The LURE OF THE MASK
By HAROLD MAC GRATH
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY HARRISON FISHER AND KARL ANDERSON
INDIANAPOLIS THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY PUBLISHERS COPYRIGHT 1908
PRESS OF BRAUN WORTH & CO. BOOKBINDERS AND PRINTERS BROOKLYN, N.Y.
TO MY FELLOW TRAVELER AND GENTLE CRITIC
I THE VOICE IN THE FOG
II OBJECT, MATRIMONY
III MADAME ANGOT
V THE MASK
VI INTO THE FOG AGAIN
VII THE TOSS OF A COIN
VIII WHAT MERRIHEW FOUND
IX MRS. SANDFORD WINKS
XI THE CITY IN THE SEA
XII A BOX OF CIGARS
XIII KITTY ASKS QUESTIONS
XIV GREY VEILS
XV MANY NAPOLEONS
XVI O'MALLY SUGGESTS
XVIII THE ARIA FROM IL TROVATORE
XIX TWO GENTLEMEN FROM VERONA
XX KITTY DROPS A BANDBOX
XXI AN INVITATION TO A BALL
XXIII THE DENOUEMENT
XXIV MEASURE FOR MEASURE
XXVI THE LETTER
THE LURE OF THE MASK
THE VOICE IN THE FOG
Out of the unromantic night, out of the somber blurring January fog, came a voice lifted in song, a soprano, rich, full and round, young, yet matured, sweet and mysterious as a night-bird's, haunting and elusive as the murmur of the sea in a shell: a lilt from La Fille de Madame Angot, a light opera long since forgotten in New York. Hillard, genuinely astonished, lowered his pipe and listened. To sit dreaming by an open window, even in this unlovely first month of the year, in that grim unhandsome city which boasts of its riches and still accepts with smug content its rows upon rows of ugly architecture, to sit dreaming, then, of red-tiled roofs, of cloud-caressed hills, of terraced vineyards, of cypresses in their dark aloofness, is not out of the natural order of things; but that into this idle and pleasant dream there should enter so divine a voice, living, feeling, pulsing, this was not ordinary at all.
And Hillard was glad that the room was in darkness. He rose eagerly and peered out. But he saw no one. Across the street the arc-lamp burned dimly, like an opal in the matrix, while of architectural outlines not one remained, the fog having kindly obliterated them.
The Voice rose and sank and soared again, drawing nearer and nearer. It was joyous and unrestrained, and there was youth in it, the touch of spring and the breath of flowers. The music was Lecocq's, that is to say, French; but the tongue was of a country which Hillard knew to be the garden of the world. Presently he observed a shadow emerge from the yellow mist, to come within the circle of light, which, faint as it was, limned in against the nothingness beyond the form of a woman. She walked directly under his window.
As the invisible comes suddenly out of the future to assume distinct proportions which either make or mar us, so did this unknown cantatrice come out of the fog that night and enter into Hillard's life, to readjust its ambitions, to divert its aimless course, to give impetus to it, and a directness which hitherto it had not known.
He leaned over the sill at a perilous angle, the bright coal of his pipe spilling comet-wise to the area-way below. He was only subconscious of having spoken; but this syllable was sufficient to spoil the enchantment. The Voice ceased abruptly, with an odd break. The singer looked up. Possibly her astonishment surpassed even that of her audience. For a few minutes she had forgotten that she was in New York, where romance may be found only in the book-shops; she had forgotten that it was night, a damp and chill forlorn night; she had forgotten the pain in her heart; there had been only a great and irresistible longing to sing.
Though she raised her face, he could distinguish no feature, for the light was behind. However, he was a man who made up his mind quickly. Brunette or blond, beautiful or otherwise, it needed but a moment to find out. Even as this decision was made he was in the upper hall, taking the stairs two at a bound. He ran out into the night, bareheaded. Up the street he saw a flying shadow. Plainly she had anticipated his impulse and the curiosity behind it. Even as he gave chase the shadow melted in the fog, as ice melts in running waters, as flame dissolves in sunshine. She was gone. He cupped his ear with his hand; in vain, there came no sound as of pattering feet; there was nothing but fog and silence.
"Well, if this doesn't beat the Dutch!" he murmured.
He laughed disappointedly. It did not matter that he was three and thirty; he still retained youth enough to feel chagrined at such a trivial defeat. Here had been something like a genuine adventure, and it had slipped like water through his clumsy fingers.
"Deuce take the fog! But for that I'd have caught her."
But reason promptly asked him what he should have done had he caught the singer. Yes, supposing he had, what excuse would he have had to offer? Denial on her part would have been simple, and righteous indignation at being accosted on the street simpler still. He had not seen her face, and doubtless she was aware of this fact. Thus, she would have had all the weapons for defense and he not one for attack. But though reason argued well, it did not dislodge his longing. He would have been perfectly happy to have braved her indignation for a single glance at her face. He walked back, lighting his pipe. Who could she be? What peculiar whimsical freak had sent her singing past his window at one o'clock of the morning? A grand opera singer, returning home from a late supper? But he dismissed this opinion even as he advanced it. He knew something about grand opera singers. They attend late suppers, it is true, but they ride home in luxurious carriages and never risk their golden voices in this careless if romantic fashion. And in New York nobody took the trouble to serenade anybody else, unless paid in advance and armed with a police permit. As for being a comic-opera star, he refused to admit the possibility; and he relegated this well-satisfied constellation to the darks of limbo. He had heard a Voice.
A vast, shadow loomed up in the middle of the street, presently to take upon itself the solid outlines of a policeman who came lumbering over to add or subtract his quota of interest in the affair. Hillard wisely stopped and waited for him, pulling up the collar of his jacket, as he began to note that there was a winter's tang to the fog.
"Hi, what's all this?" the policeman called out roughly.
"To what do you refer?" Hillard counter-questioned, puffing. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his jacket.
"I heard a woman singin', that's what!" explained the guardian of the law.
"So did I."
"Oh, you did, huh?"
"Certainly. It is patent that my ears are as good as yours."
"Huh! See her?"
"For a moment," Hillard admitted.
"Well, we can't have none o' this in the streets. It's disorderly."
"My friend," said Hillard, rather annoyed at the policeman's tone, "you don't think for an instant that I was directing this operetta?"
"Think? Where's your hat?"
Hillard ran his hand over his head. The policeman had him here. "I did not bring it out."
"Too warm and summery; huh? It don't look good. I've been watchin' these parts fer a leddy. They call her Leddy Lightfinger; an' she has some O' the gents done to a pulp when it comes to liftin' jools an' trinkets. Somebody fergits to lock the front door, an' she finds it out. Why did you come out without yer lid?"
"Just forgot it, that's all."
"Which way'd she go?"
"You'll need a map and a search-light. I started to run after her myself. I heard a voice from my window; I saw a woman; I made for the street; niente!"
"Oh! I see; Dago. Seems to me now that this woman was singin' I-taly-an, too." They were nearing the light, and the policeman gazed intently at the hatless young man. "Why, it's Mr. Hillard! I'm surprised. Well, well! Some day I'll run in a bunch o' these chorus leddies, jes' fer a lesson. They git lively at the restaurants over on Broadway, an' thin they raise the dead with their singin', which, often as not, is anythin' but singin'. An' here it is, after one."
"But this was not a chorus lady," replied Hillard, thoughtfully reaching into his vest for a cigar.
"Sure, an' how do you know?" with renewed suspicions.
"The lady had a singing voice."
"Huh! They all think alike about that. But mebbe she wasn't bad at the business. Annyhow...."
"It was rather out of time and place, eh?" helpfully.
"That's about the size of it. This Leddy Lightfinger is a case. She has us all thinkin' on our nights off. Clever an' edjicated, an' jabbers in half a dozen tongues. It's a thousan' to the man who jugs her. But she don't sing; at least, they ain't any report to that effect. Perhaps your leddy was jes' larkin' a bit. But it's got to be stopped."
Hillard passed over the cigar, and the policeman bit off the end, nodding with approval at such foresight. The young man then proffered the coal of his pipe and the policeman took his light therefrom, realizing that after such a peace-offering there was nothing for him to do but move on. Yet on dismal lonesome nights, like this one, it is a godsend and a comfort to hear one's own voice against the darkness. So he lingered.
"Didn't get a peep at her face?"
"Not a single feature. The light was behind her." Hillard tapped one toe and then the other.
"An' how was she dressed?"
"In fog, for all I could see."
"On the level now, didn't you know who she was?" The policeman gave Hillard a sly dig in the ribs with his club.
"On my word!"
"Some swell, mebbe."
"Undoubtedly a lady. That's why it looks odd, why it brought me into the street. She sang in classic Italian. And what's more, for the privilege of hearing that voice again, I should not mind sitting on this cold curb till the milkman comes around in the morning."
"That wouldn't be fer long," laughed the policeman, taking out his watch and holding it close to the end of his cigar. "Twenty minutes after one. Well, I must be gittin' back to me beat. An' you'd better be goin' in; it's cold. Good night."
"Good night," Hillard responded cheerfully.
"Say, what's I-taly-an fer good night?" still reluctant to go on.
"Bony notty; huh, sounds like Chinese fer rheumatism. Been to Italy?"
"I was born there," patiently.
"No! Why, you're no Dago!"
"Not so much as an eyelash. The stork happened to drop the basket there, that's all."
"Ha! I see. Well, Ameriky is good enough fer me an' mine," complacently.
"I dare say!"
"An' if this stogy continues t' behave, we'll say no more about the vanishin' leddy." And with this the policeman strolled off into the fog, his suspicions in nowise removed. He knew many rich young bachelors like Hillard. If it wasn't a chorus lady, it was a prima donna, which was not far in these degenerate days from being the same thing.
Hillard regained his room and leaned with his back to the radiator. He had an idea. It was rather green and salad, but as soon as his hands were warm he determined to put this idea into immediate use. The Voice had stirred him deeply, stirred him with the longing to hear it again, to see the singer's face, to learn what extraordinary impulse had loosed the song. Perhaps it was his unspoken loneliness striving to call out against this self-imposed isolation; for he was secretly lonely, as all bachelors must be who have passed the Rubicon of thirty. He made no analysis of this new desire, or rather this old desire, newly awakened. He embraced it gratefully. Such is the mystery and power of the human voice: this one, passing casually under his window, had awakened him.
Never the winter came with its weary round of rain and fog and snow that his heart and mind did not fly over the tideless southern sea to the land of his birth if not of his blood. Sorrento, that jewel of the ruddy clifts! There was fog outside his window, and yet how easy it was to picture the turquoise bay of Naples shimmering in the morning light! There was Naples itself, like a string of its own pink coral, lying crescent-wise on the distant strand; there were the snowcaps fading on the far horizon; the bronzed fishermen and their wives, a sheer two hundred feet below him, pulling in their glistening nets; the amethyst isles of Capri and Ischia eternally hanging midway between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea; and there, towering menacingly above all this melting beauty, the dark, grim pipe of Vulcan. How easily, indeed, he could see all these things!
With a quick gesture of both hands, Latin, always Latin, he crossed the room to a small writing-desk, turned on the lights and sat down. He smiled as he took up the pen to begin his composition. Not one chance in a thousand. And after several attempts he realized that the letter he had in mind was not the simplest to compose. There were a dozen futile efforts before he produced anything like satisfaction. Then he filled out a small check. A little later he stole down-stairs, round the corner to the local branch of the post-office, and returned. It was only a blind throw, such as dicers sometimes make in the dark. But chance loves her true gamester, and to him she makes a faithful servant.
"I should be sorely tempted," he mused, picking up a novel and selecting a comfortable angle in the Morris, "I should be sorely tempted to call any other man a silly ass. Leddy Lightfinger—it would be a fine joke if my singer turned out to be that irregular person."
He fell to reading, but it was not long before he yawned. He shied the book into a corner, drew off his boots and cast them into the hall. A moment after his valet appeared, gathered up the boots, tucked them under his arm, and waited.
"I want nothing, Giovanni. I have only been around to the post-office."
"I heard the door open and close four times, signore."
"It was I each time. If this fog does not change into rain, I shall want my riding-breeches to-morrow morning."
"It is always raining here," Giovanni remarked sadly.
"Not always; there are pleasant days in the spring and summer. It is because this is not Italy. The Hollander wonders how any reasonable being can dwell in a country where they do not drink gin. It's home, Giovanni; rain pelts you from a different angle here. There is nothing more; you may go. It is two o'clock, and you are dead for sleep."
But Giovanni only bowed; he did not stir.
"Well?" inquired his master.
"It is seven years now, signore."
"So it is; seven this coming April."
"I am now a citizen of this country; I obey its laws; I vote."
"Yes, Giovanni, you are an American citizen, and you should be proud of it."
Giovanni smiled. "I may return to my good Italia without danger."
"That depends. If you do not run across any official who recognizes you."
Giovanni spread his hands. "Official memory seldom lasts so long as seven years. The signore has crossed four times in this period."
"I would gladly have taken you each time, as you know."
"Oh, yes! But in two or three years the police do not forget. In seven it is different."
"Ah!" Hillard was beginning to understand the trend of this conversation. "So, then, you wish to return?"
"Yes, signore. I have saved a little money," modestly.
"A little?" Hillard laughed. "For seven years you have received fifty American dollars every month, and out of it you do not spend as many copper centesimi. I am certain that you have twenty thousand lire tucked away in your stocking; a fortune!"
"I buy the blacking for the signore's boots," gravely.
Hillard saw the twinkle in the black eyes. "I have never," he said truthfully, "asked you to black my boots."
"Penance, signore, penance for my sins; and I am not without gratitude. There was a time when I had rather cut off a hand than black a boot; but all that is changed. We of the Sabine Hills are proud, as the signore knows. We are Romans out there; we despise the cities; and we do not hold out our palms for the traveler's pennies. I am a peasant, but always remember the blood of the Caesars. Who can say? Besides, I have held a sword for the church. I owe no allegiance to the puny House of Savoy!" There was no twinkle in the black eyes now; there was a ferocious gleam. It died away quickly, however; the squared shoulders drooped, and there was a deprecating shrug. "Pardon, signore; this is far away from the matter of boots. I grow boastful; I am an old man and should know better. But does the signore return to Italy in the spring?"
"I don't know, Giovanni, I don't know. But what's on your mind?"
"Nothing new, signore," with eyes cast down to hide the returning lights.
"You are a bloodthirsty ruffian!" said Hillard shortly. "Will time never soften the murder in your heart?"
"I am as the good God made me. I have seen through blood, and time can not change that. Besides, the Holy Father will do something for one who fought for the cause."
"He will certainly not countenance bloodshed, Giovanni."
"He can absolve it. And as you say, I am rich, as riches go in the Sabine Hills."
"I was in hopes you had forgotten."
"Forgotten? The signore will never understand; it is his father's blood. She was so pretty and youthful, eye of my eye, heart of my heart! And innocent! She sang like the nightingale. She was always happy. Up with the dawn, to sleep with the stars. We were alone, she and I. The sheep supported me and she sold her roses and dried lavender. It was all so beautiful ... till he came. Ah, had he loved her! But a plaything, a pastime! The signore never had a daughter. What is she now? A nameless thing in the streets!" Giovanni raised his arms tragically; the hoots clattered to the floor. "Seven years! It is a long time for one of my blood to wait."
"Enough!" cried Hillard; but there was a hardness in his throat at the sight of the old man's tears. Where was the proud and stately man, the black-bearded shepherd in faded blue linen, in picturesque garters, with his reed-like pipe, that he, Hillard, had known in his boyhood days? Surely not here. Giovanni had known the great wrong, but Hillard could not in conscience's name foster the spirit which demanded an eye for an eye. So he said: "I can give you only my sympathy for your loss, but I abhor the spirit of revenge which can not find satisfaction in anything save murder."
Giovanni once more picked up the boots. "I shall leave the signore in the spring."
"As you please," said Hillard gently.
Giovanni bowed gravely and made off with his boots. Hillard remained staring thoughtfully at the many-colored squares in the rug under his feet. It would be lonesome with Giovanni gone. The old man had evidently made up his mind.... But the Woman with the Voice, would she see the notice in the paper? And if she did, would she reply to it? What a foundation for a romance!... Bah! He prepared for bed.
To those who reckon earthly treasures as the only thing worth having, John Hillard was a fortunate young man. That he was without kith or kin was considered by many as an additional piece of good fortune. Born in Sorrento, in one of the charming villas which sweep down to the very brow of the cliffs, educated in Rome up to his fifteenth year; taken at that age from the dreamy, drifting land and thrust into the noisy, bustling life which was his inheritance; fatherless and motherless at twenty; a college youth who was for ever mixing his Italian with his English and being laughed at; hating tumult and loving quiet; warm-hearted and impulsive, yet meeting only habitual reserve from his compatriots whichever way he turned; it is not to be wondered at that he preferred the land of his birth to that of his blood.
All this might indicate an artistic temperament, the ability to do petty things grandly; but Hillard had escaped this. He loved his Raphaels, his Titians, his Veroneses, his Rubenses, without any desire to make indifferent copies of them; he admired his Dante, his Petrarch, his Goldoni, without the wish to imitate them. He was full of sentiment without being sentimental, a poet who thought but never indited verses. His father's blood was in his veins, that is to say, the salt of restraint; thus, his fortune grew and multiplied. The strongest and reddest corpuscle had been the gift of his mother. She had left him the legacy of loving all beautiful things in moderation, the legacy of gentleness, of charity, of strong loves and frank hatreds, of humor, of living out in the open, of dreaming great things and accomplishing none of them.
The old house in which he lived was not in the fashionable quarter of the town; but that did not matter. Nor did it vary externally from any of its unpretentious neighbors. Inside, however, there were treasures priceless and unique. There was no woman in the household; he might smoke in any room he pleased. A cook, a butler, and a valet were the sum-total of his retinue. In appearance he resembled many another clean-cut, clean-living American gentleman.
Giovanni sought his own room at the end of the hall, squatted on a low stool and solemnly began the business of blacking his master's boots. He was still as lean and tall as a Lombardy poplar, this handsome old Roman. His hair was white; there was now no black beard on his face, which was as brown and creased as Spanish levant; and some of the fullness was gone from his chest and arms; but for all that he carried his fifty-odd years lightly. He worked swiftly to-night, but his mind was far away from his task.
There was a pitiful story, commonplace enough. A daughter, a loose-living officer, a knife flung from a dark alley, and sudden flight to the south. Hillard had found him wandering through the streets of Naples, hiding from the carabinieri as best he could. Hillard contrived to smuggle him on the private yacht of a friend. He found a peasant who was reconsidering the advisability of digging sewers and laying railroad ties in the Eldorado of the West. A few pieces of silver, and the passport changed hands. With this Giovanni blandly lied his way into the United States. After due time he applied for citizenship, and through Hillard's influence it was accorded him. He solemnly voted when elections came round, and hoarded his wages, like the thrifty man he was. Some day he would return to Rome, or Naples, or Venice, or Florence, as the case might be; and then!
When the boots shone flawlessly, he carried them to Hillard's door and softly tiptoed back. He put his face against the cold window. He, too, had heard the Voice. How his heart hurt him with its wild hope! But only for a moment. It was not the voice he hungered for. The words were Italian, but he knew that the woman who sang them was not!
Winter fogs in New York are never quite so intolerable as their counterparts in London; and while their frequency is a matter of complaint, their duration is seldom of any length. So, by the morrow a strong wind from the west had winnowed the skies and cleared the sun. There was an exhilarating tingle of frost in the air and a visible rime on the windows. Hillard, having breakfasted lightly, was standing with his back to the grate in the cozy breakfast-room. He was in boots and breeches and otherwise warmly clad, and freshly shaven. He rocked on his heels and toes, and ran his palm over his blue-white chin in search of a possible slip of the razor.
Giovanni came in to announce that he had telephoned, and that the signore's brown mare would be at the park entrance precisely at half-after eight. Giovanni still marveled over this wonderful voice which came out of nowhere, but he was no longer afraid of it. The curiosity which is innate and child-like in all Latins soon overcame his dark superstitions. He was an ardent Catholic and believed that a few miracles should be left in the hands of God. The telephone had now become a kind of plaything, and Hillard often found him in front of it, patiently waiting for the bell to ring.
The facility with which Giovanni had mastered English amazed his teacher and master; but now he needed no more lessons, the two when alone together spoke Giovanni's tongue: Hillard, because he loved it, and Giovanni because the cook spoke it badly and the English butler not at all.
"You have made up your mind to go, then, amico?" said Hillard.
"Well, I shall miss you. To whom shall I talk the tongue I love so well, when Giovanni is gone?" with a lightness which he did not feel. Hillard had grown very fond of the old Roman in these seven years.
"Whenever the signore goes to Italia, he shall find me. It needs but a word to bring me to him. The signore will pardon me, but he is like—like a son."
"Thanks, Giovanni. By the way, did you hear a woman singing in the street last night?"
"Yes. At first—" Giovanni hesitated.
"Ah, but that could not be, Giovanni; that could not be."
"No, it could not be. But she sang well!" the old servant ventured.
"So thought I. I even ran out into the street to find out who she was; but she vanished like the lady in the conjurer's trick. But it seemed to me that, while she sang in Italian, she herself was not wholly of that race."
"Buonissima!" Giovanni struck a noiseless brava with his hands. "Have I not always said that the signore's ears are as sharp as my own? No, the voice was very beautiful, but it was not truly Roman. It was more like they talk in Venice. And yet the sound of the voice decided me. The hills have always been calling to me; and I must answer."
"And the unforgetting carabinieri?"
"Oh, I must take my chance," with the air of a fatalist.
"What shall you do?"
"I have my two hands, signore. Besides, the signore has said it; I am rich." Giovanni permitted a smile to stir his thin lips. "Yes, I must go back. Your people have been good to me and have legally made me one of them, but my heart is never here. It is always so cold and every one moves so quickly. You can not lie down in the sun. Your police, bah! They beat you on the feet. You remember when I fell asleep on the steps of the cathedral? They thought I was drunk, and would have arrested me!"
"Everybody must keep moving here; it is the penalty of being rich."
"And I am lonesome for my kind. I have nothing in common with these herds of Sicilians and Neapolitans who pour into the streets from the wharves." Giovanni spoke scornfully.
"Yet in war time the Neapolitans sheltered your pope."
"Vanity! They wished to make an impression on the rest of the world. It is dull here, besides. There is no joy in the shops. I am lost in these great palaces. The festa is lacking. Nobody bargains; nobody sees the proprietor; you find your way to the streets alone. The butcher says that his meat is so-and-so, and you pay; the grocer marks his tins such-and-such, and you do not question; and the baker says that, and you pay, pay, pay! What? I need a collar; it is quindici—fifteen you say! I offer quattordici. I would give interest to the sale. But no! The collar goes back into the box. I pay quindici, or I go without. It is the same everywhere; very dull, dead, lifeless."
Hillard was moved to laughter. He very well understood the old man's lament. In Italy, if there is one thing more than another that pleases the native it is to make believe to himself that he has got the better of a bargain. A shrewd purchase enlivens the whole day; it is talked about, laughed over, and becomes the history of the day that Tomass', or Pietro, or Paoli, or whatever his name may be, has bested the merchant out of some twenty centesimi.
"And the cook and the butler," concluded Giovanna; "we do not get on well."
"It is because they are in mortal fear of you, you brigand! Well, my coat and cap."
Hillard presently left the house and hailed a Fifth Avenue omnibus. He looked with negative interest at the advertisements, at the people in the streets, at his fellow-travelers. One of these was hidden behind his morning paper. Personals. Hillard squirmed a little. The world never holds very much romance in the sober morning. What a stupid piece of folly! The idea of his sending that personal inquiry to the paper! To-morrow he would see it sandwiched in between samples of shop-girl romance, questionable intrigues, and divers search-warrants. Ye gods! "Will the blonde who smiled at gentleman in blue serge, elevated train, Tuesday, meet same in park? Object, matrimony." Hillard fidgeted. "Young man known as Adonis would adore stout elderly lady, independently situated. Object, matrimony." Pish! "Girlie. Can't keep appointment to-night. Willie." Tush! "A French Widow of eighteen, unencumbered," and so forth and so on. Rot, bally rot; and here he was on the way to join them! "Will the lady who sang from Madame Angot communicate with gentleman who leaned out of the window? J.H. Burgomaster Club." Positively asinine! The man opposite folded the paper and stuffed it into his pocket, and its disappearance relieved Hillard somewhat.
There was scarce one chance in a thousand of the mysterious singer's seeing the inquiry, not one in ten thousand of her answering it. And the folly of giving his club address! That would look very dignified in yonder agony column! And then he brightened. He could withdraw it; and he would do so the very first thing when he went down-town to the office. "Object, matrimony!" If the woman saw it she would only laugh. It was all a decent woman could do. And certainly the woman of the past night's adventure was of high degree, educated; and doubtless the spirit which had prompted the song was as inexplicable to her this morning as it had been to him last night. He had lost none of the desire to meet her, but reason made it plain to him that a meeting could not possibly be arranged through any personal column in the newspaper. He would cancel the thing.
He dropped from the omnibus at the park entrance, where he found his restive mare. He gave her a lump of sugar and climbed into the saddle. He directed the groom to return for the horse at ten o'clock, then headed for the bridle-path. It was heavy, but the air was so keen and bracing that neither the man nor the horse worried about the going. There were a dozen or so early riders besides himself, and in and out the winding path they passed and repassed, walking, trotting, cantering. Only one party attracted him: a riding master and a trio of brokers who were verging on embonpoint, and were desperate and looked it. They stood in a fair way of losing several pounds that morning. A good rider always smiles at the sight of a poor one, when a little retrospection should make him rather pitying. Hillard went on. The park was not lovely; the trees were barren, the grass yellow and sodden, and here and there were grimy cakes of unmelted snow.
"She is so innocent, so youthful!"
He found himself humming the refrain over and over. She had sung it with abandon, tenderness, lightness. For one glimpse of her face! He took the rise and dip which followed. Perhaps a hundred yards ahead a solitary woman cantered easily along. Hillard had not seen her before. He spurred forward, only faintly curious. She proved to be a total stranger. There was nothing familiar to his eye in her figure, which was charming. She rode well. As he drew nearer he saw that she wore a heavy grey veil. And this veil hid everything but the single flash of a pair of eyes the color of which defied him. Then he looked at her mount. Ha! there was only one rangy black with a white throat; from the Sandford stables, he was positive. But the Sandfords were at this moment in Cairo, so it signified nothing. There is always some one ready to exercise your horses, if they happen to be showy ones. He looked again at the rider; the flash of the eyes was not repeated; so his interest vanished, and he urged the mare into a sharp run. Twice in the course of the ride he passed her, but her head never turned. He knew it did not because he turned to see.
So he went back to his tentative romance. She had passed his window and disappeared into the fog, and there was a reasonable doubt of her ever returning from it. The Singer in the Fog; thus he would write it down in his book of memories and sensibly turn the page. Once down-town he would countermand his order, and that would be the end of it. At length he came back to the entrance and surrendered the mare. He was about to cross the square, when he was hailed.
"Hello, Jack! I say, Hillard!"
Hillard wheeled and saw Merrihew. He, too, was in riding-breeches.
"Why, Dan, glad to see you. Were you in the park?"
"Riverside. Beastly cold, too. Come into the Plaza and join me in a cup of good coffee."
"Had breakfast long ago, boy."
"Oh, just one cup! I'm lonesome."
"That's no inducement; but I'll join you," replied Hillard cheerfully.
The two entered the cafe, sat down, and Merrihew ordered Mocha.
"How are you behaving yourself these days?" asked Merrihew. He drank more coffee and smoked more cigars than were good for him. He was always going to start in next week to reduce the quantity.
"My habits are always exemplary," answered Hillard. "But yours?"
Merrihew's face lengthened. He pulled the yellow hair out of his eyes and gulped his coffee.
"Kitty Killigrew leaves in two weeks for Europe."
"And who the deuce is Kitty Killigrew?" demanded Hillard.
"What?" reproachfully. "You haven't heard of Kitty Killigrew in The Modern Maid? Where've you been? Pippin! Prettiest soubrette that's hit the town in a dog's age."
"I say, Dan, don't you ever tire of that sort? I can't recall when there wasn't a Kitty Killigrew. What's the attraction?" Hillard waved aside the big black cigar. "No heavy tobacco for me in the morning. What's the attraction?"
Merrihew touched off a match, applied it to the black cigar, took the cigar from his teeth and inspected the glowing end critically. He never failed to go through this absurd pantomime; he would miss a train rather than omit it.
"The truth is, Jack, I'm a jackass half the time. I can't get away from the glamour of the footlights. I'm no Johnny; you know that. No hanging round stage-entrances and buying wine and diamonds. I might be reckless enough to buy a bunch of roses, when I'm not broke. But I like 'em, the bright ones. They keep a fellow amused. Most of 'em speak good English and come from better families than you would suppose. Just good fellowship, you know; maybe a rabbit and a bottle of beer after the performance, or a little quarter limit at the apartment, singing and good stories. What you've in mind is the chorus-lady. Not for mine!"
Hillard laughed, recalling his conversation with the policeman.
"Go on," he said; "get it all out of your system, now that you're started."
"And then it tickles a fellow's vanity to be seen with them at the restaurants. That's the way it begins, you know. I'll be perfectly frank with you. If it wasn't for what the other fellows say, most of the chorus-ladies would go hungry. And the girls that you and I know think I'm a devil of a fellow, wicked but interesting, and all that."
Hillard's laughter broke forth again, and he leaned back. Merrihew would always be twenty-six, he would always be youthful.
"And this Kitty Killigrew? I believe I've seen posters of her in the windows, now that you speak of it."
"Well, Jack, I've got it bad this trip. I offered to marry her last night."
"Truth. And what do you think? Dropped me very neatly two thousand feet, but softly. And I was serious, too."
"It seems to me that your Kitty is not half bad. What would you have done had she accepted you?"
"Married her within twenty-four hours!"
"Come, Dan, be sensible. You are not such an ass as all that."
"Yes, I am," moodily. "I told you that I was a jackass half the time; this is the half."
"But she won't have you?"
"Not for love or money."
"Are you sure about the money?" asked Hillard shrewdly.
"Seven hundred or seven thousand, it wouldn't matter to Kitty if she made up her mind to marry a fellow. What's the matter with me, anyhow? I'm not so badly set-up; I can whip any man in the club at my weight; I can tell a story well; and I'm not afraid of anything."
"Not even of the future!" added Hillard.
"Do you really think it's my money?" pathetically.
"Well, seven thousand doesn't go far, and that's all you have. If it were seventy, now, I'm not sure Kitty wouldn't reconsider."
Merrihew ran his tongue along the cigar wrapper which had loosened. He had seven thousand a year, and every January first saw him shouldering a thousand odd dollars' worth of last year's debts. Somehow, no matter how he retrenched, he never could catch up. It's hard to pay for a horse after one has ridden it to death, and Merrihew was always paying for dead horses. He sighed.
"What's she like?" asked Hillard, with more sympathy than curiosity.
Merrihew drew out his watch and opened the case. It was a pretty face; more than that, it was a refined prettiness. The eyes were merry, the brow was intelligent, the nose and chin were good. Altogether, it was the face of a merry, kindly little soul, one such as would be most likely to trap the wandering fancy of a young man like Merrihew.
"And she won't have you," Hillard repeated, this time with more curiosity than sympathy.
"Oh, she's no fool, I suppose. Honest Injun, Jack, it's so bad that I find myself writing poetry on the backs of envelopes. And now she's going to Europe!"
"No. Some manager has the idea in his head that there is money to be made in Italy and Germany during the spring and summer. American comic-opera in those countries; can you imagine it? He has an angel, and I suppose money is no object."
"This angel, then, has cut out a fine time for his bank account, and he'll never get back to heaven, once he gets tangled up in foreign red-tape. Every large city in Italy and Germany has practically its own opera troupe. In full season it is grand opera, out of season it is comic-opera, not the American kind; Martha, The Bohemian Girl, The Mascotte, The Grand Duchess, and the like. And oh! my boy, the homeliest chorus you ever dreamed of seeing; but they can sing. It's only the ballerina who must have looks and figure. Poor angel! Tell your Kitty to strike for a return ticket to America before she leaves."
"You think it's as bad as that?"
"Look on me as a prophet of evil, if you like, but truthful."
"I'll see that Kitty gets her ticket." Merrihew snapped the case of his watch and drew his legs from under the table. "I lost a hundred last night, too."
"After that I suppose nothing worse can happen," said Hillard cheerily. "You will play, for all my advice."
"It's better to give than receive ... that," replied Merrihew philosophically. "I've a good mind to follow the company. I've always had a hankering to beat it up at Monte Carlo. A last throw, eh? Win or lose, and quit. I might."
"And then again you mightn't. But the next time I go to Italy, I want you to go with me. You're good company, and for the pleasure of listening to your jokes I'll gladly foot the bills, and you may gamble your letter of credit to your heart's content. I must be off. Who is riding the Sandfords' black?"
"Haven't noticed. What do you think of Kitty?"
"And the photo isn't a marker."
"Lord, if I could only hibernate for three months, like a bear! My capital might then readjust itself, if left alone that length of time. Jack, why the deuce haven't I a relation I never heard of, who would politely die to-morrow and leave me that beggarly thousand? I'm not asking for much. The harder I chase it, the faster it runs ahead." Merrihew thwacked his boots soundly with his crop.
"Some day I'm going to enter that thousand in the Suburban handicap. And won't there be a killing!"
"It wouldn't do you any good to borrow it?"
"In that case I should owe two thousand instead of one. No, thank you. Shall I see you at the club to-night?"
They nodded pleasantly and took their separate ways. Merrihew stood very high in Hillard's regard. He was a lovable fellow, and there was something kindred in his soul and Hillard's, possibly the spirit of romance. They had met years before, at a commencement, Merrihew in his mortar-board and gown and Hillard as an old graduate, renewing his youth at the fountains. What drew them together, perhaps more than anything else, was their mutual love of out-door pleasures. Their first meeting was followed by many hunting and fishing expeditions, and many long rides on horseback. Take two men and put them on good horses, send them forth into the wilds to face all conditions of weather and inconveniences, and if they are not fast friends at the end of the journey, rest assured that they never will be.
For all his aversion to cards, there was a bit of the gamester in Hillard; as, once in his office, he decided on the fall of a coin not to withdraw his personal from the paper. He was quite positive that he would never hear that Voice again, but having thrown his dice he would let them lie.
Now, at eleven o'clock that same morning two distinguished Italians sat down to breakfast in one of the fashionable hotels. The one nor the other had ever heard of Hillard, they did not even know that such a person existed; and yet, serenely unconscious, one was casting his life-line, as the palmist would say, across Hillard's. The knots and tangles were to come later.
"The coffee in this country is abominable!" growled one.
"Insufferable!" assented his companion.
The waiter smiled covertly behind his hand. He had a smattering of all tongues, being foreign born. These Italians and these Germans! Why, there is only one place in the world where both the aroma and the flavor of coffee are preserved; and it is not, decidedly not, in Italy or Germany. And if his tip exceeded ten cents, he would be vastly surprised. The Italian is always the same, prince or peasant. He never wastes on necessities a penny which can be applied to the gaming-tables. And these two were talking about Monte Carlo and Ostend and the German Kursaalen.
The younger of the two was a very handsome man, tall, slender and nervous, the Venetian type. His black eyes were keen and energetic and roving, suggesting a temper less calculating than hasty. The mouth, partly hidden under a graceful military mustache, was thin-lipped, the mouth of a man who, however great his vices, was always master of them. From his right cheek-bone to the corner of his mouth ran a scar, very well healed. Instead of detracting from the beauty of his face it added a peculiar fascination. And the American imagination, always receptive of the romantic, might readily and forgivably have pictured villas, maids in durance vile, and sword-thrusts under the moonlight. But the waiter, who had served his time in one or another of the foreign armies, knew that no foil or rapier could have made such a scar; more probably the saber. For the Italian officer on horseback is the maddest of all men, and in the spirit of play courts hazards that another man might sensibly avoid in actual warfare.
His companion was less handsome but equally picturesque. His white head and iron-grey beard placed him outside the active army. He wore in his buttonhole a tiny bow of ribbon, the usual badge of the foreign service.
"I'm afraid, Enrico, that you have brought me to America on a useless adventure," said the diplomat, lighting a thin, strong cigarette.
"She is here in New York, and I shall find her. I must have money, must! I owe you the incredible amount of one hundred thousand lire. There are millions under my hand, and I can not touch a penny."
"Do not let your debt to me worry you."
"You are so very good, Giuseppe!"
"Have we not grown up together? Sometimes I think I am partly to blame for your extravagance. But a friend is a friend, or he is not."
"But he who borrows from his friend, loses him. Observe how I am placed! It is maddening. I have had a dozen opportunities to marry riches. This millstone is eternally round my neck. I have gone through my part of the fortune which was left us independently. She has all of hers, and that is why she is so strong. I am absolutely helpless."
"Poor friend! These American women! They all believe that a man must have no peccadillos, once he has signed the marriage contract. Body of Bacchus! the sacrament does not make a man less human than he was before. But this one is clever. She might be Italian born."
"Her mother was Italian. It is the schooling in this country that has made her so clever. The only thing Italian about her is her hatred. She is my countrywoman there. Without her consent I can touch nothing; and if I divorce her, pouff! all goes to the State. Sometimes I long to get my two hands round her white throat. One mistake, one little mistake! I am willing to swear that she loved me in the beginning. And I was a fool not to profit by this sentiment. Give me patience, patience. If I say to her, so much and you may have your freedom, there is always that cursed will. The crown of Italy will never withdraw its hand; no. With his wife's family on his hands, especially her brother, the king will never waive his rights."
"Zut! softly, softly!"
"Oh, I speak with no disrespect. But let me find her."
"I doubt it. And remember, we have but ten days."
"We shall not find time heavy. I know a few rich butchers and grocers who call themselves the aristocracy."
"And some of them play bridge and ecarte."
The diplomat jingled his keys. He was not averse to adding a few gold pieces to his purse.
"I have followed her step by step to the boat at Naples. She is here. She is not so inconspicuous that she will be hard to find. She has wealthy friends, and from these I shall learn her whereabouts."
"You say she is beautiful; I would that I had seen her."
"Yes, she is beautiful; and a beautiful woman can not hide, even in a city so big and noisy as this. Think of it! Chateaux and villas and splendid rents, all waiting to be gormandized by the State! I have lied to her, I have humiliated myself, I have offered all the reparation a gentleman possibly could. Nothing, nothing! She knows; it is money, and she knows it is money. The American native shrewdness! My father was a fool and so was hers. And on July first comes the end! Let us get out into the air before I become excited and forget where I am."
"As you wish, amico." The diplomat beckoned to the waiter.
The waiter stepped forward with the coats and hats. His tip was exactly ten cents, and out of this the head waiter must have his percentage.
Three nights later, as Hillard and Merrihew were dining together at the club, the steward came into the grill-room and swept his placid eye over the groups of diners. Singling out Hillard, he came solemnly down to the corner table and laid a blue letter at the side of Hillard's plate.
"I did not see you when you came in, sir," said the steward, his voice as solemn as his step. "The letter arrived yesterday."
"Thank you, Thomas." With no small difficulty Hillard composed his face and repressed the eagerness in his eyes. She had seen, she had written, the letter lay under his hand! Who said that romance had taken flight? True, the reading of the letter might disillusion him; but always would there be that vision and the voice coming out of the fog. Nonchalantly he turned the letter face downward and went on with the meal.
"I did not know that your mail came to the club," said Merrihew.
"It doesn't. Only rarely a letter drifts this way."
"Well, go on and read it; don't let me keep you from it. Some charmer, I'll wager. Here I pour all my adventures into your ear, and I on my side never so much as get a hint of yours. Go on, read it."
"Adventures, fiddlesticks! The letter can wait. It is probably a bill."
"A bill in a fashionable envelope like that?"
Hillard only smiled, tipped the cradle and refilled Merrihew's glass with some excellent Romanee Conti. "When does Kitty sail?" he asked, after a while of silence.
"A week from this Saturday, February second. What the deuce did you bring up that for? I've been trying to forget it."
"Where do they land?"
"Naples. They open in Rome the first week in March. All the arrangements and bookings seem to be complete. This is mighty good Burgundy, Jack. I don't see where you pick it up." After coffee Merrihew pushed back his chair. "I'll reserve a table in the billiard-room while you read your letter."
"I'll be with you shortly," gratefully.
So, with the inevitable black cigar between his teeth, Merrihew sauntered off toward the billiard-room, while Hillard picked up his letter and studied it. His fingers trembled slightly as he tore open the envelope. The handwriting, the paper, the modest size, all these pointed to a woman of culture and refinement. But a subtle spirit of irony pervaded it all. She would never have answered his printed inquiry had she not laughed over it. For, pinned to the top of the letter was the clipping, the stupid, banal clipping—"Will the lady who sang from Madame Angot communicate with gentleman who leaned out of the window? J.H. Burgomaster Club." There was neither a formal beginning nor a formal ending; only four crisp lines. But these implied one thing, and distinctly: the writer had no desire for further communication "with gentleman who leaned out of the window." He read and re-read slowly.
I am sorry to learn that my singing disturbed you. There was a reason. At that partic- ular moment I was happy.
That was all. It was enough. She had laughed; she was a lady humorously inclined, not to say mischievous. A comic-opera star would have sent her press agent round to see what advertising could be got out of the incident; a prima donna would have appealed to her primo tenore, for the same purpose. A gentlewoman, surely; moreover, she lived within the radius, the official radius of the Madison Square branch of the post-office, for such was the postmark. Common sense urged him to dismiss the whole affair and laugh over it as the Lady in the Fog had done. But common sense often goes about with a pedant's strut, and is something to avoid on occasions. Here was a harmless pastime to pursue, common sense notwithstanding. The vein of romance in him was strong, and all the commercial blood of his father could not subjugate it. To find out who she was, to meet her, to know her, if possible, this was his final determination. He rang for paper and a messenger, and wrote: "Madame Angot. There is a letter for you in the mail-department of this office." This time his initials were not necessary. Once the message was on its way, he sought Merrihew, whom he found knocking the balls about in a spiritless manner.
"A hundred to seventy-five, Dan."
"For the mere fun of the game, of course."
"Make it cigars, just to add interest."
But they both played a very indifferent game. At ten-thirty Merrihew's eyes began to haunt the clock, and Hillard grew merciful for various reasons.
"What time does the performance end?" he asked.
"At ten-fifty, but it takes about twenty minutes to scrape off the make-up."
"Run along, then, my son; I can spare you. And you've a cigar coming."
Merrihew agreeably put his cue in the rack.
"Much obliged for the dinner, Jack. I'll return the favor any night you say." He made off for the coat-room.
Hillard laughed, and went up to the writing-room to fulfil a part of his destiny. He took the letter out and read it again. A woman of wit and presence; a mighty good dinner companion, or he was no judge of women. He replaced the letter in its blue covering, and then for the first time his eye met the superscription. Like a man entranced he sat there staring. The steward had brought the letter to him, and in his first excitement this had made no impression upon his mind; he had seen nothing peculiar nor strange. And here it was, not his initials, but his name in full.
She knew who he was!
In a fashionable quarter of the city there stood a brownstone house, with grotesque turrets, winding steps, and glaring polished red tiles. There was a touch of the Gothic, of the Renaissance, of the old English manor; just a touch, however, a kind of blind-man's-buff of a house. A very rich man lived here, but for ten months in the year he and his family fluttered about the social centers of the world. And with a house like this on his hands, one could scarce blame him. Twice a week, during this absence, a caretaker came in, flourished a feather duster, and went away again. Society reporters always referred to this house as "the palatial residence."
This morning a woman stood in the alcove-window and looked down into the glistening street. There was a smile on her lips, in her eyes, in the temporary little wrinkles on either side of her nose. The Venetian red of her hair trapped the reflected sunlight from the opposite windows, and two little points of silver danced in her blue eyes. Ah! but her eyes were blue; blue as spring-water in the morning, blue as the summer sky seen through a cleft in the mountains, blue as lapis-lazuli, with the same fibers of gold. And every feature and contour of the face harmonized with the marvelous hair and the wonderful eyes; a beautiful face, warm, dreamy, engaging, mobile. It was not the face of a worldly woman; neither was it the face of a girl. It was too emotional for the second, and there was not enough control for the first. It seemed as if she stood on the threshold of life, with one hand lingering regretfully in the clasp of youth and the other doubtfully greeting womanhood; altogether, something of a puzzle.
But the prophecy of laughter did not come to pass; the little wrinkles faded, the mouth grew sad, and the silver points no longer danced in her eyes. The pain in her heart was always shadowing; like a jailer it jealously watched and repressed the natural gaiety which was a part of her. Those who have been in serious wrecks are never quite the same afterward; and she had seen her fairest dream beaten and crumpled upon the reef of disillusion.
Yet again the smile renewed itself. She was a creature of varying moods. She twisted and untwisted the newspaper. Should she? Ought she? Was it not dreadfully improper and bizarre? Had she not always regretted these singular impulses? And yet, what harm to read this letter and return it to the sender? She was so lonely here; it was like being among a strange people, so long ago was it that her foot had touched this soil. Was it possible that she was twenty-five? Was there not some miscount, and was it not fifteen instead? As old and as wise as the Cumaean Sybil at one moment, as light and careless as a Hebe the next. Would not this war of wisdom and folly be decided ere long?
She opened the paper and smoothed out the folds. "Madame Angot. There is a letter for you in the mail-department of this office." It was so droll. It was unlike anything she had ever heard of. A personal inquiry column, where Cupids and Psyches billed and cooed, and anxious Junos searched for recreant Jupiters! The merest chance had thrown the original inquiry under her notice. Her answer was an impulse to which she had given no second thought till too late. She ought to have ignored it. But since she had taken the first step she might as well take the second. She was lonely; the people she knew were out of town; and the jest might amuse her.
This man was, in all probability, a gentleman, since he was a member of a gentlemen's club. But second thought convinced her that this proved nothing. Men are often called gentlemen out of compliment to their ancestors. Still, if this man only saw the affair from her angle of vision, the grotesque humor of it and not the common vulgar intrigue! She hesitated, as well she might. Supposing that eventually he found out who she was? That would never, never do. No one must know that she was in America, about to step into the wildest of wild adventures. No; she must not be found out. The king, who had been kind to her, and the court must never know. From their viewpoint they would have declared that she was about to tarnish a distinguished name, to outrage the oldest aristocracy in Europe, the court of Italy. But she had her own opinion; what she proposed to do was in itself harmless and innocent. But this gentleman who leaned out of the window? What should she do with him? What had possessed her to sing at that moment? A block above or below his window, and no one would have heard, not even the policeman. This time the laughter bubbled. It was all so funny. She had heard every word of their conversation. She had seen the match flare in the young man's face. Fortunately they had not thought to peer into the area-ways. Was it the face she had seen in that flash of light that interested her sufficiently to risk the note? Against the dark of the night it had appeared for an instant, clean, crisp, ruddy as a cameo. Sometimes a single glance is enough; the instinct of the heart is often surer than the instinct of the mind. She would not have been afraid had he found her. The face warranted confidence.
She had sung because she had been happy, happy with that transient happiness which at times was her portion. Could she ever judge another man by his looks? She believed not. How she had run! The man, bareheaded, giving chase, and the burly policeman across the street! Chorus-ladies—what in the world were they?
She stepped down from the alcove, wound the grey veil round the riding-crop and tossed them into a corner. Somehow, in the daylight, the magic was gone from his face, for she had recognized him that first day in the park. He rode well. She knew that his interest in her had been only casual. She touched a bell. A maid appeared.
"Bettina, you will go to the office of this newspaper and inquire for a letter addressed to Madame Angot. You can speak that much English. And be quick, for I may change my mind."
"I go at once, Signora." And she was back in less than half an hour.
"There was a letter, then?" The points were dancing again in the blue eyes.
"And here it is, signora." The maid's eyes sparkled, too. An intrigue! It would not be so dull hereafter.
"You may go. Perhaps," and Bettina's mistress smiled, "perhaps I may let you read it and answer it, after I am done with it. That would be rather neat."
"But it will be in English, signora; and that I can not read." Bettina's eyes filled with disappointment.
"You may use it as a lesson. In a few days you should be able to master it."
The slight nod was a dismissal, and the maid went about her duties, which were not many in this house. These were terrible days; the two of them alone in this strange palazzo, and the stuffy, ill-smelling trattoria they dined at! Che peccato! And that she should sit side by side with her mistress! Santa Maria, what was the good world coming to? And the ban on the familiar tongue! English? She despised it. German? She detested it. But to be allowed to speak in French, that alone made conversation tolerable. And this new mad whim! Oh, yes; the signora was truly mad this time.
Meanwhile the lady with the Venetian hair toyed with the letter. Club paper. Evidently he was not afraid to trust her. But would he amuse her? Would he have anything to say that would interest her? She ran the paper-knife under the flap. The contents gave her a genuine surprise. She ran to the window. Italian! It was written in Italian, with all the flourishes of an Italian born. She turned to the signature. Hillard; so he had signed his name in full? She ruminated. How came such a name to belong to a man who wrote Italian so beautifully? Here was something to ponder over. She smiled and looked at the signature again.... John, Giovanni. She would call him Giovanni. She had been rather clever. To have had the wit to look in the library for the blue book and the club list; not every woman would have thought of that. Then a new inspiration came to her, and she struck the bell again. She sent Bettina for the card-basket in the lower hall. She scattered the contents upon the floor, touched up the wood fire, and sat down Turkish-wise. She sorted the cards carefully, and lo! she was presently rewarded. She held up the card in triumph. He had called at this house on Thanksgiving Day. He was known, then, to the master and mistress, this Giovanni with the Irish surname. Very good. She now gave her full attention to the letter, which, incredible as it may seem, she had not yet perused.
To the Lady in the Fog—To begin with, let me say that I, too, have laughed. But there was some degree of chagrin in my laughter. On my word of honor, it was a distinct shock to my sense of dignity when I saw that idiotic personal of mine in the paper. It is my first offense of the kind, and I am really ashamed. But the situation was not ordinary. Ordinary women do not sing in the streets after midnight. As you could not possibly be ordinary, my offense has greater magnitude. To indite a personal to a gentlewoman! A thousand pardons! I doubted that it would come under your notice; and even if it did, I was sure that you would ignore it. And yet I am human enough to have hoped that you wouldn't. When I found your note, it was a kind of vindication; it proved that a singular episode had taken place. To find a woman with an appreciable sense of humor is rare; to find one who couples this with initiation is rarer still. I do not refer to wit, the eternal striving to say something clever, regardless of cost. How you found out my name confuses me.
"Indeed!" murmured the lady.
Doubtless you have the club list in your house. Do you know, when the letter was brought me, I saw nothing unusual about the address. It was only when I began this letter that I comprehended how clever you were. There are half a dozen J.H's at the club. I tell you truthfully, over my own name, that your voice startled me. It would have startled me under ordinary circumstances. In New York one does not sing in the streets. It is considered bad form by the police.
"Thanks! I must remember that."
I was startled, then, because my thoughts were far away. I was dreaming of Italy, where I was born, though there is no more Italian blood in my veins than there is in yours.
The ruddy head became erect and the blue eyes searched the glowing seams in the logs. Here was a riddle.
"What made him think that, I wonder?"
I therefore write this in a language familiar to us both, certain you could not sing Lecocq's songs in Italian if you did not speak and understand it thoroughly. Signora or signorina, whichever it may be, have we no mutual friends? Are you not known to some one who knows me? Some one who will speak for me, my character, my habits? Modesty forbids that I myself should dwell upon my virtues. I could refer you to my bankers, but money does not recommend the good character of a man. It merely recommends his thrift, or more generally that of his father.
"That will pass as wit," said the lady. "But it is rather a dull letter, so far. But, then, he is wandering in the dark."
You say you sang because at that moment you were happy. This implies that you are not always so. Surely, with a voice like yours one can not possibly be unhappy. If only I might meet you! Will you not do me that honor? I realize that this is all irregular, out of fashion, obsolete. But something tells me that neither of us is adjusted properly to prosaic environments. Isn't there just a little pure, healthy romance waiting to be given life? Your voice haunts me; out of every silence it comes to me—"She is so innocent, so youthful!"
The letter fluttered into her lap. She leaned on her elbows. It was not a bad letter; and she rather liked the boyish tone of it. Nothing vulgar peered out from between the lines. Did he really love music? He must, for it was not every young man who could pick out the melody of an old, forgotten opera. She shivered, but the room was warm. Had fate or chance some ulterior purpose behind this episode? Rather than tempt fate she decided not to answer this letter; aside from her passive superstition, it would be neither wise nor useful. She desired to meet no strangers; to be left to herself was all she wished. Her voice, it was all she had that afforded her comfort and pleasure.
Romance! The word came back to her. With an unmusical laugh she stood up, shaking the letter to the floor. Romance! She was no longer a girl; she was a woman of five and twenty; and what should a woman know of romance? Ah, there had been a time when all the world was romance, romance; when the night breeze had whispered it under her casement-window, when the lattice-climbing roses had breathed it, when the moon and the stars had spelled it. Romance! She hated the word not less than she hated the Italian language, the Italian people, the country itself. She spurned the letter with her foot and fed the newspaper to the fire. She would let Bettina answer the letter.
She went down-stairs to the piano and played with strong feeling. Presently she began to sing a haunting melancholy song by Abt. From Abt she turned to Flotow; from Offenbach to Rossini; from Gounod to Verdi. The voice was now sad or gay, now tender or wild. She was mistress of every tone, every shade, every expression.
The door opened gradually. The little maid's face was moved to rapture over these exquisite sounds.
Crash! It was over.
"Bettina? Bettina, are you listening?"
"I am always listening." Bettina squeezed into the room. "I had not the heart to interrupt. It is beautiful, beautiful! To sing like that!" Then, with a burst of confidence: "There will be kings and dukes at your feet!"
"Pardon, signora, I forgot. But listen; I bring a message. A boy came to say that the rehearsal will be at four this afternoon. It is now after twelve."
"So late? I did not know. We must be off to lunch."
"And the letter up-stairs on the floor?"
"Some day, Bettina, you will enter the Forbidden Chamber, and I shall have to play Bluebeard. This time, however, I do not mind. Leave it there or burn it," indifferently.
Bettina knew her mistress. She thought best to leave the letter where it lay, forgotten for the time being.
For two days the club steward only nodded when Hillard came in; he had no letters to present.
"I am thirty-three years old," Hillard mused, as he sought the reading-room. "Down-town I am looked upon as a man of affairs, a business man, with the care of half a dozen fortunes on my hands. Now, what's the matter with me? I begin to tremble when I look that sober old steward in the face. If he had handed me a letter to-night, I should have had to lean against the wall for support. This will never do at all. I have not seen her face, I do not know her name; for all I know, she may be this Leddy Lightfinger.... No, that would be impossible. Leddy Lightfinger would have made an appointment. What possesses me to dwell in this realm of fancy, which is less tangible than a cloud of smoke? Have I reached my dotage by the way of the seven-league boots? Am I simply bored with the monotony of routine, and am I groping blindly for a new sensation?" He smoked thoughtfully. "Or, am I romantic? To create romance out of nothing; I used to do that when I was a boy. But I'm a boy no longer. Or, am I a boy, thirty-three years old?... She does not answer my letter. Sensible woman. In her place I shouldn't answer it. But in my place I want her to. Two weeks ago I was haunting the curio-shops for a Roman cameo two thousand years old; to-night I might take it as a gift. I have ceased to be interested in something that has always interested me. Something is wrong; what is it? She sent for my letter. That indicates that she read it. Well, well!" reaching for the London Illustrated News; "let's see what their Majesties have been doing the past fortnight."
The King of England was preparing to descend to the Riviera; the King of Spain was killing pigeons; the Kaiser was calling for more battleships; the Czar of all the Russias was still able to sit for his photograph; the King of Italy was giving a fete; and Leopold of Belgium was winning at Monte Carlo. Among the lesser nobles the American duchesses were creating a favorable impression in spite of their husbands.
"What a fine sensation it must be," Hillard murmured, "to be able at any time to plunge one's noble white hand into a sack of almost inexhaustible American dollars!"
He dropped the paper. The same old stories, warmed over. There was really nothing new in the world. If Giovanni returned to Italy in the spring, he was of a mind to go with him. He looked up and was glad to see Merrihew in the doorway.
"Been looking for you, Jack. Want your company to-night. Kitty Killigrew is giving a little bite to eat after the performance, and has asked me to bring you along. Will you come?"
"With pleasure, Dan. Are you dining with any one to-night?" Hillard was lonesome.
"Yes. A little bridge till eleven."
"You're hopeless. I can see you in limbo, matching coffin-plates with Charon. I'll hunt you up at eleven."
"Heard the talk?"
"Why, some one in the club has been using the agony column. The J.H's are being guyed unmercifully, and you'll come in for it presently. It's a case of wine on the man who did it."
Hillard felt of his collar and drew down his cuffs. "Probably some joke," he ventured tentatively.
"If it isn't, the man who would stoop to such tommyrot and tack the name of his club to it must be an ass."
"No doubt about that. Odd that this is the first time I have heard about it." But silently Hillard was swearing at his folly. There was one crumb of comfort: the incident would be forgotten in a few days.
"I may depend upon you to-night, then?" said Merrihew.
"I shall be pleased to meet Miss Killigrew," which was a white one. Hillard would have paid court to a laundress rather than offend Merrihew.
And promptly at eleven he went up to the card-room and dragged Merrihew away. Merrihew gave up his chair reluctantly. He was winning. He would have been just as reluctant, however, had he been losing. The amateur gambler never wants to stop.
On the way to the Killigrew apartment, Merrihew's moods varied. At one moment he was on the heights, at the next in the depths. He simply could not live without Kitty. Perhaps if this trip abroad turned out badly she might change her mind. Seven thousand could be made to muster. Twice Hillard came very near making his friend a confidant of his own affair; but he realized that, while Merrihew was to be trusted in all things, it was not yet time.
He found a pleasing and diverting company. There was Mere Killigrew, a quaint little old lady who deplored her daughter's occupation but admitted that without her success, Heaven only knew how they would have got along. There was the genial Thomas O'Mally, a low-comedian of genuine ability, whom Hillard knew casually; Smith, a light-comedian; and Worth, a moderately successful barytone to whom Hillard took one of those instant and unaccountable dislikes. These three and Kitty were going abroad. And there were several members of The Modern Maid company, which went on tour the following Monday.
Kitty fancied Hillard from the start; and he on his side found her well educated, witty and unaffected. She was even prettier than her photograph. Merrihew's face beamed upon them both, in a kind of benediction. He had known all along that once Jack saw Kitty, he would become a good ally in fighting down her objections.
"Think of singing in Italy!" cried Kitty. "Isn't it just wonderful?"
"And has Merrihew told you to get a return ticket before you sail?" with half a jest.
"Don't you think it will be successful?" a shade of disappointment. "There will be thousands of lonesome Americans over there. Out of patriotism, if for nothing else, they ought to come and see us."
"They certainly ought to. But I'm an old killjoy."
"No, no; go on and tell me all your doubts. You have been over there so many times."
"Well, supposing your tourists are tired, after having walked all day through the churches and galleries? They may want to go to bed early. But you never can tell till you try. You may become the rage on the continent. Yet, you go into the enemy's country. It isn't the same as going to London, among tolerant cousins. In Italy and in Germany there is always so much red tape, blundering, confusing red tape, custom duties, excessive charges. But your manager must know what he is doing."
"He has everything in black and white, I believe. But your advice is sensible."
"Do you know anything about Italy or Germany?"
"Only what I learned in my geographies," laughing. "Rome, Florence, Genoa, Venice, Nice, Milan, Strasburg, Cologne, and on to Berlin! It is like a fairy story come true."
"Who is your prima donna?" he asked.
"Ah!" Kitty's face became eager with excitement. "Now you have put your finger on the mystery that is bothering us all. Not one of us has seen her or knows her name. She has not rehearsed with us and will not till we reach Naples, where we rest a week. When we speak of her, the manager smiles and says nothing; and as none of us has seen the backer, Mr. Worth thinks that she herself is the prima donna and backer in one. We think that she is some rich young woman who wishes to exploit her voice. There's a lot of them in the world. I wish I knew her. I am dying of curiosity. The manager is not a man to fool away his time. She doubtless can act and sing. Little has been said about the venture in the papers, and I'm glad. We may prove a perfect fizzle, and the less said the better. As we can't walk back, I must learn to swim.... Lunch is ready, every one!"
The mummers and the outsiders flocked into the small dining-room. There was plenty to eat—beer, soda, whisky, and two magnums of champagne, Merrihew's contribution to the feast. Hillard listened with increasing amusement to the shop-talk. Such and such a person (absent) never could act; such and such a composer (absent) was always giving the high note to the wrong singer; such and such a manager (absent) never staged the opera right. It was after one when they returned to the sitting-room, where the piano stood. The wine was now opened and toasts were drunk. O'Mally told inimitable stories. There was something exceedingly droll in that expressive Irish face of his and the way he lingered over his wine.
"There is nothing so good as a glass of champagne," he observed, "unless it is another."
Worth did not drink, but Hillard did not like his handsome face any the more for this virtue. He sang remarkably well, however, and with a willingness Hillard had not believed he possessed. He wondered vaguely why he disliked the man. He had never met him before, and knew nothing at all about him. It was one of those inexplicable things which can not be answered. Otherwise Hillard enjoyed himself vastly. He found these people full of hope, light-hearted, generous, intelligent, and generally improvident.
"Mr. Merrihew has been telling me all about you," said Kitty.
"You mean, of course, my good qualities," replied Hillard.
"To hear him talk, one would think that you possessed nothing else. But I am sure that you have glaring faults, such as a man might pass over and a woman go round."
"I believed that Merrihew had a serious fault till to-night," he said; and he made no attempt to disguise the admiration in his eyes.
She looked at him quickly and colored. It was a good sign.
"Has the foolish boy been telling you that I refused to marry him? I like him very much," she added gravely; "but I shall never marry any man till I have ceased to love the stage. Just now I can not wisely love anything else."
"I understand," he said.
"I am not a whit less extravagant than he is. How could the two of us live on an income which he himself admits that he can not live within? But that isn't it; a million would not make any difference. I am like a young colt; I have no desire to be harnessed yet. A month after I am gone he will forget all about me; or, at least, he will only recollect me with a sigh of relief. There will be others; only I hope they will treat him as frankly as I have done."
"Merrihew is the most loyal man I know," Hillard declared, bound to defend his comrade against this shrewd insight to his character.
"Of course he is loyal! And he is always in earnest—for the moment." She laughed. "But if he marries any one while I am gone, I shall hate him."
And then they both laughed.
"I'll wager another magnum," cried Merrihew from across the room, "that I'm the subject under discussion."
"Another magnum!" murmured O'Mally rapturously.
"No more magnums," said Kitty resolutely.
"On abstract principles, then!" insisted Merrihew.
"You win," Kitty replied merrily. "We have been saying only nice things about you."
It was outrageously late, nearly four, when the revelers took leave of their hostess. Merrihew was happy with that evanescent happiness which goes hand in glove with late suppers and magnums. In the morning he would have a headache.
"Isn't she a little wonder, Jack? Do you blame me?"
"Not at all, Dan. It might be a good thing for you to marry a sensible little woman like that. But she won't have you."
"No, she won't." Merrihew reached for his watch. "Four A.M. Wonder if we can't find another bottle somewhere."
"You are going home, my boy."
"All right, if you say so,"—good-humoredly. "Say, what do you think of that man Worth?"
"Very good voice; but he's too handsome. Being a plain duffer myself, I don't take kindly to handsome men."
"Oh, go on! You're as fine a looking chap as there's in New York. But this man Worth has the looks of a lady-killer. He's been eying Kitty, but it doesn't go. Hang it, I can't see why she won't marry me now. She's got to, some time or other."
"You must have patience."
"Or more money. Can't O'Mally tell a good story, though?"
"Good company, too; but I should hate to turn him loose in my wine-cellars. I imagine that he's not a connoisseur, and will praise anything that's good to drink, unless it's water."
"Well, here's your station, Dan. You go home like a good boy. Shall I see you to-morrow?"
"Eight-thirty in the park. Gallop off headache. Nothing like a horse for a headache. Good night."
Merrihew climbed the elevated stairs and vanished. Hillard arrived home tired and sleepy; but as he saw a letter on the stand in the hall, his drowsiness passed quickly. There was no other blue envelope like it. She now had his house address; she was interested enough to look it up. She did not follow his lead and write in Italian; she wrote in English—crisp English, too. Again there was neither beginning nor ending. But this was a letter; there was something here of the woman, something to read and read again.
I had told the maid to burn your letter. But she left it on the floor where I had thrown it, and I came across it this morning. It looked rather pathetic. So I am writing you against my better judgment. Yes, I know your name; I find that I am well acquainted with people you know. I am a woman who often surrenders to the impulse of the moment; I may or may not answer any future letter from you. You write very good Italian; but it will surprise you to learn that I detest all things that are Italian. Once I loved them well. Why should you wish to know me? Our ways are as divergent as the two poles. Happy because I sing? There are some things over which we can sing or laugh, but of which we can not speak without crying. Happy or unhappy, what can this matter to you? To you I shall always remain the Lady in the Fog. Are you rich, young, talented? I care not in the least. Perhaps it amuses me to add to your confusion. Find me? I think not. Seek me? Do so; I permit you to. And would you know me if you found me? Misguided energy!
Hillard put the letter away, extinguished the lights, and passed up to his room. She defied him to find her? This was a direct challenge. He would accept it. This time he would use no personal to tell her that a letter awaited her. She should make the inquiries herself. And from the mail-clerk he would obtain a description of the elusive Madame Angot. Next morning he rode in the park with Merrihew. Again he saw the veiled lady on the Sandford black. Out of normal curiosity he telephoned the stables and made inquiries. The reply was short. No one at the stables knew the lady, but she rode the horse on proper authority.
That night he wrote:
I shall keep on writing till you cease to reply. Let me be frank with you. I am bored; so are you. The pleasure you derive in keeping up this mystery engages you. You bid me to find you. I accept the challenge. You must understand at once that it is the mystery that interests me. It is the unknown that attracts me. I am mentally painting you in all sorts of radiant colors. You defy me to find you. There is nothing so reliable as the unexpected, nothing so desperately uncertain as a thing assured. I warn you that I shall lay all manner of traps, waylay your messengers, bribe them. I shall find out where you live. The rest will be simple.
I have no desire to alleviate your confessed boredom. Your persistence would be praiseworthy if well directed. Waters wear away stone, the wind crumbles the marble, but a woman is not moved till she wishes to be. I never thought that I should dabble in an intrigue of this sort, and I am surprised at the amusement it affords me. I really owe you some gratitude. The few I have met who know you tell me that you are a "nice young man."
He rebelled at the adjective. Every man has some portion of self-love. So his next effort was a passionate denial that he was nice. When should he meet her? The postman brought him a letter which contained one word—Nimmer! He sent her four pages, a frank and witty description of himself and friends, his past and some of theirs.
On the day she received this letter a cablegram came to her from the far Mediterranean. Whatever it contained had the effect to cause all restraint to disappear from the tone of her letters. They became charming; and more and more Hillard found himself loving a Voice. All his watching, all his traps, came to no successful end. She was too clever for him. He sought the mail-department of the great newspaper; the clerk couldn't remember, there were so many calling for mail. Letters passed to and fro daily now, but always she declared that it was impossible for them to meet. To write a letter was one thing, to meet a strange man in an unconventional manner was another. No, it was out of the question to dine with him in a restaurant. It was equally out of the question to cook a dinner where she lived, as she and her maid dined at a small restaurant near-by. Would he not be content with the romance and let the reality go? Finally he proposed to bring the dinner all cooked from the club. Two days went by without a sign; then the blue letter came.
I surrender. The most fatal thing in life is curiosity. It has the power to lead us into all manner of trouble. And I have my share of curiosity. Remember, you never would have found me. I may dwell in a garret; I may be hideous; perhaps nothing remains to me but my voice. Whatever you have painted me in your imagination, I tell you that I shall prove directly the opposite. And now the terms. And if you do not follow them confidently and blindly, your dinner will grow cold in the carriage. Dinner will be at eight, February first. At seven a carriage will call for you. The messenger will blindfold you. He will then proceed to the club and take the dinner, and bring you here. Be warned! If you so much as lift the corner of the bandage, the romance will end then and there. It is necessary to enforce these conditions, but it is not necessary to explain why. I realize that I am doing something very foolish and unwise. But, as you say, I am a woman who has seen much of the world. Thus I have my worldly side. I shall use it as a buffer.
"Blindfolded!" Hillard scrubbed his chin. All these precautions! Who was she? What was she? An ordinary young woman, full of mischief, or was she what he hoped, a real mystery? He was well on the way to find out. Since there was no escape, blindfolded he would go.
At half after six, on the night of the first of February, then, he began to dress. It was some time since he had taken such particular care.
"The signore seems in high spirits to-night," observed Giovanni, as he laid out the linen.
"Man, I'm happy and greatly excited. Do you recollect the lady who sang under my window? I am going to meet her to-night. The mystery will be a mystery no longer."
"Who is she?" asked Giovanni sharply. It was rarely he asked a question with such directness.
But his master was too excited to note it. "On my word, I don't know who she is, Giovanni. She has written such charming letters! She may be only a singer; she may be a Russian princess in exile; she may be an adventuress of the most formidable type; she may be an American girl. One thing, she is not English. English women as I have found them lack the essential spirit of adventure."
"Ah!" Giovanni stroked his lips doubtfully. "It is not like the signore to plunge blindly into adventures like this."
"The very word, blindly. I go blindfolded, amico. What do you think of that?"
"Blindfolded?" Giovanni was horrified. "It is a trap!" he cried. "They will assassinate you! No, you shall not go! In Rome, at the carnivals, it is an old game. They will rob you."
"You are dreaming. This is America; things are not done that way here. And nothing now can turn me aside." Hillard was all the while finishing his toilet.
"I suppose not. But blindfolded!"
"Take the number of the cab as I get in. If anything should happen, give the number to the police."
Giovanni, with a sharp movement of the hands, expressed his resignation to the worst. He knew the futility of arguing with his master. But he followed him down to the hall and tied on the bandage himself. He was honest about it, too, for Hillard could see nothing. Then the messenger-boy took him by the hand and led him to the carriage. As the two were climbing in, Giovanni spoke rapidly in his native tongue.
"There is no number on the carriage!"
"Too late to bother now."
The carriage rolled off toward the club, where the dinner, hot and smoking, was taken on.
"Joinin' th' Elks?" asked the boy, when they were well under way once more.
"No, it's a seance. They are going to call up my fate round a table."
"Huh? Aw, go-wan! Dey don't call up no ghosts wit' French cider and hot boids." The boy relapsed into silence.
Hillard tried to follow the turns of the carriage, but these were too many; and so he resigned himself to become totally lost. By and by the carriage stopped.
"Dis is where we alights, me loid!" the boy jeered. "An' no lookin', mind."
Hillard found the carriage steps and landed safely. He stood for a moment, listening. They were in a quiet part of the city; no elevated or surface cars were near. He was assured that the location was exclusive. Garrets are not to be found in quiet places.
"Look out fer th' steps," said the boy, again taking Hillard by the hand.
"And you be careful of that basket."
"I ain't lettin' it drop any."
Winding steps, thought the blindfolded man. He could recollect none. It seemed to him that they stood there five minutes before the door opened. When it did, the boy passed in the basket and resolutely pushed Hillard into the hall. The door closed gently, and the adventure was begun. Whither would it lead him?
"Take off the bandage the signore may now," said a voice in broken English.
"Thanks!" He tore the handkerchief from his eyes and blinked. The hall was so dimly lighted that he could see nothing distinctly.
"The signore's coat and hat."
He passed over these articles, shook the wrinkles from his trousers, smoothed his chin, and stood at attention. The maid eyed him with abundant approval, then knocked timidly on the door leading to the drawing-room. He was sure of one thing: this was some millionaire's home. What if he should see in the drawing-room a party of his intimate friends, ready to plague and jest? He shuddered. He never had entertained such an appalling probability.
"Avanti!" called a soft voice from within.
Hillard gathered in his courage, opened the door and stepped inside. A single lamp in a far corner drew his glance, which roved a moment later. On a divan near this lamp sat a woman in black. Only a patch of white throat could be seen, for her shoulders were not bare and her arms only to the elbows. Her back was turned squarely. He could see nothing of her face. But what a head! He caught his breath. It glowed like a copper-beech in the sunshine. What was it? There was something, something he could not see.
"Madame?" he faltered. He had had a gallant Italian phrase to turn for her benefit. He spoke English instead, and not very firmly.
The woman turned. Hillard took a step backward and blundered against a pedestal.
She was masked!
Masked! Only her mouth and chin were visible, and several little pieces of court-plaster effectually disguised these. There was a mystery. He to come blindfolded and she to wear a mask! Extraordinary! There was something more than a jest: she really did not wish to be known, and the reason lay far back of all this, beyond his grasp. He stood there dumfounded. She rose. The movement was elegant.
"And this," she said ironically, "is the gentleman who leaned out of the window?"
He brought all his faculties together, for he knew that he would need them in this encounter. "Supposing I had fallen out of it? Well, it could not have mattered. I should not have been more at your feet than I am now." This was very good, considering how dry his tongue was.
"If you had fallen out? I had not thought of that. A modern Ulysses, house-broken, and an itinerant siren! You had been wise to have stuffed your ears that night."
"My mythology is rusty. And I much prefer Penelope. She interests me vastly more than the ancient prize-fighter."
"But sit down, Mr. Hillard, sit down." The lady with the mask motioned him to a chair directly under the light. She wished to study his face while she talked.
Hillard reached the chair successfully enough, but he never could recollect how. He sat down as a bashful man sits down in a crowded ball-room, with his knees drawn in tightly and his feet at sympathetic angles. He knew that she would have the best of him in this engagement. All the bright things to say would come to him after he had gone home. It was far easier to write letters. That mask! One might as well converse with the Sphinx. His face was hers to study; her emotions would be wholly her own.
Presently she laughed with malice.
"You are not comfortable in that chair."
"That is true; and yet it is soft and roomy. I am uneasy. Perhaps you recall to my subconsciousness a period in my former existence on earth; or, if you will, one of my ancestors."
"I fail to understand."
"Well, a Hillard two hundred years ago had his head cut off by an ax. His executioner wore a mask."
"A mistake. Your ancestor should have been hanged."
"And I along with him, you would imply?"
"Are you not Irish? I have known Irishmen by the name of Hillard."
"They were in disguise. But I have a generous strain of Irish blood in me. Otherwise I shouldn't have had the courage to follow up an adventure like this."