THE COAST OF CHANCE
ESTHER AND LUCIA CHAMBERLAIN
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
CLARENCE F. UNDERWOOD
GROSSET & DUNLAP
THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
* * * * *
I THE VANISHING MYSTERY 1
II A NAME GOES ROUND A TABLE 24
III ENCOUNTERS ON PARADE 63
IV FLOWERS BY THE WAY 82
V ON GUARD 93
VI BLACK MAGIC 105
VII A SPELL IS CAST 129
VIII A SPARK OF HORROR 142
IX ILLUMINATION 162
X A LADY UNVEILED 175
XI THE MYSTERY TAKES HUMAN FORM 197
XII DISENCHANTMENT 213
XIII THRUST AND PARRY 216
XIV COMEDY CONVEYS A WARNING 231
XV A LADY IN DISTRESS 248
XVI THE HEART OF THE DILEMMA 285
XVII THE DEMIGOD 293
XVIII GOBLIN TACTICS 330
XIX THE FACE IN THE GARDEN 345
XX FLIGHT 361
XXI THE HOUSE OF QUIET 381
XXII CLARA'S MARKET 410
XXIII TOUCHE 422
XXIV THE COMIC MASK 435
XXV THE LAST ENCHANTMENT 451
THE COAST OF CHANCE
THE VANISHING MYSTERY
Flora Gilsey stood on the threshold of her dining-room. She had turned her back on it. She swayed forward. Her bare arms were lifted. Her hands lightly caught the molding on either side of the door. She was looking intently into the mirror at the other end of the hall. All the lights in the dining-room were lit, and she saw herself rather keenly set against their brilliance. The straight-held head, the lifted arms, the short, slender waist, the long, long sweep of her skirts made her seem taller than she actually was; and the strong, bright growth of her hair and the vivacity of her face made her seem more deeply colored.
She had poised there for the mere survey of a new gown, but after a moment of dwelling on her own reflection she found herself considering it only as an object in the foreground of a picture. That picture, seen through the open door, reflected in the glass, was all of a bright, hard glitter, all a high, harsh tone of newness. In its paneled oak, in its glare of cut-glass and silver, in the shining vacant faces of its floors and walls, there was not a color that filled the eye, not a shadow where imagination could find play. As a background for herself it struck her as incongruous. Like a child looking at the landscape upside down, she felt herself in a foreign country. Yet it was hers. She turned about to bring it into familiar association. There was nothing wrong with it. But its great capacity suggested large parties rather than close intimacies. In the high lift of its ceilings, the ample openings of its doors, the swept, garnished, polished beauty of its cold surfaces, it proclaimed itself conceived, created and decorated for large, fine functions. She thought whimsically that any one who knew her, coming into her house, would realize that some one other than herself had the ordering of it.
She glanced over the table. It was set for three. It lacked nothing but the serving of dinner. She looked at the clock. It wanted a few minutes to the hour. Shima, the Japanese butler, came in softly with the evening papers. She took them from him. Nothing bored her so much as a paper, but to-night she knew it contained something she really wanted to see. She opened one of the damp sheets at the page of sales.
There it was at the head of the column in thick black type:
AT AUCTION, FEBRUARY 18 PERSONAL ESTATE OF ELIZABETH HUNTER CHATWORTH CONSISTING OF——
She read the details with interest down to the end, where the name of the "famous Chatworth ring" finished the announcement with a flourish. Why "famous"? It was very provoking to advertise with that vague adjective and not explain it.
She turned indifferently to the first page. She read a sentence, re-read it, read it again. Then, as if she could not read fast enough, her eyes galloped down the column. Color came into her cheeks. The grasp of her hands on the edges of the paper tightened. It was the most extraordinary thing! She was bewildered with the feeling that what was blazing at her from the columns of the paper was at once the wildest thing that could possibly have happened, and yet the one most to have been expected.
For, from the first the business had been sinister, from as far back as the tragedy—the end of poor young Chatworth and his wife—the Bessie, who, before her English marriage, they had all known so well. Her death, that had befallen in far Italian Alps, had made a sensation in their little city, and the large announcements of auction that had followed hard upon it had bred among the women who had known her a morbid excitement, a feverish desire to buy, as if there might be some special luck in them, the jewels of a woman who had so tragically died. They had been ready to make a social affair of the private view held in the "Maple Room" before the auction. And now the whole spectacular business was capped by a sensation so dramatic as to strain credulity to its limit. She could not believe it; yet here it was glaring at her from the first page. Still—it might be an exaggeration, a mistake. She must go back to the beginning and read it over slowly.
The striking of the hour hurried her. Shima's announcement of dinner only sent her eyes faster down the page. But when, with a faint, smooth rustle, Mrs. Britton came in, she let the paper fall. She always faced her chaperon with a little nervousness, and with the same sense of strangeness with which she so frequently regarded her house.
"It's fifteen minutes after eight," Mrs. Britton observed. "We would better not wait any longer."
She took the place opposite Flora's at the round table. Flora sat down, still holding the paper, flushed and bolt upright with her news.
"It's the most extraordinary thing!" she burst forth.
Mrs. Britton paused mildly with a radish in her fingers. She took in the presence of the paper, and the suppressed excitement of her companion's face—seemed to absorb them through the large pupils of her light eyes, through all her smooth, pretty person, before she reached for an explanation.
"What is the most extraordinary thing?" The query came bland and smooth, as if, whatever it was, it could not surprise her.
"Why, the Chatworth ring! At the private view this afternoon it simply vanished! And—and it was all our own crowd who were there!"
"Vanished!" Clara Britton leaned forward, peering hard in the face of this extraordinary statement. "Stolen, do you mean?" She made it definite.
Flora flung out her hands.
"Well, it disappeared in the Maple Room, in the middle of the afternoon, when everybody was there—and they haven't the faintest clue."
"But how?" For a moment the preposterous fact left Clara too quick to be calm.
Again Flora's eloquent hands. "That is it! It was in a case like all the other jewels. Harry saw it"—she glanced at the paper—"as late as four o'clock. When he came back with Judge Buller, half an hour after, it was gone."
Flora leaned forward on her elbows, chin in hands. No two could have differed more than these two women in their blondness and their prettiness and their wonder. For Clara was sharp and pale, with silvery lights in eyes and hair, and confronted the facts with an alert and calculating observation; but Flora was tawny, toned from brown to ivory through all the gamut of gold—hair color of a panther's hide, eyes dark hazel, glinting through dust-colored lashes, chin round like a fruit. The pressure of her fingers accented the slight uptilt of her brows to elfishness, and her look was introspective. She might, instead of wondering on the outside, have been the very center of the mystery itself, toying with unthinkable possibilities of revelation. She looked far over the head of Clara Britton's annoyance that there should be no clue.
"Why, don't you see," she pointed out, "that is just the fun of it? It might be anybody. It might be you, or me, or Ella Buller. Though I would much prefer to think it was some one we didn't know so well—some one strange and fascinating, who will presently go slipping out the Golden Gate in a little junk boat, so that no one need be embarrassed."
Clara looked back with extraordinary intentness.
"Oh, it's not possible the thing is stolen. There's some mistake! And if it were"—her eyes seemed to open a little wider to take in this possibility—"they will have detectives all around the water front by to-night. Any one would find it difficult to get away," she pointed out. "You see, the ring is an important piece of property."
"Of course; I know," Flora murmured. A faint twitch of humor pulled her mouth, but the passionate romantic color was dying out of her face. How was it that one's romances could be so cruelly pulled down to earth? She ought to have learned by this time, she thought, never to fly her little flag of romance except to an empty horizon—never, at least, to fly it in Clara's face. It was always as promptly surrounded by Clara's common sense as San Francisco would be surrounded by the police. But still she couldn't quite come down to Clara. "At least," she sighed, "he has saved me an awful expense, whoever took it, for I should have had to have it."
Mrs. Britton surveyed this statement consideringly. "Was it the most valuable thing in the collection?"
Flora hesitated in the face of the alert question. "I—don't know. But it was the most remarkable. It was a Chatworth heirloom, the papers say, and was given to Bessie at the time of her marriage." The thought of the death that had so quickly followed that marriage gave Flora a little shiver, but no shade of the tragedy touched Clara. There was nothing but speculation in Clara's eyes—that, and a little disappointment. "Then they will put off the auction—if it is really so," she mused.
"Oh, yes," Flora mourned, "they can put it off as long as they please. The only thing I wanted is gone—and I hadn't even seen it."
"Well, I wouldn't be too sure. There may be some mistake about it. The papers love a sensation."
"But there must be something in it, Clara. Why, they closed the doors and searched them—that crowd! It's ridiculous!"
Clara Britton glanced at the empty place. "Then that must be what has kept him."
"Who? Oh, Harry!" It took Flora a moment to remember she had been expecting Harry. She hoped Clara had not noticed it. Clara always had too much the assumption that she was taking him only as the best-looking, best-natured, safest bargain presented. "He will be here," she reassured, "but I wish he would hurry. His dinner will be spoiled; and, poor dear, he likes his dinner so much!"
The faint silver sound of the electric bell, a precipitate double peal, seemed to uphold this statement. The women faced each other in a moment's suspense, a moment of expectation, such as the advance column may feel at sight of a scout hotfoot from the field of battle. There were muffled movements in the hall, then light, even steps crossing the drawing-room. Those light steps always suggested a slight frame, and, as always, Flora was re-surprised at his bulk as now it appeared between the parted curtains, the dull black and sharp white of his evening clothes topped by his square, fresh-colored face.
"Well, Flora," he said, "I know I'm late," and took the hand she held to him from where she sat. Her face danced with pleasure. Yes, he was magnificent, she thought, as he crossed with his light stride to Mrs. Britton's chair. He could even stand the harsh lines and lights of evening clothes. He dominated their ugly convention with his height, his face so ruddy and fresh under the pale brown of his hair, his alert, assured, deft movement. His high good nature had the effect of sweetening for him even Clara Britton's flavorless manner. The "We were speaking of you," with which she saw him to his seat, had all the warmth of a smile, but a smile far in the background of Flora's immediate possession. Indeed, Flora had seldom had so much to say to Harry as at this moment of her excitement over what he had actually seen. For the evidence that he had seen something was vivid in his face. She had never found him so splendidly alive. She had never seen him, it came to her, quite like this before.
She shook the paper at him. "Tell us everything, instantly!"
He gaily acknowledged her right to make him thus stand and deliver. He shot his hands into the air with the lightening vivacity that was in him a sort of wit. "Not guilty," he grinned at her.
"Harry, you know you were in it. The papers have you the most important personage."
"Oh, not all that," he denied her allegation. "They had the whole lot of us cooped up together for investigation for as much as two hours. I thought I shouldn't have time to dress! I'm as hungry as a hawk!" He rolled it out with the full gusto with which he was by this time engaged on his first course.
"Poor dear," said Flora with cooing mock-sympathy, "and did they starve it? But would it mind telling us, now that it has its food, what is true, and what was the gallant part it played this afternoon?"
"Well," he followed her whimsical lead, "the chief detective and I were the star performers. I found the ring wasn't there, and he found he couldn't find it."
"Don't you know any more than the paper?" Flora mourned.
"Considerably less—if I know the papers." He grinned with a fine flash of even teeth. "What do you want me to say?"
"Why, stupid, the adventures of Harry Cressy, Esquire. How did you feel?"
"Oh, Harry!" She glanced about, as if for a missile to threaten him with.
"Upon my word! But look here—wait a minute!" he arrived deliberately at what was required of him. "Never mind how I felt; but if you want to know the way it happened—here's your Maple Room." He began a diagram with forks on the cloth before him, and Clara, who had watched their sparring from her point of vantage in the background, now leaned forward, as if at last they were getting to the point.
"This is the case, furthest from the door." He planted a salt-cellar in his silver inclosure. "I come in very early, at half-past two, before the crowd; fail to meet you there." He made mischievous bows to right and left. "I go out again. But first I see this ring."
"What was it like?" Flora demanded.
"Like?" Harry turned a speculative eye to the dull glow of the candelabrum, as if between its points of flame he conjured up the vision of the vanished jewel. "Like a bit of an old gold heathen god curled round himself, with his head, which was mostly two yellow sapphires, between his knees, and a big, blue stone on top. Soft, yellow gold, so fine you could almost dent it. And carved! Even through a glass every line of it is right." He paused and ran the tip of his finger along the silver outline of his diagram, as if the mere memory of the precious eyes of the little god had power to arrest all other consideration. "Well, there he was," he pulled himself up, "and I can't remember when a thing of that sort has stayed by me so. I couldn't seem to get away from it. I dropped into the club and talked to Buller about it. He got keen, and I went back with him to have another look at it. Well, at the door Buller stops to speak to a chap going out—a crazy Englishman he had picked up at the club. I go on. By this time there's a crowd inside, but I manage to get up to the case. And first I miss the spot altogether. And then I see the card with his name; and then, underneath I see the hole in the velvet where the god has been."
Flora gave out a little sigh of suspense, and even Clara showed a gleam of excitement. He looked from one to the other. "Then there were fireworks. Buller came up. The detective came up. Everybody came up. Nobody'd believe it. Lots of 'em thought they had seen it only a few minutes before. But there was the hole in the velvet—and nothing more to be found."
"But does no one know anything? Has no one an idea?" Clara almost panted in her impatience.
"Not the ghost of a glimmer of a clue. There were upward of two hundred of us, and they let us out like a chain-gang, one by one. My number was one hundred and ninety-three, and so far I can vouch there were no discoveries. It has vanished—sunk out of sight."
Flora sighed. "Oh, poor Bessie Chatworth!" It came out with a quick inconsequence that made Clara—even in her impatience—ever so faintly smile. "It seems so cruel to have your things taken like that when you're dead, and can't help it," Flora rather lamely explained. "I should hate it."
Harry stared at her. "Oh, come. I guess you wouldn't care." His eyes rested for a moment on the fine flare of jewels presented by Flora's clasped hands. "Besides,"—his voice dropped to a graver level—"the deuce of it is—" he paused, they, both rather breathless, looking at him. He had the air of a man about to give information, and then the air of a man who has thought better of it. His voice consciously shook off its gravity. "Well, there'll be such a row kicked up, the probability is the thing'll be returned and no questions asked. Purdie's keen—very keen. He's responsible, the executor of the estate, you see."
But Clara Britton leveled her eyes at him, as if the thing he had produced was not at all the thing he had led up to. "Still, unless there was enormous pressure somewhere—and in this case I don't see where—I can't see what Mr. Purdie's keenness will do toward getting it back."
Harry played a little sulkily with the proposition, but he would not pick up the thread he had dropped. "I don't know that any one sees. The question now is—who took it?"
"Why, one of us," said Flora flippantly. "Of course, it is all on the Western Addition."
"Don't you believe it!" he answered her. "It's a confounded fine professional job. It takes more than sleight of hand—it takes genius, a thing like that!"
Flora gave him a quick glance, but he had not spoken flippantly. He was serious in his admiration. She didn't quite fancy his tone. "Why, Harry," she protested, "you talk as if you admired him!"
At this he laughed. "Well, how do you know I don't? But I can tell you one thing"—he dropped back into the same tone again—"there's no local crook work in this affair. It should be some one big—some one—" He frowned straight before him. He shook his head and smiled. "There was a chap in England, Farrell Wand."
The name floated in a little silence.
"He kept them guessing," Harry went on recalling it; "did some great vanishing acts."
"You mean he could take things before their eyes without people knowing it?" Flora's eyes were wide beyond their wont.
"Something of that sort. I remember at one of the Embassy balls at St. James' he talked five minutes to Lady Tilton. Her emeralds were on when he began. She never saw 'em again."
Flora began to laugh. "He must have been attractive."
"Well," Harry conceded practically, "he knew his business."
"But you can't rely on those stories," Clara objected.
"You must this time," he shook his tawny head at her; "I give you my word; for I was there."
It seemed to Flora fairly preposterous that Harry could sit there looking so matter-of-fact with such experiences behind him. Even Clara looked a little taken aback, but the effect was only to set her more sharply on.
"Then such a man could easily have taken the ring in the Maple Room this afternoon? You think it might have been the man himself?"
His broad smile of appreciation enveloped her. "Oh, you have a scent like a bloodhound. You haven't let go of that once since you started. He could have done it—oh, easy—but he went out eight, ten years ago."
"Died?" Flora's rising inflection was a lament.
"Went over the horizon—over the range. Believe he died in the colonies."
"Oh," Flora sighed, "then I shall have to fancy he has come back again, just for the sake of the Chatworth ring. That wouldn't be too strange. It's all so strange I keep forgetting it is real. At least," she went on explaining herself to Harry's smile, "it seems as if this must be going on a long way off, as if it couldn't be so close to us, as if the ring I wanted so much couldn't really be the one that has disappeared." All the while she felt Harry's smile enveloping her with an odd, half-protecting watchfulness, but at the close of her sentence he frowned a little.
"Well, perhaps we can find another ring to take the place of it."
She felt that she had been stupid where she should have been most delicate. "But you don't understand," she protested, leaning far toward him as if to coerce him with her generous warmth. "The Chatworth ring was nothing but a fancy I had. I never thought of it for a moment as an engagement ring!"
By the light stir of silk she was aware that Clara had risen. She looked up quickly to encounter that odd look. Clara's face was so smooth, so polished, so unruffled, as to appear almost blank, but none the less Flora saw it all in Clara's eye—a look that was not new to her. It was the same with which Clara had met the announcement of her engagement; the same look with which she had confronted every allusion to the approaching marriage; the same with which she now surveyed the mention of the engagement ring—a look neither approving nor dissenting, whose calm, considerate speculation seemed to repudiate all interest positive or negative in the approaching event except the one large question, "What is to become of me?" Many times Clara had held it up before her, not as a question, certainly not as an accusation; as a flat assertion of fact; but to-night Flora felt it so directly and imperatively aimed at her that it seemed this time to demand an audible response. And Clara's way of getting up, and standing there, with her gloves on, poised and expectant, as if she were only waiting an opportunity to take farewell, took on, in the light of her look, the fantastic appearance of a final departure. "I'm afraid," she mildly reminded them, "that Shima announced the carriage ten minutes ago."
"Oh, dear, I'm so sorry!" Flora's eyes wavered apologetically in the direction of the waiting Japanese. Clara's flicker of amusement made her hate herself the moment it was out. She could always depend on herself when she knew she was on exhibition. She could be sure of the right thing if it were only large enough, but she was still caught at odd moments by the trifles, the web of a certain social habit into which she had slipped, full grown on the smooth surface of her father's millions. Clara's fleeting smile lit up these trifles to her now as enormous. It took advantage of her small deficit to point out to her more plainly than ever to what large blunders she might be liable when she had cut loose from Clara's guiding, reminding, prompting genius, and chose to confront the world without it.
To be sure, she was not to confront it alone; but, looking at Harry, it came to her with a moment's qualm that she did not know him as well as she had thought.
A NAME GOES ROUND A TABLE
For to-night, from the moment he had appeared, she had recognized an unfamiliar mood in him, and it had come out more the more they had discussed the Chatworth ring. It was not in any special word or action on his part. It was in his whole presence that she felt the difference, as if the afternoon's scandal had been a stimulant to him—not through its romantic aspect, as it had affected her, but merely by the daring of the theft itself.
She wondered, as he heaped her ermine on her shoulders, if Harry might not have more surprises for her than she had supposed. Perhaps she had taken him too much for granted. After all, she had known him only for a year.
She herself was but three years old in San Francisco, and to her new eyes Harry had seemed an old resident thoroughly established. So firmly established was he in his bachelor quarters, in his clubs, in the demands made upon him by the city's society, that it had never occurred to her he had ever lived anywhere else. Nor had he happened to mention anything of his previous life until to-night, when he had given her, in that mention of a London ball, one flashing glimpse of former experiences.
Impulsively she summed up the possibilities of what these might have been. She gave him a look, incredulous, delighted, as he handed her into the carriage. She had actually got a thrill out of easy-going, matter-of-fact, well-tubbed Harry! It was a comradeship in itself. Not that she would have told him. This capacity of hers for thrills she had found need always to keep carefully covered. In the days when she was a shoeless child—those days of her father's labor in shaft and dump—she had dimly felt her world to be a creature of a keen, a fairly cruel humor, for all things that did not pertain to the essence of the life it struggled for. The wonder of the western flare of day, the magic in the white eyes of the stars before sunrise, the mystery in the pulse of the pounding mine heard in the dark—of such it had been as ruthless as this new world that looked as narrowly forth at as starved a prospect with even keener ridicule. Instinctively she had turned to both the hard, bright face they required. It seemed that in the world at large this faculty of hers was queer. And to be queer, to have anything that other people had not, except money, was to be open to suspicion. And yet from the first she had had to be queer.
Fatherless, motherless, alone upon the pinnacle of her fortune, she had known that such an extraordinary entrance, even at this rather wide social portal, would only be acceptable if toned down, glossed over, and drawn out by a personality sufficiently neutral, sufficiently potent, and sufficiently in need of what she had to give. The successive flickers of the gas-lamps through the carriage window made of Clara's profile so hard and fine a little medallion that it was impossible to conceive it in need of anything. And yet it was just their mutual need that had drawn these two women together, and after three years it was still the only thing that held them. As much of a fight as she had put up with the rest—the people who had taken her in—she had put up the hardest with Clara. Yet of them all Clara was the only one she had failed to capture. Clara was always there in the middle of her affairs, but surveying them from a distance, and Flora's struggle with her had resolved itself into the attempt to keep her from seeing too much, from seeing more than she herself saw. Clara's seeing, thus far, had always been to help, but Flora sometimes wondered whether in an emergency this help could be depended on—whether Clara could give anything without exacting a price.
Their dubious intimacy had created for Flora a special sort of loneliness—a loneliness which lacked the security of solitude; and it was partly as an escape from this that she had accepted Harry Cressy. By herself she could never have escaped. The initiative was not hers. But he had presented himself, he had insisted, had overruled her objections, had captured her before she knew whether she wanted it or not—and held her now, fascinated by his very success in capturing her, and by his beautiful ruddy masculinity. She did not ask herself whether women ever married for greater reasons than these. She only wondered sometimes if he did not stand out more brilliantly against Clara and the others than he intrinsically was. But these moments when she was obliged to defend him to herself were always when he was not with her. Even in the dusky carriage she had been as aware of the splendor of his attraction as now when they had stopped between the high lamps of the club entrance, and she saw clearly the broad lines of his shoulders and the stoop of his square-set head as he stepped swingingly to the pavement. After all, she ought to be glad to think that he was going to stand up as tall and protectingly between her and the world, as now he did between her and the press of people which, like a tide of water, swept them forward down the hall, sucked them back in its eddy, and finally cast them, ruffled like birds that have ridden a storm, on the more generous space of the wide, upward stair.
From here, looking down on the current sweeping past them, the little islands of black coats seemed fairly drowned in the feminine sea around them—the flow of white, of pale blue and rose, and the high chatter, like a cage of birds, that for the evening held possession.
"Ladies' Night!" Harry Cressy mopped his flushed face. "It's awful!"
Flora laughed in the effervescence of her spirits. She wanted to know, teasingly, as they mounted, if this were why he had brought two more to add to the lot. He only looked at her, with his short note of laughter that made her keenly conscious of his right to be proud of her. She was proud of herself, inasmuch as herself was shown in the long trail of daring blue her gown made up the stair, and the powdery blue of the aigrette that shivered in her bright, soft puffs and curls—proud that her daring, as it appeared in these things, was still discriminating enough to make her right.
She could recall a time when she had not even been quite sure of her clothes. Not Clara's subdued rustle at her side could make her doubt them now; but her security was still recent enough to be sometimes conscious of itself. It was so short a time since all these talking groups, that made a personage of her, had had the power to put her quite out of countenance. The women who craned over their shoulders to speak to her—how hard she had had to work to make them see her at all! And now she did not know which she felt more like laughing at, herself or them, for having taken it so seriously. For, when one thought of it, wasn't it absurd that people out of nowhere should suppose themselves exclusive? And people out of nowhere they were, herself and all the rest of them. From causes not far dissimilar they had drifted or scrambled to where they now stood. It was a question of squatter rights. The first on the ground were dictators, and how long they could hold their claim against invaders a dubious cast of fate. For there were for ever fresh invasions, and departures; swift risings from obscurity, sudden fallings back into oblivion, brilliant shootings through of strange meteors; and in the tide of fluctuation, the things that were established or traditional upon this coast of chance were mere islands in the wash of ocean. It was amazing, it was almost frightening, the fluid, unstable quality of life; the rapid, inconsequent changes; yet it was also this very quality of transformation that most stirred and delighted her.
And to-night it was not the picture exhibition, nor the function itself that elated her, but the fancy she had as she looked over the moving mass below her that the crowning excitement of the day, the vanishing mystery, hovered over them all. It was fantastic, but it persisted; for had not the Chatworth ring itself proved that the most ordinary appearances might cover unimagined wonders? Which of those bland, satisfied faces might not change shockingly at the whisper "Chatworth" in its ear? She wanted to confide the naughty thought to Harry. But no, he wasn't the one. If Harry were apprehensive of anything at all it was only of being caught in too hot a crush. He saw no possibilities in the mob below except boredom. He saw no possibilities in the evening but his conventional duty; and Flora could read in his eye his intention of getting through that as comfortably as possible. His suggestion that they have a look at the pictures brought the two women's eyes together in a rare gleam of mutual mirth. They knew he suspected that the picture gallery would be the emptiest place in the club, since to have a look at the pictures was what they were all supposed to be there for. That was so infallibly the note of their life, Flora thought, as she followed up the wide sweep of the middle stair, and along the high-ceiled, gilded hall whose open arches overlooked the rooms below.
The picture gallery was new, an addition; and the plain, narrow, unexpected door in this place, where all was high, arched, elaborate and flourished, was like a loophole through which to slip into a foreign atmosphere. This atmosphere was resinous of fresh wood; the light was thick with drifting motes; the carpets harshly new, slipping beneath the feet on the too polished floor; the bare bones of the place yet scarcely covered. But its quiet was after all comparative. There were plenty of people lingering in groups in the center of the gallery which was dusky, eclipsed by the great reflectors that circled the room, throwing out the pictures in a bright band of color around the walls. People leaning from this border of light back into the dusk to murmur together, vanished and reappeared with such fascinating abruptness that Flora caught herself guessing what sort of face, where this nearest group stood just on the edge of shadow, would pop out of the dark next.
She was ready for something extraordinary, but now, when it came, she was taken aback by it. It gave her a start, that toss of black hair, that long, irregular, pale face whose scintillant, sardonic smile was mercilessly upon the poor, inadequate picture-face fronting him. His stoop above the rail was so abrupt that his long, lean back was almost horizontal, yet even thus there was something elegant in the swing of him—in the careless twist of his head, around, to speak to the woman behind him. The light above struck blind on the glass in one eye, but the other danced with a genial, a mad scintillation. The light of it caught like contagion, and touched the merest glancer at him with the spark of its warm, ironic mirth. The question which naturally rose to Flora's lips—"Who in the world is that?"—she checked; why, she didn't ask herself. She only felt as she followed Clara, trailing away across the floor, that the interest of the evening which had promised so well, beginning with the Chatworth ring, had been raised even a note higher. Her restive fancy was beginning again. All the footlights of her little secret stage were up.
Clara turned to the right, following a beckoning fan, and Flora, dallying with her anticipation, reasoned that now they must circle the room before they should face him—the interesting apparition. It was a pilgrimage of which he on the other side was performing his half. Perfunctorily talking from group to group, conscious now and again of the lagging Clara or Harry, she could nevertheless keep a sly eye on the stranger's equal progress. The flash of jet, and the voluble, substantial shoulders of the lady so profusely introducing him, were an assurance of how that pilgrimage would terminate, since it was Ella Buller who was parading him. She even wondered before which of the florid pictures at the far, other end of the room, as before a shrine, the ceremony would take place.
She kept her eyes fixed on the paintings before her, and as she moved down from one to another, and the voices of the approaching group drew nearer, one separated itself from the general murmur, so clear, so resonantly carried, so clean-clipped off the tongue, that it stood out in syllables on the blur of sound which was Ella Buller's conversation. It had color, that voice; it had a quality so sharp, so individual that it touched her with a mischievous wonder that he dared speak so differently from all the world about him. Then, six pictures away, she heard her own name.
"Why, Flora Gilsey!" It was Ella's husky, boyish note. "I've been looking for you all the evening! How d'y'do, Harry?" She waved her hand at him. "Why, how d'y'do, Mrs. Britton? I wouldn't let papa go to supper until I'd found you. 'Papa,' I said, 'wait; Flora and Harry will be here.' Besides," she had quite reached Flora's side by this time and communicated it in an impressive whisper, "I want you to meet my Englishman." She looked over her shoulder, and largely beckoned to where the blunt and florid Buller and his companion, with their backs to what they were supposed to be looking at, were exchanging an anecdote of infinite amusement.
Buller's expression came around slowly to his daughter's beckoning hand, but the Englishman's face seemed to flash at the instant from what he was enjoying to what was expected of him. In the flourish of introductions, across and across, Flora found herself thinking the reality less extraordinary than she had at first supposed. Now that Mr. Kerr was fairly before her, presented to her, and taking her in with the same lively, impersonal interest with which he took in the whole room, "as if," she put it vexedly to herself, "I were a specimen poked at him on the end of a pin," it stirred in her a vague resentment; and involuntarily she held him up to Harry. The comparison showed him a little worn, a little battered, a little too perfunctory in manner; but his genial eyes, deep under threatening brows, made Harry's eyes seem to stare rather coldly; and the fine form of his long, plain face, and the sensitive line of his long thin lips made Harry's beauty look,—well, how did it look? Hardly callous.
This mixed impression the two men gave her was disconcerting. She was all the more ready to be wary of the stranger. She had begun with him in the way she did with every one—instinctively throwing out a breastwork of conversation from behind which she could observe the enemy. But though he had blinked at it, he had not taken her up, nor helped her out; but had merely stood with his head a little canted forward, as if he watched her through her defenses.
"But San Francisco must seem so limited after London," she had wound up; and the way he had considered it, a little humorously, down his long nose, made her doubt the interest of cities to be reckoned in round numbers.
"It's all extraordinary," he said. "You're quite as extraordinary in your way as we in ours."
"Oh," she wondered, still vexed with his inventory, "I had always supposed us awfully commonplace. What is our way, please?"
"Ah," he said, measuring his long step to hers as they sauntered a little, "for one thing, you're so awfully good to a fellow. In London"—and he nodded back, as if London were merely across the room—"they're awfully good to the somebodies. It's the way you take in the nobodies over here that is so astonishing—the stray leaves that blow in with your 'trade,' and can't show any credentials but a letter or two, and their faces; and those"—his diablerie danced out again—"sometimes such deucedly damaged ones."
It was almost indecent, this parade of his nonentity! She wanted to say, "Oh, hush! Those are the things one only enjoys—never talks about." But instead, somewhere up at the top of her voice, she said: "Oh, we always lock up our silver!"
"But even then," he quizzed her, "I wonder how you dare to do it?"
"Perhaps we have to, because we ourselves are all—" ("without any credentials but those you mention,") she had been about to say—but there she caught herself on the very edge of giving herself and all the rest of them away to him; "—all so awfully bored," she mischievously ended with the daintiest, faintest possible yawn behind her spread fan.
He looked as if she had taken him by surprise; then laughed out. "Oh, that is the way they don't do here," he provoked her. "You mustn't, when I'm not expecting it."
"Then what are you expecting?" she inquired a little coolly.
"Well," he deliberated, "not expecting you to get me ready for a sweet, and then pop in a pickle; and presently expecting, hoping, anxiously anticipating, what you really care to say."
He was expecting, she looked maliciously, more than he was likely to get; but the fact that he did see through her to that extent was at once delightful and alarming. She swayed back into the shadow beyond the dazzling line of light. She wanted to escape his scrutiny, to be able to look him over from a safe vantage-ground. But he wouldn't have it. An instant he stood under the torrent of white radiance, challenging her to see what she could—then followed her into her retreat. "Shall we sit here?" he said, and she found herself hopelessly cut off and isolated with the enemy.
She couldn't withhold a little grudging pleasure in the sharpness with which he had turned her maneuver, and the way it had detached them from the surrounding crowd. For there, in the dusky center of the room, it was as if they watched from safe covert the rest of their party exposed in the glare of light; though not, as Flora presently noted, quite escaping observation themselves. For an instant Harry turned and peered toward them with a look in his intentness that struck Flora as something new in him, and made her wonder if he could be jealous. She turned tentatively to see if Kerr had noticed it, and surprised his glance in a quick transition back to hers.
"By your leave," he said, and took away her fan, which in his hand presently assumed such rhythmic motion that it ceased to be any more present to her than a delicate current of air upon her face. Her face, which in the first place he had so well looked over, he now looked into with something more personal in his quest, as if under the low brows and crowding lashes there was a puzzle to solve in the timid, unassured glances of such splendid eyes.
He was not, she felt sure, in spite of his light manipulation of her fan, a person who cared to please women, but one of that devastating sort who care above everything to please themselves, and who are skilful without practice; too skilful, she feared, for her defenses to hold out against if he intended to find out what she really thought. "Aren't we supposed to be looking at the pictures?" she wanted to know.
He turned his back on the wall and its attendant glare. "Why pictures," he inquired, "when there are live people to look at? Pictures for places where they're all half dead. But here, where even the damnable dust in the street is alive, why should they paint, or write, or sculpt, or do anything but live?" His irascible brows shot the query at her.
Again the proposition of life—whatever that was—was held up before her, and as ever she faltered in the face of it. "I suppose they do it here," she murmured, with a vague glance at the paintings around her, "because people do it everywhere else."
His disparagement was almost a snarl. "That's the rotten part of it—because they do it everywhere else! As if there wasn't enough monotony in the world already without every chap trying to be like the next instead of being himself!"
"Ah!" Her small, uncertain smile in the midst of her outward splendor was pathetic. "But it is different to you. You're a man. You're not one of us."
"One of what? I'm a man. I'm myself. Which, pardon me, dear lady, is just what you won't be—yourself."
"But if you have to be what people expect?" She clung to her first principle of safety in the midst of this onslaught.
"People don't want what they expect—if you care for that." He waved it away with his quick, white hand.
"But you have to care, unless you want to be queer." Her poor little secret was out before she knew, and he looked at it, laughing immoderately, yet somehow delightfully.
"Ah, if you think the social game is the game that counts! I had expected braver things of you. The game that counts, my girl," he preached it at her with his long white hand, "the game that is going on out here is the big, red game of life. That's the only one that's worth a guinea; and there's no winning or losing, there's no right or wrong to it, and it doesn't matter what a man is in it as long as he's a good one."
"Even if he is a thief?" The question was out of Flora's lips before she could catch it. It was a challenge. She had meant to confound him; but he caught it as if it delighted him.
"Well, what would you think?"
He threw it back at her.
What hadn't she thought! How persistently her fancy had played with the question of what sort of man that one might be who had so wonderfully put his hand under a glass case and drawn out the Chatworth ring. Why, outwardly, he must have been like all the crowd around him, to have escaped unnoticed; but, inwardly, how much superior in power and skill to have so completely overreached them!
"Oh," she laughed dubiously, "I suppose he is a good one as long as he isn't caught."
"What!" His face disowned her. "You think he's a renegade, do you? A chap in perpetual flight, taking things because he has to, more or less pursued by the law? Bah! It's a guild as old, and a deal more honorable, than the beggar's. Your good thief is born to it. It's his caste. It's in his blood. It isn't money that he wants. If he had a million he'd be the same. And it isn't a mania either. It's a profession." The Englishman leaned back and smiled at her over the elegance of his long, joined finger-tips.
She looked at him with a delighted alarm, with an increasing elation; but whether these arose from his lawless declarations and the singular way they kept setting before her more vividly moment by moment the possible character of the present keeper of the Chatworth ring, or whether it was just the sight of Kerr himself as he sat there that stirred her, she didn't try to distinguish.
"But suppose he was your own thief," she urged; "took your own things, I mean," she hastily amended, "and suppose he turned out to be—some one you knew and liked—" She hesitated. She had come at last to what she really wanted to say. She had brought out a question that had been teasing her fancy at intervals all the while he had been talking, and he hadn't even heard it. He wasn't even looking at her. She had caught him off his guard. He was looking across her shoulder straight down the dim vista of the room to the little blaze of bordering light. He was looking at Harry. No, Harry was looking at him. Harry was looking with a steady, an intent gaze, and Kerr meeting it—it might have been merely the blank glare of his monocle—seemed, to Flora, to meet it a little insolently. She fancied in the instant something to pass between the two men, something which, this time, she did not mistake for jealousy—a shade too dim for defiance or suspicion, a deep scrutiny that struggled to place something, some one.
Flora felt a sudden wish to break that curious scrutiny. It had broken her little moment. It had shattered the personal, almost intimate note that had been sounded between them. The look Kerr turned back to her was vague, and stirred in her a dim resentment that he could drop it all so easily.
"Shall we join the others?" It was the voice with which she had begun with him, but her eyes were hot through their light mist of lashes, and he threw her a comprehending glance of amusement.
"Oh, no," he assured her, "we can't help ourselves. They are going to join us."
Ella Buller, in the van of her procession, was already descending upon them. Her approach dissipated the last remnant of their personal moment. Her presence always insisted that there was nothing worth while but instant participation in her geniality, and whatever subject it might at the moment be taken up with. This conviction of Ella's had been wont to overawe Flora, and it still overwhelmed her; so that now, as she followed in the tail of Ella's marshaled force, she had a guilty feeling that there should be nothing in her mind but a normal desire for supper.
Yet all the way down the great stair, "the Corridors of Time," where the white owl glared his glassy wisdom on the passings and counter-passings, she was haunted with the thought that Harry had seen the extraordinary Kerr before; not shaken hands with him, perhaps—perhaps not even heard his name; but somewhere, across some distance, once glimpsed him, and had never quite shaken the memory from his mind. For there was something marked, notable, unforgettable in that lean distinctiveness. Against the sleek form of the men they met and shook hands with, he flashed out—seemed in contrast fairly electric. She saw him, just ahead of her where the crowd was thickening in the door of the supper-room, making way for Clara through the press with that exasperating solicitude of his that was half ironic. And the large broadside offered by her elegant Harry, matter-of-factly towing Ella by the elbow, herself conscious of a curl or two awry, and Judge Buller tramping heavily at her side, all took on to her the aspect of a well-chosen peep-show with the satanic Kerr officiating as showman. Even the smooth and pallid Clara, who usually coerced by her sheer correctness, failed to dominate this fantastic image; rather, she took on, as she was handed into the supper-room, the aspect of his chief exhibit.
The room, hot, polished, flaring reflections of electric lights from its glistening floor, announced itself the heart of high festivity, through the midst of which their entrance made an added ripple. The flushed faces of the women under their flowers, under their pale-tinted hats, with their smiling recognitions to Clara, to Flora, to Ella, smiled with a sharpened interest. It proclaimed that Kerr was a stranger, and, in a circle which found itself a little stale for lack of innovations, a desirable one. Exclamatory greetings, running into skirmishes of talk, here and there halted their progress, and even after they had settled about their table in the center of the room the attention of one and another was drawn over the shoulder to some special, trans-table recognition.
Apparently the dominant note of their party was Ella's clamorous selection for the supper; but to Flora the more real thing was the atmosphere of excitement and mystery she had been moving in all the evening. She was pursued by the obsession of something more about to happen—something imminent—though, of course, nothing would; at least, how could anything happen here, to them? And by "them," she meant herself and these people around her so stupidly talking—the eternal repetition of the story she had read out that evening to Clara, and not one glimmer of light! She wondered if her obsession was all her own—or did it reach to one of them? Certainly not Ella; not Judge Buller, settled into his collar, choosing champagnes. Clara? She had to skip Clara. One never knew whether Clara had not more behind her smooth prettiness than ever she brought to light. Kerr? Perhaps. With him she felt potentialities enormous. Harry? Never. Harry was being appealed to by all the women who could get at him as to his part in the affair—what had been his sensations and emotions? But Flora knew perfectly well he had had none. He was only oppressed by the attention his fame in the matter, and the central position of their table, brought upon him. Protesting, he made his part as small as possible.
"Oh, confound it, if I can't get at my oysters!" he complained, leaning back into his group again with a sigh.
"You divide the honors with the mysterious unknown, eh?" Kerr inquired across the table.
"Hang it, there's no division! I'd offer you a share!" Harry laughed, and it occurred to Flora how much Kerr could have made of it.
"Purdie'd like to share something," Buller vouchsafed. "He's been pawing the air ever since Crew cabled, and this has blown him up completely."
"Crew?" Flora wondered. Here was something more happening. Crew? She had not heard that name before. It made a stir among them all; but if Kerr looked sharp, Clara looked sharper. She looked at Harry and Harry was vexed.
"Who's Crew?" said Ella; and the judge looked around on the silence.
"Why, bless my soul, isn't it—Oh, anyway, it will all be out to-morrow. But I thought Harry'd told you. The Chatworth ring wasn't Bessie's."
It had the effect of startling them all apart, and then drawing them closer together again around the table over the uncorked bottles.
"Why," Judge Buller went on, "this ring is a celebrated thing. It's the 'Crew Idol'!" He threw the name out as if that in itself explained everything, but the three women, at least, were blank.
"Why celebrated?" Clara objected. "The stones were only sapphires."
Kerr smiled at this measure of fame.
"Quite so," he nodded to her, "but there are several sorts of value about that ring. Its age, for one."
He had the attention of the table, as if they sensed behind his words more even than Judge Buller could have told them.
"And then the superstition about it. It's rather a pretty tale," said Kerr, looking at Flora. "You've seen the ring—a figure of Vishnu bent backward into a circle, with a head of sapphire; two yellow stones for the cheeks and the brain of him of the one blue. Just as a piece of carving it is so fine that Cellini couldn't have equaled it, but no one knows when or where it was made. The first that is known, the Shah Jehan had it in his treasure-house. The story is he stole it, but, however that may be, he gave it as a betrothal gift to his wife—possibly the most beautiful"—his eyebrows signaled to Flora his uncertainty of that fact—"without doubt the best-loved woman in the world. When she died it was buried with her—not in the tomb itself, but in the Taj Mehal; and for a century or so it lay there and gathered legends about it as thick as dust. It was believed to be a talisman of good fortune—especially in love.
"It had age; it had intrinsic value; it had beauty, and that one other quality no man can resist—it was the only thing of its kind in the world. At all events, it was too much for old Neville Crew, when he saw it there some couple of hundred years ago. When he left India the ring went with him. He never told how he got it, but lucky marriages came with it, and the Crews would not take the House of Lords for it. Their women have worn it ever since."
For a moment the wonder of the tale and the curious spark of excitement it had produced in the teller kept the listeners silent. Clara was the first to return to facts. "Then Bessie—" she prompted eagerly.
Kerr turned his glass in meditative fingers. "She wore it as young Chatworth's wife." He held them all in an increasing tension, as if he drew them toward him.
"The elder Chatworth, Lord Crew, is a bachelor, but, of course, the ring reverted to him on Chatworth's death."
"And Lord only knows," the judge broke in, "how it got shipped with Bessie's property. Crew was out of England at the time. He kept the wires hot about it, and they managed to keep the fact of what the ring was quiet—but it got out to-day when Purdie found it was gone. You see he was showing it—and without special permission."
Flora had a bewildered feeling that this judicial summing up of facts wasn't the sort of thing the evening had led up to. She couldn't see, if this was what it amounted to, why Harry had changed his mind about telling them at the dinner table. She could not even understand where this belonged in the march of events in their story, but Clara took it up, clipped it out, and fitted it into its place.
"Then there will be pressure—enormous pressure, brought to bear to recover it?"
"Oh-o-oh!" Buller drew out the syllable with unctuous relish. "They'll rip the town inside out. They'll do worse. There'll be a string of detectives across the country—yes, and at intervals to China—so tight you couldn't step from Kalamazoo to Oshkosh without running into one. The thing is too big to be covered. The chap who took it will play a lone game; and to do that—Lord knows there aren't many who could—to do that he'd have to be a—a—"
"Farrell Wand?" Flora flung it out as a challenge among these prosaic people; but the effect of it was even sharper than she had expected. She fancied she saw them all start; that Harry squared himself, that Kerr met it as if he swallowed it with almost a facial grimace; that Judge Buller blinked it hard in the face—the most bothered of the lot. He came at it first in words.
"Farrell Wand?" He felt it over, as if, like a doubtful coin, it might have rung false. "Now, what did I know of Farrell Wand?"
"Farrell Wand?" Kerr took it up rapidly. "Why, he was the great Johnnie who went through the Scotland Yard men at Perth in '94, and got off. Don't you remember? He took a great assortment of things under the most peculiar circumstances—took the Tilton emeralds off Lady Tilton's neck at St. James'."
"Why, Harry, you—" Flora began. "You told us that," was what she had meant to say, but Harry stopped her. Stopped her just with a look, with a nod; but it was as if he had shaken his head at her. His tawny lashes, half drooped over watching eyes, gave him more than ever the look of a great, still cat; a domestic, good-humored cat, but in sight of legitimate prey. Her eyes went back to Kerr with a sense of bewilderment. His voice was still going on, expansively, brilliantly, juggling his subject.
"He knew them all, the big-wigs up in Parliament, the big-wigs on 'Change, the little duchesses in Mayfair, and they all liked him, asked him, dined him, and—great Scott, they paid! Paid in hereditary jewels, or the shock to their decency when the thing came out—but, poor devil, so did he!"
And through it all Buller gloomed unsmiling, with out-thrust underlip.
"No, no," he said slowly, "that's not my connection with Farrell Wand. What happened afterward? What did they do with him?"
Kerr was silent, and Flora thought his face seemed suddenly at its sharpest.
It was Clara who answered with another question. "Didn't he get to the colonies? Didn't he die there?"
Judge Buller caught it with a snap of his fingers. "Got it!" he triumphed, and the two men turned square upon him. "They ran him to earth in Australia. That was the year I was there—'96. I got a snapshot of him at the time."
It was now the whole table that turned on him, and Flora felt, with that unanimous movement, something crucial, the something that she had been waiting for; and yet she could in no way connect it with what had happened, nor understand why Clara, why Harry, why Kerr above all should be so alert. For more than all he looked expectant, poised, and ready for whatever was coming next.
"What sort of a chap?" he mused and fixed the judge a moment with the same stare that Flora remembered to have first confronted her.
"What sort? Sort of a criminal," the judge smiled. "They all look alike."
"Still," Clara suggested, "such a man could hardly have been ordinary—"
"In the chain-gang—oh, yes," said Buller with conviction.
"Oh! Then the picture wasn't worth anything?"
"Why, no," Buller admitted slowly, "though, come to think of it, it wasn't the chain-gang either. They were taking him aboard the ship. The crowd was so thick I hardly saw him, and—only got one shot at him. But the name was a queer one. It stuck in my mind."
"But then," Clara insisted, "what became of him?"
"Oh, gave them the slip," the judge chuckled. "He always did. Reported to have changed ships in mid-ocean. Hal, is that another bottle?"
Harry stretched his hand for it, but it stayed suspended—and, for an instant, it seemed as if the whole table waited expectant. Had Buller's camera caught the clear face of Farrell Wand, or only a dim figure? Flora wondered if that was the question Harry wanted to ask. He wanted—and yet he hesitated, as if he did not quite dare touch it. He laughed and filled the glasses. He had dropped his question, and there was no one at the table who seemed ready to put another.
And yet there were questions there, in all the eyes; but some impassable barrier seemed to have come between these eager people, and what, for incalculable reasons, they so much wanted to know. It was not the genial indifference with which Buller had dropped the subject for the approaching bottle. It seemed rather their own timidity that withheld them from touching this subject which at every turn produced upon some one of the eager three some fresh startling effect the others could not understand. They were restless; Clara notably, even under her calm.
Flora knew she was not giving up the quest of Farrell Wand, but only setting it aside with her unfailing thrift, which saved everything. But why, in this case? And Harry, who had been so merry with the mystery at dinner—why had he suddenly tried to suppress her, to want to ignore the whole business; why had he hesitated over his question, and finally let it fall? And why, above all, was Kerr so brilliantly talking at Ella, in the same way he had begun at Flora herself? Talking at Ella as if he hardly saw her, but like some magician flinging out a brilliant train of pyrotechnics to hypnotize the senses, before he proceeds with his trick. And the way Ella was looking at him—her bewildered alacrity, the way she was struggling with what was being so rapidly shot at her—appeared to Flora the prototype of her own struggle to understand what reality these appearances around her could possibly shadow. Never before had her sense of standing on the outside edge of life been so strong. It seemed as though there were some large, impalpable thing growing in the midst of them, around the edges of which they were tiptoeing, daringly, fearfully, each one for himself. But though it loomed so large that she felt herself in the very shadow of it, rub her eyes as she would, she couldn't see it.
Often enough in the crowds she moved among she had felt herself lonely and not wondered at it. But now and here, sitting among her close, intimate circle, her friends and her lover, it seemed like a horrible obsession—yet it was true. As clear as if it had been shown her in a revelation she saw herself absolutely alone.
ENCOUNTERS ON PARADE
Flora, before the mirror, gaily stabbing in her long hat-pins, confessed to herself that last night had been queer, as queer as queer could be; but this morning, luckily, was real again. Her fancy last night had—yes, she was afraid it really had—run away with her. And she turned and held the hand-mirror high, to be sure of the line of her tilted hat, gave a touch to the turn of her wide, close belt, a flirt to the frills of her bodice.
The wind was lightly ruffling and puffing out the muslin curtains of the windows, and from the garden below came the long, silvery clash of eucalyptus leaves. She leaned on the high window-ledge to look downward over red roofs, over terraced green, over steep streets running abruptly to the broken blue of the bay. She tried to fancy how Kerr would look in this morning sun. He seemed to belong only beneath the high artificial lights, in the thicker atmosphere of evening. Would he return again, with renewed potency, with the same singular, almost sinister charm, as a wizard who works his will only by moonlight? When she should see him again, what, she wondered, would be his extraordinary mood? On what new breathless flights might he not take her—or would he see her at all? It was too fantastic. The sunlight thinned him to an impalpable ghost.
It was Clara, standing at the foot of the stairs, who belonged to the morning, so brisk, so fresh, so practical she appeared. She held a book in her hand. The door, open for her immediate departure, showed, beyond the descent of marble steps, the landau glistening black against white pavements. It was unusual for this formal vehicle to put in an appearance so early.
"I am going to drive over to the Purdies'," Clara explained. "I have an errand there."
Flora smiled at the thought of how many persons would be having errands to the Purdies' now. It was refreshing to catch Clara in this weakness. She felt a throb of it herself when she recalled the breathless moment at the supper table last evening. "Oh, that will be a heavenly drive," she said. "Please ask me to go with you. My errand can wait."
"Why, certainly. I should like to have you," said Clara. But if she had returned a flat "no," Flora would not have had a dryer sense of unwelcome. Still, she had gone too far to retreat. After all, this was only Clara's manner, and her buoyant interest in the expedition was stronger than her diffidence.
Mischievous reflections of the doctrine the Englishman had startled her with the night before flickered in her mind, as they drove from the door. Was this part of "the big red game," not being accommodating, nor so very polite? The streets were still wet with early fog, and, turning in at the Presidio gate, the cypresses dripped dankly on their heads, and hung out cobwebs pearled with dew. She was sure, even under their dripping, that the "damnable dust" was alive.
Down the broad slopes that were swept by the drive all was green to the water's edge. The long line of barracks, the officers' quarters, the great parade-ground, set in the flat land between hills and bay, looked like a child's toy, pretty and little. They heard the note of a bugle, thin and silver clear, and they could see the tiny figures mustering; but in her preoccupation it did not occur to Flora that they were arriving just in time for parade. But when the carriage had crossed the viaduct, and swung them past the acacias, and around the last white curve into the white dust of the parade-ground, Clara turned, as if with a fresh idea.
"Wouldn't you like to stop and watch it?"
"Why, yes," Flora assented. The brilliance of light and color, the precision of movement, the sound of the brasses under the open sky were an intermezzo in harmony with her spirited mood.
The carriage stopped under the scanty shadow of trees that bordered the walk to the officers' quarters. Clara, book in hand, alertly rose.
"I'll just run up to the Purdies' and leave this," she said.
"Then she really did want to be rid of me," Flora mused, as she watched the brisk back moving away; "and how beautifully she has done it!" Her eyes followed Clara's little figure retreating up the neat and narrow board walk, to where it disappeared in overarching depths of eucalyptus trees. Further on, beyond the trees, two figures, smaller than Clara's in their greater distance, were coming down. Flora almost grinned as she recognized the large linen umbrella that Mrs. Purdie invariably carried when abroad in the reservation, and presently the trim and bounding figure of Mrs. Purdie herself, under it. The Purdies were coming down to parade—at least Mrs. Purdie was. But the tall figure beside her—that was not the major. She took up her lorgnon. It was—no it could not be—yet surely it was Harry! Lazy Harry, up and out, and squiring Mrs. Purdie to the review at half-past ten in the morning! "Are we all mad?" Flora thought.
The three little figures, the one going up, the two coming down, touched opposite fringes of the grove—disappeared within it. On which side would they come out together? Flora wondered. They emerged on her side with Harry a little in advance. He came swingingly down the walk, straight toward her, and across the road to the carriage, his hat lifted, his hand out.
"Well, Flora," he said, "this is luck!"
"What in the world has got you out so early?" she rallied him.
"Came out to see Purdie on business, and here you are all ready to drive me back."
"That's your reward."
He brushed his handkerchief over his damp forehead. "Well, there's one coming to me, for I haven't found Purdie."
Her eyes were dancing with mischief. "Harry, I believe you're out here about the Crew Idol, too!"
He shook his head at her, smiling. "I wouldn't talk too much about that, Flora. It flicks poor Purdie on the raw every time that—" His sentence trailed off into something else, for Mrs. Purdie and Clara had come up.
The book had changed hands, together, evidently, with several explanations, and Mrs. Purdie, with her foot on the carriage step, was ready to make one of these over again.
"The major'll be so sorry. He's gone in town. It's so unusual for him to get off at this hour, but he said he had to catch a man. As Mrs. Britton and I were saying, he's likely to be very busy until this dreadful affair is straightened out. If you can only wait a little longer, Mr. Cressy," she went on, "I am expecting him every moment."
"Oh, it's of no importance," said Harry, but he looked at his watch with a fold between his brows, and then at the car that was coming in.
"Well, at least, you'll have time to see the parade," said Mrs. Purdie. "I always think it's a pretty sight, though most of the women get tired of it."
Clara's face showed that she belonged to the latter class; but Flora, too keenly attuned to sounds and sights not to be swayed by outward circumstances, was content for the time to watch, in the cloud of dust, the wheeling platoons and rhythmic columns.
Yet through all—even when she was not looking at him—she was aware of Harry's restlessness, of his impatience; and as the last company swung barrackward, and the cloud began to settle over the empty field, he snapped his watch-case smartly, and remarked, "Still no major."
"Why, there he is now!" Mrs. Purdie screamed, pointing across the parade-ground.
Flora looked. Half-way down on the adjoining side of the parallelogram, back toward her, the redoubtable Kerr was standing. She recognized him on the instant, as if he were the most familiar figure in her life. Yet she was more surprised to see him here than she had been to see Harry. She felt inclined to rub her eyes. It took a moment for her to realize that his companion was indeed Major Purdie.
The major had recognized his wife's signaling umbrella. Now he turned toward it, but Kerr, with a quick motion of hand toward hat, turned in the opposite direction. In her mind Flora was with the major who ran after him. The two men stood for a little, expostulating. Then both walked toward the landau and the linen umbrella.
The carriage group waited, watching with flagging conversation, which finally fell into silence. But the two approaching strolled easily and talked. Even in cold daylight Kerr still gave Flora the impression that the open was not big enough to hold him, but she saw a difference in his mood, a graver eye, a colder mouth, and when he finally greeted them, a manner that was brusk. It showed uncivil beside the major's urbanity.
The major was glad, very glad, to see them all. He was evidently also a little flurried. He seemed to know that they had all met Kerr before. Had it been at the moment of his attempted departure that Kerr had told him, Flora wondered? And had he given them as his excuse for going away? It hurt her; though why should she be hurt because a stranger had not wanted to cross the parade-ground to shake hands with her? He was less interested in her than he was in Harry, at whom he had looked keenly.
But Harry's nervousness had left him, now that Purdie was within his reach. He returned the glance indifferently. He stood close to the major—his hand on his shoulder. The major, with his bland blue eyes twinkling from Clara to Flora, seemed the only man ready to devote himself to the service of the ladies.
"And what's the news from the front?" said Clara gaily. Kerr gave her a rapid glance; but the major blinked as if the allusion had got by him.
"I mean the mystery—the Chatworth ring," she explained. However lightly and sweetly Clara said it, it was a little brazen to fling such a question at poor Purdie, whose responsibility the ring had been.
He received it amicably enough, but conclusively. "No news whatever, my dear Mrs. Britton."
She smiled. "We're all rather interested in the mystery. Flora has made a dozen romances about it."
"Oh, yes, yes," said the major indulgently. "It will do for young ladies to make romances about. It'll be a two days' wonder, and then you'll suddenly find out it's something very tame indeed."
"Why, have they fixed the suspicion?" said Clara.
There was a restless movement from Kerr.
"No, no, nothing of that sort," said the major quickly.
Harry passed his hand through his arm. "May I see you for five minutes, Major?"
The excellent major looked harassed.
"Suppose we all step up to the house," he suggested. "Why, you're not going, man?" he objected, for Kerr had fallen back a step, and, with lifted hat and balanced cane, was signaling his farewells.
"Do let us go up to the house," said Clara. "And Mrs. Purdie, won't you drive up with me? Flora wants to walk."
Flora stood up. She had a confused impression that she had expressed no such desire, and that there was room for three in the landau; but the mental shove that Clara had administered gave her an impetus that carried her out of the carriage before she realized what she was about. Some one had offered a hand to help her, and when she was on the ground she saw it was Kerr, who had come back and was standing beside her. He was smiling quizzically.
"I feel rather like walking, myself," he said. "Do you want a companion?"
She turned to him with gratitude. "I should be glad of one," she said quickly. She was touched. She had not thought he could be so gentle.
Harry was already moving off up the board walk with the major. The carriage was turning. Kerr looked at the backs of the two women being driven away, and then at Flora. "Very good," he said, raising her parasol; "you are the deposed heir, and I am your faithful servant."
"But indeed I do want to walk," she protested, a little shy at the way he read her case.
"But you didn't think of it until she gave you the suggestion, eh?" he quizzed.
"She probably had something to say to Mrs. Purdie that—"
"My dear child," he caught her up earnestly, "don't think I'm criticizing your friend's motive. I am only saying I saw something done that was not pretty, though really, if you will forgive me—it was very funny."
Flora smiled ruefully. "It must have been—absurd. I am afraid I often am. But what else could I have done?"
He seemed to ponder a moment. "I fancy you couldn't have done anything different. That's why I came back for you," he volunteered gaily.
The casual words seemed in her ears fraught with deeper meaning. Her cheeks were hot behind her thin veil. They were strolling slowly up the board walk, and for a moment she could not look at him. She could only listen to the flutter of the fringes of the parasol carried above her head. She felt herself small and stupid. She could not understand what he could see in her to come back to. Then she gave a side glance at him. She saw an unsmiling profile. The lines in his face were indeed extraordinary, but none was hard. She liked that wonderful mobility that had survived the batterings of experience.
As if he were conscious of her eyes, he looked down and smiled; but vaguely. He did not speak; and she was aware that it was at her appearance he had smiled, as if that only reached him through his preoccupation and pleased him. And since he seemed content with this vague looking, she was content to move beside him silent, a mere image of youth and—since he liked it—of prettiness, with a fleeting color and a gust of little curls blowing out under a fluttering veil.
But what was he thinking about so seriously between those smiling glances? Not her problem, she was sure.
Yet he had stayed for her when he had not meant to stay. He had been anxious to get away since he had first sighted them. Surely he must like her more than he disliked some other member of her party. Or had he simply reached forth out of his kindness to rescue her, as he might have rescued a blind kitten that he pitied? "No," he had said, "you could not have done anything different."
They had almost reached the major's gate, and it was now or never to find out what he thought of her. She looked up at him suddenly, with inquiring eyes.
"Do you think I am weak?" she demanded.
The lines of his face broke up into laughter. "No," he said, "I think you are misplaced."
She knitted her brows in perplexity, but his hand was on the white picket gate, and she had to walk through it ahead of him as he set it open for her.
Of their party only the two women were in sight waiting on the diminutive veranda. Clara had a mild domestic appearance, rocking there behind the potted geraniums. All the windows were open into the little shell of a house. Trunks still stood in the hall, though the Purdies had been quartered at the Presidio for nine months. From the rear of the house came the sound of bowl and chopper, where the Chinese cook was preparing luncheon, and the major's man appeared, walking around the garden to the veranda, with a cluster of mint juleps on a copper tray.
In this easy atmosphere, how was it that the thread of restraint ran so sharply defined? Clara and Mrs. Purdie were matching crewels; and, sitting on the top step Flora instructed Kerr as to the composition of the tropical glacier they were drinking. Ten girls had probably so instructed him before, but it would do to fill up the gap. It was so, Flora thought, they were all feeling. Even the carriage, driving slowly round and round the rectangle of officers' row, added its note of restlessness.
Like a stone plumped into a pool the major and Harry reentered this stagnation. They were brisk and buoyant. Harry, especially, had the air of a man who sees stimulating business before him. Immediately all talked at once.
"Now that we've got you here, you must all stay to luncheon," Mrs. Purdie determined.
It looked as if they were about to accept her invitation unanimously, but Harry demurred. He had to be at Montgomery Street and Jackson by one o'clock. "I hoped," he added, glancing at Flora, "that some one was to drive me—part of the way, at least."
Flora, with an unruly sense of disappointment, yet opened her lips for the courteous answer. But Clara was quicker. She rose.
"Yes," she said, "I'll drive you back with pleasure."
Harry's glimmer of annoyance was comic.
"I have to be at the house for luncheon," Clara explained to her hostess as she buttoned her glove, "but there is no reason why Flora shouldn't stay."
"Oh, I should love to," Flora murmured, not knowing whether she was more embarrassed or pleased at this high-handed dispensation which placed her where she wanted to be.
But the way Clara had leaped at her opportunity! Flora looked curiously at Harry.
He seemed uneasy at being pounced upon, but that might be merely because he was balked of a tete-a-tete with herself. For while Clara went on to the gate with their hostess he lingered a moment with Flora.
"May I see you to-night?"
"All you have to do is to come."
She gave him an oblique, upward glance, and had a pleasant sense of power in seeing his face relax and smile. She had a dance for that evening; but she thrust it aside without regret. For suppose Harry should have something to tell her about the Chatworth ring? She wondered if Clara would get it out of him first on the way home.
The four left on the veranda watched the two driving away with a sudden clearing of the social atmosphere. In vain Flora told herself it was only the relief she always felt in getting free of Clara. For in the return of the major's elderly blandishments, in Kerr's kindlier mood, as well as in her own lightened spirits, she had the proofs that, with them all, some tension had relaxed. It seemed to her as if those two, departing, were bearing away between them the very mystery of the Crew Idol.
FLOWERS BY THE WAY
Flora liked this funny little dining-room with walls as frail as box-boards, low-ceiled and flooded with sun. It recalled surroundings she had known later than the mining camp, but long before the great red house. It seemed to her that she fitted here better than the Purdies. She looked across at Kerr, sitting opposite, to see if perhaps he fitted too. But he was foreign, decidedly. He kept about him still the hint of delicate masquerade that she had noticed the night before. Out of doors, alone with her, he had lost it. For a moment he had been absolutely off his guard. And even now he was more off his guard than he had been last night. She was surprised to see him so unstudied, so uncritical, so humorously anecdotal. If she and the major, between them, had dragged him into this against his will he did not show it. She rose from the table with the feeling that in an hour all three of them had become quite old friends of his, though without knowing anything further about him.
"We must do this again," Mrs. Purdie said, as they parted from her in the garden.
"Surely we will," Kerr answered her.
But Flora had the feeling that they never, never would. For him it had been a chance touching on a strange shore.
But at least they were going away together. They would walk together as far as the little car, whose terminal was the edge of the parade-ground. But just outside of the gate he stopped.
"Do you especially like board walks?" he asked.
It was an instant before she took his meaning. Then she laughed. "No. I like green paths."
He waved with his cane. "There is a path yonder, that goes over a bridge, and beyond that a hill."
"And at the top of that another car," Flora reminded him.
"Ah well," he said, "there are flowers on the way, at least." He looked at her whimsically. "There are three purple irises under the bridge. I noticed them as I came down."
She was pleased that he had noticed that for himself—pleased, too, that he had suggested the longer way.
The narrow path that they had chosen branched out upon the main path, broad and yellow, which dipped downward into the hollow. From there came the murmur of water. Green showed through the white grass of last summer. The odor of wet evergreens was pungent in their nostrils. They looked at the delicate fringed acacias, at the circle of hills showing above the low tree-tops, at the cloudless sky; but always their eyes returned to each other's faces, as if they found these the pleasantest points of the landscape. Sauntering between plantations of young eucalyptus, they came to the arched stone bridge. They leaned on the parapet, looking down at the marshy stream beneath and at the three irises Kerr had remarked, knee-deep in swamp ground.
"Now that I see them I suppose I want them," Flora remarked.
"Of course," he assented. "Then hold all these."
He put into her hands the loose bunch of syringa and rose plucked for her in the Purdies' garden, laid his hat and gloves on the parapet; then, with an eye for the better bank, walked to the end of the bridge.
She watched him descending the steep bank and issuing into the broad shallow basin of the stream's way. The sun was still high enough to fill the hollows with warm light and mellow the doubles of trees and grass in the stream. In this landscape of green and pale gold he looked black and tall and angular. The wind blew longish locks of hair across his forehead, and she had a moment's pleased and timorous reflection that he looked like Satan coming into the Garden.
He advanced from tussock to tussock. He came to the brink of the marsh. The lilies wavered what seemed but a hand's-breadth from him. But he stooped, he reached—Oh, could anything so foolish happen as that he could not get them! Or, more foolish still, plunge in to the knees! He straightened from his fruitless effort, drew back, but before she could think what he was about he had leaned forward again, flashed out his cane, and with three quick, cutting slashes the lilies were mown. It was deftly, delicately, astonishingly done, but it gave her a singular shock, as if she had seen a hawk strike its prey. He drew them cleverly toward him in the crook of his cane, took them up daintily in his fingers, and returned to her across the shallow valley. She waited him with mixed emotions.
"Oh, how could you!" she murmured, as he put them into her hand.
He looked at her in amused astonishment. "Why, aren't they right?"
They were as clean clipped off and as perfect as if the daintiest hand had plucked them.
"Oh, yes," she admitted, "they're lovely, but I don't like the way you got them."
"I took the means I had," he objected.
"I don't think I like it."
His whole face was sparkling with interest and amusement. "Is that so? Why not?"
"You're too—too"—she cast about for the word—"too terribly resourceful!"
"I see," he said. If she had feared he would laugh, it showed how little she had gauged the limits of his laughter. He only looked at her rather more intently than he had before.
"But, my good child, resourcefulness is a very natural instinct. I am afraid you read more into it than is there. You wanted the flowers, I had a stick, and in my youth I was taught to strike clean and straight. I am really a very simple fellow."
Looking him in the eyes, which were of a clear, candid gray, she was ready to believe it. It seemed as if he had let her look for a moment through his manner, his ironies, his armor of indifference, to the frank foundations of his nature.
"But, you see, the trouble is you don't in the least look it," she argued.
"So you think because I have a long face and wild hair that I am a sinister person? My dear Miss Gilsey, the most desperate character I ever knew was five feet high and wore mutton-chop whiskers. It is an uncertain business judging men by their appearance."
She could not help smiling. "But most people do."
"I don't class you with most people."
She gave him a quick look. "You did the first night."
"Possibly—but less and less ever since. You have me now in the state of mind where I don't know what you'll be at next."
This was fortunate, she thought, since she had not the least idea herself, beyond a teasing desire to find out more about him. He had shown her many fleeting phases which, put together, seemed contradictory. She could not connect this man, so mild and amusing, strolling beside her, with the alert, whetted, combative person of the night before, or even with the aloof and reticent figure on the parade-ground. His very attitude toward herself had changed from the amused scrutiny of the first night into something more indulgent, more sympathetic. There was only one attitude on his part that had remained the same—one attitude toward one person—and her mind hovered over this. On each occasion it had stirred her curiosity and, though she had not admitted it, made her uneasy. Why not probe him on the subject, now that she had him completely to herself? But as soon as silence fell between them she saw that wave of preoccupation which had submerged him during their walk from the parade-ground to the Purdies' rising over him again and floating him away from her. He no longer even looked at her. His eyes were on the ground, and it was not until they had crossed the open expanse of the shallow valley and were climbing toward the avenue of cypress that she found courage to put her question.