On that particular morning in April, the trading around the Wheat Pit on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade began practically a full five minutes ahead of the stroke of the gong; and the throng of brokers and clerks that surged in and about the Pit itself was so great that it overflowed and spread out over the floor between the wheat and corn pits, ousting the traders in oats from their traditional ground. The market had closed the day before with May wheat at ninety-eight and five-eighths, and the Bulls had prophesied and promised that the magic legend "Dollar wheat" would be on the Western Union wires before another twenty-four hours.
The indications pointed to a lively morning's work. Never for an instant during the past six weeks had the trading sagged or languished. The air of the Pit was surcharged with a veritable electricity; it had the effervescence of champagne, or of a mountain-top at sunrise. It was buoyant, thrilling.
The "Unknown Bull" was to all appearance still in control; the whole market hung upon his horns; and from time to time, one felt the sudden upward thrust, powerful, tremendous, as he flung the wheat up another notch. The "tailers"—the little Bulls—were radiant. In the dark, they hung hard by their unseen and mysterious friend who daily, weekly, was making them richer. The Bears were scarcely visible. The Great Bull in a single superb rush had driven them nearly out of the Pit. Growling, grumbling they had retreated, and only at distance dared so much as to bare a claw. Just the formidable lowering of the Great Bull's frontlet sufficed, so it seemed, to check their every move of aggression or resistance. And all the while, Liverpool, Paris, Odessa, and Buda-Pesth clamoured ever louder and louder for the grain that meant food to the crowded streets and barren farms of Europe.
A few moments before the opening Charles Cressler was in the public room, in the southeast corner of the building, where smoking was allowed, finishing his morning's cigar. But as he heard the distant striking of the gong, and the roar of the Pit as it began to get under way, with a prolonged rumbling trepidation like the advancing of a great flood, he threw his cigar away and stepped out from the public room to the main floor, going on towards the front windows. At the sample tables he filled his pockets with wheat, and once at the windows raised the sash and spread the pigeons' breakfast on the granite ledge.
While he was watching the confused fluttering of flashing wings, that on the instant filled the air in front of the window, he was all at once surprised to hear a voice at his elbow, wishing him good morning.
"Seem to know you, don't they?"
Cressler turned about.
"Oh," he said. "Hullo, hullo—yes, they know me all right. Especially that red and white hen. She's got a lame wing since yesterday, and if I don't watch, the others would drive her off. The pouter brute yonder, for instance. He's a regular pirate. Wants all the wheat himself. Don't ever seem to get enough."
"Well," observed the newcomer, laconically, "there are others."
The man who spoke was about forty years of age. His name was Calvin Hardy Crookes. He was very small and very slim. His hair was yet dark, and his face—smooth-shaven and triangulated in shape, like a cat's—was dark as well. The eyebrows were thin and black, and the lips too were thin and were puckered a little, like the mouth of a tight-shut sack. The face was secretive, impassive, and cold.
The man himself was dressed like a dandy. His coat and trousers were of the very newest fashion. He wore a white waistcoat, drab gaiters, a gold watch and chain, a jewelled scarf pin, and a seal ring. From the top pocket of his coat protruded the finger tips of a pair of unworn red gloves.
"Yes," continued Crookes, unfolding a brand-new pocket handkerchief as he spoke. "There are others—who never know when they've got enough wheat."
"Oh, you mean the 'Unknown Bull.'"
"I mean the unknown damned fool," returned Crookes placidly.
There was not a trace of the snob about Charles Cressler. No one could be more democratic. But at the same time, as this interview proceeded, he could not fight down nor altogether ignore a certain qualm of gratified vanity. Had the matter risen to the realm of his consciousness, he would have hated himself for this. But it went no further than a vaguely felt increase of self-esteem. He seemed to feel more important in his own eyes; he would have liked to have his friends see him just now talking with this man. "Crookes was saying to-day—" he would observe when next he met an acquaintance. For C. H. Crookes was conceded to be the "biggest man" in La Salle Street. Not even the growing importance of the new and mysterious Bull could quite make the market forget the Great Bear. Inactive during all this trampling and goring in the Pit, there were yet those who, even as they strove against the Bull, cast uneasy glances over their shoulders, wondering why the Bear did not come to the help of his own.
"Well, yes," admitted Cressler, combing his short beard, "yes, he is a fool."
The contrast between the two men was extreme. Each was precisely what the other was not. The one, long, angular, loose-jointed; the other, tight, trim, small, and compact. The one osseous, the other sleek; the one stoop-shouldered, the other erect as a corporal of infantry.
But as Cressler was about to continue Crookes put his chin in the air.
"Hark!" he said. "What's that?"
For from the direction of the Wheat Pit had come a sudden and vehement renewal of tumult. The traders as one man were roaring in chorus. There were cheers; hats went up into the air. On the floor by the lowest step two brokers, their hands trumpet-wise to their mouths, shouted at top voice to certain friends at a distance, while above them, on the topmost step of the Pit, a half-dozen others, their arms at fullest stretch, threw the hand signals that interpreted the fluctuations in the price, to their associates in the various parts of the building. Again and again the cheers rose, violent hip-hip-hurrahs and tigers, while from all corners and parts of the floor men and boys came scurrying up. Visitors in the gallery leaned eagerly upon the railing. Over in the provision pit, trading ceased for the moment, and all heads were turned towards the commotion of the wheat traders.
"Ah," commented Crookes, "they did get it there at last."
For the hand on the dial had suddenly jumped another degree, and not a messenger boy, not a porter not a janitor, none whose work or life brought him in touch with the Board of Trade, that did not feel the thrill. The news flashed out to the world on a hundred telegraph wires; it was called to a hundred offices across the telephone lines. From every doorway, even, as it seemed, from every window of the building, spreading thence all over the city, the State, the Northwest, the entire nation, sped the magic words, "Dollar wheat."
Crookes turned to Cressler.
"Can you lunch with me to-day—at Kinsley's? I'd like to have a talk with you."
And as soon as Cressler had accepted the invitation, Crookes, with a succinct nod, turned upon his heel and walked away.
At Kinsley's that day, in a private room on the second floor, Cressler met not only Crookes, but his associate Sweeny, and another gentleman by the name of Freye, the latter one of his oldest and best-liked friends.
Sweeny was an Irishman, florid, flamboyant, talkative, who spoke with a faint brogue, and who tagged every observation, argument, or remark with the phrase, "Do you understand me, gen'lemen?" Freye, a German-American, was a quiet fellow, very handsome, with black side whiskers and a humourous, twinkling eye. The three were members of the Board of Trade, and were always associated with the Bear forces. Indeed, they could be said to be its leaders. Between them, as Cressler afterwards was accustomed to say, "They could have bought pretty much all of the West Side."
And during the course of the luncheon these three, with a simplicity and a directness that for the moment left Cressler breathless, announced that they were preparing to drive the Unknown Bull out of the Pit, and asked him to become one of the clique.
Crookes, whom Cressler intuitively singled out as the leader, did not so much as open his mouth till Sweeny had talked himself breathless, and all the preliminaries were out of the way. Then he remarked, his eye as lifeless as the eye of a fish, his voice as expressionless as the voice of Fate itself:
"I don't know who the big Bull is, and I don't care a curse. But he don't suit my book. I want him out of the market. We've let him have his way now for three or four months. We figured we'd let him run to the dollar mark. The May option closed this morning at a dollar and an eighth… . Now we take hold.
"But," Cressler hastened to object, "you forget—I'm not a speculator."
Freye smiled, and tapped his friend on the arm.
"I guess, Charlie," he said, "that there won't be much speculating about this."
"Why, gen'lemen," cried Sweeny, brandishing a fork, "we're going to sell him right out o' the market, so we are. Simply flood out the son-of-a-gun—you understand me, gen'lemen?"
Cressler shook his head.
"No," he answered. "No, you must count me out. I quit speculating years ago. And, besides, to sell short on this kind of market—I don't need to tell you what you risk."
"Risk hell!" muttered Crookes.
"Well, now, I'll explain to you, Charlie," began Freye.
The other two withdrew a little from the conversation. Crookes, as ever monosyllabic, took himself on in a little while, and Sweeny, his chair tipped back against the wall, his hands clasped behind his head, listened to Freye explaining to Cressler the plans of the proposed clique and the lines of their attack.
He talked for nearly an hour and a half, at the end of which time the lunch table was one litter of papers—letters, contracts, warehouse receipts, tabulated statistics, and the like.
"Well," said Freye, at length, "well, Charlie, do you see the game? What do you think of it?"
"It's about as ingenious a scheme as I ever heard of, Billy," answered Cressler. "You can't lose, with Crookes back of it."
"Well, then, we can count you in, hey?"
"Count nothing," declared Cressler, stoutly. "I don't speculate."
"But have you thought of this?" urged Freye, and went over the entire proposition, from a fresh point of view, winding up with the exclamation: "Why, Charlie, we're going to make our everlasting fortunes."
"I don't want any everlasting fortune, Billy Freye," protested Cressler. "Look here, Billy. You must remember I'm a pretty old cock. You boys are all youngsters. I've got a little money left and a little business, and I want to grow old quiet-like. I had my fling, you know, when you boys were in knickerbockers. Now you let me keep out of all this. You get some one else."
"No, we'll be jiggered if we do," exclaimed Sweeny. "Say, are ye scared we can't buy that trade journal? Why, we have it in our pocket, so we have. D'ye think Crookes, now, couldn't make Bear sentiment with the public, with just the lift o' one forefinger? Why, he owns most of the commercial columns of the dailies already. D'ye think he couldn't swamp that market with sellin' orders in the shorter end o' two days? D'ye think we won't all hold together, now? Is that the bug in the butter? Sure, now, listen. Let me tell you—"
"You can't tell me anything about this scheme that you've not told me before," declared Cressler. "You'll win, of course. Crookes & Co. are like Rothschild—earthquakes couldn't budge 'em. But I promised myself years ago to keep out of the speculative market, and I mean to stick by it."
"Oh, get on with you, Charlie," said Freye, good-humouredly, "you're scared."
"Of what," asked Cressler, "speculating? You bet I am, and when you're as old as I am, and have been through three panics, and have known what it meant to have a corner bust under you, you'll be scared of speculating too."
"But suppose we can prove to you," said Sweeny, all at once, "that we're not speculating—that the other fellow, this fool Bull is doing the speculating?"
"I'll go into anything in the way of legitimate trading," answered Cressler, getting up from the table. "You convince me that your clique is not a speculative clique, and I'll come in. But I don't see how your deal can be anything else."
"Will you meet us here to-morrow?" asked Sweeny, as they got into their overcoats.
"It won't do you any good," persisted Cressler.
"Well, will you meet us just the same?" the other insisted. And in the end Cressler accepted.
On the steps of the restaurant they parted, and the two leaders watched Cressler's broad, stooped shoulders disappear down the street.
"He's as good as in already," Sweeny declared. "I'll fix him to-morrow. Once a speculator, always a speculator. He was the cock of the cow-yard in his day, and the thing is in the blood. He gave himself clean, clean away when he let out he was afraid o' speculating. You can't be afraid of anything that ain't got a hold on you. Y' understand me now?"
"Well," observed Freye, "we've got to get him in."
"Talk to me about that now," Sweeny answered. "I'm new to some parts o' this scheme o' yours yet. Why is Crookes so keen on having him in? I'm not so keen. We could get along without him. He ain't so god-awful rich, y' know."
"No, but he's a solid, conservative cash grain man," answered Freye, "who hasn't been associated with speculating for years. Crookes has got to have that element in the clique before we can approach Stires & Co. We may have to get a pile of money from them, and they're apt to be scary and cautious. Cressler being in, do you see, gives the clique a substantial, conservative character. You let Crookes manage it. He knows his business."
"Say," exclaimed Sweeny, an idea occurring to him, "I thought Crookes was going to put us wise to-day. He must know by now who the Big Bull is."
"No doubt he does know," answered the other. "He'll tell us when he's ready. But I think I could copper the individual. There was a great big jag of wheat sold to Liverpool a little while ago through Gretry, Converse & Co., who've been acting for Curtis Jadwin for a good many years."
"Oh, Jadwin, hey? Hi! we're after big game now, I'm thinking."
"But look here," warned Freye. "Here's a point. Cressler is not to know by the longest kind of chalk; anyhow not until he's so far in, he can't pull out. He and Jadwin are good friends, I'm told. Hello, it's raining a little. Well, I've got to be moving. See you at lunch to-morrow."
As Cressler turned into La Salle Street the light sprinkle of rain suddenly swelled to a deluge, and he had barely time to dodge into the portico of the Illinois Trust to escape a drenching. All the passers-by close at hand were making for the same shelter, and among these Cressler was surprised to see Curtis Jadwin, who came running up the narrow lane from the cafe entrance of the Grand Pacific Hotel.
"Hello! Hello, J.," he cried, when his friend came panting up the steps, "as the whale said to Jonah, 'Come in out of the wet.'"
The two friends stood a moment under the portico, their coat collars turned up, watching the scurrying in the street.
"Well," said Cressler, at last, "I see we got 'dollar wheat' this morning."
"Yes," answered Jadwin, nodding, "'dollar wheat.'"
"I suppose," went on Cressler, "I suppose you are sorry, now that you're not in it any more."
"Oh, no," replied Jadwin, nibbling off the end of a cigar. "No, I'm—I'm just as well out of it."
"And it's for good and all this time, eh?"
"For good and all."
"Well," commented Cressler, "some one else has begun where you left off, I guess. This Unknown Bull, I mean. All the boys are trying to find out who he is. Crookes, though, was saying to me—Cal Crookes, you know—he was saying he didn't care who he was. Crookes is out of the market, too, I understand—and means to keep out, he says, till the Big Bull gets tired. Wonder who the Big Bull is."
"Oh, there isn't any Big Bull," blustered Jadwin. "There's simply a lot of heavy buying, or maybe there might be a ring of New York men operating through Gretry. I don't know; and I guess I'm like Crookes, I don't care—now that I'm out of the game. Real estate is too lively now to think of anything else; keeps me on the keen jump early and late. I tell you what, Charlie, this city isn't half grown yet. And do you know, I've noticed another thing—cities grow to the westward. I've got a building and loan association going, out in the suburbs on the West Side, that's a dandy. Well, looks as though the rain had stopped. Remember me to madam. So long, Charlie."
On leaving Cressler Jadwin went on to his offices in The Rookery, close at hand. But he had no more than settled himself at his desk, when he was called up on his telephone.
"Hello!" said a small, dry transformation of Gretry's voice. "Hello, is that you, J.? Well, in the matter of that cash wheat in Duluth, I've bought that for you."
"All right," answered Jadwin, then he added, "I guess we had better have a long talk now."
"I was going to propose that," answered the broker. "Meet me this evening at seven at the Grand Pacific. It's just as well that we're not seen together nowadays. Don't ask for me. Go right into the smoking-room. I'll be there. And, by the way, I shall expect a reply from Minneapolis about half-past five this afternoon. I would like to be able to get at you at once when that comes in. Can you wait down for that?"
"Well, I was going home," objected Jadwin. "I wasn't home to dinner last night, and Mrs. Jadwin—"
"This is pretty important, you know," warned the broker. "And if I call you up on your residence telephone, there's always the chance of somebody cutting in and overhearing us."
"Oh, very well, then," assented Jadwin. "I'll call it a day. I'll get home for luncheon to-morrow. It can't be helped. By the way, I met Cressler this afternoon, Sam, and he seemed sort of suspicious of things, to me—as though he had an inkling."
"Better hang up," came back the broker's voice. "Better hang up, J. There's big risk telephoning like this. I'll see you to-night. Good-by."
And so it was that about half an hour later Laura was called to the telephone in the library.
"Oh, not coming home at all to-night?" she cried blankly in response to Jadwin's message.
"It's just impossible, old girl," he answered.
"But why?" she insisted.
"Oh, business; this building and loan association of mine."
"Oh, I know it can't be that. Why don't you let Mr. Gretry manage your—"
But at this point Jadwin, the warning of Gretry still fresh in his mind, interrupted quickly:
"I must hang up now, Laura. Good-by. I'll see you to-morrow noon and explain it all to you. Good-by… . Laura… . Hello! … Are you there yet? … Hello, hello!"
But Jadwin had heard in the receiver the rattle and click as of a tiny door closing. The receiver was silent and dead; and he knew that his wife, disappointed and angry, had "hung up" without saying good-by.
The days passed. Soon another week had gone by. The wheat market steadied down after the dollar mark was reached, and for a few days a calmer period intervened. Down beneath the surface, below the ebb and flow of the currents, the great forces were silently at work reshaping the "situation." Millions of dollars were beginning to be set in motion to govern the millions of bushels of wheat. At the end of the third week of the month Freye reported to Crookes that Cressler was "in," and promptly negotiations were opened between the clique and the great banking house of the Stires. But meanwhile Jadwin and Gretry, foreseeing no opposition, realising the incalculable advantage that their knowledge of the possibility of a "corner" gave them, were, quietly enough, gathering in the grain. As early as the end of March Jadwin, as incidental to his contemplated corner of May wheat, had bought up a full half of the small supply of cash wheat in Duluth, Chicago, Liverpool and Paris—some twenty million bushels; and against this had sold short an equal amount of the July option. Having the actual wheat in hand he could not lose. If wheat went up, his twenty million bushels were all the more valuable; if it went down, he covered his short sales at a profit. And all the while, steadily, persistently, he bought May wheat, till Gretry's book showed him to be possessed of over twenty million bushels of the grain deliverable for that month.
But all this took not only his every minute of time, but his every thought, his every consideration. He who had only so short a while before considered the amount of five million bushels burdensome, demanding careful attention, was now called upon to watch, govern, and control the tremendous forces latent in a line of forty million. At times he remembered the Curtis Jadwin of the spring before his marriage, the Curtis Jadwin who had sold a pitiful million on the strength of the news of the French import duty, and had considered the deal "big." Well, he was a different man since that time. Then he had been suspicious of speculation, had feared it even. Now he had discovered that there were in him powers, capabilities, and a breadth of grasp hitherto unsuspected. He could control the Chicago wheat market, and the man who could do that might well call himself "great," without presumption. He knew that he overtopped them all—Gretry, the Crookes gang, the arrogant, sneering Bears, all the men of the world of the Board of Trade. He was stronger, bigger, shrewder than them all. A few days now would show, when they would all wake to the fact that wheat, which they had promised to deliver before they had it in hand, was not to be got except from him—and at whatever price he chose to impose. He could exact from them a hundred dollars a bushel if he chose, and they must pay him the price or become bankrupts.
By now his mind was upon this one great fact—May Wheat—continually. It was with him the instant he woke in the morning. It kept him company during his hasty breakfast; in the rhythm of his horses' hoofs, as the team carried him down town he heard, "Wheat—wheat—wheat, wheat—wheat—wheat." No sooner did he enter La Salle Street, than the roar of traffic came to his ears as the roar of the torrent of wheat which drove through Chicago from the Western farms to the mills and bakeshops of Europe. There at the foot of the street the torrent swirled once upon itself, forty million strong, in the eddy which he told himself he mastered. The afternoon waned, night came on. The day's business was to be gone over; the morrow's campaign was to be planned; little, unexpected side issues, a score of them, a hundred of them, cropped out from hour to hour; new decisions had to be taken each minute. At dinner time he left the office, and his horses carried him home again, while again their hoofs upon the asphalt beat out unceasingly the monotone of the one refrain, "Wheat—wheat—wheat, wheat—wheat—wheat." At dinner table he could not eat. Between each course he found himself going over the day's work, testing it, questioning himself, "Was this rightly done?" "Was that particular decision sound?" "Is there a loophole here?" "Just what was the meaning of that despatch?" After the meal the papers, contracts, statistics and reports which he had brought with him in his Gladstone bag were to be studied. As often as not Gretry called, and the two, shut in the library, talked, discussed, and planned till long after midnight.
Then at last, when he had shut the front door upon his lieutenant and turned to face the empty, silent house, came the moment's reaction. The tired brain flagged and drooped; exhaustion, like a weight of lead, hung upon his heels. But somewhere a hall clock struck, a single, booming note, like a gong—like the signal that would unchain the tempest in the Pit to-morrow morning. Wheat—wheat—wheat, wheat—wheat—wheat! Instantly the jaded senses braced again, instantly the wearied mind sprang to its post. He turned out the lights, he locked the front door. Long since the great house was asleep. In the cold, dim silence of the earliest dawn Curtis Jadwin went to bed, only to lie awake, staring up into the darkness, planning, devising new measures, reviewing the day's doings, while the faint tides of blood behind the eardrums murmured ceaselessly to the overdriven brain, "Wheat—wheat—wheat, wheat—wheat—wheat. Forty million bushels, forty million, forty million."
Whole days now went by when he saw his wife only at breakfast and at dinner. At times she was angry, hurt, and grieved that he should leave her so much alone. But there were moments when she was sorry for him. She seemed to divine that he was not all to blame.
What Laura thought he could only guess. She no longer spoke of his absorption in business. At times he thought he saw reproach and appeal in her dark eyes, at times anger and a pride cruelly wounded. A few months ago this would have touched him. But now he all at once broke out vehemently:
"You think I am wilfully doing this! You don't know, you haven't a guess. I corner the wheat! Great heavens, it is the wheat that has cornered me! The corner made itself. I happened to stand between two sets of circumstances, and they made me do what I've done. I couldn't get out of it now, with all the good will in the world. Go to the theatre to-night with you and the Cresslers? Why, old girl, you might as well ask me to go to Jericho. Let that Mr. Corthell take my place."
And very naturally this is what was done. The artist sent a great bunch of roses to Mrs. Jadwin upon the receipt of her invitation, and after the play had the party to supper in his apartments, that overlooked the Lake Front. Supper over, he escorted her, Mrs. Cressler, and Page back to their respective homes.
By a coincidence that struck them all as very amusing, he was the only man of the party. At the last moment Page had received a telegram from Landry. He was, it appeared, sick, and in bed. The day's work on the Board of Trade had quite used him up for the moment, and his doctor forbade him to stir out of doors. Mrs. Cressler explained that Charlie had something on his mind these days, that was making an old man of him.
"He don't ever talk shop with me," she said. "I'm sure he hasn't been speculating, but he's worried and fidgety to beat all I ever saw, this last week; and now this evening he had to take himself off to meet some customer or other at the Palmer House."
They dropped Mrs. Cressler at the door of her home and then went on to the Jadwins'.
"I remember," said Laura to Corthell, "that once before the three of us came home this way. Remember? It was the night of the opera. That was the night I first met Mr. Jadwin."
"It was the night of the Helmick failure," said Page, seriously, "and the office buildings were all lit up. See," she added, as they drove up to the house, "there's a light in the library, and it must be nearly one o'clock. Mr. Jadwin is up yet."
Laura fell suddenly silent. When was it all going to end, and how? Night after night her husband shut himself thus in the library, and toiled on till early dawn. She enjoyed no companionship with him. Her evenings were long, her time hung with insupportable heaviness upon her hands.
"Shall you be at home?" inquired Corthell, as he held her hand a moment at the door. "Shall you be at home to-morrow evening? May I come and play to you again?"
"Yes, yes," she answered. "Yes, I shall be home. Yes, do come."
Laura's carriage drove the artist back to his apartments. All the way he sat motionless in his place, looking out of the window with unseeing eyes. His cigarette went out. He drew another from his case, but forgot to light it.
Thoughtful and abstracted he slowly mounted the stairway—the elevator having stopped for the night—to his studio, let himself in, and, throwing aside his hat and coat, sat down without lighting the gas in front of the fireplace, where (the weather being even yet sharp) an armful of logs smouldered on the flagstones.
His man, Evans, came from out an inner room to ask if he wanted anything. Corthell got out of his evening coat, and Evans brought him his smoking-jacket and set the little table with its long tin box of cigarettes and ash trays at his elbow. Then he lit the tall lamp of corroded bronze, with its heavy silk shade, that stood on a table in the angle of the room, drew the curtains, put a fresh log upon the fire, held the tiny silver alcohol burner to Corthell while the latter lighted a fresh cigarette, and then with a murmured "Good-night, sir," went out, closing the door with the precaution of a depredator.
This suite of rooms, facing the Lake Front, was what Corthell called "home," Whenever he went away, he left it exactly as it was, in the charge of the faithful Evans; and no mater how long he was absent, he never returned thither without a sense of welcome and relief. Even now, perplexed as he was, he was conscious of a feeling of comfort and pleasure as he settled himself in his chair.
The lamp threw a dull illumination about the room. It was a picturesque apartment, carefully planned. Not an object that had not been chosen with care and the utmost discrimination. The walls had been treated with copper leaf till they produced a sombre, iridescent effect of green and faint gold, that suggested the depth of a forest glade shot through with the sunset. Shelves bearing eighteenth-century books in seal brown tree calf—Addison, the "Spectator," Junius and Racine, Rochefoucauld and Pascal hung against it here and there. On every hand the eye rested upon some small masterpiece of art or workmanship. Now it was an antique portrait bust of the days of decadent Rome, black marble with a bronze tiara; now a framed page of a fourteenth-century version of "Li Quatres Filz d'Aymon," with an illuminated letter of miraculous workmanship; or a Renaissance gonfalon of silk once white but now brown with age, yet in the centre blazing with the escutcheon and quarterings of a dead queen. Between the windows stood an ivory statuette of the "Venus of the Heel," done in the days of the magnificent Lorenzo. An original Cazin, and a chalk drawing by Baudry hung against the wall close by together with a bronze tablet by Saint Gaudens; while across the entire end of the room opposite the fireplace, worked in the tapestry of the best period of the northern French school, Halcyone, her arms already blossoming into wings, hovered over the dead body of Ceyx, his long hair streaming like seaweed in the blue waters of the AEgean.
For a long time Corthell sat motionless, looking into the fire. In an adjoining room a clock chimed the half hour of one, and the artist stirred, passing his long fingers across his eyes.
After a long while he rose, and going to the fireplace, leaned an arm against the overhanging shelf, and resting his forehead against it, remained in that position, looking down at the smouldering logs.
"She is unhappy," he murmured at length. "It is not difficult to see that… . Unhappy and lonely. Oh, fool, fool to have left her when you might have stayed! Oh, fool, fool, not to find the strength to leave her now when you should not remain!"
The following evening Corthell called upon Mrs. Jadwin. She was alone, as he usually found her. He had brought a book of poems with him, and instead of passing the evening in the art gallery, as they had planned, he read aloud to her from Rossetti. Nothing could have been more conventional than their conversation, nothing more impersonal. But on his way home one feature of their talk suddenly occurred to him. It struck him as significant; but of what he did not care to put into words. Neither he nor Laura had once spoken of Jadwin throughout the entire evening.
Little by little the companionship grew. Corthell shut his eyes, his ears. The thought of Laura, the recollection of their last evening together, the anticipation of the next meeting filled all his waking hours. He refused to think; he resigned himself to the drift of the current. Jadwin he rarely saw. But on those few occasions when he and Laura's husband met, he could detect no lack of cordiality in the other's greeting. Once even Jadwin had remarked:
"I'm very glad you have come to see Mrs. Jadwin, Corthell. I have to be away so much these days, I'm afraid she would be lonesome if it wasn't for some one like you to drop in now and then and talk art to her."
By slow degrees the companionship trended toward intimacy. At the various theatres and concerts he was her escort. He called upon her two or three times each week. At his studio entertainments Laura was always present. How—Corthell asked himself—did she regard the affair? She gave him no sign; she never intimated that his presence was otherwise than agreeable. Was this tacit acquiescence of hers an encouragement? Was she willing to afficher herself, as a married woman, with a cavalier? Her married life was intolerable, he was sure of that; her husband uncongenial. He told himself that she detested him.
Once, however, this belief was rather shocked by an unexpected and (to him) an inconsistent reaction on Laura's part. She had made an engagement with him to spend an afternoon in the Art Institute, looking over certain newly acquired canvases. But upon calling for her an hour after luncheon he was informed that Mrs. Jadwin was not at home. When next she saw him she told him that she had spent the entire day with her husband. They had taken an early train and had gone up to Geneva Lake to look over their country house, and to prepare for its opening, later on in the spring. They had taken the decision so unexpectedly that she had no time to tell him of the change in her plans. Corthell wondered if she had—as a matter of fact—forgotten all about her appointment with him. He never quite understood the incident, and afterwards asked himself whether or no he could be so sure, after all, of the estrangement between the husband and wife. He guessed it to be possible that on this occasion Jadwin had suddenly decided to give himself a holiday, and that Laura had been quick to take advantage of it. Was it true, then, that Jadwin had but to speak the word to have Laura forget all else? Was it true that the mere nod of his head was enough to call her back to him? Corthell was puzzled. He would not admit this to be true. She was, he was persuaded, a woman of more spirit, of more pride than this would seem to indicate. Corthell ended by believing that Jadwin had, in some way, coerced her; though he fancied that for the few days immediately following the excursion Laura had never been gayer, more alert, more radiant.
But the days went on, and it was easy to see that his business kept Jadwin more and more from his wife. Often now, Corthell knew, he passed the night down town, and upon those occasions when he managed to get home after the day's work, he was exhausted, worn out, and went to bed almost immediately after dinner. More than ever now the artist and Mrs. Jadwin were thrown together.
On a certain Sunday evening, the first really hot day of the year, Laura and Page went over to spend an hour with the Cresslers, and—as they were all wont to do in the old days before Laura's marriage—the party "sat out on the front stoop." For a wonder, Jadwin was able to be present. Laura had prevailed upon him to give her this evening and the evening of the following Wednesday—on which latter occasion she had planned that they were to take a long drive in the park in the buggy, just the two of them, as it had been in the days of their courtship.
Corthell came to the Cresslers quite as a matter of course. He had dined with the Jadwins at the great North Avenue house and afterwards the three, preferring to walk, had come down to the Cresslers on foot.
But evidently the artist was to see but little of Laura Jadwin that evening. She contrived to keep by her husband continually. She even managed to get him away from the others, and the two, leaving the rest upon the steps, sat in the parlour of the Cresslers' house, talking.
By and by Laura, full of her projects, exclaimed:
"Where shall we go? I thought, perhaps, we would not have dinner at home, but you could come back to the house just a little—a little bit—early, and you could drive me out to the restaurant there in the park, and we could have dinner there, just as though we weren't married just as though we were sweethearts again. Oh, I do hope the weather will be fine."
"Oh," answered Jadwin, "you mean Wednesday evening. Dear old girl, honestly, I—I don't believe I can make it after all. You see, Wednesday—"
Laura sat suddenly erect.
"But you said," she began, her voice faltering a little, "you said—"
"Honey, I know I did, but you must let me off this time again."
She did not answer. It was too dark for him to see her face; but, uneasy at her silence, he began an elaborate explanation. Laura, however, interrupted. Calmly enough, she said:
"Oh, that's all right. No, no, I don't mind. Of course, if you are busy."
"Well, you see, don't you, old girl?"
"Oh, yes, yes, I see," she answered. She rose.
"I think," she said, "we had better be going home. Don't you?"
"Yes, I do," he assented. "I'm pretty tired myself. I've had a hard day's work. I'm thirsty, too," he added, as he got up. "Would you like to have a drink of water, too?"
She shook her head, and while he disappeared in the direction of the Cresslers' dining-room, she stood alone a moment in the darkened room looking out into the street. She felt that her cheeks were hot. Her hands, hanging at her sides, shut themselves into tight fists.
"What, you are all alone?" said Corthell's voice, behind her.
She turned about quickly.
"I must be going," he said. "I came to say good night." He held out his hand.
"Good night," she answered, as she gave him hers. Then all at once she added:
"Come to see me again—soon, will you? Come Wednesday night."
And then, his heart leaping to his throat, Corthell felt her hand, as it lay in his, close for an instant firmly about his fingers.
"I shall expect you Wednesday then?" she repeated.
He crushed her hand in his grip, and suddenly bent and kissed it.
"Good night," she said, quietly. Jadwin's step sounded at the doorway.
"Good night," he whispered, and in another moment was gone.
During these days Laura no longer knew herself. At every hour she changed; her moods came and went with a rapidity that bewildered all those who were around her. At times her gaiety filled the whole of her beautiful house; at times she shut herself in her apartments, denying herself to every one, and, her head bowed upon her folded arms, wept as though her heart was breaking, without knowing why.
For a few days a veritable seizure of religious enthusiasm held sway over her. She spoke of endowing a hospital, of doing church work among the "slums" of the city. But no sooner had her friends readjusted their points of view to suit this new development than she was off upon another tangent, and was one afternoon seen at the races, with Mrs. Gretry, in her showiest victoria, wearing a great flaring hat and a bouquet of crimson flowers.
She never repeated this performance, however, for a new fad took possession of her the very next day. She memorised the role of Lady Macbeth, built a stage in the ballroom at the top of the house, and, locking herself in, rehearsed the part, for three days uninterruptedly, dressed in elaborate costume, declaiming in chest tones to the empty room:
"'The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the entrance of Duncan under my battlements.'"
Then, tiring of Lady Macbeth, she took up Juliet, Portia, and Ophelia; each with appropriate costumes, studying with tireless avidity, and frightening Aunt Wess' with her declaration that "she might go on the stage after all." She even entertained the notion of having Sheldon Corthell paint her portrait as Lady Macbeth.
As often as the thought of the artist presented itself to her she fought to put it from her. Yes, yes, he came to see her often, very often. Perhaps he loved her yet. Well, suppose he did? He had always loved her. It was not wrong to have him love her, to have him with her. Without his company, great heavens, her life would be lonely beyond words and beyond endurance. Besides, was it to be thought, for an instant, that she, she, Laura Jadwin, in her pitch of pride, with all her beauty, with her quick, keen mind, was to pine, to droop to fade in oblivion and neglect? Was she to blame? Let those who neglected her look to it. Her youth was all with her yet, and all her power to attract, to compel admiration.
When Corthell came to see her on the Wednesday evening in question, Laura said to him, after a few moments, conversation in the drawing-room:
"Oh, you remember the picture you taught me to appreciate—the picture of the little pool in the art gallery, the one you called 'Despair'? I have hung it in my own particular room upstairs—my sitting-room—so as to have it where I can see it always. I love it now. But," she added, "I am not sure about the light. I think it could be hung to better advantage." She hesitated a moment, then, with a sudden, impulsive movement, she turned to him.
"Won't you come up with me, and tell me where to hang it?"
They took the little elevator to the floor above, and Laura led the artist to the room in question—her "sitting-room," a wide, airy place, the polished floor covered with deep skins, the walls wainscotted half way to the ceiling, in dull woods. Shelves of books were everywhere, together with potted plants and tall brass lamps. A long "Madeira" chair stood at the window which overlooked the park and lake, and near to it a great round table of San Domingo mahogany, with tea things and almost diaphanous china.
"What a beautiful room," murmured Corthell, as she touched the button in the wall that opened the current, "and how much you have impressed your individuality upon it. I should have known that you lived here. If you were thousands of miles away and I had entered here, I should have known it was yours—and loved it for such."
"Here is the picture," she said, indicating where it hung. "Doesn't it seem to you that the light is bad?"
But he explained to her that it was not so, and that she had but to incline the canvas a little more from the wall to get a good effect.
"Of course, of course," she assented, as he held the picture in place. "Of course. I shall have it hung over again to-morrow."
For some moments they remained standing in the centre of the room, looking at the picture and talking of it. And then, without remembering just how it had happened, Laura found herself leaning back in the Madeira chair, Corthell seated near at hand by the round table.
"I am glad you like my room," she said. "It is here that I spend most of my time. Often lately I have had my dinner here. Page goes out a great deal now, and so I am left alone occasionally. Last night I sat here in the dark for a long time. The house was so still, everybody was out—even some of the servants. It was so warm, I raised the windows and I sat here for hours looking out over the lake. I could hear it lapping and washing against the shore—almost like a sea. And it was so still, so still; and I was thinking of the time when I was a little girl back at Barrington, years and years ago, picking whortle-berries down in the 'water lot,' and how I got lost once in the corn—the stalks were away above my head—and how happy I was when my father would take me up on the hay wagon. Ah, I was happy in those days—just a freckled, black-haired slip of a little girl, with my frock torn and my hands all scratched with the berry bushes."
She had begun by dramatising, but by now she was acting—acting with all her histrionic power at fullest stretch, acting the part of a woman unhappy amid luxuries, who looked back with regret and with longing towards a joyous, simple childhood. She was sincere and she was not sincere. Part of her—one of those two Laura Jadwins who at different times, but with equal right called themselves "I," knew just what effect her words, her pose, would have upon a man who sympathised with her, who loved her. But the other Laura Jadwin would have resented as petty, as even wrong, the insinuation that she was not wholly, thoroughly sincere. All that she was saying was true. No one, so she believed, ever was placed before as she was placed now. No one had ever spoken as now she spoke. Her chin upon one slender finger, she went on, her eyes growing wide:
"If I had only known then that those days were to be, the happiest of my life… . This great house, all the beauty of it, and all this wealth, what does it amount to?" Her voice was the voice of Phedre, and the gesture of lassitude with which she let her arms fall into her lap was precisely that which only the day before she had used to accompany Portia's plaint of
—my little body is a-weary of this great world.
Yet, at the same time, Laura knew that her heart was genuinely aching with real sadness, and that the tears which stood in her eyes were as sincere as any she had ever shed.
"All this wealth," she continued, her head dropping back upon the cushion of the chair as she spoke, "what does it matter; for what does it compensate? Oh, I would give it all gladly, gladly, to be that little black-haired girl again, back in Squire Dearborn's water lot; with my hands stained with the whortle-berries and the nettles in my fingers—and my little lover, who called me his beau-heart and bought me a blue hair ribbon, and kissed me behind the pump house."
"Ah," said Corthell, quickly and earnestly, "that is the secret. It was love—even the foolish boy and girl love—love that after all made your life sweet then."
She let her hands fall into her lap, and, musing, turned the rings back and forth upon her fingers.
"Don't you think so?" he asked, in a low voice.
She bent her head slowly, without replying. Then for a long moment neither spoke. Laura played with her rings. The artist, leaning forward in his chair, looked with vague eyes across the room. And no interval of time since his return, no words that had ever passed between them, had been so fraught with significance, so potent in drawing them together as this brief, wordless moment.
At last Corthell turned towards her.
"You must not think," he murmured, "that your life is without love now. I will not have you believe that."
But she made no answer.
"If you would only see," he went on. "If you would only condescend to look, you would know that there is a love which has enfolded your life for years. You have shut it out from you always. But it has been yours, just the same; it has lain at your door, it has looked—oh, God knows with what longing!—through your windows. You have never stirred abroad that it has not followed you. Not a footprint of yours that it does not know and cherish. Do you think that your life is without love? Why, it is all around you—all around you but voiceless. It has no right to speak, it only has the right to suffer."
Still Laura said no word. Her head turned from him, she looked out of the window, and once more the seconds passed while neither spoke. The clock on the table ticked steadily. In the distance, through the open window, came the incessant, mournful wash of the lake. All around them the house was still. At length Laura sat upright in her chair.
"I think I will have this room done over while we are away this summer," she said. "Don't you think it would be effective if the wainscotting went almost to the ceiling?"
He glanced critically about the room.
"Very," he answered, briskly. "There is no background so beautiful as wood."
"And I might finish it off at the top with a narrow shelf."
"Provided you promised not to put brass 'plaques' or pewter kitchen ware upon it."
"Do smoke," she urged him. "I know you want to. You will find matches on the table."
But Corthell, as he lit his cigarette, produced his own match box. It was a curious bit of antique silver, which he had bought in a Viennese pawnshop, heart-shaped and topped with a small ducal coronet of worn gold. On one side he had caused his name to be engraved in small script. Now, as Laura admired it, he held it towards her.
"An old pouncet-box, I believe," he informed her, "or possibly it held an ointment for her finger nails." He spilled the matches into his hand. "You see the red stain still on the inside; and—smell," he added, as she took it from him. "Even the odour of the sulphur matches cannot smother the quaint old perfume, distilled perhaps three centuries ago."
An hour later Corthell left her. She did not follow him further than the threshold of the room, but let him find his way to the front door alone.
When he had gone she returned to the room, and for a little while sat in her accustomed place by the window overlooking the park and the lake. Very soon after Corthell's departure she heard Page, Landry Court, and Mrs. Wessels come in; then at length rousing from her reverie she prepared for bed. But, as she passed the round mahogany table, on her way to her bedroom, she was aware of a little object lying upon it, near to where she had sat.
"Oh, he forgot it," she murmured, as she picked up Corthell's heart-shaped match box. She glanced at it a moment, indifferently; but her mind was full of other things. She laid it down again upon the table, and going on to her own room, went to bed.
Jadwin did not come home that night, and in the morning Laura presided at breakfast table in his place. Landry Court, Page, and Aunt Wess' were there; for occasionally nowadays, when the trio went to one of their interminable concerts or lectures, Landry stayed over night at the house.
"Any message for your husband, Mrs. Jadwin?" inquired Landry, as he prepared to go down town after breakfast. "I always see him in Mr. Gretry's office the first thing. Any message for him?"
"No," answered Laura, simply.
"Oh, by the way," spoke up Aunt Wess', "we met that Mr. Corthell on the corner last night, just as he was leaving. I was real sorry not to get home here before he left. I've never heard him play on that big organ, and I've been wanting to for ever so long. I hurried home last night, hoping I might have caught him before he left. I was regularly disappointed."
"That's too bad," murmured Laura, and then, for obscure reasons, she had the stupidity to add: "And we were in the art gallery the whole evening. He played beautifully."
Towards eleven o'clock that morning Laura took her usual ride, but she had not been away from the house quite an hour before she turned back.
All at once she had remembered something. She returned homeward, now urging Crusader to a flying gallop, now curbing him to his slowest ambling walk. That which had so abruptly presented itself to her mind was the fact that Corthell's match box—his name engraved across its front—still lay in plain sight upon the table in her sitting-room—the peculiar and particular place of her privacy.
It was so much her own, this room, that she had given orders that the servants were to ignore it in their day's routine. She looked after its order herself. Yet, for all that, the maids or the housekeeper often passed through it, on their way to the suite beyond, and occasionally Page or Aunt Wess' came there to read, in her absence. The family spoke of the place sometimes as the "upstairs sitting-room," sometimes simply as "Laura's room."
Now, as she cantered homeward, Laura had it vividly in her mind that she had not so much as glanced at the room before leaving the house that morning. The servants would not touch the place. But it was quite possible that Aunt Wess' or Page—
Laura, the blood mounting to her forehead, struck the horse sharply with her crop. The pettiness of the predicament, the small meanness of her situation struck across her face like the flagellations of tiny whips. That she should stoop to this! She who had held her head so high.
Abruptly she reined in the horse again. No, she would not hurry. Exercising all her self-control, she went on her way with deliberate slowness, so that it was past twelve o'clock when she dismounted under the carriage porch.
Her fingers clutched tightly about her crop, she mounted to her sitting-room and entered, closing the door behind her.
She went directly to the table, and then, catching her breath, with a quick, apprehensive sinking of the heart, stopped short. The little heart-shaped match box was gone, and on the couch in the corner of the room Page, her book fallen to the floor beside her, lay curled up and asleep.
A loop of her riding-habit over her arm, the toe of her boot tapping the floor nervously, Laura stood motionless in the centre of the room, her lips tight pressed, the fingers of one gloved hand drumming rapidly upon her riding-crop. She was bewildered, and an anxiety cruelly poignant, a dread of something she could not name, gripped suddenly at her throat.
Could she have been mistaken? Was it upon the table that she had seen the match box after all? If it lay elsewhere about the room, she must find it at once. Never had she felt so degraded as now, when, moving with such softness and swiftness as she could in her agitation command, she went here and there about the room, peering into the corners of her desk, searching upon the floor, upon the chairs, everywhere, anywhere; her face crimson, her breath failing her, her hands opening and shutting.
But the silver heart with its crown of worn gold was not to be found. Laura, at the end of half an hour, was obliged to give over searching. She was certain the match box lay upon the mahogany table when last she left the room. It had not been mislaid; of that she was now persuaded.
But while she sat at the desk, still in habit and hat, rummaging for the fourth time among the drawers and shelves, she was all at once aware, even without turning around, that Page was awake and watching her. Laura cleared her throat.
"Have you seen my blue note paper, Page?" she asked. "I want to drop a note to Mrs. Cressler, right away."
"No," said Page, as she rose from the couch. "No, I haven't seen it." She came towards her sister across the room. "I thought, maybe," she added, gravely, as she drew the heart-shaped match box from her pocket, "that you might be looking for this. I took it. I knew you wouldn't care to have Mr. Jadwin find it here."
Laura struck the little silver heart from Page's hand, with a violence that sent it spinning across the room, and sprang to her feet.
"You took it!" she cried. "You took it! How dare you! What do you mean? What do I care if Curtis should find it here? What's it to me that he should know that Mr. Corthell came up here? Of course he was here."
But Page, though very pale, was perfectly calm under her sister's outburst.
"If you didn't care whether any one knew that Mr. Corthell came up here," she said, quietly, "why did you tell us this morning at breakfast that you and he were in the art gallery the whole evening? I thought," she added, with elaborate blandness, "I thought I would be doing you a service in hiding the match box."
"A service! You! What have I to hide?" cried Laura, almost inarticulate. "Of course I said we were in the art gallery the whole evening. So we were. We did—I do remember now—we did come up here for an instant, to see how my picture hung. We went downstairs again at once. We did not so much as sit down. He was not in the room two minutes."
"He was here," returned Page, "long enough to smoke half a dozen times." She pointed to a silver pen tray on the mahogany table, hidden behind a book rack and littered with the ashes and charred stumps of some five or six cigarettes.
"Really, Laura," Page remarked. "Really, you manage very awkwardly, it seems to me."
Laura caught her riding-crop in her right hand
"Don't you—don't you make me forget myself;" she cried, breathlessly.
"It seems to me," observed Page, quietly, "that you've done that long since, yourself."
Laura flung the crop down and folded her arms.
"Now," she cried, her eyes blazing and rivetted upon Page's. "Now, just what do you mean? Sit down," she commanded, flinging a hand towards a chair, "sit down, and tell me just what you mean by all this."
But Page remained standing. She met her sister's gaze without wavering.
"Do you want me to believe," she answered, "that it made no difference to you that Mr. Corthell's match safe was here?"
"Not the least," exclaimed Laura. "Not the least."
"Then why did you search for it so when you came in? I was not asleep all of the time. I saw you."
"Because," answered Laura, "because—I—because—" Then all at once she burst out afresh: "Have I got to answer to you for what I do? Have I got to explain? All your life long you've pretended to judge your sister. Now you've gone too far. Now I forbid it—from this day on. What I do is my affair; I'll ask nobody's advice. I'll do as I please, do you understand?" The tears sprang to her eyes, the sobs strangled in her throat. "I'll do as I please, as I please," and with the words she sank down in the chair by her desk and struck her bare knuckles again and again upon the open lid, crying out through her tears and her sobs, and from between her tight-shut teeth: "I'll do as I please, do you understand? As I please, as I please! I will be happy. I will, I will, I will!"
"Oh, darling, dearest—" cried Page, running forward. But Laura, on her feet once more, thrust her back.
"Don't touch me," she cried. "I hate you!" She put her fists to her temples and, her eyes closed, rocked herself to and fro. "Don't you touch me. Go away from me; go away from me. I hate you; I hate you all. I hate this house, I hate this life. You are all killing me. Oh, my God, if I could only die!"
She flung herself full length upon the couch, face downward. Her sobs shook her from head to foot.
Page knelt at her side, an arm about her shoulder, but to all her sister's consolations Laura, her voice muffled in her folded arms, only cried:
"Let me alone, let me alone. Don't touch me."
For a time Page tried to make herself heard; then, after a moment's reflection, she got up and drew out the pin in Laura's hat. She took off the hat, loosened the scarf around Laura's neck, and then deftly, silently, while her sister lay inert and sobbing beneath her hands, removed the stiff, tight riding-habit. She brought a towel dipped in cold water from the adjoining room and bathed Laura's face and hands.
But her sister would not be comforted, would not respond to her entreaties or caresses. The better part of an hour went by; Page, knowing her sister's nature, in the end held her peace, waiting for the paroxysm to wear itself out.
After a while Laura's weeping resolved itself into long, shuddering breaths, and at length she managed to say, in a faint, choked voice:
"Will you bring me the cologne from my dressing-table, honey? My head aches so."
And, as Page ran towards the door, she added: "And my hand mirror, too. Are my eyes all swollen?"
And that was the last word upon the subject between the two sisters.
But the evening of the same day, between eight and nine o'clock, while Laura was searching the shelves of the library for a book with which to while away the long evening that she knew impended, Corthell's card was brought to her.
"I am not at home," she told the servant. "Or—wait," she added. Then, after a moment's thought, she said: "Very well. Show him in here."
Laura received the artist, standing very erect and pale upon the great white rug before the empty fireplace. Her hands were behind her back when he came in, and as he crossed the room she did not move.
"I was not going to see you at first," she said. "I told the servant I was not at home. But I changed my mind—I wanted to say something to you."
He stood at the other end of the fireplace, an elbow upon an angle of the massive mantel, and as she spoke the last words he looked at her quickly. As usual, they were quite alone. The heavy, muffling curtain of the doorway shut them in effectually.
"I have something to say to you," continued Laura. Then, quietly enough, she said:
"You must not come to see me any more."
He turned abruptly away from her, and for a moment did not speak. Then at last, his voice low, he faced her again and asked:
"Have I offended?"
She shook her head.
"No," he said, quietly. "No, I knew it was not that." There was a long silence. The artist looked at the floor his hand slowly stroking the back of one of the big leather chairs.
"I knew it must come," he answered, at length, "sooner or later. You are right—of course. I should not have come back to America. I should not have believed that I was strong enough to trust myself. Then"—he looked at her steadily. His words came from his lips one by one, very slowly. His voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Then, I am—never to see you—again… Is that it?"
"Do you know what that means for me?" he cried. "Do you realise—" he drew in his breath sharply. "Never to see you again! To lose even the little that is left to me now. I—I—" He turned away quickly and walked to a window and stood a moment, his back turned, looking out, his hands clasped behind him. Then, after a long moment, he faced about. His manner was quiet again, his voice very low.
"But before I go," he said, "will you answer me, at least, this—it can do no harm now that I am to leave you—answer me, and I know you will speak the truth: Are you happy, Laura?"
She closed her eyes.
"You have not the right to know."
"You are not happy," he declared. "I can see it, I know it. If you were, you would have told me so… . If I promise you," he went on. "If I promise you to go away now, and never to try to see you again, may I come once more—to say good-by?"
She shook her head.
"It is so little for you to grant," he pleaded, "and it is so incalculably much for me to look forward to in the little time that yet remains. I do not even ask to see you alone. I will not harass you with any heroics."
"Oh, what good will it do," she cried, wearily, "for you to see me again? Why will you make me more unhappy than I am? Why did you come back?"
"Because," he answered, steadily, "because I love you more than"—he partly raised a clenched fist and let it fall slowly upon the back of the chair, "more than any other consideration in the world."
"Don't!" she cried. "You must not. Never, never say that to me again. Will you go—please?"
"Oh, if I had not gone from you four years ago!" he cried. "If I had only stayed then! Not a day of my life since that I have not regretted it. You could have loved me then. I know it, I know it, and, God forgive me, but I know you could love me now—"
"Will you go?" she cried.
"I dare you to say you could not," he flashed out
Laura shut her eyes and put her hands over her ears. "I could not, I could not," she murmured, monotonously, over and over again. "I could not, I could not."
She heard him start suddenly, and opened her eyes in time to see him come quickly towards her. She threw out a defensive hand, but he caught the arm itself to him and, before she could resist, had kissed it again and again through the interstices of the lace sleeve. Upon her bare shoulder she felt the sudden passion of his lips.
A quick, sharp gasp, a sudden qualm of breathlessness wrenched through her, to her very finger tips, with a fierce leap of the blood, a wild bound of the heart.
She tore back from him with a violence that rent away the lace upon her arm, and stood off from him, erect and rigid, a fine, delicate, trembling vibrating through all her being. On her pale cheeks the colour suddenly flamed.
"Go, go," was all she had voice to utter.
"And may I see you once more—only once?"
"Yes, yes, anything, only go, go—if you love me!"
He left the room. In another moment she heard the front door close.
"Curtis," said Laura, when next she saw her husband, "Curtis, you could not—stay with me, that last time. Remember? When we were to go for a drive. Can you spend this evening with me? Just us two, here at home—or I'll go out with you. I'll do anything you say." She looked at him steadily an instant. "It is not—not easy for a woman to ask—for me to ask favours like this. Each time I tell myself it will be the last. I am—you must remember this, Curtis, I am—perhaps I am a little proud. Don't you see?"
They were at breakfast table again. It was the morning after Laura had given Corthell his dismissal. As she spoke Jadwin brought his hand down upon the table with a bang.
"You bet I will," he exclaimed; "you bet I'll stay with you to-night. Business can go to the devil! And we won't go out either; we'll stay right here. You get something to read to me, and we'll have one of our old evenings again. We—"
All at once Jadwin paused, laid down his knife and fork, and looked strangely to and fro about the room.
"We'll have one of our old evenings again," he repeated, slowly.
"What is it, Curtis?" demanded his wife. "What is the matter?"
"Oh—nothing," he answered.
"Why, yes there was. Tell me."
"No, no. I'm all right now," he returned, briskly enough.
"No," she insisted. "You must tell me. Are you sick?"
He hesitated a moment. Then:
"Sick?" he queried. "No, indeed. But—I'll tell you. Since a few days I've had," he put his fingers to his forehead between his eyes, "I've had a queer sensation right there. It comes and goes."
"N-no. It's hard to describe. A sort of numbness. Sometimes it's as though there was a heavy iron cap—a helmet on my head. And sometimes it—I don't know it seems as if there were fog, or something or other, inside. I'll take a good long rest this summer, as soon as we can get away. Another month or six weeks, and I'll have things ship-shape and so as I can leave them. Then we'll go up to Geneva, and, by Jingo, I'll loaf." He was silent for a moment, frowning, passing his hand across his forehead and winking his eyes. Then, with a return of his usual alertness, he looked at his watch.
"Hi!" he exclaimed. "I must be off. I won't be home to dinner to-night. But you can expect me by eight o'clock, sure. I promise I'll be here on the minute."
But, as he kissed his wife good-by, Laura put her arms about his neck.
"Oh, I don't want you to leave me at all, ever, ever! Curtis, love me, love me always, dear. And be thoughtful of me and kind to me. And remember that you are all I have in the world; you are father and mother to me, and my dear husband as well. I know you do love me; but there are times—Oh," she cried, suddenly "if I thought you did not love me—love me better than anything, anything—I could not love you; Curtis, I could not, I could not. No, no," she cried, "don't interrupt. Hear me out. Maybe it is wrong of me to feel that way, but I'm only a woman, dear. I love you but I love Love too. Women are like that; right or wrong, weak or strong, they must be—must be loved above everything else in the world. Now go, go to your business; you mustn't be late. Hark, there is Jarvis with the team. Go now. Good-by, good-by, and I'll expect you at eight."
True to his word, Jadwin reached his home that evening promptly at the promised hour. As he came into the house, however, the door-man met him in the hall, and, as he took his master's hat and stick, explained that Mrs. Jadwin was in the art gallery, and that she had said he was to come there at once.
Laura had planned a little surprise. The art gallery was darkened. Here and there behind the dull-blue shades a light burned low. But one of the movable reflectors that were used to throw a light upon the pictures in the topmost rows was burning brilliantly. It was turned from Jadwin as he entered, and its broad cone of intense white light was thrown full upon Laura, who stood over against the organ in the full costume of "Theodora."
For an instant Jadwin was taken all aback.
"What the devil!" he ejaculated, stopping short in the doorway.
Laura ran forward to him, the chains, ornaments, and swinging pendants chiming furiously as she moved.
"I did surprise you, I did surprise you," she laughed. "Isn't it gorgeous?" She turned about before him, her arms raised. "Isn't it superb? Do you remember Bernhardt—and that scene in the Emperor Justinian's box at the amphitheatre? Say now that your wife isn't beautiful. I am, am I not?" she exclaimed defiantly, her head raised. "Say it, say it."
"Well, what for a girl!" gasped Jadwin, "to get herself up—"
"Say that I am beautiful," commanded Laura.
"Well, I just about guess you are," he cried.
"The most beautiful woman you have ever known?" she insisted. Then on the instant added: "Oh, I may be really as plain as a kitchen-maid, but you must believe that I am not. I would rather be ugly and have you think me beautiful, than to be the most beautiful woman in the world and have you think me plain. Tell me—am I not the most beautiful woman you ever saw?"
"The most beautiful I ever saw," he repeated, fervently. "But—Lord, what will you do next? Whatever put it into your head to get into this rig?"
"Oh, I don't know. I just took the notion. You've seen me in every one of my gowns. I sent down for this, this morning, just after you left. Curtis, if you hadn't made me love you enough to be your wife, Laura Dearborn would have been a great actress. I feel it in my finger tips. Ah!" she cried, suddenly flinging up her head till the pendants of the crown clashed again. "I could have been magnificent. You don't believe it. Listen. This is Athalia—the queen in the Old Testament, you remember."
"Hold on," he protested. "I thought you were this Theodora person."
"I know—but never mind. I am anything I choose. Sit down; listen. It's from Racine's 'Athalie,' and the wicked queen has had this terrible dream of her mother Jezabel. It's French, but I'll make you see."
And "taking stage," as it were, in the centre of the room, Laura began:
"Son ombre vers mon lit a paru se baisser Et moi, je lui tendais les mains pour l'embrasser; Mais je n'ai plus trouve q'un horrible melange D'os et de chair meurtris et traines dans la fange, Des lambeaux pleins de sang, et des membres affreux Que les chiens d'evorants se disputaient entre eux."
"Great God!" exclaimed Jadwin, ignorant of the words yet, in spite of himself, carried away by the fury and passion of her rendering.
Laura struck her palms together.
"Just what 'Abner' says," she cried. "The very words."
"In the play. I knew I could make you feel it."
"Well, well," murmured her husband, shaking his head, bewildered even yet. "Well, it's a strange wife I've got here."
"When you've realised that," returned Laura, "you've just begun to understand me."
Never had he seen her gayer. Her vivacity was bewildering.
"I wish," she cried, all at once, "I wish I had dressed as 'Carmen,' and I would have danced for you. Oh, and you could have played the air for me on the organ. I have the costume upstairs now. Wait! I will, I will! Sit right where you are—no, fix the attachment to the organ while I'm gone. Oh, be gay with me to-night," she cried, throwing her arms around him. "This is my night, isn't it? And I am to be just as foolish as I please."
With the words she ran from the room, but was back in an incredibly short time, gowned as Bizet's cigarette girl, a red rose in her black hair, castanets upon her fingers.
Jadwin began the bolero.
"Can you see me dance, and play at the same time?"
"Yes, yes. Go on. How do you know anything about a Spanish dance?"
"I learned it long ago. I know everything about anything I choose, to-night. Play, play it fast."
She danced as though she would never tire, with the same force of passion that she had thrown into Athalie. Her yellow skirt was a flash of flame spurting from the floor, and her whole body seemed to move with the same wild, untamed spirit as a tongue of fire. The castanets snapped like the crackling of sparks; her black mantilla was a hovering cloud of smoke. She was incarnate flame, capricious and riotous, elusive and dazzling.
Then suddenly she tossed the castanets far across the room and dropped upon the couch, panting and laughing.
"There," she cried, "now I feel better. That had to come out. Come over here and sit by me. Now, maybe you'll admit that I can dance too."
"You sure can," answered Jadwin, as she made a place for him among the cushions. "That was wonderful. But, at the same time, old girl, I wouldn't—wouldn't—"
"Well, do too much of that. It's sort of over-wrought—a little, and unnatural. I like you best when you are your old self, quiet, and calm, and dignified. It's when you are quiet that you are at your best. I didn't know you had this streak in you. You are that excitable to-night!"
"Let me be so then. It's myself, for the moment whatever it is. But now I'll be quiet. Now we'll talk. Have you had a hard day? Oh, and did your head bother you again?"
"No, things were a little easier down town to-day. But that queer feeling in my head did come back as I was coming home—and my head aches a little now, besides."
"Your head aches!" she exclaimed. "Let me do something for it. And I've been making it worse with all my foolishness."
"No, no; that's all right," he assured her. "I tell you what we'll do. I'll lie down here a bit, and you play something for me. Something quiet. I get so tired down there in La Salle Street, Laura, you don't know."
And while he stretched out at full length upon the couch, his wife, at the organ, played the music she knew he liked best—old songs, "Daisy Dean," "Lord Lovell," "When Stars Are in the Quiet Sky," and "Open Thy Lattice to Me."
When at length she paused, he nodded his head with pleasure.
"That's pretty," he said. "Ah, that is blame pretty. Honey, it's just like medicine to me," he continued, "to lie here, quiet like this, with the lights low, and have my dear girl play those old, old tunes. My old governor, Laura, used to play that 'Open the Lattice to me,' that and 'Father, oh, Father, Come Home with me Now'—used to play 'em on his fiddle." His arm under his head, he went on, looking vaguely at the opposite wall. "Lord love me, I can see that kitchen in the old farmhouse as plain! The walls were just logs and plaster, and there were upright supports in each corner, where we used to measure our heights—we children. And the fireplace was there," he added, gesturing with his arm, "and there was the wood box, and over here was an old kind of dresser with drawers, and the torty-shell cat always had her kittens under there. Honey, I was happy then. Of course I've got you now, and that's all the difference in the world. But you're the only thing that does make a difference. We've got a fine place and a mint of money I suppose—and I'm proud of it. But I don't know… . If they'd let me be and put us two—just you and me—back in the old house with the bare floors and the rawhide chairs and the shuck beds, I guess we'd manage. If you're happy, you're happy; that's about the size of it. And sometimes I think that we'd be happier—you and I—chumming along shoulder to shoulder, poor an' working hard, than making big money an' spending big money, why—oh, I don't know … if you're happy, that's the thing that counts, and if all this stuff," he kicked out a careless foot at the pictures, the heavy hangings, the glass cabinets of bibelots, "if all this stuff stood in the way of it—well—it could go to the devil! That's not poetry maybe, but it's the truth."
Laura came over to where her husband lay, and sat by him, and took his head in her lap, smoothing his forehead with her long white hands.
"Oh, if I could only keep you like this always," she murmured. "Keep you untroubled, and kind, and true. This is my husband again. Oh, you are a man, Curtis; a great, strong, kind-hearted man, with no little graces, nor petty culture, nor trivial fine speeches, nor false sham, imitation polish. I love you. Ah, I love you, love you, dear!"
"Old girl!" said Jadwin, stroking her hand.
"Do you want me to read to you now?" she asked.
"Just this is pretty good, it seems to me."
As he spoke, there came a step in the hall and a knock.
Laura sat up, frowning.
"I told them I was not to be disturbed," she exclaimed under her breath. Then, "Come in," she called.
"Mr. Gretry, sir," announced the servant. "Said he wished to see you at once, sir."
"Tell him," cried Laura, turning quickly to Jadwin, "tell him you're not at home—that you can't see him."
"I've got to see him," answered Jadwin, sitting up. "He wouldn't come here himself unless it was for something important."
"Can I come in, J.?" spoke the broker, from the hall. And even through the thick curtains they could hear how his voice rang with excitement and anxiety.
"Can I come in? I followed the servant right up, you see. I know—"
"Yes, yes. Come in," answered Jadwin. Laura, her face flushing, threw a fold of the couch cover over her costume as Gretry, his hat still on his head, stepped quickly into the room.
Jadwin met him half way, and Laura from her place on the couch heard the rapidly spoken words between the general and his lieutenant.
"Now we're in for it!" Gretry exclaimed.
"Yes—well?" Jadwin's voice was as incisive and quick as the fall of an axe.
"I've just found out," said Gretry, "that Crookes and his crowd are going to take hold to-morrow. There'll be hell to pay in the morning. They are going to attack us the minute the gong goes."
"Who's with them?"
"I don't know; nobody does. Sweeny, of course. But he has a gang back of him—besides, he's got good credit with the banks. I told you you'd have to fight him sooner or later."
"Well, we'll fight him then. Don't get scared. Crookes ain't the Great Mogul."
"Holy Moses, I'd like to know who is, then."
"I am. And he's got to know it. There's not room for Crookes and me in this game. One of us two has got to control this market. If he gets in my way, by God, I'll smash him!"
"Well, then, J., you and I have got to do some tall talking to-night. You'd better come down to the Grand Pacific Hotel right away. Court is there already. It was him, nervy little cuss, that found out about Crookes. Can you come now, at once? Good evening, Mrs. Jadwin. I'm sorry to take him from you, but business is business."
No, it was not. To the wife of the great manipulator, listening with a sinking heart to this courier from the front, it was battle. The Battle of the Streets was again in array. Again the trumpet sounded, again the rush of thousands of feet filled all the air. Even here, here in her home, her husband's head upon her lap, in the quiet and stillness of her hour, the distant rumble came to her ears. Somewhere, far off there in the darkness of the night, the great forces were manoeuvring for position once more. To-morrow would come the grapple, and one or the other must fall—her husband or the enemy. How keep him to herself when the great conflict impended? She knew how the thunder of the captains and the shoutings appealed to him. She had seen him almost leap to his arms out of her embrace. He was all the man she had called him, and less strong, less eager, less brave, she would have loved him less.
Yet she had lost him again, lost him at the very moment she believed she had won him back.
"Don't go, don't go," she whispered to him, as he kissed her good-by. "Oh, dearest, don't go! This was my evening."
"I must, I must, Laura. Good-by, old girl. Don't keep me—see, Sam is waiting."
He kissed her hastily twice.
"Now, Sam," he said, turning toward the broker.
"Good night, Mrs. Jadwin."
"Good-by, old girl."
They turned toward the door.
"You see, young Court was down there at the bank, and he noticed that checks—"
The voices died away as the hangings of the entrance fell to place. The front door clashed and closed.
Laura sat upright in her place, listening, one fist pressed against her lips.
There was no more noise. The silence of the vast empty house widened around her at the shutting of the door as the ripples widen on a pool with the falling of the stone. She crushed her knuckles tighter and tighter over her lips, she pressed her fingers to her eyes, she slowly clasped and reclasped her hands, listening for what she did not know. She thought of her husband hurrying away from her, ignoring her, and her love for him in the haste and heat of battle. She thought of Corthell, whom she had sent from her, forever, shutting his love from out her life.
Crushed, broken, Laura laid herself down among the cushions, her face buried in her arm. Above her and around her rose the dimly lit gallery, lowering with luminous shadows. Only a point or two of light illuminated the place. The gold frames of the pictures reflected it dully; the massive organ pipes, just outlined in faint blurs of light, towered far into the gloom above. The whole place, with its half-seen gorgeous hangings, its darkened magnificence, was like a huge, dim interior of Byzantium.
Lost, beneath the great height of the dome, and in the wide reach of the floor space, in her foolish finery of bangles, silks, high comb, and little rosetted slippers, Laura Jadwin lay half hidden among the cushions of the couch. If she wept, she wept in silence, and the muffling stillness of the lofty gallery was broken but once, when a cry, half whisper, half sob, rose to the deaf, blind darkness:
"Oh, now I am alone, alone, alone!"