Chapter XXVIII. Alison's Story
 

She told her story evenly, with her eyes on the water, only now and then, when I, too, sat looking seaward, I thought she glanced at me furtively. And once, in the middle of it, she stopped altogether.

"You don't realize it, probably," she protested, "but you look like a - a war god. Your face is horrible."

"I will turn my back, if it will help any," I said stormily, "but if you expect me to look anything but murderous, why, you don't know what I am going through with. That's all."

The story of her meeting with the Curtis woman was brief enough. They had met in Rome first, where Alison and her mother had taken a villa for a year. Mrs. Curtis had hovered on the ragged edges of society there, pleading the poverty of the south since the war as a reason for not going out more. There was talk of a brother, but Alison had not seen him, and after a scandal which implicated Mrs. Curtis and a young attache of the Austrian embassy, Alison had been forbidden to see the woman.

"The women had never liked her, anyhow," she said. "She did unconventional things, and they are very conventional there. And they said she did not always pay her - her gambling debts. I didn't like them. I thought they didn't like her because she was poor - and popular. Then - we came home, and I almost forgot her, but last spring, when mother was not well - she had taken grandfather to the Riviera, and it always uses her up - we went to Virginia Hot Springs, and we met them there, the brother, too, this time. His name was Sullivan, Harry Pinckney Sullivan."

"I know. Go on."

"Mother had a nurse, and I was alone a great deal, and they were very kind to me. I - I saw a lot of them. The brother rather attracted me, partly - partly because he did not make love to me. He even seemed to avoid me, and I was piqued. I had been spoiled, I suppose. Most of the other men I knew had - had - "

"I know that, too," I said bitterly, and moved away from her a trifle. I was brutal, but the whole story was a long torture. I think she knew what I was suffering, for she showed no resentment.

"It was early and there were few people around - none that I cared about. And mother and the nurse played cribbage eternally, until I felt as though the little pegs were driven into my brain. And when Mrs. Curtis arranged drives and picnics, I - I slipped away and went. I suppose you won't believe me, but I had never done that kind of thing before, and I - well, I have paid up, I think."

"What sort of looking chap was Sullivan?" I demanded. I had got up and was pacing back and forward on the sand. I remember kicking savagely at a bit of water-soaked board that lay in my way.

"Very handsome - as large as you are, but fair, and even more erect."

I drew my shoulders up sharply. I am straight enough, but I was fairly sagging with jealous rage.

"When mother began to get around, somebody told her that I had been going about with Mrs. Curtis and her brother, and we had a dreadful time. I was dragged home like a bad child. Did anybody ever do that to you?"

"Nobody ever cared. I was born an orphan," I said, with a cheerless attempt at levity. "Go on."

"If Mrs. Curtis knew, she never said anything. She wrote me charming letters, and in the summer, when they went to Cresson, she asked me to visit her there. I was too proud to let her know that I could not go where I wished, and so - I sent Polly, my maid, to her aunt's in the country, pretended to go to Seal Harbor, and really went to Cresson. You see I warned you it would be an unpleasant story."

I went over and stood in front of her. All the accumulated jealousy of the last few weeks had been fired by what she told me. If Sullivan had come across the sands just then, I think I would have strangled him with my hands, out of pure hate.

"Did you marry him?" I demanded. My voice sounded hoarse and strange in my ears. "That's all I want to know. Did you marry him?"

"No."

I drew a long breath.

"You - cared about him?"

She hesitated.

"No," she said finally. "I did not care about him."

I sat down on the edge of the boat and mopped my hot face. I was heartily ashamed of myself, and mingled with my abasement was a great relief. If she had not married him, and had not cared for him, nothing else was of any importance.

"I was sorry, of course, the moment the train had started, but I had wired I was coming, and I could not go back, and then when I got there, the place was charming. There were no neighbors, but we fished and rode and motored, and - it was moonlight, like this."

I put my hand over both of hers, clasped in her lap. "I know," I acknowledged repentantly, "and - people do queer things when it is moonlight. The moon has got me to-night, Alison. If I am a boor, remember that, won't you?"

Her fingers lay quiet under mine. "And so," she went on with a little sigh, "I began to think perhaps I cared. But. all the time felt that there was something not quite right. Now and then Mrs. Curtis would say or do something that gave me a queer start, as if she had dropped a mask for a moment. And there was trouble with the servants; they were almost insolent. I couldn't understand. I don't know when it dawned on me that the old Baron Cavalcanti had been right when he said they were not my kind of people. But I wanted to get away, wanted it desperately."

"Of course, they were not your kind," I cried. "The man was married! The girl Jennie, a housemaid, was a spy in Mrs. Sullivan's employ. If he had pretended to marry you I would have killed him! Not only that, but the man he murdered, Harrington, was his wife's father. And I'll see him hang by the neck yet if it takes every energy and every penny I possess."

I could have told her so much more gently, have broken the shock for her; I have never been proud of that evening on the sand. I was alternately a boor and a ruffian - like a hurt youngster who passes the blow that has hurt him on to his playmate, that both may bawl together. And now Alison sat, white and cold, without speech.

"Married!" she said finally, in a small voice. "Why, I don't think it is possible, is it? I - I was on my way to Baltimore to marry him myself, when the wreck came."

"But you said you didn't care for him!" I protested, my heavy masculine mind unable to jump the gaps in her story. And then, without the slightest warning, I realized that she was crying. She shook off my hand and fumbled for her handkerchief, and failing to find it, she accepted the one I thrust into her wet fingers.

Then, little by little, she told me from the handkerchief, a sordid story of a motor trip in the mountains without Mrs. Curtis, of a lost road and a broken car, and a rainy night when they - she and Sullivan, tramped eternally and did not get home. And of Mrs. Curtis, when they got home at dawn, suddenly grown conventional and deeply shocked. Of her own proud, half-disdainful consent to make possible the hackneyed compromising situation by marrying the rascal, and then - of his disappearance from the train. It was so terrible to her, such a Heaven-sent relief to me, in spite of my rage against Sullivan, that I laughed aloud. At which she looked at me over the handkerchief.

"I know it's funny," she said, with a catch in her breath. "When I think that I nearly married a murderer - and didn't - I cry for sheer joy." Then she buried her face and cried again.

"Please don't," I protested unsteadily. "I won't be responsible if you keep on crying like that. I may forget that I have a capital charge hanging over my head, and that I may be arrested at any moment."

That brought her out of the handkerchief at once. "I meant to be so helpful," she said, "and I've thought of nothing but myself! There were some things I meant to tell you. If Jennie was - what you say, then I understand why she came to me just before I left. She had been packing my things and she must have seen what condition I was in, for she came over to me when I was getting my wraps on, to leave, and said, 'Don't do it, Miss West, I beg you won't do it; you'll be sorry ever after.' And just then Mrs. Curtis came in and Jennie slipped out."

"That was all?"

"No. As we went through the station the telegraph operator gave Har - Mr. Sullivan a message. He read it on the platform, and it excited him terribly. He took his sister aside and they talked together. He was white with either fear or anger - I don't know which. Then, when we boarded the train, a woman in black, with beautiful hair, who was standing on the car platform, touched him on the arm and then drew back. He looked at her and glanced away again, but she reeled as if he had struck her."

"Then what?" The situation was growing clearer.

"Mrs. Curtis and I had the drawing-room. I had a dreadful night, just sleeping a little now and then. I dreaded to see dawn come. It was to be my wedding-day. When we found Harry had disappeared in the night, Mrs. Curtis was in a frenzy. Then - I saw his cigarette case in your hand. I had given it to him. You wore his clothes. The murder was discovered and you were accused of it! What could I do? And then, afterward, when I saw him asleep at the farmhouse, I - I was panic-stricken. I locked him in and ran. I didn't know why he did it, but - he had killed a man."

Some one was calling Alison through a megaphone, from the veranda. It sounded like Sam. "All-ee," he called. "All-ee! I'm going to have some anchovies on toast! All-ee!" Neither of us heard.

"I wonder," I reflected, "if you would be willing to repeat a part of that story - just from the telegram on - to a couple of detectives, say on Monday. If you would tell that, and - how the end of your necklace got into the sealskin bag - "

"My necklace!" she repeated. "But it isn't mine. I picked it up in the car."

"All-ee!" Sam again. "I see you down there. I'm making a julep!"

Alison turned and called through her hands. "Coming in a moment, Sam," she said, and rose. "It must be very late: Sam is home. We would better go back to the house."

"Don't," I begged her. "Anchovies and juleps and Sam will go on for ever, and I have you such a little time. I suppose I am only one of a dozen or so, but - you are the only girl in the world. You know I love you, don't you, dear?"

Sam was whistling, an irritating bird call, over and over. She pursed her red lips and answered him in kind. It was more than I could endure.

"Sam or no Sam," I said firmly, "I am going to kiss you!"

But Sam's voice came strident through the megaphone. "Be good, you two," he bellowed, "I've got the binoculars!" And so, under fire, we walked sedately back to the house. My pulses were throbbing - the little swish of her dress beside me on the grass was pain and ecstasy. I had but to put out my hand to touch her, and I dared not.

Sam, armed with a megaphone and field glasses, bent over the rail and watched us with gleeful malignity.

"Home early, aren't you?" Alison called, when we reached the steps.

"Led a club when my partner had doubled no-trumps, and she fainted. Damn the heart convention!" he said cheerfully. "The others are not here yet."

Three hours later I went up to bed. I had not seen Alison alone again. The noise was at its height below, and I glanced down into the garden, still bright in the moonlight. Leaning against a tree, and staring interestedly into the billiard room, was Johnson.