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The Avalanche by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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Spaulding glanced about sharply, but there was not even a strolling
couple, and even the moon was shining on the other side of the heavy mass
of buildings.

"Now, listen," he said. "You see this window?"--he indicated one directly
over their heads. "At exactly one o'clock, when everybody is flocking to
the supper tables on the terraces, I expect some one to lean out of that
window and talk to some one who will be waiting just below. There may be
no talk, but I think there will be, and I want you to listen to every
word of it without so much as drawing a long breath, no matter what is
said, until I grab your elbow--like this--then I want you to put up your
hand in a hurry while I'm also attendin' to business.

"That's all I'll say now. But by the time a few words have been said,
later, I guess you'll be on.

"Now, we must resign ourselves to a long wait without a smoke and to
keeping perfectly still. I dared not risk comin' any later for fear the
others might be beforehand, too."

Ruyler ground his teeth. He felt ridiculous and humiliated. It was no
compensation that he was holding up the wall of a stucco Moorish palace
and that some three hundred masked people in fancy dress were within
earshot... or did the way he was togged out make him feel all the more
absurd? The whole thing was beastly un-American....

But, was it, after all? If he and Helene had been here together to-night,
not married and harrowed, but engaged and quick with romance, would he
have thought it absurd to conspire and maneuver to separate her from the
crowd and snatch a few moments of heavenly solitude? Would he have
despised himself for suffering torments if she flouted him or for wanting
to murder any man who balked him?

Love, and all the passions, creative and destructive, it engendered, all
the sentiments and follies and crimes, to say nothing of ambition and
greed and the lust to kill in war--these were instincts and traits that
appeared in mankind generation after generation, in every corner
civilized and savage of the globe. The world changed somewhat in form
during its progress, but never in substance.

And mystery and intrigue were equally a part of life, as indigenous to
the Twentieth Century as to those days long entombed in history when the
troops of Ferdinand and Isabella sat down on the plain before Grenada.

Plot and melodrama were in every life; in some so briefly as hardly to be
recognized, in others--in that of certain men and women in the public
eye, for instance--they were almost in the nature of a continuous

In these days men took a bath morning and evening, ate daintily, had a
refined vocabulary to use on demand, dressed in tweeds instead of velvet.
There were longer intervals between the old style of warfare when men
were always plugging one another full of holes in the name of religion or
disputed territory, merely to amuse themselves with a tryout of Right
against Might, or to gratify the insane ambition of some upstart like
Napoleon. To-day the business world was the battlefield, and it was his
capital a man was always healing, his poor brain that collapsed nightly
after the strain and nervous worry of the day.

It suddenly felt quite normal to be here flattened against a wall waiting
for some impossible denouement.

Nevertheless, he was sick with apprehension.

Would it merely be the prelude to another drama? Was his life to be a
series of unwritten plays, of which he was both the hero and the
bewildered spectator? Or would it bring him calm, the terrible calm of
stagnation, of an inner life finished, sealed, buried?

It was inevitable in these romantic surroundings and conditions that he
should revert to his almost forgotten jealousy. Suppose Spaulding had
stumbled upon something.... But he had been asked for no such
evidence.... It would be a damnable liberty.... It might be inextricably
woven with the business in hand.... There were other men besides Doremus
whom Helene saw constantly.... Spaulding may have seen his chance to nip
the thing in the bud, and had taken the risk....

He felt the detective's lips at his ear: "Hear anything? Move a little
so's you can look up."

Ruyler heard his wife's voice above him, then Aileen Lawton's. He parted
the branches and saw the two girls lean over the low sill of the
casement. Both had removed their masks, but their faces were only dimly
revealed. Their voices, however, were distinct enough, and his wife's was
dull and flat.

"Oh, I can't," she said. "I can't."

"Well, you'll just jolly well have to. You've got it, haven't you?"

"Oh, yes, I've got it!"

"Well, he'll never suspect you."

"I shall tell him."

"Tell him? You little fool. And give us all away?"

"I'd mention no other names."

"As if he wouldn't probe until he found out. Don't you know Price Ruyler
yet? My father said once he'd have made a great District Attorney. What's
the use of telling him later, for that matter? Why not now?"

"I haven't the courage yet. I might have one day--at just the right
moment. I never thought I was a coward."

"You're just a kid. That's what's the matter. We ought to have left you
out. I told Polly that--"

"You couldn't! Oh, don't you see you couldn't. That's the terrible part
of it! Left me out? I'd have found my way in."

"I'm not so sure. You were interested in heaps of things, and in love,
and all that--"

"Oh, I'd like to excuse myself by blaming it on being bored, and tired of
trying to amuse myself doing nothing worth while, but it's bad blood,
that's what it is, bad blood, and you know it, if none of the others do."

"Oh, I'm not one of your heredity fiends. When did your mother tell you?"

"Only the other day."

"Well, she ought to have told you long ago. I believe you'd have kept out
if you'd known."

"Wouldn't I? But of course she hated to tell the truth to me--"

"Well, if I'd known that you didn't know I'd have told you, all right. I
wormed it out of Dad soon after you arrived, and at first I thought it
was a good joke on Society, to say nothing of Price Ruyler, with his air
of God having created heaven first, maybe, but New York just after. Then
I got fond of you and I wouldn't have told for the world. But I would
have put you on your guard if I'd known."

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Even if Price doesn't find out about this, if he
learns the other--who my father was, and that awful men have recognized
my mother--I suppose he'll hate me, and in time I'll go back to Rouen--"

"Now, you don't think as ill as that of him, do you? He makes me so mad
sometimes I could spit in his face, but if he's one thing he's true blue.
He's the straight masculine type with a streak of old romance that would
make him love a woman the more, the sorrier he was for her, and the
weaker she was--I mean so long as she was young. After this, just get to
work on your character, kid. When you're thirty maybe he won't feel that
it's his whole duty to protect you. You'll never be hard and seasoned
like me, nor able to take care of yourself. I like danger, and
excitement, and uncertainty, and mystery, and intrigue, and lying, and
wriggling out of tight places. I'd have gone mad in this hole long ago,
if I hadn't, for I don't care for sport. But you were intended to develop
into what is called a 'fine woman,' surrounded by the right sort of man
meanwhile. And Price Ruyler is the right sort. I'll say that much for
him. He'd have driven me to drink, but he's just your sort--"

"And what am I doing? I am the most degraded woman in the world."

"Oh, no, you're not. Not by a long sight. You don't know how much worse
you could be. One woman who is here to-night I saw lying dead drunk in
the road between San Mateo and Burlingame the other day when I was
driving with Alice Thorndyke, and Alice is having her fourth or fifth
lover, I forget which--"

"They are no worse than I."

"Listen. He's coming. Got it ready?"

"I can't."

"You must. He'll hound you in the _Merry Tattler_ until the whole town
knows you're a welcher, and not a soul would speak to you. That is the
one unpardonable sin--"

"I wish I'd told Price--"

"Oh, no, you don't. This is just a lovely way out. Glad he had the
inspiration. Hello, Nick."

A man had groped his way between the trees and stood just under
the window.

"What are you doing here?" asked Doremus sourly.

"Witness, witness, my dear Nick. Besides, poor Helene never would have
come alone, so there you are."

"To hell with all this melodramatic business. It could have been done

"Not much. Dark corners for dark doings."

"Well, hand it over."

Ruyler had given his brain an icy shower bath as soon as he heard his
wife's voice, and was now as cool and alert as even the detective could
have wished. He did not wait for the promised impulse to his elbow; his
hand shot up just ahead of Doremus's and closed over his wife's hand,
which, he felt at once, held the ruby. At the same moment Spaulding
caught Doremus by his medieval collar and shook him until the man's teeth
chattered, then he slapped his face and kicked him.

"Now, you," he said standing over the panting man, who was mopping his
bleeding nose, and holding the electric torch so that it would shine on
his own face. "You get out of California, d'you hear? You're a gambler
and a blackmailer and a panderer to old women, and I've got some
evidence that would drag you into court however it turned out, so's
you'd find this town a live gridiron. So, git, while you can. Go while
the going's good."

Doremus, too shaken to reply, slunk off, and Spaulding after a glance
upward, left as silently.



Aileen had shrieked and fled. Ruyler stood in the room with the ruby in
his open hand. He saw that Helene was standing quite erect before him.
She had made no attempt to leave the room, nor did she appear to be
threatened with hysterics.

He groped until he found the electric button. The room, as Ruyler had
inferred, was Mrs. Thornton's winter boudoir, a gorgeous room of yellow
brocade and oriental stuffs.

"Will you sit down?" he asked.

Helene shook her head. She was very white and she looked as old as a
young actress who has been doing one night stands for three months.
Behind the drawn mask of her face there was her indestructible youth, but
so faint that it thought itself dead.

She looked at her hands, which she twisted together as if they were cold.

"Will you tell me the truth now?" asked Price.

"Don't you guess it?"

"When I came here to-night I believed that you were the victim of
blackmail. I was not watching you--I hope you will take my word for that.
We--I had a detective on the case--Spaulding merely wanted to nab the man
who was blackmailing you--"

"Do you still believe that?"

"I overheard your conversation with Aileen Lawton. I don't know what
to believe."

"I am a gambler. My father was a gambler. He kept a notorious place in
San Francisco. His name out here was James Garnett. My grandfather was a
gambler. He was even more spectacular--"

"I know all that. Don't mind."

"You knew it?" For the first time she looked at him, but she turned her
eyes away at once and stared at the oblong of dark framed by the
window. "Why--"

"Spaulding told me to-night only."

"Mother told me a week or so ago. She'd been recognized. Shortly after I
married, when she found out how the women played bridge and poker here,
she made me promise I'd never touch a card, never play any sort of
gambling game. I promised readily enough, and I thought nothing of her
insistence. Maman was old-fashioned in many ways--I mean the life we
lived in. Rouen was so different from this that I could understand how
many things would shock her. I never thought about it--but--it was about
six months ago--you were away for a week and I stayed with Polly Roberts
at the Fairmont. I knew of course that she played and that Aileen and a
lot of the others did, but I hadn't given the matter a thought. One heard
nothing but bridge, bridge, bridge. I was sick of the word.

"But I found they played poker. Polly and Aileen, Alice Thorndyke, Janet
Maynard, Mary Kimball, Nick Doremus, Rex and one or two other men who
could get off in the afternoons.

"I never had dreamed any one in society played for such high stakes.
Janet Maynard and Mary Kimball could afford it, but Polly and Alice and
Aileen couldn't. Still they often won--enough, anyhow, to clean up and go
on. Doremus is a wonderful player. That is how I got interested, watching
him after he had explained the game to me.

"It was a long time before I was persuaded to take a hand. It was so
interesting just to watch. And not only the game, but their faces. Some
would have a regular 'poker face,' others would give themselves away.
Once Aileen had the most awful hysterics. We were afraid some one outside
would hear her; the deadening was burnt out of the walls of the Fairmont
at the time of the fire. But we were in the middle room of the suite.

"Nick told her in his dreadful cold expressionless voice that if she ever
did that again he'd never play another game with her. That meant that
they'd all drop her, and she came to and promised, and she kept her word.
Poker is the breath of life to her. I think she'd become a drug fiend if
she couldn't have it.

"At last they persuaded me to play. We were playing at Nick's, and after
a light dinner served by his Jap, we went right on playing until
midnight. I never thought of you or anything. I seemed to respond with
every nerve in my body and brain. I won and won and won, and even when I
lost I didn't mind. The sensation, the tearing excitement just under a
perfectly cool brain was wonderful.

"I only ceased to enjoy it when I realized what it meant. When I couldn't
keep away from it. When I lived for the hour when we would meet,--at
Polly's, or at Nick's or at Aileen's--any of the places where we were
supposed to be dancing, but where there was no danger of being found out.
Of course I dared not have them at home, and the others lived with their
families, or had too many servants....

"I came fully to my senses one day when Nick told me I was a born
gambler if ever there was one. Then, when I realized, I became
desperately unhappy.

"I was the slave of a thing. I was deceiving you. When I was at the table
I loved poker better than you, better than anything on earth. When I was
alone I hated it. But I couldn't break away. Besides, I didn't always
win. I had to play in the hope of winning back. Or if I won a lot it was
a point of honor to go on and play again, and give them their chance.

"Mrs. Thornton found out. She gave me a terrible talking to. I am afraid
I was very insolent.

"But she came up that night of the Assembly and warned me that you were
down stairs. I was playing in Polly's room. We had all danced two or
three times and then slipped up to the next floor by different stairs and
lifts. I liked her better then. Of course she did it for your sake, not
mine. But she's a good sort, not a cat.

"You have not noticed, but I have not bought a new gown this season
except that little gray one and this--which was made in the house. I
dared not pawn my jewels, for fear you would miss them.

"I have been in hell.

"Then--it was that evening you heard maman reproach me for breaking my
promise--I had lost a dreadful lot of money and Nick had scurried round
and borrowed it for me. I didn't know then that he meant all the time to
get hold of the ruby--I am sure now that he cheated and made me lose.

"Well, I sent the maid away that night and told maman. She was nearly off
her head. I never saw her excited before. Then she told me the truth. I
felt as if I had been turned to stone. But I felt suddenly cool and wary.
I knew I must keep my head. It was as if my father had suddenly come
alive in my brain. I had never lied to you before, merely put you off.
But how I lied that night! I felt possessed. But I knew I must not be
found out, and I made up my mind to stop playing as soon as I came out
even. If I had known that my father and my grandfather had been gamblers
I never should have touched a card. I'd far rather have drunk poison.

"I made up my mind then, and there to stop and I felt quite capable of
it. But I had to go on and square myself, for I owed that money to Nick.
But when I played it was with my head only. All the fever had gone out of
my veins. I loathed it. I loathed still more deceiving you.

"I won and won and won. I thought I was delivered. I was almost happy
again. Some day I meant to tell you--when it was all over.

"Then I began to lose horribly. Thousands. It ran up to twenty thousand.
I did not betray myself, and the girls thought I had money of my own and
could pay my losses quite easily. They didn't know that Nick always
helped me out. He was never the least bit in love with me--he couldn't
love any woman--but he said I played such a wonderful game and was such a
sport, never lost my head, that he wouldn't lose me for the world--when I
threatened to stop and never play again.

"But all the time he wanted the ruby. I found that out when he told me he
must have the money inside of a week; he'd taken it out of his business,
and it really belonged to his partners, and they'd find him out and send
him to prison--

"I offered him my jewels. They would have brought half their value at
least. I could have told you they were stolen--only one more lie. It was
then he said he must have the ruby. He had known about it ever since you
came out here, but after he saw it on me that night at the Gwynnes' he
was more than ever determined to have it.

"I laughed at him at first. It seemed preposterous that he could demand a
ruby worth two or three hundred thousand dollars in payment for a debt of
twenty thousand. I thought of selling my jewels and furs and laces, or
pawning them and raising the amount--he only had my I.O.U. for that sum.
But I didn't know where to go. So I told Aileen. She wouldn't hear of my
disposing of my things, said it would, be all over town in twenty-four
hours. She advised me to get the twenty thousand out of you on one
pretext or another.

"I tried. You will remember. Then Nick began to haunt me. He whispered in
my ear wherever we met. I was nearly frantic. He said he could hold me up
to shame without compromising himself. I had written him some frantic
letters, and he said they read just like--like--the other thing.

"I felt perfectly helpless. I knew that even if I did manage to pawn the
jewels, you would miss them from the safe and trace them. I ceased to
feel cool. I nearly went off my head. But I stopped gambling. I felt sure
by this time that he could make me lose, but I couldn't prove it. Aileen
told me I must give him the ruby. He promised me before Aileen that he
would give me back my I.O.U.'s as well as my notes if I would hand over
the ruby. He knew I was to wear it to-night.

"Finally I gave in. Yesterday Nick called me up on the telephone and told
me to come down to the California Market to lunch, and to bring Aileen.
He told me there that unless I promised to give him the ruby to-night,
and kept my word, he'd either give my I.O.U.'s and my notes to you or to
the _Merry Tattler_. He didn't care which. I could have my choice.

"I said I would do it. But it was terribly conspicuous. Everybody would
notice when it was gone. He said I must conceal it anyhow until we
unmasked after supper, and then I could pretend I had lost it. He
discussed several plans for having me slip it to him, but it was Aileen
who insisted we should come here. Mrs. Thornton never opens her boudoir
at a party. Everywhere else would be a blaze of light. In this dark
corner we should be safe, especially if he came from the outside and I
from inside. How did your detective find out?"

"I think Aileen did a decent thing for once in her life."

She went on in her monotonous voice. "I felt reckless after that and I
really was gay and almost happy at dinner last night. The die was cast. I
didn't much care for anything. I thought perhaps it was my last night
with you--that when I told you I had lost the ruby you would suspect and
turn me out of your house, tell maman to take me back to Rouen.

"Then came that awful moment when you said you had to go away and I could
not wear it. For a few moments I thought I should scream and tell you
everything. But I was both too proud and too much of a coward. Then I
knew I should have to rob the safe, and somehow I hated that part more
than anything else. I did it just ten minutes before Rex and Polly called
for me to motor down here. It had seemed the most horrible thing in the
world to be a gambler, but it was worse to be a thief.

"I remembered the combination perfectly. I have that sort of memory: it
registers photographically. I had seen you move the combination several
times. Perhaps I deliberately registered it. I can't say. I have lived in
such a maze of intrigue lately. I can't say. That is all--except that I
didn't get the letters and the other things."

"He had an envelope in one hand. Spaulding has it beyond a doubt."


There was silence for a moment and then Price said awkwardly: "It is a
pity you haven't the chain or you could wear the ruby for the rest of
the evening."

She turned her eyes from the window and stared at him. "I have the
chain--" She raised her hand to the tip of her bodice--"but--but--you
can't mean--it isn't possible that you can forgive me."

"I think I have taken very bad care of you. What are you, after all, but
a brilliant child? I am thirty-three--"

He suddenly tore off his domino with, a feeling of rage, and thrust his
hands into his friendly pockets. He had never made many verbal
protestations to her, although the most exacting wife could have found no
fault with his love-making. But to-night he felt dumb; he was mortally
afraid of appearing high and noble and magnanimous.

"You see, things always happen during the first years of married life.
Perhaps more happens--I mean in a pettier way--when the man has leisure
and can see too much of his wife. In my case--our case--it was the other
way--and something almost tragic happened. So I vote we treat it
casually, as something that must have been expected sooner or later to
disturb our--our--even tenor--and forget it."

"Forget it?"

"Well, yes. I can if you can."

"And can you forget who I am?"

"You are exactly what you were before those scoundrels recognized your
mother, and--and--set me going. Of course I had to find out the truth. I
thought you knew and tried to make you tell me. But you
wouldn't--couldn't--and I had to employ Spaulding."

"Do you mean you would have married me if you had known the truth at
the time?"


"And--but--I told you--I became a regular gambler."

He could not help smiling. "I have no fear of your gambling again. And I
don't fancy you were a bit worse than the others who had no gambling
blood in them--all the world has that. Gambling is about the earliest of
the vices. I--if--you wouldn't mind promising--I know you will keep it."

"Nothing under heaven would induce me to play again. But--but--I opened
your safe like a thief and stole--"

"Oh, not quite. After all it was yours as much as mine. If I had died
without a will you would have got it.

"Of course--I know what you mean--but men have always driven women into a
corner, and they have had to get out by methods of their own. I wish now
I had given you the twenty thousand. I prefer you should accept my
decision that it was all my fault. Give me the chain."

She drew it from her bosom and handed it to him. He fastened the ruby in
its place and threw the chain over her neck. The great jewel lit up the
front of her somber gown like a sudden torch in a cavern.

The stern despair of Helene's tragic mask relaxed. She dropped her face
into her hands and began to sob. Then Ruyler was himself again. He
picked her up in his arms and settled comfortably into the deepest of
the chairs.


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