THE SCARLET FEATHER
THE SCARLET FEATHER
BY HOUGHTON TOWNLEY
Author of "The Bishop's Emeralds"
ILLUSTRATIONS BY WILL GREFE
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1909 BY W. J. WATT & COMPANY
Published June, 1909
CHAPTER PAGE I The Sheriff's Writ 9 II The Check 21 III The Dinner at the Club 33 IV Dora Dundas 39 V Debts 50 VI A Kinship Something Less Than Kind 66 VII Good-bye 82 VIII A Tiresome Patient 89 IX Herresford is Told 93 X Hearts Ache and Ache Yet Do Not Break 102 XI A House of Sorrow 117 XII A Difficult Position 125 XIII Dick's Heroism 135 XIV Mrs. Swinton Confesses 147 XV Colonel Dundas Speaks His Mind 168 XVI Mr. Trimmer Comes Home 173 XVII Mrs. Swinton Goes Home 190 XVIII A Second Proposal 195 XIX An Unexpected Telegram 204 XX The Wedding Day Arranged 221 XXI Dick's Return 226 XXII The Blight of Fear 237 XXIII Dora Sees Herresford 249 XXIV Dick Explains to Dora 262 XXV Tracked 280 XXVI Mrs. Swinton Hears the Truth 288 XXVII Ormsby Refuses 297 XXVIII The Will 307 XXIX A Public Confession 320 XXX Flight 333 XXXI Dora Decides 340 XXXII Home Again 348 XXXIII The Scarlet Feather 353
THE SCARLET FEATHER
THE SCARLET FEATHER
THE SHERIFF'S WRIT
The residence of the Reverend John Swinton was on Riverside Drive, although the parish of which he was the rector lay miles away, down in the heart of the East Side. It was thus that he compromised between his own burning desire to aid in the cleansing of the city's slums and the social aspirations of his wife. The house stood on a corner, within grounds of its own, at the back of which were the stables and the carriage-house. A driveway and a spacious walk led to the front of the mansion; from the side street, a narrow path reached to the rear entrance.
A visitor to-night chose this latter humble manner of approach, for the simple reason that this part of the grounds lay unlighted, and he hoped, therefore, to pass unobserved through the shadows. The warm, red light that streamed from an uncurtained French window on the ground floor only deepened the uncertainty of everything. The man stepped warily, closing the gate behind him with stealthy care, and crept forward on tiptoe to lessen the sound of the crunching gravel beneath his heavy shoes. It was an undignified entry for an officer of the law who carried his authorization in his hand; but courage was not this man's strong point. His fear was lest he should meet tall, stalwart Dick Swinton, who, on a previous occasion of a similar character, had forcibly resented what he deemed an unwarrantable intrusion on the part of a shabby rascal. The uncurtained window now attracted the attention of the sheriff's officer, and he peered in. It was the rector's study.
The rector himself was seated with his back toward the window, at his desk, upon which were piled account-books and papers in hopeless confusion. A shaded lamp stood upon the centre of the table, and threw a circle of light which included the clergyman's silver-gray hair, his books, and a figure by the fireside—a handsome woman resplendent in jewels and wearing a low-cut, white evening gown—Mary Swinton, the rector's wife. The room was paneled, and the shadows were deep, relieved by the glint of gilt on the bindings of the books that filled the shelves on the three sides. The fireplace was surmounted by a carved mantel, upon which stood two gilt candelabra and a black statuette. The walls were burdened by scarce a single picture, and the red curtains at the windows were only half-drawn. On looking in, the impression given was one of luxury and of artistic refinement, an ideal room for a winter's night, a place for retirement, peace and repose.
Mrs. Swinton sat in her own particular chair by the fireside—a most comfortable tub of a chair—and reclined with her feet outstretched upon a stool, smoking a cigarette. Her graceful head was thrown back, and, as she toyed with the cigarette, displaying the arm of a girl and a figure slim and youthful, it was difficult to believe that this woman could be the mother of a grown son and daughter. Her brown hair, which had a glint of gold in it, was carefully dressed, and crowned with a thin circlet of diamonds. Her shapely little head was poised upon a long, white throat rising from queenly shoulders. She looked very tall as she lounged thus with her feet extended and her head thrown back, watching the smoke curl from her full, red lips.
Opposite her, deep in an armchair, and scarcely visible behind a large fashion journal, sat Netty Swinton, her daughter, a girl of nineteen, a mere slip of a woman. The pet name for Netty was, "The Persian," because she somewhat resembled a Persian cat in her ways, always choosing the warmest and most comfortable chairs, and curling up on sofas, quite content to be quiet, only asking to be left alone and caressed at rare intervals by highly-esteemed persons.
From the ladies' gowns, it was obvious that they were going somewhere; and, by the rector's ruffled hair and shabby smoking-jacket, that he would be staying at home, busy over money affairs—the eternal worry of this household.
The rector was even now struggling with his accounts.
The clever man seemed to be a fool before the realities of life as set down in numerals. As a young man, he had been a prodigy. People then spoke of him as a future bishop, and he filled fashionable churches of the city with the best in the land. They came to hear his sensational sermons, and they patted him on the back approvingly in their drawing-rooms. He was immensely popular. Perhaps his wonderful masculine beauty was responsible for much of the interest he excited. It certainly captivated Mary Herresford, a girl of nineteen, who was among those bewitched. She adored the young preacher, whom later she married secretly; and the red flame of their passionate love had never died down. The wealthy father of the bride had only forgiven them to the extent of presenting his daughter with the property on Riverside Drive, where they had since made their home, to the considerable inconvenience of the rector himself. Soon after the marriage, John Swinton had taken the rectorship of St. Botolph's, that great church planned for the betterment of the most hopeless slums. The clergyman's admirers believed that this was but the beginning of magnificent achievements. On the contrary, the result threatened disaster to his good-standing before the world. The population of the parish grew in poverty, rather than in grace. The rector was a man of ideals, generous to a fault. His means were small; his bounty was great. The income enjoyed by his wife did not count. Old Herresford allowed his daughter only sufficient for her personal needs, which were, naturally, rather extravagant, for she had been reared and had lived always in the atmosphere of wealth.
Matters were further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Swinton, though she adored her husband, hated his parish cordially. She belonged to the aristocracy, and she had no thought of tearing herself from the life with which she was familiar, while her husband, on the contrary, doted on his parish and avoided, so far as he might, the company of the frivolous idlers who were his wife's companions. Husband and wife, therefore, agreed to differ, and to be satisfied with love. After their son was born, the wife drifted back to her old life, and was a most welcome figure in the gayest society. Yet, no scandal was ever associated with her name, and none sneered at her love for her husband. The rector, when he yielded to her persuasions and accompanied her on social excursions, was as welcome as she; and everybody proclaimed Mrs. Swinton a clever woman to be able to live two entirely-different lives at the same time, with neither overlapping. At forty, she was still young and beautiful, with a ripe maturity that only the tender crow's feet about the corners of the eyes betrayed to the inquisitive. She set the pace for many a younger woman, and was far more active than prim little Netty, her daughter. Needless to say, she was adored by her son, to whom she was both mother and chum.
Dick Swinton was like his father, the same gentlemanly spirit combined with a somewhat unpractical mind, which turned to the beautiful and the good, and refused to admit the ugliness of unpleasant facts. Indeed, the young man's position was even more awkward than his father's. As grandson and heir of Richard Herresford much was expected of him. Everybody did not know that the rich old man was such a miser that, after paying for his grandson's education, at his daughter's persuasion, he allowed him only a thousand dollars a year, and persistently refused to disburse this sum until it was dragged from him by Mrs. Swinton.
The rector turned over the leaves of the account-books, and sighed heavily.
"It's no use," he cried, at last. "I can't make them up. They are in a hopeless muddle. I know, though, that I can't raise a thousand cents, much less a thousand dollars, and the builder threatens to make me bankrupt, if I don't pay at once."
"Bankrupt, John!" his wife murmured, languidly raising her brows. "You are exaggerating."
"No, my dear. The truth must be faced. Pressure is being applied in every direction. I signed a note, making myself security for the building of the Mission-room. And here are other threats of suits. I already have judgments against me, that they may try to satisfy at any moment. Why, even our furniture may be seized! And this man declares that he will make me bankrupt. It's a horrible position—bad enough for any man, fatal for a clergyman. We've staved off the crash for about as long as we can.—And I'm tired of it all!"
He flung the account-book from him, and, brushing his gray hair from his forehead in an agitated fashion, started up. His brow was moist, and his hand trembled.
"Only a matter of a thousand dollars, John?" cried Mrs. Swinton, after another puff from her cigarette. Then, glancing at the clock, she added: "What a time they are getting the carriage ready! We shall be late. Netty, go and see why they are so long." Netty slipped away.
"Mary, you must be late for once," cried the disturbed husband, striding over to her. "We must talk this matter out."
She smiled up at him bewitchingly, and he melted, for he adored her still.
"Father will have to pay the money," she said, rising lazily and facing him—as tall as he, and wonderfully graceful. She put her hand upon his shoulder.
"Yes, John, I'll go to father once more. It's really shameful! He absolutely promised you a thousand dollars for that Mission Hall, and then afterward refused to pay it."
"Yes, of course, he did. That was why I became responsible. But you know what his promises are."
"His promises should be kept like those of other men. It is wicked to give money with one hand, and then take it away with the other. He allowed you to compromise yourself in the expectation of this unusual lavishness on his part; and now he repudiates the whole thing, like the miser that he is."
"Hush, darling! He is a very old man."
"Oh, yes, it's all very well for you to find excuses for him. You would find excuses for Satan himself, John. You are far too lenient. Just think what father would say, if you were to be made bankrupt. Can't you hear his delighted, malevolent chuckles? Oh, it is too terrible, too outrageous! You know what everyone would say—that you had been speculating, or gambling, just because you dabbled a little in mines a few years ago."
"A thousand dollars would only delay the crash. We owe at least ten times as much as that," groaned the unhappy man, sinking into the chair his wife had just vacated. He rested his elbows on his knees, and his throbbing head in his hands. "They'll have to find another rector for St. Botolph's. I've tried hard to satisfy everybody. I've begged and worked. We've had bazaars, concerts, collections, everything. But people give less and less, and they want more and more. The poor cry louder and louder."
"John, you are too generous. It's monstrous that father should cling to his money as he does. He has nobody to leave it to but us—in fact, it is as much ours as his. Yet, he cripples us at every turn. I have almost to go down on my knees for my own allowance—"
"And, when you get it, dearest, I have to borrow half. I'm a wretched muddler. I used to think great things of myself once, but now—well, they'd better make me bankrupt, and have done with it. At least, I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that, if I have robbed the rich man and the trader, it has been to relieve the poor. Why, my own clothes are so shabby that I am ashamed to face the sunlight."
It did not for one moment occur to his generous nature to glance at the costly garments of his beautiful wife, who wanted for nothing, who spent her days in a round of pleasure. He took her hand as she stood beside him, and raised it to his lips.
"I have been a miserable failure as a husband for you, Mary," he said. "You remember that they used jestingly to call you the bishop's wife, and said that you would never regret having married a parson. Well, I really thought in those days that I should make up for the disparity in our relative positions, and raise you to an eminence worthy of you."
"Poor old John!" laughed his wife, smoothing his gleaming, silvery hair. "It's not your fault. Father ought to have done more. He's a perfect beast. He is a miser, mean, deceitful, avaricious, spiteful, everything that's wicked. He is ruining you, and he will ruin Dick, too. He threatens that, when he dies, we may find all his wealth left to charities. Charities, indeed, when we have to pinch and screw to satisfy insolent tradesmen, and the everlasting hunger of a lot of cringing, crawling loafers and vagabonds who won't work!"
"Hush, hush, my darling! Don't let's get on that topic to-night. We never agree as to some things, and we never shall."
"There's talk, too, of Dick's going to the front. And that will cost money. Anyway, I shall see father to-morrow. You must write to that wretched builder man, and tell him he will have his money. I'll get it somehow, if I have to pawn my jewels."
"Your father has repeatedly informed you, dearest," the rector objected, "that your jewels do not really belong to you—that he has only loaned them to you."
"Yes, that's a device of his, although they belonged to my mother. At any rate, write the man a sharp letter."
"Very well, my dear," replied the rector, wearily, and he rose, and walked with bowed head toward his desk. "I'll say that I hope to pay him."
The two had been through scenes like this before, but never had the situation hitherto been so desperate as to-night.
Netty, soft-footed and soft-voiced, returned to announce that the carriage was ready. Mrs. Swinton thereupon threw away her cigarette, and gathered up her train. For one moment, she bent over her husband's shoulder, and pressed her soft, fair cheek to his.
"Don't look so worried, dear," she murmured. "What's a thousand dollars! Why, I might win that much at bridge, to-night."
"Don't, darling, don't!" the husband groaned, distractedly.
Any mention of bridge was as salt upon an open wound to him. He knew that his wife played for high stakes among her own set—indeed, every parishioner of St. Botolph's knew it; it was a whispered scandal. Yet, her touch thrilled him, and he was as wax in her fingers. She spent her life in an exotic atmosphere, but he knew that there was no evil in her nature. There were weaknesses, doubtless; but who was weaker than he, and where is the woman in the world who is at once beautiful and strong?
The man without, lurking beside the window, watched the departure of the mother and daughter. He remained within the shadow until the yellow lights of the carriage had disappeared through the gates; then, he came forward, just as Rudd, the manservant, was closing the front door.
"What, you again?" gasped the servant.
"Yes. It's all right, I suppose? He ain't here?"
"The young master?" Rudd inquired, with a grin. "No. And it's lucky for you that he ain't."
"Parson in?" came the curt query.
"Yes," Rudd answered, reluctantly.
"Well, tell him I'm here," the deputy commanded, with a truculent air. "He'll want to see me, I guess. Anyhow, he'd better!"
On the following morning, after breakfasting in her own room, Mrs. Swinton came downstairs, to find the house seemingly empty. She was not sorry to be left alone, for she was feeling out of sorts with all the world. In the bright daylight, she looked a little older; her fair skin showed somewhat faded and wan. She was nervously irritable just now, for last night she had lost three hundred dollars at bridge. The embarrassment over money filled her with wretchedness. There remained no resource save to appeal to her father for the amount needed.
She strolled out with the intention of ordering Rudd to bring around the carriage; but, as she stepped upon the porch, she stopped short at sight of a man who was sprawled in a chair there, smoking a pipe.
"What is it you want?" she demanded haughtily, annoyed by the fellow's obvious lack of deference, for he had not risen or taken the pipe from his mouth.
"I've explained to the gent, ma'am, and he's gone out to get the money," was the prompt answer.
"You mean, my husband?"
"Yes, the parson, ma'am. I come to levy—execution. You understand, ma'am."
Further questions dried up in her throat. The humiliation was too great to allow parley. Such an advent as this had been threatened jestingly many times. But the one actual visit of a like sort in the past had been kept a secret from her. Now, in the face of the catastrophe, she felt herself overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the necessity for instant action was imperative.
She went back into the house, and rang for her maid to take the message to Rudd. Then, she dressed hurriedly for the ride to her father's house. Her hands were trembling, and tears streamed down her cheeks. At intervals, she muttered in rage against her father, whom at this moment she positively hated.
For that matter, old Herresford, by reason of his unscrupulous operations in augmenting his enormous fortune, was one of the most cordially hated men in the country. Of late years, however, he had abandoned aggressive undertakings, and rested content with the wealth he had already acquired. Invalidism had been the cause of this change. The result of it had been to develop certain miserly instincts in the man until they became the dominant force of his life. By reason of this stinginess, his daughter was made to suffer so much that she abominated her father. It was a long time now since he had ceased to be a familiar figure in the world. For some years, he had been confined to his bedchamber at Asherton Hall, his magnificent estate on the Hudson. There, from a window, he could survey a great part of his gardens, and watch his gardeners at their labors. With a pair of field-glasses, he could search every wooded knoll of the park for a half-mile to the river, in the hope of catching some fellow idling, whom he could dismiss. In his senseless economies, he had discharged servant after servant, until now his stately house was woefully ill-kept, and even his favorite gardens were undermanned.
On this morning of his daughter's meeting with the sheriff's officer, he was sitting up in his carved ebony bedstead. A black skull-cap was drawn over his little head, and the long, white hair fell to his shoulders, where it curled up at the ends. His sunken eyes gleamed like a hawk's, and his dry, parchment skin was stretched tightly over the prominent bones. His nose was hooked, and his lips sunken over toothless gums—for he would not afford false teeth. His hands were as small as a woman's, but claw-like.
On a round table by his bed stood the field-glasses with which he watched his gardeners, and woe betide man who permitted a single leaf to lie on the perfect lawns, which stretched away on the plateau before the house.
The chamber in which the bed was set was lofty and bare. A few costly rugs were scattered on the highly-polished floor, and the general effect was funereal, for the ebony bedstead had a French canopy of black satin embroidered with gold. By the window stood his writing-desk, at which his steward and his secretary sat when they had business with him; and on the table by the window in the bay, was a bowl of flowers, the only bright spot of color in the room.
His daughter came unannounced, as she always did. He was warned of her approach by the frou-frou of her silk, an evidence of refined femininity that for a long time past had been absent from Asherton Hall. The old man grunted at the sound, and stared straight ahead out of the window. He did not turn until she stood by his bedside, and placed her gloved hand upon his cold, bony fingers.
"Father, I have come to see you."
She kissed him on the brow, and his eyes darted an upward look, keen and penetrating as an eagle's.
"Then you want something. The usual?"
This was an undertaking often embarked upon before, and successfully, but each time with a bitterer spirit and a deeper sense of humiliation. The result of each appeal was worse than the last, the miser's hand tightened upon his gold.
She knew that there was no use in beating about the bush with him. During occasional periods of illness, she had acted as his secretary, and was cognizant of his ways and his affairs, and of the immense amount of wealth he was storing up for her son. At least, it seemed impossible that it could be for anyone else, although the old man constantly threatened that not a penny should go to the young scapegrace, as he termed his grandson. He repeatedly prophesied jail and the gallows for the young scamp.
"How much is it now?" asked the miser.
"A large sum, father," faltered Mrs. Swinton. "A thousand dollars! You know you promised John a thousand dollars toward the building of the Mission Hall."
"What!" screamed the old man, in horror. "A thousand dollars! It's a lie."
"You did, father. I was here. I heard you promise. John talked to you a long time of what was expected of you, and told you how little you had given—"
"Like his insolence."
"And you promised a thousand dollars."
"A thousand? Nothing of the sort," snarled the miser, scratching the coverlet with hooked fingers—always a sign of irritation with him. "I said one, not one thousand."
She knew all his tricks. To avoid payment, he would always promise generously; but, when it came to drawing a check, he whiningly protested that five hundred was five, three hundred three, and so on.
"This time, father, it is very urgent. John is in a tight fix. Misfortune has been assailing him right and left, and he is nearly bankrupt."
"Ha, ha! Serve him right," chuckled the old man. The words positively rattled in his throat. "I always told you he was a fool. I told you, but you wouldn't listen to me. You insisted upon marrying a sky pilot. Apply up there for help." He pointed to the ceiling.
"Father, father, be reasonable. There is a man at our house—a sheriff's officer. Think of it!"
"Aha, has it come to that!" laughed the miser. "Now, he will wake up. Now, we shall see!"
"Not only that, father. Dick may go away."
"What, fleeing from justice?"
"No, no, father. He is going to volunteer for service in the war."
She commenced to give him details, but he hushed her down. "How much?—How much?" he asked, insultingly. "I told you before that you have no justification for regarding your son as my heir. Who told you that I was going to leave him a penny? He's a pauper, and dependent upon his father, not upon me. I owe him nothing."
"Oh, father, father, it is expected of you."
"How much?" snapped the old man.
"Oh, quite a large sum, father. I want you to advance me some of my allowance, as well. I must have at least two thousand dollars."
"What!" he screamed. "Two thousand! Two, you mean. Get me my check-book—get me my check-book."
He pointed to the desk. She knew where to find it, and hastened to obey, thinking to rush the matter through. She took the blotting-pad from the desk, and placed it on her father's knees, and brought an inkstand and a pen, which she put into his trembling fingers.
"Two thousand, father," she said, gently.
"No—two!" he snarled, flashing out at her and positively jabbering in his anger. He filled in the date, and again looked around at her, tauntingly. Then, he wrote the word "Two" on the long line.
"Two. Do you understand?" he snarled, thrusting his nose into her face, as she bent over him to hold the blotting-pad. "That's all you'll get out of me." He filled in the figure two below, and straggling noughts for the cents. Then, he paused and addressed her again, emphasizing his remarks with the end of the penholder.
"I'll have you understand that this is the last of your borrowing and begging. I am not giving you this money, you understand? I am advancing it on account. Every penny I pay you will be deducted from the little legacy I leave you at my death."
She wearily waited for him to sign, to get it over; for there was nothing to be done when he was in a mood like this. Perhaps, on the morrow, he would be more rational.
She replaced the blotting-pad, and dried the check in mechanical fashion; but her face was white with anger. She folded the useless slip, and put it in her bag.
"Have you no gratitude?" cried the old horror from the bed. "Can't you say, thank you?"
"Thank you, father," she answered, coldly; "I am tired of your jests," and, without another word, she swept from the room.
"Two!" chuckled the old man in his throat, "two!"
On arriving at the rectory, she found the man reading a paper in the hall, and the rector not yet returned. She guessed that her husband had gone on a heart-breaking expedition to raise money. She wished to ask the fellow the amount of the debt for which the execution was granted, but could not bring herself to put the question. She went to her husband's study, guessing that he would come there on his return, and, seating herself in his armchair, leaned her elbows on the account-books and burst into tears.
After all, how little John had gained by marrying her! She could do nothing for him; she was powerless even to help her own son, who was compelled to adopt miserable subterfuges and swallow his pride on every occasion. She opened her purse and took out the check, intending to destroy it in her rage, but she was stopped by the miserable thought that, after all, every penny was of vital importance just now. She could not afford the luxury of its destruction.
"My own father!" she cried bitterly, as she spread out the check before her. "Two dollars!"
Then, she noticed that the word "two" had nothing after it on the long line, and that the "2" below in the square for the numerals was straggling toward the left. It only needed a couple of noughts in her father's hand to put everything right. Two ciphers! They would indeed be ciphers to him, for how could he feel the difference of a few thousands more or less in his immense banking-account? A bedridden old man had no use for money. Indeed, it was impossible that he could know how much he was worth. She had often seen him signing checks by the dozen, groaning over every one. When they were gone, they were out of his mind; and all he troubled about was to ask for the total at the bank, and mumble with satisfaction over the fine, fat figures of the balance.
Her face lighted up with a sudden reckless thought.
If she added those two ciphers herself with an old, spluttering pen, and added the word "thousand" after the "two," who would be the wiser?
Certainly not her father. And the bank would pay without a murmur. She seized a pen, prepared to act upon the impulse, then paused. She knew vaguely that it was a wrong thing to do. But—her own father! Indeed, her own money—for some of his wealth would be hers one day, and that day not very far distant. It was ridiculous to have scruples at such a time.
She cleverly filled in the words in a shaky hand, and added the two ciphers. She let the ink dry, and then surveyed her handiwork.
How her husband's face would light up when she told him of their good fortune. Two thousand dollars! No, she could not imagine herself facing the rector's gray eyes, and telling him an awful lie. It was bad enough to alter the check. She had heard of people who had been put in prison for altering checks!
Dick would take the check to the bank for her, so that she need not face any inquisitive, staring clerks; and, when it was exchanged for notes, she would be able to get rid of the loathly creature sitting in the hall.
* * * * *
"Who presented this check?"
Vivian Ormsby, son of the banker, sat in his private room at Ormsby's Bank, examining a check for two thousand dollars, and a cashier stood at his side. Vivian Ormsby had just looked in at the bank for a few minutes, and he was in a hurry.
"Young Mr. Swinton presented it, sir," the cashier explained.
Vivian Ormsby's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the check more closely.
"Leave it with me," he commanded, "and count out the notes."
As soon as he was alone, he went to a cupboard and took out a magnifying glass.
"Ye gods! Forgery! Made out to his mother—and yet—the signature seems all right. Of course, the alteration might have been made in Herresford's presence. The simplest thing would be to apply to the old man himself. If the young bounder has altered the figures—well, if he has—then let it go through. It will be a matter for us then, not for Herresford, who wouldn't part with a cent to save his own, much less his daughter's, child." Vivian Ormsby had special reasons for hating Dick Swinton just now, not unconnected with a certain Dora Dundas.
Yet, he sent for his cashier, and handed him the check.
"Pay it," he directed.
Through a glass panel in his room, the banker's son watched the departure of Dick Swinton with considerable satisfaction. Dick was a fine, handsome young fellow, tall, broad-shouldered, and looking twenty-five at least instead of his twenty-two years, with a kindly face, like his father's, brown hair, hazel eyes, and a clean-shaven, sensitive mouth more suited to a girl than to a man. Now, Ormsby smiled sardonically at the unconscious swagger of the young man, and he wondered, too. Indeed, he had more than a suspicion about that check. Everybody knew of his rival's heavy debts, but that he should put his head into the lion's mouth was amazing. Forgery!
How easy it would be to discover the fraud presently—when the money was spent, and ere the woman was won. Not now, but presently.
THE DINNER AT THE CLUB
Colonel Stone was the possessor of much political and social influence; moreover, he enjoyed considerable wealth; finally, he was flamboyantly and belligerently patriotic. In consequence of his qualities and influence, he conceived the project of raising a company for the war in Cuba, equipping it at his own expense. The War Department accepted his proposition readily enough, for in his years of active service he had acquired an excellent reputation as an officer of ability, and he was still in the prime of life. Rumors of the undertaking spread through his club, although he endeavored to keep the matter secret as long as possible. Unfortunately, he consulted with that military authority, Colonel Dundas, who was unable to restrain his garrulity concerning anything martial. The current report had it that the colonel intended to make his selection of officers from among certain young men of his acquaintance who were serving, or had served, with the National Guard. Among such, now, the interest was keen, for the war spirit was abroad in the land, and the colonel's project seem to offer excellent opportunity to win distinction. And then, at last, Colonel Stone sent invitations to a select few young men to dine with him at his club. The action was regarded as significant, inasmuch as the colonel was not given to this sort of hospitality. Among those to receive the honor of an invitation was Dick Swinton.
When the rector's son entered the private dining-room of the club on the night appointed, he found there besides his host five of his acquaintances: Will Ocklebourne, the eldest son of the railway magnate; Vivian Ormsby, who at this time was a captain in the National Guard; Ned Carnaby, the crack polo-player; Jack Lorrimer, a leader in athletics as well as cotillions; and Harry Bent, the owner of the famous racing stud. Without exception, the five, like Dick himself, were splendid specimens of virile youth, and in their appearance amply justified the colonel's choice.
Just before the party seated itself at the table, a servant entered with a letter for Dick. He opened it eagerly, and a sprig of forget-me-not fell into his hand. He folded this within the letter, which he had not time at the moment to read. But he understood the message of the flower, for the handwriting on the envelope was that of Dora Dundas. And he sighed a little. The lust of adventure was in his blood, and the war called him.
The dinner progressed tamely enough until the dessert was on the table. Then, the colonel arose, and set forth his plans, and called for volunteers to join him in this service to his country.
"Some of you—perhaps all—" he concluded, "are willing to go with me. Let such as will stand up."
Instantly, Captain Ormsby was on his feet. He stood martially erect, fingering his little, black mustache nervously, his dark eyes gleaming. He was a handsome, slim, dark man of forty, with a slightly Jewish cast of countenance, crimped black hair, parted in the centre, a large, but well-shaped nose, a full, round chin, and a low, white forehead—a face that suggested the Spaniard or the modern Greek Jew.... There came a little outburst of applause from the fellow-guests, a recognition of his promptness in acceptance of the colonel's offer.
Then, the others stood up together: Ocklebourne, Carnaby, Lorrimer, Bent—all except Dick Swinton, the rector's son. The group turned expectant eyes on him, awaiting his rising to complete the group. Yet, he sat there with his fellow-officers standing, Captain Ormsby on one side of him, Jack Lorrimer on the other, in the most prominent place in the room, leaning back in his chair, with eyes downcast, and playing with his knife nervously.
He seemed ashamed to look up, and was overcome by the unexpected prominence into which he was thrown. He was deathly pale; but his mouth expressed dogged determination.
"Not Swinton?" asked the colonel, reproachfully.
Dick shook his head smilingly, and was terribly abashed. They waited a few moments longer—moments, during which a girl's face seemed to be looking at Dick with wistful, tender eyes—the same woman that Ormsby loved. And he saw, too, in a blurred mist, a vision of carnage and bloodshed that was horribly unnecessary and unjust. He could not explain all his reasons for evading this opportunity—that he was only just engaged, was in debt, and could not afford the money for his outfit. It needed some courage to sit there and say nothing.
"Fill him up a glass of champagne, a stiff one—it will give him some Dutch courage," remarked Captain Ormsby sotto voce, but loud enough for the others to hear, and they laughed awkwardly at the implied taunt of cowardice. Burly Jack Lorrimer, who stood by Dick's side and had had quite enough to drink, seized a bottle jocularly; Ormsby took it from him, and, leaning forward, was about to fill Dick's glass, when the young man jumped to his feet.
There was the beginning of a luke-warm cheer—arrested instantly, for Dick turned in a fury on Captain Ormsby, and struck him a blow in the face with the flat of his hand that resounded through the room. Then, he kicked his chair back, and strode to the door just behind him.
The colonel angrily hushed the murmurs of excitement that ensued, and with considerable tact proceeded to make a short speech to the volunteers as though nothing had happened.
The whole scene lasted only fifteen minutes. The ugly incident at the table was with one accord ignored, and the wine was attacked with vigor, everybody drinking everybody else's health. The captain was inwardly satisfied; for had he not succeeded in publicly branding his rival in love as a coward?
Dick Swinton went striding home, a prey to the bitterest humiliation. He had allowed his temper to get the better of him, and had disgraced himself in the eyes of his fellows.
And the forget-me-not in his pocket! That had had much to do with it, of course. It was a silent appeal from the girl he loved, who had been his own, his very own, for only twenty-four sweet hours. He took out her letter, which he had not yet perused, and read it under a street lamp—the letter of a soldier's daughter, born and reared among soldiers.
DEAREST, Of course you must go. Don't consider me. All the others are going. Our secret must remain sacred until your return. Your country calls, and her claim comes even before that of your own darling. Oh, I shall hate the days you are away, but it cannot be helped, can it? Father is already talking about your kit, and he wants you to come and see him that he may advise you what to buy and what to wear.—DORA.
He groaned as he realized that this note should have been read earlier. It was too late now.
Dick Swinton spent a wretched night after his humiliation at the dinner. When he awakened, the sun of spring was shining on the quivering leaves of the trees along the drive. He opened his window and looked out.
At the sound of the rattling casement, Rudd, who was at work on the lawn, looked up. Rudd was general factotum—coachman, gardener, footman,—and usually valeted his young master. Now, he hurried upstairs to Mr. Dick's bedroom, where he duly appeared with a pile of letters.
"Mrs. Swinton and Miss Netty have breakfasted in their rooms, sir. The rector has gone out. And it's nine o'clock."
Dick took the bundle of letters—bills all of them, except two, one of which was addressed in the handwriting of Dora Dundas. Rudd knew the outside of a bill as well as his young master, and had selected the love-letter from the others, and placed it first.
When Dick was dressed, he opened the girl's letter, and his face softened:
DEAREST, I hear that everything was settled last night, and I must see you this morning. There are many things to be talked of before the dreadful good-bye. I shall be in the Mall, but I can't stay long.
Your loving, DORA.
"She imagines I'm going," growled Dick, grinding his teeth and thinking of the shameful scene of last night. "Well, I'll show them all that I have the courage of my convictions."
But, despite his declarations, his feelings were greatly confused, and, although he would not confess the fact even to himself, he was now consumed with chagrin that he had refused the chance of service. To be branded thus with cowardice was altogether insupportable!
And then, while he was in this mood, he opened the other envelope, carelessly. His interest was first aroused by the fact that, as he glanced at it, there was no sign of a letter. A second examination revealed something contained there. Dick put in his fingers, and pulled forth a white feather. For a few seconds, he stared at it in bewilderment, wondering what this thing might mean. But, in the next instant, the significance of it flashed on him. Somewhere, some time, he had read the story of a soldier who was stigmatized by his fellows as a craven in this manner. The presentation of the white feather to him meant that he, Dick Swinton, was a coward.
As he realized the truth, the young man was stunned. It seemed to him a monstrous thing that any could so misunderstand. Yet, there was the evidence of his shame before his eyes. He grew white as he tried to imagine what the sender must think of him. And then, presently, in thinking of the sender, he was filled with an overmastering rage against the one who dared thus to impugn his courage. He looked at the envelope, which was addressed in a straggling hand, and was convinced that the writer had disguised the handwriting. But he felt that he had no need of evidence to know who his enemy was. Of his own circle, all were his friends, save only Captain Ormsby. And he had struck Ormsby. This, then, was Ormsby's revenge. After all, it were folly to permit the malevolence of a cad so to distress him. Since he was not a coward, the white feather concerned him not at all.
Nevertheless, he was unable to dismiss his annoyance over the incident as completely as he wished, and he breakfasted without appetite. He was still disconsolate when he set out to keep his engagement in Central Park.
At five minutes past ten o'clock, there approached the spot where Dick stood waiting in the Mall a very charming girl of scarcely twenty years of age, of medium height, with a pretty, plump form delightfully outlined by the lines of her walking dress. This was of a gray cloth, perfectly cut, but almost military in its severity. Her mouth was small and proud, her eyes gray and solemn, her color high from walking in the chilly air, and her hair of that nondescript brown usually described as fair. Uncommon, yet not sensational; but with a delicate charm that radiated from her like perfume from a flower.
At the sight of the lover awaiting her, Dora's placid demeanor departed. Her eyes lighted up and moistened with tenderness. She could not wait for him to join her; she started forward with outstretched hands.
"You are not displeased?" she asked, with a blush. "I did so want to see you! Oh, to think that we must part so soon!"
"I suppose you've heard all about last night?" asked Dick, hoarsely.
"Yes. Mr. Ormsby called to see father for a moment. They talked incessantly about the war, and I overheard a little of their conversation—about last night. How sad for that poor fellow who turned coward, and was shamed before them all. Who was it?"
The color fled from Dick's face, and left it white and drawn.
"You were wrongly informed. The man was insulted, and there was no question of cowardice about it. He couldn't go, and he wouldn't go."
"But who was it? Not Jack Lorrimer or Harry Bent, surely?"
"Then, you don't know?" he exclaimed.
Something in his face made her heart stand still.
Dora could not yet understand that a hideous blunder had been made, that her information came from a tainted source. Ormsby had told her father, in her hearing, of a vulgar scuffle, but her ears had not caught the name of the offender.
"Can't you guess who it was they insulted?" cried Dick, bitterly. "It was I. I declined to go. How could I go? You know all about my finances. You know what it costs, the outfit, everything; and, darling, I was only just engaged to the dearest little girl in the world."
"Dick!—you?" she cried, looking at him in cold amazement. Then, he knew to his cost what it was to love a soldier's daughter, a girl born in a military camp, and reared among men who regarded the chance of active service as the good fortune of the gods. It had never occurred to her for a moment that Dick would hang back—certainly not on her account—after her loving message.
He hastened to explain the circumstances, and was obliged to confess to the girl whom he had only just won a good deal more of the unfortunate state of his family affairs than he had hoped would be necessary. Of course, she was sympathetic, and furiously angry with Vivian Ormsby; but—and there came the rub—of course, he would go now, at all costs.
"Well, it was for you I said no," he cried, at last. "But for you I'll say yes. It's not too late. I'll have to swindle somebody to get my outfit, and add another to the long list of debts that are breaking my father's heart; but still—"
"But your grandfather, Dick! Surely, only a word to him would be enough. He could not refuse to behave handsomely."
"He never behaved handsomely in his life. He's a mean old miser, who will probably fool us all in the end, and leave his money to strangers. But, as it's settled, we need say no more. I suppose I shall see you again before I go—if it matters to you—I suppose you don't care whether I am killed."
"Yes, I'm disappointed. I did hope that you thought the world well lost for love, and that, having braved the inevitable anger of your father in giving yourself to me, you'd show some feeling, and not look forward eagerly to my leaving you. You seem anxious to be rid of me."
"Dick! Dick!" cried the girl. "I'm a soldier's daughter. I—"
"Oh, pray spare me a repetition of your father's platitudes—I've heard them often enough. I don't know much about the war, but all I've heard has set me against it. But never mind! And now, good-bye, my Spartan sweetheart."
He extended his hand, sullenly and coldly.
"Hush! And don't be hateful" Dora remonstrated. Then, she added, quickly: "It's more than ever necessary, Dick, now that you are going away, to keep our secret. You mustn't anger your grandfather."
"Oh, yes, of course, we'll be discreet. And, if I'm killed—well, nobody will know of our engagement."
"Dick, if you died on the field of battle, I should be proud to proclaim to all the world that—"
She broke down and sobbed, in spite of some staring passers-by, who saw that there was a lover's quarrel in progress.
"There's time enough to talk of my going when I am actually starting," said Dick haughtily, drawing himself up to his full height, and showing an obvious intention to depart in a huff. "Good-bye."
"Dick! Don't leave me like that."
He was gone; and he left behind him a very wretched girl. As she watched him striding along the walk, she wanted to call him back, and beg him to adhere to his previous decision to stay at home that she might have him always near. When he was out of sight, tears still blurred Dora's vision, and she bowed her head. A strange faintness came over her. She wanted him now. After all, he was her lover, her future husband; his place was by her side. It was folly to send him away into danger.
Dora was the daughter of Colonel Dundas, a retired officer of considerable experience. At his club, he was the authority upon everything military. He fairly bristled with patriotism, and his views on the gradual departure of the service "to the dogs, sir," were well advertised, both in print and by word of mouth.
"The army is not what it was, sir, and, if we're not careful, we sha'n't have any army at all, sir," was the burden of his platitudes; and his motherless daughter had listened reverently ever since she was born, and believed in him. He had taught her that every self-respecting, manly man should be a soldier.
Dick Swinton's equivocal position as the son of a needy clergyman and the very uncertain heir to a great fortune, ruled him out of the reckoning as an eligible bachelor, compared with Jack Lorrimer, Ned Carnaby, Harry Bent, and Vivian Ormsby, all rich men. The miser so frequently advertised the fact that his grandson would not inherit a penny of his money that people had come to believe it, and they looked upon Dick with corresponding coolness. He surely must be a scamp to be spoken of as his own grandfather spoke of him; and, of course, wherever he went, women flung themselves at his head. The usual attraction of a good-looking, soft-eyed Adonis gained favor by the whispered suggestion that he was dangerous.
But, in truth, Dick was only bored with women until he fell in love with Dora, and took the girl's heart by storm.
Ormsby was laying siege to the citadel cautiously, as was his way. Bluff Jack Lorrimer's courage was paralyzed by his love, and he drank deep to dispel his melancholy. Harry Bent—who was already under the spell of Netty Swinton, Dick's sister's—was indifferent, and Carnaby had been rejected three times, despite his millions.
Colonel Dundas saw nothing to alarm him in the admiration of these young men for his daughter until Dick Swinton came along, and Dora changed into a dreamy, solemn young person. She lost all her audacity, and her hot temper was put to rest for ever. Dick worshiped with his eyes in such a manner that only the blind could fail to read the signs. He was not loquacious, and Dora was unaccountably shy. They never spoke of love until one day Dick, with simple audacity, and favored by unusual circumstances—under the light of the moon—clasped the girl to his heart, and kissed her. She cried, and he imprisoned her in his arms for a full minute. For ransom and release, she gave her lips unresistingly, and he uncaged her.
"Now, you're mine," he murmured, with a great sigh of relief, "and we're engaged."
She smiled and nodded, and came to his heart again of her own accord.
And not a word was said to anybody. It was all too precious and wonderful and beautiful. And yet she expected him to go away.
At the club, to-day everybody stared to see Ormsby and Dick Swinton meet as though nothing had happened overnight, and the news was soon buzzing around that Swinton was going, after all. Jack Lorrimer explained that Dick had at last procured the consent of his grandfather, without which it would have been impossible for him to go. Everybody wondered why they had not thought of that before, and laughed at the overnight business.
On his return to the rectory, Dick met his mother in the porch.
"Mother!" he cried, in a voice that was husky with emotion. "I've got to go. I've just given my name in to the colonel, and the money must be found somehow. Ormsby has dared to insinuate that I'm a coward. I—"
"It's all right, Dick. You can have your outfit; I've got enough. I suppose five hundred dollars will cover it?"
"It'll have to, if that's all I can get, mother."
"That is all I can spare."
"Out of grandfather's two thousand?"
"Most of it has already gone. A thousand to your father for the builder man, a hundred to that wretch who was here yesterday, and the rest to pay some of my own debts. My luck has deserted me lately. I shall have to beg of your grandfather again to get the five hundred you want."
"I know, my boy, that it is very humiliating to have to beg for money which really belongs to one—for it does belong to us, to you and me, I mean—as much as to him, doesn't it? It's maddening to think that the law allows a man to ruin his relations because senility has weakened his intellect."
"He's an old brute," growled Dick, as he strode away.
Vivian Ormsby smarted under the blow given him by Dick at the dinner, and burned to avenge the affront. He tingled with impatience to get another look at the dubious check which promised such unexceptional possibilities of retaliation if, as he suspected and hoped, it was a forgery. Dick Swinton, publicly denounced as a felon, could not possibly hold up his head again; and as a rival in love he would be remorselessly wiped out. The young upstart should learn the penalty of striking an Ormsby.
The captain was a familiar figure at the bank, which belonged almost entirely to his father and himself, and he had his private room there, where he appeared at intervals. Now, Ormsby sat at his desk in the manager's room. He rang the bell and ordered the check to be brought to him once more. Then, he asked for Herresford's pass-book, and any checks in the old man's handwriting that were available. He displayed renewed eagerness in comparing the handwriting in the body of the check with others of a recent date. The result of his scrutiny was evidently interesting, as with his magnifying glass he once more examined every stroke made by Mrs. Swinton's spluttering pen.
The color of the ink used by the forger was not the same as that in the signature. It had darkened perceptibly and swiftly. An undoubted forgery!
It was beyond imagination that Mrs. Swinton, the wife of the rector, could stoop to a fraud. Surely, only a man would write heavily and thickly like that. It was a clumsy alteration.
Dick Swinton had tampered with his grandfather's figures. Well, what then? Would the old man thank his banker for making an accusation of criminality against his grandson? Herresford might be a mean man, but the honor of his name was doubtless dear to him.
What would come of a public trial? Obviously, Dick Swinton would be disinherited and disgraced. The banker knew that it was his duty to proceed at once, if he detected a fraud. But it was not the way of Mr. Vivian Ormsby to act in haste—and it was near the hour for luncheon, to which he had been invited by Colonel Dundas. To-morrow, he could, if advisable, openly discover flaws in the check, and it would then be better if action were taken by his manager, and not by himself.
Dora had been very sweet and kind to him—before Dick came along. Vivian had gone so far as to consult his father about a proposal of marriage to the rich colonel's daughter. They were cautious people, the Ormsbys, and made calculations in their love-affairs as in their bank-books. The old banker approved, and Vivian had hoped that Dora would accept him before he went away. He knew that Dick Swinton stood in his path; but, if he could drag his rival down, it was surely fair and honorable to do so before Dora could commit herself to any sentimental relationship with a criminal.
Ormsby took the chauffeur's seat in his waiting automobile, and drove as fast as the traffic would permit, for he feared lest he might be late. His pace in the upper part of Fifth avenue was far beyond anything the law permitted. As he reached Eighty-eighth street, in which was Colonel Dundas's house, he hardly slackened speed as he swung around the corner. And there, just before him, a group of children playing stretched across the street. Instantly, Ormsby applied the emergency brake. The huge machine jarred abruptly to a standstill—so abruptly that both Ormsby and his chauffeur in the seat beside him were hurled out. The chauffeur scrambled to his feet after a moment, for he had escaped serious injury, but the banker lay white and motionless on the pavement before Colonel Dundas's door.
When the physician was asked to give his opinion some time later, he expressed a belief that the patient would live, but he certainly would not go to the war. In the meantime, he could not be moved. He must remain where he was—in Dora's tender care.
And Dick was going to the war!
* * * * *
The bright morning sunlight was streaming in at the window of the rector's study, sunlight which pitilessly showed up patches of obliterated pattern in the carpet and sorry signs of wear in the leather chairs. A glorious morning; one of those rare days which go to make the magic of spring; a day when all the golden notes in the landscape become articulate as they vibrate to the caress of the soft, warm air.
The rector was only dimly conscious of its rare beauty; for his face was troubled as he paced his study, with head bent and hands behind his back. Between his fingers was a letter which had sent the blood of shame tingling to the roots of his hair, a letter that would also hurt his wife—and this meant a great deal to John Swinton. He was an emotional, demonstrative man, who loved his wife with all the force of his nature, and he would have gone through fire and water for her dear sake, asking no higher reward than a smile of gratitude.
The trouble was once more money—the bitterness of poverty, fresh-edged and keen. He must again, as always, appeal to his wife for help, and she would have to beg again from her father. The knowledge maddened him, for he had endured all that a man may endure at the hands of Herresford.
The letter was short and emphatic:
SIR, I am requested by my client, Mr. Isaac Russ, to inform you that if your son attempts to leave the state before his obligations to my client ($750.00) are paid in full, he will be arrested.
Yours truly, WILLIAM WISE.
This was not the only trouble that the post had brought. On the table lay a communication from his bishop, a kindly, earnest letter from man to man, warning him that he must immediately settle with a certain stockbroker, who had lodged a complaint against him, or run the risk of a public prosecution, which would mean ruin.
In his various troubles, he had almost forgotten the stockbroker to whom he gave orders to purchase shares weeks ago, orders faithfully carried out. The shares were now his, but a turn of the market had made them quite worthless. Nevertheless, they must be paid for.
He sighed heavily as he pocketed the bishop's letter. His affairs were in a more hopeless tangle than he had imagined. Seven hundred and fifty for Dick, and a thousand for the broker—seventeen hundred and fifty dollars more to be raised at once; and the two thousand just received from Herresford all gone.
Netty entered the room at the moment.
"Ah, here you are, father!" she cried, going over to the hearthrug and dropping down before the fire. "Why didn't you come in to breakfast? Didn't you hear the gong? Dick went off at eight, and I've had to feed all alone. The bacon is cold by now, I expect; but go and have some. I'll wait here for you. I've got something to tell you."
"I don't want any breakfast, my child. I want to have a talk with you. It's a long time since we had a chat, Netty. You're getting almost as much a social personage as your mother. Very soon, there'll be no one to keep the house warm, except the old man."
"You mustn't call yourself old. You're not even respectably middle-aged. But what do you want to talk to me about?"
"Money, my dear, money."
"Money! Oh, dear! no—nothing so horrid. This is a red-letter day for me; and, when you talk about money, it turns everything gray."
"Yes, yes, I know it's not a pleasant subject; but, you see, we must talk about it, sometimes. You've been attending to the house-keeping lately, and I want you to try and cut down the expenses. I've had bad news this morning, news which I shall have to worry your mother about. By the way, what is she doing now?"
"I hope she's asleep. You mustn't worry her, you really mustn't. She's had a dreadful night, and her head's awful—and you mustn't worry me. The house-keeping is all right. It worried me, I hate it so. Jane's doing it, and she's more than careful—she's mean. And, now, my news. Can't you guess it? No, you'll never guess. Look!" the girl held out her hand.
"And what am I to look at?"
"Can't you see?—the ring! It's been in his family hundreds of years; but it's nothing compared to the other jewels; they are magnificent, worth a king's ransom. Why don't you say something—something nice and pretty and appropriate? You know you can make awfully nice speeches when you like, father—and I'm waiting for congratulations."
"Congratulations on having received a present? And who gave it to my Persian?" asked the rector, absently.
"Who gave it to me? It's my engagement ring. Harry and I settled everything last night."
"I'm going to marry Harry Bent. You surely must have expected it. That's why you are not to talk about anything unpleasant or ugly to-day. If you do, it'll make me wretched, and I don't want to be wretched. I'm going to have a lovely time for always and always."
"God grant it," murmured the rector, with fervor; "but don't forget that life has its responsibilities and its dull patches; don't expect too much, my little girl. The rosy dawn doesn't always maintain its promise. But we mustn't begin the Sunday sermon to-day, eh, Persian? And now, run away, for I must be quiet to think over what you have told me. It's a surprise, dear child, but, if it means your happiness, it's a glad surprise. By-the-bye, you're quite sure you're in love, little girl?"
"Silly old daddy, of course I am. He's an awfully good boy, and, when his uncle dies, he'll be immensely rich. It's a splendid match, and you ought to be very pleased about it. Ah, here's mother!" she cried, scrambling to her feet as Mrs. Swinton, dressed for driving in a perfect costume of blue, entered the study. "Now, you can both talk about it instead of your horrid money," and, throwing a kiss lightly to her father, she tripped out of the room.
"You don't look well, Mary," exclaimed the rector anxiously, as his wife sank down into a chair by the fire. "Another headache?" He rested his hand lovingly on her shoulder. "You are overdoing it, dearest. You must slow down and live the normal, dull life of a clergyman's wife."
"Don't, Jack, don't! I'm frightfully worried. What was it you and Netty were talking about?"
"Ah, what indeed! The child tells me she is engaged to Harry Bent, and that you know all about it."
"Yes. I've seen that he wanted her for months past; and she likes him, after a fashion. She'll never marry for love—never love anybody better than herself, I fear; and, since he's quite willing to give more than he receives, I see nothing against their engagement, except—except our dreadful financial position."
Mrs. Swinton spoke wearily. "We will discuss Netty later," she continued, "for I have something of the utmost importance to talk over with you. I must have a thousand dollars by Friday, and, if you haven't sent off that check to the builder of the Mission Hall, you must let it stand over. No, no, don't shake your head like that. I only want the money for a day or so, until I can see father, and get another check from him. But, in the meantime, I must have the money. It means dreadful trouble, if I can't have it."
"Mary, Mary, what are you saying! I can't let you have the money. I sent it away two days ago. I was afraid to hold it. Your plight can't be worse than mine, Mary," he groaned. "God help me, I didn't mean to tell you, but perhaps it's best, after all, that you should know everything—for it will make the parting with Dick less hard."
"With Dick? What has your trouble got to do with Dick? Tell me quickly—tell me," and her voice dropped to a sobbing whisper. She was terribly overwrought, and ready to expect anything.
"I've had a letter threatening his arrest."
"Arrest!" she cried, starting up. Her voice was a chord of fear.
"A money-lender intends to arrest him, if he attempts to leave the state—that is, unless I'm prepared to pay a debt of seven hundred and fifty dollars. I," added the rector, in a broken voice, "a man without a penny in the world—a spendthrift, a muddler, a borrower, a man dependent upon the bounty of others."
"Hush, John, hush!" cried his wife, coming closer to him. "You are not to blame. Your life is one long sacrifice to others. It is I who am wrong—oh! so wrong! But it shall all be different soon. I will stand by you and help you. No one shall be able to say that you work alone in the future. I'll live your life, dear. Only let us get out of this awful tangle, and all will be right. I'll go to father again, and tell him just how things stand; and, if he won't give me the money, he shall lend it to me. It will be ours some day. It is ours—it ought to be ours. He can't refuse—he shall not!"
She turned to pace the room feverishly for a few moments, then, going over to her husband again, she linked her arm affectionately in his. "It will be all right. Our luck must surely change, John. I feel it in my bones—not that there is any sign of it to-day. How can they arrest Dick if he goes to the war?"
"Oh! It's some legal technicality. I don't understand it. I've heard of it before. Some judgment has been given against him, and the money-lender has power to make him pay with the first cash he gets, or something of that kind. They've found out that he's been paying other people, I suppose."
"Arrest him! What insolence! As if we hadn't enough trouble of our own without Dick's affairs crippling us at such a time. He absolutely must go—especially after the things that cad Ormsby insinuated."
"But how about your own trouble, darling? Why must you have a thousand dollars?"
"Well, it's an awful matter. You see, I have rather a big bill with a dressmaker, and I wanted some more new frocks for the Ocklebournes' parties. She has refused to give me any more credit without security, so I left some jewelry with her—old-fashioned stuff that I never wear."
"But, my darling, that was practically raising money on heirlooms. Your father distinctly warned you that the jewels were only lent. They are his, not yours."
"John, how can you side with father in that way? They are mine, of course they are. I'm not pawning them. They are just security, that's all."
"It is the same thing, dear one. You certainly ought to get them back."
"It isn't a question of getting them back, John. The woman threatens to sell them, unless I can let her have a thousand dollars."
"Such a sum is out of the question. You must persuade the woman to wait."
"That is why I was going up to town to-day. But my debt far exceeds that sum."
"By how much?"
The rector rarely demanded any details of his wife's money-affairs, or troubled how she spent her private income. But the time for ceremony was past. There was a haggard perplexity in his look, and an expression of fear in his eyes.
"Nearly two thousand, John."
"For dresses—only dresses?"
With a sigh, the rector dropped into his chair. After a moment's despondency, he commenced to make calculations on his blotting-pad, while Mary stood looking out of the window, crying a little and shaping a new resolve. It was useless to go to her dressmaker with empty hands, and the everlasting cry for money could only be silenced by the one person who held it all—her father.
Once more, rage against him surged up in her heart, and she relieved her pent-up feelings in the usual way.
"Oh, it is shameful, shameful! Father is to blame—father! He's driving us to ruin. There's nothing too bad one can say about him. He deserves to be robbed of his miserly hoard."
"Hush, hush, dearest," murmured the rector; "your father's money is his own, not ours. If he were to find out that you had pledged your jewels, there's no knowing what he might not do."
"Do! What could he do?" she replied, with a mirthless laugh. "A man can't prosecute his own child."
"Some men can, and do. Your father is just the sort to outrage all family sentiment, and defy public opinion."
"You don't think that!" she cried, turning around on him very suddenly, with a terrified look in her eyes.
They were interrupted by a tap at the door.
"A gentleman to see you, sir; at least, sir, to see Mr. Dick." The manservant's manner was halting and embarrassed.
"What does he want with Mr. Dick?"
"Well, sir, he says—"
"Well, what does he say?"
The man looked at his master and mistress hesitatingly, as though he would rather not speak. "He says, sir—"
"That he has come to arrest him—but he would like to see you first."
"There must be some mistake. Send him in."
A thick-set, burly, bearded man entered, hat in hand, bowed curtly to the rector, and endeavored to bow more ceremoniously to Mrs. Swinton, who stood glaring at him in fear.
"Why have you come?" asked the rector.
"Well, there's a warrant. It has been reported he was going to skip."
"Why have you come so soon? I only received Wise's letter this morning."
"It was sent the day before yesterday."
The rector picked up the letter, and found that it was dated two days ago.
"There was evidently a delay in transmission. What are we to do?" asked the clergyman, turning to his wife despairingly.
She stood white and irresolute. It was a most humiliating moment. She longed to call her manservant to turn the fellow out of doors, but she dared not.
"My instructions were to give reasonable time, and not to proceed with the arrest if there was any possibility of the money being forthcoming, or a part of it, not less than two hundred and fifty—cash."
"Can you wait till this evening?" pleaded the rector, hopelessly, "while I see what can be done. You've taken me at a disadvantage. My son is not here now. He won't be back till after midday."
"If there is any likelihood of your being able to do anything by evening, of course—"
"He'll wait. He must wait," cried Mrs. Swinton, taking up her muff. "I'll have to see father about it."
"You must wait till this evening, my man."
"All right, then. Until six o'clock?"
"Very well, six o'clock," the man agreed, and withdrew.
"I can't bear to think of your going to your father again, Mary," sighed the rector, bitterly. "Dick has been a shocking muddler in his affairs—as bad as his father, without his father's excuse. God knows, I've been too busy with parish affairs to attend properly to my own, whereas he—"
"He is young, John," pleaded the indulgent mother, "and ought to be in receipt of a handsome allowance from his grandfather. He has only been spending what really should be his."
"Sophistry, my darling, sophistry!"
"At any rate, I'm going up to my father to get money from him, by hook or by crook. We must have it, or we are irretrievably ruined."
A KINSHIP SOMETHING LESS THAN KIND
"Pull the blinds higher and raise my pillows, do you hear, woman? I want to see what that lazy scamp of a husband of yours is about—loafing for a certainty, if he thinks no one can see him."
Herresford addressed his housekeeper, the wife of Ripon, the head-gardener. Mrs. Ripon bit her lip as she tugged at the blind cords savagely, and gave her master a defiant look, which he was quick to see. It apparently amused him, for he smiled grimly.
"Oh, yes, yes, I know what you want to say," he snarled: "that I grind you all down, and treat you as slaves. That, my good woman, is where you make a mistake. Yet, you are slaves—slaves, do you hear? And I intend to see that you don't rob me, for to waste the time that I pay for is to rob me."
"Well, sir, if we don't suit you, we can go."
"My good woman, you'd have gone long ago, if it hadn't suited my convenience to retain you. Ripon is a good gardener; you are a good housekeeper. You both know the value of money. We happen to suit each other. Your husband has more sense than you. He does the work of two men, and he's paid for it. If the positions were reversed, he would be quite as hard a master as I; that's why I like him. He gets quite as much out of those under his control as I get out of him—only he doesn't pay 'em double."
The old man looked like a wizened monkey as he screwed up his eyes and chuckled. He was in a good temper this morning—good for him—and he looked well pleased as his eye traveled slowly over the wonderful expanse of garden which lay spread out like a fairy panorama below his window.
"Give me those field-glasses," he commanded sharply, "and then you can get about your business. Those maids downstairs will be wasting their time while you're up here."
"What will you take for luncheon to-day, sir?"
"Woman, I left enough chicken yesterday to feed a family. The chicken curried, and don't forget the chutney." Then, after a mumbling interval, "and, if anybody calls, I won't see 'em—except Notley, who comes at eleven. And, when he comes, send him up at once—no kitchen gossip! I don't pay lawyers to come here and amuse kitchen wenches. Why don't you speak, eh? W-what?"
"Because I've nothing to say, sir."
"That's right, that's right. Now that you've left off 'speaking your mind,' as you used to call it, you're becoming quite docile and useful. Perhaps, I'll give Ripon another fifty dollars a year. I'm not a hard man, you know, when people understand that I stand no nonsense. But I always have my own way. No one can get over me. You and I understand each other, Mrs. Ripon, eh? Yet, I doubt if you'd have remained so long, if Ripon hadn't married you. He's made a sensible woman of you. Tell him I'm going to give him an extra fifty dollars a year, but—but he must do with a hand less in the gardens."
"Yes. It'll pay, won't it, to get fifty dollars a year more, and save me two hundred on the outdoor staff, eh?"
The woman made no answer, but crossed the room softly, and closed the door. When she was on the other side of it, she shook her fist at him.
"You old wretch! If I had my way, I'd smother you. You spoil your own life, and you're spoiling my man. He won't be fit to live with soon."
The sunlight streamed into the bedroom, and Herresford, drawing the curtains of his ebony bedstead, lay blinking in their shadow, looking out over his garden, and noting every beauty with the keen pleasure of an ardent lover of horticulture—his only hobby. As advancing age laid its finger more heavily upon him, he had become increasingly irritable and impossible. Every human instinct seemed to have shriveled up and died—all save the love of money and his passion for flowers. His withered old lips almost smiled as he moved the field-glasses slowly, bringing into range the magnificent stretch of soft turf, with its patchwork of vivid color.
The face of the old man on the bed changed as he clutched the field-glasses and brought them in nervous haste to his eyes, and a muttered oath escaped him. A woman had come through one of the archways in the hedge that surrounded the herb garden. She walked slowly, every now and then breaking off a flower. As she tugged at a trail of late roses, sending their petals in a crimson stream upon the turf, Herresford dragged himself higher upon the pillows, his lips working in anger, and his fingers clawing irritably at the coverlet.
"Leave them alone, leave them alone!" he cried. "How dare she touch my flowers! I'll have her shut out of the place, daughter or no daughter. What does she want here? Begging again, I suppose. The only bond between us—money. And she sha'n't have any. I'll be firm about it."
He was still muttering when Mrs. Swinton came into the room, bringing with her the sheaf of blossoms she had gathered as she came along.
"Who gave you permission to pick my flowers?" the old man snarled, taking no notice of her greeting. "I allow no one to rob my garden. You are not to take those flowers home with you—do you understand? They belong to me."
The daughter did not reply. She walked across the room very slowly, and rang the bell, waiting until a maid appeared.
"Take these flowers to Mrs. Ripon, and tell her to have them arranged and brought to Mr. Herresford's room. And now," she added, as the girl closed the door behind her, "we must have a little talk, my dear father. I want some money—in brief, I must have some. Dick is going, and his kit must be got ready at once. I must have a thousand dollars."
"Must, must, must! I don't know the meaning of the word. You come here dunning me for money as though I were made of it. Do you know what you and your husband have cost me? I tell you I have no money for you, and I won't be intruded upon in this way. Your visits are an annoyance, madam, and they'd better cease."
"Yes, I know, I know. And I should not have come here to-day unless our need had been great. My dear father, you simply must come to my aid. We haven't a hundred dollars, and Dick's honor is pledged. He must go to the war, and he must have the money to go with. If I could go to anybody else and borrow it, I would; but there is no one. If you will let me have a check for the amount, I will promise that you hear nothing more of me—as long as you like. Come, father, shall I write out a check? You played a jest with me the other day, and only gave me two dollars."
Herresford lay with his eyes closed and his lips tightly pressed together. He hated these encounters with his daughter, for she generally succeeded in getting something out of him; but he was determined she should have nothing this morning. He took refuge in silence, his only effectual weapon so far as Mrs. Swinton was concerned.
"Well?" she queried, after waiting for some minutes, and turning from the window toward the bed. "Well?" she repeated. "If it's going to be a waiting game, we can both play it. I sha'n't leave this room until you sign Dick's check, and you know quite well that I go through with a thing when my mind is made up. It's perfectly disgusting to have to insist like this, but you see, father, it's the only way."
She had spoken very quickly, yet very deliberately. She walked over to a table which stood in one of the windows, carefully selected a volume, and, drawing a chair to the side of her father's bed, sat down.
Herresford had watched her from under his screwed-up eyelids, and, as she commenced to read, he sighed irritably.
"If you'll come back this evening," he whined, after a long pause, "I'll see what I can do. I'm expecting Notley, my lawyer, this morning, and I don't want to be worried. I've a lot of figures to go through. Now, run away, Mary, and I'll think it over."
"My dear father, why waste your time and mine? I told you I should not go from this room until I had the money, and I mean it—quite mean it," she added, very quietly.
"It's disgraceful that you should treat me in this way. I'll give orders that you are not to be admitted again, unless by my express instructions. What was the amount you mentioned? Five hundred dollars? Do you realize what five hundred dollars really is?"
"Five hundred is next to useless. It is disgracefully little for an outfit and general expenses of your grandson."
"The boy is a scamp; an idle, horse-racing young vagabond—a thief, too. Have you forgotten that horse he stole? I haven't."
"Rubbish, father. The horse belonged to Dick. You gave it to him, and it was his to sell. But we're wasting time. Shall I write the check? Ah! here's the book," and Mrs. Swinton drew it toward her as she seated herself at the desk.
She knew his ways so well that in his increasing petulance she saw the coming surrender.
"I am going to draw a check for a thousand, father," she said with assumed indifference, and took up a pen as though the matter were settled.
"A thousand!—no, five hundred—no, it's too much. Five hundred dollars for a couple of suits of khaki? Preposterous! Fifty would be too much."
"Well, the very lowest is fifty, father," she remarked, with a sudden abandonment of irritation, and a new light in her fine eyes.
"Ah! that's more like it."
"Then, I'll make it fifty."
"Fifty!—no, I never said fifty. I said five—too much," and his fingers began to claw upon the coverlet, while his lips and tongue worked as with a palsy. "Fifty dollars! Do you want to ruin me? Make it five, and I'll sign it at once. That's more than I gave you last time."
She had commenced the check. The date was filled in, and the name of her son as the payee.
"Five, madam—not a penny more. Five!"
The inspiration vibrated in her brain. Why not repeat the successful forgery? He would miss five thousand as little as five.
She wrote "five," in letters, and lower down filled in the numeral, putting it very near the dollar-sign.
"Father, you are driving me to desperation. It's your fault if—"
"Give me the pen—give me the pen," he snarled. "If you keep me waiting too long, I shall change my mind."
She brought the blotting-pad and pen, and he scrawled his signature, scarcely looking at the check. She drew it away from him swiftly—for she had known him to tear up a check in a last access of covetous greed.
Five thousand dollars!
The same process of alteration as before was adopted. This time there was no flaw or suspicious spluttering.
The reckless woman, emboldened by her first success, plunged wildly on the second opportunity. The devil's work was better done; but, unfortunately, she made the alteration, as before, with the rectory ink, which was of excellent quality, and in a few hours darkened to an entirely different tint. The color of the writing was uniform at first; but to-morrow there would be a difference.
She was running a great risk; but she saw before her peace and prosperity, her husband's debts paid, her own dressmaker's bills for the past two years wiped out, and Dick saved from arrest.
This would still leave a small balance in hand.
And they would economize in the future.
Vain resolves! The spendthrift is always the thriftiest person in intention. The rector had understated when he declared their deficit. Only the most persistent creditors were appeased. But their good fortune—for they considered it such—had become known to every creditor as if by magic. Bills came pouring in. If the aggressive builder of the new Mission Hall could get his money, why not the baker, the butcher, the tailor? The study table was positively white with the shower of "accounts rendered"—polite demands and abusive threats.
The rector had innocently and gratefully accepted the story of the gift of two thousand dollars, without question or surprise. His wonderful, beautiful wife always dragged him out of difficulties. He had ceased to do more than bless and thank her. He was glad of the respite, and had already begun to build castles in the air, and formulate a wonderful scheme for alleviating distress by advancing urgently needed money, to be refunded to him out of the proceeds of bazaars and concerts and public subscriptions later on.
The poor, too, seemed to have discovered that the rector was paying away money, and the most miserable, tattered, whining specimens of humanity rang his door-bell. They had piteous tales to tell of children dying for want of proper nourishment, of wives lying unburied for lack of funds to pay the undertaker.
* * * * *
Dick returned, ignorant of his danger of arrest, and almost at the moment when his mother had accomplished her second forgery.
"Well, mother what luck with grandfather?" he cried anxiously, as he strode into the study. "I hear you've been up to the Hall. You are a brick to beard the old lion as you do."
"Yes, I've been lucky this time. I've screwed out some more for all of us—quite a large sum this time. I put forward unanswerable arguments—the expense of your outfit—our responsibilities—our debts, and all sorts of things, and then got your grandfather to include everything in one check. It's for five thousand."
She dropped her eyes nervously, and heard him catch his breath.
"Not all for you, Dick," she hastened to add, "though your debts must be paid. There was a man here this morning to arrest you. At least, that was what he threatened; but they don't do such things, do they?"
"Yes. It was an awful blow to your father."
"Arrest!" he groaned. "I feared it. But you've got five thousand. It'll save us all!"
"The check isn't cashed yet. Here it is."
He seized the little slip eagerly, his eyes glistening. It was his respite, and might mean the end of all their troubles.
"I really must pay all my smaller debts, mother," said Dick, as he looked down at the forged check. "You don't know what a mean hound I've felt in not being able to pay the smaller tradesmen, for they are more decent than the bigger people. Five thousand! Only think of it. What a brick the old man is, after all."
"How much do your debts amount to, Dick?" asked Mrs. Swinton, in some trepidation.
"I hardly know; but the ones which must be paid before I go will amount to a good many hundreds, I fear."
"Oh, Dick! I'm sorry, but need all be paid now? You see, the money is badly wanted for other things."
"Well, mother, I might not come back. I might be killed. And I'd like to feel that I'd left all straight at home."
"Don't, Dick, don't!" she sobbed, rising and flinging her arms about him.
She was much overwrought, and her tears fell fast. Dick embraced his beautiful mother, and kissed her with an affection that was almost lover-like.
"Mother, I really must pay up everyone before I go. You see, some of them look upon it as their last chance. They think that, if I once get out of the country, I shall never come back."
"But I was hoping to help your father. He's getting quite white with worry. Have you noticed how he has aged lately?"
"I don't wonder at it, mother. Look at the way he works, writing half the night, tearing all over the town during the day, doing the work of six men. If you could manage another fifteen hundred for me, mother, I could go away happy. Don't cry. You see, if I shouldn't come back—you've got Netty."
"What! Haven't you heard?" she asked. "Don't you know that Netty is going to leave us? Harry Bent proposed yesterday afternoon at the Ocklebournes'. He's going away, too—and you may neither of you come back."
"Hush, hush, mother! We're all leaving somebody behind, and we can't all come back. Don't let us talk of it. I'll run over and pay the check into my account, and then draw a little for everybody—something on account to keep them quiet."
He looked at it—the check—lovingly, and sighed with satisfaction.
"Since grandfather has turned up trumps, mother," Dick suggested, "it would only be decent of me to go up and thank him, wouldn't it? I've got to go up and say good-bye, anyway."
"No, Dick don't go," cried the guilty woman, nervously.
"But I must, mother. It won't do to give him any further excuses for fault-finding."
"If you go, say nothing about the money."
"Just to please me, Dick. Thank him for the money he has given you, and say nothing about the amount. Don't remind him. He might relent, and—and stop the check or something of that sort."
"All right, mother." And Dick went off to the bank with the check, feeling that the world was a much-improved place.
On his return, he took a train to Asherton Hall, in order that he might thank his grandfather. There was no one about when he arrived, and he strode indoors, unannounced. As he reached the bedroom door, Mrs. Ripon was coming out, red in the face and spluttering with rage, arguing with Trimmer, the valet; and the old man's voice could be heard, raised to a high treble, querulously storming over the usual domestic trifles.
Dick stepped into the strange room, and saluted his relative.
"Good-afternoon, grandfather. I've called to see you to say good-bye," he said, cheerily.
"I don't want to see you, sir," snapped the old man, raising himself on his hands, and positively spitting the words out. His previous fit of anger flowed into the present interview like a stream temporarily dammed and released.
"I am going away to the war, grandfather, and I may never return."
"And a good job, too, sir—a good job, too."
Dick's teeth were hard set. The insult had to be endured.
"Don't come asking me for money, sir, because you won't get it."
"No, grandfather, I have enough, thank you. Your generosity has touched me, after your close-fis—your talks about economy, I mean."
"Generosity—eh?" snarled the spluttering old man. "No sarcasm, if you please. You insolent rascal!" He positively clawed the air, and his eyes gleamed. "I'll teach you your duty to your elders, sir. I've signed two checks for you. Do you think I'm going to be bled to death like a pig with its wizen slit?"
"I want no more money," cried the young man, hotly. "You know that perfectly well, grandfather."
"That's good news, then."
The old man subsided and collapsed into his pillows.
"I merely came to thank you, and to shake you by the hand. I am answering a patriotic call; and, if I fall in the war, you'll have no heir but my mother."
"Don't flatter yourself that you're my heir, sir. I'll have you know you're not, sir. No delusions. You need expect nothing from me."
Dick gave a despairing sigh, and turned away.
"Well, then, good-bye, grandfather. If I get shot—"
"Go and get shot, sir—and be damned to you!" cried the old man.
"You are in a bad temper, grandfather. I've said my adieu. You have always misunderstood and abused me. Good-bye. I'll offend you no longer."
The young man stalked out haughtily, and old Herresford collapsed again; but he tried to rally. His strength failed him. He leaned over the side of his bed, gasping from his outburst, and called faintly:
"Dick! Dick! I'm an old man. I never mean what I say. I'll pay—"
The last words were choked with a sigh, and he lay back, breathing heavily.
"Go and get shot!"
The old man's words rang in Dick's ears as he rode away.
Well, perhaps he would be. His eyes traveled over the undulating glens of Asherton Park, where beeches and chestnuts in picturesque clumps intersected the rolling grass land, and wondered if this were the last time he would look upon the place. He wondered what Dora would be doing this time next year—if he were shot.
Well, it would be easier to face a rain of bullets than to step into the train that was to carry him away from Dora. To-day, they were to meet and part. To-morrow, he started.
At once, on returning to town, Dick hastened to the Mall in Central Park, where he was to meet Dora again, by appointment. There, the elms in the avenue were still a blaze of gold, that shimmered in the afternoon sunlight.
Dora set out from home equipped for walking in a white Empire coat with a deep ermine collar, a granny muff to match, and a little white hat with a tall aigrette. Her skirt was short, and her neat little feet were encased in high-heeled boots, that clicked on the gravel path as she hurried toward the Mall. She looked her best, and she knew it. She wanted Dick to take away an impression vivid and favorable, something to look back upon and remember with pleasure. She was no puling, sentimental girl to hang about his neck, and crush roses into his hand. The tears were in her heart; the roses in her cheeks. Warm kisses from her ruddy lips would linger longer than the perfume of the sweetest flowers. She had wept a great deal—but in secret—and careful bathing and a dusting of powder had removed all traces. As she proceeded down the avenue, her faultless, white teeth many times bit upon the under lip, which trembled provokingly; and the shiver of the golden elms in the Park beside her certainly was not responsible for the extreme haziness of her vision. It was her firm intention not to think of Dick going into the death zone. This might be their last interview; but she would not allow such an idea to intrude. It was a parting for a few months at most.
She turned into the Park and, after walking for a minute, caught sight of Dick, moodily awaiting her. She gave a great gulp, and pressed her muff to her mouth to avoid crying out. Oh, the horrid, shooting pain in her breast, and the stinging in her eyes! The tree trunks began to waver, and the ground was as cotton-wool beneath her feet. Tears?—absurd! A soldier's daughter send her lover to the front with hysterical sobs? Never!
She controlled herself, and approached him quite close before he saw her, so absorbed was he in meditation.
"Dora!" he cried.
He opened his arms, and she dropped into them, sobbing shockingly (like any civilian's daughter), and shedding floods of tears. He held her to his heart without a word, till the wild throbbing of her bosom died down into a little flutter. Then, she smiled up at him, like the sun shining through the rain.
"I didn't mean to cry, Dick."
"Nor I," he replied huskily, looking down upon her with tears almost falling from his long-lashed, tender eyes. "I knew it would be hard to go. Love is like a fever, and makes one faint and weak. Oh! why did I let a little silly pride stand in the way of my happiness? Why did I promise to fight in a cause I disapprove? War always was, and always will be with me, an abomination. I don't know why I ever joined the wretched militia. Yes, I do—I joined for fun—without thinking—because others did. They had a good time, and wanted me to share it."
"Dick, that is not the mind of a soldier."
"Well, it's my mind, anyway. You see, you've been born and bred in the atmosphere of this sort of thing. I was reared in a rectory, where we were taught to love our enemies, and turn to the smiter the other cheek. I used to regard that as awful rot, too. But I see now that training tells, in spite of yourself."
"But you'll go now, and fight for your country and—for me. You'll come back covered with glory, I know you will."
"Perhaps—and maybe I sha'n't come back at all."
"Then, I shall mourn my hero as a noble patriot, who never showed the white feather."
"Oh, it isn't courage that I lack. Give me a good fight, and I'm in it like anybody else. It's the idea of carnage, and gaping wounds, and men shrieking in agony, gouging one another's eyes out, and biting like wild-cats, with cold steel in their vitals—all over a quarrel in which they have no part."
"Every man is a part of his nation, and the nation's quarrel is his own."
"We won't argue it, darling. It's settled now, and I'm going through with it. I start to-morrow. You'll write to me often?"
"If you don't often get replies you'll know it's the fault of the army postal service—and perhaps my hatred of writing letters as well."
"You certainly are a very bad letter-writer, Dick," she protested, with a laugh. "I've only had two notes from you, but those are very precious—precious as though written on leaves of gold."
"You are sure, Dora, that you're not sorry you engaged yourself to a useless person like me?"
"You shall not abuse yourself in that way!"
"You are quite sure?" he repeated.
"Quite sure, my hero."
"And you never cared for that cad, Ormsby? not one little bit?"
"No. Not one little bit."
"It's a confounded nuisance, his being laid up in your house. But he won't go to the front. That's one comfort. He was so stuck-up about it! To hear him talk, you would have thought he was going to run the whole war. Why don't they send him home, instead of letting you have all the bother of an invalid in your house?"
"Oh, it's no bother. We have two trained nurses there, who take night and day duty. I only relieve them occasionally."
Dick grunted contemptuously.
"You'll send him away as soon as he gets well, won't you?"
"As soon as he is able to move, of course; but that rests with father. You know how he loves to have someone to talk with about the war."
"I've got a bone to pick with Ormsby when I come back. Do you know what the cad said about me at the dinner?"
"It was after I struck him in the face and went away—after the gathering broke up. He was naturally very sore and sick about the way he'd behaved, and the others told him it was caddish; but he said he knew a thing or two about the money affairs of my family, and mine in particular, and he wouldn't be surprised to see me in jail one of these fine days."
"The scoundrel went so far as to hint darkly that I almost owed my liberty to him—as much as to say that, if he chose to speak, I'd have to do a term in the penitentiary."
"Oh, nonsense! It was just an angry man's idle threat. He is the very essence of conceit and stubborn pride, and was probably smarting under the indignity of the blow you gave him."
"I wish I'd made it half-a-dozen instead of one." Then, with sudden tenderness: "Promise me, darling, that you'll never listen to tales and abuse about me, no matter how plausible they may seem. I know I've been going the pace; but I'm going to pull up, for I've come into a fortune now more precious than my grandfather's money-bags. I've won the dearest, sweetest, truest, bravest little girl, and I mean to be worthy of her."
"I'll listen to no one and believe nothing, unless it comes from your dear lips." The girl's voice was very earnest as she made the promise.
Brave words! How easy to have faith, and swear before high heaven when strong arms are clasped about a yielding form, and eyes look into eyes seeking depths deeper than wells fashioned by the hands of men.
They strolled side by side, and exchanged vows, till twilight fell and the cold shadows darkened all the earth about them, and struck a chill to the girl's heart. She clung to her lover, broken-hearted. Gone was the Spartan self-possession, the patriotic self-denial that was ready to offer up the love of a lifetime on the red altar of Mars. As he pressed his lips to her cheek and his hard breathing sounded in her ears, she seemed to hear the roaring of cannon, the clatter of hoofs, the rumble of artillery over bloodstained turf, the cries of men calling to one another in blind anger, shouting, cursing, moaning, and Dick wailing aloud in agony. She recovered herself with a start as a clock in the distance struck the hour, and reminded both of the flight of time.
At last, it was good-bye. The very end, the dreadful wrench—the absolute adieu!
A TIRESOME PATIENT