A MYSTERY STORY
BY GERTRUDE ATHERTON
TO CHARLES HANSON TOWNE
Price Ruyler knew that many secrets had been inhumed by the earthquake and fire of San Francisco and wondered if his wife's had been one of them. After all, she had been born in this city of odd and whispered pasts, and there were moments when his silent mother-in-law suggested a past of her own.
That there was a secret of some sort he had been progressively convinced for quite six months. Moreover, he felt equally sure that this impalpable gray cloud had not drifted even transiently between himself and his wife during the first year and a half of their marriage. They had been uncommonly happy; they were happy yet ... the difference lay not in the quality of Helene's devotion, enhanced always by an outspoken admiration for himself and his achievements, but in subtle changes of temperament and spirits.
She had been a gay and irresponsible young creature when he married her, so much so that he had found it expedient to put her on an allowance and ask her not to ran up staggering bills in the fashionable shops; which she visited daily, as much for the pleasure of the informal encounter with other lively and irresponsible young luminaries of San Francisco society as for the excitement of buying what she did not want.
He had broached the subject with some trepidation, for they had never had a quarrel; but she had shown no resentment whatever, merely an eager desire to please him. She even went directly down to the Palace Hotel and reproached her august parent for failing to warn her that a dollar was not capable of infinite expansion.
But no wonder she had been extravagant, she told Ruyler plaintively. It had been like a fairy tale, this sudden release from the rigid economies of her girlhood, when she had rarely had a franc in her pocket, and they had lived in a suite of the old family villa on one of the hills of Rouen, Madame Delano paying her brother for their lodging, and dressing herself and Helene with the aid of a half paralyzed seamstress with a fiery red nose. Ma foi! It was the nightmare of her youth, that nose and that croaking voice. But the woman had fingers, and a taste! And her mother could have concocted a smart evening frock out of an old window curtain.
But the petted little daughter was never asked to go out and buy a spool of thread, much less was she consulted in the household economies. All she noticed was that her clothes were smarter than Cousin Marthe's, who had a real dressmaker, and was subject to fits of jealous sulks. No wonder that when money was poured into her lap out in this wonderful California she had assumed that it was made only to spend.
But she would learn! She would learn! She would ask her mother that very day to initiate her into the fascinating secrets of personal economies, teach her how to portion out her quarterly allowance between her wardrobe, club dues, charities, even her private automobile.
This last heroic suggestion was her own, and although her husband protested he finally agreed; it was well she should learn just what it cost to be a woman of fashion in San Francisco, and the allowance was very generous. His old steward, Mannings, ran the household, although as he went through the form of laying the bills before his little mistress on the third of every month, she knew that the upkeep of the San Francisco house and the Burlingame villa ran into a small fortune a year.
"It is not that I am threatened with financial disaster," Ruyler had said to her. "But San Francisco has not recovered yet, and it is impossible to say just when she will recover. I want to be absolutely sure of my expenditures."
She had promised vehemently, and, as far as he knew, she had kept her promise. He had received no more bills, and it was obvious that her haughty chauffeur was paid on schedule time, until, seized with another economical spasm, she sold her car and bought a small electric which she could drive herself.
Ruyler, little as he liked his mother-in-law, was intensely grateful to her for the dexterity with which she had adjusted Helene's mind to the new condition. She even taught her how to keep books in an elemental way and balanced them herself on the first of every month. As Helene Ruyler had a mind as quick and supple as it was cultivated in les graces, she soon ceased to feel the chafing of her new harness, although she did squander the sum she had reserved for three months mere pocket money upon a hat; which was sent to the house by her wily milliner on the first day of the second quarter. She confessed this with tears, and her husband, who thought her feminine passion for hats adorable, dried her tears and took her to the opening night of a new play. But he did not furnish the pathetic little gold mesh bag, and as he made her promise not to borrow, she did not treat her friends to tea or ices at any of the fashionable rendezvous for a month. Then her native French thrift came to her aid and she sold a superfluous gold purse, a wedding present, to an envious friend at a handsome bargain.
That was ancient history now. It was twenty months since Price had received a bill, and secret inquiries during the past two had satisfied him that his wife's name was written in the books of no shop in San Francisco that she would condescend to visit. Therefore, this maddening but intangible barrier had nothing to do with a change of habit that had not caused an hour of tears and sulks. Helene had a quick temper but a gay and sweet disposition, normally high spirits, little apparent selfishness, and a naive adoration of masculine superiority and strength; altogether, with her high bred beauty and her dignity in public, an enchanting creature and an ideal wife for a busy man of inherited social position and no small degree of pride.
But all this lovely equipment was blurred, almost obscured at times, by the shadow that he was beginning to liken to the San Francisco fogs that drifted through the Golden Gate and settled down into the deep hollows of the Marin hills; moving gently but restlessly even there, like ghostly floating tides. He could see them from his library window, where he often finished his afternoon's work with his secretaries.
But the fog drifted back to the Pacific, and the shadow that encompassed his wife did not, or rarely. It chilled their ardors, even their serene domesticity. She was often as gay and impulsive as ever, but with abrupt reserves, an implication not only of a new maturity of spirit, but of watchfulness, even fear. She had once gone so far as to give voice passionately to the dogma that no two mortals had the right to be as happy as they were; then laughed apologetically and "guessed" that the old Puritan spirit of her father's people was coming to life in her Gallic little soul; then, with another change of mood, added defiantly that it was time America were rid of its baneful inheritance, and that she would be happy to-day if the skies fell to-morrow. She had flung herself into her husband's arms, and even while he embraced her the eyes of his spirit searched for the girl wife who had fled and left this more subtly fascinating but incomprehensible creature in her place.
The morning was Sunday and he sat in the large window of his library that overlooked the Bay of San Francisco. The house, which stood on one of the highest hills, he had bought and remodeled for his bride. The books that lined these walls had belonged to his Ruyler grandfather, bought in a day when business men had time to read and it was the fashion for a gentleman to cultivate the intellectual tracts of his brain. The portraits that hung above, against the dark paneling, were the work of his mother's father, one of the celebrated portrait painters of his time, and were replicas of the eminent and mighty he had painted. Maharajas, kings, emperors, famous diplomats, men of letters, artists of his own small class, statesmen and several of the famous beauties of their brief day; these had been the favorite grandson's inheritance from Masewell Price, and they made an impressive frieze, unique in the splendid homes of the city of Ruyler's adoption.
He had brought them from New York when he had decided to live in California, and hung them in his bachelor quarters. He had soon made up his mind that he must remain in San Francisco for at least ten years if he would maintain the business he had rescued from the disaster of 1906 at the level where he had, by the severest application of his life, placed it by the end of 1908. Meanwhile he had grown to like San Francisco better than he would have believed possible when he arrived in the wrecked city, still smoking, and haunted with the subtle odors of fires that had consumed more than products of the vegetable kingdom.
The vast ruin with its tottering arches and broken columns, its lonely walls looking as if bitten by prehistoric monsters that must haunt this ancient coast, the soft pastel colors the great fire had given as sole compensation for all it had taken, the grotesque twisted masses of steel and the aged gray hills that had looked down on so many fires, had appealed powerfully to his imagination, and made him feel, when wandering alone at night, as if his brain cells were haunted by old memories of Antioch when Nature had annihilated in an instant what man had lavished upon her for centuries. Nowhere, not even in what was left of ancient Rome, had he ever received such an impression of the age of the world and of the nothingness of man as among the ruins of this ridiculously modern city of San Francisco. It fascinated him, but he told himself then that he should leave it without a pang. He was a New Yorker of the seventh generation of his house, and the rest of the United States of America was merely incidental.
The business, a branch of the great New York firm founded in 1840 by an ancestor grown weary of watching the broad acres of Ruyler Manor automatically transmute themselves into the yearly rent-roll, and reverting to the energy and merchant instincts of his Dutch ancestors, had been conducted skillfully for the thirty years preceding the disaster by Price's uncle, Dryden Ruyler. But the earthquake and fire in which so many uninsured millions had vanished, had also wrecked men past the rebounding age, and Dryden Ruyler was one of them. He might have borne the destruction of the old business building down on Front Street, or even the temporary stagnation of trade, but when the Pacific Union Club disappeared in the raging furnace, and, like many of his old cronies who had no home either in the country or out in the Western Addition, he was driven over to Oakland for lodgings, this ghastly climax of horrors—he escaped in a milk wagon after sleeping for two nights without shelter on the bare hills behind San Francisco, while the fire roared its defiance to the futile detonations of dynamite, and his sciatica was as fiery as the atmosphere—had broken the old man's spirit, and he had announced his determination to return to Ruyler-on-Hudson and die as a gentleman should.
There was no question of Price's father, Morgan Ruyler, leaving New York, even if he had contemplated the sacrifice for a moment; that his second son and general manager of the several branches of the great business of Ruyler and Sons—as integral a part of the ancient history of San Francisco as of the comparatively modern history of New York—should go, was so much a matter of course that Price had taken the first Overland train that left New York after the receipt of his uncle's despairing telegram.
In spite of the fortune behind him and his own expert training, the struggle to rebuild the old business to its former standard had been unintermittent. The terrific shock to the city's energies was followed by a general depression, and the insane spending of a certain class of San Franciscans when their insurance money was paid, was like a brief last crackling in a cold stove, and, moreover, was of no help to the wholesale houses.
But Price Ruyler, like so many of his new associates in like case, had emerged triumphant; and with the unqualified approval and respect of the substantial citizens of San Francisco.
It was this position he had won in a community where he had experienced the unique sensation of being a pioneer in at the rebirth of a great city, as well as the outdoor sports that kept him fit, that had endeared California to Ruyler, and in time caused him whimsically to visualize New York as a sternly accusing instead of a beckoning finger. Long before he found time to play polo at Burlingame he had conceived a deep respect for a climate where a man might ride horseback, shoot, drive a racing car, or tramp, for at least eight months of the year with no menace of sudden downpour, and hardly a change in the weight of his clothes.
To-day the rain was dashing against his windows and the wind howled about the exposed angles of his house with that personal fury of assault with which storms brewed out in the vast wastes of the Pacific deride the enthusiastic baptism of a too confident explorer. All he could see of the bay was a mad race of white caps, and dark blurs which only memory assured him were rocky storm-beaten islands; mountain tops, so geological tradition ran, whose roots were in an unquiet valley long since dropped from mortal gaze.
The waves were leaping high against the old forts at the entrance to the Golden Gate, and occasionally he saw a small craft drift perilously near to the rocks. But he loved the wild weather of San Francisco, for he was by nature an imaginative man and he liked to think that he would have followed the career of letters had not the traditions of the great commercial house of Ruyler and Sons, forced him to carry on the burden.
The men of his family had never been idlers since the recrudescence of ancestral energy in the person of Morgan Ruyler I; it was no part of their profound sense of aristocracy to retire on inherited or invested wealth; they believed that your fine American of the old stock should die in harness; and if the harness had been fashioned and elaborated by ancestors whose portraits hung in the Chamber of Commerce, all the more reason to keep it spic and up to date instead of letting it lapse into those historic vaults where so many once honored names lay rotting. They were a hard, tight-fisted lot, the Ruylers, and Price in one secluded but cherished wing of his mind was unlike them only because his mother was the daughter of Masefield Price and would have been an artist herself if her scandalized husband would have consented. Morgan Ruyler IV had overlooked his father-in-law's divagation from the orthodox standards of his own family because he had been a spectacular financial success; bringing home ropes of enormous pearls from India in addition to the fantastic sums paid him by enraptured native princes. But while Morgan Ruyler believed that rich men should work and make their sons work, if only because an idle class was both out of place in a republic and conducive to unrest in the masses, it was quite otherwise with women. They were for men to shelter, and it was their sole duty to be useful in the home, and, wherever possible, ornamental in public. Nor had he the least faith in female talent.
Marian Ruyler had yielded the point and departed hopefully for a broader sphere when her second and favorite son was eight. Morgan Ruyler married again as soon as convention would permit, this time carefully selecting a wife of the soundest New York predispositions and with a personal admiration of Queen Victoria; and he had watched young Price like an affectionate but inexorable parent hawk until the young man followed his brother—a quintessential Ruyler—into the now historic firm. However, he suffered little from anxiety. Price, too, was conservative, intensely proud of the family traditions, an almost impassioned worker, and unselfish as men go. Two sons in every generation must enter the firm. It was not in the Ruyler blood to take long chances.
Life out here in California had been too hurried for more than fleeting moments of self-study, but on this idle Sunday morning Price Ruyler's perturbed mind wandered to that inner self of his to which he once had longed to give a freer expression. It was odd that the conservative training, the rigid traditions of his family, conventional, old-fashioned, Puritanical, as became the best stock of New York, a stock that in the Ruyler family had seemed to carry its own antidote for the poisons ever seeking entrance to the spiritual conduits of the rich, had left any place for that sentimental romantic tide in his nature which had swept him into marriage with a girl outside of his own class; a girl of whose family he had known practically nothing until his outraged father had cabled to a correspondent in Paris to make investigation of the Perrin family of Rouen, to which the girl's mother claimed to belong.
The inquiries were satisfactory; they were quite respectable, bourgeois, silk merchants in a small way—although at least two strata below that haute bourgeoisie which now regarded itself as the real upper class of the Republique Francaise. A true Ruyler, however, would have fled at the first danger signal, never have reached the point where inquiries were in order.
California was replete with charming, beautiful, and superlatively healthy girls; the climate produced them as it did its superabundance of fruit, flowers, and vegetables. But they had left Price Ruyler untroubled. He had been far more interested watching San Francisco rise from its ruins, transformed almost overnight from a picturesque but ramshackle city, a patchwork of different eras, into a staid metropolis of concrete and steel, defiant alike of earthquake and fire. He had liked the new experience of being a pioneer, which so subtly expanded his starved ego that he had, by unconscious degrees, made up his mind to remain out here as the permanent head of the San Francisco House; and in time, no doubt, marry one of these fine, hardy, frank, out-of-door, wholly unsubtle California girls. Moreover, he had found in San Francisco several New Yorkers as well as Englishmen of his own class—notably John Gwynne, who had thrown over one of the greatest of English peerages to follow his personal tastes in a legislative career—all of whom had settled down into that free and independent life from motives not dissimilar from his own.
But he had ceased to be an untroubled spirit from the moment he met Helene Delano. He had gone down to Monterey for polo, and he had forgotten the dinner to which he had brought a keen appetite, and stared at her as she entered the immense dining room with her mother.
It was not her beauty, although that was considerable, that had summarily transposed his gallant if cool admiration for all charming well bred women into a submerging recognition of woman in particular; it was her unlikeness to any of the girls he had been riding, dancing, playing golf and tennis with during the past year and a half (for two years after his arrival he had seen nothing of society whatever). Later that evening he defined this dissimilarity from the American girl as the result not only of her French blood but of her European training, her quiet secluded girlhood in a provincial town of great beauty, where she had received a leisurely education rare in the United States, seen or read little of the great world (she had visited Paris only twice and briefly), her mind charmingly developed by conscientious tutors. But at the moment he thought that the compelling power lay in some deep subtlety of eye, her little air of lofty aloofness, her classic small features in a small face, and the top-heavy masses of blue black hair which she carried with a certain naive pride as if it were her only vanity; in her general unlikeness to the gray-eyed fair-haired American—a type to which himself belonged. Her only point in common with this fashionable set patronizing Del Monte for the hour, was the ineffable style with which she wore her perfect little white frock; an American inheritance, he assumed after he knew her; for, as he recalled provincial French women, style was not their strong point.
When he met her eyes some twenty minutes later, he dismissed the impression of subtlety, for their black depths were quick with an eager wonder and curiosity. Later they grew wistful, and he guessed that she knew none of these smart folk, down, like himself, for the tournament; people who were chattering from table to table like a large family. That some of his girl acquaintances were interested in the young stranger he inferred from speculative and appraising eyes that were turned upon her from time to time.
Price, with some irony, wondered at their curiosity. The San Francisco girl, he had discovered, possessed an extra sense all her own. There was no lofty indifference about her. She had the worth-while stranger detected and tabulated and his or her social destiny settled before the Eastern train had disgorged its contents at the Oakland mole. And even the immense florid mother of this lovely girl, with her own masses of snow white hair dressed in a manner becoming her age, and a severe gown of black Chantilly net, relieved by the merest trifle of jet, looked the reverse of the nondescript tourist. The girl wore white embroidered silk muslin and a thin gold chain with a small ruby pendant. She was rather above the average height, although not as tall as her mother, and if she were as thin as fashion commanded, her bones were so small that her neck and arms looked almost plump. Her expressive eyes were as black as her hair, and her only large feature. Her skin was of a quite remarkably pink whiteness, although there was a pink color in her lips and cheeks. The older men stared at her more persistently than the younger ones, who liked their own sort and not girls who looked as if they might be "booky" and "spring things on a fellow."
There was a ball in the evening and once more mother and daughter sat apart, while the flower of San Francisco—an inclusive term for the select circles of Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, San Mateo, far San Rafael and Belvedere—romped as one great family. Newport, Ruyler reflected for the twentieth time, did it no better. To the stranger peering through the magic bars they were now as insensible as befitted their code. These two people knew nobody and that was the end of it.
But Price noted that now the girl's eyes were merely wistful, and once or twice he saw them fill with tears. As three of the dowagers merely sniffed when he sought possible information, he finally had recourse to the manager of the hotel, D.V. Bimmer. They were a Madame and Mademoiselle Delano from Rouen, and had been at the hotel for a fortnight, not seeming to mind its comparative emptiness, but enjoying the sea bathing and the drives. The girl rode, and went out every morning with a groom.
"But didn't they bring any letters?" asked Ruyler. "They are ladies and one letter would have done the business. That poor girl is having the deuce of a time."
"D.V.," who knew "everybody" in California, and all their secrets, shook his head. "'Fraid not. The French maid told the floor valet that although the father was American—from New England somewheres—and the girl born in California, accidentally as it were, she had lived in France all her life—she's just eighteen—never crossed the ocean before. Can you beat it? Until last month, and then they came from Hong Kong—taking a trip round the world in good old style. The madame, who scarcely opens her month, did condescend to tell me that she had admired California very much when she was here before, and intended to travel all over the state. Perhaps I met her in that far off long ago, for I was managing a hotel in San Francisco about that time, and her face haunts me somehow—although when features get all swallowed up by fat like that you can't locate them. The girl, too, reminds me of some one, but of course she was in arms when she left and as I ain't much on cathedrals I never went to Rouen. Of course it's the old trick, bringing a pretty girl to a fashionable watering place to marry her off, but these folks are not poor. Not what we'd call rich, perhaps, but good and solid. I don't fall for the old lady; she's a cool proposition or I miss my guess, but the girl's all right. I've seen too many girls in this Mecca for adventurous females and never made a mistake yet. I wish some of our grand dames would extend the glad hand. But I'm afraid they won't. Terrible exclusive, this bunch."
Ruyler scowled and walked back to the ballroom. The exclusiveness of this young society on the wrong side of the continent sometimes made him homesick and sometimes made him sick. He saw little chance for this poor girl to enjoy the rights of her radiant youth if her mother had not taken the precaution to bring letters. France was full of Californians. Many lived there. Surely she must have met some one she could have made use of. It was tragic to watch a pathetic young thing staring at two or three hundred young men and maidens disporting themselves with the natural hilarity of youth, and but few of them too ill-natured to welcome a young and lovely stranger if properly introduced.
He experienced a desperate impulse to go up to the mother and offer her the hospitality of the evening, ask her to regard him as her host. But Madame Delano had a frozen eye, and no doubt orthodox French ideas on the subject of young girls. A moment later his eye fell on Mrs. Ford Thornton.
"Fordy" was many times a millionaire, and his handsome intelligent wife lived the life of her class. But she was far less conservative than any woman Price had met in San Francisco. Although she was no longer young he had more than once detected symptoms of a wild and insurgent spirit, and an impatient contempt for the routine she was compelled to follow or go into retirement. She was always leaving abruptly for Europe, and every once in a while she did something quite uncanonical; enjoying wickedly the consternation she caused among the serenely regulated, and betraying to the keen eyes of the New Yorker an ironic appreciation of the immense wealth which enabled her to do as she chose, answerable to no one. Her husband was uxorious and she had no children. She had seemed to Price more restless than usual of late and showing unmistakable signs of abrupt departure. (He was sure she dusted the soles of her boots as she locked the door of drawing-room A.) Perhaps to-night she might be in a schismatic mood.
She was standing apart, a tall, dark, almost fiercely haughty woman, but dressed with a certain arrogant simplicity, without jewels, her hair in a careless knot at the base of her head. There were times when she was impeccably groomed, others when she looked as if an infuriated maid had left her helpless. She was, as Ruyler well knew, a kind and generous woman (in certain of her moods), with whom the dastardly cradle fates had experimented, hoping for high drama when the whip of life snapped once too often. Perhaps she had found her revenge as well as her consolation in cheating them.
It was evident to Price that she had been snubbing somebody, for a group of matrons, flushed and drawn apart, were whispering resentfully. Price Ruyler stood in no awe of her. He could match her arrogance, and he liked and admired her more than any of his new friends. They quarreled furiously but she had never snubbed him.
He walked over to her, his cool gray eyes lit with the pleasure in seeing her that she had learned to expect. "Good evening, oh, Queen of the Pacific," he said lightly. "You are looking quite wonderful as usual. Are you standing alone almost in the middle of the room to emphasize the—difference?"
"I am in no mood for compliments, satiric or otherwise." She looked him over with cool penetration. "I may not massage or have my old cuticle ripped off. If I choose to look my age you must admit that it gives me one more claim to originality."
"You should have let the world know long since just how original you are, instead of settling down into the leadership of San Francisco society—"
He enjoyed provoking her. Her dark narrow eyes opened and flashed as they must have done in their unchastened youth. "Don't dare call me the leader of this—this!"
"Granted. But the fact remains that your word alone is law. Therefore I am about to ask you to forget that I am a bungling diplomat and do a kind act. For once you would be able to be both kind and original."
"I did not know you went in for charities. I am sick of shelling out."
"My only part in charities is shelling out."
"Well, come to the point. What do you want?"
"I want you to go over to that lady—Madame Delano, her name is—sitting beside that beautiful girl, and introduce yourself and then me. They are strangers and I'd like to give them a good time."
"How disinterested of you!" She looked the isolated couple over. "The girl is all right, but I don't like the mother. She is well dressed—oh, correct from tip to toe—but not quite the lady."
Ruyler's cool insolent gaze swept the dado of amiable overfed ladies who fanned themselves against the wall.
"None of that! You know that I do not tolerate the New York attitude. At least we know who ours are; they came into their own respectably, and with no uncertain touch. Of course it is stupid of them to get fat. Naturally it makes them look bourgeoise. But this is a lazy climate. As to that woman: there is something about her I do not like. She is aggressively not massaged, not made up. Only a woman of assured position can afford to be mid-Victorian. It is now quite the smart thing to make up."
"No doubt her position is assured in her own provincial town. It will be easy enough to drop her if she doesn't go down. You can't deny that the girl is all right—and a sweet pathetic figure."
"If the girl marries one of our boys—and no doubt that is what she was brought here for—we shall not be able to get rid of the mother. We've tried that and failed."
At that moment Ruyler's eyes met those of the girl. They flashed an irresistible appeal. He drew a short breath. How different she looked! She radiated a subtle promise of perfect companionship. Price Ruyler did what all men will do until the end of time. He made up his mind that he had found his woman and without vocal assistance.
Mrs. Thornton, who had been watching the unusual mobility of his face, met his eyes with a satirical smile in her own, her thin red curling lips drawn almost straight for a moment. She had played with the fancy, before anger banished it, that if she had been twenty years younger.... Men had fallen madly in love with her in her own day.... She detected the symptoms in this man at once. Her savage will compelled her to accept accumulating years without a concession. But she had forgotten nothing.
Ruyler may have read her thoughts.
"You know," he said, with an attempt at lightness, although the coast wind tan, which was his only claim to coloring, had paled a little, "that girl reminds me so much of you that I have made up my mind to marry her. I don't care who she is. If you don't help me to meet her conventionally I'll manage somehow, but I should hate to practice any subterfuges on the woman I intend to make my wife."
For a moment he had the sensation of being pinned to the wall by that narrow concentrated gaze. Then Mrs. Thornton swung on her heel. "I'll do it," she said.
She walked across the room with the supple grace her slender figure had never lost and sat down beside the older woman. In a moment the astonished dowagers who had "suffered from her fiendish temper all evening," saw her talking with spontaneous graciousness to both the strangers. Madame Delano was at first more distant and reserved than Mrs. Thornton had ever been, manifestly betraying all the suspicion and unsocial instincts of her class; but she thawed, and the two women chatted, while once more the girl's eyes wandered to the dancers.
When Mrs. Thornton had tormented Ruyler for quite fifteen minutes she beckoned to him imperiously. A moment later he was whirling the girl down the ball room and thrilling at her contact.
The wooing had been as headlong as his falling in love. Helene Delano had a deep sweet voice, which completed the conquest during the hour they spent in the grounds under the shelter of a great palm, until hunted down by a horrified parent.
Helene talked frankly of her life. Her mother had been visiting relatives in a small New England town—Holbrook Centre, she believed it was called, but hard American names did not cling to her memory—she loved the soft Latin and Indian names in California—and there she had met and married her father, James Delano. They were on their way to Japan when business detained him in San Francisco much longer than he had expected and she was born. She believed that he had owned a ranch that he wanted to sell. He died on the voyage across the Pacific and her mother had returned to live among her own people in Rouen—very plain bourgeois, but of a respectability, Oh, la! la!
"But it was a tiresome life for a young girl with American blood in her, monsieur." Her mother's income from her husband's estate was not large, but they lived in a wing of the old house and were very comfortable. From her window there was a lovely view of the Seine winding off to Paris. "Oh, monsieur, how I used to long to go to Paris! America was too far. I never even dreamed of it. But Paris! And only two little glimpses of it—the last when we spent a fortnight there before sailing, to get me some nice frocks...."
She had studied hard—but hard! She knew four languages, she told Ruyler proudly. "I had no dot then, you see. It was possible I might have to teach one day. A governess in England, Oh, la! la!"
But six months ago a good old uncle had died and left them some money. She would have a little dot now, and they could travel. Maman said she would not have a large enough dot to make a fine marriage in France, but that the English and American men were more romantic. They went first to the Orient, as there were many Englishmen of good family to be met there. "But maman is difficult to please," she added with her enchanting artlessness, "as difficult as I myself, monsieur. I wish to fall in love like the American girls. Maman says it is not necessary, but I am half American, so, why not? There was an English gentleman with a nice title in Hong Kong and maman was quite pleased with him until she discovered that he gambled or did something equally horrid and she bought our tickets for San Francisco right away."
Yes, she was enjoying her travels, but she was a little lonesome; in Rouen at least she had her cousins. For the first time in her life she was talking to a young man alone; even on the steamer she was not permitted to speak to any of the nice young men who looked as if they would like her if only maman would relent.
"In our ugly old rooms in Rouen maman cherished me like some rare little flower in an old earthen pot," she added quaintly. "Now the pot has tinsel and tissue paper round it, but until to-night I have felt as if I might just as well be an old cabbage."
But it had been heaven to dance with a young man who was not a cousin; and to sit out alone with him in the moonlight, Oh, grace a Dieu!
Traveling she had read modern novels for the first time. There were many in the ship's library, oh, but dozens! and she knew now how American and English girls enjoyed life. Her mother had been ill nearly all the way over. She had given her word not to speak to any one, but maman had been ignorant of the library replete with the novelists of the day, and although she was not untruthful, enfin, she saw no reason to ask her too anxious parent for another prohibition and condemn herself to yawn at the sea.
Ruyler proposed at the end of a week. She was the only really innocent, unspoiled, unselfconscious girl he had ever met, almost as old-fashioned as his great grandmother must have been. Not that he set forth her virtues to bolster his determination to marry a girl of no family even in her own country; he was madly in love, and life without her was unthinkable; but he tabulated the thousand points to her credit for the benefit of his outraged father.
He did not pretend to like Madame Delano. She was a hard, calculating, sordid old bourgeoisie, but when he refused the little dot she would have settled upon Helene, he knew that he had won her friendship and that she would give him no trouble. She was not a mother-in-law to be ashamed of, for her manners were coldly correct, her education in youth had evidently been adequate, and in her obese way she was imposing. She gave him to understand that she had no more desire to live with her son-in-law than he with her, and established herself in a small suite in the Palace Hotel. After a "lifetime" in a provincial town, economizing mercilessly, she felt, she remarked in one of her rare expansive moments, that she had earned the right to look on at life in a great hotel.
The rainy season she spent in Southern California, moving from one large hotel crowded with Eastern visitors to another. This uncommon self-indulgence and her devotion to Helene were the only weak spots Ruyler was able to discover in that cast-iron character. She seldom attended the brilliant entertainments of her daughter and refused the endowed car offered by her son-in-law. Helene married to the best parti in San Francisco and quite happy, she seemed content to settle down into the role of the onlooker at the kaleidoscope of life. She spent eight hours of the day and evening seated in an arm chair in the court of the Palace Hotel, and for air rode out to the end of the California Street car line, always on the front seat of the dummy. She was dubbed a "quaint old party" by her new acquaintances and left to her own devices. If she didn't want them they could jolly well do without her.
Helene's social success was immediate and permanent. Californians rarely do things by halves. Society was no exception. She had "walked off" with the most desirable man in town, but they were good gamblers. When they lost they paid. She had married into "their set." They had accepted her. She was one of them. No secret order is more loyal to its initiates.
During that first year and a half of ideal happiness Ruyler, in what leisure he could command, found Helene's rapidly expanding mind as companionable as he had hoped; and the girlish dignity she never lost, for all her naivete and vivacity, gratified his pride and compelled, upon their second brief visit to New York, even the unqualified approval of his family.
She had inherited all the subtle adaptability of her father's race, nothing of the cold and rigid narrowness of her mother's class. Price had feared that her lively mind might reveal disconcerting shallows, but these little voids were but the divine hiatuses of youth. He sometimes wondered just how strong her character was. There were times when she showed a pronounced inclination for the line of least resistance ... but her youth ... her too sheltered bringing up ... those drab cramped years ... no wonder....
He was glad on the whole that his was the part to mold. Nevertheless, he had his inconsistencies. Unlike many men of strong will and driving purpose he liked strength of character and pronounced individuality in women; and he, too, had had fleeting visions of what life might have been had Flora Thornton entered life twenty years later. He had been quite sincere in telling her that the young stranger reminded him of the most powerful personality he had met in California, and he believed that within a reasonable time Helene would be as variously cultivated, as widely, if less erratically developed. But was there any such insurgent force in her depths? It was not within the possibilities that at any time in her life Flora Thornton had been pliable.
A man had little time to study his wife in California these days. Or at any time? He sometimes wondered. Certainly happy marriages were rare and divorces many. Fine weather nearly all the year round played the deuce with domesticity, and his business could not be neglected for the long vacation abroad to which they both had looked forward so ardently.
Sometimes, even before this vague gray mist had risen between them, he had had moments of wondering whether he knew his wife at all. How could a man know a woman who did not yet know herself? He sighed and wished he had more time to explore the uncharted seas of a woman's soul.
But the cause of the change in her was something far less picturesque, something concrete and sinister. He felt sure of that....
Unless—but that was ridiculous! Impossible!
He sprang to his feet, incredulous, disgusted at the mere thought.
But why not? She was very young, and older and wiser women were afflicted with inconsistencies, little tenacious desires and vanities never quite to be grasped by the elemental male.
He went over to a bookcase containing heavy works of reference and pressed his index finger into the molding. It swung outward, revealing the door of a safe. He manipulated the combination, took from a drawer of the interior a box, opened it and stared at a magnificent Burmah ruby. It was or had been a royal jewel, presented to Masewell Price by one of the great princes of India whose portrait he had painted. The pearls had all been captured long since by Price's sisters and by Morgan V. for his wife; but this ruby his mother had given him as she lay dying. She had bidden him leave it in his father's safe until he was out of college, and then keep it as closely in his personal possession as possible. It would be turned over to him with the rest of his private fortune.
"Never let any woman wear it," she had whispered. "It brings luck to men but not to women. Nothing could have affected my luck one way or the other—I was born to have nothing I wanted, but you, dear little boy. Keep it for your luck and in a safe place, but near you."
He had looked back upon this scene as he grew older as the mere expression of a whim of dissolution, but it had made so deep an impression upon him at the time that insensibly the words sank into his plastic mind creating a superstition that refused to yield to reason. The ruby was Helene's birthstone and she was passionately fond of it. She had begged and coaxed to wear this jewel, and upon one occasion had stamped her little foot and sulked throughout the evening. He had given her a ruby bar, had the clasp of her pearl necklace set with rabies, and last Christmas had presented her with a small but fine "pigeon blood" encircled with diamonds. These had enraptured her for the moment, but she had always circled back to the historic stone, over which her indulgent husband was so unaccountably obstinate.
Until lately. He recalled that for several months she had not mentioned it. Could she have been indulging in a prolonged attack of interior sulks, which affected her spirits, dimmed her radiant personality? He abominated the idea but admitted the possibility. She would not be the first person to be the victim of a secret but furious passion for jewels. He recalled a novel of Hichens; not the matter but the central idea. Authors of other races had used the same motive. Well, if his wife had an abnormal streak in her the sooner he found out the truth the better.
He closed the door of the safe, swung the bookcase into place, slipped the ruby with its curious gold chain that looked massive but hardly weighed an ounce, into his pocket, rang for a servant and told him to ask Mrs. Ruyler to come down to the library as soon as she was dressed.
Ruyler sighed as he heard his wife walk down the hall. There had been a time when she came running like a child at his summons, but in these days she walked with a leisurely dignity which to his possibly morbid ear betrayed a certain crab-like disposition in her little high heels to slip backward along the polished floor.
She came in smiling, however, and kissed him quickly and warmly. Her extraordinary hair hung down in two long braids, their blue blackness undulating among the soft folds of her thin pink negligee. For the first time Ruyler realized that pink was Helene's favorite color; she seldom wore anything else except white or black, and then always relieved with pink. And why not, with that deep pink blush in her white cheeks, and the velvet blackness of her eyes? People still raved over Helene Ruyler's "coloring," and Price told himself once more as she stood before him, her little head dragged back by the weight of her plaits, her slender throat crossed by a narrow line of black velvet, that he had married one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen.
He was seized with a sudden sharp pang of jealousy and caught her in his arms roughly, his gray eyes almost as black as hers.
"Tell me," he exclaimed, and the new fear almost choked him, "does any other man interest you—the least little bit?"
She stared at him and then burst into the most natural laugh he had heard from her for months. "That is simply too funny to talk about."
"But I am able to give you so little of my time. Working or tired out at night—letting you go out so much alone—but I haven't the heart to insist that you yawn over a book, while I am shut up here, or too fagged to talk even to you. Life is becoming a tragedy for business men—if they've got it in them to care for anything else."
"Well, don't add to the tragedy by cultivating jealousy. I've told you that I am perfectly willing to give up Society and sit like Dora holding your pens—or filling your fountain pen—no, you dictate. What chance has a woman in a business man's life?"
"None, alas, except to look beautiful and be happy. Are you that?—the last I mean, of course!"
She nestled closer to him and laughed again. "More so than ever. To be frank you have completed my happiness by being jealous. I have wondered sometimes if it were a compliment—your being so sure of me."
"That's my idea of love."
"Well, it's mine, too. But if you want me to stay home—"
"Oh, no! You are fond of society? Really, I mean? Why shouldn't you be?—a young thing—"
"What else is there? Of course, I should enjoy it much more if you were always with me. Shall we never have that year in Europe together?"
"God knows. Something is wrong with the world. It needs reorganizing—from the top down. It is inhuman, the way even rich men have to work—to remain rich! But sit down."
He led her over to a chair before the window. The storm was decreasing in violence, the heavy curtain of rain was no longer tossed, but falling in straight intermittent lines, and the islands were coming to life. Even the high and heavy crest of Mount Tamalpais was dimly visible.
"It is the last of the storms, I fancy. Spring is overdue," said Price, who, however, was covertly watching his wife's face. Her color had faded a little, her lids drooped over eyes that stared out at the still turbulent waters.
"I love these San Francisco storms," she said abruptly. "I am so glad we have these few wild months. But Mrs. Thornton has worried and so have we. Her fete at San Mateo comes off on the fourteenth, the first entertainment she has given since her return, and it would be ghastly if it rained. It should be a wonderful sight—those grounds—everybody in fancy dress with little black velvet masks. Don't you think you can go?"
"The fourteenth? I'll try to make it. Who are you to be?"
"Beatrice d'Este—in a court gown of black tissue instead of velvet, with just a touch of pink—oh, but a wonderful creation! I designed it myself. We are not bothering too much about historical accuracy."
"How would you like this for the touch of pink!" He took the immense ruby from his pocket and tossed it into her lap.
For a moment she stared at it with expanding eyes, then gave a little shriek of rapture and flung herself into his arms, the child he had married.
"Is it true? But true? Shall I wear this wonderful thing? The women will die of jealousy. I shall feel like an empress—but more, more, I shall wear this lovely thing—I, I, Helene Ruyler, born Perrin, who never had a franc in her pocket in Rouen! Price! Have you changed your mind—but no! I cannot believe it."
That was it then! He watched her mobile face sharply. It expressed nothing but the excited rapture of a very young woman over a magnificent toy. There was none of the morbid feverish passion he had dreadfully anticipated. His spirits felt lighter, although he sighed that a bauble, even if it were one of the finest of its kind in the world, should have projected its sinister shadow between them. It had a wicked history. But Helene saw no shadows. She held it up to the light, peered into it as it lay half concealed in the cup of her slender white hands, fondled it against her cheek, hung the chain about her neck.
"How I have dreamed of it," she murmured. "How did you come to change your mind?"
"I thought it a pity such a fine jewel should live forever in a safe; and it will become you above all women. Nature must have had you in her eye when she designed the ruby. I had a sudden vision ... and made up my mind that you should wear it the first time I was able to take you to a party. I must keep the letter of my promise."
"And I can only wear it when you are with me?"
"I am afraid so."
"I'm you, if there is anything in the marriage ceremony." Then she kissed him impulsively. "But I won't be a little pig. And I can tell everybody between now and the Thornton fete that I am going to wear it, and I can think and dream of my triumph meanwhile. But why didn't you let me know you were down? It is Sunday, our only day. I overslept shockingly. I didn't get home till two."
"Two? Do you dance until two every night?"
"What else? They lead such a purposeless life out here. We sometimes have classes—but they don't last long. I have almost forgotten that I once had a serious mind. But what would you? It is either society or suffrage. I won't be as serious as that yet. I mean to be young—but young! for five more years. Then I shall become a 'leader,' or vote for the President, or ride on a float in a suffrage parade dressed as the Goddess of Liberty, with my hair down."
He laughed, more and more relieved. "Yes, please remain young until you are twenty-five. By that time I hope the world will have adjusted itself and I shall have the leisure to companion you. Meanwhile, be a child. It is very refreshing to me. Come. I must lock this thing up. I have an interview here with Spaulding in about ten minutes."
She gave it up reluctantly, kissing it much as she had kissed him during their engagement; warm, lingering, but almost impersonal kisses. The ruby seemed miraculously to have restored her beaten youth.
She sat on the edge of a chair as he opened the safe and placed the jewel in its box and drawer.
"There is one other thing I wanted to ask," he said as he rose. "Is your allowance sufficient? It has sometimes occurred to me that you wanted more—for some feminine extravagance."
The light went out of her face. He wondered whimsically if he had locked it in with the ruby, and once more he was conscious that something intangible floated between them. But she looked at him squarely with her shadowed eyes.
"Oh, one could spend any amount, of course, but I really have quite enough."
"You shall have double your present allowance when these cursed times improve. And I have always intended to settle a couple of hundred thousand on you—a quarter of a million—as soon as I could realize without loss on certain investments. But one day I want you to be quite independent."
Her eyes had opened very wide. "A quarter of a million? And it would be all my own? I could do anything with it I liked?"
"Well—I think I should put it in trust. I haven't much faith in the resistance of your sex to tempting investments promising a high rate of interest."
"I have heard you say that when rich men die the amount of worthless stock found in their safe deposit boxes passes belief."
"Quite true. But that is hardly an argument in favor of trusting an even more inexperienced sex with large sums of money."
She laughed, but less naturally than when he had been seized with an unwonted spasm of jealousy. "You will always get the best of me in an argument," she said with her exquisite politeness. "Really, I think I love being wholly dependent upon you. Here comes your detective. What a bore. But at least we lunch together if we do have company. And thank you, thank you a thousand times for promising I shall wear the ruby at last."
She slipped her hand into his for a second, then left the room, smiling over her shoulder, as the locally celebrated "Jake" Spaulding entered. Both Ruyler and his general manager had thought it best to have their cashier watched. There were rumors of gambling and other road house diversions, and they proposed to save their man to the firm, if possible; if not, to discharge him before he followed the usual course and involved Ruyler and Sons in the loss of thousands they could ill afford to spare.
On the following day Ruyler, who had looked upon the whirlwind of passion that had swept him into a romantic and unworldly marriage, as likely to remain the one brief drama of his prosaic business man's life, began dimly to apprehend that he was hovering on the edge of a sinister and complicated drama whose end he could as little foresee as he could escape from the hand of Fate that was pushing him inexorably forward. When Fate suddenly begins to take a dramatic interest in a man whose course has run like a yacht before a strong breeze, she precipitates him toward one half crisis after another in order to confuse his mental powers and render him wholly a puppet for the final act. These little Earth histrionics are arranged no doubt for the weary gods, who hardly brook a mere mortal rising triumphantly above the malignant moods of the master playwright.
He lunched at the Pacific Union Club and caught the down-town California Street cable car as it passed, finding his favorite seat on the left side of the "dummy" unoccupied. He was thinking of Helene, a little disappointed, but on the whole vastly relieved, congratulating himself that, no longer haunted, he could give his mind wholly to the important question of the merger he contemplated with a rival house that had limped along since the disaster, but had at last manifested its willingness to accept the offer of Ruyler and Sons.
It was a moment before he realized that his mother-in-law occupied the front seat across the narrow space, and even before he recognized that large bulk, he had registered something rigid and tense in its muscles; strained in its attitude. When he raised his eyes to the face he found himself looking at the right cheek instead of the left, and it was pervaded by a sickly green tint quite unlike Madame Delano's florid color. She was listening to a man who sat just behind her on the long seat that ran the length of the dummy. Although the day was clear, there was still a sharp wind and no one else sat outside.
Ruyler knew the man by sight. Before the fire he had owned some of the most disreputable houses in the district the car would pass on its way to the terminus. The buildings were uninsured, and he had made his living since as a detective. Even his political breed had gone out of power in the new San Francisco, but he was well equipped for a certain type of detective work. He had a remarkable memory for faces and could pierce any disguise, he was as persistent as a ferret, and his knowledge of the underworld of San Francisco was illimitable. But his chief assets were that he looked so little like a detective, and that, so secretive were his methods, his calling was practically unknown. He had set up a cheap restaurant with a gambling room behind at which the police winked, although pretending to raid him now and again. He was a large soft man with pendulous cheeks streaked with red, a predatory nose, and a black overhanging mustache. His name was 'Gene Bisbee, and there was a tradition that in his younger days he had been handsome, and irresistible to the women who had made his fortune.
Ruyler was absently wondering what his haughty mother-in-law could have to say to such a man when to his amazement Bisbee planted his elbow in the pillow of flesh just below Madame Delano's neck, and said easily:
"Oh, come off, Marie. I'd know you if you were twenty years older and fifty pounds heavier—and that's going some. Bimmer and two or three others are not so sure—won't bet on it—for twenty years, and, let me see—you weighed about a hundred and thirty-five—perfect figger—in the old days. Must weigh two seventy-five now. That makes one forty-five pounds extra. Well, that and time, and white hair, would change pretty near any woman, particularly one with small features. You look a real old lady, and you can't be mor'n forty-five. How did you manage the white hair? Bleach?"
Ruyler felt his heart turn over. The frozen blood pounded in his brain and distended his own muscles, his mouth unclosed to let his breath escape. Then he became aware that the woman had recovered herself and moved forward, displacing the familiar elbow. She turned imperiously to the motorman.
"Stop at the corner," she said. "And if this man attempts to follow me please send back a policeman. He is intoxicated."
The car stopped at the corner of the street opposite the site of the old Saint Mary's Cathedral, a street where once had been that row of small and evil cottages where French women, painted, scantily dressed in a travesty of the evening gown, called to the passer-by through the slats of old-fashioned green shutters. That had been before Ruyler's day, but he knew the history of the neighborhood, and this man's interest in it. He was not surprised to hear Bisbee laugh aloud as Madame Delano, who stepped off the car with astonishing agility, waddled down the now respectable street. But she held her head majestically and did not look back.
Ruyler squared his back lest the man, glancing over, recognize him. That would be more than he could bear. As the car reached Front Street he sprang from the dummy and walked rapidly north to Ruyler and Sons. He locked himself in his private office, dismissing his stenographer with the excuse that he had important business to think out and must not be disturbed.
But business was forgotten. He was as nearly in a state of panic as was possible for a man of his inheritance and ordered life. He belonged to that class of New Yorker that looked with cold disgust upon the women of commerce. So far as he knew he had never exchanged a word with one of them, and had often listened with impatience to the reminiscences of his San Francisco friends, now married and at least intermittently decent, of the famous ladies who once had reigned in the gay night life of San Francisco.
And his mother-in-law! The mother of his wife!
Her name was Marie. In that chaos of flesh an interested eye might discover the ruins of beauty. Her hair, he knew, had been black. He recalled the terror expressed in every line of that mountainous figure—which may well have been perfect twenty years ago. The green pallor of her cheek! And he had long felt, rather than knew, that she possessed magnificent powers of bluff. Her dignified exit had been no more convincing to him than to Bisbee.
He went back over the past and recalled all he knew of the woman whose daughter he had married. She had visited the United States about twenty-one years ago, met and married Delano, and remained in San Francisco two or three months on their way to Japan. Delano had died on the voyage across the Pacific, been buried at sea, and his widow had returned to her family in Rouen and settled down in her brother's household.
This was practically all he knew, for it was all that Helene knew, and Madame Delano never wasted words. It had not occurred to him to question her. Their status in Rouen was established, and if not distinguished it was indubitably respectable and not remotely suggestive of mystery.
Price, convinced that Helene's father must have been a gentleman, recalled that he had asked her one day to tell him something of the Delanos, but his wife had replied vaguely that she believed her mother had been too sad to talk about him for a long while, and then probably had got out of the habit. She knew nothing more than she already had told him.
It came back to him, however, that several times his wife's casual references to the past, and particularly regarding her parents, had not dove-tailed, but that he had dismissed the impression; attributing it to some lapse in his own attention. He had a bad habit of listening and thinking out a knotty business problem at the same time. And there is a curious inhibition in loyal minds which forbids them to put two and two together until suspicion is inescapably aroused.
He had a very well ordered mind, furnished with innumerable little pigeon holes, which flew open at the proper vibration from his admirable memory. He concentrated this memory upon a little bureau of purely personal receptacles and before long certain careless phrases of his wife stood in a neat row.
She had mentioned upon one occasion that she thought she must have been about five when she arrived in Rouen, and remembered her first impression of the Cathedral as well as the boats on the Seine at night. And Cousin Pierre had taken her up the river one Sunday to the church on the height which had been built for a statue of the Virgin that had been excavated there, and bade her kneel and pray at this station for what she wished most. She had prayed for a large wax doll that said papa and mama, and behold, it had arrived the next day.
Madame Delano had told him unequivocally that she had gone directly to Rouen after her husband's death ... but again, although Helene remembered arriving in Rouen with her mother, she must have been left for a time elsewhere, for Helene had another memory—of a convent, where she had tarried for what seemed a very long time to her childish mind. Could she have been sent to a convent from the house in Rouen when she was so little that her memories of that first sojourn were confused? And why? The family had apparently been fond of "la petite Americaine," and even if her devoted mother had been obliged to leave her for several years it is doubtful if they would have sent so young a child to a convent. Rack his memory as he would he could recall no allusion to such a journey, to any separation between mother and child after they were established in Rouen.
But he did remember one of Madame Delano's few references to the past, which might suggest that she had left the child somewhere while she went home to make peace with her family to get her bearings. Her brother had not approved of her marrying an American. "But," she had added graciously, "you see I had no such prejudice. Neither now nor then. James was the best of husbands."
He had heard the name Jim as he boarded the dummy, uttered in extremely familiar accents; by Bisbee, of course. Yes, and something else. "We all felt bad when he croaked."
His feverishly alert memory darted to another pigeon hole and exhumed another treasure. Some ten or twelve months ago he had been obliged to go to a northern county on business that involved buying up smaller concerns, and would keep him away for a fortnight or more. He had taken Helene, and as they were motoring through one of the old towns she had leaned forward with a little gasp exclaiming:
"How exactly like! If I didn't know that I had never been in California before except merely to be born here I could vow that is where I lived with the dear nuns."
He had asked idly: "Where was your convent?" and she had shaken her head. "Maman says I never was in a convent, that I dreamed it." She had lifted to Ruyler a puzzled face. "I remember she punished me once, when I was about seven and persisted in talking about the convent—I suppose I had forgotten it for a time in the new life, and something brought it back to me. But it is the most vivid memory of my childhood. Do you think I could have been one of those uncanny children that live in a dream world? I hope not. I like to think I am quite normal and full to the brim of common sense." He had laughed and told her not to worry. He had lived in a dream world himself when he was little.
The conviction grew upon him as he sat there that Helene had spent the first five years of her life at the Ursuline Convent in St. Peter. What had her mother—young and beautiful—been doing during those years, the years of a mother's most anxious devotion and pleasurable interest? He searched his memory for Club reminiscences of a Marie Delano of twenty years earlier, or less. No such name rewarded his mental explorations, and Marie Delano was not a name likely to escape.
He exclaimed aloud at his stupidity. The astute French woman was hardly likely to return to the scene of her former triumphs with an innocent young daughter and an infamous name. Nor, apparently, had she carried it to Rouen after she had manifestly foresworn vice for the sake of her child, even to the length of resigning herself to the dullness of a provincial town.
But "Jim"? Her husband? Could Bisbee have referred to some other Jim who had "croaked" recently? Such women have more than one Jim in their voluminous lives.
Ruyler had that order of mental temperament to which dubiety is the one unendurable condition; he had none of that cowardice which postpones an unpleasant solution until the inevitable moment. Whatever this hideous mystery he would solve it as quickly as possible and then put it out of his life. Beyond question poor Helene was the victim of blackmail; that was the logical explanation of her ill-concealed anxiety—misery, no doubt!
He wished she had had the courage to come directly to him, but it was idle to expect the resolution of a woman of thirty in a child of twenty. It was apparent that she had even tried to shield her mother, for that Madame Delano had been caught unaware to-day was indisputable.
What incredible impudence—or courage?—to return here! There were other resorts in the South and on the Eastern Coast where a pretty girl might reap the harvest of innocent and lovely youth.
Once more his mind abruptly focused itself.
Shortly after his marriage Madame Delano had asked him casually if he could inform her as to the reliability of a certain firm of lawyers, Lawton, Cross and Co. She "thought of buying a ranch," and the firm had been suggested to her by some one or other of these rich people. She also wished to make a will.
He had replied as casually that it was a leading firm, and forgotten the incident promptly. He recalled now that several times he had seen his mother-in-law coming out of the Monadnock Building, where this firm had its offices. He had upon one occasion met her in the lift and she had explained with unaccustomed volubility that she was still thinking of buying a ranch, possibly in Napa County. She understood that quite a fortune might be made in fruit, and it would be a diverting interest for her old age. Possibly she might encourage a favorite nephew to come out and help her run it.
Ruyler, who had been absorbed in his own affairs and hated the sight of any woman during business hours, had felt like telling her that if she wanted to sink her money in a ranch, that was as good a way to get rid of it as any, but had merely nodded and left the elevator. He was not the man to give any one unasked advice and be snubbed for his pains.
If "Jim" was her husband and had "croaked" some two years since, what more natural than that she had been obliged to come to California and settle his estate? Lawton and Cross would keep her secret, as California lawyers, with or without blackmail, had kept many others; perhaps she was an old friend of Lawton's. He had been a "bird" in his time.
Undoubtedly this was the solution. Otherwise she never would have risked the return to San Francisco, even with her changed appearance.
It was time to dismiss speculation and proceed to action. He rang up detective headquarters and asked Jake Spaulding to come to him at once.
Spaulding began: "But the matter ain't ripe yet, boss. Nothin' doin' last night—"
But Ruyler cut him short. "Please come immediately—no, not here. Meet me at Long's."
He left the building and walked rapidly to a well-known bar where estimable citizens, even when impervious to the seductions of cocktail and highball, often met in private soundproof rooms to discuss momentous deals, or invoke the aid of detectives whose appearance in home or office might cause the wary bird to fly away.
The detective did not drink, so Ruyler ordered cigars, and a few moments later Spaulding strolled in. His physical movements always belied his nervous keen face. He was the antithesis of 'Gene Bisbee. All honest men compelled to have dealings with him liked and trusted him. A rich man could confide a disgraceful predicament to his keeping without fear of blackmail, and a poor man, if his cause were interesting, might command his services with a nominal fee. He loved the work and regarded himself as an artist, inasmuch as he was exercising a highly cultivated gift, not merely pursuing a lucrative profession. He sometimes longed, it is true, for worthier objects upon which to lavish this gift, and he found them a few years later when the world went to war. He was one of the most valuable men in the Federal Secret Service before the end of 1915.
"What's up?" he asked, as he took possession of the most comfortable chair in the little room and lit a cigar. "You look as if you hadn't slept for a week, and you were lookin' fine yesterday."
"Do you mind if I only half confide in you? It's a delicate matter. I'd like to ask you a few questions and may possibly ask you to find the answer to several others."
"Fire away. Curiosity is not my vice. I'll only call for a clean breast if I find I can't work in the dark."
"Thanks. Do—do you remember any woman of the town named—Marie Delano?" He swallowed hard but brought it out. "Who may have flourished here fifteen or twenty years ago?"
Spaulding knew that Ruyler's wife had been named Delano, but he refrained from whistling and fixed his sharp honest blue eyes on the opposite wall.
"Nope. Sounds fancy enough, but she was no Queen of the Red Light District in S.F."
"I was convinced she could not have been known under that name. Do you know of any woman of that sort who was married—possibly—to a man whose first name was James—Jim—and who left abruptly, while she was still young and handsome, just about fifteen years ago?"
"Lord, that's a poser! Do you mean to say she married and retired—landed some simp? They do once in a while. Could tell you queer things about certain ancestries in this old town."
"No—I don't think that was it. I have reason to think she had been married for at least six years before she left. Can't you think of any Marie who was married to a Jim—in—in that class of life?"
"I was pretty much of a kid fifteen years ago, but I can recall quite a few Maries and even more Jims. But the Jims were much too wary to marry the Maries. Try it again, partner. Let us approach from another angle. What did your Marie look like?"
"She must have been tall—uncommonly tall—with black hair and small features; black eyes that must have been large at that time. I—I—believe she had a very fine figure."
The detective recrossed his legs. "French. Oh, Lord! The town was fairly overrun with them. Made you think there was nothing in all this talk about gay Paree. All the ladybirds seemed to have taken refuge here. You have no idea of her last name!"
"It might have been Perrin."
"Never. Not after she got here and set up in business. More likely Lestrange or Delacourt—"
"Was there a Delacourt?"
"Not that I remember. I don't see light anywhere. Of course it won't take me twenty-four hours to get hold of the history and appearance of every queen who was named Marie fifteen years ago, and your description helps a lot. Records were burned, but some of the older men on the force are walking archives. For the matter of that you might draw out some old codger in your club and get as much as I can give you—"
"Rather not! I think I'll have to give you my confidence."
"Much the shortest and straightest route. Just fancy you're takin' a nasty dose of medicine for the good of your health. I guess this is a case where I can't work in the dark."
"Have you ever noticed an elderly woman, seated in the court of the Palace Hotel—immensely stout?"
"I should say I had. One of the sights of S.F. Why—of course—she's your mother-in-law!"
"Has there been any talk about her!"
"Some comment on her size. And her childlike delight in watchin' the show."
"Nothing else? No one has claimed to recognize her?"
Spaulding sat up straight, his nose pointing. "Recognize her? What d'you mean?"
"I mean that I overheard a conversation—one-sided—to-day on the California Street dummy, in which Bisbee accused Madame Delano practically of what I have told you. At least that is the way I interpreted it. He called her Marie, alluded in an unmistakable manner to a disgraceful past in which he had known her intimately, and was confident that he recognized her in spite of her flesh and white hair. I am positive that she recognized him, although she was clever enough not to reply."
"Jimminy! The plot thickens. That scoundrel never forgot a face in his life. I don't train with him—not by a long sight—so if there's been any talk in his bunch, I naturally wouldn't have heard it. You say her name is Marie now?"
"And Perrin is her real name?"
"She comes of a well-known family of Rouen of that name. She lived there with her child for at least thirteen years before her return to California. Of that I am certain. Her daughter is now twenty. I wish to know where she kept that child during the first five years of its life. I have reason to think it was in the Ursuline Convent at St. Peter."
"That's easy settled. And you think the father's first name was Jim?"
"She told me that his name was James Delano. Also that he died within the first year of their marriage, when the child was two months old, during the voyage to Japan. That may be, but I can see no reason for her returning here unless he died more recently and the settlement of his estate demanded her presence."
"Pretty good reasoning, particularly if you are sure she stayed here until the child was five. Some of them have pretty decent instincts. She may have made up her mind to give the kid a chance, and returned to her relations. Of course we must assume that they knew nothing of her life."
"I am positive they did not. But there had been some sort of estrangement. I have been given to understand that it was because she married an American. Of course she may not have written to them at all for six or seven years. Her story is that she was visiting other relatives in a place called Holbrook Centre, Vermont, and met this man and married him. Then that he was detained by business in San Francisco for several months, and the child born here."
"Good commonplace story. Just the sort that is never questioned. Of course if she did not correspond with her family during all that time she could adopt any name for her return to respectability that she chose. Delano wasn't it? That's certain. What line do you intend to take? After I've delivered the facts?"
"My object is to have the child's legitimacy established, if possible, then see that Madame Delano leaves California forever. I think that she could be terrified by a threat of blackmail. I can't imagine the mere chance of recognition worrying her, for I should say she had as much courage as presence of mind. But her passion is money. If she thought there was any danger of being forced to hand over what she has I fancy she would get out as quickly as possible. She is an intelligent woman and I imagine she has taken a sardonic pleasure in sitting out in full view of San Francisco, and getting away with it."
"And marrying her girl to the greatest catch in California," thought the detective, but he said:
"I believe you're dead right, although, of course, there may be nothing in it. Even 'Gene Bisbee might be mistaken, pryin' a gazelle out of an elephant like that. Now, tell me all you know."
When Ruyler had covered every point Spaulding nodded. "It's possible this Jim was the maquereau and she made him marry her for the sake of the child. Doubt if the date can be proved except through the lawyers, and it will be hard to make them talk. Of course if there is a Holbrook Centre and she was married there—but I have my doubts. The point is that he evidently married her if she is settlin' up his estate. I'll find out what Jims have died within the last three years or so. That's easy. The direct route to the one we want is through St. Peter. I'll go up to-night."
"And you'll report to-morrow?"
"Yep. Meet me here at six P.M. Lucky the man seems to have died after the fire. I'll set some one on the job of searching death records right away."
Ruyler had half promised to go to a dinner that night at the house of John Gwynne, whose wife would chaperon his wife afterward to the last of the Assembly dances.
Gwynne was his English friend who had abandoned the ancient title inherited untimely when he was making a reputation in the House of Commons, and become an American citizen in California, where he had a large ranch originally the property of an American grandmother. His migration had been justified in his own eyes by his ready adaptation to the land of his choice and to the opportunities offered in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire, as well as in the renovation of its politics. He had made his ranch profitable, read law as a stepping-stone to the political career, and had just been elected to Congress. Ruyler was one of his few intimate friends and had promised to go to this farewell dinner if possible. A place would be kept vacant for him until the last minute.
Gwynne had married Isabel Otis[A], a Californian of distinguished beauty and abilities, whose roots were deep in San Francisco, although she had "run a ranch" in Sonoma County. The Gwynnes and the Thorntons until Ruyler met Helene had been the friends whose society he had sought most in his rare hours of leisure, and he had spent many summer week-ends at their country homes. He had hoped that the intimacy would deepen after his marriage, but Helene during the past year had gone almost exclusively with the younger set, the "dancing squad"; natural enough considering her age, but Ruyler would have expected a girl of so much intelligence, to say nothing of her severe education, to have tired long since of that artificial wing of society devoted solely to froth, and gravitated naturally toward the best the city afforded. But she had appeared to like the older women better at first than later, although she accepted their invitations to large dinners and dances.
[Footnote A: See "Ancestors."]
Ruyler made up his mind to attend this dinner at Gwynne's, and telephoned his acceptance before he left Long's. Business or no business, he should be his wife's bodyguard hereafter. There were blackmailers in society as out of it, and it was possible that his ubiquity would frighten them off. Whether to demand his wife's confidence or not he was undecided. Better let events determine.
When he arrived at home he went directly to Helene's room, but paused with his hand on the knob of the door. He heard his mother-in-law's voice and she was the last person he wished to meet until he was in a position to tell her to leave the country. He was turning away impatiently when Madame Delano lifted her hard incisive tones.
"And you promised me!" she exclaimed passionately. "I trusted you, I never believed—"
Price retreated hurriedly to his own room, and it was not until he had taken a cold shower and was half dressed that he permitted himself to think.
That wretch had known, then! It was she who had been blackmailing her daughter. And the poor child had been afraid to confide in him, to ask him for money. No wonder her eyes had flashed at the prospect of a fortune of her own....
An even less welcome ray illuminated his mind at this point. His wife was not unversed in the arts of dissimulation herself. True, she was French and took naturally to diplomatic wiles; true, also, the instinct of self-preservation in even younger members of a sex that man in his centuries of power had made, superficially, the weaker, was rarely inert.
What woman would wish her husband to know disgraceful ancestral secrets which were no fault of hers? A much older woman would not be above entombing them, if the fates were kind. But it saddened him to think that his wife should be rushed to maturity along the devious way. Poor child, he must win her confidence as quickly as his limping wits would permit and shift her burden to his own shoulders.
Having learned through the medium of the house telephone that his mother-in-law had departed, he knocked at his wife's door. She opened it at once and there was no mark of agitation on her little oval face under its proudly carried crown of heavy braids. She was looking very lovely in a severe black velvet gown whose texture and depth cunningly matched her eyes and threw into a relief as artful the white purity of her skin and the delicate pink of lip and cheek.
She smiled at him brilliantly. "It can't be true that you are going with me?"
"I've reformed. I shall go with you everywhere from this time forth. But I thought I heard your mother's voice when I came in—"
"She often comes in about dressing time to see me in a new frock. How heavenly that you will always go with me." Her voice shook a little and she leaned over to smooth a possible wrinkle in her girdle.
"Will you come down to the library? We are rather early."
He went directly to the safe and took out the ruby and clasped the chain about her neck. The chain was long and the great jewel took a deeper and more mysterious color from the somber background of her bodice.
Helene gasped. "Am I to wear it to-night? That would be too wonderful. This is the last great night in town."
"Why not? I shall be there to mount guard. You shall always wear it when I am able to go out with you."
She lifted her radiant face, although it remained subtly immobile with a new and almost formal self-possession. "I am even more delighted than I was yesterday, for at the fete there will be so much novelty to distract attention. You always think of the nicest possible things."
When they were in the taxi he put his arm about her.
"I wonder," he began gropingly, "if you would mind not going out when I cannot go with you? I'll go as often as I can manage. There are reasons—"
He felt her light body grow rigid. "Reasons? You told me only yesterday—"
"I know. But I have been thinking it over. That is rather a fast lot you run with. I know, of course, they are F.F.C.'s, and all the rest of it, but if I ever drove up to the Club House in Burlingame in the morning and saw you sitting on the veranda smoking and drinking gin fizzes—"
"You never will! I could not swallow a gin fizz, or any nasty mixed drink. And although I have had my cigarette after meals ever since I was fifteen, I never smoke in public."
"I confess I cannot see you in the picture that rose for some perverse reason in my mind; but—well, you really are too young to go about so much without your husband—"
"I am always chaperoned to the large affairs. Mrs. Gwynne takes me to the Fairmont to-night."
"I know. But scandal is bred in the marrow of San Francisco. Its social history is founded upon it, and it is almost a matter of principle to replace decaying props. Do you mind so much not going about unless I can be with you?"
"No, of course not." Her voice was sweet and submissive, but her body did not relax. She added graciously: "After all, there are so many luncheons, and we often dance in the afternoon."
He had not thought of that! What avail to guard her merely in the evening? It was not her life that was in danger....
And he seemed as immeasurably far from obtaining her confidence as before. He had always understood that the ways of matrimonial diplomacy were strewn with pitfalls and wished that some one had opened a school for married men before his time.
He made another clumsy attempt. The cab was swift and had almost covered the long distance between the Western Addition and Russian Hill. "Other things have worried me. You are so generous. Society here as elsewhere has its parasites, its dead beats, trying to limp along by borrowing, gambling, 'amusing,' doing dirty work of various sorts. It has worried me lest one or more of these creatures may have tried to impose on you with hard luck tales—borrow—"
She laughed hysterically. "Price, you are too funny! I do lend occasionally—to the girls, when their allowance runs out before the first of the month; but I don't know any dead beats."
He plunged desperately. "Your mother's voice sounded rather agitated for her. Of course I did not stop to listen, but it occurred to me that she may have been gambling in stocks, or have got into some bad land deal. She is so confoundedly close-mouthed—if she wants money send her to me."
Helene sat very straight. Her little aquiline profile against the passing street lights was as aloof as imperial features on an ancient coin.
"Really, Price, I don't think you can be as busy as you pretend if you have time to indulge in such flights of imagination. Maman has never tried to borrow a penny of me, and she is the last person on earth to gamble in stocks or any thing else. Or to buy land except on expert advice. I think she has given up that idea, anyhow. She said this evening she thought it was time for her to visit our people in Rouen."
"Oh, she did! Helene, I must tell you frankly that I heard her reproach you for having broken a promise, and she spoke with deep feeling."
It was possible that the Roman profile turned white, but in the dusk of the car he could not be sure. His wife, however, merely shrugged her shoulders and replied calmly:
"My dear Price, if that has worried you, why didn't you say so at once? I am rather ashamed to tell you, all the same. Maman has been at me lately to persuade you to let her have the ruby for a week. She is dreadfully superstitious, poor maman, and is convinced it would bring her some tremendous good fortune—"
"I have never met a woman who, I could swear, was freer from superstition—"
Price closed his lips angrily. Of what use to tax her feminine defenses further? He had known her long enough to be sure she would rather tell the truth than lie. It was evident that she had no intention of lowering her barriers, and he must play the game from the other end: get the proof he needed and engineer his mother-in-law out of the United States.
Some time, however, he would have it out with his wife. Being a business man and always alert to outwit the other man, he wanted neither intrigue nor mystery in his home, but a serene happiness founded upon perfect confidence. He found it impossible to remain appalled or angry at his wife's readiness of resource in guarding a family secret that must have shocked the youth in her almost out of existence.
He patted her hand, and felt its chill within the glove.
"It was like you never to have mentioned it," he murmured. "For, of course, it is quite impossible."
"That is what I told her decidedly to-night, and I do not think she will ask again. It hurts me to refuse dear maman anything. Her devotion to me has been wonderful—but wonderful," she added on a defiant note.
"A mother's devotion, particularly to a girl of your sort, does not make any call upon my exclamation points. But here we are."
* * * * *
The car rolled up the graded driveway Gwynne had built for the old San Francisco house that before his day had been approached by an almost perpendicular flight of wooden steps. They were late and the company had assembled: the Thorntons, Trennahans, and eight or ten young people, all of whom would be chaperoned by the married women to the dance at the Fairmont.
Russian Hill had escaped the fire, but Nob Hill had been burnt down to its bones, and the Thorntons and Trennahans had not rebuilt, preferring, like many others, to live the year round in their country homes and use the hotels in winter.
The moment Helene entered the drawing-room it was evident that the ruby was to make as great a sensation as the soul of woman could desire. Even the older people flocked about her and the girls were frank and shrill in their astonishment and rapture.
"Helene! Darling! The duckiest thing—I never saw anything so perfectly dandy and wonderful! I'd go simply mad! Do, just let me touch it! I could eat it!"
Mrs. Thornton, who at any time scorned to conceal envy, or pretend indifference, looked at the great burning stone with a sigh and turned to her husband.
"Why didn't you manage to get it for me?" she demanded. "It would be far more suitable—a magnificent stone like that!—on me than on that baby."
"My darling," murmured Ford anxiously, "I never laid eyes on the thing before, or on one like it. I'll find out where Ruyler got it, and try—"
"Do you suppose I'd come out with a duplicate? You should have thought of it years ago. You always promised to take me to India."
"It should be on you!" He gazed at her adoringly. Her hair was dressed in a high and stately fashion to-night. She wore a gown of gold brocade and a necklace and little tiara of emeralds and diamonds; she was looking very handsome and very regal. Thornton was a thin, dark, nervous wisp of a man, who had borne his share of the burdens laid upon his city in the cataclysm of 1906, but if his wife had demanded an enormous historic ruby he would have done his best to gratify her. But how the deuce could a man—
Mrs. Gwynne was holding the stone in her hand and smiling into its flaming depths without envy. She was one of those women of dazzling white skin, black hair and blue eyes, who, when wise, never wear any jewels but pearls. She wore the Gwynne pearls to-night and a shimmering white gown.
Ruyler glanced round the fine old room with the warm feeling of satisfaction he always experienced at a San Francisco function, where the women were almost as invariably pretty as they were gay and friendly. He did not like the younger men he met on these occasions as well as he did many of the older ones; the serious ones would not waste their time on society, and there were too many of the sort who were asked everywhere because they had made a cult of fashion, whether they could afford it or not. A few were the sons of wealthy parents, and were more dissipated than those obliged to "hold down" a job that provided them with money enough above their bare living expenses to make them useful and presentable.
Ruyler looked upon both sorts as cumberers of the earth, and only tolerated them in his own house when his wife gave a party and dancing men must be had at any price.
There was one man here to-night for whom he had always held particular detestation. His name was Nicolas Doremus. He was a broker in a small way, but Ruyler guessed that he made the best part of his income at bridge, possibly poker. He lived with two other men in a handsome apartment in one of the new buildings that were changing the old skyline of San Francisco. His dancing teas and suppers were admirably appointed and the most exclusive people went to them.
Ruyler knew his history in a general way. His father had made a fortune in "Con. Virginia" in the Seventies, and his mother for a few years had been the social equal of the women who now patronized her son. But unfortunately the gambling microbe settled down in Harry Doremus' veins, and shortly after his son was born he engaged his favorite room at the Cliff House and blew out his brains. His wife was left with a large house, which as a last act of grace he had forborne to mortgage and made over to her by deed. She immediately advertised for boarders, and as her cooking was excellent and she had the wit to drop out of society and give her undivided attention to business, she prospered exceedingly.
She concentrated her ambitions upon her only child; sent him to a private school patronized by the sons of the wealthy, and herself taught him every ingratiating social art. She wanted him to go to college, but by this time "Nick" was nineteen and as highly developed a snob as her maternal heart had planned. Knowing that he must support himself eventually, he was determined to begin his business career at once, and believed, with some truth, that there was a prejudice in this broad field against college men. He entered the brokerage firm of a bachelor who had occupied Mrs. Doremus' best suite for fifteen years, and made a satisfactory clerk, the while he cultivated his mother's old friends.
When Mrs. Doremus died he sold the house and good will for a considerable sum, and, combining it with her respectable savings, formed a partnership with two other young fellows, whose fathers were rich, but old-fashioned enough to insist that their sons should work. Nick did most of the work. His partners, during the rainy season, sat with their feet on the radiator and read the popular magazines, and in fine weather upheld the outdoor traditions of the state.
The firm had a slender patronage, as Ruyler happened to know, but Doremus was a member of the Pacific Union Club, and although he dined out every night, he must have spent six or seven thousand a year. It was amiably assumed that his social services,—he played and sang and often entertained exacting groups throughout an entire evening—his fetching and carrying for one rich old lady, accounted for his ability to keep out of debt and pay for his many extravagances; but Ruyler knew that he was principally esteemed at the small green table, and he vaguely recalled as he looked over his head to-night that he had heard disconnected murmurs of less honorable sources of revenue.
As Ruyler turned away with a frown he met Gwynne's eyes traveling from the same direction. "I didn't ask him," he said apologetically. "Hate men too well dressed. Looks as if he posed for tailors' ads in the weeklies. Never could stand the social parasite anyhow, but Aileen Lawton asked Isabel to let her bring him, as they are going to open the ball to-night with some new kind of turkey trot.
"Glad I'm off for Washington. California's the greatest place on earth in the dry season, but I'd have passed few winters here if it hadn't been for the work we all had to do, and even then it would have been heavy going without my wife's companionship."