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THE BRASS BOWL
LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
In the dull hot dusk of a summer’s day a green touring-car, swinging out of the East Drive, pulled up smartly, trembling, at the edge of the Fifty-ninth Street car-tracks, then more sedately, under the dispassionate but watchful eye of a mounted member of the Traffic Squad, lurched across the Plaza and merged itself in the press of vehicles south-bound on the Avenue.
Its tonneau held four young men, all more or less disguised in dust, dusters and goggles; forward, by the side of the grimy and anxious-eyed mechanic, sat a fifth, in all visible respects the counterpart of his companions. Beneath his mask, and by this I do not mean his goggles, but the mask of modern manner which the worldly wear, he was, and is, different.
He was Daniel Maitland, Esquire; for whom no further introduction should be required, after mention of the fact that he was, and remains, the identical gentleman of means and position in the social and financial worlds, whose somewhat sober but sincere and whole-hearted participation in the wildest of conceivable escapades had earned him the affectionate regard of the younger set, together with the sobriquet of “Mad Maitland.”
His companions of the day, the four in the tonneau, were in that humor of subdued yet vibrant excitement which is apt to attend the conclusion of a long, hard drive over country roads. Maitland, on the other hand, (judging him by his preoccupied pose), was already weary of, if not bored by, the hare-brained enterprise which, initiated on the spur of an idle moment and directly due to a thoughtless remark of his own, had brought him a hundred miles (or so) through the heat of a broiling afternoon, accompanied by spirits as ardent and irresponsible as his own, in search of the dubious distraction afforded by the night side of the city.
As, picking its way with elephantine nicety, the motor-car progressed down the Avenue–twilight deepening, arcs upon their bronze columns blossoming suddenly, noiselessly into spheres of opalescent radiance–Mr. Maitland ceased to respond, ceased even to give heed, to the running fire of chaff (largely personal) which amused his companions. Listlessly engaged with a cigarette, he lounged upon the green leather cushions, half closing his eyes, and heartily wished himself free for the evening.
But he stood committed to the humor of the majority, and lacked entirely the shadow of an excuse to desert; in addition to which he was altogether too lazy for the exertion of manufacturing a Lie of serviceable texture. And so abandoned himself to his fate, even though he foresaw with weariful particularity the programme of the coming hours.
To begin with, thirty minutes were to be devoted to a bath and dressing in his rooms. This was something not so unpleasant to contemplate. It was the afterwards that repelled him: the dinner at Sherry’s, the subsequent tour of roof gardens, the late supper at a club, and then, prolonged far into the small hours, the session around some green-covered table in a close room reeking with the fumes of good tobacco and hot with the fever of gambling….
Abstractedly Maitland frowned, tersely summing up: “Beastly!”–in an undertone.
At this the green car wheeled abruptly round a corner below Thirty-fourth Street, slid half a block or more east, and came to a palpitating halt. Maitland, looking up, recognized the entrance to his apartments, and sighed with relief for the brief respite from boredom that was to be his. He rose, negligently shaking off his duster, and stepped down to the sidewalk.
Somebody in the car called a warning after him, and turning for a moment he stood at attention, an eyebrow raised quizzically, cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, hat pushed back from his forehead, hands in coat pockets: a tall, slender, sparely-built figure of a man, clothed immaculately in flannels.
When at length he was able to make himself heard, “Good enough,” he said clearly, though without raising his voice. “Sherry’s in an hour. Right. Now, behave yourselves.”
“Mind you show up on time!”
“Never fear,” returned Maitland over his shoulder.
A witticism was flung back at him from the retreating car, but spent itself unregarded. Maitland’s attention was temporarily distracted by the unusual–to say the least–sight of a young and attractive woman coming out of a home for confirmed bachelors.
The apartment house happened to be his own property. A substantial and old-fashioned edifice, situated in the middle of a quiet block, it contained but five roomy and comfortable suites, –in other words, one to a floor; and these were without exception tenanted by unmarried men of Maitland’s own circle and acquaintance. The janitor, himself a widower and a convinced misogynist, lived alone in the basement. Barring very special and exceptional occasions (as when one of the bachelors felt called upon to give a tea in partial recognition of social obligations), the foot of woman never crossed its threshold.
In this circumstance, indeed, was comprised the singular charm the house had for its occupants. The quality which insured them privacy and a quiet independence rendered them oblivious to its many minor drawbacks, its lack of many conveniences and luxuries which have of late grown to be so commonly regarded as necessities. It boasted, for instance, no garage; no refrigerating system maddened those dependent upon it; a dissipated electric lighting system never went out of nights, because it had never been installed; no brass-bound hall-boy lounged in desuetude upon the stoop and took too intimate and personal an interest in the tenants’ correspondence. The inhabitants, in brief, were free to come and go according to the dictates of their consciences, unsupervised by neighborly women-folk, unhindered by a parasitic corps of menials not in their personal employ.
Wherefore was Maitland astonished, and the more so because of the season. At any other season of the year he would readily have accounted for the phenomenon that now fell under his observation, on the hypothesis that the woman was somebody’s sister or cousin or aunt. But at present that explanation was untenable; Maitland happened to know that not one of the other men was in New York, barring himself; and his own presence there was a thing entirely unforeseen.
Still incredulous, he mentally conned the list: Barnes, who occupied the first flat, was traveling on the Continent; Conkling, of the third, had left a fortnight since to join a yachting party on the Mediterranean; Bannister and Wilkes, of the fourth and fifth floors, respectively, were in Newport and Buenos Aires.
“Odd!” concluded Maitland.
So it was. She had just closed the door, one thought; and now stood poised as if in momentary indecision on the low stoop, glancing toward Fifth Avenue the while she fumbled with a refractory button at the wrist of a long white kid glove. Blurred though it was by the darkling twilight and a thin veil, her face yet conveyed an impression of prettiness: an impression enhanced by careful grooming. From her hat, a small affair, something green, with a superstructure of grey ostrich feathers, to the tips of her russet shoes,–including a walking skirt and bolero of shimmering grey silk,–she was distinctly “smart” and interesting.
He had keenly observant eyes, had Maitland, for all his detached pose; you are to understand that he comprehended all these points in the flickering of an instant. For the incident was over in two seconds. In one the lady’s hesitation was resolved; in another she had passed down the steps and swept by Maitland without giving him a glance, without even the trembling of an eyelash. And he had a view of her back as she moved swiftly away toward the Avenue.
Perplexed, he lingered upon the stoop until she had turned the corner; after which he let himself in with a latch-key, and, dismissing the affair temporarily from his thoughts, or pretending to do so, ascended the single flight of stairs to his flat.
Simultaneously heavy feet were to be heard clumping up the basement steps; and surmising that the janitor was coming to light the hall, the young man waited, leaning over the balusters. His guess proving correct, he called down:
“O’Hagan? Is that you?”
“Th’ saints presarve us! But ’twas yersilf gave me th’ sthart, Misther Maitland, sor!” O’Hagan paused in the gloom below, his upturned face quaintly illuminated by the flame of a wax taper in his gaslighter.
“I’m dining in town to-night, O’Hagan, and dropped around to dress. Is anybody else at home?”
“Nivver a wan, sor. Shure, th’ house do be quiet’s anny tomb–“
“Then who was that lady, O’Hagan?”
“Leddy, sor?”–in unbounded amazement.
“Yes,” impatiently. “A young woman left the house just as I was coming in. Who was she?”
“Shure an’ I think ye must be dr’amin’, sor. Divvle a female– rayspicts to ye!–has been in this house for manny an’ manny th’ wake, sor.”
“But, I tell you–“
“Belike ’twas somewan jist sthepped into the vesthibule, mebbe to tie her shoe, sor, and ye thought–“
“Oh, very well.” Maitland relinquished the inquisition as unprofitable, willing to concede O’Hagan’s theory a reasonable one, the more readily since he himself could by no means have sworn that the woman had actually come out through the door. Such had merely been his impression, honest enough, but founded on circumstantial evidence.
“When you’re through, O’Hagan,” he told the Irishman, “you may come and shave me and lay out my things, if you will.”
“Very good, sor. In wan minute.”
But O’Hagan’s conception of the passage of time was a thought vague: his one minute had lengthened into ten before he appeared to wait upon his employer.
Now and again, in the absence of the regular “man,” O’Hagan would attend one or another of the tenants in the capacity of substitute valet: as in the present instance, when Maitland, having left his host’s roof without troubling even to notify his body-servant that he would not return that night, called upon the janitor to understudy the more trained employee; which O’Hagan could be counted upon to do very acceptably.
Now, with patience unruffled, since he was nothing keen for the evening’s enjoyment, Maitland made profit of the interval to wander through his rooms, lighting the gas here and there and noting that all was as it should be, as it had been left–save that every article of furniture and bric-a-brac seemed to be sadly in want of a thorough dusting. In the end he brought up in the room that served him as study and lounge,–the drawing-room of the flat, as planned in the forgotten architect’s scheme,–a large and well-lighted apartment overlooking the street. Here, pausing beneath the chandelier, he looked about him for a moment, determining that, as elsewhere, all things were in order–but grey with dust.
Finding the atmosphere heavy, stale, and oppressive, Maitland moved over to the windows and threw them open. A gush of warm air, humid and redolent of the streets, invaded the room, together with the roar of traffic from its near-by arteries. Maitland rested elbows on the sill and leaned out, staring absently into the night; for by now it was quite dark. Without concern, he realized that he would be late at dinner. No matter; he would as willingly miss it altogether. For the time being he was absorbed in vain speculations about an unknown woman whose sole claim upon his consideration lay in a certain but immaterial glamour of mystery. Had she, or had she not, been in the house? And, if the true answer were in the affirmative: to what end, upon what errand?
His eyes focused insensibly upon a void of darkness beneath him,– night made visible by street lamps; and he found himself suddenly and acutely sensible of the wonder and mystery of the City: the City whose secret life ran fluent upon the hot, hard pavements below, whose voice throbbed, sibilant, vague, strident, inarticulate, upon the night air; the City of which he was a part equally with the girl in grey, whom he had never before seen, and in all likelihood was never to see again, though the two of them were to work out their destinies within the bounds of Manhattan Island. And yet….
“It would be strange,” said Maitland thoughtfully, “if….” He shook his head, smiling. “_Two shall be born,_'” quoted Mad Maitland sentimentally,–
“‘_Two shall be born the whole wide world apart–_'”
A piano organ, having maliciously sneaked up beneath his window, drove him indoors with a crash of metallic melody.
As he dropped the curtains his eye was arrested by a gleam of white upon his desk,–a letter placed there, doubtless, by O’Hagan in Maitland’s absence. At the same time, a splashing and gurgling of water from the direction of the bath-room informed him that the janitor-valet was even then preparing his bath. But that could wait.
Maitland took up the envelope and tore the flap, remarking the name and address of his lawyer in its upper left-hand corner. Unfolding the inclosure, he read a date a week old, and two lines requesting him to communicate with his legal adviser upon “a matter of pressing moment.”
“Bother!” said Maitland. “What the dickens–“
He pulled up short, eyes lighting. “That’s so, you know,” he argued: “Bannerman will be delighted, and–and even business is better than rushing round town and pretending to enjoy yourself when it’s hotter than the seven brass hinges of hell and you can’t think of anything else…. I’ll do it!”
He stepped quickly to the corner of the room, where stood the telephone upon a small side table, sat down, and, receiver to ear, gave Central a number. In another moment he was in communication with his attorney’s residence.
“Is Mr. Bannerman in? I would like to–“
* * * * *
“Why, Mr. Bannerman! How _do_ you do?”
* * * * *
“You’re looking a hundred per cent better–“
* * * * *
“Bad, bad word! Naughty!–“
“Maitland, of course.”
* * * * *
“Been out of town and just got your note.”
* * * * *
“Your beastly penchant for economy. It’s not stamped; I presume you sent it round by hand of the future President of the United States whom you now employ as office-boy. And O’Hagan didn’t forward it for that reason.”
* * * * *
“Important, eh? I’m only in for the night–“
* * * * *
“Then come and dine with me at the Primordial. I’ll put the others off.”
* * * * *
“Good enough. In an hour, then? Good-by.” Hanging up the receiver, Maitland waited a few moments ere again putting it to his ear. This time he called up Sherry’s, asked for the head-waiter, and, requested that person to be kind enough to make his excuses to “Mr. Cressy and his party”: he, Maitland, was detained upon a matter of moment, but would endeavor to join them at a later hour.
Then, with a satisfied smile, he turned away, with purpose to dispose of Bannerman’s note.
“Bath’s ready, sor.”
O’Hagan’s announcement fell upon heedless ears. Maitland remained motionless before the desk–transfixed with amazement.
“Bath’s ready, sor!”–imperatively.
Maitland roused slightly.
“Very well; in a minute, O’Hagan.”
Yet for some time he did not move. Slowly the heavy brows contracted over intent eyes as he strove to puzzle it out. At length his lips moved noiselessly.
“Am I awake?” was the question he put his consciousness.
Wondering, he bent forward and drew the tip of one forefinger across the black polished wood of the writing-bed. It left a dark, heavy line. And beside it, clearly defined in the heavy layer of dust, was the silhouette of a hand; a woman’s hand, small, delicate, unmistakably feminine of contour.
“Well!” declared Maitland frankly, “I _am_ damned!”
Further and closer inspection developed the fact that the imprint had been only recently made. Within the hour,–unless Maitland were indeed mad or dreaming,–a woman had stood by that desk and rested a hand, palm down, upon it; not yet had the dust had time to settle and blur the sharp outlines.
Maitland shook his head with bewilderment, thinking of the grey girl. But no. He rejected his half-formed explanation–the obvious one. Besides, what had he there worth a thief’s while? Beyond a few articles of “virtue and bigotry” and his pictures, there was nothing valuable in the entire flat. His papers? But he had nothing; a handful of letters, cheque book, a pass book, a japanned tin despatch box containing some business memoranda and papers destined eventually for Bannerman’s hands; but nothing negotiable, nothing worth a burglar’s while.
It was a flat-topped desk, of mahogany, with two pedestals of drawers, all locked. Maitland determined this latter fact by trying to open them without a key; failing, his key-ring solved the difficulty in a jiffy. But the drawers seemed undisturbed; nothing had been either handled, or removed, or displaced, so far as he could determine. And again he wagged his head from side to side in solemn stupefaction.
“This is beyond you, Dan, my boy.” And: “But I’ve got to know what it means.”
In the hall O’Hagan was shuffling impatience. Pondering deeply, Maitland relocked the desk, and got upon his feet. A small bowl of beaten brass, which he used as an ash-receiver, stood ready to his hand; he took it up, carefully blew it clean of dust, and inverted it over the print of the hand. On top of the bowl he placed a weighty afterthought in the shape of a book.
“Come hither, O’Hagan. You see that desk?”
“Are you sure?”
“I want you not to touch it, O’Hagan. Under penalty of my extreme displeasure, don’t lay a finger on it till I give you permission. Don’t dare to dust it. Do you understand?”
“Yissor. Very good, Mr. Maitland.”
Bannerman pushed back his chair a few inches, shifting position the better to benefit of a faint air that fanned in through the open window. Maitland, twisting the sticky stem of a liqueur glass between thumb and forefinger, sat in patient waiting for the lawyer to speak.
But Bannerman was in no hurry; his mood was rather one contemplative and genial. He was a round and cherubic little man, with the face of a guileless child, the acumen of a successful counsel for soulless corporations (that is to say, of a high order), no particular sense of humor, and a great appreciation of good eating. And Maitland was famous in his day as one thoroughly conversant with the art of ordering a dinner.
That which they had just discussed had been uncommon in all respects; Maitland’s scheme of courses and his specification as to details had roused the admiration of the Primordial’s chef and put him on his mettle. He had outdone himself in his efforts to do justice to Mr. Maitland’s genius; and the Primordial in its deadly conservatism remains to this day one of the very few places in New York where good, sound cooking is to be had by the initiate.
Therefore Bannerman sucked thoughtfully at his cigar and thought fondly of a salad that had been to ordinary salads as his 80-H.-P. car was to an electric buckboard. While Maitland, with all time at his purchase, idly flicked the ash from his cigarette and followed his attorney’s meditative gaze out through the window.
Because of the heat the curtains were looped back, and there was nothing to obstruct the view. Madison Square lay just over the sill, a dark wilderness of foliage here and there made livid green by arc-lights. Its walks teemed with humanity, its benches were crowded. Dimly from its heart came the cool plashing of the fountain, in lulls that fell unaccountably in the roaring rustle of restless feet. Over across, Broadway raised glittering walls of glass and stone; and thence came the poignant groan and rumble of surface cars crawling upon their weary and unvarying rounds.
And again Maitland thought of the City, and of Destiny, and of the grey girl the silhouette of whose hand was imprisoned beneath the brass bowl on his study desk. For by now he was quite satisfied that she and none other had trespassed upon the privacy of his rooms, obtaining access to them in his absence by means as unguessable as her motive. Momentarily he considered taking Bannerman into his confidence; but he questioned the advisability of this: Bannerman was so severely practical in his outlook upon life, while this adventure had been so madly whimsical, so engagingly impossible. Bannerman would be sure to suggest a call at the precinct police station…. If she had made way with anything, it would be different; but so far as Maitland had been able to determine, she had abstracted nothing, disturbed nothing beyond a few square inches of dust….
Unwillingly Bannerman put the salad out of mind and turned to the business whose immediate moment had brought them together. He hummed softly, calling his client to attention. Maitland came out of his reverie, vaguely smiling.
“I’m waiting, old man. What’s up?”
“The Graeme business. His lawyers have been after me again. I even had a call from the old man himself.”
“Yes? The Graeme business?” Maitland’s expression was blank for a moment; then comprehension informed his eyes. “Oh, yes; in connection with the Dougherty investment swindle.”
“That’s it. Graeme’s pleading for mercy.”
Maitland lifted his shoulders significantly. “That was to be expected, wasn’t it? What did you tell him?”
“That I’d see you.”
“Did you hold out to him any hopes that I’d be easy on the gang?”
“I told him that I doubted if you could be induced to let up.”
“Why, because Graeme himself is as innocent of wrong-doing and wrong-intent as you are.”
“You believe that?”
“I do,” affirmed Bannerman. His fat pink fingers drummed uneasily on the cloth for a few moments. “There isn’t any question that the Dougherty people induced you to sink your money in their enterprise with intent to defraud you.”
“I should think not,” Maitland interjected, amused.
“But old man Graeme was honest, in intention at least. He meant no harm; and in proof of that he offers to shoulder your loss himself, if by so doing he can induce you to drop further proceedings. That proves he’s in earnest, Dan, for although Graeme is comfortably well to do, it’s a known fact that the loss of a cool half-million, while it’s a drop in the bucket to you, would cripple him.”
“Then why doesn’t he stand to his associates, and make them each pay back their fair share of the loot? That’d bring his liability down to about fifty thousand.”
“Because they won’t give up without a contest in the courts. They deny your proofs–you have those papers, haven’t you?”
“Safe, under lock and key,” asserted Maitland sententiously. “When the time comes I’ll produce them.”
“And they incriminate Graeme?”
“They make it look as black for him as for the others. Do you honestly believe him innocent, Bannerman?”
“I do, implicitly. The dread of exposure, the fear of notoriety when the case comes up in court, has aged the man ten years. He begged me with tears in his eyes to induce you to drop it and accept his offer of restitution. Don’t you think you could do it, Dan?”
“No, I don’t.” Maitland shook his head with decision. “If I let up, the scoundrels get off scot-free. I have nothing against Graeme; I am willing to make it as light as I can for him; but this business has got to be aired in the courts; the guilty will have to suffer. It will be a lesson to the public, a lesson to the scamps, and a lesson to Graeme–not to lend his name too freely to questionable enterprises.”
“And that’s your final word, is it?”
“Final, Bannerman…. You go ahead; prepare your case and take it to court. When the time comes, as I say, I’ll produce these papers. I can’t go on this way, letting people believe that I’m an easy mark just because I was unfortunate enough to inherit more money than is good for my wholesome.”
Maitland twisted his eyebrows in deprecation of Bannerman’s attitude; signified the irrevocability of his decision by bringing his fist down upon the table–but not heavily enough to disturb the other diners; and, laughing, changed the subject.
For some moments he gossiped cheerfully of his new power-boat, Bannerman attending to the inconsequent details with an air of abstraction. Once or twice he appeared about to interrupt, but changed his mind: but because his features were so wholly infantile and open and candid, the time came when Maitland could no longer ignore his evident perturbation.
“Now what’s the trouble?” he demanded with a trace of asperity. “Can’t you forget that Graeme business and–“
“Oh, it’s not that.” Bannerman dismissed the troubles of Mr. Graeme with an airy wave of a pudgy hand. “That’s not my funeral, nor yours…. Only I’ve been worried, of late, by your utterly careless habits.”
Maitland looked his consternation. “In heaven’s name, what now?” And grinned as he joined hands before him in simulated petition. “Please don’t read me a lecture just now, dear boy. If you’ve got something dreadful on your chest wait till another day, when I’m more in the humor to be found fault with.”
“No lecture.” Bannerman laughed nervously. “I’ve merely been wondering what you have done with the Maitland heirlooms.”
“What? Oh, those things? They’re safe enough–_in_ the safe out at Greenfields.”
“To be sure! Quite so!” agreed the lawyer, with ironic heartiness. “Oh, quite.” And proceeded to take all Madison Square into his confidence, addressing it from the window. “Here’s a young man, sole proprietor of a priceless collection of family heirlooms,– diamonds, rubies, sapphires galore; and he thinks they’re safe enough _in_ a safe at his country residence, fifty miles from anywhere! What a simple, trustful soul it is!”
“Why should I bother?” argued Maitland sulkily. “It’s a good, strong safe, and–and there are plenty of servants around,” he concluded largely.
“Precisely. Likewise plenty of burglars. You don’t suppose a determined criminal like Anisty, for instance, would bother himself about a handful of thick-headed servants, do you?”
“Anisty?”–with a rising inflection of inquiry.
Bannerman squared himself to face his host, elbows bows on table. “You don’t mean to say you’ve not heard of Anisty, the great Anisty?” he demanded.
“I dare say I have,” Maitland conceded, unperturbed. “Name rings familiar, somehow.”
“Anisty,”–deliberately, “is said to be the greatest jewel thief the world has ever known. He has the police of America and Europe by the ears to catch him. They have been hot on his trail for the past three years, and would have nabbed him a dozen times if only he’d had the grace to stay in one place long enough. The man who made off with the Bracegirdle diamonds, smashing a burglar-proof vault into scrap-iron to get ’em–don’t you remember?”
“Ye-es; I seem to recall the affair, now that you mention it,” Maitland admitted, bored. “Well, and what of Mr. Anisty?”
“Only what I have told you, taken in connection with the circumstance that he is known to be in New York, and that the Maitland heirlooms are tolerably famous–as much so as your careless habits, Dan. Now, a safe deposit vault–“
“Um-m-m,” considered Maitland. “You really believe that Mr. Anisty has his bold burglarious eye on my property?”
“It’s a big enough haul to attract him,” argued the lawyer earnestly; “Anisty always aims high…. Now, _will_ you do what I have been begging you to do for the past eight years?”
“Seven,” corrected Maitland punctiliously. “It’s just seven years since I entered into mine inheritance and you became my counselor.”
“Well, seven, then. But will you put those jewels in safe deposit?”
“Oh, I suppose so.”
“Would it suit you if I ran out to-night?” Maitland demanded so abruptly that Bannerman was disconcerted.
“I–er–ask nothing better.”
“I’ll bring them in town to-morrow. You arrange about the vault and advise me, will you, like a good fellow?”
“Bless my soul! I never dreamed that you would be so–so–“
“Amenable to discipline?” Maitland grinned, boylike, and, leaning back, appreciated Bannerman’s startled expression with keen enjoyment. “Well, consider that for once you’ve scared me. I’m off–just time to catch the ten-twenty for Greenfields. Waiter!”
He scrawled his initials at the bottom of the bill presented him, and rose. “Sorry, Bannerman,” he said, chuckling, “to cut short a pleasant evening. But you shouldn’t startle me so, you know. Pardon me if I run; I _might_ miss that train.”
“But there was something else–“
“It can wait.”
“Take a later train, then.”
“What! With this grave peril hanging over me? _Im_possible! ‘Night.”
Bannerman, discomfited, saw Maitland’s shoulders disappear through the dining-room doorway, meditated pursuit, thought better of it, and reseated himself, frowning.
“Mad Maitland, indeed!” he commented.
As for the gentleman so characterized, he emerged, a moment later, from the portals of the club, still chuckling mildly to himself as he struggled into a light evening overcoat. His temper, having run the gamut of boredom, interest, perturbation, mystification, and plain amusement, was now altogether inconsequential: a dangerous mood for Maitland. Standing on the corner of Twenty-sixth Street he thought it over, tapping the sidewalk gently with his cane. Should he or should he not carry out his intention as declared to Bannerman, and go to Greenfields that same night? Or should he keep his belated engagement with Cressy’s party?
An errant cabby, cruising aimlessly but hopefully, sighted Maitland’s tall figure and white shirt from a distance, and bore down upon him with a gallant clatter of hoofs.
“Kebsir?” he demanded breathlessly, pulling in at the corner.
Maitland came out of his reverie and looked up slowly. “Why yes, thank you,” he assented amiably.
“Where to, sir?”
Maitland paused on the forward deck of the craft and faced about, looking the cabby trustfully in the eye. “I leave it to you,” he replied politely. “Just as you please.”
The driver gasped.
“You see,” Maitland continued with a courteous smile, “I have two engagements: one at Sherry’s, the other with the ten-twenty train from Long Island City. What would you, as man to man, advise me to do, cabby?”
“Well, sir, seein’ as you puts it to me straight,” returned the cabby with engaging candor, “I’d go home, sir, if I was you, afore I got any worse.”
“Thank you,” gravely. “Long Island City depot, then, cabby.”
Maitland extended himself languidly upon the cushions. “Surely,” he told the night, “the driver knows best–he and Bannerman.”
The cab started off jogging so sedately up Madison Avenue that Maitland glanced at his watch and elevated his brows dubiously; then with his stick poked open the trap in the roof.
“If you really think it best for me to go home, cabby, you’ll have to drive like hell,” he suggested mildly.
A whip-lash cracked loudly over the horse’s back, and the hansom, lurching into Thirty-fourth Street on one wheel, was presently jouncing eastward over rough cobbles, at a regardless pace which roused the gongs of the surface cars to a clangor of hysterical expostulation. In a trice the “L” extension was roaring overhead; and a little later the ferry gates were yawning before them. Again Maitland consulted his watch, commenting briefly: “In time.”
Yet he reckoned without the ferry, one of whose employees deliberately and implacably swung to the gates in the very face of the astonished cab-horse, which promptly rose upon its hind legs and pawed the air with gestures of pardonable exasperation. To no avail, however; the gates remained closed, the cabby (with language) reined his steed back a yard or two, and Maitland, lighting a cigarette, composed himself to simulate patience.
Followed a wait of ten minutes or so, in which a number of vehicles joined company with the cab; the passenger was vaguely aware of the jarring purr of a motor-car, like that of some huge cat, in the immediate rear. A circumstance which he had occasion to recall ere long.
In the course of time the gates were again opened. The bridge cleared of incoming traffic. As the cabby drove aboard the boat, with nice consideration selecting the choicest stand of all, well out upon the forward deck, a motor-car slid in, humming, on the right of the hansom.
Maitland sat forward, resting his forearms on the apron, and jerked his cigarette out over the gates; the glowing stub described a fiery arc and took the water with a hiss. Warm whiffs of the river’s sweet and salty breath fanned his face gratefully, and he became aware that there was a moon. His gaze roving at will, he nodded an even-tempered approbation of the night’s splendor: in the city a thing unsuspected.
Never, he thought, had he known moonlight so pure, so silvery and strong. Shadows of gates and posts lay upon the forward deck like stencils of lamp-black upon white marble. Beyond the boat’s bluntly rounded nose the East River stretched its restless, dark reaches, glossy black, woven with gorgeous ribbons of reflected light streaming from pier-head lamps on the further shore. Overhead, the sky, a pallid and luminous blue around the low-swung moon, was shaded to profound depths of bluish-black toward the horizon. Above Brooklyn rested a tenuous haze. A revenue cutter, a slim, pale shape, cut across the bows like a hunted ghost. Farther out a homeward-bound excursion steamer, tier upon tier of glittering lights, drifted slowly toward its pier beneath the new bridge, the blare of its band, swelling and dying upon the night breeze, mercifully tempered by distance.
Presently Maitland’s attention was distracted and drawn, by the abrupt cessation of its motor’s pulsing, to the automobile on his right. He lifted his chin sharply, narrowing his eyes, whistled low; and thereafter had eyes for nothing else.
The car, he saw with the experienced eye of a connoisseur, was a recent model of one of the most expensive and popular foreign makes: built on lines that promised a deal in the way of speed, and furnished with engines that were pregnant with multiplied horse-power: all in all not the style of car one would expect to find controlled by a solitary woman, especially after ten of a summer’s night.
Nevertheless the lone occupant of this car was a woman. And there was that in her bearing, an indefinable something,–whether it lay in the carriage of her head, which impressed one as both spirited and independent, or in an equally certain but less tangible air of self-confidence and reliance,–to set Mad Maitland’s pulses drumming with excitement. For, unless indeed he labored gravely under a misapprehension, he was observing her for the second time within the past few hours.
Could he be mistaken, or was this in truth the same woman who had (as he believed) made herself free of his rooms that evening?
In confirmation of such suspicion he remarked her costume, which was altogether worked out in soft shades of grey. Grey was the misty veil, drawn in and daintily knotted beneath her chin, which lent her head and face such thorough protection against prying glances; of grey suede were the light gauntlets that hid all save the slenderness of her small hands; and the wrap that, cut upon full and flowing lines, cloaked her figure beyond suggestion, was grey. Yet even its ample drapery could not dissemble the fact that she was quite small, girlishly slight, like the woman in the doorway; nor did aught temper her impersonal and detached composure, which had also been an attribute of the woman in the door-way. And, again, she was alone, unchaperoned, unprotected….
Yes? Or no? And, if yes: what to do? Was he to alight and accost her, accuse her of forcing an entrance to his rooms for the sole purpose (as far as ascertainable) of presenting him with the outline of her hand in the dust of his desk’s top?… Oh, hardly! It was all very well to be daringly eccentric and careless of the world’s censure; but one scarcely cared to lay one’s self open either to an unknown girl’s derision or to a sound pummeling at the hands of fellow passengers enraged by the insult offered to an unescorted woman….
The young man was still pondering ways and means when a dull bump apprised him that the ferry-boat was entering the Long Island City slip. “The devil!” he exclaimed in mingled disgust and dismay, realizing that his distraction had been so thorough as to permit the voyage to take place almost without his realizing it. So that now–worse luck!–it was too late to take any one of the hundred fantastic steps he had contemplated half seriously. In another two minutes his charming mystery, so bewitchingly incarnated, would have slipped out of his life, finally and beyond recall. And he could do naught to hinder such a finale to the adventure.
Sulkily he resigned himself to the inevitable, waiting and watching, while the boat slid and blundered clumsily, paddle-wheels churning the filthy waters over side, to the floating bridge; while the winches rattled, and the woman, sitting up briskly in the driver’s seat of the motor-car, bent forward and advanced the spark; while the chain fell clanking and the car shot out, over the bridge, through the gates, and away, at a very considerable, even if lawful, rate of speed.
Whereupon, writing _Finis_ to the final chapter of Romance, voting the world a dull place and life a treadmill, anathematizing in no uncertain terms his lack of resource and address, Maitland paid off his cabby, alighted, and to that worthy’s boundless wonder, walked into the waiting-room of the railway terminus without deviating a hair’s-breadth from the straight and circumscribed path of the sober in mind and body.
The ten-twenty had departed by a bare two minutes. The next and last train for Greenfields was to leave at ten-fifty-nine. Maitland with assumed nonchalance composed himself upon a bench in the waiting-room to endure the thirty-seven minute interval. Five minutes later an able-bodied washerwoman with six children in quarter sizes descended upon the same bench; and the young man in desperation allowed himself to be dispossessed. The news-stand next attracting him, he garnered a fugitive amusement and two dozen copper cents by the simple process of purchasing six “night extras,” which he did not want, and paying for each with a five-cent piece. Comprehending, at length, that he had irritated the news-dealer, he meandered off, jingling his copper-fortune in one hand, lugging his newspapers in the other, and made a determined onslaught upon a slot machine. The latter having reluctantly disgorged twenty-four assorted samples of chewing-gum and stale sweetmeats, Maitland returned to the washerwoman, and sowed dissension in her brood by presenting the treasure-horde to the eldest girl with instructions to share it with her brothers and sisters.
It is difficult to imagine what folly might next have been recorded against him had not, at that moment, a ferocious and inarticulate howl from the train-starter announced the fact that the ten-fifty-nine was in waiting.
Boarding the train in a thankful spirit, Maitland settled himself as comfortably as he might in the smoker and endeavored to find surcease of ennui in his collection of extras. In vain: even a two-column portrait of Mr. Dan Anisty, cracksman, accompanied by a vivacious catalogue of that notoriety’s achievements in the field of polite burglary, hardly stirred his interest. An elusive resemblance which he traced in the features of Mr. Anisty, as presented by the Sketch-Artist-on-the-Spot, to some one whom he, Maitland, had known in the dark backwards and abysm of time, merely drew from him the comment: “Homely brute!” And he laid the papers aside, cradling his chin in the palm of one hand and staring for a weary while out of the car window at a reeling and moonsmitten landscape. He yawned exhaustively, his thoughts astray between a girl garbed all in grey, Bannerman’s earnest and thoughtful face, and the pernicious activities of Mr. Daniel Anisty, at whose door Maitland laid the responsibility for this most fatiguing errand….
The brakeman’s wolf-like yelp–“Greenfields!”–was ringing in his ears when he awoke and stumbled down aisle and car-steps just in the nick of time. The train, whisking round a curve cloaked by a belt of somber pines, left him quite alone in the world, cast ruthlessly upon his own resources.
An hour had elapsed; it was now midnight; the moon rode high, a cold white disk against a background of sapphire velvet, its pellucid rays revealing with disheartening distinctness the inanimate and lightless roadside hamlet called Greenfields; its general store and postoffice, its _soi-disant_ hotel, its straggling line of dilapidated habitations, all wrapped in silence profound and impenetrable. Not even a dog howled; not a belated villager was in sight; and it was a moral certainty that the local livery service had closed down for the night.
Nevertheless, Maitland, with a desperation bred of the prospective five-mile tramp, spent some ten valuable minutes hammering upon the door of the house infested by the proprietor of the livery stable. He succeeded only in waking the dog, and inasmuch as he was not on friendly terms with that animal, presently withdrew at discretion and set his face northwards upon the open road.
It stretched before him invitingly enough, a ribbon winding silver-white between dark patches of pine and scrub-oak or fields lush with rustling corn and wheat. And, having overcome his primary disgust, as the blood began to circulate more briskly in his veins, Maitland became aware that he was actually enjoying the enforced exercise. It could have been hardly otherwise, with a night so sweet, with airs so bland and fragrant of the woods and fresh-turned earth, with so clear a light to show him his way.
He stepped out briskly at first, swinging his stick and watching his shadow, a squat, incredibly agitated silhouette in the golden dust. But gradually and insensibly the peaceful influences of that still and lovely hour tempered his heart’s impatience; and he found himself walking at a pace more leisurely. After all, there was no hurry; he was unwearied, and Maitland Manor lay less than five miles distant.
Thirty minutes passed; he had not covered a third of the way, yet remained content. By well-remembered landmarks, he knew he must be nearing the little stream called, by courtesy, Myannis River; and in due course, he stepped out upon the long wooden structure that spans that water. He was close upon the farther end when–upon a hapchance impulse–he glanced over the nearest guard-rail, down at the bed of the creek. And stopped incontinently, gaping.
Stationary in the middle of the depression, hub-deep in the shallow waters, was a motor-car; and it, beyond dispute, was identical with that which had occupied his thoughts on the ferry-boat. Less wonderful, perhaps, but to him amazing enough, it was to discover upon the driver’s seat the girl in grey.
His brain benumbed beyond further capacity for astonishment, he accepted without demur this latest and most astounding of the chain of amazing coincidences which had thus far enlivened the night’s earlier hours; and stood rapt in silent contemplation, sensible that the girl had been unaware of his approach, deadened as his footsteps must have been by the blanket of dust that carpeted both road and bridge deep and thick.
On her part she sat motionless, evidently lost in reverie, and momentarily, at least, unconscious of the embarrassing predicament which was hers. So complete, indeed, seemed her abstraction that Maitland caught himself questioning the reality of her…. And well might she have seemed to him a pale little wraith of the night, the shimmer of grey that she made against the shimmer of light on the water,–a shape almost transparent, slight, and unsubstantial–seeming to contemplate, and as still as any mouse….
Looking more attentively, it became evident that her veil was now raised. This was the first time that he had seen her so. But her countenance remained so deeply shadowed by the visor of a mannish motoring-cap that the most searching scrutiny gained no more than a dim and scantily satisfactory impression of alluring loveliness.
Maitland turned noiselessly, rested elbows on the rail, and, staring, framed a theory to account for her position, if not for her patience.
On either hand the road, dividing, struck off at a tangent, down the banks and into the river-bed. It was credible to presume that the girl had lost control of the machine temporarily and that it, taking the bit between its teeth, had swung gaily down the incline to its bath.
Why she lingered there, however, was less patent. The water, as has been indicated, was some inches below the tonneau; it did not seem reasonable to assume that it should have interfered with either running-gear or motor….
At this point in Maitland’s meditations the grey girl appeared to have arrived at a decision. She straightened up suddenly, with a little resolute nod of her head, lifting one small foot to her knee, and fumbled with the laces of her shoe.
Maitland grasped her intention to abandon the machine, with her determination to wade! Clearly this would seem to demonstrate that there had been a breakdown, irreparable so far as frail feminine hands were concerned.
One shoe removed, its fellow would follow, and then…. Out of sheer chivalry, the involuntary witness was moved to earnest protest.
“Don’t!” he cried hastily. “I say, don’t wade!”
Her superb composure claimed his admiration. Absolutely ignorant though she had been of his proximity, the voice from out of the skies evidently alarmed her not at all. Still bending over the lifted foot, she turned her head slowly and looked up; and “Oh!” said a small voice tinged with relief. And coolly knotting the laces again, she sat up. “I didn’t hear you, you know.”
“Nor I see you,” Maitland supplemented unblushingly, “until a moment ago. I–er–can I be of assistance?”
“Idiot!” said Maitland severely, both to and of himself. Aloud: “I think I can.”
“I hope so,”–doubtfully. “It’s very unfortunate. I … was running rather fast, I suppose, and didn’t see the slope until too late. _Now_,” opening her hands in a gesture ingenuously charming with its suggestion of helplessness and dependence, “I don’t know what _can_ be the matter with the machine.”
“I’m coming down,” announced Maitland briefly. “Wait.”
“Thank you, I shall.”
She laughed, and Maitland could have blushed for his inanity; happily he had action to cloak his embarrassment. In a twinkling he was at the water’s edge, pausing there to listen, with admirable docility, to her plaintive objection: “But you’ll get wet and–and ruin your things. I can’t ask that of you.”
He chuckled, by way of reply, slapping gallantly into the shallows and courageously wading out to the side of the car. Whereupon he was advised in tones of fluttered indignation:
“You simply _wouldn’t_ listen to me! And I _warned_ you! Now you’re soaking wet and will certainly catch your death of cold, and–and what can _I_ do? Truly, I am sorry….”
Here the young man lost track of her remark. He was looking up into the shadow of the motoring-cap, discovering things; for the shadow was set at naught by the moon luster that, reflected from the surface of the stream, invested with a gentle and glamorous radiance the face that bent above him. And he caught at his breath sharply, direst fears confirmed: she was pretty indeed–perilously pretty. The firm, resolute chin, the sensitive, sweet line of scarlet lips, the straight little nose, the brows delicately arched, the large, alert, tawny eyes with the dangerous sweet shadows beneath, the glint as of raw copper where her hair caught the light–Maitland appreciated them all far too well; and clutched nervously the rail of the seat, trying to steady himself, to re-collect his routed wits and consider sensibly that it all was due to the magic of the moon, belike; the witchery of this apparition that looked down into his eyes so gravely.
“Of course,” he mumbled, “it’s too beautiful to endure. Of course it will all fade, vanish utterly in the cold light of day….”
Above him, perplexed brows gathered ominously. “I beg pardon?”
“I–er–yes,” he stammered at random.
Positively, she was laughing at him! He, Maitland the exquisite, Mad Maitland the imperturbable, was being laughed at by a mere child, a girl scarcely out of her teens. He glanced upward, caught her eye a-gleam with merriment, and looked away with much vain dignity.
“I was saying,” he manufactured, “that I did not mind the wetting in the least. I’m happy to be of service.”
“You weren’t saying anything of the sort,” she contradicted calmly. “However….” She paused significantly.
Maitland experienced an instantaneous sensation as of furtive guilt, decidedly the reverse of comfortable. He shuffled uneasily. There was a brief silence, on her part expectant, on his, blank. His mental attitude remained hopeless: for some mysterious reason his nonchalance had deserted him in the hour of his supremest need; not in all his experience did he remember anything like this–as awkward.
The river purled indifferently about his calves; a vagrant breeze disturbed the tree-tops and died of sheer lassitude; Time plodded on with measured stride. Then, abruptly, full-winged inspiration was born out of the chaos of his mind. Listening intently, he glanced with covert suspicion at the bridge: it proved untenanted, inoffensive of mien; nor arose there any sound of hoof or wheel upon the highway. Again he looked up at the girl; and found her in thoughtful mood, frowning, regarding him steadily beneath level brows.
He assumed a disarming levity of demeanor, smiling winningly. “There’s only one way,” he suggested–not too archly–and extended his arms.
“Indeed?” She considered him with pardonable dubiety.
Instantly his purpose became as adamant.
“I must carry you. It’s the only way.”
“Oh, indeed no! I–couldn’t impose upon you. I’m–very heavy, you know–“
“Never mind,” firmly insistent. “You can’t stay here all night, of course.”
“But are you sure?” (She was yielding!) “I don’t like to–“
He shook his head, careful to restrain the twitching corners of his lips.
“It will take but a moment,” he urged gravely. “And I’ll be quite careful.”
“Well–” She perceived that, if not right, he was stubborn; and with a final small gesture of deprecation, weakly surrendered. “I’m sorry to be such a nuisance,” she murmured, rising and gathering skirts about her.
Maitland stoutly denied the hideous insinuation: “I am only too glad–“
She balanced herself lightly upon the step. He moved nearer and assured himself of a firm foothold on the pebbly river-bed. She sank gracefully into his arms, proving a considerable burden– weightier, in fact, than he had anticipated. He was somewhat staggered; it seemed that he embraced countless yards of ruffles and things ballasted with (at a shrewd guess) lead. He swayed.
Then, recovering his equilibrium, incautiously glanced into her eyes. And lost it again, completely.
“I was mistaken,” he told himself; “daylight will but enhance….”
She held herself considerately still, perhaps wondering why he made no move. Perhaps otherwise; there is reason to believe that she may have suspected–being a woman.
At length, “Is there anything I can do,” she inquired meekly, “to make it easier for you?”
“I’m afraid,” he replied, attitude apologetic, “that I must ask you to put your arm around my ne–my shoulders. It would be more natural.”
The monosyllable was heavy with meaning–with any one of a dozen meanings, in truth. Maitland debated the most obvious. Did she conceive he had insinuated that it was his habit to ferry armfuls of attractive femininity over rocky fords by the light of a midnight moon?
No matter. While he thought it out, she was consenting. Presently a slender arm was passed round his neck. Having awaited only that, he began to wade cautiously shorewards. The distance lessened perceptibly, but he contemplated the decreasing interval without joy, for all that she was of an appreciable weight. For all burdens there are compensations.
Unconsciously, inevitably, her head sank toward his shoulder; he was aware of her breath, fragrant and warm, upon his cheek…. He stopped abruptly, cold chills running up and down his back; he gritted his teeth; he shuddered perceptibly.
“What _is_ the matter?” she demanded, deeply concerned, but at pains not to stir.
Maitland made a strange noise with his tongue behind clenched teeth. “_Urrrrgh,_” he said distinctly.
She lifted her head, startled; relief followed, intense and instantaneous.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered humbly, face aflame, “but you … tickled.”
“I’m–so–_sorry!_” she gasped, violently agitated. And laughed a low, almost a silent, little laugh, as with deft fingers she tucked away the errant lock of hair.
“Ass!” Maitland told himself fiercely, striding forward.
In another moment they were on dry land. The girl slipped from his arms and faced him, eyes dancing, cheeks crimson, lips a tense, quivering, scarlet line. He met this with a rueful smile.
“But–thank you–but,” she gasped explosively, “it was _so_ funny!”
Wounded dignity melted before her laughter. For a time, there in the moonlight, under the scornful regard of the disabled motor-car’s twin headlights, these two rocked and shrieked, while the silent night flung back disdainful echoes of their mad laughter.
Perhaps the insane incongruity of their performance first became apparent to the girl; she, at all events, was the first to control herself. Maitland subsided, rumbling, while she dabbed at her eyes with a wisp of lace and linen.
“Forgive me,” she said faintly, at length; “I didn’t mean to–“
“How could you help it? Who’d expect a hulking brute like myself to be ticklish?”
“You are awfully good,” she countered more calmly.
“Don’t say that. I’m a clumsy lout. But–” He held her gaze inquiringly. “But may I ask–“
“Oh, of course–certainly: I am–was–bound for Greenpoint-on-the-Sound–“
“Ten miles!” he interrupted.
The corners of her red lips drooped: her brows puckered with dismay. Instinctively she glanced toward the waterbound car.
“What am I to do?” she cried. “Ten miles!… I could never walk it, never in the world! You see, I went to town to-day to do a little shopping. As we were coming home the chauffeur was arrested for careless driving. He had bumped a delivery wagon over–it wasn’t really his fault. I telephoned home for somebody to bail him out, and my father said he would come in. Then I dined, returned to the police-station, and waited. Nobody came. I couldn’t stay there all night. I ‘phoned to everybody I knew, until my money gave out; no one was in town. At last, in desperation, I started home alone.”
Maitland nodded his comprehension. “Your father–?” he hinted delicately.
“Judge Wentworth,” she explained hastily. “We’ve taken the Grover place at Greenpoint for the season.”
“I see,”–thoughtfully. And this was the girl who he had believed had been in his rooms that evening, in his absence! Oh, clearly, that was impossible. Her tone rang with truth. She interrupted his train of thought with a cry of despair. “What will they think!”
“I dare say,” he ventured hopefully, “I could hire a team at some farm-house–“
“But the delay! It’s so late already!”
Undeniably late: one o’clock at the earliest. A thought longer Maitland hung in lack of purpose, then without a word of explanation turned and again, began to wade out.
“What do you mean to do?” she cried, surprised.
“See what’s the trouble,” he called back. “I know a bit about motors. Perhaps–“
She stopped; and Maitland forbore to encourage her to round out her question. It was no difficult matter to supply the missing words. Why had he not thought of investigating the motor before insisting that he must carry her ashore?
The humiliating conviction forced itself upon him that he was not figuring to great advantage in this adventure. Distinctly a humiliating sensation to one who ordinarily was by way of having a fine conceit of himself. It requires a certain amount of egotism to enable one to play the exquisite to one’s personal satisfaction; Maitland had enjoyed the possession of that certain amount; theretofore his approval of self had been passably entire. Now–he could not deny–the boor had shown up through the polish of the beau.
Intolerable thought! “Cad!” exclaimed Maitland bitterly. This all was due to hasty jumping at conclusions: if he had not chosen to believe a young and charming girl identical with an–an adventuress, this thing had not happened and he had still retained his own good-will. For one little moment he despised himself heartily–one little moment of clear insight into self was his. And forthwith he began to meditate apologies, formulating phrases designed to prove adequate without sounding exaggerated and insincere.
By this time he had reached the car, and–through sheer blundering luck–at once stumbled upon the seat of trouble: a clogged valve in the carbureter. No serious matter: with the assistance of a repair kit more than commonly complete, he had the valve clear in a jiffy.
News of this triumph he shouted to the girl, receiving in reply an “Oh, thank you!” so fervently grateful that he felt more guilty than ever.
Ruminating unhappily on the cud of contemplated abasement, he waded round the car, satisfying himself that there was nothing else out of gear; and apprehensively cranked up. Whereupon the motor began to hum contentedly: all was well. Flushed with this success, Maitland climbed aboard and opened the throttle a trifle. The car moved. And then, with a swish, a gurgle, and a watery _whoosh!_ it surged forward, up, out of the river, gallantly up the slope.
At the top the amateur chauffeur shut down the throttle and jumped out, turning to face the girl. She was by the step almost before he could offer a hand to help her in, and as she paused to render him his due meed of thanks, it became evident that she harbored little if any resentment; eyes shining, face aglow with gratitude, she dropped him a droll but graceful little courtesy.
“You are too good!” she declared with spirit. “How can I thank you?”
“You might,” he suggested, looking down into her face from his superior height, “give me a bit of a lift–just a couple of miles up the road. Though,” he supplemented eagerly, “if you’d really prefer, I should be only too happy to drive the car home for you?”
“Two miles, did you say?”
He fancied something odd in her tone; besides, the question was superfluous. His eyes informed with puzzlement, he replied: “Why, yes–that much, more or less. I live–“
“Of course,” she put in quickly, “I’ll give you the lift–only too glad. But as for your taking me home at this hour, I can’t hear of that.”
“Besides, what would people say?” she countered obstinately. “Oh, no,” she decided; and he felt that from this decision there would be no appeal; “I couldn’t think of interfering with your … arrangements.”
Her eyes held his for a single instant, instinct with mischief, gleaming with bewildering light from out a face schooled to gravity. Maitland experienced a sensation of having grasped after and missed a subtlety of allusion; his wits, keen as they were, recoiled, baffled by her finesse. And the more he divined that she was playing with him, as an experienced swordsman might play with an impertinent novice, the denser his confusion grew.
“But I have no arrangements–” he stammered.
“Don’t!” she insisted–as much as to say that he was fabricating and she knew it! “We must hurry, you know, because…. There, I’ve dropped my handkerchief! By the tree, there. Do you mind–?”
“Of course not.” He set off swiftly toward the point indicated, but on reaching it cast about vainly for anything in the nature of a handkerchief. In the midst of which futile quest a change of tempo in the motor’s impatient drumming surprised him.
Startled, he looked up. Too late: the girl was in the seat, the car in motion–already some yards from the point at which he had left it. Dismayed, he strode forward, raising his voice in perturbed expostulation.
Over the rear of the seat a grey gauntlet was waved at him, as tantalizing as the mocking laugh that came to his ears.
He paused, thunderstruck, appalled by this monstrosity of ingratitude.
The machine gathered impetus, drawing swiftly away. Yet in the stillness the farewell of the grey girl came to him very clearly.
“Good-by!” with a laugh. “Thank you and good-by–_Handsome Dan!_”
Standing in the middle of the road, watching the dust cloud that trailed the fast disappearing motorcar, Mr. Maitland cut a figure sufficiently forlorn and disconsolate to have distilled pity from the least sympathetic heart.
His hands were thrust stiffly at full arm’s length into his trousers pockets: a rumpled silk hat was set awry on the back of his head; his shirt bosom was sadly crumpled; above the knees, to a casual glance, he presented the appearance of a man carefully attired in evening dress; below, his legs were sodden and muddied, his shoes of patent-leather, twin wrecks. Alas for jauntiness and elegance, alack for ease and aplomb!
“Tricked,” observed Maitland casually, and protruded his lower lip, thus adding to the length of a countenance naturally long. “Outwitted by a chit of a girl! Dammit!”
But this was crude melodrama. Realizing which, he strove to smile: a sorry failure.
“‘Handsome Dan,'” quoted he; and cocking his head to one side eyed the road inquiringly. “Where in thunder d’you suppose she got hold of _that_ name?”
Bestowed upon him in callow college days, it had stuck burr-like for many a weary year. Of late, however, its use had lapsed among his acquaintances; he had begun to congratulate himself upon having lived it down. And now it was resurrected, flung at him in sincerest mockery by a woman whom, to his knowledge, he had never before laid eyes upon. Odious appellation, hateful invention of an ingenious enemy!
“‘Handsome Dan!’ She must have known me all the time–all the time I was making an exhibition of myself…. ‘Wentworth’? I know no one of that name. Who the dickens can she be?”
If it had not been contrary to his code of ethics, he would gladly have raved, gnashed his teeth, footed the dance of rage with his shadow. Indeed, his restraint was admirable, the circumstances considered. He did nothing whatever but stand still for a matter of five minutes, vainly racking his memory for a clue to the identity of “Miss Wentworth.”
At length he gave it up in despair and abstractedly felt for his watch-fob. Which wasn’t there. Neither, investigation developed, was the watch. At which crowning stroke of misfortune,–the timepiece must have slipped from his pocket into the water while he was tinkering with that infamous carbureter,–Maitland turned eloquently red in the face.
“The price,” he meditated aloud, with an effort to resume his pose, “is a high one to pay for a wave of a grey glove and the echo of a pretty laugh.”
With which final fling at Fortune he set off again for Maitland Manor, trudging heavily but at a round pace through the dust that soon settled upon the damp cloth of his trousers legs and completed their ruination. But Maitland was beyond being disturbed by such trifles. A wounded vanity engaged his solicitude to the exclusion of all other interests.
At the end of forty-five minutes he had covered the remaining distance between Greenfields station and Maitland Manor. For five minutes more he strode wearily over the side-path by the box hedge which set aside his ancestral acres from the public highway. At length, with an exclamation, he paused at the first opening in the living barrier: a wide entrance from which a blue-stone carriage drive wound away to the house, invisible in the waning light, situate in the shelter of the grove of trees that studded the lawn.
“Gasoline! Brrr!” said Maitland, shuddering and shivering with the combination of a nauseous odor and the night’s coolness–the latter by now making itself as unpleasantly prominent as the former.
Though he hated the smell with all his heart, manfully inconsistent he raised his head, sniffing the air for further evidence; and got his reward in a sickening gust.
“Tank leaked,” he commented with brevity. “Quart of the stuff must have trickled out right here. Ugh! If it goes on at this rate, there’ll be another breakdown before she gets home.” And, “Serve her right, too!” he growled, vindictive.
But for all his indignation he acknowledged a sneaking wish that he might be at hand again, in such event, a second time to give gratuitous service to his grey lady.
Analyzing this frame of mind (not without surprise and some disdain of him who weakly entertained it) he crossed the drive and struck in over the lawn, shaping his course direct for the front entrance of the house.
By dead reckoning the hour was two, or something later; and a chill was stealing in upon the land, wafted gently southward from Long Island Sound. All the world beside himself seemed to slumber, breathless, insensate. Wraith-like, grey shreds of mist drifted between the serried boles of trees, or, rising, veiled the moon’s wan and pallid face, that now was low upon the horizon. In silent rivalry long and velvet-black shadows skulked across the ample breadths of dew-drenched grass. Somewhere a bird stirred on its unseen perch, chirping sleepily; and in the rapt silence the inconsiderable interruption broke with startling stress.
In time,–not long,–the house lifted into view: a squat, rambling block of home-grown architecture with little to recommend it save its keen associations and its comfort. At the edge of the woods the lord and master paused indefinitely, with little purpose, surveying idly the pale, columned facade, and wondering whether or not his entrance at that ungodly hour would rouse the staff of house servants. If it did not–he contemplated with mild amusement the prospect of their surprise when, morning come, they should find the owner in occupation.
“Bannerman was right,” he conceded; “any——” The syllables died upon his lips; his gaze became fixed; his heart thumped wildly for an instant, then rested still; and instinctively he held his breath, tip-toeing to the edge of the veranda the better to command a view of the library windows.
These opened from ceiling to floor and should by rights have presented to his vision a blank expanse of dark glass. But, oddly enough, even while thinking of his lawyer’s warning, he had fancied…. “Ah!” said Maitland softly.
A disk of white light, perhaps a foot or eighteen inches in diameter, had flitted swiftly across the glass and vanished.
“Ah, ah! The devil, the devil!” murmured the young man unconsciously.
The light appeared again, dancing athwart the inner wall of the room, and was lost as abruptly as before. On impulse Maitland buttoned his top-coat across his chest, turning up the collar to hide his linen, darted stealthily a yard or two to one side, and with one noiseless bound reached the floor of the veranda. A breath later he stood by the front door, where, at first glance, he discovered the means of entrance used by the midnight marauder; the doors stood ajar, a black interval showing between them.
So that, then, was the way! Cautiously Maitland put a hand upon the knob and pushed.
A sharp, penetrating squeak brought him to an abrupt standstill, heart hammering shamefully again. Gathering himself to spring, if need be, he crept back toward the library windows, and reconnoitering cautiously determined the fact that the bolts had just been withdrawn on the inside of one window frame, which was swinging wide.
“It’s a wise crook that provides his own quick exit,” considered Maitland.
The sagacious one was not, apparently, leaving at that moment. On the contrary, having made all things ready for a hurried flight upon the first alarm, the intruder turned back, as was clearly indicated by the motion of the light within. The clink of steel touching steel became audible; and Maitland nodded. Bannerman was indeed justified; at that very moment the safe was being attacked.
Maitland returned noiselessly to the door. His mouth had settled into a hard, unyielding, thin line; and a dangerous light flickered in his eyes. Temporarily the idler had stepped aside, giving place to the real man that was Maitland–the man ready to fight for his own, naked hands against firearms, if it need be. True, he had but to step into the gun-room to find weapons in plenty; but these must be then loaded to be of service, and precious moments wasted in the process–moments in which the burglar might gain access to and make off with his booty.
Maitland had no notion whatever of permitting anything of the sort to occur. He counted upon taking his enemy unawares, difficult as he believed such a feat would be, in the case of a professional cracksman.
Down the hallway he groped his way to the library door, his fingers at length encountering its panels; it was closed, doubtless secured upon the inside; the slightest movement of the handle was calculated to alarm the housebreaker. Maitland paused, deliberating another and better plan, having in mind a short passageway connecting library and smoking-room. In the library itself a heavy tapestry curtained its opening, while an equally heavy portiere took the place of a door at the other end. In the natural order of things a burglar would overlook this.
Inch by inch the young man edged into the smoking-room, the door to which providentially stood unclosed. Once within, it was but a moment’s work to feel his way to the velvet folds and draw them aside, fortunately without rattling the brass rings from which the curtain depended. And then Maitland was in the passage, acutely on the alert, recognizing from the continued click of metal that his antagonist-to-be was still at his difficult task. Inch by inch– there was the tapestry! Very gently the householder pushed it aside.
An insidious aroma of scorching varnish (the dark lantern) penetrated the passage while he stood on its threshold, feeling for the electric-light switch. Unhappily he missed this at the first cast, and–heard from within a quick, deep hiss of breath. Something had put the burglar on guard.
Another instant wasted, and it would be too late. The young man had to chance it. And he did, without further hesitation stepping boldly into the danger-zone, at the same time making one final, desperate pass at the spot where the switch should have been–and missing it. On the instant there came a click of a different caliber from those that had preceded it. A revolver had been cocked, somewhere there in the blank darkness.
Maitland knew enough not to move. In another respect the warning came too late; his fingers had found the switch at last, and automatically had turned it. The glare was blinding, momentarily; but the flash and report for which Maitland waited did not come. When his eyes had adjusted themselves to the suddenly altered conditions, he saw, directly before him and some six feet distant, a woman’s slight figure, dark cloaked, resolute upon its two feet, head framed in veiling, features effectually disguised in a motor mask whose round, staring goggles shone blankly in the warm white light.
On her part, she seemed to recognize him instantaneously. On his…. It may as well be admitted that Maitland’s wits were gone wool-gathering, temporarily at least: a state of mind not unpardonable when it is taken into consideration that he was called upon to grapple with and simultaneously to assimilate three momentous facts. For the first time in his life he found himself nose to nose with a revolver, and that one of able bodied and respect-compelling proportions. For the first time in his life, again, he was under necessity of dealing with a housebreaker. But most stupefying of all he found the fact that this housebreaker, this armed midnight marauder, was a woman! And so it was not altogether fearlessness that made him to all intents and purposes ignore the weapon; it is nothing to his credit for courage if his eyes struck past the black and deadly mouth of the revolver and looked only into the blank and expressionless eyes of the wind-mask; it was not lack of respect for his skin’s integrity, but the sheer, tremendous wonder of it all, that rendered him oblivious to the eternity that lay the other side of a slender, trembling finger-tip.
And so he stared, agape, until presently the weapon wavered and was lowered and the woman’s voice, touched with irony, brought him to his senses.
“Oh,” she remarked coolly, “it’s only you.”
Thunderstruck, he was able no more than to parrot the pronoun: “_You–you_!”
“Were you expecting to meet any one else, here, to-night?” she inquired in suavest mockery.
He lifted his shoulders helplessly, and tried to school his tongue to coherence. “I confess…. Well, certainly I didn’t count on finding you here, Miss Wentworth. And the black cloak, you know–“
“Reversible, of course: grey inside, as you see–Handsome Dan!” The girl laughed quietly, drawing aside an edge of the garment to reveal its inner face of silken grey and the fluted ruffles of the grey skirt underneath.
He nodded appreciation of the device, his mind now busy with speculations as to what he should do with the girl, now that he had caught her. At the same time he was vaguely vexed by her persistent repetition of the obsolescent nickname.
“Handsome Dan,” he iterated all but mechanically. “Why do you call me that, please? Have we met before? I could swear, never before this night!”
“But you are altogether too modest,” she laughed. “Not that it’s a bad trait in the character of a professional…. But really! it seems a bit incredible that any one so widely advertised as Handsome Dan Anisty should feel surprise at being recognized. Why, your portrait and biography have commanded space in every yellow journal in America recently!”
And, dropping the revolver into a pocket in her cloak, “I was afraid you might be a servant–or even Maitland,” she diverted the subject, with a nod.
“But–but if you recognized me as Anisty, back there by the ford, didn’t you suspect I’d drop in on you–“
“Why, of course! Didn’t _you_ all but tell me that you were coming here?”
“I thought _perhaps_ I might get through before you came, Mr. Anisty; but I knew all the time that, even if you did manage to surprise me–er–on the job, you wouldn’t call in the police.” She laughed confidently, and–oddly enough–at the same time nervously. “You are certainly a very bold man, and as surely a very careless one, to run around the way you do without so much as troubling to grow a beard or a mustache, after your picture has been published broadcast.”
Did he catch a gleam of admiration in the eyes behind the goggles? “Now, if ever they get hold of _my_ portrait and print it…. Well!” sighed the girl wickedly, lifting slim, bare fingers in affected concern to the mass of ruddy hair, “in that event I suppose I shall have to become a natural blonde!”
Her humor, her splendid fearlessness, the lightness of her tone, combined with the half-laughing, half-serious look that she swept up at him, to ease the tension of his emotions. For the first time since entering the room, he smiled; then in silence for a time regarded her steadfastly, thinking.
So he resembled this burglar, Anisty, strongly enough to be mistaken for him–eh? Plainly enough the girl believed him to be Anisty…. Well, and why not? Why shouldn’t he be Anisty for the time being, if it suited his purpose so to masquerade?
It might possibly suit his purpose. He thought his position one uncommonly difficult. As Maitland, he had on his hands a female thief, a hardened character, a common malefactor (strange that he got so little relish of the terms!), caught red-handed; as Maitland, his duty was to hand her over to the law, to be dealt with as–what she was. Yet, even while these considerations were urging themselves upon him, he knew his eyes appraised her with open admiration and interest. She stood before him, slight, delicate, pretty, appealing in her ingenuous candor; and at his mercy. How could he bring himself to deal with her as he might with–well, Anisty himself? She was a woman, he a gentle man.
As Anisty, however,–if he chose to assume that expert’s identity for the nonce,–he would be placed at once on a plane of equality with the girl; from a fellow of her craft she could hardly refuse attentions. As Anisty, he would put himself in a position to earn her friendship, to gain–perhaps–her confidence, to learn something of her necessities, to aid and protect her from the consequences of her misdeeds; possibly–to sum up–to divert her footsteps to the paths of a calling less hazardous and more honorable.
Worthy ambition: to reform a burglar! Maitland regained something of his lost self-esteem, applauding himself for entertaining a motive so laudable. And he chose his course, for better or worse, in these few seconds. Thereby proving his incontestable title to the name and repute of Mad Maitland.
His face lightened; his manner changed; he assumed with avidity the role for which she had cast him and which he stood so ready to accept and act.
“Well and good,” he conceded with an air. “I suppose I may as well own up—-“
“Oh, I know _you_,” she assured him, with a little, confident shake of her head. “There’s no deceiving me. But,” and her smile became rueful, “if only you’d waited ten minutes more! Of course I recognized you from the first–down there by the river; and knew very well what was your–lay; you gave yourself away completely by mentioning the distance from the river to the Manor. And I did so want to get ahead of you on this job! What a feather in one’s cap to have forestalled Dan Anisty!… But hadn’t you better be a little careful with those lights? You seem to forget that there are servants in the house. Really, you know, I find you most romantically audacious, Mr. Anisty–quite in keeping with your reputation.”
“You overwhelm me,” he murmured. “Believe me, I have little conceit in my fame, such as it is.” And, crossing to the windows, he loosed the heavy velvet hangings and let them fall together, drawing their edges close so that no ray of light might escape.
She watched him with interest. “You seem well acquainted here.”
“Of course. Any man of imagination is at pains to study every house he enters. I have a map of the premises–house and grounds– here.” He indicated his forehead with a long forefinger.
“Quite right, too–and worth one’s while. If rumor is to be believed, you have ordinarily more than your labor for your pains. You have taught me something already…. Ah, well!” she sighed, “I suppose I may as well acknowledge my inferiority–as neophyte to hierophant. Master!” She courtesied low. “I beg you proceed and let thy cheela profit through observation!” And a small white hand gestured significantly toward the collection of burglar’s tools,– drills and chisels, skeleton keys, putty, and all,–neatly displayed upon the rug before the massive safe.
“You mean that you wish me to crack this safe for you?” he inquired, with inward consternation.
“Not for me. Disappointment I admit is mine; but not for the loss I sustain. In the presence of the master I am content to stand humbly to one side, as befits one of my lowly state in–in the ranks of our profession. I resign, I abdicate in your favor; claiming nothing by right of priority.”
“You are too generous,” he mumbled, confused by her thinly veiled ridicule.
“Not at all,” she replied briskly. “I am entirely serious. My loss of to-day will prove my gain, tomorrow. I look for incalculable benefit through study of your methods. My own, I confess,” with a contemptuous toss of her head toward the burglar’s kit, “are clumsy, antiquated, out of date…. But then, I’m only an amateur.”
“Oh, but a woman—-” he began to apologize on her behalf.
“Oh, but a woman!” she rapped out smartly. “I wish you to understand that this woman, at least, is no mean—-” And she hesitated.
“Thief?” he supplied crudely.
“Yes, thief! We’re two of a feather, at that.”
“True enough…. But you were first in the field; I fail to see why I should reap any reward for tardiness. The spoils must be yours.”
It was a test: Maitland watched her keenly, fascinated by the subtlety of the game.
“But I refuse, Mr. Anisty–positively refuse to go to work while you stand aside and–and laugh.”
Pride! He stared, openly amazed, at this bewilderingly feminine bundle of inconsistencies. With each facet of her character discovered to him, minute by minute, the study of her became to him the more engrossing. He drew nearer, eyes speculative.
“I will agree,” he said slowly, “to crack the safe, but upon conditions.”
She drew back imperceptibly, amused, but asserting her dignity. “Yes?” she led him on, though in no accent of encouragement.
“Back there, in the river,” he drawled deliberately, forcing the pace, “I found you–beautiful.”
She flushed, lip curling. “And, back there, in the river, I thought you–a gentleman!”
“Although a burglar?”
“A gentleman for all that!”
“I promise you I mean no harm,” he prefaced. “But don’t you see how I am putting myself in your power? Every moment you know me better, while I have not yet even looked into your face with the light full upon it. Honor among thieves, little woman!”
She chose to ignore the intimate note in his voice. “You’re wasting time,” she hinted crisply.
“I am aware of that fact. Permit me to remind you that you are helping me to waste it. I will not go ahead until I have seen your face. It is simply an ordinary precaution.”
“Oh, if it’s a matter of business—-“
“Self-preservation,” he corrected with magnificent gravity.
She hesitated but a moment longer, then with a quick gesture removed her mask. Maitland’s breath came fast as he bent forward, peering into her face; though he schooled his own features to an expression of intent and inoffensive studiousness, he feared the loud thumping of his heart would betray him. As he looked it became evident that the witchery of moonlight had not served to exaggerate the sensitive, the almost miniature, beauty of her. If anything, its charm was greater there in the full glare of the electric chandelier, as she faced him, giving him glance for glance, quite undismayed by the intentness of his scrutiny.
In the clear light her eyes shone lustrous, pools of tawny flame; her hair showed itself of a rich and luminous coppery hue, spun to immeasurable fineness; a faint color burned in her cheeks, but in contrast her forehead was as snow–the pure, white, close-grained skin that is the heritage of red-headed women the world over, and their chiefest charm as well; while her lips….
As for her lips, the most coherent statement to be extracted from Mr. Maitland is to the effect that they were altogether desirable, from the very first.
The hauteur of her pose, the sympathy and laughter that lurked in her mouth, the manifest breeding in the delicate modeling of her nostrils, and the firm, straight arch of her nose, the astonishing allurement of her eyes, combined with their spirited womanliness: these, while they completed the conquest of the young man, abashed him. He found himself of a sudden endowed with a painful appreciation of his own imperfections, the littleness of his ego, the inherent coarseness of his masculine fiber, the poor futility of his ways, contrasted with her perfections. He felt as if rebuked for some unwarrantable presumption…. For he had looked into eyes that were windows of a soul; and the soul was that of a child, unsullied and immaculate.
You may smile; but as for Maitland, he deemed it no laughing matter. From that moment his perception was clear that, whatever she might claim to be, however damning the circumstances in which she appeared to him, there was no evil in her.
But what he did not know, and did not even guess, was that, from the same instant, his being was in bondage to her will. So Love comes, strangely masked.
MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S MADNESS
At length, awed and not a little shamefaced, “I beg your pardon,” he stammered wretchedly.
“For what?” she demanded quickly, head up and eyes light.
“For insisting. It wasn’t–ah–courteous. I’m sorry.”
It was her turn now to wonder; delicacy of perception such as this is not ordinarily looked for in the person of a burglar. With a laugh and a gibe she tried to pass off her astonishment.
“The thief apologizes to the thief?”
Briefly hesitant, with an impulsive gesture she flung out a generous hand.
“You’re right; I was unkind. Forgive me. Won’t you shake hands? I … I do want to be a good comrade, since it has pleased Fate to throw us together like this, so–so oddly.” Her tone was almost plaintive; unquestionably it was appealing.
Maitland was curiously moved by the touch of the slim, cool fingers that lay in his palm. Not unpleasantly. He frowned in perplexity, unable to analyze the sensation.
“You’re not angry?” she asked.
“Why do you do this, little woman? Why do you stoop to this–this trade of yo–of ours? Why sully your hands,–and not only your hands,–imperil your good name, to say nothing of your liberty—-?”
She drew her hand away quickly, interrupting him with a laugh that rang true as a coin new from the mint, honest and genuine.
“And this,” she cried, “this from Dan Anisty! Positively, sir, you are delightful! You grow more dangerously original every minute! Your scruples, your consideration, your sympathy–they are touching–in _you_!” She wagged her head daintily in pretense of disapprobation. “But shall I tell you?” more seriously, doubtfully. “I think I shall … truly. I do this sort of thing, since you must know, because–_imprimis_, because I like it. Indeed and I do! I like the danger, the excitement, the exercise of cunning and–and I like the rewards, too. Besides—-“
The corners of her adorable mouth drooped ever so slightly.
“Why…. But this is not business! We must hurry. Will you, or shall I—-?”
A crisis had been passed; Maitland understood that he must wait until a more favorable time to renew his importunities.
“I will,” he said, dropping on his knees by the safe. “In my lady’s service!”
“Not at all,” she interposed. “I insist. The job is now yours; yours must be the profits.”
“Then I wash my hands of the whole affair,” he stated in accents of finality. “I refuse. I shall go, and you can do as you will,– blunder on,” scornfully, “with your nitroglycerin, your rags, and drills and–and rouse the entire countryside, if you will.”
“Will you accept my aid?”
“On conditions, only,” she stipulated. “Halvers?”