Part IV. Conquest.
Chapter XXV
 

The inspection of the house was over, and they had come back to the drawing-room for tea. Conquest had lavished pains on the occasion, putting flowers in the rooms, and strewing handsome objects carelessly about, so as to impart to the great shell as much as possible the air of being lived in. To the tea-table he had given particular attention, ordering out the most ornamental silver and the costliest porcelain, and placing the table itself just where she would probably have it in days to come, so as to get the effect she produced in sitting there, as he liked to do with a new picture or piece of furniture.

On her part, Miriam had made the rounds of the rooms with conscientious care, observing, admiring, suggesting, with just that mingling of shyness and interest with which a woman in her situation would view her future home. Having got, by intuition, the idea that he was watching for some flaw in her manner, she was determined that he should find none. It was the beginning of that lifelong schooling to his service to which she had vowed herself, though the effort would have been easier had he not rendered her self-conscious by scanning her so keenly out of his little gray-green eyes. Nevertheless, she was pleased with the manner in which she was acquitting herself, giving him his tea and taking her own with no sign of embarrassment. As on the preceding day, it was this perfection of acting, as he chose to call it, that exasperated his restless suspicion more than any display of weakness.

The thought that she was keeping her true self locked against him had, during the last twenty-four hours, become an obsession, making it impossible for him to eat or to sleep. In her serene, impeccable bearing he saw nothing but the bars up and the blinds drawn down. An instant of faltering or self-betrayal would have admitted him to at least a glimpse of what was passing within; but through this well-balanced graciousness it was as difficult to get at her soul as to read the mind of the Venus of Milo in the marble nobility of her face. He had led her from room to room, describing one, explaining another, and apologizing for a third, but all the while trying to break down her guard, only to find, as they returned to the point at which they started, that he had failed. It was with nerves all unstrung, and with a lack of self-command he would have been, in his saner senses, the first to condemn, that he strode up at last and rapped sharply at the door of her barricaded citadel.

"Why did you never tell me that you knew Norrie Ford--years ago?"

He was putting his empty cup on the table as he spoke, so that he could avoid looking at her. She was glad of this respite from his gaze, for she found the question startling. Before the scrutiny of his eyes was turned on her again she had herself in hand.

"I should probably have told you some time."

"Very likely. The odd thing is that you didn't tell me at once."

"It wasn't so odd--given all the circumstances."

"It wasn't so odd, given some of the circumstances; but given them all--all--I should say, I ought to have known."

She allowed a few seconds to pass.

"I suppose," she said, slowly, then, "that may fairly be considered a matter of opinion. I don't see, however, that it makes much difference--since you know now."

"My knowing or not knowing now isn't quite the point. The fact of importance is that you never told me."

"I'm sorry you should take it in that way; but since I didn't--and the matter is beyond remedy--I suppose we shouldn't gain anything by discussing it."

"I don't know about that. It seems to me a subject that ought to be--aired."

She tried to smile down his aggressiveness, succeeding partially, in that he subdued the quarrelsomeness of his voice and manner to that affectation of banter behind which he concealed habitually his real self, and by which he most easily deceived her.

"Very well," she laughed; "I'm quite ready to air it; only I don't know just how it's to be done."

"Suppose you were to tell me what happened, in your own language?"

"If Mr. Ford has told you already, as I imagine he has, I don't see that my language can be very different from his. All the same, I'll try, since you want me to."

"Just so."

During the few minutes she took to collect her thoughts he could see sweep over her features one of those swift, light changes--as delicate as the ripple of summer wind on water--which transformed her in an instant from the woman of the world to the forest maid, the spirit of the indigenous. The mystery of the nomadic ages was in her eyes again as she began her narrative, wistfully, and reminiscently.

"You see, I'd been thinking a good deal of my father and mother. I hadn't known about them very long, and I lived with their memory. The Mother Superior had told me a few things--all she knew, I suppose--before I left the convent at Quebec; and Mr. and Mrs. Wayne--especially Mrs. Wayne--had added the rest. That was the chief reason why I wanted the studio--so that I could get away from the house, which was so oppressive to me, and--so it seemed to me--live with them, with nothing but the woods and the hills and the sky about me. I could be very happy then--painting thinge I fancied they might have done, and pinning them up on the wall. I dare say it was foolish, but----"

"It was very natural. Go on."

"And then came up all this excitement about Norrie Ford. For months the whole region talked of nothing else. Nearly every one believed he had shot his uncle, but, except in the villages, the sympathy with him was tremendous. Some people--especially the hotel-keepers and those who depended on the tourist travel--were for law and order; but others said that old Chris Ford had got no more than he deserved. That was the way they used to talk. Mr. Wayne was on the side of law and order, too--naturally--till the trial came on; and then he began----"

"I know all about that. Go on."

"My own sympathy was with the man in prison. I used to dream about him. I remembered what Mrs. Wayne had told me my mother had done for my father. I was proud of that. Though I knew only vaguely what it was, I was sure it was what I should have done, too. So when there was talk of breaking into the jail and helping Norrie to escape, I used to think how easily I could keep any one hidden in my studio. I don't mean I thought of it as a practical thing; it was just a dream."

"But a dream that came true."

"Yes; it came true. It was wonderful. It was the day Mr. Wayne sentenced him. I knew what he was suffering--Mr. Wayne, I mean. We were all suffering; even Mrs. Wayne, who in her gentle way was generally so hard. Some people thought Mr. Wayne needn't have done it; and I suppose it was just his conscientiousness--because he had such a horror of the thing--that drove him on to it. He thought he mustn't shirk his duty. But that night at the house was awful. We dressed for dinner, and tried to act as if nothing frightful had happened--but it was as if the hangman was sitting with us at the table. At last I couldn't endure it. I went out into the garden--you remember it was one of those gardens with clipped yews. Out there, in the air, I stopped thinking of Mr. Wayne and his distress to think of Norrie Ford. It seemed to me as if, in some strange way, he belonged to me--that I ought to do something--as my mother had done for my father. And then--all of a sudden--I saw him creep in."

"How did you know it was he?"

"I thought it must be, though I was only sure of it when I was on the terrace and saw his face. He crept along and crept along--Oh, such a forlorn, hopeless, outcast figure! My heart ached at the sight of him. I didn't know what he meant to do, and at first I had no intention of attempting anything. It was by degrees that my own thought about the studio came back to me. By that time he was on the veranda of the house, and I was afraid he meant to kill Mr. Wayne. I went after him. I thought I would entice him away and hide him. But the minute he heard my footstep he leaped into the house. The next I saw, he was talking to Mr. and Mrs. Wayne--and something told me he wouldn't hurt them. After that I watched my chance till he looked outward, and then I beckoned to him. That's how it happened."

"And then?"

"After that everything was easy. He must have told you. I kept him in the studio for three weeks, and brought him food--and clothing of my father's. It seemed to me that my father was doing everything--not I. That's what made it so simple. I know my father would have wanted me to do it. I was only the agent in carrying out his will."

"That's one way of looking at it," Conquest said, grimly.

"It's the only way I've ever looked at it; the only way I ever shall."

       *       *       *       *       *

"It was a romantic situation," he observed, when she had given him the outlines of the rest of the story. "I wonder you didn't fall in love with him."

He smoothed the colorless line of his mustache, as though concealing a smile. He had recaptured the teasing tone he liked to employ toward her, though its nervous sharpness would have betrayed him had she suspected his real thoughts. While she said nothing in response, the tilt of her head was that which he associated with her moods of indignation or pride.

"Perhaps you did," he persisted. Then, as she remained silent, "Did you?"

She resolved on a bold step--the audacity of that perfect candor she had always taken as a guide.

"I don't know that one could call it that," she said, quietly.

He drew a quick inward breath, clinching his teeth, but keeping his fixed smile.

"But you don't know that one couldn't."

"I can't define what I felt at all."

"It was just enough," he pursued, in his bantering tone, "to keep you--looking for him back--as you told me--that day."

She lifted her eyes in a swift glance of reproach.

"It was that--then."

"But it's more--now. Isn't it?"

She met him squarely.

"I don't think you've any right to ask."

He laughed aloud, somewhat shrilly.

"That's good!--considering we're to be man and wife."

"We're to be man and wife on a very distinct understanding to which I'm perfectly loyal. I mean to be loyal to it always--and to you. I shall give you everything you ever asked for. If there are some things--one thing in particular--out of my power to give you, I've said so from the first, and you've told me you could do without them. If what I can't give you I've given to some one else--because--because--I couldn't help it--that's my secret, and I claim the right to guard it."

They faced one another across the table piled with ornate silver. He had not lost his smile.

"You've the merit of being clear," was his only comment.

"You force me to be clear," she declared, with heightened color, "and a little angry. When you asked me to be your wife--long ago--I told you there were certain conditions I could never fulfil--and you waived them. On that ground I'm ready to meet all your wishes, and make you a good wife to the utmost of my power. I'm eager to do it--because I honor and respect you as women don't always honor and respect the very men they love. I've told Norrie Ford, and I repeat it to you, that after seeing him go free and restored to his place among men, the most ardent desire of my life is to make you happy. I'm perfectly true; I'm perfectly sincere. What more can you ask of me?"

He looked at her searchingly, while he thought hard and rapidly. He could not complain that the bars were up and the blinds drawn any longer. On the contrary, she had let him see into the recesses of her life with a clarity that startled him, as pure truth startles often. As he sat musing, his pretence at cynicism fell from him, together with something of his furbished air of youth. She saw him grow graver, grayer, older, under her very eyes, and was moved with compunction--with compassion. Her face still aglow and her hands clasped in her lap, she leaned to him across the table, speaking in the rich, low voice that always thrilled him.

"What I feel for you is ... something so much like ... love ... that you would never have known the difference ... if you hadn't wrung it from me."

Though he toyed aimlessly with some small silver object on the table and did not look up, her words sent a tremor through his frame. The Wise Man within him was very eloquent, repeating again and again the sentence she herself had used a minute or two ago: What more could he ask of her? What more could he ask of her, indeed, after this assurance right out of the earnestness and honesty of her pure heart? It was enough to satisfy men with far greater claims than he had ever put forth, and far more pretension than he had ever dreamed of cherishing. The Wise Man supplied him with two or three phrases of reply--neat little phrases, that would have bound her forever, and yet saved his self-esteem. He turned them over in his mind and on his tongue, trying to add a touch of glamour while he kept them terse. He could feel the Wise Man fidgeting impatiently, just as he could feel her flaming, expectant eyes upon him; and still he toyed with the small silver object aimlessly, conscious of a certain bitter joy in his soul's suspense. He had not yet looked up, nor polished the Wise Man's phrases to his taste, when a footman threw the door open, and Norrie Ford himself walked in.

The meeting was saved from awkwardness chiefly by Ford's own lack of embarrassment. As he crossed the room and shook hands, first with Miriam, then with Conquest, there was a subdued elation in his manner and glance that reduced small considerations to nothing.

"No; I won't sit down," he explained, hurriedly, and not without excitement, "because I only looked in for a minute. I've got a cab waiting for me outside. The fact is, I ran in to say good-bye."

"Good-bye?" Miriam questioned.

"Not for long, I hope. I'm off--to give myself up."

"But why to-night?" Conquest asked. "What's the rush?"

"Only that I want to get my word in first. They've got their eye on me. I thought it yesterday, and I know it to-day. I want them to see that I'm not afraid of them, and so I'm asking their hospitality for to-night. I've got my bag in the cab, and everything ship-shape. I couldn't do it without coming round for a last word with you, old man; and I was going to see you afterward, Miss Strange. But since I've found you here----"

"You won't have to," she finished, brightly. "I'm glad to be able to save your time. I'm confident we're not losing you for long; and as I know you're eager, I can only wish you God-speed, and be glad to see you go"

She held out her hand, frankly, strongly, as one who has no fear.

"Now," she added, turning to Conquest, "I'll ask you to see me to my motor. I shall leave you and Mr Ford together, as I know you must have some last detail to arrange."

Ford protested, but she gathered up her gloves and furs, and both men accompanied her to the street.

It was an autumn evening, drizzling and dark. Up and down Fifth Avenue the wet pavements reflected the electric lamps like blurred mirrors. There were few passengers on foot, but an occasional motor whizzed weirdly out of the dark and into it. It was because there were no other people to be seen that two men standing in the rain attracted the attention of the three who descended Conquest's steps together.

"There they are," Ford said, jerkily. "By George! they've got ahead of me."

Instinctively Miriam clutched his arm, while one of the two strangers came forward apologetically.

"You're Mr. John Norrie Ford, ain't you?"

"I am."

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I've got a warrant for your arrest."

"That's all right," Ford said, cheerily. "I was on my way to you, anyhow. You'll find my bag in the cab, and everything ready. We'll drive, if it's all the same to you."

"Yes, sir. Sure thing, sir."

The man dropped back a few paces courteously, while Ford turned to his friends. His air was buoyant. Miriam, too, reflected the radiance of her vision of his triumph. Conquest alone, looking small and white and shrivelled in the rain, showed care and fear.

"I don't think there's anything special to say," Ford remarked, with the awkwardness of a simple nature at an emotional crisis. "I'm not very good at thanks. Miss Strange knows that already. But it's all in here"--he tapped his breast, with a characteristic gesture--"very sacred, very strong."

"We know that," Conquest said, unsteadily, with an embarrassment like Ford's own.

"Well, then--good-bye."

"Good-bye."

With a long pressure of the hand to each, he turned toward his cab. Of the two strangers, one took his place beside the driver on the box, while the other held the door open for Ford to enter. His foot was already on the step when Miriam cried, "Wait!"

He turned toward her as she glided across the wet pavement.

"Good-bye, good-bye," she whispered again; and drawing down his face to hers, she kissed him, as she had kissed him once before, beside the waters of Champlain.

As she drew back from him, Ford's countenance wore the uplifted look of a knight who has received the consecration to his quest. Even the two strangers bowed their heads, as though they had witnessed the bestowal of a sacrament. To Miriam herself it was the seal set on a past that could never be reopened. She felt the definiteness with which it was ended, as she heard, on her way back to Conquest's side, the door slammed, while the cab lumbered away. It seemed to her that Conquest shrank from her as she approached him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You'll come to-morrow? I shall be home about five."

Conquest had put her into her motor, drawn the rugs about her, and closed the door. As he did so, she noticed something slow and broken in his movements. Leaning from the open window, she held out her hand, but he barely touched it.

"No," he said, hoarsely, "I shall not come to-morrow."

"Then, the next day."

"No, nor the next day."

"Well, when you can. If you let me know, I shall stay in, whenever it may be."

"You needn't stay in. I'm not coming any more."

"Oh, don't say that. Don't say that," she pleaded. "You hurt me."

"I can't come, Miriam. Don't you see? Isn't it plain enough? I can't come. I thought I could. I tried to think I could hold you--in spite of everything. But I can't. I can't."

"You can hold me--if I stay. I want to stay. You mustn't let me go. I want you to be happy. You deserve it. You've done so much for me--and him."

It was the stress she laid on the last word--a suggestion of something triumphant and enraptured beyond restraint--that made him bound back to the centre of the pavement.

"Go on, Laporte," he said to the chauffeur, in a sharp voice. "Miss Strange is ready."

"No, no," Miriam cried, stretching both hands toward him. "I'm not ready. Keep me. I want to stay."

"Go on!" he cried, sternly, as the chauffeur hesitated. "Miss Strange is quite ready. She must go."

Standing by the curb, he watched the motor glide off into the misty, lamplit darkness. He was watching it still, as it overtook the carriage in which Norrie Ford had just driven away. As the two vehicles passed abreast out of his range of vision, he knew they were bearing Ford and Miriam side by side into Life.