and, because you told me your story first, I dare now to tell mine. I was a soul on the brink, and—God forgive me!—not afraid of the rocks below. Like one stupefied I looked down, hated myself and laughed."
FACING THE PROBLEM
My fingers closed yet more tightly over the small hand, but her face remained rigid, the lines deep about the mouth.
"The landlady had turned me out," speaking now bitterly and swiftly, "retaining my few belongings, and calling me a foul name which made me cower away like a whipped child. I had nothing left—nothing. For a week I had listened to no kind word, met with no kind act. I was upon the street, alone, at night, purposeless, homeless, wandering aimlessly from place to place, weakened by hunger, stupefied by despair. Men spoke to me, and I fled their presence as though they were pestilence; women, painted, shameless creatures, greeted me in passing as one of their own class, and I sought to avoid them. Once I mustered sufficient courage to ask help, but—but the man only laughed, and called me a foul name. I do not know where I went, what the streets were called. I remember the brilliantly lighted hotel: the theater crowds jostling me on the sidewalks; the saloons where I saw women slipping in through side entrances, the strains of piano music jingling forth on the night air. I—I knew what it meant, and lingered, faint and trembling, before one illuminated front, like a fascinated bird, until a drunken man, reeling forth, laid hand on my shoulder with proposal of insult. I broke away from him, and ran into the dark, every nerve tingling."
She shuddered, catching her breath sharply.
"Then—then I found myself out among the residences, where everything was still and lonely, walking, walking, walking, every shadow appearing like a ghost. I sat down to rest on the curbing, but a policeman drove me away; once I crept into a darkened vestibule in a big apartment building, but another discovered me there, and threatened to take me to the station. I did n't care much by that time, yet finally he let me go, and I crept miserably on. I became afraid of the police; I felt as I suppose criminals must feel; I slunk along in the dark shadows like a hunted thing. The night grew misty and damp, but I found no shelter. I had no will power left, no womanhood, no remorse; I had become a thing to play with, a body without a soul. I had ceased to care, to think, to even remember; I only wanted to drop the struggle, and have it over with. Perhaps I should have taken my own life, had I only known how to accomplish it—it seemed infinitely worse to live than to die. It was thus I came there, to that corner. I heard the policeman approaching along the side street, and, terrified, sprang into the yard to escape—then—then, I met you."
Someone laughed at one of the other tables, and I wheeled about in my chair. For an instant I believed her voice had been overheard, but instantly realized the mistake and turned back, noticing how she was trembling.
"Tell me," I questioned earnestly, "what caused you to interfere between me and the officer?"
"What! Oh, I hardly know," a touch of hysteria in the nervous exclamation. "It was just a natural ending to all the rest, I suppose. I was a criminal in heart, a fugitive; I hated the law, and was afraid of the police. I merely did what occurred to me first, without thought, volition, purpose. I was compelled to choose instantly between his mercy and yours; the—the difference seemed small enough then, but—but I realized you were frightened also, and—and so I preferred to trust you. That was all; it was my fate, and—and, well I did n't care much how it ended."
"But you endeavored to escape from me; you sought to compel my leaving you?"
She lifted her face again, flushing, saddened, slightly indignant, the brown eyes widening.
"Perhaps the soul was not all dead," she returned gravely. "Perhaps womanhood was not all gone. I did not know you; I was in terror."
Our eyes met, her own cleared of tears, gazing frankly at me.
"I am not afraid; I believe I have found a man, and a friend."
I was conscious of a sudden wild throb of the heart, a swift rush of blood through my veins.
"I might have doubted that myself a while ago," I acknowledged almost bitterly, "but now I am going to make good. Lord! how a fellow can run to seed when he lets himself go. Don't you know you are helping me, as much as I am you? You didn't find much out there—only a drunken discharged soldier, an ex-hobo, with a laborer's job. I 've wasted my chance in life, and been an infernal fool. I can see that plain enough, and despise myself for it. I knew it before you came—the difference was then I did n't care, while now I do. You have made me care. Yes, you have, girl," as she glanced up again, plainly startled by this unexpected avowal. "You care, and because I know you do, things are different. I mean it; this is no word play. I tell you when a man has been steadily dropping, in his own estimation, as well as the social scale; when he has just about lost his pride, his self-respect, his realization of right and wrong; when he sees nothing ahead worth fighting for; when he seeks happiness in drink, and makes companions out of crooks and hobos, that is when it amounts to something to have a real woman like you come into his life, and hear her speak of trust and friendship. Lord! it 's like a breath of pure air amid the foulness of the pit. I believe in you, and I have n't believed in anybody for a long while. Perhaps you didn't wholly mean all you said to me; perhaps you 'll forget about it when your luck changes, but it 's a thing that is going to stay with me; you can bet on that! I guess it was what I 've been hungry for; the loss of it had taken the very heart out of me," I paused, fearful I might be going too far, yet given fresh courage by the expression of her face. "You see you belong to my class, little girl, and—and you are the first of them to speak a kind word to me in five years. It's—it's a bit tough to be cut dead by your own class."
It was her hand, white and slender, which reached shyly across the table, and touched mine, but her eyes alone made answer.
"That is all right," I continued, my voice shaking. "I understand how you feel. Anyhow you 've made a new man out of me; maybe the stuff is n't much, but there is a soul in it somewhere, and you 've given that soul something to get a grip on. That was all I needed, just to get my teeth set. But what about you? This is no fit place for your kind—you better go home to your mother."
She shook her head with decision.
"Why not? is she hard?"
"Yes, she would be very hard with me."
"Do you mean you would rather risk it here with—with me, than go back, and face her?"
"Yes, even that," she replied soberly. "I have courage to fight it out here, but not there. I know what it will mean if I go back—reproaches, gossip, ostracism—all the petty meannesses of a small town. I loathe the very thought. I am strong again, and I will not go. It is between God and me, this decision; between God and me." She drooped her head, hiding her face upon her arms, her shoulders trembling. "You—you may despise me; you may think me the lowest of the low, but I—I am going to stay here."
I sat in silence, amazed, puzzled, gazing across at her, my face sober, my hands clinched.
"You actually mean you dare risk yourself here—with me?"
"With your help; with you as a friend to talk to—yes."
I drew in my breath sharply, my forehead beaded with perspiration.
"But stop and think what I am," I urged recklessly. "A mere hobo."
She raised her face, the flushed cheeks wet, the brown eyes glowing indignantly.
"No," she said earnestly. "You are not that; you are a man."
For a long minute I did not answer, unable to determine what to do, how to act. We had both finished our meal, and there was no excuse for lingering longer at the table.
"You will go with me, then?"
I pushed back my chair, and she arose also, following me without question as I passed across to the door. The cashier nodded to my good night, and I opened the door for her passage to the street. The mist of the cloudy night had been blown away by an increasing breeze. The air was warm, and the sky brightening in the east. I glanced aside into her face, and led the way into a near-by park, the two of us trudging along a well-kept gravel path, until I discovered a bench hidden from observation amid surrounding shrubbery.
"I 've simply got to think this whole matter out," I explained simply. "It's happened so unexpectedly. I 'm stumped as to what had better be done."
She remained standing, resting one hand on the back of the settee, a slender figure, neatly enough dressed, yet exhibiting evidence of her long night's wandering.
"You mean I am a problem? You—you do not know what to do with me?"
I glanced at her, surprised by the change in her voice.
"Naturally; a young woman is usually a problem, isn't she? This particular one has come with a suddenness sufficient to jar anybody's nerves. Three hours ago I was without responsibility, a mere log adrift on the current. I 've hardly wakened up yet to the change in conditions. Here I am a fellow so utterly worthless that I have n't even been able to take decent care of myself alone, yet all at once the duty fronts me to double my responsibilities."