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Title: The Blood Red Dawn
Author: Dobie, Charles Caldwell, 1881-1943
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 Blood Red Dawn" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



THE BLOOD RED DAWN

by

CHARLES CALDWELL DOBIE

1920



To My Mother



Book I



CHAPTER I


The pastor's announcement had been swallowed up in a hum of truant
inattention, and as the heralded speaker made his appearance upon the
platform Claire Robson, leaning forward, said to her mother:

"What?... Did you catch his name?"

"A foreigner of some sort!" replied Mrs. Robson, with smug sufficiency.

For a moment the elder woman's sneer dulled the edge of Claire's
anticipations, but presently the man began to speak, and at once she
felt a sense of power back of his halting words, a sudden bursting fort
of bloom amid the frozen assembly that sat ice-bound, refusing to be
melted by the fires of an alien enthusiasm. She could not help wondering
whether he felt how hopeless it would be to force a sympathetic response
from his audience. In ordinary times the Second Presbyterian Church of
San Francisco could not possibly have had any interest in Serbia except
as a field for foreign missionaries. Now, with America in the war and
speeding up the draft, these worthy people were too much concerned with
problems nearer their own hearthstones to be swept off their feet by a
specific and almost inarticulate appeal for an obscure country, made
only a shade less remote by the accident of being accounted an ally.

Claire, straining at attention, found it hard to follow him. He talked
rapidly and with unfamiliar emphasis, and he waved his hands. Frankly,
people were bored. They had come to hear a concert and incidentally
swell the Red Cross fund, but they had not reckoned on quite this type
of harangue. Besides, an appetizing smell of coffee from the church
kitchen had begun to beguile their senses. And yet, the man talked on
and on, until quite suddenly Claire Robson began to have a strange
feeling of disquiet, an embarrassment for him, such as one feels when an
intimate friend or kinsman unconsciously makes a spectacle of himself.
She wished that he would stop. She longed to rise from her seat and
scream, to create an outlandish scene, to do anything, in short, that
would silence him. At this point he turned his eyes in her direction,
and she felt the scorch of an intense inner fire. Instinctively she
lowered her glance.... When she looked up again his gaze was still fixed
upon her. She felt her color rise. From that moment on she had a sense
that she was his sole audience. He was talking to her. The others did
not matter. She still did not have any very distinct idea what it was
all about, but the manner of it held her captive. But gradually the
mists cleared, he became more coherent, and slowly, imperceptibly, bit
by bit, he won the others. Yet never for an instant did he take his
eyes from _her_. When he finished, a momentary silence blocked the final
burst of applause. But Claire Robson's hands were locked tightly
together, and it was not until he had disappeared that she realized that
she had not paid him the tribute of even a parting glance.

The pastor came back upon the platform and announced that refreshments
would be served at the conclusion of the next number. A heavy odor of
coffee continued to float from the church kitchen. A red-haired woman
stepped forward and began to sing.

Already Claire Robson dreaded the ordeal of supper. The fact that tables
were being laid further disturbed her. This meant that she and her
mother would have to push their way into some group which, at best,
would remain indifferent to their presence. When coffee was served
informally things were not so awkward. To be sure, one had to balance
coffee-cup and cake-plate with an amazing and painful skill, but, on the
other hand, table-less groups did not emphasize one's isolation. Claire
had got to the point where she would have welcomed active hostility on
the part of her fellow church members, but their utter indifference was
soul-killing. She would have liked to remember one occasion when any one
had betrayed the slightest interest in either her arrival or departure,
or rather in the arrival and departure of her mother and herself.

The solo came to an end, and the inevitable applause followed, but
before the singer could respond to the implied encore most of the
listeners began frank and determined advances upon the tables. The
concert was over.

Mrs. Robson rose and faced Claire with a look of bewilderment. As usual,
mother and daughter stood irresolutely, caught like two trembling leaves
in the backwater of a swirling eddy. At last Claire made a movement
toward the nearest table. Mrs. Robson followed. They sat down.

The scattered company speedily began to form into congenial groups.
There was a great deal of suddenly loosened chatter. Claire Robson sat
silently, rather surprised and dismayed to find that she and her mother
had chosen a table which seemed to be the objective of all the prominent
church members. The company facing her was elegant, if not precisely
smart, and there were enough laces and diamonds displayed to have done
excellent service if the proper background had been provided. Claire was
further annoyed to discover that her mother was regarding the situation
with a certain ruffling self-satisfaction which she took no pains to
conceal. Mrs. Robson bowed and smirked, and even called gaily to every
one within easy range. There was something distasteful in her mother's
sudden and almost aggressive self-assurance.

Gradually the company adjusted itself; the tables were filled. The only
moving figures were those of young women carrying huge white pitchers of
steaming coffee. Claire Robson settled into her seat with a resignation
born of subtle inner misery. Across her brain flashed the insistent and
pertinent questions that such a situation always evoked. Why was she not
one of these young women engaged in distributing refreshments? Did the
circles close automatically so as to exclude her, or did her own
aloofness shut her out? What was the secret of these people about her
that gave them such an assured manner? No one spoke to her with cordial
enthusiasm.... It was not a matter of wealth, or brains, or prominent
church activity. It was not even a matter of obscurity. Like all large
organizations, the Second Presbyterian Church was made up of every
clique in the social calendar; the obscure circle was as clannish and
distinctive in its way as any other group. But Claire Robson was forced
to admit that she did not belong even to the obscure circle. She
belonged nowhere--that was the galling and oppressive truth that was
forced upon her.

At this point she became aware that one of the most prominent church
members, Mrs. Towne, was making an unmistakably cordial advance in her
direction. Claire had a misgiving.... Mrs. Towne was never excessively
friendly except for a definite aim.

"My dear Miss Robson," Mrs. Towne began, sweetly, drooping
confidentially to a whispering posture, "I am so sorry, but I shall have
to disturb you and your mother!... It just happens that this table has
been reserved for the elders and their wives.... I hope you'll
understand!"

For a moment Claire merely stared at the messenger of evil news. Then,
recovering herself, she managed to reply:

"Oh yes, Mrs. Towne! I understand perfectly.... I am sure we were very
stupid.... Come, mother!"

Mrs. Robson responded at once to her daughter's command. The two women
rose. By this time the task of securing another place was quite
hopeless. Claire felt that every eye in the room was turned upon them.
Picking their way between a labyrinth of tables and chairs, they
literally were stumbling in the direction of an exit when Claire felt a
hand upon her arm. She turned.

"Pardon me," the man opposite her was saying, "but may I offer you a
place at our table?"

Claire said nothing; she followed blindly. Her mother was close upon her
heels.

The table was a small one, and only two people were occupying it--the
man who had halted Claire, and a woman. The man, standing with one hand
on the chair which he had drawn up for Mrs. Robson, said, simply:

"My name is Stillman, and of course you know Mrs. Condor--the lady who
has just sung for us."

Claire gave a swift, inclusive glance. Yes, it was the same woman who
had attempted to beguile a weary audience from its impending repletion;
at close range one could not escape the intense redness of her hair or
the almost immoral whiteness of the shoulders and arms which she was at
such little pains to conceal.

"Stillman?" Mrs. Robson was fluttering importantly. "Not the old Rincon
Hill family?"

"Yes, the old Rincon Hill family," the man replied.

Mrs. Robson sat down with preening self-satisfaction. Wearily the
daughter dropped into the seat which Mrs. Condor proffered. The name of
Ned Stillman was not unfamiliar to any San Franciscan who scanned the
social news with even a casual glance, and Claire had a vague
remembrance that Mrs. Condor also figured socially, but in a rather more
inclusive way than her companion. At all events, it was plain that her
mother, with unerring feminine insight, had placed the pair to her
satisfaction. Already the elder woman was contriving to let Stillman
know something of _her_ antecedents. _She_ was Emily Carrol, also of
Rincon Hill, and of course he knew her two sisters--Mrs. Thomas Wynne
and Mrs. Edward Finch-Brown! As Stillman returned a smiling assurance to
Mrs. Robson's attempts to be impressive, a young woman in white arrived
with ice-cream and messy layer-cake. Unconsciously Claire Robson began
to smile. She could not have said why, but somehow the presence of Ned
Stillman and Mrs. Condor at a table spread with such vacuous delights
seemed little short of ridiculous. They did not fit the picture any more
than her beetle-browed, red-lipped Serbian who.... She turned
deliberately and swept the room with her glance. Of course he had gone.
It was not to be expected that _he_ would descend to the level of such
puerile feasting. A sudden contempt for everything that only an hour ago
seemed so desirable rose within her, and, in answer to the young woman's
query as to whether she preferred coffee to ice-cream, she answered with
lip-curling aloofness:

"Neither, thank you.... I am not hungry."

Stillman looked at her searchingly. She returned his gaze without
flinching.

Claire Robson did not sleep that night. She lay for hours, quite
motionless, staring into the gloom of her narrow bedroom, her mind
ruthlessly shaping formless, vague intuitions into definite convictions.
She could not put her finger upon the precise reason for her inquietude.
Was it chargeable to so trivial a circumstance as a stranger's formal
courtesy or had something more subtle moved her? If the depths of her
isolation had been thrown into too high relief by the almost shameful
sense of obligation she felt toward Stillman for his courtesy, what was
to be said of the uniqueness of the solitary position which the Serbian
awarded her by singling her out for a sympathetic response? Could it be
that a vague pity had stirred him, too? Had things reached a point where
her loneliness showed through the threadbare indifference of her glance?
In short, had both men been won to gallantry by her distress? In one
case, at least, she decided that there was a reasonable chance to doubt.
And that doubt quickened her pulse like May wine.

But the humiliation of her last encounter with chivalry stuck with
profound irritation. She recalled the scene again and again. She
remembered her contemptuous silence before Stillman's obvious suavities,
the high, assured laugh which his companion, Mrs. Condor, threw out to
meet his quiet sallies, the ruffling satisfaction of her mother,
chattering on irrelevantly, but with the undisguised purpose of creating
a proper impression. How easily Stillman must have seen through Claire's
muteness and the elder woman's eager craving for an audience! And all
the time Mrs. Condor had been laughing, not ill-naturedly, but with the
irony of an experienced woman possessing a sense of humor.

And at the end, when the four had left the church together, to be
whirled home in Stillman's car, the sudden nods and smiles and farewells
that had blossomed along the path of her mother's exit! Claire could
have laughed it all away if her mother had not betrayed such eagerness
to drink this snobbish flattery to the lees....

Claire's father had never entered very largely into her calculations,
but to-night her readjusted vision included him. Stubborn, kind, a bit
weak, and inclined to copying poetry in a red-covered album, he had been
no match for the disillusionments of married life. Her mother's people
had felt a sullen resentment at his downfall--he had taken to drink and
died ingloriously when Claire was still in her seventh year. Claire,
influenced by the family traditions, had shared this resentment. But now
she found herself wondering whether there was not a word or two to be
said in his behalf. Her father had been a cheap clerk in a wholesale
house when he had married. The uncertain Carrol fortunes were waning
swiftly at the time, and Emily Carrol had been thrown at him with all
the panic that then possessed a public schooled in the fallacy that
marriage was a woman's only career. The result was to have been
expected. Extravagance, debts, too much family, drink, death--the
sequence was complete. He had been captured, withered, cast aside, by a
tribe that had not even had the decency to grant his memory the
kindness of an excuse.

Wide-eyed and restless, Claire Robson felt a sudden pity for her father.
Tears sprang to her eyes; it overwhelmed her to discover this new father
so full of human failings and yet so full of human provocation. In her
twenty-four years of life she had never shed a tear for him, or felt the
slightest pang for his failure. If she had ever doubted the Carrol
viewpoint, she had never given her lack of faith any scope. She had
taken their cast-off prejudices and threadbare convictions as docilely
as she had once received their stale garments. She had shrunk from
spiritual independence with all the obsequious arrogance of a poor
relation at a feast. Her diffidence, her self-consciousness, her
timidity, were the outward forms of an inbred snobbery. It was curious
how suddenly all this was made clear to her....

At length she fell into a troubled sleep.... When she awoke the room's
outlines were reviving before the advances of early morning. For the
first time in her life she caught the poetry of the new day at first
hand. For years she had reveled vicariously in the delights of morning.
But it had always been to her a thing apart, a matter which the writers
of romantic verse beheld and translated for the benefit of late
sleepers. It never occurred to her that the day crawling into the
light-well of her Clay Street flat was lit with precisely the same flame
that colored the far-flung peaks of the poet's song. And instantly a
phrase of the Serbian's harangue came to her--blood-red dawn! He had
repeated these words over and over again, and somehow under the heat of
his ardor and longing for his native land this hackneyed phrase took on
its real and dreadful value. In the sudden sweep of this vital
remembrance, Claire Robson rose for a moment above the fretful drip of
circumstance.... _Blood-red Dawn_!... She threw herself back upon her
bed and shuddered....

She rose at seven o'clock, but already the morning had grown pallid and
flecked with gray clouds.

An apologetic tap came at the door, and the voice of Mrs. Robson
repeating a formula that she never varied:

"Better hurry, Claire. If you don't you'll be late for the office!"



CHAPTER II


As Claire stepped out into the cold sunlight of early November, she
smiled bitterly at the exaggeration of last night's mood. After the
first hectic flush of dawn there is nothing so sane and sweet and
commonplace as morning. The spectacle of Mrs. Finnegan, who lodged in
the flat below, slopping warm suds over the thin marble steps, added a
final note of homeliness, which divorced Claire completely from heroics.

"Well, Miss Robson, so you really got home, last night," broke from the
industrious neighbor as she straightened up and tucked her lifted skirts
in more securely. "I thought you never would come!... A package came
from New York for you. The man nearly banged your door down. I had
Finnegan put it on your back stoop.... It's from that cousin of yours, I
guess. I was so excited about it I kept wishing you'd get home early so
that I could get a peep at all the pretty things. But I'll run up just
as soon as I get through with the breakfast dishes."

Claire smiled wanly. "It was very good of you to take all that trouble,
I'm sure, Mrs. Finnegan!"

"Oh, bother my trouble!" Mrs. Finnegan responded. "I just knew how crazy
I'd be about a box. I guess we women are all alike, Miss Robson.
Anyway, your mother and I are!"

Mrs. Finnegan bent over her task again with a quick exasperated
movement, and Claire passed on. Her neighbor's abrupt rebuke gave Claire
a renewed sense of exclusion. She had meant to be warmly appreciative,
but she knew now that she had been only coldly polite. But, as a matter
of fact, the prospect of delving through a box of Gertrude Sinclair's
discarded finery moved her this morning to a dull fury. She felt
suddenly tired of cast-offs, of compromise, of all the other shabby
adjustments of genteel poverty. And by the time she reached the office
of the Falcon Insurance Company her soul was seething with a curious and
unreasonable revolt. The feminine office force seemed seething also, but
with an impersonal, quivering excitement. Nellie Whitehead had been
dismissed!

This Nellie Whitehead, the stenographer-in-chief, was big, vigorous,
blond--vulgar, energetic, vivid; and Miss Munch, her assistant, a thin,
hollow-chested spinster, who loafed upon her job so that she might save
her sight for the manufacture of incredible yards of tatting, never
missed an opportunity to lift her eyes significantly behind her
superior's back.

"And what do you suppose?" Miss Munch was querying as Claire stepped
into the dressing-room. "She told Mr. Flint to go to hell!... Yes,
positively, she used those very words. And I must say he was a gentleman
throughout it all. He told her gently but firmly that her example in the
office wasn't what it should be and that in justice to the other
girls...."

Claire turned impatiently away. The fiction of Mr. Flint's belated
interest in the morals of his feminine office force was unconvincing
enough to be irritating. For a man who never missed an opportunity to
force his attentions, he was showing an amazingly ethical viewpoint. On
second thought, Claire remembered that Miss Munch was never the
recipient of Mr. Flint's attentions, which to the casual eye might have
seemed innocent enough--on rainy days gallantly bending his ample girth
in a rather too prolonged attempt to slip on the girls' rubbers,
insisting on the quite unnecessary task of incasing them in their
jackets and smoothing the sleeves of their shirt-waists in the process,
flicking imaginary threads where the feminine curves were most opulent.
Not that Mr. Flint was a wolf in sheep's clothing; he played the part of
sheep, but he needed no disguise for his performance; he merely lived up
to a sort of flock-mind consciousness where women were concerned.

The group clustered about Miss Munch broke up at the approach of Mr.
Flint, who gave a significant glance in the direction of Claire Robson,
intent upon her morning work. But the excitement persisted in spite of
the scattered auditors, and the fact was mysteriously communicated that
Miss Munch's interest in the event was chargeable to her hopes. It
seemed impossible to Miss Munch that any one but herself could succeed
to the vacant post of stenographer-in-chief.

At precisely eleven o'clock the buzzer on Claire Robson's desk hummed
three times. This announced that she was wanted by Mr. Flint. She
gathered her note-book and pencils and answered the call.

Mr. Flint was busy at the telephone when Claire entered the private
office. She seated herself at the flat oak table in the center of the
room.

Mr. Flint's office bore all the conventional signs of
business--commissions of authority from insurance companies, state
licenses in oak frames, an oil-painting of Thomas Sawyer Flint, the
founder of the firm, over a fireplace that maintained its useless
dignity in spite of the steam-radiator near the window. On his desk was
the inevitable picture of his wife framed in silver, a hand-illumined
platitude of Stevenson, an elaborate set of desk paraphernalia in beaten
brass that bore little evidence of service. In two green-glazed bowls of
Japanese origin, roses from Mr. Flint's garden at Yolanda scattered
faint pink petals on the Smyrna rug. These flowers were the only
concession to esthetics that Mr. Flint indulged. In spite of a masculine
distaste for carrying flowers, hardly a day went by when he did not
appear at the office with a huge harvest of blossoms from his country
home.

Claire was bending over, intent on picking up the crumpled rose-petals,
when Mr. Flint finally spoke. She straightened herself slowly. Her
unhurried movements had a certain grace that did not escape the man
opposite her. She tossed the bruised leaves into a waste-basket and
reached for her pencil. Her heart was pounding, but she faced Mr. Flint
with a clear, direct gaze.

"Miss Robson, of course you've heard all about the rumpus," Mr. Flint
was saying. "I had to fire Miss Whitehead.... I think you can fill the
bill."

Claire rose without replying. Mr. Flint left his seat and crossed over
to her.

"I hope," he said, flicking a thread from her shoulder, "that you're
game.... Some girls, of course, don't care a damn about getting on ...
especially if there's a Johnny somewhere in sight with enough cash in
his pocket for a marriage license."

"I am very much taken by surprise," Claire faltered. "You see, the
change means a great deal to me."

Mr. Flint moved closer. His manner was intimate and distasteful.
"Sometimes I think we business men ought to get more of a slant on our
employees.... You know what I mean, not exactly bothering about how many
lumps of sugar they take in their coffee, or their taste in after-dinner
cheese ... but, well, just how often they have to resole their boots and
turn the ribbons on their spring bonnets.... Now, in Miss Whitehead's
case.... But of course you're not interested in Miss Whitehead."

"Why, I wouldn't say that," stammered Claire. Then, as she reached for
her shorthand book she said, more confidently: "To be quite frank, Mr.
Flint, I liked Miss Whitehead tremendously. She was so alive ... and
vivid."

Flint beamed. "Do you know why I picked you instead of that Munch
dame?... It's because you had all the frills of a woman and none of the
nastiness. For instance, you wouldn't be bothered in the least if I took
a notion to overload the office with another pretty girl.... I've
watched you for some time. It has taken me six months to make up my mind
to fire Miss Whitehead and boost you into her job."

He stood with an air of condescending arrogance, his thumbs bearing down
heavily on his trousers pockets, his broad fingers beating a
self-satisfied tattoo upon his thighs. Claire shrank nearer the table.
"You mean, Mr. Flint, that you dismissed Miss Whitehead merely to give
me her position?"

Flint smiled. "Well, now you're coming down to brass-headed tacks. I'm
not keen on spelling out the whys and wherefores of anything I do....
But one thing is certain enough--if Miss Munch had been the only
available candidate I _could_ have stood Miss Whitehead.... There ain't
much question about that."

"Oh, Mr. Flint! I'm sorry!"

He gave a wide guffaw. "That only makes you all the more of a corker!"
he answered, rubbing his hands together in narrow-eyed satisfaction.

She escaped into the outer office, flushed, but with her head thrown
back in an attitude of instinctive defense, and the next instant she
literally ran into the arm of a man.

"Why, Miss Robson, but this _is_ pleasant! I'm just dropping in to see
Mr. Flint."

She drew back. Mr. Stillman stood smiling before her.

Greetings and questions flowed with all the genial ease of one who is
never quite taken unawares. Claire, outwardly calm, felt overcome with
inner confusion. She passed rapidly to her desk and sat down.

Miss Munch was upon her almost instantly.

"Do _you_ know Ned Stillman?" Miss Munch asked, veiling her real
purpose.

"Yes," replied Claire, with uncomfortable brevity.

"I have a cousin who was housekeeper for his wife's father.... You know
about his wife, of course."

Claire lifted her clear eyes in a startled glance that was almost as
instantly converted into a look of challenge.

"Yes," she lied.

Miss Munch hesitated, then plunged at once into the issue uppermost in
her mind. "It's too bad you've had to be bothered with Flint's
dictation, Miss Robson. It just happens I'm writing up a long
home-office report, otherwise I'm sure he wouldn't have annoyed you."

Claire Robson fixed Miss Munch with a coldly polite stare. "You've made
a mistake, Miss Munch. Mr. Flint has given me no dictation." The speech
in itself was nothing, but Claire's tone gave it unmistakable point.
Miss Munch grew white and then flushed. She turned away without a word,
but Claire Robson knew that in a twinkling of an eye she had gained not
only an enemy, but an uncommon one.

       *       *       *       *       *

That night Claire took an unusually long way round on her walk home. Her
path from the Falcon Insurance Company's office on California Street to
the Clay Street flat was never a direct one, first, because there were
hills to be avoided, and, second, because Claire found the streets at
twilight too full of charm for a rapid homeward flight. The year was on
the wane and the November days were coming to an early blackness. Claire
reveled in the light-flooded dusk of these late autumn evenings. To her,
the city became a vast theater, darkened suddenly for the purpose of
throwing the performers into sharper relief. Most clerks made their way
up Montgomery Street toward Market, but Claire climbed past the German
Bank to Kearny Street. She liked this old thoroughfare, struggling
vainly to pull itself up to its former glory. The Kearny Street crowd
was a varying quantity, frankly shabby or flashily prosperous, as far
south as Sutter Street, suddenly dignified and reserved for the two
blocks beyond. To-night Claire missed the direct appeal of the streets
lined with bright shops. They formed the proper background for her
broodings, but they scarcely entered into her mood. She could not have
said just what flight her mood was taking, or upon just which branch her
thought would alight. She was confused and puzzled and vaguely uneasy.
She had a sense that somehow, somewhere, a door had been opened and that
a strong, devastating wind was clearing the air and bringing dead things
to ground in a disorderly shower. She was stirred by twilights of
uneasiness. It was almost as if the monotonous truce of noonday had been
darkened by a huge, composite, masculine shadow, made up in some
mysterious way of the ridiculous Serbian and his blood-red dawn, and
this man Stillman, who had a wife, and Flint, with hands so ready to
flick threads from her sloping shoulders. Yesterday her outlook had been
peaceful and unhappy; to-day she felt stimulation of an impending
struggle. She was afraid, and yet she would not have turned back for one
swift moment. And suddenly the words of Mrs. Finnegan recurred, "I guess
we women are all alike." Were they?

At which point she came upon a pastry-shop window and she went in and
bought a half-dozen French pastries. The thought of her mother's
pleasure at this unusual treat brought her in due time smiling to her
threshold.

Mrs. Robson was not in her accustomed place at the head of the stairs;
about half-way up the long flight her voice sounded triumphantly:

"Oh, Claire, do hurry and see what Gertrude has sent! Everything is
perfectly lovely."

Claire quickened her pace and gained the cramped living-room. Thrown
about in a sort of joyous disorder, Gertrude Sinclair's finery quite lit
up the shabbiness. Hats, plumes, scraps of vivid silks, gilded slippers,
a spangled fan--their unrelated vividness struck Claire as fantastic as
a futurist painting. Her mother seemed suddenly young again. Claire
wondered whether, after the toll of sixty-odd years, she could be moved
to momentary youth by the mere sight of the prettiness that was
quickening her mother's pulse.

Mrs. Robson held up a filmy evening gown of black net embroidered with a
rich design of dull gold. "Isn't this heavenly?" she demanded. "And it
will just fit you, Claire. I think Gertrude has spread herself this
time."

"Yes, on finery, mother. But didn't she send anything sensible? What
possessed her to load us up with a lot of things we can never possibly
get a chance to wear?"

Claire had not meant to be disagreeable, but there was rancor in her
voice. Mrs. Robson cast aside the dress with the carelessness of a
spoiled favorite; she always adapted her manner to the tone of her
background.

"Claire Robson!" she cried, good-naturedly. "You're a regular old woman!
I'm sure _I_ haven't much to be cheerful about, but I just won't let
anything down me!... If I wanted to, I could give up right now. Where
would we have been, I'd like to know, if I hadn't held my head up?
Goodness knows, _my_ folks didn't help me. If they had had their way,
I'd been out manicuring people's nails and washing heads for a living.
And _you_ in an orphan-asylum! That's what my people did for me! As it
is, they shoved you out to work. What chance have you of meeting nice
people? No, Claire, I don't care how they have treated me, but they
might have given you a chance. I'll never forgive them for that!... I
thought last night when I was talking to Mrs. Condor and watching you
and Mr. Stillman how nice it would have been if.... Oh, that reminds me!
Who do you think has been here to-day?... Mrs. Towne! She came to
apologize about asking us to move our seats the other night. _She_ knows
the Stillmans well. The old people were pillars of the Second Church in
the 'sixties. I fancy he is dancing about that Mrs. Condor's heels a
bit. Of course, as Mrs. Towne said, _she_ wouldn't be likely to make
herself a permanent feature of Second Church entertainments. But now in
war-times _anything_ is possible. Mrs. Towne was telling me all about
Stillman and his wife. I _should_ have remembered, but somehow I forgot.
Get your things off and I'll tell you all about it."

Claire handed her mother the package of pastries. "I heard about it
to-day," she said, coldly.

"But Mrs. Towne knows the whole thing from A to Z," insisted Mrs.
Robson, genially.

"I'm not interested in the details," Claire returned, doggedly.

Mrs. Robson's face wore a puzzled, almost a harried, expression. Claire
moved away. Her mother gave a shrug and renewed her efforts to drag
further finery from the mysterious depths of the treasure-box. Her
daughter cast a last incurious glance back. The glow on Mrs. Robson's
face, which Claire had mistaken for youth, seemed now a thing hectic and
unpleasant, and gave an uncanny sense of a skeleton sitting among gauds
and baubles.

A feeling of isolation swept Claire, such as she had never experienced.
The person who should have been closest suddenly had become a
stranger.... She went into her room and closed the door.



CHAPTER III


The following week Claire was surprised to find a letter on her desk at
the office. The few written favors that came her way usually were
addressed to the Clay Street flat, so that she was puzzled by this
innovation and the unfamiliar handwriting. Glancing swiftly at the
signature, she was surprised to see the name "Lily Condor," scrawled
loosely at the foot of the note. It seemed that Mrs. Condor was giving a
little musicale in Ned Stillman's apartments on the following Friday
night, and, if one could believe such a thing, the lady implied that the
evening would scarcely be complete without the presence of Claire
Robson--or, to put it more properly, Claire Robson and her _mother_.

As Claire had scarcely said a half-dozen words to Mrs. Condor on the
night of the Red Cross concert, this invitation seemed little short of
extraordinary. But, as Claire thought it over, she recalled that there
had been some general conversation about music, in which she had
admitted a discreet passion for this form of entertainment, even going
so far as to confess that she played the piano herself upon occasion.
Her first impulse, clinched by the familiar feminine excuse that she had
nothing suitable to wear, was to send her regrets. At once she thought
of the scorned finery that Gertrude Sinclair had included in her last
box, and the more she thought about it the more convinced she became
that she had no real reason for refusing. But a swift, strange regret
that her mother had been included in the invitation took the edge off
her anticipations. She tried to dismiss this feeling, but it grew more
definite as the morning progressed.

For days Claire had been striking at the shackles of habit with a rancor
bred of disillusionment. She had been on tiptoe for new and vital
experiences, and yet, for any outward sign, her life bid fair to escape
the surge of any torrential circumstance. Particularly, at the office,
things had gone on smoothly. The other clerks had accepted Claire's
advancement without either protest or enthusiasm. Even Miss Munch had
veiled her resentment behind the saving trivialities of daily
intercourse. She had gone so far as to introduce Claire to her cousin, a
Mrs. Richards, who had come in at the noon hour for a new tatting
design. This cousin was a large, red-faced woman, with an aggressively
capable manner. She had the quick, ferret-like eyes of Miss Munch and
the loose mouth of a perpetual gossip.

"She's the one I told you about the other day," Miss Munch had explained
later--"the housekeeper for _your friend_ Stillman's father-in-law." She
gave nasty emphasis to this trivial speech.

Flint had been direct and business-like almost to the point of
bruskness. But Claire knew that such moods were not unusual, so she took
little stock in the ultimate significance of his restrained manner.

Perhaps the most indefinable change had come over Claire's home life.
Her mother's unfailing string of trivial gossip, formerly not without a
certain interest, now scarcely held her to even polite attention.
Indeed, her self-absorbed silence, while Mrs. Robson poured out the
latest news about Mrs. Finnegan's second sister's husband's mother--who
was suddenly stricken with some incurable disease, made all the more
mysterious by the fact that its nature was not divulged--was so apparent
that her mother, goaded on to a mild exasperation, would ask,
significantly:

"What's the matter, Claire? Have you a headache?"

Mrs. Robson was never so happy as in the discovery of some one with a
mysterious disease, particularly if the victim's relatives were loath to
discuss the issue.

"They think they fool me!" she would say, triumphantly, to Claire, "but
I guess I know what ails her.... Didn't her mother, and her uncle, and
her sister's oldest child die of consumption? I tell you it's in the
family. The last time I saw her she nearly coughed her head off."

Not that Mrs. Robson was unsympathetic; brought face to face with
suffering, she blossomed with every impulsive tenderness, but her
experiences had confirmed her in pessimism, and every fresh tragedy
testified to the soundness of her faith. Her pride at diagnosing
people's ills and pronouncing their death-sentences was almost
professional. And she had an irritating way of making comments such as
this:

"Well, Claire, I see that old Mrs. Talbot is dead at last!... I knew she
wouldn't live another winter. They'll feel terribly, no doubt; but, of
course, it is a great relief."

Or:

"Why, here is the death notice of Isaac Rice! I thought he died _years_
ago. My, but he was a trial! What a blessing!"

This was the type of conversation that Claire was finding either empty
of meaning or illuminating to the point of annoyance. What amazed her
was the fact that she had remained blind so long to the slightest of the
conversational food upon which she had been fed.

Claire did not tell her mother about the invitation to Mrs. Condor's
musical evening.

"I'll wait," she said to herself. "Thursday will be time enough."
Although why delay would prove advantageous was not particularly
apparent.

On Wednesday night at the dinner-table, Mrs. Robson, as if still puzzled
at her daughter's altered mood, said, rather cautiously:

"There's to be a reception at the church on Friday night."

"For whom?" inquired Claire, with pallid interest.

"I didn't quite catch the name.... Some woman back from France. She's
been nursing in one of the British hospitals. She's to get Red Cross
work started at the church. It seems San Francisco is a bit slow over
taking up the work, but, then, you know, we're poked off here in a
corner and I suppose we don't quite realize yet.... Anyway, Mrs. Towne
wants us to help with the coffee. She says you should have been in the
church-work long ago. You look so self-contained and efficient.... I
told her we would be there at half past seven and get the dishes into
shape."

Claire's heart beat violently. "Friday night? I'm sorry, mother; I have
another engagement."

"Another engagement? Why, Claire, how funny! You never said anything
about it. I don't know what to say to Mrs. Towne."

Claire felt calm again. "Just tell her the truth."

"But she'll think so strange that I didn't know ... that I...."

"You shouldn't have spoken for me until you found out whether I was
willing."

"Willing! _Willing!_ I didn't suppose you'd be anything else. I've been
trying to get you in with the right people at the church for the last
fifteen years. I've tried so hard...."

"Yes, mother, I know," said Claire, patiently. "But don't you see?
That's just it. You've tried too hard."

Mrs. Robson began to whimper discreetly. "How you do talk, Claire! I
declare I don't know what to make of it. I suppose you're bitter about
Mrs. Towne the other night. I felt so at first, but I can see now we
were at the wrong table. And, after all, everything came out
beautifully. We sat with Mr. Stillman, and that had a very good effect,
I can tell you. Especially when everybody saw us leave with him. Why, it
brought Mrs. Towne to her feet."

"Yes, and that's the humiliating part of it."

"Well, Claire, when you've lived as long as I have you won't be so
uppish about making compromises," flung back Mrs. Robson. "Of course, if
you've got another engagement, you've got another engagement, but
if...."

"I wouldn't have gone, anyway. I'm through with that sort of thing."

"Why, Claire, how can you! It's your duty, _now_!--with your country at
war--and ... and ... Even that dreadful Serbian the other night made
_that_ plain."

"I'll go with you to church on Sundays, of course, but--"

"What am _I_ to do?" wailed Mrs. Robson. "At least you might think of
me! I've not had much pleasure in my life, goodness knows, and now just
as I...."

Mrs. Robson broke off abruptly on a flood of tears. Two weeks ago these
tears would have overwhelmed Claire. As it was, she sat calmly stirring
her tea, surprised and a little ashamed of her coldness. The truth was
that Claire Robson was feeling all the fanatical cruelty that comes with
sudden conviction. The forms of her new faith had hardened too quickly
and left outlines sharp and uncompromising.

For years Claire had found shelter from the glare of middle-class
snobbery beating about her head, by shrinking into her mother's
inadequate shadow as a desert bird shrinks into the thin shadow of a dry
reed by some burned-out watercourse. Now a full noon of disillusionment
had annihilated this shadow and given her the courage of necessity. And
there was something more than courage--there was an eagerness to stand
alone in the commonplace words with which she sought to temper her
refusal to assist at the coming church reception:

"I can't see any good reason, mother, why you shouldn't go and help Mrs.
Towne.... What have my plans to do with it?"

To which her mother answered:

"I do so hate to be seen at such places alone, Claire."

Claire made no reply. She did not want to give her mother's indecision a
chance to crystallize into a definite stand. She knew by long experience
that if this happened it would be fatal. But in a swift flash of
decision Claire made up her mind for one thing--she would either go to
Mrs. Condor's evening alone or she would send her regrets.



CHAPTER IV


By a series of neutral subterfuges and tactful evasions Claire Robson
won her point--she went to the Condor musicale at Ned Stillman's
apartments alone, and on that same night her mother wended a rather
grudging way to the Second Presbyterian Church reception.

Acting under her mother's advice, Claire timed her arrival for nine
o'clock, an hour which seemed incredibly late to one schooled in the
temperate hour of church socials. Mrs. Condor herself opened the door in
answer to Claire's ring.

"Oh, my dear, but I _am_ glad to see you!" burst from the elder woman as
she waved her in. But she did not so much as mention the absence of Mrs.
Robson, and Claire was divided between a feeling of wounded family
pride, and gratification at the intuition which had warned her to leave
her mother to her own devices. More people arrived on Claire's heels,
and in the lively bustle she was left to shed her wraps in one of the
bedrooms. Her heart was pounding with reaction at her outwardly
self-contained entrance. She let her rather shabby cloak slip to the
floor, revealing a strange, new Claire resplendent in the
gold-embroidered gown that had once so stirred her rancor. For a brief
instant she had an impulse to gather the discarded wrap securely about
her and make a quick exit. A swooning fear at the thought of meeting a
roomful of people assailed her. But there succeeded a courage born of
the realization that they all would be strangers. With a sense of
bravado she stepped out into the entrance hall again.

Ned Stillman came forward. She halted and waited for him. His face had
lit with a sudden pleasure, which told Claire that for once in her life
her presence roused positive interest. He inquired after her health, why
her mother had not come, whether the abominable fog was clearing. His
easy formality put her, as usual, completely at ease.

It was only when he asked her, with the most inconsequential tone in the
world, "whether she could read music at sight" that a sinking fear came
over her. And yet she found courage enough to be truthful and say yes.

"That's fine!" he returned. "Our accompanist hasn't come yet and we want
to start off with a song or two."

From this moment on the evening impressed itself on Claire in a series
of blurred hectic pictures.... She knew that Stillman was leading her
toward the piano, but the living-room and its toned lights gave her a
curious sense of unreality. She seated herself before the white keyboard
and folded her hands with desperate resignation while she waited for
Stillman to dictate the next move.

"My dear Mrs. Condor," Stillman explained, as that lady came up to them,
"we sha'n't have to wait for Flora Menzies. Miss Robson will accompany
you."

Claire sat unmoved. She was beyond so trivial a sensation as anxiety.
Stillman drifted away; Mrs. Condor began to run through the sheet music
lying on the piano.

"Of course you know Schumann, Miss Robson. Shall we start at once? How
is the light? If you moved your stool a little--so. There, that's
better."

Claire did not reply. She looked at the music before her. She was
conscious that it was a piece she knew, although its name registered no
other impression. She began to play. The opening bars almost startled
her. She felt a hush fall over the noisy room. Her fingers stumbled--she
caught the melody again with staggering desperation. Mrs. Condor was
singing.... The room faded; even the sound of Mrs. Condor's voice became
remote. Claire had a desire to laugh.

All manner of strange, disconnected thoughts ran through her head. She
remembered a doll she had broken years ago and buried with great pomp
and circumstance, a pink parasol that had been given her as a child, the
gigantic and respectable wig which had incased the head of her old
German music-teacher, Frau Pfaff. And as she played on and on the music
further evoked the memory of this worthy lady who had given her services
in exchange for lodgings in an incredibly small hall bedroom, with
certain privileges at the kitchen stove. And pictures of this irritating
woman rose before her, stewing dried fruit, or preparing sour beef, or
borrowing the clothes boiler for a perennial wash. What compromises her
mother had made to give her child the gentle accomplishments that Mrs.
Robson associated with breeding! It came to Claire that it was almost
cruel to have denied this mother a share in the triumphs of that
evening. And with that, she realized that Mrs. Condor had ceased
singing. A hum broke loose, followed by applause. Claire grew faint. Her
head began to swirl. She clutched the piano stool and by sheer terror at
the thought of creating a scene she managed to keep her consciousness as
she felt Mrs. Condor's hand upon her shoulder and heard a voice that
just missed being patronizing:

"My dear, you did it beautifully."

Claire longed to burst into tears....

The concert was over shortly after eleven o'clock. Besides Mrs. Condor,
there had been a 'cellist, very masculine in his looks but rather
forceless in his playing, and a young, frail girl who brought great
breadth and vigor to her interpretations at the piano. But Claire was
really too excited for calm enjoyment. Supper followed--creamed minced
chicken and extraordinarily thin sandwiches, and a dry, pale wine that
Claire found at first rather distasteful. Claire sat with a little group
composed of Mrs. Condor, Ned Stillman, a fashionable young man, Phil
Edington, who frankly confessed boredom at all things musical except
one-steps and fox-trots, and two or three artistic-looking souls who
pretended to be quite shocked by young Edington's frankness.

Conversation veered naturally to the subject of the war. Edington had
tried for a commission in an officers' training-camp and failed. He was
extraordinarily frank about it all, and good-natured at the chaffing
that Mrs. Condor and Stillman threw at him.

"I'm going to wait now and be drafted," he announced. "As long as I
failed to make a high grade I want to begin at the bottom and see the
whole picture."

Claire rather waited for a word from Stillman as to his convictions on
the subject. Of course one could see that he was over the draft age,
still.... For the most part she was silent, but happy and content. By
contributing her share to the evening's entertainment she had justified
her presence. Wine as a factor in midnight suppers was a new but not a
revolutionary experience to Claire Robson, but she gasped a bit when the
maid passed cigarettes to the ladies. And yet she felt a delicious sense
of being a party to something quite daring and _outré_, although she did
not have either courage or skill to enjoy one of the slender,
gold-tipped delights.

The time for departure finally came. Claire rose reluctantly. Mrs.
Condor, slipping one arm in Phil Edington's and the other in Claire's,
sauntered with them toward the entrance hall.

"I say," ventured Edington as Stillman caught up to the group. "What's
the matter with just us four dropping down to the Palace for a whirl or
two?"

Claire stared. She had not grown used to the novelty of being included,
but any instinctive objections to the plan were promptly silenced by
Mrs. Condor's enthusiastic approval.

They arrived at the Palace Hotel shortly before midnight. The Rose Room
was crowded. All the tables seemed filled, and Claire had a moment of
disappointment caused by the fear that their party would be unable to
gain admittance. But young Edington's presence soon set any uneasiness
on that score at rest, and a place was evolved with deftness and
despatch. The novelty of the situation to Claire was nothing compared
with her matter-of-fact acceptance of it. She was neither self-conscious
nor timid. Her three companions had a way of tacitly including her in
even their trivial chatter that was unmistakable, though hard to define.
She felt that she was one of them, and she blossomed in this strange new
warmth like a chilled blossom at the final approach of a belated spring.
All evening her starved sense of self-importance had been feeding
greedily upon the compliments that had come her way. There had been her
mother's rather apologetic words of approval at her appearance, to begin
with, then Mrs. Condor's appreciation at the piano, and finally a word
dropped by one of the women who had shared a mirror with her at the hour
of departure.

"How do you manage your hair, Miss Robson?" the other had said, digging
viciously at her shifting locks with a hairpin. "I do declare you're the
only woman in the room that looks presentable."

But it was Edington's words to Stillman while they stood waiting for the
hotel attendants to prepare the table that brought a quickened beat to
her heart. The conversation was low and not meant for her ears, but her
senses were too sharpened to miss Edington's furtive words as he
whispered to Stillman:

"Where did ... amazing.... Miss Robson?"

Claire did not catch the reply which must have also been something of a
query, but she heard Edington continue.

"Well ... a little too silent, I must admit.... No, I don't dislike 'em
that way ... but I'm afraid of them."

Stillman answered with a low laugh.

They sat down. Edington ordered wine. The crowd at the tables was rather
a mixed one. There was plenty of elaborate gowning among the groups of
formal diners who had prolonged their feasting into the supper hour, but
many casuals, drifting in for a few drinks and a dance or two, robbed
the scene of its earlier brilliance.

The orchestra struck up a one-step. Claire denied Stillman the dance,
explaining that she knew none of the new steps, and he whirled away with
Mrs. Condor. Edington, robbed of his chance, pouted unashamed.

"I say, Miss Robson, can't you do a one-step--really? There isn't
anything to it! Come on--try; I'll pull you through."

Claire's knowledge of dancing was instinctive, but not a matter of much
practice, yet his distress was so comic that she relented. She wondered
if he could feel her trembling as they swung into the dance. She
stumbled once or twice from timidity, but Edington guided unerringly.
Half-way round she suddenly struck the proper swing.

"There--that's it," cried Edington, enthusiastically. "Now you've got
it! Fine!"

His praise mounted to her brain like a heady wine, and suddenly, in the
twinkling of an eye, all the repressed youth within her awoke with a
sweet and terrible joy.... They danced madly, perfectly, the rhythm
entering into them like something at once fluid and flaming. Her ecstasy
awoke a vague response in her partner, who bent forward as he kept
repeating, monotonously:

"And you said you couldn't, Miss Robson! Fancy, you said you couldn't!"

The music stopped abruptly with a crash. Some of the dancers made their
way leisurely back among the tables, but the most of them wandered about
the polished' floor, clapping insistent hands for an encore. In this
brief interlude, groups arrived and departed. The musicians lifted their
instruments to chin and lip, struck an opening chord; couples began to
whirl and glide. Claire Robson, palpitant and eager, followed Edington's
lead, but almost at the first moment of their rhythmic flight they came
crashing into the overcoated bulk of a man cutting across the corner of
the ballroom in an attempt at a swift exit. A smothered protest escaped
Edington, and Claire detached herself from her partner long enough to
see the offender bow very low and hear his apology in a voice and manner
that seemed curiously familiar:

"I beg your pardon. Pray forgive me! I should have known better."

In the twinkling of an eye the interrupted dancers were sweeping on
again, and the apologetic stranger, hat in hand, turning for a farewell
look at the pair. Claire Robson felt an up-leap of the heart; a fresh
ecstasy quickened her. It was the Serbian!

They finished the dance almost opposite their table and were met by a
patter of applause from Mrs. Condor and Stillman, who were already
seated.

Claire was flaming with embarrassment as she faced Stillman.

"I hope you'll understand, Mr. Stillman," she faltered. "But Mr.
Edington seemed willing to risk my ignorance."

Mrs. Condor turned Claire's plaintive apology into a covert attack upon
Stillman's courage, but Stillman rescued Claire from further confusion
by laughing back:

"Well, I'll have my revenge on Edington. I'll grant him all the
one-steps, but he can't have any of the waltzes, Miss Robson."

The waiter began to pour out the champagne. Claire settled back in her
seat with a feeling of delightful languor. The dance had released all
the pent-up emotions that a night of vivid sensations had called into
her life. She had come into the Rose Room of the Palace Hotel quivering
in the leash of a restrained enjoyment; it had taken the quick lash of
opportunity to send her spirits hurtling forward in wild and headlong
abandon. She lifted her wine-glass in answer to the upraised glasses of
her companions, and the thought flashed over her that it would be
impossible for her to have quite her old vision again. In every life
there are culminating moments of joy or sorrow which either clear or
dim the horizon, and Claire felt that such moment was now hers.

Stillman rose promptly in his seat at the first strains of the waltz,
which proved to be the next number. Claire stepped out upon the floor
with confidence.

She did not need any word of reassurance this time to tell her that her
dancing was more than acceptable, and, true to her brief experience with
Stillman, he refrained from voicing the obvious. They had begun the
dance promptly and for the first whirl about they had the floor almost
to themselves. Claire's discreet sidelong glances detected many
approving nods in their direction; people were noticing them and making
favorable comment.... The floor filled, but even in the crowd Claire had
a sense that she and her partner were standing out distinctly.

The very nature of the waltz contrasted sharply with the one-step. There
was less abandon and more art. The first dance had expressed a primitive
emotion; the present slow and measured whirl a discriminating sensation.
And slowly, under the spell of Stillman's calm and yet strangely glowing
manner, Claire recovered her poise. All night she had been inhaling
every fresh delight rapturously with the closed eyes and open senses
that one brings to the enjoyment of blossoms heavy with perfume. It took
Stillman's influence to rob the hours of their swooning delight by
recapturing her self-consciousness. Things became at once orderly and
reasonable. And as he led her back to their table she felt the flame
within cease its flarings and become steady, with a pleasurable glow.
For a moment she felt uneasy, as if she were being trapped by something
sweetfully insidious. Slowly, almost cautiously, she withdrew her arm
from his. He made no comment; it was doubtful if he really noticed her
recoil.

       *       *       *       *       *

Long past its appointed time the hall light in the Robson flat continued
to burn dimly. Mrs. Robson, sleepless and a bit anxious, waited alertly
for the sound of Claire's key in the door. The welcome click came
finally, succeeded by the unmistakable slam of an automobile door and
the sharp, quick note of a machine speeding up.

"She's come home in Stillman's car," flashed through Mrs. Robson's mind,
as she sat up in bed. At that moment Mrs. Finnegan's cuckoo clock,
sounding distinctly through the thin flooring, warbled twice with a
voice of friendly betrayal. "Mercy! it's two o'clock!" she muttered. "I
wonder if Mrs. Finnegan is awake?... I do hope she heard the
automobile!..."

Seated at the foot of her mother's bed, Claire tried her best to give a
satisfactory report of the evening, but she found that she had
overlooked most of the details that her mother found interesting. Who
was there? What did Mrs. Condor wear? Did they have an elaborate
spread?--the questions rippled on in an endless flow.

Under the acceleration of Claire's recital, Mrs. Robson found her
experiences at the church reception left far behind. Even with scant
details, Claire had managed to evolve a fascinating picture of a life
robbed sufficiently of puritanism to be properly piquant. There was a
tang of the swift, immoral, fascinating 'seventies in Claire's still
cautious reference to champagne and cigarettes. It was impossible for
any San Franciscan who had lived through those splendid madcap bonanza
days to deny the lure of gay wickedness. At least it was hard to keep
one's eyes on a prayer-book while the car of pleasure rattled by. And a
coffee-and-cake social was, after all, a rather tame experience in the
face of beverages more sparkling and eatables distinctly enticing.... Of
course, if Claire had been introduced to any of these questionable
delights by anybody short of a survivor of the Stillman clan, Mrs.
Robson might have had a misgiving. As it was, she was not above a
certain forewarning sense that made her say with an air of inconsequence
as Claire finished her recital:

"Mrs. Towne tells me that there is a chance that Mr. Stillman's wife may
get well. She's in a private sanitarium, at Livermore, you know." She
stopped to draw up the bedclothes higher. "I do hope it's so!... But I'm
always skeptical about _crazy_ people ever amounting to anything again.
Seems to me they're better off dead."



CHAPTER V


For Claire Robson, there followed after the memorable Condor-Stillman
musicale a period of slack-water. It seemed as if a deadly stagnation
was to poison her existence, so sharp and emphasized was her boredom. On
the other hand, Mrs. Robson seemed to have contrived, from years of
living among arid pleasures, the ability to conserve every happiness
that she chanced upon to its last drop. Claire's invitation to be one of
a distinguished group fed her vanity long after her daughter had outworn
the delights of retrospection. The memory of this incident filled Mrs.
Robson's thoughts, her dreams, her conversation. Gradually, as the days
dragged by, bit by bit, she gleaned detached details of what had
transpired, weaving them into a vivid whole, for the entertainment of
herself and the amazement of her neighbor, Mrs. Finnegan.

Formerly Mrs. Finnegan's information regarding what went on in exclusive
circles was confined to society dramas on the screen and the Sunday
supplement. The personal note which Mrs. Robson brought to her recitals
was a new and pleasing experience. After listening to the authentic
gossip of Mrs. Robson, Mrs. Finnegan would return to her threshold with
a sense of having shared state secrets. On such occasions Mrs. Robson's
frankness had almost a challenge in it; she exaggerated many details and
concealed none.

"Yes," she would repeat, emphatically, "they served cigarettes along
with the wine. They _always_ do."

"Well, Mrs. Robson," Mrs. Finnegan inevitably returned, "far be it from
me to criticize what your daughter's friends do. But I don't approve of
women smoking."

As a matter of fact, neither did Mrs. Robson, but she felt in duty bound
to resent Mrs. Finnegan's narrow attacks upon society.

"Well, Mrs. Finnegan, that's only because you're not accustomed to it.
Now, if you had ever...."

"Did Claire smoke?"

"Why, of course _not_! How can you ask such a thing? I hope I've brought
my daughter up decently, Mrs. Finnegan."

And with that, Mrs. Robson would deftly switch to a less exciting detail
of the Condor-Stillman musicale, before her neighbor had a chance to
pick flaws in her logic. But sooner or later the topic would again verge
on the controversial. Usually at the point where the scene shifted from
Ned Stillman's apartments to the Palace Hotel, Mrs. Finnegan's pug nose
was lifted with tentative disapproval, as she inquired:

"How many did you say went down to the Palace?"

"Only four--Mr. Stillman, Claire, Mrs. Condor, and a young fellow named
Edington."

"I suppose _that_ Mrs. Condor was the chaperon. Finnegan knows her well!
She used to hire hacks when Finnegan was in the livery business years
ago. She's a gay one, I can tell you. When only the steam-dummy ran out
to the Cliff House...."

"That's nothing. Everybody who was anybody had dinners at the Cliff
House in those days. I remember how my father...."

"Yes, Mrs. Robson, maybe you do! But I'll bet _you_ never went to such a
place without your husband ... and ... with a _strange_ man."

Mrs. Robson never had, and she would tell Mrs. Finnegan so decidedly.
This always had the effect of switching the subject again and Mrs.
Robson found her desire to know the real details of Mrs. Condor's
questionable gaieties offered up on the altar of class loyalty. For it
never occurred to Mrs. Robson to doubt that her social exile had nothing
to do with the inherent rights of her position.

When everything else in the way of an irritating program failed to rouse
Mrs. Robson's dignified ire, her neighbor fell back upon the fact that
Stillman was a married man. Mrs. Finnegan really worshiped Mrs. Robson
to distraction, but she had a natural combative tendency that was at
odds with even her loyalty.

"Mr. Stillman is a married man," Mrs. Finnegan would insist, doggedly.
"And I don't approve of married men taking an interest in young girls.
Who knows?--he may spoil your daughter's chances."

This statement always had the effect of dividing Mrs. Robson against
herself. She resented Mrs. Finnegan's insinuations concerning Stillman,
because it was not in her nature to be anything but partizan, and at the
same time she was mollified by her neighbor's recognition of the fact
that Claire had such things as chances. She always managed cleverly at
this point by saying, patronizingly:

"Why, how you talk, Mrs. Finnegan! Mr. Stillman is just like an old
friend. Not that we've known _him_ so long ... but the family, you know
... they're old-timers. Everybody knows the Stillmans! Really one
couldn't want a better friend."

Thus did Mrs. Robson take meager and colorless realities and expand them
into things of blossoming promise. She was almost creative in the
artistry she brought to these transmutations. In the end she convinced
_herself_ of their existence and she was quite sure that Mrs. Finnegan
shared equally in the delights of her fancy.

Meanwhile November passed, and the first weeks of December crowded the
old year to its death. November had been shrouded in clammy fogs, but no
rain had fallen, and everybody began to have the restless feeling
engendered by the usual summer drought in California prolonged beyond
its appointed season. The country and the people needed rain. Claire,
always responsive to the moods of wind and weather, longed for the
cleansing flood to descend and wash the dust-drab town colorful again.
She awoke one morning to the delicious thrill of the moisture-laden
southeast wind blowing into her room and the warning voice of her mother
at her bedroom door calling to her:

"You'd better put on your thick shoes, Claire! We're in for a storm."

She leaped out of bed joyously and hurried with her dressing.

As she walked down to work the warm yet curiously refreshing wind flung
itself in a fine frenzy over the gray city. Dark-gray clouds were
closing in from the south, and in the east an ominous silver band of
light marked the sullen flight of the sun. People were scampering about
buoyantly, running for street-cars, chasing liberated hats, battling
with billowing skirts. It seemed as if the promise of rain had revived
laughter and motion to an extraordinary degree. At the office this
ecstasy of spirit persisted; even Miss Munch came in hair awry and
blowsy, her beady eyes almost laughing.

Mr. Flint had not been to the office for two days. A sniffling cold had
kept him at home. Claire had rather looked for him to-day, and had
prepared herself for a flood of accumulated dictation. But the threat of
dampness evidently dissuaded him, for the noon hour came and went and
Mr. Flint did not put in an appearance. At about three o'clock in the
afternoon a long-distance call came on the telephone for Miss Robson.
Claire answered. Flint was on the other end of the wire. He wanted to
know if she could come at once over to Yolanda and take several pages of
dictation. His cold was uncertain and he might not get out for the rest
of the week. He realized that it was something of an imposition on her
good nature, but she would be doing him a great favor if.... She
interrupted him with her quick assent and he finished:

"I'll have the car at the station, and of course you'll stay for
dinner."

Claire hung up the receiver and looked at her watch. It was just half
after three. The next ferryboat connecting at Sausalito with the
electric train for Yolanda left at three-forty-five. She had no time to
lose; it was a good ten minutes' walk from the office to the ferry and
little to be gained by taking a street-car. She managed her preparations
for departure successfully, but in the end she had to ask Miss Munch to
telephone her mother. Miss Munch assented with an alarmingly sweet
smile.

Claire walked briskly down California Street toward the ferry-building.
No rain had fallen, but the air was full of ominous promise. The wind
was even brisker than it had been in the morning, and its breath almost
tropically moist.

"At sundown it will simply pour," thought Claire, as she exchanged fifty
cents for a ticket to Yolanda.

She presented her ticket at the entrance to the waiting-room and passed
in. The passageway to the boat was already open; she went at once and
found a sheltered corner outside on the upper deck. A strong sea was
running and already the ferryboat was plunging and straining like a
restless bloodhound in leash. The air was full of screaming gulls and
the clipped whistling of restless bay craft. Claire was so intent on all
this elemental agitation that she took no notice of the people about
her, but as the boat slid lumberingly out of the slip she was recalled
by a voice close at hand saying:

"Why, Miss Robson, who would think of seeing you here at this hour!"

Claire turned and discovered Miss Munch's cousin sitting beside her,
intent on the inevitable tatting.

"Oh, Mrs. Richards, how stupid of me! Have you been here long?"

"About ten minutes. But I get so interested in my work I never have eyes
for anything else. How do you put in the time? A trip like this is so
tiresome!"

Claire delved into her bag and brought out knitting-needles and an
unfinished sock.

"I'm trying a hand at this," she admitted, holding her handiwork up
ruefully. "But I'm afraid I'm not very skilful."

Mrs. Richards inspected the sock with critical disapproval.

"Oh, well," she encouraged, "you'll learn ... practice makes perfect.
I've just finished a half-dozen pairs. I suppose I'm laying myself out
for a roast doing tatting in public _these_ war days! But it's restful
and I'm not one to pretend. As long as my conscience is clear I can
afford to be perfectly independent.... You don't make this trip every
night, do you?"

"Oh my, no! I'm going over to Mr. Flint's to take some dictation. He's
home sick."

"I saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming _off_ the boat just as I got
on." Mrs. Richards's voice took on a tone of casual directness.

"You know Mrs. Flint?"

"My dear girl, a trained nurse knows everybody--and everything about
them, too. You never get a real line on people until you live with
them. I've never nursed any of the Flint family, but I wouldn't have to
to get their reputation--or perhaps I should say, old Flint's."

"_Old_ Flint's?" echoed Claire.

"Well, of course he isn't so awfully old, but men like him always give
that impression. They're so awfully wise--about _some_ things. I _was_
so relieved when Gertie didn't get that dreadful Miss Whitehead's
place. Being in the general office is bad enough, but in his _private_
office...." Mrs. Richards lifted and dropped her tatting-filled hands
significantly.

Claire felt the blood rush to her face. "I'm in the private office, Mrs.
Richards.... No doubt you forgot it."

"Well now, you know I _had_ ... for the moment. But with a girl like you
it's different. Some women can handle men, but Gertie would be so
helpless!"

The humor of Mrs. Richards's remark saved the situation for Claire. She
changed the subject deliberately. But somehow, with the conversation
forced from the particular to the general, Miss Munch's cousin lost
interest, and by the time the boat had passed Alcatraz Island Claire was
deep in her thoughts again and the other woman following the measured
flight of the tatting-shuttle with strained attention.

The boat was romping through the stiff sea like a playful porpoise,
dipping and plunging. A half-score of adventuresome gulls were still
following in the foam-churned wake. In the face of all the pitching
about, Mrs. Richards had quite a battle to direct her shuttle to any
efficient purpose, and Claire was almost amused at the grim
determination she brought to the performance.

Presently a warning whistle from the ferryboat betrayed the fact that
they were nearing Sausalito. Mrs. Richards began to gather up her
numerous bundles, and Claire and she made their way down the narrow
stairs to the lower deck. Their progress was slow and uncertain. The
southeaster was tearing across the open spaces and bending everything
before it; the lumbering boat dipped sideward in a stolid encounter with
its adversary.

"Mercy! What a night!" gasped Mrs. Richards, clutching at Claire's arm.

A gust of wind struck them with its force just as they reached the lower
deck. Mrs. Richards staggered and wrestled vainly with tatting-bag and
bundles and a refractory skirt. For the moment both women were stalled
in a desperate effort to retain their equilibrium.

"Come!" gasped Claire. "Let's get over there in the shelter of that
automobile."

They made the leeward side of the automobile in question, and while Mrs.
Richards began to recover her roughly handled dignity Claire turned her
attention to the car. It was a huge dark-red affair, evidently fresh
from the shop. Claire knew none of the fine points of automobiles, but
this one had unmistakable evidences of distinction. She was peering in
at its opulent depths when who should surprise her but Ned Stillman.

"My dear Miss Robson!" he cried, in a tone of delight, as he faced her
from the opposite side of the car. "What do you think of it?"

"Yours?" she queried.

"Just out of the shop to-day. I couldn't wait until it cleared. I just
had to get out with it. And this kind of weather always puts me up on my
toes. Where are you going--to Ross? If you are, don't bother with the
train. Come along with me."

He circled about the machine and came up to her with a frank,
outstretched hand. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" he murmured as Mrs. Richards
came into view.

Claire began an introduction, but Mrs. Richards cut in with her odd,
challenging way.

"Oh, _I_ know Mr. Stillman! But I guess he's forgotten _me_. It's been
some years, of course. At Mr. Faville's--your _wife's_ father's house."

Stillman paled for the briefest of moments, but he recovered himself
cleverly. "Mrs. Richards--of course! How do you do? It _has_ been some
years."

"I'm going to Mr. Flint's--at Yolanda," said Claire, "to take some
dictation. He's been ill, you know."

"Ill? No, I hadn't heard it. Nothing serious, I hope."

"Not serious enough to keep Mrs. Flint at home, anyway," volunteered
Mrs. Richards, in her characteristically disagreeable way.

"Mrs. Richards saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming off the boat...."

"As I got on," interrupted the lady again.

"Oh, indeed, is that so?" Claire fancied that Stillman's tone held
something more than polite acceptance of what he had just heard. "I can
take you ladies to Yolanda if you'd like a spin in the open better than
a stuffy ride in the train."

"Thank you," Mrs. Richards returned, "but I get off at Sausalito. I've
no doubt Miss Robson will be delighted."

"I think I'd better not," said Claire. "Mr. Flint is sending his car to
the train for me. I shouldn't want to change my program and cause
confusion. But I'd like nothing better! The air is so bracing!"

"You can excuse _me_!" put in Mrs. Richards, moving toward the forward
deck. "It's going to pour in less than ten minutes. I'm not one of those
amphibious creatures who like to get wringing wet just for the fun of
it!"

Stillman lifted his hat. Claire stood for a moment undecided whether to
follow Mrs. Richards or remain for a chat with Stillman.

"I'm an awful fool, I suppose," Stillman smiled at Claire, "bringing the
car out on a night like this. But the truth is Edington promised to
catch this boat and I wanted him to try out the new plaything. I might
have known he wouldn't make it. We're running over for dinner with
Edington's sister."

At this moment the boat crashed clumsily against the Sausalito
ferry-slip, and in the sudden confusion of landing Claire was swept
along without further ado.

She looked back. Stillman waved a genial good-by to her. She felt glad
that he was behind her, in a vague, impersonal, thoroughly inexplainable
way.



CHAPTER VI


Claire was disappointed that Mrs. Flint was not to be at home. She had
caught glimpses of her now and then coming into the office and she was
interested in the hope of seeing her at closer range. Mrs. Flint was a
rather frumpish individual, who always gave the impression of pieced-out
dressmaking.

"She must subscribe to the _Ladies' Home Journal_," Nellie Whitehead had
commented one day. "You know that 'go-up-into-the-garret-and-get-five-
yards-of-grandmother's-wedding-gown' column. Well, she's a walking ad
for it. She's no raving beauty, but if she would throw out her chest and
chuck those flat-heeled clogs of hers, and put a marcel wave in her
hair, maybe the old man would sit up and take notice."

To which Miss Munch had replied:

"Well, she's a mighty sweet woman, anyway!" in a tone calculated to
freeze the irrepressible Nellie Whitehead into silence.

"Who says she isn't? And at that, a good tailor-made suit and a
decent-looking hat won't spoil her disposition any...."

The children, too, were what Nellie Whitehead had termed "perfect guys."
On warm days Mrs. Flint would drag these two daughters of hers into the
office, dressed in plaid suits and velveteen hats; and when a cold north
wind blew it seemed inevitable that they would appear in gay and airy
costumes up to their knees, with impossible straw bonnets trimmed with
daisies and faded cornflowers, reminiscent of the white-leghorn-hat era.

"Men don't marry women for their clothes," Miss Munch used to say,
challengingly, to Nellie.

"Oh, don't they, indeed! Well, I've lived longer than sixteen and a half
years and I've noticed that it's the up-to-the-minute dame that gets
away with it and holds onto it every time, just the same. And any woman
silly enough to work the rag-bag game when her husband can afford seven
yards of taffeta and a Butterick pattern is a fool!"

Claire knew women who looked dowdy on dress-parade and yet managed to be
quite charming in their own houses. She was wondering whether this might
not be Mrs. Flint's case; anyway, she had hoped for a chance to decide
this point, and now Mrs. Flint was not at home.

As she settled into her matting-covered seat in the train she began to
wonder just who _would_ be home at the Flint establishment. And she
thought suddenly of the disagreeable emphasis that Mrs. Richards had
seen fit to give the fact that Mrs. Flint was bound cityward. At this
stage she became lost in discovering so many points of contact between
Mrs. Richards and her cousin, Miss Munch. Then the train started with a
quick lurch, and a view of the rapidly darkening landscape claimed her
utterly.

Claire always took a childish delight in watching the panorama of the
countryside unroll swiftly before the space-conquering flight of a
train. And to-night the quick close of the December day warned her to
make the most of her opportunity. The wind was whipping the upper
reaches of the bay into a shallow fury, and the water in turn was
beating against the slimy mud and swallowing it up in gray, futile
anger. This part of the ride just out of Sausalito was always more or
less depressing unless a combination of full tide and vivid sunshine
gave its muddy stretches the enlivening grace of sky-blue reflections.
Worm-eaten and tottering piles, abandoned hulks, half-swamped skiffs,
all the water-logged dissolution of stagnant shore lines the world over,
flashed by, to be succeeded by the fresher green of channel-cut marshes.
The hills were wind-swept, huddling their scant oak covering into the
protecting folds of shallow canons. At intervals, clumps of
eucalyptus-trees banded together or drew out in long, thin, soldier-like
lines.

Presently it began to rain. There was no preliminary patter, but the
storm broke suddenly, hurling great gray drops of moisture against the
windows. Claire withdrew from any further attempt to watch the whirling
landscape. It was now quite dark, the short December day dying even more
suddenly under a black pall of lowering clouds.

She began to have distinctly uncomfortable thoughts about her visit to
the Flints'. But the more uncomfortable her thoughts became, the more
reason she brought to bear for conquering them. Surely one was not to be
persuaded into a panic by any such person as Mrs. Richards! And by the
time the brakeman announced the train's approach to Yolanda, Claire had
recovered her common sense. What of it if Mrs. Flint had gone to town?
There must be other women in the household--at least a maid. It was
absurd! The train stopped and Claire got off.

Flint's car was waiting, and Jerry Donovan, the chauffeur, stood with a
dripping umbrella almost at Claire's elbow as she hopped upon the
platform.

As they swished through the inky blackness, Claire said to Jerry, with
as inconsequential an air as she could muster:

"I thought I saw Mrs. Flint get off the boat in town. But I guess I was
mistaken. She wouldn't be leaving Mr. Flint alone ... when he's ill."

"Ill?" Jerry chuckled. "Well, he ain't dead by a long shot. Just a case
of sniffles, and a good excuse for hitting the booze. He's in prime
condition, I can tell you."

Claire had never seen Flint in "prime condition," but she had it from
Nellie Whitehead that there were moments when the gentleman in question
could "go some," to use her predecessor's precise terms.

"About twice a year," Nellie had once confided to Claire, "the old boy
starts in to cure a cold. I helped him cure one ... but _never_ again!"

Jerry's observations aroused fresh anxiety, but they did not settle the
issue for Claire. She felt that she could not turn back at the eleventh
hour. There was nothing else for her to do but go through with the game.
Yet she still hoped for the best.

"_Did_ Mrs. Flint go to town to-day?" she finally asked, point-blank.

"Sure thing," said Jerry, swinging the car past the Flint gateway.

Claire refused to be totally lacking in faith.

"There must be a maid," flashed through her mind, as Jerry stopped the
car and swung down to help her out.

A Japanese boy threw open the door as they scrambled up the rain-soaked
steps. But the fine, orderly, Colonial interior reassured Claire. The
few country homes she had seen had been of the rambling, unrelated
bungalow type, with paneled redwood walls either stained to a dismal
brown or quite frankly left to their rather characterless pink. This
home was different. Even the pungent oak logs crackling in the fireplace
did so with indefinable distinction. The general tone of the
surroundings was as little in keeping with the patchwork personality of
its mistress as one could imagine. It was as if the singular
completeness of Mrs. Flint's home left no time nor energy for a finished
individuality. Claire got all this in the briefest of flashes, just a
swift, inclusive glance about the entrance hall and through the doorways
leading into the rooms beyond. Particularly did she sense the severe
opulence of the dining-room, twinkling at a remoter distance than the
living-room--its perfectly polished silver, its spotless linen, its
wonderfully blue china, not to mention the disconcerting fact that the
table in the center was laid for but two.

And then Flint himself came forward with a very red face and an absurdly
cordial greeting.

"Well, I began to wonder whether you'd risk it. This will be a storm and
no mistake.... Here, let me have your coat. Come, you're quite wet....
Shall you warm up on a hot toddy or something cooler--a cocktail?"

She felt his hand sliding down her arm as she released the coat to his
too-eager fingers. "Oh no, Mr. Flint! Thank you, nothing. It's only a
bit of rain on the surface. I'm quite dry."

"Quite dry!" He echoed her words with a guffaw. "Well, then, we'll have
to moisten you up. I always say everything's a good excuse for a drink.
If you're cold you take a drink to warm up; if you're warm you take one
to cool off. You dry out on one, and you wet up on one. I don't know of
any habit with so many good reasons back of it. I'm dry, too.... We'll
have a Bronx! That's a nice, ladylike drink."

Claire weighed her reply. She did not want to strike the wrong note; she
wanted to let him have a feeling that she was accepting everything in a
normal, matter-of-fact way, as if she saw nothing extraordinary in the
situation.

"You're very kind, but really you know ... if I'm to get my dictation
straight...."

"Well, perhaps there won't be any dictation. We're not slaves, you and
I. Maybe it will be much pleasanter to sit before the fire and listen to
the storm. What do you say to that?"

She turned from him deliberately, under the fiction of fluffing up her
hair before a gilt mirror near the door. She was thinking quickly and
with a tremendous, if concealed, agitation. "Why," she laughed back,
finally, "that _would_ be pleasant. But I came to take dictation, Mr.
Flint. And women ... women, you know, are so funny! If they make up
their minds to one thing, they can't switch suddenly to another idea."

He was paying no attention to her remark, a remark which she felt would
have fallen flat in any event, since it was so palpably studied.

"The living-room is in there," he said, pointing. "Make yourself at
home."

She went in and sat before the fire. Flint disappeared. She tried hard
to analyze the situation. It was unthinkable that Mr. Flint had
deliberately planned this piece of foolishness. He must have had some
idea of work when he had telephoned her; perhaps he still had. It was
his way of being facetious, she argued, this fine pretense that it was
all to be a pleasant lark, or it may have been his idea of hospitality.
Of course he had been drinking, but she took comfort in the thought that
there must be instinctive standards in a man like Flint that even whisky
could not swamp. At least he must respect his wife--surely it was not
possible for Flint, drunk or sober, to offer such an affront to _her_,
however little he respected the women in his employ. She dismissed Mrs.
Richards's exaggerated insinuations with their well-deserved contempt,
but she could not thrust aside quite so readily the eye-lifting tone
with which Stillman had met the announcement of Mrs. Flint's absence
from home.

This was the first time that Claire had seen Stillman since the
musicale. She had thought a great deal about him and particularly about
his problem. She felt a great desire to know everything--all the details
of the unfortunate circumstance that had driven his wife into a
madhouse, and yet whenever her mother broached the subject Claire
changed the topic with curious panic. She seemed to dread the hard,
almost triumphant manner that her mother assumed in tracking misfortune
to its lair and gloating over it. She began to wonder whether Stillman
would be swinging back to the city on a late boat ... or would the storm
keep him at Edington's sister's home all night?

She was in the midst of this speculation when Flint came into the room.

"We'll eat early and have that off our minds," he announced. His manner
was brusk and business-like again. Claire felt reassured.

But she was disturbed to find a cocktail at her place at the table.

"Well, here's glad to see you!" Flint raised his glass and tilted it
ever so slightly in her direction. Claire lifted the cocktail to her
lips and set it down untasted. "What's the matter? Getting unsociable
again?"

"No, Mr. Flint. I don't care for cocktails."

"Oh, all right! We'll send down-cellar and get some wine."

"Thank you, not for me."

"I suppose you don't care for wine, either?" His voice had a bantering
quality, with a shade of menace in it. "Or maybe the right party isn't
here. I've noticed that makes a difference. Females are damned moral
with the wrong fellow."

His attack was so direct and insolent that Claire missed the trepidation
that might have come with a more covert move. She was no longer
uncertain. There was a sharp relief in realizing that all the cards were
on the table. She felt also that there was no immediate danger. Flint
was far from sober, but he was in his own home. She had the conviction
that he was merely skirmishing, testing the strength or weakness of the
line he hoped to penetrate. Her reply was rather more of a challenge
than she could have imagined herself giving under such a circumstance.

"And if I were to tell you that I don't care for wine, Mr. Flint?"

He threw open his napkin with a flourish. "You'd be telling me a damned
lie! You drink wine at the Palace with Stillman and Edington."

She had felt that he was going to say some such thing and for a moment
it amused her. It was so ridiculous to find this rather wan and wistful
indiscretion assuming damaging proportions. But a nasty fear succeeded
her faint amusement. Could it be possible that Stillman had gossiped?

"Who told you?" she demanded.

"Oh, don't be afraid; it wasn't Stillman! You're like all women, you
moon about sentimentalizing over Ned until it makes a man like me sick!
I like Ned; I always have. But even when we went to college together it
was the same way. Everybody ... yes, even the men ... always gave him
credit for a high moral tone. Not that he ever took it.... I'll say that
for him.... Ned Stillman didn't tell me, for the simple reason that he
didn't have to. Nobody told me. I go to the Palace myself under
pressure, and I've got two eyes. As a matter of fact, there isn't any
reason why Edington or Stillman or the waiter who drew the corks
shouldn't have mentioned it. A glass of wine is no crime. But the thing
that makes me hot is to see any one pretending. If you drink with
Stillman, you haven't any license to refuse a glass with me."

There was something more than wine-heated rancor back of his harangue.
Claire guessed instinctively that he both loved and hated Stillman with
a curious confusion of impulses. It was a feeling of affection torn by
the irritating superiority of its object. One gets the same thing in
families ... among children. It was at once subtle and extremely
primitive.

"My dear Mr. Flint, this isn't quite the same thing. I've work to do for
one thing and, and...."

"And ... and.... Why don't you say it? You're alone with me and all that
sort of rubbish! Want a chaperon, I suppose. Mrs. Condor, for
instance.... Good Lord!"

Claire dipped her spoon into the steaming bouillon-cup in front of her.
She was growing quite calm under the directness of Flint's attack.

"It isn't the same," she reiterated, stubbornly. "I've work to do, Mr.
Flint."

"I tell you that you haven't!" Flint brought his fist down upon the
table.

"Well, then, why did you send for me?"

"I had something to say to you.... Gad! one can't talk in that ramping
office of mine. We've never even settled the matter of an increase in
salary for you. By the way, how much money do you get?"

Claire had never seen any man look so crafty and disagreeable. He gave
her the impression of a petty tyrant about to bestow largess upon an
obsequious and fawning slave.

"Sixty-five dollars a month."

"Well, I don't exactly know.... I've been trying to figure out just how
valuable you are to me, Miss Robson. Or, rather, how valuable you're
likely to be." He thrust aside his soup and leaned heavily upon the
table. "That's why I invited you over to-night. I wanted to see you at a
little closer range. You live with your mother, don't you?"

"Yes, Mr. Flint."

"You ... you support your mother, I believe?"

"Yes, Mr. Flint."

"Well, sixty-five dollars don't leave much margin for hair ribbons and
the like, does it, now?"

"No, Mr. Flint."

"No, Mr. Flint.... Yes, Mr. Flint...." he mocked. "Good Lord! can't you
cut that school-girl-to-her-dignified-guardian attitude. I'm human.
Dammit all, I'm as human as your friend Ned Stillman. I'll bet you don't
yes-sir and no-sir him.... You know, that night I saw you at the Palace
you quite bowled me over. I'd been thinking of you as a shy,
unsophisticated young thing. But you were hitting the high places like a
veteran. Even old lady Condor didn't have anything on you. Except, of
course, that she looks the part. By the way, where did you meet
Stillman?"

"At ... at a church social," Claire stammered.

"At a church social! Say, I wasn't born yesterday. Ned Stillman doesn't
go to church. Tell me something easy."

"It was really a Red Cross concert. He went with Mrs. Condor," Claire
found herself explaining in spite of her anger. "We sat at the same
table when the ice-cream was served."

Flint was roaring with exaggerated laughter. Even Claire could not
restrain a smile. What made the statement so ridiculous, she found
herself wondering. Was she unconsciously reflecting Flint's attitude or
had she herself changed so tremendously in the last few weeks?

"Stillman at a church social! But that _is_ good! And eating
ice-cream.... How long ago did all this happen, pray?"

"Sometime in November."

He stopped his senseless guffawing and looked at her keenly. "Where did
you get the church-social habit?"

"I ... why, I guess I formed it early, Mr. Flint. As you say, sixty-five
dollars a month doesn't leave much for hair ribbons or anything else.
Going to church socials is about the cheapest form of recreation I can
think of."

The bitterness of her tone seemed to pull Flint up with a round turn.
"Well, we're going to get you out of this silly church-social habit.
Dammit all, Stillman isn't the only possibility in sight. That's just
what I wanted to get at--your viewpoint. I take an interest in you, Miss
Robson--a tremendous interest. Good Lord! I can dance one-steps and
fox-trots and hesitations as well as anybody! I danced every bit as
well as Ned Stillman when we went to dancing-school together. But he
always got most of the applause. He _has_ an air, I don't deny that, but
he's working it overtime.... And he's not in any better position for
being friendly to you than I am--_he's_ married."

The talk was sobering him a little. Claire was amazed to find that she
did not feel indignant. His tone was offensive, but at least it was
forthright. Besides, she had known instinctively that some day he would
force the issue, and she was rather glad to get it settled. And she
began to hope that she could persuade him skilfully against his warped
convictions. She was trembling inwardly, too, at the thought that she
might make a false step and find herself out of a position. Positions
were not easy to land these days. She knew a half-score of girls who had
tramped the town over in a desperate effort to find a vacancy. Two or
three months without salary meant debts piling up, clothes in ribbons,
and no end of hectic worries.

"I think you've got a decidedly wrong impression of my friendship for
Mr. Stillman," she said, after some deliberation. "I really know him
only slightly. He was good enough, or rather I should say Mrs. Condor
was good enough, to include me in a little musical evening. That was on
the night you saw me at the Palace. We dropped down for a dance or two
after the music was over. I'd never been to such a place before, and I
dare say I'll never go again. It was just one of those experiences that
come to a person out of a clear sky. It's over as quickly as a shower."

"Oh, don't you worry! There'll be other showers. I'm going to see to
that. You know, the more I talk to you the more amazing you are....
Fancy your graduating from dinky church things into Stillman musicales,
and Palace dansants, and young Edington, and old lady Condor, all of a
sudden ... and getting away with it as if you were an old hand at the
game. Say, if you're that apt I'll give you a post-graduate course in
high life that'll make your hair curl forty-seven ways. I don't mean
anything vulgar or common ... _you_ understand. I'm a gentleman, Miss
Robson, at that."

He stopped for a moment to ring the bell for the Japanese boy. Claire
maintained a discreet silence. She had a feeling that it would be just
as well to let him take his full rein. The servant came in and cleared
away the empty bouillon-cups. Fish was served.

Flint took one taste of the fish and shoved it away impatiently. "You
know, a fellow like me gets awfully bored at all this sort of thing." He
swept the room with an inclusive gesture. "Not that my wife isn't the
best little woman in the world, but _you_ know. She's got standards and
convictions and all that sort of rot. I can't bundle _her_ off for
dinner and a little lark at the Red Paint or Bonini's or some other
Bohemian joint like them.... You know what I mean, no rough stuff ...
but a good feed, and two kinds of wine, and a cigarette with the small
black. Just gay and frivolous.... Of course I can get any number of
girls to run around and help eat up all the nourishment I care to
provide. But, good Lord! that isn't it! I'm looking for somebody with
human intelligence. Not that I want to discuss free verse and the Little
Theater movement. But I like to feel that if I took such a crazy notion
the person sitting opposite me could qualify for a good comeback.... I
like my home and everything, but.... Oh, well, what's the use in
pretending? I'm just as human as your friend Ned Stillman and I've got
just as keen an eye for class."

He sat back in his seat with an air of satisfaction, waiting for
Claire's reply. She had been calm enough while he talked, but under the
tenseness of his silent expectancy she felt her heart bound.

"Dammit all! Why don't you say something?" he blurted out. "I know, you
need a little wine. I'm going down-stairs and pick out the best in the
cellar ... _myself_."

She did not attempt to dissuade him; as a matter of fact, she felt
relieved to be left alone for a moment. She must leave as soon as dinner
was over. She began to wonder about the trains. The storm was raging
outside. She could hear the frenzied trees flinging their branches about
and a noisy flood of rain against the windows. She spoke to the Japanese
boy as he was carrying away Flint's unfinished fish course.

"Do you know what time the next train leaves?"

He laid the tray on the serving-table. "Please.... I telephone. Please!"
He bobbed at her absurdly and went out into the hall. She listened. He
was ringing up the station-master. He came back promptly.

"Please," he began, sucking in his breath, "please ... no train
to-night."

"No train to-night? Why, what do you mean?"

"Please ... very much water. Train track washed out. No train to-night.
To-morrow morning, maybe."

"Oh, but I must go home to-night! I really must! I...."

She broke off suddenly, realizing the futility of her protest.

"To-morrow morning," replied the Japanese, blandly. "All right to-morrow
morning. You stay here.... I fix a place. You see.... I fix a very nice
place for young lady."

He went out with the tray and Claire rose and walked to the window.
Flint broke into the room noisily. She turned--he had two dusty bottles
in his hand, and an air of triumph.

"Mr. Flint, it seems that there has been a washout. I understand that no
trains are running. What can I do? I must get back; really I...."

"Who says so?" Flint laid the bottles down with an irritating calmness.

"The station-master. Your ... your servant just telephoned for me."

"Oh, well, _we_ should worry! Sit down."

"Mr. Flint, really, I must.... You know I can't.... I...."

"Sit _down_!"

His tone was a dash of cold water thrown in the face of her rising
hysteria. She sat down. Flint ignored the bottles on the table and,
crossing over to the Sheraton sideboard, poured himself a stiff drink
of whisky. His hair-towsled condition stood out sharply against the
precise background.

He made no further comment, but he began to open the bottles of wine
deliberately. Then he rummaged in the china-closet for the wine-glasses
and set four, two at his place and two at Claire's, upon the table.

"White wine with the entree and red wine with the roast," he muttered.
And he poured out the white wine without further ado.

The servant came in with creamed sweetbreads. Claire forced herself to
make a pretense of eating, although her appetite had long since deserted
her. She was thinking, and thinking hard.

She should never have come, in the first place--at least she should have
turned back upon the strength of Jerry's announcement. But she saw now,
with a clearness that surprised her, that the situation had really
challenged her imagination. She had been too calm, too collected, too
well-poised, full of smug over-confidence. She had read in the current
novels of the day how hysterically unsophisticated heroines conducted
themselves in tight corners and she had followed their writhings with
ill-concealed impatience. She never had really put herself in their
place, but she had had a vague notion that they carried on absurdly. Her
fear all evening had been not what Mr. Flint would do or say or even
suggest--she had been anxious merely to have the impending storm over,
the air cleared, and her position in the office assured upon a purely
business-like basis. She had really welcomed the forced issue; for weeks
her mind had been entertaining and dismissing the idea that Mr. Flint
had any questionable motives in yielding Nellie Whitehead's place to
her. With this fleeting trepidation had come the realization of her
dependence, the importance her sixty-five dollars a month in the scheme
of things, the compromises that she might be forced into accepting in
order to insure its continuance; not definite and soul-searing
compromises, it was true, but petty, irritating trucklings which wear
down self-esteem.

It had been the primitive violence of Flint's commanding, "Sit down!" to
thrust the issue from the economic to the elemental. For the first time
in her life Claire was face to face with unstripped masculine brutality.
She had wondered why women of a lower order took men's blows without
striking back, without at least escaping from further torment. But she
was beginning to see, as her spirits tried to rise reeling from Flint's
verbal assault, the fawning submission, half admiration, half fear, that
could follow a frank, hard-fisted blow. And she had a terror, sitting
there trying to thrust food between her trembling lips, that the sheer
physical force of the male opposite her might shatter in one blow a will
that could have withstood any amount of spiritual or material attrition.
She had never seen Flint so clearly as at this moment; in fact, she had
never seen him _at all_. Formerly, he had been a conventionalized
masculine biped in a blue-serge covering who paid her salary and struck
attitudes that were symbols of predatory instincts rather than an
indication that such instincts existed. Life had, after all, been
peopled by the precisely labeled puppets of a morality play; they came
on, and declaimed, and made gestures--but they remained abstractions,
things apart from life, mere representations of the vices and virtues
they impersonated. She had entertained this idea particularly with
regard to Flint. She had felt that the day would come when he and she
would occupy the stage together. He would speak his part with a great
flourish of the hands and much high-sounding emphasis, and when he had
finished she would reply with a carefully worded retort, setting forth
the claims and rewards of virtue. Thus it would continue, argument
succeeding argument, a declamatory give and take, dignified,
passionless, theatrical.

They were occupying the stage now, it was true, but there was something
warm and human and ragged about the performance. Flint was not a mere
spiritless allegory in red-satin doublet and hose to give flame to his
conventionality. Instead, she saw sitting opposite her a ponderous,
quick-breathing, drunken male, handsome in a coarse, rough-hewn way,
speaking in the quick, clipped speech of passion and striking her to the
ground with the energy of his stage business. She was afraid, almost for
the first time in her life, with a primitive, abandoned fear. And
suddenly her vista of womanhood narrowed to include the ugly foreground
of life that youth had looked over in its eager, far-flung scanning of
the horizon beyond. Suddenly she felt all the oppression and sorrow of
the sex bear down upon her and mark her with its relentless finger.
Because she was a woman she would pay for every joy with a corresponding
sorrow; receive a blow for every caress; know courage and fear with
equal intimacy.... She stopped eating and she began to realize with a
vivid terror that Flint was looking at her fixedly and beginning to
speak.

"What's the matter with the sweetbreads? Don't you like 'em?... And the
wine?... Say, I'm going to get peeved in a minute. You don't suppose we
serve this French-restaurant style of meal every day do you? I should
say _not_! That's another one of the _frau's_ convictions. Plain living
at home so as to set the right example to the _girls_!" Flint threw his
head from side to side, mincing out his last statement. "Gad! I'm tired
of setting a good example!... And even Sing gets tired. Chinks, you
know, like to cook a bang-up meal once in a while. They like a chance to
show their speed and put in all the fancy trimmings."

His mood, during this speech, had changed with drunken facility from
irritability to good humor. Claire, still attempting to marshal her
wits, picked up her fork again and murmured:

"Oh, you have a Chinese cook, then? I had no idea.... The Japanese boy,
you know. They say that the two never get along."

"That's a fairy-tale. Besides, it's next to impossible, these days, to
get a Chinese second-boy. And the missus _won't_ hire a girl." He winked
broadly. "Can't get one ugly enough, I guess. Sing's a wonder. I copped
him from the Tom Forsythes. _You_ know--young Edington's in-laws.
They've never quite forgiven me. Though they _will_ come back and tuck
away one of his dinners occasionally."

Claire's mind closed nimbly over Flint's statement. "The--the Tom
Forsythes of Ross?" she asked.

He nodded and tossed a glass of wine off in one gulp. The Tom Forsythes
of Ross ... Edington's sister ... Ned Stillman! The sequence of ideas
flashed through Claire's mind with flashing detachment. She leaned back
in her seat and raised the wine-glass in obvious pretense to her lips.
Flint was watching her keenly: an ugly gleam was in his eyes.

"Well, Miss Robson, you might just as well make up your mind to finish
that glass of wine first as last. We're not going to have the next
course until you do."

She measured him deliberately. She knew now that it was to be a fight to
a finish. She was honestly afraid and full of the courage of
realization.

"I've had enough as it is, Mr. Flint. Besides, we must either be getting
to work or figuring how I am to make the boat at Sausalito. I suppose
you could send me in the car ... with Jerry."

"Oh, with Jerry? So that's it!... No, not on your life! He's too
good-looking a boy for a job like that. No, Miss Robson, you are going
to stay _right_ here.... Now, understand me, I'm not a damn fool! You
seem to have an idea that because I've had a glass or two that I've lost
my reason. You're an attractive girl and all that, Miss Robson, and I am
interested in you! But please don't flatter yourself that I'm staking
everything on a throw like this. As a matter of fact, I'll see that you
are properly chaperoned. We've plenty of neighbors. You've got the best
excuse in the world for staying here and...."

"But, my dear Mr. Flint, can't you see, I...."

"No, I can't. I want you to stay _here_. My reasons are as good as
yours. Now let's get that off our mind and enjoy the meal."

His manner struck her protests to the ground again. She was no longer
fearing the immediate outcome, in fact, she never had, but she knew that
if he broke her to his will now, all the safeguards, all the chaperons,
all the conventions in the world wouldn't save her from ultimate
consequences. This was the try-out that was to establish her pace in the
final contest; she would stand or fall upon the record she made at this
moment. For she was trying out something more than Flint's temper,
something greater than a mechanical adjustment of human
relationships--she was trying out _herself_. She sat for some moments,
thinking hard, one hand fingering the slender base of the wine-filled
glass in front of her, the other dropped in pensive limpness at her
side. Flint had cleared the space in front of him of everything but his
two wine-glasses. He had slipped down in his seat and his two bloodshot
eyes were fixing her with a level stare.

She stirred finally and rose.

He was on his feet in an instant.

"I'm going to telephone," she said, calmly.

"Telephone ... where?... What's the idea?"

"Mr. Flint," she answered, a bit wearily, "at least I'm a guest in your
house, am I not?"

He settled back in his seat with a grunt of acquiescence. She stood
dazed for a moment, surprised at the chance that had put such telling
words into her mouth. She had been fingering timidly for the key to his
chivalry; quite by accident she had hit upon it in the shape of this
appeal to her expectations of him in the rôle of host. She could have
lied, of course, and told him that she wished to telephone her mother,
but she had not yet been cornered sufficiently to resort to so
distasteful a weapon.... As she left the room she found herself
wondering whether Stillman had by any chance left the Tom Forsythes. She
looked at the clock. It was not quite eight o'clock. She felt reassured,
yet she was tremendously frightened.... Especially as she realized that
the telephone was in the entrance hall within earshot of the
dining-room....

She was decidedly more frightened when she got back from her
telephoning, and looked at Flint. He was clutching at the table with
both hands, his body tilted slightly forward, his lips ominously thin.

"You telephoned to the Tom Forsythes, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"And you asked for Stillman.... Did you get him?"

"Yes."

"What did you want with him?"

"If you heard that much, I guess you heard the rest, Mr. Flint."

Claire stood at her place at the table. She decided not to sit. Flint
bore down on both hands until things began to creak.

"Yes, I heard everything, but, dammit all, I couldn't believe my own
ears. You're like every woman I ever knew ... you don't play fair. You
appeal to my instinct as host and then you go and outrage every
privilege you've got me to concede. You're a pretty guest, you are! And
I sit here and let you 'play me for a fool.' Let you ring up Ned
Stillman and ask him to fetch you away from _my_ house in _his_ car!" He
stopped and took a deep breath; his words were no longer passionate;
instead, they were precise and cool and venomous. "Understand me, young
lady, I'm through with you. I wouldn't care, if I thought you were
really virtuous. But you're too clever for a virtuous woman.... Oh, I
dare say you subscribe to the letter of the law, all right. For
instance, you take care not to run around with married men whose
incumbrances are in plain view of the audience.... Oh, I've seen lots of
clever women in my time, but in the end they always took too much rope.
Remember, you'll have your bluff called some day."

He pushed back his chair noisily and rose. The Japanese servant came
bobbing along.

"Clear away the things!" Flint bellowed. "We're through!... Good night,
Miss Robson, and a pleasant journey to you--you and your _immaculate_
friend Stillman."

He left the room with a melodramatic flourish.... Presently Claire heard
him mounting the stairs.

"He's drunk!" flashed through her mind, as if the idea had just struck
her. "Of course, he must be drunk, otherwise he wouldn't have dared
to...."

She went out into the entrance hall and put on her hat.



CHAPTER VII


Midway between Yolanda and Sausalito Stillman's machine died with
disconcerting suddenness The rain was coming down in sheets. Stillman
got out.

"It's no use," he announced, lifting himself back into his seat. "I
can't do anything in this deluge."

This was the first word that had been said since he and Claire had left
Flint's.

"The worst will be over in a few moments," replied Claire, easily. But
she was far from reassured.

The deluge was _not_ over in a few moments. It kept up with an
ever-increasing violence, until it seemed that even the stalled car
would be compelled to yield to its force. Claire had never seen it rain
harder; the storm had a vindictive fury that reminded her of the
dreadful tempest in "King Lear."

Stillman maintained his usual well-bred calm and smoked cigarettes while
he chattered. He touched on every conceivable subject but the one
uppermost in Claire's mind, until she began to wonder whether delicacy
or contempt veiled his conversation. A half-hour passed ... an hour ...
two. Still the rain swept from the sullen sky. Twice Stillman made a
futile attempt to remedy the trouble with his engine, and twice he
retired defeated to the shelter of the car. Claire was relieved that
she was in the company of a man who did not emphasize the monotonous
hours by indiscriminate raillery against the tricks of chance. At first
he dismissed the situation with the most casual of shrugs; later he
acknowledged his annoyance by an expression of regret at his companion's
discomfort, but he stopped there.

As the hours went on, with no abatement of the storm's devastating
energy, Claire grew less and less pleased at the prospect. She began to
wonder whether the shelter of Flint's roof had not been, after all, the
discreet thing. Was not her headlong flight in company with Stillman
more open to criticism than the frank acceptance of her employer's
hospitality? But these vagrant questions were the spawn of a colorless
spirit of social expediency which fastens itself on weak natures, and in
Claire's case they died still-born. She had been too well schooled in
loneliness to lean heavily on the crooked stick of public opinion.
Accustomed to standing alone, she had something of the spiritual
arrogance that goes with independence. People could think what they
liked. And it was more a realization of her mother's anxiety than any
thought of self which made her suggest to Stillman that they might get
out and walk into Sausalito.

"I think the last boat leaves there at twelve-thirty," she finished.
"Surely we could make it if we keep going."

Stillman thrust his arm out into the drenching rain, and withdrew it
instantly. "I'm afraid that's out of the question, so long as the rain
keeps up, Miss Robson," he said, in a tone of implied objection.
"Perhaps if it should stop...."

Claire settled back in her seat. Stillman was right. The storm was too
furious to be lightly braved.

It was eleven o'clock before a quick veering of the wind brought a
downpour so violent that what had gone before seemed little better than
a rather weak rehearsal.

"It will clear presently," Stillman assured Claire. "Southeaster always
break up in a flurry like this from the west."

In ten minutes the stars were peeping brilliantly through rents in the
torn clouds. Pungent odors floated up from the rain-trampled stubble of
the hillsides, the air was cleared of its stifling oppressiveness, the
first storm of the season was over.

Both Claire and Stillman clambered out at the first signs of the storm's
exhaustion. Stillman switched on his pocket-light and began to
investigate the trouble with the engine. His decision was swift and
conclusive.

"It's hopeless," he announced, turning to Claire with a slight grimace.
"We're stalled absolutely and no mistake. I guess we'd better strike out
and walk. No doubt we'll get a lift into Sausalito before we've gone
very far, but I dare say it's well to be on the safe side."

They rolled the machine to one side of the roadway and struck out
hopefully. The rain had made a thin chocolate ooze of the highway, and
before they had gone a hundred yards their shoes were slimy with mud. It
appeared that Stillman had been something of an aimless wanderer for
many years, and as he talked on and on, giving detached glimpses of the
remote places he had visited, Claire had a curious sense of futility.

She read between his clipped and vivid sentences the tragedy of a
personality worsted by the soft hands of circumstances. This man might
have done things. As it was he was an idler. He gave her the impression
of a man waiting vaguely for opportunity--like some traveler pacing
restlessly up and down a railway station platform in expectation of the
momentary arrival of a delayed train. She tried to imagine him as she
felt sure he must once have been--youthful, eager, ardent, a man of
charming enthusiasms that just missed being extravagances, who could
bring zest to his virtues as well as to his follies.

"Surely," she thought, "something more than inclination must have pushed
him into this deadly stagnation."

And at once Miss Munch's insinuating question leaped up to answer:

"You know about his wife, of course!"

Were men put out of countenance by such impersonal tricks of fortune?
Impersonal?... this domestic tragedy?... Yes, Claire felt that it must
be, otherwise the man tramping at her side would have wrestled so
passionately against fate as to have come away at least spattered with
the mud of defeat. No, Stillman was not defeated, he was merely
arrested, restrained, held for orders.

He had been in London when the war broke out. He had stayed long enough
to watch the stolid, easy-going British public awake to the seriousness
of the encounter, coming home after the first air raids.

"I didn't mind being killed," he laughed, in explanation of his sudden
flight. "But I didn't like being so frightfully messed up in the
process. I want a chance to strike back when I'm cornered. The Zeppelin
game was too much like a rabbit-drive to suit me."

As he spoke of these experiences, Claire listened with a quickening of
the spirit. The prospect of finding Stillman vibrant was too stirring to
be denied. But he was still sober on this colossal subject of war ... a
bit judicial, always well poised. He had his sympathies, but they did
not appear vitalized by extravagances of feeling. Yet here and there
Claire was conscious of truant warmths, like brief flashes of sunlight
through a somber forest.

"And the draft--what do you think of that?" The question rose to her
lips as if his answer might unlock the door to something deeper in the
way of convictions.

He began with a shrug that chilled her; then his reply broke with sudden
refreshment:

"It helps ... some of us. There are many who can't decide for
themselves. The obvious duty isn't always the correct one. In my
case...."

He did not stop speaking suddenly, but his voice trailed off into a dim
region of musing. They both fell silent. But Claire knew. There was that
haunting hope, almost like a fear, that his wife might some day get
better. That was what he was waiting for! It might come to-morrow ...
next week ... in a year ... never! But when it did come he felt that he
must be there, ready. She wondered whether he loved his wife very much,
and she found herself hoping that he did.... It would help, somehow ...
yes, if that were so his sacrifice gained point. On the other hand....
She put the thought away with a quick thrust, feeling that she had no
right to such a speculation, and presently she was aware that they were
swinging into Sausalito.

Stillman looked at his watch. Twelve-thirty-five ... just five minutes
late for the boat! She could see that he was disturbed.

"I thought sure we'd get a lift," he railed, tossing aside a mangled
cigar. "This _is_ luck!... I guess we'll have to rout out the Sherwins.
It's something of a pull up the hill, but any safe port in a storm, you
know."

"The Sherwins?"

"Another one of the Edington girls. They have a bungalow at the very
dizziest point in Sausalito."

But Claire objected and held firm. "I couldn't think of it, Mr.
Stillman. No, really!... Please don't insist."

They agreed on a lodging for Claire in a freshly painted but otherwise
rather decrepit lodging-house, just north of the ferry-slip. Its chief
advantage was that it seemed quite too stagnant to be anything but
respectable, and the suppressed grumbling of the old shrew whom they
routed out confirmed their estimate. She didn't approve of couples who
dragged God-fearing old women out of bed at unholy hours in the
morning, and it was only the generous tip from Stillman and the
assurance that he intended looking elsewhere for quarters for himself
that reconciled her to her loss of sleep and the compromise with her
convictions.

For a good half-hour Claire sat with folded hands peering out from her
room upon the damp hillside to the west. From across the street came the
bawdy thumping of a mechanical piano and the swish of a sluggish tide.
Her encounter with Sawyer Flint had forced the door of her virginal
seclusion and thrust her at once into the primitive and elemental open.
She felt like one who was coming out of voluntary exile to the pathos of
a deferred heritage. Before her stretched the eagle's horizon, but she
had only the fledgling's strength of wing. She longed for the faith and
courage and daring to take life at its word, longed with all the
dangerous fierceness of one who had fed too long upon the husks of
existence. And, longing, she fell asleep, sitting in a chair before the
open window, without thought or preparation....

       *       *       *       *       *

The morning broke cloudless. All traces of the night's fury were
obliterated as completely as sorrow from the face of a smiling child.
The sun touched the open spaces with a tender, caressing warmth, but the
shadows held a keen-edged chill.

Claire decided upon an early boat to town.

"I'll be less likely to meet any of the California Street crowd," she
said to herself, as she picked her brief way toward the ferry.

The boat was crowded, especially the lower cabin. It was the artisans'
boat and the air was heavy with the smoke of pipe-tobacco. Claire passed
rapidly to the dining-room. Perched upon the high revolving chairs
surrounding a horseshoe counter, a score or more of soft-shirted men sat
devouring huge greasy doughnuts and gulping coffee. The steward, taking
note of Claire's hesitation, came forward and led her to a seat at one
of the side tables. She was about to take advantage of the chair which
he had drawn out for her when she heard her name called. She turned.
Miss Munch's cousin, Mrs. Richards, was sitting alone at the table just
behind. Claire's first feeling was one of relief--she was glad to
discover an acquaintance. She thanked the steward for his trouble and
abandoned the proffered seat for the one opposite Mrs. Richards. Almost
at once she regretted her impulsive decision.

"I didn't know you intended staying at Flint's all night," Mrs. Richards
began, fixing Claire with a challenging gaze.

"I didn't intend to," returned Claire, her voice sharpened slightly.

Mrs. Richards took the lid off the sugar-bowl and powdered her
grapefruit sparingly. "Have they a nice home?" she questioned.

"Yes, very nice."

"They gave you an early start, didn't they?... It's almost impossible to
get servants these days to consider such a thing as serving breakfast
much before eight o'clock."

Claire glanced at the bill of fare. Mrs. Richards's tone was a trifle
too eager. "I suppose it is," Claire assented, placing the menu-card
back in its place between the vinegar and oil cruets.

Mrs. Richards remained unabashed at her vis-à-vis's palpable
indirectness. "I guess I'm old-fashioned, but, servants or no servants,
I don't believe I could let a guest of mine leave the house without
breakfast. It seems to me that if I'd been Mrs. Flint I'd have gotten up
and made you a cup of coffee myself."

Claire's growing annoyance was swallowed up in a feeling of faint
amusement. "Perhaps Mrs. Flint wasn't home," she said, beckoning the
waiter.

"Oh!" Mrs. Richards exclaimed with shocked brevity.

It was not until the arrival of Claire's order of toast and coffee that
Mrs. Richards found her voice again.

"This business of wives staying from home all night gets me," Mrs.
Richards hazarded, boldly. "Why, I never remember the time when my
mother remained away overnight ... not under _any_ circumstances. My
father expected her to be there, and she always _was_."

Claire distributed bits of butter over the surface of her toast. She
felt that in justice to the Flint family it was not right for her to
give Mrs. Richards's dangerous tongue any further scope, however
tempting was the prospect of leaving such venomous inquisitiveness
ungratified.

"I think you misunderstood me, Mrs. Richards. I didn't say that Mrs.
Flint remained away from home last night. As a matter of fact I didn't
stay at Yolanda, so I don't know anything about it."

"Oh!" faintly escaped Mrs. Richards for the second time that morning,
but Claire was conscious that there was more incredulity than surprise
registered in the lady's tone.

"As a matter of fact," Claire continued, stung to incautious
exasperation, "I spent the night in Sausalito."

Mrs. Richards met this information with a disarmingly bland smile. "I
didn't know you had friends in Sausalito," she said, letting a spoonful
of coffee trickle back into her cup.

"I haven't. I spent the night in a lodging-house ... on the
water-front...."

"My dear Miss Robson, really I.... Why, I hope you don't think I was
inquisitive!"

It was the simplicity of the challenge that made it impossible to be
ignored. Claire knew that she was trapped, but she was angry enough to
decide on some reservation.

"The storm put the track between Yolanda and Sausalito out of
commission," Claire found herself snapping back too eagerly at her
tormentor. "We tried to make the last boat by auto, but we got stalled
and missed it. We had to walk a good half of the way."

"I shouldn't think that would have done Mr. Flint's cold any good," Mrs.
Richards said, drawlingly.

"Mr. Flint's cold?... I don't quite see what that has to do with it."

"Oh, you said 'we' I somehow got the impression...."

"No, Mrs. Richards, you've misunderstood me again." Claire threw a
cool, even glance at her antagonist. "I made the trip from Yolanda to
Sausalito in Mr. Stillman's car."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Richards for a third time, and in this instance her
voice was warm with gratification.

Claire directed her attention to her plate of buttered toast and her cup
of coffee. She was chagrined to think that she had fallen so easily into
Mrs. Richards's very obvious traps. Not that it mattered. She was quite
sure that the truth could not harm Stillman, and she was equally sure
that her position in life was too obscure to stand out conspicuously
against the darts of Mrs. Richards's vindictive tongue. But she had the
pride of her reticences and she did not like to surrender these
privileges at the point of insolent curiosity. The two continued to eat
in silence.

It was Mrs. Richards who finished first, and she dipped her fingers
hurriedly into the battered metal finger-bowl which the Japanese bus-boy
thrust before her.

"Do you mind if I go along?" she inquired of Claire, with an air of
polite triumph. "I think I'll go forward where I can get a quick start
... before the crowd gets too thick. I've got a million errands to do
before nine o'clock. And I _do_ want to run into the office before
Gertie settles down to work. I haven't seen her for a week and I've got
_more_ things to tell her!"



CHAPTER VIII


"Why, Miss Claire, how could you! Where have you been? And your mother
in such a bad way!" Mrs. Finnegan broke into sudden tears.

Claire, fumbling in her bag for the front-door key, looked up. Mrs.
Finnegan had swung open the door to the Robson flat and she stood like a
vision of disaster upon the threshold.

"What has happened?" Claire's voice rose with a note of swift
apprehension.

"Your mother ... she's paralyzed! She was taken last night. The doctor
says it would have happened, anyway. But I say it was worry, that's what
it was. With you away all night and never a word!"

Claire climbed the stairs in silence, aware that Mrs. Finnegan was
following at a discreet distance. Already the house seemed permeated
with an atmosphere of tragedy and gloom in spite of the morning light
pouring in unscreened at every window. Mrs. Robson's room was the only
exception to this unusual excess of cold radiance--unusual, because it
was one of Mrs. Robson's prides to keep her window-shades lowered to a
uniform and genteel distance.

Until Claire came face to face with her mother she almost had fancied
that her neighbor was indulging in a crude and terrible joke, but one
look sufficed. Mrs. Robson lay staring vacantly at the ceiling; she
could not move, she could not speak, and her spirit showed through the
veiled light in her eyes like a mysterious spot of sunshine in a shaded
well. Above a swooning sense of calamity Claire felt the strength of a
tender pretense struggling to communicate its vague hope to the stricken
form. She raised the window-shade slightly and sat down upon the bed.

"Why, mother, what's all this?" she began, in a tone of gentle banter,
as she stroked the helpless hands. "Were you worried? I'm so sorry! I
asked Miss Munch to let you know. Didn't she?... I went over to Mr.
Flint's to take dictation. The storm washed out the track. I tried to
make the boat in Mr. Stillman's car, but we broke down and missed it....
I had to stay all night in Sausalito."

Mrs. Robson, stirring faintly, attempted to speak. Claire turned
helplessly to Mrs. Finnegan. "I can't make out what she is trying to
say."

Mrs. Finnegan bent an attentive ear. "It's about Stillman," she
explained. "Your mother don't understand why...."

The speaker stopped with significant discretion. It was plain to Claire
that _nobody_ understood, and she felt a dreary futility as she answered
both her mother and Mrs. Finnegan with:

"It's a long story. Some other time, when ... when you're feeling
better."

A look of gray disappointment crossed Mrs. Robson's face. Mrs.
Finnegan's upper lip seemed shaped suddenly with a suspicion that died
almost as quickly as it began. There was a ring at the bell. "That's the
doctor," said Mrs. Finnegan, and she left to open the door.

The doctor chilled Claire with his steely nonchalance as she stood apart
while he went through the usual forms of a professional visit that was
obviously futile. She followed him to the front door. He answered her
eager inquiries with the cold triumph of authority.

"How long will she last?... Well, Miss Robson, that is hard to say. She
might go off to-night. Then, again, she might live twenty years. She'll
scarcely get any better, though. No, a nurse isn't essential, unless you
can afford one. But you ought to have another woman about. If you have
any relatives you'd better send for them and let them help out."

Claire did not find the doctor's announcement that her mother might die
at once nearly so brutal as his assurance that she had an equal chance
for existing twenty years. _Twenty years!_ Claire closed the door and
sank upon the steps overwhelmed.

But there was scant leisure on this first dreadful day of Mrs. Robson's
illness for theatrical exuberances. Claire, unaccustomed to the routine
of household duties, took a thousand unnecessary steps. She tried to
work calmly, to bring an acquired philosophy to her tasks, but she went
through her paces with a feverish, though stolid, anxiety. The long
night which followed was inconceivably a thing of horror. Her wakeful
moments were dry-eyed with despair, and when she slept it was only to
come back to a shivering consciousness.

Mrs. Finnegan found her next morning fresh from an attempt to rouse her
mother into accepting a few swallows of milk, which had ended in
pathetic and miserable failure. She had thrown herself in an abandon of
grief across the narrow kitchen table, and the coffee from an overturned
cup was trickling in a warm, thick stream to the floor. But the paroxysm
did her good. She rose to the kindly caresses of her neighbor like a
flower beaten to earth but refreshed by a relentless torrent. After
this, custom and habit began to reassert themselves in spite of the
crushing weight of circumstance. She 'phoned to the office. Mr. Flint
had returned, they told her. She explained her trouble to the cashier.
"I'll try to be back the first of the week," she finished, in a burst of
illogical hope.

Later in the day Mrs. Robson's two sisters arrived in answer to Claire's
summons. Claire's impulse to send for them had been purely
instinctive--an atrophied survival of clan-spirit that persisted beyond
any real faith in its significance. Perhaps she had a feeling that her
mother wished it; certainly she had no illusions as to the manner in
which the unwelcome news of Mrs. Robson's illness would be received by
these two self-centered females.

It was Mrs. Thomas Wynne who came in first, bundled mysteriously in her
furs and holding a glass of wine jelly as a conventional symbol of the
rôle of Lady Bountiful which she had for the moment assumed. Claire
could almost fancy how conspicuously she had contrived to carry this
overworked badge of the humanities, and the languid drawl of her voice
as she explained to her friends _en route_:

"So sorry I can't stop and chat. But, as you see, I'm running along to a
sick-room.... Oh no, nothing serious, I hope! Just my sister.... Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown? Oh, dear no! A younger sister. I don't think you know her.
She's had a great deal of trouble and hasn't been about much for a
number of years."

Mrs. Thomas Wynne had the trick of intrenching a stubborn family pride
by throwing back her head and daring all comers to uncover any of the
Carrol clan's shortcomings. But her selfishness had at least the virtue
of a live-and-let-live attitude that contrasted with the futile
aggressiveness of Mrs. Edward Ffinch-Brown. She asked Claire no
questions concerning her life or her prospects; she did not even pry
very deeply into the chances that her sister had for an ultimate
recovery. Her philosophy seemed to be founded on the knowledge that
uncovered cesspools were bound to be unpleasant, and, since she had no
desire to assist in their purification, she was quite content to keep
them properly screened. She came and deposited her wine jelly and patted
her sister's hand and went away again without leaving even a ripple in
her wake. As she departed she gave further proof of her insolent
insincerity by calling back at Claire:

"Remember, Claire, if there is anything I can do, just let me know."

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown's visit was scarcely more comforting, but decidedly
more exciting. She had not the suavity of her indifferences. Mrs.
Robson's untimely tilt with fate irritated her, and she took no pains to
conceal this fact.

"I suppose your mother is just as she's always been--a creature of
nerves," she said, as she dropped into a seat for a preliminary session
with Claire before venturing upon the unwelcome sight of her stricken
sister. "I don't know why it is, but she seems to be one of those people
who always has had something the matter with her. Poor Emily! Well, I
suppose we are all made differently."

When she entered the sick-room she found fault with the arrangement of
the bed, the manner in which the covers slipped off, the uncovered glass
of medicine on the bureau.

"You should braid your mother's hair, too. And why don't you pull the
window down from the top?"

Claire stood in sullen silence while her aunt vented a personal
annoyance on the nearest objects. But when Mrs. Ffinch-Brown's
ill-natured ministrations brought a dumb but protesting misery to the
sufferer's face, Claire found the courage to say, as gently as she
could:

"Why bother, Aunt Julia? Mother is really too sick now to care much
about appearances?"

This was just what Claire's aunt had hoped for. It gave her a chance for
escape without any strain upon her conscience. She did not remain long
after what she was pleased to consider a rebuff.

"Well, Claire, I see I can't be of much help," she announced as she
powdered her nose before the shabby hat-rack mirror and drew on her
gloves.... After she was gone Claire found a five-dollar bill on the
living-room table. She opened the gilt-edged copy of Tennyson that,
together with a calf edition of Ouida's _Moths_, had stood for years as
guard over the literary pretensions of the household, and thrust the
money midway between its covers. Doubtless a time was coming when she
would find it necessary to use this money, but the present moment was
too charged with the giver's resentful benevolence to make such a
compromise possible.

For three consecutive days Mrs. Ffinch-Brown swooped down upon the
Robson household and gave vent to her pique. She had been divorced so
long from these melancholy relations of hers that she had really
forgotten their existence, and she displayed all the rancor of a woman
who discovers suddenly a moth hole in the long undisturbed folds of a
treasured cashmere shawl. Her precisely timed visits had not the
slightest suspicion of attentiveness back of them, and Claire guessed
almost at once that they were more in the nature of assaults carried on
in the hope that she would meet enough opposition to insure an honorable
retreat. Unlike Mrs. Thomas Wynne, Aunt Julia inquired minutely into
family matters, insisted on knowing Claire's plans, and was aggressively
free with advice.

"You ought to be making plans, Claire," she said, at the conclusion of
her second visit. "You can't go on like this. I'd like to be able to do
more, but of course I can't spare much time. And next week you'll have
to be getting into harness again. You'd better think it over."

And on the next day, finding that Claire obviously had _not_ thought it
over, she threw out a hint that was little save a thinly veiled threat.
She came in with a more genial manner than she was accustomed to waste
upon the desert air of penury, and Claire, well schooled in reading the
significance of proverbial calms, had a misgiving.

"I've been talking to Miss Morton ... about your mother," Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown began, without bothering to lead up to the subject. "You
know Alice Morton.... Well, your mother does, anyway. I bumped into her
yesterday, quite by accident ... at a Red Cross meeting. It seems she's
one of the directors of The King's Daughters' Home for Incurables!"
Claire was sitting opposite her aunt, nervously fingering a
paper-cutter. Mrs. Ffinch-Brown eyed her niece sharply, and with an
obvious determination to drive her thrusts home before her victim
recovered from the first vicious stabs she continued: "It seems they
haven't a great deal of room out there, but she thinks she could arrange
things. They'll raise the price to two thousand dollars after the
fifteenth of the month, so I thought that--"

"Oh, not quite yet, Aunt Julia!... Mother has a chance. Surely...."

"Now, Claire, don't get hysterical. You're a business woman and _you_
ought to be practical if any of us are. The price to-day is one thousand
dollars. Think of it! Care for life in a ward with only _three_ others!
Now I can't ask your uncle for any more than is necessary in a case
like this. If we make up our mind promptly we can save just one thousand
dollars."

For the moment Claire felt the harried desperation of a cornered animal.
She had never seen anything more disagreeable than her aunt's sidelong
glance. She felt herself rise from her seat with cold dignity.

"I'm afraid, Aunt Julia, I can't make up my mind as quickly as you wish.
It isn't so simple as it seems. I'm not above a plan like this if I'm
convinced it's necessary. But somehow.... Oh, I know what you're
thinking--you're thinking that beggars shouldn't be choosers. Well, I'm
not quite a beggar yet. But when I am, I won't choose.... I'll promise
you that."

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown rose also. She was in a position to triumph in any
case, and she was washing her hands of the situation with eager
satisfaction. "Oh, indeed! I'm glad you can say that _now_. But you
weren't always so independent. I suppose it never occurs to you to thank
me for what I did when you were younger."

Claire felt quite calm. The events of the past twenty-four hours had
wrung her emotions dry. "Yes, Aunt Julia," she said, with an air of cool
defiance, "it occurred to me many times.... Perhaps if I'd had any
choice...."

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown grew pale. "It's plain that I'm wasting my time here!"
she sneered.

Claire went with her aunt to the door....

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown did not cross the threshold of the Robson home again,
and when on the following day Claire saw the figure of Mrs. Thomas
Wynne outlined against the lace-screened front door she let the bell
ring unanswered.

       *       *       *       *       *

The dismissal of the last of the Carrol clan from any participation in
the Robson destinies gave Claire a feeling at once independent and
solitary. There had been a vague hope that this crisis might germinate
some stray seeds of kinship, shriveled by the drought of uneventful
years. But the poisonous nettles of memory were the only harvest that
had sprung from the presence of Mrs. Robson's sisters, and Claire was
glad to uproot the arid product of their shallowness.

The week came to a close with a rush of visitors. Suddenly it seemed as
if everybody knew of Mrs. Robson's illness. Fellow church members, old
school friends, casual acquaintances began to ring the front-door bell
insistently. Knowing her mother's instinctive craving for recognition,
it struck Claire that it was the height of irony to see this belated
crowd come swarming in on the heels of calamity at the moment when Mrs.
Robson was unable to so much as see them. Mrs. Robson would have so
liked to sit in even a threadbare pomp and receive the homage of her
visitors, but fate had been scurvy enough to withhold this scant
triumph.

Nellie Whitehead breezed in on Saturday afternoon just as Mrs.
Finnegan's cuckoo clock cooed the stroke of three; immediately the air
began to move out of adversity's tragic current. It was impossible to be
wholly without hope under the impetus of Nellie Whitehead's flaming
good humor.

"I'm all out of breath," she began, as she flopped into the first chair
that came handy. "I keep forgetting I ain't sweet sixteen any more and
never been kissed. I hate to walk slow, though. Don't you? Say, but you
_are_ up against it, ain't you! I saw that Munch dame on the street and
she nearly broke her old neck trying to catch up with me. I wondered
what was the matter, because she ain't usually so keen about flagging
_me_. But, _you_ know, she never misses a trick at spilling out the
calamity stuff, especially if it isn't on her.... 'Oh, Miss Whitehead,'
she called out before I had a chance to beat it, 'have you heard about
Miss Robson's mother?' ...When she got through I fixed her with that
trusty old eye of mine and I said, 'I suppose you see her quite often.'
And what do you think the old stiff said? 'Oh, I'd like to, Miss
Whitehead, but I really haven't had time. You know I'm doing all Mr.
Flint's dictation now.' And she had the nerve to try and slip me a hint
that she was going to keep on doing it. But I just said to myself: 'You
should kid yourself that way, old girl! When Flint picks a bloomer like
you to ornament the back office it will be because his eyesight's failed
him.' ...By the way, how do you manage to stand him off--with religious
tracts or a hat-pin?"

She hardly waited for Claire's reply, but plunged at once into another
monologue.

"Do you know what I'm up to? I got my eye on the swellest fur-lined coat
you ever saw ... at Magnin's. But you can bet I'm going to keep my eye
on it until after the holidays. They want a hundred and a quarter for it
now, but they'll be glad to take sixty-five when the gay festivities are
over, or I miss my guess. I go in every other day to have a look at it,
and when the girl's back is turned I hang it back in the case
myself--'way back where everybody else will overlook it. Oh, I know the
game all right. I did the same thing with a three piece suit last
summer. But I say, All is fair in war and the high cost of living. Maybe
you think I haven't had a time scraping the wherewithal for that coat
together. But I brought the total up to seventy the other day by getting
Billy Holmes to slip me a ten in advance for Christmas. I never trust a
man to invest in anything for me if I can help it. They usually run to
manicure sets in satin-lined cases or cut-glass cologne-bottles. Billy
Holmes?... Oh, you know him! He ran the reinsurance desk at the Royal
for years. They put him on the road last week. He's _some_ live wire.
And what's better, he has no incumbrances. I'll tell you what it is,
Robson, I'm getting kind of tired of the goings. I'm just about ready to
settle down by the old steam-radiator. And as long as I've got eyesight
enough to look the field over, I've decided on a traveling-man or a
sea-captain. They'll be sticking around home just about often enough to
suit me.... Not that I'm a man-hater, but I've never had 'em for a
steady diet and I'm not going to begin to get the habit this late day."

Nellie Whitehead stayed about an hour, and, as Claire opened the front
door upon her friend's departure the letter-man thrust an envelope into
her hands. She opened it hastily and turned suddenly white.

"Well, Robson, what's wrong now?" inquired Nellie.

"Flint ... he's let me out ... Miss Munch was right!"



CHAPTER IX


On the selfsame Saturday of Claire's dismissal from the office ranks of
the Falcon Insurance Company Ned Stillman was the recipient of an early
telephone message from Lily Condor. It appeared that Flora Menzies, the
young woman who usually accompanied her in her vocal flights, had been
laid low with pneumonia and she wanted Stillman to persuade Claire
Robson to succeed to the honorary position.

"She did so famously on that night of our musicale," Lily Condor had
explained, "and Flora won't be in shape again for a good three months.
Of course, there isn't anything in it but glory. I'm just one of those
'sweet charity' artists. But I think she is a dear, and I know that
_you_ have influence."

Stillman pretended to be annoyed at Mrs. Condor's assumption that his
word would carry any weight in the matter, but as a matter of fact he
felt pleased in secret masculine fashion. Chancing to pass Flint's
office at the noon hour, he dropped in. It happened that Miss Munch was
standing near the counter, and she answered his inquiries with suave
eagerness.

"Oh, Miss Robson isn't with us any more. She hasn't been here for over
a week--not since her mother was taken sick. Oh, I thought you knew.
You're Mr. Stillman, aren't you? I've heard my cousin, Mrs. Richards,
speak of you. Miss Robson went over to Mr. Flint's on that night of the
storm and she missed the boat or something--_you_ know! And when she got
home next morning she found that her mother had worried herself into a
stroke. They say she is quite helpless.... I'm sure I don't know what
she intends doing. We mailed her check yesterday. It's always hard to
land another position when one is dismissed."

Stillman escaped quickly. Miss Munch's venom was a thing too crude and
unconcealed to face with indifference. Her emphatic "_you_ know" was
pregnant with innuendo and malice. Still, it did not occur to Stillman
that he had any part in Claire Robson's misfortune. But he did know from
Miss Munch's tone that the unfortunate situation, growing out of the
automobile ride from Yolanda to Sausalito, had received due recognition
at the hands of those who made a business of blowing out bubbles of
scandal from the suds of chance. It was useless for him to deny that
Claire Robson from the first had been of more or less interest. She
seemed to rise in such a detached fashion from her environment.

He had to admit, as later he sat in the cloistered silences of his club
library and blew contemplative smoke-rings into the air, that a certain
idle curiosity had been the mainspring of his concern for her. He had
been like a boy who captured a strange butterfly and clapped it under a
glass tumbler where he could watch how easily it would adapt itself to
its new surroundings. But, having caught the butterfly and held it a
brief captive, the dust from its wings still lingered upon the hands
that imprisoned it. He had made the mistake of imagining that one is
always master of casual incidents. To meet a young woman by the most
trivial chance, to extend a brief courtesy to her, these were matters
which hold scarcely the germs of a menacing situation, not menacing to
him, of course--they never could be menacing to him; he was still
thinking of things from the viewpoint of Claire Robson.

To tell the truth, he was annoyed at having been mixed up in Claire's
flight from the Flint household. Had Flint been a complete stranger he
would not have minded so much. He was still divided by the appeal to his
chivalry and the sense of loyalty that a man feels to the masculine
friends of his youth. In her telephone message Claire had put the matter
very casually--the track was washed out and she was wondering whether he
contemplated returning to town that evening. But he guessed at once what
lay back of her matter-of-fact boldness. He had guessed so completely
that he had decided not only to return to town, but to start at once.

He wondered now whether he had answered the appeal because a woman was
in a desperate situation or because that woman was Claire Robson. All
through the dinner hour at the Tom Forsythes he had thought about her,
had speculated vaguely what mischance or effrontery had been responsible
for her ill-timed visit to Flint's. He remembered trying to decide
whether the young woman was extraordinarily deep or extraordinarily
simple and frank. He did not like to concede that he could be influenced
by anything so transparently malicious as Mrs. Richards's statements
regarding the absence of Mrs. Flint, but he was bound to admit that they
did nothing to render the situation less innocent; what had particularly
annoyed him was the fact that he should have given the matter a second
thought. To begin with, it was none of his business and he was not a man
who presumed to judge or even speculate on other people's indiscretions.
Claire Robson was no sheltered schoolgirl. She was a full-grown woman,
in the thick of business life. Such women were not taken unawares. He
had just dismissed the whole affair from his mind on this basis when
Claire's telephone message came to him. Even now he marveled at the
sense of satisfaction that her appeal had given. But he had found no
savor in a situation that compelled him to interfere in Flint's program.
Such a move on his part was contrary to his standards, to his training
in comradeship, to all his acquired philosophy. He had the well-bred
man's distaste for getting into a mess. He abhorred scenes and
conspicuous complications.

He had come through the incident with steadily waning enthusiasm and a
decision to wash his hands in the future of all such unprofitable
trifling. But the sudden knowledge that the young woman was in desperate
trouble revived his interest. He had no idea how serious Mrs. Robson's
illness was or whether Claire had any hopes for a new position. But
Miss Munch's words had been significant. Claire had been _dismissed_,
and Stillman knew enough about present business stagnation to conclude
that for the time, at least, Claire Robson faced a bleak outlook. He
realized the indelicacy of any definite move on his part, but it
occurred to him that it might be well to talk the situation over with
some one--preferably a woman. As he tossed his cigar butt aside, Lily
Condor appealed to him as just the person for the emergency. Therefore
he looked her up without further ado.

He found her at home, curled up among the cushions of a davenport that
did service as a bed when the scenes were shifted. She was living in a
tiny apartment consisting of one room and a kitchenette that gave
Stillman the impression of a juggler's cabinet. Nothing in this room was
ever by any chance what it seemed. Things that looked like doors led
nowhere; bits of stationary furniture usually yielded to the slightest
pressure and revealed strange secrets. He had seen Mrs. Condor deftly
construct a card-table out of an easy-chair, and he had no doubt that
the oak table in the center of the room could have been converted into a
chiffonier or a chassis-lounge at a given signal.

In repose, it struck Stillman that Mrs. Condor seemed very much like a
purring cat. He had never seen her quite so frankly behind the scenes,
robbed of both her physical and mental make-up. She was one of those
women in middle age who adapt themselves to the tone of their background
and while she contrived to strike a fairly vivid note, she took care not
to be discordant. She was clever enough to realize that her talents
were not sensational and that she could only hope for an indifferent
success as a professional. But in the rôle of a gracious amateur she
disarmed criticism and forced her way into circles that might otherwise
have been at some pains to exclude her. For, if the truth were known,
there had been certain phases of Mrs. Condor's earlier life which were
rather vaguely, and at the same time aptly, covered by Mrs. Finnegan's
term of "gay." A perfectly discreet woman, for instance, would have made
an effort to live down her flaming hair and almost immorally dazzling
complexion, but Mrs. Condor had been much more ready to live _up_ to
these conspicuous charms. In fact, she had lived up to them pretty
furiously, until time began to take a ruthless toll of her contrasting
points. From the concert-platform she still seemed to discount, almost
to flout, the years, but in secret she yielded unmistakably to their
pressure.

It was this yielding, pliant attitude that struck Stillman as he came
upon her almost unawares on that early December afternoon, a yielding,
pliant attitude which gave a curious sense of tenacity under the
surface. And he thought, as he dropped into the chair she indicated,
that she was a woman who gained strength in these moments of relaxation.

"Fancy your catching me like this!" she said, "I thought when the bell
rang that you were my dressmaker.... If you want a highball you'll have
to wait on yourself. Phil Edington brought an awfully good bottle of
Scotch last night. I declare I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have
a youngster or two on my staff. Old men are such bores, anyway, and, as
a matter of fact, they never waste time on any woman over thirty. Well,
I don't blame them. We're a sorry, patched-up mess at best.... Tell me,
did you get hold of Miss Robson?"

"I dropped in, but she wasn't at the office," Stillman replied, tossing
his hat on the center-table.

Mrs. Condor withdrew to the relaxation of her innumerable sofa pillows
again. "Wasn't at the office? How thrilling! Is she one of the Sultan's
favorites?... I've heard Sawyer Flint was an easy mark if you know how
to work him. Miss Robson didn't strike me that way, though. But I ought
to have known that silent women are always cleverer than they appear."

Stillman caught the barest suggestion of a sneer in Mrs. Condor's
tone--the sneer of a woman relinquishing a stubborn hold upon the
gaieties.

"Well, I guess Miss Robson didn't know how to work him, as a matter of
fact," Stillman said, quietly. "She lost her job to-day. I'm a little
bit worried about her.... I came here on purpose to talk the situation
over with you."

His directness brought Lily Condor out of her languidness with a sharp
turn. She wriggled up and sat erectly on the edge of the davenport, one
slippered foot dangling just above the other. "Why, Ned Stillman, what
an old fraud you are! I didn't fancy you were interested in _anybody_. I
didn't think that you.... Oh, well, throw me a cigarette and let me hear
the worst in comfort!"

He opened his cigarette-case and leaned over toward her. She made her
choice. He struck a match and she put her hand tightly on his wrist as
she bent over the flame and slowly drew in her breath. Even after she
had released her grasp his flesh still bore the imprint of the rings on
her fingers. For a moment he had an impulse to bow himself out of her
presence without further explanation, but already she seemed to have a
proprietary interest in him. Her smile was full of friendly malice.

He ended by telling her everything, in spite of the conviction that he
had approached the wrong person.

"Of course," she hazarded, boldly, when he had finished, "you mean to
help her out."

Her presumption annoyed but rather refreshed him. "I'd like to do
something, but, hang it all, what can be done?"

"What can be done? If that isn't like a man! Or I should say, a
_gentleman_!... Why don't you plunge in boldly and damn the
consequences?... It's just your sort that sends women into the arms of
men like Flint. You're so busy keeping an eye on the proprieties that
you miss all the danger signals."

Her tone was extraordinarily familiar, and, to a man who rather prided
himself upon his ability to keep people at arm's-length, it was not
precisely agreeable. Yet he knew that it would be folly to give any hint
of his irritation.

"Well," he contrived to laugh back at her, "so far as I can see, Miss
Robson's problems are quite too simple. After all, it's largely a
question of money.... I can't go and throw gold in her lap as if she
were some beggar on a street corner."

"You mean, I suppose, that you are afraid to risk the outraged dignity
of this ward of yours. I think that's a lovely name for her. Don't
you?... You're acquiring such a benevolent old attitude. The only thing
to be done, I fancy, is to adopt some transparent ruse--some
sort of Daddy-Long-Leggish deception." She closed her eyes
thoughtfully--"_Hiring_ her as my accompanist, for instance." She rose
to dispense Scotch and soda. Stillman sat in thoughtful silence, while
Mrs. Condor talked to very trivial purpose. She seemed suddenly to have
grown tired of the subject of Claire Robson. The arrival of the expected
dressmaker broke in upon the rather one-sided tête-à-tête.

"You'll have to go," Lily Condor announced with an intimate air of
dismissal to Stillman. "It would never do to let a mere man in on the
secrets of the sewing-room."

At the door he hesitated awkwardly over his good-by. "I was wondering,"
he said, "whether you were serious about ... about hiring Miss Robson as
your accompanist. You know I think the plan has possibilities."

She threw back her head and smiled with hard satisfaction. "I've been
trying to figure if you had killed your imagination. Think it over."

She gave him the tips of her fingers. He returned their languid pressure
and departed.

As he drifted down the hall he heard her calling, half gaily, half
derisively, after him:

"Don't decide on anything rash now.... Sleep over it!..."

       *       *       *       *       *

He thought it over for three days and when he called on Lily Condor
again he found her divorced from her languishing mood. She was dressed
for dinner down-town, and he had to confess she had made the most of
what remained of her flaming hair and dazzling complexion.

He felt that she guessed the reason for his visit, although she took
care to let him force the issue.

"About Miss Robson," he said, finally, "I've concluded to take you at
your word."

Lily Condor smoothed out her gloves and laid them aside. "Take me at
_my_ word? You're welcome to the suggestion, if that is what you mean.
As a matter of fact I wasn't serious."

He was annoyed to feel that he was flushing. He could not fathom her,
but he had a conviction that she _had_ been serious and that this
attitude was a mere pose. "Nevertheless, I think it can be managed," he
insisted. "And I want you to help me."

She listened to his plan. "What you will call a Daddy-Long-Leggish
pretense," he explained to her with an attempt at facetiousness. "You to
do the hiring and ... and yours truly to provide the wherewithal. Until
things look up a bit. Of course then ... why, naturally, when things
look up a bit for her...."

But Lily remained lukewarm. She wasn't quite sure that it would be ...
oh, well, he knew what she meant! It seemed too absurd to think that he
had given an ear to anything so extravagant. She would like to be of
service to Miss Robson, of course, but, after all, she felt that it was
taking an unfair advantage of the girl.

"If she's everything you say she is, she'd resent it all tremendously,"
she put forth as a final objection.

"But she isn't to know! That's the point of the whole thing," he
explained, with absurd simplicity.

"Oh, my dear man, she isn't to know, but she _will_, ultimately. You
don't suppose the secret of a woman's meal-ticket is hidden very long,
do you? And, besides, you couldn't offer her enough to live on. That
would be absurd on the very face of it."

"Oh, well, I could offer her enough to help out a bit, anyway, and half
a loaf you know...."

He broke off, amazed at the determination her opposition had
crystallized. She looked at him sharply and rose.

"I must be running along," she commented as she drew on her gloves. "I
tell you, I'll go call on Miss Robson--some day this week. A woman can
always get a better side-light on a situation like this. There are so
many angles to be considered. She must have relatives. You wouldn't want
to make a false move, would you, now?"

He was too grateful to be suspicious at this sudden compromise with her
convictions.

"You're tremendously good," he stammered. "It _will_ be a favor. And any
time that I can...."

"You can be of service to me right now," she interrupted, gaily. "Order
me a taxi ... that's a good boy! I always do so like to pull up at a
place in style."

Stillman paid Lily Condor a third visit that week--this time in answer
to the lady's telephone message. She had been to see Claire Robson and
her report was anything but rosy.

"Her mother's perfectly helpless and will be for the rest of her life,"
Lily volunteered almost cheerfully. "And, frankly, I don't see what is
going to become of them. It seems that Mrs. Robson is a sister of Mrs.
Tom Wynne and that dreadful Ffinch-Brown woman. They both have about as
much heart as a cast-iron stove. Miss Robson didn't say so in words, but
I gathered that she had called both of them off the relief job. I almost
cheered when I realized that fact. I threw out a hint about there being
a possibility of my needing an accompanist. I said Miss Menzies was ill
and perhaps ... and I intimated that there was something more than glory
in it."

"And what did Miss Robson say to that?"

"Oh, she was more self-contained than one would imagine under the
circumstances. She said she would like to think it over. She put it that
way on the score of leaving her mother alone nights. But, believe me,
that young lady is more calculating than she seems. Of course I didn't
mention terms or anything like that. I left a good loophole in case you
had changed your mind."

For the moment Stillman was almost persuaded to tell Lily Condor that he
_had_ changed his mind. Not that he had lost interest in Claire, but
already he had another plan and there was something disagreeably
presumptuous in Mrs. Condor's tone. He never remembered having taken
anybody into his confidence regarding a personal matter. The trouble
was that he had begun the whole affair under the misapprehension that it
was a most _impersonal_ thing. He still tried to look at it from that
angle, but Lily Condor's manner seemed bent on forcing home the rather
disturbing conviction that he had a vital interest in the issue. She had
cut in upon his reserve and he would never quite be able to recover the
lost ground. He felt that she sensed his revulsion, for almost at once
she adroitly changed the subject and it did not come to life again
during the remainder of his call.

But when he was leaving she thrust an idle finger into the lapel of his
coat and said:

"I think it's awfully good of you, Ned, to be human enough to want to do
something for others. I watched you as a young man, and when you
married...." His startled look must have halted her, for she released
her hold upon him and finished with a shrug.

He said good-by hastily and escaped. But he wondered, as he found his
way out into the street, how long it would be before Mrs. Condor would
acquire sufficient boldness to discuss with him what and whom she chose.



CHAPTER X


Christmas Day came and went with a host of bitter-sweet memories for
Claire Robson. Not that she could look back on any holiday season with
unalloyed happiness, but time had drawn the sting from the misfortune of
the old days. Through the mist of the years outlines softened, and she
was more prone to measure the results by the slight harvest that their
efforts had brought. For instance, they had never been too poor to deny
themselves the luxury of a tree. And a tree to Mrs. Robson meant none of
the scant, indifferent affairs that most of the neighbors found
acceptable strung with a few strands of dingy popcorn and pasteboard
ornaments. No, the Robson tree was always an opulent work of art,
freighted with bursting cornucopias and heavy glass balls and yards of
quivering tinsel. The money for all this dazzling beauty usually came a
fortnight or so before the eventful day in the shape of a ten-dollar
bill tucked away in the folds of Gertrude Sinclair's annual letter to
Mrs. Robson. As Claire had grown older she had grown also impatient of
the memory of her mother squandering what should have gone for thick
shoes and warm plaid dresses upon the ephemeral joys of a Christmas
tree. But now she suddenly understood, and she felt glad for a mother
courageous enough to lay hold upon the beautiful symbols of life at the
expense of all that was hideously practical. Shoes wore out and plaid
dresses finally found their way to the rag-bag, but the glories of the
spirit burned forever in the splendor of all this truant magnificence,
and the years stretched back in a glittering procession of light-ladened
fir-trees.

Then some time between Christmas and New-Year came the Christmas
pantomime at the Tivoli, with its bewildering array of scantily clad
fairies and dashing Amazons and languishing princes in pale-blue tights;
to say nothing of the Queen Charlottes consumed between acts through
faintly yellow straws. How Claire would mark off each day on the
calendar which brought her nearer to this triumph! And what a hurry and
bustle always ensued to get dinner over and be fully dressed and down to
the box-office before even the doors were opened, so that they could get
first choice of the unreserved seats which sold at twenty-five cents.
Then there would ensue the long, tedious wait in the dimly lighted
cavern of the playhouse, smelling with a curious fascination of stale
cigars and staler beer, and the thrill that the appearance of the
orchestra produced, followed by the arrival of all the important
personages fortunate enough to afford fifty-cent seats, which gave them
the security to put off their appearance until the curtain was almost
ready to rise. And when the curtain really did rise upon the inevitable
spectacle of villagers dancing upon the village green! And Mrs. Robson
carefully picked out in the chorus the stout sister of a former servant
who had worked for her mother! And the wicked old witch swept from the
wings on the traditional broomstick! From that moment until the final
transformation scene, when scintillating sea-shells yielded up one by
one their dazzling burdens of female loveliness and a rather Hebraic
Cupid descended from an invisible wire to wish everybody a happy
New-Year in words appropriately rhymed, there was no halt to the wonders
disclosed. With what sharp and exquisite reluctance did Claire remain
glued to her seat, refusing to believe that it was all over! Even at
this late date Claire had only to close her eyes to revive the delights
of these rather covert excursions into the realm of fancy--covert,
because a Tivoli pantomime had not precisely the sanction of such a
respectable organization as the Second Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Robson,
while not definitely encouraging Claire to wilful dishonesty, always
managed to warn her daughter by saying:

"I wouldn't tell any one about going to the Tivoli, Claire, if I were
you ... unless, of course, they should ask about it."

Claire, in mortal terror lest any indiscretion on her part would put a
stop to this annual lapse into such delightful immoralities, held her
peace in spite of her desire to spread abroad the beauties which she had
beheld. She had a feeling that all the participants in the pantomime
must of necessity be rather wicked and abandoned creatures, and half the
pleasure she had felt in viewing them arose from a secret admiration at
the courage which permitted human beings to be so perfectly and
desperately sinful. Although she was almost persuaded that perhaps it
did not take quite such bravado to be wicked in blue-spangled gauze and
satin slippers as it did to lapse from the straight and narrow path in a
gingham dress and resoled boots.

The only thrill that the present Christmas Day produced came in the
shape of a pot of flaming poinsettias bearing the card of Ned Stillman.
These were the first flowers that Claire ever remembered having
received. It pleased her also to realize that Stillman had been delicate
to the point of this thoroughly unpractical gift, especially as he had
every reason to assume that something more substantial would have been
acceptable. She was confident that by this time he had heard through
Mrs. Condor of her mother's illness and her loss of position. Claire was
still puzzled at Mrs. Condor's visit. For all that lady's skill at
subterfuge, there were implied evasions in her manner which Claire
sensed instinctively. And then Claire was not yet inured to the novelty
of being in demand. To have been forced by circumstance upon Mrs. Condor
as an accompanist was one thing; to be desired by her in a moment of
cold calculation was quite another; and there had been more uncertainty
than caution in Claire's plea for time in which to consider the offer.
But as the days flew by it became more and more apparent to Claire that
she was in no position to indulge in idle speculation. She had long
since given up the hope of fulfilling the demands of a regular office
position, even if one had been open to her. Mrs. Finnegan's enthusiasm
to be neighborly and helpful was more a matter of theory than practice,
and it did not take Claire many days to decide that she had no right to
impose upon a good nature which was made up largely of ignorance of a
sick-room's demands. Claire's final check from Flint was dwindling with
alarming rapidity; indeed, she was facing the first of the year with the
realization that there would be barely enough to pay the next month's
rent, let alone to settle the current bills. She had no idea what Mrs.
Condor intended paying, but she fancied that it must be little enough.
Surely Mrs. Condor did not receive any great sum for her singing and
there must be any number of gratuitous performances. She decided quite
suddenly, the day after Christmas, to take Mrs. Condor at her word, and
she was a bit disturbed at both the lady's reply and the manner of it.

"Oh," Mrs. Condor had drawled rather disagreeably, "I thought you'd
given up the idea. I spoke to somebody else only this morning. But, of
course, I'm not certain about how it will turn out. I'll keep you in
mind and if the other falls through.... By the way, how is your mother?
I keep asking Ned Stillman every day what the news is, but he never
knows anything. All men are alike ... unless they've got some special
interest. Sometimes I marvel that he looks me up so regularly, but then
I've known him ever since.... But there, I'll be telling more than I
should! Do come and see me. I'm always in in the morning.... Yes, I can
imagine you do have a lot to do. I'm so sorry you didn't call up
sooner. But one never can tell. Good-by.... I hope you'll have a happy
New Year."

Claire hung up the receiver. Well, she had lost an opportunity to turn
an easy dollar or two and she had no one to thank but herself. Why had
she delayed in accepting Mrs. Condor's offer?

Fortunately the unexpected arrival of Nellie Whitehead cut short any
further repinings. Claire was frankly glad to see her and at once she
thought, "She has come to show me her new coat."

But Nellie Whitehead was incased in a wrap that showed every evidence of
a good six months' wear.

"My new coat?" the lady echoed, in answer to Claire's question. "There
ain't no such animal. Somebody else copped it. I didn't shove it back
far enough the last time I took a look at it, I guess. Oh, well, I
should worry! I can get along very well without it...."

When Nellie Whitehead rose to leave, dusk had fallen and Claire was
fumbling for matches to light the hall gas, when she felt her friend's
hand close over hers. There followed the cold pressure of several coins
against Claire's palm and the voice of her visitor sounding a bit
tremulous in the dusk.

"You'll need some extra money, Robson, or I miss my guess."

Claire fell back with a gesture of protest. "Why, Nellie Whitehead, how
could you? It's your coat money, too! Well, _I_ never!"

And with that they both burst into tears.... When Claire recovered
herself she found that Nellie Whitehead had escaped. She lit the gas
and opened her palm. Four twenty-dollar gold pieces glistened in the
light.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next morning Claire received a telephone message from Mrs. Condor. The
position of accompanist was hers at forty dollars a month if she desired
it.

"It won't be hard," Mrs. Condor had finished, reassuringly. "Some weeks
I've something on nearly every night. And then again there won't be
anything doing for days.... How can I afford to pay so much? Well, my
dear, that is a secret. But don't worry, you'll earn it...."

And toward the close of the week there came another surprise for Claire
in the shape of a letter from Stillman, which ran:


    MY DEAR MISS ROBSON.--I am going to take a little flier at the bean
    market.

    That was my father's business and I know a few things about it--at
    least to the extent of recognizing the commodity when the sack is
    opened. Do you fancy you could arrange to give me a few hours a week
    at the typewriter? If so, we can get together and arrange terms.

    Cordially,

    EDWARD STILLMAN.


"At last," flashed through Claire's mind, "he's going in for something
worth while."

This time she decided promptly. Over the telephone she made an
appointment with Stillman, in his apartments, for beginning work on the
second Wednesday in January.



CHAPTER XI


Shortly after the first of the year Claire received her initial summons
from Lily Condor--they were to appear at a concert in the Colonial
Ballroom of the St. Francis for the Belgian relief. Mrs. Condor had
intimated that the affair was to be smart, and so it proved. It was set
at a very late and very fashionable hour, and all through the program
groups of torpid, though rather audible, diners kept drifting in. Claire
was not slow to discover that Lily Condor was first on the bill, and she
remembered reading somewhere in a newspaper that among professionals the
first and last place were always loathsome positions. Judging from the
noise and confusion that accompanied their efforts, Claire could well
understand why this was so, and she expected to find Lily Condor
resentful. But to her surprise Mrs. Condor merely shrugged her shoulders
and said:

"What difference does it make? They don't come to listen, anyway.
Besides, I always open the bill. I like to get it over quickly."

But Claire had reason to suspect, as she followed the remainder of a
very excellent program, that the choice of position did not rest with
Mrs. Condor. Claire began to wonder how much money Mrs. Condor received
for an effort like this. And she became more puzzled as she gathered
from the conversation of the other artists about her that the talent had
been furnished gratuitously.

"I understand," she heard a woman in front of her whisper to her
companion, "that Devincenzi, the 'cellist, is the only one in the crowd
who is getting a red cent. But he has a rule, you know--or is it a
contract? I'm sure I don't know. At any rate, they say that the
Ffinch-Browns donated his fee.... The Ffinch-Browns? Don't you know
them?... See, there they are ... over there by the Tom Forsythes. She
has on turquoise pendant earrings.... Oh, they're ever so charitable!
But they do say that she is something of a...."

Claire lost the remainder of this stage whisper in a rather tremulous
anxiety to catch a glimpse of her aunt before she moved. Claire had to
acknowledge that at a distance her aunt gave a wonderful illusion of
arrested youth as she stood with one hand grasping the collar of her
gorgeous mandarin coat. But Claire was more interested in the turquoise
pendants than in her aunt. She had never seen the jewels before, but she
had heard about them almost from the time she was able to lisp.

"They're mine," Mrs. Robson had repeated to Claire again and again. "My
father bought them for me when I was sixteen years old. I remember the
day distinctly, and how my mother said: 'Don't you think, John, that
Emily is a little young for anything like this? I'll keep them for her
until she is twenty.' I nearly cried myself sick, but of course mother
was right, _then_.... But like everything else, I never got my hands on
them again. And what is more, Julia Carrol Ffinch-Brown knows that they
are mine as well as anybody, because she stood right alongside of me
when I handed them over to mother. Not that I care.... It's the
principle of the thing!"

Claire felt disappointed in the pendants. They seemed so
insignificant--to fall very far short of her mother's passionate
description of them, and she began to wonder which was the more
pathetic, Mrs. Robson's exaggerated notion of their worth or the
pettiness that gave Aunt Julia the tenacity to hold fast to such trivial
baubles.

Ned Stillman was in the audience, also. Claire saw him sitting off at
the side. Indeed, she spotted him on the very moment of her entrance
upon the stage. She had been nervous until his friendly smile warmed her
into easy confidence; and though, while she played, her back had been
toward him, she felt the glow of his sympathy. As Lily Condor and she
swept back upon the stage for their rather perfunctory applause, and
still more perfunctory bouquets provided by the committee, Claire could
see him gently tapping his hands in her direction, and she was surprised
when the usher handed her a bouquet of dazzling orchids.

"They must be for you," Claire said, innocently enough, to Mrs. Condor.
"I don't find any name on them."

"That shows that you've got a discreet admirer, at any rate," Lily
Condor returned with that bantering sneer which Claire was just
beginning to notice. And the thought struck her at once that Stillman
had sent the flowers. She was pleased, but also a little annoyed to
think he had so deliberately ignored Mrs. Condor.

The Flints were there, too; Flint looked uncomfortable and warm in his
scant full-dress suit and his wife frankly ridiculous in a low-cut gown
that exhibited every angle of a hopelessly scrawny neck. Claire did not
see them until she was leaving the stage, and she smiled as she saw
Flint lean over and pick up the opera-glasses from his wife's lap. But
this was not all. In a far corner sat Miss Munch and her cousin, Mrs.
Richards, their ferret eyes darting busily about and their tongues
clicking even more rapidly. Doubtless Flint had invested in a number of
tickets at the office for business reasons and passed them around for
any of the office force who felt a desire to see society at close range.

Claire had not meant to stay beyond one or two numbers following her own
appearance, but she kept yielding to Mrs. Condor's insistent suggestions
that she "stay for just one more," until she discovered, to her dismay,
that it was past midnight. The last artists were taking their places
upon the stage. Claire resigned herself to the inevitable and sat out
the remainder of the performance. She was making a quick exit into the
dressing-room when she came face to face with her aunt. Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown betrayed her confusion by the merest lift of the eyebrows,
and she stepped back as if to get a clearer view of her niece, as she
said with an air of polite surprise:

"You--_here_?"

Claire carried her head confidently. "I was on the program," she
returned, consciously eying the turquoise pendants.

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown rested a closed fan against her left ear as if to
screen at least one of the earrings from Claire's frank stare. "Oh, how
interesting! I must have missed you--I came in late. It's rather odd. I
thought I knew everybody on the program.... I helped arrange it."

"Well," Claire smiled, "I wasn't what you would call one of the
head-liners. I played Mrs. Condor's accompaniments."

"That accounts for it ... my not knowing, I mean. I dare say your mother
is better, otherwise you wouldn't be here."

Claire met her aunt's thrust calmly. "No, mother is worse, if anything.
As a matter of fact, I'm here...."

She broke off abruptly, realizing suddenly that she had left her orchids
behind. She turned to discover Stillman making his leisurely way toward
her. He had the orchids in his hand.

"My dear Miss Robson," he said, gently, "Mrs. Condor came very near
appropriating your flowers."

She could feel the color rising to her forehead. "I see you came to my
rescue again," she said, simply, taking them from him. "I think you know
Mr. Stillman, Aunt Julia."

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown forced a too-sweet smile as she gave Stillman a nod of
recognition. "Fancy any girl forgetting so much gorgeousness!" she
exclaimed with an attempt at lightness, but Claire caught the covert
rancor in her voice, and as her aunt made a movement of escape she put
out a restraining hand and said:

"I wanted you to know, Aunt Julia, that I'm here merely as a matter of
business. Mrs. Condor has hired me to play her accompaniments."

Mrs. Ffinch-Brown shook off Claire impatiently. "_Hired_ you!" she
sneered. "How extraordinary!"

And with that she swept past, giving Stillman a glance of farewell.

Claire turned to Stillman. "What must you think of me? Leaving my
flowers behind. Confess--it was you who sent them.... I was in such a
rush to get away, though. I shouldn't have stayed so long. My mother is
alone.... Of course there are neighbors just below and they will look in
on her, but just the same...."

His smile reassured her. "Are you forgetting about to-morrow?" he asked.
"Remember we are to begin business promptly at two o'clock. I hired a
typewriting-machine yesterday. I'm really thrilled at the idea of--of
going into business."

She looked at him steadily as she gave him her hand: "My dear Mr.
Stillman," she said, quite frankly, "you are very kind."

He answered by pressing her hand warmly and she covered her face with
the purple orchids. They were interrupted by Lily Condor sweeping rather
arrogantly toward them.

"Haven't you gone yet?" she asked Claire. "I thought you were in a
hurry! I hope you've persuaded Ned to get us a taxi. I hate street-cars
at this hour." And in answer to Claire's embarrassed protest that she
had never given such a thing a thought, Mrs. Condor finished: "Well,
I've given it a thought, and don't you forget it. Come, Ned, is it a
go?"

Claire fancied that a flicker of annoyance passed over Stillman's face
as he answered, with a dry laugh:

"You might at least have given me time to prove my gallantry."

"I'm not taking any chances," was the prompt reply.

Claire turned away. What had contrived to give Mrs. Condor this
disagreeable air of assurance toward Ned Stillman, she found herself
wondering. It had not been apparent at the Condor-Stillman musicale....

She arrived home dismayed to find the front room illuminated, but the
rattle of the departing taxi brought Mrs. Finnegan to the top of the
stairs with a laughing apology.

"I just looked in to see how your mother was, Miss Claire, and I found a
book on the front-room table"--Mrs. Finnegan held up Ouida's
_Moths_--"and I got so interested in it that I just naturally forgot to
go home. Finnegan's out, anyway. I was telling him about your good
fortune. And all he said was: 'Well, it beats me how an old crow like
Mrs. Condor gets paid for singing. I remember five years ago, when she
wasn't so uppish, we had her for a benefit performance of the Native
Sons, and she didn't get paid then. Her singing may be over my head.
Anyway, it didn't get to my ears.' But Finnegan is always like that. He
just likes to contradict. I got back at him. I said, 'Well, if she can
afford to pay Miss Claire forty a month for playing the piano, she must
get a good piece of money every time she opens her mouth.' ...Mercy,
look at the orchids! Well, you must have had a swell time. I'll bet you
wouldn't like to tell who sent them.... There wasn't any card? That's
not saying you don't know, Miss Claire.... I hope you won't think I'm a
meddler, but I'm an older woman and.... Well, just you keep a sharp eye
on the feller that sends you orchids, Miss Claire."

She went down-stairs without further ado. Claire put the orchids in
water and set them on a sill near an open window. She did not feel in
the least resentful of Mrs. Finnegan's warnings. She was too confident
to be anything but faintly amused at her neighbor's middle-class
anxiety. But Finnegan's skepticism concerning Mrs. Condor annoyed her
and she remembered the disagreeable words of her aunt:

"_Hired_ you? How extraordinary!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Two o'clock _sharp_!" The memory of Stillman's air of delicate banter
as he emphasized the hour for beginning his business venture struck
Claire ironically the more she pondered his words. She had a feeling
that there was something farcical in the prospect, and yet there seemed
nothing to do but to go through with the preliminaries. She presented
herself, therefore, at the appointed time at the Stanford Court
apartments.

She found Stillman quite alone, his hands blue-black with the smudge
from a refractory typewriter ribbon which he was vainly endeavoring to
adjust. It took some time for him to get his hands clean again, and
Claire sharpened her pencils while she waited. But there really proved
to be nothing to do.

"I'm all up in the air over this bean business," Stillman confessed,
nonchalantly. "The government, you know ... they're taking over all that
sort of thing ... regulating food and prices. Of course, in that
case...."

Claire felt an enormous and illogical relief. "Then you really won't
need me," she ventured.

"Oh, quite the contrary.... I have a certain amount of business, of a
sort. And I'm tired of dropping checks along the trail of public
stenographers.... Suppose we talk terms. We haven't fixed on any salary,
yet."

Claire felt a rising impatience. His subterfuge seemed too childish and
obvious. "That will depend on how much of my time you expect, Mr.
Stillman."

"Well, three times a week, anyway ... to start with. Say Mondays,
Wednesdays, and Fridays from two to five.... I was thinking that
something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars a week would be fair."

He turned a very frank gaze in her direction and she quizzically
returned his glance.

"That's rather ridiculous, don't you think?" she said, trying to
disguise her furtive annoyance. "You can hire a substitute through any
typewriting agency on the basis of three dollars a day."

"Yes, and I can buy two cigars for a nickel, but I shouldn't want to
smoke them."

She clicked the keys of her machine idly. "That is hardly a fair
comparison. You can get any number of competent girls for three
dollars."

He rested his chin on his upturned palm. "But, my dear Miss Robson, I
happen to want _you_."

She thought of any number of cheap, obvious retorts that might have been
flung back at his straightforward admission, but instead she said, with
equal frankness:

"That's just what I don't understand."

He threw her a puzzled look and the usual placid light in his eyes
quickened to resentful impatience.

"Is that a necessary part of the contract, Miss Robson?"

She caught her breath. His tone of annoyance was sharp and unexpected.
There was a suggestion of Flint's masculine arrogance in his voice. She
felt how absurd was her cross-examination of him, of how absurd, under
the circumstances, would have been her cross-examination of anybody
ready and willing to give her work to do and an ample wage in the
bargain, and yet, for all the force of his reply, she knew it to be a
well-bred if not a deliberate evasion.

"You mean it is none of my business, don't you?" she contrived to laugh
back at him.

His reply was a further surprise. "Yes, precisely," he said, with an
ominous thinning of the lips.

She rose instinctively to meet this thrust and she was conscious that
even Flint had never managed so to disturb her. She glanced about
hastily as if measuring the room in a swift impulse toward escape.
Stillman had chosen the dining-room for a temporary office, and upon the
polished surface of the antique walnut table the typewriter struck an
incongruous note; indeed, it was all incongruous, particularly Stillman
and his assumed business airs. Yes, it was absurd for her to either
cross-examine or protest, but it was equally absurd for him to pay her
such an outlandish sum for nine hours a week.

"He's doing it for me," she thought, not without a sense of triumph.
Then, turning to him, she said, a bit awkwardly:

"I guess there isn't any use to dissuade you, Mr. Stillman. If you say
fifteen dollars a week, I sha'n't argue with you."

He smiled back at her, all his former suavity regained. She slid into
her seat again. Her mind was recalling vividly the one other time in her
life when she had grappled vigorously with the masculine spirit of
domination, and come away victorious. This time she had been defeated
and she had impulses toward relief and fear. She looked up suddenly and
trapped a solicitous glance from Stillman that rather annoyed her. And
it struck her, as she mentally compared Stillman with most of the men of
her acquaintance, how far he could have loomed above them if he had had
the will for such a performance. As it was he fell somewhat beneath them
in a curious, indefinable way. Had he been too finely tempered by
circumstances or had the flame of life lacked the proper heat for fusing
his virtues effectively? For the moment she found Flint's forthright
insolence more tolerable than Stillman's sterile deference. Suddenly she
began to think of home, not with any sense of security, but as something
unpleasant, dark, disquieting....



CHAPTER XII


Toward six o'clock one afternoon in late February Ned Stillman, making
his way from the business district at California and Montgomery Streets
toward his club, suddenly remembered a forgotten luncheon engagement for
that day with Lily Condor.

"Well," he muttered at once, "I'm in for it now! I guess I might as well
swing out and see her and get the thing over with."

It was curious of late how often he was given to muttering. Previously,
petty annoyances had not moved him to these half-audible and solitary
comments which he had always found contemptuously amusing in others. He
wondered whether this new trick was the result of his business ventures,
his sly charities, or his approach toward the suggestive age of forty.
Associating the name of Lily Condor with his covert charities, he was
almost persuaded that they lay back of this preposterous habit. And the
more he thought about it the more he muttered and became convinced that
Lily Condor was usually the topic of these vocal self-communings.

Ned Stillman had always prided himself upon his sense of personal
freedom concerning the trivial circumstances of life. Of course, like
any man of sensibility, he was bound by the chains that deeper impulses
forge, but he had never been hampered by any restraints directed at his
ordinary uprisings and downsittings. In short, he had answered the beck
and nod of no man, much less a woman, and he was not finding Lily
Condor's growing presumptions along this line altogether agreeable.

He would not have minded so much if there was any personal gratification
in yielding to the lady's whip-hand commands. There are certain delights
in self-surrender which give a zest to slavery, but there is no joy in
being held a hostage. Looking back, Stillman marveled at the
indiscretion he had committed when he handed over not only his reserve,
but Claire Robson's reputation into the safekeeping of Lily Condor. Had
he ever had the simplicity to imagine that a woman of Mrs. Condor's
stamp would constitute herself a safe-deposit vault for hoarding secrets
without exacting a price? Well, perhaps he had expected to pay, but a
little less publicly. He had not looked to have the lady in question
ring every coin audibly in full view and hearing of the entire
market-place, and yet, if his experience had stood him in good stead, he
must have known that this was precisely what she would do. Stillman's
hidden gratitude, his private beneficences, did not serve her purpose,
but the spectacle of him in the rôle of her debtor was a sight that went
a long way to establishing a social credit impoverished by no end of
false ventures.

Her command for him to take her to luncheon--and it had been a command,
however suavely she had managed to veil it--bore also the stamp of
urgency. Usually she was content to lay all her positive requests to the
charge of mere caprice, but on this occasion she took the trouble to
intimate that there was a particular reason for wanting to see him. It
did not take him long to conclude that this particular reason had to do
with Claire Robson. That was why he yielded with a better grace than he
had been giving to his troublesome friend's disagreeable pressure.

Stillman knew that while Lily Condor was not precisely jealous of the
younger woman, she was distinctly envious--with the impersonal but acrid
envy of middle age for youth. The episode of the orchids still rankled.
He had to admit that in this instance his course had been tactless, but
he had ignored Mrs. Condor as a challenge to the presumption which he
had already begun to sense. She, while seeming definitely to evade the
real issue, had answered the challenge and he had paid for his temerity
a hundredfold. She had reminded him again and again in deft but none the
less positive terms that she was keeping a finger on the mainspring of
any advantage that came her way. Sometimes Stillman wondered whether she
would really be cattish enough to betray his confidence and bring Claire
Robson crashing down under the weight of the questionable position into
which his indiscretion had forced her. Would she really have the face to
publish abroad the pregnant fact that Ned Stillman was providing what
she had been pleased to designate as a meal-ticket for a young woman in
difficulty? For himself he cared little, except that he always shrank
instinctively from appearing ridiculous.

He had been thinking a great deal of late as to the best course to
pursue in ridding himself and Claire of this menacing incubus. He had a
feeling that Claire, having exhausted the novelties of her position as
accompanist to Lily Condor, was beginning to find the affair irksome.

The business venture had progressed in quite another direction from his
original intention. Suddenly, without knowing how it had all come about,
he found his plans clearly defined. The government needed him. Somehow,
it had never occurred to him that he could be of service at a point so
far from the center of war activities. He had been a good deal of an
idler, it was true, but the seeds of achievement were merely lying in
fallow soil.

At first, he had been stung into action more by Claire's accusing
attitude than anything else. She used to come every other afternoon at
the appointed time and almost challenge him by her reproachful silence
to do something, if only to provide her with an illusion. It was as if
she said:

"See, I have given in to you. I know that you are doing this for me, and
I am deeply grateful. But won't you please make the situation a little
less transparent? Won't you at least justify me in the eyes of those who
are watching our little performance?..."

It had all ended by his offering his services to the Food
Administration. He knew something of his father's business. He felt that
he had a fair knowledge of beans, and he could learn more. He merely
asked a trial, and it surprised him to find what a sense of humility
suddenly possessed him. He was really overjoyed when a place was assured
him. But he had to admit that his acceptance was not accorded any great
enthusiasm. The newspapers mentioned it in a scant paragraph that was
not even given a prominent place. He had received greater recognition
for a brilliant play upon the golf-links! Well, in such stirring times
he was nobody. He did not complain, even to himself, but the knowledge
subconsciously rankled.

He hired an office down-town, joined the Commercial Club, religiously
attended every meeting that had to do with food conservation, hunted
out, absorbed, appropriated all the economic secrets that served his
purpose.... Suddenly he found himself engrossed, enthusiastic, _busy_!
Finally Claire said to him one day:

"Don't you think I ought to come to you every afternoon?"

"If you can arrange it," he almost snapped back at her.

She did arrange it, how he took no pains to inquire, and a little later
she said again:

"You ought to have some one here all day. I guess you will have to look
for another stenographer."

He remembered how menacingly he had darted at her. She was dressed for
the street, on her way home, and she had halted at the door.

"Do you want to desert the work that you've inspired?" he demanded.

"Inspired?... By _me_?" Her voice took on a note of triumph.

"You didn't fancy that _I_ inspired it, did you?" he sneered at her.

His vehemence confused her. "I hadn't thought.... Really, you know....
Well, as you say.... But, of course, it is absurd when you can get any
number of girls to...."

"But suppose I want _you_?" he demanded of her for a second time.

She left without further reply.

When she was gone he found himself in a nasty panic. It was as if the
lady who had called him to her lists had suddenly decided upon a new
defender.

"Is she tired of it all ... or is there some one else? Can it be
possible that Flint...."

He had stopped short, amazed to find his mind descending to such a
vulgar level. What had come over him? And he began to fancy things as
they once had been--empty, purposeless days, and nights that found him
too bored to even sleep. It seemed incredible that he could go back to
them again. What lay at the bottom of his sudden deep-breathed
satisfaction with life? For an instant, the truth which he had kept at
bay with his old trick of evasion swept toward him.

"No ... no," he muttered. "Oh no!... That would be too absurd!"

But when he had gone to the mirror to brush his hair before venturing on
the street he found thick beads of perspiration on his forehead and his
hand shook as he lifted the comb.

The next day he told Claire that in the future her salary would be
twenty dollars a week. He stood expecting her to rail against the
increase, to try to put him to rout by explaining that she had received
less for a full day's work at Flint's. But to his surprise she thanked
him and went on with her work.

It was shortly after this that he began to haunt the various
performances in which Lily Condor and Claire appeared. He always
contrived to slip in during the first number, which as a rule happened
to be Mrs. Condor's offering, and he sat in a far corner where nobody
but that lady could have chanced upon him. But he never knew her to fail
in locating him, or to miss the opportunity to sit out the remainder of
the program at his side, or to suggest crab-legs Louis at Tait's,
particularly if Claire were determined upon an early leave-taking. The
effect of all this was not lost upon the general public, and it was not
long before men of Stillman's acquaintance used to remark facetiously to
him over the lunch-table:

"What's new in beans to-day?... Are _reds_ still a favorite?"

Stillman would throw back an equally cryptic answer, thinking as he did
so:

"What a wigging I must be getting over the teacups! I guess I'll cut it
all out in the future."

But he usually went no farther than his impulsive resolves.

Sometimes he wondered what Claire thought of his faithful appearance.
Did she fancy that he came to bask in the smiling impertinences of Lily
Condor?

As he made his way to a street-car on this vivid February afternoon, he
called to mind that of late Claire had been bringing a fagged look to
her daily tasks. He hoped again that Mrs. Condor's desire to see him had
to do with Claire--more particularly with her dismissal as accompanist.
Miss Menzies had quite recovered and there was really no reason for
Claire to continue in her service. It struck him as he pondered all
these matters how strange it was to find him concerned about these
feminine adjustments--he who had always stared down upon trivial
circumstances with cold scorn.

He arrived at Lily Condor's apartments almost upon the lady's heels. Her
hat was still ornamenting the center-table and her wrap lay upon a
wicker rocker, where, with a quick movement of irritation, it had been
cast aside.

Her greeting was not reassuring. "Oh...." she began coldly. "Isn't this
rather late for lunch?"

"I'm really very sorry," Stillman returned as he took a chair, "but to
be frank, I quite forgot about you."

"Well," she tried to laugh back at him, "there isn't any virtue as
disagreeable as the truth. I expected you would at least attempt to be
polite enough to lie."

"I hope you were not too greatly inconvenienced," he said, in a
deliberate attempt to ignore her irritation.

"I waited two hours, if that is what you mean. But then, _my_ time isn't
particularly valuable."

He rose suddenly. "I've told you that I was sorry," he began coldly,
reaching for his hat. "But evidently you are determined to be
disagreeable. I fancied you wanted to see me about something urgent, so
I came almost as soon as I remembered."

She snatched the discarded wrap from its place on the wicker rocker as
she glared at him. "You're in something of a hurry, it seems.... Well, I
sha'n't detain you. The truth is there's a pretty kettle of fish stewed
up over this young woman, Claire Robson.... I want you to tell her that
she can't play at the Café Chantant next Friday night."

"Want _me_ to tell her? I don't see where I come in.... Why don't you
tell her yourself?"

"Because I don't choose to.... Besides, I think you might do it a little
more delicately. I can't tell her brutally that she isn't wanted."

"Isn't wanted? Why, what do you mean?"

"The committee informs me that she isn't the sort of person they are
accustomed to have featured in their entertainments. It seems that Mrs.
Flint...."

"Mrs. Sawyer Flint?"

"Precisely."

"What is her objection?"

"Do you really want me to tell you?"

"Why not?"

"It appears that some time last fall Miss Robson tried to get her
husband into a compromising position. She came over to the house one
night when Mrs. Flint was away. Flint promptly ordered her out. It seems
she went ... to be quite frank ... with _you_. And what is more,
she...."

"It isn't necessary for you to go any farther. Tell me, do you mean to
say that you believe this thing? Didn't you lift a hand to defend her?"

Lily Condor narrowed her eyes. "Oh, come now, Ned Stillman, don't be a
fool! You know as well as I do that I'm hanging on to my own reputation
by my finger-nails. I'm not taking any chances. As to whether it is so
... well, if I were to tell the committee everything I know it wouldn't
help her cause any. I could wreck her reputation like that," she snapped
her fingers, "with one solitary fact. If she hasn't wrecked it already
with her senseless chatter.... Only last week her aunt, Mrs.
Ffinch-Brown, said to me: 'So you're hiring my niece! I must say that is
handsome of you!' You were sitting talking to Claire and she looked
deliberately at you when she said it. Remember how I warned you, last
December. I told you then that the secret of a woman's meal-ticket was
never hidden very long."

During this speech Mrs. Condor's voice had dropped from its original
tone of petty rancor to one of petulant self-justification. Stillman
knew at once that her ill-temper had caught her off-guard and she was
already trying to crawl slowly back into his favor. She had meant, no
doubt, to soften her news over a glass or two of chilled white wine
which she had counted on sipping during the noon hour. She might even
then have gone farther and decided to cast her fortunes with Stillman
and Claire if she had seen that her advantage lay in that direction. He
was not sure but that she still had some such notion in her mind. But he
felt suddenly sick of her past all hope of compromise, and he was
determined to be rid of her once and for all.

"No doubt," he said, frigidly, "you will be glad to be relieved of Miss
Robson's presence permanently. I take it that you don't consider her
association exactly ... well ... shall we say discreet?"

Her eyes took on a yellow tinge as she faced him. She must have sensed
the finality of his tone, the well-bred insolence that his query
suggested.

"Discreet?" she echoed. "Well, I wouldn't say that that was quite what I
meant. Desirable--that would be better. I don't find her association
desirable.... I don't _want_ her, in other words."

He had never been so angry in his life. Had she been a man he would have
struck her. He felt himself choking. "My dear Mrs. Condor," he warned,
"will you be good enough to take a little more respectful tone when you
speak of Miss Robson?"

"Oh, indeed! And just what are your rights in the matter? You're not her
brother ... you're surely not her husband. And I didn't know that it was
the fashion for a...." His look stopped her. She trembled a moment,
tossed back her head, and finished, defiantly, "Yes, that is what I want
to know, what _are_ your rights?"

He took a step toward her. Instinctively she retreated.

"A woman like you wouldn't understand even if I were to tell you," he
flung at her.

She covered her face with both hands.

He left the room.

He himself was trembling as he reached the street--trembling for the
first time in years. As a child he had been given to these fits of
emotional tremors, but he had long since lost the faculty for recording
physically his intense moments. Or had he lost the faculty for the
intense moments themselves, he found himself wondering, as he walked
rapidly toward his home. The evening was warm with the perfume of a bit
of truant summer that had somehow escaped before its time to hearten a
winter-weary world against the bitter assaults of March. Birds of
passage sang among the hedges, the sun still cast a faint greenish glow
in the extreme west.

His first thought was of the cowering woman he had just left. He had
meant to lash her keenly with his verbal whipcords, but he had not
expected to find her quite so sensitive to his cutting scorn. He
remembered the gesture with which she had lifted her hand as if to
screen herself from his insults. There was a whole life of futile
compromise in just the manner of that gesture, a growing helplessness to
give straightforward thrusts, a pitiful admission of defeat. But he knew
that this surrender was temporary--a quick lifting of the mask under a
relentless pressure. To-morrow, in an hour, in ten minutes, Lily Condor
would be her dangerous self again, lashed into the fury of a woman
scorned. For a moment he did not know whether to be relieved or dismayed
at the prospect of Mrs. Condor for an enemy. How much would she really
dare?

He thought with a lowering anger of Flint. He had been ready to concede
everything but this former friend in the rôle of a cheap and nasty
gossip. No--gossip was a pale, sickly term. Flint was a malignant toad,
a nauseous mud-slinger, a deliberate liar. He had heard of men who had
justified themselves with vile tales to their insipid, disgustingly
virtuous wives, but he had not counted such among his acquaintances. By
the side of Flint, Lily Condor loomed a very paragon of the social
amenities.

Stillman was conscious that his mental process was keyed to the highest
pitch of melodrama. It was not usual for him to indulge in mental abuse.
He had never quite understood the dark and moving processes of red-eyed
anger. There had been something absurd in the theatrical hauteur of his
manner in this last scene with Mrs. Condor--that is, if it were measured
by his own standards. His growing detachments from life had claimed him
almost to the point of complete indifference. But now, suddenly, as if
Fate had dealt him an insulting blow upon the face with her bare palm,
he felt not only rage, but a sense of its futility, its impotence.

"Flint!" he thought again. And immediately he spewed forth the memory of
this man in a flood of indiscriminate epithets.

       *       *       *       *       *

Later, in the refuge of his own four walls and under the brooding solace
of an after-dinner cigar, he lost some of the intensiveness of his
former humor. But the force of the vehemence which had shaken him filled
him with much wonder and some apprehension. He was too much a man of
experience to deny questions when they were put to him squarely by
circumstances.

"You're not her brother ... you're surely not her husband. And I didn't
know it was the fashion for a...."

Lily Condor's clipped question struck him squarely now. Just what were
his expectations concerning Claire Robson? The thought turned him cold.
Essentially he was of Puritan mold, but he had always had a theory that
love of illicit pleasures must have been uncommonly strong in a people
who found it necessary to fight the flesh so uncompromisingly. Battling
with the elements upon the bleak shores of New England contributed, no
doubt, to the gray and chastened spirits that these grim folks had won
for themselves; spirits that colored and sometimes seeded swiftly under
the softer skies of California. San Francisco was full of these forced
blooms consumed and withered by the sudden heat of a free and
traditionless life. He knew scores of old-timers--his father's
friends--who had been gloriously wrecked by the passion with which they
met freedom's kiss. They had pursued pleasure with an energy overtrained
in wrestling with the devil and had paid the penalty of all ardent souls
lacking the prudence of weakness. There was at once something fine and
unlawful about the spirit of adventure: it implied courage, impatience
of restraint, wilfulness--in short, all the virtues and vices of
strength. He had felt at times the heritage of this strength, shorn of
its power by the softness of a wilderness that had been wooed instead
of conquered. His forefathers had found California a waiting, gracious
bride, but there had been almost a suggestion of the courtezan in the
lavishness of this land's response to the caresses of the invaders.

There was something fantastic in the memory of his father, fresh from
the austere dawns of the little fishing village of Gloucester,
transplanted suddenly to the wine-red sunsets of the Golden Gate. He
felt that his father must have had the courage for substance-wasting
without the temptation. Most men in those early days had plunged unyoked
into the race--Ezra Stillman brought his bride, and therefore his
household goods, with him, and unconsciously custom drew its restraining
rein tight. Ezra Stillman came from a long line of salt-seasoned
tempters of the sea; their virtues had been rugged and their vices
equally robust; sin with them had been gaunt, sinewy, unlovely; there
was nothing insinuating and soft about the lure of pleasure in that
silver-nooned environment. Ezra had been the first of this long line to
turn his back upon the sea, and the land had rewarded him lavishly as if
determined to make his capture complete. Yet, he was not landsman enough
to wrest a living direct from the soil; instead, he set up his booth in
the market-place of the town and tr





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