Part IV. Conquest.
Chapter XXIV
 

Except when his business instincts were on the alert, Ford's slowness of perception was perhaps most apparent in his judgment of character and his analysis of other people's motives. Taking men and women as he found them, he had little tendency to speculate as to the impulses within their lives, any more than as to the furnishings behind their house-fronts. A human being was all exterior to him, something like a street. Even in matters that touched him closely, the act alone was his concern; and he dealt with its consequences, without, as a rule, much inquisitive probing of its cause.

So when Miriam Strange elected to marry Conquest, he accepted the settled fact, for the time being, in the spirit in which he would have taken some disastrous manifestation of natural phenomena. Investigation of the motive of such a step was as little in his line as it would have been in the case of a destructive storm at sea. To his essentially simple way of viewing life it was something to be lamented, but to be borne as best one was able, while one said as little as one could about it.

And yet, somewhere in the wide, rarely explored regions of his nature there were wonderings, questionings, yearnings protests, cries, that forced themselves to the surface now and then, as the boiling waters within the earth gush out in geyser springs. It required urgent pressure to impel them forth, but when they came it was with violence. Such an occasion had been his night on Lake Champlain; such another was the evening when he announced to Miriam his intention of becoming Norrie Ford again. When these moments came they took him by surprise, even though afterward he was able to recognize the fact that they had been long preparing.

It was in this way, without warning, that his heart had sprung on him the question: Why should she marry him? At the minute when Conquest was leaving Miriam, he, Ford, was tramping the streets of New York, watching them grow alive with light, in glaring, imaginative ugliness--ugliness so dazzling in its audacity and so fanciful in its crude commercialism that it had the power to thrill. It was perhaps the electric stimulus of sheer light that quickened the pace of his slow mentality from the march of acceptance to the rush of protest, at an instant when he thought he had resigned himself to the facts.

Why should she marry Conquest? He was shouldering his way through the crowds when the question made itself heard, with a curious illuminating force that suggested its own answer. He was walking, partly to work off the tension of the strain under which these few days were passing, and partly because he had got the idea that he was being shadowed. He had no profound objection to that, though he would have preferred to give himself up of his own free will rather than to be arrested. Perhaps, after all, it was only an accident that had caused him to catch sight of the same two men at different moments through the day, and just now it amused him to put them to the test by leading them a dance. He had come to the conclusion that he had been mistaken, or that he had outwitted them, when this odd question, irrelevant to anything he had directly in his thoughts, presented itself as though it had been asked by some voice outside him: Why should she marry him?

Up to the present his unanalytical mind would have replied--as it would have replied to the same query concerning any one else--that she was marrying him "because she wanted to." That would have seemed to him to cover the whole ground of any one's affairs; but all at once it had become insufficient. It was as if the street had suddenly become insufficient as a highway, breaking into a chasm. He stopped abruptly, confronting, as it were, that bewildering void which a psychological situation invariably seemed to him. To get into a place where his few straightforward formulA| did not apply gave him that sense of distress which every creature feels out of its native element.

It was a proof of the dependence with which, in matters requiring mental or emotional experience, he had come to lean on Miriam Strange, as well as of the directness with which he appealed to her for help, that he should face about on the instant, and turn his steps toward her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Only a few minutes earlier she had seen Conquest go, and in the interval since his departure she had had time to detect the windings of his strategy, and to be content with the skill with which she had met them. She understood him thoroughly, both in his fear of letting her go and his shame at holding her. Standing in her wide bay-window, her slight figure erect, her hands behind her back, she looked down, without seeing it, on the spangled city, as angels intent on their own high thoughts might pass over the Milky Way. She smiled faintly to herself, thinking how she should lead this kindly man, who for her sake had done so much for Norrie Ford, back to a sense of security and self-respect. When Norrie Ford went free she meant to live for nothing else but the happiness of the man who had cleared his name and given him back to the world. It would be a kind of consecration to her, like that of the nun who forsakes the dearest ties for a life of good works and prayer. Conquest had told her that she was paying a bigger price than she needed to pay for the services rendered, but that depended somewhat on the value one set on the services. In this case she would not have been content in paying less. To do so would seem to indicate that she was not grateful. Since perceiving his compunction as to claiming his reward, she was aware of an elation, an exaltation, in forcing it upon him.

She was in the glow of this sentiment when Ford was ushered in. He was so vitally in her thoughts that, though she did not expect him, his presence gave her no surprise. It helped her, in fact, to sustain the romantic quality in her mood to treat his coming as a matter of course, and make it a natural incident to the moment.

"Come and look down on the stars," she said, in the tone she might have used to another member of her household who had appeared accidentally. "The view here, in the evening, makes one feel as if one had been wafted above the sky."

She half-turned toward him, but did not offer her hand as he took his place by her side. For a few seconds he said nothing, and when he spoke she accepted his words in the manner in which she had taken his coming.

"So you're going to marry Conquest!"

It was to show that the abrupt remark had not perturbed her that she nodded her head assentingly, still with the smile that had greeted his arrival.

"Why?"

In spite of her efforts she manifested some surprise.

"What makes you ask that question--now?"

"Because it never occurred to me before that there might be a special reason."

"Well, there is one."

"Has it anything to do with me?"

She backed away from him slightly, to the side curve of the window, where it joined the straight line of the wall. In this position she had him more directly in view.

"I said there was a reason," she answered, after some hesitation. "I didn't say I would tell you what it was."

"No, but you will, won't you?"

"I don't see why you should want to know."

"Is that quite true?" he queried, with a somewhat startling fixing of his eyes upon her. "Don't you see? Can't you imagine?"

"I don't see why--in such circumstances as these--any man should want to know what a woman doesn't tell him."

"Then I'll explain to you. I want to know, because ... I think ... you're marrying Conquest ... when you don't love him ..."

"He never asked me to love him. He said he could do without that."

"... while ... you do love ... some one else."

She reflected before speaking. Under his piercing look she took on once more the appealing expression of forest creatures at bay.

"Even if that were true," she said, at last, "there would be no harm in it as long as there was what you asked me for at first--a special reason."

"Is there ever a reason for a step like that? I don't believe it."

"But I do believe it, you see. That makes a difference."

"It would make a still greater difference if I begged you not to do it, wouldn't it?"

She shook her head. "It wouldn't--now."

"I let you see yesterday that I--I loved you."

"Since you force me to acknowledge it--yes."

"And you've shown me," he ventured, "within the last minute, that you--love me."

Her figure grew more erect against the background of exterior darkness. Even the hand that rested on the woodwork of the window became tense. Lambent fire in her eyes--the light that he used to call non-Aryan--took the place of the fugitive glance of the woodland animal; but she kept her composure.

"Well, what then?"

"Then you'd be committing a sacrilege against yourself--if you married any one else but me."

If her heart bounded at the words, she did nothing to betray it.

"You say that, because it seems so to you. I take another view of it. Love to me does not necessarily mean marriage, any more than marriage necessarily implies love. There have been happy marriages without love, and there can be honorable love that doesn't ask marriage as its object. If I married you now, I should seem to myself to be deserting a high impulse for a lower one."

"There's only one sort of impulse to love."

"Not to my love. I know what you mean--but my love has more than one prompting, and the highest is--or I hope it is--to try to do what's right."

"But this would not be right."

"I'm the only judge of that."

"Not if we love each other. In that case I become a judge of it, too."

Once more she reflected. In speaking she lifted her head and looked at him frankly.

"Very well; I'll admit it. Perhaps it's true. In any case, I'd rather things were clear to you. It will help us both. I'll tell you what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it."

It was one of those occasions when a woman's emotion is so great that she seems to have none at all. As iron is said to come to a degree of heat so intense that it does not burn, so Miriam Strange seemed to herself to have reached a stage where the sheer truth, simple and without reserve, could bring no shame to her womanhood. Words that could not have passed her lips either before that evening or after it escaped her in the subsequent minutes as a matter of course.

"I entered into your life twice, and each time I did you harm. On the first occasion I turned you into Herbert Strange, and sent you out on a career of deception; on the second, I came between you and Evie, and brought you to the present pass, where you're facing death again, as you were eight or nine years ago. It's no use to tell you that I wanted to do my best, because good intentions are not much excuse for the trouble they often cause. But I'm ready to say this: that whenever you've suffered, I've suffered more. That's especially true of what's happened in the last six months. And when I saw how much I had put wrong, it was a comfort to think there was something at least that I could put right again."

"But you've put nothing wrong. That's what I should like to convince you of."

"I've put you in a position of danger. When I see that, I see enough to act upon."

"It's a very slight danger."

"It is now, because I've made it slight. It wasn't--before I went to Mr. Conquest."

"You went to him--what for?"

"He wanted me to marry him. He had wanted it for a long time. I told him I would do so, on condition that he found the evidence that would prove you innocent."

Ford laughed harshly, and rather loudly, stopping suddenly, as though he had ceased to see the joke.

"So that's it! That's why Conquest has been so devilishly kind. I wondered at his interest--or at least I should have wondered if I'd had the time. As a matter of fact, I took it for granted that he should help me, as a drowning man takes it for granted that the chance passer-by should pull him out. It wasn't till this evening--about half an hour ago--By Jove! I ran right up against it."

"You ran right up against--what?"

"Against the truth. It came in a flash--just like that." He snapped his fingers. "You're selling yourself--to get me off."

She seemed to grow straighter, taller. For the minute he saw nothing but the blaze of her eyes.

"Well? Why shouldn't I? My mother sold herself--to get a man off. He was my father. I'm proud of her. She did the best she could with her life. I'm doing the best I can with mine."

"But I shouldn't be doing the best I can with mine--if I let you continue."

"Isn't it too late for you to stop me? If I've sold myself as you put it, the price has been paid in. Mr. Conquest has secured the evidence that will acquit you. It will be used. That's all I care about--much."

She saw the hot color surge into his cheeks and brows. It seemed to her that his eyes grew red as the blood left his lips. She had never before been called on to confront a man angry with a passion beyond his control, but instinct told her what the signs were. Instinct told her, too, that, however confused his own sensations might be, his anger was not so much resentment against anything she might have done as it was despair at having lost her. She had guessed already that he would be seized with a blind impulse to strike, as soon as he came to a realizing sense of her action; though she had not expected the moment of his fury till after he went free. Till then, she had thought, he would be partially unconscious of his pain, just as a soldier fighting will run along for a while without feeling a bullet in his flesh. The anticipation of an awakening on his part some time enabled her to see beyond the madness of this instinct, even though the words he threw at her struck like stones. The very fact that she could see how he labored with himself to keep them back gave her strength to take them without flinching.

"You ... dared...? Without ... my ... permission...?"

"I'd done so many things without your permission that it seemed I could venture that far."

"You were wrong. It was--too far."

"It wasn't too far--when I loved you."

She uttered the words in a matter-of-fact voice, without a tremor. She foresaw their effect in bringing him to himself In his next words his tone had already softened slightly to one of protest.

"But I could have done it so much better--! so much more easily--! without----"

"I could have done that too. Mr. Conquest pointed it out to me. He took no advantage of my ignorance. As a matter of fact, I wasn't ignorant at all. I was extremely clear-sighted and wise. My love for you made me so. I knew--I felt it--that money might fail to do what I wanted. But I knew too that there was one thing that wouldn't fail. If you were innocent--and I wasn't wholly sure that you were--I knew there was one energy that would surely prove you so--and that was Charles Conquest's desire to have me as his wife. I took the course in which there was least risk of failure--and you see----"

A little gesture, triumphant in its suggestion, finished her sentence.

"What I see is this," Ford answered, thickly, "that I'm to hold my life at the cost of your degradation."

"Degradation? That's a hard word. But as applied to me--I don't know what it means."

"Isn't it degradation?--to enter into a marriage in which you put no love?"

There was a kind of superb indifference in her answer.

[Illustration: "I'm to hold my life at the cost of your degradation"]

"You may call it degradation if you choose. I shouldn't. As long as you go free, you can call my action anything you like. I dare say," she admitted, "you're quite right, from the highest moral--and modern--point of view; but that doesn't appeal to me. You see--you've got to make allowances for it--I'm not a child of your civilization. I'm not a child of any civilization at all. At best I'm like the wild creature that submits to being tamed because it doesn't know what else to do--but remains wild at heart. I used to think I could come into your system of law and order if any one would take me. But now I know I shall always be outside it. The very word you've just used of me shows me that. You say I'm to be degraded--it's your civilized point of view. I have no comprehension of that whatever. Because I love you I want to save you. I don't care anything about the means so long as I reach the end. To undo the harm I've done to you I'd freely give my body to be burned; so why shoudn't I--? No, no," she cried, as he made as though he would approach her, "keep away. Don't come near me! I can only talk to you like this--at a distance. I shall never say these things again--but I want to tell you--to explain to you--I should like you to understand."

She repeated herself haltingly because, as Ford held back from approaching her, a sudden spasm passed over his face, while he hung his head, and compressed his lips in a way that made him seem surprisingly boyish all at once, and touched that maternal tenderness in her that had always formed such a large part of her yearning over him. It was the kind of tenderness that steadied her own nerve, and kept her dry-eyed and strong, as she saw him reel to a chair, and flinging his arms on the table beside it, bow himself down on them, while his form shook convulsively. She had no shame for him. She understood perfectly that the pressure of years had been brought to bear on the complex emotions of the moment--to which reaction from his brief anger and his bitter words added an element of remorse--to cause this honest, manly nature that had never made any pretence of being stronger than it was, to give way to the instant's weakness. She was sure he would never have done it in the presence of any one but her, and she was thrilled with a curious joy at this proof of their spiritual intimacy. What was difficult was not the keeping of her own self-control, but the holding herself back from crossing the room and laying a hand on his shoulder, in token of their oneness at heart; but there, she felt, the forbidden line would be passed. She could only wait--it was not long--till he was calm again. Then he pulled himself together, got up heavily, and obviously refrained from looking her in the face. In the act and the attitude there was something so boylike, so natural, so entirely lacking in the dignity of grief, that if she had any impulse to let her own tears flow it was then.

But she knew it to be one of those minutes when a woman has to be strong for herself and for the man, too, even though she break down afterward. The necessity of coming to an understanding with him, once for all, impelled her to the economy of her forces, while the nervous snapping of his fortitude had given her an opportunity she could not afford to lose.

"So I want you to see," she went on, quietly, as though no interruption had occurred, "that having gained my point in helping to--to get you off, it's to some extent a matter of indifference what you think of me--what any one thinks of me--just as it was when I hid you in my studio, nearly nine years ago. You must put it down to my being of wild origin and not wholly amenable to civilized dictates. I can only do what the inward urging drives me on to do--just as my mother did--and my father. If it's degrading--"

Raising his head at last, he strode toward her. He put his hands rigidly behind his back, as if to show her that he pinioned them there in token that she had nothing to fear from him. His eyes were red, and there was still a painful tightening about his lips.

"You'll have to let me take that back," he muttered, unsteadily. "I didn't know what I was saying. It's come on me so suddenly that it's broken me all up. I haven't realized till this evening what--what everything meant. It seemed to me then that I couldn't stand it."

"But you can."

"Yes, I can," he replied, doggedly. "One can stand anything. If I reached my limit for a minute, it was in seeing that you have to suffer for my sake----"

"Wouldn't you suffer for mine?"

"I couldn't. Suffering for your sake would become such a joy----"

"That it wouldn't be suffering. That's just it. That's what I feel, exactly. It isn't hard for me to do what I'm doing because I know--I know--I'm helping to save your honor if not your life. I don't believe money would have done it. Mr. Conquest reminded me that the best legal services can be bought, but I never thought for an instant that you could secure zeal such as his for anything less than I offered him. And he's been so superb! He's given himself up to the thing absolutely. He's followed every trail with a scent--- with a certainty--your other men, your Kilcup and Warren, would never have been capable of. I've seen that; I'm sure of it. He has a wonderful mind, and in his way he has the kindest heart in the world. I'm very, very fond of him, and I'm deeply grateful. Next to seeing you free, I don't think I have any desire in life so strong as to make him happy. I dare say that isn't civilized either--but it's what I feel. And so we must think of this," she continued, eagerly explanative; "we must be loyal to him, you and I, as the first of all our duties. Don't you think so?"

He withdrew his eyes from hers before answering. His power of resistance was broken. The signs of struggle were visible, and yet the quixotic element in his own nature helped him to respond to that in hers.

"I'll try," he muttered, looking on the ground.

"You'll do more than try--you'll succeed. Only very small souls could grudge him what he's earned when he's worked so hard and given himself so unstintingly. The very fact that you and I know that we love each other will make it easier to be true to him."

"Conquest must know that we love each other, too," he declared, with some bitterness.

"Perhaps he does; but, you see, every one has a different way of looking at life, and I don't think that with him it's a thing that counts greatly. I'm not sure that I understand him in that respect. I only know that you and I, who owe him so much, can repay him by giving him what he asks for. Will you promise me to do it?"

He continued to look downward, as though finding it hard to give his word; but when he raised his eyes again, he flung back his head with his old air of resolution.

"I'll promise to do anything you ask me throughout our lives. I don't admit that Conquest should demand this thing or that he had any right to let you offer it. But since you want to give it--and I can show you no other token of my love--and shall never again be able to tell you that I adore you--that I adore you--I promise--to obey."