Part II. Strange.
Chapter XII
 

The knowledge that it was a juncture at which to execute a daring movement acted as an opiate on what would otherwise have been, for Strange, a day of frenzy. While to the outward eye he was going quietly about his work, he was inwardly calling all his resources to his aid to devise some plan for outwitting circumstance. After forty-eight hours of tearing at his heart and hacking at his brain, he could think of nothing more original than to take the first train down to the Port, ask the girl to be his wife, and let life work out the consequence. At the end of two days, however, he was saved from a too deliberate defiance of the unaccounted-for inner voice, by an official communication from Mr. Jarrott.

It was in the brief, dry form of his business conversation, giving no hint that there were emotions behind the stilted phraseology, and an old man's yearnings. Mr. Skinner was far from well, and would "proceed immediately" to Carlsbad. Strange would hand over the business at Rosario to Mr. Green--who would become resident manager, pro tem at any rate--and present himself in Buenos Aires at the earliest convenient moment. Mr. Jarrott would be glad to see him as soon as possible after his arrival.

That was all; but as far as the young man was concerned, it saved the situation. On consulting the steamer-list he saw that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Corrientes would sail for Southampton in exactly six days' time. By dint of working all night with Mr. Green, who was happy to lend himself to anything that would show him the last of his rival, he was able to take a train to the Port next day. It was half-past six when he arrived in Buenos Aires. By half-past eight he had washed, changed to an evening suit, and dined. At nine his cab stopped at the door of the house at Palermo.

As he followed the elderly man-servant who admitted him, the patio was so dim that he made his way but slowly. He made his way but slowly, not only because the patio was dim, but because he was trying to get his crowding emotions under control before meeting his employer in an interview that might be fraught with serious results. For once in his life he was unnerved, tremulous, almost afraid. As he passed the open doors and windows of unlighted, or dimly lighted, rooms he knew she might be in any one of the shadowy recesses. It would have been a relief to hear her at the piano, or in conversation, and to know her attention was diverted. None the less, he peered about for a glimpse of her, and strained his hearing for a sound of her voice. But all was still and silent, except for the muffled footfall of the servant leading him to the library at the far end of the court.

If she had not moved out unexpectedly from behind a pillar, a little fluttering figure in a white frock, he could have kept his self-control. If he had not come upon her in this sudden way, when she believed him in Rosario, she, too, would not have been caught at a disadvantage. As it was, he stood still, as if awe-struck. She gave a little cry, as if frightened. It is certain that his movement of the arms was an automatic process, not dictated by any order of the brain; and the same may be said for the impulse which threw her on his breast. If, after that, the rest was not silence, it was little more. What he uttered and she replied was scarcely audible to either, though it was understood by both. It was all over so quickly that the man-servant had barely thrown open the library door, and announced "Mr. Strange," when Strange himself was on the threshold.

It was a moment at which to summon all his wits together to attend to business; but he was astonished at the coolness and lightness of heart with which he did it. After those brief, sudden vows exchanged, it was as easy to dismiss Evie Colfax momentarily from his mind as it is to forget money troubles on inheriting a fortune. Nevertheless as he got himself ready to deal with practical, and probably quite commercial, topics, he was fully conscious of the rapture of her love, while he was scarcely less aware of a comfort closely akin to joy in feeling that the burden of decision had been lifted from him. Since Fate had taken the matter into her own hands, she could be charged with the full responsibility.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mr. Jarrott, who was smoking a cigar and sipping his after-dinner coffee, was in evening dress, but wore his house-jacket--a circumstance of which Strange did not know the significance, though he felt its effect. The old man's welcome was not unlike that of a shy father trying to break the shackles of reserve with a home-coming son. He pushed Strange gently into the most comfortable arm-chair beside which he drew up a small table for the cigar-box, the ash-tray, and the matches. He rang for another cup, and brought the coffee with his own hands. Strange remembered how often, after a hard day's work, he had been made uncomfortable by just such awkward, affectionate attentions from poor old Monsieur Durand.

"I didn't expect you so soon," Mr. Jarrott began, when they were both seated, "but you've done well to come. I'm afraid we're in for a regular upset all round."

"I hope it isn't going to make things harder for you, sir," Strange ventured, in the tone of personal concern which his kindly treatment seemed to warrant him in taking.

"It won't if I can get the right men into the right places. That'll be the tough part of the business. The wool department will suffer by Mr. Skinner's absence--he's very ill, in my opinion--and there's only one man who can take his place." Strange felt his heart throbbing and the color rising to his face. He did not covet the position, for he disliked the wool department; but it was undeniably a "rise," and right along the line of highest promotion. "That's Jenkins," Mr. Jarrott finished, quietly.

Strange said nothing. After all, he was relieved. Mr. Jarrott did not go on at once, but when he did speak Strange fell back into the depths of his arm-chair, in an attitude suggestive of physical collapse.

"And if Jenkins came back here," the old man pursued, "you'd have to take his place in New York."

Strange concealed his agitation by puffing out successive rings of smoke. If he had not long ago considered what he would say should this proposal ever be made to him, he would have been even more overcome than he actually was. He had meant to oppose the offer with a point-blank refusal, but what had happened within the last quarter of an hour had so modified this judgment that he could only sit, turning things rapidly over in his mind, till more was said.

"There's no harm in--a--telling you," Mr. Jarrott went on again, with that hesitancy Strange had begun to associate with important announcements, "that--a--Jenkins will be--a--taken into partnership. You won't--a--be taken into partnership--a--yet. But you will have a good salary in New York. I can--a--promise you that much."

It was because he was unnerved that tears smarted in the young man's eyes at the implications in these sentences. He took his time before responding, the courtesies of the occasion being served as well by silence as by speech.

"I won't try to thank you for all your kindness, sir," he said, with a visible effort, "until I've told you something--something that, very likely, you won't approve of. I've asked Miss Colfax to marry me, and she's consented."

The old man's brows shot up incredulously.

"That's odd," he said, "because not half an hour ago she told my wife there was nothing whatever between you--that you hadn't even written to her since you went away. Mrs. Jarrott only left this room as you rang the door-bell."

"But it was after I rang the door-bell," Strange stammered "that I--I--asked her."

"Quick work," was the old man's only comment, but the muscles of his lips relaxed slowly, as if rusty from disuse, into one of his rare smiles.

With the assurance of this reception, Strange could afford to sit silent till Mr. Jarrott made some further sign.

"By the terms of her father's will," he explained some minutes later, "I'm her guardian and trustee. She can't marry without my consent till she comes of age. I don't say that in this instance I should--a--withhold my consent; but I should feel constrained to--a--give it with conditions."

"If it's anything I can fulfil, sir--"

"No; it wouldn't concern you so much as her. She's very young--and in heart she's younger than her age. She knows nothing about men--she can't know--and I dare say you're the first young fellow who ever said anything to her about--well, you understand what I mean. Mind you, we've no objections to you whatever. You are your own credentials; and we take them at their face value. You tell me you're an orphan, with no near relations, so that there couldn't be any complications on that score. Besides that, you're--a likely chap; and I don't mind saying that--a--my ladies--Mrs. Jarrott and my sister--have taken rather a fancy to you. It can't do you any--a--harm to know as much as that."

Strange murmurred his appreciation, and the old man went on.

"No; you're all right. But, as I said before, she's very young, and if we married her to you out of hand we feel that we shouldn't be giving her a fair show. We think she ought to have a little more chance to look round her, so to speak. In fact, she isn't what ladies call 'out.' She's scarcely ever seen a man, except through a window. Consequently, we think we must send her back to New York, for a winter at any rate, and trot the procession before her. My sister is to undertake it, and they're to sail next week. That won't make so much difference to you now, as it would if you weren't soon going to follow them."

Strange nodded. He felt himself being wafted to New York, whether he would or no.

"Now all I have to say is this: if, when she's regularly started, she sees some other young fellow she likes better than you, you're to give her up without making a fuss."

"Of course. Naturally, she would have to be free to do as she chose in the long run. I'm not afraid of losing her--"

"That'll be your own lookout. You'll be on the spot, and will have as good a chance as anybody else. You'll have a better chance; for you'll only have to keep what you've won, while any one else would have to start in at the beginning. But it's understood that there--a--can be no talk of a wedding just yet. She must have next winter to reconsider her promise to you, if she wants to."

Strange having admitted the justice of this, the old man rose, and held out his hand.

"We'll keep the matter between ourselves--in the family, I mean--for the time being," he said, with another slowly breaking smile; "but the ladies will want to wish you luck. You must come into the drawing-room and see them."

They were half-way to the door when Mr. Jarrott paused.

"And, of course, you'll go to New York? I didn't think it necessary to ask you if you cared to make the change."

With the question straight before him, Strange knew that an answer must be given. He understood now how it is that there are men and women who find it worth their while to thrust their heads into lions' mouths.

"Yes, sir, of course," he answered, quietly; and they went on to join the ladies.