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Title: The Avalanche
Author: Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn, 1857-1948
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Avalanche" ***

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                              THE AVALANCHE

                            _A MYSTERY STORY_

                           BY GERTRUDE ATHERTON

                                   1919



TO CHARLES HANSON TOWNE



CHAPTER I


I

Price Ruyler knew that many secrets had been inhumed by the earthquake
and fire of San Francisco and wondered if his wife's had been one of
them. After all, she had been born in this city of odd and whispered
pasts, and there were moments when his silent mother-in-law suggested a
past of her own.

That there was a secret of some sort he had been progressively convinced
for quite six months. Moreover, he felt equally sure that this impalpable
gray cloud had not drifted even transiently between himself and his wife
during the first year and a half of their marriage. They had been
uncommonly happy; they were happy yet ... the difference lay not in the
quality of Hélène's devotion, enhanced always by an outspoken admiration
for himself and his achievements, but in subtle changes of temperament
and spirits.

She had been a gay and irresponsible young creature when he married her,
so much so that he had found it expedient to put her on an allowance and
ask her not to ran up staggering bills in the fashionable shops; which
she visited daily, as much for the pleasure of the informal encounter
with other lively and irresponsible young luminaries of San Francisco
society as for the excitement of buying what she did not want.

He had broached the subject with some trepidation, for they had never had
a quarrel; but she had shown no resentment whatever, merely an eager
desire to please him. She even went directly down to the Palace Hotel and
reproached her august parent for failing to warn her that a dollar was
not capable of infinite expansion.

But no wonder she had been extravagant, she told Ruyler plaintively. It
had been like a fairy tale, this sudden release from the rigid
economies of her girlhood, when she had rarely had a franc in her
pocket, and they had lived in a suite of the old family villa on one
of the hills of Rouen, Madame Delano paying her brother for their
lodging, and dressing herself and Hélène with the aid of a half
paralyzed seamstress with a fiery red nose. Ma foi! It was the
nightmare of her youth, that nose and that croaking voice. But the
woman had fingers, and a taste! And her mother could have concocted a
smart evening frock out of an old window curtain.

But the petted little daughter was never asked to go out and buy a spool
of thread, much less was she consulted in the household economies. All
she noticed was that her clothes were smarter than Cousin Marthe's, who
had a real dressmaker, and was subject to fits of jealous sulks. No
wonder that when money was poured into her lap out in this wonderful
California she had assumed that it was made only to spend.

But she would learn! She would learn! She would ask her mother that very
day to initiate her into the fascinating secrets of personal economies,
teach her how to portion out her quarterly allowance between her
wardrobe, club dues, charities, even her private automobile.

This last heroic suggestion was her own, and although her husband
protested he finally agreed; it was well she should learn just what it
cost to be a woman of fashion in San Francisco, and the allowance was
very generous. His old steward, Mannings, ran the household, although as
he went through the form of laying the bills before his little mistress
on the third of every month, she knew that the upkeep of the San
Francisco house and the Burlingame villa ran into a small fortune a year.

"It is not that I am threatened with financial disaster," Ruyler had said
to her. "But San Francisco has not recovered yet, and it is impossible to
say just when she will recover. I want to be absolutely sure of my
expenditures."

She had promised vehemently, and, as far as he knew, she had kept her
promise. He had received no more bills, and it was obvious that her
haughty chauffeur was paid on schedule time, until, seized with another
economical spasm, she sold her car and bought a small electric which she
could drive herself.

Ruyler, little as he liked his mother-in-law, was intensely grateful to
her for the dexterity with which she had adjusted Hélène's mind to the
new condition. She even taught her how to keep books in an elemental way
and balanced them herself on the first of every month. As Hélène Ruyler
had a mind as quick and supple as it was cultivated in _les graces_, she
soon ceased to feel the chafing of her new harness, although she did
squander the sum she had reserved for three months mere pocket money upon
a hat; which was sent to the house by her wily milliner on the first day
of the second quarter. She confessed this with tears, and her husband,
who thought her feminine passion for hats adorable, dried her tears and
took her to the opening night of a new play. But he did not furnish the
pathetic little gold mesh bag, and as he made her promise not to borrow,
she did not treat her friends to tea or ices at any of the fashionable
rendezvous for a month. Then her native French thrift came to her aid and
she sold a superfluous gold purse, a wedding present, to an envious
friend at a handsome bargain.

That was ancient history now. It was twenty months since Price had
received a bill, and secret inquiries during the past two had satisfied
him that his wife's name was written in the books of no shop in San
Francisco that she would condescend to visit. Therefore, this maddening
but intangible barrier had nothing to do with a change of habit that had
not caused an hour of tears and sulks. Hélène had a quick temper but a
gay and sweet disposition, normally high spirits, little apparent
selfishness, and a naïve adoration of masculine superiority and strength;
altogether, with her high bred beauty and her dignity in public, an
enchanting creature and an ideal wife for a busy man of inherited social
position and no small degree of pride.

But all this lovely equipment was blurred, almost obscured at times, by
the shadow that he was beginning to liken to the San Francisco fogs that
drifted through the Golden Gate and settled down into the deep hollows of
the Marin hills; moving gently but restlessly even there, like ghostly
floating tides. He could see them from his library window, where he often
finished his afternoon's work with his secretaries.

But the fog drifted back to the Pacific, and the shadow that encompassed
his wife did not, or rarely. It chilled their ardors, even their serene
domesticity. She was often as gay and impulsive as ever, but with abrupt
reserves, an implication not only of a new maturity of spirit, but of
watchfulness, even fear. She had once gone so far as to give voice
passionately to the dogma that no two mortals had the right to be as
happy as they were; then laughed apologetically and "guessed" that the
old Puritan spirit of her father's people was coming to life in her
Gallic little soul; then, with another change of mood, added defiantly
that it was time America were rid of its baneful inheritance, and that
she would be happy to-day if the skies fell to-morrow. She had flung
herself into her husband's arms, and even while he embraced her the eyes
of his spirit searched for the girl wife who had fled and left this more
subtly fascinating but incomprehensible creature in her place.


II

The morning was Sunday and he sat in the large window of his library that
overlooked the Bay of San Francisco. The house, which stood on one of the
highest hills, he had bought and remodeled for his bride. The books that
lined these walls had belonged to his Ruyler grandfather, bought in a day
when business men had time to read and it was the fashion for a gentleman
to cultivate the intellectual tracts of his brain. The portraits that
hung above, against the dark paneling, were the work of his mother's
father, one of the celebrated portrait painters of his time, and were
replicas of the eminent and mighty he had painted. Maharajas, kings,
emperors, famous diplomats, men of letters, artists of his own small
class, statesmen and several of the famous beauties of their brief day;
these had been the favorite grandson's inheritance from Masewell Price,
and they made an impressive frieze, unique in the splendid homes of the
city of Ruyler's adoption.

He had brought them from New York when he had decided to live in
California, and hung them in his bachelor quarters. He had soon made up
his mind that he must remain in San Francisco for at least ten years if
he would maintain the business he had rescued from the disaster of 1906
at the level where he had, by the severest application of his life,
placed it by the end of 1908. Meanwhile he had grown to like San
Francisco better than he would have believed possible when he arrived in
the wrecked city, still smoking, and haunted with the subtle odors of
fires that had consumed more than products of the vegetable kingdom.

The vast ruin with its tottering arches and broken columns, its lonely
walls looking as if bitten by prehistoric monsters that must haunt this
ancient coast, the soft pastel colors the great fire had given as sole
compensation for all it had taken, the grotesque twisted masses of steel
and the aged gray hills that had looked down on so many fires, had
appealed powerfully to his imagination, and made him feel, when wandering
alone at night, as if his brain cells were haunted by old memories of
Antioch when Nature had annihilated in an instant what man had lavished
upon her for centuries. Nowhere, not even in what was left of ancient
Rome, had he ever received such an impression of the age of the world and
of the nothingness of man as among the ruins of this ridiculously modern
city of San Francisco. It fascinated him, but he told himself then that
he should leave it without a pang. He was a New Yorker of the seventh
generation of his house, and the rest of the United States of America was
merely incidental.

The business, a branch of the great New York firm founded in 1840 by an
ancestor grown weary of watching the broad acres of Ruyler Manor
automatically transmute themselves into the yearly rent-roll, and
reverting to the energy and merchant instincts of his Dutch ancestors,
had been conducted skillfully for the thirty years preceding the
disaster by Price's uncle, Dryden Ruyler. But the earthquake and fire in
which so many uninsured millions had vanished, had also wrecked men past
the rebounding age, and Dryden Ruyler was one of them. He might have
borne the destruction of the old business building down on Front Street,
or even the temporary stagnation of trade, but when the Pacific Union
Club disappeared in the raging furnace, and, like many of his old
cronies who had no home either in the country or out in the Western
Addition, he was driven over to Oakland for lodgings, this ghastly
climax of horrors--he escaped in a milk wagon after sleeping for two
nights without shelter on the bare hills behind San Francisco, while the
fire roared its defiance to the futile detonations of dynamite, and his
sciatica was as fiery as the atmosphere--had broken the old man's
spirit, and he had announced his determination to return to
Ruyler-on-Hudson and die as a gentleman should.

There was no question of Price's father, Morgan Ruyler, leaving New
York, even if he had contemplated the sacrifice for a moment; that his
second son and general manager of the several branches of the great
business of Ruyler and Sons--as integral a part of the ancient history
of San Francisco as of the comparatively modern history of New
York--should go, was so much a matter of course that Price had taken the
first Overland train that left New York after the receipt of his uncle's
despairing telegram.

In spite of the fortune behind him and his own expert training, the
struggle to rebuild the old business to its former standard had been
unintermittent. The terrific shock to the city's energies was followed
by a general depression, and the insane spending of a certain class of
San Franciscans when their insurance money was paid, was like a brief
last crackling in a cold stove, and, moreover, was of no help to the
wholesale houses.

But Price Ruyler, like so many of his new associates in like case, had
emerged triumphant; and with the unqualified approval and respect of the
substantial citizens of San Francisco.

It was this position he had won in a community where he had experienced
the unique sensation of being a pioneer in at the rebirth of a great
city, as well as the outdoor sports that kept him fit, that had endeared
California to Ruyler, and in time caused him whimsically to visualize New
York as a sternly accusing instead of a beckoning finger. Long before he
found time to play polo at Burlingame he had conceived a deep respect for
a climate where a man might ride horseback, shoot, drive a racing car, or
tramp, for at least eight months of the year with no menace of sudden
downpour, and hardly a change in the weight of his clothes.

To-day the rain was dashing against his windows and the wind howled about
the exposed angles of his house with that personal fury of assault with
which storms brewed out in the vast wastes of the Pacific deride the
enthusiastic baptism of a too confident explorer. All he could see of the
bay was a mad race of white caps, and dark blurs which only memory
assured him were rocky storm-beaten islands; mountain tops, so geological
tradition ran, whose roots were in an unquiet valley long since dropped
from mortal gaze.

The waves were leaping high against the old forts at the entrance to the
Golden Gate, and occasionally he saw a small craft drift perilously near
to the rocks. But he loved the wild weather of San Francisco, for he was
by nature an imaginative man and he liked to think that he would have
followed the career of letters had not the traditions of the great
commercial house of Ruyler and Sons, forced him to carry on the burden.

The men of his family had never been idlers since the recrudescence of
ancestral energy in the person of Morgan Ruyler I; it was no part of
their profound sense of aristocracy to retire on inherited or invested
wealth; they believed that your fine American of the old stock should die
in harness; and if the harness had been fashioned and elaborated by
ancestors whose portraits hung in the Chamber of Commerce, all the more
reason to keep it spic and up to date instead of letting it lapse into
those historic vaults where so many once honored names lay rotting. They
were a hard, tight-fisted lot, the Ruylers, and Price in one secluded but
cherished wing of his mind was unlike them only because his mother was
the daughter of Masefield Price and would have been an artist herself if
her scandalized husband would have consented. Morgan Ruyler IV had
overlooked his father-in-law's divagation from the orthodox standards of
his own family because he had been a spectacular financial success;
bringing home ropes of enormous pearls from India in addition to the
fantastic sums paid him by enraptured native princes. But while Morgan
Ruyler believed that rich men should work and make their sons work, if
only because an idle class was both out of place in a republic and
conducive to unrest in the masses, it was quite otherwise with women.
They were for men to shelter, and it was their sole duty to be useful in
the home, and, wherever possible, ornamental in public. Nor had he the
least faith in female talent.

Marian Ruyler had yielded the point and departed hopefully for a broader
sphere when her second and favorite son was eight. Morgan Ruyler married
again as soon as convention would permit, this time carefully selecting a
wife of the soundest New York predispositions and with a personal
admiration of Queen Victoria; and he had watched young Price like an
affectionate but inexorable parent hawk until the young man followed his
brother--a quintessential Ruyler--into the now historic firm. However, he
suffered little from anxiety. Price, too, was conservative, intensely
proud of the family traditions, an almost impassioned worker, and
unselfish as men go. Two sons in every generation must enter the firm. It
was not in the Ruyler blood to take long chances.


III

Life out here in California had been too hurried for more than fleeting
moments of self-study, but on this idle Sunday morning Price Ruyler's
perturbed mind wandered to that inner self of his to which he once had
longed to give a freer expression. It was odd that the conservative
training, the rigid traditions of his family, conventional,
old-fashioned, Puritanical, as became the best stock of New York, a stock
that in the Ruyler family had seemed to carry its own antidote for the
poisons ever seeking entrance to the spiritual conduits of the rich, had
left any place for that sentimental romantic tide in his nature which had
swept him into marriage with a girl outside of his own class; a girl of
whose family he had known practically nothing until his outraged father
had cabled to a correspondent in Paris to make investigation of the
Perrin family of Rouen, to which the girl's mother claimed to belong.

The inquiries were satisfactory; they were quite respectable,
bourgeois, silk merchants in a small way--although at least two strata
below that haute bourgeoisie which now regarded itself as the real
upper class of the République Française. A true Ruyler, however, would
have fled at the first danger signal, never have reached the point
where inquiries were in order.

California was replete with charming, beautiful, and superlatively
healthy girls; the climate produced them as it did its superabundance of
fruit, flowers, and vegetables. But they had left Price Ruyler
untroubled. He had been far more interested watching San Francisco rise
from its ruins, transformed almost overnight from a picturesque but
ramshackle city, a patchwork of different eras, into a staid metropolis
of concrete and steel, defiant alike of earthquake and fire. He had liked
the new experience of being a pioneer, which so subtly expanded his
starved ego that he had, by unconscious degrees, made up his mind to
remain out here as the permanent head of the San Francisco House; and in
time, no doubt, marry one of these fine, hardy, frank, out-of-door,
wholly unsubtle California girls. Moreover, he had found in San Francisco
several New Yorkers as well as Englishmen of his own class--notably John
Gwynne, who had thrown over one of the greatest of English peerages to
follow his personal tastes in a legislative career--all of whom had
settled down into that free and independent life from motives not
dissimilar from his own.

But he had ceased to be an untroubled spirit from the moment he met
Hélène Delano. He had gone down to Monterey for polo, and he had
forgotten the dinner to which he had brought a keen appetite, and stared
at her as she entered the immense dining room with her mother.

It was not her beauty, although that was considerable, that had summarily
transposed his gallant if cool admiration for all charming well bred
women into a submerging recognition of woman in particular; it was her
unlikeness to any of the girls he had been riding, dancing, playing golf
and tennis with during the past year and a half (for two years after his
arrival he had seen nothing of society whatever). Later that evening he
defined this dissimilarity from the American girl as the result not only
of her French blood but of her European training, her quiet secluded
girlhood in a provincial town of great beauty, where she had received a
leisurely education rare in the United States, seen or read little of the
great world (she had visited Paris only twice and briefly), her mind
charmingly developed by conscientious tutors. But at the moment he
thought that the compelling power lay in some deep subtlety of eye, her
little air of lofty aloofness, her classic small features in a small
face, and the top-heavy masses of blue black hair which she carried with
a certain naïve pride as if it were her only vanity; in her general
unlikeness to the gray-eyed fair-haired American--a type to which himself
belonged. Her only point in common with this fashionable set patronizing
Del Monte for the hour, was the ineffable style with which she wore her
perfect little white frock; an American inheritance, he assumed after he
knew her; for, as he recalled provincial French women, style was not
their strong point.

When he met her eyes some twenty minutes later, he dismissed the
impression of subtlety, for their black depths were quick with an eager
wonder and curiosity. Later they grew wistful, and he guessed that she
knew none of these smart folk, down, like himself, for the tournament;
people who were chattering from table to table like a large family. That
some of his girl acquaintances were interested in the young stranger he
inferred from speculative and appraising eyes that were turned upon her
from time to time.

Price, with some irony, wondered at their curiosity. The San Francisco
girl, he had discovered, possessed an extra sense all her own. There was
no lofty indifference about her. She had the worth-while stranger
detected and tabulated and his or her social destiny settled before the
Eastern train had disgorged its contents at the Oakland mole. And even
the immense florid mother of this lovely girl, with her own masses of
snow white hair dressed in a manner becoming her age, and a severe gown
of black Chantilly net, relieved by the merest trifle of jet, looked the
reverse of the nondescript tourist. The girl wore white embroidered silk
muslin and a thin gold chain with a small ruby pendant. She was rather
above the average height, although not as tall as her mother, and if she
were as thin as fashion commanded, her bones were so small that her neck
and arms looked almost plump. Her expressive eyes were as black as her
hair, and her only large feature. Her skin was of a quite remarkably pink
whiteness, although there was a pink color in her lips and cheeks. The
older men stared at her more persistently than the younger ones, who
liked their own sort and not girls who looked as if they might be "booky"
and "spring things on a fellow."

There was a ball in the evening and once more mother and daughter sat
apart, while the flower of San Francisco--an inclusive term for the
select circles of Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, San Mateo, far San
Rafael and Belvedere--romped as one great family. Newport, Ruyler
reflected for the twentieth time, did it no better. To the stranger
peering through the magic bars they were now as insensible as befitted
their code. These two people knew nobody and that was the end of it.


IV

But Price noted that now the girl's eyes were merely wistful, and once or
twice he saw them fill with tears. As three of the dowagers merely
sniffed when he sought possible information, he finally had recourse to
the manager of the hotel, D.V. Bimmer. They were a Madame and
Mademoiselle Delano from Rouen, and had been at the hotel for a
fortnight, not seeming to mind its comparative emptiness, but enjoying
the sea bathing and the drives. The girl rode, and went out every morning
with a groom.

"But didn't they bring any letters?" asked Ruyler. "They are ladies and
one letter would have done the business. That poor girl is having the
deuce of a time."

"D.V.," who knew "everybody" in California, and all their secrets, shook
his head. "'Fraid not. The French maid told the floor valet that although
the father was American--from New England somewheres--and the girl born
in California, accidentally as it were, she had lived in France all her
life--she's just eighteen--never crossed the ocean before. Can you beat
it? Until last month, and then they came from Hong Kong--taking a trip
round the world in good old style. The madame, who scarcely opens her
month, did condescend to tell me that she had admired California very
much when she was here before, and intended to travel all over the state.
Perhaps I met her in that far off long ago, for I was managing a hotel in
San Francisco about that time, and her face haunts me somehow--although
when features get all swallowed up by fat like that you can't locate
them. The girl, too, reminds me of some one, but of course she was in
arms when she left and as I ain't much on cathedrals I never went to
Rouen. Of course it's the old trick, bringing a pretty girl to a
fashionable watering place to marry her off, but these folks are not
poor. Not what we'd call rich, perhaps, but good and solid. I don't fall
for the old lady; she's a cool proposition or I miss my guess, but the
girl's all right. I've seen too many girls in this Mecca for adventurous
females and never made a mistake yet. I wish some of our grand dames
would extend the glad hand. But I'm afraid they won't. Terrible
exclusive, this bunch."

Ruyler scowled and walked back to the ballroom. The exclusiveness of this
young society on the wrong side of the continent sometimes made him
homesick and sometimes made him sick. He saw little chance for this poor
girl to enjoy the rights of her radiant youth if her mother had not taken
the precaution to bring letters. France was full of Californians. Many
lived there. Surely she must have met some one she could have made use
of. It was tragic to watch a pathetic young thing staring at two or three
hundred young men and maidens disporting themselves with the natural
hilarity of youth, and but few of them too ill-natured to welcome a young
and lovely stranger if properly introduced.

He experienced a desperate impulse to go up to the mother and offer
her the hospitality of the evening, ask her to regard him as her host.
But Madame Delano had a frozen eye, and no doubt orthodox French ideas
on the subject of young girls. A moment later his eye fell on Mrs.
Ford Thornton.

"Fordy" was many times a millionaire, and his handsome intelligent wife
lived the life of her class. But she was far less conservative than any
woman Price had met in San Francisco. Although she was no longer young he
had more than once detected symptoms of a wild and insurgent spirit, and
an impatient contempt for the routine she was compelled to follow or go
into retirement. She was always leaving abruptly for Europe, and every
once in a while she did something quite uncanonical; enjoying wickedly
the consternation she caused among the serenely regulated, and betraying
to the keen eyes of the New Yorker an ironic appreciation of the immense
wealth which enabled her to do as she chose, answerable to no one. Her
husband was uxorious and she had no children. She had seemed to Price
more restless than usual of late and showing unmistakable signs of abrupt
departure. (He was sure she dusted the soles of her boots as she locked
the door of drawing-room A.) Perhaps to-night she might be in a
schismatic mood.

She was standing apart, a tall, dark, almost fiercely haughty woman, but
dressed with a certain arrogant simplicity, without jewels, her hair in a
careless knot at the base of her head. There were times when she was
impeccably groomed, others when she looked as if an infuriated maid had
left her helpless. She was, as Ruyler well knew, a kind and generous
woman (in certain of her moods), with whom the dastardly cradle fates had
experimented, hoping for high drama when the whip of life snapped once
too often. Perhaps she had found her revenge as well as her consolation
in cheating them.

It was evident to Price that she had been snubbing somebody, for a group
of matrons, flushed and drawn apart, were whispering resentfully. Price
Ruyler stood in no awe of her. He could match her arrogance, and he liked
and admired her more than any of his new friends. They quarreled
furiously but she had never snubbed him.

He walked over to her, his cool gray eyes lit with the pleasure in seeing
her that she had learned to expect. "Good evening, oh, Queen of the
Pacific," he said lightly. "You are looking quite wonderful as usual. Are
you standing alone almost in the middle of the room to emphasize
the--difference?"

"I am in no mood for compliments, satiric or otherwise." She looked him
over with cool penetration. "I may not massage or have my old cuticle
ripped off. If I choose to look my age you must admit that it gives me
one more claim to originality."

"You should have let the world know long since just how original you are,
instead of settling down into the leadership of San Francisco society--"

He enjoyed provoking her. Her dark narrow eyes opened and flashed as they
must have done in their unchastened youth. "Don't dare call me the leader
of this--this!"

"Granted. But the fact remains that your word alone is law. Therefore I
am about to ask you to forget that I am a bungling diplomat and do a kind
act. For once you would be able to be both kind and original."

"I did not know you went in for charities. I am sick of shelling out."

"My only part in charities is shelling out."

"Well, come to the point. What do you want?"

"I want you to go over to that lady--Madame Delano, her name is--sitting
beside that beautiful girl, and introduce yourself and then me. They are
strangers and I'd like to give them a good time."

"How disinterested of you!" She looked the isolated couple over. "The
girl is all right, but I don't like the mother. She is well dressed--oh,
correct from tip to toe--but not quite the lady."

Ruyler's cool insolent gaze swept the dado of amiable overfed ladies who
fanned themselves against the wall.

"None of that! You know that I do not tolerate the New York attitude.
At least we know who ours are; they came into their own respectably,
and with no uncertain touch. Of course it is stupid of them to get fat.
Naturally it makes them look _bourgeoise_. But this is a lazy climate.
As to that woman: there is something about her I do not like. She is
aggressively not massaged, not made up. Only a woman of assured
position can afford to be mid-Victorian. It is now quite the smart
thing to make up."

"No doubt her position is assured in her own provincial town. It will be
easy enough to drop her if she doesn't go down. You can't deny that the
girl is all right--and a sweet pathetic figure."

"If the girl marries one of our boys--and no doubt that is what she was
brought here for--we shall not be able to get rid of the mother. We've
tried that and failed."

At that moment Ruyler's eyes met those of the girl. They flashed an
irresistible appeal. He drew a short breath. How different she looked!
She radiated a subtle promise of perfect companionship. Price Ruyler did
what all men will do until the end of time. He made up his mind that he
had found his woman and without vocal assistance.

Mrs. Thornton, who had been watching the unusual mobility of his face,
met his eyes with a satirical smile in her own, her thin red curling lips
drawn almost straight for a moment. She had played with the fancy, before
anger banished it, that if she had been twenty years younger.... Men had
fallen madly in love with her in her own day.... She detected the
symptoms in this man at once. Her savage will compelled her to accept
accumulating years without a concession. But she had forgotten nothing.

Ruyler may have read her thoughts.

"You know," he said, with an attempt at lightness, although the coast
wind tan, which was his only claim to coloring, had paled a little, "that
girl reminds me so much of you that I have made up my mind to marry her.
I don't care who she is. If you don't help me to meet her conventionally
I'll manage somehow, but I should hate to practice any subterfuges on the
woman I intend to make my wife."

For a moment he had the sensation of being pinned to the wall by that
narrow concentrated gaze. Then Mrs. Thornton swung on her heel. "I'll do
it," she said.

She walked across the room with the supple grace her slender figure had
never lost and sat down beside the older woman. In a moment the
astonished dowagers who had "suffered from her fiendish temper all
evening," saw her talking with spontaneous graciousness to both the
strangers. Madame Delano was at first more distant and reserved than Mrs.
Thornton had ever been, manifestly betraying all the suspicion and
unsocial instincts of her class; but she thawed, and the two women
chatted, while once more the girl's eyes wandered to the dancers.

When Mrs. Thornton had tormented Ruyler for quite fifteen minutes she
beckoned to him imperiously. A moment later he was whirling the girl down
the ball room and thrilling at her contact.


V

The wooing had been as headlong as his falling in love. Hélène Delano had
a deep sweet voice, which completed the conquest during the hour they
spent in the grounds under the shelter of a great palm, until hunted down
by a horrified parent.

Hélène talked frankly of her life. Her mother had been visiting relatives
in a small New England town--Holbrook Centre, she believed it was called,
but hard American names did not cling to her memory--she loved the soft
Latin and Indian names in California--and there she had met and married
her father, James Delano. They were on their way to Japan when business
detained him in San Francisco much longer than he had expected and she
was born. She believed that he had owned a ranch that he wanted to sell.
He died on the voyage across the Pacific and her mother had returned to
live among her own people in Rouen--very plain bourgeois, but of a
respectability, Oh, là! là!

"But it was a tiresome life for a young girl with American blood in her,
monsieur." Her mother's income from her husband's estate was not large,
but they lived in a wing of the old house and were very comfortable. From
her window there was a lovely view of the Seine winding off to Paris.
"Oh, monsieur, how I used to long to go to Paris! America was too far. I
never even dreamed of it. But Paris! And only two little glimpses of
it--the last when we spent a fortnight there before sailing, to get me
some nice frocks...."

She had studied hard--but hard! She knew four languages, she told Ruyler
proudly. "I had no _dot_ then, you see. It was possible I might have to
teach one day. A governess in England, Oh, là! là!"

But six months ago a good old uncle had died and left them some money.
She would have a little _dot_ now, and they could travel. Maman said she
would not have a large enough _dot_ to make a fine marriage in France,
but that the English and American men were more romantic. They went first
to the Orient, as there were many Englishmen of good family to be met
there. "But maman is difficult to please," she added with her enchanting
artlessness, "as difficult as I myself, monsieur. I wish to fall in love
like the American girls. Maman says it is not necessary, but I am half
American, so, why not? There was an English gentleman with a nice title
in Hong Kong and maman was quite pleased with him until she discovered
that he gambled or did something equally horrid and she bought our
tickets for San Francisco right away."

Yes, she was enjoying her travels, but she was a little lonesome; in
Rouen at least she had her cousins. For the first time in her life she
was talking to a young man alone; even on the steamer she was not
permitted to speak to any of the nice young men who looked as if they
would like her if only maman would relent.

"In our ugly old rooms in Rouen maman cherished me like some rare little
flower in an old earthen pot," she added quaintly. "Now the pot has
tinsel and tissue paper round it, but until to-night I have felt as if I
might just as well be an old cabbage."

But it had been heaven to dance with a young man who was not a cousin;
and to sit out alone with him in the moonlight, Oh, _grace à Dieu_!

Traveling she had read modern novels for the first time. There were many
in the ship's library, oh, but dozens! and she knew now how American and
English girls enjoyed life. Her mother had been ill nearly all the way
over. She had given her word not to speak to any one, but maman had been
ignorant of the library replete with the novelists of the day, and
although she was not untruthful, _enfin_, she saw no reason to ask her
too anxious parent for another prohibition and condemn herself to yawn
at the sea.

Ruyler proposed at the end of a week. She was the only really innocent,
unspoiled, unselfconscious girl he had ever met, almost as old-fashioned
as his great grandmother must have been. Not that he set forth her
virtues to bolster his determination to marry a girl of no family even in
her own country; he was madly in love, and life without her was
unthinkable; but he tabulated the thousand points to her credit for the
benefit of his outraged father.

He did not pretend to like Madame Delano. She was a hard, calculating,
sordid old bourgeoisie, but when he refused the little _dot_ she would
have settled upon Hélène, he knew that he had won her friendship and that
she would give him no trouble. She was not a mother-in-law to be ashamed
of, for her manners were coldly correct, her education in youth had
evidently been adequate, and in her obese way she was imposing. She gave
him to understand that she had no more desire to live with her son-in-law
than he with her, and established herself in a small suite in the Palace
Hotel. After a "lifetime" in a provincial town, economizing mercilessly,
she felt, she remarked in one of her rare expansive moments, that she had
earned the right to look on at life in a great hotel.

The rainy season she spent in Southern California, moving from one large
hotel crowded with Eastern visitors to another. This uncommon
self-indulgence and her devotion to Hélène were the only weak spots
Ruyler was able to discover in that cast-iron character. She seldom
attended the brilliant entertainments of her daughter and refused the
endowed car offered by her son-in-law. Hélène married to the best _parti_
in San Francisco and quite happy, she seemed content to settle down into
the role of the onlooker at the kaleidoscope of life. She spent eight
hours of the day and evening seated in an arm chair in the court of the
Palace Hotel, and for air rode out to the end of the California Street
car line, always on the front seat of the dummy. She was dubbed a "quaint
old party" by her new acquaintances and left to her own devices. If she
didn't want them they could jolly well do without her.


VI

Hélène's social success was immediate and permanent. Californians rarely
do things by halves. Society was no exception. She had "walked off" with
the most desirable man in town, but they were good gamblers. When they
lost they paid. She had married into "their set." They had accepted her.
She was one of them. No secret order is more loyal to its initiates.

During that first year and a half of ideal happiness Ruyler, in what
leisure he could command, found Hélène's rapidly expanding mind as
companionable as he had hoped; and the girlish dignity she never lost,
for all her naiveté and vivacity, gratified his pride and compelled, upon
their second brief visit to New York, even the unqualified approval of
his family.

She had inherited all the subtle adaptability of her father's race,
nothing of the cold and rigid narrowness of her mother's class. Price had
feared that her lively mind might reveal disconcerting shallows, but
these little voids were but the divine hiatuses of youth. He sometimes
wondered just how strong her character was. There were times when she
showed a pronounced inclination for the line of least resistance ... but
her youth ... her too sheltered bringing up ... those drab cramped
years ... no wonder....

He was glad on the whole that his was the part to mold. Nevertheless, he
had his inconsistencies. Unlike many men of strong will and driving
purpose he liked strength of character and pronounced individuality in
women; and he, too, had had fleeting visions of what life might have been
had Flora Thornton entered life twenty years later. He had been quite
sincere in telling her that the young stranger reminded him of the most
powerful personality he had met in California, and he believed that
within a reasonable time Hélène would be as variously cultivated, as
widely, if less erratically developed. But was there any such insurgent
force in her depths? It was not within the possibilities that at any time
in her life Flora Thornton had been pliable.

A man had little time to study his wife in California these days. Or at
any time? He sometimes wondered. Certainly happy marriages were rare and
divorces many. Fine weather nearly all the year round played the deuce
with domesticity, and his business could not be neglected for the long
vacation abroad to which they both had looked forward so ardently.

Sometimes, even before this vague gray mist had risen between them, he
had had moments of wondering whether he knew his wife at all. How could a
man know a woman who did not yet know herself? He sighed and wished he
had more time to explore the uncharted seas of a woman's soul.

But the cause of the change in her was something far less picturesque,
something concrete and sinister. He felt sure of that....


VII

Unless--but that was ridiculous! Impossible!

He sprang to his feet, incredulous, disgusted at the mere thought.

But why not? She was very young, and older and wiser women were afflicted
with inconsistencies, little tenacious desires and vanities never quite
to be grasped by the elemental male.

He went over to a bookcase containing heavy works of reference and
pressed his index finger into the molding. It swung outward, revealing
the door of a safe. He manipulated the combination, took from a drawer of
the interior a box, opened it and stared at a magnificent Burmah ruby. It
was or had been a royal jewel, presented to Masewell Price by one of the
great princes of India whose portrait he had painted. The pearls had all
been captured long since by Price's sisters and by Morgan V. for his
wife; but this ruby his mother had given him as she lay dying. She had
bidden him leave it in his father's safe until he was out of college, and
then keep it as closely in his personal possession as possible. It would
be turned over to him with the rest of his private fortune.

"Never let any woman wear it," she had whispered. "It brings luck to men
but not to women. Nothing could have affected my luck one way or the
other--I was born to have nothing I wanted, but you, dear little boy.
Keep it for your luck and in a safe place, but near you."

He had looked back upon this scene as he grew older as the mere
expression of a whim of dissolution, but it had made so deep an
impression upon him at the time that insensibly the words sank into his
plastic mind creating a superstition that refused to yield to reason. The
ruby was Hélène's birthstone and she was passionately fond of it. She had
begged and coaxed to wear this jewel, and upon one occasion had stamped
her little foot and sulked throughout the evening. He had given her a
ruby bar, had the clasp of her pearl necklace set with rabies, and last
Christmas had presented her with a small but fine "pigeon blood"
encircled with diamonds. These had enraptured her for the moment, but she
had always circled back to the historic stone, over which her indulgent
husband was so unaccountably obstinate.

Until lately. He recalled that for several months she had not mentioned
it. Could she have been indulging in a prolonged attack of interior
sulks, which affected her spirits, dimmed her radiant personality? He
abominated the idea but admitted the possibility. She would not be the
first person to be the victim of a secret but furious passion for jewels.
He recalled a novel of Hichens; not the matter but the central idea.
Authors of other races had used the same motive. Well, if his wife had an
abnormal streak in her the sooner he found out the truth the better.

He closed the door of the safe, swung the bookcase into place, slipped
the ruby with its curious gold chain that looked massive but hardly
weighed an ounce, into his pocket, rang for a servant and told him to ask
Mrs. Ruyler to come down to the library as soon as she was dressed.



CHAPTER II


I

Ruyler sighed as he heard his wife walk down the hall. There had been a
time when she came running like a child at his summons, but in these days
she walked with a leisurely dignity which to his possibly morbid ear
betrayed a certain crab-like disposition in her little high heels to slip
backward along the polished floor.

She came in smiling, however, and kissed him quickly and warmly. Her
extraordinary hair hung down in two long braids, their blue blackness
undulating among the soft folds of her thin pink negligée. For the first
time Ruyler realized that pink was Hélène's favorite color; she seldom
wore anything else except white or black, and then always relieved with
pink. And why not, with that deep pink blush in her white cheeks, and the
velvet blackness of her eyes? People still raved over Hélène Ruyler's
"coloring," and Price told himself once more as she stood before him, her
little head dragged back by the weight of her plaits, her slender throat
crossed by a narrow line of black velvet, that he had married one of the
most beautiful girls he had ever seen.

He was seized with a sudden sharp pang of jealousy and caught her in his
arms roughly, his gray eyes almost as black as hers.

"Tell me," he exclaimed, and the new fear almost choked him, "does any
other man interest you--the least little bit?"

She stared at him and then burst into the most natural laugh he had heard
from her for months. "That is simply too funny to talk about."

"But I am able to give you so little of my time. Working or tired out at
night--letting you go out so much alone--but I haven't the heart to
insist that you yawn over a book, while I am shut up here, or too fagged
to talk even to you. Life is becoming a tragedy for business men--if
they've got it in them to care for anything else."

"Well, don't add to the tragedy by cultivating jealousy. I've told you
that I am perfectly willing to give up Society and sit like Dora holding
your pens--or filling your fountain pen--no, you dictate. What chance has
a woman in a business man's life?"

"None, alas, except to look beautiful and be happy. Are you that?--the
last I mean, of course!"

She nestled closer to him and laughed again. "More so than ever. To be
frank you have completed my happiness by being jealous. I have wondered
sometimes if it were a compliment--your being so sure of me."

"That's my idea of love."

"Well, it's mine, too. But if you want me to stay home--"

"Oh, no! You are fond of society? Really, I mean? Why shouldn't you
be?--a young thing--"

"What else is there? Of course, I should enjoy it much more if you were
always with me. Shall we never have that year in Europe together?"

"God knows. Something is wrong with the world. It needs
reorganizing--from the top down. It is inhuman, the way even rich men
have to work--to remain rich! But sit down."

He led her over to a chair before the window. The storm was decreasing in
violence, the heavy curtain of rain was no longer tossed, but falling in
straight intermittent lines, and the islands were coming to life. Even
the high and heavy crest of Mount Tamalpais was dimly visible.

"It is the last of the storms, I fancy. Spring is overdue," said Price,
who, however, was covertly watching his wife's face. Her color had faded
a little, her lids drooped over eyes that stared out at the still
turbulent waters.

"I love these San Francisco storms," she said abruptly. "I am so glad we
have these few wild months. But Mrs. Thornton has worried and so have we.
Her fête at San Mateo comes off on the fourteenth, the first
entertainment she has given since her return, and it would be ghastly if
it rained. It should be a wonderful sight--those grounds--everybody in
fancy dress with little black velvet masks. Don't you think you can go?"

"The fourteenth? I'll try to make it. Who are you to be?"

"Beatrice d'Este--in a court gown of black tissue instead of velvet, with
just a touch of pink--oh, but a wonderful creation! I designed it myself.
We are not bothering too much about historical accuracy."

"How would you like this for the touch of pink!" He took the immense ruby
from his pocket and tossed it into her lap.

For a moment she stared at it with expanding eyes, then gave a
little shriek of rapture and flung herself into his arms, the child
he had married.

"Is it true? But true? Shall I wear this wonderful thing? The women will
die of jealousy. I shall feel like an empress--but more, more, I shall
wear this lovely thing--I, I, Hélène Ruyler, born Perrin, who never had a
franc in her pocket in Rouen! Price! Have you changed your mind--but no!
I cannot believe it."

That was it then! He watched her mobile face sharply. It expressed
nothing but the excited rapture of a very young woman over a magnificent
toy. There was none of the morbid feverish passion he had dreadfully
anticipated. His spirits felt lighter, although he sighed that a bauble,
even if it were one of the finest of its kind in the world, should have
projected its sinister shadow between them. It had a wicked history. But
Hélène saw no shadows. She held it up to the light, peered into it as it
lay half concealed in the cup of her slender white hands, fondled it
against her cheek, hung the chain about her neck.

"How I have dreamed of it," she murmured. "How did you come to change
your mind?"

"I thought it a pity such a fine jewel should live forever in a safe; and
it will become you above all women. Nature must have had you in her eye
when she designed the ruby. I had a sudden vision ... and made up my mind
that you should wear it the first time I was able to take you to a party.
I must keep the letter of my promise."

"And I can only wear it when you are with me?"

"I am afraid so."

"I'm you, if there is anything in the marriage ceremony." Then she kissed
him impulsively. "But I won't be a little pig. And I can tell everybody
between now and the Thornton fête that I am going to wear it, and I can
think and dream of my triumph meanwhile. But why didn't you let me know
you were down? It is Sunday, our only day. I overslept shockingly. I
didn't get home till two."

"Two? Do you dance until two every night?"

"What else? They lead such a purposeless life out here. We sometimes have
classes--but they don't last long. I have almost forgotten that I once
had a serious mind. But what would you? It is either society or suffrage.
I won't be as serious as that yet. I mean to be young--but young! for
five more years. Then I shall become a 'leader,' or vote for the
President, or ride on a float in a suffrage parade dressed as the Goddess
of Liberty, with my hair down."

He laughed, more and more relieved. "Yes, please remain young until you
are twenty-five. By that time I hope the world will have adjusted itself
and I shall have the leisure to companion you. Meanwhile, be a child. It
is very refreshing to me. Come. I must lock this thing up. I have an
interview here with Spaulding in about ten minutes."

She gave it up reluctantly, kissing it much as she had kissed him during
their engagement; warm, lingering, but almost impersonal kisses. The ruby
seemed miraculously to have restored her beaten youth.

She sat on the edge of a chair as he opened the safe and placed the jewel
in its box and drawer.

"There is one other thing I wanted to ask," he said as he rose. "Is your
allowance sufficient? It has sometimes occurred to me that you wanted
more--for some feminine extravagance."

The light went out of her face. He wondered whimsically if he had locked
it in with the ruby, and once more he was conscious that something
intangible floated between them. But she looked at him squarely with her
shadowed eyes.

"Oh, one could spend any amount, of course, but I really have
quite enough."

"You shall have double your present allowance when these cursed times
improve. And I have always intended to settle a couple of hundred
thousand on you--a quarter of a million--as soon as I could realize
without loss on certain investments. But one day I want you to be quite
independent."

Her eyes had opened very wide. "A quarter of a million? And it would be
all my own? I could do anything with it I liked?"

"Well--I think I should put it in trust. I haven't much faith in the
resistance of your sex to tempting investments promising a high rate of
interest."

"I have heard you say that when rich men die the amount of worthless
stock found in their safe deposit boxes passes belief."

"Quite true. But that is hardly an argument in favor of trusting an even
more inexperienced sex with large sums of money."

She laughed, but less naturally than when he had been seized with an
unwonted spasm of jealousy. "You will always get the best of me in an
argument," she said with her exquisite politeness. "Really, I think I
love being wholly dependent upon you. Here comes your detective. What
a bore. But at least we lunch together if we do have company. And
thank you, thank you a thousand times for promising I shall wear the
ruby at last."

She slipped her hand into his for a second, then left the room, smiling
over her shoulder, as the locally celebrated "Jake" Spaulding entered.
Both Ruyler and his general manager had thought it best to have their
cashier watched. There were rumors of gambling and other road house
diversions, and they proposed to save their man to the firm, if possible;
if not, to discharge him before he followed the usual course and involved
Ruyler and Sons in the loss of thousands they could ill afford to spare.



CHAPTER III


I

On the following day Ruyler, who had looked upon the whirlwind of passion
that had swept him into a romantic and unworldly marriage, as likely to
remain the one brief drama of his prosaic business man's life, began
dimly to apprehend that he was hovering on the edge of a sinister and
complicated drama whose end he could as little foresee as he could escape
from the hand of Fate that was pushing him inexorably forward. When Fate
suddenly begins to take a dramatic interest in a man whose course has run
like a yacht before a strong breeze, she precipitates him toward one half
crisis after another in order to confuse his mental powers and render him
wholly a puppet for the final act. These little Earth histrionics are
arranged no doubt for the weary gods, who hardly brook a mere mortal
rising triumphantly above the malignant moods of the master playwright.

He lunched at the Pacific Union Club and caught the down-town California
Street cable car as it passed, finding his favorite seat on the left side
of the "dummy" unoccupied. He was thinking of Hélène, a little
disappointed, but on the whole vastly relieved, congratulating himself
that, no longer haunted, he could give his mind wholly to the important
question of the merger he contemplated with a rival house that had limped
along since the disaster, but had at last manifested its willingness to
accept the offer of Ruyler and Sons.

It was a moment before he realized that his mother-in-law occupied the
front seat across the narrow space, and even before he recognized that
large bulk, he had registered something rigid and tense in its muscles;
strained in its attitude. When he raised his eyes to the face he found
himself looking at the right cheek instead of the left, and it was
pervaded by a sickly green tint quite unlike Madame Delano's florid
color. She was listening to a man who sat just behind her on the long
seat that ran the length of the dummy. Although the day was clear, there
was still a sharp wind and no one else sat outside.

Ruyler knew the man by sight. Before the fire he had owned some of the
most disreputable houses in the district the car would pass on its way to
the terminus. The buildings were uninsured, and he had made his living
since as a detective. Even his political breed had gone out of power in
the new San Francisco, but he was well equipped for a certain type of
detective work. He had a remarkable memory for faces and could pierce any
disguise, he was as persistent as a ferret, and his knowledge of the
underworld of San Francisco was illimitable. But his chief assets were
that he looked so little like a detective, and that, so secretive were
his methods, his calling was practically unknown. He had set up a cheap
restaurant with a gambling room behind at which the police winked,
although pretending to raid him now and again. He was a large soft man
with pendulous cheeks streaked with red, a predatory nose, and a black
overhanging mustache. His name was 'Gene Bisbee, and there was a
tradition that in his younger days he had been handsome, and irresistible
to the women who had made his fortune.

Ruyler was absently wondering what his haughty mother-in-law could have
to say to such a man when to his amazement Bisbee planted his elbow in
the pillow of flesh just below Madame Delano's neck, and said easily:

"Oh, come off, Marie. I'd know you if you were twenty years older and
fifty pounds heavier--and that's going some. Bimmer and two or three
others are not so sure--won't bet on it--for twenty years, and, let me
see--you weighed about a hundred and thirty-five--perfect figger--in the
old days. Must weigh two seventy-five now. That makes one forty-five
pounds extra. Well, that and time, and white hair, would change pretty
near any woman, particularly one with small features. You look a real old
lady, and you can't be mor'n forty-five. How did you manage the white
hair? Bleach?"

Ruyler felt his heart turn over. The frozen blood pounded in his brain
and distended his own muscles, his mouth unclosed to let his breath
escape. Then he became aware that the woman had recovered herself and
moved forward, displacing the familiar elbow. She turned imperiously to
the motorman.

"Stop at the corner," she said. "And if this man attempts to follow me
please send back a policeman. He is intoxicated."

The car stopped at the corner of the street opposite the site of the
old Saint Mary's Cathedral, a street where once had been that row of
small and evil cottages where French women, painted, scantily dressed
in a travesty of the evening gown, called to the passer-by through the
slats of old-fashioned green shutters. That had been before Ruyler's
day, but he knew the history of the neighborhood, and this man's
interest in it. He was not surprised to hear Bisbee laugh aloud as
Madame Delano, who stepped off the car with astonishing agility,
waddled down the now respectable street. But she held her head
majestically and did not look back.

Ruyler squared his back lest the man, glancing over, recognize him. That
would be more than he could bear. As the car reached Front Street he
sprang from the dummy and walked rapidly north to Ruyler and Sons. He
locked himself in his private office, dismissing his stenographer with
the excuse that he had important business to think out and must not be
disturbed.


II

But business was forgotten. He was as nearly in a state of panic as was
possible for a man of his inheritance and ordered life. He belonged to
that class of New Yorker that looked with cold disgust upon the women of
commerce. So far as he knew he had never exchanged a word with one of
them, and had often listened with impatience to the reminiscences of his
San Francisco friends, now married and at least intermittently decent, of
the famous ladies who once had reigned in the gay night life of San
Francisco.

And his mother-in-law! The mother of his wife!

Her name was Marie. In that chaos of flesh an interested eye might
discover the ruins of beauty. Her hair, he knew, had been black. He
recalled the terror expressed in every line of that mountainous
figure--which may well have been perfect twenty years ago. The green
pallor of her cheek! And he had long felt, rather than knew, that she
possessed magnificent powers of bluff. Her dignified exit had been no
more convincing to him than to Bisbee.

He went back over the past and recalled all he knew of the woman whose
daughter he had married. She had visited the United States about
twenty-one years ago, met and married Delano, and remained in San
Francisco two or three months on their way to Japan. Delano had died on
the voyage across the Pacific, been buried at sea, and his widow had
returned to her family in Rouen and settled down in her brother's
household.

This was practically all he knew, for it was all that Hélène knew, and
Madame Delano never wasted words. It had not occurred to him to question
her. Their status in Rouen was established, and if not distinguished it
was indubitably respectable and not remotely suggestive of mystery.

Price, convinced that Hélène's father must have been a gentleman,
recalled that he had asked her one day to tell him something of the
Delanos, but his wife had replied vaguely that she believed her
mother had been too sad to talk about him for a long while, and then
probably had got out of the habit. She knew nothing more than she
already had told him.

It came back to him, however, that several times his wife's casual
references to the past, and particularly regarding her parents, had not
dove-tailed, but that he had dismissed the impression; attributing it to
some lapse in his own attention. He had a bad habit of listening and
thinking out a knotty business problem at the same time. And there is a
curious inhibition in loyal minds which forbids them to put two and two
together until suspicion is inescapably aroused.

He had a very well ordered mind, furnished with innumerable little pigeon
holes, which flew open at the proper vibration from his admirable memory.
He concentrated this memory upon a little bureau of purely personal
receptacles and before long certain careless phrases of his wife stood in
a neat row.

She had mentioned upon one occasion that she thought she must have been
about five when she arrived in Rouen, and remembered her first impression
of the Cathedral as well as the boats on the Seine at night. And Cousin
Pierre had taken her up the river one Sunday to the church on the height
which had been built for a statue of the Virgin that had been excavated
there, and bade her kneel and pray at this station for what she wished
most. She had prayed for a large wax doll that said papa and mama, and
behold, it had arrived the next day.

Madame Delano had told him unequivocally that she had gone directly to
Rouen after her husband's death ... but again, although Hélène
remembered arriving in Rouen with her mother, she must have been left
for a time elsewhere, for Hélène had another memory--of a convent, where
she had tarried for what seemed a very long time to her childish mind.
Could she have been sent to a convent from the house in Rouen when she
was so little that her memories of that first sojourn were confused? And
why? The family had apparently been fond of "la petite Americaine," and
even if her devoted mother had been obliged to leave her for several
years it is doubtful if they would have sent so young a child to a
convent. Rack his memory as he would he could recall no allusion to such
a journey, to any separation between mother and child after they were
established in Rouen.

But he did remember one of Madame Delano's few references to the past,
which might suggest that she had left the child somewhere while she went
home to make peace with her family to get her bearings. Her brother had
not approved of her marrying an American. "But," she had added
graciously, "you see I had no such prejudice. Neither now nor then. James
was the best of husbands."

"James!" "Jim."

He had heard the name Jim as he boarded the dummy, uttered in extremely
familiar accents; by Bisbee, of course. Yes, and something else. "We all
felt bad when he croaked."

His feverishly alert memory darted to another pigeon hole and exhumed
another treasure. Some ten or twelve months ago he had been obliged to go
to a northern county on business that involved buying up smaller
concerns, and would keep him away for a fortnight or more. He had taken
Hélène, and as they were motoring through one of the old towns she had
leaned forward with a little gasp exclaiming:

"How exactly like! If I didn't know that I had never been in California
before except merely to be born here I could vow that is where I lived
with the dear nuns."

He had asked idly: "Where was your convent?" and she had shaken her head.
"Maman says I never was in a convent, that I dreamed it." She had lifted
to Ruyler a puzzled face. "I remember she punished me once, when I was
about seven and persisted in talking about the convent--I suppose I had
forgotten it for a time in the new life, and something brought it back to
me. But it is the most vivid memory of my childhood. Do you think I could
have been one of those uncanny children that live in a dream world? I
hope not. I like to think I am quite normal and full to the brim of
common sense." He had laughed and told her not to worry. He had lived in
a dream world himself when he was little.

The conviction grew upon him as he sat there that Hélène had spent the
first five years of her life at the Ursuline Convent in St. Peter. What
had her mother--young and beautiful--been doing during those years, the
years of a mother's most anxious devotion and pleasurable interest? He
searched his memory for Club reminiscences of a Marie Delano of twenty
years earlier, or less. No such name rewarded his mental explorations,
and Marie Delano was not a name likely to escape.

He exclaimed aloud at his stupidity. The astute French woman was hardly
likely to return to the scene of her former triumphs with an innocent
young daughter and an infamous name. Nor, apparently, had she carried it
to Rouen after she had manifestly foresworn vice for the sake of her
child, even to the length of resigning herself to the dullness of a
provincial town.

But "Jim"? Her husband? Could Bisbee have referred to some other Jim who
had "croaked" recently? Such women have more than one Jim in their
voluminous lives.

Ruyler had that order of mental temperament to which dubiety is the
one unendurable condition; he had none of that cowardice which
postpones an unpleasant solution until the inevitable moment. Whatever
this hideous mystery he would solve it as quickly as possible and then
put it out of his life. Beyond question poor Hélène was the victim of
blackmail; that was the logical explanation of her ill-concealed
anxiety--misery, no doubt!

He wished she had had the courage to come directly to him, but it was
idle to expect the resolution of a woman of thirty in a child of twenty.
It was apparent that she had even tried to shield her mother, for that
Madame Delano had been caught unaware to-day was indisputable.

What incredible impudence--or courage?--to return here! There were other
resorts in the South and on the Eastern Coast where a pretty girl might
reap the harvest of innocent and lovely youth.

Once more his mind abruptly focused itself.

Shortly after his marriage Madame Delano had asked him casually if he
could inform her as to the reliability of a certain firm of lawyers,
Lawton, Cross and Co. She "thought of buying a ranch," and the firm had
been suggested to her by some one or other of these rich people. She also
wished to make a will.

He had replied as casually that it was a leading firm, and forgotten the
incident promptly. He recalled now that several times he had seen his
mother-in-law coming out of the Monadnock Building, where this firm had
its offices. He had upon one occasion met her in the lift and she had
explained with unaccustomed volubility that she was still thinking of
buying a ranch, possibly in Napa County. She understood that quite a
fortune might be made in fruit, and it would be a diverting interest for
her old age. Possibly she might encourage a favorite nephew to come out
and help her run it.

Ruyler, who had been absorbed in his own affairs and hated the sight of
any woman during business hours, had felt like telling her that if she
wanted to sink her money in a ranch, that was as good a way to get rid of
it as any, but had merely nodded and left the elevator. He was not the
man to give any one unasked advice and be snubbed for his pains.

If "Jim" was her husband and had "croaked" some two years since, what
more natural than that she had been obliged to come to California and
settle his estate? Lawton and Cross would keep her secret, as California
lawyers, with or without blackmail, had kept many others; perhaps she was
an old friend of Lawton's. He had been a "bird" in his time.

Undoubtedly this was the solution. Otherwise she never would have risked
the return to San Francisco, even with her changed appearance.


III

It was time to dismiss speculation and proceed to action. He rang up
detective headquarters and asked Jake Spaulding to come to him at once.

Spaulding began: "But the matter ain't ripe yet, boss. Nothin' doin'
last night--"

But Ruyler cut him short. "Please come immediately--no, not here. Meet me
at Long's."

He left the building and walked rapidly to a well-known bar where
estimable citizens, even when impervious to the seductions of cocktail
and highball, often met in private soundproof rooms to discuss momentous
deals, or invoke the aid of detectives whose appearance in home or office
might cause the wary bird to fly away.

The detective did not drink, so Ruyler ordered cigars, and a few moments
later Spaulding strolled in. His physical movements always belied his
nervous keen face. He was the antithesis of 'Gene Bisbee. All honest men
compelled to have dealings with him liked and trusted him. A rich man
could confide a disgraceful predicament to his keeping without fear of
blackmail, and a poor man, if his cause were interesting, might command
his services with a nominal fee. He loved the work and regarded himself
as an artist, inasmuch as he was exercising a highly cultivated gift, not
merely pursuing a lucrative profession. He sometimes longed, it is true,
for worthier objects upon which to lavish this gift, and he found them a
few years later when the world went to war. He was one of the most
valuable men in the Federal Secret Service before the end of 1915.

"What's up?" he asked, as he took possession of the most comfortable
chair in the little room and lit a cigar. "You look as if you hadn't
slept for a week, and you were lookin' fine yesterday."

"Do you mind if I only half confide in you? It's a delicate matter. I'd
like to ask you a few questions and may possibly ask you to find the
answer to several others."

"Fire away. Curiosity is not my vice. I'll only call for a clean breast
if I find I can't work in the dark."

"Thanks. Do--do you remember any woman of the town named--Marie Delano?"
He swallowed hard but brought it out. "Who may have flourished here
fifteen or twenty years ago?"

Spaulding knew that Ruyler's wife had been named Delano, but he refrained
from whistling and fixed his sharp honest blue eyes on the opposite wall.

"Nope. Sounds fancy enough, but she was no Queen of the Red Light
District in S.F."

"I was convinced she could not have been known under that name. Do you
know of any woman of that sort who was married--possibly--to a man whose
first name was James--Jim--and who left abruptly, while she was still
young and handsome, just about fifteen years ago?"

"Lord, that's a poser! Do you mean to say she married and retired--landed
some simp? They do once in a while. Could tell you queer things about
certain ancestries in this old town."

"No--I don't think that was it. I have reason to think she had been
married for at least six years before she left. Can't you think of any
Marie who was married to a Jim--in--in that class of life?"

"I was pretty much of a kid fifteen years ago, but I can recall quite a
few Maries and even more Jims. But the Jims were much too wary to marry
the Maries. Try it again, partner. Let us approach from another angle.
What did your Marie look like?"

"She must have been tall--uncommonly tall--with black hair and small
features; black eyes that must have been large at that time.
I--I--believe she had a very fine figure."

"What nationality?"

"French."

The detective recrossed his legs. "French. Oh, Lord! The town was fairly
overrun with them. Made you think there was nothing in all this talk
about gay Paree. All the ladybirds seemed to have taken refuge here. You
have no idea of her last name!"

"It might have been Perrin."

"Never. Not after she got here and set up in business. More likely
Lestrange or Delacourt--"

"Was there a Delacourt?"

"Not that I remember. I don't see light anywhere. Of course it won't take
me twenty-four hours to get hold of the history and appearance of every
queen who was named Marie fifteen years ago, and your description helps a
lot. Records were burned, but some of the older men on the force are
walking archives. For the matter of that you might draw out some old
codger in your club and get as much as I can give you--"

"Rather not! I think I'll have to give you my confidence."

"Much the shortest and straightest route. Just fancy you're takin' a
nasty dose of medicine for the good of your health. I guess this is a
case where I can't work in the dark."

"Have you ever noticed an elderly woman, seated in the court of the
Palace Hotel--immensely stout?"

"I should say I had. One of the sights of S.F. Why--of course--she's your
mother-in-law!"

"Has there been any talk about her!"

"Some comment on her size. And her childlike delight in watchin'
the show."

"Nothing else? No one has claimed to recognize her?"

Spaulding sat up straight, his nose pointing. "Recognize her? What
d'you mean?"

"I mean that I overheard a conversation--one-sided--to-day on the
California Street dummy, in which Bisbee accused Madame Delano
practically of what I have told you. At least that is the way I
interpreted it. He called her Marie, alluded in an unmistakable manner to
a disgraceful past in which he had known her intimately, and was
confident that he recognized her in spite of her flesh and white hair. I
am positive that she recognized him, although she was clever enough not
to reply."

"Jimminy! The plot thickens. That scoundrel never forgot a face in his
life. I don't train with him--not by a long sight--so if there's been any
talk in his bunch, I naturally wouldn't have heard it. You say her name
is Marie now?"

"Yes."

"And Perrin is her real name?"

"She comes of a well-known family of Rouen of that name. She lived there
with her child for at least thirteen years before her return to
California. Of that I am certain. Her daughter is now twenty. I wish to
know where she kept that child during the first five years of its life. I
have reason to think it was in the Ursuline Convent at St. Peter."

"That's easy settled. And you think the father's first name was Jim?"

"She told me that his name was James Delano. Also that he died within the
first year of their marriage, when the child was two months old, during
the voyage to Japan. That may be, but I can see no reason for her
returning here unless he died more recently and the settlement of his
estate demanded her presence."

"Pretty good reasoning, particularly if you are sure she stayed here
until the child was five. Some of them have pretty decent instincts. She
may have made up her mind to give the kid a chance, and returned to her
relations. Of course we must assume that they knew nothing of her life."

"I am positive they did not. But there had been some sort of
estrangement. I have been given to understand that it was because she
married an American. Of course she may not have written to them at all
for six or seven years. Her story is that she was visiting other
relatives in a place called Holbrook Centre, Vermont, and met this man
and married him. Then that he was detained by business in San Francisco
for several months, and the child born here."

"Good commonplace story. Just the sort that is never questioned. Of
course if she did not correspond with her family during all that time she
could adopt any name for her return to respectability that she chose.
Delano wasn't it? That's certain. What line do you intend to take? After
I've delivered the facts?"

"My object is to have the child's legitimacy established, if possible,
then see that Madame Delano leaves California forever. I think that she
could be terrified by a threat of blackmail. I can't imagine the mere
chance of recognition worrying her, for I should say she had as much
courage as presence of mind. But her passion is money. If she thought
there was any danger of being forced to hand over what she has I fancy
she would get out as quickly as possible. She is an intelligent woman and
I imagine she has taken a sardonic pleasure in sitting out in full view
of San Francisco, and getting away with it."

"And marrying her girl to the greatest catch in California," thought the
detective, but he said:

"I believe you're dead right, although, of course, there may be nothing
in it. Even 'Gene Bisbee might be mistaken, pryin' a gazelle out of an
elephant like that. Now, tell me all you know."

When Ruyler had covered every point Spaulding nodded. "It's possible this
Jim was the maquereau and she made him marry her for the sake of the
child. Doubt if the date can be proved except through the lawyers, and it
will be hard to make them talk. Of course if there is a Holbrook Centre
and she was married there--but I have my doubts. The point is that he
evidently married her if she is settlin' up his estate. I'll find out
what Jims have died within the last three years or so. That's easy. The
direct route to the one we want is through St. Peter. I'll go up
to-night."

"And you'll report to-morrow?"

"Yep. Meet me here at six P.M. Lucky the man seems to have died after
the fire. I'll set some one on the job of searching death records
right away."



CHAPTER IV


I

Ruyler had half promised to go to a dinner that night at the house of
John Gwynne, whose wife would chaperon his wife afterward to the last of
the Assembly dances.

Gwynne was his English friend who had abandoned the ancient title
inherited untimely when he was making a reputation in the House of
Commons, and become an American citizen in California, where he had a
large ranch originally the property of an American grandmother. His
migration had been justified in his own eyes by his ready adaptation to
the land of his choice and to the opportunities offered in the rebuilding
of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire, as well as in the
renovation of its politics. He had made his ranch profitable, read law as
a stepping-stone to the political career, and had just been elected to
Congress. Ruyler was one of his few intimate friends and had promised to
go to this farewell dinner if possible. A place would be kept vacant for
him until the last minute.

Gwynne had married Isabel Otis[A], a Californian of distinguished beauty
and abilities, whose roots were deep in San Francisco, although she had
"run a ranch" in Sonoma County. The Gwynnes and the Thorntons until
Ruyler met Hélène had been the friends whose society he had sought most
in his rare hours of leisure, and he had spent many summer week-ends at
their country homes. He had hoped that the intimacy would deepen after
his marriage, but Hélène during the past year had gone almost exclusively
with the younger set, the "dancing squad"; natural enough considering her
age, but Ruyler would have expected a girl of so much intelligence, to
say nothing of her severe education, to have tired long since of that
artificial wing of society devoted solely to froth, and gravitated
naturally toward the best the city afforded. But she had appeared to like
the older women better at first than later, although she accepted their
invitations to large dinners and dances.

[Footnote A: See "Ancestors."]

Ruyler made up his mind to attend this dinner at Gwynne's, and telephoned
his acceptance before he left Long's. Business or no business, he should
be his wife's bodyguard hereafter. There were blackmailers in society as
out of it, and it was possible that his ubiquity would frighten them off.
Whether to demand his wife's confidence or not he was undecided. Better
let events determine.


II

When he arrived at home he went directly to Hélène's room, but paused
with his hand on the knob of the door. He heard his mother-in-law's voice
and she was the last person he wished to meet until he was in a position
to tell her to leave the country. He was turning away impatiently when
Madame Delano lifted her hard incisive tones.

"And you promised me!" she exclaimed passionately. "I trusted you, I
never believed--"

Price retreated hurriedly to his own room, and it was not until he
had taken a cold shower and was half dressed that he permitted
himself to think.

That wretch had known, then! It was she who had been blackmailing her
daughter. And the poor child had been afraid to confide in him, to ask
him for money. No wonder her eyes had flashed at the prospect of a
fortune of her own....

An even less welcome ray illuminated his mind at this point. His wife was
not unversed in the arts of dissimulation herself. True, she was French
and took naturally to diplomatic wiles; true, also, the instinct of
self-preservation in even younger members of a sex that man in his
centuries of power had made, superficially, the weaker, was rarely inert.

What woman would wish her husband to know disgraceful ancestral secrets
which were no fault of hers? A much older woman would not be above
entombing them, if the fates were kind. But it saddened him to think that
his wife should be rushed to maturity along the devious way. Poor child,
he must win her confidence as quickly as his limping wits would permit
and shift her burden to his own shoulders.

Having learned through the medium of the house telephone that his
mother-in-law had departed, he knocked at his wife's door. She opened it
at once and there was no mark of agitation on her little oval face under
its proudly carried crown of heavy braids. She was looking very lovely in
a severe black velvet gown whose texture and depth cunningly matched her
eyes and threw into a relief as artful the white purity of her skin and
the delicate pink of lip and cheek.

She smiled at him brilliantly. "It can't be true that you are
going with me?"

"I've reformed. I shall go with you everywhere from this time forth. But
I thought I heard your mother's voice when I came in--"

"She often comes in about dressing time to see me in a new frock. How
heavenly that you will always go with me." Her voice shook a little and
she leaned over to smooth a possible wrinkle in her girdle.

"Will you come down to the library? We are rather early."

He went directly to the safe and took out the ruby and clasped the chain
about her neck. The chain was long and the great jewel took a deeper and
more mysterious color from the somber background of her bodice.

Hélène gasped. "Am I to wear it to-night? That would be too wonderful.
This is the last great night in town."

"Why not? I shall be there to mount guard. You shall always wear it when
I am able to go out with you."

She lifted her radiant face, although it remained subtly immobile with a
new and almost formal self-possession. "I am even more delighted than I
was yesterday, for at the fête there will be so much novelty to distract
attention. You always think of the nicest possible things."

When they were in the taxi he put his arm about her.

"I wonder," he began gropingly, "if you would mind not going out when I
cannot go with you? I'll go as often as I can manage. There are
reasons--"

He felt her light body grow rigid. "Reasons? You told me only
yesterday--"

"I know. But I have been thinking it over. That is rather a fast lot you
run with. I know, of course, they are F.F.C.'s, and all the rest of it,
but if I ever drove up to the Club House in Burlingame in the morning and
saw you sitting on the veranda smoking and drinking gin fizzes--"

"You never will! I could not swallow a gin fizz, or any nasty mixed
drink. And although I have had my cigarette after meals ever since I was
fifteen, I never smoke in public."

"I confess I cannot see you in the picture that rose for some perverse
reason in my mind; but--well, you really are too young to go about so
much without your husband--"

"I am always chaperoned to the large affairs. Mrs. Gwynne takes me to the
Fairmont to-night."

"I know. But scandal is bred in the marrow of San Francisco. Its social
history is founded upon it, and it is almost a matter of principle to
replace decaying props. Do you mind so much not going about unless I can
be with you?"

"No, of course not." Her voice was sweet and submissive, but her body did
not relax. She added graciously: "After all, there are so many luncheons,
and we often dance in the afternoon."

He had not thought of that! What avail to guard her merely in the
evening? It was not her life that was in danger....

And he seemed as immeasurably far from obtaining her confidence as
before. He had always understood that the ways of matrimonial diplomacy
were strewn with pitfalls and wished that some one had opened a school
for married men before his time.

He made another clumsy attempt. The cab was swift and had almost covered
the long distance between the Western Addition and Russian Hill. "Other
things have worried me. You are so generous. Society here as elsewhere
has its parasites, its dead beats, trying to limp along by borrowing,
gambling, 'amusing,' doing dirty work of various sorts. It has worried me
lest one or more of these creatures may have tried to impose on you with
hard luck tales--borrow--"

She laughed hysterically. "Price, you are too funny! I do lend
occasionally--to the girls, when their allowance runs out before the
first of the month; but I don't know any dead beats."

He plunged desperately. "Your mother's voice sounded rather agitated for
her. Of course I did not stop to listen, but it occurred to me that she
may have been gambling in stocks, or have got into some bad land deal.
She is so confoundedly close-mouthed--if she wants money send her to me."

Hélène sat very straight. Her little aquiline profile against the passing
street lights was as aloof as imperial features on an ancient coin.

"Really, Price, I don't think you can be as busy as you pretend if you
have time to indulge in such flights of imagination. Maman has never
tried to borrow a penny of me, and she is the last person on earth to
gamble in stocks or any thing else. Or to buy land except on expert
advice. I think she has given up that idea, anyhow. She said this evening
she thought it was time for her to visit our people in Rouen."

"Oh, she did! Hélène, I must tell you frankly that I heard her reproach
you for having broken a promise, and she spoke with deep feeling."

It was possible that the Roman profile turned white, but in the dusk of
the car he could not be sure. His wife, however, merely shrugged her
shoulders and replied calmly:

"My dear Price, if that has worried you, why didn't you say so at once? I
am rather ashamed to tell you, all the same. Maman has been at me lately
to persuade you to let her have the ruby for a week. She is dreadfully
superstitious, poor maman, and is convinced it would bring her some
tremendous good fortune--"

"I have never met a woman who, I could swear, was freer from
superstition--"

Price closed his lips angrily. Of what use to tax her feminine defenses
further? He had known her long enough to be sure she would rather tell
the truth than lie. It was evident that she had no intention of lowering
her barriers, and he must play the game from the other end: get the proof
he needed and engineer his mother-in-law out of the United States.

Some time, however, he would have it out with his wife. Being a business
man and always alert to outwit the other man, he wanted neither intrigue
nor mystery in his home, but a serene happiness founded upon perfect
confidence. He found it impossible to remain appalled or angry at his
wife's readiness of resource in guarding a family secret that must have
shocked the youth in her almost out of existence.

He patted her hand, and felt its chill within the glove.

"It was like you never to have mentioned it," he murmured. "For, of
course, it is quite impossible."

"That is what I told her decidedly to-night, and I do not think she will
ask again. It hurts me to refuse dear maman anything. Her devotion to me
has been wonderful--but wonderful," she added on a defiant note.

"A mother's devotion, particularly to a girl of your sort, does not make
any call upon my exclamation points. But here we are."

       *       *       *       *       *

The car rolled up the graded driveway Gwynne had built for the old San
Francisco house that before his day had been approached by an almost
perpendicular flight of wooden steps. They were late and the company
had assembled: the Thorntons, Trennahans, and eight or ten young
people, all of whom would be chaperoned by the married women to the
dance at the Fairmont.

Russian Hill had escaped the fire, but Nob Hill had been burnt down to
its bones, and the Thorntons and Trennahans had not rebuilt, preferring,
like many others, to live the year round in their country homes and use
the hotels in winter.

The moment Hélène entered the drawing-room it was evident that the ruby
was to make as great a sensation as the soul of woman could desire. Even
the older people flocked about her and the girls were frank and shrill in
their astonishment and rapture.

"Hélène! Darling! The duckiest thing--I never saw anything so perfectly
dandy and wonderful! I'd go simply mad! Do, just let me touch it! I
could eat it!"

Mrs. Thornton, who at any time scorned to conceal envy, or pretend
indifference, looked at the great burning stone with a sigh and turned to
her husband.

"Why didn't you manage to get it for me?" she demanded. "It would be far
more suitable--a magnificent stone like that!--on me than on that baby."

"My darling," murmured Ford anxiously, "I never laid eyes on the thing
before, or on one like it. I'll find out where Ruyler got it, and try--"

"Do you suppose I'd come out with a duplicate? You should have thought of
it years ago. You always promised to take me to India."

"It should be on you!" He gazed at her adoringly. Her hair was dressed
in a high and stately fashion to-night. She wore a gown of gold brocade
and a necklace and little tiara of emeralds and diamonds; she was
looking very handsome and very regal. Thornton was a thin, dark, nervous
wisp of a man, who had borne his share of the burdens laid upon his city
in the cataclysm of 1906, but if his wife had demanded an enormous
historic ruby he would have done his best to gratify her. But how the
deuce could a man--

Mrs. Gwynne was holding the stone in her hand and smiling into its
flaming depths without envy. She was one of those women of dazzling white
skin, black hair and blue eyes, who, when wise, never wear any jewels but
pearls. She wore the Gwynne pearls to-night and a shimmering white gown.

Ruyler glanced round the fine old room with the warm feeling of
satisfaction he always experienced at a San Francisco function, where the
women were almost as invariably pretty as they were gay and friendly. He
did not like the younger men he met on these occasions as well as he did
many of the older ones; the serious ones would not waste their time on
society, and there were too many of the sort who were asked everywhere
because they had made a cult of fashion, whether they could afford it or
not. A few were the sons of wealthy parents, and were more dissipated
than those obliged to "hold down" a job that provided them with money
enough above their bare living expenses to make them useful and
presentable.

Ruyler looked upon both sorts as cumberers of the earth, and only
tolerated them in his own house when his wife gave a party and dancing
men must be had at any price.

There was one man here to-night for whom he had always held particular
detestation. His name was Nicolas Doremus. He was a broker in a small
way, but Ruyler guessed that he made the best part of his income at
bridge, possibly poker. He lived with two other men in a handsome
apartment in one of the new buildings that were changing the old skyline
of San Francisco. His dancing teas and suppers were admirably appointed
and the most exclusive people went to them.

Ruyler knew his history in a general way. His father had made a fortune
in "Con. Virginia" in the Seventies, and his mother for a few years had
been the social equal of the women who now patronized her son. But
unfortunately the gambling microbe settled down in Harry Doremus' veins,
and shortly after his son was born he engaged his favorite room at the
Cliff House and blew out his brains. His wife was left with a large
house, which as a last act of grace he had forborne to mortgage and made
over to her by deed. She immediately advertised for boarders, and as her
cooking was excellent and she had the wit to drop out of society and give
her undivided attention to business, she prospered exceedingly.

She concentrated her ambitions upon her only child; sent him to a private
school patronized by the sons of the wealthy, and herself taught him
every ingratiating social art. She wanted him to go to college, but by
this time "Nick" was nineteen and as highly developed a snob as her
maternal heart had planned. Knowing that he must support himself
eventually, he was determined to begin his business career at once, and
believed, with some truth, that there was a prejudice in this broad field
against college men. He entered the brokerage firm of a bachelor who had
occupied Mrs. Doremus' best suite for fifteen years, and made a
satisfactory clerk, the while he cultivated his mother's old friends.

When Mrs. Doremus died he sold the house and good will for a considerable
sum, and, combining it with her respectable savings, formed a partnership
with two other young fellows, whose fathers were rich, but old-fashioned
enough to insist that their sons should work. Nick did most of the work.
His partners, during the rainy season, sat with their feet on the
radiator and read the popular magazines, and in fine weather upheld the
outdoor traditions of the state.

The firm had a slender patronage, as Ruyler happened to know, but Doremus
was a member of the Pacific Union Club, and although he dined out every
night, he must have spent six or seven thousand a year. It was amiably
assumed that his social services,--he played and sang and often
entertained exacting groups throughout an entire evening--his fetching
and carrying for one rich old lady, accounted for his ability to keep out
of debt and pay for his many extravagances; but Ruyler knew that he was
principally esteemed at the small green table, and he vaguely recalled as
he looked over his head to-night that he had heard disconnected murmurs
of less honorable sources of revenue.

As Ruyler turned away with a frown he met Gwynne's eyes traveling from
the same direction. "I didn't ask him," he said apologetically. "Hate men
too well dressed. Looks as if he posed for tailors' ads in the weeklies.
Never could stand the social parasite anyhow, but Aileen Lawton asked
Isabel to let her bring him, as they are going to open the ball to-night
with some new kind of turkey trot.

"Glad I'm off for Washington. California's the greatest place on earth in
the dry season, but I'd have passed few winters here if it hadn't been
for the work we all had to do, and even then it would have been heavy
going without my wife's companionship."

Ruyler sighed. Should he ever enjoy his wife's companionship? And into
what sort of woman would she develop if forced along crooked ways by ugly
secrets, blackmail, perpetual lying and deceit? He longed impatiently for
the decisive interview with Spaulding on the morrow. Then, at least he
could prepare for action, and, after all, even of more importance now
than winning his wife's confidence and saving her from mental anguish,
was the averting of a scandal that would echo across the continent
straight into the ears of his half-reconciled father.


IV

It was about halfway through dinner that the primitive man in him routed
every variety of apprehension that had tormented him since two o'clock
that afternoon.

Trennahan, another distinguished New Yorker, who had made his home in
California for many years, had taken in Mrs. Gwynne, and his Spanish
California wife sat at the foot of the table with the host. Ford had
been given a lively girl, Aileen Lawton, to dissipate the financial
anxieties of the day, and, to Ruyler's satisfaction, Mrs. Thornton had
fallen to his lot and he sat on the left of Isabel. In this little group
at the head of the table, his chosen intimates, who were more interested
in the affairs of the world than in Consummate California, Ruyler had
forgotten his wife for a time and had not noticed with whom she had gone
in to dinner.

But during an interval when Mrs. Thornton's attention had been captured
by the man on her right, and the others drawn into a discussion over
the merits of the new mayor, Price became aware that Doremus sat beside
his wife halfway down the table on the opposite side, and that they
were talking, if not arguing, in a low tone, oblivious for the moment
of the company.

The deferential bend was absent from the neck of the adroit social
explorer, his head was alertly poised above the lovely young matron whose
beauty, wealth, and foreign personality, to say nothing of the importance
of her husband, gave her something of the standing of royalty in the
aristocratic little republic of San Francisco Society. There was a vague
threat in that poise, as if at any moment venom might dart down and
strike that drooping head with its crown of blue-black braids. Suddenly
Hélène lifted her eyes, full of appeal, to the round pale blue orbs that
at this moment openly expressed a cold and ruthless mind.

Ruyler endeavored to piece together those disconnected whispers--letters
discovered or stolen--blackmail--but such whispers were too often the
whiffs from energetic but empty minds, always floating about and never
seeming to bring any culprit to book.

Had this man got hold of his wife's secret?

But this merely sequacious thought was promptly routed. The young man,
who was undeniably good looking and was rumored to possess a certain cold
charm for women--although, to be sure, the wary San Francisco heiress had
so far been impervious to it--was now leaning over Mrs. Price Ruyler with
a coaxing possessive air, and the appeal left Hélène's eyes as she smiled
coquettishly and began to talk with her usual animation; but still in a
tone that was little more than a murmur.

She moved her shoulder closer to the man she evidently was bent upon
fascinating, and her long eyelashes swept up and down while her black
eyes flashed and her pink color deepened.

There was a faint amusement mixed with Doremus' habitual air of amiable
deference, and somewhat more of assurance, but he was as absorbed as
Hélène and had no eyes for Janet Maynard, on his left, whose fortune ran
into millions.

For a moment Ruyler, who had kept his nerve through several years of
racking strain which, even an American is seldom called upon to survive,
wondered if he were losing his mind. To business and all its fluctuations
and even abnormalities, he had been bred; there was probably no condition
possible in the world of finance and commerce which could shatter his
self-possession, cloud his mental processes. But his personal life had
been singularly free of storms. Even his emotional upheaval, when he had
fallen completely in love for the first time, had lacked that torment of
uncertainty which might have played a certain havoc, for a time, with
those quick unalterable decisions of the business hour; and even his
engagement had only lasted a month.

It was true that during the past six months he had worried off and on
about the shadow that had fallen upon his wife's spirits and affected his
own, but, when he had had time to think of it, before yesterday morning,
he had assumed it was due to some phase of feminine psychology which he
had never mastered. That she could be interested in another man never had
crossed his mind, in spite of his passing flare of jealousy. She was
still passionately in love with, him, for all her vagaries--or so he had
thought--

Ruyler was conscious of a riotous confusion of mind that really made him
apprehensive. Had he witnessed that scene on the dummy--this
afternoon?--it seemed a long while ago--had he heard those portentous
words of his mother-in-law to his wife?--had they meant that she had
warned her daughter against the bad blood in her veins, extracted a
promise--broken!--to walk in the narrow way of the dutiful
wife--mercifully spared by a fortunate marriage the terrible temptations
of the older woman's youth? Had Hélène confessed ... in desperate need of
help, advice? ... Doremus was just the bounder to compromise a woman and
then blackmail her.... Good God! What _was_ it?

For all his mental turmoil he realized that here alone was the only
possible menace to his life's happiness. His mother-in-law's past was a
bitter pill for a proud man to swallow, and there was even the
possibility of his wife's illegitimacy, but, after all, those were
matters belonging to the past, and the past quickly receded to limbo
these days.

Even an open scandal, if some one of the offal sheets of San Francisco
got hold of the story and published it, would be forgotten in time. But
this--if his wife had fallen in love with another man--and women had no
discrimination where love was concerned--(if a decent chap got a lovely
girl it was mainly by luck; the rotters got just as good)--then indeed he
was in the midst of disaster without end. The present was chaos and the
future a blank. He'd enlist in the first war and get himself shot....

Hélène had a charming light coquetry, wholly French, and she exercised it
indiscriminately, much to the delight of the old beaux, for she loved to
please, to be admired; she had an innocent desire that all men should
think her quite beautiful and irresistible. Even her husband had never
seen her in an unbecoming _déshabillé_; she coquetted with him
shamelessly, whenever she was not too gloriously serious and intent only
upon making him happy. Until lately--

This was by no means her ordinary form.

He had come upon too many couples in remote corners of conservatories,
had been a not unaccomplished principal in his own day ... there was,
beyond question, some deep understanding between her and this man.

Suddenly Ruyler's gaze burned through to his wife's consciousness. She
moved her eyes to his, flushed to her hair, then for a moment looked
almost gray. But she recovered herself immediately and further showed her
remarkable powers of self-possession by turning back to her partner and
talking to him with animation instead of plunging into conversation with
the man on her right.

At the same moment Ruyler became subtly aware that Mrs. Thornton was
looking at his wife and Doremus, and as his eyes focused he saw her long,
thin, mobile mouth curl and her eyes fill with open disdain. The mist in
his brain fled as abruptly as an inland fog out in the bay before one of
the sudden winds of the Pacific. In any case, his mind hardly could have
remained in a state of confusion for long; but that his young wife was
being openly contemned by the cleverest as well as the most powerful
woman in San Francisco was enough to restore his equilibrium in a flash.
Whatever his wife's indiscretions, it was his business to protect her
until such time as he had proof of more than indiscretion. And in this
instance he should be his own detective.

He turned to Mrs. Thornton.

"Going on to the Fairmont?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, I have a new gown--have you admired it? Arrived from Paris last
night--and I am chaperoning two of these girls. You are not, of course?"

"I did intend to, but it's no go. Still, I may drop in late and take my
wife home--"

"Let me take her home." Was his imagination morbid, or was there
something both peremptory and eager in Mrs. Thornton's tones? "I'm
stopping at the Fairmont, of course, but Fordy and I often take a drive
after a hot night and a heavy supper."

"If you would take her home in case I miss it. I must go to the office--"

"I'd like to. That's settled." This time her tones were warm and
friendly. Ruyler knew that Mrs. Thornton did not like his wife, but her
friendliness toward him, since her return from Europe three or four
months ago, had increased, if anything. His mind was now working with its
accustomed keen clarity. He recalled that there had been no surprise
mixed with the contempt in her regard of his wife and Doremus.... He also
recalled that several times of late when he had met her at the
Fairmont--where he often lunched with a group of men--she had regarded
him with a curious considering glance, which he suddenly vocalized as:
"How long?"

This affair had been going on for some time, then. Either it was common
talk, or some circumstance had enlightened Mrs. Thornton alone.

He glanced around the table. No one appeared to be taking the slightest
notice of one of many flirtations. At least, whatever his wife's
infatuation, he could avert gossip. Mrs. Thornton might be a tigress, but
she was not a cat.

"When do you go down to Burlingame?" she asked.

"Not for two or three weeks yet. I don't fancy merely sleeping in the
country. But by that time things will ease up a bit and I can get down
every day in time to have a game of golf before dinner."

"Shall Mrs. Ruyler migrate with the rest?"

"Hardly."

"It will be dull for her in town. No reflections on your charming
society, but of course she does not get much of it, and she will miss her
young friends. After all, she is a child and needs playmates."

Ruyler darted at her a sharp look, but she was smiling amiably. Doremus
and the men he lived with, in town had a bungalow at Burlingame and they
bought their commutation tickets at precisely the fashionable moment.
"She will stay in town," he said shortly. "She needs a rest, and San
Francisco is the healthiest spot on earth."

"But trying to the nerves when what we inaccurately call the trade winds
begin. Why not let her stay with me? Of course she would be lonely in her
own house, and is too young to stay there alone anyhow, but I'd like to
put her up, and you certainly could run down week-ends--possibly oftener.
American men are always obsessed with the idea that they are twice as
busy as they really are."

"You are too good. I'll put it up to Hélène. Of course it is for her to
decide. I'd like it mighty well." But grateful as he was, his uneasiness
deepened at her evident desire to place her forces at his disposal.



CHAPTER V


I

"And you won't take me to the party?" Hélène pouted charmingly as her
husband laid her pink taffeta wrap over her shoulders. "I thought you
said you might make it, and it would be too delightful to dance with you
once more."

"I'm afraid not. The Australian mail came in just as business closed and
it's on my mind. I want to go over it carefully before I dictate the
answers in the morning, and that means two or three hours of hard work
that will leave me pretty well fagged out. Mrs. Thornton has offered to
take you home."

"I hate her."

"Oh, please don't!" Ruyler smiled into her somber eyes. "She wants the
drive, and it would be taking the Gwynnes so far out of the way. Mrs.
Thornton very kindly suggested it."

"I hate her," said Hélène conclusively. "I wish now I'd kept my own car.
Then I could always go home alone."

"You shall have a car next winter. And this time I shall not permit you
to pay for it out of your allowance--which in any case I hope to increase
by that time."

Her eyes flamed, but not with anger. "Then I'll sell my electric to
Aileen Lawton right away. We have the touring car in the country, and
she has been trying to make her father buy her an electric--"

"I'm afraid you'll be disappointed in your bargain. Second-hand cars, no
matter what their condition, always go at a sacrifice, and old Lawton is
a notorious screw. Better not let it go for two or three hundreds; you
look very sweet driving about in it.... Oh, by the way--I had
forgotten." He slipped his hand under her coat, unfastened the chain and
slipped the jewel into his pocket. "I am sorry," he said, with real
contrition, "and almost wish I had forgotten the thing; but I am a little
superstitious about keeping that old promise."

She laughed. "And yet you will not permit poor maman a little
superstition of her own! But I am rather glad. Everybody at the ball will
hear of the ruby, and I shall be able to keep them in suspense until the
Thornton fête. Good night. Don't work too hard. Couldn't you get there
for supper?"

"'Fraid not."


II

He did go down to the office and glance through the Australian mail,
but at a few moments before twelve he took a California Street car up
to the Fairmont Hotel and went directly to the ballroom. Mrs.
Thornton was standing just within the doorway, but came toward him
with lifted eyebrows.

"This is like old times," she said playfully.

"I found less mail than I expected and thought I would come and have a
dance with my wife." His eyes wandered over the large room, gayly
decorated, and filled with dancing couples.

Mrs. Thornton laughed. "A belle like your wife? She is always engaged for
every dance on her program before she is halfway down this corridor."

"Oh, well, husbands have some rights. I'll take it by force. I don't see
her--she must be sitting out."

Mrs. Thornton slipped her arm through his. "This dance has just begun.
Walk me up and down. I am tired of standing on one foot."

They strolled down the corridor and through the large central hall. Older
folks sat or stood in groups; a few young couples were sitting out.
Ruyler did not see his wife, and concluded she had been resting at the
moment in the dowager ranks against the wall of the ballroom. The music
ceased sooner than he expected and Mrs. Thornton, who had been talking
with animation on the subject of several fine pictures she had bought
while abroad for the Museum in Golden Gate Park, including one by
Masefield Price, broke off with an impatient exclamation: "Bother! I must
run up to my room at once and telephone. Wait for me here."

She steered him toward a group of men. "Mr. Gwynne, keep Mr. Ruyler from
causing a riot in the ballroom. He insists upon dancing with his wife.
Hold him by force."

They were standing near the staircase and some distance from the lift.
Mrs. Thornton ran up the stairs, pausing for an irresistible moment and
looking down at the company. As she stood there, poised, she looked a
royal figure with her cloth of gold train covering the steps below her
and her high and flashing head. "Wait for me," she said, imperiously to
Price. "I cannot meander down that corridor, deserted and alone."

Ruyler smiled at her, but said to Gwynne: "I'll just go and engage my
wife for a dance and be back in a jiffy--"

Gwynne clasped his hand about Ruyler's arm. "Just a moment, old chap. I
want your opinion--"

"But there is the music again. I'll be knocking people over--"

"You will if you go now, and there'll be dancing for hours yet. Your wife
has been dividing up--now, tell me if you back me in this proposition or
not. I'm going to Washington to represent you fellows--"

But Ruyler had broken politely away and was walking down the long
corridor. When he arrived at the ballroom he saw at a glance that his
wife was not there, for the floor was only half filled. But there were
other rooms where dancers sat in couples or groups when tired. He went
hastily through all of them, but saw nothing of his wife. Nor of Doremus.

Mrs. Thornton had gone in search of her.

And Gwynne knew.

This time the hot blood was pounding in his head. He felt as he imagined
madmen did when about to run amok. Or quite as primitive as any
Californian of the surging "Fifties."

He was in one of the smaller rooms and he sat down in a corner with his
back to the few people in it and endeavored to take hold of himself; the
conventional training of several lifetimes and his own intense pride
forbade a scene in public. But his curved fingers longed for Doremus'
throat and he made up his mind that if his awful suspicions were
vindicated he would beat his wife black and blue. That was far more
sensible and manly than running whining to a divorce court.

The effort at self-control left him gasping, but when he rose from his
shelter he was outwardly composed, and determined to seek Gwynne and
force the truth from him. He would not discuss his wife with another
woman. And whatever this hideous tragedy brooding over his life he would
go out and come to grips with it at once.


III

And in the corridor he saw his wife chatting gayly with a group of young
friends. Her color was paler than usual, perhaps, but that was not
uncommon at a party, and otherwise she was as unruffled, as normal in
appearance and manner, as when they had parted at the Gwynnes'.

Nevertheless, he went directly up to her, and as she gave a little cry of
pleased surprise, he drew her hand through his arm. "Come!" he said
imperiously. "You are to dance this with me. I broke away on purpose--"

"But, darling, I am full up--"

"You have skipped at least two. I have been looking everywhere for you--"

"Polly Roberts dragged me upstairs to see the new gowns M. Dupont brought
her from Paris. They came this afternoon--so did Mrs. Thornton's--but of
course I'll dance this with you. You don't look well," she added
anxiously. "Aren't you?"

"Quite, but rather tired--mentally. I need a dance...."

He wondered if she had gently propelled him down the corridor. They were
some distance from the group. It was impossible for him to go back and
ask if his wife's story were true. Mrs. Thornton was nowhere to be seen,
neither in the corridor nor in the ballroom. Nor was Doremus. He set his
teeth grimly and managed to smile down upon his wife.

"I shall insist upon having more than one," he said gallantly. "At least
three hesitations."

She drew in her breath with a mock sigh and swept from under her long
lashes a glance that still had the power to thrill him. "Outrageous, but
I shall try to bear up," and the next moment they were giving a graceful
exhibition of the tango.

"I don't see your friend Doremus," he said casually, as he stood fanning
her at the end of the dance.

She lifted her eyebrows haughtily. "My friend? That parasite?"

"You seemed very friendly at dinner."

"I usually am with my dinner companion. One's hostess is to be
considered. Oh--I remember--he was telling me some very amusing gossip,
although he teased me into fearing he wouldn't. Now, if you are going to
dance this hesitation with me you had better whirl me off. It is Mr.
Thornton's, and I see him coming."

Ruyler did not see Doremus until supper was half over and then the young
man entered the dining-room hurriedly, his usually serene brow lowering
and his lips set. He walked directly up to Hélène.

"Beastly luck!" he exclaimed. "Hello, Ruyler. Didn't know you honored
parties any more. I had to break away to meet the Overland train--beastly
thing was late, of course. Then I had to take them to five hotels before
I could settle them. They had two beastly little dogs and the hotels
wouldn't take them in and they wouldn't give up the dogs. Some one ought
to set up a high-class dog hotel. Sure it would pay. But you'll give me
the first after supper, won't you?"

Hélène gave him a casual smile that was a poor reward for his elaborate
apology. "So sorry," she said with the sweet distant manner in which she
disposed of bores and climbers, "but Mr. Ruyler and I are both tired. We
are going home directly after supper."



CHAPTER VI


I

On the following day at six o'clock Ruyler went to Long's to meet Jake
Spaulding. By a supreme effort of will he had put his private affairs out
of his mind and concentrated on the business details which demanded the
most highly trained of his faculties. But now he felt relaxed, almost
languid, as he walked along Montgomery Street toward the rendezvous. He
met no one he knew. The historic Montgomery Street, once the center of
the city's life, was almost deserted, but half rebuilt. He could saunter
and think undisturbed.

What was he to hear? And what bearing would it be found to have on his
wife's conduct?

He had gone to sleep last night as sure as a man may be of anything that
his wife was no more interested in Doremus than in any other of the
young men who found time to dance attendance upon idle, bored, but
virtuous wives.

If the man knew her secret and were endeavoring to exact blackmail he
would pay his price with joy--after thrashing him, for he would have
sacrificed the half of his fortune never to experience again not only the
demoralizing attack of jealous madness of the night before, which had
brought in its wake the uneasy doubt if civilization were as far advanced
as he had fondly imagined, but the sensation of amazed contempt which had
swept over him at the dinner table as he had seen his wife, whom he had
believed to be a woman of instinctive taste and fastidiousness,
manifestly upon intimate terms with a creature who should have been
walking on four legs. Better, perhaps, the desire to kill a woman than to
despise her--

He slammed the door when he entered the little room reserved for him, and
barely restrained himself from flinging his hat into a corner and
breaking a chair on the table. His languor had vanished.

Spaulding followed him immediately.

"Howdy," he said genially, as he pushed his own hat on the back of his
head and bit hungrily at the end of a cigar. "Suppose you've been
impatient--unless too busy to think about it."

"I'd like to know what you've found out as quickly as you can tell me."

"Well, to begin with the kid. I had some trouble at the convent. They're
a close-mouthed lot, nuns. But I frightened them. Told them it was a
property matter, and unless they answered my questions privately they'd
have to answer them in court. Then they came through."

"Well?"

Spaulding lit his cigar and handed the match to Ruyler, who ground it
under his heel.

"Just about nineteen years ago a Frenchwoman, giving her name as Madame
Dubois, arrived one day with a child a year old and asked the nuns to
take care of it, promising a fancy payment. The child had been on a farm
with a wet-nurse (French style), but Madame Dubois wanted it to learn
from the first to speak proper English and French, and to live in a
refined atmosphere generally from the time it was able to take notice.
She said she was on the stage and had to travel, so was not able to give
the kid the attention it should have, and the doctor had told her that
traveling was bad for kids that age, anyhow. Her lawyers would pay the
baby's board on the first of every month--"

"Who were the lawyers?"

"Lawton and Cross."

"I thought so. Go on."

"The nuns, who, after all, knew their California, thought they smelt a
rat, for the woman was extraordinarily handsome, magnificently dressed;
the Mother Superior--who is a woman of the world, all right--read the
newspapers, and had never seen the name of Dubois--and knew that only
stars drew fat salaries. She asked some sharp questions about the father,
and the woman replied readily that he was a scientific man, an inventor,
and--well, it was natural, was it not? they did not get on very well. He
disliked the stage, but she had been on it before she married him, and
dullness and want of money for her own needs and her child's had driven
her back. He had lived in Los Angeles for a time, but had recently gone
East to take a high-salaried position. It was with his consent that she
asked the nuns to take the child--possibly for two or three years. When
she was a famous actress and could leave the road, she would keep house
for her husband in New York, and make a home for the child.

"The Mother Superior, by this time, had made up her mind that the father
wished the child removed from the mother's influence, and although she
took the whole yarn with a bag of salt, the child was the most beautiful
she had ever seen, and obviously healthy and amiable. Moreover, the
convent was to receive two hundred dollars a month--"

"What?"

"Exactly. Can you beat it? The Mother Superior made up her mind it was
her duty to bring up the little thing in the way it should go. As the
woman was leaving she said something about a possible reconciliation with
her family, who lived in France; they had not written her since she went
on the stage. They were of a respectability!--of the old tradition! But
if they came round she might take the child to them, if her husband would
consent. She should like it to be brought up in France--

"Here the Mother Superior interrupted her sharply. Was her husband a
Frenchman? And she answered, no doubt before she thought, for these
people always forget something, that no, he was an American--her family,
also, detested Americans. The Mother Superior once more interrupted her
glibness. How, then, did he have a French name? Oh, but that was her
stage name--she always went by it and had given it without thinking. What
was her husband's name? After a second's hesitation she stupidly give the
name Smith. I can see the mouth of the Mother Superior as it set in a
grim line. 'Very well,' said she, 'the child's name is Hélène Smith'; and
although the woman made a wry face she was forced to submit.

"The child remained there four years, and the Mother Superior had some
reason to believe that 'Madame Dubois' spent a good part of that time in
San Francisco. She came at irregular intervals to see the child--always
in vacation, when there were no pupils in the convent, and always at
night. The Mother Superior, however, thought it best to make no
investigations, for the child throve, they were all daffy about her, and
the money came promptly on the first of every month. When the mother came
she always brought a trunk full of fine underclothes, and left the money
for a new uniform. Then, one day, Madame Dubois arrived in widow's weeds,
said that her husband was dead, leaving her quite well off, and that she
was returning to France."

"And Madame Delano's story is that he died on the way to Japan--if it is
the same woman--"

"Haven't a doubt of it myself. I did a little cabling before I left last
night to a man I know in Paris to find out just when Madame Delano
returned with her child to live with her family in Rouen. He got busy and
here is his answer--just fifteen years ago almost to the minute."

"Then who was her husband?"

"There you've got me--so far. He was no 'scientist, who later accepted
a high-salaried position.' A decent chap of that sort would have
written to his child, paid her board himself, most likely taken it away
from the mother--"

"But she may have kidnapped it--"

"People are too easy traced in this State--especially that sort. Nor do
I believe she was an actress. There never was any actress of that
name--not so you'd notice it, anyhow, and that woman would have been
known for her looks and height even if she couldn't act. Moreover, if
she was an actress there would be no sense in giving the nuns a false
name, since she had admitted the fact. No, it's my guess that she was
something worse."

"Well, I've prepared myself for anything."

"I figure out that she was the mistress of one of our rich highfliers,
and that when he got tired of her he pensioned her off, and she made up
her mind to reform on account of the kid, and went back to Rouen, and
proceeded to identify herself with her class by growing old and shapeless
as quickly as possible. She must have adopted the name Delano in New York
before she bought her steamer ticket, for although I've had a man on the
hunt, the only Delanos of that time were eminently respectable--"

"Why are you sure she was not a--well--woman of the town?"

"Because, there again--there's no dame of that time either of that name
or looks--neither Dubois nor Delano. Of course, they come and go, but
there's every reason to think she stayed right on here in S.F. Of
course, I've only had twenty-four hours--I'll find out in another
twenty-four just what conspicuous women of fifteen to twenty years ago
measure up to what she must have looked like--I got the Mother Superior
to describe her minutely: nearly six feet, clear dark skin with a
natural red color--no make-up; very small features, but well made--nose
and mouth I'm talking about. The eyes were a good size, very black with
rather thin eyelashes. Lots of black hair. Stunning figure. Rather large
ears and hands and feet. She always dressed in black, the handsomest
sort. They generally do."

"Well?" asked Ruyler through his teeth. He had no doubt the woman was his
mother-in-law. "The Jameses? What of them?"

"That's the snag. Rest is easy in comparison. Innumerable Jameses must
have died about that time, to say nothing of all the way along the line,
but while some of the records were saved in 1906, most went up in smoke.
Moreover, there's just the chance that he didn't die here. But that's
going on the supposition that the man died when she left California,
which don't fit our theory. I still think he died not so very long before
her return to California, and that she probably came to collect a legacy
he had left her. Otherwise, I should think it's about the last place she
would have come to. I put a man on the job before I left of collecting
the Jameses who've died since the fire. Here they are."

He took a list from his pocket and read:

"James Hogg, bookkeeper--races, of course. James Fowler, saloon-keeper.
James Despard, called 'Frenchy,' a clever crook who lived on
blackmail--said to have a gift for getting hold of secrets of men and
women in high society and squeezing them good and plenty--"

He paused. "Of course, that might be the man. There are points. I'll have
his life looked into, but somehow I don't believe it. I have a hunch the
man was a higher-up. The sort of woman the Mother Superior described can
get the best, and they take it. To proceed: James Dillingworth, lawyer,
died in the odor of sanctity, but you never can tell; I'll have him
investigated, too. James Maston--I haven't had time to have had the
private lives of any of these men looked into, but I knew some of them,
and Maston, who was a journalist, left a wife and three children and was
little, if any, over thirty. James Cobham, broker--he was getting on to
fifty, left about a million, came near being indicted during the Graft
Prosecutions, and although his wife has been in the newspapers as a
society leader for the last twenty years, and he was one of the founders
of Burlingame, and then was active in changing the name of the high part
to Hillsboro when the swells felt they couldn't be identified with the
village any longer, and he handed out wads the first of every year to
charity, there are stories that he came near being divorced by his
haughty wife about fifteen years ago. Of course, those men don't parade
their mistresses openly like they did thirty years ago--I mean men with
any social position to keep up. But now and again the wife finds a note,
or receives an anonymous letter, and gets busy. Then it's the divorce
court, unless he can smooth her down, and promises reform. Cobham seems
to me the likeliest man, and I'm going to start a thorough investigation
to-morrow. These other Jameses don't hold out any promise at
all--grocers, clerks, butchers. It's the list in hand I'll go by, and if
nothing pans out--well, we'll have to take the other cue she threw out
and try Los Angeles."

"Do you know anything about a man named Nicolas Doremus?" asked
Ruyler abruptly.

"The society chap? Nothing much except that he don't do much business on
the street but is supposed to be pretty lucky at poker and bridge. But he
runs with the crowd the police can't or don't raid. I've never seen or
heard of him anywhere he shouldn't be except with swell slumming or
roadhouse parties. He's never interested me. If Society can stand that
sort of bloodsucking tailor's model, I guess I can. Why do you ask? Got
anything to do with this case?"

"I have an idea he has found out the truth and is blackmailing my wife.
You might watch him."

"Good point. I will. And if he's found out the truth I guess I can."



CHAPTER VII


I

Hélène, as Ruyler had anticipated, refused positively to accept Mrs.
Thornton's invitation.

"Do you think I'd leave you--to come home to a dreary house every night?
Even if I don't see much of you, at least you know I'm there; and that if
you have an evening off you have only to say the word and I'll break any
engagement--you have always known that!"

Ruyler had not, but she looked so eager and sweet--she was lunching with
him at the Palace Hotel on the day following his interview with
Spaulding--that he hastened to assure her affectionately that the
certainty of his wife's desire for his constant companionship was both
his torment and his consolation.

Hélène continued radiantly:

"Besides, darling, Polly Roberts is staying on. Rex can't get away yet."

"Polly Roberts is not nearly good enough for you. She hasn't an idea in
her head and lives on excitement--"

Hélène laughed merrily. "You are quite right, but there's no harm in her.
After all, unless one goes in for charities (and I can't, Price, yet;
besides the charities here are wonderfully looked after), plays bridge,
has babies, takes on suffrage--what is there to do but play? I suppose
once life was serious for young women of our class; but we just get into
the habit of doing nothing because there's nothing to do. Take to-morrow
as an example: I suppose Polly and I will wander down to The Louvre in
the morning and buy something or look at the new gowns M. Dupont has just
brought from Paris.

"Then we'll lunch where there's lots of life and everybody is chatting
gayly about nothing.

"Then we'll go to the Moving Pictures unless there is a matinée, and then
we'll motor out to the Boulevard, and then back and have tea somewhere.

"Or, perhaps, we'll motor down to the Club at Burlingame for lunch and
chatter away the day on the veranda, or dance. This afternoon we'll
probably ring up a few that are still in town, and dance in Polly's
parlor at the Fairmont."

Hélène's lip curled, her voice had risen. With, all her young enjoyment
of wealth and position, she had been bred in a class where to idle is a
crime. "Just putting in time--time that ought to be as precious as
youth and high spirits and ease and popularity! But what is one to do?
I have no talents, and I'd lose caste in my set if I had. I don't
wonder the Socialists hate us and want to put us all to work. No doubt
we should be much happier. But now--even if you retired from business,
you'd spend most of your time on the links. We poor women wouldn't be
much better off."

"It does seem an abnormal state of affairs; I've barely given it a
thought, it has always been such a pleasure to find you, after a hard
day's work, looking invariably dainty, and pretty, and eloquently
suggestive of leisure and repose. But--to the student of history--I
suppose it is a condition that cannot last. There must be some sort of
upheaval due. Well, I hope it will give me more of your society."

They smiled at each other across the little table in perfect confidence.
They were lunching in the court, and after she had blown him a kiss over
her glass of red wine, her eyes happened to travel in the direction of
the large dining-room. She gave a little exclamation of distaste.

"There is maman lunching with that hateful old Mr. Lawton. He was in her
sitting-room when I ran in to call on her yesterday, and nearly snapped
my head off when I asked him if he wouldn't buy my electric for Aileen.
He said it was time she began to learn a few economies instead of more
extravagances. Poor darling Aileen. She has to stay in town, too, for he
won't open the house in Atherton until he is ready to go down himself
every night."

"Is he an old friend of your mother's?"

"She and Papa met him when they were here, and Mrs. Lawton was very kind
when I was born. It's too bad Mrs. Lawton's dead. She'd be a nice friend
for maman."

"Perhaps your mother is asking Mr. Lawton's advice about the investment
of money."

He had been observing his wife closely, but it was more and more apparent
that if Mr. Lawton held the key to her mother's past she had not been
informed of the fact. She answered indifferently:

"Possibly. One can get much higher interest out here than in France, and
maman would never invest money without the best advice. She loves me, but
money next. Oh, là! là!"

"Has she said anything more about going back to Rouen?"

"I didn't have a word with her alone yesterday, but I'll ask her to-day.
Poor maman! I fancy the novelty has worn off here, and she would really
be happier with her own people and customs. She hates traveling, like all
the French; but don't you think that, after a bit we shall be able to go
over to Europe at least once a year?"

"I am sure of it. And while I am attending to business in London you
could visit your mother in Rouen. Tell her that one way or another I'll
manage it."

And this seemed to him an ideal arrangement!


II

When they left the table and walked through the more luxurious part of
the court, they saw Madame Delano alone and enthroned as usual in the
largest but most upright of the armchairs. And as ever she watched under
her fat drooping eyelids the passing throng of smartly dressed women,
hurrying men, sauntering, staring tourists. Here and there under the
palms sat small groups of men, leaning forward, talking in low earnest
tones, their faces, whether of the keen, narrow, nervous, or of the
fleshy, heavy, square-jawed, unimaginative, aggressive, ruthless type,
equally expressing that intense concentration of mind which later would
make their luncheon a living torment.

Hélène threw herself into a chair beside her mother and fondled her hand.
Ruyler noted that after Madame Delano's surprised smile of welcome she
darted a keen glance of apprehension from one to the other, and her tight
little mouth relaxed uncontrollably in its supporting walls of flesh. But
she lowered her lids immediately and looked approvingly at her daughter,
who in her new gown of gray, with gray hat and gloves and shoes, was a
dainty and refreshing picture of Spring. Then she looked at Ruyler with
what he fancied was an expression of relief.

"I wonder you do not do this oftener," she said.

"I never know until the last moment when or where I shall be able to take
lunch, and then I often have to meet three or four men. Such is life in
the city of your adoption."

"There is no city in the world where women are so abominably idle and
useless!" And at the moment, whatever Madame Delano may have been, her
voice and mien were those of a virtuous and outraged bourgeoisie. "You
are all very well, Ruyler, but if I had known what the life of a rich
young woman was in this town, I'd have married Hélène to a serious young
man of her own class in Rouen; a husband who would have given her
companionship in a normal civilized life, who would have taken care of
her as every young wife should be taken care of, and who would have
insisted upon at least two children as a matter of course. With us The
Family is a religion. Here it is an incident where it is not an
accident."

Ruyler, who was still standing, looked down at his mother-in-law with
profound interest. He had never heard her express herself at such length
before. "Do you think I fail as a husband?" he asked humbly. "God knows
I'd like to give my wife about two-thirds of my time, but at least I have
perfect confidence in her. I should soon cease to care for a wife I was
obliged to watch."

"Young things are young things." Madame Delano looked at Hélène, who had
turned very white and had lowered her own lids to hide the consternation
in her eyes. But as her mother ceased speaking she raised them in swift
appeal to Ruyler.

"Maman says I coquette too much," she said plaintively, and Price
wondered if a slight movement under the hem of Madame Delano's long
skirts meant that the toe of a little gray shoe were boring into one of
the massive plinths of his mother-in-law. "But tell him, maman, that you
don't really mean it. I can't have Price jealous. That would be too
humiliating. I'm afraid I do flirt as naturally as I breathe, but Price
knows I haven't a thought for a man on earth but him." The color had
crept back into her cheeks, but there was still anxiety in her soft black
eyes, and Price was sure that the little pointed toe once more made its
peremptory appeal.

Madame Delano looked squarely at her son-in-law.

"That's all right--so far," she said grimly. "Hélène is devoted to
you. But so have many other young wives been to busy American husbands.
Now, take my advice, and give her more of your companionship before it
is too late. _Watch over her_. There always comes a time--a
turning-point--European husbands understand, but American husbands are
fools. Woman's loyalty, fed on hope only, turns to resentment; and then
her separate life begins. Now, I've warned you. Go back to your office,
where, no doubt, your clerks are hanging out of the windows, wondering if
you are dead and the business wrecked. I want to talk to Hélène."


III

In spite of his wise old French mother-in-law's insinuations, Ruyler felt
lighter of heart as he left the hotel and walked toward his office than
he had since Sunday. Of two things he was certain: there was no ugly
understanding between the mother and daughter over that unspeakable past,
and Madame Delano's new attitude toward her daughter was merely the
result of an over-sophisticated mother's apprehensions: those of a woman
who was looking in upon smart society for the first time and found it
alarming, and--unwelcome, but inevitable thought--peculiarly dangerous to
a young and beautiful creature with wild and lawless blood in her veins.

However, it was patent that so far her apprehensions were merely the
result of a rare imaginative flight, the result, no doubt, of her own
threatened exposure. Once more he admired her courage in returning to San
Francisco, and as he recalled the covert air of cynical triumph, with
which she had accepted his offer for her daughter's hand, he made no
doubt that one object had been to play a sardonic joke on the city she
must hate.

He renewed his determination to keep what guard he could over his young
wife, and wondered if his brother Harold, who also had elected to enter
the old firm, could not be induced to come out and take over a certain
share of the responsibility. The young man had paid him a visit a year
ago and been enraptured with life in California.

True, he was accustomed to make quick decisions without consulting any
one, and he should find a partner irksome, but he was beginning to
realize acutely that business, even to an American brain, packed with its
traditions and energies, was not even the half of life, should be a means
not an end; he set his teeth as he walked rapidly along Montgomery Street
and vowed that he would keep his domestic happiness if he had to retire
on what was available of his own fortune. He even wondered if it would
not be wise to buy a fruit ranch, where he and Hélène could share equally
in the management, and begin at once to raise a family. They both loved
outdoor life, and this life of complete frivolity, in which she seemed to
be hopelessly enmeshed, might before long corrode her nature and blast
the mental aspirations that still survived in that untended soil. When
this great merging deal was over he should be free to decide.



CHAPTER VIII


I

He arrived at home on the following afternoon at six and was
immediately rung up by Spaulding, who demanded an interview. It was not
worth while going down town again, as Hélène was out and would no doubt
return only in time to dress for dinner. They were to dine at half-past
seven and go to the play afterward. He told Spaulding to take a taxi
and come to the house.

Nothing had occurred meanwhile to cause him anxiety. He had taken Hélène
out to the Cliff House to dinner the night before, and afterward to see
the road-houses, whose dancing is so painfully proper early in the
evening. Polly Roberts had come into the most notorious of them at
eleven, chaperoning a party, which included Aileen Lawton, a girl as
restless and avid of excitement as herself. Rex Roberts and several other
young men had been in attendance, and Polly had begged Ruyler to stay on
and let his wife see something of "real life."

"This is one of the sights of the world, you know," she said, puffing her
cigarette smoke into his face. "It's _too_ middle-class to be shocked,
and not to see occasionally what you really cannot get anywhere else.
Why, there'll even be a lot of tourists here later on, and these dancers
don't do the real Apache until about one. At least leave Hélène with me,
if you care more for bed than fun."

But Ruyler had merely laughed and taken his wife home. Hélène had made
no protest; on the contrary had put her arm through his in the car and
her head on his shoulder, vowing she was worn out, and glad to go home.
It was only afterward that it occurred to him that she had clung to him
that night.

Spaulding entered the library without taking off his hat, and chewing a
toothpick vigorously. He began to talk at once, stretching himself out in
a Morris chair, and accepting a cigar. This time Price smoked with him.

"Well," said the detective, "it's like the game of button, button, who's
got the button? Sometimes I think I'm getting a little warmer and then I
go stone cold. But I've found out a few things, anyhow. How tall should
you say Madame Delano is? I've only seen her sitting on her throne there
in the Palace Court lookin' like an old Sphinx that's havin' a laugh all
to herself."

"About five feet ten."

"The Mother Superior said six feet, but no doubt when she had figger
instead of flesh she looked taller. Well, I've discovered no less than
five tall handsome brunettes that sparkled here in the late Eighties and
early Nineties, but it's the deuce and all to get an exact description
out of anybody, especially when quite a few years have elapsed. Most
people don't see details, only effects. That's what we detectives come up
against all the time. So, whether these ladies were five feet eight, five
feet ten, or six feet, whether they had large features or small, big
hands and feet or fine points, or whether they added on all the inches
they yearned for by means of high heels or style, is beyond me. But here
they are."

He took his neat little note-book from his pocket and was about to read
it, when Ruyler interrupted him.

"But surely you know whether these women were French or not?"

"Aw, that's just what you can't always find out. Lots of 'em pretend to
be, and others--if they come from good stock in the old country--want you
to forget it. But the queens generally run to French names, as havin' a
better commercial value than Mary Jane or Ann Maria. One of these was
Marie Garnett, who wasn't much on her own but spun the wheel in Jim's
joint down on Barbary Coast, which was raided just so often for form's
sake. She always made a quick getaway, was never up in court, and died
young. Gabrielle ran an establishment down on Geary Street and was one of
the swellest lookers and swellest togged dames in her profession till the
drink got her. I can't find that she ever hooked up to a James or any one
else. Pauline-Marie was another razzle-dazzle who swooped out here from
nowhere and burrowed into quite a few fortunes and put quite a few of our
society leaders into mourning. She disappeared and I can't trace her, but
she seems to have been the handsomest of the bunch, and was fond of
showing herself at first nights, dressed straight from Paris, until some
of our war-hardened 'leaders' called upon the managers in a body and
threatened never to set foot inside their doors again unless she was kept
out, and the managers succumbed. Then there was the friend of a rich
Englishman, whose first name I haven't been able to get hold of. They
lived first at Santa Barbara, then loafed up and down the coast for a
year or two, spending quite a time in San Francisco. She was 'foreign
looking' and a stunner, all right. All of these dames drifted out about
the same time--"

"What was the Englishman's name?"

"J. Horace Medford. Front name may or may not have been James. I doubt if
his name could be found on any deeds, even in the south, where there was
no fire. He doesn't seem to have bought any property or transacted any
business. Just lived on a good-sized income. Of course, all the hotel
registers here were burnt, but I wired to Santa Barbara and Monterey and
got what I have given you.

"He had a yacht, and he took the woman with him everywhere. There was
always a flutter when they appeared at the theater. Of course she went by
his name, but as he never presented a letter all the time he was here and
it was quite obvious he could have brought all he wanted, and as men are
always 'on' anyhow, there was but one conclusion."

"Where did he bank? They might have his full name."

"Bank of California, but his remittances were sent to order of J. Horace
Medford, and, of course, he signed his cheques the same way."

"That sounds the most likely of the lot--and the most hopeful."

"Well, haven't handed you the fifth yet, and to my mind she's the most
likely of all. Ever hear of James Lawton's trouble with his wife?"

"Trouble? I thought she died."

"She--did--not. She went East suddenly about fifteen years ago, and soon
after a notice of her death appeared in the San Francisco papers. But
there was a tale of woe (for old Lawton) that I doubt if most of her own
crowd had even a suspicion of."

"Good heavens!" Ruyler recalled the apparent intimacy of his
mother-in-law and the senior member of the respectable firm of Lawton and
Cross. If "Madame Delano" were the former Mrs. Lawton, how many things
would be explained.

"This woman's name was Marie all right, and she was French, although she
seems to have been adopted by some people named Dubois and brought up in
California. She was quite the proper thing in high society, but the
trouble was that she liked another sort better. She was a regular
fly-by-night. It began when Norton Moore, a rotten limb of one of the
grandest trees in San Francisco Society--so respectable they didn't know
there was any side to life but their own--sneaked Mrs. Lawton and three
girls out of his mother's house one night when she was givin' a ball, put
'em in a hack and took 'em down to Gabrielle's. There they spent an hour
lookin' at Gabrielle's swell bunch dressed up and doin' the grand society
act with some of the men-about-town. Then they danced some and opened a
bottle or two.

"I never heard that this little jaunt hurt the girls any, but it woke up
something in Mrs. Lawton. After that--well, there are stories without
end. Won't take up your time tellin' them. The upshot was that one night
Lawton, who took a fling himself once in a while, met her at Gabrielle's
or some other joint, and she went East a day or two after. I suppose he
didn't get a divorce, partly on account of the kid--Aileen--partly
because he had no intention of trying his luck again."

"But is there any evidence that she had another child--that she
hid away?"

"No, but it might easy have been. This life went on for about eight
years, and it was at least five that she and Lawton merely lived under
the same roof for the sake of Aileen. They never did get on. That much,
at least, was well known. It might easy be--"

Ruyler made a rapid calculation. Aileen Lawton was just about three years
older than Hélène. She was fair like her father. There was no resemblance
between her and his wife, but the intimacy between them had been
spontaneous and had never lapsed. She had grown up quite unrestrained and
spoilt, and broken three engagements, and was always rushing about
proclaiming in one breath, that California was the greatest place on
earth and in the next that she should go mad if she didn't get out and
have a change. Another grievance was that although her father let her
have her own way, or rather did not pretend to control her, he gave her a
rather niggardly allowance for her personal expenses and she was supposed
to be heavily in debt. Ruyler thought he could guess where a good deal of
his wife's spare cash had gone to. He disliked Aileen Lawton as much as
he did Polly Roberts; more, if anything, because she might have been
clever and she chose to be a fool. Both of these intimate friends of his
wife were the reverse of the superb outdoor type he admired.

"Good Lord!" he said. "I don't think there's much choice."

But in a moment he shook his head. "Too many things don't connect. Where
did she get the money to go to her relations in Rouen--"

"He pensioned her off, of course."

"And the child? How did he consent to let her return here with a daughter
he probably never had heard of--"

"I figger out, either that she came into some money from a relation over
in France, or else she has something on the old boy, and wanting to come
back here and marry her daughter, she held him up. He's a pillar of the
church, been one of the Presidents of the Pacific-Union Club, has argued
cases before the Supreme Court that have been cabled all over the
country. When a man of that sort gets to Lawton's time of life he don't
want any scandals."

"All the same," said Ruyler positively, "I don't believe it. I think it
far more likely that he was a friend of Madame Delano's husband--assuming
that she had one--and that some money was left with him in trust for her
or the child."

"Well, it may be, but I incline to Lawton--"

"There's one person would know--"

"'Gene Bisbee. But I never went to that bunch yet for any information,
and I don't go this time except as a last resort. Of course he knows, and
that is one reason I believe she is Mrs. Lawton. He was Gabrielle's
maquereau for years--when he'd wrung enough out of her he set up for
himself--Well, I ain't through yet, by a long sight. Beliefs ain't
proof." He rose slowly from the deep chair, stretched himself, and
settled his hat firmly on his head.

"What's this I hear about a wonderful ruby your wife wore up to Gwynne's
the other night? Gosh! I'd like to see a sparkler like that."

"Why, by all means."

Ruyler swung the bookcase outward, opened the safe and handed him the
ruby. Spaulding regarded it with bulging eyes, and touched it with his
finger tips much as he would a newborn babe. "Some stone!" he said, as he
handed it back, "but why in thunder don't you keep it in a safe deposit
box? There are crooks that can crack any safe, and if they got wise to
this--oh, howdy, ma'am--"

Hélène had come in and stood behind the two men.

Spaulding snatched off his hat and she acknowledged her husband's
introduction graciously. She was dressed for the evening in white. Her
eyes looked abnormally large, and she kept dropping her lids as if to
keep them from setting in a stare. Her lovely mouth with its soft curves
was faded and set. The whole face was almost as stiff as a mask, and even
her graceful body was rigid. Ruyler saw Spaulding give her a sharp
"sizing-up" look, as he murmured,

"Well, so long, Guv. See you to-morrow. Hope the man'll turn out all
right after all."

"I hope so. He's a good chap otherwise."

"Good night, ma'am. Tell your husband to put that ruby in a safe
deposit box."

"Oh, nobody knows the safe is there except Mr. Ruyler and myself--"

"There have been safes hidden behind bookcases before," said Spaulding
dryly. "And crooks, like all the other pests of the earth, just drift
naturally to this coast. If I were you I'd have a detective on hand
whenever you wear that bit o' glass--not at a friendly affair like the
Gwynnes' dinner, of course, but--"

"Good idea!" exclaimed Ruyler. "My wife will wear the ruby to the
Thornton fête on the fourteenth. Will you be on hand to guard it?"

"Won't I? About half our force is engaged for that blow-out, but no one
but yours truly shall be guardian angel for the ruby. Well, good night
once more, and good luck."

       *       *       *       *       *

As soon as the detective had gone Ruyler drew his wife to him anxiously,
"What is it, Hélène? You look--well, you don't look yourself!"

"I have a headache," she said irritably. "Perhaps I'm developing nerves.
I do wish you would take me to New York. Other women get away from this
town once in a while."

"But you told me on Sunday that you adored California, that it was like
fairy land--"

"Oh, all the women out here bluff themselves and everybody else just
so long and then suddenly go to pieces. It's a wonderful state, but
what a life! What a life! Surely I was made for something better. I
don't wonder--"

"What?" he asked sharply.

"Oh, nothing. I feel ungrateful, of course. I really should be quite
happy. Think if I had to go back to Rouen to live--after this taste of
freedom, and beauty--for California has all the beauties of youth as well
as its idiocies and vices--"

"There is not the remotest danger of your ever being obliged to live in
Rouen again--"

"Oh, I don't know. You might get tired of me. We might fight like cat and
dog for want of common interests, of something to talk about. You would
never take to drink like so many of the men, but I might--well, I'm glad
dinner is ready at last."

But she played with her food. That she was repressing an intense and
mounting excitement Ruyler did not doubt, and he also suspected that she
wished to broach some particular subject from which she turned in panic.
They were alone after coffee had been served, and he said abruptly:

"What is it, Hélène? Do you want money? I have an idea that Polly Roberts
and Aileen Lawton borrow heavily from you, and that they may have cleaned
you out completely on the first--"

"How dear of you to guess--or rather to get so close. It's worse than
that. I--that is--well--poor Polly went quite mad over a pearl necklace
at Shreve's and they told her to take it and wear it for a few days,
thinking, I suppose, she would never give it up and would get the money
somehow. She--oh, it's too dreadful--she lost it--and she dares not tell
Rex--he's lost quite a lot of money lately--and she's mad with
fright--and I told her--"

"Where did she lose it? It's not easy to lose a necklace, especially when
the clasp is new."

"She thinks it was stolen from her neck at the theater--you heard what
that man said."

"Ah! What was the price of the necklace?"

"Twenty thousand dollars. The pearls weren't so very large, of course,
but Polly never had had a pearl necklace--"

"I'll let her have the money to pay for it on one condition--that it is a
transaction, between Roberts and myself--"

"No! No! Not for anything!"

"I've lent him money before--"

"But he'd never forgive Polly. He--he's one of those men who make an
awful fuss on the first of every month when his wife's bills come in."

"There must be a bass chorus on the first of every month in San
Francisco--"

"Oh, please don't jest. She must have this money."

"She may have it--on those terms. I'll have no business dealings with
women of the Polly Roberts sort. That would be the last I'd ever see of
the twenty thousand--"

"I never thought you were stingy!"

Ruyler, in spite of his tearing anxiety, laughed outright. "Is that your
idea of how the indulgent American husband becomes rich?"

"Oh--of course I wouldn't have you lose such a sum. I really have learned
the value of money in the abstract, although I can't care for it as much
as men do."

"I have no great love of money, but there is a certain difference between
a miser and a levelheaded business man--"

"Price, I must have that money. Polly--oh, I am afraid she will
kill herself!"

"Not she. A more selfish little beast never breathed. She'll squeeze the
money out of some one, never fear! But I think I'll lock up your jewels
in case you are tempted to raise money on them for her--Darling!"

Hélène, without a sound, had fainted.



CHAPTER IX


They had intended to go to the theater but Ruyler put her to bed at
once. He offered to read to her, but she turned her back on him with
cold disdain, and he went to the little invisible cupboard where she
kept her own jewels and took out the heavy gold box which had been the
wedding present of one of his California business friends who owned a
quartz mine.

"I shall put this in the safe," he said incisively, "for, while I admire
your stanchness in friendship, even for such an unworthy object as Polly
Roberts, I do not propose that my wife shall be selling or pawning her
jewels for any reason whatever. Think over the proposal I made
downstairs. If Polly is willing I'll lend Roberts the money to-morrow."

She had thrown an arm over her face and she made no reply. He went down
stairs and put the box in the safe. It occurred to him that she had
watched him open and close the safe several times but she certainly never
had written the combination down, and it had taken him a long while to
commit it to memory himself.

He had glanced over the contents of the box before he locked it in. The
jewels were all there, the string of pearls that he had given her on
their marriage day, a few wedding presents, and several rings and
trinkets he had bought for her since. The value was perhaps twenty
thousand dollars, for he had told her that she must wait several years
before he could give her the jewels of a great lady. When she was thirty,
and really needed them to make up for fading charms--it had been one of
their pleasant little jokes.

As Ruyler set the combination he sighed and wondered whether their days
of joking were over. Their life had suddenly shot out of focus and it
would require all his ingenuity and patience, aided by friendly
circumstance, to swing it into line again. He did not believe a word of
the necklace story. Somebody was blackmailing the poor child. If he could
only find out who! He made up his mind suddenly to put this problem also
in the hands of Spaulding for solution. The question of his
mother-in-law's antecedents was important enough, but that of his wife's
happiness and his own was paramount.

He decided to go to the theater himself, for he was in no condition for
sleep or the society of men at the club, nor could any book hold his
attention. He prayed that the play would be reasonably diverting.

He walked down town and as he entered the lobby of the Columbia at the
close of the first act he saw 'Gene Bisbee and D.V. Bimmer, who was now
managing a hotel in San Francisco, standing together. He also saw Bisbee
nudge Bimmer, and they both stared at him openly, the famous hotel man
with some sympathy in his wise secretive eyes, the reformed peer of the
underworld with a certain speculative contempt.

Ruyler, to his intense irritation, felt himself flushing, and wondered if
the man's regard might be translated: "Just how much shall I be able to
touch him for?" He wished he would show his hand and dissipate the
damnable web of mystery which Fate seemed weaving hourly out of her
bloated pouch, but he doubted if Bisbee, or whoever it was that tormented
his wife, would approach him save as a last resource. They were clever
enough to know that her keenest desire would be to keep the disgraceful
past from the knowledge of her husband, rather than from a society
seasoned these many years to erubescent pasts.

Moreover it is always easier to blackmail a woman than a man, and Price
Ruyler could not have looked an easy mark to the most optimistic of
social brigands.

He found it impossible to fix his mind on the play; the cues of the first
act eluded him, and the characters and dialogue were too commonplace to
make the story negligible.

At the end of the second act Ruyler made up his mind to go home and try
to coax his wife back into her customary good temper, pet her and make
her forget her little tragedy. He still hesitated to broach the subject
to her directly, but it was possible that by some diplomatically
analogous tale he could surprise her into telling him the truth.

During the long drive he turned over in his mind the data Spaulding had
placed before him during the afternoon. He rejected the theory that
Madame Delano was Mrs. Lawton as utterly fantastic, but admitted a
connection. Hélène had spoken more than once of Mrs. Lawton's kindness to
"maman" when her baby was born during her "enforced stay in San
Francisco," and it was quite possible that the two had been friends, and
that the young mother had adopted the name of Dubois when calling upon
the nuns of the convent at St. Peter, either because it would naturally
occur to her, or from some deeper design which, he could not fathom....

Yes, the connection with Mrs. Lawton was indisputable and it remained for
him to "figger out" as Spaulding would say, which of these women, the
gambler's wife, the notorious "Madam," Gabrielle, the briefly coruscating
Pauline Marie, or the Englishman's mistress, a woman of Mrs. Lawton's
position would be most likely to befriend.

The first three might be dismissed without argument. She had been no
frequenter of "gambling joints" whatever her peccadilloes; Gabrielle,
he happened to know, had died some eight or ten years ago, and
Mademoiselle Pauline Marie, if she had had a child, which was extremely
doubtful, was the sort that sends unwelcome offspring post haste to the
foundling asylum.

There remained only the spurious Mrs. Medford, and she was the
probability on all counts. What more likely than that she and Mrs. Lawton
had met at one of the great winter hotels in Southern California, and
foregathered? Certainly they would be congenial spirits.

When the baby came Mrs. Lawton would naturally see her through her
trouble, and advise her later what to do with the child. No doubt,
Medford found it in the way.

After that Ruyler could only fumble. Did Medford desert the woman,
driving her on the stage?--or elsewhere? Did they start for Japan, and
did he die on the voyage? Did he merely give the woman a pension and tell
her to go back to Rouen, or to the devil? It was positive that when
Hélène was five years old Madame Delano had gone back to her relatives
with some trumped up story and been received by them.

Moreover, this theory coincided with, his belief that Hélène's father
was a gentleman. No doubt he had been already married when he met the
young French girl, superbly handsome, and intelligent--possibly at one
of the French watering places, even in Rouen itself, swarming with
tourists in Summer. They might have met in the spacious aisles of the
Cathedral, she risen from her prayers, he wandering about, Baedeker in
hand, and fallen in love at sight. One of Earth's million romances,
regenerating the aged planet for a moment, only to sink back and
disappear into her forgotten dust.

His own romance? What was to be the end of that!

But he returned to his argument. He wanted a coherent story to tell his
wife, and he wanted also to believe that his wife's father had been a
gentleman.

Medford, like so many of his eloping kind, had made instinctively for
California with the beautiful woman he loved but could not marry. Santa
Barbara, Ruyler had heard, had been the favorite haven for two
generations of couples fleeing from irking bonds in the societies of
England and the continent of Europe. Southern California combined a wild
independence with a languor that blunted too sensitive nerves, offered an
equable climate with months on end of out of door life, boating,
shooting, riding, driving, motoring, romantic excursions, and even sport
if a distinguished looking couple played the game well and told a
plausible story.

Breeding was a part of Ruyler's religion, as component in his code as
honor, patriotism, loyalty, or the obligation of the strong to protect
the weak. Far better the bend sinister in his own class than a legitimate
parent of the type of 'Gene Bisbee or D.V. Bimmer. Ruyler was a "good
mixer" when business required that particular form of diplomacy, and the
familiarities of Jake Spaulding left his nerves unscathed, but in bone
and brain cells he was of the intensely respectable aristocracy of
Manhattan Island and he never forgot it. He had surrendered to a girl of
no position without a struggle, and made her his wife, but it is doubtful
if he would even have fallen in love with her if she had been underbred
in appearance or manner. He had never regretted his marriage for a
moment, not even since this avalanche of mystery and portending scandal
had descended upon him; if possible he loved his troubled young wife more
than ever--with a sudden instinct that worse was to come he vowed that
nothing should ever make him love her less.

When he arrived at his house he found two notes on the hall table
addressed to himself. The first was from Hélène and read:

"Polly telephoned that she would send her car for me to go down to the
Fairmont and dance. I cannot sleep so I am going. _She cannot sleep
either_! Forgive me if I was cross, but I am terribly worried for her.
Don't wait up for me. Hélène."

He read this note with a frown but without surprise. It was to be
expected that she would seek excitement until her present fears were
allayed and her persecutors silenced.

He determined to order Spaulding to have her shadowed constantly for at
least a fortnight and note made of every person in whose company she
appeared to be at all uneasy, whether they were of her own set or not. It
would also be worth while to have Madame Delano's rooms watched, for it
was possible that she would summon Hélène there to meet Bisbee or others
of his ilk.

Then he picked up the other note. It was from Spaulding, and as he read
it all his finespun theories vanished and once more he was adrift on an
uncharted sea without a landmark in sight.

"Dear Sir," began the detective, who was always formal on paper. "I've
just got the information required from Holbrook Centre. We didn't half
believe there was such a place, if you remember? Well there is, and
according to the parish register Marie Jeanne Perrin was married to James
Delano on July 25th, 1891. She was there, visiting some French
relations--they went back soon after--and he had left there when he was
about sixteen and had only come back that once to see his mother, who was
dying. Nothing seems to have been known about him in his home town except
a sort of rumor that he was a bad lot and lived somewheres in California.
Can you beat it? But don't think I'm stumped. I'm working on a new line
and I'm not going to say another word until I've got somewheres.

"Yours truly,

"J. SPAULDING."

"Delano's father was a Forty-niner, and lived in California till 1860,
when he went home to H. C. and died soon after. There were wild stories
about him, too."



CHAPTER X


I

During the next few days Ruyler saw little of his wife. He was obliged to
take two business trips out of town and as he could not return until ten
o'clock at night he advised her to have company to dinner and take her
guests to the play. But she preferred to dine with Polly Roberts and
Aileen Lawton, and she spent her days for the most part at Burlingame,
motoring down with one or more of her friends, or sent for by some
enthusiastic girl admirer already established there for the summer.

Ruyler was quite willing to forego temporarily his plan of personal
guardianship, as the more she roamed abroad unattended the better could
Spaulding watch her associates. The detective had his agents in society,
as well as in the Palace Hotel, and on the third day he sent a brief note
to Ruyler announcing that he had "lit on to something" that would make
his employer's "hair curl, but no more at present from yours truly."

"This time," he added, "I'm on the right track and know it. No more fancy
theories. But I won't say a word till I can deliver the goods. Give your
wife all the rope you can."

Price and Hélène met briefly and amiably and she did not again broach the
subject of the loan for her friend, nor did she ask for her jewels. It
was apparent that she was proudly determined to conceal whatever terrors
or even worries that might haunt her, but the effort deprived her of all
her native vivacity; she was almost formal in manner and her white face
grew more like a classic mask daily.

On the evening before the Thornton fête, however, Price was able to dine
at home. They met at table and he saw at once that she either had
recovered her spirits or was making a deliberate attempt to create the
impression of a carefree young woman happy in a tête-à-tête dinner with a
busy husband.

Her talk for the most part was of the great entertainment at San Mateo.
The weather promised to be simply magnificent. Wasn't that exactly like
Flora Thornton's luck? The immense grounds were simply swarming with
workmen; wagon-loads of all sorts of things went through the gates after
every train--simply one procession after another; but no one else could
so much as get her nose through those gates.

Hélène, with all her old childish glee, related how she and Aileen, Polly
(who apparently had forgotten her impending doom), and two or three other
girls, had called up Mrs. Thornton on the telephone every ten minutes for
an hour--pretending it was long distance to make sure of a personal
response--and begged to be allowed to go over and see the preparations,
until finally, in a towering rage, her ladyship had replied that if they
called her again she would withdraw her invitations.

"How we did long for an airship. It would have been such fun, for she
does so disapprove of all of us; thinks us a little flock of silly geese.
Well, we are, I guess, but wasn't she one herself once? She has a pretty
hard time even now making life interesting for herself--out here, anyhow.

"Yesterday we motored down to Menlo and dropped in at the Maynards. There
were a lot of the props of San Francisco society, all as rich as croesus,
sitting on the veranda crocheting socks or sacks for a crop of new babies
that are due. One or two were hemstitching lawn, or embroidering a
monogram, or something else equally useless or virtuous. They were
talking mild gossip, and didn't even have powder on. It was ghastly--"

"Hélène," said Ruyler abruptly, "what do you think is the secret of
happiness--I mean, of course, the enduring sort--perhaps content would be
the better word. Happiness is too dependent upon love, and love was never
meant for daily food. You are not by nature frivolous, and you are
capable of thought. Have you ever given any to the secret of content?"

"Yes, work," she answered promptly. "Everybody should have his daily job,
prescribed either by the state or by necessity; but something he must do
if both he and society would continue to exist."

Ruyler elevated his eyebrows and looked at her curiously. "Socialism. I
didn't know you had ever heard of it."

"Aileen and I are not such fools as we look--as you were good enough to
intimate just now. We went to a series of lectures early last winter over
at the University, on Socialism--a lot of us formed a class, but all
except Aileen and I dropped out.

"We continued to read for a time after the lectures were over, but of
course that didn't last. One drops everything for want of stimulus, and
when one begins to flutter again one is lost.

"But I heard and read and thought enough to deduce that the only vital
interest in life after one's secret happiness--which one would not dare
spread out too thin if one could in this American life--is necessary work
well done. And that is quite different from those fussy interests and
fads we create or take up for the sake of thinking we are busy and
interested.

"Polly's mother once told me she never was so happy in her life as during
those weeks after the earthquake and fire when all the servants had run
away and she had to cook for the family out in the street on a stove they
bought down in a little shop in Polk Street and set up and surrounded on
three sides by 'inside blinds.' She happened to have a talent for
cooking, and without her the family would have starved. Polly tied a
towel round her head and did the housework, or stood in a line and got
the daily rations from the Government. She never thought once of--"

"Of what?"

"Oh, of doing anything rather than expire of boredom. She and Rex had
been married a year and were living at home. Rex and Mr. Carter helped
excavate down in the business district, as the working class wouldn't
lift a finger as long as the Government was feeding them."

"There you are! Their ideal is complete leisure, and that of our delicate
products of the highest civilization--compulsory jobs! What does progress
mean but the leisure to enjoy the arts and all the finer fruits of
progress? What else do we men really work for?"

"Progress has gone too far and defeated its own ends. Every healthy human
being should be forced to work six hours a day.

"That would leave eight for sleep and ten for enjoyment of the arts and
luxuries. Then we really should enjoy them, and if we couldn't have them
unless we did our six hours' stint, ennui and the dissipations that it
breeds would be unknown.

"I can tell you it is demoralizing, disintegrating, to wake up morning
after morning--about ten o'clock!--and know that you have nothing worth
while to do for another day--for all the days!--that you have no place in
the world except as an ornament! Women of limited incomes and a family of
growing children have enough, to do, of course--too much--they never can
feel superfluous and demoralized--except by envy--but as for us! Why, I
can tell you, it is a marvel we don't all go straight to the devil."

They were alone with the coffee, and she was pounding the table with her
little fist. Her cheeks were deeply flushed and her black somber eyes
were opening and closing rapidly, as if alternately magnetized by some
ugly vision and sweeping it aside.

Price watched her with deep interest and deeper anxiety. "A good many
women go to the devil," he said. "But you are not that sort."

"Oh, I don't know. I never could get up enough interest in another man to
solve the problem in the usual way--but there are other
resources--I--well--"

"What?" Price sat up very straight.

"Oh, dance ourselves into tuberculosis," she said lightly, and dropping
her eyelashes. "And tuberculosis of the mind, certainly. On the whole, I
think I prefer physical to spiritual death....

"However--I found out one thing to-day. The dancing is to be out of
doors. There will be an immense arbor or something of the sort erected
on the lawn above the sunken garden. My gown is a dream and I shall wear
the ruby."

"Yes," he said smiling. "You shall wear the ruby. But you must expect me
to keep very close to you--"

"The closer the better." She smiled charmingly. "Have you tried on
your costume?"

"I haven't even looked at it. Who am I?"

"Caesar Borgia. You are not much like him yourself, darling, but I
thought he was not so very unlike modern American business, as a whole."

Ruyler laughed. "Why not Machiavelli? But as no doubt it is black velvet,
much puffed and slashed, I may hope it will be becoming to my nondescript
fairness. You must promise not to wander off for long walks with any of
your admirers. Not that I fear the admirers, but the thieves that are
bound to get into that crowd one way or another. They have a way of
unclasping necklaces even of the most circumspect wives in the company of
not too absorbing men."

Her eyes opened and flashed, but he had no time to analyze that fleeting
expression before she was promising volubly not to wander from the
illuminated spaces.

       *       *       *       *       *

He interrupted her suddenly. They were in the library now, and sat down
on a little sofa in front of the window. The moon was high and brilliant
and the great expanse of water with the high clusters of lights on the
islands, the sharp hard silhouette of the encircling mountains, the green
and silver stars so high above, the moving golden dots of an incoming
liner from Japan, the long rows of arc lights along the shore, made a
landscape of the night that Mrs. Thornton with all her millions hardly
could rival.

"Are you not grateful for this?" he asked whimsically and a little
wistfully.

"Oh, Price, dear, I am more grateful than you will ever know. I have not
a fault on earth to find with you. You would be the prince of the fairy
tale if you were not so busy.

"But that is the tragedy. You are busy--I am not."

"Well, let us have the personal solution--one that fits ourselves. You
have time to think it out. I, alas! have not." He took her hand and
fondled it, hoping for her confidence.

"I don't know." She had a deep rich voice and she could make it very
intense. "I only know there must--must--be a change--if--if--I am
to--Can't you take me abroad for a year? That might not be work, but at
least I should be learning some thing--I have traveled almost not at
all--and, at least, I should have you."

"But later? Most of your friends have spent a good deal of time in
Europe. I doubt if any state in the Union goes to Europe as often as
California! They are all the more discontented when they come back here
to vegetate--as Mrs. Thornton would express it.

"It would be a blessed interval, but no more."

"We should have time to think out a new and different life....

"You know--in the class I come from--in France--the women are the
partners of their husbands. Even in the higher bourgeoisie, that is,
where they still are in business, not living on great inherited
fortunes--

"My uncle had a small silk house in Rouen, and my aunt kept the books
and attended to all the correspondence. He always said she was the
cleverer business man of the two; but French women have a real genius
for business. Some of our great ladies help their husbands manage
their estates.

"It is only the few that live for pleasure and glitter in the most
glittering city in the world that have furnished the novelists the
material to give the world a false impression of France.

"The majority live such sober, useful, busy lives that only the highest
genius could make people read about them.

"Of course, young girls dream of something far more brilliant, and wait
eagerly for the husband who shall deliver them from their narrow
restricted little spheres... perhaps take them to the great world of
Paris; but they settle down, even in Paris, and devote themselves to
their husbands' interests, which are their own, and to their children....

"That is it! They are indispensable--not as women, but as partners. I
barely know what your business is about--only that you are in some
tremendous wholesale commission thing with tentacles that reach half
round the world.

"Only the wives of politicians are any real help to their husbands in
this country. Isabel Gwynne! What a help she will be--has been--to Mr.
Gwynne. But then she was always busy. When her uncle died he left her
that little ranch and scarcely anything else, she took to raising
chickens--not to fuss about and fill in her time, but to keep a roof over
her head and have enough to eat and wear. I doubt if she ever was bored
in her life."

"I can't take you into the business, sweetheart," said Ruyler slowly.
"For that would violate the traditions of a very old conservative house.
But I can quite see that something must be done....

"I married you to make you happy and to be happy myself. I do not intend
that our marriage shall be a failure. It is possible that Harold would
consent to come out here and take my place. The business no longer
requires any great amount of initiative, but the most unremitting
vigilance. I have thought--it has merely passed through my mind--but you
might hate it--how would you like it if I bought a large fruit ranch,
several thousand acres, and put up a canning factory besides? I would
make you a full partner and you would have to give to your share of the
work considerably more than six hours of the day--

"We could build a large, plain, comfortable house, take all our books and
pictures, subscribe to all the newspapers, magazines and reviews, keep up
with everything that is going on in the world, have house parties once in
a while, come to town for a few weeks in summer for the plays.

"We should live practically an out-of-door life--if you preferred we
could buy a cattle ranch in the south. That would mean the greater part
of the day in the saddle--

"How does it appeal to you?"

He had turned off the electricity, but as he fumbled with his
embryonic idea he saw her eyes sparkle and a light of passionate hope
dawn on her face.

"Oh, I should love it! But love it! Especially the fruit ranch. That
would be like France--our orchards are as wonderful as yours, even if
nothing could be as big as a California ranch--

"That is, if it would not be a makeshift. Another form of playing at
life."

"I can assure you that we will have to make it pay or go to the wall. My
father would probably disinherit me, for it would be breaking another
tradition, and he compliments me by believing that I am the best business
man in the firm at present.

"My only capital would be such of my fortune as is not tied up in the
House--about a hundred thousand dollars in Government bonds. Of course,
in time, if all goes well, and California does not have another
setback--if business improves all over the world--I shall be able to take
the rest of my money out, that I put into this end of the business after
the fire; but that may be ten years hence. I shouldn't even ask for
interest on it--that would be the only compensation I could offer for
deserting the firm.

"Perhaps I had better buy a cattle ranch. Then, if we fail, I shall at
least have had the training of a cowboy and can hire out."

Hélène laughed and clapped her hands.

"Fail? You? But I should help you to make it a success--I should be
really necessary?"

"Indispensable. Either you or another partner."

"No! No! I shall be the partner--"

"And you mean that you would be willing to bury your youth, your beauty,
on a ranch? I have heard bitter confidences out here from women forced to
waste their youth on a ranch. You are one of the fine flowers of
civilization--"

"That soon wither in the hothouse atmosphere. I wish to become a hardy
annual. And when the ranch was running like a clock we could take a month
or two in Europe every year or so--"

"Rather! And I could show you off--Bother! I'll not answer."

The telephone bell on the little table in the corner (his own private
wire) rang so insistently that Ruyler finally was magnetized reluctantly
across the room. He put the receiver to his ear and asked, "Well?" in his
most inhospitable tones.

The answer came in Spaulding's voice, and in a moment he sat down.

At the end of ten minutes he hung the receiver on the hook and returned
to find Hélène standing by the window, all the light gone from her eyes,
staring out at the hard brilliant scene with an expression of
hopelessness that had relaxed the very muscles of her face.

Ruyler was shocked, and more apprehensive than he had yet been. "Hélène!"
he exclaimed. "What is the matter? Surely you may confide in me if you
are in trouble."

"Oh, but I am not," she replied coldly. "Did I look odd? I was just
wondering how many really happy people there were behind those
lights--over on Belvedere, at Sausalito--the lights look so golden and
steady and sure--and glimpses of interiors at night are always so
fascinating--but I suppose most of the people are commonplace and just
dully discontented--"

"Well, I am afraid I have something to tell you that hardly will restore
your delightful gayety of a few moments ago. I am sorry--but--well, the
fact is I must leave for the north to-morrow morning and hardly shall be
able to return before the next night. I am really distressed. I wanted so
much to take you to-morrow night--"

"And I can't wear the ruby?" Her voice was shrill. Ruyler wondered if his
stimulated imagination fancied a note of terror in it.

"I--I--am afraid not--darling--"

"But that Spaulding man will be there to watch--"

"Unfortunately--I forgot to tell you--he cannot go--he is on an important
case. Besides--when I make a promise I usually keep it."

"But--but--" She stammered as if her brain were confused, then turned and
pressed her face to the window. "I suppose nothing matters," she said
dully. "Perhaps you will let me wear my own little ruby. After all, that
was maman's, and she gave it to me before I was married. I should like to
wear one jewel."

"You shall have all your jewels, if you will promise not to give them to
Polly Roberts or any one else."

"I promise."

He went over and opened the safe, and when he rose with the gold jewel
case he saw that she was standing behind him. Once more it flitted
through his mind that she had watched him manipulate the combination
several times, but he had little confidence in any but a professional
thief's ability to memorize such an involved assortment of figures as had
been invented for this particular safe. It was only once in a while that
he was not obliged to refer to the key that he carried in his pocketbook.

Nor was she looking at the safe, but staring upward at a maharajah,
covered with pearls of fantastic size. She took the box from his hand
with a polite word of thanks, offered her cheek to be kissed, and
left the room.

Price threw himself into a chair and rehearsed the instructions Spaulding
had given him.



CHAPTER XI


It was half-past eleven when Ruyler and Spaulding, masked and wearing
colored silk dominoes, entered the great gates of the Thornton estate in
San Mateo, the detective merely displaying something in his palm to the
stern guardians that kept the county rabble at bay.

The mob stood off rather grumblingly, for they would have liked to get
closer to that gorgeous mass of light they could merely glimpse through
the great oaks of the lower part of the estate, and to the music so
seductive in the distance.

They were not a rabble to excite pity, by any means. A few ragged tramps
had joined the crowd, possibly a few pickpockets from the city, watching
their opportunity to slip in behind one of the automobiles that brought
the guests from the station or from the estates up and down the valley.
They were, for the most part, trades-people from the little towns--San
Mateo, Redwood City--or the wives of the proletariat--or the servants of
the neighboring estates. But, although, they grumbled and envied, they
made no attempt to force their way in; it was only the light-fingered
gentry the police at the great iron gates were on the lookout for.

Ruyler, if his mind had been less harrowed with the looming and possibly
dire climax of his own secret drama, would have laughed aloud at this
melodramatic entrance to the grounds of one of his most intimate friends.
He and Spaulding had walked from the train, but they were not detained as
long as a gay party of young people from Atherton, who teased the police
by refusing to present their cards or lift their masks. Ruyler knew them
all, but they finally sped past him without even a glance of contempt for
mere foot passengers, even though they looked like a couple of dodging
conspirators.

He had met Spaulding at the station in San Francisco, and private
conversation on the crowded train had been impossible. When they had
walked a few yards along the wide avenue, as brilliant as day with its
thousands of colored lights concealed in the astonished pines, Ruyler sat
deliberately down upon a bench and motioned the detective to take the
seat beside him.

"It is time you gave me some sort of a hint," he said. "After all, it is
my affair--"

"I know, but as I said, you might not approve my methods, and if you
balk, all is up. We've got the chance of our lives. It's now or never."

"I do not at all like the idea that you may be forcing me into a position
where I may find myself doing something I shall be ashamed of for the
rest of my life."

Ruyler's tone was haughty. He did not relish being led round by the nose,
and his nerves were jumping.

"Now! Now!" said Spaulding soothingly, as he lit a cigar. "When you hire
a detective you hire him to do things you wouldn't do yourself; and if
you won't give him the little help he's got to have from you or quit,
what's the use of hiring him at all?

"I know perfectly well that nothing but your own eyes would convince you
of what it's up to me to prove--to say nothing of the fact that I count
on your entrance at the last minute to put an end to the whole bad
business. For it is a bad business--believe me. But not a word of that
now. You couldn't pry open my lips with a five dollar Havana."

"Well--you say you had a talk with Madame Delano to-day. Surely you can
tell me some of the things you have discovered."

"A whole lot. I've been waiting for the chance. Not that I got anything
out of her. She's one grand bluffer and no mistake. I take off my hat to
her. When I told her that I could lay hands on the proof that she was
Marie Garnett--although Jim had married her in his home town under his
own name--and that she'd gone home to France with the kid when it was
five, taking the cue from her friend, Mrs. Lawton, and sending word back
she was dead--"

"You were equally sure a few days ago that she was Mrs. Lawton--"

"That was just my constructive imagination on the loose. It was a lovely
theory, and I sort of hung on to it. But I had no real data to go on. Now
I've got the evidence that Jim Garnett died two months before the fire
burnt up pretty nearly all the records, and that his body was shipped
back to Holbrook Centre to be buried in the family plot. You see, he was
sick for some time out on Pacific Avenue, and his death was registered
where the fire didn't go--"

"But what put you on?" asked Ruyler impatiently. "I should almost rather
it had been any one else. He seems to have been about as bad a lot as
even this town ever turned out."

"He was, all right, and his father before him, although they came from
mighty fine folks back east. His father came out in '49 with the gold
rush crowd, panned out a good pile, and then, liking the life--San
Francisco was a gay little burg those days--opened one of the crack
gambling houses down on the Old Plaza. Plate glass windows you could look
through from outside if you thought it best to stay out, and see hundreds
of men playing at tables where the gold pieces--often slugs--were piled
as high as their noses, and hundreds more walking up and down the aisles
either waiting for a chance to sit, or hoping to appease their hunger
with the sight of so much gold. They didn't try any funny business, for
every gambler had a six-shooter in his hip pocket, and sometimes on the
table beside him.

"Sometimes men would walk out and shoot themselves on the sidewalk in
front of the windows, and not a soul inside would so much as look up.
Well, Delano the first had a short life but a merry one. He couldn't keep
away from the tables himself, and first thing he knew he was broke, sold
up. He went back to the mines, but his luck had gone, and his wife--she
had followed him out here--persuaded him to go back home and live in the
old house, on a little income she had; and he bored all the neighbors to
death for a few years about 'early days in California' until he dropped
off. Her name was Mary Garnett.

"That's what put me on--the G. in the middle of the name of the man
Madame Delano married. I telegraphed to Holbrook Centre to find out what
his middle name was, and after that it was easy. I also found out that he
was born in California, and I guess that old wild life was in his blood.
He stood Holbrook Centre until he was sixteen, and then homed back and
took up the trade he just naturally had inherited.

"I figger out that he didn't tell his wife the truth when he married her
back there, not until he was on the train pretty close to S.F., and then
he told her because he couldn't help himself. She couldn't help herself,
either, and besides she was in love with him. He was a handsome,
distinguished lookin' chap, and he kept right on bein' a fascinator as
long as he lived.

"I guess that's the reason she left him in the end. She stood for the
gambling joint, and, although she had a cool sarcastic way with her that
kept the men who fell for her at a distance, she was a good decoy, and
she looked a regular queen at the head of the green table. She was chummy
with Jim's intimates, two of whom were D.V. Bimmer and 'Gene Bisbee, but
even 'Gene didn't dare take any liberties with her.

"It was natural that a woman brought up as she had been should have kept
her child out of it, and I figger that she got disgusted with Jim and
came to the full sense of her duty to the poor kid about the same time.
But she didn't go until Jim settled so much a month on her through old
Lawton--who used to amuse himself at Garnett's a good deal in those days,
and who was one of her best friends.

"Well, she also got Garnett to make a curious sort of a will, leaving his
money to James Lawton, to 'dispose of as agreed upon.' She had a thrifty
business head, had that French dame, and she had made him buy property
when he was flush, and put it in her name, although she gave a written
agreement never to sell out as long as he lived.

"He agreed to let her go because he was dippy about another skirt at the
time, and, besides, she played on his family pride--lineal descendant of
the Delanos, Garnetts, and so forth. He'd never seen the kid after it was
taken to the convent, but I guess he liked the idea, all right, of its
being brought up wearing the old name, and gettin' rid of Marie at the
same time.

"She was too canny to leave him a loophole for divorce, even in
California; but I guess that didn't worry him much.

"If the earthquake and fire hadn't come so soon after the will was
probated there might have been a lot of speculation about it, among men,
at least. Those old gossips in the Club windows would soon have been
putting two and two together; but the calamity that burnt up all the Club
windows, just swept it clean out of their heads.

"I figger out that old Lawton continued to pay Madame Delano the income
she'd been havin' both from Jim and her properties, out of his own
pocket, until the city was rebuilt and he could settle the estate. He had
to borrow the money to rebuild the houses Jim had put up on his wife's
property, and when things got to a certain pass he wrote Madame D. to
come along and take over her property. She'll be good and rich one of
these days, when all the mortgages are paid off and Lawton paid back, but
it was wise for her to stay on the job. Lawton is dead straight, but his
partner is sowing wild oats in his old age--good old S.F. style, and I
guess it ain't wise to tempt him too far. Get me?"

"It's atrocious!"

"Oh, not nearly so bad as it might be. Just think, if it had been
Gabrielle, or Pauline-Marie, or even Mrs. Lawton. That's the worst kind
of bad blood for a woman to inherit. Marie Garnett hung on like grim
death to what the grand society you move in pretends to value most, and
the Lord knows she'll never lose it now.

"Nor need there be any scandal to drive your family to suicide. The thing
to do is to hustle Madame Delano out of San Francisco. She'll go, all
right, with you to look after her interests. She don't fancy being
recognized and blackmailed, or I miss my guess. You may have to pay
Bisbee something, but D. V.'s not that sort, and I don't think anybody
else is on. If they've suspected they'll soon forget it when the old lady
disappears from the Palace Hotel. Gee, but she has a nerve."

"She is an old cynic. If she had any snobbery in her she'd be here
to-night, rubbing elbows with the women who never knew of her existence
twenty years ago, although their husbands did. It has satisfied her
ironic French soul to sit in the court of the Palace Hotel day after day
and defy San Francisco to recognize Marie Garnett in the obese Madame
Delano, whose daughter is one of the great ladies of the city to whose
underworld she once belonged, and from whose filthy profits she derives
her income. Good God!"

He sat forward and clutched his head, but Spaulding, who had drawn out
his watch, tapped him on the shoulder.

"Come on," he said. "Time's gettin' short. The stunt is to be pulled off
just before supper."



CHAPTER XII


I

They walked rapidly up the close avenue--planted far back in the Fifties
by Ford Thornton's grandfather--the blaze of light at the end of the long
perspective growing wider and wider. As they emerged they paused for a
moment, dazzled by the scene.

The original home of the Thorntons had been of ordinary American
architecture and covered with ivy; it might have been transplanted from
some old aristocratic village in the East. Flora Thornton had maintained
that only one style of architecture was appropriate in a state settled by
the Spaniards, and famous for its missions of Moorish architecture. Fordy
loved the old house, but as he denied his wife nothing he had given her a
million, three years before the fire which so sadly diminished fortunes,
and told her to build any sort of house she pleased; if she would only
promise to live in it and not desert him twice a year for Europe.

The immense structure, standing on a knoll, bore a certain resemblance to
the Alhambra, with its heavy square towers; its arched gateways leading
into courtyards with fountains or sunken pools, the red brown of the
stucco which looked like stone and was not. To-night it was blazing with
lights of every color.

So were the ancient oaks, which were old when the Alhambra was built,
the shrubberies, the vast rose garden. The surface of the pool in the
sunken garden reflected the green or red masses of light that shot up
every few moments from the four corners of the terrace surrounding it.
On the lawn just above and to the right of the house, a platform had
been built for dancing; it was enclosed on three sides with an arbor of
many alcoves, lined with flowers, soft lights concealed in depending
clusters of oranges.

And everywhere there were people dressed in costumes, gorgeous,
picturesque, impressive, historic, or recklessly invented, but suggesting
every era when dress counted at all. They danced on the great platform to
the strains of the invisible band, strolled along the terraces above the
sunken garden, wandered through the groves and "grounds," or sat in the
windows of the great house or in its courts. All wore the little black
satin mask prescribed by Mrs. Thornton, and created an illusion that
transported the imagination far from California. Ruyler had a whimsical
sense of being on another star where the favored of the different periods
of Earth had foregathered for the night.

But there was nothing ghostly in the shrill chatter as incessant as the
twitter of the agitated birds, who found their night snatched from them
and hardly knew whether to scold or join in the chorus.

Ruyler had always protested against the high-pitched din made by even six
American women when gathered together, and to the infernal racket at any
large entertainment; but to-night he sighed, forgetting his apprehensions
for the moment.

He had exquisite memories of these lovely grounds; he and Hélène had
spent several days with Mrs. Thornton during their engagement, and she
had lent them the house for their honeymoon; he would have liked to
wander through the pleasant spaces with his wife to-night and make love
to her, instead of spying on her in the company of a detective.

For that, he was forced to conclude, was what he had been brought for.
Spaulding had mentioned her name casually, when telling him that he must
be on hand to nab the "party" who was at the bottom of the whole trouble;
but Spaulding hardly could have watched the person who was blackmailing
without including her in his surveillance. He wished now that he had left
that part of the mystery to take care of itself, trusting to his
mother-in-law's departure to relieve the situation. No doubt she would
have told him the truth herself rather than leave her daughter to the
mercy of the men who knew her secret.

But he was still far from suspecting the worst of the truth.

There were a number of men in fancy dominoes; he and Spaulding crossed
the lawn in front of the house unchallenged and, passing under the
frowning archway, entered the first of the courts.

The oblong sunken pool was banked with myrtle, and above, as well as in
the great inner court with the fountain, there were narrow arcaded
windows with fluttering silken curtains. Mrs. Thornton had too satiric a
sense of humor to have had the famous arabesques of the Alhambra
reproduced any more than the massive coats-of-arms above the arches, but
the walls were delicately colored, the delicate columns looked like old
ivory, and the greatest of the local architects had been entirely
successful in combining the massiveness of the warrior stronghold with
the airy lightness and spaciousness of the pleasure house.

The bedrooms, Ruyler told Spaulding, were all as modern as they were
luxurious, and the library, living-rooms, and dining-room, were in the
best American style. Fordy had rebelled at too much "Spanish atmosphere,"
his blood being straight Anglo-Saxon, and Mrs. Thornton always knew when
to yield. Nevertheless, Flora Thornton had built the proper setting for
her barbaric beauty, and, possibly, spirit.

People were sitting about the courts on piles of colored silken cushions,
those that had got themselves up in Eastern costumes having drifted
naturally to the suitable surroundings; for, after all, the Moors had
been Mohammedans.

"Don't let's hang round here," said the detective, "and don't stand
holding yourself like a ramrod--like that gent out there with the ruff
that must be taking the skin off his chin. I kinder thought I'd like to
see the whole show, but we'd best go now and wait for our little turn."

He led the way round the building to the rear of the southwest tower.
There was a little grove of jasmine trees just beneath it, that made the
air overpoweringly sweet, but there were no lights on this side, as the
garages, stables, vegetable gardens, and servants' quarters would have
destroyed the picture.

Spaulding glanced about sharply, but there was not even a strolling
couple, and even the moon was shining on the other side of the heavy mass
of buildings.

"Now, listen," he said. "You see this window?"--he indicated one directly
over their heads. "At exactly one o'clock, when everybody is flocking to
the supper tables on the terraces, I expect some one to lean out of that
window and talk to some one who will be waiting just below. There may be
no talk, but I think there will be, and I want you to listen to every
word of it without so much as drawing a long breath, no matter what is
said, until I grab your elbow--like this--then I want you to put up your
hand in a hurry while I'm also attendin' to business.

"That's all I'll say now. But by the time a few words have been said,
later, I guess you'll be on.

"Now, we must resign ourselves to a long wait without a smoke and to
keeping perfectly still. I dared not risk comin' any later for fear the
others might be beforehand, too."

Ruyler ground his teeth. He felt ridiculous and humiliated. It was no
compensation that he was holding up the wall of a stucco Moorish palace
and that some three hundred masked people in fancy dress were within
earshot... or did the way he was togged out make him feel all the more
absurd? The whole thing was beastly un-American....

But, was it, after all? If he and Hélène had been here together to-night,
not married and harrowed, but engaged and quick with romance, would he
have thought it absurd to conspire and maneuver to separate her from the
crowd and snatch a few moments of heavenly solitude? Would he have
despised himself for suffering torments if she flouted him or for wanting
to murder any man who balked him?

Love, and all the passions, creative and destructive, it engendered, all
the sentiments and follies and crimes, to say nothing of ambition and
greed and the lust to kill in war--these were instincts and traits that
appeared in mankind generation after generation, in every corner
civilized and savage of the globe. The world changed somewhat in form
during its progress, but never in substance.

And mystery and intrigue were equally a part of life, as indigenous to
the Twentieth Century as to those days long entombed in history when the
troops of Ferdinand and Isabella sat down on the plain before Grenada.

Plot and melodrama were in every life; in some so briefly as hardly to be
recognized, in others--in that of certain men and women in the public
eye, for instance--they were almost in the nature of a continuous
performance.

In these days men took a bath morning and evening, ate daintily, had a
refined vocabulary to use on demand, dressed in tweeds instead of velvet.
There were longer intervals between the old style of warfare when men
were always plugging one another full of holes in the name of religion or
disputed territory, merely to amuse themselves with a tryout of Right
against Might, or to gratify the insane ambition of some upstart like
Napoleon. To-day the business world was the battlefield, and it was his
capital a man was always healing, his poor brain that collapsed nightly
after the strain and nervous worry of the day.

It suddenly felt quite normal to be here flattened against a wall waiting
for some impossible dénouement.

Nevertheless, he was sick with apprehension.

Would it merely be the prelude to another drama? Was his life to be a
series of unwritten plays, of which he was both the hero and the
bewildered spectator? Or would it bring him calm, the terrible calm of
stagnation, of an inner life finished, sealed, buried?

It was inevitable in these romantic surroundings and conditions that he
should revert to his almost forgotten jealousy. Suppose Spaulding had
stumbled upon something.... But he had been asked for no such
evidence.... It would be a damnable liberty.... It might be inextricably
woven with the business in hand.... There were other men besides Doremus
whom Hélène saw constantly.... Spaulding may have seen his chance to nip
the thing in the bud, and had taken the risk....

He felt the detective's lips at his ear: "Hear anything? Move a little
so's you can look up."

Ruyler heard his wife's voice above him, then Aileen Lawton's. He parted
the branches and saw the two girls lean over the low sill of the
casement. Both had removed their masks, but their faces were only dimly
revealed. Their voices, however, were distinct enough, and his wife's was
dull and flat.

"Oh, I can't," she said. "I can't."

"Well, you'll just jolly well have to. You've got it, haven't you?"

"Oh, yes, I've got it!"

"Well, he'll never suspect you."

"I shall tell him."

"Tell him? You little fool. And give us all away?"

"I'd mention no other names."

"As if he wouldn't probe until he found out. Don't you know Price Ruyler
yet? My father said once he'd have made a great District Attorney. What's
the use of telling him later, for that matter? Why not now?"

"I haven't the courage yet. I might have one day--at just the right
moment. I never thought I was a coward."

"You're just a kid. That's what's the matter. We ought to have left you
out. I told Polly that--"

"You couldn't! Oh, don't you see you couldn't. That's the terrible part
of it! Left me out? I'd have found my way in."

"I'm not so sure. You were interested in heaps of things, and in love,
and all that--"

"Oh, I'd like to excuse myself by blaming it on being bored, and tired of
trying to amuse myself doing nothing worth while, but it's bad blood,
that's what it is, bad blood, and you know it, if none of the others do."

"Oh, I'm not one of your heredity fiends. When did your mother tell you?"

"Only the other day."

"Well, she ought to have told you long ago. I believe you'd have kept out
if you'd known."

"Wouldn't I? But of course she hated to tell the truth to me--"

"Well, if I'd known that you didn't know I'd have told you, all right. I
wormed it out of Dad soon after you arrived, and at first I thought it
was a good joke on Society, to say nothing of Price Ruyler, with his air
of God having created heaven first, maybe, but New York just after. Then
I got fond of you and I wouldn't have told for the world. But I would
have put you on your guard if I'd known."

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Even if Price doesn't find out about this, if he
learns the other--who my father was, and that awful men have recognized
my mother--I suppose he'll hate me, and in time I'll go back to Rouen--"

"Now, you don't think as ill as that of him, do you? He makes me so mad
sometimes I could spit in his face, but if he's one thing he's true blue.
He's the straight masculine type with a streak of old romance that would
make him love a woman the more, the sorrier he was for her, and the
weaker she was--I mean so long as she was young. After this, just get to
work on your character, kid. When you're thirty maybe he won't feel that
it's his whole duty to protect you. You'll never be hard and seasoned
like me, nor able to take care of yourself. I like danger, and
excitement, and uncertainty, and mystery, and intrigue, and lying, and
wriggling out of tight places. I'd have gone mad in this hole long ago,
if I hadn't, for I don't care for sport. But you were intended to develop
into what is called a 'fine woman,' surrounded by the right sort of man
meanwhile. And Price Ruyler is the right sort. I'll say that much for
him. He'd have driven me to drink, but he's just your sort--"

"And what am I doing? I am the most degraded woman in the world."

"Oh, no, you're not. Not by a long sight. You don't know how much worse
you could be. One woman who is here to-night I saw lying dead drunk in
the road between San Mateo and Burlingame the other day when I was
driving with Alice Thorndyke, and Alice is having her fourth or fifth
lover, I forget which--"

"They are no worse than I."

"Listen. He's coming. Got it ready?"

"I can't."

"You must. He'll hound you in the _Merry Tattler_ until the whole town
knows you're a welcher, and not a soul would speak to you. That is the
one unpardonable sin--"

"I wish I'd told Price--"

"Oh, no, you don't. This is just a lovely way out. Glad he had the
inspiration. Hello, Nick."

A man had groped his way between the trees and stood just under
the window.

"What are you doing here?" asked Doremus sourly.

"Witness, witness, my dear Nick. Besides, poor Hélène never would have
come alone, so there you are."

"To hell with all this melodramatic business. It could have been done
anywhere--"

"Not much. Dark corners for dark doings."

"Well, hand it over."

Ruyler had given his brain an icy shower bath as soon as he heard his
wife's voice, and was now as cool and alert as even the detective could
have wished. He did not wait for the promised impulse to his elbow; his
hand shot up just ahead of Doremus's and closed over his wife's hand,
which, he felt at once, held the ruby. At the same moment Spaulding
caught Doremus by his medieval collar and shook him until the man's teeth
chattered, then he slapped his face and kicked him.

"Now, you," he said standing over the panting man, who was mopping his
bleeding nose, and holding the electric torch so that it would shine on
his own face. "You get out of California, d'you hear? You're a gambler
and a blackmailer and a panderer to old women, and I've got some
evidence that would drag you into court however it turned out, so's
you'd find this town a live gridiron. So, git, while you can. Go while
the going's good."

Doremus, too shaken to reply, slunk off, and Spaulding after a glance
upward, left as silently.



CHAPTER XIII


I

Aileen had shrieked and fled. Ruyler stood in the room with the ruby in
his open hand. He saw that Hélène was standing quite erect before him.
She had made no attempt to leave the room, nor did she appear to be
threatened with hysterics.

He groped until he found the electric button. The room, as Ruyler had
inferred, was Mrs. Thornton's winter boudoir, a gorgeous room of yellow
brocade and oriental stuffs.

"Will you sit down?" he asked.

Hélène shook her head. She was very white and she looked as old as a
young actress who has been doing one night stands for three months.
Behind the drawn mask of her face there was her indestructible youth, but
so faint that it thought itself dead.

She looked at her hands, which she twisted together as if they were cold.

"Will you tell me the truth now?" asked Price.

"Don't you guess it?"

"When I came here to-night I believed that you were the victim of
blackmail. I was not watching you--I hope you will take my word for that.
We--I had a detective on the case--Spaulding merely wanted to nab the man
who was blackmailing you--"

"Do you still believe that?"

"I overheard your conversation with Aileen Lawton. I don't know what
to believe."

"I am a gambler. My father was a gambler. He kept a notorious place in
San Francisco. His name out here was James Garnett. My grandfather was a
gambler. He was even more spectacular--"

"I know all that. Don't mind."

"You knew it?" For the first time she looked at him, but she turned her
eyes away at once and stared at the oblong of dark framed by the
window. "Why--"

"Spaulding told me to-night only."

"Mother told me a week or so ago. She'd been recognized. Shortly after I
married, when she found out how the women played bridge and poker here,
she made me promise I'd never touch a card, never play any sort of
gambling game. I promised readily enough, and I thought nothing of her
insistence. Maman was old-fashioned in many ways--I mean the life we
lived in. Rouen was so different from this that I could understand how
many things would shock her. I never thought about it--but--it was about
six months ago--you were away for a week and I stayed with Polly Roberts
at the Fairmont. I knew of course that she played and that Aileen and a
lot of the others did, but I hadn't given the matter a thought. One heard
nothing but bridge, bridge, bridge. I was sick of the word.

"But I found they played poker. Polly and Aileen, Alice Thorndyke, Janet
Maynard, Mary Kimball, Nick Doremus, Rex and one or two other men who
could get off in the afternoons.

"I never had dreamed any one in society played for such high stakes.
Janet Maynard and Mary Kimball could afford it, but Polly and Alice and
Aileen couldn't. Still they often won--enough, anyhow, to clean up and go
on. Doremus is a wonderful player. That is how I got interested, watching
him after he had explained the game to me.

"It was a long time before I was persuaded to take a hand. It was so
interesting just to watch. And not only the game, but their faces. Some
would have a regular 'poker face,' others would give themselves away.
Once Aileen had the most awful hysterics. We were afraid some one outside
would hear her; the deadening was burnt out of the walls of the Fairmont
at the time of the fire. But we were in the middle room of the suite.

"Nick told her in his dreadful cold expressionless voice that if she ever
did that again he'd never play another game with her. That meant that
they'd all drop her, and she came to and promised, and she kept her word.
Poker is the breath of life to her. I think she'd become a drug fiend if
she couldn't have it.

"At last they persuaded me to play. We were playing at Nick's, and after
a light dinner served by his Jap, we went right on playing until
midnight. I never thought of you or anything. I seemed to respond with
every nerve in my body and brain. I won and won and won, and even when I
lost I didn't mind. The sensation, the tearing excitement just under a
perfectly cool brain was wonderful.

"I only ceased to enjoy it when I realized what it meant. When I couldn't
keep away from it. When I lived for the hour when we would meet,--at
Polly's, or at Nick's or at Aileen's--any of the places where we were
supposed to be dancing, but where there was no danger of being found out.
Of course I dared not have them at home, and the others lived with their
families, or had too many servants....

"I came fully to my senses one day when Nick told me I was a born
gambler if ever there was one. Then, when I realized, I became
desperately unhappy.

"I was the slave of a thing. I was deceiving you. When I was at the table
I loved poker better than you, better than anything on earth. When I was
alone I hated it. But I couldn't break away. Besides, I didn't always
win. I had to play in the hope of winning back. Or if I won a lot it was
a point of honor to go on and play again, and give them their chance.

"Mrs. Thornton found out. She gave me a terrible talking to. I am afraid
I was very insolent.

"But she came up that night of the Assembly and warned me that you were
down stairs. I was playing in Polly's room. We had all danced two or
three times and then slipped up to the next floor by different stairs and
lifts. I liked her better then. Of course she did it for your sake, not
mine. But she's a good sort, not a cat.

"You have not noticed, but I have not bought a new gown this season
except that little gray one and this--which was made in the house. I
dared not pawn my jewels, for fear you would miss them.

"I have been in hell.

"Then--it was that evening you heard maman reproach me for breaking my
promise--I had lost a dreadful lot of money and Nick had scurried round
and borrowed it for me. I didn't know then that he meant all the time to
get hold of the ruby--I am sure now that he cheated and made me lose.

"Well, I sent the maid away that night and told maman. She was nearly off
her head. I never saw her excited before. Then she told me the truth. I
felt as if I had been turned to stone. But I felt suddenly cool and wary.
I knew I must keep my head. It was as if my father had suddenly come
alive in my brain. I had never lied to you before, merely put you off.
But how I lied that night! I felt possessed. But I knew I must not be
found out, and I made up my mind to stop playing as soon as I came out
even. If I had known that my father and my grandfather had been gamblers
I never should have touched a card. I'd far rather have drunk poison.

"I made up my mind then, and there to stop and I felt quite capable of
it. But I had to go on and square myself, for I owed that money to Nick.
But when I played it was with my head only. All the fever had gone out of
my veins. I loathed it. I loathed still more deceiving you.

"I won and won and won. I thought I was delivered. I was almost happy
again. Some day I meant to tell you--when it was all over.

"Then I began to lose horribly. Thousands. It ran up to twenty thousand.
I did not betray myself, and the girls thought I had money of my own and
could pay my losses quite easily. They didn't know that Nick always
helped me out. He was never the least bit in love with me--he couldn't
love any woman--but he said I played such a wonderful game and was such a
sport, never lost my head, that he wouldn't lose me for the world--when I
threatened to stop and never play again.

"But all the time he wanted the ruby. I found that out when he told me he
must have the money inside of a week; he'd taken it out of his business,
and it really belonged to his partners, and they'd find him out and send
him to prison--

"I offered him my jewels. They would have brought half their value at
least. I could have told you they were stolen--only one more lie. It was
then he said he must have the ruby. He had known about it ever since you
came out here, but after he saw it on me that night at the Gwynnes' he
was more than ever determined to have it.

"I laughed at him at first. It seemed preposterous that he could demand a
ruby worth two or three hundred thousand dollars in payment for a debt of
twenty thousand. I thought of selling my jewels and furs and laces, or
pawning them and raising the amount--he only had my I.O.U. for that sum.
But I didn't know where to go. So I told Aileen. She wouldn't hear of my
disposing of my things, said it would, be all over town in twenty-four
hours. She advised me to get the twenty thousand out of you on one
pretext or another.

"I tried. You will remember. Then Nick began to haunt me. He whispered in
my ear wherever we met. I was nearly frantic. He said he could hold me up
to shame without compromising himself. I had written him some frantic
letters, and he said they read just like--like--the other thing.

"I felt perfectly helpless. I knew that even if I did manage to pawn the
jewels, you would miss them from the safe and trace them. I ceased to
feel cool. I nearly went off my head. But I stopped gambling. I felt sure
by this time that he could make me lose, but I couldn't prove it. Aileen
told me I must give him the ruby. He promised me before Aileen that he
would give me back my I.O.U.'s as well as my notes if I would hand over
the ruby. He knew I was to wear it to-night.

"Finally I gave in. Yesterday Nick called me up on the telephone and told
me to come down to the California Market to lunch, and to bring Aileen.
He told me there that unless I promised to give him the ruby to-night,
and kept my word, he'd either give my I.O.U.'s and my notes to you or to
the _Merry Tattler_. He didn't care which. I could have my choice.

"I said I would do it. But it was terribly conspicuous. Everybody would
notice when it was gone. He said I must conceal it anyhow until we
unmasked after supper, and then I could pretend I had lost it. He
discussed several plans for having me slip it to him, but it was Aileen
who insisted we should come here. Mrs. Thornton never opens her boudoir
at a party. Everywhere else would be a blaze of light. In this dark
corner we should be safe, especially if he came from the outside and I
from inside. How did your detective find out?"

"I think Aileen did a decent thing for once in her life."

She went on in her monotonous voice. "I felt reckless after that and I
really was gay and almost happy at dinner last night. The die was cast. I
didn't much care for anything. I thought perhaps it was my last night
with you--that when I told you I had lost the ruby you would suspect and
turn me out of your house, tell maman to take me back to Rouen.

"Then came that awful moment when you said you had to go away and I could
not wear it. For a few moments I thought I should scream and tell you
everything. But I was both too proud and too much of a coward. Then I
knew I should have to rob the safe, and somehow I hated that part more
than anything else. I did it just ten minutes before Rex and Polly called
for me to motor down here. It had seemed the most horrible thing in the
world to be a gambler, but it was worse to be a thief.

"I remembered the combination perfectly. I have that sort of memory: it
registers photographically. I had seen you move the combination several
times. Perhaps I deliberately registered it. I can't say. I have lived in
such a maze of intrigue lately. I can't say. That is all--except that I
didn't get the letters and the other things."

"He had an envelope in one hand. Spaulding has it beyond a doubt."



CHAPTER XIV


There was silence for a moment and then Price said awkwardly: "It is a
pity you haven't the chain or you could wear the ruby for the rest of
the evening."

She turned her eyes from the window and stared at him. "I have the
chain--" She raised her hand to the tip of her bodice--"but--but--you
can't mean--it isn't possible that you can forgive me."

"I think I have taken very bad care of you. What are you, after all, but
a brilliant child? I am thirty-three--"

He suddenly tore off his domino with, a feeling of rage, and thrust his
hands into his friendly pockets. He had never made many verbal
protestations to her, although the most exacting wife could have found no
fault with his love-making. But to-night he felt dumb; he was mortally
afraid of appearing high and noble and magnanimous.

"You see, things always happen during the first years of married life.
Perhaps more happens--I mean in a pettier way--when the man has leisure
and can see too much of his wife. In my case--our case--it was the other
way--and something almost tragic happened. So I vote we treat it
casually, as something that must have been expected sooner or later to
disturb our--our--even tenor--and forget it."

"Forget it?"

"Well, yes. I can if you can."

"And can you forget who I am?"

"You are exactly what you were before those scoundrels recognized your
mother, and--and--set me going. Of course I had to find out the truth. I
thought you knew and tried to make you tell me. But you
wouldn't--couldn't--and I had to employ Spaulding."

"Do you mean you would have married me if you had known the truth at
the time?"

"Rather."

"And--but--I told you--I became a regular gambler."

He could not help smiling. "I have no fear of your gambling again. And I
don't fancy you were a bit worse than the others who had no gambling
blood in them--all the world has that. Gambling is about the earliest of
the vices. I--if--you wouldn't mind promising--I know you will keep it."

"Nothing under heaven would induce me to play again. But--but--I opened
your safe like a thief and stole--"

"Oh, not quite. After all it was yours as much as mine. If I had died
without a will you would have got it.

"Of course--I know what you mean--but men have always driven women into a
corner, and they have had to get out by methods of their own. I wish now
I had given you the twenty thousand. I prefer you should accept my
decision that it was all my fault. Give me the chain."

She drew it from her bosom and handed it to him. He fastened the ruby in
its place and threw the chain over her neck. The great jewel lit up the
front of her somber gown like a sudden torch in a cavern.

The stern despair of Hélène's tragic mask relaxed. She dropped her face
into her hands and began to sob. Then Ruyler was himself again. He
picked her up in his arms and settled comfortably into the deepest of
the chairs.

THE END





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