THE EASIEST WAY
A Story of Metropolitan Life
EUGENE WALTER and ARTHUR HORNBLOW
Illustrations by Archie Gunn and Joseph Byron
W. Dillingham Company Publishers New York Copyright, 1911, by G. W. Dillingham Company
The Easiest Way.
In presenting this story of a declassee who attempts to redeem her scarlet past by a disinterested, honest attachment only to meet with dire, miserable failure, the authors wish to make it plain that their heroine and her associates are in no way to be identified with the dramatic profession. Laura Murdock represents the type of woman of easy virtue who is sometimes seen behind the footlights and helps to give the theatre a bad name. Although destitute of the slightest histrionic talent, she styles herself an "actress" in order to better conceal her true vocation. As a class, the earnest, hardworking men and women who devote their lives to the dramatic art are entitled to the highest regard and respect. No profession counts in its ranks more virtuous women, more honorable men than the artists who give lustre to the American stage. If such women as Laura Murdock succeed in gaining a foothold on the boards it must be looked upon merely as an unfortunate accident. The better element in the theatre shuns them and their theatrical aspirations are not encouraged by reputable managers.
Picking up a hat, Laura looked at herself in the mirror Frontispiece 251
"I've bought a house for you on Riverside Drive" 86
She began to sew a rip in her skirt 162
She sank down on her knees beside him 273
Laura commenced to pack the trunk 307
John stood looking at her in silence 337
She crouched down motionless on the trunk 344
THE EASIEST WAY
The hour was late and the theatres were emptying. The crowds, coming from every direction at once, were soon a confused, bewildered mass of elbowing humanity. In the proximity of Broadway and Forty-second Street, a mob of smartly-dressed people pushed unceremoniously this way and that. They swept the sidewalks like a resistless torrent, recklessly attempting to force a path across the carriage blocked road, darting in and out under restive horses' heads, barely rescued by stalwart traffic policemen from the murderous wheels of onrushing automobiles. They scrambled into taxicabs, trains and trolleys, all impelled by a furious, yet not unreasonable, desire to reach home with the least possible delay. These were the wise ones. Others lingered, struggling feebly in the whirling vortex. Not yet surfeited with the evening's amusement, they now craved recherche gastronomical joys. With appetites keen for the succulent, if always indigestible, dainties of after-theatre suppers, they sought the hospitable portals of Gotham's splendidly appointed lobster palaces which, scattered in amazing profusion along the Great White Way, their pretentious facades flamboyantly ablaze with light, seemed so many oases of luxurious comfort set down in the nocturnal desert of closed shops.
"Move on there!" thundered an irate policeman. "What the h—ll are you blocking the way for? I've half a mind to lock you fellows up!"
This to two grasping jehus, who, while quarrelling over a prospective fare, had so well succeeded in interlocking their respective wheels that a quarter-of-a-mile-long block resulted instantly. The officer, exasperated beyond endurance, was apoplectic in the face from the too sudden strain upon his temper. Starting angrily forward he seemed as if about to carry out his threat, and the effect of this was magic. The offending cabbies quickly disentangled themselves, and once more the long string of vehicles began to move. Women screamed shrilly, as with their escorts they dodged the horses' hoofs, the trolleys clanged their gongs, electric-signs blinked their pictorial designs, noisy boys yelled hoarsely "final extras!" The din was nerve racking. One had to shout to be heard, yet no one seemed to object. Everybody was happy. New York was merely enjoying itself.
The rush was at its height, when two young men, perhaps weary of being buffeted by the throngs that still pushed up Broadway, turned sharply to the right and entered a fashionable all-night cafe. Halting for a moment in the richly-carpeted and mirrored vestibule to divest themselves of their outer garments, they pocketed the brass checks handed out by a dapper page and passing on into the restaurant, quietly took seats in an out-of-the-way corner.
The place was already well filled. Nearly all of the small, round tables, crowded too close for comfort, were taken, and the loud chatter of men and women, the handling of dishes, the going and coming of waiters, the more or less labored efforts of a tzigane orchestra—all this made a hubbub as loud as that in the busy street without. The people eating and drinking were of the kind usually to be found in Broadway's pleasure resorts—rich men-about-town spending their money freely, hard-faced, square-jawed gamblers touting for business, callow youths having their first fling in metropolitan vice, motor-car parties taking in the sights, old roues seeking new sensations, faultlessly dressed wine agents promoting the sale of their particular brands, a few actors, a sprinkling of actresses of secondary importance, a bevy of chorus girls of the "broiler" type, a number of self-styled "grass widows" living quietly, but luxuriously on the generosity of discreet male admirers, and others still prettier, who made no secret of their calling, but insolently boasted of their profession being the most ancient in the world.
Sartorially at least, the company was eminently respectable. The men, for the most part, wore evening dress and the women were visions of feminine loveliness, in the latest creations of Paris modistes—gowns a duchess might envy, hats that would tempt the virtue of a saint. All were talking loudly, and laughing hilariously as they ate and drank, while pale-faced, perspiring waiters ran here and there with steaming chafing dishes and silver buckets of frozen "wine." Here champagne was king! The frothy, golden, bubbling, hissing stuff seemed to be the only beverage called for. No one counted the cost. Supplied with fat purses, all flung themselves into a reckless orgy of high living and ordered without reckoning. It was the gay rendezvous of the girls and the Johnnies, the sporting men and the roues—in a word, the nightly bacchanal of New York qui s'amuse. In the atmosphere, heavily charged with tobacco smoke, floated a strange, indefinable perfume—an odor in which the vulgar smell of cooking struggled for the mastery with the subtle essences used by voluptuous women. Instantly, animalism was aroused, the passions were inflamed. The mouth watered for luscious mets concocted by expensive chefs, the eye was dazzled by snowy linen, glistening crystal and the significant smiles of red-lipped wantons, the ear was entranced by the dulcet strains of sensuous music. In short, a dangerous resort for any man, young or old.
It was the Flesh Market, the public mart, to which the frail sisterhood came in droves to sell their beauty. The sirens of Manhattan, lineal descendants of the legendary sisters who, with their songs, lured the ancient mariners to their doom, were there by the hundred, decked out in all the expensive finery that individual taste could suggest and their purses pay for. They were of all types—blonde and brunette, tall and petite, stout and slender—to meet every demand. Mostly young they were; some still in their teens. That was the tragedy of it. Older women had no place there.
Fresh arrivals poured in from the Broadway entrance. Everybody appeared to be acquainted with everyone else; familiar greetings were exchanged right and left. "Hello, Jack!" "Howdy, May!" "Sit down here, Grace!" The waiters rushed away to fill orders for more wine, the orchestra struck up another lively air, the whole establishment vibrated with bustle and excitement.
The two young men watched the animated scene. To one of them at least, it was all novel and strange, a phase of life to which, heretofore, he had been a stranger. John Madison had seen little of gilded vice in the big cities. Although he had knocked about the world a great deal and taken active part in many a stirring scene he had always been a clean man. Born and bred on a Dakota farm, he was still the typical country boy, big and vigorous in physique, with a sane, wholesome outlook on things.
When his mother—a penniless widow—died he was adopted by a tyrannical uncle, a miserly farmer, who made him do chores around the homestead in return for his keep. But the boy detested farming. His young soul yearned for a glimpse of the great outside world, of which he had read and knew nothing, and his desperation grew, until one day he summoned up enough courage to run away.
On foot, with nothing to eat, and only an occasional hitch behind a friendly teamster's wagon, he bravely made his way to Bismarck, fifty miles distant where, after nearly starving to death, he enlisted the sympathies of a kindly grocer, who gave him two dollars a week and his board to run errands. This was not much better than what he had escaped from, but John did not care. At least it was the dawn of independence. Industrious and faithful, he was rewarded in due time by promotion and eventually he might have become a partner and married the grocer's daughter, but unfortunately, or fortunately, as may be, his restless spirit made this programme impossible of realization.
Twenty years of age, and six feet tall in his stockings, he had muscles like steel and nerves of iron. A tall, finely-built type of Western manhood, he had a frank, open face, with clean-cut features, a strong mouth, and alert, flashing eyes, that denoted a quick, nervous energy. In repose his face was serious; when he smiled, revealing fine strong teeth, it was prepossessing. He wore his hair rather long, and with his loose corduroy jacket, top boots, and cowboy hat, suggested the Western ranchman. The girls of Bismarck were all in love with him, and his mere presence doubled the business of the store, but the young man resisted all feminine blandishments. He was ambitious, dissatisfied and restless, A voice within him told him that Nature intended him for something better than selling potatoes; so, taking affectionate leave of the grocer, he went away.
Ten years passed. He prospered and saw a good deal of the world. He traveled East and West, North and South. He was in Canada and down in Mexico; he visited London, Berlin, Paris, New York and San Francisco. His money all gone, he drifted for a time, trying his versatile hand at everything that offered itself. He went to sea and sailed around the Horn before the mast, he enlisted in the army and saw active service in the Philippines. He was cowboy for a Western cattle king, and there he learned to break wild bronchos without a saddle and split apples with a revolver bullet at a hundred yards. He was among the pioneers in the gold rush to Alaska and played faro in all the tough mining towns. Sworn in as sheriff, he one day apprehended single-handed, a gang of desperate outlaws, who attempted to hold up a train.
It was a rough and dangerous life. He was thrown in with all sorts of men, most of them with criminal records. He loved the excitement, yet he never allowed his tough associates to drag him down to their own level. He drank with them, gambled with them, but he never made a beast of himself, as did some of the others. He always managed to keep his own hands clean, he never lost his own self regard. He was quick on the trigger and in time of overheated argument could go some distance with his fists. Utterly fearless, powerful in physique, he was at all times able to command respect. Above all, he was a respecter of women. He never forgot what his mother once said to him. He was only a lad at the time, but her words had never faded from his memory: "Sonny," she said, "never forget that your mother was a woman." And he never had. In all his relations with women in later life, he had remembered the injunction of the mother he loved. When other men spoke lightly of women in his presence he showed disapproval, if their character was attacked he championed their cause, if confronted with proofs, he flatly refused to consider them. Yet he was neither a prig nor a prude. He enjoyed a joke as well as any one, but at the same time he did not let his mind run in only one channel, as some men do. He pitied rather than blamed the wretched females who frequented the miners' camps. More sinned against than sinning, was his humane judgment of these unhappy outcasts, and when he could, he helped them. Many a besotted creature had him to thank when the end came and short shrift little better then that accorded a dead dog awaited her—that at least she got a decent burial. The boys knew his attitude on the woman question, and it was a tribute to the regard in which they held him that, in his hearing at least, they were decent.
Meantime, John Madison was educating himself. There was no limit to his ambition. With the one idea of studying law and going into politics, he attended night schools and lectures and burned the midnight oil devouring good books. He sent to an enterprising journal of Denver a vividly written account of his exploit with the train robbers. With the newspaper's cheque came an offer to join its staff. That was how John Madison became a reporter, and incidentally explained why, on this particular evening, he happened to be in New York. Sent East in connection with a big political story, he had run across an old acquaintance, Glenn Warner, a young New York lawyer, and accepted his invitation to theatre and supper.
"I'll take you to a swell joint," he laughed. "It'll amuse you. It's the swiftest place in town."
In personal appearance, the young attorney presented a sharp contrast to his stalwart companion. Slight in physique, with sandy hair scrupulously parted in the middle and nattily dressed, he was of the conventional type of men colloquially described as "well groomed." That the restaurant, and its people, were an old story to him, was apparent by the nods he exchanged and the familiar greeting he gave the waiter. After he had decided on the order, he proceeded to give John thumb-nail biographies of some of the most conspicuous of those present.
"See that fat, coarse-looking hog over there? Look—he's flashing a bank roll thick enough to choke a horse. That's Berny Bernheim, the bookmaker. His gambling house on West Forty-fourth Street is one of the show places of the town. It's raided from time to time, but he always manages to get off scot free. He has a pull with the police."
Pointing in another direction, where a stately blonde in a big Gainsborough hat, trimmed with white plumes, sat languidly sipping champagne in company of a gray-haired man old enough to be her grandfather, he went on:
"That girl with the white feathers is Lucy Graves. Don't you remember—five years ago—a Lucy Graves shot and killed a man, and then hypnotised the jury into acquitting her. That's the girl. Since then she's been on the stage—a vaudeville act—$1,000 a week they say. A month ago she was again in trouble with the police—caught playing the badger game. I don't know who the old chap is—a new 'sucker' I imagine."
There was a slight commotion at the main entrance as a fat, bald-headed, red-faced man entered, followed by several women, all beautifully gowned. Warner, who had caught sight of the party, whispered sotto voce:
"That's Sam Solomon, the famous criminal lawyer. He's just been indicted by the Grand Jury. Only a miracle can save him from a long prison term. He's had a box party at the theatre. He usually has a string of women after him. That's where his money goes—women and wine. The girls call him a good thing."
Madison looked amused.
"Where are the respectable folk?" he laughed. "Have all the people here got a police record?"
"Most all," was the laconic rejoinder. "Hello, Elfie—when did you come in?"
This last exclamation was addressed to a tall, attractive brunette, who was just pushing past their table in a crowd. She was young and vivacious looking, and her voluptuous figure was set off to advantage in an expensive gown. Evidently she knew the lawyer well, for she greeted him familiarly:
"Hello, Glenn—I didn't see you."
"Alone?" he asked quickly.
"Yes—for a while," she answered airily.
He made a place for her on the bench.
"Sit down here and have something."
"I don't mind if I do," she smiled amiably.
Slipping past the two men into the seat she looked inquiringly at Madison. The lawyer made introductions.
"This is a friend of mine—John Madison—Miss Elfie St. Clair." Jocularly he added: "Well known on the metropolitan stage."
Madison smiled and nodded. The girl eyed him with interest. He was a type of man not often seen in the gay resorts of Manhattan. Impulsively she burst out:
"Say, Glenn—your friend's a good looker, do you know it? Better take care, or he'll cut you out with the girls." Turning to Madison, she demanded: "From the West?"
"Seeing New York, eh? Great fun, ain't it?"
He shrugged his massive shoulders and made no reply, finding more amusement in watching the crowd than in gratifying the curiosity of this chatterbox. She turned to Warner.
"Got a grouch, ain't he?"
"Oh—that's his manner. Don't mind him." Turning the conversation, he demanded: "What's new?"
The girl glanced all around the restaurant, as she answered:
"Oh, the same old thing! In feather one week—broke the next. You know how it is."
"I thought you were playing."
"So I was, but the show busted. It was a bully part, and I spent $150 on dresses. All I got was two weeks' salary. When the dresses will be paid for, the Lord only knows."
Elfie St. Clair was a typical Tenderloin grafter. A woman absolutely devoid of moral conscience, she styled herself an actress, yet was one only by courtesy. By dint of pulling all kinds of wires she contrived from time to time to get a part to play, but her stage activities were really only a blind to conceal her true vocation. A cold-blooded courtesan of the most brazen and unscrupulous type, she was, notwithstanding, one of the most popular women in the upper Tenderloin. She dressed with more taste than most women of her class, and her naturally happy disposition, her robust spirits and spontaneous gaiety had won her many friends. For all that she was an unscrupulous grafter, the kind of woman who deliberately sets out to lure men to destruction. She knew she was bad, yet found plenty of excuses for herself. She often declared that she hated and despised men for the wrong they had done her. Imposed upon, deceived, mistreated in her early girlhood by the type of men who prey on women, at last she turned the tables, and armed only with her dangerous charm and beauty, started out to make the same slaughter of the other sex as she herself had suffered, together with many of her sisters.
While still in her teens she came to Broadway and entering the chorus of one of the local theatres, soon became famous for her beauty. On every hand, stage-door vultures were ready to give her anything that a woman's heart can desire, from fine clothes to horses, carriages, jewels, money, and what not. But at that time there was still some decency left in her, the final sparks of sentiment and honest attachment were not yet altogether extinguished. She fell in love with an actor connected with the company, and during all the time that she might have profited and become a rich woman by the attention of outside admirers, she remained true to her love, until finally her fame as the premier beauty of the city had begun to wane. The years told on her, there were others coming up as young as she had been, and as good to look at, and she soon found that, through her faithfulness to her lover, the automobile of the millionaire, which once waited at the stage door for her, was now there for some one else. Yet she was contented and happy in her day dream, until one day the actor jilted her, and left her alone.
That was the end of her virtuous resolves. From then on, she steeled her heart against all men. What she had lost of her beauty had been replaced by a keen knowledge of human nature. She determined to give herself up entirely to a life of gain, and she went about it coldly, methodically. She knew just how much champagne could be drunk without injuring the health; she knew just what physical exercise was necessary to preserve what remained of her beauty. There was no trick of the hairdresser, the modiste, the manicurist, or any one of the legion of queer people who devote their talents to aiding the outward fascinations of women, with which she was not familiar. She knew exactly what perfumes to use, what stockings to wear, how she should live, how far she should indulge in any dissipation, and all this she determined to devote to profit.
She had no self delusions. She knew that as an actress she had no future; that the time of a woman's beauty is limited. Conscious that she had already lost the youthful litheness of figure which had made her so fascinating in the past, she laid aside every decent sentiment and chose for her companion the man who had the biggest bank roll. His age, his position in life, whether she liked or disliked him, did not enter into her calculations at all. She figured out that she had been made a fool of by men, and that there was only one revenge, the accumulation of a fortune to make her independent of them once and for all. She had, of course, certain likes and dislikes, and in a measure, she indulged them. There were men whose company she preferred to that of others, but in the case of these, their association was practically sexless, and had come down to a point of mere good fellowship.
"Seen Laura lately?" asked the lawyer suddenly, after Elfie had given the waiter her order.
"No—not for some days."
Warner looked surprised.
"I thought you and she were inseparable. You haven't quarreled, have you?"
The girl laughed.
"Quarreled—no. Laura's too sweet a girl to quarrel with. Only you know how it is. We're both so busy, with our eye on the main chance, that there isn't much time for anything else. Besides, she's been playing more or less ever since the season opened. I didn't see her in that last piece, but they say she was fine. Of course, it was Brockton's influence that got her the part. I expect to see her here to-night."
"So she's still stuck on Willard Brockton, eh?"
With a light laugh, she replied quickly:
"Laura's not the kind of girl to be 'stuck' on anybody—at least I hope she isn't. She used to be inclined to get sentimental at times—she thought she was in love and all that sort of thing. I soon knocked that nonsense out of her head. 'Laura' I said—'you've no time to fool. You won't be fresh and pretty all your life. Make hay while the sun shines. It's time to fall in love when you get old and faded and wrinkled. Business before pleasure every time.' You know, Brockton has been very good to her. She was lucky to find such a steady. She has money to burn, a luxurious apartment, automobiles, influence with the managers. What more could she want? She'd be a fool to give up all that." Raising her glass to her lips, she looked with a smile towards Madison.
"Here's how!" she said with mock courtesy.
But the big Westerner was paying no attention to them. Silent, engrossed, he was intent watching the gay crowd around him, studying with deep interest the faces of these painted courtesans, who brazenly came to this place to offer themselves. He wondered what their childhood had been, to what disastrous home influences they had been subjected to bring them to such degradation as this. Most of them were coarse and vulgar-looking wantons, with rouged cheeks and pencilled eyebrows, but others seemed to be modest girls, refined and well bred. These were plainly in their novitiate. Surely, he pondered, such a shameless calling must be revolting to them; the better instincts of their womanhood must rebel at the very shame of it. He believed that here and there, behind the rouge and forced hilarity, he could detect signs of an aching heart, a woman secretly filled with anguish. It gave him a sickening feeling of repulsion. Others saw only the outward gaiety of the scene; but he saw still deeper. He realized its tragic significance and it filled him with disgust and horror.
Suddenly his attention was attracted to a young girl who had just entered the restaurant. She was gowned magnificently enough even to be conspicuous among that crowd of well-dressed women, and she wore a large picture hat, crowned by expensive plumes. Close behind was her escort, a middle-aged, stockily built man, with iron-gray hair, also immaculately dressed. As the couple passed, the people at the tables turned and whispered. When the newcomer drew nearer, Madison could see that she was very young, and he was struck by her laughing, dimpled beauty. She appeared little more than a child, and the manner in which she was dressed—girlish fashion, with her wealth of blonde hair caught back by a ribbon band—carried out the illusion completely. Her complexion was so fair and fresh, her sensitive lips so red and full, and delicately chiseled, such a look of childish innocence was in her light blue eyes, that he wondered what she could be doing among such questionable company. He concluded that the couple had wandered in by mistake, not knowing the true character of the place. Turning to Warner, he said in an undertone.
"Look at that young girl—the blonde with white plumes—coming this way escorted by the man with the smooth face and gray hair! Surely she is not an habitue of this joint!"
The lawyer laughed as he quickly drew Elfie's attention to the new arrivals.
"Really, old chap—you're so green you're funny! Don't you know who she is? Why—that's Laura Murdock—the cleverest of them all!"
If Laura Murdock was not quite so young as she looked, she was far from appearing her real age, which was twenty-five. A casual observer at most, would have accorded her twenty. In her case Nature had been unusually kind. Her skin was soft as a new-born infant's, her complexion fresh as the unplucked rose, her expression innocent and unsophisticated. A priest unhesitatingly would have given her absolution without confession. Her baby face, her childish prettiness and air of unaffected ingenuousness, her good taste in dress, her natural refinement, and cleverness in keeping men guessing had been, indeed, the chief keystones of her success. And, most remarkable of all, perhaps, was that she had been able to retain this prettiness and girlishness after what she had gone through, for, at the time this narrative opens, Laura Murdock had already lived a career which would have made a wreck of most women.
Born in Melbourne, of English parents, she came at an early age from Australia to San Francisco. Her father was connected in a business capacity with one of the local theatrical companies, and the young girl naturally drifted to the stage. She had only a mediocre histrionic talent, but what was perhaps more important, she had uncommon good looks, and she soon found that beauty was not only a valuable asset, but a sure lever to success. The critics praised her, not because she acted well, but because she dressed exquisitely, and pleased the eye. Managers and authors flattered her. Soon she found, to her amazement, that she was the success of the hour. Stage Johnnies raved about her; sent her flowers and invited her to supper; women envied her, and said spiteful things. Portraits of her in various attitudes appeared in the newspapers and magazines. In a single night she was carried high on the top wave of sensational popularity.
The outcome was only logical. Even a virtuous woman could not stand the strain, and Laura was not virtuous. Of neurotic temperament, inherently weak, if not actually vicious in character, with the spirit of the courtesan strong within her from an early age, fond of luxury and personal adornment she could not legitimately afford, it was not surprising that she listened to the flatterers and went to the devil quicker than any woman before her in the whole history of gallantry. At the end of her first season, her reputation was completely in tatters. Accepting the situation philosophically, she did not pretend to be better than she was, but she was clever enough not to cheapen herself by entangling herself too promiscuously. She had lovers by the score, yet none could boast of having really won her heart. A woman of superficial emotions, she was entirely without depth, yet so long as it suited her purpose, she was able to conceal this shallowness and profess for the admirer of the moment the greatest affection and devotion. This is an art and she was an adept at it. Sensually she quickly attracted men, and it was not long before she became a prime favorite in the select circles that made such resorts as "The Yellow Poodle" and "Moreland's" famous, yet in her dissipations she was always careful not in any way to indulge in excesses which would jeopardize her physical attractiveness, or for one moment diminish her keen sense of worldly calculation.
One day, obeying a foolish impulse, she married. The venture was, of course, a failure. Her selfish vacillating nature was such that she could not remain true to the poor fool who had given her his name. To provide the luxuries she incessantly demanded, he embezzled the funds of the bank where he was employed, and when exposure came, and he was confronted with a jail sentence, she was horrified to see him kill himself in front of her. There was a momentary spasm of grief, a tidal wave of remorse, followed in a few brief weeks by the peculiar recuperation of spirits, beauty and attractiveness that so marks this type of woman. Gradually she became hardened and indifferent. She began to view life as a hunting field, in which the trophy went to the hardest rider. Deceived herself by men, she finally arrived at that stage of life known in theatrical circles as "wised up."
Coming to New York, she attracted the attention of a prominent theatrical manager, and was given a part, in which she happened to make a hit. This was enough to immediately establish her reputation on the metropolitan stage. The fact that before reaching the age of womanhood, she had had more escapades than most women have in their entire lives, was not generally known in Manhattan, nor was there a mark upon her face or a single coarse mannerism to betray it. She was soft voiced, very pretty, very girlish, yet she was no fool. Her success did not turn her head or blind her to her shortcomings as an actress. She realized that in order to maintain her position she must have some influence outside of her own ability, so she laid plans to entangle in her net a hard-headed, blunt and supposedly soubrette-proof theatre manager. He fell victim to her charms, and in his cold, stolid way, gave her what love there was in him. Still not satisfied, she played two ends against the middle, and finding a young man of wealth and position, who could give her in his youth an exuberance of joy utterly apart from the character of the theatrical manager, she allowed him to shower her with presents. When his money was gone, she cast him aside and demurely resumed her relations with the unsuspecting theatre manager. The jilted lover became crazed, and one night at a restaurant, attempted to murder them both.
From that time on, her career was a succession of brilliant coups in gaining the confidence and love, not to say the money, of men of all ages, and all walks of life. Her powers of fascination were as potent as her professions of reform were insincere. She never made an honest effort to be an honest woman, she never tried to do the square thing. Yet, like other women of her type, she found all sorts of excuses for her wrongdoing. She pretended that she was persecuted, a victim of circumstances, and was ever ready to explain away the viciousness of character, which was really responsible for her troubles.
In spite of her success on the stage, she was an indifferent actress. Her lack of true feeling, her abuse of the dramatic temperament in her private affairs, had been such as to make it impossible for her sincerely to impress audiences with genuine emotional power, and therefore, despite the influences which she always had at hand, she remained a mediocre artist.
Her meeting with Willard Brockton was, from her point of view, the best possible thing that could have happened. Brockton was a New York stock broker, and like many men of his tastes and means, was a good deal of a sensualist. Of morals he frankly confessed he had none, yet he was an honest sensualist for he played the game fair. He never forgot that he was a gentleman. He was perfectly candid about his amours and never expected more from a woman than he could give to her. He was honest in this, that he detested any man who sought to take advantage of a pure woman. He abhorred any man who deceived a woman. The same in love as in business, he believed that there was only one way to go through life, and that was to be straight with those with whom one deals. A master hand in stock manipulation and other questionable practices of Wall Street, he realized that he had to pit his cunning against the craft of others. He was not at all in sympathy with present-day business methods, but he did not see any particular reason why he should constitute himself a reformer. Although still in the prime of life, he cared nothing for society and held aloof from it. If he went to the trouble to keep in touch at all with people of his own set, it was simply for business reasons. What he seemed to delight in most was the life of Bohemia, with its easy camaraderie, its lax moral code, its contempt for the conventions. He enjoyed the company of women of facile virtue, the gay little supper parties after the theatre, and the glass that inebriates and cheers, in a word, he enjoyed going the pace that kills. He was a man of many liasons, but none were as serious or had lasted so long as his present pact with Laura Murdock. No woman before had been clever enough to hold him. He appeared very fond of her, and completely under her influence. His friends shook their heads, looked wise, and took and gave odds that he would be so foolish as to marry her.
The couple took seats at a table, the cynosure of all eyes. Every head turned in their direction, conversations were temporarily suspended and there was much whispering and craning of necks, to get a glimpse of the young woman whose reputation, or lack of it, was already so notorious. Far from being embarrassed at this display of public interest, Laura seemed to enjoy the attention she excited. Languidly sinking into her seat, she said to her escort with a smile:
"Don't they stare? You'd think they had never seen a woman before."
Brockton laughed as he lit a fresh cigar.
"How do you know they're staring at you? I'm not such a bad looker myself."
Laura ran over the menu to see what there was to tempt her appetite.
"Bring me some lobster," she said to the waiter.
"And a bottle of wine—Moet and Chandon white seal," broke in Brockton, "frappe—you understand, and make it a rush order. I have to get away in a few minutes."
Laura pursed her delicately chiseled lips together in a pout. She liked to do that on every possible occasion, because, having practiced it at home before the mirror, she thought it looked cunning.
"You're surely going to give yourself time to eat a bite, aren't you?" she cried in affected dismay.
The broker looked at his watch.
"I must be in Boston early to-morrow morning. The express leaves the Grand Central at 12:15. I've just time to drink a glass of wine and sprint for the train. That's why I kept the taxi waiting outside. I hate to go. I assure you I'd much rather sit here with you. But go I must."
As far as his amours were concerned, women of the Laura Murdock and Elfie St. Clair type appealed strongly to the broker. Not only did he enjoy their bohemianism and careless good-fellowship, but he entered fully into the spirit of their way of living. He professed to understand them and in a measure to sympathize with them. Entirely without humbug or cant, he recognized that they had their own place in the social game. They were outcasts, if you will, but interesting and amusing outcasts. He rather liked the looseness of living which does not quite reach the disreputable. Behind all this, however, was a high sense of honor. He detested and despised the average stage-door Johnny, and he loathed the type of man who seeks to take young girls out of theatrical companies for their ruin. Otherwise he had no objection to his women friends being as wise as himself. When they entered into an agreement with him there was no deception. In the first place, he wanted to like them; in the second place he wanted them to like him. His iron-gray hair, contrasting with their youth, not only made him look like their father, but his manner towards them was distinctly paternal. He insisted also on their financial arrangements, being kept on a strictly business basis. The amount of the living expenses was fixed at a definite figure and he expected them to limit themselves to it. He made them distinctly understand that he reserved the right at any time to withdraw his support, or transfer it to some other inamorata, and he gave them the same privilege. While he consulted only his own selfish pleasures, Brockton was not an uncharitable man. He was always ready to help anyone who was unfortunate, and at heart he sometimes felt sorry for these women who had to barter their self respect to indulge their love of luxury. He hoped that some of them would one day meet the right man and settle down to respectable married life, but he insisted that such an arrangement could be possible only by the honest admission on the woman's part of what she had been and the thorough and complete understanding of her past by the man involved. He was gruff and blunt in manner, yet well liked by his intimates. They thought him a brute, almost a savage, but almost every one agreed with Laura that he was "a pretty decent savage." She and the broker had been pals for two years, and she had never been happier in her life. He was most generous with his money and his close relations with several prominent theatrical managers made it possible for him to secure for her desirable engagements. There was no misunderstanding between them. He knew exactly what she was and what she had been. He any way. He always told her that whenever she felt it inconsistent with her happiness to continue with him, it was her privilege to quit, and he himself reserved the same right. As far as such an irregular marital relation as this could be said to be desirable, it was an ideal arrangement.
"How long will you be gone?" asked Laura, as she toyed with a lobster claw and glanced around the cafe, to see who was there.
"I've no idea," answered Brockton. "I may return day after to-morrow or I may be detained there a week or longer. It's a big job, you know—in connection with floating a big issue of railroad bonds. There's a barrel of money in it. I may not get back before you go to Denver."
The girl looked up at him quickly, and laying down her knife and fork, leaned across the table. Resting her dimpled chin on her ungloved and tapering hands, which were covered with blazing stones, she said with more genuine feeling than she had yet shown:
"Oh, Will—it was awfully good of you to get me that engagement and let me go. A number of girls I know were after it—some with far more experience than I've had. They're all crazy to play stock at this time of year. Of course, I don't need the money as much as they do, but I'm fond of acting and it's a bully way to spend some of the summer. Besides, I think the air out there—the high altitude—will do me lots of good."
"That's all very well," rejoined the broker with a grimace of mock despair, "but what am I going to do all alone in this dusty, thirsty town, while you're playing Camille, and what not under the shady trees at Denver? I'm an ass to stand for it."
She laid a consoling hand on his arm.
"No, you're, not. You're a darling boy. You know I had my heart set on getting that stock engagement, and you went to all kinds of trouble to make the manager let me have it. Really, Will—I can't say how grateful I am! I won't be so long away—only six short Weeks—and if you like you can come to Denver and bring me East again. It'll be awfully jolly traveling home together, won't it?"
Brockton looked at her and smiled indulgently. He was only joking, just to see how she would take it. Of course he would let her go. He would be a selfish brute if he played the tyrant and consulted only his own convenience.
"All right, kid," he said kindly. "Go and enjoy yourself. Never mind about me—I'll jog along somehow. I'll miss you, though. I don't mind telling you that. When you're ready to come home, just telegraph and I'll take the next train for Denver. If you need any money, you know where to write me. Meantime, put this in your inside pocket."
He pressed his strong fingers down on her open palm, and closed her hand. Opening it, she found five new crisp one hundred dollar notes. A crimson glow of pleasure spread over her face and neck. For a moment she was unable to stammer her thanks.
"Oh, Will—you are so good!"
"That's nothing," he laughed lightly, "have a good time with it. Buy what things you need. You understand—that is only a little extra pin money. Your regular weekly cheque will be sent to you at Denver."
All she could say was to repeat:
"Oh—Will—you are so good!"
He lifted his glass and looked whimsically at her through the dancing bubbles of the foaming champagne. In a low voice he said:
"Here's to my little girl! May she tread the stage of Denver with the grace and charm of an Ellen Terry and return to New York covered with new laurels!"
Calling for the bill, and tossing a ten dollar note to the waiter, he rose hastily:
"I hate to go and leave you here alone, but I must catch that train."
"Oh, don't mind me," she replied, smiling up at him. "I'll stay a few minutes yet." Nodding towards the left, she added: "I see Elfie over there. I'll sit with her. Don't worry about me. I'll go home in a taxi."
He took her hand. He would have liked to kiss her, but like most men, he hated to make public demonstration of his feelings.
"Good-bye, little one," he said fondly. "Be a good girl. Write me directly you get to Denver. Be sure to send me all the press notices——" Facetiously he added: "—all the bad ones mind. I'm not interested in the others. And when you're ready to come home, just telegraph, and I'll come for you. Good-bye!"
The next moment he was gone.
For some time after his, departure she sat quietly at the table, toying idly with the rich food in front of her. Absorbed in her own thoughts she paid no attention to what was transpiring around. She was singularly depressed that evening, she knew not why. It was very foolish, for she had every reason to feel elated. Things certainly continued to go her way. After all the storm and stress of her past life, she was at last settled and contented. She had plenty of money, a good friend, influence with the theatre managers, and now she had secured the very engagement she had been longing for. What could any reasonable woman possibly desire more? Yet for all that she sometimes felt there was something missing in her life. She was too intelligent not to know the degradation of the kind of existence she was leading, and sometimes the realization of it made her utterly miserable. If it were not for the champagne and the hourly excitement which helped her to forget, she sometimes felt she would take her life. In her heart she knew that she did not love Will Brockton, and she believed him too clever a man to imagine for a moment that she had any real affection for him. They were pals, that was all. He liked her very much—she was sure of that. But it was not love. How could a woman of her character expect to inspire decent love in any man? Theirs was a careless, unconventional tie, which could be broken to-morrow. A quarrel, and she would see him no more. She shivered. The mere thought of such a contingency was decidedly unpleasant. It's so easy, she mused, to become accustomed to automobiles, luxurious apartments, fine gowns and the rest, but so hard—oh, so hard!—to learn how to do without them.
Emptying her glass, she rose from her seat and strolled toward where Elfie St. Clair was still sitting with the two men.
"Hello, Laura!" cried her friend as she came up. "We saw you from the distance. Come and sit down. These gentlemen are friends of mine—Mr. Warner—Mr. Madison—Miss Murdock."
The men bowed, while Elfie made room for the newcomer.
"Won't you take something?" asked Warner politely.
"No, thank you—I've just had a bite."
"Why did Mr. Brockton run away?" demanded Elfie, unable to restrain her feminine curiosity. His sudden departure was unusual enough to suggest a lover's quarrel.
"He had to catch a train—important business in Boston," replied Laura carelessly. Impulsively she burst out: "Oh, Elfie—what do you think? I got that stock engagement after all. I'm perfectly daffy about it. I play leads in 'Camille,' 'Mrs. Dane's Defense,' and such plays as that."
"Where is it?" demanded Elfie.
"In Denver. Don't you remember? I told you I was after it?"
"Denver? Why that's where Mr. Madison comes from."
Both girls turned and looked at the big Westerner. Laura regarded him with more attention. If this man was from Denver, he might be useful to her. She was not the kind to neglect anything that was likely to promote her interests. Looking him well over, she noted his big, muscular frame, his steel-gray eyes, and determined, prognathous jaw. It was a type of manhood that was new to her. He was decidedly worth cultivating.
"You live in Denver?" she said, trying on him the effect of her dimpled smile, which was irresistible to most men.
He nodded carelessly.
"Yes—I'm with one of the newspapers there."
She was glad now that she had come over to Elfie's table. Decidedly this man would be very useful. It is always a good thing to know journalists. It suggested favorable paragraphs and good notices in the papers. She remembered what a philosophical chorus girl once told her: "Rather a good press agent than great talent." Forthwith Laura exerted herself to be very amiable. She laughed and chatted and when Madison, in his turn, ordered a bottle of wine, she graciously allowed him to drink to her success.
"But you must help me!" she said coquettishly.
"Sure!" he answered gayly, half in jest.
She inquired about Denver, the life there, the theatres, and their audiences. She asked his advice as to the best hotel for her to stop at, questioned him about his own life and work, and sought to flatter him by appearing to take interest in everything he said.
The small hours of the morning still found them there. When at last they parted, she said in that arch, captivating way, which none better than she knew how to employ:
"We will be good friends, won't we?"
"You bet we will!" was his laconic, careless rejoinder.
Denver, Colorado, June 15, 19—.
I've made good all right. The management is delighted and already wants me to sign for next year. My notices are wonderful. They say I'm great. I enclose some of the newspaper dope. It's been awful fun. You should have seen me as the tuberculous Camille, expiring to slow music in Armand's arms. It was a scream. I had to bite the property bedclothes to keep from exploding outright. But the scene went fine. People sobbed all over the house.
Denver's a peach of a place. Fancy—I found a big "Welcome" arch up—no doubt in honor of my arrival—and it's been up ever since. Seriously, I'm a big social success—invited everywhere—tea parties, church gatherings and other choice functions. Can you imagine yours truly, demure and penitent, taking part in bazaars, solemnly presided over by elderly spinsters in spectacles? You ask why I don't write more regularly. My dear boy—if you only knew how busy I am, what with rehearsals, social duties and so forth! What nonsense to imagine for a moment that it was because my time was taken up by some other man. You must think I'm foolish. No, no, dear—not quite so dippy as that. No other charmer for mine while my Will is good to me. Write soon to
P.S.—How's dear old Broadway these days? If you see Elfie, tell her to write.
Colorado, land of enchantment, possesses at least one distinct advantage over other states of the Union. Apart from the rugged grandeur of its scenery, its lofty, awe-inspiring peaks and stupendous canons, the climate is perhaps without its equal in the world. Denver, particularly, is richly favored in this respect. Situated near the foothills of the Rockies, on a high, broad plateau, sheltered by the majestic mountains from the fierce storms and blizzards that sweep the plains, the winters are delightfully mild and salubrious. Owing to the great altitude the atmosphere is pure and dry and in the hot months the breezes which blow almost continuously from the snow-capped heights of Pike's Peak, make the air deliciously cool, with a temperature rarely rising above the eighties. For this reason Denver is almost as popular a summer resort with those who live in the Middle West, as Colorado Springs, Manitou, and other fashionable places.
Nor does this picturesque mountain capital with its 200,000 population, lack in up-to-date comforts and amusements. It has beautiful homes, fine hotels, good theatres. Its people are cultured and discriminating. They hear the best music and see the latest comedies. In the winter, Paderewski plays for them; Sembrich sings for them; Mrs. Fiske and Maude Adams act for them. In the summer they applaud at an open air theatre pleasantly set among the shady trees, the latest Broadway successes performed by a stock company especially engaged in New York. It was as leading lady of this organization that Laura Murdock made her debut in Denver.
As already intimated, Mr. Brockton's protegee was not a good actress; she was not even a competent actress. Deficient in mentality, lacking any real culture, she failed utterly to rise to the opportunity offered by the roles with which she was entrusted. Fortunately for her, summer audiences are not highly critical. Her youth and beauty pleased, and the local reviewers, susceptible like ordinary mortals to the charms of a pretty woman, were unusually indulgent. Some of them paid doubtful compliments, but what they said of her acting sounded good to Laura, who eagerly cut out the notices and mailed them to Brockton.
So far her summer season had been a decided success. She liked Denver and Denver liked her. This she considered most fortunate, for it suited her purpose to make such a hit of this engagement that the echo of it would reach as far East as Broadway. It would give her better standing with the theatre managers in New York and put a quietus for good on comment in unfriendly quarters. A clever tactician with an eye always open to the main chance, she exerted herself to the utmost to make friends and neglected no opportunity to advance her interests. She attended church regularly and made liberal donations to the local charities. When entertainments were organized on behalf of the poor, she volunteered her services, which were gratefully accepted. Thus her local popularity grew and was firmly and quickly established.
The papers spoke eulogistically of her goodness of heart, interviewed her on every possible pretext and published portraits of her by the score. Society soon followed suit. The best people of the town took her up and the women gushed over her. She was such a young little thing, they said, so ingenuous and interesting, so refined, so different from most actresses. Sorry that she should be all alone in a strange place, exposed to the temptations of a big city, they took her under their wing, and invited her to their homes. One lady, particularly, was most cordial in her invitation. Her name was Mrs. Williams, and Laura met her at a church picnic. The wife of a millionaire cattle king, she owned a handsome house in Denver and a beautiful country home near Colorado Springs. Mrs. Williams took a great fancy to the demure young actress and declined to say good-bye in Denver until Laura had promised to go and spend a week with her at her country ranch.
"It's a lovely spot, dear," she said. "I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself. My house is perched up on the side of Ute Pass, and overlooks the whole Colorado Canon, two thousand feet below. It is a wonderful spectacle. You must come. I won't take a refusal."
Laura promised, willing enough. She would be glad of the rest after her weeks of hard work.
Of John Madison she had seen a great deal. Following her old tactics, she had started out to fascinate the tall newspaper man, expecting to find him an easy victim. For once, however, she found that she had met her match. Directly she arrived in Denver she sent him her card, and he called at the hotel, his manner courteous, but distinctly cold. He had not forgotten, however, the promise made in New York, and he offered to give her such help as he could. Aware of his close connection with the local newspapers, she was glad to accept his offer to act as her press representative. She even offered to pay him, but he flatly declined, and the covert smile that accompanied the refusal made her angry.
"Why do you refuse?" she demanded. "Are you so rich?"
"I'm dead broke," he answered dryly. "But you see, I'm a queer fellow—there are certain things I can't do—one of them is to take money from a woman."
On another occasion, when she went a little out of her way to show him attention he said, with brutal candor:
"Don't waste your time on me. I'm only a poor devil of a newspaper man. There are plenty of fatter fowl to pluck. Denver's full of softheads with money to burn."
She hated him for that speech. His careless words and disdainful attitude cut her sensitive nature to the quick. Evidently he despised her.
Yet for all that, he did not neglect her interests. For two weeks after her arrival and previous to her debut, she was the most written about person in town. The papers were full of her. It was invaluable advertising and she tried to show her appreciation in other ways, inviting him to dinner, and sending him little presents. But still he held aloof, letting her understand plainly that he knew her record and was not to be hoodwinked or inveigled. The truth was, that women of her class did not interest him. Indeed, they filled him with aversion, yet he pitied rather than condemned them. "One never knows," he used to say when the question came up with his men friends, "what kind of a life they were up against, or to what temptations they were subjected. The most virtuous woman alive could not swear exactly what she would do if confronted with certain conditions." This was a pet theory of his, and it made him more charitable than others.
Meantime, he was studying Laura at close range. He found that she was weak rather than really vicious. There was much of the spoiled child in her make-up. Her bringing up had been bad. In different environments she might have been entirely different. There was much in her that attracted him. He liked her merry disposition, her girlish ingenuousness. Such a naive nature, he argued, could not be wholly depraved. He frankly enjoyed her society, and it was not long before he let down the barriers of his reserve. Laura was quick to notice the change, and she would have belied her sex if it had not given her pleasure. Madison interested her; he was refreshingly different from all the men she had ever met. She wondered what his life was. At every opportunity she encouraged him to speak of himself.
"Do you like this newspaper work?" she demanded, one day.
He shook his head.
"No; there is nothing in it," he answered. "When a big story breaks loose—a strike or a murder, or a bank robbery—one likes the excitement, but when things quiet down the dull routine palls on you. I won't stay in it."
"Then what will you do?"
"Hike it up to the Northwest—and dig for gold," he replied. Confidentially he went on: "I have the chance of a quarter interest in a mine up there. If I strike luck, I'll be richer than Croesus."
"And then?" she smiled.
"Then I'll come back and marry you!" he said laughingly.
It was said lightly, but like many words uttered in jest, it sounded as if there might be some truth back of it. Both grew silent and the subject was quickly changed.
While mortified at her discomfiture, Laura thought more of the big fellow for his attitude of utter indifference. She had been so pampered and courted all her life that it was a novelty to find that she made absolutely no impression on this one man. Her respect for him grew in consequence. Gradually, he, too, seemed to take more pleasure in her society. He called more frequently and became more friendly. He was still on his guard, as if he still distrusted her—or perhaps himself—but he did not avoid her any longer.
The theatre naturally took up most of her time. When not acting, she was rehearsing new roles. It was interesting work, and she felt it was valuable experience. Madison declared she had improved wonderfully, and, in his enthusiasm, wrote eulogistic articles about her in the papers that were copied far and wide. Indeed, she could thank him for all the success she had had. He was at the theatre every night, watching her from the front, taking the liveliest interest in her success, and promoting it in every possible way. A critic who ventured to find fault he threatened to horsewhip; he put her portrait in the papers and printed interesting stories concerning her that had only his imagination for foundation. He transacted business for her with the local manager, and acted in her behalf in all the necessary negotiations with the Church Bazaar committees.
Before very long they were the best of friends. Laura found him not only useful, but a delightful companion. What time could be spent from rehearsals, she spent with him. In the familiar, intimate, theatrical style, they already called each other by their first names. They went out horseback riding together, and he took her for long automobile trips, showing her many of the wonderful places with which Colorado abounds. They played golf at Broadmoor, and fished black-spotted trout in South Platte river. They drank health-giving waters at Great Spirit Springs, and viewed the reconstructed ruins of the prehistoric cliff-dwellers at Manitou. They traveled on the cog railroad to the dizzy summit of Pike's Peak, and visited the busy gold-mining camp at Cripple Creek. Here Madison was on familiar ground. He showed his companion the manner in which man wrests the coveted treasure from Nature, the whole process of mining, the powerful electric drills, the ponderous machinery, the ore deposits in the hard granite. He pointed out the miners' cabins on the mountainsides, replicas of the rough log huts in Alaska in which he, himself, had lived. It was all very interesting and so novel that for the first time in her life Laura felt the delightful sensation of seeing something new. Time had no longer any significance to her. The days and weeks sped by so pleasantly that she gave no thought to returning East. Sometimes she even forgot to write her weekly letter to Mr. Brockton. She marveled herself that she could be so happy and contented far away from the alluring glitter of the Great White Way.
Then all at once the truth dawned upon her, and the revelation came with the suddenness and force of an unexpected blow. She was in love with this man. All these weeks, unknown to herself, quite unconsciously, she had been slowly falling desperately, madly, honestly and decently in love. The man she left behind in New York, the man to whom she owed everything, did not exist any more. John Madison was the man she loved.
At first she tried to laugh it off as being too absurd. She, Laura Murdock, with her ripe experience of the world and many adventures with men—to fall in love like a silly, sentimental schoolgirl! It was too ridiculous. How the Rialto would laugh if they knew. Of course, they never would know, for there was nothing in it. The Westerner probably did not care two straws for her. He liked her, of course, or he would not bother to waste his time with her, but, no doubt, he thought of her only as a friend, a lively companion who kept him amused. No doubt, too, he knew her record and secretly despised her. Even if he did not care for her and told her so—even if he were willing to marry her, what then? She would be a fool to listen to him. What kind of a life could he, a penniless scribbler, give her compared with the comforts and gifts which Willard Brockton was able to shower upon her?
Above all else, Laura had sought to be practical in life. She often declared that it was one of the secrets of her success. It was late in the day, therefore, to make a mistake of which only an unsophisticated beginner could be guilty. Yet, much as she tried to laugh it off and reassure herself, the matter worried her. When, mentally, she compared the two men, the advantage invariably remained with the younger. John was nearer her own age, they had in common many tastes and interests which the broker cared nothing about, and she felt more exuberant, more youthful, in the newspaper man's society. Brockton, she could not help remembering, was more than double her age. It would be unnatural if she had not found the younger man more congenial. In her heart she felt that Brockton, with all his money, had no real hold upon her, and that if John really did care for her and asked her to marry him, she would be face to face with the hardest question for which she had ever had to find an answer.
Early one morning John came to the hotel to take Laura for a prearranged excursion. Temporarily out of the bill at the theatre, and a long holiday being hers to enjoy, she had suggested a little trip to Manitou to see the far-famed Garden of the Gods, a place of scenic marvels, where, by a strange freak of Nature, great rocks and boulders, fantastic in shape and coloring, are thrown together in all kinds of curious formations. The plan was to go by train as far as Colorado Springs, and then finish the journey by automobile.
They started gleefully, by rail, and were soon spinning across the verdant plains in the direction of Pike's Peak, the snow-capped peak of which rose majestically in the distance. The day was beautiful, and both being in good spirits, they enjoyed to the full the fresh, invigorating air.
On reaching Colorado Springs, they partook of an appetizing luncheon, served merrily under the trees. She laughed and chattered and discussed plans for the future, while John, strangely silent, just looked at her, quietly enjoying her spontaneous gayety, surprised himself at the keen interest he was taking in her society. And the more he watched her laughing eyes and dimpled smiles, the more he realized the loneliness, the solitude of his own empty, aimless life. The summer would soon be at an end. The past few weeks had sped by all too quickly for him, and in the interval this girl, with her vivacious manner and laughing eyes, had strangely grown upon him. What would he do when she was gone? When the meal was finished, he went in search of a machine. An expert chauffeur himself, they could manage the car without aid, and soon they were running smoothly and rapidly along the mountain roads.
Laura chatted continuously while John kept a watchful eye in front. As they flew along under the murmuring pines, he pointed out the various places of interest. The machine was running fast, with the going none too smooth, when, all at once, while making a sharp turn, the wheels skidded, and they were almost ditched. Laura gave a little scream, and, instinctively, grasped her companion's arm. He laughed to reassure her, and, giving the wheel a vigorous twist, the car was again under control and once more on its way.
Laura had always felt nervous in automobiles, even in New York, where she was accustomed to go at a much slower pace. But to-day, in spite of the mishap they had just escaped, she had no fear. She knew that John was a splendid driver, watchful, resourceful, careful. With his immense strength and skill, the machine seemed but a toy in his hands.
She watched him furtively, admiring him. This was no city roue, his constitution undermined by dissipation. He was good to look at, wholesome, frank, virile. Perhaps if she had met him earlier, her life might have been very different. She might have been a respectable woman. She could have loved such a man as this. She did love him—she was sure of it now. There was no mistaking the feeling he inspired in her. Once, he chanced to glance down, and caught her looking intently at him.
"What's the matter?" he smiled.
"Nothing," she answered gravely.
Soon they reached their destination. The automobile came to a stop, and, getting down, she took his arm, and together they approached the imposing gateway of the far-famed Garden of the Gods. When she passed through the red perpendicular portals of the place, Laura was filled with awe. It was the first time she had beheld this unique and beautiful demonstration of Nature, and she could not repress her enthusiasm. In the wildest flights of her imagination, she had never pictured such a scene as the one now presented to her eyes. It was as if she had been suddenly transported to fairyland, and was treading among the colossal habitations of giants. On all sides were stupendous masses of rock, huge boulders of all colors—white, yellow and red—most fantastically shaped. There were lofty towers, strange, wind-wrought obelisks, pointed pinnacles, bizarre in shape as one sees in nightmares. It reminded her of the settings of Wagner's music dramas and the weird pictures of Gustave Dore. She admired the Graces, lofty fragments of strata shaped like obelisks. Then there was the Cradle, a huge rock so nicely balanced that it seemed as if a child's touch could send it crashing from its pedestal, yet probably it had stood there since creation day. Other rocks, strangely colored, were standing on end in all kinds of extravagant postures. Some were shaped like fierce animals; others resembled faces, houses, men. It seemed like a vision of another world, a glimpse of some vanished people, a race of titanic beings who had suddenly been petrified into stone. The place was deserted. There was no one there but themselves. A sepulchral silence hung heavy over everything. It was as mournful and awe-inspiring as a city of the dead.
By the time they had seen all the wonders of the garden the sun was low on the horizon. A glorious crimson glow shot up out of the west, and, flooding the heavens, tinged each surrounding object with rich color. Tired after the day's adventures, they sat on a bench at the base of a tall stone pillar, which, in the growing dark, seemed like a colossal sentinel standing guard in a camp of giants. Madison was very silent. Deep in his own thoughts, he paid little attention to his companion.
"How quiet it is!" murmured Laura, almost to herself, as she contrasted the heavy stillness of the place with the roar and excitement of Broadway.
"How lonely!" added Madison. Bitterly he exclaimed: "It reminds me of my own life."
Quickly she looked up at him. It was unusual for him to speak of himself.
"Are you lonely?" she demanded.
She looked puzzled, not understanding.
"Why are you lonely? You are young and strong and clever. The world is before you——"
He remained silent for a moment, without replying. In the uncertain light of the late afternoon, she could see that his eyes were fixed steadily on her. In them was a look that every woman understands, be she pure or impure. Then slowly, his deep, bass voice beautifully modulated, he said gravely:
"I am lonely because I am alone. All these years, ever since I was a boy, I have spent my life alone. I have had many so-called friends—yes; but even friends do not satisfy the longing to have some one still nearer and dearer, some one to whom you can turn in trouble, some one who will be always there to share in your joys. Work—yes, I can work, but why should I strive and toil? For myself? Bah—I'm sick of it all. To live alone, as I do, is not worth the effort it costs. Sometimes I think I'd just as soon blow out my brains as not. What's the use of straining every nerve and sweating blood to make a success in life if there's no one to share success with when it comes?"
She understood. A thrill ran through her entire being. Her heart throbbed violently and her lips trembled as she said gently:
"Why don't you marry? Any girl would consider herself fortunate if she could go through life with such a man as you."
Suddenly she winced. His big, muscular hand had caught hers and was holding it firmly in an steel-like grip. Bending over so close that she felt his warm breath on her cheek, he said hoarsely:
"Do you mean that? Would you give up all that you have now—to marry me?"
Something rose up in her throat and choked her. Her heart beat furiously as though it would burst. What she had foreseen and dreaded was upon her.
"I?" she gasped in unaffected surprise.
"Yes, you," he said fiercely. "You must have seen what has been in my heart for days—that I care for you. The first moment I set eyes on you I knew that you were just the kind of girl I wanted for a wife. At first I was afraid of you. I had heard things about you—gossip and all that. You came here. We were thrown together. I still mistrusted you, but I watched you, and saw you weren't as bad as I'd been led to believe. I guess people have lied about you. What do I care what they say? You're good enough for me. I soon found out that I loved you. I'm a man of very few words. I'm not an adept at pretty speeches. Tell me—will you marry me?"
She made no reply. It was now almost dark, and he could not see her face plainly. Hoarsely he repeated:
"Did you hear me? I want you to marry me."
She shook her head.
"It's impossible," she murmured. "It's impossible."
"You don't care for me—I've made a fool of myself. Is that it?"
She laid her gloved hand gently on his hand.
"I do care for you."
"Then why is it impossible?" he demanded fiercely. He put his arm around her and tried to draw her to him.
Quietly, but firmly, she disengaged herself, and it was with some show of dignity that she replied:
"Because I care for you—just because of that."
"You are not free?" he demanded.
"It is not that—there is another reason."
"What is it?"
At first she was tempted to deceive him and keep up for his benefit her masterful assumption of innocence. But what was the good? He would soon know her real record, if he did not already know it. Kind friends would soon enlighten him, and then he would despise her the more. A man of such broad experience was not to be hoodwinked so easily. No, it was folly to beat about the bush. At one time she might have seized the happiness he held out to her, but now it was too late.
"What is it?" he persisted. "Do you mean that man Brockton? Is he the obstacle?"
"He is one of them," she answered firmly. She was astonished at her own self-possession, but there was a quiver in her voice as she went on: "My life has been different to what you perhaps think. I am not altogether to blame, although I have no excuses to offer. You understand now?"
She half expected an explosion of wrath, but none came. Instead, he said calmly:
"I know all about your past life. I've known everything from the first: how you went to San Francisco as a kid and got into the show business, and how you went wrong, and then how you married—still a kid—and how your husband didn't treat you exactly right, and then how, in a fit of frenzied drunkenness he came home and shot himself."
The girl leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. A low moan escaped her lips. Madison touched her gently on the shoulder.
"But that's all past now," he went on. "We can forget that. I know how you were up against it, after that; how hard it was for you to get along. Then, finally, how you've lived, and—and that you and that man Brockton have been—well—never mind. I know all this, and still I ask you to marry me. What is past makes no difference. I don't care what you have been but only what you are. If you think you care enough for me to leave this man and begin life anew with me, I'll marry you. I may not be able to give you all the luxuries his money provided, but at least, as my wife, you'll be able to lift your head up in the world. I don't profess to be a saint myself. I'm no better and no worse than the next man, and I'm not unreasonable enough to expect too much in a woman who has had to make her own way in the world—especially on the stage. There's some good in you, yet, Laura; I believe in you. Something tells me that you'll make good if only given half a chance, and that chance I hold out to you now. Break away from this rotten life you've been leading. It can end only in one way. You're young now, and you're beautiful, and it doesn't seem to matter, but some day your youth and beauty will be gone, and what then? Quit now, while there's still time. Be my wife. I'll work hard for you, and, with God's help and you to inspire me, I'll get there!"
She listened in silence. His melodious, earnest voice sounded like sacred music in her ears. It was a glimpse of Heaven that he gave her, a promise of redemption and regeneration, yet her heart told her that it was impossible. If she consented, what would the outcome be? One day, sooner or later, he would regret having married her and would taunt her with her past. They would not be able to take a step in New York but some one would point derisively at her.
"It's impossible," she murmured weakly.
"Why?" he persisted.
"Give me time to consider," she pleaded.
"I'll give you until to-morrow."
With that, he released her, and went to light the lamps of the automobile. It was now quite dark, and it required skilful manoeuvring to find the right road. The return home was silent; each was engrossed in thought. At the door of the hotel he merely pressed her hand.
"To-morrow," he whispered.
All night long she tossed feverishly. Sleep was out of the question. In a few hours she must decide what her future life would be—the petted, pampered mistress of Willard Brockton, wealthy member of the New York Stock Exchange, or the wife of John Madison, an interesting but impecunious newspaper reporter. If she married this man, it meant that she must relinquish immediately everything she loved—her sumptuous apartment on Riverside Drive, her automobile, her beautiful gowns, and gay little midnight champagne suppers in good company. Her life henceforth would be dreadfully prosaic and commonplace. She would be comparatively poor, perhaps in actual want. Even if she remained on the stage, she could not hope to secure good parts. Probably she would not be able to dress even decently; no one would look at her; she would have to darn stockings and be content with one hat a season—all this was a picture depressing and discouraging enough to one who had been accustomed to all the luxuries money can buy.
On the other hand there would be compensatory advantages not to be ignored. As John Madison's legitimate wife, she could once more take her place in the world as a virtuous woman. She could again lift up her head and look decent people honestly in the face. She would be the lawful wife, entitled to regard, not the despised paramour, a plaything to be discarded and thrown aside at a man's whim. Once more she would be able to feel respect for herself. At heart Laura was not a bad girl. She was weak and luxury loving, and, when tempted, had been unable to resist entering into a style of living which suited her own peculiar tastes. She had paid the price with a light heart, but as she grew older she was becoming wiser. She realized what an awful price she was paying for her fun. She knew that, with the sacrifice of her chastity, she had surrendered everything a self-respecting woman holds dear, all for what—a few glittering trinkets! In what was she better than a common wanton? And what would her end be, but the end of all women of her kind? When her youth had passed and her beauty had faded, her admirers would grow cold and indifferent. Abandoned by all, friendless and homeless, she would go unwept to an early grave.
The thought was one to fill her with horror. Why not try to save herself now, while there was yet time? She still had a chance. A drowning man will grasp even at a straw. She was not irretrievably lost. The devil might still be cheated of a victim. This man believed in her; he offered to make her his honored wife. He forgave the past and held out a generous hand to save her. A revulsion of feeling suddenly shook the girl to the innermost recesses of her being. Burying her face in her pillow, she burst into a flood of tears. For the first time in her life, her better instincts were awakened.
She would show the world that it had misjudged her, that she was not as bad as she seemed. Her future life, her future conduct should redeem all that had gone before. Perhaps the Almighty would be merciful and hold out a forgiving hand. She might still be a happy, decent woman. With a prayer on her lips, she dropped down on her knees. The following-day this telegram flashed over the wires to New York:
"Theatre closes next Saturday night. You needn't come for me. Am invited to spend a week with a lady at Colorado Spring's. Will return to New York alone.
A few hours later this message was received in reply:
"Am compelled to go to Kansas City on business, so will pick you up anyhow. Leave address at Denver hotel.
Mrs. Williams' ranch house at Colorado Springs was universally admitted to be a show place even among the many magnificent summer residences with which this fashionable resort is dotted. Perched high on the side of the famous Ute Pass, a wildly picturesque spot, so called because the Ute Indians used it as a favorite trail across the mountains, and commanding an unobstructed view of the beautiful valley below, it was a conspicuous land-mark for miles. The house, unusually pretentious for a country home, and built of reddish rough stone in the Greek style of architecture, was two stories high, with a square turret on one side and a low, broad roof overhanging a stone terrace. Massive stone benches, also of Greek design, and strewn with cushions, were placed here and there, while over the western terrace, shading it from the afternoon sun, was suspended a canopy made from a Navajo blanket. The well-kept grounds, with trailing vines around the balustrades, groups of marble statuary, a fountain of a marble Venus gracefully splashing water into a wide basin in which floated large, white lilies, privet hedges, artistically clipped to represent all kinds of fantastic figures, rattan lounging chairs, and tables with the leading papers and magazines—all suggested a home of culture and wealth. So close was the house to the edge of the declivity that at one end the terrace actually overlooked the canon, a sheer drop of 2,000 feet, while across the yawning chasm, one could see the rolling foothills and lofty heights of the Rockies, with Pike's Peak in the distance, snow-capped and colossal.
For more than a week Laura had been Mrs. Williams' guest. The rich society woman had taken a great liking to the young actress, and would not hear of her departure. An inveterate bridge player, she insisted on Laura staying, if only to learn the game. So, partly because she was unwilling to give offense, partly because she was comfortable and happy there, and at the same time near the man she loved, she had consented to remain a little longer. But only for a few days, she insisted. Autumn was already at hand. There was no time to lose. She realized that if she wanted to find a good engagement for the coming season she must return to New York at once, for, from now on, there would be no influence to aid her. To secure future engagements she must rely on her own efforts alone.
She did not regret the step she had taken. On the contrary, for the first time in her life, she felt perfectly happy and carefree. When, the day following their excursion to the Garden of the Gods, he had come to the hotel for her answer, there was very little said. Her eyes spoke to him, and he understood.
"Very well, John," she said simply.
He turned very pale, and, drawing her to him, kissed her solemnly.
"It's until death, little one!"
"Until death!" she repeated gravely.
Then they both sat down together and enthusiastically began to make plans for the future.
It was not without due premeditation that Madison had entered into this affair. He was not the kind of man to undertake anything lightly. Everything he had done in his life had been long and well thought out. He liked this girl and he wanted her for his wife. Both her beauty and her personality pleased him. He knew that she was not the kind of woman to whom men usually give their names, but he had never been conventional. He ridiculed and scoffed at the conventions. He made his own social laws and cared not a rap for the good or bad opinion of the world. If there had been opportunities to meet decent women, of good social standing, he had always thrown them aside with the exclamation that such women bored him to death, and in all his relations with the opposite sex there had never entered into his heart a feeling or idea of real affection until now. He fell, for a moment only, under the spell of Laura's fascination, and then, drawing aloof, with cold logic he analyzed her and found out that while outwardly she had every sign of girlhood ingenuousness, sweetness of character and possibility of affection, spiritually and mentally she was nothing more than a moral wreck. At the beginning of their acquaintance he had watched with covert amusement her efforts to win him, and he had likewise noted her disappointment at her failure—not, he believed, that she cared so much for him personally, but that it hurt her vanity not to be successful with this big, good-natured, penniless bohemian, when men of wealth and position she made kneel at her feet. From afar he had watched her slowly changing point of view, how from an artificial ingenuousness she became serious, womanly, sincere. He knew that he had awakened in her her first decent affection, and he knew that she was awakening in him his first desire to accomplish things and be big and worth while. So, together, these two began to drift toward a path of decent dealing, decent ambition, decent thought and decent love, until at last they had both found themselves, acknowledged all the badness of what had been, and planned for all the goodness of what was to be.
Laura's immediate task, and assuredly it was both a difficult and unpleasant one, was to acquaint Will Brockton with her determination. That the news would astonish him, was certain. She also thought that he would be sorry. In his indifferent, selfish way, she believed that he cared for her—perhaps more than for any of the other women he had known. She knew him too well to believe that he would make a scene. He was too much the gentleman and man of the world for that. He would accept the situation philosophically. Besides, any opposition on his part would be in direct violation of their agreement, that it was her privilege to quit whensoever she might choose. She was considerably put out at first when she received his telegram telling her that he was coming to Denver to fetch her back, and her first impulse was to send a wire to stop him. She thought she would prefer to wait and tell him in New York. But, on consideration, she did nothing of the kind. Perhaps it were better to have it over with at once. Why make a mystery of it? There was nothing to conceal. The sooner every one knew it the better.
He had reached Denver that morning, and, finding she had already left Colorado Springs, followed here there post haste. He arrived at Mr. Williams' villa, debonnair and immaculate, as usual, and in the kindly paternal manner characteristic of him, he saluted Laura with a chaste kiss.
"Why, kid, how well you look!" he exclaimed heartily.
Laura was looking her best that morning. She had not expected Brockton so soon. Indeed, she had dressed to please John, who came to see her every afternoon. Her gown, made of summery, filmy stuff, was simple, girlish and attractive. Her hair, arranged in the simplest fashion, was parted in the center. There was about her that sweetness and girlishness of demeanor which had been her greatest asset through life.
Embarrassed, and temporarily at a loss how to account to her hostess for the broker's presence and evident intimacy, the young girl introduced him as—her uncle. It was not the first white fib she had told in her life, and it was one of the least harmful. With ready tact, she quickly added that Mr. Brockton was a skilful bridge player. This was enough to insure his welcome. Mrs. Williams, impressed with the visitor's talents and aristocratic appearance insisted on his staying to dinner, which cordial invitation he politely accepted. Diplomatically, he burst into extravagant raptures over the beauty of the view.
"What a magnificent panorama! This is worth coming a thousand miles to see."
Visibly pleased, Mrs. Williams smiled:
"I hope you will afford me the privilege of entertaining you a few days. We could show you views still more beautiful."
"You are very kind, madame. I regret exceedingly that business calls me immediately back to New York."
"But not before you've shown us your skill at bridge," she laughed. "We're having a game inside now. I'll be pleased to have you join us."
"I shall be delighted," he bowed.
The old lady reentered the house to join her friends, and he turned quickly to Laura:
"When can you get ready?"
She made no answer. Apparently she had not heard. Sitting at the end of the terrace, she leaned over the balustrade of the porch, looking intently into the canon below, as if expecting to see some one, her eyes shielded with her hands from the hot afternoon sun. Approaching her, Brockton repeated the question.
"When can you get ready?"
She started as if suddenly surprised in some secret reverie.
"Ready? What for?"
"Why—to go back to New York, of course."
"New York?" she echoed.
"Yes," he said mockingly, "New York. Why, Laura, what's the matter? You seem dazed. Didn't you ever hear of a little old place called New York?"
She laughed nervously.
"Don't be silly." Passing her hand over her forehead, she said: "I'm a little stupid to-day—I think it's the sun."
At that moment a maid servant approached the broker.
"Mrs. Williams wishes me to show you to your room, sir," she said.
"All right," replied Brockton, turning to follow her. To Laura, he said: "I'll go and brush up. Wait for me here. I'll be back in a minute."
Laura sat motionless, watching the winding road, which, like a long, undulating ribbon, led up the declivity out of the valley. Straining her eyes, she tried to make out the little cloud of dust that would warn her of John's approach. She wondered what detained him. He said he would come at four o'clock, and now it was nearly five. Yet, perhaps, it was just as well. It would hardly do for the men to meet until she had had her talk with Will. The critical moment had come. She must tell Brockton everything. Nothing must be held back. He must be told that she had finished with him forever.
In a few minutes Brockton reappeared, smoking a cigar. Clean-shaven and comfortable in a Tuxedo coat, he had the air of a man at peace with himself and the whole world. Laura was still sitting where he had left her. With her head resting on one hand in a meditative manner, she was so intently watching the road that she did not look up as he approached. He watched her for a moment without speaking. Then slowly removing his cigar from his mouth, he asked laconically:
She shook her head.
"A little preoccupied?"
Still she did not turn her head, yet her heart was beating fast. This was her opportunity. He looked in the same direction she was looking.
"What's up that way?" he demanded.
"The way you are looking."
"That's the road from Manitou Springs. They call it the trail out here."
"I know that. I've done a lot of business west of the Missouri."
The girl gave a half-yawn of indifference.
"I didn't know it," she said.
"Oh, yes," he went on; "south of here, in the San Juan country. Spent a couple of years there once."
"That's interesting," replied Laura, with another yawn, and still not turning her head.
With a chuckle of self-satisfaction, he went on:
"It was then that I made some money there. It's always interesting when you make money. Still——"
"Still what?" she asked absent-mindedly.
He looked at her, as if surprised at her manner. Somewhat impatiently he said:
"I can't make out why you have your eyes glued on that road. Some one coming?"
"One of Mrs. Williams' friends, eh?"
Crossing to the other side of the terrace, he seated himself in one of the comfortable lounging chairs.
"Yes," answered the girl.
"Yours, too?" he asked dryly.
"Yes, a real man."
There was no mistaking the significance of these last words, which she uttered with strong emphasis, as if they came right from the heart.
The broker sat up with a start. At first he was too surprised to speak, but quickly he regained his composure, and gave vent to a long, low whistle, which was inaudible to his companion. Carelessly throwing his cigar over the balustrade, he rose from his seat, and stood leaning on another chair a short distance away. Laura, meantime, had not moved, except to place her left hand on a cushion and lean her head wearily against it. She still sat motionless, her gaze steadfastly fixed on the road in the pass. Brockton broke the rather awkward silence.
"A real man?" he echoed. "By that you mean——"
"Just that," she said testily, "a real man."
He gave an imperceptible shrug with his shoulders, and his tone was tinged with irony as he inquired with forced mildness:
"Any different—from the many you have known?"
"Yes," she retorted; "from all I have known."
He laughed derisively.
"So that's why you didn't come into Denver to meet me to-day, but left word for me to come out here?"
"I thought I was pretty decent to take a dusty ride half-way across the continent in order to keep you company on your way back to New York, and welcome you to our home, but maybe I had the wrong idea."
She nodded, and almost mockingly replied:
"Yes, I think you had the wrong idea."
"In love, eh?" he chuckled.
"Yes," she answered firmly. "Just that—in love."
He smiled grimly.
"A new sensation?"
"No," she retorted quick as a flash, "the first conviction."
He left the seat on which he was leaning, and approached nearer to where she still sat crouched.
"You have had that idea before," he said ironically. "Every woman's love is the real one when it comes. Do you make a distinction in this case, young lady?"
"Yes," she answered.
"For instance, what?"
She rose to her feet, and, going to a chair, sat carelessly on one of the arms, drawing imaginary lines on the ground with her parasol. He could see that she was highly nervous and trying hard to control herself. Quickly she said:
"This man is poor—absolutely broke. He hasn't even got a good job. You know, Will—all the rest, including yourself, generally had some material inducement——"
The broker gave a snort of impatience, and, going to the table, picked up a magazine, and made a pretense of becoming deeply interested in its contents. But his fit of sulks did not last long. Looking up, he growled:
"What's his business?"
"He's a newspaper man."
"H'm-m! Romance, eh?"
"Yes, if you want to call it that—romance."
"Do I know him?"
She shook her head and smiled.
"I hardly think so. He has been to New York only once or twice in his life, and he's not the kind of man one usually finds in your set."
Brockton sat looking at her with an amused, indulgent, almost paternal expression on his face. In contrast with his big, bluff physical personality, his iron-gray hair and bull-dog expression Laura appeared more youthful and girlish than ever. A stranger catching a glimpse of the terrace might have taken them for father and daughter engaged in an intimate chat.
"How old is he?" he demanded.
"Thirty." Instantly she added: "You are forty-five."
"No," he corrected dryly; "forty-six."
Laura laughed. She saw that his good-humor had returned. At least there was no immediate danger of his doing anything desperate. The nervous tension was over for the time being. Rising and going near to him, she asked archly:
"Shall I tell you about him, eh?"
The broker looked serious.
"In what way?" she demanded.
He hesitated and looked at her for a moment in silence before he replied:
"If it will interfere with the plans I have made for you and myself."
The girl turned her head. Coldly, she said:
"Have you made any particular plans for me that have anything particularly to do with you?"
Lighting another cigar, he said with assumed nonchalance:
"Why, yes. I have given up the lease of your apartment on West End Avenue and bought a house on Riverside Drive. I thought you would like it better. Everything will be quiet and nice. It'll be more comfortable for you. There's a stable nearby. Your horses and car can be kept there. I'm going to put the house in your name. That way you'll be your own mistress. Besides, I've fixed you up for a new part."
Laura gasped, and opened wide her eyes. A house of her own on Riverside Drive! She had always wished for that; it had been the dream of her life. Why—it meant that independence, wealth were already hers! She need have no more gnawing anxiety about the future. The price? Well, had she not paid it already? Perhaps she had been foolish. The world is hard—one never gets the credit for trying to be decent. Who would care? Yes—one would. She saw a pair of honest gray eyes seeking hers and questioning her, demanding if she had been true to their oath—"until death!"
"A new part!" she faltered. "What kind of a part?"
A covert smile played about the broker's lips. He had noted her hesitation, and well he knew the weight of his words. He had not studied women all these years for nothing. Carelessly he went on:
"One of Charlie Burgess's shows, translated from some French fellow. It's been running over in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and all those places for a year or more, and appears to be a tremendous hit. It's a big production, and it's going to cost a lot of money to do it here. I told Charlie he could put me down for a half-interest and I'd give all the money, provided that you got an important role. Great part, I'm told—just the kind of thing you've been looking for. Looks as if it might stay in New York all season. That's the change of plan. How does it strike you?"
Laura averted her face and made no reply. Going to the edge of the terrace, she leaned against the balustrade, and gazed once more into the depths below. The sun had already begun to set behind the distant mountain-tops, and the canon was beautiful in its tints of purple and amber.
"How does it strike you?" he repeated.
"I don't know," she replied without turning her head.
He rose from his seat and strolled towards her. The good-humor had faded out of his face. The lines about his mouth were more tightly drawn. It was evident that his patience was exhausted and that he was becoming angry. But Brockton never made a scene. No matter how incensed he might be, he never lost his sang froid or forgot his manners. Quietly he asked:
"Feel like quitting?"
"I can't tell," she replied in the same indifferent tone.
"So it's the newspaper man, eh?"
"That would be the only reason."
Turning quickly, he placed himself in a position so that he faced her. Looking her steadily in the eyes, he said slowly:
"You've been on the square with me this summer, haven't you?"
She instantly noted the change in his tone. Her face grew a shade paler, but she looked up at him without flinching. Quickly she said:
"What do you mean by 'on the square'?"
"Don't evade," he exclaimed, slightly raising his voice. "There's only one meaning when I say that—and you know it. I'm pretty liberal, Laura, but you understand where I draw the line——" Sternly and more slowly he added: "You've not jumped that, have you?"
The girl tossed her head haughtily. There are some questions no one may ask or answer. She looked him straight in the face. He could read nothing there. Quietly she said:
"This has been such a wonderful summer, such a wonderfully different summer." It was her turn to be ironical when she added: "Can you understand what I mean by that, when I say 'a wonderfully different summer'?"
The broker smiled in spite of himself.
"So—he's thirty and 'broke,' and you're twenty-five and pretty. He evidently, being a newspaper man, has that peculiar gift of gab that we call romantic expression. So I guess I'm not blind. You both think you've fallen in love. That it?"
"Yes," replied the girl gravely. "I think that's about it, only I don't agree with the 'gift of gab' and the 'romantic' end of it. He's a man and I'm a woman, and we've both had our adventures. His are more respectable than mine, that's all." Musingly, as if to herself, she added: "I don't think, Will, that there can be much of that element which some folk describe as hallucination. We know what we're about."