Part 2 out of 3
masculine biped in a blue-serge covering who paid her salary and struck
attitudes that were symbols of predatory instincts rather than an
indication that such instincts existed. Life had, after all, been
peopled by the precisely labeled puppets of a morality play; they came
on, and declaimed, and made gestures--but they remained abstractions,
things apart from life, mere representations of the vices and virtues
they impersonated. She had entertained this idea particularly with
regard to Flint. She had felt that the day would come when he and she
would occupy the stage together. He would speak his part with a great
flourish of the hands and much high-sounding emphasis, and when he had
finished she would reply with a carefully worded retort, setting forth
the claims and rewards of virtue. Thus it would continue, argument
succeeding argument, a declamatory give and take, dignified,
They were occupying the stage now, it was true, but there was something
warm and human and ragged about the performance. Flint was not a mere
spiritless allegory in red-satin doublet and hose to give flame to his
conventionality. Instead, she saw sitting opposite her a ponderous,
quick-breathing, drunken male, handsome in a coarse, rough-hewn way,
speaking in the quick, clipped speech of passion and striking her to the
ground with the energy of his stage business. She was afraid, almost for
the first time in her life, with a primitive, abandoned fear. And
suddenly her vista of womanhood narrowed to include the ugly foreground
of life that youth had looked over in its eager, far-flung scanning of
the horizon beyond. Suddenly she felt all the oppression and sorrow of
the sex bear down upon her and mark her with its relentless finger.
Because she was a woman she would pay for every joy with a corresponding
sorrow; receive a blow for every caress; know courage and fear with
equal intimacy.... She stopped eating and she began to realize with a
vivid terror that Flint was looking at her fixedly and beginning to
"What's the matter with the sweetbreads? Don't you like 'em?... And the
wine?... Say, I'm going to get peeved in a minute. You don't suppose we
serve this French-restaurant style of meal every day do you? I should
say _not_! That's another one of the _frau's_ convictions. Plain living
at home so as to set the right example to the _girls_!" Flint threw his
head from side to side, mincing out his last statement. "Gad! I'm tired
of setting a good example!... And even Sing gets tired. Chinks, you
know, like to cook a bang-up meal once in a while. They like a chance to
show their speed and put in all the fancy trimmings."
His mood, during this speech, had changed with drunken facility from
irritability to good humor. Claire, still attempting to marshal her
wits, picked up her fork again and murmured:
"Oh, you have a Chinese cook, then? I had no idea.... The Japanese boy,
you know. They say that the two never get along."
"That's a fairy-tale. Besides, it's next to impossible, these days, to
get a Chinese second-boy. And the missus _won't_ hire a girl." He winked
broadly. "Can't get one ugly enough, I guess. Sing's a wonder. I copped
him from the Tom Forsythes. _You_ know--young Edington's in-laws.
They've never quite forgiven me. Though they _will_ come back and tuck
away one of his dinners occasionally."
Claire's mind closed nimbly over Flint's statement. "The--the Tom
Forsythes of Ross?" she asked.
He nodded and tossed a glass of wine off in one gulp. The Tom Forsythes
of Ross ... Edington's sister ... Ned Stillman! The sequence of ideas
flashed through Claire's mind with flashing detachment. She leaned back
in her seat and raised the wine-glass in obvious pretense to her lips.
Flint was watching her keenly: an ugly gleam was in his eyes.
"Well, Miss Robson, you might just as well make up your mind to finish
that glass of wine first as last. We're not going to have the next
course until you do."
She measured him deliberately. She knew now that it was to be a fight to
a finish. She was honestly afraid and full of the courage of
"I've had enough as it is, Mr. Flint. Besides, we must either be getting
to work or figuring how I am to make the boat at Sausalito. I suppose
you could send me in the car ... with Jerry."
"Oh, with Jerry? So that's it!... No, not on your life! He's too
good-looking a boy for a job like that. No, Miss Robson, you are going
to stay _right_ here.... Now, understand me, I'm not a damn fool! You
seem to have an idea that because I've had a glass or two that I've lost
my reason. You're an attractive girl and all that, Miss Robson, and I am
interested in you! But please don't flatter yourself that I'm staking
everything on a throw like this. As a matter of fact, I'll see that you
are properly chaperoned. We've plenty of neighbors. You've got the best
excuse in the world for staying here and...."
"But, my dear Mr. Flint, can't you see, I...."
"No, I can't. I want you to stay _here_. My reasons are as good as
yours. Now let's get that off our mind and enjoy the meal."
His manner struck her protests to the ground again. She was no longer
fearing the immediate outcome, in fact, she never had, but she knew that
if he broke her to his will now, all the safeguards, all the chaperons,
all the conventions in the world wouldn't save her from ultimate
consequences. This was the try-out that was to establish her pace in the
final contest; she would stand or fall upon the record she made at this
moment. For she was trying out something more than Flint's temper,
something greater than a mechanical adjustment of human
relationships--she was trying out _herself_. She sat for some moments,
thinking hard, one hand fingering the slender base of the wine-filled
glass in front of her, the other dropped in pensive limpness at her
side. Flint had cleared the space in front of him of everything but his
two wine-glasses. He had slipped down in his seat and his two bloodshot
eyes were fixing her with a level stare.
She stirred finally and rose.
He was on his feet in an instant.
"I'm going to telephone," she said, calmly.
"Telephone ... where?... What's the idea?"
"Mr. Flint," she answered, a bit wearily, "at least I'm a guest in your
house, am I not?"
He settled back in his seat with a grunt of acquiescence. She stood
dazed for a moment, surprised at the chance that had put such telling
words into her mouth. She had been fingering timidly for the key to his
chivalry; quite by accident she had hit upon it in the shape of this
appeal to her expectations of him in the role of host. She could have
lied, of course, and told him that she wished to telephone her mother,
but she had not yet been cornered sufficiently to resort to so
distasteful a weapon.... As she left the room she found herself
wondering whether Stillman had by any chance left the Tom Forsythes. She
looked at the clock. It was not quite eight o'clock. She felt reassured,
yet she was tremendously frightened.... Especially as she realized that
the telephone was in the entrance hall within earshot of the
She was decidedly more frightened when she got back from her
telephoning, and looked at Flint. He was clutching at the table with
both hands, his body tilted slightly forward, his lips ominously thin.
"You telephoned to the Tom Forsythes, didn't you?"
"And you asked for Stillman.... Did you get him?"
"What did you want with him?"
"If you heard that much, I guess you heard the rest, Mr. Flint."
Claire stood at her place at the table. She decided not to sit. Flint
bore down on both hands until things began to creak.
"Yes, I heard everything, but, dammit all, I couldn't believe my own
ears. You're like every woman I ever knew ... you don't play fair. You
appeal to my instinct as host and then you go and outrage every
privilege you've got me to concede. You're a pretty guest, you are! And
I sit here and let you 'play me for a fool.' Let you ring up Ned
Stillman and ask him to fetch you away from _my_ house in _his_ car!" He
stopped and took a deep breath; his words were no longer passionate;
instead, they were precise and cool and venomous. "Understand me, young
lady, I'm through with you. I wouldn't care, if I thought you were
really virtuous. But you're too clever for a virtuous woman.... Oh, I
dare say you subscribe to the letter of the law, all right. For
instance, you take care not to run around with married men whose
incumbrances are in plain view of the audience.... Oh, I've seen lots of
clever women in my time, but in the end they always took too much rope.
Remember, you'll have your bluff called some day."
He pushed back his chair noisily and rose. The Japanese servant came
"Clear away the things!" Flint bellowed. "We're through!... Good night,
Miss Robson, and a pleasant journey to you--you and your _immaculate_
He left the room with a melodramatic flourish.... Presently Claire heard
him mounting the stairs.
"He's drunk!" flashed through her mind, as if the idea had just struck
her. "Of course, he must be drunk, otherwise he wouldn't have dared
She went out into the entrance hall and put on her hat.
Midway between Yolanda and Sausalito Stillman's machine died with
disconcerting suddenness The rain was coming down in sheets. Stillman
"It's no use," he announced, lifting himself back into his seat. "I
can't do anything in this deluge."
This was the first word that had been said since he and Claire had left
"The worst will be over in a few moments," replied Claire, easily. But
she was far from reassured.
The deluge was _not_ over in a few moments. It kept up with an
ever-increasing violence, until it seemed that even the stalled car
would be compelled to yield to its force. Claire had never seen it rain
harder; the storm had a vindictive fury that reminded her of the
dreadful tempest in "King Lear."
Stillman maintained his usual well-bred calm and smoked cigarettes while
he chattered. He touched on every conceivable subject but the one
uppermost in Claire's mind, until she began to wonder whether delicacy
or contempt veiled his conversation. A half-hour passed ... an hour ...
two. Still the rain swept from the sullen sky. Twice Stillman made a
futile attempt to remedy the trouble with his engine, and twice he
retired defeated to the shelter of the car. Claire was relieved that
she was in the company of a man who did not emphasize the monotonous
hours by indiscriminate raillery against the tricks of chance. At first
he dismissed the situation with the most casual of shrugs; later he
acknowledged his annoyance by an expression of regret at his companion's
discomfort, but he stopped there.
As the hours went on, with no abatement of the storm's devastating
energy, Claire grew less and less pleased at the prospect. She began to
wonder whether the shelter of Flint's roof had not been, after all, the
discreet thing. Was not her headlong flight in company with Stillman
more open to criticism than the frank acceptance of her employer's
hospitality? But these vagrant questions were the spawn of a colorless
spirit of social expediency which fastens itself on weak natures, and in
Claire's case they died still-born. She had been too well schooled in
loneliness to lean heavily on the crooked stick of public opinion.
Accustomed to standing alone, she had something of the spiritual
arrogance that goes with independence. People could think what they
liked. And it was more a realization of her mother's anxiety than any
thought of self which made her suggest to Stillman that they might get
out and walk into Sausalito.
"I think the last boat leaves there at twelve-thirty," she finished.
"Surely we could make it if we keep going."
Stillman thrust his arm out into the drenching rain, and withdrew it
instantly. "I'm afraid that's out of the question, so long as the rain
keeps up, Miss Robson," he said, in a tone of implied objection.
"Perhaps if it should stop...."
Claire settled back in her seat. Stillman was right. The storm was too
furious to be lightly braved.
It was eleven o'clock before a quick veering of the wind brought a
downpour so violent that what had gone before seemed little better than
a rather weak rehearsal.
"It will clear presently," Stillman assured Claire. "Southeaster always
break up in a flurry like this from the west."
In ten minutes the stars were peeping brilliantly through rents in the
torn clouds. Pungent odors floated up from the rain-trampled stubble of
the hillsides, the air was cleared of its stifling oppressiveness, the
first storm of the season was over.
Both Claire and Stillman clambered out at the first signs of the storm's
exhaustion. Stillman switched on his pocket-light and began to
investigate the trouble with the engine. His decision was swift and
"It's hopeless," he announced, turning to Claire with a slight grimace.
"We're stalled absolutely and no mistake. I guess we'd better strike out
and walk. No doubt we'll get a lift into Sausalito before we've gone
very far, but I dare say it's well to be on the safe side."
They rolled the machine to one side of the roadway and struck out
hopefully. The rain had made a thin chocolate ooze of the highway, and
before they had gone a hundred yards their shoes were slimy with mud. It
appeared that Stillman had been something of an aimless wanderer for
many years, and as he talked on and on, giving detached glimpses of the
remote places he had visited, Claire had a curious sense of futility.
She read between his clipped and vivid sentences the tragedy of a
personality worsted by the soft hands of circumstances. This man might
have done things. As it was he was an idler. He gave her the impression
of a man waiting vaguely for opportunity--like some traveler pacing
restlessly up and down a railway station platform in expectation of the
momentary arrival of a delayed train. She tried to imagine him as she
felt sure he must once have been--youthful, eager, ardent, a man of
charming enthusiasms that just missed being extravagances, who could
bring zest to his virtues as well as to his follies.
"Surely," she thought, "something more than inclination must have pushed
him into this deadly stagnation."
And at once Miss Munch's insinuating question leaped up to answer:
"You know about his wife, of course!"
Were men put out of countenance by such impersonal tricks of fortune?
Impersonal?... this domestic tragedy?... Yes, Claire felt that it must
be, otherwise the man tramping at her side would have wrestled so
passionately against fate as to have come away at least spattered with
the mud of defeat. No, Stillman was not defeated, he was merely
arrested, restrained, held for orders.
He had been in London when the war broke out. He had stayed long enough
to watch the stolid, easy-going British public awake to the seriousness
of the encounter, coming home after the first air raids.
"I didn't mind being killed," he laughed, in explanation of his sudden
flight. "But I didn't like being so frightfully messed up in the
process. I want a chance to strike back when I'm cornered. The Zeppelin
game was too much like a rabbit-drive to suit me."
As he spoke of these experiences, Claire listened with a quickening of
the spirit. The prospect of finding Stillman vibrant was too stirring to
be denied. But he was still sober on this colossal subject of war ... a
bit judicial, always well poised. He had his sympathies, but they did
not appear vitalized by extravagances of feeling. Yet here and there
Claire was conscious of truant warmths, like brief flashes of sunlight
through a somber forest.
"And the draft--what do you think of that?" The question rose to her
lips as if his answer might unlock the door to something deeper in the
way of convictions.
He began with a shrug that chilled her; then his reply broke with sudden
"It helps ... some of us. There are many who can't decide for
themselves. The obvious duty isn't always the correct one. In my
He did not stop speaking suddenly, but his voice trailed off into a dim
region of musing. They both fell silent. But Claire knew. There was that
haunting hope, almost like a fear, that his wife might some day get
better. That was what he was waiting for! It might come to-morrow ...
next week ... in a year ... never! But when it did come he felt that he
must be there, ready. She wondered whether he loved his wife very much,
and she found herself hoping that he did.... It would help, somehow ...
yes, if that were so his sacrifice gained point. On the other hand....
She put the thought away with a quick thrust, feeling that she had no
right to such a speculation, and presently she was aware that they were
swinging into Sausalito.
Stillman looked at his watch. Twelve-thirty-five ... just five minutes
late for the boat! She could see that he was disturbed.
"I thought sure we'd get a lift," he railed, tossing aside a mangled
cigar. "This _is_ luck!... I guess we'll have to rout out the Sherwins.
It's something of a pull up the hill, but any safe port in a storm, you
"Another one of the Edington girls. They have a bungalow at the very
dizziest point in Sausalito."
But Claire objected and held firm. "I couldn't think of it, Mr.
Stillman. No, really!... Please don't insist."
They agreed on a lodging for Claire in a freshly painted but otherwise
rather decrepit lodging-house, just north of the ferry-slip. Its chief
advantage was that it seemed quite too stagnant to be anything but
respectable, and the suppressed grumbling of the old shrew whom they
routed out confirmed their estimate. She didn't approve of couples who
dragged God-fearing old women out of bed at unholy hours in the
morning, and it was only the generous tip from Stillman and the
assurance that he intended looking elsewhere for quarters for himself
that reconciled her to her loss of sleep and the compromise with her
For a good half-hour Claire sat with folded hands peering out from her
room upon the damp hillside to the west. From across the street came the
bawdy thumping of a mechanical piano and the swish of a sluggish tide.
Her encounter with Sawyer Flint had forced the door of her virginal
seclusion and thrust her at once into the primitive and elemental open.
She felt like one who was coming out of voluntary exile to the pathos of
a deferred heritage. Before her stretched the eagle's horizon, but she
had only the fledgling's strength of wing. She longed for the faith and
courage and daring to take life at its word, longed with all the
dangerous fierceness of one who had fed too long upon the husks of
existence. And, longing, she fell asleep, sitting in a chair before the
open window, without thought or preparation....
* * * * *
The morning broke cloudless. All traces of the night's fury were
obliterated as completely as sorrow from the face of a smiling child.
The sun touched the open spaces with a tender, caressing warmth, but the
shadows held a keen-edged chill.
Claire decided upon an early boat to town.
"I'll be less likely to meet any of the California Street crowd," she
said to herself, as she picked her brief way toward the ferry.
The boat was crowded, especially the lower cabin. It was the artisans'
boat and the air was heavy with the smoke of pipe-tobacco. Claire passed
rapidly to the dining-room. Perched upon the high revolving chairs
surrounding a horseshoe counter, a score or more of soft-shirted men sat
devouring huge greasy doughnuts and gulping coffee. The steward, taking
note of Claire's hesitation, came forward and led her to a seat at one
of the side tables. She was about to take advantage of the chair which
he had drawn out for her when she heard her name called. She turned.
Miss Munch's cousin, Mrs. Richards, was sitting alone at the table just
behind. Claire's first feeling was one of relief--she was glad to
discover an acquaintance. She thanked the steward for his trouble and
abandoned the proffered seat for the one opposite Mrs. Richards. Almost
at once she regretted her impulsive decision.
"I didn't know you intended staying at Flint's all night," Mrs. Richards
began, fixing Claire with a challenging gaze.
"I didn't intend to," returned Claire, her voice sharpened slightly.
Mrs. Richards took the lid off the sugar-bowl and powdered her
grapefruit sparingly. "Have they a nice home?" she questioned.
"Yes, very nice."
"They gave you an early start, didn't they?... It's almost impossible to
get servants these days to consider such a thing as serving breakfast
much before eight o'clock."
Claire glanced at the bill of fare. Mrs. Richards's tone was a trifle
too eager. "I suppose it is," Claire assented, placing the menu-card
back in its place between the vinegar and oil cruets.
Mrs. Richards remained unabashed at her vis-a-vis's palpable
indirectness. "I guess I'm old-fashioned, but, servants or no servants,
I don't believe I could let a guest of mine leave the house without
breakfast. It seems to me that if I'd been Mrs. Flint I'd have gotten up
and made you a cup of coffee myself."
Claire's growing annoyance was swallowed up in a feeling of faint
amusement. "Perhaps Mrs. Flint wasn't home," she said, beckoning the
"Oh!" Mrs. Richards exclaimed with shocked brevity.
It was not until the arrival of Claire's order of toast and coffee that
Mrs. Richards found her voice again.
"This business of wives staying from home all night gets me," Mrs.
Richards hazarded, boldly. "Why, I never remember the time when my
mother remained away overnight ... not under _any_ circumstances. My
father expected her to be there, and she always _was_."
Claire distributed bits of butter over the surface of her toast. She
felt that in justice to the Flint family it was not right for her to
give Mrs. Richards's dangerous tongue any further scope, however
tempting was the prospect of leaving such venomous inquisitiveness
"I think you misunderstood me, Mrs. Richards. I didn't say that Mrs.
Flint remained away from home last night. As a matter of fact I didn't
stay at Yolanda, so I don't know anything about it."
"Oh!" faintly escaped Mrs. Richards for the second time that morning,
but Claire was conscious that there was more incredulity than surprise
registered in the lady's tone.
"As a matter of fact," Claire continued, stung to incautious
exasperation, "I spent the night in Sausalito."
Mrs. Richards met this information with a disarmingly bland smile. "I
didn't know you had friends in Sausalito," she said, letting a spoonful
of coffee trickle back into her cup.
"I haven't. I spent the night in a lodging-house ... on the
"My dear Miss Robson, really I.... Why, I hope you don't think I was
It was the simplicity of the challenge that made it impossible to be
ignored. Claire knew that she was trapped, but she was angry enough to
decide on some reservation.
"The storm put the track between Yolanda and Sausalito out of
commission," Claire found herself snapping back too eagerly at her
tormentor. "We tried to make the last boat by auto, but we got stalled
and missed it. We had to walk a good half of the way."
"I shouldn't think that would have done Mr. Flint's cold any good," Mrs.
Richards said, drawlingly.
"Mr. Flint's cold?... I don't quite see what that has to do with it."
"Oh, you said 'we' I somehow got the impression...."
"No, Mrs. Richards, you've misunderstood me again." Claire threw a
cool, even glance at her antagonist. "I made the trip from Yolanda to
Sausalito in Mr. Stillman's car."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Richards for a third time, and in this instance her
voice was warm with gratification.
Claire directed her attention to her plate of buttered toast and her cup
of coffee. She was chagrined to think that she had fallen so easily into
Mrs. Richards's very obvious traps. Not that it mattered. She was quite
sure that the truth could not harm Stillman, and she was equally sure
that her position in life was too obscure to stand out conspicuously
against the darts of Mrs. Richards's vindictive tongue. But she had the
pride of her reticences and she did not like to surrender these
privileges at the point of insolent curiosity. The two continued to eat
It was Mrs. Richards who finished first, and she dipped her fingers
hurriedly into the battered metal finger-bowl which the Japanese bus-boy
thrust before her.
"Do you mind if I go along?" she inquired of Claire, with an air of
polite triumph. "I think I'll go forward where I can get a quick start
... before the crowd gets too thick. I've got a million errands to do
before nine o'clock. And I _do_ want to run into the office before
Gertie settles down to work. I haven't seen her for a week and I've got
_more_ things to tell her!"
"Why, Miss Claire, how could you! Where have you been? And your mother
in such a bad way!" Mrs. Finnegan broke into sudden tears.
Claire, fumbling in her bag for the front-door key, looked up. Mrs.
Finnegan had swung open the door to the Robson flat and she stood like a
vision of disaster upon the threshold.
"What has happened?" Claire's voice rose with a note of swift
"Your mother ... she's paralyzed! She was taken last night. The doctor
says it would have happened, anyway. But I say it was worry, that's what
it was. With you away all night and never a word!"
Claire climbed the stairs in silence, aware that Mrs. Finnegan was
following at a discreet distance. Already the house seemed permeated
with an atmosphere of tragedy and gloom in spite of the morning light
pouring in unscreened at every window. Mrs. Robson's room was the only
exception to this unusual excess of cold radiance--unusual, because it
was one of Mrs. Robson's prides to keep her window-shades lowered to a
uniform and genteel distance.
Until Claire came face to face with her mother she almost had fancied
that her neighbor was indulging in a crude and terrible joke, but one
look sufficed. Mrs. Robson lay staring vacantly at the ceiling; she
could not move, she could not speak, and her spirit showed through the
veiled light in her eyes like a mysterious spot of sunshine in a shaded
well. Above a swooning sense of calamity Claire felt the strength of a
tender pretense struggling to communicate its vague hope to the stricken
form. She raised the window-shade slightly and sat down upon the bed.
"Why, mother, what's all this?" she began, in a tone of gentle banter,
as she stroked the helpless hands. "Were you worried? I'm so sorry! I
asked Miss Munch to let you know. Didn't she?... I went over to Mr.
Flint's to take dictation. The storm washed out the track. I tried to
make the boat in Mr. Stillman's car, but we broke down and missed it....
I had to stay all night in Sausalito."
Mrs. Robson, stirring faintly, attempted to speak. Claire turned
helplessly to Mrs. Finnegan. "I can't make out what she is trying to
Mrs. Finnegan bent an attentive ear. "It's about Stillman," she
explained. "Your mother don't understand why...."
The speaker stopped with significant discretion. It was plain to Claire
that _nobody_ understood, and she felt a dreary futility as she answered
both her mother and Mrs. Finnegan with:
"It's a long story. Some other time, when ... when you're feeling
A look of gray disappointment crossed Mrs. Robson's face. Mrs.
Finnegan's upper lip seemed shaped suddenly with a suspicion that died
almost as quickly as it began. There was a ring at the bell. "That's the
doctor," said Mrs. Finnegan, and she left to open the door.
The doctor chilled Claire with his steely nonchalance as she stood apart
while he went through the usual forms of a professional visit that was
obviously futile. She followed him to the front door. He answered her
eager inquiries with the cold triumph of authority.
"How long will she last?... Well, Miss Robson, that is hard to say. She
might go off to-night. Then, again, she might live twenty years. She'll
scarcely get any better, though. No, a nurse isn't essential, unless you
can afford one. But you ought to have another woman about. If you have
any relatives you'd better send for them and let them help out."
Claire did not find the doctor's announcement that her mother might die
at once nearly so brutal as his assurance that she had an equal chance
for existing twenty years. _Twenty years!_ Claire closed the door and
sank upon the steps overwhelmed.
But there was scant leisure on this first dreadful day of Mrs. Robson's
illness for theatrical exuberances. Claire, unaccustomed to the routine
of household duties, took a thousand unnecessary steps. She tried to
work calmly, to bring an acquired philosophy to her tasks, but she went
through her paces with a feverish, though stolid, anxiety. The long
night which followed was inconceivably a thing of horror. Her wakeful
moments were dry-eyed with despair, and when she slept it was only to
come back to a shivering consciousness.
Mrs. Finnegan found her next morning fresh from an attempt to rouse her
mother into accepting a few swallows of milk, which had ended in
pathetic and miserable failure. She had thrown herself in an abandon of
grief across the narrow kitchen table, and the coffee from an overturned
cup was trickling in a warm, thick stream to the floor. But the paroxysm
did her good. She rose to the kindly caresses of her neighbor like a
flower beaten to earth but refreshed by a relentless torrent. After
this, custom and habit began to reassert themselves in spite of the
crushing weight of circumstance. She 'phoned to the office. Mr. Flint
had returned, they told her. She explained her trouble to the cashier.
"I'll try to be back the first of the week," she finished, in a burst of
Later in the day Mrs. Robson's two sisters arrived in answer to Claire's
summons. Claire's impulse to send for them had been purely
instinctive--an atrophied survival of clan-spirit that persisted beyond
any real faith in its significance. Perhaps she had a feeling that her
mother wished it; certainly she had no illusions as to the manner in
which the unwelcome news of Mrs. Robson's illness would be received by
these two self-centered females.
It was Mrs. Thomas Wynne who came in first, bundled mysteriously in her
furs and holding a glass of wine jelly as a conventional symbol of the
role of Lady Bountiful which she had for the moment assumed. Claire
could almost fancy how conspicuously she had contrived to carry this
overworked badge of the humanities, and the languid drawl of her voice
as she explained to her friends _en route_:
"So sorry I can't stop and chat. But, as you see, I'm running along to a
sick-room.... Oh no, nothing serious, I hope! Just my sister.... Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown? Oh, dear no! A younger sister. I don't think you know her.
She's had a great deal of trouble and hasn't been about much for a
number of years."
Mrs. Thomas Wynne had the trick of intrenching a stubborn family pride
by throwing back her head and daring all comers to uncover any of the
Carrol clan's shortcomings. But her selfishness had at least the virtue
of a live-and-let-live attitude that contrasted with the futile
aggressiveness of Mrs. Edward Ffinch-Brown. She asked Claire no
questions concerning her life or her prospects; she did not even pry
very deeply into the chances that her sister had for an ultimate
recovery. Her philosophy seemed to be founded on the knowledge that
uncovered cesspools were bound to be unpleasant, and, since she had no
desire to assist in their purification, she was quite content to keep
them properly screened. She came and deposited her wine jelly and patted
her sister's hand and went away again without leaving even a ripple in
her wake. As she departed she gave further proof of her insolent
insincerity by calling back at Claire:
"Remember, Claire, if there is anything I can do, just let me know."
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown's visit was scarcely more comforting, but decidedly
more exciting. She had not the suavity of her indifferences. Mrs.
Robson's untimely tilt with fate irritated her, and she took no pains to
conceal this fact.
"I suppose your mother is just as she's always been--a creature of
nerves," she said, as she dropped into a seat for a preliminary session
with Claire before venturing upon the unwelcome sight of her stricken
sister. "I don't know why it is, but she seems to be one of those people
who always has had something the matter with her. Poor Emily! Well, I
suppose we are all made differently."
When she entered the sick-room she found fault with the arrangement of
the bed, the manner in which the covers slipped off, the uncovered glass
of medicine on the bureau.
"You should braid your mother's hair, too. And why don't you pull the
window down from the top?"
Claire stood in sullen silence while her aunt vented a personal
annoyance on the nearest objects. But when Mrs. Ffinch-Brown's
ill-natured ministrations brought a dumb but protesting misery to the
sufferer's face, Claire found the courage to say, as gently as she
"Why bother, Aunt Julia? Mother is really too sick now to care much
This was just what Claire's aunt had hoped for. It gave her a chance for
escape without any strain upon her conscience. She did not remain long
after what she was pleased to consider a rebuff.
"Well, Claire, I see I can't be of much help," she announced as she
powdered her nose before the shabby hat-rack mirror and drew on her
gloves.... After she was gone Claire found a five-dollar bill on the
living-room table. She opened the gilt-edged copy of Tennyson that,
together with a calf edition of Ouida's _Moths_, had stood for years as
guard over the literary pretensions of the household, and thrust the
money midway between its covers. Doubtless a time was coming when she
would find it necessary to use this money, but the present moment was
too charged with the giver's resentful benevolence to make such a
For three consecutive days Mrs. Ffinch-Brown swooped down upon the
Robson household and gave vent to her pique. She had been divorced so
long from these melancholy relations of hers that she had really
forgotten their existence, and she displayed all the rancor of a woman
who discovers suddenly a moth hole in the long undisturbed folds of a
treasured cashmere shawl. Her precisely timed visits had not the
slightest suspicion of attentiveness back of them, and Claire guessed
almost at once that they were more in the nature of assaults carried on
in the hope that she would meet enough opposition to insure an honorable
retreat. Unlike Mrs. Thomas Wynne, Aunt Julia inquired minutely into
family matters, insisted on knowing Claire's plans, and was aggressively
free with advice.
"You ought to be making plans, Claire," she said, at the conclusion of
her second visit. "You can't go on like this. I'd like to be able to do
more, but of course I can't spare much time. And next week you'll have
to be getting into harness again. You'd better think it over."
And on the next day, finding that Claire obviously had _not_ thought it
over, she threw out a hint that was little save a thinly veiled threat.
She came in with a more genial manner than she was accustomed to waste
upon the desert air of penury, and Claire, well schooled in reading the
significance of proverbial calms, had a misgiving.
"I've been talking to Miss Morton ... about your mother," Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown began, without bothering to lead up to the subject. "You
know Alice Morton.... Well, your mother does, anyway. I bumped into her
yesterday, quite by accident ... at a Red Cross meeting. It seems she's
one of the directors of The King's Daughters' Home for Incurables!"
Claire was sitting opposite her aunt, nervously fingering a
paper-cutter. Mrs. Ffinch-Brown eyed her niece sharply, and with an
obvious determination to drive her thrusts home before her victim
recovered from the first vicious stabs she continued: "It seems they
haven't a great deal of room out there, but she thinks she could arrange
things. They'll raise the price to two thousand dollars after the
fifteenth of the month, so I thought that--"
"Oh, not quite yet, Aunt Julia!... Mother has a chance. Surely...."
"Now, Claire, don't get hysterical. You're a business woman and _you_
ought to be practical if any of us are. The price to-day is one thousand
dollars. Think of it! Care for life in a ward with only _three_ others!
Now I can't ask your uncle for any more than is necessary in a case
like this. If we make up our mind promptly we can save just one thousand
For the moment Claire felt the harried desperation of a cornered animal.
She had never seen anything more disagreeable than her aunt's sidelong
glance. She felt herself rise from her seat with cold dignity.
"I'm afraid, Aunt Julia, I can't make up my mind as quickly as you wish.
It isn't so simple as it seems. I'm not above a plan like this if I'm
convinced it's necessary. But somehow.... Oh, I know what you're
thinking--you're thinking that beggars shouldn't be choosers. Well, I'm
not quite a beggar yet. But when I am, I won't choose.... I'll promise
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown rose also. She was in a position to triumph in any
case, and she was washing her hands of the situation with eager
satisfaction. "Oh, indeed! I'm glad you can say that _now_. But you
weren't always so independent. I suppose it never occurs to you to thank
me for what I did when you were younger."
Claire felt quite calm. The events of the past twenty-four hours had
wrung her emotions dry. "Yes, Aunt Julia," she said, with an air of cool
defiance, "it occurred to me many times.... Perhaps if I'd had any
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown grew pale. "It's plain that I'm wasting my time here!"
Claire went with her aunt to the door....
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown did not cross the threshold of the Robson home again,
and when on the following day Claire saw the figure of Mrs. Thomas
Wynne outlined against the lace-screened front door she let the bell
* * * * *
The dismissal of the last of the Carrol clan from any participation in
the Robson destinies gave Claire a feeling at once independent and
solitary. There had been a vague hope that this crisis might germinate
some stray seeds of kinship, shriveled by the drought of uneventful
years. But the poisonous nettles of memory were the only harvest that
had sprung from the presence of Mrs. Robson's sisters, and Claire was
glad to uproot the arid product of their shallowness.
The week came to a close with a rush of visitors. Suddenly it seemed as
if everybody knew of Mrs. Robson's illness. Fellow church members, old
school friends, casual acquaintances began to ring the front-door bell
insistently. Knowing her mother's instinctive craving for recognition,
it struck Claire that it was the height of irony to see this belated
crowd come swarming in on the heels of calamity at the moment when Mrs.
Robson was unable to so much as see them. Mrs. Robson would have so
liked to sit in even a threadbare pomp and receive the homage of her
visitors, but fate had been scurvy enough to withhold this scant
Nellie Whitehead breezed in on Saturday afternoon just as Mrs.
Finnegan's cuckoo clock cooed the stroke of three; immediately the air
began to move out of adversity's tragic current. It was impossible to be
wholly without hope under the impetus of Nellie Whitehead's flaming
"I'm all out of breath," she began, as she flopped into the first chair
that came handy. "I keep forgetting I ain't sweet sixteen any more and
never been kissed. I hate to walk slow, though. Don't you? Say, but you
_are_ up against it, ain't you! I saw that Munch dame on the street and
she nearly broke her old neck trying to catch up with me. I wondered
what was the matter, because she ain't usually so keen about flagging
_me_. But, _you_ know, she never misses a trick at spilling out the
calamity stuff, especially if it isn't on her.... 'Oh, Miss Whitehead,'
she called out before I had a chance to beat it, 'have you heard about
Miss Robson's mother?' ...When she got through I fixed her with that
trusty old eye of mine and I said, 'I suppose you see her quite often.'
And what do you think the old stiff said? 'Oh, I'd like to, Miss
Whitehead, but I really haven't had time. You know I'm doing all Mr.
Flint's dictation now.' And she had the nerve to try and slip me a hint
that she was going to keep on doing it. But I just said to myself: 'You
should kid yourself that way, old girl! When Flint picks a bloomer like
you to ornament the back office it will be because his eyesight's failed
him.' ...By the way, how do you manage to stand him off--with religious
tracts or a hat-pin?"
She hardly waited for Claire's reply, but plunged at once into another
"Do you know what I'm up to? I got my eye on the swellest fur-lined coat
you ever saw ... at Magnin's. But you can bet I'm going to keep my eye
on it until after the holidays. They want a hundred and a quarter for it
now, but they'll be glad to take sixty-five when the gay festivities are
over, or I miss my guess. I go in every other day to have a look at it,
and when the girl's back is turned I hang it back in the case
myself--'way back where everybody else will overlook it. Oh, I know the
game all right. I did the same thing with a three piece suit last
summer. But I say, All is fair in war and the high cost of living. Maybe
you think I haven't had a time scraping the wherewithal for that coat
together. But I brought the total up to seventy the other day by getting
Billy Holmes to slip me a ten in advance for Christmas. I never trust a
man to invest in anything for me if I can help it. They usually run to
manicure sets in satin-lined cases or cut-glass cologne-bottles. Billy
Holmes?... Oh, you know him! He ran the reinsurance desk at the Royal
for years. They put him on the road last week. He's _some_ live wire.
And what's better, he has no incumbrances. I'll tell you what it is,
Robson, I'm getting kind of tired of the goings. I'm just about ready to
settle down by the old steam-radiator. And as long as I've got eyesight
enough to look the field over, I've decided on a traveling-man or a
sea-captain. They'll be sticking around home just about often enough to
suit me.... Not that I'm a man-hater, but I've never had 'em for a
steady diet and I'm not going to begin to get the habit this late day."
Nellie Whitehead stayed about an hour, and, as Claire opened the front
door upon her friend's departure the letter-man thrust an envelope into
her hands. She opened it hastily and turned suddenly white.
"Well, Robson, what's wrong now?" inquired Nellie.
"Flint ... he's let me out ... Miss Munch was right!"
On the selfsame Saturday of Claire's dismissal from the office ranks of
the Falcon Insurance Company Ned Stillman was the recipient of an early
telephone message from Lily Condor. It appeared that Flora Menzies, the
young woman who usually accompanied her in her vocal flights, had been
laid low with pneumonia and she wanted Stillman to persuade Claire
Robson to succeed to the honorary position.
"She did so famously on that night of our musicale," Lily Condor had
explained, "and Flora won't be in shape again for a good three months.
Of course, there isn't anything in it but glory. I'm just one of those
'sweet charity' artists. But I think she is a dear, and I know that
_you_ have influence."
Stillman pretended to be annoyed at Mrs. Condor's assumption that his
word would carry any weight in the matter, but as a matter of fact he
felt pleased in secret masculine fashion. Chancing to pass Flint's
office at the noon hour, he dropped in. It happened that Miss Munch was
standing near the counter, and she answered his inquiries with suave
"Oh, Miss Robson isn't with us any more. She hasn't been here for over
a week--not since her mother was taken sick. Oh, I thought you knew.
You're Mr. Stillman, aren't you? I've heard my cousin, Mrs. Richards,
speak of you. Miss Robson went over to Mr. Flint's on that night of the
storm and she missed the boat or something--_you_ know! And when she got
home next morning she found that her mother had worried herself into a
stroke. They say she is quite helpless.... I'm sure I don't know what
she intends doing. We mailed her check yesterday. It's always hard to
land another position when one is dismissed."
Stillman escaped quickly. Miss Munch's venom was a thing too crude and
unconcealed to face with indifference. Her emphatic "_you_ know" was
pregnant with innuendo and malice. Still, it did not occur to Stillman
that he had any part in Claire Robson's misfortune. But he did know from
Miss Munch's tone that the unfortunate situation, growing out of the
automobile ride from Yolanda to Sausalito, had received due recognition
at the hands of those who made a business of blowing out bubbles of
scandal from the suds of chance. It was useless for him to deny that
Claire Robson from the first had been of more or less interest. She
seemed to rise in such a detached fashion from her environment.
He had to admit, as later he sat in the cloistered silences of his club
library and blew contemplative smoke-rings into the air, that a certain
idle curiosity had been the mainspring of his concern for her. He had
been like a boy who captured a strange butterfly and clapped it under a
glass tumbler where he could watch how easily it would adapt itself to
its new surroundings. But, having caught the butterfly and held it a
brief captive, the dust from its wings still lingered upon the hands
that imprisoned it. He had made the mistake of imagining that one is
always master of casual incidents. To meet a young woman by the most
trivial chance, to extend a brief courtesy to her, these were matters
which hold scarcely the germs of a menacing situation, not menacing to
him, of course--they never could be menacing to him; he was still
thinking of things from the viewpoint of Claire Robson.
To tell the truth, he was annoyed at having been mixed up in Claire's
flight from the Flint household. Had Flint been a complete stranger he
would not have minded so much. He was still divided by the appeal to his
chivalry and the sense of loyalty that a man feels to the masculine
friends of his youth. In her telephone message Claire had put the matter
very casually--the track was washed out and she was wondering whether he
contemplated returning to town that evening. But he guessed at once what
lay back of her matter-of-fact boldness. He had guessed so completely
that he had decided not only to return to town, but to start at once.
He wondered now whether he had answered the appeal because a woman was
in a desperate situation or because that woman was Claire Robson. All
through the dinner hour at the Tom Forsythes he had thought about her,
had speculated vaguely what mischance or effrontery had been responsible
for her ill-timed visit to Flint's. He remembered trying to decide
whether the young woman was extraordinarily deep or extraordinarily
simple and frank. He did not like to concede that he could be influenced
by anything so transparently malicious as Mrs. Richards's statements
regarding the absence of Mrs. Flint, but he was bound to admit that they
did nothing to render the situation less innocent; what had particularly
annoyed him was the fact that he should have given the matter a second
thought. To begin with, it was none of his business and he was not a man
who presumed to judge or even speculate on other people's indiscretions.
Claire Robson was no sheltered schoolgirl. She was a full-grown woman,
in the thick of business life. Such women were not taken unawares. He
had just dismissed the whole affair from his mind on this basis when
Claire's telephone message came to him. Even now he marveled at the
sense of satisfaction that her appeal had given. But he had found no
savor in a situation that compelled him to interfere in Flint's program.
Such a move on his part was contrary to his standards, to his training
in comradeship, to all his acquired philosophy. He had the well-bred
man's distaste for getting into a mess. He abhorred scenes and
He had come through the incident with steadily waning enthusiasm and a
decision to wash his hands in the future of all such unprofitable
trifling. But the sudden knowledge that the young woman was in desperate
trouble revived his interest. He had no idea how serious Mrs. Robson's
illness was or whether Claire had any hopes for a new position. But
Miss Munch's words had been significant. Claire had been _dismissed_,
and Stillman knew enough about present business stagnation to conclude
that for the time, at least, Claire Robson faced a bleak outlook. He
realized the indelicacy of any definite move on his part, but it
occurred to him that it might be well to talk the situation over with
some one--preferably a woman. As he tossed his cigar butt aside, Lily
Condor appealed to him as just the person for the emergency. Therefore
he looked her up without further ado.
He found her at home, curled up among the cushions of a davenport that
did service as a bed when the scenes were shifted. She was living in a
tiny apartment consisting of one room and a kitchenette that gave
Stillman the impression of a juggler's cabinet. Nothing in this room was
ever by any chance what it seemed. Things that looked like doors led
nowhere; bits of stationary furniture usually yielded to the slightest
pressure and revealed strange secrets. He had seen Mrs. Condor deftly
construct a card-table out of an easy-chair, and he had no doubt that
the oak table in the center of the room could have been converted into a
chiffonier or a chassis-lounge at a given signal.
In repose, it struck Stillman that Mrs. Condor seemed very much like a
purring cat. He had never seen her quite so frankly behind the scenes,
robbed of both her physical and mental make-up. She was one of those
women in middle age who adapt themselves to the tone of their background
and while she contrived to strike a fairly vivid note, she took care not
to be discordant. She was clever enough to realize that her talents
were not sensational and that she could only hope for an indifferent
success as a professional. But in the role of a gracious amateur she
disarmed criticism and forced her way into circles that might otherwise
have been at some pains to exclude her. For, if the truth were known,
there had been certain phases of Mrs. Condor's earlier life which were
rather vaguely, and at the same time aptly, covered by Mrs. Finnegan's
term of "gay." A perfectly discreet woman, for instance, would have made
an effort to live down her flaming hair and almost immorally dazzling
complexion, but Mrs. Condor had been much more ready to live _up_ to
these conspicuous charms. In fact, she had lived up to them pretty
furiously, until time began to take a ruthless toll of her contrasting
points. From the concert-platform she still seemed to discount, almost
to flout, the years, but in secret she yielded unmistakably to their
It was this yielding, pliant attitude that struck Stillman as he came
upon her almost unawares on that early December afternoon, a yielding,
pliant attitude which gave a curious sense of tenacity under the
surface. And he thought, as he dropped into the chair she indicated,
that she was a woman who gained strength in these moments of relaxation.
"Fancy your catching me like this!" she said, "I thought when the bell
rang that you were my dressmaker.... If you want a highball you'll have
to wait on yourself. Phil Edington brought an awfully good bottle of
Scotch last night. I declare I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have
a youngster or two on my staff. Old men are such bores, anyway, and, as
a matter of fact, they never waste time on any woman over thirty. Well,
I don't blame them. We're a sorry, patched-up mess at best.... Tell me,
did you get hold of Miss Robson?"
"I dropped in, but she wasn't at the office," Stillman replied, tossing
his hat on the center-table.
Mrs. Condor withdrew to the relaxation of her innumerable sofa pillows
again. "Wasn't at the office? How thrilling! Is she one of the Sultan's
favorites?... I've heard Sawyer Flint was an easy mark if you know how
to work him. Miss Robson didn't strike me that way, though. But I ought
to have known that silent women are always cleverer than they appear."
Stillman caught the barest suggestion of a sneer in Mrs. Condor's
tone--the sneer of a woman relinquishing a stubborn hold upon the
"Well, I guess Miss Robson didn't know how to work him, as a matter of
fact," Stillman said, quietly. "She lost her job to-day. I'm a little
bit worried about her.... I came here on purpose to talk the situation
over with you."
His directness brought Lily Condor out of her languidness with a sharp
turn. She wriggled up and sat erectly on the edge of the davenport, one
slippered foot dangling just above the other. "Why, Ned Stillman, what
an old fraud you are! I didn't fancy you were interested in _anybody_. I
didn't think that you.... Oh, well, throw me a cigarette and let me hear
the worst in comfort!"
He opened his cigarette-case and leaned over toward her. She made her
choice. He struck a match and she put her hand tightly on his wrist as
she bent over the flame and slowly drew in her breath. Even after she
had released her grasp his flesh still bore the imprint of the rings on
her fingers. For a moment he had an impulse to bow himself out of her
presence without further explanation, but already she seemed to have a
proprietary interest in him. Her smile was full of friendly malice.
He ended by telling her everything, in spite of the conviction that he
had approached the wrong person.
"Of course," she hazarded, boldly, when he had finished, "you mean to
help her out."
Her presumption annoyed but rather refreshed him. "I'd like to do
something, but, hang it all, what can be done?"
"What can be done? If that isn't like a man! Or I should say, a
_gentleman_!... Why don't you plunge in boldly and damn the
consequences?... It's just your sort that sends women into the arms of
men like Flint. You're so busy keeping an eye on the proprieties that
you miss all the danger signals."
Her tone was extraordinarily familiar, and, to a man who rather prided
himself upon his ability to keep people at arm's-length, it was not
precisely agreeable. Yet he knew that it would be folly to give any hint
of his irritation.
"Well," he contrived to laugh back at her, "so far as I can see, Miss
Robson's problems are quite too simple. After all, it's largely a
question of money.... I can't go and throw gold in her lap as if she
were some beggar on a street corner."
"You mean, I suppose, that you are afraid to risk the outraged dignity
of this ward of yours. I think that's a lovely name for her. Don't
you?... You're acquiring such a benevolent old attitude. The only thing
to be done, I fancy, is to adopt some transparent ruse--some
sort of Daddy-Long-Leggish deception." She closed her eyes
thoughtfully--"_Hiring_ her as my accompanist, for instance." She rose
to dispense Scotch and soda. Stillman sat in thoughtful silence, while
Mrs. Condor talked to very trivial purpose. She seemed suddenly to have
grown tired of the subject of Claire Robson. The arrival of the expected
dressmaker broke in upon the rather one-sided tete-a-tete.
"You'll have to go," Lily Condor announced with an intimate air of
dismissal to Stillman. "It would never do to let a mere man in on the
secrets of the sewing-room."
At the door he hesitated awkwardly over his good-by. "I was wondering,"
he said, "whether you were serious about ... about hiring Miss Robson as
your accompanist. You know I think the plan has possibilities."
She threw back her head and smiled with hard satisfaction. "I've been
trying to figure if you had killed your imagination. Think it over."
She gave him the tips of her fingers. He returned their languid pressure
As he drifted down the hall he heard her calling, half gaily, half
derisively, after him:
"Don't decide on anything rash now.... Sleep over it!..."
* * * * *
He thought it over for three days and when he called on Lily Condor
again he found her divorced from her languishing mood. She was dressed
for dinner down-town, and he had to confess she had made the most of
what remained of her flaming hair and dazzling complexion.
He felt that she guessed the reason for his visit, although she took
care to let him force the issue.
"About Miss Robson," he said, finally, "I've concluded to take you at
Lily Condor smoothed out her gloves and laid them aside. "Take me at
_my_ word? You're welcome to the suggestion, if that is what you mean.
As a matter of fact I wasn't serious."
He was annoyed to feel that he was flushing. He could not fathom her,
but he had a conviction that she _had_ been serious and that this
attitude was a mere pose. "Nevertheless, I think it can be managed," he
insisted. "And I want you to help me."
She listened to his plan. "What you will call a Daddy-Long-Leggish
pretense," he explained to her with an attempt at facetiousness. "You to
do the hiring and ... and yours truly to provide the wherewithal. Until
things look up a bit. Of course then ... why, naturally, when things
look up a bit for her...."
But Lily remained lukewarm. She wasn't quite sure that it would be ...
oh, well, he knew what she meant! It seemed too absurd to think that he
had given an ear to anything so extravagant. She would like to be of
service to Miss Robson, of course, but, after all, she felt that it was
taking an unfair advantage of the girl.
"If she's everything you say she is, she'd resent it all tremendously,"
she put forth as a final objection.
"But she isn't to know! That's the point of the whole thing," he
explained, with absurd simplicity.
"Oh, my dear man, she isn't to know, but she _will_, ultimately. You
don't suppose the secret of a woman's meal-ticket is hidden very long,
do you? And, besides, you couldn't offer her enough to live on. That
would be absurd on the very face of it."
"Oh, well, I could offer her enough to help out a bit, anyway, and half
a loaf you know...."
He broke off, amazed at the determination her opposition had
crystallized. She looked at him sharply and rose.
"I must be running along," she commented as she drew on her gloves. "I
tell you, I'll go call on Miss Robson--some day this week. A woman can
always get a better side-light on a situation like this. There are so
many angles to be considered. She must have relatives. You wouldn't want
to make a false move, would you, now?"
He was too grateful to be suspicious at this sudden compromise with her
"You're tremendously good," he stammered. "It _will_ be a favor. And any
time that I can...."
"You can be of service to me right now," she interrupted, gaily. "Order
me a taxi ... that's a good boy! I always do so like to pull up at a
place in style."
Stillman paid Lily Condor a third visit that week--this time in answer
to the lady's telephone message. She had been to see Claire Robson and
her report was anything but rosy.
"Her mother's perfectly helpless and will be for the rest of her life,"
Lily volunteered almost cheerfully. "And, frankly, I don't see what is
going to become of them. It seems that Mrs. Robson is a sister of Mrs.
Tom Wynne and that dreadful Ffinch-Brown woman. They both have about as
much heart as a cast-iron stove. Miss Robson didn't say so in words, but
I gathered that she had called both of them off the relief job. I almost
cheered when I realized that fact. I threw out a hint about there being
a possibility of my needing an accompanist. I said Miss Menzies was ill
and perhaps ... and I intimated that there was something more than glory
"And what did Miss Robson say to that?"
"Oh, she was more self-contained than one would imagine under the
circumstances. She said she would like to think it over. She put it that
way on the score of leaving her mother alone nights. But, believe me,
that young lady is more calculating than she seems. Of course I didn't
mention terms or anything like that. I left a good loophole in case you
had changed your mind."
For the moment Stillman was almost persuaded to tell Lily Condor that he
_had_ changed his mind. Not that he had lost interest in Claire, but
already he had another plan and there was something disagreeably
presumptuous in Mrs. Condor's tone. He never remembered having taken
anybody into his confidence regarding a personal matter. The trouble
was that he had begun the whole affair under the misapprehension that it
was a most _impersonal_ thing. He still tried to look at it from that
angle, but Lily Condor's manner seemed bent on forcing home the rather
disturbing conviction that he had a vital interest in the issue. She had
cut in upon his reserve and he would never quite be able to recover the
lost ground. He felt that she sensed his revulsion, for almost at once
she adroitly changed the subject and it did not come to life again
during the remainder of his call.
But when he was leaving she thrust an idle finger into the lapel of his
coat and said:
"I think it's awfully good of you, Ned, to be human enough to want to do
something for others. I watched you as a young man, and when you
married...." His startled look must have halted her, for she released
her hold upon him and finished with a shrug.
He said good-by hastily and escaped. But he wondered, as he found his
way out into the street, how long it would be before Mrs. Condor would
acquire sufficient boldness to discuss with him what and whom she chose.
Christmas Day came and went with a host of bitter-sweet memories for
Claire Robson. Not that she could look back on any holiday season with
unalloyed happiness, but time had drawn the sting from the misfortune of
the old days. Through the mist of the years outlines softened, and she
was more prone to measure the results by the slight harvest that their
efforts had brought. For instance, they had never been too poor to deny
themselves the luxury of a tree. And a tree to Mrs. Robson meant none of
the scant, indifferent affairs that most of the neighbors found
acceptable strung with a few strands of dingy popcorn and pasteboard
ornaments. No, the Robson tree was always an opulent work of art,
freighted with bursting cornucopias and heavy glass balls and yards of
quivering tinsel. The money for all this dazzling beauty usually came a
fortnight or so before the eventful day in the shape of a ten-dollar
bill tucked away in the folds of Gertrude Sinclair's annual letter to
Mrs. Robson. As Claire had grown older she had grown also impatient of
the memory of her mother squandering what should have gone for thick
shoes and warm plaid dresses upon the ephemeral joys of a Christmas
tree. But now she suddenly understood, and she felt glad for a mother
courageous enough to lay hold upon the beautiful symbols of life at the
expense of all that was hideously practical. Shoes wore out and plaid
dresses finally found their way to the rag-bag, but the glories of the
spirit burned forever in the splendor of all this truant magnificence,
and the years stretched back in a glittering procession of light-ladened
Then some time between Christmas and New-Year came the Christmas
pantomime at the Tivoli, with its bewildering array of scantily clad
fairies and dashing Amazons and languishing princes in pale-blue tights;
to say nothing of the Queen Charlottes consumed between acts through
faintly yellow straws. How Claire would mark off each day on the
calendar which brought her nearer to this triumph! And what a hurry and
bustle always ensued to get dinner over and be fully dressed and down to
the box-office before even the doors were opened, so that they could get
first choice of the unreserved seats which sold at twenty-five cents.
Then there would ensue the long, tedious wait in the dimly lighted
cavern of the playhouse, smelling with a curious fascination of stale
cigars and staler beer, and the thrill that the appearance of the
orchestra produced, followed by the arrival of all the important
personages fortunate enough to afford fifty-cent seats, which gave them
the security to put off their appearance until the curtain was almost
ready to rise. And when the curtain really did rise upon the inevitable
spectacle of villagers dancing upon the village green! And Mrs. Robson
carefully picked out in the chorus the stout sister of a former servant
who had worked for her mother! And the wicked old witch swept from the
wings on the traditional broomstick! From that moment until the final
transformation scene, when scintillating sea-shells yielded up one by
one their dazzling burdens of female loveliness and a rather Hebraic
Cupid descended from an invisible wire to wish everybody a happy
New-Year in words appropriately rhymed, there was no halt to the wonders
disclosed. With what sharp and exquisite reluctance did Claire remain
glued to her seat, refusing to believe that it was all over! Even at
this late date Claire had only to close her eyes to revive the delights
of these rather covert excursions into the realm of fancy--covert,
because a Tivoli pantomime had not precisely the sanction of such a
respectable organization as the Second Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Robson,
while not definitely encouraging Claire to wilful dishonesty, always
managed to warn her daughter by saying:
"I wouldn't tell any one about going to the Tivoli, Claire, if I were
you ... unless, of course, they should ask about it."
Claire, in mortal terror lest any indiscretion on her part would put a
stop to this annual lapse into such delightful immoralities, held her
peace in spite of her desire to spread abroad the beauties which she had
beheld. She had a feeling that all the participants in the pantomime
must of necessity be rather wicked and abandoned creatures, and half the
pleasure she had felt in viewing them arose from a secret admiration at
the courage which permitted human beings to be so perfectly and
desperately sinful. Although she was almost persuaded that perhaps it
did not take quite such bravado to be wicked in blue-spangled gauze and
satin slippers as it did to lapse from the straight and narrow path in a
gingham dress and resoled boots.
The only thrill that the present Christmas Day produced came in the
shape of a pot of flaming poinsettias bearing the card of Ned Stillman.
These were the first flowers that Claire ever remembered having
received. It pleased her also to realize that Stillman had been delicate
to the point of this thoroughly unpractical gift, especially as he had
every reason to assume that something more substantial would have been
acceptable. She was confident that by this time he had heard through
Mrs. Condor of her mother's illness and her loss of position. Claire was
still puzzled at Mrs. Condor's visit. For all that lady's skill at
subterfuge, there were implied evasions in her manner which Claire
sensed instinctively. And then Claire was not yet inured to the novelty
of being in demand. To have been forced by circumstance upon Mrs. Condor
as an accompanist was one thing; to be desired by her in a moment of
cold calculation was quite another; and there had been more uncertainty
than caution in Claire's plea for time in which to consider the offer.
But as the days flew by it became more and more apparent to Claire that
she was in no position to indulge in idle speculation. She had long
since given up the hope of fulfilling the demands of a regular office
position, even if one had been open to her. Mrs. Finnegan's enthusiasm
to be neighborly and helpful was more a matter of theory than practice,
and it did not take Claire many days to decide that she had no right to
impose upon a good nature which was made up largely of ignorance of a
sick-room's demands. Claire's final check from Flint was dwindling with
alarming rapidity; indeed, she was facing the first of the year with the
realization that there would be barely enough to pay the next month's
rent, let alone to settle the current bills. She had no idea what Mrs.
Condor intended paying, but she fancied that it must be little enough.
Surely Mrs. Condor did not receive any great sum for her singing and
there must be any number of gratuitous performances. She decided quite
suddenly, the day after Christmas, to take Mrs. Condor at her word, and
she was a bit disturbed at both the lady's reply and the manner of it.
"Oh," Mrs. Condor had drawled rather disagreeably, "I thought you'd
given up the idea. I spoke to somebody else only this morning. But, of
course, I'm not certain about how it will turn out. I'll keep you in
mind and if the other falls through.... By the way, how is your mother?
I keep asking Ned Stillman every day what the news is, but he never
knows anything. All men are alike ... unless they've got some special
interest. Sometimes I marvel that he looks me up so regularly, but then
I've known him ever since.... But there, I'll be telling more than I
should! Do come and see me. I'm always in in the morning.... Yes, I can
imagine you do have a lot to do. I'm so sorry you didn't call up
sooner. But one never can tell. Good-by.... I hope you'll have a happy
Claire hung up the receiver. Well, she had lost an opportunity to turn
an easy dollar or two and she had no one to thank but herself. Why had
she delayed in accepting Mrs. Condor's offer?
Fortunately the unexpected arrival of Nellie Whitehead cut short any
further repinings. Claire was frankly glad to see her and at once she
thought, "She has come to show me her new coat."
But Nellie Whitehead was incased in a wrap that showed every evidence of
a good six months' wear.
"My new coat?" the lady echoed, in answer to Claire's question. "There
ain't no such animal. Somebody else copped it. I didn't shove it back
far enough the last time I took a look at it, I guess. Oh, well, I
should worry! I can get along very well without it...."
When Nellie Whitehead rose to leave, dusk had fallen and Claire was
fumbling for matches to light the hall gas, when she felt her friend's
hand close over hers. There followed the cold pressure of several coins
against Claire's palm and the voice of her visitor sounding a bit
tremulous in the dusk.
"You'll need some extra money, Robson, or I miss my guess."
Claire fell back with a gesture of protest. "Why, Nellie Whitehead, how
could you? It's your coat money, too! Well, _I_ never!"
And with that they both burst into tears.... When Claire recovered
herself she found that Nellie Whitehead had escaped. She lit the gas
and opened her palm. Four twenty-dollar gold pieces glistened in the
* * * * *
Next morning Claire received a telephone message from Mrs. Condor. The
position of accompanist was hers at forty dollars a month if she desired
"It won't be hard," Mrs. Condor had finished, reassuringly. "Some weeks
I've something on nearly every night. And then again there won't be
anything doing for days.... How can I afford to pay so much? Well, my
dear, that is a secret. But don't worry, you'll earn it...."
And toward the close of the week there came another surprise for Claire
in the shape of a letter from Stillman, which ran:
MY DEAR MISS ROBSON.--I am going to take a little flier at the bean
That was my father's business and I know a few things about it--at
least to the extent of recognizing the commodity when the sack is
opened. Do you fancy you could arrange to give me a few hours a week
at the typewriter? If so, we can get together and arrange terms.
"At last," flashed through Claire's mind, "he's going in for something
This time she decided promptly. Over the telephone she made an
appointment with Stillman, in his apartments, for beginning work on the
second Wednesday in January.
Shortly after the first of the year Claire received her initial summons
from Lily Condor--they were to appear at a concert in the Colonial
Ballroom of the St. Francis for the Belgian relief. Mrs. Condor had
intimated that the affair was to be smart, and so it proved. It was set
at a very late and very fashionable hour, and all through the program
groups of torpid, though rather audible, diners kept drifting in. Claire
was not slow to discover that Lily Condor was first on the bill, and she
remembered reading somewhere in a newspaper that among professionals the
first and last place were always loathsome positions. Judging from the
noise and confusion that accompanied their efforts, Claire could well
understand why this was so, and she expected to find Lily Condor
resentful. But to her surprise Mrs. Condor merely shrugged her shoulders
"What difference does it make? They don't come to listen, anyway.
Besides, I always open the bill. I like to get it over quickly."
But Claire had reason to suspect, as she followed the remainder of a
very excellent program, that the choice of position did not rest with
Mrs. Condor. Claire began to wonder how much money Mrs. Condor received
for an effort like this. And she became more puzzled as she gathered
from the conversation of the other artists about her that the talent had
been furnished gratuitously.
"I understand," she heard a woman in front of her whisper to her
companion, "that Devincenzi, the 'cellist, is the only one in the crowd
who is getting a red cent. But he has a rule, you know--or is it a
contract? I'm sure I don't know. At any rate, they say that the
Ffinch-Browns donated his fee.... The Ffinch-Browns? Don't you know
them?... See, there they are ... over there by the Tom Forsythes. She
has on turquoise pendant earrings.... Oh, they're ever so charitable!
But they do say that she is something of a...."
Claire lost the remainder of this stage whisper in a rather tremulous
anxiety to catch a glimpse of her aunt before she moved. Claire had to
acknowledge that at a distance her aunt gave a wonderful illusion of
arrested youth as she stood with one hand grasping the collar of her
gorgeous mandarin coat. But Claire was more interested in the turquoise
pendants than in her aunt. She had never seen the jewels before, but she
had heard about them almost from the time she was able to lisp.
"They're mine," Mrs. Robson had repeated to Claire again and again. "My
father bought them for me when I was sixteen years old. I remember the
day distinctly, and how my mother said: 'Don't you think, John, that
Emily is a little young for anything like this? I'll keep them for her
until she is twenty.' I nearly cried myself sick, but of course mother
was right, _then_.... But like everything else, I never got my hands on
them again. And what is more, Julia Carrol Ffinch-Brown knows that they
are mine as well as anybody, because she stood right alongside of me
when I handed them over to mother. Not that I care.... It's the
principle of the thing!"
Claire felt disappointed in the pendants. They seemed so
insignificant--to fall very far short of her mother's passionate
description of them, and she began to wonder which was the more
pathetic, Mrs. Robson's exaggerated notion of their worth or the
pettiness that gave Aunt Julia the tenacity to hold fast to such trivial
Ned Stillman was in the audience, also. Claire saw him sitting off at
the side. Indeed, she spotted him on the very moment of her entrance
upon the stage. She had been nervous until his friendly smile warmed her
into easy confidence; and though, while she played, her back had been
toward him, she felt the glow of his sympathy. As Lily Condor and she
swept back upon the stage for their rather perfunctory applause, and
still more perfunctory bouquets provided by the committee, Claire could
see him gently tapping his hands in her direction, and she was surprised
when the usher handed her a bouquet of dazzling orchids.
"They must be for you," Claire said, innocently enough, to Mrs. Condor.
"I don't find any name on them."
"That shows that you've got a discreet admirer, at any rate," Lily
Condor returned with that bantering sneer which Claire was just
beginning to notice. And the thought struck her at once that Stillman
had sent the flowers. She was pleased, but also a little annoyed to
think he had so deliberately ignored Mrs. Condor.
The Flints were there, too; Flint looked uncomfortable and warm in his
scant full-dress suit and his wife frankly ridiculous in a low-cut gown
that exhibited every angle of a hopelessly scrawny neck. Claire did not
see them until she was leaving the stage, and she smiled as she saw
Flint lean over and pick up the opera-glasses from his wife's lap. But
this was not all. In a far corner sat Miss Munch and her cousin, Mrs.
Richards, their ferret eyes darting busily about and their tongues
clicking even more rapidly. Doubtless Flint had invested in a number of
tickets at the office for business reasons and passed them around for
any of the office force who felt a desire to see society at close range.
Claire had not meant to stay beyond one or two numbers following her own
appearance, but she kept yielding to Mrs. Condor's insistent suggestions
that she "stay for just one more," until she discovered, to her dismay,
that it was past midnight. The last artists were taking their places
upon the stage. Claire resigned herself to the inevitable and sat out
the remainder of the performance. She was making a quick exit into the
dressing-room when she came face to face with her aunt. Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown betrayed her confusion by the merest lift of the eyebrows,
and she stepped back as if to get a clearer view of her niece, as she
said with an air of polite surprise:
Claire carried her head confidently. "I was on the program," she
returned, consciously eying the turquoise pendants.
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown rested a closed fan against her left ear as if to
screen at least one of the earrings from Claire's frank stare. "Oh, how
interesting! I must have missed you--I came in late. It's rather odd. I
thought I knew everybody on the program.... I helped arrange it."
"Well," Claire smiled, "I wasn't what you would call one of the
head-liners. I played Mrs. Condor's accompaniments."
"That accounts for it ... my not knowing, I mean. I dare say your mother
is better, otherwise you wouldn't be here."
Claire met her aunt's thrust calmly. "No, mother is worse, if anything.
As a matter of fact, I'm here...."
She broke off abruptly, realizing suddenly that she had left her orchids
behind. She turned to discover Stillman making his leisurely way toward
her. He had the orchids in his hand.
"My dear Miss Robson," he said, gently, "Mrs. Condor came very near
appropriating your flowers."
She could feel the color rising to her forehead. "I see you came to my
rescue again," she said, simply, taking them from him. "I think you know
Mr. Stillman, Aunt Julia."
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown forced a too-sweet smile as she gave Stillman a nod of
recognition. "Fancy any girl forgetting so much gorgeousness!" she
exclaimed with an attempt at lightness, but Claire caught the covert
rancor in her voice, and as her aunt made a movement of escape she put
out a restraining hand and said:
"I wanted you to know, Aunt Julia, that I'm here merely as a matter of
business. Mrs. Condor has hired me to play her accompaniments."
Mrs. Ffinch-Brown shook off Claire impatiently. "_Hired_ you!" she
sneered. "How extraordinary!"
And with that she swept past, giving Stillman a glance of farewell.
Claire turned to Stillman. "What must you think of me? Leaving my
flowers behind. Confess--it was you who sent them.... I was in such a
rush to get away, though. I shouldn't have stayed so long. My mother is
alone.... Of course there are neighbors just below and they will look in
on her, but just the same...."
His smile reassured her. "Are you forgetting about to-morrow?" he asked.
"Remember we are to begin business promptly at two o'clock. I hired a
typewriting-machine yesterday. I'm really thrilled at the idea of--of
going into business."
She looked at him steadily as she gave him her hand: "My dear Mr.
Stillman," she said, quite frankly, "you are very kind."
He answered by pressing her hand warmly and she covered her face with
the purple orchids. They were interrupted by Lily Condor sweeping rather
arrogantly toward them.
"Haven't you gone yet?" she asked Claire. "I thought you were in a
hurry! I hope you've persuaded Ned to get us a taxi. I hate street-cars
at this hour." And in answer to Claire's embarrassed protest that she
had never given such a thing a thought, Mrs. Condor finished: "Well,
I've given it a thought, and don't you forget it. Come, Ned, is it a
Claire fancied that a flicker of annoyance passed over Stillman's face
as he answered, with a dry laugh:
"You might at least have given me time to prove my gallantry."
"I'm not taking any chances," was the prompt reply.
Claire turned away. What had contrived to give Mrs. Condor this
disagreeable air of assurance toward Ned Stillman, she found herself
wondering. It had not been apparent at the Condor-Stillman musicale....
She arrived home dismayed to find the front room illuminated, but the
rattle of the departing taxi brought Mrs. Finnegan to the top of the
stairs with a laughing apology.
"I just looked in to see how your mother was, Miss Claire, and I found a
book on the front-room table"--Mrs. Finnegan held up Ouida's
_Moths_--"and I got so interested in it that I just naturally forgot to
go home. Finnegan's out, anyway. I was telling him about your good
fortune. And all he said was: 'Well, it beats me how an old crow like
Mrs. Condor gets paid for singing. I remember five years ago, when she
wasn't so uppish, we had her for a benefit performance of the Native
Sons, and she didn't get paid then. Her singing may be over my head.
Anyway, it didn't get to my ears.' But Finnegan is always like that. He
just likes to contradict. I got back at him. I said, 'Well, if she can
afford to pay Miss Claire forty a month for playing the piano, she must
get a good piece of money every time she opens her mouth.' ...Mercy,
look at the orchids! Well, you must have had a swell time. I'll bet you
wouldn't like to tell who sent them.... There wasn't any card? That's
not saying you don't know, Miss Claire.... I hope you won't think I'm a
meddler, but I'm an older woman and.... Well, just you keep a sharp eye
on the feller that sends you orchids, Miss Claire."
She went down-stairs without further ado. Claire put the orchids in
water and set them on a sill near an open window. She did not feel in
the least resentful of Mrs. Finnegan's warnings. She was too confident
to be anything but faintly amused at her neighbor's middle-class
anxiety. But Finnegan's skepticism concerning Mrs. Condor annoyed her
and she remembered the disagreeable words of her aunt:
"_Hired_ you? How extraordinary!"
* * * * *
"Two o'clock _sharp_!" The memory of Stillman's air of delicate banter
as he emphasized the hour for beginning his business venture struck
Claire ironically the more she pondered his words. She had a feeling
that there was something farcical in the prospect, and yet there seemed
nothing to do but to go through with the preliminaries. She presented
herself, therefore, at the appointed time at the Stanford Court
She found Stillman quite alone, his hands blue-black with the smudge
from a refractory typewriter ribbon which he was vainly endeavoring to
adjust. It took some time for him to get his hands clean again, and
Claire sharpened her pencils while she waited. But there really proved
to be nothing to do.
"I'm all up in the air over this bean business," Stillman confessed,
nonchalantly. "The government, you know ... they're taking over all that
sort of thing ... regulating food and prices. Of course, in that
Claire felt an enormous and illogical relief. "Then you really won't
need me," she ventured.
"Oh, quite the contrary.... I have a certain amount of business, of a
sort. And I'm tired of dropping checks along the trail of public
stenographers.... Suppose we talk terms. We haven't fixed on any salary,
Claire felt a rising impatience. His subterfuge seemed too childish and
obvious. "That will depend on how much of my time you expect, Mr.
"Well, three times a week, anyway ... to start with. Say Mondays,
Wednesdays, and Fridays from two to five.... I was thinking that
something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars a week would be fair."
He turned a very frank gaze in her direction and she quizzically
returned his glance.
"That's rather ridiculous, don't you think?" she said, trying to
disguise her furtive annoyance. "You can hire a substitute through any
typewriting agency on the basis of three dollars a day."
"Yes, and I can buy two cigars for a nickel, but I shouldn't want to
She clicked the keys of her machine idly. "That is hardly a fair
comparison. You can get any number of competent girls for three
He rested his chin on his upturned palm. "But, my dear Miss Robson, I
happen to want _you_."
She thought of any number of cheap, obvious retorts that might have been
flung back at his straightforward admission, but instead she said, with
"That's just what I don't understand."
He threw her a puzzled look and the usual placid light in his eyes
quickened to resentful impatience.
"Is that a necessary part of the contract, Miss Robson?"
She caught her breath. His tone of annoyance was sharp and unexpected.
There was a suggestion of Flint's masculine arrogance in his voice. She
felt how absurd was her cross-examination of him, of how absurd, under
the circumstances, would have been her cross-examination of anybody
ready and willing to give her work to do and an ample wage in the
bargain, and yet, for all the force of his reply, she knew it to be a
well-bred if not a deliberate evasion.
"You mean it is none of my business, don't you?" she contrived to laugh
back at him.
His reply was a further surprise. "Yes, precisely," he said, with an
ominous thinning of the lips.
She rose instinctively to meet this thrust and she was conscious that
even Flint had never managed so to disturb her. She glanced about
hastily as if measuring the room in a swift impulse toward escape.
Stillman had chosen the dining-room for a temporary office, and upon the
polished surface of the antique walnut table the typewriter struck an
incongruous note; indeed, it was all incongruous, particularly Stillman
and his assumed business airs. Yes, it was absurd for her to either
cross-examine or protest, but it was equally absurd for him to pay her
such an outlandish sum for nine hours a week.
"He's doing it for me," she thought, not without a sense of triumph.
Then, turning to him, she said, a bit awkwardly:
"I guess there isn't any use to dissuade you, Mr. Stillman. If you say
fifteen dollars a week, I sha'n't argue with you."
He smiled back at her, all his former suavity regained. She slid into
her seat again. Her mind was recalling vividly the one other time in her
life when she had grappled vigorously with the masculine spirit of
domination, and come away victorious. This time she had been defeated
and she had impulses toward relief and fear. She looked up suddenly and
trapped a solicitous glance from Stillman that rather annoyed her. And
it struck her, as she mentally compared Stillman with most of the men of
her acquaintance, how far he could have loomed above them if he had had
the will for such a performance. As it was he fell somewhat beneath them
in a curious, indefinable way. Had he been too finely tempered by
circumstances or had the flame of life lacked the proper heat for fusing
his virtues effectively? For the moment she found Flint's forthright
insolence more tolerable than Stillman's sterile deference. Suddenly she
began to think of home, not with any sense of security, but as something
unpleasant, dark, disquieting....
Toward six o'clock one afternoon in late February Ned Stillman, making
his way from the business district at California and Montgomery Streets
toward his club, suddenly remembered a forgotten luncheon engagement for
that day with Lily Condor.
"Well," he muttered at once, "I'm in for it now! I guess I might as well
swing out and see her and get the thing over with."
It was curious of late how often he was given to muttering. Previously,
petty annoyances had not moved him to these half-audible and solitary
comments which he had always found contemptuously amusing in others. He
wondered whether this new trick was the result of his business ventures,
his sly charities, or his approach toward the suggestive age of forty.
Associating the name of Lily Condor with his covert charities, he was
almost persuaded that they lay back of this preposterous habit. And the
more he thought about it the more he muttered and became convinced that
Lily Condor was usually the topic of these vocal self-communings.
Ned Stillman had always prided himself upon his sense of personal
freedom concerning the trivial circumstances of life. Of course, like
any man of sensibility, he was bound by the chains that deeper impulses
forge, but he had never been hampered by any restraints directed at his
ordinary uprisings and downsittings. In short, he had answered the beck
and nod of no man, much less a woman, and he was not finding Lily
Condor's growing presumptions along this line altogether agreeable.
He would not have minded so much if there was any personal gratification
in yielding to the lady's whip-hand commands. There are certain delights
in self-surrender which give a zest to slavery, but there is no joy in
being held a hostage. Looking back, Stillman marveled at the
indiscretion he had committed when he handed over not only his reserve,
but Claire Robson's reputation into the safekeeping of Lily Condor. Had
he ever had the simplicity to imagine that a woman of Mrs. Condor's
stamp would constitute herself a safe-deposit vault for hoarding secrets
without exacting a price? Well, perhaps he had expected to pay, but a
little less publicly. He had not looked to have the lady in question
ring every coin audibly in full view and hearing of the entire
market-place, and yet, if his experience had stood him in good stead, he
must have known that this was precisely what she would do. Stillman's
hidden gratitude, his private beneficences, did not serve her purpose,
but the spectacle of him in the role of her debtor was a sight that went
a long way to establishing a social credit impoverished by no end of
Her command for him to take her to luncheon--and it had been a command,
however suavely she had managed to veil it--bore also the stamp of
urgency. Usually she was content to lay all her positive requests to the
charge of mere caprice, but on this occasion she took the trouble to
intimate that there was a particular reason for wanting to see him. It
did not take him long to conclude that this particular reason had to do
with Claire Robson. That was why he yielded with a better grace than he
had been giving to his troublesome friend's disagreeable pressure.
Stillman knew that while Lily Condor was not precisely jealous of the
younger woman, she was distinctly envious--with the impersonal but acrid
envy of middle age for youth. The episode of the orchids still rankled.
He had to admit that in this instance his course had been tactless, but
he had ignored Mrs. Condor as a challenge to the presumption which he
had already begun to sense. She, while seeming definitely to evade the
real issue, had answered the challenge and he had paid for his temerity
a hundredfold. She had reminded him again and again in deft but none the
less positive terms that she was keeping a finger on the mainspring of
any advantage that came her way. Sometimes Stillman wondered whether she
would really be cattish enough to betray his confidence and bring Claire
Robson crashing down under the weight of the questionable position into
which his indiscretion had forced her. Would she really have the face to
publish abroad the pregnant fact that Ned Stillman was providing what
she had been pleased to designate as a meal-ticket for a young woman in
difficulty? For himself he cared little, except that he always shrank
instinctively from appearing ridiculous.
He had been thinking a great deal of late as to the best course to
pursue in ridding himself and Claire of this menacing incubus. He had a
feeling that Claire, having exhausted the novelties of her position as
accompanist to Lily Condor, was beginning to find the affair irksome.
The business venture had progressed in quite another direction from his
original intention. Suddenly, without knowing how it had all come about,
he found his plans clearly defined. The government needed him. Somehow,
it had never occurred to him that he could be of service at a point so
far from the center of war activities. He had been a good deal of an
idler, it was true, but the seeds of achievement were merely lying in
At first, he had been stung into action more by Claire's accusing
attitude than anything else. She used to come every other afternoon at
the appointed time and almost challenge him by her reproachful silence
to do something, if only to provide her with an illusion. It was as if
"See, I have given in to you. I know that you are doing this for me, and
I am deeply grateful. But won't you please make the situation a little
less transparent? Won't you at least justify me in the eyes of those who
are watching our little performance?..."
It had all ended by his offering his services to the Food
Administration. He knew something of his father's business. He felt that
he had a fair knowledge of beans, and he could learn more. He merely
asked a trial, and it surprised him to find what a sense of humility
suddenly possessed him. He was really overjoyed when a place was assured
him. But he had to admit that his acceptance was not accorded any great
enthusiasm. The newspapers mentioned it in a scant paragraph that was
not even given a prominent place. He had received greater recognition
for a brilliant play upon the golf-links! Well, in such stirring times
he was nobody. He did not complain, even to himself, but the knowledge
He hired an office down-town, joined the Commercial Club, religiously
attended every meeting that had to do with food conservation, hunted
out, absorbed, appropriated all the economic secrets that served his
purpose.... Suddenly he found himself engrossed, enthusiastic, _busy_!
Finally Claire said to him one day:
"Don't you think I ought to come to you every afternoon?"
"If you can arrange it," he almost snapped back at her.
She did arrange it, how he took no pains to inquire, and a little later
she said again:
"You ought to have some one here all day. I guess you will have to look
for another stenographer."
He remembered how menacingly he had darted at her. She was dressed for
the street, on her way home, and she had halted at the door.
"Do you want to desert the work that you've inspired?" he demanded.
"Inspired?... By _me_?" Her voice took on a note of triumph.
"You didn't fancy that _I_ inspired it, did you?" he sneered at her.
His vehemence confused her. "I hadn't thought.... Really, you know....
Well, as you say.... But, of course, it is absurd when you can get any
number of girls to...."
"But suppose I want _you_?" he demanded of her for a second time.
She left without further reply.
When she was gone he found himself in a nasty panic. It was as if the
lady who had called him to her lists had suddenly decided upon a new
"Is she tired of it all ... or is there some one else? Can it be
possible that Flint...."
He had stopped short, amazed to find his mind descending to such a
vulgar level. What had come over him? And he began to fancy things as
they once had been--empty, purposeless days, and nights that found him
too bored to even sleep. It seemed incredible that he could go back to
them again. What lay at the bottom of his sudden deep-breathed
satisfaction with life? For an instant, the truth which he had kept at
bay with his old trick of evasion swept toward him.
"No ... no," he muttered. "Oh no!... That would be too absurd!"
But when he had gone to the mirror to brush his hair before venturing on
the street he found thick beads of perspiration on his forehead and his
hand shook as he lifted the comb.
The next day he told Claire that in the future her salary would be
twenty dollars a week. He stood expecting her to rail against the
increase, to try to put him to rout by explaining that she had received
less for a full day's work at Flint's. But to his surprise she thanked
him and went on with her work.
It was shortly after this that he began to haunt the various
performances in which Lily Condor and Claire appeared. He always
contrived to slip in during the first number, which as a rule happened
to be Mrs. Condor's offering, and he sat in a far corner where nobody
but that lady could have chanced upon him. But he never knew her to fail
in locating him, or to miss the opportunity to sit out the remainder of
the program at his side, or to suggest crab-legs Louis at Tait's,
particularly if Claire were determined upon an early leave-taking. The
effect of all this was not lost upon the general public, and it was not
long before men of Stillman's acquaintance used to remark facetiously to
him over the lunch-table:
"What's new in beans to-day?... Are _reds_ still a favorite?"
Stillman would throw back an equally cryptic answer, thinking as he did
"What a wigging I must be getting over the teacups! I guess I'll cut it
all out in the future."
But he usually went no farther than his impulsive resolves.
Sometimes he wondered what Claire thought of his faithful appearance.
Did she fancy that he came to bask in the smiling impertinences of Lily
As he made his way to a street-car on this vivid February afternoon, he
called to mind that of late Claire had been bringing a fagged look to
her daily tasks. He hoped again that Mrs. Condor's desire to see him had
to do with Claire--more particularly with her dismissal as accompanist.
Miss Menzies had quite recovered and there was really no reason for
Claire to continue in her service. It struck him as he pondered all
these matters how strange it was to find him concerned about these
feminine adjustments--he who had always stared down upon trivial
circumstances with cold scorn.
He arrived at Lily Condor's apartments almost upon the lady's heels. Her
hat was still ornamenting the center-table and her wrap lay upon a
wicker rocker, where, with a quick movement of irritation, it had been
Her greeting was not reassuring. "Oh...." she began coldly. "Isn't this
rather late for lunch?"
"I'm really very sorry," Stillman returned as he took a chair, "but to
be frank, I quite forgot about you."
"Well," she tried to laugh back at him, "there isn't any virtue as
disagreeable as the truth. I expected you would at least attempt to be
polite enough to lie."
"I hope you were not too greatly inconvenienced," he said, in a
deliberate attempt to ignore her irritation.
"I waited two hours, if that is what you mean. But then, _my_ time isn't
He rose suddenly. "I've told you that I was sorry," he began coldly,
reaching for his hat. "But evidently you are determined to be
disagreeable. I fancied you wanted to see me about something urgent, so
I came almost as soon as I remembered."
She snatched the discarded wrap from its place on the wicker rocker as
she glared at him. "You're in something of a hurry, it seems.... Well, I
sha'n't detain you. The truth is there's a pretty kettle of fish stewed
up over this young woman, Claire Robson.... I want you to tell her that
she can't play at the Cafe Chantant next Friday night."
"Want _me_ to tell her? I don't see where I come in.... Why don't you
tell her yourself?"
"Because I don't choose to.... Besides, I think you might do it a little
more delicately. I can't tell her brutally that she isn't wanted."
"Isn't wanted? Why, what do you mean?"
"The committee informs me that she isn't the sort of person they are
accustomed to have featured in their entertainments. It seems that Mrs.
"Mrs. Sawyer Flint?"
"What is her objection?"
"Do you really want me to tell you?"
"It appears that some time last fall Miss Robson tried to get her
husband into a compromising position. She came over to the house one
night when Mrs. Flint was away. Flint promptly ordered her out. It seems
she went ... to be quite frank ... with _you_. And what is more,