Part III. Miriam.
Chapter XVI
 

Thinking that Ford might come again next afternoon, Miriam went out. On her return she found his card--Mr. Herbert Strange. The same thing occurred the next day, and the next, and so on through the week. She was not afraid of seeing him. Now that the worst was known to her, she was sure of her mastery of herself, and of her capacity to meet anything. What she feared most was her sympathy for him, and the possibility that in some unguarded moment of pity he might wring concessions from her which she had no right to make. She hoped, too, that time, even a few days' time, would help him to work out the honorable course for himself.

Her meetings with Evie were more inevitable, and required greater self-repression. She was so used to the part of elder sister, with whom all confidences are discussed, that she found it difficult not to speak her heart out frankly.

"I heard he had been to see you and Popsey Wayne, and told you," Evie said, with her pretty nose just peeping above the bedclothes, at midday, on a morning later in the week. It was the day after Evie's first large dance, and she had been sleeping late. Miriam sat on the edge of the bed, smoothing stray golden tendrils off the flushed, happy little face.

"He did come," Miriam admitted. "Mr. Wayne made no objections. I can't say he was glad. You wouldn't expect us to be that, dear, would you?"

"I expect you to like him. It isn't committing you to much to say that. But you seem so--so every which way about him."

"I'm not every which way about him. I can't say that I'm any way at all. Yes, I do like him--after a fashion. If I make reserves, it's because I'm not sure that I think him good enough for my little Evie."

"He's a great deal too good!" Evie exclaimed, rapturously. "Oh, Miriam, if you only knew how fond I am of him! I'd die for him--I truly believe I would--almost! Oh, it was so stupid last night without him! All these boys seem such pigeons beside him. I'm sorry now we're not going to announce the engagement at once. I certainly sha'n't change my mind--and it would be such fun to be able to say I was engaged before coming out."

"Twice before coming out."

"Oh, well, I only count it once, do you see? Billy's such a goose. You should have seen him last night when I forgot two of my dances with him--on purpose. He's really getting to dislike me; so that I shall soon be able to--to show him."

"I wouldn't be in a hurry about that, dear. There's lots of time. As you said the other day, it's no use hurting his feelings--"

Evie sat up suddenly in bed, and looked suspicious.

"So you're taking that stand. Now I know you don't like him. You've got something against him, though I can't for the life of me imagine what it can be, when you never laid eyes on him till a few days ago. Well, I'm not going to change, do you see? You may as well make up your mind to that at once. And it will be Billy or no Billy."

Nearer than that Miriam could not approach the subject through fear of doing more harm than good. At the end of a week Ford found her at home, chiefly because she felt it time he should. She secured again the afternoon-call atmosphere; but she noticed that he carried a small packet--a large, brownish-yellow envelope, strapped with rubber bands--which he kept in his hand. She was struck by the greater ease of his entry, and by the renewal of that sense of comradeship which had marked his bearing toward her in the old days in the cabin. The small comedy of introductory commonplace went off smoothly.

"Well?" he said then, with a little challenging laugh.

"Well--what?"

"I've been waiting for your move. You haven't made it."

She shook her head. "I've no move to make."

"Oh yes, you have--a great big move. You can easily say, Check. I doubt if you can make it, Checkmate."

"I'm afraid that's a game I don't know how to play."

He stared at her inquiringly--noting the disdain with which her chin tilted and her lip curled, though he could see it was a disdain suffused with sweetness.

"Do you mean that you wouldn't--wouldn't give me away?"

"I mean that you're either broaching a topic I don't understand or speaking a language I've never learned. If you don't mind, we won't discuss the subject, and we'll speak our mother-tongue--the mother-tongue of people like you and me."

He stared again. It took him some few seconds to understand her phraseology. In proportion as her meaning broke upon him, his face glowed. When he spoke it was with enthusiasm for her generosity in taking this stand rather than in gratitude for anything he was to gain by it.

"By Jove, you're a brick! You always were. I might have expected that this is exactly what you'd say."

"I hope so. I didn't expect that you'd talk of my giving you away, as you call it--to any one."

"But you're wrong," he said, with a return to the laughing bravado which concealed his inward repugnance to his position. "You're wrong. I'll give you that tip now. I'll fight fair. I sha'n't be grateful. I'll profit by your magnanimity. Remember it's my part in the world to be unscrupulous. It has to be. I've told you so. With me the end justifies the means--always; and when the end is to keep my word to Evie, it will make no difference to me that you were too high-minded to put the big obstacle in my way."

"You'll not expect me to be otherwise than sorry for that--for your sake."

"No, I dare say. But I can't stop to think of what any one feels for my sake when I know what I feel for my own."

"Which is only an additional reason for my being--sorry. You don't find fault with me for that?"

"I do. I don't want you to be sorry. I want to convince you. I want you to see things from my point of view--how I've been placed. Good Lord! it's hard enough, without the sense that you're sitting in judgment on me."

"I'm not sitting in judgment on you--except in so far as concerns Evie Colfax. If it was anybody else--"

"But it couldn't be anybody else It's Evie or no one. She's everything on earth to me. She's to me what electricity is to the wire--that which makes it a thing alive."

"To be a thing alive isn't necessarily the highest thing."

"Ah, but that doesn't apply to me. It's all very well for other men to say, 'All is lost to save honor.' They have compensations. I haven't. You might as well ask a man to think of the highest thing when he's drowning."

"But I should. There have been men who haven't--and they've saved their lives by it. But you know what we've called them."

"In my case there'd be only you to call me that--if you wanted to."

"Oh no; there'd be--you."

"I can stand that. I've stood it for eight years already. If you think I haven't had times when it's been hell, you're quite mistaken. I wonder if you can guess what it means to me--in here"--he tapped his breast--"to go round among all these good, kind, honorable people, passing myself off as Herbert Strange when all the time I'm Norrie Ford--and a convict? But I'm forced to. There's no way out of it."

"Because there's no way out of it isn't a reason for going further in."

"What does that matter? When you're in up to the eyes, what does it matter if you go over your head?"

"In this case it would matter to Evie. That's my point. I have to protect her--to save her. There's no one but me to do it--and you."

"Don't count on me," he said, savagely. "I've the right, in this wild beast's life, to seize anything I can snatch."

He renewed his arguments, going over all the ground again. She listened to him as she had once listened to his plea in his defence--her pose pensive, her chin resting on her hand, her eyes pitiful. As far as she was aware of her own feelings it was merely to take note that a kind of yearning over him, an immense sorrow for him and with him, had extinguished the fires that a few days ago were burning for herself. It was hard to sit there heedless of his exposition and deaf to his persuasion. Seeing her inflexible, he became halting in his speech, till finally he stopped, still looking at her with an unresenting, dog-like gaze of entreaty.

She made no comment when he ceased, and for a time they sat in silence.

"Do you know what this is?" he asked, holding the packet toward her.

She shook her head wonderingly.

"It's what I owe you." She made a gesture of deprecation. "It's the money you lent me," he went on. "It's a tremendous satisfaction--that at least--to be able to bring it back to you."

"But I don't want it," she stammered, in some agitation.

"Perhaps not. But I want you to have it." He explained to her briefly what he had done in the matter.

"Couldn't you give it to something?" she begged, "to some church or institution?"

"You can, if you like. I mean to give it to you. You see, I'm not returning it with expressions of gratitude, because anything I could say would be so inadequate as to be absurd."

He left his chair and came to her, with the packet in his outstretched hand. She shrank from it, rising, and retreating into the space of the bay-window.

"But I don't want it," she insisted. "I never thought of your returning it. I scarcely thought of the incident at all. It had almost passed from my memory."

"That's natural enough; but it's equally natural that it shouldn't have passed from mine." He came close to her and offered it again. "Do take it."

"Put it on the table. Please."

"That isn't the same thing. I want you to take it. I want to put it into your own hand, as you put it into mine."

She remembered that she had put it into his hand by closing his fingers forcibly upon it, and hastened to prevent anything of that kind now. She took it unwillingly, holding it in both hands as if it were a casket.

"That's done," he said, with satisfaction. "You can't imagine what a relief it is to have it off my mind."

"I'm sorry you should have felt about it like that."

"You would have felt like that yourself, if you were a man owing money to a woman--and especially a woman who was your--enemy."

"Oh!" She cowered, as if he had threatened her.

"I repeat the word," he laughed, uneasily. "Any one is my enemy who comes between me and Evie. You'll forgive me if I seem brutal--"

"Yes, I'll forgive you. I'll even accept the word." She was pale and nervous, with the kind of nervousness that kept her smiling and still, but sent the queer, lambent flashes into her eyes. "Let us say it. I'm your enemy, and you pay me the money so as to feel free to strike me as hard as you can."

He kept to his laugh, but there was a forced ring in it.

"I don't call that a fair way of putting it, but--"

"I don't see that the way of putting it matters, so long as it's the fact."

"It's the fact twisted in a very ingenious fashion. I should say that--since I'm going to marry Evie--I want--naturally enough--to feel that--that"--he stammered and reddened, seeking a word that would not convey an insult--"to feel--that I--met other claims--as well as I could."

He looked her in the eyes with significant directness. His steady gaze, in which she saw--or thought she saw--glints of challenge toned down by gleams of regret, seemed to say, "Whatever I owe you other than money is out of my power to pay." She fully understood that he did not repudiate the debt; he was only telling her that since he had given all to Evie, his heart was bankrupt. What angered her and kept her silent, fearing she would say something she would afterward repent, was the implication that she was putting forth her claim for fulfilment.

He still confronted her, with an air of flying humiliation as a flag of defiance, while she stood holding the packet in both hands, when the door was pushed open, and Evie, radiant from her walk in the cold air and fine in autumn furs and plumage, fluttered in. Her blue eyes opened wide on the two in the bay-window, but she did not advance from the threshold.

"Dear me, dear me!" she twittered, in her dry little fashion, before they had time to realize the fact that she was there. "I hope I'm not interrupting you."

"Evie dear, come in." Miriam threw the packet on a table, and went forward. Ford followed, trying to regain the appearance of "just making a call."

"No, no," Evie cried, waving Miriam back. "I only came--for nothing. That is--But I'll go away and come back again. Do you think you'll be long? But I suppose if you have secrets--"

Her hand was on the knob again, but Miriam caught her.

"No, darling, you must stay. You're absurd. Mr. Strange and I were just--talking."

"Yes, so I saw. That's why I thought I might be de trap. How do you do!" She put out her left hand carelessly to Ford, her right hand still holding the knob, and twisted her little person impatiently. Ford held her hand, but she snatched it away. "There's not the least reason why I should stay, do you see?" she hurried on. "I only came with a message from Aunt Queenie."

"I'm sure it's confidential," Ford laughed, "so I'll make myself scarce."

"You can do just as you like," Evie returned, indifferently. "Cousin Colfax Yorke," she added, looking at Miriam, "has telephoned that he can't come to dine; and, as it's too late to get anybody else, Aunt Queenie thought you might come and make a fourth. It's only ourselves and--- him," she nodded toward Strange.

"Certainly, I'll come, dear--with pleasure."

"And I'll go," Ford said; "but I won't add with pleasure, because that would be rude."

When he had gone Evie sniffed about the room, looking at the pictures and curios as if she had never seen them before. It was evident that she had spied the packet, and was making her way, by a seemingly accidental route, toward it. Miriam drifted back to her place in the bay-window, where, while apparently watching the traffic in the street below, she kept an eye on Evie's manA"uvres.

"What on earth can you two have to talk about?" Evie demanded, while she seemed intent on examining a cabinet of old porcelain.

"If you're very good, dear," Miriam replied, trying to take an amused, offhand tone, "I'll tell you. It was business."

"Business? Why, I thought you hardly knew him."

"You don't have to know people very well to transact business with them. He came on a question of--money."

"No, but you don't start up doing business with a person that's just dropped down from the clouds--like that." She snapped her fingers to indicate precipitous haste.

"Sometimes you do."

"Well, you don't. I know that for a fact." She was inspecting a vase on a pedestal in a corner now. It was nearer to the packet. She wheeled round suddenly, so that it should take her by surprise. "What's that?"

"You see. It's an envelope with papers in it."

"What sort of papers?"

"I haven't looked at them yet. They have to do with money, or investments, or something. I'm never very clear about those things."

"I thought you did all that through Cousin Endsleigh Jarrott and Mr. Conquest?"

"This was a little thing I couldn't trouble them with."

"And you went straight off to him, when you'd only known him--let me see!--how many days?--one, two, three, four--"

"I've gone to people I didn't know at all--sometimes. You have to. If you only knew more about investing money--"

"I don't know anything about investing money; but I know this is very queer. And you didn't like him--or you said you didn't."

"I said I did, dear--after a fashion--and so I do."

"In that case I should think a good deal would depend upon the fashion. Look here. It's addressed--Miss Strange. That's his writing. That's how he scribbles his name. And there's something written in tiny, tiny letters in the corner. What is it?" Without touching the envelope she bent down to see. "It's The Wild Olive. Now, what in this world can that mean? That's not business, anyhow. That means something."

"No, that's not business, but I haven't an idea what it means." Miriam was glad to be able to disclaim something. "It was probably on the envelope by accident. Some clerk wrote it, and Mr. Strange didn't notice it."

Evie let the explanation pass, while continuing to stare at the object of her suspicions.

"That's not papers," she said, at last, pointing as she spoke to something protruding between the rubber bands. "There's something in there. It looks like a"--she hesitated to find the right article--"it looks like a card-case."

"Perhaps it is," Miriam agreed. "But I'm sure I don't know why he should bring me a card-case."

"Why don't you look?"

"I wasn't in a hurry; but you can look yourself if you want to."

Evie took offence. "I'm sure I don't want to. That's the last thing."

"I wish you would. Then you'd see."

"I only do it under protest," she declared--"because you force me to." She took up the envelope, and began to unloose the rubber bands. "The Wild Olive" she quoted, half to herself. "Ridiculous! I should think clerks might have something better to do than write such things as that--on envelopes--on people's business." But her indignation turned to surprise when a small flat thing, not unlike a card-case, certainly, tumbled out. "What in the name of goodness--?"

Only strong self-control kept Miriam from darting forward to snatch it from the floor. She remembered it at once. It was a worn red leather pocket-book, which she had last seen when it was fresh and new--sitting in the sunset, on the heights above Champlain, and looking at the jewelled sea. A card fell from it, on which there was something written. Evie dropped on one knee to pick it up. Miriam was sorry to risk anything, but she felt constrained to say, as quietly as possible:

"You'd better not read that, dear. It might be private."

Evie slipped the card back into the pocket-book, which she threw on the table, where Miriam let it lie. "I won't look at anything else," Evie said, with dignity, turning away.

"I want you to," Miriam said, authoritatively. "I beg you to."

Thus commanded, Evie drew forth a flat document, on which she read, in ornamental letters, the inscription, New York, Toronto, and Great Lakes Railroad Company. She unfolded it slowly, looking puzzled.

"It's nothing but a lot of little square things," she said, with some disdain.

"The little square things are called coupons, if you know what they are."

"I know they're things people cut--when they have a lot of money. I don't know why they cut them; and still less do I know why he should be bringing them to you."

Miriam had a sudden inspiration that made her face beam with relief.

"I'll tell you why he brought them to me, dear--though I do it under protest, as you say yourself. Your curiosity forces my hand, and makes me show it ahead of time. He brought them to me because it's a wedding-present for you. When you get married--or begin to get married--you can have all that money for your trousseau."

"Aunt Helen is going to give me my trousseau. She said so."

"Then you can have it for anything you like--for house-furnishings or a pearl necklace. You know you wanted a pearl necklace--and there's plenty for a nice one. Each of those papers is worth a thousand dollars, or nearly. And there are--how many?"

"Three. You seem very keen on getting rid of them."

"So I am--to you, darling."

Evie prepared to depart, looking unconvinced.

"It's awfully nice of you--of course. But still--if that's what you had meant at first--from the beginning--you would have--Well, I'll tell Aunt Queenie you'll come."

Left alone, Miriam made haste to read the card in the pocket-book.

As deep calls to deep, so Spirit speaks to Spirit. It is the only true communion between mutually comprehending souls. But it is unerring--pardoning all, because understanding all, and making the crooked straight.

She read it more than once. She was not sure that it was meant for her. She was not sure that it was in Ford's own handwriting. But in their situation it had a meaning; she took it as a message to herself; and as she read, and read again, she felt on her face the trickling of one or two slow, hard tears.