The Fighting Chance
By Robert W. Chambers
Author of "Cardigan," "The Maid at Arms," "The Firing Line," etc.
DEDICATED TO MY FATHER
I. Acquaintance II. Imprudence III. Shotover IV. The Season Opens V. A Winning Loser VI. Modus Vivendi VII. Persuasion VIII. Confidences IX. Confessions X. The Seamy Side XI. The Call of the Rain XII. The Asking Price XIII. The Selling Price XIV. The Bargain XV. The Enemy Listens
THE FIGHTING CHANCE
CHAPTER I. ACQUAINTANCE
The speed of the train slackened; a broad tidal river flashed into sight below the trestle, spreading away on either hand through yellowing level meadows. And now, above the roaring undertone of the cars, from far ahead floated back the treble bell-notes of the locomotive; there came a gritting vibration of brakes; slowly, more slowly the cars glided to a creaking standstill beside a sun-scorched platform gay with the bright flutter of sunshades and summer gowns.
"Shotover! Shotover!" rang the far cry along the cars; and an absent-minded young man in the Pullman pocketed the uncut magazine he had been dreaming over and, picking up gun case and valise, followed a line of fellow-passengers to the open air, where one by one they were engulfed and lost to view amid the gay confusion on the platform.
The absent-minded young man, however, did not seem to know exactly where he was bound for. He stood hesitating, leisurely inspecting the flashing ranks of vehicles—depot wagons, omnibusses, and motor cars already eddying around a dusty gravel drive centred by the conventional railroad flower bed and fountain.
Sunshine blazed on foliage plants arranged geometrically, on scarlet stars composed of geraniums, on thickets of tall flame-tinted cannas. And around this triumph of landscape gardening, phaeton, Tilbury, Mercedes, and Toledo backed, circled, tooted; gaily gowned women, whips aslant, horses dancing, greeted expected guests; laughing young men climbed into dog-carts and took the reins from nimble grooms; young girls, extravagantly veiled, made room in comfortable touring-cars for feminine guests whose extravagant veils were yet to be unpacked; slim young men in leather trappings, caps adorned with elaborate masks or goggles, manipulated rakish steering-gears; preoccupied machinists were fussing with valve and radiator or were cranking up; and, through the jolly tumult, the melancholy bell of the locomotive sounded, and the long train moved out through the September sunshine amid clouds of snowy steam.
And all this time the young man, gun case in one hand, suit case in the other, looked about him in his good-humoured, leisurely manner for anybody or any vehicle which might be waiting for him. His amiable inspection presently brought a bustling baggage-master within range of vision; and he spoke to this official, mentioning his host's name.
"Lookin' for Mr. Ferrall?" repeated the baggage-master, spinning a trunk dexterously into rank with its fellows. "Say, one of Mr. Ferrall's men was here just now—there he is, over there uncrating that there bird-dog!"
The young man's eyes followed the direction indicated by the grimy thumb; a red-faced groom in familiar livery was kneeling beside a dog's travelling crate, attempting to unlock it, while behind the bars an excited white setter whined and thrust forth first one silky paw then the other.
The young man watched the scene for a moment, then:
"Are you one of Mr. Ferrall's men?" he asked in his agreeable voice.
The groom looked up, then stood up:
"Take these; I'm Mr. Siward—for Shotover House. I dare say you have room for me and the dog, too."
The groom opened his mouth to speak, but Siward took the crate key from his fingers, knelt, and tried the lock. It resisted. From the depths of the crate a beseeching paw fell upon his cuff.
"Certainly, old fellow," he said soothingly, "I know how you feel about it; I know you're in a hurry—and we'll have you out in a second—steady, boy!—something's jammed, you see! Only one moment now! There you are!"
The dog attempted to bolt as the crate door opened, but the young man caught him by the leather collar and the groom snapped on a leash.
"Beg pardon, Sorr," began the groom, carried almost off his feet by the frantic circling of the dog—"beg pardon, Sorr, but I'll be afther seem' if anny of Mr. Ferrall's men drove over for you—"
"Oh! Are you not one of Mr. Ferrall's men?"
"Yis, Sorr, but I hadn't anny orders to meet anny wan—"
"Haven't you anything here to drive me in?"
"Yis, Sorr—I'll look to see—"
The raw groom, much embarrassed, and keeping his feet with difficulty against the plunging dog, turned toward the gravel drive where now only a steam motor and a depot-wagon remained. As they looked the motor steamed out, honking hoarsely; the depot-wagon followed, leaving the circle at the end of the station empty of vehicles.
"Didn't Mr. Ferrall expect me?" asked Siward.
"Aw, yis, Sorr; but the gintlemen for Shotover House does ginerally allways coom by Black Fells, Sorr—"
"Oh, Lord!" said the young man, "I remember now. I should have gone on to Black Fells Crossing; Mr. Ferrall wrote me!" Then, amused: "I suppose you have only a baggage-wagon here?"
"No, Sorr—a phayton"—he hesitated.
"Well? Isn't a phaeton all right?"
"Yis, Sorr—if th' yoong lady says so—beg pardon, Sorr, Miss Landis is driving."
"Oh—h! I see. ... Is Miss Landis a guest at Shotover House?"
"Yis, Sorr. An' if ye would joost ask her—the phayton do be coming now, Sorr!"
The phaeton was coming; the horse, a showy animal, executed side-steps; blue ribbons fluttered from the glittering head-stall; a young girl in white was driving.
Siward advanced to the platform's edge as the phaeton drew up; the young lady looked inquiringly at the groom, at the dog, and leisurely at him.
So he took off his hat, naming himself in that well-bred and agreeable manner characteristic of men of his sort,—and even his smile appeared to be part and parcel of a conventional ensemble so harmonious as to remain inconspicuous.
"You should have gone on to Black Fells Crossing," observed Miss Landis, coolly controlling the nervous horse. "Didn't you know it?"
He said he remembered now that such were the directions given him.
The girl glanced at him incuriously, and with more curiosity at the dog. "Is that the Sagamore pup, Flynn?" she asked.
"It is, Miss."
"Can't you take him on the rumble with you?" And, to Siward: "There is room for your gun and suit case."
"And for me?" he asked, smiling.
"I think so. Be careful of that Sagamore pup, Flynn. Hold him between your knees. Are you ready, Mr. Siward?"
So he climbed in; the groom hoisted the dog to the rumble and sprang up behind; the horse danced and misbehaved, making a spectacle of himself and an agreeable picture of his driver; then the pretty little phaeton swung northward out of the gravel drive and went whirling along a road all misty with puffs of yellow dust which the afternoon sun turned to floating golden powder.
"Did you send my telegram, Flynn?" she asked without turning her head.
"I did, Miss."
It being the most important telegram she had ever sent in all her life, Miss Landis became preoccupied,—quite oblivious to extraneous details, including Siward, until the horse began acting badly again. Her slightly disdainful and perfect control of the reins interested the young man. He might have said something civil and conventional about that, but did not make the effort to invade a reserve which appeared to embarrass nobody.
A stacatto note from the dog, prolonged infinitely in hysterical crescendo, demanded comment from somebody.
"What is the matter with him, Flynn?" she asked.
Siward said: "You should let him run, Miss Landis."
She nodded, smiling, inattentive, absorbed in her own affairs, still theorising concerning her telegram. She drove on for a while, and might have forgotten the dog entirely had he not once more lifted his voice in melancholy.
"You say he ought to run for a mile or two? Do you think he'll bolt, Mr. Siward?"
"Is he a new dog?"
"Yes, fresh from the kennels; supposed to be house-and wagon-broken, steady to shot and wing—" She shrugged her pretty shoulders. "You see how he's acting already!"
"Do you mind if I try him?" suggested Siward.
"You mean that you are going to let him run?"
"I think so."
"And if he bolts?"
"I'll take my chances."
"Yes, but please consider my chances, Mr. Siward. The dog doesn't belong to me."
"But he ought to run—"
"But suppose he runs away? He's a horridly expensive creature—if you care to take the risk."
"I'll take the risk," said Siward, smiling as she drew rein. "Now Flynn, give me the leash. Quiet! Quiet, puppy! Everything is coming your way; that's the beauty of patience; great thing, patience!" He took the leader; the dog sprang from the rumble. "Now, my friend, look at me! No, don't twist and squirm and scramble; look me square in the eye; so! ... Now we know each ether and we respect each other—because you are going to be a good puppy ... and obey ... Down charge!"
The dog, trembling with eager comprehension, dropped like a shot, muzzle laid flat between his paws. Siward unleashed him, looked down at him for a second, stooped and caressed the silky head, then with a laugh swung himself into the phaeton beside the driver, who, pretty head turned, had been looking on intently.
"Your dog is yard-broken," he said. "Look at him."
"I see. Do you think he will follow us?"
"I think so."
The horse started, Miss Landis looking back over her shoulder at the dog who lay motionless, crouched flat in the road.
Then Siward turned. "Come on, Sagamore!" he said gaily; and the dog sprang forward, circled about the moving phaeton, splitting the air with yelps of ecstasy, then tore ahead, mad with the delight of stretching cramped muscles amid the long rank grass and shrubbery of the roadside.
The girl watched him doubtfully; when he disappeared far away up the road she turned the blue inquiry of her eyes on Siward.
"He'll be back," said the young fellow, laughing; and presently the dog reappeared on a tearing gallop, white flag tossing, glorious in his new liberty, enchanted with the confidence this tall young man had reposed in him—this adorable young man, this wonderful friend who had suddenly appeared to release him from an undignified and abominable situation in a crate.
"A good dog," said Siward; and the girl looked around at him, partly because his voice was pleasant, partly because a vague memory was beginning to stir within her, coupling something unpleasant with the name of Siward.
She had been conscious of it when he first named himself, but, absorbed in the overwhelming importance of her telegram, had left the analysis of the matter for the future.
She thought again of her telegram, theorised a little, came to no conclusion except to let the matter rest for the present, and mentally turned to the next and far less important problem—the question of this rather attractive young man at her side, and why the name of Siward should be linked in her mind with anything disagreeable.
Tentatively following the elusive mental dews that might awaken something definite concerning her hazy impression of the man beside her, she spoke pleasantly, conventionally, touching idly any topic that might have a bearing; and, under a self-possession so detached as to give an impression of indifference, eyes, ears, and intelligence admitted that he was agreeable to look at, pleasant of voice, and difficult to reconcile with anything unpleasant.
Which gradually aroused her interest—the incongruous usually interesting girls of her age—for he had wit enough to amuse her, sufficient inconsequence to please her, and something listless, at times almost absent-minded, almost inattentive, that might have piqued her had it not inoculated her, as it always does any woman, with the nascent germ of curiosity. Besides, there was, in the hint of his momentary preoccupation, a certain charm.
They discussed shooting and the opening of the season; dogs and the training of dogs; and why some go gun-shy and why some ace blinkers. From sport and its justification, they became inconsequential; and she was beginning to enjoy the freshness of their chance acquaintance, his nice attitude toward things, his irrelevancy, his gaiety.
Laughter thawed her; for notwithstanding the fearless confidence she had been taught for men of her own kind, self-possession and reserve, if not inherent, had also been drilled into her, and she required a great deal in a man before she paid him the tribute of one of her pretty laughs.
Apparently they were advancing rather rapidly.
"Don't you think we ought to call the dog in, Mr. Siward?"
"Yes; he's had enough!"
She drew rein; he sprang out and whistled; and the Sagamore pup, dusty and happy came romping back. Siward motioned him to the rumble, but the dog leaped to the front.
"I don't mind," said the girl. "Let him sit here between us. And you might occupy yourself by pulling some of those burrs from his ears—if you will?"
"Of course I will. Look up here, puppy! No! Don't try to lick my face, for that is bad manners. Demonstrations are odious, as the poet says."
"It's always bad manners, isn't it?" asked Miss Landis.
"What? Being affectionate?"
"Yes, and admitting it."
"I believe it is. Do you hear that—Sagamore? But never mind; I'll break the rules some day when we're alone."
The dog laid one paw on Siward's knee, looking him wistfully in the eyes.
"More demonstrations," observed the girl. "Mr. Siward! You are hugging him! This amounts to a dual conspiracy in bad manners."
"Awfully glad to admit you to the conspiracy," he said. "There's one vacancy—if you are eligible."
"I am; I was discovered recently kissing my saddle-mare."
"That settles it! Sagamore, give the young lady the grip."
Sylvia Landis glanced at the dog, then impulsively shifting the whip to her left hand, held out the right. And very gravely the Sagamore pup laid one paw in her dainty white gloved palm.
"You darling!" murmured the girl, resuming her whip.
"I notice," observed Siward, "that you are perfectly qualified for membership in our association for the promotion of bad manners. In fact I should suggest you for the presidency—"
"I suppose you think all sorts of things because I gushed over that dog."
"Of course I do."
"Well you need not," she rejoined, delicate nose up-tilted. "I never kissed a baby in all my life—and never mean to. Which is probably more than you can say."
"Yes, its more than I can say.
"That admission elects you president," she concluded. But after a moment's silent driving she turned partly toward him with mock seriousness: "Is it not horridly unnatural in me to feel that way about babies? And about people, too; I simply cannot endure demonstrations. As for dogs and horses—well, I've admitted how I behave; and, being so shamelessly affectionate by disposition, why can't I be nice to babies? I've a hazy but dreadful notion that there's something wrong about me, Mr. Siward."
He scrutinised the pretty features, anxiously; "I can't see it," he said.
"But I mean it—almost seriously. I don't want to be so aloof, but—I don't like to touch other people. It is rather horrid of me I suppose to be like those silky, plumy, luxurious Angora cats who never are civil to you and who always jump out of your arms at the first opportunity."
He laughed—and there was malice in his eyes, but he did not know her well enough to pursue the subject through so easy an opening.
It had occurred to her, too, that her simile might invite elaboration, and she sensed the laugh in his silence, and liked him for remaining silent where he might easily have been wittily otherwise.
This set her so much at ease, left her so confident, that they were on terms of gayest understanding presently, she gossiping about the guests at Shotover House, outlining the diversions planned for the two weeks before them.
"But we shall see little of one another; you will be shooting most of the time," she said—with the very faintest hint of challenge—too delicate, too impersonal to savour of coquetry. But the germ of it was there.
"Do you shoot?"
"I am reconciled to the shooting, then."
"Oh, that is awfully civil of you. Sometimes I'd rather play Bridge."
"So should I—sometimes."
"I'll remember that, Mr. Siward; and when all the men are waiting for you to start out after grouse perhaps I may take that moment to whisper: 'May I play?'"
"You mean that you really would stay and play double dummy when every other living man will be off to the coverts? Double dummy—to improve my game?"
"Certainly! I need improvement."
"Then there is something wrong with you, too, Mr. Siward."
She laughed and started to flick her whip, but at her first motion the horse gave trouble.
"The bit doesn't fit," observed Siward.
"You are perfectly right," she returned, surprised. "I ought to have remembered; it is shameful to drive a horse improperly bitted." And, after a moment: "You are considerate toward animals; it is good in a man."
"Oh, it's no merit. When animals are uncomfortable it worries me. It's one sort of selfishness, you see."
"What nonsense," she said; and her smile was very friendly. "Why doesn't a nice man ever admit he's nice when told so?"
It seems they had advanced that far. For she was beginning to find this young man not only safe but promising; she had met nobody recently half as amusing, and the outlook at Shotover House had been unpromising with only the overgrateful Page twins to practise on—the other men collectively and individually boring her. And suddenly, welcome as manna from the sky, behold this highly agreeable boy to play with—until Quarrier arrived. Her telegram had been addressed to Mr. Quarrier.
"What was it you were saying about selfishness?" she asked. "Oh, I remember. It was nonsense."
She laughed, adding: "Selfishness is so simply defined you know."
"Is it? How."
"A refusal to renounce. That covers everything," she concluded.
"Sometimes renunciation is weakness—isn't it?" he suggested.
"In what case for example?"
"Well, suppose we take love."
"Very well, you may take it if you like it."
"Suppose you loved a man!" he insisted.
"Let him beware! What then?"
"—And, suppose it would distress your family if you married him?"
"I'd give him up."
"If you loved him?"
"Love? That is the poorest excuse for selfishness, Mr. Siward."
"So you would ruin your happiness and his—"
"A girl ought to find more happiness in renouncing a selfish love than in love itself," announced Miss Landis with that serious conviction characteristic of her years.
"Of course," assented Siward with a touch of malice, "if you really do find more happiness in renouncing love than in love itself, it would be foolish not to do it—"
"Mr. Siward! You are derisive. Besides, you are not acute. A woman is always an opportunist. When the event takes place I shall know what to do."
"You mean when you want to marry the man you mustn't?
"Exactly. I probably shall."
"I see. But you won't, of course."
She drew rein, bringing the horse to a walk at the foot of a long hill.
"We are going much too fast," said Miss Landis, smiling.
"Driving too fast for—"
"No, not driving, going—you and I."
"Oh, you mean—"
"Yes I do. We are on all sorts of terms, already."
"In the country, you know, people—"
"Yes I know all about it, and what old and valued friends one makes at a week's end. But it has been a matter of half-hours with us, Mr. Siward."
"Let us sit very still and think it over," he suggested. And they both laughed.
It was perhaps the reaction of her gaiety that recalled to her mind her telegram. The telegram had been her promised answer after she had had time to consider a suggestion made to her by a Mr. Howard Quarrier. The last week at Shotover permitted reflection; and while her telegram was no complete answer to the suggestion he had made, it contained material of interest in the eight words: "I will consider your request when you arrive.
"I wonder if you know Howard Quarrier?" she said.
After a second's hesitation he replied: "Yes—a little. Everybody does."
"You do know him?"
"Only at—the club."
"Oh, the Lenox?"
"The Lenox—and the Patroons."
Preoccupied, driving with careless, almost inattentive perfection, she thought idly of her twenty-three years, wondering how life could have passed so quickly leaving her already stranded on the shoals of an engagement to marry Howard Quarrier. Then her thoughts, errant, wandered half the world over before they returned to Siward; and when at length they did, and meaning to be civil, she spoke again of his acquaintance with Quarrier at the Patroons Club—the club itself being sufficient to settle Siward's status in every community.
"I'm trying to remember what it is I have heard about you," she continued amiably; "you are—"
An odd expression in his eyes arrested her—long enough to note their colour and expression—and she continued, pleasantly; "—you are Stephen Siward, are you not? You see I know your name perfectly well—" Her straight brows contracted a trifle; she drove on, lips compressed, following an elusive train of thought which vaguely, persistently, coupled his name with something indefinitely unpleasant. And she could not reconcile this with his appearance. However, the train of unlinked ideas which she pursued began to form the semblance of a chain. Coupling his name with Quarrier's, and with a club, aroused memory; vague uneasiness stirred her to a glimmering comprehension. Siward? Stephen Siward? One of the New York Siwards then;—one of that race—
Suddenly the truth flashed upon her,—the crude truth lacking definite detail, lacking circumstance and colour and atmosphere,—merely the raw and ugly truth.
Had he looked at her—and he did, once—he could have seen only the unruffled and very sweet profile of a young girl. Composure was one of the masks she had learned to wear—when she chose.
And she was thinking very hard all the while; "So this is the man? I might have known his name. Where were my five wits? Siward!—Stephen Siward! ... He is very young, too ... much too young to be so horrid. ... Yet—it wasn't so dreadful, after all; only the publicity! Dear me! I knew we were going too fast."
"Miss Landis," he said.
"Mr. Siward?"—very gently. It was her way to be gentle when generous.
"I think," he said, "that you are beginning to remember where you may have heard my name."
"Yes—a little—" She looked at him with the direct gaze of a child, but the lovely eyes were troubled. His smile was not very genuine, but he met her gaze steadily enough.
"It was rather nice of Mrs. Ferrall to ask me," he said, "after the mess I made of things last spring."
"Grace Ferrall is a dear," she replied.
After a moment he ventured: "I suppose you saw it in the papers."
"I think so; I had completely forgotten it; your name seemed to—"
"I see." Then, listlessly: "I couldn't have ventured to remind you that—that perhaps you might not care to be so amiable—"
"Mr. Siward," she said impulsively, "you are nice to me! Why shouldn't I be amiable? It was—it was—I've forgotten just how dreadfully you did behave—"
"They say so."
"And what is your opinion Mr. Siward?"
"Oh, I ought to have known better." Something about him reminded her of a bad small boy; and suddenly in spite of her better sense, in spite of her instinctive caution, she found herself on the very verge of laughter. What was it in the man that disarmed and invited a confidence—scarcely justified it appeared? What was it now that moved her to overlook what few overlook—not the fault, but its publicity? Was it his agreeable bearing, his pleasant badinage, his amiably listless moments of preoccupation, his youth that appealed to her—aroused her charity, her generosity, her curiosity?
And had other people continued to accept him, too? What would Quarrier think of his presence at Shotover? She began to realise that she was a little afraid of Quarrier's opinions. And his opinions were always judgments. However Grace Ferrall had thought it proper to ask him, and that meant social absolution. As far as that went she also was perfectly ready to absolve him if he needed it. But perhaps he didn't care!—She looked at him, furtively. He seemed to be tranquil enough in his abstraction. Trouble appeared to slide very easily from his broad young shoulders. Perhaps he was already taking much for granted in her gentleness with him. And gradually speculation became interest and interest a young girl's innocent curiosity to learn something of a man whose record it seemed almost impossible to reconcile with his personality.
"I was wondering," he said looking up to encounter her clear eyes, "whose house that is over there?"
"Beverly Plank's shooting-box; Black Fells," she replied nodding toward the vast pile of blackish rocks against the sky, upon which sprawled a heavy stone house infested with chimneys.
"Plank? Oh yes."
He smiled to remember the battering blows rained upon the ramparts of society by the master of Black Fells.
But the smile faded; and, glancing at him, the girl was surprised to see the subtle change in his face—the white worn look, then the old listless apathy which, all at once to her, hinted of something graver than preoccupation.
"Are we near the sea?" he asked.
"Very near. Only a moment to the top of this hill. ... Now look!"
There lay the sea—the same grey-blue crawling void that had ever fascinated and repelled him—always wrinkled, always in flat monotonous motion, spreading away, away to the sad world's ends.
"Full of menace—always," he said, unconscious that he had spoken aloud.
He spoke without turning: "The sea is a relentless thing for a man to fight. ... There are other tides more persistent than the sea, but like it—like it in its menace."
His face seemed thinner, older; she noticed his cheek bones for the first time. Then, meeting her eyes, youth returned with a laugh and a touch of colour; and, without understanding exactly how, she was aware, presently, that they had insensibly slipped back to their light badinage and gay inconsequences—back to a footing which, strangely, seemed to be already an old footing, familiar, pleasant, and natural to return to.
"Is that Shotover House?" he asked as they came to the crest of the last hillock between them and the sea.
"At last, Mr. Siward," she said mockingly; "and now your troubles are nearly ended."
"And yours, Miss Landis?"
"I don't know," she murmured to herself, thinking of the telegram with the faintest misgiving.
For she was very young, and she had not had half enough out of life as yet; and besides, her theories and preconceived plans for the safe and sound ordering of her life appeared to lack weight—nay, they were dwindling already into insignificance.
Theory had almost decided her to answer Mr. Quarrier's suggestion with a 'Yes.' However, he was coming from the Lakes in a day or two. She could decide definitely when she had discussed the matter with him.
"I wish that I owned this dog," observed Siward, as the phaeton entered the macadamised drive.
"I wish so, too," she said, "but he belongs to Mr. Quarrier."
CHAPTER II IMPRUDENCE
A house of native stone built into and among weather-scarred rocks, one massive wing butting seaward, others nosing north and south among cedars and outcropping ledges—the whole silver-grey mass of masonry reddening under a westering sun, every dormer, every leaded diamond pane aflame; this was Shotover as Siward first beheld it.
Like the craggy vertebrae of a half-buried fossil splitting the sod, a ragged line of rock rose as a barrier to inland winds; the foreland, set here and there with tiny lawns and pockets of bright flowers, fell away to the cliffs; and here, sheer wet black rocks fronted the eternal battering of the Atlantic.
As the phaeton drew up under a pillared porte-cochere, one or two servants appeared; a rather imposing specimen bowed them through the doors into the hall where, in a wide chimney place, the embers of a drift-wood fire glimmered like a heap of dusty jewels. Bars of sunlight slanted on wall and rug, on stone floor and carved staircase, on the bronze foliations of the railed gallery above, where, in the golden gloom through a high window, sun-tipped tree tops against a sky of azure stirred like burnished foliage in a tapestry.
"There is nobody here, of course," observed Miss Landis to Siward as they halted in front of the fire-place; "the season opens to-day in this county, you see." She shrugged her pretty shoulders: "And the women who don't shoot make the first field-luncheon a function."
She turned, nodded her adieux, then, over her shoulder, casually: "If you haven't an appointment with the Sand-Man before dinner you may find me in the gun-room."
"I'll be there in about three minutes," he said; "and what about this dog?"—looking down at the Sagamore pup who stood before him, wagging, attentive, always the gentleman to the tips of his toes.
Miss Landis laughed. "Take him to your room if you like. Dogs have the run of the house."
So he followed a servant to the floor above where a smiling and very ornamental maid preceded him through a corridor and into that heavy wing of the house which fronted the sea.
"Tea is served in the gun-room, sir," said the pretty maid, and disappeared to give place to a melancholy and silent young man who turned on the bath, laid out fresh raiment, and whispering, "Scotch or Irish, sir?" presently effaced himself.
Before he quenched his own thirst Siward filled a bowl and set it on the floor, and it seemed as though the dog would never finish gulping and slobbering in the limpid icy water.
"It's the salt air, my boy," commented the young man, gravely refilling his own glass as though accepting the excuse on his own account.
Then man and beast completed ablutions and grooming and filed out through the wide corridor, around the gallery, and down the broad stairway to the gun-room—an oaken vaulted place illuminated by the sun, where mellow lights sparkled on glass-cased rows of fowling pieces and rifles, on the polished antlers of shaggy moose heads.
Miss Landis sat curled up in a cushioned corner under the open casement panes, offering herself a cup of tea. She looked up, nodding invitation; he found a place beside her. A servant whispered, "Scotch or Irish, sir," then set the crystal paraphernalia at his elbow.
He said something about the salt air, casually; the girl gazed meditatively at space.
The sound of wheels on the gravel outside aroused her from a silence which had become a brown study; and, to Siward, presently, she said: "Here endeth our first rendezvous."
"Then let us arrange another immediately," he said, stirring the ice in his glass.
The girl considered him with speculative eyes: "I shouldn't exactly know what to do with you for the next hour if I didn't abandon you."
"Why bother to do anything with me? Why even give yourself the trouble of deserting me? That solves the problem."
"I really don't mean that you are a problem to me, Mr. Siward," she said, amused; "I mean that I am going to drive again."
"No you don't see at all. There's a telegram; I'm not driving for pleasure—"
She had not meant that either, and it annoyed her that she had expressed herself in such terms. As a matter of fact, at the telegraphed request of Mr. Quarrier, she was going to Black Fells Crossing to meet his train from the Lakes and drive him back to Shotover. The drive, therefore, was of course a drive for pleasure.
"I see," repeated Siward amiably.
"Perhaps you do," she observed, rising to her graceful height. He was on his feet at once, so carelessly, so good-humouredly acquiescent that without any reason at all she hesitated.
"I had meant to show you about—the cliffs—the kennels and stables; I'm sorry," she concluded, lingering.
"I'm awfully sorry," he rejoined without meaning anything in particular. That was the trouble, whatever he said, apparently meant so much.
With the agreeable sensation of being regretted, she leisurely gloved herself, then walked through the gun-room and hall, Siward strolling beside her.
The dog followed them as they turned toward the door and passed out across the terraced veranda to the driveway where a Tandem cart was drawn up, faultlessly appointed. Quarrier's mania was Tandem. She thought it rather nice of her to remember this.
She inspected the ensemble without visible interest for a few moments; the wind freshened from the sea, fluttering her veil, and she turned toward the east to face it. In the golden splendour of declining day the white sails of yachts crowded landward on the last leg before beating westward into Blue Harbour; a small white cruiser, steaming south, left a mile long stratum of rose-tinted smoke hanging parallel to the horizon's plane; the westering sun struck sparks from her bright-work.
The magic light on land and water seemed to fascinate the girl; she had walked a little way toward the cliffs, Siward following silently, offering no comment on the beauty of sky and cliff. As they halted once more the enchantment seemed to spread; a delicate haze enveloped the sea; hints of rose colour tinted the waves; over the uplands a pale mauve bloom grew; the sunlight turned redder, slanting on the rocks, and every kelp-covered reef became a spongy golden mound, sprayed with liquid flame.
They had turned their backs to the Tandem; the grooms looked after them, standing motionless at the horses' heads.
"Mr. Siward, this is too fine to miss," she said. "I will walk as far as the headland with you. ... Please smoke if you care to."
He did care to; several matches were extinguished by the wind until she spread her skids as a barrier; and kneeling in their shelter he got his light.
"Tobacco smoke diluted with sea breeze is delicious," she said, as the wind whirled the aromatic smoke of his cigarette up into her face. "Don't move, Mr. Siward; I like it; there is to me always a faint odour of sweet-brier in the melange. Did you ever notice it?"
The breeze-blown conversation became fragmentary, veering as capriciously as the purple wind-flaws that spread across the shoals. But always to her question or comment she found in his response the charm of freshness, of quick intelligence, or of a humourous and idle perversity which stimulates without demanding.
Once, glancing back at the house where the T-cart and horses stood, she said that she had better return; or perhaps she only thought she said it, for he made no response that time. And a few moments later they reached the headland, and the Atlantic lay below, flowing azure from horizon to horizon—under a universe of depthless blue. And for a long while neither spoke.
With her the spell endured until conscience began to stir. Then she awoke, uneasy as always, under the shadow of restraint or pressure, until her eyes fell on him and lingered.
A subtle change had come into his face; its leanness struck her for the first time; that, and an utter detachment from his surroundings, a sombre oblivion to everything—and to her.
How curiously had his face altered, how shadowy it had grown, effacing the charm of youth, in it.
The slight amusement with which she had become conscious of her own personal exclusion grew to an interest tinged with curiosity.
The interest continued, but when his silence became irksome to her she said so very frankly. His absent eyes, still clouded, met hers, unsmiling.
"I hate the sea," he said.
"You—hate it!" she repeated, too incredulous to be disappointed.
"There's no rest in it; it tires. A man who plays with it must be on his guard every second. To spend a lifetime on it is ridiculous—a whole life of intelligent effort, against perpetual, brutal, inanimate resistance—one endless uninterrupted fight—a ceaseless human manoeuvre against senseless menace; and then the counter attack of the lifeless monster, the bellowing advance, the shock—and no battle won—nothing final, nothing settled, no! only the same eternal nightmare of surveillance, the same sleepless watch for stupid treachery."
"But—you don't have to fight it!" she said, astonished.
"No; but it is no secret—what it does to those who do. ... Some escape; but only by dying ashore before it gets them. That is the way some of us reach Heaven; we die too quick for the Enemy to catch us."
He was laughing when she said: "It is not a fight with the sea; it is the battle of Life itself you mean."
"Yes, in a way, the battle of Life."
"Oh, you are morbid then. Is there anybody ever born who has not a fight on his hands?"
"No; only I have known men tired out, unfairly, before life had declared war on them."
"Just what do you mean?"
"Oh, something about fair play—what our popular idol summarises as a 'square deal'." He laughed again, easily, his face clearing.
"Nobody worth a square deal ever laments because he hasn't had it," she said.
"I dare say that's true, too," he admitted listlessly.
"Mr. Siward, exactly what did you mean?"
"I was thinking of men I knew; for example a man who through generations has inherited every impulse and desire that he should not harbour—a man with intellect enough to be aware of it, with decency enough to desire decency. ... What chance has he with the storms which have been brewing for him even before he opened his eyes on earth? Is that a square deal?"
The troubled concentration of her face was reflected now in his own; the wind came whipping and flicking at them from league-wide tossing wastes; the steady thunder of the sea accented the silence.
She said: "I suppose everybody has infinite capacity for decency or mischief. I know that I have. And I fancy that this capacity always remains, no matter how moral one's life may be. 'Watch and pray' was not addressed to the guilty alone, Mr. Siward."
"Oh, yes, of course. As for the balanced capacity for good and evil, how about the inherited desire for the latter?"
"Who is free from that, too? Do you suppose anybody really desires to be good?"
"You mean most people are so afraid not to be, that virtue becomes a habit?"
"Perhaps. It's a plain business proposition anyway. It pays."
"Celestial insurance?" he asked, laughing.
"I don't know, Mr. Siward; do you?"
But he, turning to the sea, had become engrossed in his own thoughts again; and again she was first curious, then impatient at the ease with which he excluded her. She remembered, too, that the cart was waiting; that she had scarcely time now to make the train.
She stood irresolute, inert, disinclined to bestir herself. An inborn aptitude for drifting, which threatened to become a talent for indecision, had always alternated in her with sudden impulsive conclusions; and when her pride was involved, in decisions which sometimes scarcely withstood the analysis of reason.
Physically healthy, mentally unawakened, sentimentally incredulous, totally ignorant of any master passion, and conventionally drilled, her beauty and sweet temper had carried her easily on the frothy crest of her first season, over the eligible and ineligible alike, leaving her at Lenox, a rather tired and breathless girl, in love with pleasure and the world which treated her so well.
The death of her mother abroad had made little impression upon her—her uncle, Major Belwether, having cared for her since her father's death when she was ten years old. So, although the scandal of her mother's self-exile had been in a measure condoned by a tardy marriage to the man for whom she had left everything, her daughter had grown up ignorant of any particular feeling for a mother she could scarcely remember.
However, she wore black and went nowhere for the second winter, during which time she learned a great deal concerning the unconventional proclivities of the women of her race and family, enough to impress her so seriously that on an exaggerated impulse she had come to one of her characteristic decisions.
That decision was to break the unsavoury record at the first justifiable opportunity. And the opportunity came in the shape of Quarrier. As though wedlock were actually the sanctuary which an alarmed nation pretends it to be!
Now, approaching the threshold of a third and last season, and having put away her almost meaningless mourning, there had stolen into her sense of security something irksome in the promise she had made to give Quarrier a definite answer before winter.
Perhaps it had been the lack of interest in the people at Shotover, perhaps a mental review of her ancestors' capricious records—perhaps a characteristic impulse that had directed a telegram to Quarrier after a midnight confab with Grace Ferrall.
However it may have been, she had summoned him. And now he was on his way to get his answer, the best whip, the most eagerly discussed, and one of the wealthiest unmarried men in America.
Lingering irresolutely, considering with idle eyes the shadows lengthening across the sun-shot moorland, the sound of Siward's even voice aroused her from a meditation bordering on lassitude.
She answered vaguely. He spoke again; all the agreeable, gentle, humourous charm dominant once more—releasing her from the growing tension of her own thoughts, absolving her from the duty of immediate decision.
"I feel curiously lazy," she said; "perhaps from our long drive." She seated herself on the turf. "Talk to me, Mr. Siward—in that lazy way of yours."
What he had to say proved inconsequent enough, an irrelevant suggestion concerning the training of field-dogs for close covert work and the reasons for not breaking such dogs on quail. Then the question of cross-breeding came up, and he gave his opinion on the qualities of "droppers." To which she replied, sleepily; and the conversation veered again toward the mystery of heredity, and the hopelessness of escape from its laws as illustrated now by the Sagamore pup, galloping nose in the wind, having scented afar the traces of the forbidden rabbit.
"His ancestors turned 'round and 'round to flatten the long reeds and grasses in their lairs before lying down," observed Siward. "He does it, too, where there is nothing to flatten out. Did you ever notice how many times a dog turns around before lying down? And there goes the carefully schooled Sagamore, chasing rabbits! Why? Because his wild ancestors chased rabbits. ... Heredity? It's a steady, unseen, pulling, dragging force. Like lightning, too, it shatters, sometimes, where there is resistance."
"Do you mean, Mr. Siward, that heredity is an excuse for moral weakness?"
"I don't know. Those inheriting nothing of evil say it is no excuse."
"It is no excuse."
"You speak with authority," he said.
"With more than you are aware of," she murmured, not meaning to say it.
She stood up impulsively, her fresh face turned to the distant house, her rounded young figure poised in relief against the sky.
"Inherited or not, idleness, procrastination, are my besetting sins. Can't you suggest the remedy, Mr. Siward?"
"But they are only the thieves of Time; and we kill the poor old gentleman."
"Leagued assassins," she repeated pensively.
Her gown had caught on the cliff briers; he knelt to release it, she looking down, noting an ugly tear in the fabric.
"Payment for my iniquities—the first instalment," she said, still looking down over his shoulder and watching his efforts to release her. "Thank you, Mr. Siward. I think we ought to start, don't you?"
He straightened up, smiling, awaiting her further pleasure. Her pleasure being capricious, she seated herself again, saying: "What I meant to say was this: evils that spring from heredity are no excuse for misconduct in people of our sort. Environment, not heredity, counts. And it's our business, who have every chance in the world, to make good!"
He looked down, amused at the piquant incongruity of voice and vernacular.
"What time is it?" she asked irrelevantly.
He glanced at his watch. She turned her eyes toward the level sun, conscious, and a little conscience-stricken that it was too late for her to drive to Black Fells Crossing—unless she started at once.
The sun hung low over the pines; all the scrubby foreland ran molten gold in every tufted furrow; flock after flock of twittering little birds whirled into the briers and out again, scattering inland into undulating flight.
The zenith turned shell pink; through clotted shoals of clouds spread spaces of palest green like calm lakes in the sky.
It grew stiller; the wind went down with the sun.
Doubtless he had forgotten to tell her the time; she had almost forgotten that she had asked him. With the silence of sunset a languor, the indolence of content, crept over her; she saw him close his watch with the absent-minded air which she already associated with him, and she let the question go from sheer disinclination for the effort of repetition—let the projected drive go—acquiescent, content that matters shape themselves without any interference from her. The sense of ease, of physical well-being invaded her with an agreeable relaxation as though tension somewhere had slackened.
They chatted on, casually, impersonally, in rather subdued tones. The dog returned now and then to see that all was well. All was well enough, it appeared, for she sat beside Siward, quite content, knees clasped in her hands, exchanging impressions of life with a man who so far had been sympathetically considerate in demanding from her no intellectual effort.
The conversation drifted illogically; sometimes he stirred her to amusement, even a hushed laughter; sometimes she smilingly agreed with his views, sometimes she let them go, uncriticised; or, intent on her own ideas, shook her small head in amused disapproval.
The stillness over all, the deepening mellow light, the blessed indolence of the young world—and their few years in it—Youth! That was perhaps the key to it all, after all.
"To-morrow," she mused aloud, knees cradled in her clasped fingers, "to-morrow they'll shoot—with great circumstance and fuss—a few native woodcock—there's no flight yet from the north!—a few grouse, fewer snipe, a stray duck or two. Others will drive motor cars over bad roads; others will ride, sail, golf—anything to kill the eternal enemy."
"Je n'en sais rien, monsieur."
"Mais je voudrais savoir."
"To lay a true course by the stars"; he looked at her blue eyes and she laughed easily under the laughing flattery.
"You must seek another compass—to-morrow," she said. Then it occurred to her that nobody could guess her decision in regard to Quarrier; and she partly raised her eyes, looking at him, indolent speculation under the white lids.
She liked him already; in fact she had liked few men as well on such brief acquaintance.
"You know the majority of the people here, or coming, don't you?" she inquired.
"Who are they?"
She began: "The Leroy Mortimers?"
"Lord Alderdene and Captain Voucher, and the Page twins and Marion?"
"Rena Bonnesdel, the Tassel girl, Agatha Caithness, Mrs. Vendenning—all sorts, all sets." And, with an effort: "If I'm to drive, I should like—to—to know what time it is?"
He informed her; and she, too indolent to pretend surprise, and finding reproach easier, told him that he had no business to permit her to forget.
His smiling serenity under the rebuke aroused in her a slight resentment as though he had taken something for granted.
Besides, she had grown uneasy; she had wired Quarrier, saying she would meet him and drive him over. He had replied at once, naming his train. He was an exact man and expected method and precision in others. She didn't exactly know how it might affect him if his reasonable demand was unsatisfied. She did not know him very well yet, only well enough to be aware that he was a gentleman so precisely, so judiciously constructed, that, contemplating his equitable perfections, her awe and admiration grew as one on whom dawns the exquisite adjustments of an almost human machine.
And, thinking of him now, she again made up her mind to give him the answer which he now had every reason to expect from her. This decision appeared to lubricate her conscience; it ran more smoothly now, emitting fewer creaks.
"You say that you know Mr. Quarrier?" she began thoughtfully.
"I—hope you will like him, Mr. Siward."
"I do not think he likes me, Miss Landis. He has reasons not to."
She looked up, suddenly remembering: "Oh—since that scrape? What has Mr. Quarrier to do—" She did not finish the sentence. A troubled silence followed; she was trying to remember the details—something she had paid small attention to at the time—something so foreign to her, so distant from her comprehension that it had not touched her closely enough for her to remember exactly what this young man might have done to forfeit the good-will of Howard Quarrier.
She looked at Siward; it was impossible that anything very bad could come from such a man. And, pursuing her reasoning aloud: "It couldn't have been very awful," she argued; "something foolish about an actress, was it not? And that could not concern Mr. Quarrier."
"I thought you did know; I thought you—remembered—while you were driving me over from the station—that I was dropped from my club."
She flushed up: "Oh!—but—what had Mr. Quarrier to do with that?"
"He is a governor of that club."
"You mean that Mr. Quarrier had you—dropped?"
"What else could he do? A man who is idiot enough to risk making his own club notorious, must take the consequences. And they say I took that risk. Therefore Mr. Quarrier, Major Belwether—all the governors did their duty. I—I naturally conclude that no governor of the Patroons Club feels very kindly toward me."
Miss Landis sat very still, her small head bent, a flush still brightening her fair face.
She recalled a few of the details now—the scandal—something of the story. Which particular actress it was she could not remember; but some men who had dined too freely had made the wager, and this boy sitting beside her had accepted it—and won it, by bringing into the sacred precincts of the Patroons Club a foolish, shameless girl disguised in a man's evening dress.
That was bad enough; that somebody promptly discovered it was worse; but worst of all was the publicity, the club's name smirched, the young man expelled from one of the two best clubs in the metropolis.
To read of such things in the columns of a daily paper had meant little to her except to repell her; to hear it mentioned among people of her own sort had left her incurious and indifferent. But now she saw it in a new light, with the man who had figured in it seated beside her. Did such men as he—such attractive, well-bred, amusing men as he—do that sort of thing?
There he sat, hat off, the sun touching his short, thick hair which waved a little at the temples—a boyish mould to head and shoulders, a cleanly outlined check and chin, a thoroughbred ear set close—a good face. What sort of a man, then, was a woman to feel at ease with? What eye, what mouth, what manner, what bearing was a woman to trust?
"Is that the kind of man you are, Mr. Siward?" she said impulsively.
"It appears that I was; I don't know what I am—or may be."
"The pity of it!" she said, still swayed by impulse. "Why did you do—didn't you know—realize what you were doing—bringing discredit on your own club?"
"I was in no condition to know, Miss Landis."
The crude brutality of the expression might merely have hurt or disgusted her had she been less intelligent. Nor, as it was, did she fully understand why he chose to use it—unless that he meant it in self-punishment.
"It's rather shameful!" she said hotly.
"Yes," he assented; "it's a bad beginning."
"A—beginning! Do you mean to go on?"
He did not reply; his head was partly turned from her. She sat silent for a while. The dog had returned to lie at Siward's feet, its brown eyes tirelessly watching the man it had chosen for its friend; and the man, without turning his eyes, dropped one hand on the dog's head, caressing the silky ears.
Some sentimentalist had once said that no man who cared for animals could be wholly bad. Inexperience inclined her to believe it. Then too, she had that inclination for overlooking offences committed against precept, which appears to be one of those edifying human traits peculiar to neither sex and common to both. Besides, her knowledge of such matters was as vague as her mind was healthy and body wholesome. Men who dined incautiously were not remarkable for their rarity; the actress habit, being incomprehensible to her, meant nothing; and she said, innocently: "What men like you can find attractive in a common woman I do not understand; there are plenty of pretty women of your own sort. The actress cult is beyond my comprehension; I only know it is generally condoned. But it is not for such things that we drop men, Mr. Siward. You know that, of course."
"For what do you drop men?"
"For falsehood, deception, any dishonesty."
"And you don't drop a man when you read in the papers that one of the two best clubs in town has expelled him?"
She gave him a troubled glance; and, naively: "But you are still a member of the other, are you not?" Then hardening: "It was common! common!—thoroughly disgraceful and incomprehensible!"—and with every word uttered insensibly warming in her heart toward him whom she was chastening; "it was not even bad—it was worse than being simply bad; it was stupid!"
He nodded, one hand slowly caressing the dog's head where it lay across his knees.
She watched him a moment, hesitated, then smiling a little: "So now I know the worst about you; do I not?" she concluded.
He did not answer; she waited, the smile still curving her red mouth. Had she been too severe? She wondered. "You may help me to my feet," she said sweetly. She was very young.
He rose at once, holding out his hands to aid her in that pleasantly impersonal manner so suited to him; and now they stood together in the purple dusk of the uplands—two people young enough to take one another seriously.
"Let me tell you something," she said, facing him, white hands loosely linked behind her. "I don't exactly understand how it has happened, but you know as well as I do that we have formed a—an acquaintance—the sort that under normal conditions requires a long time and several conventional and preliminary chapters. ... I should like to know what you think of our performance."
"I think," he said laughing, "that it is charming."
"Oh, yes; men usually find the unconventional agreeable. What I want to know is why I find it so, too?"
"Do you?" A dull colour stained his cheek-bones.
"Certainly I do. Is it because I've had a delightful chance to admonish a sinner—and be—just a little sorry—that he had made such a silly spectacle of himself?"
He laughed, wincing a trifle.
"Hence this agreeably righteous glow suffusing me," she concluded. "So now that I have answered my own question, I think that we had better go. ... Don't you?"
They walked for a while, subdued, soberly picking their path through the dusk. After a few moments she began to feel doubtful, a little uneasy, partly from a reaction which was natural, partly because she was not at all sure what either Quarrier or Major Belwether would think of the terms she was already on with Siward. Suppose they objected? She had never thwarted either of these gentlemen. Besides she already had a temporary interest in Siward—the interest that women always cherish, quite unconsciously, for the man whose shortcomings they have consented to overlook.
As they crossed the headland, through the deepening dusk the acetylene lamps on a cluster of motor cars spread a blinding light across the scrub. The windows of Shotover House were brilliantly illuminated.
"Our shooting-party has returned," she said.
They crossed the drive through the white glare of the motor lamps; people were passing, grooms with dogs and guns and fluffy bunches of game-birds, several women in motor costumes, veils afloat, a man or two in shooting-tweeds or khaki.
As they entered the hall together, she turned to him, an indefinable smile curving her lips; then, with a little nod, friendly and sweet, she left him standing at the open door of the gun-room.
CHAPTER III SHOTOVER
The first person he encountered in the gun-room was Quarrier, who favoured him with an expressionless stare, then with a bow, quite perfunctory and non-committal. It was plain enough that he had not expected to meet Siward at Shotover House.
Kemp Ferrall, a dark, stocky, active man of forty, was in the act of draining a glass, when, though the bottom he caught sight of Siward. He finished in a gulp, and advanced, one muscular hand outstretched: "Hello, Stephen! Heard you'd arrived, tried the Scotch, and bolted with Sylvia Landis! That's all right, too, but you should have come for the opening day. Lots of native woodcock—eh, Blinky?" turning to Lord Alderdene; and again to Siward: "You know all these fellows—Mortimer yonder—" There was the slightest ring in his voice; and Leroy Mortimer, red-necked, bulky, and heavy eyed, emptied his glass and came over, followed by Lord Alderdene blinking madly though his shooting-goggles and showing all his teeth like a pointer with a "tic." Captain Voucher, a gentleman with the vivid colouring of a healthy groom on a cold day, came up, followed by the Page boys, Willis and Gordon, who shook hands shyly, enchanted to be on easy terms with the notorious Mr. Siward. And last of all Tom O'Hara arrived, reeking of the saddle and clinking a pair of trooper's spurs over the floor—relics of his bloodless Porto Rico campaign with Squadron A.
It was patent to every man present that the Kemp Ferralls had determined to ignore Siward's recent foolishness, which indicated that he might reasonably expect the continued good-will of several sets, the orbits of which intersected in the social system of his native city. Indeed, the few qualified to snub him cared nothing about the matter, and it was not likely that anybody else would take the initiative in being disagreeable to a young man, the fortunes and misfortunes of whose race were part of the history of Manhattan Island. Siwards, good or bad, were a matter of course in New York.
So everybody in the gun-room was civil enough, and he chose Scotch and found a seat beside Alderdene, who sat biting at a smoky pipe and fingering a tumbler of smokier Scotch, blinking away like mad through his shooting-goggles at everybody.
"These little brown snipe you call woodcock," he began; "we bagged nine brace, d'you see? But of all the damnable bogs and covers—"
"Rotten," said Mortimer thickly; "Ferrall, you're all calf and biceps, and it's well enough for you to go floundering into bogs—"
"Where do you expect to find native woodcock?" demanded Ferrall, laughing.
"On the table hereafter," growled Mortimer.
"Oh, go and pot Beverly Plank's tame pheasants," retorted Ferrall amiably; "Captain Voucher had a blank day, but he isn't kicking."
"Not I," said Voucher; "the sport is capital—if one can manage to hit the beggars—"
"Oh, everybody misses in snap-shooting," observed Ferrall; "that is, everybody except Stephen Siward with his unholy left barrel. Crack! and," turning to Alderdene, "it's like taking money from you, Blinky—which reminds me that we've time for a little Preference before dressing."
His squinting lordship declined and took an easier position in his chair, extending a pair of little bandy legs draped in baggy tweed knickerbockers and heather-spats. Mortimer, industriously distending his skin with whiskey, reached for the decanter. The aromatic perfume of the spirits aroused Siward, and he instinctively nodded his desire to a servant.
"This salt air keeps one thirsty," he observed to Ferrall; then something in his host's expression arrested the glass at his lips. He had already been using the decanter a good deal; except Mortimer, nobody was doing that sort of thing as freely as he.
He set his glass on the table thoughtfully; a tinge of colour had crept into his lean checks.
Ferrall, too, suddenly uncomfortable, stood up saying something about dressing; several men arose a trifle stiffly, feeling in every joint the result of the first day's shooting after all those idle months. Mortimer got up with an unfeigned groan; Siward followed, leaving his glass untouched.
One or two other men came in from the billiard-room. All greeted Siward amiably—all excepting one who may not have seen him—an elderly, pink, soft gentleman with white downy chop-whiskers and the profile of a benevolent buck rabbit.
"How do you do, Major Belwether?" said Siward in a low voice without offering his hand.
Then Major Belwether saw him, bless you! yes indeed! And though Siward continued not to offer his hand, Major Belwether meant to have it, bless your heart! And he fussed and fussed and beamed cordiality until he secured it in his plump white fingers and pressed it effusively.
There was something about his soft, warm hands which had always reminded Siward of the temperature and texture of a newly hatched bird. It had been some time since he had shaken hands with Major Belwether; it was apparent that the bird had not aged any.
"And now for the shooting!" said the Major with an arch smile. "Now for the stag at bay and the winding horn—
'Where sleeps the moon On Mona's rill—'
'And here's to the hound With his nose upon the ground—'
Eh, my boy? That reminds me of a story—" He chuckled and chuckled, his lambent eyes suffused with mirth; and slipping his arm through the pivot-sleeve of Lord Alderdene's shooting-jacket, hooking the other in Siward's reluctant elbow, and driving Mortimer ahead of him, he went garrulously away up the stairs, his lordship's bandy little legs trotting beside him, the soaking gaiters and shoes slopping at every step.
Mortimer, his mottled skin now sufficiently distended, greeted the story with a yawn from ear to ear; his lordship, blinking madly, burst into that remarkable laugh which seemed to reveal the absence of certain vocal cords requisite to perfect harmony; and Siward smiled in his listless, pleasant way, and turned off down his corridor, unaware that the Sagamore pup was following close at his heels until he heard Quarrier's even, colourless voice: "Ferrall, would you be good enough to send Sagamore to your kennels?"
"Oh—he's your dog! I forgot," said Siward turning around.
Quarrier looked at him, pausing a moment.
"Yes," he said coldly, "he's my dog."
For a fraction of a second the two men's eyes encountered; then Siward glanced at the dog, and turned on his heel with the slightest shrug. And that is all there was to the incident—an anxious, perplexed puppy lugged off by a servant, turning, jerking, twisting, resisting, looking piteously back as his unwilling feet slid over the polished floor.
So Siward walked on alone through the long eastern wing to his room overlooking the sea. He sat down on the edge of his bed, glancing at the clothing laid out for him. He felt tired and disinclined for the exertion of undressing. The shades were up; night quicksilvered the window-panes so that they were like a dark mirror reflecting his face. He inspected his darkened features curiously; the blurred and sombre-tinted visage returned the stare.
"Not a man at all—the shadow of a man," he said aloud—"with no will, no courage—always putting off the battle, always avoiding conclusions, always skulking. What chance is there for a man like that?"
As one who raises a glass to drink wine and unexpectedly finds water, he shrugged his shoulders disgustedly and got up. A bath followed; he dressed leisurely, and was pacing the room, fussing with his collar, when Ferrall knocked and entered, finding a seat on the bed.
"Stephen," he said bluntly, "I haven't seen you since that break of yours at the club."
"Rotten, wasn't it?" commented Siward, tying his tie.
"Perfectly. Of course it doesn't make any difference to Grace or to me, but I fancy you've already heard from it."
"Oh, yes. All I care about is how my mother took it."
"Of course; she was cut up I suppose?"
"Yes, you know how she would look at a thing of that sort; not that any of the nine and seventy jarring sets would care, but those few thousands invading the edges, butting in—half or three-quarters inside—are the people who can't afford to overlook the victim of a fashionable club's displeasure—those, and a woman like my mother, and several other decent-minded people who happen to count in town."
Ferrall, his legs swinging busily, thought again; then: "Who was the girl, Stephen?"
"I don't think the papers mentioned her name," said Siward gravely.
"Oh—I beg your pardon; I thought she was some notorious actress—everybody said so. ... Who were those callow fools who put you up to it? ... Never mind if you don't care to tell. But it strikes me they are candidates for club discipline as well as you. It was up to them to face the governors I think—"
"No, I think not."
Ferrall, legs swinging busily, considered him.
"Too bad," he mused; "they need not have dropped you—"
"Oh, they had to. But as long as the Lenox takes no action I can live that down."
Ferrall nodded: "I came in to say something—a message from Grace—confound it! what was it? Oh—could you—before dinner—now—just sit down and with that infernal facility of yours make a sketch of a man chasing a gun-shy dog?"
"Why yes—if Mrs. Ferrall wishes—"
He walked over to the desk in his shirt-sleeves, sat down, drew a blank sheet of paper toward him, and, dipping his pen, drew carelessly a gun-shy setter dog rushing frantically across the stubble, and after him, bare-headed, gun in hand, the maddest of men.
"Put a Vandyke beard on him," grinned Ferrall over his shoulder. "There! O Lord! but you have hit it! Put a ticked saddle on the cur—there!"
"Who is this supposed to be?" began Siward, looking up. But "Wait!" chuckled his host, seizing the still wet sketch, and made for the door.
Siward strolled into the bath-room, washed a spot or two of ink from his fingers, returned and buttoned his waistcoat, then, completing an unhurried toilet, went out and down the stairway to the big living-room. There were two or three people there—Mrs. Leroy Mortimer, very fetching with her Japanese-like colouring, black hair and eyes that slanted just enough; Rena Bonnesdel, smooth, violet-eyed, blonde, and rather stunning in a peculiarly innocent way; Miss Caithness, very pale and slimly attractive; and the Page boys, Willis and Gordon, delightfully shy and interested, and having a splendid time with any woman who could afford the intellectual leisure.
Siward spoke pleasantly to them all. Other people drifted down—Marion Page who looked like a school-marm and rode like a demon; Eileen Shannon, pink and white as a thorn blossom, with the deuce to pay lurking in her grey eyes; Kathryn Tassel and Mrs. Vendenning whom he did not know, and finally his hostess Grace Ferrall with her piquant, almost boyish, freckled face and sweet frank eyes and the figure of an adolescent.
She gave Siward one pretty sun-browned hand and laid the other above his, holding it a moment in her light clasp.
"Stephen! Stephen!" she said under her breath, "it's because I've a few things to scold you about that I've asked you to Shotover."
"I suppose I know," he said.
"I should hope you do. I've a letter to-night from your mother."
"From my mother?"
"I want you to go over it—with me—if we can find a minute after dinner." She released his hand, turning partly around: "Kemp, dinner's been announced, so cut that dog story in two! Will you give me your arm Major Belwether? Howard!"—to her cousin, Mr. Quarrier, who turned from Miss Landis to listen—"will you please try to recollect whom you are to take in—and do it?" And, as she passed Siward, in a low voice, mischievous and slangy: "Sylvia Landis for yours—as she says she didn't have enough of you on the cliffs."
The others appeared to know how to pair according to some previous notice. Siward turned to Sylvia Landis with the pleasure of his good fortune so plainly visible in his face, that her own brightened in response.
"You see," she said gaily, "you cannot escape me. There is no use in looking wildly at Agatha Caithness"—he wasn't—"or pretending you're pleased," slipping her rounded, bare arm through the arm he offered. "You can't guess what I've done to-night—nobody can guess except Grace Ferrall and one other person. And if you try to look happy beside me, I may tell you—somewhere between sherry and cognac—Oh, yes; I've done two things: I have your dog for you!"
"Not Sagamore?" he said incredulously as he was seating her.
"Certainly Sagamore. I said to Mr. Quarrier, 'I want Sagamore,' and when he tried to give him to me, I made him take my cheque. Now you may draw another for me at your leisure, Mr. Siward. Tell me, are you pleased?"—for she was looking for the troubled hesitation in his face and she saw it dawning.
"Mr. Quarrier doesn't like me, you know—"
"But I do," she said coolly. "I told him how much pleasure it would give me. That is sufficient—is it not?—for everybody concerned."
"He knew that you meant to—"
"No, that concerns only you and me. Are you trying to spoil my pleasure in what I have done?"
"I can't take the dog, Miss Landis—"
"Oh," she said, vexed; "I had no idea you were vindictive—"
There was a silence; he bent forward a trifle, gravely scrutinising a "hand-painted" name card, though it might not have astonished him to learn that somebody's foot had held the brush. Somewhere in the vicinity Grace Ferrall had discovered a woman who supported dozens of relatives by painting that sort of thing for the summer residents at Vermillion Point down the coast. So being charitable she left an order, and being thrifty, insisted on using the cards, spite of her husband's gibes.
People were now inspecting them with more or less curiosity; Siward found his "hand-painting" so unattractive that he had just tipped it over to avoid seeing it, when a burst of laughter from Lord Alderdene made everybody turn. Mrs. Vendenning was laughing; so was Rena Bonnesdel looking over Quarrier's shoulder at a card he was holding—not one of the "hand"-decorated, but a sheet of note-paper containing a drawing of a man rushing after a gun-shy dog.
The extraordinary cackling laughter of his lordship obliterated other sounds for a while; Rena Bonnesdel possessed herself of the drawing and held it up amid a shout of laughter. And, to his excessive annoyance, Siward saw that, unconsciously, he had caricatured Quarrier—Ferrall's malicious request for a Vandyke beard making the caricature dreadfully apparent.
Quarrier had at first flushed up; then he forced a smile; but his symmetrical features were never cordial when he smiled.
"Who on earth did that?" whispered Sylvia Landis apprehensively. "Mr. Quarrier dislikes that sort of thing—but of course he'll take it well."
"Did he ever chase his own dog?" asked Siward, biting his lip.
"Yes—so Blinky says—in the Carolinas last season. It's Blinky!—that's his notion of humour. Did you ever hear such a laugh? No wonder Mr. Quarrier is annoyed."
The gay uproar had partly subsided, renewed here and there as the sketch was passed along, and finally, making the circle, returned like a bad penny to Quarrier. He smiled again, symmetrically, as he received it, nodding his compliments to Alderdene.
"Oh, no," cackled his lordship; "I didn't draw it, old chap!"
"Nor I! I only wish I could," added Captain Voucher.
"Nor I—nor I—who did it?" ran the chorus along the table.
"I didn't do it!" said Sylvia gravely, looking across at Quarrier. And suddenly Quarrier's large, handsome eyes met Siward's for the briefest fraction of a second, then were averted. But into his face there crept an expressionless pallor that did not escape Siward—no, nor Sylvia Landis.
Presently under cover of a rapid fire of chatter she said: "Did you draw that?"
"Yes; I had no idea it was meant for him. You may imagine how likely I'd be to take any liberty with a man who already dislikes me."
"But it resembles him—in a very dreadful way."
"I know it. You must take my word for what I have told you."
She looked up at him: "I do." Then: "It's a pity; Mr. Quarrier does not consider such things humourous. He—he is very sensitive. ... Oh, I wish that fool Englishman had been in Ballyhoo!"
"But he didn't do it!"
"No, but he put you up to it—or Grace Ferrall did. I wish Grace would let Mr. Quarrier alone; she has always been perfectly possessed to plague him; she seems unable to take him seriously and he simply hates it. I don't think he'd tolerate her if she were not his cousin.
"I'm awfully sorry," was all Siward said; and for a while he gloomily busied himself with whatever was brought to him.
"Don't look that way," came a low voice beside him.
"Do I show everything as plainly as that?" he asked, curiously.
"I seem to read you—sometimes."
"It's very nice of you," he said.
"To look at me—now and then."
"Oh," she cried resentfully, "don't be grateful."
"I—really am not you know," he said laughing.
"That," she rejoined slowly, "is the truth. You say conventional things in a manner—in an agreeably personal manner that interests women. But you are not grateful to anybody for anything; you are indifferent, and you can't help being nice to people, so—some day—some girl will think you are grateful, and will have a miserable time of it."
"Waiting for you to say what never will enter your head to say."
"You mean I—I—"
"Flirt? No, I mean that you don't flirt; that you are always dreamily occupied with your own affairs, from which listlessly congenial occupation, when drawn, you are so unexpectedly nice that a girl immediately desires to see how nice you can be."
"What a charming indictment you draw!" he said, amused.
"It's a grave one I assure you. I've been talking about you to Grace Ferrall; I asked to be placed beside you at dinner; I told her I hadn't had half enough of you on the cliff. Now what do you think of yourself for being too nice to a susceptible girl? I think it's immoral."
They both were laughing now; several people glanced at them, smiling in sympathy. Alderdene took that opportunity to revert to the sketch, furnishing a specimen of his own inimitable laughter as a running accompaniment to the story of Quarrier and his dog in North Carolina, until he had everybody, as usual, laughing, not at the story but at him. All of which demonstration was bitterly offensive to Quarrier. He turned his eyes once on Miss Landis and on Siward, then dropped them.
The hostess arose; a rustle and flurry of silk and lace and the scraping of chairs, a lingering word or laugh, and the colour vanished from the room leaving a circle of men in black standing around the table.
Here and there a man, lighting a cigarette, bolted his coffee and cognac and strolled out to the gun-room. Ferrall, gesticulating vigorously, resumed his preprandial dog story to Captain Voucher; Belwether buttonholed Alderdene and bored him with an interminably facetious tale until that nobleman, threatened with maxillary dislocation, fairly wrenched himself loose and came over to Siward, squinting furiously.
"Old ass!" he muttered; "his chop whiskers look like the chops of a Southdown ram—and he's got the wits of one. Look here, Stephen, I hear you fell into no end of a scrape in town—"
"Tu quoque, Blinky? Oh, read the newspapers and let it go at that!"
"Just as you like old chap!" returned his lordship unabashed. "All I meant was—anything Voucher and I can do—of course—"
"You're very good. I'm not dead you know."
"'Not dead, you know'," repeated Major Belwether coming up behind them with his sprightly step; "that reminds me of a good one—" He sat down and lighted a cigar, then, vainly attempting to control his countenance as though roguishly anticipating the treat awaiting them, he began another endless story.
Tradition had hallowed the popular notion that Major Belwether was a wit. The sycophant of the outer world seldom even awaited his first word before bursting into premature mirth. Besides he was very wealthy.
Siward watched him with mixed emotions; the lambent-eyed, sheepy expression had given place to the buck rabbit; his smooth baby-pink skin and downy white side whiskers quivered in premature sympathy with his listener's overwhelming hilarity.
The Page boys, very callow, very much delighted, and a little in awe of such a celebrated personage, laughed heartily. And altogether there was sufficient attention and sufficient laughter to make a very respectable noise. This, being the major's cue for an exit, he rose, one sleek hand raised in sprightly protest as though to shield the invisible ladies, to whose bournes he was bound, from an uproar too masculine and mighty for the ears of such a sex.
"Ass!" muttered Alderdene, getting up and pattering about the room in his big, shiny pumps. "Give me a peg—somebody!"
Mortimer swallowed his brandy, lingered, lifted the decanter, mechanically considering its remaining contents and his own capacity; then:
"Certainly," said Captain Voucher briskly.
"I'll go and shoo the major into the gun-room," observed Ferrall—"unless—" looking questioningly at Siward.
"I've a date with your wife," observed that young man, strolling toward the hall.
The Page boys, Rena Bonnesdel, and Eileen Shannon were seated at a card table together, very much engaged with one another, the sealed pack lying neglected on the green cloth, a vast pink box of bon-bons beside it, not neglected.
O'Hara and Quarrier with Marion Page and Mrs. Mortimer were immersed in the game, already stony faced and oblivious to outer sounds.
About the rooms were distributed girls en tete-a-tete, girls eating bon-bons and watching the cards—among them Sylvia Landis, hands loosely clasped behind her, standing at Quarrier's elbow to observe and profit by an expert performance.
As Siward strolled in she raised her dainty head for an instant, smiled in silence, and resumed a study of her fiance's game.
A moment later, when Quarrier had emerged brilliantly from the melee, she looked up again, triumphantly, supposing Siward was lingering somewhere waiting to join her. And she was just a trifle surprised and disappointed to find him nowhere in sight. She had wished him to observe the brilliancy of Mr. Quarrier's game.
But Siward, outside on the veranda, was saying at that moment to his hostess: "I shall be very glad to read my mother's letter at any time you choose."
"It must be later, Stephen. I'm to cut in when Kemp sends for me. He has a lot of letters to attend to. ... Tell me, what do you think of Sylvia Landis?"
"I like her, of course," he replied pleasantly.
Grace Ferrall stood thinking a moment: "That sketch you made proved a great success, didn't it?" And she laughed under her breath.
"Did it? I thought Mr. Quarrier seemed annoyed—"
"Really? What a muff that cousin of mine is. He's such a muff, you know, that the very sight of his pointed beard and pompadour hair and his complacency sets me in fidgets to stir him up."
"I don't think you'd best use me for the stick next time," said Siward. "He's not my cousin you know."
Mrs. Ferrall shrugged her boyish shoulders: "By the way"—she said curiously—"who was that girl?"
"What girl," he asked coolly, looking at his hostess, now the very incarnation of delicate mockery with her pretty laughing mouth, her boyish sunburn and freckles.
"You won't tell me I suppose?"
"Was she pretty, Stephen?"
"Yes," he said sulkily; "I wish you wouldn't—"
"Nonsense! Do you think I'm going to let you off without some sort of confession? If I had time now—but I haven't. Kemp has business letters: he'll be furious; so I've got to take his cards or we won't have any pennies to buy gasoline for our adored and shrieking Mercedes."
She retreated backward with a gay nod of malice, turned to enter the house, and met Sylvia Landis face to face in the hallway.
"You minx!" she whispered; "aren't you ashamed?"
"Very much, dear. What for?" And catching sight of Siward outside in the starlight, divined perhaps something of her hostess' meaning, for she laughed uneasily, like a child who winces under a stern eye.
"You don't suppose for a moment," she began, "that I have—"
"Yes I do. You always do."
"Not with that sort of man," she returned naively; "he won't."
Mrs. Ferrall regarded her suspiciously: "You always pick out exactly the wrong man to play with—"
They had moved back side by side into the hall, the hostess' arm linked in the arm of the younger girl.
"The wrong man?" repeated Sylvia, instinctively freeing her arm, her straight brows beginning to bend inward.
"I didn't mean that—exactly. You know how much I care for his mother—and for him." The obstinate downward trend of the brows, the narrowing blue gaze signalled mutiny to the woman who knew her so well.
"What is so wrong with Mr. Siward?" she asked.
"Nothing. There was an affair—"
"This spring in town. I know it. Is that all?"
"Yes—for the present," replied Grace Ferrall uncomfortably; then: "For goodness' sake, Sylvia, don't cross examine me that way! I care a great deal for that boy—"
"So do I. I've made him take my dog."
There was an abrupt pause, and presently Mrs. Ferrall began to laugh.
"I mean it—really," said Sylvia quietly; "I like him immensely."
"Dearest, you mean it generously—with your usual exaggeration. You have heard that he has been foolish, and because he's so young, so likable, every instinct, every impulse in you is aroused to—to be nice to him—"
"And if that were—"
"There is no harm, dear—" Mrs. Ferrall hesitated, her grey eyes softening to a graver revery. Then looking up: "It's rather pathetic," she said in a low voice. "Kemp thinks he's foredoomed—like all the Siwards. It's an hereditary failing with him,—no, it's hereditary damnation. Siward after Siward, generation after generation you know—" She bit her lip, thinking a moment. "His grandfather was a friend of my grand-parents, brilliant, handsome, generous, and—doomed! His own father was found dying in a dreadful resort in London where he had wandered when stupefied—a Siward! Think of it! So you see what that outbreak of Stephen's means to those whose families have been New Yorkers since New York was. It is ominous, it is more than ominous—it means that the master-vice has seized on one more Siward. But I shall never, never admit it to his mother."
The younger girl sat wide-eyed, silent; the elder's gaze was upon her, but her thoughts, remote, centred on the hapless mother of such a son.
"Such indulgence was once fashionable; moderation is the present fashion. Perhaps he will fall into line," said Mrs. Ferrall thoughtfully. "The main thing is to keep him among people, not to drop him. The gregarious may be shamed, but if anything, any incident, happens to drive him outside by himself, if he should become solitary, there's not a chance in the world for him. ... It's a pity. I know he meant to make himself the exception to the rule—and look! Already one carouse of his has landed him in the daily papers!"
Sylvia flushed and looked up: "Grace, may I ask you a plain question?"
"Yes, child," she answered absently.
"Has it occurred to you that what you have said about this boy touches me very closely?"
Mrs. Ferrall's wits returned nimbly from woolgathering, and she shot a startled, inquiring glance at the girl beside her.
"You—you mean the matter of heredity, Sylvia?"
"Yes. I think my uncle Major Belwether chose you as his august mouthpiece for that little sermon on the dangers of heredity—the danger of being ignorant concerning what women of my race had done—before I came into the world they found so amusing."
"I told you several things," returned Mrs. Ferrall composedly. "Your uncle thought it best for you to know."
"Yes. The marriage vows sat lightly upon some of my ancestors, I gather. In fact," she added coolly, "where the women of my race loved they usually found the way—rather unconventionally. There was, if I understood you, enough of divorce, of general indiscretion and irregularity to seriously complicate any family tree and coat of arms I might care to claim—"
The girl lifted her pretty bare shoulders. "I'm sorry, but could I help it? Very well; all I can do is to prove a decent exception. Very well; I'm doing it, am I not?—practically scared into the first solidly suitable marriage offered—seizing the unfortunate Howard with both hands for fear he'd get away and leave me alone with only a queer family record for company! Very well! Now then, I want to ask you why everybody, in my case, didn't go about with sanctimonious faces and dolorous mien repeating: 'Her grand-mother eloped! Her mother ran away. Poor child, she's doomed! doomed!'"
"Yes—why didn't they? That's the way they talk about that boy out there!" She swept a rounded arm toward the veranda.
"Yes, but he has already broken loose, while you—"
"So did I—nearly! Had it not been for you, you know well enough I might have run away with that dreadful Englishman at Newport! For I adored him—I did! I did! and you know it. And look at my endless escapes from compromising myself! Can you count them?—all those indiscretions when mere living seemed to intoxicate me that first winter—and only my uncle and you to break me in!"
"In other words," said Mrs. Ferrall slowly, "you don't think Mr. Siward is getting what is known as a square deal?"
"No, I don't. Major Belwether has already hinted—no, not even that—but has somehow managed to dampen my pleasure in Mr. Siward."
Mrs. Ferrall considered the girl beside her—now very lovely and flushed in her suppressed excitement.
"After all," she said, "you are going to marry somebody else. So why become quite so animated about a man you may never again see?"
"I shall see him if I desire to!"
"I am not taking the black veil, am I?" asked the girl hotly.
"Only the wedding veil, dear. But after all your husband ought to have something to suggest concerning a common visiting list—"
"He may suggest—certainly. In the meantime I shall be loyal to my own friends—and afterward, too," she murmured to herself, as her hostess rose, calmly dropping care like a mantle from her shoulders.
"Go and be good to this poor young man then; I adore rows—and you'll have a few on your hands I'll warrant. Let me remind you that your uncle can make it unpleasant for you yet, and that your amiable fiance has a will of his own under his pompadour and silky beard."
"What a pity to have it clash with mine," said the girl serenely.
Mrs. Ferrall looked at her: "Mercy on us! Howard's pompadour would stick up straight with horror if he could hear you! Don't be silly; don't for an impulse, for a caprice, break off anything desirable on account of a man for whom you really care nothing—whose amiable exterior and prospective misfortune merely enlist a very natural and generous sympathy in you."
"Do you suppose that I shall endure interference from anybody?—from my uncle, from Howard?"
"Dear, you are making a mountain out of a mole-hill. Don't be emotional; don't let loose impulses that you and I know about, knew about in our school years, know all about now, and which you and I have decided must be eliminated—"
"You mean subdued; they'll always be there."
"Very well; who cares, as long as you have them in leash?"
Looking at one another, the excited colour cooling in the younger girl's cheeks, they laughed, one with relief, the other a little ashamed.
"Kemp will be furious; I simply must cut in!" said Mrs. Ferrall, hastily turning toward the gun-room. Miss Landis looked after her, subdued, vaguely repentant, the consciousness dawning upon her that she had probably made considerable conversation about nothing.
"It's been so all day," she thought impatiently; "I've exaggerated; I've worked up a scene about a man whose habits are not the slightest concern of mine. Besides that I've neglected Howard shamefully!" She was walking slowly, her thoughts outstripping her errant feet, but it seemed that neither her thoughts nor her steps were leading her toward the neglected gentleman within; for presently she found herself at the breezy veranda door, looking rather fixedly at the stars.
The stars, shining impartially upon the just and the unjust, illuminated the person of Siward, who sat alone, rather limply, one knee crossed above the other. He looked up by chance, and, seeing her star-gazing in the doorway, straightened out and rose to his feet.
Aware of him apparently for the first time, she stepped across the threshold meeting his advance half-way.
"Would you care to go down to the rocks?" he asked. "The surf is terrific."
"No—I don't think I care—"
They stood listening a moment to the stupendous roar.
"A storm somewhere at sea," he concluded.
"Is it very fine—the surf?"
"Very fine—and very relentless—" he laughed; "it is an unfriendly creature, the sea, you know."
She had begun to move toward the cliffs, he fell into step beside her; they spoke little, a word now and then.
The perfume of the mounting sea saturated the night with wild fragrance; dew lay heavy on the lawns; she lifted her skirts enough to clear the grass, heedless that her silk-shod feet were now soaking. Then at the cliffs' edge, as she looked down into the white fury of the surf, the stunning crash of the ocean saluted her.
For a long while they watched in silence; once she leaned a trifle too far over the star-lit gulf and, recoiling, involuntarily steadied herself on his arm.
"I suppose," she said, "no swimmer could endure that battering."
"Would there be no chance?"
She bent farther outward, fascinated, stirred, by the splendid frenzy of the breakers.
"I—think—," he began quietly; then a firm hand fell over her left hand; and, half encircled by his arm she found herself drawn back. Neither spoke; two things she was coolly aware of, that, urged, drawn by something subtly irresistible she had leaned too far out from the cliff, and would have leaned farther had he not taken matters into his own keeping without apology. Another thing; the pressure of his hand over hers remained a sensation still—a strong, steady, masterful imprint lacking hesitation or vacillation. She was as conscious of it as though her hand still tightened under his—and she was conscious, too, that nothing of his touch had offended; that there had arisen in her no tremor of instinctive recoil. For never before had she touched or suffered a touch from a man, even a gloved greeting, that had not in some measure subtly repelled her, nor, for that matter, a caress from a woman without a reaction of faint discomfort.
"Was I in any actual danger?" she asked curiously.
"I think not. But it was too much responsibility for me."
"I see. Any time I wish to break my neck I am to please do it alone in future."
"Exactly—if you don't mind," he said smiling.
They turned, shoulder to shoulder, walking back through the drenched herbage.
"That," she said impulsively, "is not what I said a few moments ago to a woman."
"What did you say a few moments ago to a woman?"
"I said, Mr. Siward, that I would not leave a—a certain man to go to the devil alone!"
"Do you know any man who is going to the devil?"
"Do you?" she asked, letting herself go swinging out upon a tide of intimacy she had never dreamed of risking—nor had she the slightest idea whither the current would carry her.
They had stopped on the lawn, ankle deep in wet grass, the stars overhead sparkling magnificently, and in their ears the outcrash of the sea.
"You mean me," he concluded.
He looked up into the lovely face; her eyes were very sweet, very clear—clear with excitement—but very friendly.
"Let us sit here on the steps a little while, will you?" she asked.
So he found a place beside her, one step lower, and she leaned forward, elbows on knees, rounded white chin in her palms, the starlight giving her bare arms and shoulders a marble lustre and tinting her eyes a deeper amethyst.
And now, innocently untethered, mission and all, she laid her heart quite bare—one chapter of it. And, like other women-errant who believe in the influence of their sex individually and collectively, she began wrong by telling him of her engagement—perhaps to emphasise her pure disinterestedness in a crusade for principle only. Which naturally dampened in him any nascent enthusiasm for being ministered to, and so preoccupied him that he turned deaf ears to some very sweet platitudes which might otherwise have impressed him as discoveries in philosophy.
Officially her creed was the fashionable one in town; privately she had her own religion, lacking some details truly enough, but shaped upon youthful notions of right and wrong. As she had not read very widely, she supposed that she had discovered this religion for herself; she was not aware that everybody else had passed that way—it being the first immature moult in young people after rejecting dogma.
And the ripened fruit of all this philosophy she helpfully dispensed for Siward's benefit as bearing directly on his case.
Had he not been immersed in the unexpected proposition of her impending matrimony, he might have been impressed, for the spell of her beauty counted something, and besides, he had recently formulated for himself a code of ethics, tinctured with Omar, and slightly resembling her own discoveries in that dog-eared science.
So it was, when she was most eloquent, most earnestly inspired—nay in the very middle of a plea for sweetness and light and simple living, that his reasonings found voice in the material comment:
"I never imagined you were engaged!"
"Is that what you have been thinking about?" she asked, innocently astonished.
"Yes. Why not? I never for one instant supposed—"
"But, Mr. Siward, why should you have concerned yourself with supposing anything? Why indulge in any speculation of that sort about me?"
"I don't know, but I didn't," he said.
"Of course you didn't; you'd known me for about three hours—there on the cliff—"
Over his youthful face a sullen shadow had fallen—flickering, not yet settled. He would not for anything on earth have talked freely to the woman destined to be Quarrier's wife. He had talked too much anyway. Something in her, something about her had loosened his tongue. He had made a plain ass of himself—that was all,—a garrulous ass. And truly it seemed that the girl beside him, even in the starlight, could follow and divine what he had scarcely expressed to himself; or her instincts had taken a shorter cut to forestall his own conclusion.
"Don't think the things you are thinking!" she said in a fierce little voice, leaning toward him.
"What do you mean?" he asked, taken aback.
"You know! Don't! It is unfair—it is—is faithless—to me. I am your friend; why not? Does it make any difference to you whom I marry? Cannot two people remain in accord anyway? Their friendship concerns each other and—nobody else!" She was letting herself go now; she was conscious of it, conscious that impulse and emotion were the currents unloosed and hurrying her onward. And with it all came exhilaration, a faint intoxication, a delicate delight in daring to let go all and trust to impulse and emotions.
"Why should you feel hurt because for a moment you let me see—gave me a glimpse of yourself—of life's battle as you foresee it? What if there is always a reaction from all confidences exchanged? What if that miserable French cynic did say that never was he more alone than after confessing to a friend? He died crazy anyhow. Is not a rare moment of confidence worth the reaction—the subsidence into the armored shell of self? Tell me truly, Mr. Siward, isn't it?"
Breathless, confused, exhilarated by her own rapid voice she bent her face, brilliant with colour, and very sweet; and he looked up into it, expectant, uncertain.
"If such a friendship as ours is to become worth anything to you—to me, why should it trouble you that I know—and am thinking of things that concern you? Is it because the confidence is one-sided? Is it because you have given and I have listened and given nothing in return to balance the account? I do give—interest, deep interest, sympathy if you ask it; I give confidence in return—if you desire it!"
"What can a girl like you need of sympathy?" he said smiling.
"You don't know! you don't know! If heredity is a dark vista, and if you must stare through it all your life, sword in hand, always on your guard, do you think you are the only one?"
"Are you—one?" he said incredulously.
"Yes"—with an involuntary shudder—"not that way. It is easier for me; I think it is—I know it is. But there are things to combat—impulses, a recklessness, perhaps something almost ruthless. What else I do not know, for I have never experienced violent emotions of any sort—never even deep emotion."
"You are in love!"
"Yes, thoroughly," she added with conviction, "but not violently. I—" she hesitated, stopped short, leaning forward, peering at him through the dusk; and: "Mr. Siward! are you laughing?" She rose and he stood up instantly.
There was lightning in her darkening eyes now; in his something that glimmered and danced. She watched it, fascinated, then of a sudden the storm broke and they were both laughing convulsively, face to face there under the stars.