Part 3 out of 3
"It isn't necessary for you to go any farther. Tell me, do you mean to
say that you believe this thing? Didn't you lift a hand to defend her?"
Lily Condor narrowed her eyes. "Oh, come now, Ned Stillman, don't be a
fool! You know as well as I do that I'm hanging on to my own reputation
by my finger-nails. I'm not taking any chances. As to whether it is so
... well, if I were to tell the committee everything I know it wouldn't
help her cause any. I could wreck her reputation like that," she snapped
her fingers, "with one solitary fact. If she hasn't wrecked it already
with her senseless chatter.... Only last week her aunt, Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown, said to me: 'So you're hiring my niece! I must say that is
handsome of you!' You were sitting talking to Claire and she looked
deliberately at you when she said it. Remember how I warned you, last
December. I told you then that the secret of a woman's meal-ticket was
never hidden very long."
During this speech Mrs. Condor's voice had dropped from its original
tone of petty rancor to one of petulant self-justification. Stillman
knew at once that her ill-temper had caught her off-guard and she was
already trying to crawl slowly back into his favor. She had meant, no
doubt, to soften her news over a glass or two of chilled white wine
which she had counted on sipping during the noon hour. She might even
then have gone farther and decided to cast her fortunes with Stillman
and Claire if she had seen that her advantage lay in that direction. He
was not sure but that she still had some such notion in her mind. But he
felt suddenly sick of her past all hope of compromise, and he was
determined to be rid of her once and for all.
"No doubt," he said, frigidly, "you will be glad to be relieved of Miss
Robson's presence permanently. I take it that you don't consider her
association exactly ... well ... shall we say discreet?"
Her eyes took on a yellow tinge as she faced him. She must have sensed
the finality of his tone, the well-bred insolence that his query
"Discreet?" she echoed. "Well, I wouldn't say that that was quite what I
meant. Desirable--that would be better. I don't find her association
desirable.... I don't _want_ her, in other words."
He had never been so angry in his life. Had she been a man he would have
struck her. He felt himself choking. "My dear Mrs. Condor," he warned,
"will you be good enough to take a little more respectful tone when you
speak of Miss Robson?"
"Oh, indeed! And just what are your rights in the matter? You're not her
brother ... you're surely not her husband. And I didn't know that it was
the fashion for a...." His look stopped her. She trembled a moment,
tossed back her head, and finished, defiantly, "Yes, that is what I want
to know, what _are_ your rights?"
He took a step toward her. Instinctively she retreated.
"A woman like you wouldn't understand even if I were to tell you," he
flung at her.
She covered her face with both hands.
He left the room.
He himself was trembling as he reached the street--trembling for the
first time in years. As a child he had been given to these fits of
emotional tremors, but he had long since lost the faculty for recording
physically his intense moments. Or had he lost the faculty for the
intense moments themselves, he found himself wondering, as he walked
rapidly toward his home. The evening was warm with the perfume of a bit
of truant summer that had somehow escaped before its time to hearten a
winter-weary world against the bitter assaults of March. Birds of
passage sang among the hedges, the sun still cast a faint greenish glow
in the extreme west.
His first thought was of the cowering woman he had just left. He had
meant to lash her keenly with his verbal whipcords, but he had not
expected to find her quite so sensitive to his cutting scorn. He
remembered the gesture with which she had lifted her hand as if to
screen herself from his insults. There was a whole life of futile
compromise in just the manner of that gesture, a growing helplessness to
give straightforward thrusts, a pitiful admission of defeat. But he knew
that this surrender was temporary--a quick lifting of the mask under a
relentless pressure. To-morrow, in an hour, in ten minutes, Lily Condor
would be her dangerous self again, lashed into the fury of a woman
scorned. For a moment he did not know whether to be relieved or dismayed
at the prospect of Mrs. Condor for an enemy. How much would she really
He thought with a lowering anger of Flint. He had been ready to concede
everything but this former friend in the role of a cheap and nasty
gossip. No--gossip was a pale, sickly term. Flint was a malignant toad,
a nauseous mud-slinger, a deliberate liar. He had heard of men who had
justified themselves with vile tales to their insipid, disgustingly
virtuous wives, but he had not counted such among his acquaintances. By
the side of Flint, Lily Condor loomed a very paragon of the social
Stillman was conscious that his mental process was keyed to the highest
pitch of melodrama. It was not usual for him to indulge in mental abuse.
He had never quite understood the dark and moving processes of red-eyed
anger. There had been something absurd in the theatrical hauteur of his
manner in this last scene with Mrs. Condor--that is, if it were measured
by his own standards. His growing detachments from life had claimed him
almost to the point of complete indifference. But now, suddenly, as if
Fate had dealt him an insulting blow upon the face with her bare palm,
he felt not only rage, but a sense of its futility, its impotence.
"Flint!" he thought again. And immediately he spewed forth the memory of
this man in a flood of indiscriminate epithets.
* * * * *
Later, in the refuge of his own four walls and under the brooding solace
of an after-dinner cigar, he lost some of the intensiveness of his
former humor. But the force of the vehemence which had shaken him filled
him with much wonder and some apprehension. He was too much a man of
experience to deny questions when they were put to him squarely by
"You're not her brother ... you're surely not her husband. And I didn't
know it was the fashion for a...."
Lily Condor's clipped question struck him squarely now. Just what were
his expectations concerning Claire Robson? The thought turned him cold.
Essentially he was of Puritan mold, but he had always had a theory that
love of illicit pleasures must have been uncommonly strong in a people
who found it necessary to fight the flesh so uncompromisingly. Battling
with the elements upon the bleak shores of New England contributed, no
doubt, to the gray and chastened spirits that these grim folks had won
for themselves; spirits that colored and sometimes seeded swiftly under
the softer skies of California. San Francisco was full of these forced
blooms consumed and withered by the sudden heat of a free and
traditionless life. He knew scores of old-timers--his father's
friends--who had been gloriously wrecked by the passion with which they
met freedom's kiss. They had pursued pleasure with an energy overtrained
in wrestling with the devil and had paid the penalty of all ardent souls
lacking the prudence of weakness. There was at once something fine and
unlawful about the spirit of adventure: it implied courage, impatience
of restraint, wilfulness--in short, all the virtues and vices of
strength. He had felt at times the heritage of this strength, shorn of
its power by the softness of a wilderness that had been wooed instead
of conquered. His forefathers had found California a waiting, gracious
bride, but there had been almost a suggestion of the courtezan in the
lavishness of this land's response to the caresses of the invaders.
There was something fantastic in the memory of his father, fresh from
the austere dawns of the little fishing village of Gloucester,
transplanted suddenly to the wine-red sunsets of the Golden Gate. He
felt that his father must have had the courage for substance-wasting
without the temptation. Most men in those early days had plunged unyoked
into the race--Ezra Stillman brought his bride, and therefore his
household goods, with him, and unconsciously custom drew its restraining
rein tight. Ezra Stillman came from a long line of salt-seasoned
tempters of the sea; their virtues had been rugged and their vices
equally robust; sin with them had been gaunt, sinewy, unlovely; there
was nothing insinuating and soft about the lure of pleasure in that
silver-nooned environment. Ezra had been the first of this long line to
turn his back upon the sea, and the land had rewarded him lavishly as if
determined to make his capture complete. Yet, he was not landsman enough
to wrest a living direct from the soil; instead, he set up his booth in
the market-place of the town and tr