THE DUST FLOWER
BOOKS BY BASIL KING —————————————— The Dust Flower The Empty Sack Going West The City of Comrades Abraham's Bosom The Lifted Veil The Side of the Angels The Letter of the Contract The Way Home The Wild Olive The Inner Shrine The Street Called Straight Let No Man Put Asunder In the Garden of Charity The Steps of Honor The High Heart —————————————— HARPER & BROTHERS Established 1817
THE DUST FLOWER
By BASIL KING
Author of "THE EMPTY SACK" "THE INNER SHRINE" ETC.
With Illustrations by HIBBARD V. B. KLINE
Publishers Harper & Brothers New York and London MCMXXII
THE DUST FLOWER
Copyright, 1922 Harper & Brothers Printed in the U. S. A.
First Edition H-W
PAGE THEN SLOWLY, SLOWLY LETTY SANK ON HER KNEES, BOWING HER HEAD ON THE HANDS WHICH DREW HER CLOSER Frontispiece
BY THE TIME HE HAD FINISHED, HIS HEART WAS A LITTLE EASED AND SOME OF HER TENDERNESS BEGAN TO FLOW TOWARD HIM Facing page 68
THE PRINCE'S FIRST WORDS WERE ALSO A DISTRACTION FROM TERRORS, AND ENCHANTMENTS WHICH MADE HER FEEL FAINT Facing page 230
"BUT BY AND BY I CREEPS OUT AND DOWN THE STEPS, AND THERE 'E WAS, ALL 'UDDLED EVERY WYE" Facing page 328
THE DUST FLOWER
It is not often that you see a man tear his hair, but this is exactly what Rashleigh Allerton did. He tore it, first, because of being under the stress of great agitation, and second, because he had it to tear—a thick, black shock with a tendency to part in the middle, but brushed carefully to one side. Seated on the extreme edge of one of Miss Walbrook's strong, slender armchairs, his elbows on his knees, he dug his fingers into the dark mass with every fresh taunt from his fiancee.
She was standing over him, high-tempered, imperious. "So it's come to this," she said, with decision; "you've got to choose between a stupid, vulgar lot of men, and me."
He gritted his teeth. "Do you expect me to give up all my friends?"
"All your friends! That's another matter. I'm speaking of half a dozen profligates, of whom you seem determined—I must say it, Rash; you force me to it—of whom you seem determined to be one."
He jumped to his feet, a slim, good-looking, well-dressed figure in spite of the tumbled effect imparted by excitement. "But, good heavens, Barbara, what have I been doing?"
"I don't pretend to follow you there. I only know the condition in which you came here from the club last night."
He was honestly bewildered. "Came here from the club last night? Why—why, I wasn't so bad."
Standing away from him, she twirled the engagement solitaire as if resisting the impulse to snatch it off. "That would be a question of point of view, wouldn't it? If Aunt Marion hadn't been here——"
"I'd only had——"
"Please, Rash! I don't want to know the details."
"But I want you to know them. I've told you a dozen times that if I take so much as a cocktail or a glass of sherry I'm all in, when another fellow can take ten times as much and not——"
"Rash, dear, I haven't known you all my life without being quite aware that you're excitable. 'Crazy Rash' we used to call you when we were children, and Crazy Rash you are still. But that's not my point."
"Your point is that that infernal old Aunt Marion of yours doesn't like me."
"She's not infernal, and she's not old, but it's true that she doesn't like you. All the more reason, then, that when she gave her consent to our engagement on condition that you'd give up your disgusting habits——"
He raced away from her to the other side of the room, turning to face her like an exasperated animal at bay.
The room was noteworthy, and of curiously feminine refinement. Expressing Miss Marion Walbrook as it did, it made no provision for the coarse and lounging habits of men, Miss Walbrook's world being a woman's world. All was straight, slender, erect, and hard in the way that women like for occasions of formality. It was evident, too, that Miss Walbrook's women friends were serious, if civilized. There was no place here for the slapdash, smoking girl of the present day.
The tone which caught your eye was that of dusky gold, thrown out first from the Chinese rug in imperial yellow, but reflected from a score of surfaces in rich old satinwood, discreetly mounted in ormolu. On the French-paneled walls there was but one picture, Sargent's portrait of Miss Walbrook herself, an exquisite creature, with the straight, thin lines of her own table legs and the grace which makes no appeal to men. Not that she was of the type colloquially known as a "back number," or a person to be ignored. On the contrary, she was a pioneer of the day after to-morrow, the herald of an epoch when the blundering of men would be replaced by superior intelligence.
You must know these facts with regard to Miss Walbrook, the aunt, in order to understand Miss Walbrook, the niece. The latter was not the pupil of the former, since she was too intense and high-handed to be the pupil of anyone. Nevertheless she had caught from her wealthy and public-spirited relative certain prepossessions which guided her points of view.
Without having beauty, Miss Barbara Walbrook impressed you as Someone, and as Someone dressed by the most expensive houses in New York. For beauty her lips were too full, her eyes too slanting, and her delicate profile too much like that of an ancient Egyptian princess. The princess was perhaps what was most underscored in her character, the being who by some indefinable divine right is entitled to her own way. She didn't specially claim her way; she only couldn't bear not getting it.
Rashleigh Allerton, being of the easy-going type, had no objection to her getting her own way, but he sometimes rebelled against her manner of taking it. So rebelling now, he tried to give her to understand that he was master.
"If you marry me, Barbe, you'll have to take me as I am—disgusting habits and all."
It was the wrong tone, the whip to the filly that should have been steered gently.
"But I suppose there's no law to compel me to marry you."
"Only the law of honor."
Her whole personality was aflame. "You talk of honor!"
"Yes I talk of it. Why shouldn't I?"
"Do you know anything about it?"
"Would you marry a man who didn't?"
"I haven't married any one—as yet."
"But you're going to marry me, I presume."
"Considering the facts, that's a good deal in the way of presumption, isn't it?"
They reached the place to which they came once in every few weeks, where each had the impulse to hurt the other cruelly.
"If it's so much presumption as all that," he demanded, "what's the meaning of that ring?"
"Oh, I don't have to go on wearing it." Crossing the room she pulled it off and held it out toward him "Do you want it back?"
He shrank away from her. "Don't be a fool Barbe. You may go too far."
"That's what I'm afraid of—that I've gone too far already."
"In what way?"
"In the way that's brought us face to face like this. If I'd never promised to marry you I shouldn't now have to—to reconsider."
"Oh, so that's it. You're reconsidering."
"Don't you see that I have to? If you make me as unhappy as you can before marriage, what'll it be afterward?"
"And how happy are you making me?"
Holding the ring between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, she played at putting it back, without doing it. "So there you are! Isn't that another reason for reconsidering—for both of us?"
"Don't you care anything about me?"
"You make it difficult—after such an exhibition as that of last night, right before Aunt Marion. Can't you imagine that there are situations in which I feel ashamed?"
It was then that he spoke the words which changed the current of his life. "And can't you imagine that there are situations in which I resent being badgered by a bitter-tongued old maid, to say nothing of a girl——" He knew how "crazy" he was, but the habit of getting beyond his own control was one of long standing—"to say nothing of a girl who's more like an old maid than a woman going to be married."
With a renewed attempt at being master he pointed at the ring which she was still holding within an inch of its finger. "Put that back."
"I think not."
"Then if you don't——"
Plunging his hands into the pockets of his coat, he began tearing up and down the room. "Look here, Barbe. This kind of thing can't possibly go on."
"Which is what I'm trying to tell you, isn't it?"
"Very well, then; we can stop it."
"Certainly—in one way."
"The way of getting married, with no more shilly-shallying about it."
"On the principle that if you're hanging over a precipice the best thing you can do is to fall."
He continued to race up and down the room, all nerves and frenzy. "Don't we care about each other?"
She answered carefully. "I think you care about me to the extent that you believe I'd make a good mistress of the house your mother left you, and which, you say, is like an empty sepulcher. If you didn't have it on your hands, I don't imagine it would have occurred to you to ask me."
"Well, that's all right. Now what about you?"
"You've already answered that question for yourself." She stiffened haughtily. "I'm an old maid. I haven't been brought up by Aunt Marion for nothing. I've an old maid's ways and outlooks and habits. I resented your saying it a minute ago, and yet it's true. I've known for years that it was true. It wouldn't be fair for me to marry any man. So here it is, Rash." Crossing the floor-space she held out the ring again. "You might as well take it first as last."
He drew back from her, his features screwed up like those of a tragic mask. "Do you mean it?"
"Do I seem to be making a joke?"
Averting his face, he swept the mere sight of the ring away from him. "I won't touch the thing."
"And I can't keep it. So there!"
It fell with a little shivery sound to a bare spot on the floor, rolling to the edge of a rug, where it stopped. Each looked down at it.
"So you mean to send me to the devil! All right! Just watch and you'll see me go."
She was walking away from him, but turned again. "If you mean by that that you put the responsibility for your abominable life on me——"
"Abominable life! Me! Just because I'm not one of the white-blooded Nancies which your aunt thinks the only ones fit to be called men——"
But he couldn't go on. He was choking. The sole relief to his indignation was in once more tearing round the room, while Miss Walbrook moved to the fluted white mantelpiece, where, with her foot resting on the attenuated Hunt Diedrich andirons she bowed her head against an attenuated Hunt Diedrich antelope in bronze.
She was not softened or repentant. She knew she would become so later; but she knew too that her tempers had to work themselves off by degrees. Their quarrels having hitherto been rendered worth while by their reconciliations, she took it for granted that the same thing would happen once more though, as she expressed it to herself, she would have died before taking the first step. The obvious thing was for him to pick up the ring from off the floor, bring it to her humbly while her back was turned on him, and beseech her to allow him to slip it on where it belonged; whereupon she would consider as to whether she would do so or not. In her present frame of mind, so she told herself, she would not. Nothing would induce her to do anything of the kind. He had betrayed the fact that he knew something as to which she was desperately sensitive, which other people knew, but which she had always supposed to have escaped his observation—that she was like an old maid.
She was. She was only twenty-five, but she had been like an old maid at fifteen. It had been a joke till she was twenty, after which it had continued as a joke to her friends, but a grief to herself. She was distinguished, aristocratic, intellectual, accomplished, and Aunt Marion would probably see to it that she was left tolerably well off; nevertheless she had picked up from her aunt, or perhaps had inherited from the same source, the peculiar quality of the woman who would probably not marry. Because she knew it and bewailed it, it had come like a staggering blow to learn that Rash knew it, and perhaps bewailed it too. The least he could do to atone for that offense would be to beg her, to implore her on his bended knees, to wear his ring again; and she might not do it even then.
The dramatic experience was worth waiting for, however, and so with spirit churning she leaned her hot brow against the thin, cool flank of Hunt Diedrich's antelope. She knew by the fierce grinding of his steps on the far side of the room that he hadn't yet picked up the ring; but there was no hurry as to that. Since she would never, never forgive him for knowing what she thought he didn't know—forgive him in her heart, that was to say—not if she married him ten times over, or to the longest day he lived, there was plenty of time for reaching friendly terms again. Her anger had not yet blown off, nor had she stabbed him hard enough. As with most people subject to storms of hot temper, stabs, given and received, were all in her day's work. They relieved for the moment the pressure of emotion, leaving no permanent ill-will behind them.
She heard him come to a halt, but did not turn to look at him.
"So it's all over!"
As a peg on which to hang a retort the words would serve as well as any others. "It seems so, doesn't it?"
"And you don't care whether I go to the devil or not?"
"What's the good of my caring when you seem determined to do it anyhow?"
He allowed a good minute to pass before saying, "Well, if you don't marry me some other woman will."
"Very likely; and if you make her a promise to reform I hope you'll keep your word."
"She won't be likely to exact any such condition."
"Then you'll probably be happier with her than you could have been with me."
Having opened up the way for him to make some protest to which she could have remained obdurate, she waited for it to come. But nothing did come. Had she turned, she would have seen that he had grown white, that his hands were clenched and his lips compressed after a way he had and that his wild, harum-scarum soul was worked up to an extraordinary intensity; but she didn't turn. She was waiting for him to pick up the ring, creep along behind her, and seize the hand resting on the mantelpiece, according to the ritual she had mentally foreordained. But without stooping or taking a step he spoke again.
"I picked up a book at the club the other day."
Not being interested, she made no response.
"It was the life of an English writing-guy."
Though wondering what he was working up to, she still held her peace.
"Gissing, the fellow's name was. Ever hear of him?"
The question being direct, she murmured: "Yes; of course. What of it?"
"Ever hear how he got married?"
"Not that I remember."
"When something went wrong—I've forgotten what—he went out into the street with a vow. It was a vow to marry the first woman he met who'd marry him."
A shiver went through her. It was just such a foolhardy thing as Rashleigh himself was likely to attempt. She was afraid. She was afraid, and yet reangered just when her wrath was beginning to die down.
"And he did it!" he cried, with a force in which it was impossible for her not to catch a note of personal implication.
It was unlikely that he could be trying to trap her by any such cheap melodramatic threat as this; and yet——
When several minutes had gone by in a silence which struck her soon as awesome, she turned slowly round, only to find herself alone.
She ran into the hall, but there was no one there. He must have gone downstairs. Leaning over the baluster, she called to him.
But only Wildgoose, the manservant, answered from below. "Mr. Allerton had just left the 'ouse, miss."
While Allerton and Miss Walbrook had been conducting this debate a dissimilar yet parallel scene was enacted in a mean house in a mean street on the other side of the Park. Viewed from the outside, the house was one of those survivals of more primitive times which you will still run across in the richest as well as in the poorest districts of New York. A tiny wooden structure of two low stories, it connected with the sidewalk by a flight of steps of a third of the height of the whole facade. Flat-roofed and clap-boarded, it had once been painted gray with white facings, but time, weather, and soot had defaced these neat colors to a hideous pepper-and-salt.
Within, a toy entry led directly to a toy stairway, and by a door on the left into a toy living-room. In the toy living-room a man of forty-odd was saying to a girl of perhaps twenty-three,
"So you'll not give it up, won't you?"
The girl cringed as the man stood over her, but pressing her hand over something she had slipped within the opening at the neck of her cheap shirtwaist, she maintained her ground. The face she raised to him was at once terrified and determined, tremulous with tears and yet defiant with some new exercise of will power.
"No, I'll not give it up."
He said it quietly enough, the menace being less in his tone than in himself. He was so plainly the cheap sport bully that there could have been nothing but a menace in his personality. Flashy male good looks got a kind of brilliancy from a set of big, strong teeth the whiter for their contrast with a black, brigand-like mustache. He was so well dressed in his cheap sport way as to be out of keeping with the dilapidation of the room, in which there was hardly a table or a chair which stood firmly on its legs, or a curtain or a covering which didn't reek with dust and germs. A worn, thin carpet gaped in holes; what had once been a sofa stood against a wall, shockingly disemboweled. Through a door ajar one glimpsed a toy kitchen where the stove had lost a leg and was now supported by a brick. It was plain that the master of the house was one of those for whom any lair is sufficient as a home as long as he can cut a dash outside.
Quiveringly, as if in terror of a blow, the girl explained herself breathlessly: "The castin' director sent for me just as I was makin' tracks for home. He ast me if this was the on'y suit I had. When I 'lowed it was, he just said he couldn't use me any more till I got a new one."
The man took the tone of superior masculine knowledge. "That wasn't nothin' but bull. What if he does chuck you? I know every movin' picture studio round N'York. I'll get you in somewheres else. Come now, Letty. Fork out. I need the berries. I owe some one. I was only waitin' for you to come home."
She clutched her breast more tightly. "I gotta have a new suit anyhow."
"Well, I'll buy you a new suit when I get the bones. Didn't I give you this one?"
She continued, still breathlessly: "Two years ago—a marked-down misses' it was even then—all right if I was on'y sixteen—but now when I'm near twenty-three—and it's in rags anyhow—and all out of style—and in pitchers you've gotta be——"
"They'se plenty pitchers where they want that character—to pass in a crowd, and all that."
"To pass in a crowd once or twice, yes; but when all you can do is to pass in a crowd, and wear the same old rig every time you pass in it——"
He cut her protests short by saying, with an air of finality: "Well, anyhow I've got to have the bucks. Can't go out till I get 'em. So hand!"
With lips compressed and eyes swimming, she shook her head.
"Better do it. You'll be sorry if you don't. I can pass you that tip straight now."
"If you was laughed at every time you stepped onto the lot——"
"There's worse things than bein' laughed at. I can tell you that straight now."
"Nothin's worse than bein' laughed at, not for a girl of my age there ain't."
Watching his opportunity he caught her off her guard. Her eyes having wandered to the coat she had just taken off, a worn gray thing with edgings of worn gray squirrel fur, he wrenched back with an unexpected movement the hand that clutched something to her breast, thrust two fingers of his other hand within her corsage, and extracted her pay-envelope.
It took her by such surprise that she was like a mad thing, throwing herself upon him and battling for her treasure, though any possibility of her getting it back from him was hopeless. It was so easy for him to catch her by the wrists and twist them that he laughed while he was doing it.
"You little cat! You see what you bring on yourself. And you're goin' to get worse. I can tell you that straight now."
Still twisting her arms till she writhed, though without a moan or a cry, he backed her toward the disemboweled sofa, on whose harsh, exposed springs she fell. Then he sprang on her a new surprise.
"How dare you wear them rings? They was your mother's rings. I bought and paid for 'em. They're mine."
"Oh, don't take them off," she begged. "You can keep the money——"
"Sure I can keep the money," he grinned, wrenching from her fingers the plain gold band he had given her mother as a wedding ring, as well as another, bigger, broader, showier, and set with two infinitesimal white points claiming to be diamonds.
Though he had released her hands, she now stretched them out toward him pleadingly. "Aw, give 'em back to me. They'se all I've got in the world to care about—just because she wore 'em. You can take anything else I've got——"
"All right, then. I'll take this."
With a deftness which would have done credit to a professor of legerdemain he unbuckled the strap of her little wrist-watch, putting the thing into his pocket.
"I give that to your mother too. You don't need it, and it may be useful to me. What else have you got?"
She struggled to her feet. He was growing more dangerous than she had ever known him to be even when he had beaten her.
"I ain't got nothin' else."
"Oh, yes, you have. You gotta purse. I seen you with it. Where is it?"
The fear in her eyes sent his toward her jacket, thrown on the chair when she had come in. With an "Ah!" of satisfaction he pounced on it. As he held it upside down and shook it, a little leather wallet clattered to the floor. She sprang for it, but again he was too quick for her.
"So!" he snarled, with his glittering grin. "You thought you'd get it, did you?" He rattled the few coins, copper and silver, into the palm of his hand, and unfolded a one-dollar bill. "You must owe me this money. Who's give you bed and board for the last ten year, I'd like to know? How much have you ever paid me?"
"Only all I ever earned—which you stole from me."
"Stole from you, did I? Well, you won't fling that in my face any more." He handed her her coat. "Put that on," he commanded.
"What for?" She held it without obeying the order. "What's the good o' goin' out and me without a cent?"
"Put it on."
Her lip quivered; she began to suspect his intention. "I do' wanta."
"Oh, very well! Please yourself. You got your hat on already." Seizing her by the shoulders he steered her toward the door. "Now march."
Though she refused to march, it was not difficult for him to force her.
"This'll teach you to valyer a good home when you got one. You'll deserve to find the next one different."
She almost shrieked: "You're not going to turn me out?"
"Well, what does it look as if I was doin'?"
"I won't go! I won't go! Where can I go?"
"What I'm doin' 'll help you to find out."
He had her now in the entry, where in spite of her struggles he had no difficulty in unlocking the door, pushing her out, and relocking the door behind her.
"Lemme in! Lemme in! Oh, please, lemme in!"
He stood in the middle of the living-room, listening with pleasure and smiling his brigand's smile. He was not as bad as you might think. He did mean to let her in eventually. His smile and his pleasure sprang purely from the fact that his lesson was so successful. With this in her mind, she wouldn't withstand him a second time.
She rattled the door by the handle. She beat upon the panels. She implored.
Still smiling, he filled his pipe. Let her keep it up. It would do her good. He remembered that once when he had turned her mother out at night, she had sat on the steps till he let her in at dawn before the police looked round that way. History would repeat itself. The daughter would do the same. He was only giving her the lesson she deserved.
Meanwhile she was experiencing a new sensation, that of outrage. For the first time in her life she was swept by pride in revolt. She hadn't known that any such emotion could get hold of her. As a matter of fact she hadn't known that so strong a support to the inner man lay within the depths of human nature. Accustomed to being cowed, she had hardly understood that there was any other way to feel. Only within a day or two had something which you or I would have called spirit, but for which she had no name, disturbed her with unexpected flashes, like those of summer lightning.
While waiting for the camera, for instance, in the street scene in "The Man with the Emerald Eye," a "fresh thing" had said, with a wink at her companions, "Say, did you copy that suit from a pattern in Chic?"
Letty had so carefully minded her own business and tried to be nice to every one that the titter which went round at her expense hurt her with a wound impelling her to reply, "No; I ordered it at Margot's. You look as if you got your things there too, don't you?" Nevertheless, she was so stung by the sarcasm that the commendation she overheard later, that the Gravely kid had a tongue, didn't bring any consolation.
Without knowing that what she felt now was an intensified form of the same rebellion against scorn, she knew it was not consistent with some inborn sense of human dignity to stand there pleading to be let into a house from which she was locked out, even though it was the only spot on earth she could call home. Still less was it possible when, round the foot of the steps, a crowd began to gather, jeering at her passionate beseechings. For the most part they were children, Slavic, Semitic, Italian. Amid their cries of, "Go it, Sis!" now in English and now in strange equivalents of Latin, or Polish, or even Hebraic origin, she was suddenly arrested by the consciousness of personal humiliation.
She turned from the door to face the street. It was one of those streets not rare in New York which the civic authorities abandon in despair. A gash of children and refuse cut straight from river to Park, it got its chief movement from push-carts of fruit and other foods, while the "wash" of five hundred families blew its banners overhead. Vendors of all kinds uttered their nasal or raucous cries, in counterpoint to the treble screams of little boys and girls.
Letty had always hated it, but it was something more than hatred which she felt for it now. Beyond the children adults were taking a rest from the hawking profession to comment with grins on the sight of a girl locked out of her own home. She was probably a very bad girl to call for that kind of treatment, and therefore one on whom they should spend some derision.
They were spending it as she turned. It was an experience on a large scale of what the girl in the studio had inflicted. She was a thing to be scorned, and of all the hardships in the world scorn, now that she was aware of it, was the one she could least submit to.
So pride came to her rescue. Throwing her coat across her arm she went down the steps, passed through the hooting children, one or two of whom pulled her by the skirt, passed through the bearded Jews, and the bronzed Italians, and the flat-nosed Slavs, passed through the women who had come out on the sidewalk at this accentuation of the daily din, passed through the barrows and handcarts and piles of cabbages and fruit, and went her way.
Exactly at this minute Rashleigh Allerton was standing outside Miss Walbrook's door, glancing up and down Fifth Avenue and over at the Park. It was the hour after luncheon when pedestrians become numerous. For his purpose they could not be very numerous; they must be reasonably spaced apart.
And already a veritable stream of women had begun to flow down the long, gentle slope, while a few, like fish, were stemming the current by making progress against it. None of them was his "affair." Young, old, short, tall, blond, brunette, they were without exception of the class indiscriminately lumped as ladies. Since you couldn't go to the devil because you had married a lady, even on the wild hypothesis that one of these sophisticated beings would without introduction or formality marry him, it would be better not to let himself in for the absurdity of the proposal. When there was a break in the procession, he darted across the street and made his way into the Park.
Here there was no one in sight as far as the path continued without a bend. He was going altogether at a venture. Round the curve of the woodland way there might swing at any second the sibyl who would point his life downward.
He was aware, however, that in sibyls he had a preference. If she was to send him to the devil, she must be of the type which he qualified as a "drab." Without knowing the dictionary meaning of the word, he felt that it implied whatever would contrast most revoltingly with Barbara Walbrook. Seeing with her own eyes to what she had driven him, her heart would be wrung. That was all he asked for, the wringing of her heart. It might be a mad thing for him to punish himself so terribly just to punish her, but he was mad anyhow. Madness gave him the satisfaction which some men got from thrift, and others from cleverness. He would keep the vow with which he had slipped out of Miss Walbrook's drawing room. It was all that life had left for him.
That was, he wouldn't pick and choose. He would take them as they came. He had not stipulated with himself that she must be a "drab." It was only what he hoped. She must be the first woman he met who would marry him. Age, appearance, refinement, vulgarity were not to be considered. Picking and choosing on his part would only take his destiny out of the hands of Fate, where he preferred that it should lie.
Had any one passed him, he would have seemed the more perturbed because of his being so well-dressed. He was one of the few New Yorkers as careful of appearances as many Londoners. With the finish that comes of studied selection in hat, stick, and gloves, as well as all small accessories of the costliest, he might have been going to or coming from a wedding.
He was imposing, therefore, to a short, stout, elderly woman with whom he suddenly found himself face to face as the path took a sharp sweep to the south. The shrubs which had kept them hidden from each other gave place here to open stretches of lawn. When Allerton paused and lifted his hat, the woman naturally paused, too.
She was a red-faced woman crowned with a bonnet of the style introduced by Mrs. Langtry in 1878, but worn on this occasion some degrees off center. On her arm she carried a flat basket of which the contents, decently covered with a towel, might have been freshly laundered shirts. Being stopped by a gentleman of Allerton's impressiveness and plainly suffering expression, her face grew motherly and sympathetic.
"Madam, I wish to ask if you'll marry me?"
Even a dull brain couldn't fail to catch words hammered out with this force of precision. The woman didn't wait to have them repeated. Dropping her basket as it was, she took to flight. Flight was the word. A modern Atalanta of Wellesley or Bryn Mawr might have envied the chamois leaps which took the good creature across the grass to the protection of a man with a lawn-mower.
Allerton couldn't pause to watch her, for a new sibyl was advancing. To his disgust rather than not, she was young and pretty, a nursemaid pushing a baby-cart into which a young man of two was strapped. While far more likely to take him than the stout old party still skipping the greensward like a mountain roe, she would be much less plausible as a reason for going to the evil one. But a vow was a vow, and he was in for it.
His approach was the same as on the previous occasion. Lifting his hat ceremoniously, he said with the same distinctness of utterance, "Madam, I wish to ask if you'll marry me?"
The girl, who had paused when he did, leaned on the pusher of her go-cart, studying him calmly. Chewing something with a slow, rotary movement of the lips and chin, she broke the action with a snap before quite completing the circle, to begin all over again. "Oh, you do, do you?" was her quiet response.
"If you please."
She studied him again, with the same semi-circular motion of the jaw. She might have been weighing his proposal.
"Say, is this one of them club initiation stunts, or have you just got a noive?"
"Am I to take that as a yes or a no?"
"And am I to take you as one of them smart-Alecks, or a coily-headed nut?"
He saw a way out. "I'm generally considered a curly-headed nut."
"Then it's me for the exit-in-case-of-fire, so ta-ta." She laughed back at him over her shoulder. "Wish you luck with your next."
But fate was already on him in another form. A lady of fifty or thereabouts was coming up the path, refined, sedate, mistress of herself, the one type of all others most difficult to accost. All the same he must do it. He must keep on doing it till some one yielded to his suit. The rebuffs to which he had been subjected did no more than inflame his will.
Approaching the new sibyl with the same ceremoniousness, he repeated the same words in the same precise tone. The lady stood off, eyed him majestically through a lorgnette, and spoke with a force which came from quietude.
"I know who you are. You're Rashleigh Allerton. You ought to be ashamed with a shame that would strike you to the ground. I'm a friend of Miss Marion Walbrook's. I'm on my way to see her and shall not mention this encounter. We work on the same committee of the League for the Suppression of Men's Clubs. The lamentable state in which I see you convinces me once more of the need of our work, if our men are to become as we hope to see them. I bid you a good afternoon."
With the dignity of a queen she passed on and out of sight, leaving him with the sting of a whiplash on his face.
But the name of Miss Walbrook, connected with that of the League which was her pet enthusiasm for the public weal, only served as an incitement. He would go through with it now at any cost. By nightfall he would be at police-headquarters for insulting women, or he would have found a bride.
Walking on again, the path was clear before him as far as he could see. Having thus a few minutes to reflect, he came to the conclusion that his attacks had been too precipitate. He should feel the ground before him, leading the sibyl a little at a time, so as to have her mentally prepared. There were methods of "getting acquainted" to which he should apply himself first of all.
But getting acquainted with the old Italian peasant woman, bowed beneath a bundle, who was the next he would have to confront, being out of the question, he resolved to side-step destiny by slipping out of the main path and following a branch one. Doing so, he came into less frequented regions, while his steps took him up a low hill burnished with the tints of mid-October. Trees and shrubs were flame-colored, copper-colored, wine-colored, differing only in their diffuseness of hue from the concentrated gorgeousness of amaranth, canna, and gladiolus. The sounds of the city were deadened here to a dull rumble, while the vibrancy of the autumn afternoon excited his taut nerves.
At the top of the hill he paused. There was no one in sight who could possibly respond to his quest. He wondered for a second if this were not a hint to him to abandon it. But doing that he would abandon his revenge, and by abandoning his revenge he would concede everything to this girl who had so bitterly wronged him. Ever since he could remember they had been pals, and for at least ten years he had vaguely thought of asking her to marry him when it came to his seeking a wife. It was true, the hint she had thrown out, that he had felt himself in no great need of a wife till his mother had died some eighteen months previously, and he had found himself with a cumbrous old establishment on his hands. That had given the decisive turn to his suit. He had asked her. She had taken him. And since then, in the course of less than ten weeks, if they had had three quarrels they had had thirty. He had taken them all more or less good-naturedly—till to-day. To-day was too much. He could hardly say why it was too much, unless it was as the last straw, but he felt it essential to his honor to show her by actual demonstration the ruin she had made of him.
Looking about him for another possibility, he noticed that at the spot where the path, having serpentined down the little hillside, rejoined the main footway there was a bench so placed that its occupant would have a view along several avenues at once. Since it was obviously a vantage point for such strategy as his, he had taken the first steps down toward it when a little gray figure emerged from behind a group of blue Norway spruces. She went dejectedly to the bench, sitting down at an extreme end of it.
Wrought up to a fit of tension far from rare with him, Allerton stood with his nails digging into his clenched palms and his thin lips pressed together. He was sure he was looking at a "drab." All the shoddy, outcast meanings he had read into the word were under the bedraggled feathers of this battered black hat or compressed within the forlorn squirrel-trimmed gray suit. The dragging movement, the hint of dropping on the seat not from fatigue but from desperation, completed the picture his imagination had already painted of some world-worn, knocked-about creature who had come to the point at which, in his own phrase, she was "all in."
As far as this described Letty Gravely, he was wrong. She was not "all in." She was never more mentally alert than at that very minute. If she moved slowly, if she sank on the seat as if too beaten down by events to do more, it was because her mind was so intensely centered on her immediate problems.
She had, in fact, just formed a great resolution. Whatever became of her, she would never go back to Judson Flack, her stepfather. This had not been clearly in her mind when she had gone down his steps and walked away, but the occasion presented itself now as one to be seized. In seizing it, however, the alternatives were difficult. She was without a cent, a shelter, a job, a friend, or the prospect of a meal. It was probable that there was not at that minute in New York a human being so destitute. Before nightfall she would have to find some nominal motive for living or be arrested as a vagrant.
She was not appalled. For the first time in her life she was relatively free from fear. Even with nothing but her person as she stood, she was her own mistress. No big dread hung over her—that is, no big dread of the kind represented by Judson Flack. She might jump into the river or go to the bad, but in either case she would do it of her own free will. Merely to have the exercise of her own free will gave her the kind of physical relief which a human being gets from stretching limbs cramped and crippled by chains.
Besides, there was in her situation an underlying possibility of adventure. This she didn't phrase, since she didn't understand it. She only had the intuition in her heart that where "the world is all before you, where to choose your place of rest, and Providence your guide," Providence becomes your guide. Verbally she put it merely in the words, "Things happen," though as to what could happen between half-past three in the afternoon and midnight, when she would possibly be in jail, she could not begin to imagine.
So absorbed was she in this momentous uncertainty that she scarcely noticed that some one had seated himself at the other end of the bench. It was a public place; it was likely that some one would. She felt neither curiosity nor resentment. A lack of certain of the feminine instincts, or their retarded development, left her without interest in the fact that the newcomer was a man. From the slight glance she had given him when she heard his step, she judged him to be what she estimated as an elderly man, quite far into the thirties.
She went back to her own thoughts which were practical. There were certain measures which she could take at once, after which there would be no return. Once more she was not appalled. She had lived too near the taking of these steps to be shocked by them. Everything in life is a question of relativity, and in the world which her mother had entered on marrying Judson Flack the men were all so near the edge of the line which separates the criminal from the non-criminal that it seemed a natural thing when they crossed it, while the women....
But as her thoughts were dealing with this social problem in its bearing on herself, her neighbor spoke.
"Funny to watch those kids playing with the pup, isn't it?"
She admitted that it was, that watching children and young animals was a favorite sport with her. She answered simply, because being addressed by strange men with whom she found herself in proximity was sanctioned by the etiquette of her society. To resent it would be putting on airs, besides which it would cut off social intercourse between the sexes. It had happened to her many a time to have engaging conversations with chance young men beside her in the subway, never seeing them before or afterward.
So Allerton found getting acquainted easier than he had expected. The etiquette of his society not sanctioning this directness of response on her part, he drew the conclusion that she was accustomed to "meeting fellows halfway." As this was the sort of person he was looking for, he found in the freedom nothing to complain of.
With the openness of her social type she gave details of her biography without needing to be pressed.
"You're a New York girl?"
"I am now. I didn't use to be."
"What were you to begin with?"
"Momma brought me from Canada after my father died. That's why I ain't got no friends here."
At this appeal for sympathy his glance stole suspiciously toward her, finding his first conjectures somewhat but not altogether verified. She was young apparently, and possibly pretty, though as to neither point did he care. He would have preferred more "past," more "mystery," more "drama," but since you couldn't have everything, a young person utterly unfit to be his wife would have to be enough. He continued to draw out her story, not because he cared anything about hearing it, but in order to spring his question finally without making her think him more unbalanced than he was.
"Your father was a Canadian?"
"Yes; a farmer. Momma used to say she was about as good to work a farm as a cat to run a fire-engine. When he died, she sold out for four thousand dollars and come to New York."
"No, to have a good time. She'd never had a good time, momma hadn't, and she was awful pretty. So she said she'd just blow herself to it while she had the berries in her basket. That was how she met Judson Flack. I suppose you know who he is. Everybody does."
"I'm afraid I haven't the pleasure."
"Oh, I don't know as you'd find it any big pleasure. Momma didn't, not after she'd give him a try."
"Who and what is he?"
"He calls hisself a man about town. I call him a bum. Poor momma married him."
"And wasn't happy, I suppose."
"Not after he'd spent her wad, she wasn't. She was crazy about him, and when she found out that all he'd cared about was her four thousand plunks—well, it was her finish."
"How long ago was that?"
"About four years now."
"And what have you been doing in the meanwhile?"
"Keepin' house for Judson Flack most of the time—till I quit."
"Oh, you've quit?"
"Sure I've quit." She was putting her better foot forward. "Now I'm in pitchers."
He glanced at her again, having noticed already that she scarcely glanced at him. Her profile was toward him as at first, an irregular little profile of lifts and tilts, which might be appealing, but was not beautiful. The boast of being in pictures, so incongruous with her woefully dilapidated air, did not amuse him. He knew how large a place a nominal connection with the stage took in the lives of certain ladies. Even this poor little tramp didn't hesitate to make the claim.
"And you're doing well?"
She wouldn't show the white feather. "Oh, so so! I—I get along."
"You live by yourself?"
"I—I do now."
"Don't you find it lonely?"
"Not so lonely as livin' with Judson Flack."
A faint implication that she might look to him for help stirred her fierce independence. "Gee, yes! I'm—I'm doin' swell."
"But you wouldn't mind a change, I suppose?"
For the first time her eyes stole toward him, not in suspicion, and still less in alarm, but in one of the intenser shades of curiosity. It was almost as if he was going to suggest to her something "off the level" but which would nevertheless be worth her while. She was used to these procedures, not in actual experience but from hearing them talked about. They made up a large part of what Judson Flack understood as "business." She felt it prudent to be as non-committal as possible.
"I ain't so sure."
She meant him to understand that being tolerably satisfied with her own way of life, she was not enthusiastic over new experiments.
His next observation was no surprise to her. "I'm a lawyer."
She was sure of that. There were always lawyers in these subterranean affairs—"shyster" was a word she had heard applied to them—and this man looked the part. His thin face, clear-cut profile, and skin which showed dark where he shaved, were all, in her judgment, signs of the sinister. Even his clothes, from his patent leather shoes with spats to his dark blue necktie with a pearl in it, were those which an actor would wear in pictures to represent a "shark."
She was turning these thoughts over in her mind when he spoke again.
"I've an office, but I don't practise much. It takes all my time to manage my own estate."
She didn't know what this meant. It sounded like farming, but you didn't farm in New York, or do it from an office anyhow. "I guess he's one of them gold-brick nuts," she commented to herself, "but he won't put nothin' over on me."
In return for her biography he continued to give his, bringing out his facts in short, hard statements which seemed to hurt him. It was this hurting him which she found most difficult to reconcile with her gold brick theory and the suspicion that he was a "shark."
"My father was a lawyer, too. Rather well known in his day. One time ambassador to Vienna."
Ambassador to Vienna! She didn't know where Vienna was or the nature of an ambassador, but she did know that it sounded grand, so she looked at him attentively. It was either more gold brick or else....
Then something struck her—"smote her" would be perhaps the more accurately descriptive word, since the effect was on her heart. This man was sick. He was suffering. She had often seen women suffer, but men rarely, and this was one of the rare instances. Something in her was touched. She couldn't imagine why he talked to her or what he wanted of her, but a pity which had never yet been called upon was astir among her emotions.
As for the minute he said no more, her next words came out only because she supposed them to betray the kindly interest of which he was in need.
"Then I suppose he left you a big fat wad."
"Yes; but it doesn't do me any good. I mean, it doesn't make me happy—when I'm not."
"I guess it'd make you a good deal less happy if you didn't have it."
"Perhaps so; I don't think about it either way." He added, after tense compression of the lips; "I'm all alone in the world—like you."
She was sure now that something was coming, though of what nature lay beyond her speculative power. She wondered if he could have fallen in love with her at first sight, realizing a favorite dream she often had in the subway. Hundreds of times she had beguiled the minutes by selecting one or another of the wealthy lawyers and bankers, whom she supposed to be her fellow-travelers there, seeing him smitten by a glance at her, following her when she got out, and laying his heart and coronet at her feet before she had run up the steps. If this man were not a shyster lawyer or a gold brick nut, he might possibly be doing that.
"It's about a girl," he burst out suddenly. "Half an hour ago she kicked me out."
"Did she know you had all that dough?"
"Yes, she knew I had all that dough. But she said that since I was going to the devil, I had better go." He drew a long breath. "Well, I'm going—perhaps quicker than she thinks."
"Will you do yourself any good by that?"
"No, but I'll do her harm."
"I'll show her what she's made of me."
"She can't make anything of you in half an hour or in half a year—not so long as you've got your wad back of you. If you was to be kicked out with your pay-envelope stole, and your mother's rings pulled off your fingers, and her wrist-watch from your wrist, and even your carfare——"
"Is that what's happened to you?"
"Sure! Half an hour ago, too. Judson Flack! But why should I worry? Something'll happen before night."
He became emphatic. "Yes, and I'll tell you what it will be. You put your finger on it just now when you said she couldn't make anything out of men in half an hour. Well, it's got to be something that would take just that time—an hour at the most—and fatal. Now do you see?"
She shook her head.
He swung fully round on her from his end of the bench. "Think," he commanded.
As if with a premonitory notion of what he meant, she answered coldly: "What's the good o' me thinkin'? I've got nothin' to do with it."
"You might have."
"I can't imagine what, unless it'd be——" Realizing what she had been about to say, she broke off in confusion, coloring to the eyes.
He nodded. "I see you understand. I want you to come off somewhere and marry me."
She took it more calmly than if she hadn't thought him mad. "But—but you said you'd be—be goin' to the devil."
His look, his tone, conveyed the idea, which penetrated to her mind but slowly. When it did, the surging color became a flush, hot and painful.
So here it was again, the thing she had been running away from. It had outwitted and outrun her, meeting her again just at the instant when she thought she was shaking it off. She was so indignant with the thing that she almost overlooked the man. She too swung round from her end of the bench, so that they confronted each other, with the length of the seat between them. It was her habit to put things plainly, though now she did it with a burning heart.
"This is the way you mean it, isn't it?—you'd go to the devil because you'd married me."
The half-minute before he answered was occupied not merely in thinking what to say but in noticing, now that he had her in full-face, that her large, brown irises seemed to be sprinkled with gold dust. Otherwise her appearance struck him simply as blurred, as if it had been brightly enough drawn as to color and line, only rubbed over and defaced by the hand of misery.
"I don't want you to get me wrong," he explained. "It's not a question of my marrying you in particular. I've said I'd marry the first girl I met who'd marry me."
The gold-brown eyes scintillated with a thousand tiny stars. "Say, and am I the first?"
"No; you're the fourth." He added, so that she should be under no misconception as to what he was about: "You can take me or leave me. That's up to you. But if you take me, I want you to understand that it'll be on a purely business basis."
She repeated, as if to memorize the words, "A purely business basis."
"Exactly. I'm not looking for a wife. I only want a woman to marry—a woman to whom I can point and say, See there! I've married—that."
"And that'd be me."
"If you undertook the job."
"The job of—of bein' laughed at—jeered at——"
"I'd be the one who'd be laughed at and jeered at. Nobody would think anything about you. They wouldn't remember how you looked or know your name. If you got sick of it after a bit, and decided to cut and run, you could do it. I'd see that you were well treated—for the rest of your life."
She studied him long and earnestly. "Say, are you crazy?"
"I'm all on edge, if that's what you mean. But there's nothing for you to be afraid of. I shan't do you any harm at any time."
"You only want to do harm to yourself. I'd be like the awful kind o' pill which a fellow'll swaller to commit suicide." She rose, not without a dignity of her own. "Well, mister, if I'm your fourth, I guess you'll have to look about you for a fifth."
"Where are you going?"
He asked the question without rising. She answered as if her choice of objectives was large.
"Which means nowhere, doesn't it?"
"Oh, not exactly. It means—it means—the first place I fetch up."
"The first place you fetch up may be the police-station, if the things you said just now are true."
"The police-station is safe, anyways."
"And you think the place I'd take you to wouldn't be. Well, you're wrong. It'll be as safe as a church for as long as you like to stay; and when you want to go—lots of money to go with."
Facing away from him toward the city, she said over her shoulder: "There's things money couldn't pay you for. Bein' looked down on is one."
She was about to walk on, but he sprang after her, catching her by the sleeve.
"Look here! Be a sport. You've got the chance of your lifetime. It'll mean no more to you than a part they'd give you in pictures—just a role—and pay you a lot better."
She was not blind to the advantages he laid before her. True, it might be what she qualified as "bull" to get her into a trap; only she didn't believe it. This man with the sick mind and anguished face was none of the soft-spoken fiends whose business it is to ensnare young girls. She knew all about them from living with Judson Flack, and couldn't be mistaken. This fellow might be crazy, but he was what he said. If he said he wouldn't do her any harm, he wouldn't. If he said he would pay her well, he would. The main question was as to whether or not, just for the sake of getting something to eat and a place to sleep, she could deliberately put herself in a position in which the man who had married her would have gone to the devil because he had married her.
As he held her by the sleeve looking down at her, and she, half turned, was looking up at him, this was the battle she was fighting. Hitherto her impulse had been to run away from the scorn of her inferiority; now she was asking herself what would happen if she took up its challenge and fought it on its own ground. What if I do? was the way the question framed itself, but aloud she made it.
"If I said I would, what would happen first?"
"We'd go and get a license. Then we'd find a minister. After that I should give you something to eat, and then I'd take you home."
"Where would that be?"
He gave her his address in East Sixty-seventh Street, only a few doors from Fifth Avenue, but her social sophistication was not up to the point of seeing the significance of this. Neither did her imagination try to picture the home or to see it otherwise than as an alternative to the police-station, or worse, as a lodging for the night.
"And what would happen to me when I got to your home?"
"You'd have your own room. I shouldn't interfere with you. You'd hardly ever see me. You could stay as long as you liked or as short as you liked, after the first week or two."
There was that about him which carried conviction. She believed him. As an alternative to having nowhere to go, what he offered her was something, and something with that spice of adventure of which she had been dreaming only a few minutes earlier. She couldn't be worse off than she was now, and if it gave her the chance of a hand-to-hand tussle with the world-pride which had never done anything but look down on her, she would be fighting what she held as her worst enemy. She braced herself to say,
"All right; I'll do it."
He, too, braced himself. "Very well! Let's start."
The impetuosity of his motion almost took her breath away as she tried to keep pace with him.
"By the way, what's your name?" he asked, before they reached Fifth Avenue.
She told him, but was too overwhelmed with what she had undertaken to dare to ask him his.
The strong cockney negative was also an exclamation. It came from Mrs. Courage, the cook-housekeeper, who stood near the kitchen range making the coffee for breakfast. She was a woman who looked her name, born not merely to do battle, but to enjoy being in the midst of it.
Jane, the waitress, was the next to speak. "Nettie Duckett, you ought to be ashymed to sye them words, you that's been taught to 'ope the best of everyone."
Jane had fluttered in from the pantry with the covered dish for the toast. Jane still fluttered at her work, as she had done for the past thirty years. The late Mrs. Allerton had liked her about the table because she was swift, deft, and moved lightly. A thin little woman, with a profile resembling that of Punch's Judy, and a smile of cheerful piety, she yielded to time only by a process of drying up.
Nettie Duckett was quick in her own defense, but breathless, too, from girlish laughter. "I can't 'elp syin' what I see, now can I? There she was 'arf dressed in the little back spare-room. Oh, the commonest thing! You wouldn't 'a wanted to sweep 'er out with a broom."
"Pretty goin's on I must sye," Jane commented. "'Ope the best of everyone I will, but when you think that we was all on the top floor——"
"Pretty goin's off there'll be, I can tell you that," Mrs. Courage declared in her rich, decided bass. "Just let me 'ave a word with Master Rashleigh. I'll tell 'im what 'is ma would 'ave said. She left 'im to me, she did. 'Courage,' she's told me many a time, 'that boy'll be your boy after I'm gone.' As good as mykin' a will, I call it. And now to think that with us right 'ere in the 'ouse.... Where's Steptoe? Do 'e know anything about it?"
"Do 'e know anything about what?" The question came from Steptoe himself, who appeared on the threshold.
The three women maintained a dramatic silence, while the old butler-valet looked from one to another.
"Seems as if there was news," he observed dryly.
"Tell 'im, Nettie," Mrs. Courage commanded.
Nettie was the young thing of the establishment, Mrs. Courage's own niece, brought from England when the housemaid's place fell vacant on Bessie's unexpected marriage to Walter Wildgoose, Miss Walbrook's indoor man. Indeed she had been brought from England before Bessie's marriage, of which Mrs. Courage had had advance information, so that as soon as Bessie left, Nettie was on the spot to be smuggled into the Allerton household. Steptoe had not forgiven this underhand movement on Mrs. Courage's part, seeing that in the long-ago both she and Jane had been his own nominees, and that he considered the household posts as gifts at his disposal. "I'll 'ave to make a clean sweep o' the lot o' them," he had more than once declared at those gatherings at which the English butlers and valets of upper Fifth Avenue discuss their complex of interests. Forty years in the Allerton family had made him not merely its major-domo but in certain respects its head. His tone toward Nettie was that of authority with a note of disapprobation.
"Speak, girl, and do it without giggling. What 'ave you to tell?"
Though she couldn't do it without giggling Nettie repeated the story she had given to her aunt and Jane. She had gone into the small single back bedroom on the floor below Mr. Allerton's, and there was a half-dressed girl 'a-puttin' up of 'er 'air.' According to her own statement Nettie had passed away on the spot, being able, however, to articulate the question, "What are you a'doin' of 'ere?" To this the young woman had replied that Mr. Allerton had brought her in on the previous evening, telling her to sleep there, and there she had slept. Nettie's information could go no further, but it was considered to go far enough.
"So what do you sye to that?" Mrs. Courage demanded of Steptoe; "you that's always so ready to defend my young lord?"
Steptoe was prepared to stand back to back with his employer. "I don't defend 'im. I'm not called on to defend 'im. It's Mr. Rashleigh's 'ouse. Any guest of 'is must be your guest and mine."
"And what about Miss Walbrook, 'er that's to be missus 'ere in the course of a few weeks?"
Steptoe colored, frostily. "She's not missus 'ere yet; and if she ever comes, there'll be stormy weather for all of us. New missuses don't generally get on with old servants like us—that's been in the family for so many years—but when they don't, it ain't them as gets notice."
A bell rang sharply. Steptoe sprang to attention.
"There's Mr. Rashleigh now. Don't you women go to mykin' a to-do. There's lots o' troubles that 'ud never 'ave 'appened if women 'ad been able to 'old their tongues."
"But I suppose, Steptoe, you don't deny that there's such a thing as right."
"I don't deny that there's such a thing as right, Mrs. Courage, but I only wonder if you knows more about it than the rest of us."
In Allerton's room Steptoe found the young master of the house half dressed. Standing before a mirror, he was brushing his hair. His face and eyes, the reflection of which Steptoe caught in the glass, were like those of a man on the edge of going insane.
The old valet entered according to his daily habit and without betraying the knowledge of anything unusual. All the same his heart was sinking, as old hearts sink when beloved young ones are in trouble. The boy was his darling. He had been with his father for ten years before the lad was born, and had watched his growth with a more than paternal devotion. "'E's all I 'ave," he often said to himself, and had been known to let out the fact in the afore-mentioned group of English upper servants, a small but exclusive circle in the multiplex life of New York.
In Steptoe's opinion Master Rash had never had a chance. Born many years after his parents had lived together childlessly, he had come into the world constitutionally neurasthenic. Steptoe had never known a boy who needed more to be nursed along and coaxed along by affection, and now and then by indulgence. Instead, the system of severity had been applied with results little short of calamitous. He had been sent to schools famous for religion and discipline, from which he reacted in the first weeks of freedom in college, getting into dire academic scrapes. Further severity had led to further scrapes, and further scrapes to something like disgrace, when the war broke out and a Red Cross job had kept him from going to the bad. The mother had been a self-willed and selfish woman, claiming more from her son than she ever gave him, and never perceiving that his was a nature requiring a peculiar kind of care. After her death Steptoe had prayed for a kind, sweet wife to come to the boy's rescue, and the answer had been Miss Barbara Walbrook.
When the engagement was announced, Steptoe had given up hope. Of Miss Walbrook as a woman he had nothing to complain. Walter Wildgoose reported her a noble creature, splendid, generous, magnificent, only needing a strong hand. She was of the type not to be served but to be mastered. Rashleigh Allerton would goad her to frenzy, and she would do the same by him. She was already doing it. For weeks past Steptoe could see it plainly enough, and what would happen after they were married God alone knew. For himself he saw no future but to hang on after the wedding as long as the new mistress of the house would allow him, take his dismissal as an inevitable thing, and sneak away and die.
It was part of Steptoe's training not to notice anything till his attention was called to it. So having said his "Good-morning, sir," he went to the closet, took down the hanger with the coat and waistcoat belonging to the suit of which he saw that Allerton had put on the trousers, and waited till the young man was ready for his ministrations.
Allerton was still brushing his hair, as he said over his shoulder: "There's a young woman in the house, Steptoe. Been here all night."
"Yes, sir; I know—in the little back spare-room."
"Who told you?"
"Nettie went in for a pincushion, Mr. Rash, and the young woman was a-doin' of 'er 'air."
"What did Nettie say?"
"It ain't what Nettie says, sir, if I may myke so bold. It's what Mrs. Courage and Jane says."
"Tell Mrs. Courage and Jane they needn't be alarmed. The young woman is—" Steptoe caught the spasm which contracted the boy's face—"the young woman is—my wife."
"Quite so, sir."
If Allerton went no further, Steptoe could go no further; but inwardly he was like a man reprieved at the last minute, and against all hope, from sentence of death. "Then it won't be 'er," was all he could say to himself, "'er" being Barbara Walbrook. Whatever calamity had happened, that calamity at least would be escaped, which was so much to the good.
His arms trembled so that he could hardly hold up the waistcoat for Allerton to slip it on. But he didn't slip it on. Instead he wheeled round from the mirror, threw the brushes with a crash to the toilet table, and cried with a rage all the more raging for being impotent:
"Steptoe, I've been every kind of fool."
"Yes, sir, I expect so."
"You've got to get me out of it, Steptoe. You must find a way to save me."
"I'll do my best, sir." The joy of cooperation with the lad almost made up for the anguish at his anguish. "What 'ud it be—you must excuse me, Mr. Rash—but what 'ud it be that you'd like me to save you from?"
Allerton threw out his arms. "From this crazy marriage. This frightful mix-up. I went right off the handle yesterday. I was an infernal idiot. And now I'm in for it. Something's got to be done, Steptoe, and I can't think of any one but you to do it."
"Quite so, sir. Will you 'ave your wystcoat on now, sir? You're ready for it, I see. I'll think it over, Mr. Rash, and let you know."
While first the waistcoat and then the coat were extended and slipped over the shoulders, Allerton did his best to put Steptoe in possession of the mad facts of the previous day. Though the account he gave was incoherent, the old man understood enough.
"It wasn't her fault, you must understand," Allerton explained further, as Steptoe brushed his hat. "She didn't want to. I persuaded her. I wanted to do something that would wring Miss Walbrook's heart—and I've done it! Wrung my own, too! What's to become of me, Steptoe? Is the best thing I can do to shoot myself? Think it over. I'm ready to. I'm not sure that it wouldn't be a relief to get out of this rotten life. I'm all on edge. I could jump out of that window as easily as not. But it wasn't the girl's fault. She's a poor little waif of a thing. You must look after her and keep me from seeing her again, but she's not bad—only—only—Oh, my God! my God!"
He covered his face with his hands and rocked himself about, so that Steptoe was obliged to go on brushing till his master calmed himself.
"Do you think, sir," he said then, "that this is the 'at to go with this 'ere suit? I think as the brown one would be a lot chicker—tone in with the sort of fawn stripe in the blue like, and ketch the note in your tie." He added, while diving into the closet in search of the brown hat and bringing it out, "There's one thing I could say right now, Mr. Rash, and I think it might 'elp."
"What is it?"
"Do you remember the time when you 'urt your leg 'unting down in Long Island?"
"Yes; what about it?"
"You was all for not payin' it no attention and for 'oppin' about as if you 'adn't 'urt it at all. A terr'ble fuss you myde when the doctor said as you was to keep still. Anybody 'ud 'ave thought 'e'd bordered a hamputation. And yet it was keepin' still what got you out o' the trouble, now wasn't it?"
"Well, now you're in a worse trouble still it might do the syme again. I'm a great believer in keepin' still, I am."
Allerton was off again. "How in thunder am I to keep still when——?"
"I'll tell you one wye, sir. Don't talk. Don't do nothink. Don't beat your 'ead against the wall. Be quiet. Tyke it natural. You've done this thing. Well, you 'aven't committed a murder. You 'aven't even done a wrong to the young lydy to whom you was engyged. By what I understand she'd jilted you, and you was free to marry any one you took a mind to."
"Nominally, perhaps, but——"
"If you're nominally free, sir, you're free, by what I can understand; and if you've gone and done a foolish thing it ain't no one's business but your own."
"Yes, but I can't stand it!"
"O' course you can't stand it, sir, but it's because you can't stand it that I'm arskin' of you to keep just as quiet as you can. Mistykes in our life is often like the twists we'll give to our bodies. They'll ache most awful, but let nyture alone and she'll tyke care of 'em. It's jest so with our mistykes. Let life alone and she'll put 'em stryght for us, nine times out o' ten, better than we can do it by workin' up into a wax."
Calmed to some extent Allerton went off to the club for breakfast, being unable to face this meal at home. Steptoe tidied up the room. He was troubled and yet relieved. It was a desperate case, but he had always found that in desperate cases desperate remedies were close at hand.
"See that the poor thing gets some breakfast," had been Allerton's parting command, and having finished the room, Steptoe went down the flight of stairs to carry out this injunction.
He was on the third step from the landing when the door of the back room opened, and a little, gray figure, hatted and jacketed, crept out stealthily. She was plainly ready for the street, an intention understood by Beppo, the late Mrs. Allerton's red cocker spaniel, who was capering about her in the hope of sharing the promenade.
As Steptoe came to a halt, the girl ran toward him.
"Oh, mister, I gotta get out of this swell dump. Show me the way, for God's sake!"
To say that Steptoe was thinking rapidly would be to describe his mental processes incorrectly. He never thought; he received illuminations. Some such enlightenment came to him now, inducing him to say, ceremoniously, "Madam can't go without 'er breakfast."
"I don't want any breakfast," she protested, breathlessly. "All I want is to get away. I'm frightened."
"I assure madam that there's nothink to be afryde of in this 'ouse. Mr. Allerton is the most honorable—" he pronounced the initial h—"young man that hever was born. I valeted 'is father before 'im and know that 'e wouldn't 'urt a fly. If madam'll trust me—Besides, Mr. Allerton left word with me as you was to be sure to 'ave your breakfast, and I shouldn't know how to fyce 'im if 'e was to know that you'd gone awye without so much as a hegg."
She wrung her hands. "I don't want to see him. I couldn't."
"Madam won't see 'im. 'E's gone for the dye. 'E don't so often heat at 'ome—'ardly never."
Of the courses before her Letty saw that yielding was the easiest. Besides, it would give her her breakfast, which was a consideration. Though she had nominally dined on the previous evening, she had not been able to eat; she had been too terrified. Never would she forget the things that had happened after she had given her consent in the Park.
Not that outwardly they had been otherwise than commonplace. It was going through them at all! The man was as nearly "off his chump"—the expression was hers—as a human being could be without laying himself open to arrest. After calling the taxi in Fifth Avenue he had walked up and down, compelling her to walk by his side, for a good fifteen minutes before making her get in and springing in beside her. At the house opposite he had stared and stared, as if hoping that some one would look out. During the drive to the place where they got the license, and later to the minister's house, he spoke not a word. In the restaurant to which he took her afterward, the most glorious place she had ever been in, he ordered a feast suited to a queen, but she could hardly do more than taste it. She felt that the waiter was looking at them strangely, and she didn't know the uses of the knives and forks. The man she had married offered her no help, neither speaking to her nor giving her a glance. He himself ate but little, lost in some mental maze to which she had no clue.
After dinner he had proposed the theatre, but she had refused. She couldn't go anywhere else with him. Wherever they moved, a thousand eyes were turned in amazement at the extraordinary pair. He saw nothing, but she was alive to it all—more conscious of her hat and suit than even in the street scene in "The Man with the Emerald Eye." Once and for all she became aware that the first standard for human valuation is in clothes.
In the end they had got into another taxi, to be driven round and round the Park and out along the river bank, till he decided that they might go home. During all this time he hardly noticed her. Once he asked her if she was warm enough, and once if she would like to get out and take a walk along the parapet above the river, but otherwise he was withdrawn into a world which he kept shut and locked against her. That left her alone. She had never felt so much alone in her life, not even in the days which followed her mother's death. It was as if she had been snatched away from everything with which she was familiar, to find herself stranded in a country of fantastic dreams.
Then there was the house and the little back room. By the use of his latchkey they had entered a palace huge and dark. Letty didn't know that people lived with so much space around them. Only a hall light burned in a many-colored oriental lamp, and in the half-gloom the rooms on each side of the entry were cavernous. There was not a servant, not a sound. The only living thing was a little dog which pattered out of the obscurity and, raising his paws against her skirt, adopted her instantaneously.
"He was my mother's dog," Allerton explained briefly. "He likes women, but not men, though he's never taken to the women in the house. He'll probably like you. His name is Beppo. I'll show you up at once."
The grandeur of the staircase was overpowering, and the little back spare-room of a magnificence beyond all her experience outside of movie-sets. The flowers on the chintz coverings were prettier than real ones, and there was a private bath. Letty had heard of private baths, but no picture she had ever painted equaled this dainty apartment in which everything was of spotless white except where a flight of blue-gray gulls skimmed over a blue summer sea.
The objects in the bedroom were too lovely to live with. On the toilet table were boxes and trays which Letty supposed must be priceless, and a set of brushes with silver backs. She couldn't brush her hair with a brush with a silver back, because it would be journeying too far beyond real life into that of fairy princesses. On opening the closet to hang up her jacket the very hangers were puffed and covered with the "sweetest flowered silks," so she hung her jacket on a peg.
But she wasn't comfortable, she wasn't happy. Alice had traveled too far into Wonderland, and too suddenly. Unwillingly she lay down in a bed too clean and soft for the human form, but she couldn't sleep in it. She could only tremble and toss and lie awake and wish for the morning. With the dawn she would be up and off, before any one caught sight of her.
For Allerton had used words which had terrified her more than anything that had yet happened or been said—"the other women in the house!" Not till then had she sufficiently visualized the life into which he was taking her to understand that there would be other women there. Now that she knew it, she couldn't face them. She could have faced men. Men, after all, were simple creatures with only a rudimentary power of judgment. But women! God! She pulled the eiderdown about her head so as not to cry out so loudly that she would be heard. What mad thing had she done? What had she let herself in for? She didn't ask what kind of women they would be—members of his family or servants. She didn't care. All women were alike. The woman was not born who wouldn't view a girl in her unconventional situation, "and especially in that rig"—once more the expression was her own—without a condemnation which Letty could not and would not submit herself to. So she would get up and steal away with the first gleam of light.
She got up with the first gleam of light, but she couldn't steal away. Once more she was afraid. Unlocking the door, she dared not venture out. Who knew where, in that palace of cavernous apartments, she might meet a woman, or what the woman would say to her? When Nettie walked in later, humming a street air, Letty almost died from shame. For one thing, she hadn't yet put on her shirtwaist, which in itself was poor enough, and as she stood exposed without it, any other of her sex could see.... She had once been on the studio lot when a girl of about her own age, a "supe" like herself, was arrested for thieving in the women's dressing-rooms. Letty had never forgotten the look in that girl's face as she passed out through the crowd of her colleagues. In Nettie's presence she felt like that girl's look.
She had no means of telling the time, but when she could no longer endure the imprisonment she decided to make a bolt for it. She hadn't been thieving, and so they couldn't do anything to her—and there was a chance at least that she might get away. Opening the door cautiously, she stole out on the landing, and there was, not a woman, but a man!
Joy! A man would listen to her appeal. He would see that she was poor, common, unequal to a dump so swell, and would be human and tender. He was a nice looking old man too—she was able to notice that—with a long, kindly face on which there were two spots of bloom as if he had been rouged. So she capitulated to his plea, making only the condition that if she took the hegg—she pronounced the word as he did, not being sure as to what it meant—she should be free to go.
"Certainly, if madam wishes it. I'm sure the last thing Mr. Allerton would desire would be to detain madam against 'er will."
She allowed herself to be ushered down the monumental stairs and into the dining-room, which awed her with the solemnity of a church. She knew at once that she wouldn't be able to eat amid this stateliness any more than in the glitter of last evening's restaurant. She had yielded, however, and there was nothing for it but to sit down at the head of the table in the chair which Steptoe drew out for her. Guessing at her most immediate embarrassment, he showed her what to do by unfolding the napkin and laying it in her lap.
"Now, if madam will excuse me, I'll slip awye and tell Jyne."
But telling Jyne was not so simple a matter as it looked. The council in the kitchen, which at first had been a council and no more, was now a council of war. As Steptoe entered, Mrs. Courage was saying:
"I shall go to Mr. Rashleigh 'imself and tell 'im that hunder the syme roof with a baggage none of us will stye."
"You can syve yourself the trouble, Mrs. Courage," Steptoe informed her. "Mr. Rash 'as just gone out. Besides, I've good news for all of you." He waited for each to take an appropriate expression, Mrs. Courage determined, Jane with face eager and alight, Nettie tittering behind her hand. "Miss Walbrook, which all of us 'as dreaded, is not a-comin' to our midst. The young lydy Nettie see in the back spare-room is Mr. Rashleigh's wife."
"Wife!" Mrs. Courage threw up her hands and staggered backward. "'Im that 'is mother left to me! 'Courage,' says she, 'when I'm gone——'"
Jane crept forward, horrified, stunned. "Them things can't be, Steptoe."
"Mr. Rash told me so 'imself. I don't know what more we want than that." Steptoe was not without his diplomacy. "It's a fine thing for us, girls. This sweet young lydy is not goin' to myke us no trouble like what the other one would, and belongs right in our own class."
"'Enery Steptoe, speak for yourself," Mrs. Courage said, severely. "There's no baggages in my class, nor never was, nor never will be."
Jane began to cry. "I'm sure I try to think the best of everyone, but when such awful things 'appens and 'omes is broken up——"
"Jynie," Steptoe said with authority, "the young missus is wytin' for 'er breakfast. 'Ave the goodness to tyke 'er in 'er grypefruit."
"Jyne Cakebread," Mrs. Courage declared, with an authority even greater than Steptoe's, "the first as tykes a grypefruit into that dinin'-room, to set before them as I shouldn't demean myself to nyme, comes hunder my displeasure."
"I couldn't, Steptoe," Jane pleaded helplessly. "All my life I've wyted on lydies. 'Ow can you expect me to turn over a new leaf at my time o' life?"
"Nettie?" Steptoe made the appeal magisterially.
"Oh, I'll do it," Nettie giggled. "'Appy to get another look at 'er. I sye, she's a sight!"
But Mrs. Courage barred the way. "My niece will wyte on people of doubtful conduck over my dead corpse."
"Very well, then, Mrs. Courage," Steptoe reasoned. "If you won't serve the new missus, Mr. Rashleigh, will 'ave to get some one else who will."
"Mr. Rashleigh will 'ave to do that very selfsame thing. Not another night will none of us sleep hunder this paternal roof with them that their very presence is a houtrage. 'Enery Steptoe was always a time-server, and a time-server 'e will be, but as for us women, we shall see the new missus in goin' in to give 'er notice. Not a month's notice, it won't be. This range as I've cooked at for nearly thirty years I shall cook at no more, not so much as for lunch. Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What's the world comin' to?"
In spite of her strength of character Mrs. Courage threw her apron over her head and burst into tears. Jane was weeping already.
"There, there, aunt," Nettie begged, patting her relative between the shoulders. "What's the good o' goin' on like that just because a silly ass 'as married beneath 'im?"
Mrs. Courage pulled her apron from her face to cry out with passion:
"If 'e was goin' to disgryce 'imself like that, why couldn't 'e 'a taken you?"
So Steptoe waited on Letty himself, bringing in the grapefruit, the coffee, the egg, and the toast, and seeing that she knew how to deal with each in the proper forms. He was so brooding, so yearning, so tactful, as he bent over her, that she was never at a loss as to the fork or spoon she ought to use, or the minute at which to use it. Under his protection Letty ate. She ate, first because she was young and hungry, and then because she felt him standing between her and all vague terrors. By the time she had finished, he moved in front of her, where he could speak as one human being to another.
Taking an empty plate from the table to put it on the sideboard, he said: "I 'ope madam is chyngin' 'er mind about leavin' us."
Letty glanced up shyly in spite of being somewhat reassured. "What'ud be the good of my changin' my mind when—when I'm not fit to stay?"
"Madam means not fit in the sense that——"
"I'm not a lady."
Resting one hand on the table, he looked down into her eyes with an expression such as Letty had never before seen in a human face.
"I could myke a lydy of madam."
At the sound of these quiet words, so confidently spoken, something passed through Letty's frame to be described only by the hard-worked word, a thrill. It was a double current of vibration, partly of upleaping hope, partly of the desperate sense of her own limitations. A hundred points of gold dust were aflame in her irises as she said:
"You mean that you'd put me wise? Oh, but I'd never learn!"
"On the contrary, I think madam would pick up very quick."
"And I'd never be able to talk the right——"
"I could learn madam to talk just as good as me."
It seemed too much. She clasped her hands. It was the nearest point she had ever reached to ecstasy. "Oh, do you think you could? You talk somethin' beautiful, you do!"
He smiled modestly. "I've always lived with the best people, and I suppose I ketch their wyes. I know what a gentleman is—and a lydy. I know all a lydy's little 'abits, and before two or three months was over madam 'ud 'ave them as natural as natural, if she wouldn't think me overbold."
"When 'ud you begin?"
The bright spot deepened in each cheek. "I've begun already, if madam won't think me steppin' out o' my plyce to sye so, in showin' madam the spoons and forks for the different——"
Letty colored, too. "Yes, I saw that. I take it as very kind. But—" she looked at him with a puzzled knitting of the brows—"but what makes you take all this trouble for me?"
"I've two reasons, madam, but I'll only tell you one of 'em just now. The other'll keep. I'll myke it known to you if—if all goes as I 'ope." He straightened himself up. "I don't often speak o' this," he continued, "because among us butlers and valets it wouldn't be understood. Most of us is what's known as conservative, all for the big families and the old wyes. Well, so am I—to a point. But——"
He moved a number of objects on the table before he could go on. "I wasn't born to the plyce I 'old now," he explained after getting his material at command. "I wasn't born to nothink. I was what they calls in England a foundlin'—a byby what's found—what 'is parents 'ave thrown awye. I don't know who my father and mother was, or what was my real nyme. 'Enery Steptoe is just a nyme they give me at the Horphanage. But I won't go into that. I'm just tryin' to tell madam that my life was a 'ard one, quite a 'ard one, till I come to New York as footman for Mr. Allerton's father, and afterward worked up to be 'is valet and butler."