[Frontispiece: "Spring," she answered. "Just spring" (missing from book)]
THE SEVENTH NOON
FREDERICK ORIN BARTLETT
Author of "The Web of the Golden Spider", "Joan of the Alley," etc.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
SMALL, MAYNARD AND COMPANY
By Small, Maynard & Company
Entered at Stationers' Hall
Two editions before publication, January, 1910
K. P. B. and K. J. B.
I THE BLACK DOG II KING OF TO-DAY III THE BEGINNING OF THE END IV KISMET V THE INNER WOODS VI THE SHADOW ON THE PORTRAITS VII THE ARSDALES VIII THE MAN WHO KNEW IX DAWN X OUTSIDE THE HEDGE XI A PARTING AND A MEETING XII DISTRICT MESSENGER 3457 XIII THE SLEEPERS XIV CONSEQUENCES XV THE DERELICT XVI THE FOURTH DAY XVII AN INTERLUDE XVIII THE MAKING OF A MAN XIX A MIRACLE XX A LONG NIGHT XXI FACING THE SUN XXII CLOUDS XXIII WHEN THE DEAD AWAKE XXIV THE GREATER MASTER XXV THE SHADOW ON THE FLOOR XXVI ON THE BRINK XXVII THE END OF THE BEGINNING XXVIII THE SEVENTH NOON
"Spring," she answered. "Just spring" . . . Frontispiece
"What, you, Miss Arsdale?"
As he studied her it seemed certain that she was by no means enjoying herself in her present company
Facing her he faced the pendulum which ticked out to him the cost of each new picture he had of her
He lowered the rails, and Miss Arsdale led the way
"The kid," he announced laconically. "What yuh think of him?"
At noon! At the seventh noon, the whistle was to blow!
The Seventh Noon
The Black Dog
"The right to die?"
Professor Barstow, with a perplexed scowl ruffling the barbette of gray hairs above his keen eyes, shook his head and turning from the young man whose long legs extended over the end of the lean sofa upon which he sprawled in one corner of the laboratory, held the test-tube, which he had been studying abstractedly, up to the light. The flickering gas was not good for delicate work, and it was only lately that Barstow, spurred on by a glimpse of the end to a long series of experiments, had attempted anything after dark. He squinted thoughtfully at the yellow fluid in the tube and then, resuming his discussion, declared emphatically,
"We have no such right, Peter! You 're wrong. I don't know where, because you put it too cleverly for me. But I know you 're dead wrong—even if your confounded old theories are right, even if your deductions are sound. You 're wrong where you bring up."
"Man dear," answered the other gently, "you are too good a scientist to reason so. That is purely feminine logic."
"I am too good a scientist to believe that anything so complex as human life was meant to be wasted in a scheme where not so much as an atom is lost. Bah, your liver is asleep! Too much work—too much work! The black dog has pounced upon your shoulders!"
"I never had an attack of the blues or anything similar in my life, Barstow," Donaldson denied quietly. "You 'll propose smelling salts next."
"Then what the devil does ail you?"
"Nothing ails me. Can't a man have a few theories without the aid of liver complaint?"
"Not that kind. They don't go with a sound constitution. When a man begins to talk of finding no use for life, he 's either a coward or sick. And—I know you 're not a coward, Peter."
The man on the couch turned uneasily.
"Nor sick either. You are as stubborn and narrow as an old woman, Barstow," he complained.
"Living is n't a matter of courage, physical or moral. It suits you—it doesn't happen to suit me, but that doesn't mean that you are well and moral while I 'm sick and a coward. My difficulty is simple—clear; I haven't the material means to get out of life what I want. I 'll admit that I might get it by working longer, but I should have to work so many years in my own way that there would n't in the end be enough of me left to enjoy the reward. Now, if I don't like that proposition, who the devil is to criticize me for not accepting it?"
"It's quitting not to stay."
"It would be if we elected to come. We don't. Moreover, my case is simplified by circumstances—no one is dependent upon me either directly or indirectly. I have no relatives—few friends. These, like you, would call me names for a minute after I 'd gone and then forget."
"You 're talking beautiful nonsense," observed Barstow.
"Damn your barbaric pessimists and all their hungry tribe!"
Donaldson smiled a trifle condescendingly.
"What's the use of talking to you when you 'll not admit a sound deduction? And yet, if I said you don't know what results when you put together two known chemicals, you 'd—"
There was a look in Barstow's face that checked Donaldson,—a look of worried recollection.
"I 'd say nothing," he asserted earnestly, "because I don't always know."
For a moment his fingers fluttered over the medley of bottles upon the shelves before him. They paused over a small vial containing a brilliant scarlet liquid. He picked it out and held it to the light.
"See this?" he asked.
Donaldson nodded indifferently.
"It is a case in point. Theoretically I should have here the innocuous union of three harmless chemicals; as a matter of fact I had occasion to experiment with it and learned that I had innocently produced a vicious and unheard-of poison. The stuff is of no use. It is one of those things a man occasionally stumbles upon in this work,—better forgotten. How do I account for it? I don't. Even in science there is always the unknown element which comes in and plays the devil with results."
"But according to your no-waste theory, even this discovery ought to have some use," commented Donaldson with a smile.
"Well," drawled the chemist whimsically, "perhaps it has; it makes murder very simple for the laity."
Barstow turned back to his test-tube, relieved that the conversation had taken another turn.
"Because of the slowness with which it works. It requires seven days for the system to assimilate it and yet the stomach stubbornly retains it all this while. It is impossible to eliminate it from the body once it is swallowed. It produces no symptoms and leaves no evidence. There is no antidote. In the end it paralyzes the heart—swiftly, silently, surely."
Donaldson sat up.
"Any pain?" he inquired.
Barstow ran his finger over a calendar on the wall. Then he glanced at his watch.
"Stay a little while longer and you can see for yourself how it works. I am making a final demonstration of its properties."
Barstow stepped into the next room. He was gone five minutes and returned with a scrawny bull terrier scrambling at his heels. The little brute, overjoyed at his release, frisked across the floor, clumsily tumbling over his own feet, and sniffed as an overture of friendship at Donaldson's low shoes. Then wagging his feeble tail he lifted his head and patiently blinked moist eyes awaiting a verdict. The young man stooped and scratched behind its ears, the dog holding his head sideways and pressing against his ankles. He looked like a dog of the streets, but in his eyes there was the dumb appreciation of human sympathy which neutralizes breeding and blood. As Barstow returned to his work, the pup followed after him in a series of awkward bounds.
"Poor little pup," murmured Donaldson, sympathetically leaning forward with his arms upon his knees. "What's his name?"
"Sandy. But he 's a lucky little pup according to you; within an hour by the clock he ought to be dead."
"If my poison works. It was seven days ago to-night that I gave him a dose."
Donaldson's brows contracted. He was big-hearted. This seemed a cruel thing to do. He whistled to the pup and called him by name, "Sandy, Sandy." But the dog only wagged his tail in response and snuggled with brute confidence closer to his master. Donaldson snapped his fingers coaxingly, leaning far over towards him. Reluctantly, at a nod from Barstow, the dog crept belly to the ground across the room. Donaldson picked up the trembling terrier and settling him into his lap passed his hand thoughtfully over the warm smooth sides where he could feel the heart pounding sturdily.
From the dog, Donaldson lifted his eyes to Barstow's back. They were dark brown eyes, set deep below a square forehead. His head, too, was square and drooped a bit between loose shoulders. He smiled to himself at some passing thought and the smile cast a pleasant softness over features which at rest appeared rather angular and decidedly intense. The mouth was large and the irregular teeth were white as a hound's. His black hair was cut short and at the temples was turning gray, although he had not yet reached thirty. It was an eager face, a strong face. It hardened to granite over life in the abstract and softened to the feminine before concrete examples of it.
"It is a bit of a paradox," he resumed, "that so harmless a creature as you, Barstow, should stumble upon so deadly an agent. What do you call it?"
"I have n't reported it yet. I don't know as I care to have my name coupled with it in these days of newspaper notoriety—even though it may be my one bid for fame."
Donaldson drew a package of Durham from his pocket and fumbled around until he found a loose paper. He deftly rolled a cigarette, his long fingers moving with the dexterity of a pianist. He smoked a moment in silence, exhaling the smoke thoughtfully with his eyes towards the ceiling. The dog, his neck outstretched on Donaldson's knee, blinked sleepily across the room at his master. The gas, blown about by drafts from the open window, threw grotesque dancing shadows upon the stained, worn boards of the floor. Finally Donaldson burst out, ever recurring to the one subject like a man anxious to defend himself,
"Barstow, I tell you that merely to cling to existence is not an act in itself either righteous or courageous. If we owe obligations to individuals we should pay them to the last cent. If we owe obligations to society, we should pay those, too,—just as we pay our poll tax. But life is a straight business proposition—pay in some form for what you get out of it. There are no individuals in my life, as I said. And what do I owe society? Society does not like what I offer—the best of me—and will not give me what I want—the best of it. Very well, to the devil with society. Our mutual obligations are cancelled."
Barstow, still busy with his work, shook his head.
"You come out wrong every time," he insisted. "You don't seem to get at the opportunities there are in just living."
The young man took a long breath.
"So?" he demanded between half closed teeth. "No?" he challenged with bitter intensity. "You are wrong; I know all that it is possible for life to mean! That's the trouble. Oh, I know clear to my parched soul! I was made to live, Barstow,—made to live life to its fullest! There isn't a bit of it I don't love,—love too well to be content much longer to play the galley slave in it. To live is to be free. I love the blue sky above until I ache to madness that I cannot live under it; I love the trees and grasses, the oceans, the forests and the denizens of the forests; I love men and women; I love the press of crowds, the clamor of men; I love silks and beautiful paintings and clean white linen and flowers; I love good food, good clothes, good wine, good music, good sermons, and good books. All—all it is within me to love and to desire mightily. How I want those things—not morbidly—but because I have five good senses and God knows how many more; because I was made to have those things!"
"Then why don't you keep after them?" demanded Barstow coldly.
"Because the price of them is so much of my soul and body that I 'd have nothing left with which to enjoy them afterwards. You can't get those things honestly in time to enjoy them, in one generation. You can't get them at all, unless you sell the best part of you as you did when you came to the Gordon Chemical Company. Oh Lord, Barstow, how came you to forget all the dreams we used to dream?"
Barstow turned quickly. There was the look upon his face as of a man who presses back a little. For a moment he appeared pained. But he answered steadily,
"I have other dreams now, saner dreams."
"Saner dreams? What are your saner dreams but less troublesome dreams,—lazier dreams? Dreams that fit into things as they are instead of demanding things as they should be? You sleep o' nights now; you sleep snugly, you tread safely about the cage they trapped you into."
"Then let me alone there. Don't—don't poke me up."
Donaldson snapped away his cigarette.
"No. Why should I? But I 'll have none of it. That damned Barnum, 'Society,' shall not catch me and trim my claws and file my teeth."
He laughed to himself, his lips drawn back a little, rubbing behind the pup's ears. The dog moved sleepily.
"Barstow," he continued more calmly, "this is n't a whine. I 'm not discouraged—it is n't that. I 'm not frightened, nor despondent, nor worried, understand. I know that things will come out all right by the time I 'm fifty, but I shall then be fifty. I 'd like a taste of the jungle now—a week or two of roaming free, of sprawling in the sunshine, of drinking at the living river, of rolling under the blue sky. I 'd like to slash around uncurbed outside the pale a little. I 'd like to do it while I 'm young and strong,—I 'd like to do it now."
"In brief," suggested Barstow, "you desire money."
"Enough so that I might forget there was such a thing."
"Well, you 'll have to sell something of yourself to get it."
"Just so. I won't and there you are. You see I don't fit."
Donaldson paused a moment and then went on.
"You know something of my story, you alone of all this grinding city. You saw me in college and in the law school, where on a coolie diet I did a man's work. But even you don't know how close to hard pan I was during those seven years,—down to crackers and water for weeks at a time."
"You don't mean to say you went hungry?"
"Hungry?" laughed Donaldson. "Man dear, there were days when I was starving! I 've been to classes when I was so weak I could n't push my pencil. I was hungry, and cold, and lonesome, but at that time I had my good warm, well-fed dreams, so I did n't mind so much. And always I thought it would be better next year, but it was n't. None of the things that come to some men fell to me; it continued the same old pitiless grind until I began to expect it. Then I said to myself that it would be different when I got through. But it was n't. I finished, and you are the only pleasant recollection I have of all that past. You used to let me sit by your fire and now and then you brought out cake they had sent you from home."
"Good Lord," groaned Barstow, "why did n't you let a fellow know?"
"Why should I let you know? It was my fight. But I 've watched by the hour your every move about the room, so hungry that my pulse increased or decreased as you neared or retreated from the closet where you kept that cake. I 'll admit that this condition was a good deal my fault,—I had a cursed false pride that forbade my doing for grub what some of the fellows did. Then, too, I was an optimist; it was coming out all right in the end. But it did n't and it has n't."
"Am I boring you, old man?"
"No! No! Go on. But if I had suspected—"
"You could not then have been the friend you were to me,—I 'd have cut you dead. And understand, I 'm not recalling this now for the purpose of exciting sympathy. I don't deserve sympathy; I went my own gait and cheerfully paid the cost, content with my dreams of the future. I would n't sell one whit of myself. I wouldn't sacrifice one extravagant belief. I would n't compromise. And I 'm glad I did n't.
"When I finished my course you lost sight of me, but it was the same old thing over again. I refused to accept a position in a law office, because I would n't be fettered. I had certain definite notions of how a law practice ought to be conducted,—of certain things a decent man ought not to do. This in turn barred me from a job offered by a street railway company and another by a promoting syndicate. I took a room and waited. It has been a long wait, Barstow, a bitter long wait. Four barren years have gone. I have been hungry again; I have gone on wearing second-hand clothes; I have slept in second-class surroundings; my life has resembled life about as much as the naked trees in the Fall resemble those in June. I have existed after a fashion and learned that if I skimp and drudge and save for twenty years I can then begin to do the things I wish to do. But not before,—not before without compromise. And I 've had enough of the will o' the wisp Future, enough of the shadowy to-morrows. I 've saved a few hundreds and had a few hundreds left me recently by the last relative I had on earth. I 'd like to take this and squander it—live a space."
"Why don't you?"
"It's the curse of coming back, and the mere fact that your heart continues to tick forces that upon you. There is only one way—one way to dodge the mortgage I would place upon my Future by spending these savings."
"Not to let the heart tick on; to bar the future."
Donaldson moved a bit uneasily. As he did so the pup lost his balance and fell to the floor. The little fellow struck upon his side but instantly regained his feet, blinking sleepily at the light. Barstow took out his watch and squatting nearer him studied him with interest.
Suddenly the dog's legs crumpled beneath him. He tried to stand, to make his way to his master, but instantly toppled over on his side. Donaldson reached for him. That which he lifted was like a limp glove. He drew back from it in horror, glancing up at Barstow.
"You see," exclaimed the chemist with evident satisfaction, "almost to the hour!"
"But he isn't—"
"Poor Sandy! Poor Sandy!"
Donaldson gingerly passed his fingers over the dog's hair. He was curiously unconvinced. There was no responsive lift of the head, no contented wagging of the tail, but that was the only difference. A moment ago the dog had been asleep for an hour; now he was asleep for an eternity. That was the only difference.
"Well," reflected Barstow, "Sandy had his week; beefsteak, bread and milk, all he could eat."
"Is n't that better than being still alive,—hungry in the gutters?"
"God knows," answered Barstow solemnly, as he picked up the body and carried it into the next room. "You see what is left."
As Barstow went out, Donaldson crossed to the chemist's desk. He fumbled nervously among the bottles until he found the little vial Barstow had pointed out. He had just time to thrust this into his pocket and reseat himself before Barstow returned. At the same moment there was a firm but decidedly feminine knock upon the outer door. The chemist seemed to recognize it, for instead of his usual impatient shout he went to the door and opened it. And yet, when the feeble light revealed his visitor he evinced surprise.
"What, you, Miss Arsdale?"
"Yes, Professor," she answered, slightly out of breath. "I thought that if I hurried I might possibly find you here. I am all out of my brother's medicine and I did not dare wait until to-morrow."
"I 'm glad you did n't," he responded heartily. "If you will sit down a moment I will prepare it."
Donaldson glanced up, irritated to think he had not left earlier and so escaped the inevitable introduction. He saw a young woman of perhaps twenty-two or three, and then—the young woman's eyes. They were dark, but not black, a sort of silver black like gun metal. They were, he noted instantly, apparently more mature than the rest of her features, as is sometimes true when the soul grows out of proportion to the years. Her hair was of a reddish brown; brown in the shadows, a golden red as she stood beneath the gas-jet. She was a little below medium height, rather slight, and was dressed in a dark blue pongee suit, the coat of which reached to her ankles. One might expect most anything of her, thought Donaldson, child or woman. It would no more surprise one to see her in tears over a trifle than standing firm in a crisis; bending over a wisp of embroidery, or driving a sixty horse-power automobile. Of one thing Donaldson thought he could be sure; that whatever she did she would do with all her heart.
These and many other fugitive thoughts passed through Donaldson's brain during the few minutes he was left here alone with her. What was said he could not remember a minute afterwards; something of the night, something of the brilliant reflections of the gas-light in the varicolored bottles, something of the approaching summer. Her thoughts seemed to be as far removed from this small room as were his own.
"Your patient is better?" Barstow inquired, when he returned with the package.
Her face lightened instantly.
"Yes," she answered, "much better."
"Good." He added, "I should n't think it safe for you to be out alone at night. Have n't there been a good many highway robberies recently in your neighborhood?"
"You have heard?"
"It would be difficult to listen to the newsboys and not hear that. The last one, a week ago, made the fourth, didn't it?"
"I don't know. I seldom read the papers. They are too horrible."
"I will gladly escort you if—"
"I could n't think of troubling you," she protested, starting at once for the door. "I 'm in the machine, so I 'm quite safe. Good night."
With a nod and smile to both men she went out.
Donaldson himself prepared to go at once.
"Well, old man," he apologized nervously to the chemist, "pardon me for boring you so long. It is bad taste I know for a man to air such views as mine, but it has done me good."
"Take my advice and forget them yourself. Go into the country. Loaf a little in the sunshine. Stay a week. I 'm going off for a while myself."
"Within a few days, possibly. I can't tell."
"Well, s' long and a pleasant trip to you."
Donaldson gripped the older man's hand. The latter gazed at him affectionately, apprehensively.
"See here, Peter," he broke out earnestly. "There is one thing even better for you than the country, a thing that includes the sunshine and everything else worth while in life. I have hesitated about mentioning it, but this girl who was here made me think of it again. You know I 'm not a sentimental man, Peter?"
"Unless you have changed. But your panacea?"
"That's a generic term."
"Just plain human love, love for a woman like this one who was here. I wish you knew her. She 'd be good for you; she 'd give your present self-centred life a broader meaning."
Donaldson turned away.
"Barstow," he replied uneasily, "you 're good,—good clear through, but we move in different worlds. It is n't in me to love as you mean. I 'm too critical, which is to say too selfish."
"I think you are selfish, Peter," Barstow agreed frankly, "but I don't think it's your nature. You 've got into the Slough of Despond, and the only thing that will drag you out of that is love, love of something outside yourself. Try it."
Donaldson shook his head.
"You 're as good as gold," he declared, "but the things which content you and me are not the same. Good night."
"Good night. Be sure to drop in again when I get back."
Donaldson went out the door. He groped his way down the stairs into the street. Once he swung abruptly on his heel and stared at the pavement behind him. He thought he heard at his heels the scratching padded tread of the pup.
King of To-day
Donaldson pressed his way along the lighted streets, clutching the vial in his pocket with the thrill of a man holding the key to fretting shackles. One week of life with the future eliminated; one week with no reckoning to be made at the end; one week with every human fetter struck off; one week in which to ignore every curbing law of futurity and abandon himself to the joy of the present! The future—even the narrow bounds of an earthly future—holds men prisoners. A few careless dogs, to be sure, live their day, blind to the years to come, but that is brute stupidity. A few brave souls swagger through their prime with some bravado, knowing the final cost, but willing to pay it by installments through the dribbling years which follow; but the usury of time makes that folly. The wise choke such gypsy impulses—admit the mortgage of the Present to the Future—and surrender the brisk liberty of youth to the limping freedom of old age. But Donaldson was too thoughtful a man to belong to either the first or second class and yet of too lusty stuff to join the third.
There were now just two doubtful points which checked him in his first impulse to swallow the deadly elixir at once,—two questions needing further thought before he would have a clear conscience about it; he must convince himself a trifle more clearly that he shifted nothing to the load of those he left behind, and he must make sure that no element of fear entered into his act. That phrase of Barstow's, "It's quitting not to stay," smarted a bit.
In spite of these vital problems, Donaldson was keenly conscious, even with his wild freedom still nothing but a conception, of sharpened senses which responded keenly to the lights and sounds about him. This bottle which he held made him feel like some old time king's messenger who carried a warrant making him exempt from local laws. He moved among people whose perplexed thoughts wandered restlessly down the everlasting vista of the days ahead, and he alone of them all knew the secret of being untroubled beyond the week. The world had not for ten years appeared so gay to him. He felt the exhilarating sting of life as he had when it first surged in upon him at twenty. The very fact that he held even a temporary solution to his barren days was enough. In the joy of his almost august scorn of circumstance he forgot the minor difficulties which still lay before him.
He turned aside from the direct course to his room into Broadway. It was the last of May and early evening. The month revealed itself in the warm night sky and the buoyant spirits of those below its velvet richness. Spring was in the air—a stimulation as of etherialized champagne. The spirit of adventure, the spirit of renaissance, the spirit of creation was abroad once more. Not a cranny in even this sprawling section of denaturalized earth but thrilled for the time being with budding hopes, sap-swollen courage, and bright, colorful dreams. Walking beneath the spitting glare of the arc-lights, through the golden mist flooding from the store windows, Donaldson hazily saw again the careless unburdened world of his early youth. He caught the spirit of Broadway and all Broadway means in the spring. It was a marionette world where marionettes dance their gayest. Yesterday this would have been to him nothing but a dead bioscope picture; now, though he still sat an onlooker in the pit, it was a living human drama at which he gazed.
Two dark-haired grisettes passed him, their cheeks aglow and their eyes dancing. They appeared so full of life, so very gay, that he turned to glance back at them. He found the eyes of the prettier one upon him; she had turned to look at him. It was long since even so trifling an intrigue as this had quickened his life.
As a matter of fact Donaldson always attracted more interest in feminine eyes than, in his self engrossment, he was ever aware. Even in his shiny blue serge suit, baggy at the knees and sagging at the shoulders, even in his shabby hat, he carried himself with an air. Two things about his person were always as fine and immaculate as though he were a gentleman of some fortune, his linen and his shoes. But in addition to such slight externals Donaldson, although not a large man, had good shoulders, a well-poised head, and walked with an Indian stride from the hips that made him noticeable among the flat-footed native New Yorkers. He might have been mistaken for an ambitious actor of the younger school; even for a forceful young cleric, save for the fact that he smoked his cigarette with evident satisfaction.
He followed an aimless course—but a course fairly prickling with new sensations—until he stood before one of the popular cafes, now effervescing with sprightly life. He paused here a moment to listen to the music. A group of well-groomed men and women laughingly clambered out of a big touring car and passed in before the obsequious attendants. He watched them with some envy. Music, good food, good wines, laughter, and bright eyes—the flimsiest vanities of life to be sure—and yet there was something in his hungry heart that craved them all. Well, ten years from now perhaps,—his hand fell upon the vial. No. Not ten years from now, but to-morrow, even tomorrow, he might claim these luxuries!
He jumped on a car and in thirty minutes stood in the lean, quiet street into which for three years he had stared from his third floor room. These quarters seemed now more than ever a parody on home. This row of genteel structures which had degenerated into boarding houses for the indigent and struggling younger generation, and the wrecks of the past, embodied, in even the blank stare of their exteriors, stupid mediocrity. He fumbled nervously in his pocket for his latch-key, and opening the door climbed the three stale flights to his room. He lighted both gas-jets, but even then the gloom remained. He craved more light—the dazzling light of arc-lamps, the glare reflected from polished mirrors. Better absolute darkness than this. He turned out the gas and throwing open his window leaned far out over the sill. Then he concentrated his thoughts upon the issue confronting him.
At the end of other colorless days, when he had come back here only to be tortured by the stretch of gray road before him, he had considered as a possibility that which now was almost a reality. He had always been checked by this desire to have first his taste of life and by the troublesome conviction that there was something unfair about seizing it in this way. Furthermore, though he could, without Barstow's discovery, have lived his week and closed it by any one of a dozen effective means, he realized that he could not trust even himself to fulfill at the end—no matter how binding the oath—so fearful a decree. A few deep draughts of joyous life might turn his head. It was as dangerous an experiment as taking the first smoke of opium, as tampering with the first injection of morphine, upon the promise of stopping there. No, before beginning he must set at work some power outside himself which should be operative even against his will; which should be as final as death itself. Until to-night this had seemed an impossibility. Now, with that chief obstruction removed, he had but to consider the ethics of the question.
In arguing with Barstow he had been sincere. He believed as he had said that a man had the right to end the contract so long as he cheated no one by so doing. All his life he had paid his way like a man, done his duty like a good citizen, given a fair return for everything he took. He did not feel himself indebted to his country, his state, his city, nor to any living man or woman. In one form and another, he had paid. Few men could claim this as sincerely as Donaldson. He had lived conscientiously, so very conscientiously in fact that it was as much rebellion against self-imposed fetters which now drove him on to an opposite extreme as any bitterness against that society which had spurned his idealism. He had refused to compromise and learned that the world uses only as martyrs those who so refuse. The limitations of his nature were defined by the fact that he withdrew from so self sacrificing an end as that. But now if he demanded nothing more—if he was tired of this give and take—why should he not balance accounts?
Chiefly because there would still be one week to account for—that last week in which he should demand most. Like an inspiration came the solution to this, the final difficulty; economically he was wasting a life; very well, but if he could find a way of not wasting it, of giving his life to another, then he would have paid even this last bill. In the excitement of this new idea, he paced his room. If he could give his life for another! But supposing this were impossible, supposing no opportunity should offer, it would be something if he held himself open, offered himself a free instrument of Fate. He could promise—and he knew he could keep so sacred a promise as this with death approaching in so inevitable a form,—he could promise to offer himself upon the slightest pretext, recklessly and without fear, instantly and without thought, to the first chance which might come to him to give his life for another. That was the bond he would give to Fate—the same Fate which had produced him—his life for the life of another. Let society use him so if such use could be found for him. He would stand ready, would live up to the spirit and the letter of the bond unhesitatingly. For one week he would live his life in the present upon that condition—one week with the eighth day a blank, one week with the whole world his plaything.
He stared with new eyes from his window to the jumble of houses below, to the jumble of stars above. The whole world expanded and vibrated before the intensity of his passion. He was to condense a possible thirty or forty years into seven days. To-day was the twenty-third of May. By to-morrow noon he could adjust all his affairs. With nothing to demand of them in the future it would be an easy matter to cut them off. On Friday, May twenty-fourth, then, he could begin. This would bring the end on the thirty-first.
He considered a moment; was it better to die at noon or at night? An odd thing for a man to decide, but such details as this might as well be fixed now as later. It took but a moment's deliberation; he elected to go out at high noon. There would be dark enough afterwards—possibly an eternity of dark. He would face the sun with his last gaze; he would have the mad riot of men and women at midday ringing last in his ears.
As he drew in deep breaths it was as if he inhaled the whole world. He felt as though, if he but stepped out sturdily enough, he could foot the darkness. His head was light; his brain teemed with wild fancies. Then pressing through this medley he saw for a moment the young woman who had come to Barstow's laboratory. The effect was to steady him. He remembered the sweet girlishness of her face, the freshness of it which was like the freshness of a garden in the early morning. He realized that she stood for one thing that he could never know. What was it that he saw now in those strange eyes that left him a bit wistful at thought of this? There was not a detail of her features, of her dress, of her speech, that he could not see now as vividly as though she were still standing before him. That was odd, too. He was not ordinarily so impressionable. It occurred to him that he would not like her to know what he was about to do. Bah, he was getting maudlin!
Late as it was, he left his room and went downtown to his office. He worked here until daylight, falling asleep in his chair from four to seven. He awoke fresh, and even more eager than the night before to undertake his venture.
There remained still a few men to be seen. He transacted his business with a brilliant dispatch and swift decision that startled them. He disposed of all his office furniture, his books, destroyed all his letters, made a will leaving instructions for the disposal of his body, and concluded every other detail of his affairs before eleven o'clock. When he left his office to go back to his room, he had in his pocket every cent he possessed in the world in crisp new bank notes. It amounted to twenty-eight hundred and forty-seven dollars. Not much to scatter over a long life,—not much as capital. Invested it might yield some seventy dollars a year. But as ready cash, it really stood for a fortune. It was the annual income at four per cent on over seventy thousand dollars, the monthly income on eight hundred and forty thousand dollars, the weekly income on over three million. For seven days then he could squander the revenue of a princely estate.
As a matter of fact his position was even more remarkable; he was as wealthy—so far as his own capacity for pleasure went—as though the possessor of thirty million. This because of his limitations; he was barred from travel; barred from the purchase of future holdings; barred from everything by this time restriction save what he could absorb within seven days through his five senses. Being an intelligent man of decent morals and no bad habits, he was also restrained from license and the gross extravagance accompanying it. But within his own world, there was not a desire which need remain unsatisfied.
Back again in his room he summoned his landlady.
"I am going away," he informed her briefly. "I sha'n't leave any address and I 'm going to take with me only the few things I can pack into a dress-suit case. I 'll give you the rest."
The woman—she had become rather fond of the quiet, gentle third story front—looked up sympathetically.
"Have you had bad news?"
"Bad news? No," he smiled. "Very good news. I 'm going to take a sort of vacation."
"Then perhaps you 'll come back."
"So, I 'm quite sure I shall never come back."
She watched him at his packing, still puzzled by his behavior. She noticed that he took nothing but a few trinkets, a handful of linen, and a book or two. He glanced at his watch.
"Madame," he announced, offering her his hand, "it is now eleven thirty. My vacation begins in half an hour. I must hurry. The remainder of these things I bequeath to you."
In twenty minutes he was at the Waldorf. He asked for and was allotted one of the best rooms in the house, for which he paid the suspicious clerk in advance. When at length he was left alone in his luxurious apartments, it was still a few minutes before twelve. He drew the vial from his pocket without fear, without hesitation. He placed his watch upon the table before him. Then he sat down and wrote out the following oath:
"I, Peter Donaldson, swear by all that I hold most sacred that I will offer my life freely and without question for the protection of any human being needing it during these next seven days in which I shall live."
He signed this in a bold scrawling hand. It was as simply and earnestly expressed as he knew how to make it.
He uncorked the vial and poured the liquid into a glass without a quaver of his hand. He mixed a little water with it and raised it to his lips. There he paused, for once again he seemed to see the big, calm eyes of the girl now staring at him as though in surprise. But this time he smiled, and with a little lift of the glass towards her swallowed the liquid at a gulp.
The Beginning of the End
Before the bitter taste of the syrup faded from his tongue, Donaldson's thoughts shifted from the Ultimate to the Now. He was too good a sportsman to question his judgment by worry when once committed to an enterprise. The world now lay before him as he had wished it—an enchanted land in which he could move with as great freedom as a prince in the magical kingdoms of Arabia. The Present became sharpened to poignancy. Even as he stood there musing over the marvel of the new world into which he had leaped—the old thin world of years condensed into one thick week—he realized that this very wondering had cost him five precious minutes. A dozen such periods made an hour, two dozen hours a day—one seventh of his living space. This thought so whetted his interest that he could have sat on here indefinitely, thrilled to the marrow by the mere pageant of life as it passed before his eyes on the street below. The slightest incident was now dramatic; the hurry of men and women on their way up-town and down-town, the swift movement of vehicles, the fluttering of birds in the sunshine, the unceasing, eager flux of life. It was through the eyes of youth he was looking—for is youth anything more than the ability to live the irresponsible days as they come? Youth is Omar without his philosophy. He grew dizzy. Life taken so was too powerful a stimulant. He must brace himself.
He settled into one of the big chairs, closing his eyes to the wonders about him, and tried to think more soberly. He felt as though he must dull his quickened senses in some way. His unsheathed nerves quivered back from so direct a contact with life.
"Quiet, old man, quiet," he cautioned himself. "There 's a lot of things you wish to do in these next few days. So you must sober down—you must get a grip on yourself."
He rose to his feet determinedly. He must work out of such moods as this. One of the first things for him to do was to buy a decent personal outfit. As soon as he gave his mind a definite object upon which to work, his thoughts instantly cleared. It was just some such matter-of-fact task as this which he needed.
He went down-stairs, and stepping into a taxicab, was whisked to one of the large retail stores. He had no time to squander upon a tailor, but he was successful in securing a good fit in ready-made clothing. He bought several street suits, evening clothes, overcoats and hats, much silk underwear—a luxury he had always promised himself in that ghost future—and an extravagant supply of cravats, gloves, socks, and odds and ends. He omitted nothing necessary to make him feel a well-dressed man so far as he could find it ready made. There was nothing conceited about Donaldson, nothing of the fop, but he enjoyed both the feeling and the appearance of rich garments. He hired a messenger boy who announced his name as Bobby and who followed along at his heels, collecting the bundles and carrying them out to the waiting cab.
He was a fresh cheeked youngster with a quick interest in things. He could n't make up his mind whether Donaldson was really an Indian prince or whether as a result of drinking he merely felt like one. As time passed and he saw that the man was neither an oriental nor drunk, his imagination then wavered between accepting him as an English duke or a member of the Vanderbilt family.
Donaldson perceived the keen interest the boy was taking in his purchases, saw the wonder in his eyes grow, based upon a faith that still accepted Aladdin as an ever-present possibility, and realized that Bobby was getting almost as much fun out of this game as he himself. He began to humor him further by consulting his taste in the matter of ties and waistcoats, though he found that the latter's sporting instincts led him to colors too pronounced to harmonize with his own ideas. Still he appreciated the fact that Bobby was indulging in almost as many thrills as though he were actually holding the purse. This became especially true when Donaldson allowed the boy to purchase for himself such articles as struck his fancy. As a matter of fact there was not so much difference in the present point of view of the man and the boy; it was to them both a fairy episode.
They lounged from one store to another, enjoying the lights, the colors, the beautiful cloths, choosing where they would with all the abandon of those with genii to serve them. Donaldson was indulging something more fundamental than his enjoyment of the things themselves; this was his first taste, as well as Bobby's, of gratifying desires without worry of the reckoning. His wishes were now stripped to bare wants. He was free of the skeleton hand of the Future which had so long held him prisoner—which had frightened him into depriving himself of all life's garnishings until his condition had been reduced to one of monastic simplicity without the monk's redeeming inspiration. He was no longer mocked by the thin cry of "Wait!"
He moved about this gay store world with a sense of kingly superiority. He listened indulgently to the idle chatter of the shop girls, the rattle of the cash boxes, and smiled at the seriousness with which this business of selling was pressed. What a tremendous ado they made of living, with year after year, month after month, day after day, looming endlessly before them! Not an act which they performed, even to the tying up of a bundle, ended in itself, but was one of an endless vista of acts. The burden of the Future was upon them. They drooped, poor bloodless things, beneath the weight of the relentless days before them. And so this faded present was all their future, too. They saw nothing of the joyous world which spun around him bright as a new coin. They were dead, because of the weary days to come, to the magical brilliancy of the big arc-lights, to the humor and action of the crowd, to the quick shifts of colors; they were stupefied by this great flux of life which swept them on day after day to another day. Often unexpressed, this, but felt dumbly below the chatter and dry laughter. They waited, waited, circling about in a gray maelstrom until the grave sucked them in. He himself had been in the clutch of it. But that was yesterday.
To-day he saw all that lay unseen before their dulled vision—all the show with its million actors. He saw for example the pathos in the patient eyes of the old lady yonder—still waiting at eighty; he caught the flash of scarlet ribbon beyond, the silent message of the black one (another long waiting); the muffled laugh and the muffled oath; the careless eyes that tossed the coin to the counter, the sharp eyes that followed it, the dead ones that picked it up and threw it into the nickeled cash box which flew with it to its golden nest; the tread, the tread, the tread of a thousand feet, the beat, beat, beat of a thousand hearts. All these things he saw and heard and felt.
When he had fully replenished his wardrobe he still had several hours left to him. He remembered a unique book store just off Fifth Avenue at West Thirty-ninth Street which he had frequently passed, often lingering in front of the windows to admire quaint English prints. On cloudy days especially he had often made it a point to walk up there and breathe in the spirit of sunshine that he found in the green grass of the old hunting scenes and in the scarlet coats of the hearty-cheeked men riding to hounds upon their lean horses.
"Come on," he called enthusiastically to Bobby. "We 've just begun."
"Gee!" gasped Bobby. "H'aint you spent it all? Have yer gut more left?"
"Lots. As much as I can spend until I die."
The boy's face grew eager.
"Say," he asked confidentially. "Where 'd yer git it?"
"Earned it,—the most of it. Sweat for it and starved for it and suffered for it! And I earned with it the right to spend it, the right, I tell you!"
Bobby shrank back a little before such fierceness. The boy felt a faint suspicion of what had not before occurred to him: that the man was crazy. But the next second the gentle smile returned to soften the tense mouth, and the boy's fear vanished. No one could fear Donaldson when he smiled.
In front of the modest shop with its quaint sign swinging above the door, they paused. Donaldson found it difficult to believe that he now had the right to enter. To him this store had never been anything else but a part of the scenery of life, a part of the setting of some foreign world at which he gazed like a boy from the upper galleries of a theatre. He had rebelled at this, looking with some hostility at the well groomed men and women who accepted it with such assurance that it was for them alone, but now he realized the pettiness of that position. With a few unmortgaged dollars in his pocket, he was instantly one of them. He could stride in and use the quiet luxury of the place as his own.
For half an hour then, he browsed about the sun-lit shop, selecting here and there bits with which to brighten his room during the week. He picked out an engraving or two, several English prints which seemed to welcome him like old friends, and a marine in water color because of the golden blue in it. His bill exceeded that of the department stores, and Bobby confidently delivered himself of the opinion that he had been soaked, "good and plenty."
From here Donaldson began an extravagant course down Fifth Avenue that left the boy, who watched him closely every time he paid his bill, convinced that he had on his hands nothing short of an Arabian Prince such as his sister had told him of when he had thought her fooling. They wandered from book store to art store, to Tiffany's, to an antique shop back to another book store and then to where in his lean days he had seen a bit of Dresden that brought comfort to him through its dainty beauty. He took for his own now all the old familiar friends who had done what they could through store windows to brighten those days. They should be a part of him; share his week with him. There was that old hammered copper tray which in the sun glowed like a cooling ember; there was that hand-illumined volume of Keats which he had so long craved; there was that vase of Cloisonne, that quaint piece of ivory browned with age, that old pewter mug reflecting the burden of its years in its sober surface. All these things he had long ago known as his own, and now he came to claim them.
"Mine, all mine!" he exclaimed to the boy. "And was n't it decent of them to wait for me?"
"They was waitin' for you all right," agreed Bobby. "They seen you comin'. They waits fer the easy marks."
"Yes," returned Donaldson, ignoring the latter's sarcasm. "They saw me coming when yet I was a great way off. They knew me, so they waited. I told them all to wait and some day I would come to them."
"D' yuh mean that ivory monkey waited?"
"For nearly a year."
Bobby did not reply, but his respect for Donaldson fell several degrees.
"There is one thing more, boy," exclaimed Donaldson; "I need flowers."
He ordered sent to his room two dozen rich lipped roses, a half dozen potted plants, and a small conservatory of ferns. Then he started back to the hotel.
It took the boy several trips to carry the bundles upstairs even when they were piled to his eyes. When he finished, Donaldson held out his hand.
"I 've had a mighty pleasant afternoon with you," he said. "And I hope we 'll meet again. What's your number?"
"Well, thirty-four fifty-seven, give us your hand in case we lose one another for good."
The boy gingerly extended his grimy paw. When he removed it, he found himself clutching a ten-dollar bill.
Donaldson remained in his room only long enough to arrange his treasures and slip into his evening clothes. There was too much outside to be enjoyed for him to appreciate yet the luxury of his indoor surroundings. He had a passion for people, for crowds of people. He had thought at first that he might attend the theatre, but he realized now that the stage puppets were but faint reflections of the stirring drama all about him—the playwright's plot less gripping than that in which he himself was the central figure. To pass through those doors would be more like stepping out of a theatre into the leaden reality of life as he had seen it before yesterday.
For an hour or more he rubbed shoulders with the press that was on its way to find relief from their own lives in the mimic lives of others behind the footlights. To him in the Now it was comedy enough to watch them as they filed in; it would have been an anticlimax to have gone further. He craved good music, but a search of the papers did not reveal any concert of note, so he sought one of the popular restaurants, and, choosing a table in a corner, devoted himself to the ordering of his dinner. He was hungry and took a childish delight in selecting without first studying the price list.
When he had concluded, he took a more careful survey of the room. His wandering gaze was checked by the profile of the woman whose eyes had haunted him ever since he had first seen them in Barstow's laboratory. It was Miss Arsdale, and opposite her sat a tall, thin-visaged young man. As the latter turned and presented a full face view, Donaldson was held by the peculiarity of his expression. His hot, beadlike eyes burned from a white sensitive face that was almost emaciated; his thin lips were set as though in grim resolution; while even his brown hair refused to lend repose to the face, but, sticking out in cowlicks, added to the whole effect of nervousness still further exaggerated by the restless white hands. Over all, like a black veil, was an expression as of one haunted by a great fear. The man both repelled and interested Donaldson. There was a shiftiness about the eyes that excited suspicion, and yet there was in them a silent plea that asked for sympathy. Save for the eyes, the face had a certain poetic beauty due to its fine modeling and its savage intensity. The longer Donaldson studied it, the more sympathy he had for it. He had the feeling that the fellow had gone through some such crisis as his own.
But it was difficult to define the girl's relationship to him. There was not the slightest trace of family resemblance between them, and yet the man was hardly of a type that she would choose for so intimate a friend as her presence here with him suggested. She did not talk much, but seemed rather to be on the alert to protect him as from some unseen danger which appeared to hang over him. She followed his eyes wherever they wandered, and clearly took but little pleasure in being here.
Donaldson found the oddly matched couple absorbing his interest not only in the other guests but also in his dinner. He finished in almost the undue haste with which ordinarily he devoured his daily lunch and with scarcely more appreciation of the superior quality of these richer dishes. With his black coffee he rolled a cigarette. The familiar old tobacco brought him back to himself again so that for a few minutes he was able to give himself up to the swirling strains of the Hungarian orchestra. But even through the delicious intoxication of the waltz, the personality of this girl asserted itself to him. He got the impression now that she herself was in some danger. He wished that he had asked Barstow more about her. She had not noticed him as yet. He had watched closely to see if she turned. As he studied her it seemed certain that she was by no means enjoying herself in her present company. If given half an opportunity he would go over and speak to her.
He wished to see her eyes again. He remembered them distinctly. They were not black—not gray, but black with the faintest trace of silver, like starlight on a deep pool. The whites were very clear and blue tinted. Just then she raised her head and looked at him as though she had been called. At that moment the orchestra swept their strings in a minor and swirled off in a mystic dance like that of storm ghosts in the tree-tops. It caught him up with the girl and for a measure or so bore them along like leaves, in a new comradeship. To them the light laughter was hushed; to them the heavy smoke clouds vanished; to them the Babel of other personalities was no more. They two had been lifted out of this and carried hand in hand to some distant gypsy region. She was the first to shake herself free. She started, nodded pleasantly to him, and turned back to her companion, with a little shiver.
That was all, but it left Donaldson strangely moved. He paid his check at once and prepared to leave, hoping that in passing her table he might find his opportunity to stop a moment. But they too rose as he was getting into his coat and passed out ahead, the young man evidently trying to hurry her.
On the sidewalk Donaldson found them waiting at the curb for a big automobile which swooped out of the dark to meet them. Making a pretext of stopping to roll a cigarette, he paused. The girl stepped into the machine, but her companion instead of following at once gave an order to the chauffeur. The latter left his seat and the girl expostulated. The chauffeur apparently hesitated, but, the younger man insisting, he hurried past Donaldson into the cafe. Unconsciously Donaldson moved nearer. He felt a foreboding of danger and a curious sense of responsibility. He caught a glimpse of the white face of the girl leaning forward towards her companion—heard her cry as the fellow stepped into the chauffeur's seat—and, yielding to some impulse, jumped to the running-board just as the man threw on the power.
The machine leaped forward with a shock that nearly tossed him off. To save himself he sprang to the empty seat beside the girl. The man at the wheel had apparently not noticed him; he had plenty to occupy his mind to control the machine which was tearing along at the rate of fifty miles an hour.
The girl leaned forward and gripped Donaldson's arm.
"You must stop him," she said. "He has lost himself again! Do you understand? You must stop him!"
The machine swirled around a corner at a speed that swung the rear wheels clear of the ground. It righted itself as a frightened dog scrambles to his legs, and shot on up the avenue, which was for the moment fortunately clear of other vehicles. It took a crossing at a single leap, missed a dazed pedestrian by an inch, and shot on as mad a thing as the man who ran it. It was clearly only a matter of minutes that this could last. Bending low, the madman, with still enough cunning left to know how to manage the machine, held it to its highest speed. But his arm was weakening. He did not have the physical strength to hold steady the vibrating steering gear. The big car began to tack.
Donaldson saw the girl's eyes upon him. They were confident with an instinct that is woman's sixth sense. A man has not lived until he has seen that look in a woman's eyes. Nor has a man suffered until he realizes that he must disappoint that look. Donaldson had never been in an automobile in his life. He knew no more how to control one than he did an aeroplane. And the arc-lights were flashing by at the rate of one every four seconds—and a madman at the wheel—and a woman's eyes upon him.
Donaldson was naturally a man of some courage, but it is doubtful if under ordinary conditions this situation would not have brought the cold sweat to his brow. As it was, he was conscious of only two emotions; an appreciation of the grim humor which had called upon him so early in his week to fulfill his oath, and a grinding resentment at the Fate which had thrust him into a position where he should show so impotent before those eyes. As far as personal fear went, it was nil. He was as oblivious to possible pain, possible death, as though he were now merely recalling a dream. Such contingencies had been decided the moment he swallowed the scarlet syrup. Fear had been annihilated in him because the most he had to lose was this next six days. He was too good a gambler to resent, in a fair game, the turn of the cards against him.
He stepped past her and out upon the running board, feeling his way along to the empty seat. The machine swayed dizzily. The wind tore off his hat and tugged at his coat, nearly dragging him to the ground which flowed beneath him as smoothly as a fly belt. He could not have made that distance yesterday with the assurance of to-day. He swung himself into the empty seat.
He had but one thing in mind; he knew that these big machines, in spite of their tremendous power, were as nicely adjusted as watches. They had their vital spots, their hearts. If only he could find this vulnerable place! At his feet he saw a small wooden box fastened to the dash-board. He did not know what it was, but on a blind chance he kicked it again and again until it splintered beneath his heels. The machine swerved across the road and he fought with the crazed man for the possession of the wheel. He was strong and he had this much at heart, but the other had the super-human strength of the crazed. Even as they struggled the machine began to slow down and within a few hundred yards came to a standstill. In destroying the coil box he had reached the heart.
The driver turned upon him, but Donaldson managed to secure a good grip and dragged the fellow to the ground. The latter was up in a minute and faced him with that gleam of devilish hatred that marks the foiled maniac. The girl started to separate the two men, but it was unnecessary; she saw the murder fade from her companion's face before the calm untroubled gaze of the other. She saw his strained body relax, she saw his fists unclench, and she saw him shrink back to her side trembling in fright. The demon in him had been quelled by the unflinching eyes of the sane man.
There was, luckily, no gathering of a crowd, for no one had witnessed the struggle in the machine. A few steps beyond, the blue and red lights of a drugstore stained the sidewalk. The girl seized the man's arm and turned to Donaldson.
"He is my brother," she explained. "We must leave the machine and get him home at once. Can we order a cab from somewhere?"
"At the drugstore we can telephone for one and also reach your garage."
"Would you mind attending to it?" she asked anxiously. "We will wait here,—in the car."
"I don't like to leave you here alone," he said.
"I shall be quite safe—really."
"But in the drugstore it is warmer, and—"
"No, no," she broke in hurriedly. "I—I would much rather not."
Without further parley he took the address of the garage where the machine had been hired, and walked on to the drugstore. He was back again in five minutes, relieved to find her safe and the brother still quiet. While waiting for the cab it occurred to him that he should also have telephoned for a physician to meet them when they reached the house. But Miss Arsdale objected at once to this.
"I think we had better not. But if you would—it's asking a great deal of you—if you yourself would ride back with us."
"I had intended to do that," he assured her.
The cab arrived within a few minutes, and she gave an address off Riverside Drive. It took half an hour to make the run. On the journey the three remained silent save for a few commonplaces, for conversation seemed to have a disquieting effect upon young Arsdale. The lighted houses flashed past the carriage windows in the soft spring dark, looking like specks of gold upon black velvet. A certain motherliness pervaded the night; there was a suggestion of birth everywhere. Donaldson responded to it with a growing feeling of anticipation. Sitting here confronting this girl he was swept back to a primal joy of things, to a sense of new worlds. He felt for a moment as though back again with her in that gypsy kingdom into which the music had borne them.
The cab swung from the boulevard and, after following for a few moments a somewhat tortuous course among side streets, stopped before an iron gate which stretched across the drive leading to the house. Either side of the gate a high hedge extended. The three stepped out and Donaldson paused a moment before dismissing the cabby. The girl saw his hesitancy and in her turn seemed rapidly to revolve some question in her own mind. A quick motion on the part of her brother determined her. In the shadow of the house he began to show ill-boding symptoms.
"I wonder if—if you would come in for a minute," she asked in an undertone.
Without answer he dismissed the driver and followed her through a small gate in the hedge, down a short walk, to a brown-stone house with its entrance on a level with the ground. The house was unlighted and the lower windows were covered with wooden shutters. In the midst of its brilliantly lighted neighbors it looked severe and inhospitable. The girl drew a key from her purse and, opening the door, stepped inside and switched on the lights. Donaldson found himself in a large, cheerful looking hall finished in Flemish oak. A broad Colonial staircase led from the end and swung upstairs in a graceful turn which formed a landing. The floor was covered with rugs which he recognized as of almost priceless value. Several oil portraits in heavy frames ornamented the walls. It took but a glance to see that they were of the same family and to recognize in all their thin faces an expression that he had caught in young Arsdale himself—a haunting fear as of some family tragedy. Through an uncurtained door to the right opened what appeared to be a library, while to the left—Donaldson turned his back for a moment upon Arsdale. And the man, freed from the eyes, threw himself upon Donaldson's shoulder. The woman shouted a warning, but it was too late. She clutched at her brother's clothes, pulling with all her strength, crying,
Donaldson slipped upon the polished floor and Arsdale, throwing his arm about his victim's neck, secured a very effective strangle hold. It looked bad for Donaldson. On the smooth waxed floor he could secure no purchase by which to regain his feet and he could not reach the fellow with either fist. He was as helpless as though he had the Old Man of the Mountain upon his back. The world began to swim before his eyes; the cries of the girl to sound in the distance. Then he smelled the biting aroma of spirits of ammonia and felt the clutch upon his throat loosen. He broke free, got upon his feet and found Arsdale rubbing his smarting eyes while the girl stood over him, frightened at what she had done, with the empty bottle in her hand.
"I've blinded him!" she cried, drawing back in horror.
"Thanks. You 've also prevented him from killing me."
"Don't say that—not kill!"
"But the man is n't responsible."
"That is true, but—even when he is like this he would n't do any harm."
His throat was still sore from the press of the fellow's fingers, but he nodded politely.
Donaldson perceived that she was fighting off a fear. It made the danger seem even more imminent. He had noted with surprise that no servants had appeared. This gave a particularly uncanny atmosphere to the big house, making it look as deserted as though empty of furniture.
"We must get him upstairs and into bed," she said. "Will you help him?"
The man was choking and writhing upon the floor in his pain. Donaldson stooped and wiped off his eyes. Then he placed his arm about him and half dragged and half carried him up the stairs as she led the way. She preceded them up two flights, switching on the lights at each landing, and entered a small, simply furnished room in the middle of the house,—a room, Donaldson was quick to note, having only a skylight for a window. Here he dashed cold water into the man's face and placed him on the bed. As soon as the pain subsided, Miss Arsdale administered two spoonfuls of a darkish brown medicine which seemed to have instantly a quieting effect.
It was the sight of the bottle that again recalled to Donaldson the fact of his own peculiar position in life. Even at the risk of appearing rude, he was forced to look at his watch. It was a few minutes after eleven o'clock. Well, what of it? Had not these hours been full—had he not had more of real living than during the entire last decade? He had faced death twice, he had met a woman, and he now stood at the threshold of a mystery that seemed to demand him. There was no other interest in his life to occupy him—nothing to prevent him from throwing himself heart and soul into the case, lending what aid was possible to this woman. Furthermore, he was clear of all selfish interests; he need bother himself with no queries of what this might be worth to him. But it was worth something, it was worth something to have a woman look at him as this girl had done—with unquestioning trust in a crisis.
She glanced up as he replaced his watch.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "I must detain you no longer!"
"My time is absolutely yours," he reassured her. "I was merely curious to know how old I have grown."
She did not understand.
"I 'm eleven hours old."
Again she did not understand, but in turning to care for her brother she ceased to puzzle over the enigma. Shortly afterwards the patient closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep. Immediately the girl led the way on tiptoe from the room. She locked the door behind her and preceded Donaldson downstairs.
Once below there seemed nothing for him to do but to leave, but, quite aside from the fact that he felt himself to be really needed here, he was as reluctant to depart as a man is to awake from a pleasant dream. She had picked up a white silk Japanese shawl and thrown it about her shoulders.
He turned to her with the question,
"Is there nothing more I can do for you? Is there no one I may summon to help you?"
"I can manage very well now, thank you."
"But you can't stay here alone with the boy in this condition."
Her reply came like a rebuke of his impetuous presumption.
"It is hardly safe for you," he declared more quietly.
"It is perfectly safe," she answered evenly.
"I suppose there are servants in the house upon whom you can call," he hazarded.
She looked a bit embarrassed.
"If I should need any one there is my old housekeeper, Marie," she answered.
Marie was upstairs, sick in bed with rheumatism, too feeble to move without help. But to confess this fact to him would be almost to force him to stay. As welcome a relief as it would be to have him remain until she had administered the medicine once more, she shrank from placing him in a position where he would have no alternative.
She roused herself from the temptation and extended her hand.
"Thank you is a weak phrase for all you 've done," she said.
"It is enough."
He took the hand but he did not say good night. So she withdrew it, her cheeks a bit redder, her eyes, a trick they had when brilliant, growing silver.
He had been studying her keenly, and now removing his overcoat, he said decidedly,
"I shall stay a little longer."
She seemed to hesitate a moment, meeting his eyes quite frankly. Then, with a little sigh of relief she stepped into the library.
The Inner Woods
In the fireplace there were birch logs ready to be kindled. At her suggestion he put a match to them for the cheeriness they gave while she lighted a green shaded lamp which radiated a soft glow over the heavy mahogany library table upon which it stood. The room slowly warmed out of the gloom and shadows as though the three walls closed in nearer to the fire. Just outside the radius of warmth the bookbindings shone gold in the dark. In a frame six inches deep the ghostly outlines of a portrait of Horace Arsdale flickered near and away as the flames rose and fell.
Miss Arsdale came to a chair a little to the left of Donaldson, brushing back from her eyes the soft hair which in the firelight shone like burnished copper. He smiled at the strange chance which led her to seat herself almost directly in front of the grandfather's clock, so that facing her he faced the pendulum which ticked out to him the cost of each new picture he had of her. It was now within a few minutes of midnight—one half of his first day gone before he had more than raised the glass to his lips. He felt for a moment the petulant annoyance of a man imposed upon—as though Time were playing him unfairly; until today the hours had dragged heavily enough; now they sped like arrows.
And yet he did not count the time as ill spent. Though he had anticipated nothing of this sort, he found himself enjoying the situation with as deep a satisfaction as anything which had so far occurred in the swift hours which had sped by since noon. Outside lay the quick-moving throngs which he so loved, in his room there waited for him the gentle marine, the bit of brown ivory, the luxury of deep blooming roses, and yet he was not conscious of missing them. Those things had been waiting for him all through the long tedious years, and this—well perhaps this, too, had been waiting for him. He wondered if this effect was produced by the surroundings which were much as he would have chosen them if he had possessed the means from the first. The sober good taste of the room, its quiet richness, its air of being a part of several generations of men of culture pleased him.
He turned to the girl again. She too was one with this past of the room. The straight nose with its shell-like nostrils as sensitive to her thoughts as her eyes, the sharp cut corners of her mouth, and the fine hair over her white forehead dated back to women whose features had long been refined through their souls. All that he wished to crowd into a week, they had possessed for a hundred years or more. It showed even in this girl who had not yet come into the fulness of her womanhood.
She sat uneasily far forward on her chair, leaning toward the flames as though fearful of what might happen next. The light played upon her hair and her white face, making her seem almost a thing of some lighter, spirit world.
"I don't feel that I ought to detain you," she said, breaking the silence which he for his part would have been willing to continue, "but"—she looked up at him with a half-shamed smile—"I have n't the courage to refuse your kindness."
"You have the right to accept it merely as a woman," he assured her.
"But I should n't need help," she answered with some spirit. "I don't know what has come over me. I 'm just afraid of being alone."
"It is n't good for any one to be alone."
He answered slowly,
"Yes, I know."
Did any one know better? The curse of it had driven him to secure at any cost the broader comradeship of men and women which, if it does not come through some more subtle means such as she now seemed to suggest to him, can be found in that cruder relationship always at the command of those with some fortune. The thought swept over him that if he had known her before yesterday, he could never have felt alone again. But what had he to do with yesterday any more than with to-morrow?
"It is n't that there is anything to be afraid of here," she protested, to ward off any suspicions that might be lurking in his mind. "It is n't that. I 'm perfectly safe."
He nodded, though he by no means agreed with her.
"It would be just the same," she insisted with almost too much emphasis, "if Ben were well. I think I must have become panic stricken with myself."
He frowned. Then he broke out fiercely,
"It's the feel of all the silent people in the city around you, perhaps. They are ghosts, these strangers,—human ghosts with fingers which clutch your throat if you are n't careful. You sense them in New York as nowhere else."
She glanced up quickly,
"That's an odd idea," she replied. "The loneliness comes then because you are n't really alone."
"Yes—here in New York."
"But that is n't true of the woods," she asserted.
"You have been much among the trees?" he asked quickly, his voice softening.
"Not very much. But enough to learn to love them. Especially the inner woods."
He knew what she meant—the forests where things still grow for the sky and the beasts and not for man; where man may come as guest but not as master.
"No," he answered, "one never feels alone there."
"In there," she faltered, trying to express vague thoughts which yet were most real to her, "everything seems to be normal."
He studied her with increasing interest and a growing sense of comradeship. Her eyes were wonderful as she sat chin in hands, gazing into the fire, lost in some pleasant picture of the past. When he looked into them, they caught him up again as they had done in the cafe. They swept him to the rhythm of some haunting music back to the days when his blood had run strong—back to the beauty of the hills at twenty when he had not felt big enough by himself to absorb their full marvel. In a dim mystical way he had realized even then that the keenest edge of their meaning was escaping him. The blue sky above the trees had seemed like the laughing eyes of a woman and the rustle of leaves like the whisper of her skirt. He had laughed back boldly then, feeling in the pride of his strength little need of them.
Now the eyes of this girl, and the soft modeling of every line of her, filled him with an infinite tenderness for those forgotten hours. It was as though she cleared away the intervening years and made him face the fragrant Spring again. Without diminishing one whit of his vigorous enjoyment of life, she added an element of refinement to it.
Half in fear of what this might mean, he shook himself free of the mood, and moving a chair to the other side of the fire sat down. Behind her the old clock still ticked as though in malicious appreciation of the situation.
She clung to the subject of the woods as though in it she found relief. She wished to hear more of it from him. It made him appear less a stranger. When he spoke of these things he went back into her own past—into the most beautiful, intimate part of it. He was the only man other than Mr. Arsdale that she could have endured to associate with those days. She felt at ease with him there, and this made her feel that he had more right to be here now. His eager face softened when he spoke of those things. There was in it then none of that fierceness which had for a moment startled her when he spoke of the loneliness he had found here in New York. At that moment he had looked like a man at bay. He had challenged life bitterly. It was not in keeping with the kindly generous strength of his mouth and chin.
"Tell me," she asked him, "of some of your days in the woods."
Yesterday he could not have complied. Those days had seemed dead and buried. Now he was in the mood for it. He found it pleasant, sitting here, to go back.
Each hour stood out as bright with sunshine as a Sorolla. It was as though they had sprung to life at a call from her—had come to bring her ease. He talked at random of brooks that start nowhere and go nowhere, save over white stones and past watercress; of thin ribbed ferns and of scarlet bunchberries. He told her of a stream he knew, where, if you lie very quiet in the moss, you see speckled trout dart over white pebbles into the darker water beneath the lichened rocks. He told her of the shallows, and pools, and falls you find if you keep to its banks for the miles it sings by the grave trees. He told her of mountain tops where he had lain near the stars and watched the noon clouds sweep half a county with their big shadows. He told her of old wood roads he had followed through the young maples and birches and evergreens and pines—roads which lay silent all day long and all night long, month after month, ready for the feet which might tread it once in a year.
So she took him back again to the redolent shadows, back to the silences where dreams are born. Here he came upon other things—the old path gay flowered with illusions which led him toward that future—
A future? What had he to do with a future? Was he rushing headlong thus soon into another pit as bad as that from which he had just escaped? The Future was Now—not one minute, not one second beyond. He was here before an open fire, with this girl in the background, with beautiful rugs and pictures about him, with a great seething, struggling, future-chained horde outside, and the eternal stars overhead. In the midst of it he was free, and this was enough for him to know. Now! Now! The girl was now and her eyes were now and the flush of her velvet cheek was now!
The Shadow on the Portraits
He was roused by the sound of her voice and the single stroke of the clock back of her. It was one, and he could have sworn that they had been sitting here less than fifteen minutes.
"I must go to Ben now," she said. "It is time to give him more medicine."
"I will go with you."
"No," she decided, "I think I had better go alone. A stranger might frighten him."
He hesitated with an uneasy sense of foreboding, but she moved past him determinedly and went up the stairs, leaving him alone with the haunting picture upon the wall. He moved nearer to study it more in detail. He caught a trace of resemblance to the boy but none to the girl. The features were more rugged than those of young Arsdale, and the forehead was broader and higher, but the mouth was the same—thin, tense, and yet with no strength of jaw behind it. The cheek bones were rather high and the eyes set deep but over-close together. It was a face, thought Donaldson, of which great things might be expected, but upon which nothing could be depended. The man would move eratically but brilliantly, like those aquatic fireworks which dart in burning angles along the face of the water—scarlet serpents shooting to the right, the left, in their gorgeous irresponsible course towards the dark.
As he stood there Donaldson thought he heard the soft tread of feet in the hall and the click of the outside door as it was opened. He listened intently, but he heard nothing further. He crossed the library and looked out. The door was ajar. He flung it open and peered down the driveway; there was nothing to be seen but the dark mass of hedge bounding the yard. He went to the foot of the stairs and listened; there was no sound above.
The wind may have blown open the door if it had been unlatched, and the imagined footsteps in the hall may have been nothing but the rustling of the hangings, but still he was not satisfied. He ventured up the first flight and paused to listen. He thought he heard a movement above, but was not quite sure. He neither wished to intrude nor to frighten her unnecessarily, but he called her name. At first he received no response, and then, with a sense of relief that made him realize how deep his fear had been, he saw her come to the head of the stairs. The light came only from the sick room, so that he could not see her very clearly. She took a step towards them, and then he noticed that she swayed and clutched the banister. He was at her side in three bounds.
"What is the trouble?" he demanded.
"If you will steady me a bit," she answered.
"Are you hurt?"
"Just dazed a little. Did you stop him?"
"Stop him? Then some one did go out?"
"As I opened the door Ben rushed by me and—I fell down. I hoped you might see him and hold him!"
"I was at the other end of the library. He must have stolen out on tiptoe. But you are faint."
"I am stronger now."
She started down the stairs with the help of the banister, holding herself together with remarkable self control. As they came into the light he saw that she was very pale, but she insisted that she needed nothing but a breath of cool air. He helped her to the door and here she sat down for a moment upon the step.
"I might take a look around the grounds," Donaldson suggested.
"It is quite useless. He is not here."
"Then you have an idea where he has gone!"
She hesitated a moment.
"Yes," she answered.
He waited, but she ventured nothing further.
"I want you to feel," he said quietly, "that you may call upon me for anything you wish done. My time is my own—quite my own. I place it at your service."
She turned to study his face a moment. It was clean and earnest. It bade her trust. Yet to ask him to do what lay before her was to bring him, a stranger, into the heart of her family affairs. It was to involve her in an intimacy from which instinctively she shrank. But pressing her close was the realization of the imminent danger threatening the boy. This was no time for quibbling—no time for nice shadings of propriety. Even if this meant a sacrifice of something of herself, she must cling to the one spar that promised a chance for her brother's safety. As Donaldson's eyes met hers, she felt ashamed that she had hesitated even long enough for these thoughts to flash through her brain.
"The boy uses opium," she said without equivocation.
The bare naming of the drug rolled up the curtain before the whole tragedy which had been suggested by the portrait in the library; it explained every detail of this wild night except her presence here practically alone with the crazed young man. It accounted for her objection to waiting in the drugstore; it solved the mystery of her fear of the city shadows. Had he suspected this, he would no more have allowed her to go up those stairs alone than he would have permitted her to go unescorted into the cell of a madman.
"I 'm sorry for him," he murmured. "Then he has gone straight to Mott Street?"
"I 'm afraid so. He has been there once before."
"The habit has been long upon him?"
"It is inherited. This is the third generation," she admitted, turning her head aside in shame.
"But he himself—"
"Only after his father's death. The father feared this and watched him every minute. He died thinking the danger was passed, but he left me a prescription which had been of help to him. It was given him by our old family physician who has since died. Mr. Barstow knew Dr. Emory and so has always prepared it for me."
"How long this last time did he go without the drug?"
"It is three months since the first attack. This medicine tided him over five days. He was nervous to-night and begged me to go out to dinner with him. I 'm afraid it was unwise—the lights and the music excited him."
"But you have n't been here alone with him?"
"There is Marie."
"Two women alone with a man in that condition—it is n't safe."
"You don't understand how good he has been. He has struggled hard. He has allowed me to lock him up—to do everything to help him. He has never been like this before."
"It is n't safe for you," he repeated. "Are there no relatives I may summon?"
"None," she answered. "I am his cousin—his sister by adoption. There are no other relatives."
"I would rather fight it out alone," she answered firmly. "I don't wish my friends to know about this," she added hastily, as though to avoid further discussion along this line.
"It was careless of me to leave the door open as I went in."
"It was lucky for you. He might have—"
"Don't!" she shuddered.
He waited a moment.
"You are brave," he declared, "but this is too big a problem for you to manage. He should have been placed in the hands of a physician."