OUT OF THE ASHES
BY ETHEL WATTS MUMFORD
Marcus Gard sat at his library table apparently in rapt contemplation of a pair of sixteenth century bronze inkwells, strange twisted shapes, half man, half beast, bearing in their breasts twin black pools. But his thoughts were far from their grotesque beauty—centered on vast schemes of destruction and reconstruction. The room was still, so quiet, in spite of its proximity to the crowded life of Fifth Avenue, that one divined its steel construction and the doubled and trebled casing of its many windows. The walls, hung with green Genoese velvet, met a carved and coffered ceiling, and touched the upper shelf of the breast-high bookcases that lined the walls. No picture broke the simple unity of color. Here and there a Donatello bronze silhouetted a slim shape, or a Florentine portrait bust smiled with veiled meaning from the quiet shadows. The shelves were rich in books in splendid bindings, gems of ancient workmanship or modern luxury, for the Great Man had the instinct of the masterpiece.
The door opened softly, and the secretary entered, a look of uncertainty on his handsome young face. The slight sound of his footfall disturbed the master's contemplation. He looked up, relieved to be drawn for a moment from his reflection.
"What is it, Saunders?" he asked, leaning back and grasping the arms of his chair with a gesture of control familiar to him.
"Mrs. Martin Marteen is here, very anxious to see you. She let me understand it was about the Heim Vandyke. I knew you were interested, so I ventured, Mr. Gard—"
"Yes, yes—quite right. Let her come in here." He rose as he spoke, shook his cuffs, pulled down his waistcoat and ran a hand over his bald spot and silvery hair. Marcus Gard was still a handsome man. He remained standing, and, as the door reopened, advanced to meet his guest. She came forward, smiling, and, taking a white-gloved hand from her sable muff, extended it graciously.
"Very nice of you to receive me, Mr. Gard," she said, and the tone of her mellow voice was clear and decisive. "I know what a busy man you are."
"At your service." He bowed, waved her to a seat and sank once more into his favorite chair, watching her the while intently. If she had come to negotiate the sale of the Heim Vandyke, let her set forth the conditions. It was no part of his plan to show how much he coveted the picture. In the meantime she was very agreeable to look at. Her strong, regular features suggested neither youth nor age. She was of the goddess breed. Every detail of the lady's envelope was perfect—velvet and fur, a glimpse of exquisite antique lace, a sheen of pearl necklace, neither so large as to be ostentatious nor so small as to suggest economy. The Great Man's instinct of the masterpiece stirred. "What can I do for you?" he said, as she showed no further desire to explain her visit.
"I let fall a hint to Mr. Saunders," she answered—and her smile shone suddenly, giving her straight Greek features a fascinating humanity—" that I wanted to see you about the Heim Vandyke." She paused, and his eyes lit.
"Yes—portrait? A good example, I believe."
She laughed quietly. "As you very well know, Mr. Gard. But that, let me own, was merely a ruse to gain your private ear. I have nothing to do with that gem of art."
The Great Man's face fell. He was in for a bad quarter of an hour. Lady with a hard luck story—he was not unused to the type—but Mrs. Martin Marteen! He could not very well dismiss her unheard, an acquaintance of years' standing, a friend of his sister's. His curiosity was aroused. What could be the matter with the impeccable Mrs. Marteen? Perhaps she had been speculating. She read his thoughts.
"Quite wrong, Mr. Gard. I have not been drawn into the stock market. The fact is, I have something to sell, but it isn't a picture—autographs. You collect them, do you not? Now I have in my possession a series of autograph letters by one of the foremost men of his day; one, in fact, in whom you have the very deepest interest."
"Napoleon!" he exclaimed.
She smiled. "I have heard him so called," she answered. "I have here some photographs of the letters. They are amateur pictures—in fact, I took them myself; so you will have to pardon trifling imperfections. But I'm sure you will see that it is a series of the first importance." From her muff she took a flat envelope, slipped off the rubber band with great deliberation, glanced at the enclosures and laid them on the table.
The Great Man's face was a study. His usual mask of indifferent superiority deserted him. The blow was so unexpected that he was for once staggered and off his guard. His hand was shaking, as with an oath he snatched up the photographs. It was his own handwriting that met his eye, and Mrs. Marteen had not exaggerated when she had designated the letters as a "series of the first importance." With the shock of recognition came doubt of his own senses. Mrs. Martin Marteen blackmailing him? Preposterous! His eyes sought the lady's face. She was quite calm and self-possessed.
"I need not point out to you, Mr. Gard, the desirability of adding these to your collection. These letters give clear information concerning the value to you of the Texas properties mentioned, which are now about to pass into the possession of your emissaries if all goes well. Of course, if these letters were placed in the hands of those most interested it would cause you to make your purchase at a vastly higher figure; it might prevent the transaction altogether. But far more important than that, they conclusively prove that your company is a monopoly framed in the restraint of trade—proof that will be a body blow to your defense if the threatened action of the federal authorities takes place.
"Of course," continued Mrs. Marteen, as Gard uttered a suppressed oath, "you couldn't foresee a year ago what future conditions would make the writing of those letters a very dangerous thing; otherwise you would have conducted your business by word of mouth. Believe me, I do not underrate your genius."
He laid his hands roughly upon the photographs. "I have a mind to have you arrested this instant," he snarled.
"But you won't," she added—"not while you don't know where the originals are. It means too much to you. The slightest menacing move toward me would be fatal to your interests. I don't wish you any harm, Mr. Gard; I simply want money."
In spite of his perturbation, amazement held him silent. If a shining angel with harp and halo had confronted him with a proposition to rob a church, the situation could not have astonished him more. She gave him time to recover.
"Of course you must readjust your concepts, particularly as to me. You thought me a rich woman—well, I'm not. I've about twenty-five thousand dollars left, and a few—resources. My expenses this season will be unusually heavy."
"Why this season?" He asked the question to gain time. He was thinking hard.
"My daughter Dorothy makes her debut, as perhaps you may have heard."
Gard gave another gasp. Here was a mother blackmailing the Gibraltar of finance for her little girl's coming-out party. Suddenly, quite as unexpectedly to himself as to his hearer, he burst into a peal of laughter.
"I see—I see. 'The time has come to talk of many things.'"
She met his mood. "Well, not so much time. You see, not all kings are cabbage heads—and while pigs may not have wings, riches have."
"You are versatile, Mrs. Marteen. I confess this whole interview has an 'Alice in Wonderland' quality." He was regaining his composure. "But I see you want to get down to figures. May I inquire your price?"
"Fifty thousand dollars." There was finality in her tone.
"And how soon?"
"Within the next week. You know this is a crisis in this affair—I waited for it."
"Indeed! You seem to have singular foresight."
She nodded gravely. "Yes, and unusual means of obtaining information, as it is needless for me to inform you. I am, I think, making you a very reasonable offer, Mr. Gard. You would have paid twice as much for the Vandyke."
"And how do you propose, Mrs. Marteen, to effect this little business deal without compromising either of us?" His tone was half banter, but her reply was to the point.
"I will place my twenty-five thousand with your firm, with the understanding that you are to invest for me, in any deal you happen to be interested in—Texas, for instance. It wouldn't be surprising if my money should treble, would it? In fact, there is every reason to expect it—is there not? If all I own is invested in these securities, I would not desire them to decline, would I? I merely suggest this method," she continued, with a shrug as if to deprecate its lack of originality, "because it would be a transaction by no means unusual to you, and would attract no attention."
He looked at her grimly. "You think so?" Let me hear how you intend to carry out the rest of the transaction—the delivery of the autographs in question."
"To begin with, I will place in your hands the plates—all the photographs."
"How can I be sure?" he demanded.
"You can't, of course; but you will have to accept my assurance that I am honest. I promise to fulfill my part of the bargain—literally to the letter. You may verify and find that the series is complete. Your attorneys, to whom you wrote these, will doubtless tell you that they personally destroyed these documents, but they doubtless have a record of the dates of letters received at this time. You can compare; they are all there; I hold out nothing."
"But if they say they have destroyed the letters—what in the name of—"
"Oh, no; they destroyed your communications perhaps, after 'contents noted.' But they never had your letters, for the simple reason that they never received them. Very excellent copies they were—most excellent."
Mr. Marcus Gard was experiencing more sensations during his chat with Mrs. Marteen than had fallen to his lot for many a long day. His tremendous power had long made his position so secure that he had met extraordinary situations with the calm of one who controls them. He had startled and held others spellbound by his own infinite foresight, resource and energy. The situation was reversed. He gazed fascinated in the fine blue eyes of another and more ruthless general.
"My dear madam, do you mean to infer that this coup of yours was planned and executed a year ago, when I, even I," and he thumped his deep chest, "had no idea what these letters might come to mean? Do you mean to tell me that?"
"Yes"—and she smiled at his evident reluctance to believe—"yes, exactly. You see, I saw what was coming—I knew the trend. I have friends at court—the Supreme Court, it happens—and I was certain that the 'little cloud no larger than a man's hand' might very well prove to contain the whirlwind; so—well, there was just a flip of accident that makes the present situation possible. But the rest was designed, I regret to admit—cold-blooded design on my part."
"With this end in view?" He tapped the photographs strewn upon his desk.
"With this end in view," she confessed.
He was silent a moment, lost in thought; then he turned upon her suddenly.
"Mind, I haven't acceded to your demands," he shouted.
"Is the interview at an end?" she asked, rising and adjusting the furs about her throat. "If so, I must tell you the papers are in the hands of persons who would be very much interested in their contents. If they don't see me—hearing from me won't do, you understand, for a situation is conceivable, of course, when I might be coerced into sending a message or telephoning one—if they don't see me personally, the packet will be opened—and eventually, after the Texas Purchase is adjusted, they will find their way into the possession of the District Attorney. I have taken every possible precaution."
"I don't doubt that in the least, madam—confound it, I don't! Now when will you put the series, lock, stock and barrel, into my hands?"
"When you've done that little turn for me in the market, Mr. Gard. You may trust me."
"On the word—of a debutante?" he demanded, with a snap of his square jaws.
For the first time she flushed, the color mantling to her temples; she was a very handsome woman.
"On the word of a debutante," she answered, and her voice was steady.
"Well, then"—he slapped the table with his open hand—"if you'll send me, to the office, what you want to invest, I'll give orders that I will personally direct that account."
"Thank you so much," she murmured, rising.
"Don't go!" he exclaimed, his request a command. "I want to talk with you. Don't you know you're the first person, man or woman, who has held me up—me, Marcus Gard! I don't see how you had the nerve. I don't see how you had the idea." He changed his bullying tone suddenly. "I wish—I wish you'd talk to me. I'm as curious as any woman."
Mrs. Martin Marteen moved toward the door.
"I'm selling you your autographs—not my autobiography. I'm so glad to have seen you. Good afternoon, Mr. Gard."
She was gone, and the Great Man had not the presence of mind to escort his visitor to the door or ring for attendance. He remained standing, staring after her. His gaze shifted to the table, where, either by accident or design, the photographs remained, scattered. He chuckled grimly. Accident! Nothing was accidental with that Machiavelli in petticoats. She knew he would read those accursed lines, and realize with every sentence that in truth she was "letting him down easy." There was no danger of his backing out of his bargain. Seated at the desk, he perused his folly, and grunted with exasperation. Well, after all, what of it? He had coveted a masterpiece; now he was to have two in one—the contemplation of his own blunder, and Mrs. Marteen's criminal genius—cheap at the price. How long had this been going on? Whom had she victimized? And how in the world had she been able to obtain the whole correspondence? That his lawyers should have been deceived by copies was not so surprising—they never dreamed of a substitution; the matter, not the letter, was proof enough to them of genuineness. But—he thumped his forehead. He had been staying with friends at Newport at the time. Had Mrs. Marteen been there? Of course! He took up the incriminating documents again and thoroughly mastered their contents, every turn of phrase, every between-the-line inference. Accidents could happen; he must be prepared for the worst. Not that negotiations would fail—but—not until the originals were in his hands and personally done away with would he feel secure. He recalled Mrs. Marteen's graceful and sumptuously clad figure, her clear-cut, beautiful head, the power of her unwavering sapphire eyes, the gentle elegance of her voice. And this woman—had—held him up!
He turned on the electric lamp, opened a secret compartment drawer in the table, abstracted a tiny key, and, deftly making a packet of the scattered proofs, unlocked a small hidden safe behind a row of first editions of Bunyan and consigned them to secure obscurity.
A moment later his secretary entered the room in response to his ring.
"I'm going out," he said. "Lock up, will you, and at any time Mrs. Marteen wants to see me admit her at once."
Mr. Saunders' face shone. He, too, was a devout worshiper at the shrine of art.
"The Vandyke?" he inquired hopefully.
"Well, no—but I'm negotiating for a very remarkable series of letters—of—er—Napoleon—concerning—er Waterloo."
* * * * *
When Marcus Gard dressed that evening he was so absent-minded that his valet held forth for an hour in the servants' hall, with assurances that some mighty coup was toward. Not since the days of B.L. & W. or the rate war on the S. & O. had his master shown such complete absorption.
"He's like a blind drunk, or a man in a trance, he is—he's just not there in the head, and you have to walk around and dress his body, like he was a dumb wax-work. If I get the lay, Smathers, I'll tip you off. There might be something in it for us. He's due for dinner and bridge at the Met., but unless Frenchy puts him out of the motor, he won't know when he gets there"—which proved true. Three times the chauffeur respectfully advised his master of their arrival, before the wondering eyes of the club chasseur, before the Great Man, suddenly recalled to the present, descended from his car and was conducted to his waiting host.
The first one of the company to shake hands with him was Victor Mahr—and Victor Mahr was a friend of Mrs. Marteen. The sudden recollection of this fact made him cast such a glance of scrutiny at the gentleman as to quite discompose him.
"What's the old man up to, gimleting me in the eye like that? He's got something up his sleeve," thought Mahr.
"I wonder did she ever corner him?" was the question uppermost in Gard's mind. He hated Mahr, and rather hoped that the lady had, then flushed with resentment at the thought that she would stoop to blackmail a man so obviously outside the pale. His mood was so unusual that every man in the circle was stirred with unrest and misgiving. Dinner brightened the general gloom, though there were but trifling inroads into the costly vintages. One doesn't play bridge with the Big Ones unless one's head is clear. Not till supper time did the talk drift from honors and trumps. Gard played brilliantly. His absent-mindedness changed to savage concentration. He played to win, and won.
"What's new in the art world?" inquired Denning, as he lit a cigar. "There was a rumor you were after the Heim Vandyke."
"Nothing new," Gard answered. "Haven't had time to bother. By the way, Mahr, what sort of a girl is the little debutante daughter of Mrs. Marteen—you know her, don't you?" He was watching Mahr keenly, and fancied he detected a shifty glance at the mention of the name. But Mahr answered easily:
"Dorothy? She's the season's beauty—really a stunning-looking girl. You must have seen her; she was in Denning's box with her mother at 'La Boheme' last week."
"And," added Denning, "she'll be with us again to-morrow night."
"Oh," said Card, with indifference. "The dark one—I remember—tall—yes, she's like her mother, devilish handsome. Must send that child some flowers, I suppose."
Gard returned home, disgusted with himself. Why had he forced his mood upon these men? Why, above all things, had he mentioned Mrs. Marteen to Mahr, whom he despised? For the simple pleasure of speaking of her, of mentioning her name? Why had he suspected Mahr of being one of her victims? And why, in heaven's name, had he resented the very same notion? He lay in bed numbering the men of money and importance whom he knew shared Mrs. Marteen's acquaintance. They were numerous, both his friends and enemies. What had they done? What was her hold over them? Had she in all cases worked as silently, as thoroughly, as understandingly as she had with him? Did she always show her hand at the psychological moment? Did she rob only the rich—the guilty? Was she Robin Hood in velvet, antique lace and sables? Ah, he liked that—Mme. Robin Hood. He fell asleep at last and dreamed that he met Mrs. Marteen under the greenwood tree, and watched her as with unerring aim she sent a bolt from her bow through the heart of a running deer.
He awoke when the valet called him, and was amused with his dream. Not in years had such an interest entered his life. He rose, tubbed and breakfasted, and went, as was his wont, to his sister's sitting room.
"Well, Polly," he roared through the closed doors of her bedroom, "up late, as usual, I suppose! Well, I'm off. By the way, we aren't using the opera box next Monday night; lend it to Mrs. Marteen. That little girl of hers is coming out, you know, and we ought to do something for 'em now and again. I'll be at the library after three, if you want me."
At the office he found a courteous note thanking him for his kindness in offering to direct her investments and inclosing Mrs. Marteen's cheque for twenty-five thousand dollars. Gard studied the handwriting closely. It was firm, flowing, refined, yet daring, very straight as to alignment and spaced artistically. Good sense, good taste, nice discrimination, he commented. He smiled, tickled by a new idea. He would not give the usual orders in such matters. When a lovely lady inclosed her cheque, begging to remind him of his thoughtful suggestion (mostly mythical) at Mrs. So-and-So's dinner, he cynically deposited the slip, and wrote out another for double the amount, if he believed the lady deserving; if not, a polite note informed the sender that his firm would gladly open an account with her, and he was sure her interests "would receive the best possible attention and advice." In this case he determined to accept the responsibility exactly as it was worded, ignoring the circumstances that had forced his hand. He would make her nest egg hatch out what was required. It should be an honest transaction in spite of its questionable inception. Every dollar of that money should work overtime, for results must come quickly.
He gave his orders and laid his plans. Never had his business interests appealed to him as keenly as at that moment, and never for a moment did he doubt the honesty of the lady's villainy. She would not "hold out on him."
His first care that morning had been to make a luncheon appointment with his lawyer, and to elicit the information that, as far as his attorney knew, the incriminating correspondence had been destroyed when received. "As soon as your instructions were carried out, Mr. Gard. Of course, none of us quite realized the changes that were coming—but—what those letters would mean now! Too much care cannot be taken. I've often thought a code might be advisable in the future, when the written word must be relied on."
Gard smiled grimly and agreed. "Those letters would make a pretty basis for blackmail, wouldn't they? Oh, by the way, you are Victor Mahr's lawyers, aren't you?"
As he had half expected, he surprised a flash of suspicion and knowledge in the other's eyes.
"What makes you speak of him in that connection?" laughed the lawyer.
"I don't," said Gard. "I happened to be playing bridge with him last night and from something he let fall I gathered your firm had been acting for him. Well, he needs the best legal advice that's to be had, or I miss my guess." He rose and took leave of his friend, entered his motor and was driven rapidly uptown.
Still his thoughts were of Mrs. Marteen, and again unaccountable annoyance possessed him. Confound it! Mahr had been held up. Clifton knew about it; that argued that Mahr had taken the facts, whatever they were, to them. Had he told them who it was who threatened him? Then Clifton knew that Mrs. Marteen was a—Hang it! What possible right had he to jump to the wild conviction that Victor Mahr had been blackmailed at all? Because he was a friend of the lady's—a pretty reason that! Did men make friends of—Yes, they did; he intended to himself; why not that hound of a Mahr? Clifton did know something. Mahr was just the sort of scoundrel to drag in a woman's name. Why shouldn't he in such a case? Then, with one of his quick changes of mood, he laughed at himself. "I'm jealous because I think I'm not the only victim! It's time I consulted a physician. I'm going dotty. She's a wonder, though, that woman. What a brain, and what a splendid presence! But there's something vital lacking; no soul, no conscience—that's the trouble," he commented inwardly—little dreaming that he exactly voiced the criticism universally passed upon himself. Then his thoughts took a new tack. "Wonder what the daughter is like? I'll have to hunt her up. It's a joke—if it is on me! Must see my debutante. After all, if I'm paying, I ought to look her over. She's going to the Opera—in Denning's box—h'm!"
Gard broke two engagements, and at the appointed hour found himself wandering through the corridor back of the first tier boxes at the Metropolitan. Its bare convolutions were as resonant as a sea shell. Vast and vague murmurs of music, presages of melodies, undulated through the passages, palpitated like the living breath of Euterpe, suppressed excitement lurked in every turn, there was throb and glow in each pulsating touch of unseen instruments. Gard found his heart tightening, his nostrils expanding. A flash of the divine fire of youth leaped through his veins. Adventure suddenly beckoned him—the lure of the unknown, of the magic x of algebra in human equation. So great was his enjoyment that he savored it as one savors a dainty morsel, lingering over it, fearful that the next taste may destroy the perfect flavor.
He paced the corridor, nodding here and there, pausing for a moment to chat with this or that personage, affable, noncommittal, Chesterfieldian, handsome and distinguished in his clean, silver-touched middle age.
Inwardly he was fretting for their appearance—his debutante and Mme. Robin Hood. Of course they must do the conventional thing and be late. But to his pleased surprise, just as the overture was drawing to its close, he saw Denning and his wife approaching. Behind them he discerned the finely held head and chiseled features of the Lady of Compulsion, and close beside her a slender, girlish figure, shrouded in a silver and ermine cloak, a tinsel scarf half veiled a flower face, gentle, tremulous and inspired—a Jeanne d'Arc of high birth and luxurious rearing. Something tightened about his heart. The child's very appearance was dramatic coupled with the presence of her mother. What the one lacked, the other possessed in its clearest essence.
With a hasty greeting to Denning and his diamond-sprinkled spouse, Gard turned with real cordiality to Mrs. Marteen.
"This is a pleasure!" He beamed with sincerity. "Dear madam, present me to your lovely daughter. We must be friends, Miss Dorothy. Your very wise and resourceful mamma has given me many an interesting hour—more than she has ever dreamed, I believe."
He turned, accompanied them to the box and assisted the ladies with their wraps. Dorothy turned upon him a pair of violet eyes, that at the mention of her mother's name had lighted with adoration.
"Isn't she wonderful!" she murmured, casting a bashful glance at Mrs. Marteen; then she added with simple gratefulness: "I'm glad you're friends." In her child's fashion she had looked him over and approved.
A glow of pride suffused him. The obeisance of the kings of finance was not so sweet to his natural vanity. "She's one in a million," he answered heartily. "She should have been a man—and yet we would have lost much in that case—you, for instance." He turned toward Mrs. Marteen. "I congratulate you," he smiled. "She's just the sort of a girl that should have a good time—the very best the world can give her; the world owes it. But aren't you"—and he lowered his voice—"just a little afraid of those ecstatic eyes? Dear child, she must keep all the pink and gold illusions—" The end of his sentence he spoke really to himself. But an expression in his hearer's face brought him to sudden consciousness. Quite unexpectedly he had surprised fear in the classic marble of the goddess face. The woman, who had not hesitated to commit crime, feared the contact of the world for her child. It was a curious revelation. All that was best, most generous and kindly in his nature rose to the surface, and his smile was the rare one that endeared him to his friends. "Let her have every pleasure that comes her way," he added. "By the way, I'm sending you our box for Monday night. I hope you will avail yourself of it. My sister will join you, and perhaps you will all give me the pleasure of your company at Delmonico's afterward."
She hesitated for a moment, her eyes turning involuntarily toward the girl. Then the human dimple enriched her cheeks, and it was with real camaraderie that she nodded an acceptance.
His attitude was humbly grateful. "I'll ask the Dennings, too," he continued. "They're due elsewhere, I know, but they could join us."
The curtain was already rising and Gard, excusing himself, found his way to the masculine sanctuary, the directors' box, of which he rarely availed himself, and from a shadowy corner observed his debutante and her beautiful mother through his powerful opera glasses. He found himself taking a throbbing interest in the visitors at the loge opposite. He was as interested in Dorothy Marteen's admirers as any fond father could be; and yet his eyes turned with strange, fascinated jealousy to the older woman's loveliness. Suddenly he drew in the focus of his glasses. A face had come within the rim of his observation—the face of a man sitting in the row in front of him. That man, too, had his glasses turned toward the group on the other side of the diamond horseshoe, and the look on his face was not pleasant to see. A lean, triumphant smile curled his heavy purple lips, the radiating wrinkles at the corner of his eyes were drawn upward in a Mephistophelian hardness.
It was Victor Mahr. His expression suddenly changed to one of intense disgust, as a tall young man entered the Denning box and bent in evident admiration over Dorothy's smiling face. Victor Mahr rose from his seat, and with a curt nod to Gard, who feigned interest elsewhere, disappeared into the corridor.
* * * * *
Mrs. Marteen stood at her desk, a mammoth affair of Jacobean type, holding in her hand a sheet of crested paper, scrawled over in a large, tempestuous hand.
MY DEAR MRS. MARTEEN:
If you will be so good as to drop in at the library at five, it will give me great pleasure to go over with you the details of my stewardship. The commission with which you honored me has, I think, been well directed to an excellent result. Moreover, a little chat with you will be, as always, a real pleasure to—
Yours in all admiration,
J. MARCUS GARD.
P.S.—I suggest your coming here, as the details of business are best transacted in the quiet of a business office, and I therefore crave your presence and indulgence.—
Mrs. Marteen was dressing for the street; her hands were gloved, her sable muff swung from a gem-studded chain, her veil was nicely adjusted; yet she hesitated, her eyes upon a busy silver clock that already marked the appointed hour. The room was large, wainscoted in dark paneling; a capacious fireplace jutted far out, and was made further conspicuous by two settees of worm-eaten oak. The chairs that backed along the walls were of stalwart pattern. A collection of English silver tankards was the chief decoration, save straight hangings of Cordova leather at the windows, and a Spanish embroidery, tarnished with age, that swung beside the door. Hardly a woman's room, and yet feminine in its minor touches; the gallooned red velvet cushions of the Venetian armchair; the violets that from every available place shed their fresh perfume on the quiet air, a summer window box crowded with hyacinths, the wicker basket, home of a languishing Pekinese spaniel, tucked under one corner of the table. Mrs. Marteen continued to hesitate, and the hands of the clock to travel relentlessly.
Suddenly drawing herself erect, she walked with no uncertain tread to the right-hand wall of the mantel and pushed back a double panel of the wainscoting, revealing the muzzle of a steel safe let into the masonry of the wall. A few deft twirls opened the combination, and the metal door swung outward. Within the recess the pigeonholes were crammed with papers and morocco jewel cases. Pressing a secret spring, a second door jarred open in the left inner wall. From this receptacle she withdrew several packets of letters and a set of plates with their accompanying prints. Over them all she slipped a heavy rubber band, laid them aside and closed the hiding place with methodical care. The compromising documents disappeared within the warm hollow of her muff, and with a last glance around, Mrs. Marteen unlocked the door and descended to the street, where her walnut-brown limousine awaited her. Her face, which had been vivid with emotion, took on its accustomed mask of cold perfection, and when she was ushered into the anxiously awaiting presence of Marcus Gard, she was the same perfectly poised machine, wound up to execute a certain series of acts, that she had been on the occasion of her former visit. Of their friendly acquaintance of the last ten days there was no trace. They were two men of business met to consult upon a matter of money. The host was thoroughly disappointed. For ten days he had lost no opportunity of following up both Dorothy and her mother. Dorothy had responded with frank-hearted liking; Mrs. Marteen had suffered herself to be interested.
"How's my debutante?" he asked cordially, as Mrs. Marteen entered.
"She's very well, thank you," the marble personage replied. "I came in answer to your note."
"Rather late," he complained. "I've been waiting for you anxiously, most anxiously—but now you're here, I'm ready to forgive. Do you know, this is the first opportunity I have had, since you honored me before, of having one word in private with you?"
She ignored his remark. "I have brought the correspondence of which I spoke."
"I never doubted it, my dear lady. But before we proceed to conclude this little deal I want to ask you a question or two. Surely you will not let me languish of curiosity. I want to know—tell me—how did you ever hit upon this plan of yours?"
She unbent from her rigid attitude and answered, almost as if the words were drawn from her against her will: "After Martin, my husband died—I—I found myself poor, quite to my astonishment, and with Dorothy to support. Among his effects—" She paused and turned scarlet; she was angry at herself for answering, angry at him for daring to question her thus intimately.
"You found—" prompted Gard.
"Well—" she hesitated, and then continued boldly—"some letters from—never mind whom. They showed me that my husband had been most cruelly robbed and mistreated; men had traded upon his honor, and had ruined him. Then and there I saw my way. This man—these men—had political aspirations. Their plans were maturing. I waited. Then I 'wondered if they would care to have the matter in their opponents' hands.' The swindle would be good newspaper matter. They replied that they would 'mind very much.' I succeeded in getting back something of what Martin had been cheated out of—"
He beamed approval. "And mighty clever and plucky of you. And then?"
This time the delayed explosion of her anger came. "How dare you question me? How dare you pry into my life?"
"You dared to pry into mine, remember," he snapped.
"For a definite and established purpose," she retorted; "and let us proceed, if you will."
Gard shifted his bulk and grasped the arms of his chair.
"As you please. You deposited with me the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars. I personally took charge of that account, and invested it for you. The steps of these transactions I will ask you to follow."
"Is it necessary?"
"It is. Also that now you set before me the—autographs, together with their reproductions of every kind, on this table, and permit me to verify the collection by the list supplied by my lawyers."
She frowned, and taking the packet from its resting place, unslipped the band and spread out its contents.
"They are all there," she said slowly, and there was hurt pride in her voice.
Without stopping to consult either the memoranda or the letters, he swept the whole together, and, striding to the fireplace, consigned them to the flames.
"The plates!" she gasped, rising and following him. "They must be destroyed completely."
He smiled at her grimly. "I'll take care of that. And now, if you will come to the table, I will explain your account with my firm. I bought L.U. & Y. for you at the opening, the day following our compact, feeling sure we would get at least a five-point rise, and that would be earning a bit of interest until I could put you in on a good move. I had private information the following day in Forward Express stock. I sold for you, and bought F.E. If you have followed that market you will see what happened—a thirty-point rise. Then I drew out, cashed up and clapped the whole thing into Union Short. I had to wait three days for that, but when it came—there, look at the figures for yourself. Your account with Morley & Gard stands you in one hundred thousand dollars, and it will be more if you don't disturb the present investment for a few days."
Mrs. Marteen's eyes were wide.
"What are you doing this for?" she said calmly. "That wasn't the bargain. I'll not touch a penny more."
"Why did I do it? Because I won't have any question of blackmail between us. Like the good friend that you are, you gave me something which might otherwise have been to my hurt. On the other hand, I invested your money for you wisely, honestly, sanely and with all the best of my experience and knowledge. It's clean money there, Mrs. Marteen, and I'm ready to do as much again whenever you need it. You say you won't take it—why, it's yours. You must. I want to be friends. I don't want this thing lying between us, crossing our thoughts. If I ask you impertinent questions, which I undoubtedly shall, I want them to have the sanction of good will. I want you to know that I feel nothing but kindness for you—nothing but pleasure in your company."
He paused, confounded by the blank wall of her apparent indifference. Marcus Gard was accustomed to having his friendly offices solicited. That his overtures should be rebuffed was incredible. Moreover, he had looked for feminine softening, had expected the moist eye and quivering lip as a matter of course; it seemed the inevitable answer to that cue. It was not forthcoming. Again the conviction of some great psychic loss disturbed him.
"My dear Mr. Gard," the level, colorless voice was saying, "I fear we are quite beside the subject, are we not? I am not requesting anything. I am not putting myself under obligations to you; I trust you understand."
Had an explosion wrecked the building, without a doubt Marcus Gard, the resourceful and energetic leader of men, would, without an instant's hesitation, have headed the fire brigade. Before this moral bomb he remained silent, paralyzed, uncertain of himself and of all the world. He could not adjust himself to that angle of the situation. Mrs. Marteen somehow conveyed to his distracted senses that blackmail was a mere detail of business, and "being under obligations" a heinous crime. At that rate the number of criminals on his list was legion, and certainly appeared unconscious of the enormity of their offense. It dawned upon him that he, the Great Man, was being "put in his place"; that his highly laudable desire for righteousness was being treated as forward and rather ridiculous posing. The buccaneer had outpointed him and taken the wind out of his sails, which now flapped ignominiously. The pause due to his mental rudderlessness continued till Mrs. Marteen herself broke the silence.
"You appear to consider my attitude an inexplicable one. It is merely unexpected. I feel sure that when you have considered the matter you will see, as I do, that business affairs must be free from any hint—of—shall we say, favoritisms?"
Gard found his voice, his temper and his curiosity at the same instant.
"No, hang it, I don't see!"
She looked at him with tolerance, as a mother upon an excited child.
"I have specified a certain sum as the price of certain articles. You accepted my terms. I do not ask you for a bonus. I do not ask you to take it upon yourself to rehabilitate me in your own estimation. I cannot accept this cheque, Mr. Gard, however I may appreciate your generosity." She pushed the yellow paper toward him.
The action angered him. "If," he roared, "you had obtained these by any mere chance, I might see your position. But according to your own account you obtained them by elaborate fraud, feeling sure of their eventual value; and yet you sit up and say you don't care to be reinstated in my regard—just as if money could do that—you—"
She interrupted him. "Then why this?" and she held out the statement. He was silent. "I repeat," she said, "I will not be under obligations to you or to anyone." She rose with finality, picked up the statement and cheque, crossed to the fire and dropped both the papers on the blazing logs. "If you will have the kindness to send me the purchase money, plus the sum I consigned to your keeping—as a blind to others, not to ourselves—I shall be very much indebted to you."
Gard watched her with varying emotions. "Well," he said slowly, "that money belongs to you. I made it for you and you're going to have it. In the meantime, as you may require the 'purchase money,' as you call it, to settle bills for soda water and gardenias, I'll make you out another cheque; the remainder will stay with the firm on deposit for you—whether you wish it or not. This is one time when I'm not to be dictated to—no, nor blackmailed." He spoke roughly and glanced at her quickly. Not an eyelash quivered. His voice changed. "I wish I understood you," he grumbled. "I wish I did. But perhaps that would, after all, be a great pity. You're an extraordinary woman, Mrs. Marteen. You've 'got me going,' as the college boys say—but I like you, hanged if I don't. And I repeat, at the risk of having you sneer at me again, I meant every word I said, and I still mean it; and I'm sorry you don't see it that way."
Her smile glorified her face.
"Please don't think I reject your proffered friendship," she said, extending her hand.
He would have taken it in both of his, but something in her manner warned him to meet it with the straight, firm grasp of manly assurance.
"Au revoir, mon ami." She nodded and was gone.
For several moments he stood by the door that had closed after her. Then he chuckled, frowned, chuckled again and sat down once more before his work table.
* * * * *
The salons of Mrs. Marteen's elaborate apartment were gay with flowers and palms, sweet with perfumes and throbbing with music. Dorothy, an airy, dazzling figure in white, her face radiant with innocent excitement, stood by her mother, whose marble beauty had warmed with happiness as Galatea may have thrilled to life. Everyone who was anybody crowded the rooms, laughing, gossiping, congratulating, nibbling at dainties and sipping beverages. The throng ebbed, renewed, passed from room to room, to return again for a final look at the lovely debutante and a final word with her no less attractive mother. A dozen distinguished men, both young and old, sought to ingratiate themselves, but Dorothy's joyous heart beat only for the day itself—her coming out, the launching of her little ship upon the bright waters frequented by Sirens, Argonauts and other delightful and adventurous people hitherto but shadow fictions. It was as exciting and wonderful as Christmas. She had been showered with presents, buried in roses. Everyone was filled with friendly thoughts of which she was the center. There was no envy, hatred or malice in all the world.
Marcus Gard advanced into the drawing room, the sound of his name, announced at the door, causing sudden and free passage to the center of attraction. He beamed upon Mrs. Marteen with real pleasure in her stately loveliness, and turned to Dorothy, who, her face alight with greeting, came frankly toward him. From the moment of their first meeting there had been instant understanding and liking. Gard took her outstretched hands with an almost fatherly thrill.
"You are undoubtedly a pleasing sight, Miss Marteen," he smiled; "and a long life and a merry one to you. Your daughter does you credit, dear lady," he added, turning to his hostess.
Dorothy, bubbling over with enthusiasm, claimed his hand again. "It was so sweet of you to send me that necklace in those wonderful flowers. See—I'm wearing it." She fondled a slender seed pearl rope at her throat. "Mother told me it was far too beautiful and I must send it back. But I was most undutiful. I said I wouldn't—just wouldn't. I know you picked it out for me yourself—now, didn't you?" He nodded somewhat whimsically. "There! I told mother so; and it would be rude, most rude, not to accept it—wouldn't it?"
He laughed gruffly. "It certainly would—and, really, you know your mother has a mania for refusing things. Why, I owe her—never mind, I won't tell you now—but I would have felt very much hurt, Miss Debutante, if you'd thrown back my little present. I'm sure I selected something quite modest and inconspicuous.... Dear me, I'm blocking the whole doorway. Pardon me."
He stepped back, nodding here and there to an acquaintance. Finally catching sight of his sister in the dining room, he joined her, and stood for a moment gazing at the commonplace comedy of presentations.
Miss Gard yawned. "My dear Marcus, who ever heard of you attending a tea? Really, I didn't know you knew these people so well."
Gard was glad of this opportunity. His sister had a praiseworthy manner of distributing his slightest word—of which he not infrequently took advantage.
"Well, you see, I was indebted to Marteen for a number of kindnesses in the early days, though we'd rather drifted apart before he died—had some slight business differences, in fact. But I'd like to do all I can for his widow and that really sweet child of theirs. I have a small nest egg in trust for her—some investments I advised Mrs. Marteen to make. Who is that chap who's so devoted?" he asked suddenly, switching the subject, as his quick eye noted the change of Dorothy's expression under the admiring glances of a tall young man of athletic proportions, whose face seemed strangely familiar.
Miss Gard lorgnetted. "That? Oh, that's only Teddy Mahr, Victor Mahr's son. He was a famous 'whaleback'—I think that's what they call it—on the Yale football team. They say that he's the one thing, besides himself, that the old cormorant really cares about."
Marcus Gard stiffened, and his jaw protruded with a peculiar bunching of the cheek muscles, characteristic of him in his moments of irritation. He looked again at Dorothy, absorbed in the conversation of the "whaleback" from Yale, recognized the visitor at the Denning box, and, with an untranslatable grunt, abruptly took his departure, leaving his sister to wonder over the strangeness of his actions.
Once out of the house, his anger blazed freely, and his chauffeur received a lecture on the driving and care of machines that was as undeserved as it was vigorous and emphatic.
Moved by a strange mingling of anger, curiosity and jealousy, Gard's first act on entering his library was to telephone to a well known detective agency—no surprising thing on his part, for not infrequently he made use of their services to obtain sundry details as to the movements of his opponents, and when, as often happened, cranks threatened the thorny path of wealth and prominence, he had found protection with the plain clothes men.
"Jordan," he growled over the wire, "I want Brencherly up here right away. Is he there?....All right. I want some information he may be able to give me offhand. If not—well, send him now."
He hung up the receiver and paced the room, his eyes on the rug, his hands behind his back, disgusted and angry with his own anger and disgust.
Half an hour had passed, when a young man of dapper appearance was ushered in. Gard looked up, frowning, into the mild blue eyes of the detective.
"Hello, Brencherly. Know Victor Mahr?"
"Yes," said the youth.
"Tell me about him," snapped Gard. "Sit down."
Brencherly sat. "Well, he's the head of the lumber people. Rated at six millions. Got one son, named Theodore; went to Yale. Wife was Mary Theobald, of Cincinnati—"
Gard interrupted. "I don't want the 'who's who,' Brencherly, or I wouldn't have sent for you. I want to know the worst about him. Cut loose."
"Well, his deals haven't been square, you know. He's had two or three nasty suits against him; he's got more enemies than you can shake a stick at. His confidential lawyer is Twickenbaur, the biggest scoundrel unhung. Of course nobody knows that; Twickenbaur's reputation is too bad—Mahr goes to your lawyers, apparently."
"There isn't any blackmail in any of that," the older man snarled.
"Oh!" cried the youth, his blue eyes lighting. "Oh, it's blackmail you want! Well, the only thing that looks that way is a story that nobody has been able to substantiate. We heard it as we hear lots of things that don't get out; but there was a yarn that Mahr was a bigamist; that his first wife was living when he married Miss Theobald. She died when the boy was born, and in that case she was never his legal wife, and of course now never can be. The other woman's dead, too, they say; but who's to prove it? That would be a fine tale for the coin, if anyone had the goods to show."
"I suppose the office looked that up when they got it, didn't they? Good for the coin, eh? What did you find?"
The informant actually blushed. "You aren't accusing us, Mr. Gard!"
"Accusing nothing. I know a few things, Brencherly, remember. Baker Allen told me your office held him up good and plenty to turn in a different report when his wife employed you, and you 'got the goods on him.' Now, don't give me any bluff. I want facts, and I pay you for them, don't I? Well, when you got that story, you looked it up hard, didn't you?"
Brencherly, thoroughly cowed, nodded assent. "But we couldn't get a line on it anywhere. If there were any proofs, somebody else had them—that's all."
"U'm!" said Marcus, and sat a moment silent. When he spoke again it was with an apparent frankness that would have deceived the devil himself. "See here, I'll tell you my reason for all this, so perhaps you can answer more intelligently. Martin Marteen was a friend of mine, and I'm interested in his little daughter, who has just come out. Theodore Mahr is attentive to her, and I'm not keen about it, and what you tell me about his father doesn't make me any happier. What sort of a woman is Mrs. Marteen—from your point of view? Of course I know her well socially, but what's her rating with you?"
"Ai, sir," Brencherly answered promptly. "Exceptionally fine woman—very intelligent. I should say that, with a word from you, she ought to be able to handle the situation, and any girl living. But the boy's all right, Mr. Gard, even if Mahr isn't. And after all, there may not be a word of truth in that romance I spun to you. We couldn't land a thing. What made us think there might be something in it was that we got it second hand from an old servant of Mahr's. He told the man that told us; but the old boy's gone, too."
Gard rose from his chair and resumed his pacing. Brencherly remained seated, patiently waiting. Presently Gard turned on him.
"That'll do, Brencherly. You may go; and don't let me catch you tipping Mahr off that I've been having you rate him, do you understand?"
The detective sprang to his feet with alacrity. "Oh, no, Mr. Gard—never a word. You know, sir, you're one of our very best clients."
Left alone, Gard sat down wearily, ran his hands through his hair, then held his throbbing temples between his clenched fists. Somehow, on his slender evidence, that was no evidence in fact, he was convinced of the truth of Mahr's perfidy; convinced that the lady rated A1 by the keenest detective bureau in the country had obtained the proofs of guilt and used them with the same perfect business sagacity she had used in his own case. It sickened him. Somehow he could forgive her handling such a case as his. It was purely commercial; but this other was uglier stuff. His soul rebelled. He would not have it so; he would not believe—and yet he was convinced against his own logic. He had tried to cheat the arithmetic when he had tried to make her extortion money an honestly made acquisition. And she had refused to be a party to the flimsy self-deception.
Mrs. Marteen was a blackmailer, an extortioner—that was the truth, the truth that he would not let himself recognize. Her depredations probably had much wider scope than he guessed. He must save her from herself; he must somehow reach the submerged personality and awaken it to the hideousness of that other, the soulless, heartless automaton that schemed and executed crimes with mechanical exactitude. He took a long breath of determination, and again grinned at the farce he was playing for his own benefit. Through repetition he was beginning to believe in the fiction of his former intimacy with Marteen. True, he had known him slightly, had once or twice snatched a hasty luncheon in his company at one of his clubs; but far from liking each other, the two men had been fundamentally antagonistic. Neither was Dorothy an excuse for his peculiar state of mind. He was drawn to her with strong protective yearning. Her childlike beauty pleased him. He wished she were his daughter, or a little sister to pet and spoil. But it was not for her sake that he savagely longed to make the mother into something different, "remolded nearer to his heart's desire." Was it the woman herself, or her enigmatic dual personality that held him? He wished he knew. He found his mind divided, his emotions many and at cross purposes. His keen, almost clairvoyant intuition was at fault for once. It sent no sure signal through the fog of his troubled heart.
How would it all end? Ah, how would it end? He sensed the situation as one of climax. It could not quietly dissolve itself and be absorbed in the sea of time and forgotten commonplace.
As an outlet for his mental discomfort, his restless spirit busied itself in hating Victor Mahr. He had always disliked the man; now he malignantly resented his very existence; Mahr became the personification of the thing he most wished to forget—the victimizing power of the woman who had enthralled him. Gard had met the one element he could not control or change—the past; and his conquering soul raged at its own impotence.
"There shall be no more of this!" he said aloud. "She sha'n't again. I'll—"
"I'll what?" the demon in his brain jeered at him. "What will you do? She will not 'be under obligations.' Perhaps, even, she likes her strange profession; perhaps she finds the delight of battle, that you know so well, in pitting her wits against the brains of the mighty; perhaps she has a cynic soul that finds a savage joy in running down the faults of the seemingly faultless—running them to earth and taking her profit therefrom. Who are you, Marcus Gard, to cavil at the lust of conquest—to sneer at the controlling of destinies?"
"I won't be beaten," declared his ego, "even if I have no weapon. I'll search till I find the way to the citadel, and if there is none open, I'll smash one through!"
* * * * *
"Mrs. Martin Marteen requests the pleasure of Mr. Marcus Gard's company at dinner"—the usual engraved invitation, with below a girlish scrawl: "You'll come, won't you? It's my very last dinner before we go South.—D."
He took a stubby quill, which, for some occult reason, he preferred for his intimate correspondence, and scribbled: "Of course, little friend. The crowned heads can wait." He tossed the envelope on the pile for special delivery, and speared the invitation on a letter file.
Two months had passed, and he was no nearer the solution of the problem he had set himself. His affection for the girl had deepened—become ratified by his experience of her sweetness and intelligence. They were "pally," as she put it, happily contented in each other's society. On the other hand, the fascination that Mrs. Marteen exercised over him was far from being placid enjoyment. She continued to vex his heart and irritate his imagination. Her tolerance of young Mahr's attentions to Dorothy drove him distracted, his only relief being that Miss Gard, his sister, swayed, as always, by his slightest wish, had developed a most maternal delight in Dorothy's presence, and was doing all in her power to make the girl's season a most successful one; also, in accord with his obvious desire—her influence was antagonistic to Mahr, his son and his motor car, his house and his flowers, everything that was his; in spite of which, Dorothy's manner toward Teddy Mahr was undoubtedly one of encouragement. Honesty compelled Gard to own that he could not find in the boy the echo of the objectionable sire. Perhaps the long dead mother, who was never a lawful wife, had, by some retributive turn of justice, endowed him wholly with her own qualities. Gard could almost find it in his breast to like the big, large-hearted, gentle boy, but for a final irony of fate—the son's blind adoration of his father, and that father's obvious but helpless dislike of the impending romance. Every element of contradiction seemed to be present in the tangle and to bind the older watchers to silence. What could anyone do or say? And meanwhile, in the pause before the storm, Dorothy's violet eyes smiled into her Teddy's brown devoted ones with tender approval.
One move only had Gard made with success, and the doing thereof had given him supreme satisfaction. The account opened in his office in Mrs. Marteen's name had been transferred to Dorothy, and with such publicity that Mrs. Marteen was unable to raise objections. Right and left he told the tale of his having desired to advise the widow of his old friend, of his successful operations, of Mrs. Marteen's refusal to accept her just gains as "too great," and his determination that the account, transferred to the daughter, should reach its proper destination. The first result of his outwitting of the beneficiary was a doubling of the usual letters inclosing a cheque and requesting advice. The secretary was plainly disgusted, but Gard grimly paid the price of his checkmate, and by his generosity certainly precluded any accusation of favoritism. As he read Dorothy's note on the invitation, he chuckled at the thought of his own cleverness, and rejoiced in the knowledge that his debutante had become somewhat his ward and protegee.
The bell of his private telephone rang—only his intimates had the number of that wire—and he raised the receiver with sudden conviction that the voice he would hear was Dorothy's. "Well, my dear?" he said. There was a little gurgle, and an obviously disguised voice replied:
"And who do you think this is?"
"Why, the queen of the debutantes, of course. I felt it in my bones; it was a pleasurable sensation."
"Wrong," the voice came back, "quite wrong. This is the superintendent of the Old Ladies' Home, and we want autographed photographs of you for all the old ladies' dressers—to cheer them up, you know."
"Certainly, my dear madam; they shall be sent at once. To your apartment, I suppose. Is there anything else?"
"Yes; you might bring them yourself. Did you know that mother has been ordered off to Bermuda at once? The doctor says she's dreadfully run down. She won't let me go with her. She wants me to do a lot of things; and then in three weeks we all go South. Mother's doctor says she mustn't wait. Isn't it a bore? And Tante Lydia is coming to-day to chaperon me. Did you get my invitation?"
Gard's heart sank. "Dear me! That's bad news. How long will your mother be gone?"
"Oh, just the voyage and straight home again. But do come in this afternoon and have tea; perhaps you could persuade her to stay a week there—she won't obey me."
"They are very insubordinate in the Old Ladies' Home. I'll drop in this afternoon. Good-by, my dear."
He hung up the receiver and glowered. "Not well! Mrs. Marteen in the doctor's care!" He could not associate her perfection with illness of any kind. It gave him a distinct pang, and for the first time a feeling of protective tenderness. This instantly translated itself into a lavish order of violets, and a mental note to see that, her stateroom was made beautiful for her voyage.
Adding his signature to the pile of letters that Saunders handed him served to pass the moments till he could officially declare himself free for the day and be driven to the abode of the two beings who had so absorbed his interest.
He found Mrs. Marteen reclining on a chaise-longue in her library-sitting room, the Pekinese spaniel in her lap and Dorothy by her side. She looked weary, but not ill, and Gard felt a glow of comfort.
"Dear lady, I came at once. Dorothy advised me of your impending journey, and led me to believe you were not well. But I am reassured—you do not seem a drooping flower."
Mrs. Marteen laughed. "How 1830! Couldn't you put it into a madrigal? It really is absurd, though, sending me off like this. But they threatened me with nerves—fancy that—nerves! And never having had an attack of that sort, of course I'm terrified. I shall leave my butterfly in good hands, however. My sister is to take my place; and I sha'n't be gone long, you know."
"We hope not, don't we, Dorothy? What boat do you honor, and what date?"
Mrs. Marteen hesitated. "I'm not sure. The Bermudian sails this week. If I cannot go then, and that is possible, I may take the Cecelia, and make the Caribbean trip. It's a little longer, but on my return I would join Dorothy and Mrs. Trevor, crossing directly from Bermuda to Florida. It's absurd, isn't it, to play the invalid! But insomnia is really getting its hold on me. A good sleep would be a novelty just now, and bromides depress me, so—there you are! I suppose I must take the doctor's advice and my maid, and fly for my health's sake."
In spite of the natural tone and her apparent frankness, Gard remained unconvinced. He could not have explained why. All his life he had found his intuitions superior to his logical deductions. They had led him to his present exalted position and had kept him there. No sooner had this inner self refused to accept Mrs. Marteen's story than his mind began supplying reasons for her departure—and the very first held him spellbound. Was it another move in her perpetual game? Was she on the track of someone's secret? Was her scheming mind now following some new clew that must lead to the discovery of a hidden or forgotten crime—the burial place of some well entombed family skeleton? He shivered.
Mrs. Marteen observed him narrowly.
"Mr. Gard is cold, Dorothy. Send for the tea, dear—or will you have something else? Really, you look like the patient who should seek climate and rest."
"Perhaps you're right," he said slowly. "Perhaps I will go—perhaps with you. It would be pleasant to have your society for so many weeks, uninterrupted and almost alone. I'll think of it—if I can arrange my affairs."
He had been watching her closely, and seemed to surprise in the depths of her eyes and the slow assuming of her impenetrable manner, that his suggestion was far from receiving approval.
"But, my dear sir," she answered, "much as that would be my pleasure, would it be wise for you? Everyone tells me the next few weeks will be crucial. Your presence may be needed in Washington."
"Well, I suppose it will," he retorted almost angrily. "But I've a pretty good idea what the result will be, and my sails are trimmed."
"Then do come," she invited cordially; "it will be delightful!" She had read the meaning of his tone; knew quite as well as he that her words had brought home to him the impossibility of his leaving. She could afford to be pressing.
More and more convinced of some ulterior motive in Mrs. Marteen's departure, his irritation made him gruff. Even Dorothy, seeing his ill-temper, retired to the far corner of the room, and eyed him with surprise above her embroidery. Feeling the discord of his present mood, he rose to take his leave.
"Do arrange to come," smiled Mrs. Marteen, with just a touch of irony in her clear voice.
"You are very kind," he answered; "but, somehow, I'm not so sure you want me."
He bowed himself out and, sore-hearted, sought the crowded solitude of the Metropolitan Club. His next move was characteristic. Having got Gordon on the wire, he requested as complete a list as possible of the passengers to sail by the Bermudian and the Cecelia. A new possibility had presented itself. If the psychological moment in someone's affairs was eventuating, something for which she had long planned the denouement. That person might be sailing. If only he could accompany her, perhaps in the isolated world of a steamer's life, he might bring his will to bear—force from her a promise to cease from her pernicious activities, and an acceptance of his future aid in all financial matters—two things he had found it impossible to accomplish, or even propose, heretofore. But she was right; the moment was critical, and his presence might be necessary in Washington at any moment.
When, later that night, the lists were delivered at his home, he spent a throbbing half-hour. There were several possibilities. Mrs. Allison was Bermuda bound; so was Morgan Beresford. Both had fortunes, a whispered past and ambitions. The Honorable Fortescue, the wealthy and impeccable Senator, the shining light of "practical politics," was Havana bound on the Cecelia, so was Max Brutgal, the many-millioned copper baron. Mrs. Allison he discarded as a possibility. He was sure that Mme. Robin Hood would disdain such an easy victim and refuse to hound one of her own sex. Looking over the list, he singled out Brutgal, if it were the Cecelia, and Beresford, if it were the Bermudian. Beresford was devoted to the lovely and somewhat severe Mrs. Claigh. He might be more than willing to suppress some event in his patchwork past.
Gard threw the lists from him angrily. After all, what right had he to interfere? What business of his was it which fly was elected to feed the spider? He went to bed, and passed a sleepless night trying to determine, nevertheless, which was the doomed insect. He would have liked to prevent the ships from leaving the harbor, or invent a situation that would make it as impossible for Mrs. Marteen to leave as it was for him to accompany her.
A few days later, when Mrs. Marteen finally announced her intention of departing on the longer cruise, Gard seriously contemplated a copper raid that would keep Brutgal at the ticker. Then he as furiously abandoned the idea, washed his hands of the whole affair and did not go near Mrs. Marteen for three days. At the end of that time, having thoroughly punished himself, he relented, and continued to shower the lady with attentions until the very moment of her final leave taking. He accompanied her to the steamer, saw her gasp of pleasure at the bower of violets prepared for her and formally accepted the post of sub-guardian to Dorothy.
As the tugs dragged out the unwilling vessel from her berth, he caught a glimpse of Brutgal, his coarse, heavy face set off by an enormous sealskin collar, join Mrs. Marteen at the rail and bid blatantly for her attention. Gard turned his back, took Dorothy by the arm, and, in spite of her protestations, left the wharf. His motor took Tante Lydia and Dorothy to their apartment, where he left them with many assurances of his desire to be of service.
He sent a wireless message and was comforted. He wondered how, in the old days that were only yesterdays, people could have endured separation without any means of communication, and he blessed the name of Marconi as cordially as he cursed the name of Brutgal. To exasperate him further, the rest of the day seemed obsessed by Victor Mahr. He was in the elevator that took him up to his office; he was at the club in the afternoon; he was a guest at the Chamber of Commerce banquet in the evening, and was placed opposite Marcus Gard. Despite his desire to let the man alone, he could not resist the temptation to talk with him.
Mahr, whatever else he might be, was no fool, and even as Gard seemed a prey to nervous irritation, so Mahr appeared to experience a bitter pleasure in parrying his adversary's vicious thrusts and lunging at every opening in the other's arguments. Both men appeared to ease some inner turbulence, for they calmed down as the dinner progressed, and ended the evening in abstraction and silence, broken as they parted by Gard's sudden question:
"And how's that good-looking son of yours, Mahr?"
Mahr shot an underbrow glance at Gard, and took his time to answer.
"If he does what I want him to," he said at last, "he'll take a year or two out West and learn the lumber business—and I think he will."
"Good idea," said Gard curtly. "Good-night."
One day of restlessness succeeded another. Ill at ease, Gard felt himself waiting—for what? It was the strain of anxiety, such as a miner feels deep in the heart of the earth, knowing that far down the black corridor the dynamite has been placed and the fuse laid. Why was the expected explosion delayed? One must not go forward to learn. One must sit still and wait. A thousand times he asked himself the meaning of this latent dread. He set it down to his suspicions of Mrs. Marteen's departure. Then why this fibril anxiety never to be long beyond call? Surely, and the demon in his brain laughed with amusement, he did not expect her to send him a cryptic wireless—"Everything arranged; operation a success; appendix removed without opposition," or "Patient unmanageable; must use anesthetic."
Four days had passed, four miserable days, relieved only by a few pleasant hours with Dorothy and the enjoyment he always found in watching her keen delight in every entertainment. He went everywhere, where he felt sure of seeing her, and could he have removed Teddy Mahr from the obviously reserved place at Dorothy's side, he could have enjoyed those moments without the undercurrent of his troubled fears. That Mahr was rebelliously angry at the situation was evident. Gard had seen the look in his eyes on more than one occasion, and it boded evil to someone. What had he meant when he spoke of his son's probable absence of a year or more "to study the lumber business"? Gard approached the young man and found him quite innocent of any such plan.
"Oh, yes," he had answered, "father's keen on my being what he calls practical, but," and he had smiled frankly at his questioner, "I wouldn't leave now—not for the proud possession of every tree, flat or standing, this side of the Pacific."
Dorothy, when questioned, blushed and smiled and evaded, assuring Gard that of all the men she had met that season he alone came up to her ideal, and employed every artifice a woman uses between the ages of nine and ninety, when she does not want to give an answer that answers. The very character of her replies, however, convinced Gard that there was more than a passing interest in her preference. There was something sweetly ingenuous in her evasions, a softness in her violet eyes at the mention of Teddy's prosaic name that was not to be misunderstood. Gard sighed. Still the sense of impending danger oppressed him. He found himself neglectful of his many and vital interests. He took himself severely in hand, and set himself to unrelenting work, fixing his attention on the matters in hand as if he would drive a nail through them. Heavy circles appeared under his eyes, and the lines from nose to chin sharpened perceptibly. More than ever he looked the eagle, stern and remote, capable of daring the very sun in high ambitious flight, or of sudden and death-dealing descent; but deep in his heart fear had entered.
* * * * *
"Hello! Oh, good morning. Is that you, Teddy? Yes, you did wake me up—but I'm very glad. Half past ten?—good gracious!—you never telephone me before that?—Oh, what a whopper! You called me at half past eight—day before yesterday—Why, of course—I know that—but you did just the same. Why, yes, I'd love to. What time to-morrow? That will be jolly; but do have the wind-shield—I hate to be blown out of the car—no, it isn't becoming—You're a goose!—besides, my hair tickles my nose. No, I haven't had a word from mother, and I don't understand it at all. She might have sent me a wireless. Yes, I'm awfully lonely—who wouldn't miss her?—Well, now, you don't have a chance to miss me much—Oh, really!—I'm dreadfully sorry for you!—poor old dear! Well, I can't, positively, to-day—to-morrow, at three; and I'll be ready—yes, really ready. Good-by."
Dorothy hung up the receiver, yawned as daintily as a Persian kitten, rubbed her eyes and rang the maid's bell. She smiled happily at the golden sunlight that crept through the slit of the drawn pink curtains. Another beautiful brand new day to play with, a day full of delightful, adventurous surprises—a debutante's luncheon, a matinee, a the dansant, a dinner, too. Dorothy swung her little white feet from under the covers and crinkled her toes delightedly ere she thrust them in the cozy satin slippers that awaited them; a negligee to match, with little dangling bunches of blue flower buds, she threw over her shoulders with a delicate shiver, as the maid closed the window and admitted the full light of day. Hopping on one foot by way of waking up exercises, she crossed to the dressing-table, dabbed a brush at her touseled hair, then concealed it under a fluffy boudoir cap. She paused to innocently admire her reflection in the silver rimmed mirror, turning her head from side to side, the better to observe the lace frills and twisted ribbons of her coiffe. Breakfast arrived, steaming on its little white and chintz tray, and Dorothy smacked hungry lips.
"Oo—oo—how perfectly lovely—crumpets! and scrambled eggs! I'm starved!" She settled herself, eagerly cooing over the fragrant coffee. "Now, if only Mother were here," she exclaimed. "It's so lonely breakfasting without her!"
But her loneliness was not for long. An avalanche of Aunt Lydia entered the room, quite filling it with her fluttering presence. Tante Lydia's morning cap was quite as youthful as that of her niece, her flowered wrapper as belaced and befurbelowed as the lingiere could make it, and her high heeled mules were at least two sizes too small, and slapped as she walked.
"My dear," she bubbled girlishly, thrusting a stray lock of questionable gold beneath her cap, "I thought I'd just run in and sit with you. I've had my breakfast ages ago—indeed, yes—and seen the housekeeper, and ordered everything. It was shockingly late when we got in last night, my dear. I really hadn't a notion it was after three, till you came after me into the conservatory. That was a delightful affair last night, I must say, even if Mrs. May is so loud. She isn't stingy in the way she entertains, like Mrs. Best's, where we were Wednesday. That was positively a shabby business. Now, dear, what do we do to-day? I've just looked over my calendar, and I want to see yours. Really, we are so crowded that we've got to cut something out—we really have." As she spoke she crossed to Dorothy's slim-legged, satin wood writing desk, and picked up an engagement book. "You lunch with the Wootherspoons—that's good. Then I can go to the Caldens for bridge in the afternoon at four. You won't be back from the matinee and tea at the Van Vaughns' until after six, and we dine at the Belmans' at eight. That'll do very nicely. And then, dear, about my dress at Bendel's; I do wish you could find a minute to see my fitting. I can't tell whether I ought to have that mauve so near my face, or whether it ought to be pink; and you know that fitter doesn't care how I look, just so she gets that gown of her hands, and I can't make up my mind—when I can't see myself at a distance from myself, and those fitting rooms are so small!"
Dorothy paused in the midst of a bite. "Tante Lydia, you know if she said 'mauve' you'd want 'pink' and 'mauve' if she said 'pink,' and all you really need is somebody to argue with; and, besides, they both look the same at night."
Mrs. Mellows pouted fat pink lips, and looked more than ever an elderly infant about to burst into tears.
"Dorothy," she sniffed, "I do think you are the most trying child! I only wish to look well for your sake. I have no vanity—why should I have? It's only my desire to be presentable on your account." Her blue orbs suffused with tears.
Dorothy leaped from the divan, to the imminent danger of the breakfast tray. "Now, Aunt Lydia, don't be foolish. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, and, besides, you know you are the really, truly belle of the ball. Why, you bad thing! Where were you all last evening? Didn't I have to go after you—and into the conservatory, at that! And what did I find, pray—you and a beautiful white-haired beau, with a goatee! And now you say you are only dressing for me—Oh, fie!—oh, fie!—oh, fie!" She kissed her aunt on a moist blue eye, and bounced back to her seat.
The chaperon was mollified and flattered. "But, my dear," she returned to the charge, "you know mauve is so unbecoming; if one should become a trifle pale—"
Dorothy snipped a bit of toast in her aunt's direction. "But, why, my dear Lydia," she teased, "should one ever be pale? There are first aids to beauty, you know—and a very nice rouge can be had—"
"Dorothy, how can you!" exclaimed the lady, overcome with horror. "Rouge! What are you saying, and what are young girls coming to! At your age, I'd never heard the word, no, indeed. And, besides, my love, it is indecorous of you to address me as 'Lydia.' I am your mother's sister, remember."
Her charge giggled joyously. "Nobody would believe it, never in the world! You aren't one day older than I am, not a day. If you were, you wouldn't care whether it was mauve or pink—nor flirt in the conservatories."
"You're teasing me!" was Mrs. Mellows' belated exclamation. "And, my dear, I don't think it quite nice, really."
The insistent call of the telephone arrested the conversation. Dorothy took up the receiver, and Aunt Lydia became all attention.
"Hello!—Oh, it's you again—I thought I rang off—Oh, really—no, I'm not!"
"Who is it?" questioned Aunt Lydia in a sibilant whisper.
Dorothy went on talking, carefully refraining from any mention of names. "Yes—did you?—that's awfully kind—yes, I love violets; no, they haven't come, by messenger—how extravagant! No, I'm not going out just yet—not in this get up. What color? Pink—and a lace cap—a duck of a lace cap. Send the photographs around—Oh, that's all right; Aunt Lydia is here—aren't you, Aunt Lydia?—Oh, oh—what a horrid word!—unsay it at once! All right, you're forgiven. I'm busy all day—all, all day—yes, and this evening. No, orchids won't go with my gown to-night—don't be silly—of course, gardenias go with everything, but—now, what nonsense!—I'm going to hang up—Indeed, I will. Good-b—what? Now, listen to me—"
A tap at the door, and Aunt Lydia, hypnotized as she was by the telephone conversation, had presence of mind enough to open the door and receive a square box tied with purple ribbon. She dexterously untied the loose bow knot, and withdrew from its tissue wrappings, a fragrant bouquet of violets. An envelope enclosing a card fell to the floor. With suppleness hardly to be expected from one of her years, she stooped to pick it up, and in a twinkling had the donor's name before her.
Dorothy hung up the receiver and turned. "So you know who sent the flowers, and who was on the 'phone," she laughed. "Tante, you should have been a detective—you really should."
"How can you!" almost wept Mrs. Mellows. "I only opened it to save you the trouble. Of course, I knew all along that it was Teddy Mahr—I guessed—why not? Really, Dorothy, you misinterpret my interest in you, really, you do."
Dorothy laughed. "Now, now," she scolded, "don't say that. Here, I'll divide with you." She separated the fragrant bunch into its components of smaller bunches, snipped the purple ribbon in two, and neatly devised two corsage adornments. "Here," she bubbled, "one for you and one for me—and don't say such mean things about me any more. If you do, I'll tell Mother about all your flirtations the minute she gets back—I will, too!"
"That reminds me, my dear," said Mrs. Mellows, her apple-pink face becoming suddenly serious, "I don't understand why we haven't had any news from your mother, really, I don't. She might have sent us just a wireless or something."
"It is odd." Dorothy's laugh broke off midway in a silvery chuckle. "But something may have gone wrong with the telegraphic apparatus, you know. We might get the company, and find out if any other messages have been received from her."
"I never thought of that," exclaimed Mrs. Mellows. "You are quick witted, Dorothy, I will say that for you. Suppose you do find out."
Dorothy turned to the telephone and made her inquiry. "There," she said at length, "I guessed it—no messages at all; they are sure it's out of order. Well, that does relieve one's mind. It isn't because she's ill, or anything like that. Now, Aunt Lydia, that's my mail."
"Why, child!" the mature Cupid protested, "I wasn't going to open your letters. Indeed, I think you are positively insulting to me! Here, that's from your cousin Euphemia, I know her hand; and that's just a circular, I'm sure—and Tappe's bill. My dear, you've been perfectly foolish about hats this winter. This is a handwriting I don't know, but it's smart stationery—and, dear me, look at all these little cards. I really don't see how the postman bothers to see that they're all delivered; they're such little slippery things—more teas—and bridge."
"And how about yours?" questioned Dorothy, amused. "What did you get?"
Aunt Lydia bridled. "Oh, nothing much. Some cards, a bill or two—"
"Bill or coo, you mean," said her niece with a playful clutch at her chaperon's lap-full of missives. "If that isn't a man's letter, I'll eat my cap, ribbons and all—and that one, and that one."
Mrs. Mellows rose hastily, gathered her flowing negligee about her and beat a retreat.
She turned at the door, "You're a rude little girl, and I shan't count on you to go to Bendel's. If you want me, I'll be here from half past two to four, when I go for bridge." With the air of a Christian martyr she betook herself to the seclusion of her own rooms.
Dorothy suffered herself to be dressed as she opened her mail. Aunt Lydia had diagnosed it with almost psychic exactness, and its mystery had ceased to be interesting. Last of all she opened a plain envelope with typewritten directions. The enclosure, also typewritten, gave a first impression of an announcement of a special sale, or request for assistance from some charitable organization. Idly she glanced at it, flipped it over, and found it to be unsigned. A word or two caught her attention. She turned back, and read:
Miss DOROTHY MARTEEN:
"That the sins of the parents should be visited upon the children is, perhaps, hard. But we feel it time for you to understand thoroughly your situation, in order that you may determine what your future is to be. You have been reared all your life on stolen, or what is worse, extorted money. We hope you have not inherited the callous nature of your mother, and that this information will not leave you unashamed. Not a gown you have worn, nor a possession you have enjoyed, but has been yours through theft. That you may verify this statement, open the steel safe, back of the second panel of the library wall to the left of the fireplace. The combination is, 18.104.22.168.0. A button on the inner edge on the right releases a spring, opening a second compartment, where the material of your future luxuries is stored. A look will be sufficient. I hardly think you will then care to occupy the position in the lime light to which you have been brought by such means. Obscurity is better—perhaps, even exile. Talk it over with your mother. We think she will agree with us.
The words danced before Dorothy's eyes, a sudden stopping of the heart, a hot flush, a painful dizziness that was at once physical and mental, made her clutch at the table for support. She dropped the letter, and stood staring at it, fascinated, as in a nightmare.
An anonymous letter, a cruel, hateful, wicked atrocity! Why should she receive such a thing? she, who never in her whole life, had wished anyone ill. It couldn't be so. She had misread, misunderstood. She picked up the message and looked at it again. It was surely intended for her, there could be no mistake. Then fear came upon her. The abrupt entrance of the maid, carrying her hat and veil, gave her a spasm of panic. No one must see, no one must know. The wretched sender of this hideous libel must believe it ignored—never received. She thrust the paper hastily into the bosom of her dress. Its very contact seemed to burn.
"That will do," she said. "I'm not going out just yet. I—I have some notes to write; don't bother me now."
Her voice sounded strange. She glanced quickly at the maid, fearing to surprise a look of suspicion. It seemed impossible that that cracked voice of hers would pass unnoticed. But the maid bowed, carefully placed a pair of white gloves by the hat and jacket, and went out as if nothing had happened.
Dorothy, left alone, stood still for a moment as if robbed of all volition. Then, with a suppressed cry, she dragged out the accusing document and carried it to the light. Who could do such a thing! Who would be such a lying coward! Her helplessness made her rage. Oh, to be able to confront this traducer, this libeler. To see him punished, to tell him to his face what she thought of him I Somewhere he was in the world, laughing to himself in the safety of his namelessness—knowing her futile anger and indignation—satisfied to have shamed and insulted her—and her mother—her great, resourceful, splendid mother, away and ill when this dastardly attack was made. Impulsively she turned to run to her aunt, and lay the matter before her, but paused and sat down on the little chair before her writing desk. Covering her eyes with her clenched hands she tried to think. Tante Lydia was worse than useless, scatterbrained, self-centered, incapable. What would she do? Lament and call all her friends in conclave; send in the police; acknowledge her fright, and give this nameless writer the satisfaction of knowing that his shaft had found its mark?
Teddy! Teddy would come to her at once. But what could he do? Sympathy was not what she wanted; it was support and guidance. With a trembling hand she smoothed the paper before her and, controlling herself, reread every word with minutest care. But this third perusal left her more at sea than before. What did this enmity mean? What could have incited it? Why did this wretch give her such minute instructions? She knew of no safe in the library—could it be just possible that such a thing did exist? Could it be possible that this liar had obtained knowledge of her mother's private affairs to such an extent that he knew of facts that had remained unknown even to her?—the daughter! A new cause for fear loomed before her. Had this venomous enemy access to the house? Was he able to come and go at will, ferreting out its secrets?
Dorothy turned about quickly, almost expecting to see some sinister shadow leering at her from the doorway, or disappearing into the wardrobe. Her terror had something in it of childish nightmare. Acting as if under a spell of compulsion, she rose and tiptoed to the door. She looked down the hall, and found it empty. The querulous voice of Mrs. Mellows came to her, raised in complaint against hooked-behind dresses. Like a lovely little ghost she flitted down the corridor to the library, paused for an instant with a beating heart, and, entering, closed the door with infinite precautions and shot the bolt.
She was panting as if from some painful exertion. Her hands were damp and chill, her temples throbbed. The room seemed strange, close shuttered and silent, as if it sheltered the silent, unresponsive dead. The air was oppressive, and the light that filtered through the dim blinds was vague and uncanny.
It was some moments before she felt herself under sufficient control to cross by the big Jacobean table, and face the hooded fireplace—"to the left, the second panel." She stared at it. To all appearances it was reassuringly the same as all the others. Gently she pushed it right and left, then up and down, but her pressure was so slight and nervous that it did not stir the heavy wood. She breathed a great sigh of relief, and beginning now to believe herself the victim of some cruel hoax, she dared a firmer pressure. The panel responded—moved—slid slowly behind its fellow—revealing the steel muzzle of a safe let into the solid masonry. It seemed the result of some evil witchcraft; her blood chilled. Yet, with renewed eagerness, she turned the combination. She did not need to refer to the letter, she knew it by heart—the numbers were seared there. The heavy door swung outward. Within she saw well-remembered cases of velvet and morocco. This contained her mother's diamond collar; that her lavalliere; the emerald pendant was in the box of ivory velvet; the earrings and the antique diamond rings in the little round-topped casket, embossed and inlaid. Sliding her finger along the inner frame of the safe, she felt a knob, and pressed it. One side of the receptacle clicked open, revealing an inner compartment.
Then panic seized her. She could never recall shutting the safe door and replacing the panel, the movements were automatic. She was out of the library and running down the corridor before she realized it. Once more in the sanctuary of her own room, she threw herself upon the bed, buried her face in the tumbled pillow and gasped for breath.
"What shall I do!—what shall I do!" she moaned aloud. "I'm afraid—Oh, I'm afraid!" like a little child crying in the night in the awful isolation of an empty house. Suddenly she sat up. The tears dried upon her curved lashes. Of course, of course—Mr. Gard, her friend, her mother's friend. The very thought of him steadied her. The terrified child of her untried self, vanished before the coming of a new and active womanhood. She thought quickly and clearly. "He would be at his office," she reasoned. "He had mentioned an important meeting. She would go there at once—cancelling her luncheon engagement on the ground of some simple ailment. Tante Lydia must not know. Once let Gard, with his master grip, control the situation, and she would feel safe as in a walled castle strongly defended. A tower of strength—a tower of strength." She repeated the words to herself as if they were a talisman. She felt as if, from afar, her mother had counseled her. She would go to him. It was the right thing, the only thing to do.
* * * * *
The morning of the fifth day since Mrs. Marteen's departure found Gard in early consultation in the directors' room of his Wall Street office, facing a board of directors with but one opinion—he must go at once to Washington. Strangely enough, the plan met with stubborn resistance from his inner self. There was every reason for his going, but he did not want to go. His advisers and fellow directors looked in amazement as they saw him hesitate, and for once the Great Man was at a loss to explain. He knew, and they knew, that there was nothing that should detain him, nothing that could by any twist be construed into a valid excuse for refusal. He amazed himself and them by abruptly rising from his seat, bunching the muscles of his jaw in evident antagonism and hurling at them his ultimatum in a voice of defiance.
"Of course, gentlemen, it is evident that I must go, and I will. The situation requires it. But I ask you to name someone else—the vice-president, and you, Corrighan—in case something arises to prevent my leaving the city."
Langley, the lawyer, rose protesting.
"But, Mr. Gard, no one can take your place. It's the penalty, perhaps, of being what and who you are, but the honor of your responsibilities demands it. There is more at stake than your own interests, or the interest of your friends. There's the public, your stockholders. You owe it to them and to yourself to shoulder this responsibility without any 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts.'"
Gard turned as if to rend him. "I have told you I'll go, haven't I? But—and there is a but—gentlemen, you must select another delegate, or delegation, in case circumstances arise—"
Denning's voice interrupted from the end of the table. "Gard, what excuse is the only excuse for not returning one's partner's lead? Sudden death."
"Or when you must have the lead yourself," snapped Gard. "I cannot go into this matter with you, gentlemen. The contingency I speak of is very remote—if it is a contingency at all. But I must be frank. I cannot have you take my enforced absence, if such should be necessary, as defalcation or a shirking of my duty—so I warn you."
"The chance is remote," Denning replied in quiet tones that palliated. "Let us decide, then, who, in case this vague possibility should shape itself, will act as delegates. I do not think we can improve on the president's suggestion, but," and he turned to Gard sternly, "I trust the contingency is so remote that we may consider it an impossibility for all our sakes, and your own."
Gard did not answer. In silence he heard the motion carried, and silently and without his usual affability he turned and left the room. The others eyed each other with open discomfiture.
"Well, gentlemen, the meeting is over," said Denning gloomily. "We may as well adjourn."
A very puzzled and uneasy group dispersed before the tall marble office building, while in his own private office Gard paced the floor, from time to time punching the open palm of his left hand with the clenched fist of his right, in fury at himself.
"Am I mad—am I mad?" he repeated mechanically. "Has the devil gotten into me?" His confidential clerk knocked, and seeing the Great Man's face, paused in trepidation. "What is it? What is it?" snapped Gard.
"There's Brenchcrly, sir, in the outer office. He wouldn't give his message—said you'd want to see him in private; so I ventured—"
"Brencherly!" Gard's heart missed a beat. He stopped short. He felt the mysterious dread from which he had suffered to be shaping itself from the darkness of uncertainty. "Show him in," he ordered, and, turning to the window, gazed blindly out, centering his self-control. "Well?" he said without turning, as he heard the door open and close again.
"Mr. Gard," came the quiet voice of the detective, "I've a piece of information, that, from what you told me the other day, I thought might interest you. I have found out that Mr. Mahr is making every effort to find out the combination of Mrs. Marteen's private safe."
"Yes. I learned it from one of the men in the Cole agency. Mr. Mahr didn't come to us. I'm not betraying any trust, you see. It was Balling, one of the cleverest men they've got, but he drinks. I was out with him last night, and he let it out; he said it was the rummiest job they'd had in a long day, and that his chief wouldn't have taken it, but he had a lot of commissions from Mahr, and I guess, besides, he gave some reason for wanting it that sort of squared him. Anyhow, that's how it stands."
"Have they got it?" Gard demanded.
"No, they hadn't, but he said they expected to land it O.K. They know the make, and they've got access to the company's books, and the company's people, and if she hasn't changed the combination lately, they'll land that all right. I tried to find out if they'd put anyone into the apartment, but Balling sobered up a bit by that time and shut down on the talk. But it's dollars to doughnuts he's after something, and they've put a flattie around somewhere. Of course I don't know how this frames up with what you told me about young Mahr, but I thought you might dope it out, perhaps."
Gard sat down before his writing table, and wrote out a substantial cheque.
"There, Brencherly, that's for you. Thank you. Now I put you on this officially. Find out for me, if you can, if they have put anyone in the house. Find out what they're after. Anything at all that concerns this matter is of interest to me. Put a man to shadow Balling; have a watch put on anyone you think is acting for Mahr. I will take it upon myself to have the combination changed. I'll send a message to Mrs. Marteen."
Brencherly shook his head. "If you do that they'll tumble to you, Mr. Gard. It's an even chance Mr. Mahr would have any messages reported. He could, you know; he's a pretty important stockholder in the transmission companies. You'd better have a watchman or an alarm attachment on the safe, if you can."
Gard sat silent. He was reasoning out the motive of Mahr's move. Did Mrs. Marteen still retain evidence against him which he was anxious to obtain during her absence? It seemed the obvious conclusion, and yet there was the possibility that Mahr contemplated vengeance, that in the safe he hoped to obtain evidence against Mrs. Marteen herself that would put her into his hands. On the whole, that seemed the most likely explanation, and one that offered such possibilities that he ground his teeth. He was roused from his reverie by Brencherly's hesitating voice.
"I think, Mr. Gard, I'd better go at once. I want to get a trailer after Balling, and if I'm a good guesser, we haven't any time to lose."
"You're right; go on. I was thinking what precautions had best be taken at Mrs. Marteen's home. I'll plan that—you do the rest. Good-by."
Brencherly sidled to the door, bowed and disappeared.
The telephone bell on the table rang sharply. Gard took down the receiver absently, but the voice that trembled over the wire startled him like an electric shock. It was Dorothy's, but changed almost beyond recognition, a frightened, uncertain little treble.